Friday, April 22, 2011

Movie Memories: Revenge of the Sith

This really begins in the spring of 1999, in the weeks leading up to The Phantom Menace. It's sort of insane to think back on it and remember that people camped out for weeks to secure their seat. I've since often wondered what they did for a living, if anything. But that's not the point. The point is that I was insanely jealous. I was thirteen when The Phantom Menace came out, and still in the throes of my Star Wars obsession, so I found myself turning to my mom and saying, "When the third one comes out, I'm going to camp out!" The next two films were already scheduled for release, so I figured I'd be nineteen then. That's plenty old enough to spend weeks on the sidewalk! It would be such an adventure, and of course I'd go with my best friends and it'd be the greatest moment of our lives.

In the spring of 2005, I did indeed turn nineteen, and was about to graduate high school. Not only did I know The Phantom Menace and its sequel, Attack of the Clones, were not terribly good movies, but I had other things on my mind. By May, I was deep into rehearsals for a play I had co-written, a one-act musical featuring the music of Queen. And as much as I had loved The Phantom Menace when it came out (I was thirteen!), I had discovered good movies by then. Hell, I'd already been accepted to film school. I really was in no rush to see Revenge of the Sith when a friend casually mentioned he was putting a group together for a midnight showing.

"Midnight" means quite a different thing when you're in high school than it comes to mean later in life. "Midnight" was still somewhat the great beyond. Not that I didn't have my fair share of late-night escapades by this point. Hell, I'd had nights prepping for plays that took us well into the wee hours of the morning (capped, as always, by a trip to Sharis). But "midnight" on a school night, when I had to be up at 5:30 am and work all through the day on my play, was a push. But then, I've never been one to turn down a social opportunity, no matter how insane. So I found myself on Thursday, May 18th, with a ticket in hand, ready to roll.

That day we had rehearsal as always. By that point we had crossed well over the line from the play being a lark (my friend and I thought it up one afternoon and wrote it, cumulatively, in about four hours) to being genuinely awesome, which was fortunate because half of us were too distracted by the forthcoming night to focus on the play at all. Most of us had brought the lightsabers we bought as kids (and inexplicably still owned) to school, and, since they didn't fall under the "weapons" category even in our Catholic high school, had been engaging in duels throughout most of the day. No reason that should stop now.

Right after rehearsal we sped downtown to join our friends who were already waiting in line. By now it was 6:00 or 7:00, so we still had a good haul ahead of us. The weather wasn't doing us any favors. Spring in Portland can be a bit of a crapshoot, and we were just thankful that we were able to wait in line under cover. Smarter people - okay, the girls - brought blankets. We grabbed dinner in shifts, played cards, and upon realizing that some of us had tickets for different screens inside the theater, bartered for tickets with other people in line. Everyone I knew ended up in the same theater. Mitch, who earlier that day wasn't even sure if he wanted to go, somehow got a ticket to our sold-out show and joined us at the front of the line.

Every hour, on the hour, we proudly drew our lightsabers and ran around the block waving them in the air. Lord knows what the people working at the theater, never mind people who were just downtown on business, thought of the whole scene. It's fashionable now to have a laugh at the whole franchise, especially since Lucas has recently announced 3-D rereleases of all six films. And we even knew the film probably wouldn't be any good. On some level we even knew Lucas would find a way to continue the franchise, even if he didn't make any more movies. But that was just it - this was the last Star Wars movie. Star Wars itself would live on, but not as a direct product of Lucas' imagination. And for all we made fun of him for "ruining" his own creation, it mattered, if only as a way to capture once more the youth we knew we'd soon be leaving behind.

I often wonder if our saying goodbye to Star Wars didn't in some way overlap with our feelings about graduation. You go to a lot of parties around that time of year, and what you realize pretty soon is that the parties are not celebrating the completion of high school, but are more a celebration of the past four years. I had most of the worst and some of the best times of my life thus far in high school. I know that was true for everybody I grew up with; it's too emotional of a time for it to not be true. And we were in a privileged enough position to let that emotion be the center of our lives. Star Wars gave us a chance to let it all out before it was over.

As the film was about to start, I said tonight was for the experience; the movie could come later. I still haven't seen the film since that night. I'll bet it doesn't hold up as well as I remember it. Doug believed it to be the best of the series, for which we all told him he could go to Hell. I said it was at least better than Jedi, which admittedly is probably still true. For all the moments of sheer inanity (Natalie Portman screaming out the names of her children as she's giving birth to them and dying at the same time) or fan-baiting (Chewbacca cameo), there are incredibly rousing sequences that are among the best of the series and a really great, knowing denouement on a set that looks like it could have come from the original trilogy.

And again, I know it's fashionable to dismiss the series altogether, particularly the prequels, but I don't know anyone who's a fan of the series who can't find something to latch onto in each film. Maybe it's all misplaced nostalgia. Maybe none of the films are all that good. And maybe lightsaber runs around the block are an empty exercise devoid of meaning except that which we attach to it. And maybe that's all high school ever was. But I doubt it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones)

I've always felt it was a critic's job to accurately communicate the experience of watching a movie. Some are transportive, others thrilling...others infuriating. Source Code falls into that last category.

What is Source Code, anyway? Is it, as IMDb labels it, a sci-fi thriller? Well, there's no real tension to the plot, where one would normally find the thrills. There is something mystery to the program that Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself involved in, but to what end? And then there's the mystery of Colter himself, and how he came to be involved in the Source Code program, a mystery perpetuated purely for audience involvement and not to any logical story end. But could it be more? Could it actually use a sci-fi thriller premise to explore some sort of existential issue about the nature of identity? Oh, if only...

The set-up is pretty solid - Colter is plugged into a program (the Source Code) that can let him re-line the last eight minutes of someone's life. The government is harnessing this program so that Colter can search a recently-exploded train as one of its passengers to find the bomber before he has the chance to carry out his next attack on downtown Chicago (why don't movie terrorists ever go for the big target first?).

This is about as good as sci-fi thriller set-ups get. It has a new concept, a short window of time, a lot of fun chances for repeated and slightly-altered behavior based on what Colter does each time he goes through the system. If one were inclined to go deeper, one could explore all kinds of things about what makes us us. So on a plot level, where does it go wrong? Well, first, there's no solid tension from the outside world. We understand theoretically that the clock is ticking, and that the bomber could strike at any moment, but is this yet-untested system really their only means of catching the guy? After all, he has issued a threat, and law enforcement has been able to trace those sorts of things back. And would it have been so hard for screenwriter Ben Ripley to have included a time with that threat? I know the "ticking clock" thing has been done to death and is ridiculed, but at least it works.

And then there's the tension on the train - will Colter find the bomb and the bomber? Now seems about the right time to enter spoiler territory.

Well, yes, of course he will. And fairly easily, too. The bomb is literally in the first place he looks and the bomber is really the second or third person he goes after in a major way. Ripley and director Duncan Joens (Moon) discard the bomb plot so quickly and carelessly that I thought surely Source Code is just dressed as a sci-fi thriller as a means of getting to something a lot bigger. Let's find out...

To do so, we have to go back to the beginning and explore the mystery of Capt. Colter Stevens. After some opening credits, the film starts in earnest with Colter waking up on a train, uncertain of how he got there and sitting across from a woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Christina knows him, but he's certain they've never met. After eight minutes, the bomb explodes and he's thrown back into reality, where Capt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) appears on a TV screen and asks him if he found the bomb. What bomb, he asks? A bomb exploded, go find it, try again. And bam, without knowing where he really is or why he's there, he's back in.

This repeats to varying degrees several times. And why? Why would Goodwin not explain the mission? For the first few times through, Colter believes it to be a simulation. Once he accepts the reality, he then wastes his time figuring out how he got to be there when the last thing he remembers was a mission in Afghanistan. How is this beneficial to him, the mission, or the lives he's supposed to save? The clock is ticking - why not tell him everything? Wouldn't it at least help if he understood the extent of his mission before the third or fourth time going through it?

The bomb plot is a total waste here, and again, nobody benefits from not telling Colter that he was actually shot down two months ago and now lives in a vegetative state with his brain hooked up to the Source Code (which raises all kinds of questions - were they just hanging onto him in case he eventually has the same physique as the victim of a major tragedy?). You could say they don't tell him out of concern for "national security," but wait, he's just over there on a table. Who's he going to tell, all these people riding the train who are already dead? From a plotting point of view, this is creating an external mystery (that is, something that affects the protagonist without him playing an active role in causing it), and the only reason to put off its revelation is to create tension for the audience. It does not serve the story or the character. Him finding the bomb is purely perfunctory, and discovering that he's already dead is a quest of self-interest rather than self-discovery. By the time the bomb plot becomes personal, he's already solved it, leaving him with no goals by the end of the second act. Well, okay, he does create a goal to save the train, but this plan completely works from start to finish. He does not encounter a single obstacle once he decides to go through with it.

"Hey now," you say. He's been dead this whole time, and how about that? How about a movie about a man coming to terms with his own death? And on a train full of the dead? That's some purgatory stuff right there. Isn't it interesting that he has to deal with being dead while seemingly fully alive? And yes, all of this would be fascinating if that was at all what the movie was about. The thing is, Colter coming to terms with his death registers in one beautiful little moment before being disregarded forever. After that, it becomes purely about being awesome action hero man and repairing his relationship with his father. And maybe getting a little action on the side.

There is a moment, right near the end, where the film had a chance to redeem itself. Colter, in the Source Code, kisses this girl he suddenly fell in love with, while in the real world Goodwin unplugs his life support. As he and Christina kiss, time stops, and for a brief moment everybody's happy, just as the bomb is about to go off. It's a small little celebration of life amidst tragedy, and it'd be beautiful in its own little way, a true testament to the power of fleeting romance and the importance of appreciating the little things in spite of the fact that, in the end, the world's just going to have its way with you...

...until it's not.

Because don't worry, audience, nobody actually died. It turns out that unbeknownst to its creator, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the Source Code has created an alternate reality and done a little soul cloning along the way. After defusing the bomb and catching the bomber, Colter not only doesn't die, but his created reality also saves everyone on the train. AND he gets to life out the rest of his life in another man's body with a woman he barely knows. Yay? It's staggering to think that the same people who routinely dismiss romantic comedies are lining up to praise a movie that comes to so misguided a conclusion, one in which happily every after happens...I don't know, an hour or so after you meet someone, and all the while you're lying to her about your very identity. It's bad enough you've been macking on her in disguise, now she's what, the love of your life? So that'll make for an awkward second date...I'm sure she won't think you're completely insane when you explain your were ported over from an alternate reality right as the government unplugged your life support. Maybe you can tell your kids!

And romantic tension aside, what are you going to do tomorrow when you have to go back into work, where you're a HISTORY TEACHER? What are you going to do, learn history over the weekend? Hell, what happens when you go to the bank and you don't know your own PIN? It's a good thing you have the dude's driver's license, otherwise you wouldn't even know where you live. And of course this "happy ending" only took place because they actually killed you back at the base. And what exactly happened to the man who's body you're now inhabiting? Oh well, dude, you totally scored a hot chick! High five!

Jones actually does a pretty good job directing this, giving the film a great high-contrast look and a few really winning shots. It's a fast-paced film, the total opposite of the tone he created so well in Moon, and he handles it nicely. He gets a few decent performances, but doesn't really form a cohesive unit very well. Gyllenhaal is mostly good here, though his outrage over his enslavement doesn't really register. Vera Farmiga plays standard "middle age female" well enough, and Michelle Monaghan is always great, and given the unique challenge of having to say the same lines over and over again comes away looking especially good. Jeffrey Wright is...good...but isn't really performing in the same movie as the rest of the cast. And the film tries to cast him as the bad guy, only he actually invented something that saved millions of lives and accidentally created another dimension...but he's not very good with people, so it's best to call him a jackass and move on.

End of spoilers

I really, really hated this movie. None of the mysteries presented at the outset have anything resembling a compelling pay-off, and the character struggles are somewhere between weak and overused. I've said before that I can overlook all kinds of bad plotting if the film manages to explore some important thematic or personal concern, but this film tries both and accomplishes neither.

I've been among those calling for more original screenplays to go into production, but if this is what an original idea looks like in Hollywood, bring on the next bloated adaptation of a line of action figures.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Sometimes, Children Are Bad People, Too."

I've been kind of kicking mainstream cinema in the crotch lately, so I wanted to make sure I got my positive review of Hanna up before I just gutted Source Code like the smelly fish it is. But really, Hanna is a pretty amazing piece of work, the most exciting piece of action cinema since The Bourne Ultimatum. Aside from Speed Racer of course, which is just in a class all by itself, and was mostly an animated movie that doesn't really have the same challenges as shooting entirely live-action. full review of Hanna, along with some thoughts about why it is that action is cinema at its purest, is now up at Battleship Pretension. Source Code in a couple of days, and at some point I'll finish up this actual, y'know, like, article that I've been working on. I've been busy, get off my back.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Yeah, well, I didn't get it, did I?"

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1971) is, for me, the definitive film of the 1970s. It's not the best film made during that time - Barry Lyndon, Days of Heaven, The Last Picture Show, and everything Coppola made are all more accomplished films - but it perfectly surmises what people are talking about when they're talking about film in the '70s. And it is just such a great, and in its own way very heartfelt film.

Five Easy Pieces is the kind of film that almost never happens anymore. And I don't mean that bunk that baby boomers won't quit talking about, that "movies were just better back then! They had stories! Now you just have effects!" No, I mean a movie that completely and totally made a star of its lead. Stars nowadays, if there are any left, come up slowly through the ranks until suddenly we all know who they are. Or, increasingly, we get stars whose names we know but whose work, if they've done any, we cannot name.

Jack Nicholson was on the public's mind after Easy Rider, but every second of Five Easy Pieces makes him a star. He takes all the attention-grabbing personality he displayed in the former and builds a character, a kind he will revisit constantly throughout his career and will lead more shortsighted viewers to declare "he's not much of an actor, he just plays the same guy over and over." The latter might be true, but he invests that guy with so much depth and charisma, and what exactly are we doing watching actors anyway if not to see some element of truth buried in performance? Nicholson always managed to find that truth, and here, as Bobby Dupea, is where he discovered it.

Click here to read the rest at Battleship Pretension.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Makin' Copies!

I am so sorry for that headline.

My thoughts on Certified Copy, the best film I've seen so far this year, are up at Battleship Pretension.