Friday, November 26, 2010

The Ruins

Dismayed because another inconsiderate cuss told you the ending of a new movie you've yet to see? Don't worry, there's hope for you yet! I outline Why I Don't Fear Spoilers (And Neither Should You) over at Megazine Media.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

High-Def Thundersmurfs

Alias, the reason I haven't written anything else in the last week. My review of the Avatar Extended Cut 3-Disc Blu-Ray Extravaganza is now live at Shadowlocked. Seriously, this thing is STACKED.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RED (dir. Robert Schwentke)

Where does this go wrong, exactly? You have Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich all shooting guns. You have Richard Dreyfus, Brian Cox, and Ernest Borgnine showing up quite often. AND Mary-Louise Parker?

I mean, once you land those people, you think you'd want to punch up the script just out of one's civic duty.

But RED is a drag, through and through. Light on action, light on character, light on dialogue, there's really nothing happening here. I don't mean there's nothing happening like how there's nothing happening in Gerry, Gus Van Sant's movie about two guys walking around in the desert, I mean that in spite of all the plot and characters ostensibly doing things, there's no life in this film at all.

Bruce Willis stars as Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent living for little more than his regular talks with a woman (Mary-Louise Parker) who answers the help line for his pension checks, which he habitually rips up. One day, some black ops fellas come crashing into his house and, in a rather non-stealthy manner, completely destroy his house via thousands of rounds of ammunition. This convinces Frank to seek help from his old CIA buddies, who just happen to be the exact people who were there, "on that fateful day" that will become the center of much of the conflict. Oh, and he'd better grab that lady at the pension office, because she's in danger, too. Because he talked to her.

If leaps in logic were RED's only fault, I'd forgive it without a second thought. But nobody in the cast here is really "on" (although Helen Mirren and Brian Cox are kind of delightful together), least of all Willis, who's tuned out even by Willis standards. Louise-Parker is trying her darnedest, even if most of her role revolves around having boobs. But there's just so little to this film. There's no punch, no drive, no zing. When action-comedy is done right (and I will point out once again that Knight and Day did this SO well earlier this year), there's a feeling of walking on air, a delightful sort of hum and a near-constant feeling of ecstasy. Because even when the cars aren't racing and the bullets have stopped firing, the characters will keep you entertained.

I looked at my watch with a half-hour left in the picture and wanted to die. Slogging through those last thirty minutes was agony, and I haven't so completely wanted to remove myself from a film since Alice in Wonderland. There is nothing entertaining about RED. That shot of Bruce Willis exiting the cop car is pretty cool, but that's like...two seconds? And that's the only good action beat. All of the other action scenes are completely lifeless. There is neither the dance of combat nor the visceral thrill. Just a lot of people shooting at each other from across the room.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

2010: The Yet Another Year of the Misunderstood Movie

Whether we film snobs like to admit it or not, a film's legacy is mostly written on opening weekend. The box office scores are in, so we can see if the film is even something anybody wanted to see. Then reviews, Twitter, Facebook updates, and good ol' talk-around-the-water-cooler indicates the extent to which people saw something special there. Most of the time they didn't. On a few rare occasions they love it. And a few times every year, a film comes along that nobody seems to get - critics, audiences, even the studio itself. Nobody, that is, except for the few who will fight the battle for that film until the day they die. Or, y'know, until everyone else sees what they see. These are the misunderstood movies of that year.

Bill Gibron at PopMatters is trying to argue that this is a phenomenon unique to this year, one that will be remembered as an integral part of the cinematic landscape when we look back on 2010:
Of course, we are talking about middling hit Kick-Ass, the measureable [sic] flops Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Let Me In, and the Merchant/Ivory makeover known as Never Let Me Go. In each case, high expectations were met with limited interest - and it's a shame. All four are excellent examples of the artform, each pushing boundaries and established genre types while still maintaining a perceivable level of inherent quality. A couple were critical darlings. The others were definitely lost in the always deadly "love it or loathe it" dichotomy. But the end result was the same - movies that should have made an impact, that should have stood side by side with other breakthrough titles and argued for their aesthetic merits instead, became question marks, cautionary examples requiring second guessing and analytical conjecture.
I don't exactly agree with his estimation of all these films - Kick-Ass is fine and all, but its lasting legacy will matter only to superhero geeks like myself, and I haven't seen Let Me In - but he's more or less correct in noting they are under-appreciated when stacked against what has qualified as important filmmaking this year (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Never Let Me Go are astounding achievements on every level that will hopefully gain greater recognition in the coming years).

