Archive for March, 2013

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Starring- Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta

Director- Andrew Dominik

R- violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDyaNnrgdp4

Killing Them Softly is a most difficult film. The point it’s making is an awful one. And yet, I’m not sure I think its point is incorrect.

As much as I think we need films that make us see the good in mankind, that focus on the beauty in the world — and I think we need them badly, and are suffering from a dearth of them — we need just as much the ones that make us face the music, as it were. There are a lot of issues, a lot of uncomfortable realities, that we like to sweep under the rug and ignore because it helps us sleep easier at night — to think not only that there’s no problem but that we aren’t a part of it and couldn’t possibly be. But, ultimately, if the times are to start a-changin’, we have to stare those difficult truths in the face.

Is Killing Them Softly a film that facilitates that? Well, yes and no. I wouldn’t say it illuminates a problem so much as it illuminates a mechanism for that problem. And its assessment of what the problem is sometimes comes out a bit too simplistic, rant-like and otherwise devoid of solutions. But what it offers is, in its own way, important, and it’s worth getting to.

In the fall of 2008, a couple of schmucks, Frankie (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), at the behest of their friend and kind-of boss (Vincent Curatola), decide to hold up a mob poker game. The mobster running the game (Ray Liotta) has robbed his own game in the past, so they figure he’ll take the fall for this one, and they’ll get off scot-free.

Of course, the minds behind the scene are too smart for this ploy, and they figure something’s up. So, they call in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a cynical and unstoppable hitman, to send a little vigilante justice Frankie and Russell’s way.

To begin with, director Andrew Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is, you know…kind of brilliant. I don’t say that about many films. I’ll say it about that one.

And there’s a lot of that film in this one — including a lot of what worked. Dominik is still technically a very skilled director, finding new angles on scenes we’ve seen before. One mob interrogation is almost giddy on invention, the way it’s shot, the mob enforcers bursting into the house while the camera tracks along from the outside. We hear the beatings, shouted questions, and aggravated responses; midway through, the victim gets his head bashed through a window, and then the track continues all the way to the back door, where he gets thrown outside. This scene is played more for laughs — the victim is more annoyed than threatened, oddly — and it works.

Dominik also has a pre-2000 Shyamalan-esque ability to summon tension out of thin air. Most directors draw tension from what you don’t see; he draws it from what you do. A tracking shot from the front of the two thieves as the flee the card game leaves just enough room over their shoulders for someone to leap out and fire a shot; you wait for it…and wait for it…and wait for it…

Moreover, as with Jesse James, he finds a strange humanity in these incredibly unlikable, selfish, immoral, thieving, and frequently murderous characters, to the extent that you find yourself, if not necessarily liking them, at least caring about them.

Frankie and Russell are almost likable in the sense that they’re so in over their heads. Neither really seems to have a moral compass; there are few moments of conscience related to what they do. But it never seems to occur to either of them that they mean harm, either. They’re so stupid, and what intelligence they have left is so muted by drug abuse that it’s reduced to a non-presence in their minds. Their theft seems less devious and more the type of thing that’s suggested to them and receives of a response of, “Uh…okay.”

Even stranger is the presence Brad Pitt’s character develops. I have an irrational desire for pretty boy actors to fail spectacularly at roles that require actual talent, but I’m done pretending Pitt is anything other than seriously, mind-numbingly good at what he does, and Killing Them Softly is par for the course. Most movies cast the unstoppable hitman as The Joker from The Dark Knight or Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men — a soulless force of nature, not a person, but a dark, ominous, and shadowy threat. And make no mistake — Jackie Cogan is a wretched human being, a killer through and through. But at the same time, when he’s not brutally murdering people in cold blood, there’s an odd charisma to him. He seems, bizarrely, like a nice guy. And it’s not the type of thing like Jeff Daniels’ character in Looper, where the niceness is a façade designed to keep the wheels turning smoothly. He’s even nice to his victims, as much as one can be “nice” while shooting someone dead. He’s not apologetic or anything, but neither does he need them to suffer. Neither does he need to put them in a situation where he can feed off their fear. He’s a professional, exuding professionalism. He’s straight-laced, the character who uses profanity the least, who criticizes everyone else’s drug habits the quickest, who insists that one of his friends treat a hooker properly.

He kills his victims quickly, at a distance: killing them softly, he calls it. Up close, they cry, they shout for their mothers, they soil themselves. He doesn’t like that.

And this is the mechanism that the film exposes, the one I mentioned earlier: the mechanism of disassociation — keeping oneself distant from inflicted suffering, intentional or otherwise, so that one doesn’t have to confront that it exists, or, worse still, that it might in fact be your fault.

The weird thing about Cogan is that, despite being a brutal hitman, I don’t think he’s a total sociopath. Oh, he’s numbed his conscience, that’s for certain. But killing them softly is one of the mechanisms by which he’s done so. When he fires on someone for a distance, he watches intently, his eyes almost pleading: “Don’t move. Don’t get up. Be dead.

If they’re not, he’s got to do it up close and in person, while they suffer. While he sees what he’s done. While he deals with that hurt himself. It never breaks him in the moment, but it wears him down and weighs on him in later conversations, perhaps prompting the film’s already semi-famous final line and the rant that precedes it.

Frankie and Russell, in a strange sense, are the same way. They’re disconnected with the potential consequences of them stealing from other people — beyond the initial “what is the threat of harm to me if I do this” question. It’s subtler and not quite as devious or deliberate as it is in Cogan’s case, but then again: neither is it with us.

And indeed, how does it apply to us? Well, there’s an answer to this question, and it’s relatively simple:

Killing Them Softly is not about violence and crime. It’s about capitalism.

And this is where it gets…iffy.

Now, to be fair, coming on the heels of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (sick of typing that one, Dominik…), just about anything was going to seem like a regression. But then again, Killing Them Softly doesn’t feel so much like Dominik branching out in new directions and meeting with mixed success as he grows as it does him backsliding a little bit.

The thing about Jesse James is that it tackles a relevant issue — people’s pursuit of fame, if my own interpretation of it is correct — and does so in a way that is serious, realistic, and doesn’t require or even ask for the traditional “happy ending,” but if you read between the lines, the solution, the positive message, of the film is relatively easy to detect: we need to stop glamorizing misdeeds, and we probably need to cease hero worship more generally. And then, this goes away. Throughout that film, the solution to the characters’ problems — or at least, Robert Ford’s — is for them simply to cease chasing after arbitrary notoriety, like that will give you some place in the world.

Killing Them Softly sometimes seems more the equivalent of a cynical onlooker throwing his hands up in the air and saying, “Screw it. Everything sucks.”

On one hand, the difficulty — here meant as a compliment — of the film, and what has caused me to wrestle with it in my mind for the last few days, is the fact that, as much as I’d like it to be, I’m not sure it’s wrong: in its central premise if not its cynicism about it.

The disassociation is clearly relevant. There’s one reason why, short of successfully writing something that lots of people want to read or otherwise stumbling into inexplicable success, I’m unlikely ever to be wealthy, and it’s this: at some point, particularly while running large corporations, the powers that be must sit down and say, “What strategies can we use to take this group, our competitor, and cause them to fail while we succeed?”

I really don’t have moral commentary on a decision like that because we all have to make it, even in the simple things of life. And that’s why the film is so difficult to me. It leaves me asking, “Well, yes, it certainly feels wrong to do that to people.” But it also leaves me asking this: “Do you have any better ideas?” And Killing Them Softly doesn’t, really. I’m not sure how justified that is. On one hand, the idea that we’ll ever transform the world into some kind of utopia where everyone’s a winner is clearly unachievable. On the other hand, there certainly seem to be ways through which we could help one another and make the situation better. Of course, the central dilemma remains: how far, how far, can self-interest go before it becomes selfishness?

But where the film feels like backsliding on Dominik’s part is that it is powerfully unsubtle, which is the exact opposite thing I’d say about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was remarkably quiet and almost never just plain spelled things out. Killing Them Softly sometimes feels like an extended rant, and that’s not good when it’s in a situation where it’s being critical of so controversial an issue.

