Sunday, July 31

War of the Worlds (WoTWo)


From the moment we see a 302" V8 in Ray Ferrier's kitchen, to the appearance of the first invading alien tripod, to another alien's last onscreen breath, director Steven Spielberg, the movie maker, is as good or better than ever. But even under the blockbuster rubric, which forgives many sins especially those of improbability, the movie is thematically hollow. The rush is real, but the memory fades.

The rush keeps coming. When Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his children get into the open, Spielberg reminds us of the pervasiveness of the alien threat. Having escaped from a murderous mob and the tripods at least twice, Ray and his family wait to let a train pass at a crossing. The audience feels such relief at their escape, so reassured that the train is running, that when it speeds through burning from every window, the shock takes viewers' breath away.

There's a sweet transformation too in the way the axe becomes a weapon in the hands of Ray and Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Harlan brandishes the axe, threatening to attack a tripod's steel tentacle. Ray persuades him not to. Audience members laughed when that axe appeared. It's that outrageous an idea. But when the tentacle grabs Rachel Ferrier (Dakota Fanning) and Ray attacks and severs it, the act was so well justified by Ray's absolute protectiveness, that viewers believed he succeeded, was smart to do it. That's the difference between character motivation (Ray) and a loony character (Harlan).

The dark view of humanity in this movie, and in HG Wells' book (according to reports), make the ending a sentimental box office ploy. Think back over the scenes of human conflict and see what selfish animals we are: marriages break, children steal cars from fathers, reporters pick among air crash victims for food, people steal cars from friends, one man murders another (for a minivan). The only generous character is Harlan, whose nominal mental stability disappears quickly, and whom Ray feels compelled to murder so that he and Rachel can survive to flee. Look back at the first tripod appearance: the first building destroyed is a home, the second a church. This broken-family reunion is no more than a quick patch and paint job.

Unfamiliar with the way Wells ends his story, I was shocked to find that the human spirit endures and thrives because we are lucky by evolution to have an autoimmune system. The first time people bring down a tripod, it is misleading. Ray stuffs a belt of grenades up the tripod's pie-hole, and thar she blows. Turns out, the real danger was giving Tom Cruise a big wet kiss.

Sunday, July 24

Wedding Crashers

[Spoilers within.]

If you laughed, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and director David Dobkin made it to first base. Second base if it made you horny. “Love triumphs after all” came to mind -- third base. If you thought this was a great movie, you got screwed and liked it. But I must have liked the piece I got (so a longish post).

Funny, sexy, sometimes very clever, the movie’s worth the ticket price. But don’t buy popcorn. Wedding Crashers’ clever premise builds a showcase for its stars and their onscreen lovers, who spend the second half of the movie sweating under the weight of set pieces they’re carrying.

In the first nearly perfect seven minutes, we meet John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Klein (Vince Vaughn) and learn things that pervasive advertising hasn’t dropped trou about. The pair are divorce mediators who mount a charm offensive on divorcing combatants. The scene goal: to compromise on who gets the frequent flier miles in the divorce. John and Jeremy evoke sentimental memories of the wedding and invoke the promise of getting laid afresh tomorrow. The couple’s resolve softens. The scene perfectly shows – not tells – John and Jeremy’s M.O.: using the power of weddings to soften hearts, faith in their indomitable charm, and the imperative of sex. The wedding crashers’ C.V. Bullseye.

The second stunning sequence is the wedding season. The story compresses the entire season of maybe twelve nuptials of varied religions and classes into about eight minutes. John and Jeremy follow the rules of their hero, Chaz Reingold (Will Ferrell), legend and Yoda of wedding crashers: have a good back story, know the family, win the kids, charm the old ladies, avoid the cash bar (or wear a borrowed purple heart and leave your wallet at home), slap backs, joke, poke, go.

This orgy of ingratiation, dance fever, and taffeta-on-hotel-room-floors ends in ejaculations of champagne bottles. Oh, why can’t R-rated comedy always be this clever and naughty? But John, about to conquer another beautiful woman’s country, stalls in self doubt: he’d actually like to know who he’s shagging.

