Monday, December 28, 2009

Steampunk Holmes: Thoughts on Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Jr. -

Downey Jr. is superb as Holmes. Totally invested, he molds Holmes’s eccentric characteristics into the consummate mad genius. All the characteristics are here – his powers of deduction, his mastery of disguise, his sardonic wit. What Downey Jr. does is effortless, and his glib facility for speech is phenomenal. He doesn’t perform Holmes; he becomes Holmes, re-inventing him as a seedy, cynical agoraphobic adept at fisticuffs, not entirely the Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but still the most engaging aspect of this film.

Unfortunately, in this film Sherlock Holmes doesn’t get to be Sherlock Holmes in the traditional sense of deducing the meaning of important clues throughout the story. He deduces Watson’s fiancé’s past, and facts about other characters, but we don’t get to hear his conclusions about all the important evidence – the potions and petals and powders and chunks of marble stuck together with a paste made of honey – until the end of the movie, after the villain’s death – and then it doesn’t matter. There’s no enjoyment derived from trying to draw our own conclusions about evidence and then hearing Holmes’s superior pronouncements. Holmes spends much more time engaged in fisticuffs than in doing what Sherlock Holmes does best.

Fisticuffs –

Way too much time spent on fisticuffs. I like the fact that Holmes can lay his opponents low, and I like how he plots out his punches ahead of time like chess moves, but the fights are too loud, too sped-up motion, and too long. The confrontation in the dry dock with the giant Lurch, who picks up the huge sledgehammer and faces Holmes who holds a much smaller hammer, is clever and fun to watch, but it comes halfway through a much longer fight and chase.

Steampunk London –

London is dark, sooty, muddy, full of dirty street people, and the accent is on a steampunk atmosphere of Thames riverboats, clanking gears, massive chains, iron hulls, the emerging steel structure of the Tower Bridge, and fantastic electrical and radio-signaled contraptions in a setting that is still old-fashioned Victorian England.

Jude Law –

Jude Law’s Doctor Watson is clever, suspicious of and perturbed with his best friend, Holmes, and he can’t give up a life of adventure and investigation. Jude Law is the best Watson yet, and we see his irritation and love for his friend all in a single affectionate but exasperated glance.

Rachel McAdams –

Pale as a ghost; horrendously bad eye makeup. It’s never clear what she’s up to – oh, yeah, working for Professor Moriarty, Holmes’s nemesis, chap with the chalky lapel. To do what? Steal some device whose function is a mystery? Oh, she’s sneaky and self-sufficient, but with Holmes and Watson so richly portrayed, who needs the American?

Cinematography –

What’s the label for the use of sped-up jump cuts (usually for flashbacks) interspersed with slow-mo (to focus gratuitously on a punch) that is often typical of violent Brit crime dramas directed by Guy Ritchie or films like Crank? Whatever the label, it was interesting seeing this visual approach to a Sherlock Holmes tale set in Victorian England. But, by Jove, a little of it goes a long way and often goes too fast to register. Got real tired of it here.

Moments of silence –

Two favorite moments: 1) In the ring, Holmes seems to be losing the match with a burly Irishman. Then he plots out devastating hits on his opponents and lays him flat. The crowd is silent as Holmes staggers out of the grimy ring. 2) Too late, Watson realizes he’s triggered a booby trap. He warns Holmes just as explosion after explosion bursts out slow-mo with muffled sound effects while Holmes shields himself with a door and runs the gauntlet of detonations.

Evil plot –

Not knowing anything about the so-called diabolical plot until the end of the movie robs the film of dread and suspense. And then Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) doesn’t put up much of a fight. It all seems so sinister in the beginning, but then the bloke hangs quite nicely. As for the plot to take over the United States, weakened by the Civil War: Yeah, maybe weakened because Lincoln is dead, but Ulysses S. Grant has formed one of the most powerful armies in the world. Anyway, whatever – ho, hum.