I don’t consider it to be an insightful observation on my part to have noticed that the film is secretly about capitalism; there’s nothing secret about it. Bush/Obama/McCain speeches are playing in the background of nearly every scene for the first half of the film, and they remain a solid presence in the final acts. They’ve always got some kind of ironic commentary related to what’s happening on-screen, and it’s much, much too on-the-nose.

I say this with reservation, of course, because I’m turn between my belief that this movie is unsubtle and my objective knowledge that if it wasn’t so heavy-handed, I would’ve missed the point entirely. But in a move that’s rare for me, I’m actually going to call this a flaw in the film. The central metaphor here — that running the mob is essentially the same as running a corporation, complete with public relations, mop-up guys, behind the scenes deals, and frequent throwing of one another underneath the bus as the bottom line dictates — is frequently a thin one. It could have worked well as a black comedy — and the film does have some darkly comic moments. It could’ve worked well if it had exaggerated this point for humor and found its meaning in that. But it takes this comparison very literally, and it gets to the same place Argo did insinuating that “making a movie and being in the CIA require you to do some of the same things and are therefore totally the same, you guys.” And my response is the same: “Well, yes, in the sense that a upper class guy in a fancy restaurant sipping from a glass of wine is technically speaking doing the same thing as a drunk downing his sixth Budweiser at ten o’clock in the morning.”

The metaphor is thinly stretched, and while the mechanism — the element of disassociating oneself from the people one hurts in the pursuit of oneself — is conveyed loud and clear without getting heavy-handed, the central premise becomes ridiculous at a certain point. When Cogan begins speechifying at the end, it’s hard not to roll your eyes a bit. While it’s somewhat in-character for him, it also feels like Dominik stepping into his skin for a moment and using him as a vessel to convey something that’s been boiling under the surface all this time and just has to get out now.

There’s a sense in which Killing Them Softly is a great film that simply lacks restraint. Its characters are more stand-ins for concepts, but they work well in those roles while still feeling like real people who could actually exist. The dialogue is sharp, and despite frequent criticisms from others, I never found it overly talky — at least, not unenjoyably so. The direction is just completely spot-on, par for the course.

At the same time, it lacks trust for its audience. You can feel it swinging toward subtlety and even-handedness, but then, it freaks out and screams it at you because it can’t handle the notion that its Significance will be understated. I think there’s a heck of a lot of value in this thing, because it’s had me asking questions for days, so I don’t regret it in the slightest. I haven’t found a lot of answers, though.

 

-Matt T.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Starring- Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Reda Kateb, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Strong, J.J. Kandel, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt

Director- Kathryn Bigelow

R- strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxC_JNz5Vbg

When we’re old, two very distinct moments will be permanently etched into the memory of every single person in my generation, and I needn’t say what either of those are.

Since Zero Dark Thirty deals primarily with the latter of those two moments, that’s where we’ll focus: I was a student, and it was actually through a professor that I found out. It was a morning class, and I read news in the evening, which, on top of the fact that I haven’t listened to the radio in years, managed to keep me in the dark long enough to be surprised by the news that the most wanted man on Earth had been killed.

There’s a sense in which Zero Dark Thirty works simply because it is very likely a first-time experience for those in my generation: a film based on real-life history-making, where we can, while watching it, remember where we were and what we were doing what the events in it transpired. Watching it, I could say to myself, “I was studying for a Journalism Principles and Practice final, and halfway around the world, Seal Team Six was preparing to burst into Osama bin Laden’s fortress.”

I remember that, when I heard the news, I didn’t know how to feel. Everything I was screamed out against celebrating the death of another human being, even one who had wrought so much unnecessary destruction. But even the parts of me that wanted to cheer really couldn’t. It seemed such a sudden and unspectacular conclusion to ten years of work, speculation and fear in the wake of a generation-defining tragedy. In a sense, you thought, “…That’s it?”

For years, Osama bin Laden had been more figurehead than person, the name and face of the distant and evil boogeyman who haunted our nightmares. But he left this world an old man, shot down unarmed in the dead of night in his home — not a desert cave — surrounded by family and putting up no fight whatsoever.

Zero Dark Thirty seems to share this confusion and conflictedness, and that’s why it feels, if not always great, then at least right. It is a film of the people and by the people. It’s sold itself as film journalism, and that’s how it looks — objective, unbiased, and distant. But it’s made by humans — humans who, like all of us, are weary of all this. And it shows. It has that same conflicted feeling.

On one hand, Zero Dark Thirty never really reduces or softens the awfulness of the actions bin Laden set into motion, whether directly or indirectly. It never shies away from the pervasiveness of the threat. The film opens with the actual recordings of 9-1-1 phone calls on Sept. 11 — the frantic last words of real human beings, the closest thing the world has to a window into the other side. They’re as gut-wrenching as ever, and they never become any less so.

On the fictionalized end of things, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t balk when terrorists attack a hotel and gun down all the nonbelievers. It doesn’t dwell on the violence as a more sadistic film might, but neither does it cut away. Neither does it soften the blow. Neither does it pass by the final terror of the innocents.

The threat is everywhere. Not even the agents, behind compound walls guarded by elite forces, are safe — as they learn the hard way. The attacks are sudden and violent, almost never built up through the score or the camerawork or the acting. One second, characters are talking and laughing; the next, they’re dragging bloodied bodies out of the rubble.

It’s hard to feel as though it’s not necessary — to resist, to give as good as you get. It feels right. But when retribution comes, it’s empty. Where’s the resolution? Where’s the euphoric moment where the problem is solved? When do the characters fall into each other’s arms, knowing that they’ve found peace?

The hunt for Osama bin Laden leaves a trail — of bodies, friend and foe alike; of tortured prisoners; of crumbling alliances; of spent resources. When, finally, there’s a body to show for it, it would only feel disingenuous to feign a sense of peace, of victory. And Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t.

We see most of this through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative who is ostensibly a composite of several real-life people. She is more or less your standard Hollywood no-nonsense warrior woman — determined, hawkish, won’t take no for an answer, knows exactly how to grease the wheels to keep the retribution train a-rollin’.

At the same time, she seems, at times, less the sort of person who believes herself the sword in the right hand of God soldiering onward in courage and persistence (though there are elements of this) and more the sort who has established a foothold in a career that is traditionally a man’s world and clinging to it for all she’s worth. For Maya, it seems less an issue of justice and more an issue of territory. She’s staked a claim, and now, she’s protecting it — ferociously. There’s nothing for her in the private sphere; her job is absolutely her life.

We learn that she was recruited straight out of high school — from childhood directly into the world of covert warfare. It’s her life; she doesn’t know anything else. There’s a soul and a conscience within her. She’s discomfited at first by the sight of torture but becomes more and more hardened to it as it becomes a means to the end she’s chasing after — glory more than bin Laden, it sometimes seems. And when a friend dies on the hunt, she’s frozen, unmovable — at least until she receives bad news about her own case, which snaps her out of it almost immediately. She goes back into warrior mode.

All of these things combine to make her the perfect vessel to convey this sense of confusion.

She sees directly the cost of the prize she seeks — not just in money and man hours, but in lives, in moral compromises, in the basic loss of her own humanity, in the eyes of a soldier who gunned down an unarmed woman who got between him and her terrorist husband and doesn’t seem bothered by it. And when the body is in front of her, that’s when it hits home. She has a crisis much like that of Kevin Spacey’s character in Margin Call — some people devote themselves to their life’s work, and the end result is a house that they built, a book that they wrote, a Nobel Prize that they won. Her entire life has been about bin Laden, and in that moment, staring into her target’s dead eyes, what does she have to show for her life’s work? A body.

The final scene is especially poignant — loneliness, hollowness, a sense that there’s nowhere to go from here. Justice was done. And yet, somehow, it wasn’t. It became all about one man, but it consumed the lives of many more than just him.

And at what cost? Other than Maya, Zero Dark Thirty has perhaps only one character who is particularly compelling: Dan (Jason Clarke), one of the CIA’s interrogators. He eventually gives up his role in favor of a desk job stateside: needs to do normal things for once, he said.

What’s interesting is that this doesn’t appear to be because he’s come to feel for his subjects. Rather, he seems to come to realize that he feels nothing for them, and he wonders what this says about him and the life he’s lived. It’s hard to miss the parallels between the prisoners and Dan’s pet monkeys: both live in cages, but he pampers and plays with and feeds the latter while beating and starving and locking up the former.