Exhausted and empty, completely unlike the tumid Washington monument in the scene, John is relieved the season is over. But Jeremy throws down the gauntlet: Treasury Secretary William Cleary’s (Christopher Walken) oldest daughter is marrying and crab cakes will be outstanding. Rule number (pick a number): never crash a wedding alone. John relents to pose as Jeremy’s brother, a partner in venture capital firm for socially responsible entrepreneurs.

John wants to more than bedding beautiful bridesmaids, something he soon recognizes as love. Jeremy wants to win, place, and show in what he calls the “Kentucky Derby” of weddings. While John is transforming into the best damn guy in the world, except of course for lying about his identity and propinquity to Cleary blood, Jeremy wets his wick with Gloria Cleary, who claims it was her first time. She pulls back her eager, bubbly mask to reveal a “stage-five clinger.” Meanwhile, John falls for Claire Cleary. From this point on, some funny stuff happens, but it has little to do with the what these characters want: love (John), and to get the hell out of there (Jeremy).

At this point, the movie turns episodic, giving us more time, presumably, to really, really like John (Wilson). Jeremy fights numerous foes (Gloria, fulfilling his bondage fantasies - but given Jeremy’s taste for adventure, how much is he suffering anyway?; Todd, the creepy gay brother who develops a crush on Jeremy (homophobia cliché); and Sack Lodge, Claire’s boyfriend, who’s vents his entitled rage on Jeremy). But his real conflict is with John, who won’t let Jeremy leave until Claire knows he loves her.

The movie repeatedly missed opportunities for hilarious conflict between Jeremy and John. Imagine Jeremy being subjected to these indignities as suffering for his loyalty to John. It would have upped the stakes, and each scene would turn into a test of their friendship, a test of what each of them will do for love. And what people will do for love, well, that’s funny.

Me? Second base.

Wednesday, July 20

Fallaciousness Duly Noted

So…, a friend (BC) writes that Darkness Visible is fallacious, since the movie is not the script. The movie is a story made by producers, at least one director, and an editor. Dead to rights. BC concedes that my taking swag at the final cut, well, who doesn’t have the right?

So, refining the purpose, I submit that Darkness Visible asks, “What makes a movie an effective, affecting story? And what would have made it better?” If I were going to write it better.

A little fallacio (sp?) and a much good intention. I stand corrected. Thanks, dude. And, I've refined the subhead.

Monday, July 18

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

[Illuminating comparisons within. Also, spoilers.]

"Who can take a rainbow," and steal it from the shining edible world of Willy Wonka? Johnny Depp and Tim Burton can. While a lot of sweet and salty tidbits emerge whole from Roald Dahl's book in this new version of the movie (or remake, if you like. They're that similar.), Willy Wonka is creepy. Not that it would matter, if Depp's boy-man characterization helped move the story forward.

Digression: Why is this movie being so well reviewed? It's a visual feast -- a faithful, inventive, by turns edgy and gross-out realization of Dahl's original candy recipe. Love the story: see the movie, with a wildly more conflicted Wonka, and a much richer character in Charlie. And this version comes at a time when parents are child-obsessed. It's a delight to watch spoiled children and their parents suffer the consequences of their choices.

Not much moves this, or the original, story forward. This is why filmmakers may like it so much. There is so much to see and so few story threads to manage. First, children vie to find five golden prize tickets. Then they follow Wonka's whims on a magical mystery factory tour. The two film Wonka's try to add interest using different strategies, though the older is better.

In the Mel Stuart/Roald Dahl/Gene Wilder version (1971), Wonka cleverly stages a test. Charlie and Grandpa Joe break the factory rules, but Charlie redeems himself by giving up a top-secret candy sample that rival Slugworth would have paid obscenely to reverse engineer. Charlie wins by an act of integrity, even after getting carried away by a little harmless temptation.

In the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp production, Charlie and Grandpa Joe don't break the rules, but Charlie wins by default. Now, by the time Charlie is the last kid standing, we have a lot to like: his generosity, family feeling, lack of shame about eating candy. But he wins because he's not spoiled. He wins by doing nothing, a story shortcoming that must be laid Dahl's feet.

What's new and great: Charlie's poverty is greater this time. So great in fact that we pity him when his father (a character restored to the story) brings home from work a misshapen toothpaste cap and Charlie calls it the perfect gift. But he pulls a model of the Wonka factory from the cupboard - all toothpaste caps - and gives the Wonka figure the top hat he deserves. The image of the model and the revelation perfectly communicates the Buckets' poverty and Charlie's fascination.

