Kicking the Tweets

Four Lions (2010)

Holy Warp

"I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd."

--George Carlin

What won't you laugh at? If this question has ever popped into your head, allow me to introduce a wonderful litmus test called Four Lions. One of the most original, hilarious, and challenging movies I've seen in years is a farce about extremist Muslims planning a terrorist attack.

Director Christopher Morris and co-writers Simon Blackwell, Jesse Armstrong, and Sam Bain have turned what most might consider a pack of unsympathetic characters into complex allegories for religious fundamentalism of all stripes, showcasing the frightening commitment and inherent silliness of such life choices.

Riz Ahmed stars as Omar, a young follower of Islam living in London with his wife, Sofia (Preeya Kalidas), and son, Mahmood (Mohammad Aquil)--to whom he recounts Disney's The Lion King as a tale of Jihad in lieu of traditional bedtime stories. Omar and his three close friends dream of one day stepping up to the big leagues:Mujahideen training for becoming proper suicide bombers. They get their chance when his uncle, Imran (Karl Seth), invites Omar and the comically stupid Waj (Kayvan Novak) to Pakistan. They leave behind radical publicity whore Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and devout dim-bulb Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who conspire to start a splinter group out of spite.

In the desert, Omar and Waj find their cell-phones-and-sass-loving modernity rejected by Imran's serious-minded compatriots. They leave the duo at camp during a meeting with Osama bin Laden. Bored and curious, our Omar plays around with the cell's cool weaponry and mistakenly blows up his hosts and the leader of al-Qaeda with a rocket. Imbued with a new sense of purpose (while also trying to shake this incredible embarrassment), Omar and Waj return to London to make their own grand statement for the cause.

They discover that Barry has recruited a hot-headed college student named Hassan (Arsher Ali) to help them blow up a mosque. Omar argues that such an act would radicalize conservative Muslims against their extremist counterparts, and that attacking mainstream Western culture would be far more effective. The group's rift widens further, leading to the kind of end-of-second-act break-up common in many buddy-cop/heist movies. In this case, when the gang reconciles near the end and comes together for the big job, it's not to steal diamonds or take down a drug kingpin--it's to set off multiple explosions during a charity marathon.

If that sounds horrific to you, I assure you it was just as horrific to me--in principle. In execution, Morris and company manage the impossible: playing several conflicting emotions as both high-stakes drama and severely twisted comedy. Over the course of Four Lions, it becomes clear that Omar and his gang are simply lost and underprivileged. Their devotion to radical Islam is a bi-product of religious upbringing and revenge against a system they perceive to be oppressive and racist. The only difference between them and an L.A. street gang is that California hoods would likely never have come close to a sit-down with bin Laden.

The writing is simultaneously funny and poignant, with hard social issues bubbling to the surface during scenes that recall The Three Stooges. The film paints a very interesting picture of the difference between reality and perception in the way it treats Omar's gang's actions. For instance, Barry is ridiculed for a "message" he'd sent years before, baking a cake in the shape of the Twin Towers and placing it outside a synagogue on 9/11. It's at the same time a ridiculous image dreamt up by an idiot, and a horrifying one for anybody who doesn't know that the person behind it is an idiot.

Four Lions' cast is exceptional. I defy anyone to watch Ahmed's performance and not walk away touched. He brings charisma and conflict to Omar that's suggested on the page but brought to tragic life in the flesh. The scenes in which he tells his son about The Lion King are sweet, and it doesn't register right away that he's indoctrinating a new generation of holy warriors. Ahmed made me believe that if Omar's pride and circumstances had been just the slightest bit different, he would have made an outstanding model of how modernity and religion might coexist.

I was also bowled over by Lindsay's turn as Barry, the big, dumb preacher whose lack of self-awareness often runs head-first into his pride--resulting in confusion and bloody noses. He's like a principled version of Family Guy's Peter Griffin. The film's biggest surprise, though, is Novak. For most of the movie, Waj is the stupid-beyond-belief comic foil, but as Four Lions descends deeper into seriousness, it becomes clear that Waj is truly an innocent caught up in peer pressure and a lack of attention to severe mental issues. The circumstances of his final scene are so ludicrous and sad that I was on the verge of tears.

