Sunday, June 19, 2011

Green Lantern (dir. Martin Campbell)

You may be surprised to learn this based on the reviews thus far, but Green Lantern is not the worst thing that's ever happened. It's not very good, either, but...come now people.

In particular, I'm sort of surprised that Thor, which had many of the same problems (often-unconvincing special effects, poor storytelling with almost no logic present ever, a terrible romantic subplot), got a huge pass from critics while this got absolutely trounced. I guess some bloated CGI diversions are acceptable, while others are not.

I even sort of liked Green Lantern in parts. Ryan Reynolds is certainly very good as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, the action, though sadly not as frequent as one would like, is top-notch, and the special effects are actually kind of wonderful. It helps that most of them are supposed to look fake (the power of the Green Lantern is, after all, creating objects out of light, which is exactly what CGI is), but I digress. The biggest thing the film has going for it is absolutely Reynolds, who grounds a film that otherwise is desperate to run away with him in tow. The screenplay is, indeed, a complete mess, the exact result people are desperate for when they bemoan the idea of more than one person writing a film, and the second act in particular is so scattershot, and so frequently unmotivated, that the heavier beats didn't land at all. Peter Sarsgaard plays the film's villain (well, one of them anyway), Hector Hammond, and although his performance is delightfully silly, the film takes his arc waaayyy too seriously, and takes it into some dark territory that is totally ill-fitting with the rather light tone of Hal Jordan's journey.

The other villain is Parallax, which, without rehashing too much of the film's convoluted backstory, is essentially an entity that feeds on fear, and the source of Hal's final confrontation. And this scene in particular gets everything right about the big summer superhero movie. I mean, their battle ends in space. Next to the sun. There are no two ways around that - that is awesome. Really, my chief problem with the film is that there isn't enough that. Green Lantern, as a character, is built for cinema - constructs that appear at the speed of thought aren't nearly as compelling on the comic book page, so every second it can revel in the joy of that creation is a second well spent.

Of course, it would help if the other seconds strung together at all. The prevailing theory is that this was cut down from a much longer cut, and that wouldn't surprise me in the least. There is a LOT of exposition packed into a 105-minute film, and in the process, they've unsurprisingly decided to load up on information-loaded speeches and cut down on character development. Hal is not only the best-formed character in the cast, he's the only one who comes across like a fully-formed person. And I'm fine with stock, one-dimensional characters in big bright CGI movies, but whereas something like Speed Racer embraced its silliness head-on, this is trying to present an actual story with actual people, and it just doesn't fly. So to speak.

Warner Brothers has said they want to replace their nearly-completed Harry Potter franchise with an emphasis on DC superheroes, which is a smart and very overdue move. But they need to realize what made the Potter franchise so successful - strong characters in fantastic situations. The DC characters are sort of famously simple, with much of the nuance added to them decades after their creation, but they still have decades upon which to draw. I hope after this, they use that history to its fullest.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Criterion on Hulu: The Circus (Charlie Chaplin, 1928)

Hey, welcome to the weekly column digging into the offerings on the Criterion Collection's Hulu Plus Channel. This week, we'll look at Charlie Chaplin's The Circus, which represents a sort of in-between mark of Criterion licensing. When Criterion hinted over a year and a half ago that they'd be putting out new editions of Chaplin's films, there was (rightfully) a lot of celebration. The old MK2 DVDs were serviceable - they sported fine transfers for their time, and included a bounty of extras. But few are able to match what Criterion does, and this was a near-guarantee of seeing these films in high definition.

Among the first offerings by Criterion on Hulu were several Chaplin films - The Great Dictator, Modern Times, A Woman in Paris, City Lights, and The Circus among them - but only Modern Times used a new HD transfer. The rest were sourced from the MK2 discs (I've tried contacting Criterion to see if they plan on updating those files as they create new transfers, but received no response). And while those transfers were serviceable on DVD back in the day, they're pushing it on streaming.

But first, let's dive into the film itself.