The film maintains an odd sense of detachment — journalistic detachment, one might say — from its subject matter, and this can be off-putting in the moment, as it prevents it from pulling you in as it might. But Zero Dark Thirty is a film you appreciate better in retrospect, more for what you learned from it than what it taught you. The detachment forces the audience to do the exact same amount of work its members would have to do if they were witnessing the torture of a human being in front of them in real life. I was startled by the mildness of the reaction I had to those scenes, which was still, to be fair, quite a reaction, but that fact has kept me turning the issue over and over in my mind in the days since seeing it.

The torture in this film produces results, but only in the most basic sense. Yes, it gets information out of its subjects. That information, however, is frequently useless even when accurate — and accuracy is frequently difficult to ascertain. The characters often have to distinguish between information obtained through torture and information freely offered, more or less — people will say anything to make the pain stop. The revelations that lead to bin Laden come exclusively through other means.

And again, the film asks — even if the torture did lead directly to bin Laden, was the outcome worth the price? Was it worth even the price that was paid?

Its answer: bafflement.

As usual, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal make a good team here, Boal’s writing sharp and precise and Bigelow’s direction the rap music of filmmaking: brutal and rhythmic, lacking in pretense and usually in poetry as well. It’s all grit and no style, and it pays off with subject matter like this.

At the same time, Zero Dark Thirty is somewhat less the tour de force of The Hurt Locker, if only because Bigelow and Boal took the world by surprise with that one. Zero Dark Thirty had something to live up to. And it’s not really an outward growth of its predecessor; rather, it sits on about the same level. To be fair, that’s still a pretty high level. But there are still many ways in which Zero Dark Thirty feels like a film we’ve seen before.

And some of the cracks are showing. Zero Dark Thirty is a true story that ends up being more bound by the historical events on which it’s based than set free by them. Too much of the film is spent with the characters being passive, the plot happening around them more than governed by their own actions. They wait for information to arrive and then make decisions about how to act upon it. This, of course, is how it happens in real life, but it’s less compelling as drama.

Zero Dark Thirty is also, however, largely a plot-driven movie, and outside of Maya and, to a lesser extent, Dan — neither of whom is a new archetype, simply well-done versions of old ones — there aren’t many interesting characters to speak of. They have traits and are perfectly well portrayed by their actors, but their motivations and personalities are rarely seen and never understood. The movie can get into long stretches where very little is happening, and there isn’t substantial character development to get through those speed bumps. It can feel longer than it is, particularly given that it’s climax could easily have been ten minutes shorter without sabotaging the feelings for which it’s aiming.

At the same time, it is nearly a perfect photograph of a time and a place — ours — and it’s difficult to remember the last time a film so accurately captured an emotional state without dwelling in it all throughout its run-time, or even particularly often. Normally, it’s a source of aggravation to me when a film has so many more questions than answers; sometimes, it takes on the appearance of nihilism. But other times, the question is the answer, and rarely has that been truer than it is in Zero Dark Thirty.

 

   –Matt T.

Argo (2012)

Starring- Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler

Director- Ben Affleck

R- language and some violent images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w918Eh3fij0

Argo is a good movie that, thanks to its Best Picture win, will only be remembered for not being a great one, and that’s kind of a sad thing.

Based on true events that one might call implausible even for a movie were they not, well, true, Argo is set during the time of the Iranian Revolution. Rioting mobs attack the U.S. Embassy in Iran, taking hostage most of the employees there, using them as a bargaining chip to get the U.S. to send back their deposed shah to face justice.

Six Americans escape and take up residence in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The threat to them is perceived as a more potent one, as the eyes of the world are not on them. If they are captured, they will be executed as spies.

With foreigners, particularly Americans, fleeing the country left and right, every option for extracting them seems lost. Then, operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with “the best bad idea” they have — stage the production of a fake sci-fi movie, cast the six as members of its Canadian crew, and fly them out under false identities.

And thus, Argo is born — an idea so crazy it just might work.

Look, for about five minutes, I was thinking about breaking my annual tradition of turning my review of the Best Picture winner into an overly long treatise on the Academy Awards and whatnot. But you are not so lucky.

So, if you’re here to read a review of Argo — and since I kind of branded this as a movie review, that’s to be expected; fortunately, I don’t think bloggers can get sued for false advertising — you’ll want to skip ahead to somewhere around page 47 of this novel.

To be perfectly honest, I love the Academy Awards. I almost never think they get the big winners even remotely right. But I still love them. I love the buildup, I love the speculation, I usually love the movies. I love the ceremony — the exaggerated pomp and circumstance, the fact that almost every comedic bit ends in adorable failure.

Do they have problems? Well, yeah.

It probably goes without saying considering that the whole thing, when it comes down to it, is basically the film industry giving itself a hearty pat on the back, but they are much to concerned about image. The Best Picture winner can usually be identified — or at least narrowed down to a certain list — using a Venn diagram of sorts: one circle marked as “films movie buffs and critics actually like and respect” and one marked as “films that will also be enjoyable to the general public if they’ll actually watch them.” And most of the winners — Argo very much included — feel specifically calculated to match those requirements.

Moreover — and in a way, related — the winner needs to be the one that the most members of the Academy award the number one slot, not the one with the highest overall score after aggregating all the different rankings. Doing it the former way might not always pick the best film — or even usually — but it would probably at least pick interesting ones with more regularity. The way they’re doing it now, what we more often get is the film that was the most palatable. Personally, I don’t define “best film” as “film that is least hated,” but this system ensures that that’s usually the one that gets top honors.

Argo is a good movie and possibly one of the better ones this year, but one notices that, even among the big nominees, no one is talking about it. Everyone liked it and moved on. It didn’t particularly stoke anyone’s ire, and that’s a low bar for picking the best movie. Other nominees? Amour and Zero Dark Thirty have provoked tons of conversation regarding extremely controversial issues. Django Unchained was subject to a strange meta-conversation about violence and race issues in media. Lincoln started some squabbling over historical issues. Life of Pi tackled religious matters. Beasts of the Southern Wild has been very love-it-or-hate-it in the art community, and a lot of good discussions have emerged from that. Even Les Miserables, largely regarded as being a nominee only because it was pre-ordained as one, started an argument about how properly to direct spectacle. Argo doesn’t even have any aspects that are particularly bad — not to the extent that people would begin to talk about how they might’ve been done better. It did its job well and without any overly glaring flaws, and it’s not super interesting. And oddly enough, those were the reasons it was declared the best movie of the year. That, to me, isn’t super compelling.

But, honestly, I’m going to take a different tack today. Even having only seen three of the Best Picture nominees right now, I already disagree with the decision that was made because I think Lincoln is a far better film than this — and that’s my opinion. The Academy had a different one, and I’m completely fine with that. Everyone’s entitled to their own viewpoint, and I’m able to defend mine based on my own, independent series of arguments. The Academy is allowed to get it wrong because there is no such thing as getting it right. You see, the reason I love the Academy Awards even though I almost always disagree with them is this — it’s an opportunity, one night out of the year, for people to celebrate movies, and to celebrate some of the ones that are meaningful and touching and culturally significant. Oh, it can be pompous and self-aggrandizing, but it’s a lot of fun, and even if the winner isn’t the “right” one… Well, how many ordinary people had heard of Amour before this year’s ceremony? Basically none.

No, this year, I’ve got a different target. Me. And other people like me. Because contrary to popular opinion, the Academy Awards aren’t the problem; a lot of the people who watch them are.

What I have to say, distilled to its essence, is this: film nerds, you are not better than everyone else. Now, some elaboration.

A few sites aside (this one, naturally, being one of them), I mostly avoid film discussion on the Internet, particularly on websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, because even when the movie under discussion is one of the most celebrated and potentially meaningful ever made, every topic on its board is always reduced to some pointless question of its “worth” — technically, not in terms of what it actually meant to you or how it affected or changed you.

It’s always meaningless and mean-spirited bickering about how “good” it is, stretching for some objective measure that doesn’t exist and failing to find it. And it isn’t even couched in terms of debating its merit to find a way of better understanding it. No, it’s actually centered around the participants in the debate and their egos, about who has “good taste” and who has “bad taste” — we know this because of how rapidly it devolves purely into insults and trolling.

