Saturday, May 27, 2006

Five movies

One of the benefits of knowing someone at the movie theater is the fact that you get to see movies for free, sometimes days before they open (it's all about checking the prints). And can I just say that this is one of the more lackluster summers on record so far? The only thing I've found completely engaging was Over the Hedge, and that had serious faults (though I liked quite a bit of Mission: Impossible III, as pointed out here some time ago).

But here are quick thoughts on five movies I've seen recently, in order of release date.

United 93 (dir: Paul Greengrass): This movie has been out for some time now (indeed, it has left many theaters), and I've been struggling with exactly how to articulate my feelings about it for almost as long. I think it's fantastic. A movie about a terrible event that doesn't feel the need to resort to manipulation or agitprop or anything like that. A movie that's not afraid to remove politics from something that has been completely politicized.

At the same time, though, I can understand people who can't figure out why this movie was made. And I've wanted to respond to those people in a way that made sense to everyone AND honored the spirit of the film.

To be completely fair, the world didn't strictly need this movie. It's based on an event that is as shrouded in mystery as anything, obscured by flight-recorder tapes that muddle up many accepted facts even as they make other things clear. Greengrass' desire to create a "plausible truth" could have gone very, very wrong, verging on jingoistic tripe (having seen the trailer for Oliver Stone's World Trade Center now, I see just how badly this film could have gone).

But.

There was a school of thought among the realists who populated American literature (and other forms of art) around the turn of the century that if you could capture an object, a person, an event as realistically as possible, you could understand it en totale. You wouldn't necessarily have all of the ANSWERS about it, but you could encompass it, make it a part of you. By painting an apple as realistically and perfectly as possible, you could capture that apple's essence and merge it with your own (and, by extension, your audience's). And that's what I think Greengrass and his actors do here. They invade an existing event, a piece of history. They make it their own. And in doing so, they find new ways for us to understand both it and ourselves.

One of the easiest assumptions made about the passengers of United 93 was that they struck back at the terrorists because they were doing their patriotic duty. I think one of the cleverest things Greengrass has done is made that not the case at all. It both completely removes the film from the ever-stagnating left/right dichotomy and offers a canny commentary on who we are as people.

When the passengers find out that three planes have already flown into U.S. landmarks, their first thought, naturally, is that their plane will fly into a landmark as well. But they don't jump from there to, "Let's save the country!" They jump from there to "I want to live!" What makes war (indeed, any act of violence) WORK is that when you get down to the one-on-one battle, both guys aren't thinking about how if they beat the other guy, they'll make their country proud. They're thinking about getting home to their moms or wives or lovers or children. Because, at our base, that's all we want. To live.

In making this connection, Greengrass rips open our established notions of Sept. 11 and puts them under a new set of lenses. He takes away the years of greasy, grimy buildup that have infected the discussion and gives us a new visceral connection to everyone who died that day (and everyone who has died since). No one wanted to be a hero. All they wanted was to get home. And that, sometimes, is how heroes are born. Homer understood this. I don't know why we can't seem to put it together.

Poseidon (Dir: Wolfgang Peterson): And then you get stuff like this. Poseidon isn't terrible, but it's not exactly good either. It falls into a giant zone of vaguely mediocre entertainment that would make you feel terribly disgruntled if you paid regular ticket prices for it.

The special effects aren't bad, and some of the set pieces work all right, but most of this film is just not interesting. Josh Lucas is a terribly dull lead. Kurt Russell's presence kept making me wonder if they were going to escape the ship, only to have to sit out in the middle of the cold, cold night, waiting for rescue that would never come. Emmy Rossum is pretty if you just take a photo of her, but in motion. . .not so much. Andre Braugher is completely wasted. Richard Dreyfus plays MAYBE the queeniest gay man in an action movie ever (it doesn't seem so, since he gets to save lives and stuff, but watch what he does in the background at all times and you'll see what I mean).

And the dialogue is just terrible. "They don't just give you the nickname Lucky Larry. You got to be lucky." And other bon mots. Plus, the structure is pretty bad, because we never have any idea of how far they need to go to escape, and the stakes never get raised all that much. If they had started with a WHOLE BUNCH of people, then picked them off rather ruthlessly, I might have cared.

Sidenote: Everyone I knew kept talking about how Fergie was in this movie. "What's a former princess of the United Kingdom doing in a disaster movie?" I wondered. Then they talked about how she had a song. "She can sing?!" I thought.

