Safe as Houses?

Safe House has lots of things going for it: excellent actors, especially Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard. And Ryan Reynolds does a convincing turn as fairly-innocent-guy-in-over-his-head. Rubén Blades and Joel Kinnaman (the creepy partner from AMC’s The Killing) do excellent work in small roles. Set in the sun-bleached streets of Capetown, South Africa, the movie has a fresh look, too.

But that’s about all it’s got going for it.

I expected the cinematic version of time-release testosterone, but every move is so predictable that The Sleeper had a good long nap. And when she woke up, she hadn’t really missed all that much. Me, I spent much of the movie wishing I were watching a rerun of Sky1’s Strike Back.

Denzel plays a notorious and gifted rogue spy named Tobin Frost (that’s right, Jack’s evil twin). Frost has something all the good guys and bad guys want. What is it? Does it really matter? The most interesting element in the movie is the way he transports it—in a capsule under his skin, suggesting all kinds of interesting scenes that never made it into the movie (“Is it here? Or over here? Or perhaps right . . . here!”). He extracts the capsule so soon after injecting it that you wonder why he bothered in the first place.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, an over-qualified CIA functionary whose job is to oversee a safe house in case it should ever be needed. Then Denzel’s character is brought in, and all h-e-double-hockey-sticks breaks out.

Tobin Frost is the opposite of George Smiley, the plodder who seems to some of his colleagues to be barely able to keep up with events. Denzel’s character is like a chessmaster who sees thirty moves ahead. He’s amused by it all, even—and maybe especially—when the guns and bombs start going off. At one point, he even says, “I like games.” Denzel’s always fun to watch, and never moreso than in the first half of this movie, where he rearranges the furniture inside Weston’s head. But when the shooting starts, Safe House plays out like a hundred others movies: gun fight, car chase, exposition, gun fight, foot chase, exposition . . .

And oddly, for a movie that’s mostly chase scenes and gun fights, it all feels fairly tame. That’s because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But it’s also because of the way it’s filmed. Much of the movie is shot with a narrow depth of field, with lots of close-ups of bloody, sweaty faces against blurred backgrounds. And most of it’s shot in the jitter-cam style. The goal is to ratchet up the tension. But frankly, if you used this style to film two octogenarians having tea, the resulting footage would look just as tense.

The plot—like so many other thrillers of recent vintage—is recycled from Three Days of the Condor. Yes, once again we learn that the most dangerous enemy is within. And once again we see a talented amateur (or quasi-professional) take on a shadowy enemy that may or may not be the very people he works for. And what happens to the macguffin in Safe House exactly reflects what happens to it in the much edgier Condor.

In case there’s any chance we’ll miss the theme, it’s summed up in blunt-object lines like “Everyone betrays everyone” and “You do what you have to do” and “They don’t want the truth anymore. Keeps ’em up at nights.”

Remember that wonderful speech near the end of Condor, when Max Von Sydow’s character gives Robert Redford’s character a warning:

It would happen this way: you may be walking one day, maybe the first sunny day of the spring . . . and a car will slow beside you, and a door will open. And someone you know—perhaps even trust—will get out of the car and he will smile—a becoming smile
 . . .

Now that’s writin’!

Here’s a thought: why not go back to the days when movies were made by writers, directors, and actors instead of by stunt arrangers, armorers, and cgi techs?

P.S. Has anyone else noticed that recent action movies and thrillers have changed the sound effect for handguns? A Glock is essentially made of plastic, but when a movie Glock goes off, you hear the snap-and-clang of what sounds like a 50-caliber machine gun.

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The Nathan Way

Today a guest writer gives us an insight into the way Hollywood movies are given the green light.

Dear Movie Fans,

I don’t know how you dudes found me, but yeah, you’re right. When it comes to Hollywood test-screenings, I’m the go-to guy. You think they put together a sample audience for every new movie, but no, it’s just me.

My name is Nathan. I can’t really tell you much more than that. OK, you forced me. I’m fourteen. I own every tech-toy that matters. An X-box and a Playstation, a sixty-inch flat screen TV, an iPhone, an iPad. I will buy—or my folks will buy for me—any i-thing I want. And all this doesn’t count the big computer, the one the suits installed to watch me.