And here’s the thing — when we reduce our participation in the arts to some outward expression of arbitrary intellectual qualities, the whole thing becomes meaningless.

The entire reason art has purpose is because of its ability to change us — to help us understand a person who is unlike us, to force us to ask deep questions of morality about which we’ve never had the opportunity to really think, to help us understand ourselves, to help us find our place in the world. Sometimes, yes, to entertain, but this is both secondary and part and parcel of all the aforementioned elements.

So, when I see people reducing the whole experience to its technical worth, how much they liked it, and — more importantly — using it as a measure of how smart they are and how good their taste is, what I really see is a medium stripped of its value.

Because the fact that it’s so heated, the fact that it’s so mean, the fact that it’s about praising yourself and what you are now than trying to be better and improve your understanding, if of nothing else then at least of the craft — all of that is proof to me that, regardless of what you “like,” you’re not really using film for its highest possible purposes.

I see it all the time: “Well, I like The Godfather because of its story and characters, and you like Transformers because explosions, so my taste is better than yours.” And I say to that — so what? Ultimately, you are both liking those films for the same reason: that they entertain you on some base level and not because they’re making you better people, as your demeanor and attitude toward them indicates that they most assuredly are not. So, ultimately, you both watch them solely to be entertained, and neither of you is better or worse for the experience. But because one of those movies is “good” and the other is “bad,” one of you is deriving more value from it? There’s no discernible evidence of that in your behavior.

And the end result of this is the saddest part. These people are so determined that their taste in art is a symbol of their “betterness” that they begin chasing after whatever supposedly objective measures they can find that will service as evidence of the rightness of their tastes. The general public likes to fall back on box office receipts: “Look how much money it made! I’m not the only one who likes it, which means I’m right and smarter than you!”

And the film community, well, they like the awards ceremonies. If something wins a bunch of awards, surely that is evidence that it is great, right? After all, these people are experts who work in the industry; they must know what is objectively good and objectively bad!

And naturally, it all goes badly when the film community’s movie of choice doesn’t take home top honors. And it usually doesn’t. The end result is that films gain unfair bad reputations that will stick with them forever.

Argo is a good movie. It deserves to be remembered that way. It probably won’t be, though. People are angry at it because it stole the top prize from films that a lot of movie buffs needed to win in order to validate their opinions, to prove to the naysayers that they are “right.” Now, they have to defend whatever movies they think are better with actual arguments rather than just throwing out a list that proves their intelligence.

And I say this with as much gentleness as possible because I know that, until very recently, I was that person, and one can probably even see that by reading some of my older reviews. And I’m a bit ashamed of that, honestly. But the point is that I’ve grown out of it — or at least, I hope I have — which is a necessary part of the artistic development of anyone who chooses to be passionately involved in any of this.

Because when we make it into a contest that’s solely about proving our own intelligence, we rob it of any power or meaning it has and reduce it to just another stupid thing we argue about. Who ultimately cares about who’s right and who’s wrong, about what’s good and what’s bad, about who has good taste and who has bad taste? These are irrelevant questions, and they’re destructive ones, because films like Argo that get in the way of people’s self-aggrandizement are dragged through the mud for absolutely no reason other than that. The important question: what does it mean to you, and how does it change you? Art should be a discussion, not an argument. We all have notions of what’s good and what’s bad, but when we decide we’re “right,” we stop learning from it, and it becomes nothing more than a petty fight.

So, I guess what I’m saying is this: yes, the Academy could make the situation better by steeling up, taking a few risks, quitting the politics, and not worrying about what everyone thinks. But everyone could make the situation even better by just being happy we’re talking about this at all, enjoying the celebration of a medium about which we’re quite passionate, and, for heaven’s sake, not using the awards as a chip in our stupid game of proving our awesomeness. The filmmakers themselves seem to understand, for the most part, that it’s not a competition. Why can’t we?

(REVIEW BEGINS HERE — SORRY, GUYS)

Argo is a good movie and probably not one of the best of the year. That’s my opinion, and a lot of people seem to share it. That it won is largely irrelevant. I still had fun with the annual awards ceremony and was lucky I didn’t put any money down on it on account of pretty much betting the house on Lincoln.

On the whole, I had a lot of fun with Argo — it’s tense, exciting and well-written, and it manages to work in much the same way as an action movie despite the fact that its hero never so much as throws a punch (which, as an aside, is one great way we might continue to make populist entertainment without being totally irresponsible and accidentally fostering negative cultural norms).

Argo is that rare film that manages to be jingoistic and patriotic and simple without doing so in a way that really irritates me, largely by focusing almost exclusively on the protagonists and not really having a villain — at least, not in the sense that there’s a specific bad guy who needs to be defeated.

Moreover, it’s a film that takes a historical event and uses it as an opportunity to celebrate true heroism. It’s not often that a movie based on true events ends up being largely guiltless fun, but it works here solely because of the fact that Argo is a story about people saving other people and doing so with their minds rather than their fists. There’s no sense in which the film is even remotely uncomfortable; there’s no reason at any point to question the morality of what its characters are doing.

In fact, some of the figures in this film have become personal favorite movie heroes of mine. Many of the characters behave bravely and put their lives on the line for others, but I think special credit has to go to the Canadian ambassador. He’s the only character in the movie who could be called truly altruistic, as he stands absolutely nothing to gain from his actions. He risks his life and his country’s aspirations with Iran for the sole purpose of helping innocent people who needed it. He might be called the most heroic character in the film if not for one other, whose actions I will not spoil but who ultimately risks life and livelihood just like the others but sacrifices more than everyone else when all is said and done. I was pleasantly surprised that this character was not merely discarded when no longer needed and did indeed get some resolution.

Argo also benefits from a sharp script whose dialogue is witty and frequently funny and whose characters, if not always particularly interesting, are at least fun and likable. It’s nice to see a film that introduces character information incidentally, more for the purpose of grounding them than giving them more and more personal problems that need to be solved or random skills that will inevitably become important later. It uses some characters that are more types than people, but even those are done better than usual: for example, the group of six has the usual contrarian who fights the hero on every detail, but his contrariness comes out of something real and isn’t just him being a one-note jerk. It makes sense that people in that situation would act like that, and the character isn’t portrayed as an antagonist and actually gets a few heroic moments himself. The actors are all well cast and neatly suited to the parts they play. John Goodman’s role, for instance, lets him play out his usual boisterousness without it being as out of place as it was in, say, Flight.

Where we get into weaknesses… Well, the first of them is part strength and part weakness. Argo is very much a movie, and its blood pumps with the standard tropes of the thriller genre, up to and including the climax where every insipid detail of the escape plan very nearly goes wrong but corrects itself at the last possible moment. It makes it a lot of fun to watch, but any sense that the movie inhabits something approaching reality leaves with it.

Moreover, the film doesn’t really take off until it gets its protagonist to Iran. Until then, it coasts on enough sharp dialogue and playful energy to at least keep your eyes on the screen, but it’s only at that moment that it genuinely becomes fun to watch, as the real gravity of the situation begins to set in.

The real problems of the film, for me, lie under the surface as they often do. Argo is constantly drawing parallels between what Mendez does for a living and what his Hollywood cohorts do. To some extent, it makes sense, particularly on a personal level, and while it is interesting to see the way the skills translate back and forth, at a certain point, Argo starts to feel like a really obnoxious pat on the back: “Hey, guys, making a movie is totally like being in the CIA!” Yes, in the same way that making a sandwich is totally like being a gourmet chef.

It’s also kind of shameful the way the Canadian ambassador’s role is downplayed and shoved under the rug at the end. The Americans are extremely reluctant to defer credit to him, and the movie acts like we’re supposed to agree with that, but again — he risked as much as anyone else and did it for no reason that would benefit him. In the end, the film’s deferment to Canada feels like “okay, Canada, we’ll let you have this one,” and that’s a touch unfair.

