December 25, 2011

Young Adult (12/25/2011)

Lettergrade: D

I found myself intrigued during most of Young Adult... I wasn't quite enjoying it yet, but had the feeling during much of the film that it was about to get good. Eventually, a really good scene did arrive, but then the movie itself ended just a few awkward scenes later. As I sat there, absorbing the shock of the credits rolling so unexpectedly, I came to the conclusion that this is more like the rough outline of a general idea of a concept for a movie that never quite came together. It's pretty mean-spirited, and cynical, and shallow, and ultimately it doesn't seem to really be about anything other than a general feeling that some people get in their 30s, where you might wonder about past significant others and maybe imagine what life could have been if you had stayed together, made different choices, and gone in different directions than you ultimately did.

Charleze Theron is an incredibly narcissistic divorced, depressive alcoholic who moved off to Minneapolis and became the ghost writer of a once-popular series of books for teenagers. When she gets an announcement declaring the birth of her high school / college-ish ex-boyfriend's baby, she's convinced that he must be desperately unhappy and goes back to her home town upstate in order to steal him away and take him to the city.

Not long after arriving, she runs into a old classmate she barely remembers (played by Patton Oswalt) in a bar. He was beaten up by some jocks who thought he was gay back during senior year, and has a permanent disability as a result. She makes him her confidant, and the two become sad-sack drinking buddies. As Theron continues to pursue her old flame, Oswalt is the only one who will be direct about the extreme wrongness of what she's trying to do.

The symmetry of both Theron and Oswalt being heavily damaged people (one physically, one emotionally) couldn't be thicker. I don't have a problem with that: Their scenes are the most engaging parts of what looked to be a very promising movie for a while there, and they're memorable. What I do have a problem with is the flippant way in which the movie comes to a close. I try to not talk about details that ruin the movie-going experience for those who haven't seen the film yet on this blog, but there's no way around it with this one as the ending is the main reason I feel the whole thing doesn't work at all. I'll try to avoid specifics, but you should probably turn back now if you want to wait and see it for yourself.

Still with me?

Okay, so Theron's Mavis finally arrives at the big blow-up scene that we knew was probably inevitable as soon as the picture started. And it's a great scene: Well acted, electric tension, uncomfortable, emotional… After that, Mavis seems to be on the verge of some kind of self-realization, but then the film cuts that short and she gets a hearty does of reinforcement instead. As the picture ends, we have every indication that she's learned nothing from her experiences during the movie, and she's probably just going to go on as she was.

My wife and I talked about that a bit afterward, and we agreed that the movie is probably right-on in terms of what people like Mavis are really like and how such a person might actually react when faced with the kind of scenario that we see here. I understand that. I just strongly feel that the way in which the picture handles it is kind of an insulting, cheap way to end the story, and suddenly makes it feel like your time has been wasted for the last 100 minutes or so.

On some level, I admired that the movie was going waaaaay against expectation and perhaps tapping into something a little more truthful at the same time. On another level, it seemed that whatever those intriguing scenes between Oswalt and Theron were establishing simply got flushed down the toilet at the end for the sake of a joke or a surprise, neither of which were worth the damage.

I'm tempted to think that the movie might be screenwriter Diablo Cody's dark fantasy of what happens to popular pretty girls 10 - 15 years after high school or so, when most people not caught up in bullshit city life tend to settle into nice families and quiet lives, despite the fact that they never went off and "did something," the way they maybe talked about before. I'm not convinced, though, that that's the right way to read the movie. Of course, that's not Cody's own story... she grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went to the University of Iowa (where we had a few classes together) before living in Minneapolis for a bit. She wrote her memoir, Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper, when she was 22, starting a chain of events that led to her winning an Academy Award for Juno when she was 28. Is Mavis meant to be a more ugly version of what she might have become under different circumstances?

By contrast, director Jason Reitman grew up the son of a very successful filmmaker during the 80s (where father Ivan directed Stripes, Ghostbusters and Twins, among others), and spent a lot of time in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Jason debuted as a director with 2005's highly entertaining Thank You For Smoking before shooting Cody's Juno screenplay in 2007. I liked the guy a lot for a while there, but was really left cold by his previous movie, 2009's Up In The Air, which felt oddly insincere and kinda like it was based on empty, meaningless platitudes rather than substance on par with his earlier two films. He came off as kinda douchy and entitled in a KCRW interview that aired a few times that winter as well, and the one-two punch has kept me wondering if he's really got something he wants to say as a filmmaker or if he's simply smart enough to know what award-winning movies are kinda supposed to be like.

But anyway, this is all a long way of saying that Cody knows midwestern towns like the one in Young Adult quite well, I'd imagine, but I'm not sure what to make of Mavis's (and Reitman's) apparent disdain for practically everything about this one. Again, I'm kind of sensing an aversion from the filmmakers toward falling into the Hollywood cliché of Mavis returning to her hometown leading to some kind of grand revelation about what's most important in life. She's fairly awful through and through and pretty much irredeemable. I appreciate that the movie doesn't run such a tired old play from the rom-com playbook, but if Mavis learns nothing from her self-destructive behavior, and her main conclusion at the end is that her home-town is a gaping shithole which is better off in her rearview mirror... what, exactly, makes this story worth telling at all?

December 24, 2011

Hugo (12/24/2011)

Lettergrade: B

I had trouble building up much enthusiasm to see Hugo, honestly. We ultimately watched a DVD screener of it the other day, which I know is not the right way to really show off the visuals, the sets, and the gorgeous Robert Richardson photography. A big screen at high resolution certainly would have given the film a bit more power and seductive glitter, but I'm not sure those things would have entirely reconciled the awkward way in which the picture starts as a magical fantasy about an orphan boy who keeps the clocks in the old Montparnasse train station of 1950s Paris and then makes a hard transition into a PSA about the real-world importance of film preservation.

I understand that this Martin Scorsese movie follows Brian Selznick's graphic novel / novella quite closely in that regard, but this is a curious kind of historical fiction in that it takes events that really happened involving film pioneer Georges Méliès and sticks them into whimsical, fantastical version of Paris, which feels like it never really existed, at least not the way we're seeing it here. That combination simply leaves me unsure of what to think… if you want to tell a story about the way in which Méliès's film company folded after WWII, how he had to sell many of his prints off to a company which boiled them down to make shoe heels, and that he used that money to open a modest toy shop, I think there's an engaging movie there somewhere. If the goal is to tell a fantasy story about the boy in the station, I think there's a decent, if not a little mundane, story there too. Perhaps Selznick felt that he really couldn't really get children to sit through the second half the story without the sugar coating of the first half?

Similarly, it's clear that Scorsese is a bit more interested in where the film ends than where it starts. His use of the camera is, as always masterful, and the allusions and tributes to early silent cinema are subtle and astute. Of course, I cannot imagine that there's a single young person out there who will understand or appreciate all these references (or will be inspired to look up the works of Georges Méliès as a result), but since much of the film has essentially been designed as hardcore pornography for film scholars and historians, I'm not sure that such things really matter.

A few of my wife's siblings took their kids to see this movie on the same day that we saw it. The group was pretty well split: Laura's sister-law-in and her son had something of a "well, it's okay" reaction, whereas her sister and brother had tears and running down their faces at the end. There was a similar split in our living room… I sat there thinking, "jeeze, well this really took a turn," but then I looked down at Laura's head on my lap and saw tears welling up. "What's wrong?" I asked, thinking that she was in some kind late pregnancy pain that I had been oblivious to. After a beat, however, I realized that she had simply found the movie to be beautiful and moving.

Perhaps it's telling of our difference in opinion that such a reaction was baffling to me at first. Am I looking at this picture (and many another) too literally? Probably. Of course, all the "criers" in this scenario are siblings related by blood, so maybe it's just a family thing.