I like girls but haven’t, you know, “gone all the way.” But heck, I haven’t gone all the way to Dubuque, either. Could happen. I think about it. A lot. Going all the way. And not to Dubuque. It’s pretty much all I ever think about. Girls are geography.

No, I don’t eat vegetables. Or fruit. Never touch that poison. I’m a meat and bread man. I drink [INSERT NAME OF SOFT DRINK HERE]. I just love the stuff. I drink it night and day. [PLEASE CALL TO DISCUSS PRODUCT ENDORSEMENT DETAILS. PRINCIPALS ONLY.]

They all come to me. Not girls. I wish! Twentieth Century Fox, Dreamworks, Lionsgate, you name it. They try out their movies on me. I am the ideal audience for the movies that matter—movies that gross more than one hundred million. Usually it happens the same way. Two guys in dark suits pull me out of class, giving the teacher some line about national security, and hustle me into a big black limousine. There’s always a frosty can of [INSERT NAME OF ENERGY DRINK HERE, PENDING ENDORSEMENT DEAL] waiting in the car.

And when I get home, one guy walks me to my room and the other one sets up the snack stand: popcorn (duh!), energy drinks (especially for the marathon screenings), candy, anything you can get at a concession stand. All I have to do is point and the guy brings it to me. He doesn’t like to wear the little paper hat, but I like him to. The other suit loads the screener into my Blu-ray player and then stands in the corner ready to take notes. The screener plays. Mostly the movies are about guys in tights with super powers. And guys who say the f-word a lot. And girls who take their tops off.

I almost never have to say anything. The guy in the corner writes down whenever I smile or yawn or scratch myself or do anything at all. If I take more than one pee-break, he yanks the DVD, thanks me for my time, and they’re gone in like thirty seconds. Once I gagged on a popcorn hull and the guy snapped the DVD in half, thinking I was reacting to the movie. And once, when I had shingles, my scratching wiped out a whole studio. But mostly, they just show and go. Like they were never there.

Sometimes they show up without a movie, just to ask for advice. The first time was the best. “What does a guy like you want to see?” they asked.

I told them every movie had to be about a guy everybody else (except his girlfriend, Megan Fox) thinks is a stupid idiot except he’s not, because of chemicals or a magic spell or aliens or luck and such. And then he like whips everybody’s ass. Awesome, right? They’ve been making and remaking that movie ever since I told them about it. In fact—let’s face it—it’s the only movie they ever make.

No more chick flicks, I tell them, unless the chick is really, really hot and has girlfriends who like to take their tops off. Only not the main chick. Because she’s like too pure to be a porn star, but she totally could if she wanted to. And no old guy actors because what if like they dropped dead or something while you were watching the movie? Not cool. I’m really doing them a favor. Let guys like Shia LaBoeuf go to the retirement home, where he can listen to Lawrence Welch and play pinochle with the other oldsters.

One time they were walking me along the river, one of them asking me questions, the other one following slowly in the limo. They wanted to do a remake of something called Husbands by a dude name Cassa-something-or-other. It was made about a million years ago, BN, Before Nathan. It’s about three guys who share a few secrets and laughs. In other words, boring. When I looked him in the eye, he began to cry a little. “It needs something,” I said. And then it came to me: “Dick jokes.” Boom! That’s right. The Hangover was my idea. Three dudes, I said, who get drunk and break stuff. And then I told them it would be good to make a sequel but to set it in Tie Land, this men’s store at the mall where my big brother works? Like what if the Wolf Pack were all tie salesmen and then, you know, they get drunk and break stuff? But I guess maybe I didn’t explain it right because the movie didn’t come out like that. Well, you can’t win them all. But you can win most of them. The Nathan Way. You’re welcome, Hollywood moguls!

Got to jet. Going to see the results of my latest suggestion to the Hollywood suits—War Whores. It’s about . . . but I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Rock on, Hollywood!
Nathan

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier . . . Oh My!