Best elements –

I loved the look of the film – dark and mechanical steampunk London – and it would almost be worth seeing it again to savor every word uttered by the masterful Downey Jr., but the film’s fine performances and visual trappings deserved a better plot.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Up in the Air and The Princess and the Frog

As a professional employment terminator, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country doing the firing for employers who find it difficult to lay off workers in this time of economic depression. Always on the move, Ryan spends his life keeping one step ahead of commitments and responsibilities that could tie him down. In an artificial world of airplanes, airports, and airport hotels, it is easy for Ryan to ignore the anxiety and stress many others feel as the economy declines.

Of course, Ryan’s story reflects universal truths we are very familiar with – the importance of family and commitment, and it is predictable that Ryan is reminded of these truths as he travels, fires people, falls for a fellow frequent flier, sexy Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), and sees life through the eyes of fledgling terminator Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a tightly wound career girl in her 20s who is already wrestling with issues that Ryan has eluded for many years. The film is delightful, touching, well-written, artistically shot, pointed in its message, and the ride is very smooth, but it is made especially worthwhile by the performances of Clooney and Farmiga, and particularly Kendrick as angsty Natalie Keener.

Natalie Keener is one of my favorite film characters of the year. Hair pulled back severely, dressed in prim blouse and short black skirt and heels, Natalie is driven to be perfect – even if it means being perfect at telling people they have just lost jobs they have held for many years and watching reactions that range from rage to stunned silence to suicidal grief.

Coming from a generation that must be competitive in a very competitive world, Natalie has graduated at the top of her class. She’s got her whole life planned out, but she’s learning that life doesn’t always go as planned, and typing “with purpose” doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to be. Life for the employee terminator can be as sucky as life for the terminated. Yet through it all Natalie seems to know what matters in life and she doesn’t understand Ryan’s cluelessness. Her voice tied up in a controlled monotone, big eyes registering shock at how her job affects others, Kendrick shows Natalie’s vulnerability and her dawning insecurity in a world in which even perfection isn’t good enough.

Jason Reitman's film gets sanctimonious and heavy-handed at the end when fired employees, speaking as documentary-style talking heads, bare their feelings about their shaky futures and what they value in life. Family. Yeah, yeah, we got that. Is the film making a political statement? Does it really care? I took the film as a touching and entertaining character portrait.

The Princess and the Frog plays like it’s made-to-order – and in a hurry. Substitute as Cinderella: Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), an African-American New Orleans waitress who dreams of owning a restaurant. Replace Prince Charming with Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), the handsome, light-brown playboy from a fictitious country. Throw in a couple of cute animal friends: Louis (Micheal-Leon Wooley), a gigantic gator who wants to play trumpet in a jazz band, and Raymond (Jim Cummings), a spindly firefly in love with a star. Add delightful Disney songs reminiscent of previous Disney songs such as “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book and “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. What you get is a concoction of colorful, fast-moving vignettes – the best taking place in the swamps of the bayou. (There's a hilarious routine in which the firefly causes three frog-napping hillbillies to knock each other senseless in Three Stooges style.) But within this mishmash of classic Disney elements, only brief glimmers of Disney magic shine through.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

James Cameron's Avatar

Watching James Cameron’s Titanic this past week, sort of as prep work for seeing Avatar, I was again won over by the touching emotional connection between DiCaprio’s Jack and Winslet’s Rose – once I got through the silliness: the wraparound story with Bill Paxton and other wince-worthy bits such as the “spit like a man” routine and Rose’s hand on the steamy automobile window – man, that’s a lot of steam! Also, being half English, the film’s anti-British bent kind of smarts. But despite the story’s failings, I was once again struck by how each gorgeous, meticulously researched image in the 1912 part of the film makes you feel like you’re really there.

Even though it lifts its story from Dances With Wolves, Avatar achieves the same sort of visual magic that transports you to a world you’ve never seen before. As soon as Jake Sully, in his surrogate blue body, goes on his first tramp through that fantastic jungle, I was sold.