December 20, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (12/20/2011)

Lettergrade: A-

This fourth Mission: Impossible movie probably won't win much acclaim for its screenplay, but director Brad Bird more than makes up for it with 3 or 4 of the most exciting action sequences I've seen in a movie in some time. Bird previously had a lot of critical (and financial) success with Pixar's The Incredibles in 2004 and Ratatouille in 2007. This is his first live-action picture, and the style from his animated movies surprisingly carries over really well. Although the camera work is mostly restrained and fairly traditional, really, the attention to detail and the complexity of how many sequences are staged and edited are masterful. Bird's old school obsession with luxuries like "coherent storytelling" and "motivation" help elevate this picture well above the previous two entries in the series, and perhaps make it a bit more satisfying than the original 1996 movie as well.

In this one, there's an international incident at the Kremlin that appears to have been the work of the Impossible Mission Force, and so the off-screen President Of The United States initiates "Ghost Protocol," which basically means that the entire IMF is completely shut down and disavowed. Rock-star agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) must team up with fellow disavowed agent Simon Pegg, returning from a smaller role in part 3, and newcomers Paula Patton (who, although fetching, always has a goofy look on her face even during scenes where she's supposed to be serious) and the mysterious agent Brandt, played by The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner (rumored to have been introduced at the behest of the studio in case Cruise proves to be too expensive, geriatric, or bat-shit crazy by the time Paramount gets around to making Mission: Impossible 5). Together, and without the usual support of the CIA, they must thwart the nuclear war aspirations of the guy who starred in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies, Michael Nyqvist, who isn't really allowed to speak in this movie much because they probably hired him before they realized his English isn't great. Also along for smaller roles are several international stars who are largely unknown to American audiences (including Anil Kapoor and Léa Seydoux, among others).

As usual with movies that I actually like, I don't want to get into the details of the plot much, but I will observe that despite a few show stopping scenes that were obviously produced on a large scale (such as the sequence where Cruise climbs the side of the Armani Hotel Dubai, as featured in the trailers, and the spectacular sandstorm chase from the middle of the movie), Bird and company get a lot of mileage out of staging relatively low production-value scenes that consist of people sneaking around in back rooms, and the minutiae of elaborate plans that need to come off without a hitch. It's these more muted scenes which also showcase the film's coolest gadgets, many of which seem to be modified Apple products. Although it strains credulity a bit to sit through a segment where Renner is wearing a tin foil suit and is magnetically held above some whirling blades as he tries to navigate to some kind of super computer, it seems to get at the kitschy heart of what the original Mission: Impossible TV series was all about in the first place.

The movie has a lot of scenes like that, actually, which are consistently really entertaining. If I have a complaint about the film, though, it's that the objective of each individual "tension/ heist" segment isn't always entirely clear. Maybe it doesn't need to be and I'm just over thinking it… We know that there's the threat of nuclear armageddon. We know that in this one scene, the target has a briefcase full or codes or something that will get the bad guys one step closer to launching all the missiles. Spy movies of eld didn't always tells us what was on the "microfilm" that everyone was trying to get, mostly because the specifics didn't actually matter, and maybe they don't here either. I think that explanations are probably buried in this movie somewhere, and astute viewers might be able to catch them all and analyze the logic on repeated viewings. Really, though, it's a movie about Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of the world's tallest building in IMAX, and it's a damn exciting one at that.

As I was saying, I've found the series to be an extremely mixed bag. I like the original movie directed by Brian DePalma in 1996, which paid heavy homage (as all of DePalma's movies do) to Hitchcock movies of the 50s and 60s... almost more than to the Mission: Impossible source material itself. Not only were there great action sequences, but very unusual kinds of action sequences that made clever use of sound and point of view, including that wonderful black vault sequence in the middle of the movie where Cruise breaks into the CIA headquarters in Virginia, and hangs from cables while attempting to get the CIA NOC list. There was very little gun play in the movie - maybe 3 or 4 shots fired total - and although what was happening wasn't entirely clear, the picture was by and large a lot of fun.

2000's Mission: Impossible 2, directed by John Woo in self-parody mode, was the complete opposite of everything that the first movie was. Instead of using elaborate team work to pull off some crazy act of espionage, a hallmark of the series, Cruise's Ethan Hunt was now an extreme-sports obsessed one-man wrecking machine, who dodged showers of bullets with the greatest of ease and who did shit like jumping out of buildings without a parachute without thinking much about it. If part 1 was all about elegant subtlety (and I think it was… at least as much as an action movie can be), part 2 was about being as loud and as garish as possible.

Lost and Alias creator/producer Jim Abrahams directed M:I III in 2006. The series got back to basics a bit (in that Ethan Hunt seemed to actually resemble the character from the first film again, albeit slightly), but I think that Abrams, in his big screen directorial debut, kinda made the mistake of throwing waaaaaaaaaaaay too much at the audience in order to try to prove that he could handle a big action movie. I remember seeing it with my wife not long after we started dating, and although I recall enjoying it on some level, my primary memory is that the film is utterly and unnecessarily exhausting… there were probably 10 big action scenes in the movie, and very little form to any of them, not like DePalma's film had and as Bird's movie does. They're in a factory, and then they're ambushed, and the factory's about to explode, so they escape on a helicopter, but then they're being chased by another helicopter, so they blow it up! But then there's been a bomb implanted in one of the agent's heart and that's about to blow up now too… The action sort of felt like it was dictated by a seven year old who was jacked up on Jolt Cola. And I don't even remember many specifics about what the movie was about. I remember that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was the slimy villain, and that Laura and I cracked up at the trailers because the voice he was putting on made him sound a lot like the character he played in Happiness. I remember that the MacGuffin had something to do with Red Rabbit, but I have no idea what that was, other than the usual doomsday stuff. And I remember that horrible Kanye West song that played over the end credits. Wow, that was shitty.

Abrams and much of his exceedingly metrosexual team stayed on to coproduce Mission: Impossible 4, but they surprisingly picked a director who was 10-15 years older than they are to make it, and who had never worked in live-action before. Bird brought back some key creative personnel who had been absent from the series since part 1 (VFX supervisor John Knoll and master editor Paul Hirsch among them), and made a movie that's surprisingly better than the ones that came before it.

December 10, 2011

The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn (12/10/2011)

Lettergrade: B-

Like a lot of Americans, I can't claim to know a whole lot about The Adventures Of Tintin, the popular adventure comic book series created by Belgian artist Hergé which first debuted in 1929, but Steven Spielberg's motion capture animated film version of it feels like what you would wind up with if the original Raiders Of The Lost Ark were somehow able to fornicate with 2004's The Polar Express.

I was at once thrilled by Spielberg's inventive use of the technology and his amazing staging of the film's many elaborate action scenes, while simultaneously bored out of my mind by the 100% indecipherable plot and by the plentiful interstitial bits which were surprisingly talky and seemed to go on forever.

Will complaints like these make a lick of difference to the film's target audience? I think not… it's billed as exciting adventure spectacle, and for the most part, I suppose that's what it is. I've got to admit, though, that I found myself checking my watch only about 45 minutes into the thing, and although the picture is only 106 minutes, it really wasn't paced in a way that kept it engaging for the whole time. I blame the story development, which is slim to non-existent...

Tintin (played by Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell) is a young Belgian reporter always on the look-out for the next big story. Snowy, his faithful fox terrier, usually tags along, and somehow keeps on saving his ass at key moments. In this picture, the first of a planned trilogy - the second part of which is slated to be directed by The Lord Of The Rings' Peter Jackson, who was a producer on this one - Tintin stumbles across an old model ship, which contains a mysterious scroll that might point the way to an ancient treasure that was lost at sea (or something). Not sure how he believes that's going to translate to an exciting article that will sell newspapers, but whatever.