First you notice the sepia-toned look of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s as if the director borrowed the Steven Soderbergh’s color palette. And next the characteristic camera move, a slow zoom through washed-out streets, down anonymous corridors, over worn-out faces.

Agent George Smiley has been pulled from retirement to investigate the allegation that there’s a mole in The Circus. (For those who don’t speak spy-ish, that’s British Intelligence.) Smiley peers at each of his suspects in order to discover his hidden weakness, his secret truth. And in the end, the revelation of those secrets seems no more important than the peering itself. “I’m innocent, within reason,” one character says, capturing all the ambiguity of the Cold War era that gave birth to so many of the novels of John le Carré. “Innocent within reason” implies guilty within reason, too. What le Carré knows is that great evil comes into our lives not with grand gestures but with baby steps.

Gary Oldman is a worthy successor to Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the imperturbable British functionary who may have more going on behind that blank stare than he lets on. Oldman is the kind of actor who can express a whole range of emotions with no more than a millimeter’s elevation of an eyebrow. In fact, you couldn’t ask for a better cast for a movie, with Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, David Dencik, and a number of other excellent British poker faces. This is not the James-Bond world of evil geniuses going after world domination. It’s the world of petty bureaucrats with cracked principles and battered hearts. The spaces of their world smell of thwarted ambition, tawdry secrets, and cheap compromise. All of which make the movie much more interesting than the cartoonish adventures of Bond, James Bond.

But . . . I have to say . . .can’t help it, really: part of me wanted a little more gunplay, maybe a garroting or two. And maybe a teense more clarity. Is that so wrong?

On the other hand, TTSS is a movie that, like its characters, plays its cards close to the vest, so close that it’s not always clear, even when the cards have been laid down, just who’s holding what hand. Which is probably as clear-sighted a picture of the murky world of true espionage as any we can get.

The Artist: A Frothy Delight

The Artist is a cinematic meringue so insubstantial that, like the best desserts and the best champagne, it seems to disappear almost as soon as you’ve tasted it.

By now everyone knows the basic outline of the story. George Valentin, a highly successful star of silent films, gives a break to Peppy Miller, an attractive young dancer. With the coming of talkies, the star fades as the ingénue ignites. He is a man of principle who insists on making silent films even as the public clamors for sound. Thing get worse for George as they get better for Peppy. But have no fear. In true Hollywood fashion, all will be well (eventually).

In other words, the plot of The Artist is a fairly fragile thing. If it were a three-dimensional object, it would be a house made of toothpicks. One hard look and it would fall apart. For instance, why does our hero think talkies are such a violation of his principles? And why is he so blind to love? These central problems express the moviemaker’s needs, not the character’s. But actually, it isn’t fair to lean so hard on the fragile structure of the movie or its characterization. The Artist’s touch—from director to actors to sets to almost everything else—is so light that the movie is critic-proof.

Jean Dujardin plays Valentin, and Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy. Their large, expressive features seem just right for a silent movie. Emotions strike their faces like lightning. Every thought comes with a double-take. Every wink jacks open the mouth. Every kiss is flung. The Artist puts us in a world where every time you solve a problem, you snap your fingers. Just like . . . that!

It’s a movie that owes much to the movies of Charlie Chaplin and others from the early days of moviemaking, not only because of the lack of sound but because of the innovative and expressive visuals.

Early in the movie, George and Peppy dance together but on either side of a stage flat that allows each to see only the other’s feet. It’s a delightful moment that might have come straight from a Fred Astaire movie (OK, Astaire didn’t make silent movies, but the visual elements are so strong, he could have).

At one point, Peppy expresses all of her unrequited longing for her benefactor by embracing his coat while it hangs on a rack. The moment is touching and funny at the same time and worthy of Chaplin himself.

The Artist isn’t entirely silent. One scene that uses sound is so striking that it makes you feel what some must have felt at the advent of talkies—that adding sound removed the graceful silence from movies and let in grotesque reality.

The one aspect of the movie that disappoints is the music (the score, not the period music). In itself, it’s striking and memorable, but it draws too much attention to itself and overwhelms the simplicity of the story.

