Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Grade: 84 (A-)

Tomas Alfredson made a splash in 2008 with Let the Right One In, a Swedish vampire movie where the chilly environment was matched by the filmmmaking and characterizations. He follows that project up this year with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,   the latest adaptation of a John le Carre novel, master of the Cold War-era spy thriller. The man's novels often concern cold or solitary men in British Intelligence, alienated from the rest of the world. Few filmmakers working today are better-equipped to handle the subject matter.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a seemingly forgettable man. He is not particularly handsome, not particularly fit, and not particularly interesting. His wife has left him for reasons not immediately known, and he has been forcibly retired from the British Intelligence after a botched mission in Budapest. When Control (John Hurt), his former boss, is found dead, Smiley reopens an investigation that caused his exit: the chance that there is a mole at the top of the agency. It could be one of four men, referred to be the code names Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), or Poor Man (David Dencik). He's assisted by right-hand man Petter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), an agent framed for treachery and murder. 

The film focuses on men willing to surrender their lives for the way of the West, their personal lives often in shambles. The actors all play their parts beautifully: Cumberbatch as one forced to abandon his one true connection to the outside world when things get too heavy, Hardy as a man who finds something worth living for in the field, only to have it taken away. It's Oldman's film, however: Smiley has more or less accepted his lot in life, where the younger men have not. He looks at any problems as a mild inconvenience rather than a major setback. Where the other men swat at a fly, he merely studies it. His relationship with his wife is at best distant. His raises his voice only once in the film, and then only slightly. Yet it's a performance of unbelievable power, where every gesture and slight difference in facial expression communicates what this man is going through.

Unlike most spy-thrillers, which would play up the suspense and paranoia of the situation, Tinker Tailor is a very matter-of-fact film, quiet until it needs to resort to violence (which itself is very cold and dispassionate). Alfredson suggests a combination of Hitchcock and Kubrick: an ability for great set-pieces lies beneath the chilliness, and when the suspense needs to kick in, he's more than capable of ramping up the tension. But Alfredson is mostly concerned with his very studied portraits of the men in their unforgiving environments: London and Budapest aren't as immediately uninviting as the cold locations of Let the Right One In, but everything is a bit askew, and no one looks comfortable in their world.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Grade: 52 (C+)

Woody Allen’s first twenty-five years as a director gave the world some of the greatest comedies of all time, but it’s widely agreed that his output since the mid-nineties has been shaky, to say the least. With the exception of a handful of highlights (2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the Wood-man’s late period output has been a queasy balance between mediocre comedies (Small Time Crooks) and hateful misfires (Anything Else). This year’s Midnight in Paris has been hailed as a return to form and as one of his best films in years. But the film suffers from many of the same problems as other late-period Woody films: hateful characters, over-familiarity, and a feeling that the director isn’t fully engaged.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), who doesn’t believe in his dreams to become an author in Paris. Her uber-conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and blowhard friend (Michael Sheen) don’t help matters. One night, while wandering the streets of Paris, Gil stumbles into another place. Or rather, another time: 1920s Paris, where he hobnobs with his idols: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who he even gets to give feedback on his novel. He also complicates matters by falling in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a flapper girl who serves as a muse to many of the great artists of the day.

The film has two major assets: Wilson and Cotillard. Wilson seems like an odd fit for a Woody Allen-surrogate, due to his goofy, laid-back persona, but their personalities gel together remarkably well. He’s one of the most affable protagonists in a recent Woody Allen film; his presence makes the character far more bearable than he should be (Woody Allen-type characters are mostly jerks these days). Cotillard, one of the finest actresses working today, is radiant as Adriana; she and Wilson have a surprising amount of chemistry, and the film’s best sections focus on their romance.

The other actors all do a fine job as the various artistic figures but there’s not a lot of depth to their interactions with Gil. Woody (I can’t call him “Allen”) seems to think that having them show up and act like Ernest Hemingway or Salvador Dali is funny in and of itself; it’s all a bit self-satisfied, and only mildly amusing. At the end, the film only wants to come to a “minor revelation”, as Gil says. It’s a combination between a lesser version of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Manhattan set in Paris, and only Allen’s camera is energized; his writing is fairly lazy, almost as if we’re watching a first draft before he ever got to expand on anything.

It might all be a pleasant enough diversion if not for the bile that powers the present day scenes. McAdams is a wonderful actress with a natural charm; seeing her play another one of Woody Allen’s modern-day shrews is downright depressing. Sheen doesn’t fare much better as an insufferable intellectual that’s basically the “pretentious jerk in the movie theatre line” gag from Annie Hall extended. It typifies Woody Allen’s contempt of certain types of people, and that contempt is getting pretty old.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Grade: 12 (D)

There’s been a recent resurgence in Sherlock Holmes-related entertainment, from the BBC series Sherlock to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, one of the most pleasant surprises of 2009. Ritchie’s first Holmes outing was stylish, fun, and had a solid balance between action-movie filmmaking and old-fashioned detective work. It also had a nutty charm in the chemistry between Robert Downey, Jr.’s daffy Holmes and Jude Law’s frequently exasperated Dr. Watson. It makes sense that Ritchie would make a sequel to in. But Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows feels like the fifth outing in a dying franchise, suffering from the same acute case of sequelitis that this year’s earlier, similarly execrable The Hangover Part II had: it’s bigger, louder, and dumber than the original, and only a hollow shell of its former self.

Holmes is upset that Watson is finally leaving their partnership to marry his fiancée (Kelly Reilly). They’re in the middle of an important case involving the dastardly Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Moriarty has sent bombs throughout Europe, and now plans to attack Watson on his honeymoon. Holmes, Watson, and the gypsy Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) band together to stop Moriarty from assassinating a world leader at a peace conference and essentially starting World War I early.

Yes, that’s Moriarty’s plot: he’s going to profit off of World War I by more or less starting it twenty years early. It’s a dumb plot, and Ritchie doesn’t do much with it. The charms of the original film are almost entirely gone: the entertaining slow motion sequence where Holmes deduces how to stop someone in their tracks? Enjoy seeing that seven or eight times. Sherlock Holmes doing actual detecting? Not much of that. Enjoyable chemistry between Downey and Law? Their material is so weak that there’s precious little to enjoy in their interactions. Solid comedy? The film’s jokes are mostly terrible, and when they work they’re ruined a second later. A memorable villain? Harris does perfectly alright as Moriarty (certainly better than the horrendous Andrew Scott in the otherwise strong Sherlock series), but his character’s plot is so uninteresting that it’s difficult to care.

 Everyone in this film is wasted. Rapace, the terrific Swedish actress from the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is fatally underused as Heron. Stephen Fry is brought in as Holmes’ older, arguably smarter brother Mycroft, but he’s mostly there for a dumb gag involving his being a nudist, as fat naked people are inherently hilarious, apparently. The film is unbearably loud and frenzied, and its drab designs kill any chance for it even being dumb fun. One last thing: the eternally plucky Rachel McAdams was a welcome delight in the original film. Here, her character is given the short shift in a way that’s not only too quick, but outright infuriating for just how badly she’s handled. It’s a fitting metaphor for the movie: a one-time delight that’s curdled into a waste.

