Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A "Punch" in the Smarts

So I'm not going to say I regret going to see Sucker Punch. It's pretty rare that I really regret seeing anything, as I'm a movie guy and this is very much the movie of the moment. But it does lend itself to some good thoughts about where we are as a society in empowering women. I'll say that when I was watching it I wondered to myself, "this is what passes for female empowerment these days?" Luckily, the response by and large has been "nope."

I get into that a little bit in my review over at Battleship Pretension, but deal more with the film as a whole. If you want to really dive into the film's gender politics, Monika Bartyzel of the wonderful Girls on Film column at Cinematical really just guts the film and examines the remains.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (dir. George Nolfi)

As my feelings towards this film are wrapped up in the ending, it's impossible to discuss the film at all without a big heavy spoiler alert front and center.

I'm not a guy who needs big stakes in his films (though I do need big steaks in my life, but that's a subject for another time). If you listen to a lot of Filmspotting, or even a little, you'll hear them talk time and time again about the importance of stakes in films, and from a certain perspective, it's hard to disagree - big stakes give a film a real drive. This is why the Coen Brothers often start their films at a point when most films are just getting to the second act. The stakes already seem insurmountable, and the fun becomes watching them become even more difficult. But the Coens are smart enough as writers to be able to pay off their massive stakes.

As a first-time director, George Nolfi has an assured visual style and and creates a great rapport for his stars (Matt Damon and Emily Blunt) but as a screenwriter he completely undercuts himself by the end. His premise, from a Philip K. Dick short story, is of politician David Norris (Damon) who suddenly discovers a world controlled by mysterious forces that guide our reality in small but significant ways. This affects him because they're trying to get him elected Senator, and eventually President. The problem is that in order to do so, they have to stop his romantic entanglement with Elise (Blunt), the only person who ever fulfilled the void in his life.

Nolfi's stakes are thus gigantic. This is obviously a story of fate vs. free will, but the consequences of each are more intriguing than the question itself. Nolfi never explores why it is so important to these higher forces (they're never referred to as "The Adjustment Bureau" in the film) for David to become President, but we do learn that for them to spend as much time as they do keeping David and Elise apart, it must be something pretty huge.

So if David follows the path chosen for him, he'll become President and probably do a great many things for the betterment of the country, but he'll never truly be happy. If he stays with Elise, he'll be happy but too content to aggressively pursue higher office, and the country will be worse for it. The first scenario is emphasized, but there are never any consequences put forth for him choosing Elise over politics, other than perhaps sacrificing some career benefits. This is the movie's first big failing - we know him becoming President is important, because it's important to the higher forces, but explaining why it's important would presumably be too morally ambiguous when David puts all his effort towards being with Elise.

But the biggest problem is that Nolfi doesn't pay off these stakes at all. Instead it's determined that because David worked so hard to be with Elise, he deserves to do whatever the hell he wants, even though it's been previously established that the only reason David can't be with Elise is that, when he does whatever the hell he wants, he won't end up becoming President. He'll just stay content in a well-paying career and accept no responsibility for this decision.

If you're confused, it's because Nolfi's conclusions works not on any logical or thematic level. The lesson at the end is that we deserve to do whatever we want to do if we want it bad enough, with no regard for the consequences of those decisions. I'm far more in the "free will" camp than the "fate" camp myself, but if you're setting up a world in which fate does play a very tangible role, a role designed primarily to keep humanity intact and potentially even improve it, then you have to explore the consequences of going against your fate.

This is made all the more frustrating because the movie's a pretty good watch up until it all falls apart. The stakes are enormous, which gives it great drive, and Nolfi has some solid Bourne-esque chase sequences (Nolfi had a hand in writing The Bourne Ultimatum), full of clever innovations and quick thinking. Damon and Blunt are terrific together, and quickly and easily sell the importance of their relationship. I did genuinely want them to be together, but unfortunately the film set up a reality in which there's more at stake than simply being happy.

Much as I get excited by any Hollywood film willing to tackle bigger questions than "do I cut the green wire or the red one?", I also expect it to deliver somewhat on those demands, and The Adjustment Bureau simply doesn't. At all.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Paul (dir. Greg Mottola)

Wow, okay...this one is gonna hurt.