Tintin's adventures lead him to meet up with Captain Haddock, played by Andy Serkis, whose previous motion-capture roles include Gollum, King Kong, and the main ape from this last summer's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Haddock is a hopeless alcoholic, and some of the weirdest aspects of the movie are the many, many P.S.A.s where Tintin goes on about how he really shouldn't drink so much. Another scene, though, shows us a Captain Haddock who was forced to become sober against his will and who, as a result, cannot remember any of the important information that he needs to remember in order to move the plot forward. Snowy fixes that by tricking him into drinking some rubbing alcohol, which jump starts his memory for some unexplained reason (and even more surprisingly, doesn't cause him to get incredibly ill).

As I was saying, I found that I had trouble enjoying the film because it really doesn't get you invested in the characters at all (perhaps counting on one's nostalgia for the comic books to supply that). There's even an uncomfortably lengthy back-story scene with Haddock mid way through that is borderline unwatchable as we're shown things unrelated to what he's talking about and are assaulted by some cool action bits which, I guess, are designed to distract you from the fact that what you're seeing doesn't make any sense. More importantly, though, that gigantic scene didn't land at all for me because I honestly didn't feel like I knew much about this drunken asshole, and frankly, I did not - and do not - give a shit about whether or not he happened to reclaim his family's fortune, which, by the way, seemed to be culled from towns that his ancestors pillaged violently.

Oddly, other than the film's clear allusions to previous Spielberg movies like Raiders and Jaws, I thought of 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox more than anything else during this one. Not because there are any similarities to speak of between the two, but because that film eerily retained much of director Wes Anderson's kinks, obsessions, and director style, and the same is true of Spielberg and this one. Spielberg clearly had a lot of fun orchestrating action sequences that could never be done in live-action, such as the show-stopping segment late in the film where our heroes chase the bad guys through a town while it basically breaks down around them… all in a single shot! I also believe he got a kick out of directing Snowy, whom the camera follows through all sorts of crazy side-adventures that would be unfilmable with were everything not computer generated.

We haven't seen Spielberg in popcorn movie mode terribly often since 1993, and whenever he ventures back, the results can vary between weirdly self-important, off-puttingly dour as in The Lost World and War Of The Worlds, among others, or flat out bad like 2008's Indiana Jones 4. His best pictures during the last 18 years have been his historical dramas and low-key character-based pictures like Catch Me If You Can, which is the sort of thing that only someone of his clout and skill could get made on the scale that he made it.

If nothing else, The Adventures Of Tintin marks Spielberg's long-awaited return to the good-natured adventure flick. It's a good ride, even if it is ultimately a bit light on luxuries like logic and substance.

November 23, 2011

The Muppets (11/23/2011)

Lettergrade: B

The Muppets isn't the best movie that the Muppets have appeared in, but it's the only one since creator Jim Henson's death in 1990 that's clever, exciting, and actually funny. I really liked the movie, although I must admit that I didn't entirely love it... Whatever the flaws, though, it's a lot of fun to see these characters in a highly entertaining picture again which at long last remembers that Muppets were not originally designed exclusively for kids... adults were always intended to have as much fun with the characters, if not more.

The original Muppet Show and the three movies that were made while Henson was still alive were all very kid-friendly, of course, but they also contained a lot of subversive humor and even ventured into some pretty risqué territory now and again. The three post-Henson films that were made in the 90s (along with the TV shows, made-for-TV-movies, and video games of the '00s) didn't quite have the same spirit, never seeming to aspire to be much more than than "pleasantly amusing."

This new one is kinda like a revival of (and love letter to) the Muppets of eld. It's the product of co-writer / producer / star Jason Segal, who pitched the idea to Disney (owners of the Muppet name and characters on-and-off since the late 80s) after Forgetting Sarah Marshall made him a hot commodity in 2008. James Bobbin - of HBO's Flight Of The Conchords semi-fame - came in to direct it, and he recruited fellow Conchords alumus Bret McKenzie to rewrite several of the songs, resulting in some great musical sequences that have a very clear Conchord influence.

When Segal, his girlfriend Amy Adams, and his suspiciously puppet-like adopted brother Walter come to Los Angeles for a vacation, they discover a plot by the villainous Tex Richman, an evil businessman from Texas who is rich (and played with hammy aplomb by Chris Cooper), to tear down the dilapidated Muppet Theater so he can immediately start drilling for oil. The only way to stop him is to come up with 10 million dollars in the next few days. The three locate the reclusive Kermit The Frog, now living quietly in a mansion in Beverly Hills, and convince him to get the Muppets together again for one last telethon version of their old TV show.

The premise cleverly pays tribute to the original Muppet Movie made in 1979, to the getting-the-gang-back-together sequence from 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan and of course to the original Muppet Show itself, which ran for five seasons between 1976 and 1981 and then for years afterward in syndication. The concept of that series (which was actually made in England, not LA) had Kermit as the manager of a vaudeville-style song-and-dance variety show that was rife with backstage crises, often due to the quirks and egos of the Muppet performers themselves.

This new movie certainly knows the source material inside and out, but the nature of having such a big ensemble to work with - both man and Muppet - means that many of the characters only get a few lines here and there. I really only remember Gonzo, for example, having one significant scene while many others don't even get that. The endless stream of celebrity cameos (a tradition as old as the Muppets themselves) is consistently delightful, but the picture feels a bit imbalanced overall, and I believe it's a result of the story work being generally kinda sloppy.

Once Segal and Adams meet up with the Muppets, their plot gets pushed into the background (as it should), but the picture surrenders a disproportionate amount of time to the never-before-seen Walter, who desperately wants to fit in and be accepted as one of the Muppets. The character, which members of the crew recently confessed was basically conceived as a Muppet Michael Cera, really isn't terribly interesting on the whole, and I would argue that he even should have been eliminated from the movie entirely. His story could have easily been combined with Segal's, better justifying Segal's presence in the first place, and possibly allowing more screen time for the established Muppets.

Adams is great as Segal's long-term girlfriend Mary, who proclaims early in the film - irony free - that she's always dreamed of visiting Los Angeles. In one of the many sly digs at the city, gun-shots and various assorted criminal activity can often be heard in background during scenes in their hotel and when they're out and about in Hollywood. She feels a bit neglected while Segal and Walter are off cavorting with the Muppets, but unfortunately, her story never really integrates with the rest of the movie in a significant way. There's a certain amount of symmetry between her plot and Miss Piggy's, which could, in theory, have made for some great Piggy/Adams (and Kermit/Segal) bonding scenes ala Miss Piggy and Joan Rivers in The Muppets Take Manhattan, but I don't believe the two women even have a direct conversation at any point.

A number of articles have appeared in the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times over the last few months which quote unidentified long-time Muppet performers who disliked Segal and Bobbin's approach to the movie, claiming that they really didn't have a handle on the characters and that they sacrificed integrity in the name of jokes. Others, like Frank Oz (the long-time performer of "Miss Piggy," "Fozzie," and "Animal," among others) and Jerry Nelson ("Lew Zealand," "Statler," and "Camilla The Chicken," etc.), went further still, refusing to participate in the making of the film at all. One of the Hollywood Reporter articles even hints that some veterans who did participate considered removing their names from the final picture at one time, including Steve Whitmire, who inherited the role of Kermit when Henson died.

I think several of the complaints are a little silly, honestly, but I do agree with a few of them: The idea that the Muppets kinda broke up on poor terms and all went in separate directions - some bitterly - doesn't entirely seem in-character based on what we might remember of them from before. Kermit never seemed likely to live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, or to virtually abandon the old Muppet Theater and the Muppet Studios, letting them fall into extreme disrepair. We're never given a clear idea of what he's actually been doing all these years, although it's later mentioned that he built the house for Miss Piggy and himself to live in back in the 80s, before they had some falling out and she moved to Paris. And it does kinda seem, as the movie suggests, that Kermit must have exhibited some serious asshole celebrity behavior to everyone for the gang to split up in the first place. The film is highly self-referential to the reality that the Muppets haven't made a successful film or TV show in a while... why not have them part ways because they couldn't make money performing as the Muppets anymore, which, again, would be similar to a story point in the of middle Takes Manhattan where the gang is broke and can't get work on Broadway?