But on the whole, Argo is fun to watch; it’s just not an awful lot more than that. And that’s fine — neither are some other movies that will be remembered for precisely that reason. It’s that Best Picture win that makes the whole situation tricky. Hopefully, it won’t backfire as dramatically as it has in the past. On a hopeful note, it really does seem like the film community is better able to passively enjoy the Academy Awards for what they are with each year that passes.

In the meantime, I might not think it’s one of the best, but I’m still really glad I saw Argo this week. And that’s how I’m going to remember it.

(Also, Hollywood, just for the record — this movie didn’t need to be it, because it’s not about that, but I would totally pay to see a serious film exploring the political situation in which this one is set.)

-Matt T.

Rise of the Guardians (2012)

Starring- Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo

Director- Peter Ramsey

PG- thematic elements and some mildly scary action

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd71LWhCO4s

Messy, messy, messy.

Also ambitious. And in an odd way, uniquely beautiful.

Half of me is unsure exactly how much of my somewhat-appreciation for Rise of the Guardians is an A-for-effort kind of thing because let there be no mistake about it — I am pleased to no end by the mere fact that DreamWorks tried this movie. It’s so far outside of their usual stable. Even when they’ve made movies that are moderately successful on the level of storytelling, such as Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, they’re still informed by a decidedly modern comedic sensibility and a winking notion that it’s all just in good fun — with varying degrees of success.

And here, with Rise of the Guardians, we have a film that’s not just unique in the DreamWorks oeuvre but pretty distinct in the animated film industry as a whole. It has big aspirations — magic, wonder, world-building, story, character. Humor is very secondary here; there’s startling little. It’s not at all difficult to appreciate what they were trying to do here and hope they have a few more tries at it.

At the same time, as a first attempt, it’s, well, unsurprisingly a bit rough around the edges. What we have here is the shell of a great movie and a potential childhood classic for the current generation, bogged down by a script that, frankly, could use a couple of rewrites.

Described as The Avengers for little kids, Rise of the Guardians unites Santa Claus (a.k.a. North, voiced by Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman (who is silent) as the guardians of childhood, an elite group among mythological figures (who all appear to be real in this film) who are tasked with fostering the dreams of children even as they protect them from nightmares. One such nightmare is Pitch, a.k.a. The Boogeyman (Jude Law), a black and ominous figure who, tired of parents who tell their children there’s no such thing as the Boogeyman and the children who believe them, longs to be as real to them as Santa — and feared above all else.

To combat the threat, the Man in the Moon — a mysterious and unseen figure credited with granting all fairy tale figures their powers and duties — appoints a new member to the guardians: Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a mischievous troublemaker who doesn’t have many aspirations of greatness — that he openly acknowledges. But now, he finds himself locked in the battle between dreams and nightmares, trying to prove himself as a guardian — and to figure out why the heck he’s there in the first place.

Look, it’s easier just to come right out and say it than to beat around the bush or try to build it up or whatever: Rise of the Guardians looks very, very nice, and that is going to be the understatement of the year, I’m certain. Regardless of what goes wrong with the film — and there’s quite a bit of that — the animators deserve a very substantial raise.

Rise of the Guardians is not a film that’s content merely to be technically impressive, which it certainly is. It’s a film about the dreams of children, and it inhabits numerous different worlds that are the stuff of, well, dreams.

Each character in the guardians gets his or her own visual motif, completely unique to that figure and matching his or her role or skill set. This Santa Claus inhabits what is essentially a steampunk North Pole: rustic and hand-crafted like a decades-old forest lodge, filled with creaking floorboards and crackling fireplaces, but filled out with only the most up-to-date technology: a giant, swirling, electronic globe that keeps tabs on the children, a rocket-powered sleigh, an active and bustling factory of toys — the whole nine yards.

The Easter Bunny’s world is reminiscent of a jungle right on the edge of civilization — carved stones, strewn about, covered in moss and surrounded by lush green grass and flowing rivers and waterfalls. It has a look of tradition and earthiness and life to it.

The Tooth Fairy’s world, on the other hand, resembles a floating temple, or rather, a series of them. It hangs in the wispy clouds of a perpetually golden sky and consists of floating, rainbow-colored spires that don’t seem to have a beginning and end individually but mesh together overall. The Tooth Fairy’s design, actually, is a very novel one; she’s covered in what appear to be feathers or scales, multicolored, sparkling, and shifting hue under the lights.

Most impressive, though, is the Sandman. Predictably, everything he does is accomplished with a sand-like substance that he can meld into different shapes at well. It’s golden in color, and he can use a lot of it at once. Naturally, the film gets a lot of mileage out of big scenes with sweeping wisps of gold cutting across the night sky, changing shapes into flying manta rays and plodding dinosaurs and pretty much everything the Sandman thinks children will appreciate — which is a lot.

Pitch gets a similar but more ominous motif, represented by harsh, black sand that emphasizes the rough edges and moves in a quicker, more brutal, and more ferocious way — a snake striking. He’s followed by black horses that are made of the same stuff and are a more threatening presence than him; they recall nothing so much as the Black Riders from The Lord of the Rings.

But it’s not just the look — even the functionality of these worlds is new, interesting, and thought-through. Santa travels by teleportation — he’d pretty much need to, after all. He accomplishes this by thinking of where he wants to go and then shaking a magic snowglobe, which coveys the destination and then projects an aurora-like portal through which he then flies. The Easter Bunny’s eggs go through a long painting process, and largely on their own — with guidance from the Bunny, they sprout legs and walk through rivers of paint. And any battles involving Jack Frost, the Sandman, and Pitch are absolute sights to behold.

And then there’s the script.

Generally speaking, there’s some kind of framework there. This all could’ve worked, and you can see the ways that it might’ve. It works beautifully in moments: the opening scene is absolutely spectacular, quiet and beautiful and mysterious, dark but also peaceful, character-driven and poetic. It sets an almost impossible standard for the movie that follows it. Great, too, is a scene in which Jack convinces a child to believe using ice paintings on his window in the middle of the night.

And that illustrates one of the overarching problems with Rise of the Guardians: it functions almost entirely off of wonderment, and, mostly, it doesn’t so much draw wonder out of its audience as it does forcibly create it and then rub your nose in it.

Its visual spectacle becomes visual excess — not because it’s not imaginative and the imagery isn’t powerful, but because, at a certain point, that exact same combination of the flowing, uplifting, wide-eyed score and the sweeping shots of Sandman’s light engulfing a city while the other characters fly gently through it loses its effectiveness. It frequently outright pauses the movie so we can have a moment of wonderment. If a character is using their powers in any way, that’s the emotion they’re going to go for at that moment. It brings the movie to a screeching halt every time. The wonderment is at its best when it’s a natural product of the story — and when it’s quiet, subtle, and not focused solely on big, sweeping trailer shots.

But structurally, the whole thing is pretty messy, too. It has a beginning and an ending, but it has trouble filling out the spaces between. It needs to go to all of these worlds, so it finds excuses to do so. Those excuses lead to Pitch and the guardians interacting entirely too often, completely depriving him of his presence, mystique, and threat as a villain. Most of the scenes are showing us new and thoroughly wonderful things, which is appreciated, but they lack a narrative through-line to lend them genuine emotional heft. Moreover, the film jumps between worlds too quickly, since pretty much everyone can teleport. It constricts the world, leaving it feeling disparate and unexplored, too often a mere collection of pretty things and not something whose mythology ever really sticks. Odd decisions are made with what is shown to us and what is told; the big and inevitable “hero fails but gets one last chance to prove himself” scene happens off-screen, deals a major plot development, and is lacking in every necessary emotion — the reasons the guardians are angry with Jack, the reasons Jack is disappointed in himself, and the fear of Pitch’s power over the heroes.

Thematically, it’s a muddle. While it is surprising and incredibly laudable to see a kids’ movie at least touching on notions of God and predestination and a cosmic plan for the universe, it all comes in and out randomly. The first half is about Jack’s search for purpose and his desire to know why he exists, why he was chosen to be Jack Frost, why he was chosen to be a guardian. The second half adopts some otherworldly and somewhat arbitrary kids’ movie moral about “finding your center” or whatever and basically never addresses the question of its far more interesting first half. Moreover, it never convincingly answers Jack’s questions — inevitably, he finds himself and becomes a hero, but it’s never clear why he specifically was fitted to that exact purpose and required to fulfill it. His heroism seems more happy accident than design — an interesting notion, to be fair, but inconsistent with a film that’s advancing some notion of fate.

