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Tuesday
Feb142012

The Vow (2012)

Swearing Up a Storm

Like millions of other men, I was dragged to the cineplex last weekend to see 2012's big Valentine's Day release, The Vow. But I may have been the one guy in America who actually enjoyed it. Let me be clear: just about everything in this movie is either terrible or tainted by terribleness. But the few good parts mix with a treasure trove of hilarious nonsense to create a minor, under-the-radar success.

I'd like to dive in with a confession: my ability to accurately judge this film may be impaired by its having been filmed on Chicago's North Side. Until recently, I lived in or around some of the neighborhoods featured here, and they've never looked better than in the hands of cinematographer Rogier Stoffers. This seems like a silly pass to give a movie, but I stand by it; when faced with two hours of utter boredom, there's no such thing as a bad distraction.

The Vow opens with a young, attractive couple named Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum) coming out of a late-night movie. While driving home, Paige unbuckles her seatbelt to give Leo a kiss at a stop sign. Suddenly, a snow plow rear-ends their car, sending Paige through the windshield and into a coma.

Days later, she wakes up with severe memory loss. In her mind, she's no longer the carefree, successful artist who moved to the big city five years ago; she's the buttoned-up law student with a stuffy-yet-dashing fiancé named Jeremy (Scott Speedman) and wealthy parents who neither approve of nor understand the arts. This presents a unique problem for Leo, considering Paige's falling out with her parents half a decade earlier was so severe that he'd never actually met her family. Soon, he's awkwardly hobnobbing with elites who don't know what to make of his "job" as head of an upstart recording studio.

As Paige grows closer to her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) and sister (Jessica McNamee), Leo has to work harder to convince her that they belong together in their new life. This struggle makes up most of The Vow, and is hindered by two big problems.

First, Leo is a meat-head. Yes, my anti-Channing Tatum prejudice is rearing its ugly head, but the beef is legitimate. On Paige's first night home from the hospital, Leo throws a huge surprise party for her, not thinking for a second how frightening it would be to walk into a room packed with needy, questioning strangers. There are other examples of him not thinking straight, but that's the most egregious.

About Tatum: he's got a terrific, leading-man look that is shattered whenever he speaks. His delivery is often stilted and unconfident, as if his brain is constipated and words are sharts weakly dribbling from his mouth. The Vow has a handful of scenes where the actor is more relaxed, approaching naturalism.** But he was obviously cast as candy, evidenced by the fact that eight of the ten pictures Paige digs up from their relationship feature her husband shirtless or nearly so.

The second problem is Paige's unbelievable transformation. I'm not talking about the post-accident brain trauma; I mean the event from five years earlier that transformed her from Suburban Law Student Barbie into a funky, urban, vegetarian sculptor. I'm not saying this couldn't happen, but what I know of the often Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the sensibilities and gifts of lawyers and artists forces me to call "bullshit" on this whole story.

Even if Paige did give up everything and turn her back on all that her parents value, asking us to believe that she discovered a heretofore latent ability so amazing that she gets grants from the Chicago Tribune and can make enough from her art to afford both a huge apartment and gargantuan studio space is, frankly, insulting. Maybe if the five (!) credited writers had taken the time to explain this miraculous about-face, I could have bought into it. But, no, we just have to accept this as a way of life in Fairy Tale Windy City.

But these arguments miss the point, don't they? The Vow isn't a movie for the head, it's a movie for the heart--more accurately, the loins. What girl wouldn't want a semi-nude, moonlight romp on the beach with Channing Tatum? What guy wouldn't love a spin on the pottery wheel with Rachel McAdams?

This is pure, unabashed relationship porn, a fantasy meant to be enjoyed in the unique solitude of movie-watching with a significant other. If a man can withstand the wilting notion that he may not be the star of his beloved's imagination during the (hopefully) inevitable post-film sex, and if a woman can still get an appropriate tingle on for her reluctant shlub of a mate--who thinks taking them to see The Vow guarantees post-film sex--then the movie has done its job.***

Like The Notebook, The Vow uses the metaphor of memory loss to speak to countless spouses who feel the magic has gone out of their relationships. Both films see epically romantic journeys into the past as keys to conquering sadness in the present; the not-so-subtle message being that, over time, husbands/boyfriends inevitably forget how to appreciate their wives/girlfriends. This can be a very real problem, and a great subject for a film. But by burying the theme in a bizarre salt-truck-accident contrivance, the filmmakers make their grander points eye-rollingly corny instead of profound.