The Circus begins with one of Chaplin's finest, most lyrical images - a girl standing on the suspended rings, swinging back and forth as music plays and the credits roll. It's an arresting image to begin on, and it hints at the emotional current of the picture to come. The girls eye project longing for a better future and sadness at her present situation, in which she's stuck swinging back and forth. Though in many ways, this image would be better suited to the Tramp (as much as he advances, he's doomed to regress), having him up there would be more silly than touching.

Chaplin's famous character enters the film as he usually does - out of work, conniving for scraps of food. He'll soon (it's only a 71-minute film after all!) land work in the circus as a performer, though he won't know it. He's instead hired as a prop man and, because he can't help but wreck the whole show, the audience loves him. Chaplin's great victory with the Tramp over his many years is toeing the line between gaining audience sympathy while still letting us laugh at his misadventures, and this film presents that wrought large. The gags absolutely land. Chaplin starts big with a police foot chase that's as clever as anything he's done in how characters intersect, part, reappear, transfer props, and so on over the course of the chase (and as a side note, these are exactly the kind of things that classic comedy junkies like me mourn the loss over in the rise of Apatow). Physical comedy gets a bad rap these days, both by its viewers and those who utilize it most, but in a visual medium, there are few things as satisfying as a well-executed, physically-driven joke. But it also obeys the primary rule of cinema (which itself is most chiefly trotted out by people who don't understand what it means) - show, don't tell. Character and philosophy are revealed through action, not speeches.

Those who prefer Buster Keaton over Chaplin tend to note that the former's philosophical angle is more interesting, that he specializes in characters whose lives are determined and redirected by forces greater than their own (the train in The General, the storm in Steamboat Bill, Jr.). But I've rarely found that Chaplin, for all his emotion, engages with any more forceful in terms of fate vs. free will. Looks at Modern Times, City Lights, even The Kid - his films are a little more sentimental than Keaton's, sure, but any major gains he eventually encounters are as much, if not more, due to luck, circumstance, and fate rather than his own personal determination. All of the Tramp's success in The Circus is a direct result of an accident or misunderstanding. He gets the job at the circus after being chased in there by a policeman and subsequently wrecking the show. His continued success there is buoyed by the girl (the same one from the film's opening shot) who he loves, and he mistakenly believes love him, too. Perhaps it is because of this bedrock that the film's conclusion feels so false, so forced.

After getting kicked out of the circus, the Tramp goes back to his hobo ways. He is soon joined by the girl, who declares her determination to stick it out with him. The Tramp, realizing that, although this is his dream, he really has no means by which to provide for her. So instead he rushes back to the circus, begging her tightrope-walking former boyfriend to marry her, so that he may give her the life the Tramp cannot. The tightrope walker accepts, proposes to the girl, and they go on to live happily ever after. The girl returns to the circus, but insists that her father, the circus manager, takes the Tramp back into his employ as well. The manager begrudgingly agrees, telling the Tramp to get on the last car as the caravan moves out. The Tramp waits for the cars to pass, and then simply walks off into the distance.

For a movie all about accidents and fate, the ending of The Circus feels too heroic. The grand gesture doesn't feel earned. It doesn't negate the film as a whole, but perhaps the emotion wasn't built into the film early on, perhaps the Tramp wasn't as well-developed this time out; I'm not sure. It simply feels forced, an ending crammed into a story that cannot support it. A slight misstep at the end hardly undoes Chaplin's many achievements here, though. The Circus remains a pretty great motion picture.

The transfer on Hulu, which is advertised as being in HD, varies wildly. Sometimes it absolutely delivers, but too often it settles for low-level DVD quality. This is certainly due to the using the MK2 source rather than a new one (the film opens with their logo), so I'm very much looking to what Criterion does with it if and when they put it out on DVD and Blu-Ray. I don't mind a digital presentation of a film looking rough, so long as it still looks like film (I'm a grain monk myself), but this too often looks more like video. It hardly destroys the film, which is still in its correct aspect ratio and free from major damage, but it's just uneven and nothing extraordinary. But then again, they don't all have to be.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)

The following review contains spoilers, but in all fairness, I knew the "plot," such as it is, going in, and it didn't affect my viewing in the slightest.