So, for much of its run-time, Rise of the Guardians becomes exactly what it intends not to be — a visual marvel that’s ultimately kind of an empty experience emotionally. It’s the type of film that really ought to draw you in, but it doesn’t, except in moments.

Of course, it’s impossible to hate. It’s surely DreamWorks Animation’s most ambitious film to date — solemn, magical, story-driven, filled with wonderment. It has a difficult time making all of those elements work, but when it succeeds, you get a genuine glimmer of what this studio is capable of doing.

It’s hard to say, “A for effort,” but today, I feel like I need to: seriously, DreamWorks, a very solid A for effort. Please don’t stop trying.

 

-Matt T.

Skyfall (2012)

Starring- Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear

Director- Sam Mendes

PG-13- intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kw1UVovByw

Throughout college, I took two or three film classes, both of which focused mainly on the technical, day-to-day aspects of production, and had Skyfall been released five or six years earlier, it no doubt would have completely eclipsed one of them and comprised a substantial portion of the other, because that’s the type of film that it is — an utter master class in sheer craftsmanship — and that’s how it’s going to be remembered. Release it with the comprehensive making-of documentaries that came with The Lord of the Rings extended edition DVDs, and it’ll be a done deal.

It’s also, script-wise, kind of a mess.

In the third of the “new” Bond films, good old 007 — James Bond (Daniel Craig) — is on a mission to retrieve a stolen list of undercover MI6 operatives, and of course, it all goes awry, but more so than usual. Not only does the perp escape with the names, but Bond goes down to friendly fire, the result of a forced self-sacrifice on the part of his hardened boss, M (Judi Dench). He’s missing and believed dead, though of course he isn’t.

The incident calls M’s authority into question, and with bad timing — a mysterious individual begins hacking into MI6 computers and perpetrating terrorist attacks against it, leaving only a simple message for M: “Think on your sins.”

In the midst of the chaos, Bond returns from “enjoying being dead” to lend a helping hand. What he finds is a war with a borderline one-man army: Silva (Javier Bardem), a jaded former operative out for revenge. A jaded former operative with far too much in common with Bond himself.

It’s long been a fan-favorite Bond tradition to have the opening scene, usually (but not always) unrelated to the rest of the film, immediately followed by the movie’s theme song — often a big, jazzy, sexy number with a top-notch popular vocalist — and accompanied by an abstract, animated music video.

Skyfall is notable for where it breaks tradition here — the opening scene is related to the rest of the film, in fact directly setting it up, and the song/music video, while performed in the usual Bond style, is melancholy and reserved, not about how incredible the hero is but about his fall into despair and darkness, though not without hope. More on that later.

More noteworthy is the fact that, for what seems like the first time, the opening video and song feel as much a part of the actual film as anything else — or perhaps, more accurately, the film that follows seems to grow out of it.

It’s not uncommon for the song and music video to incorporate themes and motifs from the film — for instance, the card game design of Casino Royale’s opening. But Skyfall seems to hint at later events in its opening, places Bond will go, things he will experience.

Moreover, it’s suggestive of the professionalism and imagination with which Skyfall is constructed. Whether it’s one of the best films of the year or not, it is certainly one of the best made — perhaps the best made.

The flow of the opening video, the way it transitions from one place or thought to the next; its color scheme, dark blues and bright reds, speckled with golden light, muted in some places and not in others; its lighting, which appears as sunlight streaming through the still surface of a clear lake — all of these things are replicated and repeated throughout the rest of the film.

And the whole thing becomes a tremendous visual experience that simply has to be seen to be believed.

Regardless of the actor portraying him, Bond has always cut an impressive and distinct figure. Skyfall recognizes that, and it finds beauty in contrast — silhouettes, bright colors, lights that could nearly be described as textured. The location scouts and set designers certainly deserve some kind of award for their work here. Whether it’s a fight between silhouettes that occurs before the gyrating blue waves of lights in a high-tech room whose function couldn’t be described and probably needn’t be, or a battle atop sand under the grimy light of a seedy criminal’s hangout, or Bond’s first appearance atop a lake dotted with floating candles and framed by a luminous red dragon, Skyfall is a film replete with wonders, constantly searching for and presenting new sights and sounds. Perhaps especially memorable, if more appropriately low-key, is an underwater struggle — surrounded by muted blue, swept above by the rage of a burning fire flowing over a cold and icy surface. Contrast, conflict, inexplicable beauty — this is Skyfall. That Roger Deakins is likely one of the greatest living cinematographers does not hurt this in the slightest.

Regardless of what the script does for him — a lot in some places, very little in others — Skyfall is constructed from the ground up to make Bond look good. And it succeeds in this — mostly.

I suppose now I should say what I thought of the other films in this particular trilogy, since I never had the opportunity to review them. I remember almost nothing whatsoever about Quantum of Solace, which seems to be a majority opinion about that film, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Casino Royale, on the other hand, is very flawed but also very ambitious — and interesting. I appreciate greatly the way it transformed Bond into a character who can be understood, if not in the why then at least in the what. You got a sense of the internal mechanisms that drive him and inform the decisions he makes, even if you didn’t necessarily determine how they got there. It made him a character who compelled audiences rather than a simple but charismatic figure for whom viewers would cheer.

Casino Royale’s main problem, if anything, was that it still tried to play up the suave, sexy fun of the Bond franchise while also deconstructing it in the context of reality. And that problem persists in Skyfall.

These new films are always dancing on the line between being fun and awesome Bond movies in the traditional style and being deep and realistic examinations of the character in a way that essentially says, “It really would suck to be Bond.”

And to be fair, they are fairly skilled at doing both of these things. There are scenes in Skyfall that will affect you emotionally or click with you on an intellectual level — a eureka moment where the piece finally fits into the puzzle — just as there are scenes that will put a big, dumb smile on your face (the film’s live action opening is as stunning an action sequence as I’ve seen in a movie all year).

But any given film can only wrestle with itself for so long before both tones begin to crash into one another and collapse beneath each other’s weight.

Ultimately, this is a film trilogy that is best taken not as a series of action movies showing the rise of a hero but rather the fall of an ordinary man. They function as prequels, showing how Bond became, essentially, a violent sociopath. They are, again, deconstructions of the character, showing that when you remove the occasionally cartoonish tone of the old movies, what you’re left with is a character who’s kind of a bad person — or at least would be, if he inhabited a world that functioned by our rules.

Skyfall is another interesting dive into that premise, but the fact that it still on some level aspires to be the old, dumb Bond undoes it occasionally. In its attitude toward women, for instance, it’s difficult to tell if it’s Bond being callous or if it’s the film — particularly given one especially tragic instance midway through. These films seem, again, to be setting up Bond as the stone-cold killer who was the star of all these old films, but to play that in a way that reflects reality. And yet, they always do their best to end on cheerful notes, with a jazz band blasting the old theme and Bond smirking at the camera and dropping a one-liner or a famous quote. The end of Skyfall even seems to insinuate an open path to a happy life that Bond could potentially take in a future film.

There is worth to be had in examining the bizarre, mommy-issues-ridden relationship Bond has with M — one that is reflected in a far darker way in the film’s villain, Silva. It’s almost an abusive relationship, the way M readily discards those who become inconvenient and elevates those who are telling her what she wants to hear and doing for her what she wants done. They feed off of her love and respect, but she doesn’t particularly have much of it to offer — get the mission done or get out of my sight.

In its final moments, Silva’s motive becomes less revenge and more escape. And when it all comes to fruition, there’s a sense on Bond’s end that maybe he doesn’t entirely disagree. The movie’s attempt at closure seems to suggest that there’s a chance all of what has transpired has made its characters free — or at least given them the opportunity to do so.

Of course, you could argue one way or another and run circles around it for ages without ever reaching a conclusion, and that’s because the film lapses in and out of fun mode at the drop of the hat. It can become difficult to know how you’re supposed to feel about anything that happens. Its grasps at emotional significance often feel contrived and built more on standard tropes for “the movie where the hero falls” installment in most franchises. The parallels with The Dark Knight Rises are extremely difficult to ignore, even as you remind yourself that the two scripts were likely written around the same time — speaking more to the fact that it’s a broad and stereotypical approach than to either of them copycatting the other.