J. Edgar

Grade: 39 (C)

Clint Eastwood as the director. Leonardo DiCaprio as the star. Naomi Watts,  Armie Hammer, and Judi Dench as the support. Dustin Lance Black as the writer. J. Edgar Hoover as the subject. How, exactly, does one screw that up? Eastwood is a snappy storyteller, DiCaprio and company gifted actors, and Black the writer of one of the most satisfying biopics in recent memory (Milk). Together, they should have created a memorable film about the noted FBI-director. A lot of effort went into J. Edgar, but very little came out.

Hoover (DiCaprio), makes himself known as a young man whose investigations into communist activities are as thorough as can be. He is given the chance to run the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he revolutionizes modern law enforcement with his meticulous attention to detail and particular methods of dealing with law matters. He’s aided by his loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Watts) and right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). But Hoover has his vices: he’s willing to break the law, and persecute certain citizens (Martin Luther King, Jr. among them) to protect his country, he holds those close to him at a distance, and his homosexual urges, reciprocated by Tolson, are disapproved of by his controlling mother (Dench).

J. Edgar utilizes narration in the form of dictation the same way Black’s screenplay for Milk did, but here it’s a lot messier, and without real purpose. There’s not much rhyme or reason to how Eastwood and Black have constructed the film, leading to a typically lumpy biopic that feels the need to cover every major event in the subject’s life. The film gets even lumpier as it goes on, and by the last thirty minutes or so every scene feels like a climax. The pair should have focused on a specific period in Hoover’s life, a la Milk or Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, an infinitely superior biopic starring DiCaprio.

As it is, DiCaprio can only do so much with what he’s given. He makes a strong impression as Hoover, but the film’s misshapen structure doesn’t give him any way to truly build a character outside of initial appearances; with The Aviator, he had a clear character with a clear arc and was confined to a certain period in Howard Hughes’ life. As a young Hoover, DiCaprio is fine. As he’s slathered in terrible old-age make-up that makes him look like a wax figure, he’s unable to hide the youthful tremor in his voice. Hammer doesn’t fare much better, and outside of one emotional scene there’s not much to his character; his old-age make-up is somehow less convincing than DiCaprio’s. Watts and Dench, meanwhile, are given scraps. It’s never clear who any of these people really are, as the film is too generalized to even define Hoover himself. It all adds up to one of the biggest disappointments of Eastwood’s filmmaking career.

Young Adult

Grade: 76 (B+)

For a multiple Academy Award-nominee, Jason Reitman lives in a long shadow: his father, Ivan Reitman, directed one of the funniest movies ever made (Ghostbusters), and his influences shine through so strongly through his films that it’s easy to see that he isn’t quite as gifted as Alexander Payne or the Andersons Paul and Wes; he’s a more middlebrow version of them. Reitman’s reliably solid films coast along amiably as satires until they inevitably devolve into sentimentality as they reach their emotional climaxes. A change needs to come to Nick Naylor, the tobacco lobbyist of Thank You for Smoking, or Ryan Bingham, the aloof protagonist of Up in the Air. Mavis Gary of Young Adult is not one of those people: she is a terrible person at the start, and a terrible person at the end, which makes for a more refreshing experience.

Yes, Mavis (Charlize Theron) isn’t exactly the warmest of protagonists: she’s a depressed, self-pitying, alcoholic divorcee who spends most of her time, when she’s not ghostwriting a popular young adult series, sitting around, drinking, hooking up, or watching reality television. She’s forever stuck in sneering adolescence. When Mavis learns that her former sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), is married and has had his first child, she takes it upon herself to head home from Minneapolis liberate him from his “chains”. Her only companion is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a crippled, nerdy former classmate she meets in a bar, who serves as a drinking buddy and sounding board.

The film is Reitman’s reunion with his Juno collaborator, screenwriter Diablo Cody. But where Juno was a love-her-or-hate-her proposition (I hated her), Mavis is a love-to-hate-her proposition. Cody mostly dials back the obnoxious quirkiness of her previous work to more human levels; the teenaged phrasings are only used mockingly by Mavis. Theron abandons any attempt to ingratiate herself to the audience and dives full force into a spiteful, near-irredeemable jerk who only thinks of herself and is rarely interested in how her actions affect others. She’s there to save her old flame, never mind that he’s happy where he is. Oswalt is similarly terrific as a man scarred, literally and metaphorically, by the cruelty he suffered in high school. He enjoys Mavis’ company, to some extent, though he also enjoys watching her plans blow up in her face. Mavis is rarely, if ever, nice to him, and Oswalt’s rebuke towards Mavis is one of the most satisfying moments in the film.

Mavis isn’t a complete monster, however; Reitman and Cody’s attempts to humanize the character are far more successful than in the director’s past outings. She’s never likable, but by the end we want her to get a little better. What’s astonishing is that she doesn’t: her hateful worldview is reinforced in a deeply sad scene near the end. The film unfortunately ends abruptly afterwards, and Reitman still can’t quite overcome his influences, but Young Adult is his strongest outing yet.

Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol

Grade: 83 (A-)

No one thought a fourth installment in the Mission: Impossible series was necessary. Tom Cruise, a fine actor, is nearly fifty, and it might be best if he started taking more character roles (a la Collateral or Magnolia) rather than try to be an action star as long as he can. Last year’s lousy Cruise-vehicle Knight & Day didn’t help. But against all odds, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol is the strongest entry in the series yet, an exhilarating action movie full of eye-popping stunts and brilliant action sequences. It all comes down to one man: Brad Bird, gifted animation director (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), making his live-action film debut like a man with something to prove. Bird outdoes nearly every modern action director with one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is on yet another mission: stop a nuclear extremist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from destroying the world. He’s aided by three fellow agents: tough-girl Jane Carter (Paula Patton), who has a bone to pick with one of Hendricks’ assassins; Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), a jittery technician; and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analysts with a few secrets of his own. There’s one problem: their agency, the IMF, is being held responsible for a bombing in the Kremlin, and are now on their own. It’s up to them to save the day, and possibly themselves.

Ethan Hunt has never been one of Cruise’s most interesting characters (John Anderton of Minority Report is a far more complex Cruise action character). As usual, the film rides on Cruise’s considerable movie-star charisma and ability to do complex stunts, in full form here. He’s aided by Patton, the always welcome Pegg (who provides much-needed comic relief) and Renner, supposedly Cruise’s successor to the series. It would be a pity if Renner fully abandoned more ambitious fare, but he’s a more than capable action star, and his character is different enough from Cruise’s to give him a different feel. If Cruise (wisely) steps away from the franchise, Renner would be a fine choice to carry on. Nyqvist doesn’t fare as well as the villain, unfortunately: he’s as lumpy and uncharismatic as he was in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and his final fight with Cruise strains credibility.

But then, the series has never been about credibility: one of the greatest assets to the series is that most of their plots make little to no damn sense. There’s no pretension to the series, just an opportunity for a director to create great action sequences. Bird does this and more: the film opens with an exciting sequence choreographed to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”, and it tops the first film’s much-lauded Langley break-in with a scene in which Cruise scales the tallest building in the world. The film doesn’t have as much heart as Bird’s previous films. It hardly matters. With this, Bird has a message to the action directors of the world: “I’ll fucking show you!”