During first act exposition, we learn the wonder, and then closing, of the Wonka factory through Grandpa Joe's eyes. Screenwriter John August wrote him as a former employee put out of his job when espionage forced Wonka to hermtically seal the place. And this change gives new weight and interest to Grandpa Joe's desire to return to the factory with Charlie.

Too much has been said elsewhere to comment on how hard it is to find something sympathetic in this entertaining new Willy Wonka. Watching Charlie preside over dinner with all the Buckets and Wonka in the final scene, you can't help but think, "Thank god someone with sense is taking over Neverland."

Friday, July 15

My Summer of Love

[Spoilers, confessions within]

I confess. A well-reviewed movie about two teenage girls who fall in love, try on clothes, and then tempt a religious convert sounded like a titillating couple of hours. And though langorous and direct in its sensuality (not disappointing in the teen lesbian department), the film feels like a batch of episodes without much disicipline in the story department.

As the episodes follow one another, the story simply unspools. Actions don’t have consequences: Mona (Natalie Press), in an act of loyalty, throws a garden nome through the window of a particular Jaguar, Tamsin’s (Emily Blunt) father’s car parked in his mistress’s driveway. Tamsin is haunted by her sister Sadie, who died of anorexia. But in the third act, Sadie appears, fit and filled out the way a young woman might wish to be. It’s played for reaction, which a cheap use of both Sadie and the betrayal.

The effect: characters are aimless ciphers. And that’s a different thing entirely than human beings who are powerless to affect the other’s lives. The first is a storytelling failure. The second is a philosophical assertion. The emptiness at the heart of the story comes from the directors’ goal of telling a story by metaphor and rather than to tell the story of characters. The story of the girl’s romance seems to have distracted the writer/director Pawel Pawlikoski as me.

Some reviewers liked Pawlikowski’s direction and the cinematography. But where it drew attention, it looked clumsy and careless. Here’s the question: how do we judge film direction as “fresh” rather than careless? The short answer is: what we see is what is says.

The whole story is pictures, so the direction and cinematography have to answer, “What’s really going on?” Because the antagonist of My Summer of Love neither knows nor shows what she wants, it is impossible pass judgment on the look of the film. The unglamorous cinematography and direction look like an attempt to put the verdict in our hands, but without giving us evidence. Cinematography can’t tell us much about characters who have no subtext to reveal.

High Tension

[Within, facetiousness]

This is a genre that thrives on the premise, “given one or more women and an isolated location, a psycho killer will – must – appear and attack.” So let’s take this one – two female college students drive to the countryside home of one of the girls to study for the weekend - as read. Enter psycho killer.

The second act, however, is full of conventions of the genre that are neatly presented and turn the plot wheels steadily. Each solid, if not eye-poppingly inventive, development created the sense of claustrophobic dread that we gladly pay ten bucks for. The clever turns throughout fall into the near-escape and weapons-in-the-hands-those-who-might-turn-against-someone category to keep you wondering “when” and “how.”

The ending? Pure tripe. A lazy trick. A cheat. But then, consider the premise.

Sunday, July 10

Batman Begins

[As always, spoilers within]

Loved: The turning point in Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) training in the Tibetan fastness of R’as Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). This is a beautiful, simple, visual expression of the transformation of the man into Batman. Wayne remakes himself into one of the black-clad fighters dancing and drilling in the ring with Ducard (Liam Neeson). He bests Liam Neeson, signaling he has mastered his fears, and his destiny lies in harnessing the darkness, both literal and figurative. Three cheers to director Christopher Nolan for not resorting to CGI.

Loved: Nolan’s Batman suffers a driven restlessness, which never loses the threat that cruelty or vengefulness may break out. It makes him more like the kind of hero for those of us who are not independently wealthy. In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Bruce Wayne is a much more reflective, and sometimes dithering, verso to his threatening Batman. Bale plays him as relentless and workaholic. His potential is broader and more surprising.

Hated: Yack, yack, yack about spiritual life and embracing one’s fears. The fighting said it all. Or should have.