Moreover, too much of the script feels like contrivance to get to the next action sequence or big set piece or dazzling visual — go to this location and accomplish this task to get this information, which will lead you to this next location where you will have this next task.

Silva is introduced far too late in the game. There is some wisdom in obscuring one’s villain, letting the threat build and then culminating in the big reveal. But Javier Bardem does such a great job with this role that, by the time the movie ends, you feel like you just haven’t spent enough time with the character. You feel like there’s a brain there to pick — you want to know how he functions. You want to know his full story.

Because he is, again, a pretty spectacular villain. It’s not many villains in modern cinema who exude a sexuality that is genuinely threatening — an especially effective tactic when you have a hero as overtly sexual as Bond. Moreover, he’s broken in exactly that right way where you believe he’s intelligent and calculated but also that he could snap at a moment’s notice. His final scene in the film is a fascinating one that requires a lot out of Bardem, who delivers, naturally.

But much of the script follows standard paths for such films, and it doesn’t do much that’s new with it. Silva becomes a touch too pervasive, constructing plans that are simply impossible when analyzed on the level of details. It treats his computer prowess like an invincible superpower that can do anything, anywhere, anytime without hindrance, as the needs of the plot demand. He becomes less a pervasive, shadowy, and fearsome threat and more a ubiquitous godlike figure who exists so far outside of reality that you simply don’t buy it.

Other revelations are just too standard. Skyfall once again pulls the “villain allows himself to be captured to fulfill a greater plan” trick seen in The Dark Knight, The Avengers and seemingly Star Trek Into Darkness. And the glimpse into Bond’s childhood is not anywhere near as interesting as has been claimed; not only is the information it provides not necessarily new (we already knew he was an orphan for much of his young life), it’s also not particularly revealing about his character and personality. And the resolution of the old vs. new thematic undercurrent is clearly broadcast and likely to draw eye-rolls when it finally happens.

There’s a sense, with me, that a lot of this may be the result of heightened expectations that the actual film could not hope to meet. It was sold as the first Bond movie with a legitimate chance at a Best Picture nomination — substantial, emotionally involving, deconstructing the character in an intelligent and believable way and fulfilling the new trilogy on a resonant note.

What I got instead is a film that, for me, is fun in places and compelling in others without ever really achieving resonance — except perhaps in one scene, which only tangentially involves Bond. It still works as a deconstruction, like Casino Royale, but only when it isn’t also trying to be just a regular construction…like Casino Royale. It’s still firmly under the category of “flawed but interesting.” It’s really good, but I am extremely hesitant to call it great — even just as a Bond film.

But that Roger Deakins, though. Man.

 

-Matt T.

Flight (2012)

Starring- Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, Brian Geraghty, Garcelle Beauvais, Justin Martin, James Badge Dale, Melissa Leo

Director- Robert Zemeckis

R- drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlFMZ5D8FNc

Time for a game of Movie Critic Mad Libs!

Flight [verb related to flying]! Except when it [adjective for something that flies encountering a flight-specific problem]. But, in the end, when all is said and done, it still [more moderate verb related to flying].

Well, okay, it’s a highly specific game of Movie Critic Mad Libs.

More to the point, Flight manages to soar to some pretty significant heights, not the least of which is one heck of a Denzel Washington performance, but it does hit some narrative turbulence along the way and slides into somewhat of a rocky but still effective landing.

Okay, I’m done for real now. Promise.

Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot for a commercial airliner. He’s also an alcoholic who’s barely ever sober — and even then, it’s only because he’s moderating his drunkenness with cocaine.

He gets on an aircraft one morning, and it seems like an ordinary day. He’s drunk as a skunk, of course, but since when is he not? But on this day, something goes wrong. The plane takes a sudden nosedive. It seems the type of crash that will leave no survivors.

But with some quick and miraculous maneuvering, Whip manages to guide it into a crash landing that leads to the survival of all but six people aboard.

Immediately, he’s a national hero. The media and public adore him, hounding him at every turn.

But privately, his blood tests turn up alcohol. To his investigators, his heroism looks more like manslaughter, and he could potentially be facing the rest of his life in prison.

It gets easy to forget how good Denzel Washington is at what he does because he spends so much of his time coasting through middling action flicks. It begins to slip the mind that the guy has two Academy Awards sitting on his shelf at home somewhere. He needed to get out of his comfort zone, and we certainly owe Flight something for that.

Granted, it’s not the complete transformation that we saw when, say, Christian Bale was cast in The Fighter. Whip still has the general demeanor and presence of Denzel Washington. But the devil is ever in the details.

I’ve been fortunate to have gone most of my life without ever knowing any true alcoholics. I’ve known people who drank plenty, sure, but none of them were hopelessly dependent. It’s only recently that I’ve managed to meet a few of them, in passing.

And Denzel captures their demeanor so perfectly.

He’s a big, strong American man, clinging to that pride and self-esteem, remaining outwardly independent. And yet he’s dodgy, shaky — confront him about his alcoholism, and he begins to project false masculinity noticeably, while the liar that truly emerges jumps back and forth, evading one question after another. Whip’s gotten fairly good at lying to others, but those who know him best harbor no doubts. Even those he knows only in passing seem to detect it rather easily.

He claims to be good at lying to himself, but this is clearly untrue. Throughout most of the film, it’s made fairly clear that the crash was a technical failure rather than Whip’s drunkenness. But from the beginning, Whip doesn’t see it this way. He makes an attempt at quitting almost immediately, flushing every drop of alcohol in his home down the toilet. He’s clearly rankled every time a talking head on the news calls him one of the great American heroes. He doesn’t believe he saved 96 people; he believes he might’ve killed six.

And throughout the film, no matter how often he lies to others, no matter how often he asserts his certainty that the crash was a technical failure, he never comes to believe it.

And yet, irrevocably, he returns to the drink. Whip means well at all times, but his drinking ruins it at every turn, almost instantly.

While he’s in the hospital after the crash, he meets a heroin addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), and takes her into his home upon release. Their relationship is another part of the film that’s pretty darn good. Her drug problem might be of a different nature, but Whip seems to see himself in her own story — as the father who abandoned her.

Her story seems to inspire him to attempt to make amends with his own family. He does it in good faith — but also while drunk, of course. And for that reason, it goes south almost immediately. In a film that’s full of scenes involving people on the path to destruction, loaded up with drugs and leaving every place they enter a worse one, this is the most painful scene by far, the way Whip’s son (Justin Martin) looks into his father’s eyes with such powerful loathing.

There’s something fascinating in Nicole, too, that Flight might’ve been well served to spend more time exploring. She sees herself in Whip’s story — as him, the first night she finds him as a mumbling wreck on the floor, sleeping in garbage and waste. She’s not the same after that; it marks the beginning of the end of her drug abuse. Her life seems to take the opposite trajectory to Whip’s; she sets herself on the path to freedom, and he keeps heading inexorably toward his own destruction.

It’s very nearly one of the most compelling character studies of the year. However.

For a film that is ultimately deeply tragic, it’s missing quite a lot of the actual tragedy. In the end, Flight is too much of a movie, with its heart set more on tugging the right emotions out of its audience than on actually doing right by its subject matter — though its message is, in the end, a good one.

It might be partially inaccurate to say it pulls its punches, though it does, now and then. It’s not necessarily cowardly; few films that show people in the act of heroin abuse, that show men and women alike collapsed from near overdoses, that portray quite vividly the way alcohol can tear a family apart, could be called lacking in bravery. More accurately, when it does land punches, it backs up, apologizes, and asks if you’re okay.

This is most readily borne out by the ending. It goes exactly where you’d expect it to at that moment in the film. Whip suffers the inevitable consequences of his complete refusal to seek help for himself, his stubborn belief that he’s man enough to do what he wants when he wants. But then, the movie softens the blow with some arbitrary, un-foreshadowed redemption with one character whose involvement in the plot was dropped ages ago and another who seemed unlike to appear again and wasn’t taking any noticeable arc himself. These are things that are gifted to Whip, who had severely damaged both individuals, rather than things that are earned over a hard process to follow.