The Artist has been nominated for ten Oscars. How many will it win? None of the top ones, I’m afraid (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress). Yes, I loved it, but movies this light rarely win Oscars. They’re the kind of movies Hollywood nominates in order to show that it has broad taste. Then H-town turns around and gives the awards to the usual suspects. Of course, Slumdog Millionaire did all right, winning ten of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. But Slumdog Millionaire was a more ambitious and multi-layered movie than The Artist.

The conventional wisdom is that talkies ended many silent movie careers (see Forget the Talkies  for an excellent analysis of the facts and fictions behind this myth). The Artist has me wondering if 3-D will end the careers of some of today’s stars. Think about it. Not every actor can transition to 3-D. What about actors who have no third dimension? Like, for instance, Nicholas Cage and Keanu Reeves and Kristen Stewart and Megan Fox? I swear, if they turned sideways, they’d disappear!

 

P.S. If The Artist has whetted your appetite for silent films, The Sleeper urges you to check out one of the many silent film festivals cropping up all over the world, especially the one at Pordenone in Italy.

Long live cinema muto!

 

Chronicle: Kidzilla Strikes Back!

Chronicle does several things well. Yes, it’s about teens who discover they have amazing powers, and therefore, it should bore us to tears. But it spends a lot of time setting up the characters, making them and their world believable. In fact, it does so to the point where you think, for a while, that you may have stumbled into an indie movie about troubled teens.

Three high school kids come into contact with something that probably looks a lot like the nuclear reactor at Fukushima during the 2011 crisis. They come away from this encounter with strange powers. At first it’s all fun and games, but like the power that pesky ring gives the wearer in Tolkien’s story, it also brings corruption. What’s best about the movie’s central fact is that it’s never explained—no windy oratory from a cartload of scientists, no government researchers with star charts, no crotchety old guy who speculates about what might be happening to them and has just the device that might work if. . . . As the title indicates, Chronicle plays out like the straightforward account of what happens.

Alex Russell plays Matt, the popular guy who also quotes Schopenhauer, Jung, Plato, and casually uses words like hubris. Michael B. Jordan plays Steve, the future politician, who happens to be black and to be as popular as Matt. And Dane DeHaan plays Andrew, the moody outsider whose mother is dying and whose father takes out his frustration on him. The characters are written just enough off-center to make them realistic. The actors are uniformly good, but DeHaan is the standout, with all the wounded menace of a young DiCaprio.

Chronicle captures the special horror of growing up as the outsider in a tank filled with creatures whose greatest pleasure is to devour each other (i.e., high school). And yet it’s more than a movie about the bully who learns to respect and even admire the nerd. Or about the nerd who gains acceptance by his peers. It’s about how the righteous can be corrupted by power.

Partly because he wants to document his father’s abuse and partly because the camera helps to insulate him from the indifference and casual cruelty of the world he moves through, Andrew videotapes his life. And it’s his video chronicle that comprises most of the movie. This is the point-of-view trick that makes movies like Cloverfield and Skyline seem better than they are. But in those movies, you sit in the audience wondering half the time just how they’re going to arrange the action so that all it takes place in front of the character’s camera. And how do you show the main character if he’s always behind the camera instead of in front of it? Chronicle solves these problems the way I solve all my problems—through telekinesis. As outlandish as this sounds, it’s consistent with the central idea of the movie and it allows you to stop wondering how the camera could show every vital moment of the story.

I’m trying to figure out why the special effects in this movie are so—well—affecting. In themselves, they’re probably no more striking than those in another movie of this kind. Objects move by themselves, people and objects fly around. But somehow the home-movie aesthetic—as well as the ordinariness of the world depicted—makes them seem all the more striking, all the more real—one of the features that made Paranormal Activity so successful. There’s a scene, for instance, when two of our super-powered teens are sitting on top of a skyscraper, and I felt anxious for them in a way I never felt for a moment through ninety-plus minutes of Man on a Ledge.

It comes down to character.