War Horse

Grade: 91 (A)

War Horse is Steven Spielberg’s finest film since 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg’s other film this year, The Adventures of Tintin, revisited his glorious adventure-movie past while playing with a new technology in moviemaking. War Horse brings together Spielberg’s glorious, innocent past, his marvelous prestige pictures, and even plays with a new structure worthy of his more exploratory works from the past decade. The film is a combination of E.T. and Saving Private Ryan, bringing together his ability to celebrate childhood innocence and depict its end. The film does not have a human protagonist, but rather uses a horse as a window to the horrors of war.

Joey, pure-bred animal bought by local drunken farmer Ted Narracot (Peter Mullan). Narracot’s wife Rose (Emily Watson) laments that they needed a work-horse, and that her husband’s folly will ruin them. But his teenaged son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine in a memorable debut), trains Joey and develops a friendship with the animal. Joey and Albert’s pluck nearly save the farm from their landlord (David Thewlis), but when disaster strikes the farm and the Great War comes to Europe, Ted must sell Joey to Captain Lyons of the British Army (Tom Hiddleston). Lyons promises to take good care of Joey and return him if he can, but when he’s killed in battle, Joey goes through extraordinary circumstances, traveling through German, British, and French territory, until he finds his way home.

Spielberg is in top form with War Horse: the film begins as a “boy and his dog” story as filmed by John Ford; the English location is as painterly and gorgeous as any shot in The Quiet Man. Yet the beautiful village of Devin is not without its strife: Albert’s parents are together, but that’s no doubt in part because of the time period. They have as complicated a marriage as any in a Spielberg film. The consequences of a failed harvest will put the Narracots out of their home, and no doubt Albert’s beloved horse, his only companion, would be lost. Yet, through great perseverance, Albert and Joey fight to keep the farm going. The scene in which Albert and Joey manage to plow the field, however simple, is one of the most affecting Spielberg scenes in recent memory.

The film explores several classic Spielbergian themes: the dark side of technology as World War I makes mince meat out of men. Selfishness blinds men to the treatment of others: a local farmer (Niels Arestrup) is barely able to keep any food for himself and his sickly granddaughter after the French soldiers claim they need all the food they can get; when they discover Joey in their barn, they take him too. The film’s horses are treated terribly in order to keep the war effort going; it may be a necessary evil, but the evil of the carnage is unmistakable.

More than anything else, the film shows an end to childhood innocence. Albert complains that his father is a drunk, and that he should be proud of his participation in the Boer War rather than ashamed. But Albert and others will learn too well the horrors of war: young British soldiers (including Captain Lyons) are killed in a cavalry charge, and Joey is taken by the German army; two young German soldiers, barely old enough to fight, desert, and are shot for their troubles. The lush and fertile lands of France are destroyed by the carnage. Albert enlists in the war effort, and only near the end does he understand the difference between doing what’s necessary and doing good. Saving a young man who treated him callously, for example, is damn near the only decent thing he can do in the middle of this mess.

Spielberg’s use of horses (pure and simple creatures) as symbols for men (just as many animals die in the war as men) could come off as heavy-handed, even hokey. But Spielberg’s honesty and earnestness in every frame of the film, not to mention his mastery of empathy, sells every moment and earns every catharsis. It is only through great struggle that something good comes from something horrible. It’s a story Spielberg has spent the past thirty-five years telling, masterfully each time. Spielberg expresses his view in a sage line from Arestrup: “What could be braver than that?”

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

Grade: 74 (B+)

The Adventures of Tintin is the most purely entertaining Steven Spielberg film since 1993’s Jurassic Park. There is no real darkness, only adventure and wonder. Inspired by the Belgian comic series by Hergé, Tintin is a Spielberg film in the same spirit as the Indiana Jones series (Spielberg learned of the series in a European review that compared the comic series to Raiders), and in that sense in more than makes up for the lackluster fourth entry in the Jones series. It marks a true return of the Spielberg of old, and as a voyage on a new frontier: it is the director’s first animated film, and his first collaboration with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson (who plans to direct the second Tintin entry).

Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) is an English journalist and all-around adventurer. He and his trusted and loyal dog Snowy get mixed up in a plot involving the villainous Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig) when Tintin purchases a model on the legendary ship Unicorn. He discovers that the model is one of three, each of which contain a scroll leading to a secret treasure. That treasure truly belongs to the drunken Captain Archibald Haddock (frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis), and he and Tintin now have a race to the finish against Sakharine, who may have a longstanding feud with Haddock.

Spielberg has always been a master of blending new technologies with old fashioned movie-making, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park. This is no exception: Tintin is a stunning new development in motion capture technology, mostly avoiding the creepy, dead-eyed character designs that plagued Robert Zemeckis’ forays into animated filmmaking. This is as strong as anything in James Cameron’s Avatar or Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and Jackson’s strength in creating exotic and wonderful worlds serves his collaborator well. The vividness of the animation doesn’t stop at the character designs: the new technology has given Spielberg a renewed sense of play, leading to some of his most inventive, enervating set-pieces in recent memory. A master visual storyteller, Spielberg uses the new medium to advance the story and inform the set-pieces. He also uses the technology to throw in several clever references to past Spielberg films, the best of which is a terrific opening credits sequence that serves as an introduction the adventurous feel, a tribute to Hergé’s art, and a throwback to Catch Me if You Can.

The story, as it is, has the same great, Howard Hawks-style “men on a mission” feel, with a dash of Errol Flynn/Michael Curtiz style swashbuckling. Much like Raiders, the artifact at the center of the film is ultimately a macguffin to use as an excuse to string a series of incredible set pieces together; but incredible they are, and the characters that run through them are fun, particularly the salty Haddock and a pair of bumbling, nearly identical detectives named Thomson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). Tintin, for his part, is mostly an audience surrogate, full of classic Spielbergian wonder and curiosity. If the film falls a bit short of the best Spielberg adventures, it’s because the film starts so strong and can’t top its dynamite first half; the destination isn’t nearly as interesting as the journey, and it’s another case of Spielberg’s late-period trouble with ending his stories. But the film is such a light and downright fun adventure that it’s hard to complain; if it’s a hit, it gives room for Spielberg and Jackson to explore more complex, emotional territory in later adventures. Bring on Tintin 2.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Weekend

Grade: 92 (A)

Weekend is a beautiful movie, and one of the very best films of the year. It is one of the most honest and lovely looks at love and attraction in recent memory. Director Andrew Haigh doesn’t need grand gestures or florid monologues to show the importance of the titular weekend to the central characters; their actions and conversations speak for themselves. The film is about a brief love affair of two men, but anyone who ever felt anything for anyone should have no trouble connecting to their story.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is a shy, awkward young man working as a lifeguard in Nottingham, England. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin. He goes to a friend’s party, where he’s the quietest, least talkative person there. Russell is gay, but his discomfort discussing it with anyone makes it questionable whether or not he’s really out. He has a drunken one-night stand with Glen (Chris New), a far more extroverted, clearly out art-student. The two spend the majority of the weekend together: going out and dancing, staying in and getting stoned, talking, and slowly learning more about each other than they reveal to their closest friends. Their connection is brief: Glen is leaving for America at the end of the weekend. But the power of their encounter is undeniable.