Throughout the film, too, many of the proceedings lack full emotional impact for one simple reason: while we see many of the negative effects of alcoholism and drug abuse (and for very, very good reason), we never see how hard it is to quit. For a movie that features two leads whose efforts are centered around trying to quit drugs, it’s quite odd that we never, to my memory, see a single scene of them suffering from withdrawal. One characters becomes of a mind to quit and immediately does so, never relapsing or even seeming tempted to do so. Whip attempts to quit and always goes back, but it never seems to be because he’s in genuine pain and needs alcohol to ease it.

It makes the whole thing look less like a compulsion and more like a casual decision made in the heat of the moment by people who are too stupid to realize that their lives would be better if they would quit. It ends up not really paying proper respect to the experience of quitting, of why Whip can’t do it alone.

There are smaller problems beyond that. Flight develops an odd religious undercurrent that pops up now and then but never resolves or really goes anywhere to begin with. I generally consider it inadvisable to employ religious symbolism in your movie unless that’s what it’s about. Often, religious iconography is used more as a way for a movie to approximate a philosophy without actually developing one. Flight is about drug abuse and alcoholism and learning how to live as stronger, more unselfish person. It didn’t also need to be about the nature of God.

(Particularly not with a scene like the one that transpires in the hospital about three-fourths of the way through. That was a cartoon, and a condescending and mean one.)

Speaking of cartoons, John Goodman, whose screen presence is one I ordinarily adore, is a bit distracting. This is amplified by the soundtrack, which employs out-of-place and ridiculously heavy-handed pop tunes with overbearing regularity.

These things and more keep Flight from truly soaring. (Sorry, one more, I couldn’t resist.) In the end, it’s Denzel Washington that buoys it and the script that bogs it down. So, I suppose the Academy got it half right?

There is a great film in it somewhere. It just needed to plumb the depths a bit more and trim off some of the excess. In any case, it’s a welcome return to form for Robert Zemeckis, who has not been this good since, well, Cast Away.

There’s a human center to Flight that could’ve used more exploring but that nevertheless shines through its relatively rough edges. It’s a rough and difficult flight, in good ways and bad, but when it hits its sunny patches, it’s worth the journey.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to ban myself from ever reviewing a plane-related movie again.

 

-Matt T.

The Intouchables (2012)

Starring- Francois Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet, Alba Gaia Kraghede Bellugi, Cyril Mendi, Salimata Kamate, Absa Diatou Toure, Gregoire Oestermann, Dominique Daguier, Francois Caron, Christian Ameri

Directors- Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano

R- language and some drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0V8ZJ_8qARs

Contrary to the popular stereotype, foreign films can in fact be easy-viewing, middling, generic, feel-good dramas.

That The Intouchables has been a big hit overseas is unsurprising to me. Its English language remake will certainly be a big hit here, likely netting Academy Award nominations for whomever is lucky enough to land the director’s chair and the lead roles.

Because it is the type of film with enough reality in it to appear honest and questioning, but it pulls its punches intelligently enough to ensure that nobody feels bad while watching it for more than a minute or so. But to those who’d like to see it hammer home its subject matter, which it clearly intends to be significant, it comes out a touch hollow.

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a wealthy quadriplegic. Driss (Omar Sy) is an ex-con who’s given up attempting to escape his record and trying to start a new life, now deliberately throwing job interviews so he can collect benefits. They solve crime.

Actually, no they don’t. But when Philippe needs a new caretaker, Driss shows up planning on being rejected — nobody’s ever hired him anyway, and nobody ever will, so why even pretend to care? But for reasons unknown, Philippe sees something in him and offers him the job.

The two end up becoming an extremely unlikely pair of friends, each introducing the other to a new world.

For about the first half hour or so, I thought I was going to like The Intouchables, if not necessarily love it. I basically liked the characters, it was sporadically funny, the direction wasn’t terrible when it wasn’t suffocating the audience with close-ups, etc. But then, slowly but surely, it started to get on my nerves.

Fortunately, The Intouchables mostly forgoes the White Savior storyline — mostly. The two characters grow together and become better as people, each with the help of the other. They both have things to teach and things to learn — not that there aren’t some problems with that element, and we’re getting there.

Unfortunately, it picks up on an even more annoying narrative type — the Wacky Minority Teaches Stuffy White People How to Loosen Up and Have a Little Fun movie.

I hate that movie.

And the problem here is that The Intouchables, even though it clearly does have affection for its characters and is trying to make them better and convey genuine growth on their behalf, ends up being a bit condescending to both of them because it tells the story in this way. Again, remember — Driss isn’t the only minority here, seeing as Philippe as a disabled person.

With Philippe, it condescends in such a way that it essentially says, “I’m sorry you’re a quadriplegic. But do you know what would make your unhappiness go away? Upbeat music, fast cars, and women giving you ear massages!”

It’s clear that Philippe has problems he needs to overcome. He sometimes comes across as a bit depressed, or at least as someone who is recently emerging from a depression. And that’s natural; he clearly grew up as the sort of person determined to do everything with his own two hands, and he built a legacy of wealth and success around that. It’s also clear that said depression has made him a bit passive in terms of seeking after things that would bring him happiness — such as a blossoming romance that he’s so far only willing to indulge through letters he dictates to his assistant.

But the film takes issue with some of Philippe’s traits that really are not problems and may in fact benefit him. “Art is boring, you guys, and so is classical music! Philippe is totally faking it when he fawns over that stuff! That he likes it is clearly a symptom of his depression. He’s clearly forgotten how to have fun and certainly isn’t finding any meaning in abstract art or classical music! What he really needs is some Earth Wind and Fire, and Kool and the Gang!”

With Driss, it’s even worse. He ends up coming across as something like Philippe’s puppy — he keeps him around because he’s amusing and just smiles it off whenever he pees on the carpet. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the film finds Driss adorable, sometimes in a borderline “aw, he thinks he’s people” way. I think the exact moment I realized I wasn’t going to enjoy this movie was the scene where Driss pumps up some dance music at a gathering of — who else? — stuffy white people in tuxedos who are there to silently and stoically watch a classical orchestra. Of course an incredibly awkward dance party breaks out, with Driss attempting to teach cute, elderly white men who to dance like something other than a small child learning how to walk, because why wouldn’t it?

And it goes backward with him; inasmuch as the film tries to make Philippe’s fixation on abstract art and classical music look like a symptom of his inability to ever be caught with his guard down, it uses the same to class Driss up — granted that it does so in such a way that still kind of mocks the medium.

The traits of Driss’s that the film praises are just as baffling as the traits of Philippe that it chooses to portray as silly. There’s a fine line between being assertive, outgoing, and willing to chase after the things you desire, and being obnoxious and aggressive and essentially sexually harassing a fellow employee for the length of an entire movie — something that, again, is largely portrayed as adorable.

“Aw, he doesn’t understand that most women won’t volunteer to have shower sex with a guy they literally just met; how precious.”

I want to say now that I believe this is wholly unintentional on the filmmaker’s part. I’m not attempting to accuse anyone of racism or ableism here. Again, there’s enough of a semblance of intelligence in this movie that I truly believe the crew loves both characters and views them as equals. It’s just that it doesn’t convey that all that well — not always, anyway. My belief is that the problems are more the result of a perhaps unconscious adherence to an extremely tired formula that’s packed to bursting with somewhat unfortunate implications.

I think as I read the reviews that there may be a more interesting film buried underneath the one that exists on the surface, but I’m not convinced it’s worth trying to overlook that to get at it. I do appreciate that this is a special issues weepy that doesn’t end on a complete downer, especially since it spends most of its runtime pulling its punches, giving fleeting attention to the actual awfulness of living in poverty or with a disability but never diving nose-first into it.

Like I said earlier, that The Intouchables was a hit in its native country is not surprising to me. It will also be a hit here when it’s remade in English. It’s the same type of film as The Blind Side or The Help, invoking enough of the right tropes to drag emotions out of its audience and wrap it all up with a bow and a smile in the end. I’m certain a lot of people will like it, and far be it from me to stop them from doing so. There are things in it to like. They just weren’t for me.

 

-Matt T.