This section of the NYT article also reveals that Oz was developing a new Muppet script with Disney that he was to direct himself, but the simultaneous events of longtime head of Walt Disney Studios Dick Cook abruptly leaving the company in September of 2009 combined with Segal pitching his own take on the franchise meant that a deal was never closed on Oz's proposed sequel. A lot of the on-and-off-the-record grumbling from Muppet alumni might well stem entirely from these events, and indeed have nothing to do with how anyone actually feels about the movie that Segal and Bobbin were allowed to make. Or it could be that some of the long-time performers complained to the press in a show of solidarity to their longtime colleague Oz, who didn't get to make the picture he wanted to. Or it could just be one or two people within the company who were unhappy with how things went on the movie. Or maybe not. Only those involved know for sure.

I feel a little bad issuing minor grievances myself, frankly, because I, like many another Muppet fan, have been wishing for years that the characters would appear in another project where they were more like they were in the 70s and 80s, and this film, faults and all, largely gets things right. A lot of the old Muppet guard has also wondered aloud if Henson would have been happy with Segal's version, due to a mild fart joke and the occasional off-color reference. Henson didn't seem terribly adverse to small doses of that kind of thing when he was alive, and I doubt he'd have much of a issue with it now. More importantly, The Muppets is a witty movie involving his creations that people seem to really enjoy, and I cannot imagine that he would have a problem with that either.

November 12, 2011

Puss In Boots (11/12/2011)

Lettergrade: C-

My wife and I are big cat freaks, and as such DreamWorks Animation's Puss In Boots probably had our ticket money sewn up months before the film itself actually arrived in theaters. The first 15 minutes or so - wherein we are reintroduced to the Antonio Banders-voiced "Puss," a deadly feline soldier of fortune - are where the most potent anthropomorphized kitty material is rolled out. After the A material has been used, however, the picture wanders squarely into direct-to-video territory and never entirely returns.

Now the Puss character himself is great... He first appeared in 2004's Shrek 2 and for some reason stuck around while the sequels got progressively shittier in 2007 and 2010. The key thing that plagued parts 3 and (I assume) 4 was the unremarkable story work: The fairly non-existent plotting combined with the piss-poor character stuff and the borderline nauseating pop culture references (to say nothing of its unforgivable use of Smash Mouth songs). I think that the same is what prevents Puss In Boots from being much more than a moderately enjoyable time-filler on the whole. In fact, I might place it a little above the last several Shrek movies in that it's essentially a Shrek film where you don't have to put up with Shrek himself.

The picture quasi-explores the backstory of Puss, and details his childhood in a Spanish orphanage where he was friends with the duplicitous Humpty Dumpty, voiced by Zach Galifianakis. Humpty (pictured right) harbors a life-long obsession with finding the Magic Beans of legend so he can then logically climb the resulting beanstalk up to the Giant's Castle in the clouds, which houses the Goose Who Lays Golden Eggs... etc. Long story short, Puss and Humpty have a falling out, and Puss is implicated in a bank robbery, forcing him to flee the town in disgrace. Years later, the two cross paths again and reluctantly join forces to continue the quest to get the beans from crazed hillbillies Jack and Jill , who are not both played by Adam Sandler, but instead voiced by Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton, both of whom must have needed the work.

Humpty's intentions aren't entirely pure, of course, and once his ulterior motives are revealed, almost none of what he does or says in the film makes any sense on any level whatsoever. My head is still hurting from trying to comprehend it all, really. If the movie has a key problem it is that it spends far too much time on its uninteresting villain and that the overly convoluted plot that never really builds much steam.

And it occurred to me part-way through the movie that I don't even know much about the "Puss In Boots" nursery rhyme in the first place, apart from the very general premise of there being a cat who wears boots. A quick Wikipedia search resulted in this:
"Master Cat; or, The Booted Cat" (early French: Le Maître Chat, ou Le Chat Botté), commonly known as "Puss in Boots", is a French literary fairy tale about a cat who uses trickery and deceit to gain power, wealth, and the hand of a princess in marriage for his penniless and low-born master.

Doesn't seem to have much to do with the movie, huh? Not a lot of swordplay or mock Zorro shit in there... they didn't even stick with Puss's original nationality. Now the film never claimed to be closely based on it in the first place or anything, but you know what I'm saying…

I think the moment that finally set my curiosity off was when Little Boy Blue showed up for a brief comedy cameo. At that point, it became clear to me that a key concept throughout all the Shrek adventures is to work in fairy tale and nursery rhyme references ad nasuem (ala Seth MacFarlane) without much relevance to what the source material is even about (also ala Seth MacFarlane). Even if you only know the poem's first line (as I do) - "Little Boy Blue come blow your horn" - you can probably guess that it's a mocking piece about some public figure who was deemed to be arrogant and self-aggrandizing. The character in the movie is literally blue. And he has a horn (which, mercifully is never blown, at least not on camera). Outside of that, his presence in the film really isn't designed to do much more than trigger a fuzzy memory of something you maybe kinda sorta remember, but don't really know too much about.

This sort of thing bothered me even back in the first picture, released in 2001, which always came off like a mean spirited "fuck you" letter to Disney in my opinion, seeing as DreamWorks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg (and current DWA chief) was unceremoniously fired from Disney in 1994, and used his renowned salesmanship to convince director/producer Steven Spielberg and media mogul David Geffen to launch a new media company almost as an act of pique against his old employer. Shrek threw a bunch of public domain characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes together into into a hodgepodge concept which briefly mocked and satirized storybook cliches and conventions before turning around and using many of them toward the end of the movie. But the references and uses were random, senseless and almost indiscriminate... As if pointing to some massive in-joke that we, the audience, were on the outside of.

Is it stupid that I'm putting any effort at all into complaining about this? Perhaps, but in response to that charge, I will tell you that part-way through the flick, I looked around the packed theater and saw at least a dozen faces staring down at smartphones, completely oblivious to the film or even to their own kids who had dragged them to see it. The dude sitting across the aisle from me, who wore an oversized Raiders hat and pants that were at least three sizes too baggy, tore his eyes away from whatever was happening on his iPhone exactly once: To let out a solitary, perfunctory laugh at an early gag that his kids had found hilarious.

We're still a few months away from parenthood ourselves... my hope is that I will remain a guy who actually pays attention to children's movies and cares about them being good and making sense, as opposed to this guy I'm talking about, who had resigned himself to attending a movie with his kids in body only and clearly couldn't have given less of a shit about what was happening on screen.

Who knows... maybe I'll get there. Or maybe I'll get lucky, and my kids will want to stick to movies that aim a little higher than Puss In Boots does.

My journal entry on 2007's Shrek The Third, the last Shrek movie I will ever pay to see.

October 9, 2011

The Ides Of March (10/09/2011)

Lettergrade: B+

In The Ides Of March, Ryan Gosling is a young campaign manager working for an inspiring "change candidate" who is this close to clinching the Democratic nomination for President. A victory in this coming week's Ohio primary would just about seal it.

George Clooney co-wrote and directed the movie (based on Beau Willimon's Broadway play "Farragut North"), and he also appears as "the candidate," although he spends much of the movie on the sidelines or appearing on TV shows while Gosling and campaign chief Philip Seymour Hoffman attend to the dirty work of trying to secure key voting blocks.

The picture details a lot of the mania, paranoia, treachery, back-room dealing, and general ugliness that comes with working in politics, but there's a greater sentiment at work here that's as powerful as it is disheartening: Mainly that even when there's a promising candidate on the scene who says all the right things, takes all the right positions, and seems to be the breath of fresh air that voters have been waiting for, behind the scenes it's the often the same ugly sausage factory that produces all of our other elected officials.

While in the theater, I couldn't help but read the film as an expression of disappointment in the Obama administration. That may be, but later I read that Willimon drew inspiration from the Howard Dean campaign's 2004 melt-down in New Hampshire when writing his play. The stage version was set there too, but Clooney moved the story to Ohio instead and smartly plays things neutral enough that you never get the sense that he's directly alluding to any specific public figure (although his campaign poster does look an awful lot like the famous Obama "Change" poster).