But regardless of what individual films you pick, this is, undoubtedly, something that happens. It's just not something unique to 2010 at all. These are just (a few of) the films that fit the bill this year. Last year? Observe and ReportThe Informant!Cloudy With a Chance of MeatballsWhip It, and in some corners, Where the Wild Things Are were all terrific, mainstream films that saw little appreciation in any serious corners. The year before? Speed Racer, Pineapple ExpressChe, and Synecdoche, New York. Even 2007, a year in which masterpieces were aplenty and largely appreciated, saw the burying of such films as Death ProofSunshine, Across the Universe, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Darjeeling Limited, and I'm Not There. 2006? Nacho Libre, Crank, Marie Antoinette, The Fountain, and Rocky Balboa.

I'm not interested in whether or not you agree with me that each and every one of these films are amazing, important works of art. You could just as easily have your own list of secret, misunderstood masterpieces, and that's fine. That's the whole point - that this happens every single year, and will continue to for decades to come. Sometimes it's the fault of advertisers driving consumers towards a different sort of film altogether, sometimes audiences don't see what is so clearly there, and too often critics are dismissive of something that tries (much less succeeds) to push film forward. So get out there, and watch movies anew. Great filmmaking is not limited simply to the films we all agree on; you'll be surprised at how much great stuff there is.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fair Game (dir. Doug Liman)

It's no secret that movies addressing the central conflicts of the Bush years (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counter-terrorist policy, 9/11) have largely come up a little short. With due respect to The Hurt Locker and United 93, both of which are spectacular as thrillers and as socio-political engagement within their respective historical context, the vast swath of the rest (including Lions for LambsRenditionWorld Trade CenterGrace is Gone, and Green Zone) have been sanctimonious, overly simple, or completely disconnected with the human element of their stories. I've often heard the complaint that such films put too much emphasis on getting their message out that it drowns out anything else, but that misses the real point - that there was no anything else.

Fair Game is a perfect example of a good film that is also centrally a political statement. It's not exactly Made in U.S.A or anything, but it's as good an integration of current events into the mainstream cinema as I've seen. Its characters regularly make speeches to political ends, and the film has a very definite point of view, but - believe it or not - it's totally engaging for it. I don't think active political debate is off-limits for a fiction film, so long as the perspectives come from a recognizable place within its characters. As with any other subject matter, if it truly matters to the characters, it will matter to me. When you're telling the story of the events surrounding the Iraq War from the perspective of the people who were thrown under the bus for doubting its motivation, and you do it well, politics are important.

In tackling the story of Valerie Plame (played here by Naomi Watts), who key members of the White House staff outed as a CIA operative in 2003, screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth make a very wise, unexpected move - push it to the latter half of the film. Most of the film is spent establishing what Valerie does for a living in the context of the case that will ultimately end her career. Meanwhile, things aren't so great at home. She and her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), have a steady relationship to whatever extent possible. That is to say, he has no idea what she's doing most of the time. Meanwhile the government's combative responses to the events of 9/11 have shaken the angry liberal within him, and he happily takes whatever outlet is available to release this side.

Watts and Penn do the married coupled side of the equation quite well, though it should come as little surprise that unleashing Penn as an angry liberal allows him to wallow in the more indulgent side of his performances. It may very well be a totally accurate depiction of Wilson, but knowing Penn's tendencies, it's hard to view his shoutier scenes in a vacuum. Watts, meanwhile, holds her own in a barely-contained manner befitting her character, who proudly proclaims "I have no breaking point." The push-and-pull between Joe's active stance and Valerie's restrained approach to even the slightest confrontation will become everything for them professionally and personally, and the Butterworths establish this early and effortlessly. As things ramp up, so does their determination to stay their own separate courses, and this casual build is as dramatically beautiful as it is emotionally crushing.

On the nose? Perhaps. And the film does take unnecessary steps to get its point across, but for every cab ride Joe takes late in the film with a driver extolling the virtues of America, you get a scene as concisely rewarding as Sam Shepard's. Shepard is one of those guys capable of turning what in other hands would feel like a cheap shortcut into a defining, resonant moment (his work in Brothers last year was remarkable in this respect), and his appearance here comes at a crucial time. With a few words, Shepard has to save both a marriage and his daughter's dignity, and he does so beautifully. That whole scene is a small wonder, and due credit to Liman and the Butterworths is in order.

Liman has long been an underrated director, overshadowed by Paul Greengrass on the Bourne franchise and sheer starpower in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but in an age where a director is either a hack or an auteur, I suppose that's only natural. Liman's hand is simply one of confidence, and while it lacks bravado, he takes a movie about people in rooms and makes it compelling. This is no Zodiac, mind you, but one need only see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to witness even a master filmmaker (which Oliver Stone can be when he wants to) fumble such seemingly simple achievements.

I've never felt political discourse should be barred from the cinema, and Fair Game is a perfect example of how it can flourish in a mainstream framework. It's got the pizzazz of a good procedural and the heart of an angry patriot. And y'know, I like a little self-righteous anger in my art from time to time.