Haigh borrows the structure and simplicity of “mumblecore”, the modern American indie movement predicated on a natural everyday feel, short time horizons, and simple relationships. The film doesn’t have the same improvisational feel as a mumblecore film, however: the dialogue is well-constructed, yet completely believable. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out the film was based on an event in Haigh’s life, considering the specificity. Haigh shoots the city as if to say “look”: there’s something beautiful in just seeing the realities of the city, not to mention a relationship.

Cullen and New, for their part, give two of the best performances of the year. They start out at a simple jumping off point, one introverted, one extroverted, and find the complexities in their characters. Cullen doesn’t have the confidence New does, and New suggests he resents his homosexuality, but beneath it all is a desire to connect to someone. New is far more confident, but he doesn’t believe in relationships, and at the center seems to be a need to keep everyone at a distance in order to avoid being hurt. They argue, make up, make love (the sex scenes are very frank), and it’s a shame they’ll likely never meet again. But their relationship gives them both a chance to talk about the important things in their lives: love, life, the meaning of being gay, and whether or not they can really be with someone forever. Weekend is a not a message movie, but a simple, specific, achingly intimate portrait of two people in love. That is far more powerful than any simplistic message.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Grade: 82 (A-)

Let’s get this out of the way: the original, Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a good movie. At the risk of irritating the film’s fans (not to mention fans of the book), it’s a dull, overlong “film” (really part of a miniseries) saddled with endless exposition, an uncharismatic lump of a lead (Michael Nyqvist), and filmmaking on par with an unspired procedural show. The only reason to see the film is for the towering performance by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, a violent, antisocial, goth-punk surveillance expert. So when David Fincher, one of the finest filmmakers working today, decided to remake the film, there was nowhere to go but up. How far up? Pretty damn far.

Mikhail Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a reporter for the left-wing magazine Millennium. Convicted of libel while investigating a corrupt businessman, Blomkvist loses most of his fortune, not to mention his credibility. When Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires Blomkvist to write his memoirs, he reveals that he actually has something else planned. Vanger’s beloved grand-niece, Harriet, went missing forty years ago, and her killer is most likely someone in Vanger’s hateful family of Anti-Semites. Blomkvist has mountains of possible evidence to go through, but he finds a brilliant research assistant: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a 23-year-old ward of the state who has had to fight monstrous men her entire life (including an abusive caretaker in the first half of the film). Together, they can find out who Harriet’s murderer is, and how her death might be connected to a series of killings in the early 60s.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suffers from some of the same problems the original Swedish version: roughly the first forty-five minutes are devoted to exposition on Blomkvist, Salander, and Vanger’s cases. Fincher and the actors do their best to not make the opening dull, but aside from a dynamite, James Bond-style opening credits sequence (set to the tune of Karen O and composer Trent Reznor’s cover of “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin), the film’s first section is watchable but incredibly draggy. The subject matter, meanwhile, is lurid, pulpy stuff, and doesn’t have the same thematic richness as earlier Fincher movies about serial killers (Seven, Zodiac). At the end of the day, it’s questionable whether or not the story is worthy of the storyteller.

So why is this a highly positive review? Because Fincher is at the top of his game: few directors make procedure more interesting (see: hacking/code writing in The Social Network), and the film makes the long, painful search for truth both draining and enervating at the same time. The most horrifying scenes from the original have been doubled in intensity thanks to far more competent filmmaking, and some of the suspense set-pieces are as frightening as Brad Pitt’s chase scene in Seven or Jake Gyllenhaal’s “creepy house” scene in Zodiac. This is another case of a filmmaker elevating less-than-stellar material into a strong film (see also: Martin Scorsese with Shutter Island).

The performers, meanwhile, are all up to task. Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Steven Berkoff are all perfectly cast, where Craig’s natural magnetism and charisma turns something compelling out of a not particularly well-crafted character.

The highlight, however, is Mara’s Salander. The character has always been the real drawing point of the series, and Mara’s performance is as strong as Rapace’s, if not better. She’s small in stature, but that innate vulnerability hides a ferocity waiting to be unleashed. Mara acquitted herself well last year in the otherwise dreadful remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and in Fincher’s own The Social Network (as the girl who dumps Jesse Eisenberg in the opening). This is a stunning breakthrough performance, and the film works best as a character study of a woman who has shut off nearly all ability to connect to the outside world and who has learned to defend herself in the most savage ways possible. When she finally opens up in the film’s final twenty minutes (a long denouement, but one which expands on her character), it’s all in vain. She is a woman alone, and she might like it better that way.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.20: Spielberg's The Lost World/Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. The month finishes with Spielberg’s most recent film, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Grade: 32 (C-)

Is there anything to say about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. One of Spielberg’s least interesting, least essential films, it has become a whipping boy despite strong box office and relatively solid reviews. I was among the many who defended it as “good, solid fun” and “a hell of a lot better than Temple of Doom. While I still stand by my assertion that the second Indiana Jones outing is the weakest, of the bunch, I can no longer defend the (hopefully) final outing of the series. If Temple is the single ugliest film Spielberg ever made, then Crystal Skull is the laziest, a low stakes, low energy update hardly worth the fuss it caused. But first, let’s backtrack to Spielberg’s other unnecessary sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Grade: 41, C).

In the second Jurassic Park film, the focus shifts to Jeff Goldblum’s eternally snarky Dr. Ian Malcolm, apparently the only one of the original film’s characters who broke his non-disclosure agreement, and is now the laughing stock of the world (“ha ha, dinosaurs…”). Malcolm is recruited once more by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to go on a research mission to Isla Sorna, an island adjacent to the original’s Isla Nubar, and the breeding grounds for the dinosaurs. Hammond wants Malcolm, among others, to keep the dinosaurs from being exploited by his nephew’s company by documenting the animals in their habitat. Malcolm is initially uninterested, but when he learns his girlfriend Sarah (Julianne Moore) was recruited and is already on the island, he plans on rescuing her. Of course, plans in Spielberg films never go very well.

This doesn’t begin to cover the array of characters that populate the film, from Pete Postlethwaite’s hunter to Vince Vaughn’s tree-hugging photographer to Peter Stormare’s mercenary. There’s a reason I’ve chosen not to mention their names: none of them are memorable (aside from Vaughn’s annoying character), and most are fatally underused. Even Moore isn’t really given much to do. The original Jurassic Park was wrongfully accused of having unmemorable characters as an excuse to string together a bunch of set-pieces, but those characters had something more to do and a clear reason for why they acted the way they did. The same can’t be said here.