There are a few of the golden boys of cinema that I just can't stand. We all have 'em. Directors whose films we try and we try and we read vast appreciations and we watch their films again and we just keep coming up empty. Woody Allen is my big one. Allen's a fascinating figure any way you look at him, and I have enormous respect for his work ethic (at least one film every year since 1982) and the ways in which he bends to commercial pressures continue to fascinate me (can't find funding for New York? Okay, rewrite for London!). Moreover, he seems to always make movies that he would genuinely want to see - even the silly ones come from a real place, a real love of how silly movies can be. And yet I just don't really like very many of his films. Now, the plus side to turning out a movie every year for thirty years is that inevitably you've made at least one for everybody, so I will say I deeply love Radio Days and I like Hannah and Her Sisters and Sweet and Lowdown an awful lot.

And I loved Midnight in Paris. I just adored every second of it. I love that there's no explanation for how American screenwriter-turned-struggling-author Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is able to literally transport to the 1920s on a visit to Paris. I love how easily Allen lets you in on some of the references - figures as famous as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are introduced without it feeling like a Saturday Night Live impersonation marathon - but allows others to elude. I love Owen Wilson's wide-eyed expression throughout the whole affair (much more on this later). I love every shot of Marion Cotillard, an actress I've admired but who here is in another stratosphere. I love every line Allen gives Hemingway. I love Allen's lightness of touch, which Kent Jones correctly identified as "his most underrated asset as an artist." Allen gets all the credit in the world for his writing, his cutting wit and insight into relationships, but when he's working like this, I adore his work as a filmmaker. I've often thought that creating something truly charming and light on its feet is the hardest thing in the world (which is why Lubitsch, particularly Trouble in Paradise, is one of my favorites), and Allen does it like the best - he makes it look so damn easy.

It starts with him not really asking any big questions. He brings up matters of looking to the past with rose-tinted glasses and seizing the present and all that, but doesn't weigh on them. They're there to gently nudge the story along, and that's fine; the best lightweight comedies have an air of the philosophical. What he really succeeds at is letting go, allowing Gil, and us in the audience, get caught up in the current of this magical, inexplicable event. He populates the 1920s Paris arts community not with the people as they are (I'm sure), but how we imagine them to be. Hemingway is a brute, but sort of jolly in asking "do you box?", Dali is inarticulate and difficult to follow but incredibly exotic, Fitzgerald says "old sport" at every turn and feels like he stepped straight out of Gatsby, and so on (to say nothing of the remarkable cast Allen has, all of whom are just totally game for anything and everything). It's an interesting choice for a film about not glamorizing the past, but ultimately, it makes for a much more enjoyable ride and, dramatically, it means Gil won't get off the hook so easily. If they'd all been bastards or bores or whatever, there'd be no magic, no reason for him to want to stay. He comes to realize that living in the past is a pointless fantasy for personal, interior reasons (though this transition could've been handled more gracefully) rather than external forces.

In interviews, Allen has talked about how he came to cast Wilson after much hesitation, but he's hardly the only one who's since realized how lucky he was in doing so. Wilson, too, is a guy who seems effortless in nearly everything, and his version of the classic Woody Allen protagonist is one of the best. His remarks come not from an ideal that has long been tarnished (which is the sense I get from most of Allen's protagonists), but one which he still genuinely holds onto. He still gets frustrated by "pseudo-intellectuals" and political disagreements, but his positive reactions and sense of wonder always come off so much stronger. We understand that although this is a guy stuck in a dream of the past and what could have been of his present, he's still living for something, still looking forward. He's trapped in a relationship he shouldn't be in with Inez (played willingly by Rachel McAdams), and even still he talks about what he wants from his future. We come to understand, not through direct dialogue necessarily but just through implication, that he's always wanted something grander but just kind of went along with what was in front of him. Some of that is in the writing, but Wilson does all the heavy lifting and, like Allen, makes it look absolutely effortless. He's so naturally funny and charming and - a quality too often overlooked in modern criticism - instantly likable. It is a marvelous performance.

I'm really pleased with how joyfully Allen embraced the comedy in this movie, and I laughed more here than I have at any of his other movies to date. Allen's funnier movies tend to play like a rack upon which he can hang a range of jokes (in case you ever needed evidence of his Groucho Marx influence, there you go), and that's fine as far as it goes, but they too often stop the film in its tracks. The best comedies meld jokes into a genuine film that has a genuine flow to it, and Wilson's casual delivery of some of his lines, almost burying the joke, end up making them all the funnier. They come off as real off-the-cuff remarks instead of really hitting them. To say I laughed "frequently" during this film would be an understatement - scarcely a second passed that I didn't at least have a smile on my face.

And there's something to be said for such a thoroughly pleasant, charming film like this. A lot, actually. I am in no realm a Woody Allen fanboy. Even his famous stuff only really rang true to me from time to time, but this is simply magic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Criterion on Hulu: Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)

I figured I'd start off this column with Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika, as it's not only a great film, but it represents everything I love about the Criterion Collection in a general sense, and their contract with Hulu specifically. It's a grant, important classic foreign film by a major director that remains unavailable on DVD in the United States, and is presented here in what seems to be a new high-definition transfer. One day, I had little hope of seeing it, and the next day I was actually watching it. Criterion has been putting films on their Hulu Plus page well in advance of their DVD/Blu-Ray release since they embarked on this venture, so I wouldn't be surprised if Monika eventually gets a proper release. But for now, this is really the only way to see it in the U.S.

The film itself is widely misunderstood. Released in the United States in most markets strategically cut to emphasize the film's nudity and sexuality, it has become one of the hallmarks of the mid-1950s erotic foreign film (and the basis for the Seinfeld parody, Rochelle, Rochelle). Sure enough, all of the film's stateside publicity material prominently features Monika's (Harriet Andersson) age and free-spirit sexuality. But watching the film is a whole different experience.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a couple who fall in love at the dawn of adulthood, quit their dead-end jobs, and set out for the wilderness. Like anyone of eighteen or nineteen, they're passionate and infinitely hopeful, and if this section feels naive or a little cliche, there are two reasonable explanations. First, cliches such as these come from a real place, and this was one such film. Second, I've always argued that pure romance is a viable emotion that inevitably feels naive or a little cliche, and I commend filmmakers willing to go there. Plus, it makes it all the more heartbreaking to see what comes after.

See kids, in those days, you had to sit through some tough, raw emotion to see some nudity. Bergman isn't shy about showing the inevitable outcome of a relationship based purely on passion, one that follows the whims of a girl who refuses to work or take any responsibility in her life. In this way, our sympathies are aligned with Monika's lover Harry (Lars Ekborg), who for much of the film takes the kind of passive role many of us have probably fallen into when we suddenly find ourselves in a new relationship with someone much bolder than we are. Harry and Monika's downfall might seem obvious, but we feel all the worse for him because he probably sees it, too. But what sets this apart from being a mere cautionary tale is that Monika's position is not without its sympathetic side - Bergman really shows that there were greater problems before sexual harassment suits than the occasional off-color joke. At work, Monika is grabbed at every turn and nearly raped at one point. Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer film her warehouse workplace as little more than a dungeon. Contrasted with the bright whites of the warm Swedish summer, it's no wonder she so desperately clings to her newfound freedom once a need to survive calls her back home.

In between these two poles, Bergman captures lower-class Swedish life with the kind of color you don't usually see in one of his productions. Monika's neighborhood is presented with the liveliness of an early Fellini or Scorsese film, with boisterous neighbors, crammed apartments, and demanding parents. Again, contrast these compact spaces with the wide-open space of the river she and Harry will later travel on; the freedom seems infinite, and consequences don't exist.