Gosling, the campaign's #2 guy, is fantastic in the movie, as he has been in a lot of movies lately. There's some wonderful ensemble work here too from Paul Giamatti as a rival campaign operative, Marisa Tomei as a ruthless reporter, and Evan Rachel Wood as a zealous intern.

I really enjoyed the political stuff, but the film's second half gets into a fairly melodramatic storyline involving Wood that I felt kinda took away from the power of the film's jabs at our nation's political process. Much of the movie is a conflict between the ideals of this campaign and the temptation to make big concessions for the sake of winning... a theme that plays out in most of the character's personal decisions as much as it does in the greater primary battle itself. The Wood storyline almost feels like a distraction from that... it's juicy and intriguing, but this is a movie that seems to be trying to get at something more important than the usual political scandal stuff.

It's Clooney's fourth film as a director, and I think it's the one that shows the most skill behind the camera as well. I really admired what 2002's Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and especially 2005's Good Night, And Good Luck were about, but I didn't necessarily feel that either flowed well or really took off as entirely engaging cinema. His third picture, 2008's Leatherheads, was a noble attempt at a Preston Sturges style screwball comedy that didn't work for me at all, frankly.

The Ides Of March functions significantly better as both a political ax-grinder and as a strong drama. I would imagine that the subject material is a little dry for the film to ever become terribly popular with the masses or a huge financial hit (or to even get much awards attention, outside of acting), but I continually respect that Clooney is a guy with a ton of star-power (and therefore clout) who often chooses to make movies about things he's interested in, rather than ones that are likely to make a ton of money.

October 8, 2011

Real Steel (10/08/2011)

Lettergrade: C+

The most ridiculous Rocky movie is easily Rocky IV. That's the one where Rocky squares off against the HGH enhanced Soviet boxer Ivan Drago played by Dolph Lundgren. The film, insanely entertaining on every level, is loaded with cheesy dialogue, an endless series of training montages, and some hysterical cameos and side characters, including James Brown as himself, a Mikhail Gorbachev look-alike who gives Rocky the slow-clap late in the film, and a particularly hammy performance by Brigitte Nielsen as Drago's wife and trainer. There's also a scene early in the movie where Paulie, played by the venerable Burt Young, is presented with his own personal robot as a birthday gift:

One imagines a scenario where Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis was having a few beers while watching the movie with fellow Academy Award winning director Steven Spielberg. "You know what would make this movie even stupider?" the man behind Forest Gump and the Back To The Future trilogy casually asks. "If Rocky had to fight that robot in the next movie!" The bearded auteur behind Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler's List could only chuckle inwardly at his pal's comment as he popped the cap off another Pabst Blue Ribbon, but then he stopped: Zemeckis might have something there...

And now... in 2011... it as come to pass that both men are listed as producers on Real Steel, a full-fledged robot boxing movie that is pretty much exactly that. I give the movie a lot of credit for making use of the winning underdog sports-movie formula that served Sylvester Stallone, Ralph Macchio, and countless others so well in the 80s. I also appreciated that the film took a lot of cues (and sometimes, much of its dialogue!) not only from Rocky IV and Rocky III (that's the only with Mr. T as Clubber Lang), but also borrows very very heavily from Over The Top, where Stallone is a truck driver and competitive arm-wrestler desperate to reconnect with his son. Real Steel is a little light on getting the emotion to really connect much of the time, but it's done well enough to make you sorta forget about the sheer stupidity of what you're seeing for lengthy segments.

In the distant year of 2019, boxing as we know it, where two guys get into a ring and physically punch each other, has been outlawed. Mankind, desperately needing something to fulfill its burning need to see people fight as a spectator sport, turns to the concept of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and does it on a large scale in an arena.

Former real boxer Hugh Jackman is now a down and out robot boxer. After an opening sequence where his only remaining bot is destroyed at a Texas county fair by a prize bull (and by the way, how f***ed up is it to see a giant robot punch a bull?), he's pretty much hit bottom. Fortunately, some lawyers come out of nowhere and tell him that his ex-girlfriend of 10 years ago has just died, and that he must attend a hearing over custody of the son they have together, with whom he has never really interacted. The kid, Max, is an extremely precocious Jake Lloyd impersonator played by Dakota Goyo (most recently seen as "Young Thor" in Thor). Jackman doesn't want him, but agrees to fork over custody to his girlfriend's sister, Hope Davis, if her husband will give him a bunch of money first. Davis's rich husband agrees, but only if he takes the kid for the summer so they can take a lavish vacation in Italy first!

Anyway, Dakota and Jackman hate eachother at first, but reconcile enough where they're able to come across an old sparring bot in a junk yard, fix him up new, and become an underdog robot boxing sensation. It all leads up to the big showdown with Zeus, the current robot boxing champion. In the early Rocky movies, Rocky fights Apollo Creed. Isn't Apollo the son of Zeus?

The picture as a whole winds up being serviceably exciting and reasonably entertaining. I wouldn't recommend you go out of your way to see it, really, but the inherent drama of people competing in a sporting event shines though, and the movie isn't as embarrassing as you'd think it would be when someone starts to describe the plot to you.

The thin perfunctory emotional layer really did bother me, though, I must say. Rocky IV and Over The Top, cheesy as they are, really do find ways to make Stallone's motivation work in both cases. And then there are story points that are introduced and never quite dealt with, like the twice hinted-at notion that sparring bot Atom actually has a consciousness and feelings, ala Short Circuit's Johnny Five and Bicentennial Man's Robin Williams Bot 9000. During one bizarrely moving scene, Atom sadly looks into a mirror before a big fight, perhaps weary of the severe beating he's about to take? Or maybe it's because Jackman and Goyo are in the other room with the movie's Brigitte Nielsen clone, who is in the midst of offering the two a ton of money if they sell her the robot before the fight? And if Atom does have feelings and a soul, isn't it atypically cruel for Jackman and Dakota to put him up against bigger / stronger / meaner bots who at best might inflict severe mechanical damage upon him? These questions and more very well could be answered in Real Steel 2: Realer Steel.

I guess this kind of lean substance is par-for-the-course for director Shawn Levy, who continues to cement his reputation as sort of a less interesting version of Brett Ratner. He's directed a bunch of movies in recent years that are essentially throw-backs to the big spectacle of the 80's and 90's: Two Night At The Museum pictures (emulating Jumanji among others), that terrible Date Night film (which was modeled after some of the great Blake Edwards comedies of the 80's as well as Adventures In Babysitting, etc.), and now this: An 80's sports movie which truly owes more to the three Stallone pictures I've mentioned than I can even begin to describe. The guy is only 10 years older than I, and so I guess it makes sense that we might both like the same sorta stuff. His movies are well-shot and professionally made, even sticking to more of a classical editing style that's much more relaxed than most pictures these days. I appreciate all that about what he does, but while he's good at recreating how a lot of his great influences look and feel, he consistently seems to come up short on the intangible stuff that made the kids and teenagers of that era love those flicks in the first place.

And I really do wonder... what the hell is it with Spielberg and robots? Before he produced this movie, he produced not one but three Transformers movies, and he's planning to direct a movie called Robopocalypse after he makes that Abraham Lincoln movie next year. I guess he's a smart businessman and recognizes that toy sales based on these movies have been consistently through the roof, but maybe he should think about mixing it up a little?

September 4, 2011

Our Idiot Brother (09/04/2011)

Lettergrade: C-

Paul Rudd took time off from preparing to enter a Big Lebowski costume contest, apparently, to film Our Idiot Brother, a fairly mild, lightweight comedy that pretty much sticks to the normal conventions.