The film explores several Spielberg tropes: the dark side of technology, selfishness blinding man’s treatment of others, the futility of making plans, and, most notably, man trying to control something not meant to be controlled. None of the themes are explored in a compelling way, however, and the main theme is set up in the most absurd and painfully simplistic allegory this side of Avatar. The hunters are bad, the preservationists and nature lovers are good, and that’s that. The film’s message of preservation and non-intervention is honorable, but the straw-man villains are one-dimensional, at best, and the heroes’ attempts to keep the dinosaurs safe usually end up endangering others. It’s hard to care when the main characters’ actions (see: taking a baby Tyrannosaur from its parents, releasing caged dinosaurs in a highly populated area) are so irredeemably stupid.

But what about those set-pieces? Well, many of them are well-constructed, as Spielberg’s mastery of Hitchcockian suspense and Hawks-style adventure is as strong as ever. But when there’s little to care about around them, it’s easy to scrutinize them and see that these particular action scenes don’t really make a lot of sense. From a scene in which one character decides his fear of snakes is more noteworthy than the fact that there’s a dinosaur waiting to eat him to the King Kong-styled finale, most of these scenes seem to not have been worked out beyond how to do it. That final set-piece is particularly bothersome: a T-Rex makes its way to the city, but there’s no way for it to have killed the crew of the ship it was on when it was locked away (were there Raptors on board, or something? If so, why don’t we see them?). Why isn’t there a stronger response to it? Is the “we must preserve nature” allegory going to go that far? None of it makes sense, so it’s difficult to give a damn.

But at least everyone’s trying in that one. On to Crystal Skull: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is now fighting the Soviet Union. His enemies: Agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a woman obsessed with psychic warfare and extraterrestrials, and treacherous partner George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone). Everyone seeks the Crystal Skull, which, when returned to Akator (or El Dorado) will bring great fortune. On Indy’s side, “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBoeuf), a greaser who later turns out to be Indy’s son (spoilers, I guess); Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), an old colleague gone mad; and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt’s mother and Indy’s old flame.

If the above plot summary didn’t really tell much, it’s because there’s little to tell. To the film’s credit, the opening sequence is quite strong. Indy is taken by Spalko and company to a government warehouse (where it turns out the Ark of the Covenant lies), and they find a mysterious mummified creature. Indy gets a handful of solid lines (“I like Ike!”), the friend’s betrayal is established, and the initial chase is strong. I’ll even defend the dumb-as-hell but still silly fun “nuke the fridge” sequence that gets so much hate amongst fans. These were never realistic movies, and that scene isn’t half as insidious as its detractors claim.

The real pain sets in as Indy goes back to his University: Denholm Elliott is dead and Sean Connery opted out, so Marcus Brody and Henry Jones, Sr.’s absences are explained away as “well, they died”. Jim Broadbent is instead brought in as a barely-there replacement, and there’s no strong relationship between him and Indy. He’s one of the many actors wasted, along with a mostly static Karen Allen and a rambling John Hurt. Blanchett gives a solid villainous turn, but she isn’t given much to work with. Ray Winstone, meanwhile…his character’s purpose beyond the opening sequence is still unclear. His motivations grow weaker and weaker, and after a while he’s a crushing bore. None of these characters are as memorable as the usual Indy/Spielberg characters, and the film’s momentum grinds to a halt as there’s hardly anyone to care about. Ford, for his part, looks as bored and tired as he has for the past fifteen years, and while some of his lines aren’t bad, his delivery is lazy.

This doesn’t begin to cover the majestic black hole of charisma that is Shia LaBouef, woefully miscast as a greaser (one with a rather stupid name, at that). LaBouef’s leading-man status is one of the most puzzling recent developments in the movie industry. He isn’t very good looking, he’s not tough, he stutters like it’s nobody’s business, and he doesn’t have much screen presence. Perhaps casting him as a weasel would be more appropriate; introducing him like Marlon Brando in The Wild One sure as hell isn’t. The best description ever given about Mr. LaBouef was one by my cousin and fellow film-fanatic Loren Greenblatt (whose blog, g-blatt.blogspot.com, you should check out): “He has all the sexual magnetism of a young Don Knotts.”

A bigger problem: Spielberg’s usual strength in dealing with father-son relationships backfires here. Indy left Marion before she had his son, and now he doesn’t know who Mutt is until she tell him. Why not have him know it’s his son from the beginning and struggle with that? Why not have him know Mutt’s mother is Marion and thus increase the stakes exponentially right away? It’s a major opportunity that Spielberg misses out on, leading to a saggy middle section with a low-stakes series of chases and fetch quests leading to an unsatisfactory ending. In the end, the Crystal Skull isn’t a very interesting macguffin, and there’s little real struggle to understand its significance. It’s the Sankara Stones all over again: no one understands it, and there’s no reason to care.

It could all be easier to swallow if it seemed Spielberg was even vaguely invested in what was going on, but aside from the strong opening, the set-pieces are well-constructed bores with little to no invention to them, the gags reek of “eh, good enough” when they’re anything but. Spielberg’s usually seamless blends of CGI and real effects fail him here: the digital effects stick out like a sore thumb. Everything feels low-energy, in part because Spielberg and Lucas are no longer paying tribute to something they loved as kids; they’re now paying tribute to their own creation.

The question remains for both of these sequels: why? What’s the point of returning to these characters and these stories. The Lost World has a slightly more compelling reason, in that Spielberg was coming off of Schindler’s List and felt it might be fun to do a light entertainment, and it gave him a chance to explore an environmental issue he cared about. That investment didn’t extend to the characters, however, and Spielberg’s decision to handle it as light entertainment failed to elevate it to the level of art, as Spielberg usually does without fail. Crystal Skull is even more unnecessary: this story was wrapped up just fine with Last Crusade. Spielberg even said he was done with Indiana Jones; Lucas wanted to return to it (as usual), and Spielberg and Ford more or less said “Eh, okay.”

Something to consider: Spielberg has made great advancements as an artist in the past two decades. He tells more ambitious stories and his worldview has darkened a bit. Even his blockbusters (Minority Report, War of the Worlds) and “light entertainments” (Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal) are spiked with a greater sense of loss and more thought-provoking themes than in the past. Here, there’s nothing beyond a series of set-pieces for a character who seemed finished long ago. This doesn’t have the same investment that The Adventures of Tintin will hopefully have, as that’s a story he’s wanted to tell for ages. These films were stories he’s already told, and better. He can’t tell the same stories over again. He’s grown up, and any attempt to relive the old, exactly as it was, will ring hollow.


This more or less wraps up this month's Director's Spotlight, save for reviews of Spielberg's upcoming The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, which will hopefully end the month on a less sour note. At the end of the day, this is one of my favorite filmmakers, a man whose works first made me love the movies and whose advancements inspire me to this day. I'll have a final rundown of his filmography in the upcoming weeks. Finally, for anyone who's interested, January's Director's Spotlight will focus on one of the greatest filmmakers of Old Hollywood: John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen). Schedule to follow.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.19: Steven Spielberg's Munich

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 2005’s Munich.