As it turns out, it was Stacy Ferguson of the Black-Eyed Peas, NOT Sarah Ferguson of the U.K. I guess that'll show me for growing up in the 90s.

Over the Hedge (Dir: Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick): Over the Hedge is a completely disposable good time. But the nice thing is that it knows it is. There's the occasional attempt to give the film some emotional resonance, but the movie mostly aims to make the kids laugh and not completely bore their parents by dishing out a few references aimed at adults (and by keeping the running time mercifully short).

I think I liked two things best about Over the Hedge. For one thing, all of its characters are cute and attractively designed. I especially like Verne the Turtle. But I also like that the film is the first from Dreamworks Animation in a good long while that isn't just pop culture reference after pop culture reference (as someone who suffered through Shark Tale, I can tell you that pop culture references aren't always a GOOD THING).

There's a trend in modern humor to see who can make the most references the audience will connect with. And when the audiences connects with that reference, they laugh not because the joke itself is funny. They laugh because they feel smart, because they feel connected to the movie. And that's insulting. It talks down to the audience (unless you're really going for the jugular with the references, juggling fine literature with obscure town names with bad movies, as MST3K did back in the day).

Over the Hedge mostly eschews this. The jokes come out of the characters. Sure, the characters are one-note stereotypes that mostly play off of our preconceived notions of the animals (or the actors playing them). The turtle is cautious. The squirrel is reckless. William Shatner is hammy. And so on.

But Over the Hedge is a fun time. It doesn't try to be too much. And it has Ben Folds nicely settling in to his role as a latter-day Randy Newman. I recommend this one if you're just looking to get to a matinee to get out of the heat.

The Da Vinci Code (Dir: Ron Howard): And then there's this.

The tomatometer over at Rotten Tomatoes is pretty bad on this film. But that doesn't truly reflect the critical reception, which has mostly been an indifferent shrug (the critics didn't HATE it; they just really didn't care about it).

I'd say that's a fair assessment. Aside from a few scenes (especially one where Ian McKellan is giving a long, expository monologue full of crackpot theories that have mostly been completely disproved that somehow, against all odds, manages to be completely riveting), this is a snooze of a movie.

And yet I was sort of happy that it didn't COMPLETELY suck.

And, to be perfectly honest, the filmmakers had some nice ideas. The scenes where Tom Hanks is breakin' codes like he was born to do so are kind of fun, as we watch the different letters light up to signify how he's rearranging them into anagrams and the like. And I actually thought the film did a nice job of livening up SOME of the book's exposition by flashing back to the massacre of the Knights Templar, the Council of Nicea and a variety of other things. With a nice trim of the fat and better story and character motivation, this could have been a fun little thriller.

But, instead, Ron Howard has filmed this book like he was handed The Great Gatsby to direct. Great books rarely translate to film because the directors treat them with such reverence. That's why a truly TRASHY read like The Godfather or Jaws can become such a rip-roaring good time (or even a great film): because the producers know that it's not high literature. By liberating themselves from the source material more, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman could have had just as much fun with this. Instead, they include EVERY plot twist, EVERY reveal, EVERY anagram, EVERY ending. And the film just sort of flops around lifeless on the floor. Even though Tom Hanks gives it the old college try and Audrey Tautou is, as always, gamely beautiful.

It doesn't help that the dialogue is saddled with the job of explaining EVERYthing. Exposition is fine when its delivered in a huge infodump (complete with one of those flashbacks). But when every other line is something like "It can't be. . .it's. . .the Fleur de Lis!" it becomes laughable after a while.

Until Ian McKellan gets there and launches into some of the giddiest scenery chewing of his career. The new rule in Hollywood is that if you have lots of exposition, you have to hire Ian McKellan to deliver it.

And now, a spoilery sidenote. If you don't know what the secret of the Da Vinci Code is, wait until you see a full line of bold text to jump back in.

T
H
E
S
E

A
R
E

T
H
E

S
P
O
I
L
E
R
S

Dan Brown really hit on a smart idea by packaging the Holy Blood, Holy Grail theory (and I know that other people came up with the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child and it grew up in France, but that book made it the most popular first) into a thriller. He also had a good idea by making cryptography the mechanism that drives the thriller along. It doesn't matter that the theory is driven by insane leaps of logic that lead from the story of a country priest who saw a change in his fortune and lead to a giant conspiracy to keep the world in the dark about the true nature of Jesus' relationship with one of his female disciples. (For more on these leaps of logic, please watch the ad and read the article here.)