Four Lions is not an easy film to recommend. The premise will rub some people the wrong way, understandably. But the filmmakers aren't just playing around here to get shock-laughs. This is a serious piece of political satire on par, in my opinion, with Dr. Strangelove and In the Loop (with which this would make a terrific double-feature). Morris doesn't give us easy, Apu-sounding terrorists to contend with; his main characters sound more like The Beatles. They have the same big questions about life, afterlife, and society as people all over the world. If the fact that we can't all find enough common ground to keep from killing each other over land, myths, and power is the sick joke of our species, Four Lions is the perfect telling of that joke.


The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

Rip-snoring Adventure

Thank God for The Internet Movie Database. Had this incredibly convenient font of movie knowledge not been available, my review of The Adventures of Tintin would probably be about four sentences long. So instantaneous was my amnesia of the characters' names, motivations, and actions that I could barely hang on to what was happening from scene to scene--let along trying to piece things together hours later, after the fact.

It's not that the movie is too complicated; in truth, the plot could only be easier to figure out if it was displayed as pre-credits title cards. The problem is that the cutting-edge animation is so awful, so distracting, that I couldn't hear anything that was coming from the mouths of the ghastly humanoids on screen over my bellowing inner monologue.

But thanks to IMDb and Wikipedia, I can inform you that Tintin is about Tintin (Jamie Bell), a young newspaper reporter living in 1940s Europe with his faithful, spunky terrier, Snowy. He's made a globetrotting career out of returning long, lost treasures to museums and foiling bad-guy schemes. One day, he buys a model pirate ship from a street vendor--a ship that turns out to be one of three models/keys to a real-life pirate's treasure.

Tintin is pursued by the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who wants the loot for himself. In evading his crew of generic henchmen, Tintin meets Haddock (Andy Serkis), the drunk, seafaring ancestor of the pirate who'd buried the treasure. What follows is over an hour-and-a-quarter of jeep chases through the desert, biplane mishaps, and narrow escapes from evildoers on boats and in dusty, North African cities.

No, I didn't mistakenly copy/paste part of my Raiders of the Lost Ark review into this one. The Adventures of Tintin is an uninspired rehash of the Indiana Jones franchise and, essentially, a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie (which everyone's been clamoring for since the last one came out in May). But at least those movies had Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp to carry them.* This film's lead is a weird-looking CGI creation who's got the aw-shucks personality of a comic-strip sidekick and the wardrobe of a twelve-year-old boy--even though Tintin is supposed to be in his twenties.

I'm speculating about that last bit, based on the visual cues the film provided before my mind started to wander. He's obviously not a student, and has the resources and maturity to go continent-hopping on a whim. He also collaborates with two bumbling INTERPOL agents named Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), whose pickpocket-nabbing "B" story provides unfunny relief to the unmoving "A" story. In short, I can't take the Tintin character seriously because his appearance and relationship with the supporting cast are incongruous with his alleged position as an adult. Imagine being asked to believe that Ralphie from A Christmas Story was actually a weird, gun-enthusiast uncle crashing his family's holiday.

You should know that I've never read Hergé's Tintin comics, on which the movie is based. But judging from the version presented here by director Steven Spielberg, I can tell it was a huge influence on Indiana Jones--whose towering status in pop culture, like a snake eating its own tail, is precisely the reason this movie fails so spectacularly. There's literally nothing new to see here, other than next-generation CGI characters.

It's as if Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson, and writers Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat, and Joe Cornish decided to faithfully translate the source material without once considering that audiences are now seventy years and three thousand layers of detached irony removed from its relevance. I suppose if you're three years old, there'll be some measure of surprise when Haddock falls through a clothesline and winds up in a pink woman's dress, but for everyone else, the hundred other gags just like it will fly smilelessly by on the road to Tintin's predictable, sequel-ready conclusion.** This crew of filmmakers is renowned for their innovation and imagination, so it's pretty heartbreaking to see them crap out a story that begs the audience to ignore it in favor of looking at the pretty pictures.

Let's talk about those pictures. Motion-capture animation has come a long way since the dead-eyed-doll days of Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express. Movies like Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved that digital artists can make a human actor wearing a sensor-laden bodysuit into a nine-foot-tall feline alien or a sentient, revolutionary primate. What Spielberg's team have failed to do is to create human beings that successfully traverse the Uncanny Valley. Worse, they don't even attempt to replicate realism--the characters here are exaggerated, cartoon versions of real people.

Tintin himself comes closes to looking like a developmentally arrested hipster you might run into on the street. He's just convincing enough that I wondered why the filmmakers didn't just make him look like Jamie Bell. The other characters, particularly Haddock, are just plain upsetting to look at. There are scenes in which characters' hands, arms, necks, and hair appear to be those of actual, non-CG-enhanced actors. But the faces are nightmarish caricatures of comic-strip lines brought into our reality. They're like the survivors of a Happy Meal factory meltdown, where all the workers emerged with too-big features and sought refuge in show business.

One character, an opera singer named Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel) could be Meryl Streep in a fat suit and an evening gown--which begs the question, why didn't Spielberg and company just hire flesh-and-blood actors to play these parts? The answer, I think, is a two-parter:

1. What else is there, really? Had Tintin been a conventional, live-action family movie, I doubt it would have enjoyed nearly as much worldwide success. The story, gags, and set pieces are so beyond played out that the novelty of 3D-animated characters (and, I suppose, the love of the comics) is the only thing that could put asses in seats to the tune of a quarter-billion dollars. As live action, this thing likely would have fizzled out in a weekend (as it may here in the U.S.).

2. Ian Malcom's Unheeded Warning. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's Jurassic Park character, "Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should." I'm all for advancing moviemaking technology, but these continued attempts to create the perfect human need to be seriously reconsidered. To what end are these artists and producers pushing the limits of believability? Stylized and/or realistic humanoids might work fine for video games, where the player essentially creates their reality as they go, but film is an entirely different medium. It's meant to sell a specific reality to the audience, and if the audience is too distracted by the non-reality of what they're being asked to accept, then there's no point in bothering to tell a story (see The Adventures of Tintin).

What's especially jarring about the second point is that there's absolutely no reason for this film to have been animated. There are no aliens or giant robots to contend with--just regular people in period clothing going through the motions of other, better stories. Aside from Snowy the dog and some roller-coaster-type action scenes (both of which could have been pulled off with a blend of computer animation and live-action components), there's nothing here that couldn't have been accomplished by live performers (in a bizarre twist, the Sakharine character looks like the actor John Hawkes, but he speaks with Daniel Craig's voice).

If you doubt that the story is the most important element of any cutting-edge CGI film, and insist that Tintin is awesome purely because of the animation, I challenge you to imagine a big-screen, mo-cap-animated version of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Would the pixel-pushed perfection of Kim K's ass cat-walking up and down a photorealistic Rodeo Drive be enough to sustain you for nearly two hours? Or would your brain cry out for more nutrients?

Your honor, I rest my case.

Okay, not quite.

It's a shame that Spielberg, Jackson, and the rest got so caught up in their nostalgia trip that they neglected to create an original--or at least memorable--mythos for this generation to latch onto. The Adventures of Tintin is a circle-jerk of millionaire men-children coasting on technology and name recognition. Their toys may be new-millennium chic, but their ideas are dusty relics that few will even care to find.

*Okay, Depp carried the first Pirates, and had his accounting team send a car for the sequels.

**I realize that a film described as "sequel-ready" should have, by definition, a cliffhanger rather than a conclusion. But I'm hoping against hope that this thing will flop hard enough in the states that Tintin will go the way of 2007's Golden Compass "franchise".


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Indelibly Incredible

Here's where I'm coming from: I've never read Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, nor have I seen Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 Swedish adaptation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or its two sequels. I had few clues going into David Fincher's remake as to the plot--only that Daniel Craig plays a journalist, Rooney Mara plays an awkward, Goth-y hacker, and murder is involved. I'd also heard about the outrage/concern/suspicion over Fincher's audacity in re-doing a franchise that has been an international box office success (except here in America, where people only like to read things on screen during karaoke night).

If you're a fan of the source material, your enjoyment mileage may vary. I can only speak as someone who went into the theatre without baggage, and came out loving the film. Fincher and writer Steven Zaillian have delivered a dark, sprawling mystery that should satisfy even the most cynical, quality-starved moviegoer.

Craig stars as Mikael Blomqvist, the disgraced editor of a Swedish news magazine called Millenium. After running a hatchet piece on local sleazy industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg) that came up short on the facts, he steps down and accepts an unusual freelance gig from a strange but seemingly less corrupt industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). It turns out his niece, Harriet (Moa Garpendal), went missing forty years ago during a party at the family's luxurious estate. Desperate to learn the secret of Harriet's disappearance before his health gives out, Vanger offers to double Blomqvist's salary and throw in both a hefty bonus and hard, incriminating evidence against Wennerstrom on completion of the assignment.

Running parallel to this story is that of Lisbeth Salander (Mara), an anti-social computer genius hired by Vanger's right-hand man to vet Blomqvist for the job. Her digging led her to believe that Wennerstrom is, in fact, guilty, and she launches an independent investigation--one that begins with tapping his computer to view all ingoing and outgoing emails. In her personal life, Lisbeth must contend with the unwanted advances of her slimy public assistance counselor, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen).

Eventually, Blomqvist and Lisbeth team up to work on the Vanger case, which turns out to be a mess of unreliable testimony, hidden photographs, and doorways into a slew of grisly, unsolved, decades-old murders--all involving a family with a Nazi past and violently ill-tempered present.

Giving away more than this top-level synopsis would be criminal. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a rich, dense thriller that relies on revelations more than car chases and violence to shock the audience. It's Fincher mashing up two of his own best recent works, Zodiac and The Social Network, into a feature that surpasses both in many ways.

In Blomqvist, we have the isolated, depressed detective whose obsession leads him to confront dangers no one else had bothered (or been able) to find--much like Zodiac's Robert Graysmith character. In Lisbeth, we have the isolated, depressed computer genius whose social skills have been erased by unheard of cyber knowledge--like the Mark Zuckerberg character in The Social Network. I realize Larsson is the one who ultimately put these archetypes on the collision path, but Fincher's Dragon Tattoo feels so original and so suited to the director's sensibilities, that I can totally understand why he'd want to tackle the material.

This film is patient and meticulous, and also confident in the audience's ability to catch up. The script drops us into a world of characters we don't see until long after we've first been told of their significance in rushed bits of dialogue. At one point, Blomqvist confesses to Vanger that he's being thrown too many names and connections. When Vanger assures his confidante that everyone will become very familiar in time, he's also talking to us; it's a claim we don't believe at first, but it turns out to be absolutely true.

As with all of Fincher's movies, Dragon Tattoo is a marvel of cinematography and production design. Donald Graham Burt and Trish Summerville capture the script's seemingly fractured narrative in their gorgeous sets and wardrobe, respectively. From Blomqvist's remote, wintry house on the Vanger estate, to the sad digs of an urban monster, to an idyllic summer parade in 1966, every detail is fetishized and made into a beautiful, breathing object--but not in a way that begs for attention. If you don't care about such things, Dragon Tattoo can wash right over you; but if you're a hyper-aware environment geek, you'll get a cavity from all the eye candy.

I'd be remiss if I didn't call out the soundtrack. Half-way through the film, I'd resolved to buy Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score; by the end, I was too creeped out to even think about having it in my house. In addition to the hard-driving techno you might expect, Dragon Tattoo is overrun by spookier themes that I'm not qualified to describe in detail. I will say that the recurrent voices of murdered girls reading Bible versus into what sounds like a tape recorder gave me goose bumps. Reznor and Ross might be up for another Oscar next year for this one--but I won't own the score anytime soon.

I could write another ten paragraphs on the movie's excellent performances, but I'll limit myself to discussing Mara and Craig's unlikely crime-fighting duo. Craig does very well in playing down his unconventional-leading-man glamour and portraying Blomqvist as a reckless, wannabe playboy. It's hard to shake the image of him as James Bond, but only insofar as Blomqvist keeps making lousy decisions that land him in decidedly un-Bondian peril (the climax, for example, sees Blomqvist as the damsel in distress). My one critique is that, unlike every other player, the leading man doesn't even bother with an accent (come to think of it, he may have started the film with one, but it was as dead as the killer's victims by the end).

Not being familiar with Noomi Rapace's interpretation of the Lisbeth character, I'll tiptoe into this assertion: Rooney Mara creates a ballsy, wounded screen icon for the ages. It's so strange to think that this Lisbeth could have sprung from the same actress who helped sink the Nightmare on Elm Street remake with her droopy non-persona. She does so much to make Lisbeth a believable, messed up heroine, a brilliant lost soul who's never known a stable, loving relationship. Even when the film goes "soft" by having Lisbeth and Blomqvist momentarily hook up, Mara doesn't lose the twisted spark that makes her character pop. She's the pierced, inked embodiment of roaring women everywhere.

Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is still ostensibly the first chapter of a trilogy. But it doesn't feel that way. I have a couple of ideas as to where the story might go, but Zaillian never tips his hand. If no one shows up to "The Feel-bad Movie of Christmas", it has enough closure to not piss off its fans; if this incarnation of the franchise continues, I have a feeling there's a delicious bit of reckoning in a couple characters' futures. Personally, I hope I get to see more.

Granted, I could just watch the complete Swedish trilogy and find out what happens. But I have no interest, honestly. I'm hooked on Fincher's take, and am content (for the time being) to let Alternate Universe Ian be the Oplev snob who shuns what he probably considers Hollywood's gaudy cash-cow.


Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

The Dizzying Holiday Miracle

There's no shortage of Internet speculation as to why so many people have stopped going to the movies. High ticket prices, rude patrons, and the diminishing returns of franchises, comic-book adaptations, and over-long CGI spectacles that can be viewed at home in three months' time for a fraction of the price have, in large part, kept people out of the multiplexes. Today, I'm happy to report that you have a reason to get your ass to the theatre and pay the big-big-big-screen upcharge: His name is Brad Bird, and he directed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

The film won't hit wide release until Wednesday, but that doesn't matter. It's showing in IMAX now, and if you have an IMAX-enabled theatre in your area (or even a LIE-MAX*), you owe it to yourself not to settle. On top of the fact that Robert Elswit's cinematography is like a high-def travelogue with explosions, you won't fully grasp the impressiveness of Tom Cruise's well-publicized adventures on the outer walls of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper unless you see it the way it was meant to be seen. In case you hadn't heard, Cruise did his own stunts for this sequence; given the building's mirrored surface and lack of evident filmmaking equipment in the shots, I can't imagine there was a lot in the way of safety nets available.

But one doesn't go to a theatre to watch ten minutes of a movie (discounting, of course the yahoos who only wanted to see this film for the eight-minute Dark Knight Rises prequel playing in front of it). Fortunately, Ghost Protocol is a fun, inventive action movie from end to end, with a grade-school-simple plot that goes humorously awry at nearly every turn.

Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, the suave, globe-trotting head spy of the United States' Impossible Mission Force (IMF). The film opens with his being broken out of a a Russian prison by former-technician-turned-field-agent, Benji (Simon Pegg), and an agent new to the series, Jane (Paula Patton). Aided by bombs and security-override equipment, Hunt--along with a contact he'd made on the inside--fights his way to freedom through a riot.

On the outside, he learns that a former Russian official named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) plans to purchase launch codes for a stolen nuclear missile. In a matter of hours, the IMF team breaks into the Kremlin to steal the codes, only to find that they've been shadowed by the villain's agents--who blow up the Kremlin to cover their tracks. Russian Intelligence officer Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov) finds the reversible jacket that Hunt had used to pose as a general and uses it to pin the bombing on the U.S.

Following the film's third or fourth narrow escape, Hunt finds himself in a van with the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) and an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner). They inform him of the political fallout, namely that the IMF has been liquidated and Hunt's skeleton crew are on their own. The Secretary, believing Hunt was set up, gives him directions to a safe house (actually a safe train car) before being shot through the head during an assault on the van.

Much of this can be seen in Ghost Protocol's trailer, so please don't think I've spoiled anything. Without giving more away, I'll say that the rest of the film involves Hunt, Benji, Jane, and Brandt chasing down Hendricks' associates without the help of the IMF resources they'd always taken for granted. For instance the reason Hunt has to scale the outside of Burj Khalifa is because he can't call a technician at headquarters to remotely disable key fire walls; he has to climb several storeys up and over, and cut through glass.** In fact, the film's main villain isn't the nihilistic Russian, it's absentee Tech Support. Though Hunt and company still have a lot to work with, they must rely on relatively low-tech means of tracking their prey (i.e. good, old-fashioned detective work and cunning).