He's a lovable fuck-up, you see, who, after being thrown out by his girlfriend (the suddenly omni-present Kathryn Hahn), must spend time with his three successful sisters, who are all played by hot actresses that look nothing alike. They're Elizabeth Banks as an icy, career-minded journalist, Emily Mortimer as a stay-at-home mom who is married to a sleazy documentary filmmaker played by Steve Coogan, and Zooey Deschanel as a free-spirited aspiring artist who dates Parks And Recreation's Rashida Jones, another stunningly hot actress who, in typical movie fashion, is somehow supposed to appear kinda hideous because she wears flannel and thick glasses sometimes.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Rudd "wreaks havoc" on their lives, mostly by unknowingly making his sisters (and their partners) aware of their awful behavior and by sometimes just flat out benignly telling the truth to people who have been terribly deceived for a long time anyway.

I didn't find the movie to be especially funny, really. And I didn't really give a shit about anyone's problems or what happened to them. But it didn't piss me off too much, I guess... it mostly just kinda felt like a mildly agreeable 2 hours at the movies. So there's that.

August 14, 2011

Crazy Stupid Love (08/14/2011)

Lettergrade: D+

I like Steve Carell and I'm happy to see him in movies that try harder for substance than Dinner For Schmucks or Date Night did, but I'm not sure that Crazy, Stupid Love is much better than those movies, really. The main thing that rubs me the wrong way in a comedic drama like this is when characters do things that I don't believe people in real life situations would ever, ever actually do.

In one of the movie's first scenes, Julianne Moore tells Carell that she slept with someone at work. His reaction is blank and he mugs at the camera ever so slightly. He then jumps out of a moving car and lays on the pavement until Moore comes back and picks him up. The co-worker she boinked is played by Kevin Bacon. Now if my wife told me that she had slept with Kevin Bacon, I would, unlike Carell, be devastated beyond rational functionality and then probably unspeakably pissed off. Not only because of the indignity of the cuckoldry, you understand, but also because I'd be only six people away from pretty much every working actor at that point.

Later, when they return home to dismiss the babysitter for the night, he goes on an explosive comic tirade in front of her and the kids about how hurt he is by this news, which is partly played for laughs (really?). He moves out, gets a crappy apartment, and hangs out in a local bar, telling his story as loudly as possible to whatever hot women happen to be near him (all of whom run in terror, as they would in reality as well).

Luckily, this bar is also frequented by Ryan Gosling, who plays a character with attributes similar to those of Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother as well as Vinnie Barbarino and The Fonz. Gosling pities the poor fool, and decides to show him the magical ways in which dressing like a complete douche-bag and treating women like disposable garbage somehow gives them the insatiable urge to sleep with you. And so, after a shopping montage at the Westfield Century City Mall (the only scene where the movie seems to take place in Los Angeles, by the way), Carell does exactly that.

Will Steve realize that the beaver-chasing lifestyle will leave him feeling empty and unfulfilled? And will Gosling (via his highly, highly improbable friendship with this sad-sack middle-aged accountant) come to the conclusion that the years he's spent perfecting date-rapishly aggressive pick-up lines and banging virtually everything that moves have been misspent? Well, yes, naturally... but movie has over 2 hours to fill so it's gotta kinda let the characters go on for a bit before that happens.

The time away from Carell and Gosling largely shows us an unrequited love-triange. The aforementioned babysitter is played by Analeigh Tipton, and she's in love with Carell, as it so happens. This is kinda creepy because the character is, like, 17 or something (although the actress is 22). Nevertheless, she kinda pulls quasi American Beauty style moves on him here and there, which is he largely unaware of, thankfully. The other plank of the unrequited love triangle is Carell's thirteen year old son, played by Jonah Bobo, who is desperately in love with Tipton's babysitter character himself. If I remember right, the movie even opens with a lengthy scene where he goes on an on about how in love he is with her while she forcibly repeats that she's not attracted to him in any way whatsoever and that his persistence is frankly kinda upsetting. As the movie goes on, he consistently takes the wrong lessons from history books, movies, and elsewhere in his life about how, if you really, really want something, you need to go after it as aggressively and as tirelessly as you possibly can. This manifests itself in even more uncomfortable declarations of love, and assorted pledges of undying devotion.

Okay... so I think that it's unnerving enough in this movie that this kid so passionately believes he has found his soulmate at 13 years old, but I'll agree with the babysitter's tacit assessment that the way in which he conducts himself toward her is just fucking scary. If you, or I, or anyone we know knew a boy who treated his much older babysitter with such crazy, stalker-like behavior at such a young age, and continued to do so after someone repeatedly explained to him how inappropriate and wrong it is, you would seriously LOCK THAT FUCKING KID UP IMMEDIATELY FOR FEAR THAT HE'D SAVAGELY MURDER THAT GIRL AND BUILD A CAGE WITH HER BONES OR SOMETHING. Seriously, I've seen movies about serial killers that aren't nearly as upsetting as what he does to her in this film. And the best advice anyone has for him in the movie is, "If you really love her, Robbie, you need to keep on trying, buddy." Uh huh... Even after she's stated repeatedly that she wants him to stop?

Anyway, every once in a while we come back to Julianne Moore's character too. She's missed Carell and kinda wants to work it out with him, it looks like, but she never actually starts a conversation with him until the end of the movie for some inexplicable reason. Bacon's character kinda lurks around as well, both looking for a second helping, we can assume, as well as for the approval of the kids, who instantly recognize him as a slimy bag of shit who broke up their parents' marriage.

The remainder of the flick is spent with Emma Stone who plays a lawyer with a dull love life who comes into the bar every so often, and whom Gosling hopes to add to the many notches on his bedpost. The movie has a trick up its sleeve in terms of how her story relates to the others, actually, but it is not revealed until way later, when the film has actually devolved into a bizarre Cannonball Run style fist fight involving all of the major characters. Since her "twist" is held off for so long, however, many of her early scenes feel really awkward and out of place in the movie... sort of leading me to imagine a scenario where they had already gotten her to agree to be in the movie, and then decided to really beef up her part after Easy A became a huge hit and she was clearly on the fast-track to being an A list actress. When the big reveal happened, I realized I was wrong and that those early choices were 100% deliberate, although I would argue that they are still very mishandled. Instead of her character feeling like an organic part of the movie early on, she feels like a big star who has a lot of superfluous scenes in a movie she's not actually starring in simply because she's a big star.

Ultimately, and I know this will be a line a big line of distinction for many in regard to whether or not to take my opinion here seriously, I disliked Crazy, Stupid, Love for many of the same reasons I disliked Little Miss Sunshine, which I found to be a mish-mash of garish caricatures of actual people who do things, say things, and think things that I do not believe that rational, high-functioning adults would actually do. In that movie, all the characters are enabling the little girl who is clearly placing waaaaaaaaay too much of her self-worth on the possibility of winnig a pre-teen beauty contest (the wrongness of which is never even acknowledged by the film) whilst on a road trip that rips off the plot to National Lampoon's Vacation virtually beat-by-beat (up to and including Aunt Edna / Alan Arkin dying mid-way through the trip, and being strapped to the roof while the family continues to drive to California!). Compare both of these movies, to a much better one also starring Carell: 2007's Dan In Real Life, a quiet comedy/drama in which he plays a widowed father of two who falls in love with a woman he meets at a bookstore and who surprisingly turns out to be his brother's new girlfriend. The premise is maaaaaaybe a little contrived in that one too, but the characters never really betray reality there, and the picture really works as a result.

My buddy Ilan busted my chops at lunch a few months back for choosing to see big studio movies that have a high probably of being shitty, seemingly with the express purpose of writing smart-assed blog posts about them when it turns out that they are. I tried to explain that I really do want every movie I take in to be satisfying at what it tries to do, regardless of whether it's big studio product or a no-budget indie flick. It's important to see a little bit of everything: I love a good popcorn movie when it is done well, and when it is good character drama, like Win-Win or Beginners, my two favorites of this year thus far, a picture can stick with me for weeks and weeks.

The key thing is that the emotion needs to work. Regardless of the budget or the resources or the talent involved, the characters need to go through something that seems to come from a real place or which at least contains recognizable human feelings and decision making. When a movie feels thin or far-fetched or emotionally "untrue," that's when I get cranky. And for some reason, an indie drama missing the mark sorta pisses me off a lot more than, say, Transformers 3 which, while fucking terrible, never pretends to be anything other than puerile crap.

I hold Crazy, Stupid Love in low esteem, despite its intentions, because I think it tries to look like an edgy indie drama that's about something, when in fact the characters do the same kinds of empty, unrealistic things that characters do in standard brain-dead studio junk, only with a cheap layer of indie veneer to try to make it all look deeper than it really is.

July 24, 2011

Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon (7/24/2011)

Lettergrade: D+

My wife had been on bed-rest for much of July, and I was home virtually all month taking care of her. As such, I was kinda dying to get out and see a movie... any movie. Mostly, I think I just wanted the movie theater popcorn, a weird, unexplainable life-long addiction that I've never been proud of. In any case, we're fortunate here in Marina del Rey because we have two movie theaters directly across the street from our house, boasting 12 screens between them (although the theaters themselves seem to be more like what I remember low-rent cineplexes being like in the 80s). I waited until Laura went to bed one night, reviewed my options, and for some reason determined that Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon was the best game in town.

Now, I can't really say what led me to take a third bite from this overdone franchise. I saw part 1 in 2007 with my friend Chris, mostly out of my nostalgic love for the cartoon show, despite seriously disliking the previous films of Michael Bay. There were a few memory twinges throughout the flick that reminded me of watching the series as a kid, but the film largely proved to be a noisy and incoherent piece of shit that neither told a satisfying story nor did it even really showcase the innate coolness of giant autonomous space robots who can change into cars or airplanes or jukeboxes or shit like that whilst duking it out on our planet.

I saw part 2 two years later because there was absolutely hysterical fan hatred for it on the internet and a wide array of completely savage film reviews circulating in the press which went into nuanced detail about how preposterously awful it is. I must blame Roger Ebert in particular for writing a review that was so brutal and side-splittingly funny that that I pretty much had to see the picture itself so I could fully appreciate what he was complaining about.

And so... I saw part 2, and the staggering degree of badness wasn't even fun. Not only were there illiterate, black Autobots playing a prominent role in the story, but there was also a Deceptacon who talks like Joe Pesci for no apparent reason, a scene where a different giant robot appeared to have testicles, and then - and this was the deal closer for me - an instantly legendary segment where Shia LeBeouf dies, then floats up to heaven where Robot Angels (or something) tell him that it is his destiny to return to his body and help defeat the Deceptacons during the film's senseless climax in Egypt.

2 made use of the same bullshit editing style where no shot is held for more than a second and a half before cutting to another angle... it stuck to the same philosophy toward camera work where the ideal way to show an expensive visual effect is to get the camera close to it and shake the hell out of it so you can't even really tell what you're looking at... and it had the same piss-poor acting from LeBeouf and Megan Fox, combined with ill-advised appearances from a lot of wonderful actors like John Turturro, who did the best he could with what he had to work with, but really deserves better.

So why the fuck, you may be wondering, did I go in for part three? Well, again I didn't have much interest in seeing many of the other movies that were out... I didn't want to see that shitty looking J.J. Abrams Motel 6 movie that was still playing, and I didn't like either Captain America or Harry Potter 8 enough to sit through them again.

And then there was the fact that although I don't care for 3D, generally, the film was actually shot using 3D cameras (as opposed to being shot 2D and then converted to 3D, as many films are), and the color was graded to be brighter than normal, meaning that when the 3D glasses remove some of the brightness, the picture should still appear to be somewhat normal, not dark and dingy as 3D typically does. Michael Bay reportedly sent this letter to theater projectionists encouraging them to take extra care to project the film at the proper brightness level to achieve the correct effect (and inspiring this hysterical response).

Other factors that got me in to see the flick were that it was shot near where I grew up in Chicago, and although the trailers strongly suggested that the city was to be completely decimated by giant robots, at least I could gaze lovingly at familiar structures like Navy Pier and The Field Museum for a few moments before Megatron or one of the Dinobots tripped and landed on them.

But anyway, enough preamble... on to the flick. Well, it's awful, but for the first hour or so it's much better than its predecessors, at least. Working in 3D apparently inspired Bay to tone down his editing and shooting style a bit, and indeed shots are held on for reasonable amounts of time, and the filmmaking is almost traditional, in a sense. There are many indications that Bay actually paid some degree of attention to the critical lambasting he got over part 2 in particular, and he put substantial effort into developing unique personalities for the various robots and making sure we could actually tell them apart this time.

On that level, I guess, I have to applaud him. But Bay's newfound maturity melts away in the last hour or so, however, and we're back into a mindless orgy of robot-on-robot violence again. I sort of blacked out during sections of this last hour, to be honest with you, which probably made whatever story was present seem less understandable still, but even before that I had no idea what the fuck was happening so I'm not sure my lack of consciousness really made a difference.

What else... oh yeah, porn-star quality actress Megan Fox was fired from the movie by producer Steven Spielberg (Casper, The Flintstones) shortly before they started filming for comparing Michael Bay unfavorably with Hitler, so they replaced her with Victoria's Secret model and first-time semi-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who believe it or not, is even worse. She's playing a different character, technically, than Fox did, but I have a feeling that "screenwriter" Ehren Kruger pretty much just left the script unchanged after she was canned.

Leonard Nimoy provides the voice of a good robot from the past (who had been trapped on the dark side of the moon, providing the film with its title), but then he became a bad robot somewhere along the line, so in this movie he's mostly just being a real dick to everyone. Oh, and alumni from various Coen Brothers movies accepted what I can only presume to be massive checks to appear in the movie too: Turturro reprises his role from the first two flicks, John Malkovich appears as Shia's boss for part of the film, and most surprisingly, Frances McDormand agreed to be the Secretary Of Homeland Security (or something). McDormand is married to Joel Coen, and I'm trying to imagine the scenario where she told him that she was accepting a role in a big, loud, empty and ugly movie like this that is so antithetical to everything that his films have always been about.

So... I don't know, man. The movie's terrible, but they've all been terrible. If you saw the first two... and you liked them... and you walked out of the theater feeling enlightened and satisfied with the experience, but you had kind of wished it had been slightly better, then I guess this is the Transformers movie of your dreams. Although I recognize Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon as a great improvement over Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen, whenever it is that they get around to making Transformers 4, I'd probably be better off if I just walk over to the theater, buy some popcorn, and then walk back out without actually buying a ticket.

Check out Topless Robot's highly entertaining Transformers 3 FAQ.

Read my entry on the first Transformers (Lettergrade: D) here.

And my entry on Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen (Lettergrade: D) here.

July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (07/23/2011)

Lettergrade: C+

I drank a pretty large Coke during the afternoon showing of Captain America: The First Avenger that we caught, and yet the movie still had me feeling kinda sleepy toward the end. It's a shame because it had a lot going for it for a while there: A charismatic title character with a great backstory... cool WWII era sci-fi sets... a gorgeous British dame played by Hayley Atwell... a nifty Indiana Jonesish Nazi villain bent on world domination... and some pretty bad-ass action scenes that consist of stunt men duking it out rather than CG junk blowing up.

There is a really engaging 40 minutes or so at the beginning, after which the movie starts to slow way down. I think it's the segment where then Buck-Private America, having gained super powers by taking an experimental serum, takes a gig fronting USO shows and pitching war bonds before, you know, getting into all the jingoistic ass-kicking stuff. By the end, Captain America: The First Avenger feels like its primary function is not to get The Captain's own story to a satisfying conclusion as much as it is to put the pieces in place so he can appear in next summer's Marvel superhero circle-jerk The Avengers (and there's a post-end-credits teaser to prove it!).