But, as I said earlier, I really enjoyed The Vow. It's appropriately soapy, goofy, and weepy. I love Leo and Paige's ridiculous hipster friends, who all look forty yet dress like they're eighteen. I love Speedman's turn as the asshole ex-boyfriend and Neill as the asshole current dad. And despite Tatum's wretched Tatum-ness, he gave me permission to not take anything on the screen seriously (had Ryan Gosling or other age-appropriate and suitably amazing actor taken the role, I'm sure this review would have read a lot differently). The Vow is cozy, hilarious, utterly lacking in logic, and, at times, an embarrassing test of will. In short, it is love.

*The Vow opens with a a cool downward shot of the Music Box Theatre, in which I was almost married.

**Bizarrely, Tatum's dialogue is belied by his inner monologue, whose insight and thoughtful cadence offer a knee-slapping contrast to the marble-mouthed mumbling he shares with the rest of the world.

***To my LGBT friends, feel free to mentally switch whatever roles are necessary to make this scenario work for you.

Monday
Feb132012

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

See it Again, for the Worst Time

I've only seen Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace all the way through on two occasions. The first was at a midnight-premiere screening in 1999; the second was Friday afternoon, on the first day of its remastered, rejiggered, 3D rerelease. The intervening years have seen countless critiques of George Lucas' once highly anticipated prequel trilogy--Patton Oswalt's reigns as the succinct and hilarious gold standard*--so I won't pile on with more nitpicking and claims of exaggerated hurt feelings from my psychically molested inner child.

Instead, I'll explain why you should avoid The Phantom Menace's latest big-screen run--despite the allure of pocketing overpriced, "collectible" 3D glasses with Darth Maul's face printed on the stems. Like most kids of my generation, I grew up being a huge Star Wars fan. I scooped up as many action figures as my parents could afford, and even dressed up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween. The films excited me with their epic scope and energy, and as the first of the prequels drew near, my anticipation was incalculable.

The morning after I saw it, I marched into work, took down all the Phantom Menace action figures, vehicles, and mini-posters with which I'd decorated my desk, and distributed them to my co-workers. I warned them that the movie was an overlong, boring mess; rightfully so, they didn't believe me. Why would they? How could they? It was Star Wars, for crying out loud. Even the Muppet-tacular Return of the Jedi (widely considered the worst in the original series) had some things going for it.

As usual, I held the minority opinion, even after all my friends saw the film. They called me "crazy" and bombarded me with reasons that they "really liked" it (which uniformly included the phrase, "It's not perfect, but..."). Though the last decade-plus has seen my doomsayer gripes become globally accepted wisdom, fans' widespread frustration is ultimately meaningless. Lucas knows that he doesn't just control a brand, but a significant branch of our pop consciousness, unassailable even by his gimmicky stunts and garish declarations of revisionist history.

What I didn't realize until a couple days ago was just how awful The Phantom Menace is--not just as a Star Wars movie, but as a movie, period. I think my brain-burning disbelief at the screenplay's trade-tariff debates and midichlorian mumbo-jumbo created an illusion for twenty-two-year-old me that things were actually happening on the screen--my "It's going to get better" optimism, crossed with a restless "What the FUCK?!" sense of confusion,** created a false sense of activity that no longer shades my assessment.

Okay, enough with the whiny preamble. What's actually wrong with the movie?

In two words, George Lucas. While I respect the hell out of him for creating a successful and enduring franchise, the truth is that he should have stuck with the lessons he learned on the original trilogy and let other people write and direct the prequels. The Phantom Menace reeks of bad ideas piled on top of worse ideas that were shot with a "fix it in post" mentality. I don't fault the actors for their atrocious performances; Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor have done great work on other projects, and even laughing-stock Jake Lloyd has been unfairly maligned for his turn as Anakin ("The Mannequin") Skywalker. Lloyd was no Haley Joel Osment, but not even Haley Joel Osment would've been Haley Joel Osment in Lucas' hands.

