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.