It’s the “hero” part of superhero movies that make them fundamentally boring. But give those same powers to a three-dimensional character and you get much more than a soothing myth about the ultimate triumph of justice. Chronicle’s closest cousin is probably Brian DePalma’s Carrie, which also anchored its special effects in the gritty world of growing up in dysfunction. Both movies know that the greatest horrors don’t come from outer space or hell or even Wall Street. They lie hidden in the human heart. At one point, as their powers spin out of control, one of Chronicle’s character cries out, “We can’t just do things! We have to think first!”

Words for our time.

P.S. The Sleeper’s eyes were wide open throughout, and she even insisted on sitting through the credits.

Sherlock Shmerlock

I saw Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows some time ago, but have only now deciphered my notes. Hence this late report.

I like Guy Ritchie. I do! And I like Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. And I like the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. And I like Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes movie. But when it comes to the newest entry, not so much.

Sorry.

Just not feeling it.

Yes, we still get a lovingly detailed look at Victorian London—the era that invented steampunk. And yes, Holmes is still at his devilishly deductive best. But though I enjoyed SH:GoS, this one is played for too many laughs. The first had its share of comic moments and one-liners, but here the campy comedy is front-and-center. Most of the comedy comes from the by-play between Holmes and Watson, who seem at times like the Victorian era’s answer to SNL’s “ambiguously gay duo.”

In fact, the comedy is made so central to the movie that the plot takes a long time to get moving. It feels as though the first half of the movie is given over to the bickering between Holmes and Watson, bickering that lasts so long that I started to think I was watching a dream sequence from The Odd Couple.

During the first half of the movie, our villain spends a lot of time taking potshots at Holmes and Watson, but without any indication of what’s at stake. Since Holmes hasn’t yet pieced together the clues that indicate who is behind a number of crimes, why antagonize the sleuth by shooting at him and trying to blow him up? Professional pride, I guess. He wants to be known for the crimes he commits.

When the game  finally goes afoot, I have to say they’ve given Holmes his best adversary so far, the inimitable Professor Moriarity, apparently the only human in Victorian England (besides older brother Mycroft) who’s at least as smart as Holmes himself.

So we still have Holmes, of course, in all his scruffy and manic glory. And yes, the disapproving and admiring Dr. Watson is here. And Stephen Fry plays a wonderfully arch Mycroft Holmes. But mostly what we get this time out are personalities on parade, not characters revealed through action.

At this point in Hollywood history, action movies have devolved to the point where they’re the physical equivalent of situation comedies: set-up, joke, set-up, joke. Only it’s set-up, action-sequence, etc., leaving character more or less completely out of the equation. Anyone can pull a trigger, plunge a knife, or throw a punch. OK, I admit the action sequences here are clever, but even at this level, they lack the Rube Goldberg quality that made the earlier movie so delightful.

And sadly, the women are wasted in this movie. Sure, the Sherlock Holmes stories are the ultimate bromance, but why introduce female characters at all if you’re only going to chuck them aside at the earliest opportunity? Even the talented Noomi Rapace—so haunting in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I’m not sure I want to see the Hollywood remake—even she spends most of her screen time, it seems, running through woods or gazing moodily at our heroes.

Guy Ritchie tones down his patented quick cuts and alternating high-speed and slo-mo action shots so that this outing comes across less like a Guy Ritchie film than like something by David Fincher’s amped-up younger brother. It’s meant to please a broader audience, to emulate the appeal, I think, of Pie-rats of the Caribbean, which has now devolved into a festival of mugging and makeup. Guy, step back from the edge. Please!

Maybe the franchise is already losing its steampunk for me. Or maybe I’m just worried about Robert Downey’s health. How can the man play the main characters in two superhero franchises? And now I see he’s playing Iron Man in The Avengers, too. I mean, how is it physically possible? Man was not meant to be hoisted around on so many wires or to stare at so much green-screen or to be backlit by so many digital explosions!

Did I enjoy SH:GoS? Yes. But it didn’t stay with me the way the first one did. That may in part be because, between the first and second, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the BBC’s excellent Sherlock series, which puts Holmes and Watson in modern times. Here, everything is up for grabs, with surprises at every turn. The characters (played with convincing realism by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) don’t bicker so much as banter. What’s the difference? Banter is what you get in The Thin Man. Bickering is what you get in Keeping up with the Kardashians.