But man... that how-Captain-America-became-Captain-America segment at the beginning sure was a breath of fresh air compared to other recent superhero movies, wherein the background stuff often feels rushed and half-assed. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has the brave heart of a true patriot soldier, but the body of Neil Patrick Harris after a month-long fast. He's been rejected for military service several times due to his puny size and flat feet. Luckily, a German-but-good scientist played by Stanley Tucci catches on to what he's been doing and allows him to join a small US military unit, the members of which are auditioning to be part of a top-secret experiment. These scenes are highly reminiscent of similar beats from the first Men In Black, not only because the soldiers submit to endless tests with unclear objectives, but also because Tommy Lee Jones observes sternly from the sidelines in both films.

The climax feels weirdly non-climactic, though. I'm not all that sure what the evil plot even was, to be honest with you. And come to think of it, what seemed like an interesting bad-guy at first in Hugo Weaving's Red Skull started to feel more and more like one of those third-rate heavies from movies like The Shadow, Masters Of The Universe or the first Hellboy once I realized that there wouldn't be much to him.

It's weird to say all this because America seems like a perfectly well-made and professional movie, but one that gets into maudlin territory a little too often for me to really recommend it or want to revisit it again myself. Unlike the other two Marvel movies this summer, Thor, which I greatly enjoyed, and X-Men: First Class, which ran a lot of familiar plays, but somehow kept it all fresh and interesting, Captain America mostly feels like one of those C grade summer pictures that you pull the trigger on because the other movie you wanted wasn't playing anymore, and which you can barely even remember after a few months. It's alright, but you could probably do better.

Here's my entry on director Joe Johnston's previous movie, The Wolfman (2010), which was pretty awful.

July 16, 2011

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (07/16/2011)

Lettergrade: B-

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 adapts the second half of the final book into a reasonably exciting 2 hour, 10 minute movie that brings the series to an adequate finish. I liked it well enough, I suppose, but I have very conflicted feelings here. If we're being honest, I should say that I haven't really enjoyed the later entries in the film franchise for a while now, and deep down, I was kinda hoping that this last film would make up for the mild shittiness of the previous ones instead of just being "a little better."

I've read and re-read the books a few times apiece and consider them to be well-written, deeply layered stories that only seem to get better the more closely they're studied. I admired (or at least enjoyed) the first four films as well, but all that changed with part 5... That would be when director David Yates took over, and decided to ride the franchise out until the end (more on him in a bit).

Deathly Hallows - Part 2 picks up quite literally at the end of Deathly Hallows - Part 1, meaning that in the future, pale high school and college kids the world over will be able to watch both films in a fairly seamless five-hour block instead of, you know, leaving the house, making friends, and attempting to have sex with actual women their own age.

The evil Lord Voldemort (pictured right) has acquired the fabled Elder Wand, the most powerful wand ever created... an instrument with which he can maybe finally end Harry Potter for good. Meanwhile, Harry, Hermione and Ron are searching for (and attempting to destroy) the "Horcruxes," objects in which Voldemort has hidden bits of his soul... meaning that if his body gets all f**ked up again (like it did back when he tried to kill Harry as a baby originally), he'll still be alive in some form and free to appear in more sequels. Since movies 6 and 7 - Part 1 failed to stage the parts of the books that would have provided our hero with adequate clues as to where these objects might be, Harry and his friends must jump to conclusions that would seem far-fetched and flimsy even in the Adam West Batman TV series:

Nevertheless, after an astonishingly lifeless opening where Harry almost casually asks John Hurt about wand lore - compare that to the fierce urgency of the same scene in the book - and then lightly begs for help breaking into the wizard bank from Warwick Davis (appearing in dual roles, a touching tribute to Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or perhaps to Eddie Murphy in Norbit), the gang is finally off on their adventure, which will eventually take them back to Hogwarts School For Witchcraft And Wizardry and to the big-ass series climax.

It's hard to argue with the power of a good climax, and there's no denying that this is a satisfying one. Nevertheless, I can't help but regard it with a certain amount of disappointment: Not because it's over now, but after all those years spent anticipating it and wondering what it might feel like, when I got there, I guess I was just hoping it would have been better than it was.

Getting back to the movies, though, the series is similarly disappointing in that it started well, gradually got better, and then... with Yates' arrival... became really erratic and uneven. You can gripe about Chris Columbus's watered down 80s era Spielberg / Lucas style approach to parts 1 and 2 10 years ago, but if nothing else, it's tough to dispute that Columbus cast the series brilliantly and established a number of iconic sets and images that would benefit the films that followed immeasurably. I would also give a lot of credit to the wonderful part 3's Alfonso Cuarón and part 4's Mike Newell for imbuing the films with a little more maturity and creativity when they needed them, and for going through a lot of trouble to at least get you to somewhat feel the story, even if a good deal of it was going unexplored.

The three books that Yates adapted into these last four movies represent a failure to introduce interesting pieces of a multi-part story in a deliberate, memorable way, and to get them all to mean something powerful by the end. So many moments in Deathly Hallows - Part Deux seem to lack the proper set-up and payoff because the series had omitted the surrounding elements earlier. Of course, Yates had much longer, much more plot-and-mythology heavy text to adapt than the earlier directors did, but even back on 5 I was a little baffled that he put a lot of effort into staging aspects of the books that didn't seem that vital in the grand scheme of things, while simultaneously blowing through or outright discarding components that did.

His pictures were the first that decided to be companions to the books, rather than adaptations of them. Sometimes he'd just show an image of some major plot point without really explaining it or getting into how the characters feel about it, perhaps under the thinking that since these are very popular books, most people in audience have probably read them, and getting into details would be superfluous: An approach that's dead-ass wrong on every level. He decided to spend his screen time in other puzzling ways too, focusing on the teen angst stuff (maybe under the notion that the Potter movies could stand to be more like Twilight?), over-blown action sequences, and alarmingly often, entire scenes where Harry, Ron or Hermione just sit and look sad, without much dialogue or context to clue the audience in. As in the earlier movies, he frequently holds the actors in uncomfortable wide shots, perfectly highlighting their inexperience. There are awkward pauses between lines that in theory could have been removed in the editing, had Yates allowed editor Mark Day to actually use some of the coverage they got on set.

The films have not suffered financially under Yates' guidance, but his main crime, as I see it, is that he has taken three increasingly engaging novels and made films that oscillate between dull and incoherent with the occasional exciting action scene sprinkled in.

In that sense, Yates' telling of Deathly Hallows - Part 2 benefits greatly from consisting of 70% action, but what about the other stuff... the character stuff... the reasons that crowds dress up like their favorite Hogwarts denizen and have routinely stood in long lines at midnight each time a new book or film is to be released? I don't think you can plausibly argue that he's been good for the series on that front.

I understand that a novel can get into all sorts of detail that a movie cannot (and often should not), but for me the tragedy of David Yates is that he didn't even seem to try much of the time. His work just doesn't have that "something special" that all of the books and the earlier movies appeared to have. It's sad that they kept him on the series primarily because he was a mild personality who didn't make as much trouble as the earlier directors did. Check out this article in The Guardian where visual effects supervisor Tim Burke stops just short of outright calling Cuarón an asshole when reminiscing about the series as a whole: "He's … yeah, an interesting person. I'm being a bit cagey here. Let's just say he's challenging. High standards, and all sorts of other things."

Yates only got the job on 5 in the first place when every established, big name director they offered it to became nervous about the restrictions Warner Bros. had in place and turned it down - Terry Gilliam, Jean Pierre Jeunet, Mira Nair, M. Night Shyamalan, Tim Burton, et al. They kept Yates for part 6 when Guillermo del Toro passed on it in order to make Hellboy II. Who knows if they ever considered another director for 7 - parts 1 and 2, but one thing's for sure: The series deserved better.

FANBOY ALERT!!: Be sure to stick around after the end credits for the scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) visits Harry at Hogwarts, and gives another clue to the plot of next summer's The Avengers!

My entry on the previous movie, The Deathly Hallows - Part 1

My entry on part six, The Half-Blood Prince

My entry on part five, The Order Of The Phoenix