Grade: 87 (A-)

Steven Spielberg started the 2000s out with his most challenging and ambitious film, A.I., and spent the next several years blurring the line between blockbuster and brilliance (Minority Report, War of the Worlds). Released in 2005, Munich was to be Spielberg’s response to 9/11, a Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan style prestige picture about righteous men doing justified acts against bad people. Or at least that’s what many thought; in reality, Munich is not a jingoistic film, but rather a punishing examination of  the horrors of revenge, and an impassioned plea for tolerance and examination of when good intentions go bad. That it didn’t sit well with some (despite mostly strong reviews and several Oscar nominations) isn’t surprising. But it’s also one of his most rewarding films.

Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is an agent of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service. He, like others, is horrified at the massacre of the Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. The Israeli government hires him to lead an unofficial group to strike back and kill the 11 men who planned the Munich massacre. They include Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African-Israeli driver; Hans (Hanns Zischler), a document forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) a Belgian bomb-maker; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a clean-up man. Their handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), works from afar. The men enter their mission as soldiers eager to work for Israel, but they soon learn the toll revenge takes on the soul.

Munich’s suspense scenes are as tightly-wound and harrowing as anything Spielberg has ever made. The old Hitchcockian suspense shows up again in scenes that drag out the tension to near-unbearable levels, particularly an assassination in which a bomb is rigged to a phone. A young girl answers for her father, the target, and Carl must race to the bomb-maker on the other side of the street to keep him from accidentally killing her. The film is also in debt to old spy movies, particularly the paranoia-inducing films of the Cold War-era (The Manchurian Candidate, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). There’s even the Howard Hawks “men on a mission” storyline, albeit a darker and less noble one (the actors, by the way, are all perfectly cast). Finally, the film’s unflinching look at the dark side of human nature, the horrors of modern technology, and the mess humans leave behind when making plans recall other late-period, Stanley Kubrick-inspired Spielberg films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I.

Spielberg’s mastery of these techniques are exemplified in the terrifying opening sequence, in which a group of Palestinians take the Israeli athletes hostage, killing some of them. Spielberg intercuts the film’s action with real news footage impeccably, giving a lived-in feel to the proceedings. The world watches in anguish as they wait for an answer that everything’s OK. It’s stolen away with the newscaster’s solemn pronouncement: “They’re all gone”.

Like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, plans are made as a response to a horrible event, and as a way to pull something good out of terror. But in Spielberg-world, plans are for fools, and they never go off without a hitch. The team starts out with a sense of righteousness, but things become tense as the killings go on. None of the bombs work well: they’re either too strong or not strong enough, and it’s damn near impossible to avoid hurting innocents in the process. It’s another look at the dark side of technology and man’s ability to exterminate each other with ease…except now, the technology doesn’t even work, and they have unintended consequences. The characters gradually realize the morass they’re in: like Captain Miller of Saving Private Ryan, they feel further away from home and humanity the more men they kill, and their actions only seem to make things worse as they add to the hate between nations and their targets are replaced by worse men. These plans don’t work well, and it’s questionable whether they were righteous in the first place.

Spielberg’s films often deal with good men manipulated by untrustworthy authority figures, and Munich is no exception. The Israeli Prime Minister makes deals and plans behind the curtains to strike back at the Palestinians, saying that they had been “ambushed and slaughtered again…there are more dead Jews in Germany”. She adds that “she doesn’t know who these maniacs are and where they come from”, or “what law protects people like these”, and adds that they can’t afford to be civilized with them anymore. Her response, one for retribution, is understandable, but it is without empathy or understanding, and it is doomed to fail. Similarly, Rush’s Ephraim is a shady character, one who doesn’t care who he hurts or how he handles the characters so long as he protects Israel. He, like others, had little empathy for the Palestinians; he only sees them as a threat. He’s not wrong, but his simplifications will cost his country dearly.

The men learn to question those in charge, particularly after their Black Market contact Louis (Mathieu Amalric, who looks oddly like Roman Polanski) tells them that Salameh, the man who planned the massacre, is protected by the CIA. Louis and his family don’t trust governments, and they suspect anyone who works for them. The men learn that his worldview might not be an unreasonable one.

Avner and company enter their mission wanting to do something good for their country. They break bread together at the start of their mission, and Steve in particular finds reason to rejoice after they kill their first target. But, in the words of another character, they have “butcher’s hands, little souls”. They are relatively innocent compared to beforehand (lost boys?), and as they kill more men, they begin to quarrel over the righteousness of their mission. “Unless we learn to act like them, we will never defeat them…they don’t deserve mercy…” says Steve. But the others aren’t so sure. They say that the mission against the Palestinians “will take years, but it’ll work”. But their business is costly, ineffective in quelling terrorist acts, and it causes the men to lose their souls.

In one of the most fascinating scenes in the film, they accidentally run into a PLO group, claiming to be part of the Red Army. Avner discusses politics with the group’s leader, who claims that the Arab states and the world will rise against Israel and give the land to the Palestinians. Avner claims that they’ll never manage, and that their mission isn’t worth the cost. But the leader claims that they’ll wait forever, and that the difference between him and Avner (who he thinks is German) is that Avner has a home to go to in the end, where he does not. This man will fight, to the death, for all time, until he has a place to call his own, and that’s why real war against terrorists is impossible: any retribution only makes things worse, and we have a home where they do not.

But Avner finds that you can never go home. His mission more or less finished, several of his men dead, he returns to Israel. Soldiers admire his work. He is repulsed. The nation honors him for dishonorable deeds. His mother invokes the Holocaust as reasoning that the Jews must take what they have, but Avner isn’t so sure their methods are worth it. He moves to New York with his family, where his paranoia follows him. In the film’s one terrible scene (really the only flaw), Avner and his wife make love without passion as he comes to a sweaty, labored climax, all while thinking about the Munich massacre (the killings are finally shown intercut with the sex scene). It’s an extremely awkward scene that puts too fine a point on what we already know: Avner is forever tormented by his deeds, and by the knowledge that Israel will never be safe. In the final scene, he and Ephraim discuss the futility of their mission. They killed for peace, but “there is no peace at the end of this”. Avner is abandoned by Ephraim, who refuses to break bread with him and more or less turns his back on a soldier with a newly formed awareness. The World Trade Center looms in the background.

Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s direction never spell out the connection between this mission and the U.S. mission after 9/11. They never condemn the United States or Israel. They understand the response, and they agree that the terrorists have done absolute evil. But the response, however well-intentioned, hasn’t been successful. Why? Munich has no easy answers, only questions. It is a difficult film, and my initial response was one of disappointment. But the film improves on each viewing, and as time goes by, it remains one of the most relevant responses to the defining moment of the past ten years.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Overlooked Gems #17: The Brothers Bloom

Grade: 72 (B)

In 2006, first-time director wowed critics and audiences with his brilliant genre-riff Brick, a noir reset in a high school. Mixing the labyrinthine plotting and offbeat humor of a Coen Bros. noir with strange, David Lynch-like filmmaking touches, Johnson established himself as a force to be reckoned with. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, is a little less loved. While certainly admired by many (and even loved by some), the film struck some as too mannered and too caught up in its ability to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. Those charges aren’t entirely incorrect, but The Brothers Bloom is still a zesty piece a filmmaking from a director who promises to be one of the leading voices in modern film.

Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) are the Brothers Bloom, a couple of wily con men from childhood on. They are assisted by a mute, Japanese demolitions expert named “Bang Bang” (Rinko Kikuchi). Stephen loves what he does. Bloom, not so much, and his disaffection leads to him quitting after more than twenty years in the business. Stephen brings him in for one last job: conning lonely, eccentric millionaire Penelope (Rachel Weisz).Things get complicated, however, when Bloom falls in love with their latest mark.

Everyone is perfectly cast, from Brody as the disaffected sad-sack to Ruffalo as the self-satisfied smart-aleck to Robbie Coltrane as a Belgian associate. Weisz is particularly strong as a woman who takes enormous pleasure in being on an adventure, even as the whole thing turns out to be a con. The film is mannered, no doubt, but the chemistry of the actors brings weight to the film even when the plotting flies off the rails in the saggy middle section. By the end, the cast and Johnson regain composure for a complicated finale where it’s not clear until the very end who’s fooling who.

Brick was a remarkable, ambitious project, but The Brothers Bloom ups the ambition considerably: in addition to Coen-esque genre mastery, there’s the fact that the whole thing is one long con, like a self-aware David Mamet film or a jaunty remake of The Sting. There’s the offbeat characterizations and wry, oddball humor of a Wes Anderson movie. Finally, there’s the mad-prophet, go-for-broke ambitious filmmaking touches of a P.T. Anderson film (including opening narration from Ricky Jay in the same style as Magnolia), not to mention a great score from Johnson’s brother Nathan that’s reminiscent of Jon Brion’s scores for Anderson. Johnson’s debt to his influences might have overwhelmed the film, but his zeal and one of a kind look at the art of storytelling make for an agreeably shaggy lark.

Director's Spotlight #2.18: Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 2005’s War of the Worlds.

Grade: 81 (B+)

What’s more frustrating: a bad movie, or a good movie that could have been a great one? Steven Spielberg has had his share of duds (1941, Always, Hook), but his 2005 sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds has wrongfully been labeled by some (including, initially, me) as one of his weakest films. For the first 110 minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime, the film successfully combines Spielberg’s whiz-bang action mastery with the harrowing intensity of his darkest works. And then, in the final scene, everything goes wrong.

Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a working-class dockworker (more on that later) and a lousy father to his two children, teenaged Robby (Justin Chatwin) and pre-teen Rachel (Dakota Fanning). When his ex-wife drops the two off for the weekend, they’re both visibly less than thrilled. That’s the least of their problems: strange things are happening in New York, from bizarre storms to machines breaking down. As it turns out, aliens are invading, and they’re not exactly the friendly aliens of Spielberg’s past: extermination of the human race is their goal. Ray’s paternal instincts kick in as he’s forced to fend for his children’s lives, and his own.

It’s important to get this out of the way: Tom Cruise is miscast. He’s a fine actor and a dynamic presence (I won’t hear otherwise), but casting him as a working-class hero strains credibility, to say the least. His movie-star good looks and megawatt smile immediately make him stick out like a sore thumb, and the low-class clothes make him look like he’s playing dress up. His character’s conflict between his more privileged ex-wife and children is strong, but it has to work through that he’s out of place. Tom Cruise is, however, completely credible as a lousy father, the more important of the character traits, and as soon as the mayhem sets in and his working class background is no longer a visible flaw.

There’s two immediate influences in Spielberg’s update, aside from the old monster movies: Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. The film’s action and suspense scenes have the same thrilling qualities that Spielberg mastered thirty years before in Jaws, the slow lead-in to the aliens reveal and the stalking scenes have the same Hitchcockian qualities, and the score takes on a “Bernard Herrmann doing Godzilla” tone. Kubrick, meanwhile, shows up in the bizarre imagery (lighting hitting the same spot thirty times, wind blowing towards a storm, a field of bloody roots/veins), harrowing intensity, and look at the possibility of mankind’s extinction. Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and visual storytelling, combined with his impeccable blending of CGI with real effects, makes for a thrilling ride.

The film hearkens back to more “serious” Spielberg works like Schindler’s  List and Saving Private Ryan as men and women are mercilessly cut down by a cold, calculating alien race that has decided humanity is not worth keeping around. As their advanced weapons hit people, they explode into ash. And what’s worse, mankind’s advanced weaponry is of no use in this instance. Humanity is completely helpless, wandering the streets and gossiping about how other nations took down the UFOs, as if they could (Schindler’s List again).

There’s a new historical context to these situations: the film takes place (at first) in New York, only a few years after the 9/11 attacks. When crazy things start to happen, citizens speculate on whether or not there are terrorists responsible. The film looks at a force far more powerful and terrifying, but it truly captures the horror of a helpless America running for their lives in the wake of an all-powerful enemy. This isn’t some braindead, jingoistic thrill-ride a la Independence Day. The consequences are real and horrifying, and there’s little laughing along the way. The film also shows how men and women abandon their principles in order to survive: Cruise and his family have one of the only working vehicles around, and when they find a large crowd of people, they’re overcome. These men and women have no purpose anymore, other than survival. They’re more of Spielberg’s “lost boys”, wandering a fallen world.

Spielberg’s films are filled with sympathetic father-child relationships, but rarely has a father’s respect been as hard-won as Cruise’s. Ray is a jerk to his kids and his ex-wife (who, in traditional Spielbergian fashion, seems far more sympathetic). He doesn’t know much about his kids and is frequently short with them. His young daughter still has some admiration for him and tries to mediate between him and his son. His son, on the other hand, is a moody teenager who clearly hates his father (it even goes so far to have him wear a Red Sox cap just to annoy his Yankees-fan father). Their difficult conversations know that, Hook aside, Spielberg knows how to show conflict between fathers and sons.

As the family runs, the teenaged Robby is more help to young Rachel than their father is. As Rachel begins to grow claustrophobic and starts to panic, Ray doesn’t know how to handle it, and Robby has to calm her down. As time goes on, however, Robby starts to waiver. He wants to get back at the invaders, never mind that Ray tells him it’s no good. Why should he listen to his father? His paternal instincts have kicked in way too late for Robby’s sake, and his son is willing to run off without him or Rachel in order to get away from his father. Ray has some grudging admiration of some of Robby’s heroic instincts, but he knows that if Robby tries to fight back he’ll get killed. He pleads with his son, tells him he loves him. It’s no use: “You need to let me go” Robby says, and over the hill, towards oblivion he goes. This will later lead to the film’s greatest flaw, but at the moment it seems to show Spielberg’s maturation, as Robby unquestionably dies because his father couldn’t save him.
Ray now has to watch after Rachel himself. He finds help, as far as he knows, in Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), another survivor. But surviving isn’t what Harlan wants to do. He’s convinced that a human resistance can form and defeat the aliens, never mind that it’s been no use so far. He wants to take them by surprise. Ray wants nothing to do with it, and only wants to hide so he can save his daughter. Harlan has big plans, but plans in Spielberg films never go well. It doesn’t help that he’s completely out of his mind. The smallest detail could get them spotted by aliens, and he’s screaming about how occupations never last and how we have the home advantage. Ray is forced to make a decision: save  himself and Rachel, or let Harlan live. The choice is clear.