We Bought a Zoo vs. The Descendants

Some critics have given Cameron Crowe a hard time for softening around the edges in We Bought a Zoo. But Almost Famous, for all its evocation of the fun-loving 60’s, was a fairly tame movie. It’s hero, played by Patrick Fugit, comes through the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll none the worse for wear. And everyone liked that movie. I did, too. We Bought a Zoo is more family oriented, and maybe that’s why some knee-jerk critics are dissing it as nothing more than a feel-good movie.

But it’s the smartest feel-good movie we’ve seen in a long time.

Compare it to a similar movie, for instance—The Descendants. Both are, at their hearts, movies about families whose dysfunction comes into full flower over the death (or impending death) of a wife and mother. But Zoo is much more savvy about family dynamics, especially the built-up tensions between parents and children.

Yes, you can plot Zoo’s moves on a Syd-Field-ometer, but sometimes how you get there makes all the difference. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides to buy a zoo in an effort to heal his family. It’s not clear how he thinks this healing will take place. If the role weren’t played by Matt Damon, we’d have strong doubts about the guy’s sanity. Think Mosquito Coast only more wholesome.

Much has been made of Patricia Hastie’s portrayal of the dying wife in The Descendants. But all we ever see of her life is a brief shot of her on a jet ski at the start of the movie. The rest of the time she’s in a coma. Crowe gives us a much more vivid sense of the loss Mee’s family has suffered, especially in a late scene where he remembers how they met.

Damon plays Mee with a nice mix of grief, bafflement, and a shred of hope. Clooney’s widower, on the other hand, is all bafflement. He’s a befuddled parent who’s not appreciated for all his efforts. The discovery that his wife was cheating on him just adds to his befuddlement.

As an actor, Damon keeps getting better and better, able to play three or more emotions and ideas at one time without a word of dialogue.  His character, like Clooney’s, is also the parent of an angry teenager, but in this case, he doesn’t always do the right thing. Part of his character’s arc is the discovery that he’s treating his son like a vessel for all his own pent-up anger, shame, and self-doubt.

When Damon’s character asserts that he has always been his son’s strongest supporter, his son is pleased but also stunned. So are we. He’s never really shown it before now. You hear the complex of feeling in the slightly strained tone when Damon delivers the line. But it comes across not as a blind spot in the writing but in the character. This may be the feel-good resolution, but the character still has some developing to do.

When, in Descendants, Clooney’s character announces that he’s not going to sell the land, Clooney plays it only one way—as the right thing to do. Never is there a hint of the complexity behind that decision, that by not selling, it also happens that he’ll deprive his dead wife’s former lover of a lucrative commission.

Yes, it’s true that Zoo has all the stock elements of a feel-good movie, from a cute little girl to a cartoon villain to a mischievous capuchin monkey, but even so, the animals (even the monkey) come across as animals, not as well-trained imitators of human beings. And yes it has two budding romances that the audience is meant to root for, but both are played with such reserve that they feel more real than most movie romances.

And did I mention about the monkey?

Dear Crystal,

Ever since I first saw you perform, in Night at the Museum, I’ve felt that you’re more than a capuchin monkey. Your monster talent took you from broad comedy to the dour and  tragic tones of The Hangover II. Not since Olivier’s Richard III has there been such a nuanced performance! I missed your portrayal of Donald the Monkey in Zookeeper, but I’m sure it was another Oscar-worthy turn! (Why, oh why, must the Academy continue to ignore animal thespians!?!) But may I prevail on our friendship (for friends we are, at least in my mind) to pass along one word of advice? if you’ll allow me one small criticism, your performance as Dexter in We Bought a Zoo left something to be desired. You stood on Patrick Fugit’s shoulder . . . and stood . . . and stood! You’re capable of so much more than mere standing! Remember the slap-fest in Museum? The key-stealing? Nay, the scene-stealing itself? My friend, what happened? Have you, Jim Carrey-like, turned your back on Thalia, the muse of comedy? Or is it the crystal, Crystal? Say it isn’t so! May  your next theatrical outing allow you to express the full range of your talent.

With bated breath,
Your friend