It is a beautiful film on every level - earnest and heartfelt, honest and unrelenting, it captures that horrible period in which we finally discover that it's time to grow up. Some people are automatically up to the task, others need time, but Harry and Monika's story proves a great external expression of the internal struggle all too familiar to someone joining the work force for the first time. Melodramatic? Sure, but it's the kind of melodrama that gets to the cold, hard, wonderful truth. As it's a Bergman/Fischer collaboration (they'd go on to work on such films together as Smiles of a Summer NightWild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal before Bergman began collaborating with Sven Nykvist), the cinematography is expectedly lush. Fischer was a much more classical cinematographer than Nykvist, and while the latter's work is more dynamic and tends to receive more praise, I adore all of Fischer's work with Bergman.

Criterion gives us a wonderful presentation of that over their Hulu channel. I am in awe of where HD streaming is at the moment, particularly in representing classic films made well before the digital era was ever a consideration. While streaming tends to produce an inconsistent image - shots can run the gamut between fooling even the most hardcore Blu-Ray enthusiast into thinking they're seeing a perfect high-def image to looking about suitable for a DVD - seeing Summer with Monika like this for the first time made for a remarkable experience. Streaming it through the television, I noticed a fine grain structure and a razor-sharp image; there was even some light flickering, long the hallmark of 35mm projection but sometimes found on Blu-Ray, present in certain shots. Most important, there were very few, if any, compression artifacts. I cannot recall any blocking, ghosting, or those smudges you so often get in the darker parts of the image. The grain on the title sequence reads a little bit more like noise - not uncommon on any digital format - but once we get into the film itself, we're treated to a very fine presentation indeed. The monochrome image varies widely between the piercing whites and deep blacks mentioned above, and the transfer kept up perfectly in both instances without letting the whites blow out or the blacks obscure detail. Streaming images often feel a little bit "thin" to me, for lack of a better word, but given the format's parameters, I could hardly ask for better. Sweden has rarely looked so lovely.

As this is exclusive to Criterion's Hulu channel, there are no supplements currently available. Summer with Monika is presented with a clean, original Swedish sound track and English subtitles.

All in all, this is a sterling example of what The Criterion Collection offers through their Hulu channel - a great classic foreign film by an important director, unavailable for many years, now available for a small monthly fee. Highly recommended.

If you want to try Hulu Plus and get your first two weeks free, click here to sign up.

Note: All screencaps are provided through other sources, and are not representative of the streaming quality.

Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class (dir. Matthew Vaughn)

X-Men: First Class is a film that has a lot of great stuff in it, and fooled me a couple of times into thinking it was really great, but too often wallows in its own lack of direction. Over the weekend, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis wrote a bit about "slow and boring" movies, which concluded with Scott asking, "is there a recent movie more deserving of being called pretentious than Thor?" And given the actual definition of "pretentious" - "attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed" - I'd say the description is spot-on for Thor and for a great many comic book movies, including X-Men: First Class, that think settling as great entertainment is such a sin.

Oh, if only we could have a whole movie about Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender to great effect) going across the globe hunting former Nazis. If only there could be endless training montages and spies sneaking around nightclubs in their underwear and terrific, exciting action sequences and clever uses of telepathy and Kevin Bacon doing anything. I don't want to totally undercut the character work, because aside from the film's attempts at the grandiose (oh, 45-second scene of Charles and Erik playing chess at the Lincoln Memorial), it's all pretty well-observed stuff. In this trip down memory lane, Charles Xavier (a very good James McAvoy) and Raven (a.k.a. Mystique, here played ably by Jennifer Lawrence) are best friends, and their eventual rift (yeah, spoiler alert, they fight each other in a movie made ten years ago) comes from a believable place of ideology. Raven comes to believe mutants gotta let it all hang out there, so to speak. Be loud and proud and all that. But she doesn't arrive at this through some sort of logical deduction; it happens because she's been sort of repressed all her life. Charles has always made her hide being blue, and Erik comes in and says "you're great just the way you are." Her move to "the dark side" as it were is motivated just as much by her friendships as her ideology.

The rift between Charles and Erik was always established as a friendship turned sour in the Bryan Singer films, but here we understand it much better for what it really was - a partnership of convenience. Both of them, for a short period of time, get to work alongside a colleague who genuinely challenges the other, until eventually they push each other to a breaking point. And it's odd that, for as positively as the franchise has portrayed Charles' opinion of mutant/human relations (why can't we be friends?), Erik definitely has the better case here. He's the one who thinks they should all be able to hang out in the streets, letting their freak flag fly, while Charles wants to cover up any abnormalities.

But do they have to take everything so damn seriously? If I never hear another conversation about mutant/human relations, I'll be a happy moviegoer. I like to think that these themes can run concurrent with a huge superhero adventure instead of being the entire driving force. It's not that I think serious stories can't be told with tights and a cape - rather, if they're going to take this tack, I'd rather they go all the way with it, a la Superman Returns or Ang Lee's Hulk. These one-minute bits of easy pathos and pseudo-intellectual (all incredibly on-the-nose) musings crammed in between Kevin Bacon absorbing the blast of a grenade with his bare hands becomes a little tiring.

The pacing as a whole is a little problematic. We've become accustomed to the rather short scenes necessitated by the summer blockbuster run-and-gun pace, but the actual story being told in X-Men: First Class is actually sort of slow and meandering. It develops focus as it goes on, but it doesn't have the central narrative drive that would make a quick pace the natural route. Instead, we have scenes in which tension is supposed to build - the grenade scene or any of the Erik Lehnsherr: Nazi Hunter stuff - but the air just gets let out too quickly. On their own, the scenes work nicely, but it takes a long time before they start to build off of one another and form a cohesive whole.

But when they do, it's quite the whole. X-Men: First Class has a really fantastic third act, finally delivering the kind of wham-bang mutant adventure we've been wanting. The cross-cutting can be a little troublesome when the big showdown between Erik and Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) keeps being interrupted by whatever Beast is up to, but on the whole it's strong stuff, and it builds to a final climax that's as good as they come.

While X-Men: First Class ends on a strong note, it's a really rough road getting there. For as many really good performances, there are an equal number of...let's call them unfortunate uses of screen time. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender soar, as anyone who's been watching movies for the past five years could have ensured, as does Nicholas Hoult (who plays Hank McCoy, later Beast), though he definitely had some trouble with some truly awful make-up in the third act. Kevin Bacon is on his own planet and I love him for it; it's been too long since we had a comic book villain this silly, and maybe the first time it actually worked. Jennifer Lawrence is fine, as is Rose Byrne as a CIA agent/token human, but everyone else is only occasionally rising from "present." The rest of the kids who make up the "First Class" are a joke, barely given any screen time and giving little effort to earn it, following in the footsteps of their counterparts working for Sebastian Shaw (though to be fair, their directions in the screenplay couldn't have amounted to more than "scowl" and "wave arms around").

And then there's January Jones, who more and more seems to be good on "Mad Men" (yeah, I said it) only by accident. Of all the major characters, hers is by far the most quickly dismissed creatively, in spite of playing a pretty large role in the plot, and Jones seems to hold the same contempt for the whole production that it holds for her. Whereas Fassbender certainly and McAvoy at his better moments are capable of taking what is frankly kind of stupid dialogue and making it sound like something someone would have some conviction in ("the point between rage and serenity" is the result of the ultimate writer's roadblock - "what the hell would the best advice be to give to someone who has trouble finding their full potential as a super-powered mutant?" - and it's miracle I believed McAvoy for a second), Jones takes the easiest and most convincing dialogue (you know, stuff like "they're here") and makes it sound like something no one would ever say.

So X-Men: First Class is a delightfully uneven film, saved largely by director Matthew Vaughn's eye for iconography, ease with actors, great staging of action, and occasional flair for what should have been the worst parts (hello, recruitment and training montages). Unfortunately, some of the looser stuff eludes him - the bonding between the teens feels like someone replicating what they think it's like when teenagers hang out - but he certainly does his best with a very uneven, unfocused screenplay. But boy, what a finish.