It’s a brilliant look at what mankind is willing to do to survive throughout, and in the end, the aliens are not killed by advanced weaponry, but through luck. They’re not used to the bacteria of Earth, and something as simple as a cold takes them down. The uncontrollable aspects of life win out again, and the day is saved because of it. But Spielberg tries to control too much in the film’s ending: Ray and Rachel make their way to Boston and find Rachel’s mother, alive. She thanks his for taking care of her, but the reminder of what happened to Robby will no doubt leave a sense of loss in their survival. Inexplicably, Robby shows up, very much alive, and even hugs the father he claimed to hate. It’s another Spielbergian ending that reunites broken families, but it’s far too simplistic and forced a happy ending for an often tragic film, and another botched ending to an otherwise brilliant movie.

Schedule:

December 17: Munich
December 18: Lackluster sequel time with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.17: Steven Spielberg's The Terminal

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 2004’s light comedy The Terminal.

Grade: 64 (B)

How to follow such triumphs as A.I., Minority Report, and Catch Me if You Can? Spielberg fans enraptured by his late, intellectually curious films likely expected a little more from The Terminal, no doubt Spielberg’s most light-hearted film since E.T. (and it’s possibly even lighter). A wafer-thin comedy about a man stuck in an airport in a foreign land probably didn’t sound like the most promising of ideas, and the film’s relatively modest (for a Spielberg film, at least) box office intake of $220 million dollars has more or less slighted The Terminal as an odd little lark of a film between such major achievements as A.I. and Munich. It isn’t an entirely unfair label, but the film is thoroughly enjoyable all the same.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) is a man on a mission. He travels from the former Soviet satellite nation of Krakozhia to New York City to fulfill a promise involving a Planter’s Peanut can (more on that later). When he arrives, his passport is rejected, and the Customs head, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), explains that his country has fallen into civil war, and that until the United States recognizes the new Krakozhia, Navorski is a man without a country, unable to travel outside the borders of JFK International Airport. Now, Viktor must bide his time until he can find a way past the borders of the airport. He does so by warming the hearts of all of the other airport workers, bringing caterer Enrique (Diego Luna) and customs officer Dolores (Zoe Saldana) together and charming the cynical janitor Gupta (Kumar Pallana). He even finds love in the form of kindly flight-attendant Amelia (Catharine Zeta-Jones).

Sound corny? Yes. But Spielberg injects his usual warm-hearted worldview and earns every bit of sentiment. Like Frank Capra (a major influence here), Spielberg is a master manipulator, a man who knows there needs to be real struggle before true uplift can happen. The “little guy vs. the big system” story in The Terminal isn’t entirely successful: it’s sometimes a tad too simplistic for such a major director, and it’s often accompanied by dumb gags. But Spielberg’s compassion for the characters and the smarter, more lightly handled jokes carry the story over its weaker moments.

Capra isn’t the only influence here: Jacques Tati’s classic film Play Time is an acknowledged influence on The Terminal. Spielberg depicts the airport as a living, breathing ecosystem full of life and wonder. This is what Martin Scorsese’s recent Hugo was missing: the train station never felt like a real place, but rather was a clear digital construct. Here, Spielberg shoots one of his most impressive sets, with something happening around ever corner. Spielberg takes this and combines it with Capra sentiment and the energy of old screwball comedies in the vein of Capra’s It Happened One Night or Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby. There’s some new influences, or at least common ground: Spielberg cast Wes Anderson regular Kuman Pallana in a supporting role. Perhaps Spielberg saw Anderson as a weird kindred spirit and a fellow admirer of the same old films.

Viktor is another one of Spielberg’s classic “lost boys” in a fallen world. He has no home and nowhere to go. Initially, he does not understand Dixon when he explains the sitation to him. The camera twirls around him before he even realizes what’s going on; he’s clearly out of his element in a strange and confusing world. When it finally comes to him after he sees a news report on Krakozhia, Victor is full of terror and confusion. He’s all alone. But Viktor is still a terribly clever man (it doesn’t hurt that Hanks is an innately savvy actor). He teaches himself to speak English overnight by reading an English book side-by-side with its Russian(ish) variant. He quickly learns how to play the system and learns the rules of the airport. The locals don’t trust him at first, but as they learn more about him and realize his inner goodness, their defenses are lowered. Viktor is as much a lost boy as he is another E.T., or a less annoying, less self-conscious version of Forrest Gump.

Frank Dixon, meanwhile, is the classic Spielbergian authority figure: selfish, blind to others’ plight, and ultimately untrustworthy. He’s not a terrible man (credit to Stanley Tucci for giving him some inner complexity), and he doesn’t want anything more than to move up in life. Dixon doesn’t want anything to do with Viktor, and he makes it clear that this little guy who “fell between the cracks” had better stay out of his way. He won’t lie to Viktor, but he will pull other dirty tricks to get rid of him, like try to get him to leave the airport illegally or threaten to fire his newfound friends if he doesn’t go home. Frank talks of the civil war in Krakozhia, and how bombs are dropped as human dignities are violated; he either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that he violates Viktor’s dignity. It’s a bit much, but whenever he threatens to veer into cartoon territory, Spielebrg and Tucci pull back on the reins to find the human in Frank again.

Spielberg’s dealings with romance are frequently shaky, but there’s something overwhelmingly sweet about the good-natured relationship between Viktor and Amelia. Zeta-Jones’ charms shine through in her role as a woman whose luck with love hasn’t been the greatest. Suddenly, this charming, friendly stranger comes into her life and briefly sweeps her off her feet. When Viktor gets a temporary job as a construction worker, he uses his skills to build a beautiful fountain for Amelia. It’s an Old Hollywood style romance that’s endlessly charming. That the two don’t end up together is a lovely, bittersweet touch to a relationship that could have been saccharine.

It turns out that Viktor’s promise was to his father, a jazz enthusiast who managed to get 56 of the 57 autographs of his favorite jazz musicians. Viktor has come to America to fulfill his dead father’s dream and find jazz saxophonist Benny Golson. It’s another sweet father-son relationship in Spielberg’s films, but by the time Viktor gets the chance to get the autograph, the film has run out of air. The airport security staff bands together to get Viktor past Dixon after the latter won’t sign a slip that would allow Viktor into New York on a one-day visa now that Krakozhia’s war is over. It’s mostly endearing, aside from one oddly off-kilter bit involving Gupta, but as soon as Viktor leaves the terminal, the film has hit its climax. It goes on for an OK enough ten minutes before Viktor finally, happily says “I’m going home”. In a movie where one location seemed as lively and beautiful as any place in the world, the decision to finally leave it is understandable, but there’s nowhere to go afterwards.

It’s not enough to sink the movie. The Terminal is an undeniably minor film from Spielberg, but it’s also a deeply ingratiating film that approaches the audience with an honest smile and a warm embrace. It’s also a refreshing step back from the thorniness in most later Spielberg fare. Who wouldn’t, after two dark sci-fi films and one enjoyable but often sad film, want to take a breather and spend some time in a mostly kind-hearted world like this? Spielberg did, and it served as a light snack before two major, challenging films the next year: War of the Worlds and Munich.