Lack of focus: The movie struggled to show the redemption that Batman seeks. The movie set two inward obstacles for Wayne to overcome. The first was his fear of bats, an image tied to the abandonment he experienced when he fell into the well. The second, his guilt that he caused his parents death. Wayne overcomes his fear of bats, and of his own darkness, during his initiation by Assghoul.

Back in Gotham, I lost him. Or he lost me. The fight against injustice builds to climax against the forces of decadence and destruction. Batman fights. The more he fights, the more he wins. What does he want? Justice. Good. Can I identify with him? Perhaps, in some brainy, ought-to way. From the time Wayne and Morgan Freeman finish equipping Batman, he seems invincible. Both the man and his heart seemed impervious. Because Batman never lost, even in temporary failure, and was not vulnerable even in love, his offer to give up his life to defeat Ducard/R’as Al Ghul and save Gotham came cheap. I wanted to care. I really, really wanted to care.

A suggestion: Change the scene of the boy listening to his father’s heart in the first act. Instead, the father holds the stethoscope and the boy listens to his own heart. The father a medium, showing him his humanity. In a third act scene, when Wayne recovers the burned stethoscope, it would recall not simply the absent father, but the moral import of the man, and invoke his silent admonition to live up to his humanity.

Saturday, July 9

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

[Spoilers, probably, within. There always are.]

This movie has fought and mostly lost the battle against celebrity gossip and to my mind, its own marketing, to find someone, anyone who'll say they really liked it. Despite the trailers you've seen, this is not the story you've already seen six times, simply tagging the bases and trotting home. By melting down two genres for a specialized new subgenre alloy, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has imagined a story that defies our expecations. I think this is why no one is cheering. Everything else is niggling, which see, below.

A short lesson in genres; screenwriters skip to the next paragraph. Romantic comedy - in which two people "meet cute," sense a connection, and then spend about 80-90 minutes confronting obstacles that keep them apart. They triumph, we're relieved, and all's right with the world. Action - a threat of great proportion can only be prevented by one man (sic.) usually under time pressure (death theats to children, world destruction) and a thousand devious obstacles stand in his way, to which he marshalls 1,001 still more clever strategems. Add a love interest.

Kinberg turns both of these genres inside out. Our lovers John (Brad Pitt) and Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) begin the story married, bored, and in couples therapy. They believe, in fact, it's over. Without obstacles to romantic fulfillment, they've fallen headlong into an airless suburbia. When we think the marriage is over, too, they both run into trouble at work. While you and I worry about how to redeem unused vacation time, as A-list contract killers -- the kind of work you simply can't talk about at home -- these two both show up to kill Benjamin Diaz or Danz (Adam Brody). His interference ruins her set up; his appearance gives her a miss. Now the threat lands on each of them equally: kill the other killer and finish the job. The threat is not out there: "Hi, honey. I'm home."

John and Jane each get 48 hours grace from their employers to blow a fatal hole in his or her mate (time pressure). But given a sure kill opportunity, first John then, Jane falters. It's the reverse of romantic obstacles. In other words, "I can't kill you. I must still love you. Damn, I better think about that." Words to live by. The rest of the film does a fine job of reminding us in the midst of car chases and shoot outs that they're just discovering each other. Once that "killer" business is on the table, what can't you say? The Smith's rediscover passion, a Hollywood must, but also who they're married to.

After they're reconciled, they learn that the Diaz job (or Danz. It was Danz in the credits, I swear, but see job was a ploy by their shadowy employers to take them both out. Sleeping with the professional killer competition is strictly against company policy. As you would expect, they team up. But rather than make this pair a suddenly smooth, kickass team we're accustomed to in action movies, they keep on bickering like old marrieds while knocking out three tuned BMWs from their minivan.

I could niggle: Until the fighting starts, John and Jane seem tweaked on Botox and Prozac; either the movie loses balance between the romantic and the action, or Kinberg and director Doug Liman just took to many notes from studio executives; and, okay, there was some sexual heat between our heros, but please, nothing like the molten core of tabloid-bleated desire that would have served this movie well.

But really, if this new alloy is brittle in spots, it's still bright, shining, and welcome. This is refreshing treatment of genres that redeems it from "chick flick" on the one hand, and thirteen year old boys on the other.