I'm only trying to be a little bit cooler than the crowd when I say that I saw Shaun of the Dead in theaters. I know, now who wants to touch me? It's weird that mere months after its release, we all had a handle on just how great a movie it is, and it provided a basis for the complete understanding we have of Edgar Wright (co-writer and director), Simon Pegg (co-writer and star), and Nick Frost (co-star). And by the time their next film, Hot Fuzz, hit theaters, they were rock stars. They did a nationwide tour of preview screenings to packed houses (I was there for that, too, naturally). Wright has since proven himself as a genius apart from his frequent collaborators with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and I was hardly alone in thinking Pegg and Frost would be just behind him with Paul.

Never mind the fact that they'd be teaming up with Greg Mottola, who after Superbad and Adventureland quickly became one of my favorite fresh filmmakers, a guy with a real grasp of the way comedy and drama naturally intersects in our lives. Add to that a stunning supporting cast of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig (one of the few breakout talents of Saturday Night Live who might actually be a better actress than she is a sketch comedian; see Whip It for prime evidence of this), Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, John Carroll Lynch, and several others in smaller roles.

Expectations can be a funny thing, and movies are rarely the experience we hope them to be when we hope them to be anything, but mine would have had to have been abysmally low to consider this a success.

There are some aspects of interest, to be sure - for every half-dozen on-the-nose references to Star Wars, E.T., or Close Encounters, there are a few that'll fly just under your nose if you don't know it (a Capturing the Friedmans one is particularly splendid). In these instances we're reminded of the great television show Spaced, which Pegg co-wrote with Jessica Stevenson, and which more than any other show really knew how to use a pop culture reference to dramatic/comedic effect.

Better still is Pegg and Frost's vision of America, which borders on a parody of what Americans think Brits think of our country (alternately a subject of fascination and terror). Or it could just be what these guys think of America; who really knows?

Unfortunately, interesting references and thematic points of interest aside, the movie's just not a whole lot of fun to sit through. I forced a laugh out from time to time, but I can't think of a single joke that landed genuinely, and too often I sat silently wondering if many of the lines were in fact supposed to be jokes at all, and how can three guys involved with three of the funniest films of the past decade not recognize a bad joke? And who writes a character like Paul, who ends up being right about everything? And just where is the line between mocking fundamentalist Christianity and dismissing religion altogether? And has there ever been a successful comedy that dismisses atheism as swiftly as comedies have dismissed Christianity as of late? And could some key plot points - Paul can bring dead things back to life, but it takes a lot out of him and trying it on humans would be very dangerous - be set up any more obviously?

I guess what saddens me most about the film is it's just lazy. Lazily plotted, lazily acted - I'd kill for half the energy from Pegg and Frost that they showed in Wright's films, though Lord knows Hader's giving it his all - lazily funny, and lazily paced. It becomes weirdly intense, emotionally, or anyway it tries to be, very suddenly, and the deft touch that Mottola showed in his previous two films isn't present at all here, never mind his eye for aesthetics.

David at Battleship Pretension wrote that the film ends up far more disappointing than the average studio comedy purely for the talent on hand, and I'm afraid I have to agree with him. Much as we might say all films are judged in a vacuum and it's not really fair to hold up past work against current, it's also a disservice to past achievements to simply disregard it. Artists should be held to their own standards as well as ours, and I'm afraid Paul meets neither.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Angel of the Morning

I wanted to like The Strange Case of Angelica an awful lot, but I never did find the movie I'd hoped for or that I felt it was trying to be. My full thoughts are up at Battleship Pretension.

With the exception of these somewhat-regular reviews, posting will probably be fairly light until the end of April, at which point (fingers crossed!) I'm hoping to have some very exciting stuff to write about.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Two Surreal Options for Your Weekend Viewing

Well, that was the best I could do to tie together Apichatpong Weerasethakul's masterful Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Gore Verbinski's almost-masterful Rango, both of which I've reviewed at Battleship Pretension, and both of which are more or less in theaters this weekend. I say "more or less" because Uncle Boonmee, being what it is an all, is getting the ol' slow-release pattern across the country (unfortunately there's no page laying out its playdates in other cities, but keep a watch out for it, it's worth it!). Rango, naturally, is out everywhere.