Only Liam Neeson rises above the material as the wise but slightly off-kilter Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn. And considering the significant amount of time he spends on screen with the Olsen Twins-quoting rubber alien, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), this is a truly remarkable achievement.

Ah, yes, Jar Jar. One of two huge indicators of the prequel trilogy's impending mediocrity. In place of a snarky, dangerous rogue--along the lines of Han Solo--to break up the monotony of space monks and stolid, monotone royalty, we get a floppy-eared court jester whose charms might appeal to toddlers. I'd forgotten how great a detriment to the film Jar Jar was. His high-pitched baby-speak voice is gratingn and his constant, slapstick pratfalls just aren't funny. He's only useful in filling up space that would otherwise have been stuffed with more filibustering about the Naboo embargo--a concept I still can't understand, and which I'm likely mischaracterizing out of apathy.

The second red flag is actually a red-and-black flag; his name is Darth Maul (Ray Park). The devil-faced apprentice to evil mastermind Darth Sidious (Ian McDairmid) was sold to potential audiences as the new Darth Vader--a badass villain with amazing fighting skills and a double-bladed lightsaber! For his eight minutes of screen time, Maul is indeed a beautifully weird character. But after he gets chopped in half during the climactic three-way battle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), we realize that the nemeses we were meant to care about all along were the corrupt trade federation representatives--bug-eyed Asian caricatures who make Charlie Chan sound like Barack Obama.

That three-way lightsaber fight is spectacular, the highlight of the whole film. It's part of the more-engaging-than-expected third act, where Lucas finally include some star wars in his new Star Wars movie. Leading up to this are the aforementioned political speeches, lots of wandering around, and a podrace that serves as the big, mid-movie blow-out (i.e. CG snooze alarm). The podrace isn't nearly as great, I think, as everyone remembers it--even in 3D. Perhaps it's a matter of the sequence having been surrounded by such dull gibberish that desperate fans gave it a pass--but the whole thing plays like a video game that got left out in the sun.

We never see the most interesting part of The Phantom Menace on screen. It's suggested in a line of dialogue between Portman's Queen Amidala and her head of security, Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie). He says the people of Naboo have begun to push back against the federation forces that have taken over their city. Lucas' greatest narrative failing is assuming that the audience would rather listen to the boardroom PowerPoint version of the labor dispute than to see its real-world effects.

In 1977's Star Wars, a few lines of dialogue and one really cool meeting of imperial generals--in which Darth Vader choked a guy out for making fun of his religion--are the only overt indicators of galaxy-wide political conflict. Lucas relied on his characters' struggles to tell the big-picture story. If this series had been unleashed on the world chronologically, I'm fairly certain Star Wars would have been a cinema-history footnote, an Ishtar-sized flop (Ish-star?) on a barren sci-fi landscape.

The only point I'll concede to Lucas is that he wisely inserted the digital Yoda character into The Phantom Menace. I'm not a proponent of his continual tinkering with the series, but I never liked the puppet his effects team created for this film. The new Yoda provides a nice continuity with the prequel trilogy, and leaves the puppetry in the original series where it belongs. Besides, this attempt to bridge the halves aesthetically might fool newcomers into believing that the quality carries over, too.

As for the 3D enhancements, nothing jumped out at me (literally or figuratively). Like most Lucasfilm endeavors, this rerelease is just a ploy for cash and relevance. You won't notice anything wearing the Darth Maul glasses that you didn't before, except maybe how muddy The Phantom Menace looks; turns out there've been mammoth advances in digital technology since 1999, and this movie hasn't aged well--this thing will look like Tron in five years. If you really want to be blown away, I suggest saving your money and seeing the original trilogy in 3D a few years from now. That way, you'll at least have tauntaun guts and Princess Leia's swirly, bronze bikini exploding off the screen to look forward to--as opposed to the CG bantha poop now playing at a theatre near you.

I apologize if you've grown bored with this review. Don't worry: it's almost over.

Writing about Episode I today is like discussing an ex-girlfriend from three relationships ago: deep inside, the embers of regret still sizzle, fueled by undying innocence. On the surface, though, you just feel embarrassed at ever having fallen for that lying bi--

What? Oh, right--Star Wars. Yes, thirteen years later, The Phantom Menace still sucks.

But now it's in 3D.

*For you minutia obsessives, please check out Red Letter Media's ridiculous but oh-so-accurate, hour-and-ten-minute video evisceration. You'll never watch movies the same way again.

**I'm confident that those who've seen The Phantom Menace will understand my use of profanity and therefore not demand that I beg anyone's pardon.

Saturday
Feb112012

Cool as Ice (1991)

Wigger Mortis

Wow. It's not often that a well-reasoned reader review crosses my Inbox--especially not ones from PhD candidates! Sure enough, Martin Correy, a third-year Memetics Major and intern at Cambridge's prestigious Fors-Maste Institute, wrote me the other day.

He took issue with a review draft I'd posted on their "Critical Tinkerings" forum (hey, these pieces don't write themselves); I've gotta say, he impressed me so much that I not only scrapped my write-up in favor of running his, but he actually changed the way I look at Cool as Ice. Enjoy.*

Hell0, Ian.

I've followed Kicking the Seat since spotting your twentieth draft of the infamous Love Happens review on the CT boards a few years ago (personally, I'm glad you removed the profanity and non sequitur musings about "banana boobies"). Though we generally disagree on most films, I've never felt compelled to "call you out"--until now. Your most recent piece, a review of the 1991 Vanilla Ice vehicle, Cool as Ice, is one of the laziest, most uninformed assessments of a film I've seen.

With great snark and relish, you dismiss the movie as "gaudy" and "a wiggerific, unflushable turd". These sentiments align with two-decades-old popular wisdom, but I'm surprised you didn't catch the deliciously subversive, forward-looking themes of social engineering in David Stenn's screenplay. Or that the script was just the tip of the iceberg in Universal Pictures' plan to shape youth culture in the early part of the new century.

That's right, Cool as Ice was not, as you might assume, a bland cash-in on a wildly successful music act; it was the foundation for at least half a dozen trends we see in youth culture today--including bringing hip-hop to white, affluent communities; spawning the next twelve generations of anti-animal-cruelty activists, and even re-shaping perceptions of global conflict for all of Western civilization.

I'll leave discovering the other three memes up to you, but to demonstrate how not-crazy I am, allow me to explicate points one through three. First, a little background:

In case you're unfamiliar with memes, they're ideas transmitted through culture in much the same way genes are passed along. Famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word in 1976, shortly after which the field of memetics was born. Imagine pouring a cup of red food dye (a new idea) into the center of an Olympic-sized swimming pool (collective consciousness). Though relatively small, the change agent will eventually shade every bit of surface water, and possibly go much deeper. Memeticists study the origins and effects of the dye in order to better understand the pool.

Cool as Ice's splash was significantly smaller, debuting in fourteenth place on opening weekend and quickly vanishing from the national scene. At a glance, this beats-and-rhymes remake of Rebel Without a Cause plays like a cross between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Say Anything, and Edward Scissorhands; aspiring white rapper, Johnny (Ice), cruises the country with his all-black posse in search of gigs. When one of the gang's bikes breaks down, they have no choice but to stop in a small town full of squares.

To the polite citizenry, Johnny is a freak. His clipped words of wisdom wrapped in bizarre hood-speak and over-large, brightly colored outfits make him as alien a creature as E.T. (though Spielberg's puppet never dreamed of saying things like, "Yo! You need to drop the zero and get with the hero."). Though director David Kellogg sets his film in post-segregation America, Johnny's friends are the only people of color to be seen in the whole town.** Race doesn't manifest as an issue, except in the subtext of Johnny's corruption by a sub-culture that sees education and politeness as proverbial shackles hearkening back to literal ones.

Johnny's gang spends ninety percent of the film waiting in a local repair shop for the bike to get fixed, while Johnny puts the moves on a cute high schooler named Kathy (Kristin Minter). The sub-subtext here diverges neatly: the immediate effect is that the scary black people are well hidden from the out-of-touch, old white folks; longer-term, Johnny functions as an emissary for broader, Afro-centric concerns. In the years following the movie's release, rap music and icons of non-white culture invaded the suburbs, degrading not only language, but youth perceptions of the importance of language itself.

Johnny's random cries of "Aaawwwwww yeaaaah" as a substitute for a lingual expression, over time, became the rule instead of the exception. Language is always the first cultural domino to fall, followed by fashion--less than two decades on, the most profitable, youth-targeted clothing brands are marketed to "gangsta" lifestyle blacks--but are kept in business by the parents of affluent white kids.

Most sociologists agree that a person's demeanor (a combination of looks, language, and attitude) informs not only their self image, but the way others perceive them. Just as Johnny's new neighbors can't get past his loud, pointless, anti-establishment posing, neither can modern culture accept the downturn in youth concerns for manners, empathy, and the concomitant uptick in their collective sense of achievement-free entitlement. How else to explain the disturbing advent of "LOL" as a widely accepted expression of an idea?***

Speaking of disturbing, this passage from your review struck a particularly sore nerve with me:

"This movie's uglier than its characters. Whoever shot this thing should be shot."

You may be interested to know that the film's cinematographer is two-time Academy Award-winner Janusz Kaminski, who began working with Steven Spielberg on Schindler's List shortly after Cool as Ice wrapped (if this were one of your reviews, I'm sure you'd highlight the fact that these two films have probably never appeared in the same sentence). I know you're not a fan of visual subtext unless it's so obvious that it borders on just plain text (this is not a slam, just a recognition of trends--I've read your Tree of Life review several times, in utter disbelief), but you really should revisit this movie.

In his beatific depictions of small-town America, Kaminski stirs the most primal emotions of tribalism (patriotism), a theme that would permeate many future collaborations with Spielberg. As long shots of peaceful, Midwest countryside are tarnished by Johnny and his friends tearing along on loud, silly-looking motorcycles, the message is clear: it is our national duty to preserve the national character from invading forces. Kaminski worked the meme beautifully into the arc of his career, showing the innocuous effects of capitulation in Cool as Ice; the results of too much rolling over in Schindler's List; and the darkest-hour, global bailout scenario of Saving Private Ryan.

"And then they came for me," indeed.

Today, we see a hyper-vigilant version of this attitude, and a call to return to the "good old days" on the national political stage. From the Tea Party to the Occupy Movement, both sides of the cultural spectrum are outraged at what they perceive to be a society highjacked by sinister foreign interests (if not literal, then figurative foreigners--corporate interests whose ideals run contrary to our understanding of the nation's founding principles).

Everything from TSA body scans to increased interest in border security to calls for the black President to produce his birth certificate are, believe it or not, the poisonous, low-hanging fruit of a tree planted two decades ago by David Stenn and Vanilla Ice. To suggest that Kaminski merely pruned the leaves is to discount the importance of aesthetics in propaganda.

The animal-activism point is the lowest-hanging fruit. At least six hundred cows were sacrificed to Ice's wardrobe, and the numerous shots of livestock grazing peacefully illustrates the point loud and clear: These unintelligible foreigners are here to mock us with their casual, gross exploitation of our resources. Ice's most frequently used puffy jacket in the film is a black leather number with white, leather slang stitched into it, such as "Ice", "Freeze", "Danger", and, most quizzically, "Yep"--which my more conspiratorial (and slightly racist) colleagues insist is an acronym for "Youth Ebonics Power". Saving animals, then, becomes not just a righteous cause for interspecies relations, but a crusade against corrupting cultural influences.

One last nugget for you, and then I'll go. The film's casting is key to understanding its sinister nature. Michael Gross, the hippie dad from Family Ties, plays Kathy's uptight father. John Haymes Newton, who played Superboy on television a few years earlier, plays Kathy's uptight, jerk boyfriend. They're literally and figuratively cuckolded by the Johnny character; one of them is eventually seduced by his pouty-lipped, arched-eyebrow charms.

The message is two-pronged and clear: truth, justice, and the American way are no match for the attractive vulgarities of change, and permissive liberalism cannot go unchecked, for fear of the national identity melting away entirely. Johnny's declaration, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at" speaks to a lack of grounding that can sway the maleable-minded (in this case, teenagers) in potentially dangerous directions.

I don't necessarily agree with anything I've written, from a philosophical standpoint--but the memes are real and their effects are undeniable. So, before you write off another film as "cheap, stupid thrills masked as mad skillz", I suggest you recalibrate your brain and actually pay attention.

Thanks for letting me ramble. Looking forward to whatever's next.

mc

*Thanks to reader feedback on the last reader review I posted, I've taken the liberty of including paragraph breaks and inserting requisite bolds, italics, and cast information. Fortunately, I didn't have to touch the grammar, as Mr. Correy can apparently use Spell Check.

**I should have written, "the whole town proper". A few African-Americans can be seen hanging around a bar on the outskirts of this "Wonder Bread" community.

***Worse yet, the verbal mutation appears to be accelerating: "LOL" eventually became "lol"--which soon left the realm of texting and entered spoken communication. People began pronouncing "el-oh-el" instead of actually laughing out loud.

Wednesday
Feb082012

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Origin of the Spaces

Like Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film I've seen numerous times, but my perception of it with each viewing. Does my brain molt abnormally fast? Or is there another explanation for the fact that, only two days ago, I realized Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) didn't die on the moon?

The diehard Stanley Kubrick fans among you are likely shouting at your screens right now, "Of course he didn't die on the moon, you idiot! Were you even paying attention?"

Yes, but to the wrong things, apparently.

Let's back up.

I revisit 2001 every few years, mostly to recalibrate where I'm at, mentally and spiritually. I remember watching it for the first time on cable back in high school, and flipping channels during what seemed like the interminable "Stargate" sequence towards the end of the film. Astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman's (Keir Dullea) journey through the outer reaches of time, space, and reality lasts just over nine minutes, but to a kid lacking the attention span to finish A Catcher in the Rye, it seemed like forty.* Years later, watching a restored, 70mm presentation at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, I marveled at the artistry and innovation of what Kubrick had surely intended to be an all-encompassing, big-screen feat--and wasn't bored for a second.

I may have lost some of you. Some folks avoid the "Classic, Big, Important" movies because pop culture has not only robbed us of their significance through parody, but also tarred them as dull, pretentious epics (See also Citizen Kane**). If you've never seen this film, I urge you to either wait until it hits an art-house theatre near you or find a friend with the largest, blu-ray-enabled TV you can find and give it a try. In the meantime, here's a little back-story for incentive.

The film begins at the dawn of man and follows two rival groups of apes as they lounge, forage, and fight over a watering hole. One morning, a tall, black monolith appears in one of the camps and bestows the spark of intelligence on those who touch it. Soon, apes are fashioning weapons from the bones of felled animals and asserting dominance in the world's first act of artificial murder.

Fast-forward several million years, circa 1999, when humans have evolved enough to build lunar colonies serviced by commercial spacecraft. The aforementioned Dr. Floyd is dispatched to a moon base to oversee the excavation of a top-secret discovery: another monolith. When he and several other officials enter the site--which has been dug out, sealed off, and lit for maximum observation--the alien slab emits a piercing noise that causes everyone to scream inside their helmets.

Because the second half of the film picks up eighteen months later, with a different cast of characters, I'd assumed that the moon mission was lost. But, no, Floyd pops up again towards the end, addressing the crew of the ship via recording and talking about events subsequent to his encounter with the monolith. In my (weak) defense, the scene in which Floyd re-appears is so strange and intense, that I guess I missed just who it was on that monitor.***

But there I go, leading you through another narrative Stargate. Let's rewind again:

2001's second half involves a five-man mission to Jupiter. Doctors Bowman and Poole (Gary Lockwood) are the only two crew members awake for the duration of the years-long trip; their survey team sleeps in suspended animation. The men are joined by supercomputer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the pinnacle of human technology--a machine so smart, so perfect, that it has never made an error.

Bowman and Poole are somewhat uneasy about their lives being in the hands of a machine while several million miles from home. But Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke keep that notion an eerie undercurrent in the men's early scenes. I'd never picked up on this before, but neither character directly addresses one another until HAL begins to malfunction. Despite sharing several, long scenes--even ones in which they're sitting right next to each other, watching television on what may as well be iPads--their isolation is absolute.

It's a chilling comment on man's over-reliance on technology, as well as a very forward-thinking look at the death of human interaction in the face of overwhelming convenience--if one doesn't need people to fill one's needs, one doesn't need people at all (look no further than Facebook to see how people have stopped talking to each other and begun talking to machines who transmit versions of their friends' personalities).

But, yes, HAL goes haywire. Whether this is due to alien interference (the ship runs into another monolith near Jupiter) or a newfound self-awareness causing its artificial intelligence to break with sanity (or both)--the film is unclear. I do know that Bowman must fight to shut the computer down, which means venturing into its giant, red brain--where he's treated to a really creepy song. It's here that Floyd re-emerges, and where I stopped paying attention to the monitor addressing Bowman to focus on his strange, desperate task. 2001's last half-hour is famously oblique, particularly after this scene, when the monolith opens up a portal to alien realms.

I've heard that Bowman's fate is explained a bit more thoroughly in Clarke's novel, but I prefer the film's ambiguity. The best way for Kubrick to present these big ideas is to speak to the audience in a bizarre, visual language that it's not yet advanced enough to understand. Just as one wouldn't expect an ant to understand iTunes, Kubrick teases us in a way that suggests film scholars will spend millennia decoding a very deliberate and sensible master plan.

2001: A Space Odyssey deserves all the praise it gets, and is more than worth your time. It's from a different era, though, and anyone expecting a whiz-bang space opera should definitely dial back their expectations (for starters, get ready for epic, elegant classical music in lieu of explosions). This is a film about evolution, after all, and we all know that evolution is slow--slow, but fascinating and insightful. The text, subtext, and sub-subtext presented here are more thrilling than a hundred Avatar sequels. Though, unlike that movie and its ilk, this one's worth revisiting and thinking about.

*I've long since finished Salinger's book, a favorite.

**For a genuinely boring, pretentious epic, see The Tree of Life.

***Truth be told, after all these years, I'm kind of bummed that he lived.

Saturday
Feb042012

Chronicle (2012)

If I Go Crazy, Then Will You Still Call me "Superman"?

Though both genres have run their entertainment value into the ground, we still find ourselves awash in found-footage and superhero movies. Iron Man 2 blew and Thor was a snore, but studio wisdom holds that stuffing The Avengers with even more magical muscle-men will inherently make their adventures worthwhile. And though I liked The Last Exorcism and the last Paranormal Activity movie, I'm not chomping at the bit to see what happens next in these spooky, shaky-cam epics.

So, what could be worse than the found-footage superhero movie, Chronicle?

The more appropriate question is, what could be better? Just as The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen swooped in to save a zombified comic-book industry in 1986, director Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis have created a thrilling, touching adventure story that both comments on and elevates the genres in which they dabble.

The film stars Dane DeHaan as Andrew, a lonely Seattle teen who suffers abuse at the hands of his alcoholic, ex-firefighter dad (Michael Kelly). The family lives hand-to-mouth, as the old man scrapes together every penny of disability to pay for his dying wife's medication--as well as his own chemical therapy of choice, beer. Andrew gathers enough cash to buy an old video camera, which he uses to document his terrible home life and the humiliations he endures as a high school outcast.

One night, he and his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), attend a barn party. Towards the end of the evening, Matt and class-president-front-runner Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover a hole in the ground; they goad Andrew into exploring it with his camera, and soon the boys find themselves face to face with a glowing alien artifact. We see black tentacles peel off its crystal spikes before interference causes the camera to short out. The footage picks up three weeks later in Matt's back yard, capturing a series of telekinesis tests that the boys have devised for their newfound superhuman abilities.

As you might expect, the teens don't handle their powers well. What begins as showing off for one another progresses to playing pranks on unsuspecting shoppers at the local mall, and ends with Matt having to establish rules for how the group uses their godlike strengths. Andrew has the hardest time with this, as his powers have done nothing to enhance his social skills or prospects at getting out of his house without bruises. Unlike Matt and Steve, who were gifted in several areas before their encounter with the cosmic rock, Andrew still feels out of place and almost entitled to abuse--despite his ability to, say, separate a spider into its component elements in mid-air.

Going further would spoil the joy of discovering Chronicle for yourself. This movie gets so much right that others get wrong, and it's a delight watching Trank and Landis deftly sidestep obvious pitfalls. One of the most common charges leveled against found-footage movies is that regular people simply don't make a habit of filming everything--especially when their lives are in danger. Right off the bat, the creators establish Andrew as an odd bird, a freak who insists on getting everything on film--possibly because he's seen too many found-footage movies.

I also like that there are significant time lapses here. The three weeks between the alien encounter and the boys' tests are lost because Andrew's first camera was destroyed, and it took him awhile to find a suitable replacement. Later, Matt's classmate and severe crush, Ashley (Casey Letter), pops up with her own camera--which she uses to document major senior-year events. She, too, is always filming as a way of improving her skills, leading to not only a cool dueling-cameras motif, but also a relief from Alex's point of view. Chronicle breathes as the filmmakers allow their story to take shape over several months, rather than condensing the action into an unrealistic time frame.

More importantly, the movie is a compelling character study way before people start moving things with their minds. We feel not only sorry for Andrew, but hopeful that he'll either stand up to his father or strike out on his own with his dignity intact. His is a classic case of power corrupting the innocent, and we watch in horror and sadness as his rage finds its voice, which becomes a scream. This is what George Lucas should have aimed for with Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. Too bad a couple of young film geeks accomplished in eighty minutes what he couldn't in six hours.

At the heart of the film's success is its terrific cast. DeHaan is mesmerizing as Andrew. He turns the stock Columbine-kid archetype into a fully fleshed-out young man with deep problems. As his friends-in-powers, Jordan and Russell create complex, likable contrasts. Matt is the soulful genius who doesn't want to be seen as a nerd, and Steve is the most popular kid in school, who got that way by being a genuinely nice guy. I believed this strange and beautiful relationship, thanks to Landis' keen insight into the sometimes awkward but adamantium-strong bonds that bring teenagers together. The way they bicker, laugh, and confide in one another isn't easy melodrama or comic-book-movie hackery; it's the real thing.

My only gripe with Chronicle--and it's not necessarily a fair one--is that some of the special effects are downright dodgy. The levitating objects, in particular, are rendered with weird, conspicuous shadows that pull them right out of the frame and the audience right out of some pretty key moments. Had the film been endowed with a much larger budget, I'm sure these wouldn't have been a problem.

On the plus side, the scenes in which the boys fly are simply amazing. My dizziness and fluttered stomach were enough to convince me that 3D is a money-sucking joke. Trank, cinematographer Matthew Jensen, and the digital effects team create a wonderful, weightless experience that I don't think I've ever experienced before in a non-IMAX movie. I can only imagine Zach Snyder seeing this and subsequently pulling the plug on his new Superman film--or at least going back to the effects drawing board.

Speaking of Supes, it's a wonder Fox didn't get sued by Warner Brothers (DC Comics' parent company). Chronicle is the best non-Superman Superman origin story I've seen, and the parallels are undeniable. Beginning with the look of the alien artifact (a dead ringer for the craft that bought baby Kal-El to Earth in Richard Donner's film adaptation) and ending with a closing shot that is a metaphorical (and nearly literal) Fortress of Solitude, Trank and Landis sneak lots of perhaps unintentional references into their mythos. Indeed, Andrew is essentially Lex Luthor by way of Carrie White, with a dash of Superman's origin for flavor.

None of this matters, though. I appreciate a good influence bouillabaisse, as long as it's compelling and the result at least feels original. That's definitely the case here. If you've just about given up on capes and camcorders, I urge you to give Chronicle a try. I have little interest in a sequel or further attempts to tweak this genre hybrid, but the movie surprised me immensely--truly a superhuman feat for the ages.

Note: The one minor trap that Trank and Landis don't escape is the question of who found and edited their characters' footage. So far, the only such movie I've seen successfully address this issue is Cloverfield.

Douchebag Question: For those of you who've seen Chronicle--is it me, or does DeHaan look uncannily like Chloe Moretz in some scenes? It's all about the lips...