Unlike most mega-budget actioners, this film offers the perfect combination of direction, writing, and performance. This is the role Tom Cruise was born to play. It allows him to be serious without tiptoeing into melodrama, and funny in reaction to the ridiculousness of his situations and/or bickering crew. As crews go, this is the first time in the Mission Impossible series where everyone gels. Pegg, Patton, and Renner have terrific chemistry; they feel like the world's smartest misfit eighth-graders, with Cruise as the ultra-cool kid with a driver's license. That's not to say that Cruise steals the movie; Ghost Protocol is very much an ensemble piece where everyone gets a moment to shine--but not in a way that screams out, "This is (INSERT NAME HERE)'s Moment to Shine!".***

When I first heard that Brad Bird had been tapped to helm this film, I became worried. The award-winning animation director has made only one film that I love, The Iron Giant, and two that I despise, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

Yep, that last line deserves a paragraph break. Read it again, and then decide if you still care about what I think of Ghost Protocol.

Still with me? Good. Please understand that my problems with those films are mostly centered on the writing, and not the directing or medium-redefining leaps that Pixar made in rendering and animation. I was bored to tears by the respective superhero clichés and Tom and Jerry shenanigans, but I still appreciate both films as art--art that I may look at again, but not for a long, long time.

Bird's background in cartoons serves him very well in his live-action debut. His eye for staging action and instructing his performers on how best to exaggerate their physicality for maximum comedic/dramatic effect And I can't be sure if this was in the screenplay, but the Kremlin hallway sequence feels like a high-tech tribute to a Bugs Bunny gag. And I absolutely loved it.

The picture's crown jewel, of course, is the Dubai scene. Bird and Elswit provide a perfect sense of scale and danger here, both in the shooting and in the tech mishaps that befall Hunt on the mini-mission. Knowing that Cruise was actually a few feet of metal and fabric away from plummeting to his death added a realism and intensity to the scene that can't be understated. Yes, it takes place in the middle of the movie, but I still gasped several times--this may be due to the shock of not having seen an impressive, non-CGI-enhanced stunt since, probably, Casino Royale.

My last bit of praise goes to writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, though I have a couple of major gripes with them. I didn't think it possible for more life to be injected into this franchise, but they've created a fresh world full of tense and interesting situations for these characters to chew their way out of. They wisely don't complicate matters for the sake of making their film appear smarter than it is. Instead, they let minor complications lead to larger ones, and then step back to watch their characters react. I also love their decision to make Hendricks a background villain. He has maybe four lines of dialogue in the whole film, outside of footage from a years-old press conference in which he lays out his motivations.

Now to the problems. Skip ahead two paragraphs to avoid a major spoiler. It is revealed late in the picture that Hunt was sent to the Russian prison for executing the six thugs who murdered his wife (Michelle Monaghan) while the two were on vacation. We later learn that Brandt had been assigned to shadow Mrs. Hunt, but in a moment of neglect allowed her to be kidnapped. Hunt doesn't know Brandt's secret, leading to Ghost Protocol's most tense relationship.

Sadly, criminally, Appelbaum and Nemec decide that the film needs not just a happy ending, but a happy ending that no one should have been clamoring for in the first place: Hunt's wife, it turns out, is still alive. They'd faked her death in Russia to keep her identity safe while hubby was out dashing around the world. The prison incident was a ruse to acquire intel for another mission (or something). With this cuddly coda, the writers drain one of the film's most gut-wrenching scenes of all meaning. It's disgusting.

Okay, you can look now. My second issue with the screenplay concerns what may or may not be a keen bit of propaganda on the part of the filmmakers. There's a weird, pervasive attitude on the part of Hunt and his organization regarding the rights and sovereignty of the foreigners they spend most of the movie dealing with. I know I was supposed to be thrilled by the opening prison riot, for example, but all I could think of was how horrible it must have been for those guards and inmates to be beaten half to death by one another--all so that a dashing American spy could make a cool exit. At one point, I thought Hunt had decided to break up the fight and help the guards put everyone back in their cells; no, he just needed to retrieve his contact and split.

There's also the small but very telling matter of the IMF Secretary's warning to Hunt, which goes, I believe, like so: "As of right now, you're a suspected terrorist, which, in the eyes of our government means 'terrorist'". In light of the soon-to-be-ratified NDAA, this cool, throw-away line takes on a greater and darker significance. The message, essentially, is that if Ethan and his team are caught by the feds, they'll either be shot on sight or thrown into a hole with no chance to make their case. Luckily, the Secretary is a good dude, so we don't have to worry about watching Ethan Hunt Escapes from Guantanamo Bay.

Politics aside, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a surprising and exciting adventure that even the series' harshest critics will probably enjoy. It's no secret that Hollywood saves its best pictures for the end-of-the-year Awards Season, and it's nice to see that this goes for blockbusters, too. The film could've been lost in the summer shuffle of robots and superheroes. Thankfully, Paramount held back and gave us an early holiday gift.

*Some AMC Theatres claim to have IMAX theatres. But for anyone who's been to an actual IMAX auditorium--say, at Chicago's Navy Pier--you'll know instantly that these suburban shams are just really, really big screens (as opposed to "My God, I can barely take in the whole image in front of me, and I'm in the twentieth row"-sized screens). Hence, the nickname "LIE_MAX". I saw Ghost Protocol in LIE-MAX, and still got vertigo during the Dubai sequence.

**It's curious that a hotel/business center with "military grade security"--including lasers in the elevator shafts and cameras absolutely everywhere--would not have some kind of sensors in place to indicate that several windows have been removed. This is one of maybe three minor details that don't quite add up; in fairness, I may have missed the writers covering their tracks within the characters' disposable technobabble.

***My one critique is of Patton, who seems really out of place in an early dramatic scene. It's weird, too, because she was so terrific in Precious. There's a timidity in the way she cries, as if she's unsure of how realistic to go in the fourth Mission Impossible movie. Had I not been familiar with her previous work, I might have pegged this moment as just plain awful. That aside, she's a terrific addition to the series, and someone I really hope becomes a recurring player (small chance, given the franchise's penchant for boys'-club behavior).


Young Adult (2011)

The Land of Milk and Honey (and Kentacohuts)

Walking out of Young Adult, I heard two high school girls complaining. Their conversation began with an annoyed, "Was that supposed to be, like, an indie film or something?" and devolved into a series of confused whining sounds that, I suppose, passes for communication in younger circles (think Louis C.K. impersonating bar hotties).

This made me happier than you can imagine--happier, even, than the movie itself. Like my fellow audience members, I went in expecting Juno 2. I emerged with the proud feeling of having witnessed the fruits of Diablo Cody's first successful screenplay and Jason Reitman's first solid movie.

Yes, I'm one of those people: the handful who thought Juno and Jennifer's Body were clumsy, desperate attempts to capture a youth culture that had long since passed the author by. I also thought Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air were terrific premises bogged down by unwarranted seriousness and unwarranted silliness, respectively. This cluster of films represents, to me, the work of this generation's two most overrated talents.

I should say, "represented", because I finally understand what all the fuss is about. Young Adult is both artists' most mature and entertaining work, and it's sure to piss off anyone who goes to see it based on the trailer. While this is being sold as Charlize Theron's drunken misadventures in trying to win back her high school boyfriend from the clutches of marriage and fatherhood, the movie is a serious look at how living in the past can cripple one's ability to have a future.

Theron plays Mavis Gary, the ghost-writer of a once-successful series of young-adult novels concerning the life and times of privileged high-schoolers. While struggling to begin the last book, she receives a birth announcement from her old flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Divorced, drunk, and depressed, Mavis heads from the "big city" of Minneapolis to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, determined to recapture the romance and magic of her glory days. After settling into a hotel, Mavis heads to a bar where she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who's still as geeky as Mavis is goddess-y.

Over drinks, Mavis confides in Matt, spilling her plans to convince Buddy that his wife and kid will be just fine without him. Matt is sufficiently horrified and spends the rest of the film acting as both confidante and ill-at-ease shoulder-angel, futilely nudging her away from being a home-wrecker. But Mavis presses on, shedding the Diet Coke-accessorized, puffy-eyes-and-sweat-pants look for the plucked, spritzed, and mani-pedi-ed armor of a driven seductress. Buddy, she thinks, doesn't have a chance.

But he does have a wife, and a terrific one at that. Beth (the charming and understated Elizabeth Reaser) is a hip, loving mother who plays drums in a bar-band called Nipple Confusion with other new moms. Buddy is clearly in love with her and in love with being a dad--facts that Mavis refuses to accept. This plot point alone would be enough to make Young Adult worthwhile. Most movies of this kind (including Juno) introduce phony back-doors to the central love triangle; I'd fully expected for Buddy to be at least tempted by Mavis' advances and relentless critiques of suburban malaise; I'd also expected Beth to turn out to be an unsympathetic character, thus giving the audience a reason to cheer on Buddy's infidelity--or at least to understand it--and paint Mavis as a damaged hero.

In a bold and mature move, Cody paints Mavis into a corner, forcing her to deal with the bitterness and layers of facade she's constructed over the decades. The double-whammy occurs during a climactic scene where Mavis has coffee with Matt's sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe). The shy girl who'd looked up to Mavis in high school is now a shy nurse in a nowhere town who dreams of being rescued. Her astute deconstruction of Mercury and the small, pathetic lives of its inhabitants provides Mavis with the hammer to break down the last barrier to her future. With a triumphant "Fuck Mercury!" she packs up her car and begins anew.

The lesson here isn't that the suburbs are torturously lame. In fact, with the exception of Sandra (and, to a certain extent, Matt), everyone in Mercury seems content to live quiet lives surrounded by family and friends. The beautiful and popular Mavis always felt like she was meant for better things. She moved to a bigger city and launched a writing career, but stalled in Minneapolis and got lured by money and convenience into writing 178 books about high school. Like the people she despises most in the world, Mavis settled--just on a slightly larger scale, and without the benefit of anyone to share her life with. By the time the credits roll, we're left feeling that maybe she'll graduate to an even bigger city and use her creativity to write more satisfying material--but, true to character, it's only a feeling.

Young Adult is a brilliant film on every level. Cody shows more restraint than ever, favoring spirited dialogue delivered by smart characters over quip-heavy snark from precocious teens (thus adding potency to the handful of pop-cult references* that inevitably spring up). For his part, the best part of Reitman's direction is that he stays out of the story's way. Most of his films suffer, I think, from "Look at How Socially Aware I Am" syndrome, but this movie's subject matter lends itself to a more stripped-down, intimate approach. I love the opening credits, by the way, which shows the inner workings of the cassette player in Mavis' car during the drive to Mercury. In a clever bit of thematic irony, new images of the machinery fade into each other even as Mavis rewinds the tape to play the same song over and over and over again.

But the real champions here are Theron and Oswalt. Theron hasn't been as visible in the last few years, and Young Adult is a touching reminder of how great an actress she can be. Though Mavis is a mostly unsympathetic character, she's played as a wildly insecure person grasping at her cracking, protective persona. None of this would matter if Theron weren't utterly convincing as a loser. Typically, when beautiful, famous actresses dress down for a part that will inevitably lead to a glamorous transformation, we can still see that there's a gorgeous woman underneath. I didn't think of Mavis Gary as Charlize Theron for a second; she goes full-schlub here in demeanor and appearance.

And Patton Oswalt continues to impress in roles that are more dramatic than comedic. Big Fan was one of my favorite films of 2009, and he's a big reason that Young Adult will likely make this year's list. He brings a poetic, defeated pathos to the whiskey-brewing, action-figure-modifying Matt, whose inability to move on from a high school tragedy mirrors Mavis' own struggle. Like most of the film's humor, Oswalt's job as comic relief skews to the angry and relatable. He and Theron make for the year's oddest but most perfect movie duo, and I could easily have watched three hours of their characters just chatting about their problems over drinks.

Young Adult reminds me of another similarly themed feature from earlier this year, Bad Teacher. Its protagonist was also an attractive, devious gold-digger of sorts, but the movie gave no indication as to why the audience should care about her happiness. Packed with cheap jokes and bawdy cartoon characters, it dragged on for way too long while saying absolutely nothing. Honestly, I'd expected as much from this movie, and am elated to report that I was very, very wrong. Young Adult has the look, cast, and plot of a mainstream comedy but the battered, beating heart of, like, an indie film.

*Like the "Kentacohut" of this review's title--FYI, that's the hip abbreviation for KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combination restaurants.