But here's why the idea was so smart: Even if conspiracies are completely at odds with logic (as all of them are -- look at how fast the participants in the murder of Abraham Lincoln and Watergate folded), they make for GREAT fiction. And the bigger the secret you're covering up, the better off you are narrative-wise. What secret could be bigger than Jesus fathering a child who was to kick off a royal AND holy bloodline that would emerge to lead us all into peace and prosperity? To get bigger than that, you pretty much have to wander out into the territory of that guy who's convinced that reality is an elaborate show being put on for us by lizard creatures who plan to come and slaughter us at some point (for no good reason).

But where does Dan Brown go from here? His next book, reportedly, is about the Masons. And I don't think that's going to reel 'em in. While most Americans had never HEARD of the Priory of Sion or the Merovingians, we've all heard of the Masons. And it would seem a great many of us harbor suspicions against them (we even had a political party dedicated to getting rid of them, for God's sake).

Now, obviously, the Masons are just a bunch of old guys who get together to get away from their wives. Based on the people who were Masons in my hometown, if these people hold the secrets of the universe, we're in deep, deep trouble.

In short: Tell Americans that Jesus fathered a child, and they'll buy your book and recommend it to all of their other friends who shop at WalMart. Tell Americans that the Masons are keeping deep secrets, and they'll just shrug, nod and tell you about the lizard people they heard about on Coast to Coast.

T
H
E

S
P
O
I
L
E
R
S

H
A
V
E

E
N
D
E
D
No really. The spoilers are over. It's time for X-Men.

See? You've made Frasier Crane angry. Nice work.

X-Men: The Last Stand (Dir: Brett Ratner): I really, really, really liked X-Men 2. I thought it was one of the best superhero movies ever made (shallow pool, I know). I liked the way it blended political thought with big action sequences with richly developed characters. I liked the way it wasn't about a singular superhero, but a team of superheroes. And I liked the way it made its characters shift allegiances and such.

And I think they've got a good idea for a third movie here. The mutants of the world have to struggle when they find that there's a cure for their condition. Some want to take it. Some are militantly against it. So it appears that many mutants will go to war with a government that wants to administer this cure. Throw into the mix a character who died in the last film, now resurrected as a complete and total evil force of nature. Add in some deaths and put your good guys in the worst possible position, and you should have a hugely entertaining movie.

Instead, you get a movie that's deeply chaotic and all too confusing. Characters just do stuff for no apparent reason in this movie, other than to serve the plot. The deaths (and the cures) that are in the plot aren't given any emotional weight. They're glanced at, then quickly left in the dust. You've got a film that has two times the story of its immediate predecessor and tries to tell that story in a running time that's 40 minutes shorter.

Plus, if you don't know the comics, you're going to be baffled by a lot of stuff here. I've never read a comic in my life, and I couldn't figure out who all of the new characters were or what their superpowers were. Beast (Kelsey Grammer) seemed to have the superpower of. . .being furry and blue (the Internets, thankfully, steered me towards what I was SUPPOSED to be seeing). But if you ARE a fan of the comics, this may be even WORSE. They compromise several characters and make one of the defining arcs of the graphic novel as an artform (the Dark Phoenix storyline, ripped off for countless TV plotlines) into what seems like a compressed afterthought to the whole series.

Like Da Vinci Code, this isn't a reprehensible movie. It's a big shrug of the shoulders of a movie. It's what happens when you try to rush what should have been the superhero epic to end all superhero epics. Plus, the potentially interesting allegory of corporations "curing" undesirables is mostly swept under the rug. They set up a storyline where Rogue, a mutant who can kill anyone by touching them, is strongly tempted to be cured so she can touch her boyfriend. This is a potentially interesting situation. But then they just abandon the storyline at the moment of truth, cutting back to it at the very end for a quick scene in a coda that's rather underdeveloped (and ends with one of the most inexplicable shots I've seen in a while).

Some of my favorite characters are killed in this film. Some of my favorite characters are cured in this film. But the film is too busy rushing to the next action set piece that I never really felt the weight of these moments. It wasn't until the film was over that I realized just how much STUFF had happened in it. And then I realized how little I was affected by all of that stuff.

Disappointing all around.

No comments: