Totally Recalled

 

 

The saddest thing about a movie like Total Recall is to see so much talent, energy, and dough-re-mi has gone into what winds up being a simple chase movie. At the least the original had a balance of silliness and violence that kept you on your toes. That’s what’s wrong with so many big cartoon movies like this: they come into the theaters dripping with pretension. A movie like Batman, Spider-Man, Total Recall, etc. is fundamentally a carnival ride for the eyes. But even if the movie-makers agreed, they’d have to give us new thrills. What we get here are the same old thrills. The synthetic cops look like second-cousins to Darth Vader’s storm troopers. The vertical city looks like a cross between the worlds of Blade Runner and Minority Report. In fact, at one point, I think I even saw the billboard that is a critical element of MR. Is that a case of homage or let’s-just-see-what-we’ve-got-in-the-warehouse? Even the Inception trombones have been pressed into service again.

We know the story, if not from the original short story (Philip K. Dick‘s “We Can Dream It for You Wholesale”) then from the original movie and if not from the original movie, then from the trailer for this one, which gives the whole game away. So why does it take so long for poor Colin Farrell to figure out what’s happened to him?

The movie’s big question is about identity. Who am I really? The bored factory worker? The legendary freedom fighter? Or someone else? But like most big dumb movies, this one has only a flicker of an idea, to give the characters something to talk about between chases.

There’s a long tradition of this kind of movie–the normal person who wakes up to the fact that he or she’s actually a spy with mad skills and a  license to kill. (Can anyone say “Bourne”?) For my money, the best in the genre is Geena Davis‘s The Last Good Kiss. (“Chef’s do that!”)

Colin Farrell, a fine actor, does a creditable job in the lead with a combination of vulnerability and chop-socky smarts. But the best performance is by Kate Beckwith, who plays his wife. In the original movie, if I remember correctly, the character has a brief, surprising scene. Here she’s the hero’s non-stop nemesis with a combination of menace, coquetry, and pure pissed-offedness.

The city, too, is an elaborately realized look at a world where space is at a premium, with skyscrapers and elevated highways stacked on top of each other. The movie has two major chases–one on top of and inside flying cars and the other on top of and inside flying elevators. They play out a little too much like a three-dimensional game of Frogger, though the elevator chase is more inventive.

The movie gives us better digital effects than the original, but you can’t help asking why someone thought this trip was necessary.

 

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Well Met by Moonrise Kingdom

 

 

I’m late in reviewing Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, but the movie’s been on my mind, despite the fact that I saw it a couple of months ago, which gives you some idea of how good I think it is. Most movies, after all, disappear into vapor as soon as you leave the theater.

You’ve got to go to a Wes Anderson movie in the right mood. Don’t go when you’re tired or when you’re angry or, as I did, when you’re trying to escape the worst drought in the  history of the universe. And don’t go expecting to see a well-plotted, well-acted movie with high production values. It ain’t about those things.

To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, go playfully into that good movie.

It’s a movie, like Anderson’s masterpiece, The Royal Tennenbaums, about the struggle to find a place in the world. Anderson’s primary characters are, in some fundamental sense, parentless, like the children in the fairy tales his characters read. Here Suzy’s parents seem barely aware of each other, their large, rambling house providing separation, so much so that family members must be called to the dinner table by bullhorn.

It’s not surprising that, in a family that lacks passion, humor, or even simple friendliness, the daughter who runs away is lured by an adventurous boy who wants to create a world in which those missing elements exist. In effect, she and her nominal boyfriend create a box for those missing elements, then stare inside, hoping they’ll appear. The young runaways aren’t really in love; they’re like alien lab techs trying to emulate human behavior. Inevitably they will be caught and forced to return to their lives. Anderson doesn’t reach for traditional climaxes, but there’s a moment when Sam’s scoutmaster passes judgment on Sam’s tent-making skills that is as warm and life-affirming as anything you’ll find in movies that make more overt attempts to tug the heartstrings.

It’s a movie where children play at being adults, perhaps because the adults in their lives are also playing at being adults. Anderson’s movies are all about their quirky tone, and this one’s a dry social satire. It dares you not to get the joke, as if a group of bored summer campers decided to mount a production of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, another movie about ill-fated lovers.

In the end, their adventure behind them, Sam creates something that seems to say that perhaps only in art can we have the kind of life that rises above the annoyances, inadequacies, and disappointments of so-called adult life.

 

The Dark Knight Rises . . . and Falls

The circus has come to town again. I mean that particular combination of spectacle and bombast that is a Christopher Nolan production, where concept is more important than character, and don’t look too closely at the concept or it will fall apart.

 

The Dark Knight Rises is the third in Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies, which brought a much-needed redesign to what had become an undernoirished franchise. Once again, an arch-villain is about to take over Gotham City and, we assume, the world. Who can save us? Only The Batman. But like Achilles in the beginning of The Iliad, he spends the first act of the movie moping in his tent–er, I mean in his multi-million-dollar mansion.

 

Bane, the bad guy, is played by Tom Hardy, an excellent actor who plays his part with a swaggering menace. It’s a tall order to play a Batman villain after Heath Ledger’s bravura performance in The Dark Knight. But Hardy is up to the task. It’s a shame he has to play the part with half his face covered by a mask that looks like a carburetor cap and makes it hard to hear some of his dialogue. Hardy is so bulked up that the role might have been played by that big blue alien in Prometheus, or is that a body double?

 

The soundtrack itself is so loud that it overwhelms some of the dialogue. No matter. There are no memorable lines, just overly pointed exposition. The tone is all you need, and you can pick that up despite the sounds of explosions, gunfire, and the rampaging kettle drums of the score.

Things to admire:

 

The opening scene on the plane is a stunning spectacle, though when you think about it later, Bane had several far easier ways of getting what he wanted. 

 

The action scenes, the only real reason to see this movie, are crisply rendered and exciting.

Anne Hathaway plays a morally ambiguous cat burglar who may or may not be the Catwoman, which adds interest to the tired cast of characters. She’s so tough and wily that I wasn’t entirely convinced she’d be afraid of Bane. Or anyone.

 

Vexing questions:

 

If Batman is so against guns, as he takes time to tell Catwoman in the middle of a battle, what’s the purpose of all those cannons and missiles on his tanks and bat-copter? (Thanks to The Sleeper for this observation, who, by the way, didn’t sleep a wink.)

 

I won’t spoil anything here, but be sure to examine the rope-work in the pit scene. Some colossal silliness there.

 

The movie’s jammed with excellent actors, but most of them have little or nothing to do. Some, like Daniel Sunjata, Reggie Lee, Cillian Murphy, and William DeVane, have almost nothing to do and almost no screen time. 

 

Why do Bane’s bomb trucks take the same route every day? I’m no evil mastermind but it seems to me you’d want to mix up the routes a bit.

If Bane’s mask is preventing excruciating pain for him, wouldn’t it make sense to get the mask off him? I mean it’s only held on with rubber straps.

 

In such an overblown movie with so many spectacular chases and effects, did the final confrontation between good guy and bad guy really have to boil down to no more than a fist fight?

Coincidences run amok in this movie. Characters appear precisely where the plot requires them to be, even though there’s no discernible way they could know that’s where they needed to be. 

 

The space-time continuum is routinely toyed with, nowhere so much as when Batman travels from a Middle Eastern desert to the streets of Gotham in the blink of an eye.

 

Fans of Ayn Rand will love this movie, which posits that gifted individuals are the hope or the menace of humankind. And the people are no more than a malleable mob who’ll follow even a masked whack-job like Bane if he says the right words (and if those words can be heard through his party mask). Thematically, the movie’s about the rediscovery of trust. But that mob undercuts the message. It shows that efforts to spread the wealth lead directly to chaos and self-interest, that people can’t discern the difference between evil and good. Oh heck, maybe it’s just me. I have the same complaint about Shakespeare’s treatment of the mob in Julius Caesar.

 

Message to Mr. Nolan: I like a good B-movie as much as the next fellow, but B-movies should come in at 90 minutes or so, not 244 minutes. And they should focus on action, not bombastic speeches. At the very least, the last half-hour should have been severely shrunk.

 

People who love this movie will love it regardless of its many flaws. They’ll love the heavy score and the iconic figures and the illusion of ideas and the illusion of characters that live at the heart of a Christopher Nolan movie. But the body knows the truth even if the mind is fooled. When I saw the movie, the ten or so who erupted in wild applause at the end were the ones texting through at least half the movie. Even if you were all tweeting about the movie, know this: if the movie doesn’t capture your full physical and mental attention–if it doesn’t take the mind and body hostage–it ain’t very good.

 

And Bane, my brother, I know you’re a scary evil-doing dude and all, but word to the wise: an athletic cup is worn a little lower down the body.

Seven Problems with Prometheus

I’m a huge fan, so I’ve been waiting impatiently for Prometheus ever since I heard it was in the works. At last Ridley Scott, a guy who knows how to give us an original vision of the frightful future (Alien, Blade Runner, A Good Year), was going to sweep away the pretenders, the imitators, the arrivistes.

Didn’t happen.

Sorry, but Prometheus arrives on screens this week with a squishy and derivative thud.

I mean, I felt as though I were watching a mash-up of Alien and 2001. Yes there are stunning alien vistas and the requisite heavy-duty hardware of space travel and the predictably surly bunch of crew members and of course the alien, or at least a variation of same.

But so much has gone wrong here. In particular, seven things:

1.  First we’re told there are seventeen crew members, so we settle in to see them knocked off à la And Then There Were None. But it’s hard to care when only four or five of them have any real dialogue. The others are just faces that pop up every once in a while to make us wonder who they are.

2.  Then there’s the theme. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that it’s better suited to a Theology 101 essay.

3.  Then there’s our old friend the exposition mule. Why do our intrepid space-hoppers conclude that, because they find human DNA on a distant planet, it means that the creatures found there must be our creators? Where’s the logic in that? And later the ship’s captain explains who the aliens are and what they’re doing—based on what? Nothing, that’s what. Just the screenwriters’ need to inject information. The movie’s long on mood, thin on plot.

4.  I like all the actors. I just don’t think they’ve been given enough to do. And whose idea was it to give the excellent Idris Elba a southern drawl that makes him sound like the long lost cousin of Slim Pickens? Noomi Rapace, who was excellent in the original Girl movies (. . . with the Dragon Tattoo, . . . Who Played with Fire, . . . Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) plays frightened-woman-running, the role she played in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. She and Jennifer Lawrence are quickly earning the distinction for most-underutilized actor. It’s  a shame. If any actor has the intensity to be a match for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, it’s Rapace, but when all she’s given to do is run away, it’s hard to think of her as heroic. Michael Fassbender is excellent as the robot, a character more nuanced than the any of the others, but too similar (even in his fate) to the character played so well by Ian Holm in the original. Charlize Theron seems to be recycling leftover meanness from Snow White and the Huntsmen. Her performance is all in her menacing glare, which would be fine if she had more to do with driving the story, like the Paul Reiser character in Aliens.

5. The movie’s too long. As writer Wallace Stegner used to say about some stories in fiction workshops, “This story’s got a lonnnggg front porch!” Cutting fifteen or twenty minutes from the first half might have done wonders for the movie. The Sleeper dropped off in the first half, and I gazed on her with envy.

6.  The 3-D is pointless. One of the things—the only thing—that made Avatar interesting is Cameron’s ability to create the illusion of space, especially in the lab scenes. You feel as if you can step into the room and walk to the other end. In Prometheus the characters and objects seem to be layered on different spatial planes, but after your first moment of realization, you kind of take it for granted. Shouldn’t a movie based so heavily on spectacle provide us with, well, you know—spectacle? And has anyone else noticed that the layering of images in 3-D movies actually makes the individual objects and characters on each layer seem more two-dimensional? Yes there’s more depth to the overall image, but the object or character on an individual plane seems about as three-dimensional as a sheet of Mylar.

7.  The movie’s derivative. Everything you see in the movie was done—and done better—in Alien. We’ve been there, done that. Yes, Prometheus has more visual polish, but that isn’t enough to make a movie compelling. Character and story matter more than spectacle. Alien changed the starscape for science-fiction movies forever. Since then, every other moviemaker in the genre has been playing catch-up. And now, instead of breaking new ground, Sir Ridley seems to be playing catch-up with himself.

Just Say Nyet to Chernobyl Diaries

I’m the one. The one person in the movie-going world who didn’t see Paranormal Activity. I didn’t want to respond to the hype. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a movie that seemed to consist of nothing but grainy security-camera footage.

And I was too scared.

Now, from Oren Peli, the writer/producer who brought us Paranormal Activity, comes Chernobyl Diaries. I like the idea of the movie: a group of friends on a European tour decide to do some extreme tourism by visiting Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Or more accurately, they visit the bedroom community right next door. Isn’t the radiation still too bad for tourism? Sure, but they’ll be in and out in two hours. What could go wrong?

Only everything.

And it will all go terribly, terribly wrong.

But none of it—absolutely none of it—will scare you. And isn’t that the only point of a horror movie?

The story starts with our band of bright-young-things living it up, visiting all the must-see vacation spots, going to parties, yucking it up. Then they go to Chernobyl, where, one-by-one, they will be dragged kicking and screaming into the darkness. That last part is a lot like how things look around my house every morning when I have to go to work.

A movie like Chernobyl Diaries depends heavily on our imagination. We are often more frightened by what we can’t see than by what we can. This is Moviemaking 101. But you have to show us something. Unfortunately, the blurry glimpses of the irradiated residents of Chernobyl don’t trigger our imaginations. Instead, they make us think the budget must not have allowed for any creature effects.

Isn’t there at least one surprising moment in the movie? I have to admit that, when our intrepid band hear a noise down the hall in an abandoned apartment, the source surprised me, but more the ha-ha-look-at-that kind of surprise than the get-me-outta-here kind of surprise.

And I liked the faded look of the movie, as if the radiation had leached all the color out of the landscape and the very walls of the buildings.

The acting is serviceable, with an improv feel that makes the dialogue sound more spoken than written. But the dialogue in such movies is all pretty much the same:

It’ll be fun!
Where are we?
This is the last time . . .
Who’s there?
Please help us!
[Scream]
Did you see that?
[Whimper]
We got to get out of here!
Oh no!
[Scream] [Scream] [Scream]
Help!
I’m no good to you. You’ll move faster on your own.
[Scream]
We’ll find him!
Take my hand!
[Scream]
Move!
[whimper . . . whimper . . . SCREAM]

By the way, have you noticed the number of movies being shot in eastern Europe? This one looks like it was filmed on the same streets as the more inventive The Darkest Hour. If the camera were to move a few inches, I swear we’d see the other movie’s cast down the street, running from aliens. And we’d wish we were there.

Rampart’s Red Glare

I’m a fan of Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, especially for its standout performances from Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster and for the highly charged material: military men whose duty is to inform relatives that their loved ones have died in service to their country. Each visit to a new house is a new opportunity for drama, and the way the job wears on the characters is nicely reflected in their changing relationship. Structurally, the movie is fairly loose and episodic, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. Each visit to a new house is like a separate story in a collection, all of it held together by the changing relationship between the men and by the romance Ben Foster’s character finds.

Moverman likes the soul’s dark places, and this tendency is admirably reflected in Rampart, which came and went in my town. The film reunites Harrelson and Foster to good effect. Harrelson plays “Date Rape Dave” Brown, a corrupt LAPD cop at the end of the 90’s, and though we’ve seen more than our share of this character (from Bad Lieutenant to The Shield to Training Day and beyond), Harrelson’s performance adds a quality we haven’t seen in many of these efforts. Despite his character’s corruption, Harrelson plays him as wounded. No one gets him. No one understands the kinds of pressures he’s under. Everyone wants to focus on his negative qualities and on none of his virtues. It’s as if every scene ends with him saying, in effect, “What? I’m the bad guy here?”

As always, Foster, too, is excellent, though he has too little to do this time out. And Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, as Brown’s ex-wives who also happen to be his ex-sisters-in-law, play their parts with a compelling mixture of anger and regret. Robin Wright also gives a strong performance as the mystery woman Brown meets in a bar. And there are surprising cameos from Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Wisdom, and Ned Beatty.

Where the film goes soft, it seems to me, is at the level of story. The episodic quality of The Messenger seems justified by the material. But in Rampart, the disconnected quality of the scenes gives the film the feel of an actors’ showcase, an elaborate reel to show off the actors’ talents.

We know Brown’s marriages have fallen apart, and that his ex-wives are tolerating his bad behavior less and less. We know also that he’s being investigated by the force for his excesses. But these conflicts seem isolated. They don’t build enough. The internal affairs investigator turns out to be only the most minor of characters. Even when he finds the evidence he needs to put Brown away, he inexplicably decides to wait before arresting Brown.

I think I know why Moverman puts plot on the back burner.

I’ll bet he didn’t want to be caught up in a tedium of a police procedural, the kind of thing we see on most TV cop shows, where most of the dialogue is exposition parceled out to two-dimensional characters. Instead, he wanted to focus on the corrupt cop as a tragic hero, giving him room for his rage and shame and self-pity: Lear on the heath . . . with a badge and a Glock. A film that’s too heavily plotted might not have given his actors room to vent. Still, his choice makes for a film that doesn’t build so much as repeat its key points. In other words, it has all the character it needs, but it lacks the proper combination of story, structure, and momentum.

Hard to blame Moverman, when so many Hollywood movies have structures that seem to have come off an assembly line and characters whose back-stories are about as thin as their Lycra body suits. And Rampart is better than most movies out there. Still, I was hoping for more.

October Blabby

ImageI’m not against religious movies. I’m not. I’m for anything that has a good story. But one of the categories of mediocre stories, for me, is the one where thesis is substituted for theme. You know what a thesis is. It’s that thing English teachers talk about day and night: the controlling idea of an essay, the idea to which everything in your essay points. Theme is more subtle; it’s an idea, yes, but one that permeates the story, like morning light revealing the details of a landscape.

October Baby has a thesis, not a theme. And so its effect is more essay-like than story-like. I’ll focus on one scene to illustrate my point.

Hannah, the central character, is a nineteen-year-old woman who’s been feeling dizzy, sick, and moody. Her parents take her to a doctor, but even he is stymied about the cause, until her parents reveal, in a rush right there in the doctor’s office, that not only was Hannah adopted, she was also born after a failed abortion.

If you’re a story cop, now’s the time you’ll want to pop the whirling red light on top of your squad car.

Would any parents, but especially the hyper-religious parents in the movie, be so off-hand and blunt in revealing the circumstances of their adopted daughter’s birth?

“Dad, Mom, I just don’t feel well, and I don’t know why.”

“It’s because not only are you adopted, but your birth mother also tried to abort you.”

OK, no, I’m not quoting directly from the movie, but the bluntness is all there. Real human beings—especially loving—don’t act this way. Someone might hasten to point out that the movie was inspired by a real person’s efforts to come to terms with similar circumstances. Or that real people say and do the craziest things sometimes. But reality is never an excuse for bad character development.

Why are the parents so blunt in the scene and nowhere else in the movie? Because the movie-makers needed to nail down that thesis by any means necessary and at whatever cost to credulity.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t the only eye-rolling moment in the movie.

Unbelievable coincidences abound. And the dialogue is so over-loaded with exposition that characters sometimes seem like a string of exposition mules.

Didn’t I like anything? I thought the performances were mostly solid. First-timer Rachel Hendrix does a good job with a tough role. And Jasmine Guy  has an affecting scene that makes us forget, though only for a moment, the ham-handed story construction. And several of the actors bring believability to their roles.

And anyway, the makers of October Baby have nothing to fear from my little rant. Their production costs came in at around a million. And so far, the movie has made over three-and-a-half million. They’ve got a minor hit on their hands. The movie’s success, and the growing popularity of Christian-themed movies, may be an indication that movie-makers have reached out to a segment of the audience that has been ignored for too long. I’m all for a greater variety of movies. I mean, is anyone else, like me, worried that the spate of superhero movies might trigger a world-wide Lycra shortage?

But seriously, how about a little more subtlety and a keener eye for story and character development?