Yes, those clever South Park creators got it right: Dances With Smurfs - even though the Na’vi aren’t Smurfs. No, the Na’vi are exactly like the Lakota in Dances With Wolves: they ride “horses,” have a spiritual connection with their land, and kick butt when they need to. Though the Na’vi don’t cry “Hokahey,” any lover of Westerns has got to feel a thrill when they gear up for war against the paleface.

In spirit and content, however, Avatar borrows more from three other films. From The Emerald Forest (1985) it lifts the scenario of deforestation threatening an indigenous tribe’s way of life. As in The Mission (1986), whites side with a jungle tribe and sacrifice their lives to fight off white invasion. Also, when Avatar gets to that glowing, weeping willow tree and that hocus pocus about Eywa and the interconnectedness of all nature, I found myself thinking more of Princess Mononoke (1999) and its don’t-mess-with-Mother-Nature theme more than I thought of Lieutenant Dunbar’s adventures with the Lakota.

Although the film’s borrowings had me chuckling in the beginning, I forgot them once Cameron’s visual world turned on its dazzle. Avatar is at its best when Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) stays in the jungle with the Na’vi, learning how to shoot a bow and arrow or to connect the nerve endings in his pigtail with the nerve endings in a “horse’s” ear(?) so he can ride it, or with a fierce griffin-like flying creature so he can he can dive-bomb into the canyons of the floating mountains – the film’s most exhilarating sequence.

I wasn’t that impressed with Sam Worthington in Terminator Salvation. But here Worthington makes Jake Sully’s passion for his surrogate life with the Na’vi shine through his blue CGI disguise. In a touching, uplifting scene, Jake, a paraplegic, becomes irrepressibly giddy when he discovers he can get up and run in his surrogate body. Later, we feel his addiction to the world of the Na’vi, and I felt jarred by his nighttime breaks to go to the bathroom and eat scrambled eggs or whatever. I couldn’t wait for him to get back to Na’viworld.

Cameron isn’t very imaginative when it comes to creating supporting characters. Here he simply taps into Aliens for which he created a whole platoon of G.I. Joes. As played by Stephen Lang, Colonel Miles Quaritch is the quintessential rock-hard army dude, hair cropped, muscles scarred, determined to lock and load and blow the flat-nosed blueskins away. I guess Wounded Knee is too far in the past for Quaritch and his men to feel any pangs of guilt for repeating sordid history. Quaritch is purely a cartoon character, but he arouses the viewer’s excitement for Indian-style payback.

Cameron also taps into Aliens for the character of the cold-blooded businessman Parker Selfridge played by Giovanni Ribisi. (Get it – Selfridge?) Here Selfridge’s heartless indifference toward the fate of the Na’vi makes Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke look like a reasonable entrepreneur. Sigourney Weaver as Grace Augustine plays the resident treehugger/Na’vi lover, frighteningly toothy in her CGI guise. But my favorite supporting character is tough helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon, played by the ever buff and sexy Michelle Rodriguez (loved the little slit in her tight white shirt). I just knew she would go helicopter-a-helicopter up against Quaritch. As for Zoë Saldaña, we never see her other than as a blue Pocahantas, but her savage grimaces and aboriginal body language communicate a convincing investment in her role as Neytiri. Love it when she growls.

In the same way the horrid performance of Bill Paxton and Rose flipping the bird don’t diminish the spectacular visuals and the gripping sinking sequence in Titanic, Cameron’s storytelling weaknesses didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the dazzling, detailed world of Avatar: the jungle, its creatures, and the floating mountains. I’m not a big fan of CGI, but Cameron’s superior advancements in motion-capture technology and CGI – with the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s grotesque teeth and the scene in which hundreds of look-alike Na’vi sing around the Sacred Tree – have achieved a full-bodied, fluid reality for his characters and their actions. In the past, flying superheroes have looked flat and cartoonish. But Jake aboard his winged banshee looks like he’s really flying, and when he leaps on the top of a flying fortress, he doesn’t look like a pasted-on image.

With Avatar we are in the hands of a skilled visual storyteller and Cameron’s triumph is the creation of a richly evoked world of fantasy and adventure.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Invictus

Biopics about noble leaders of troubled countries (Gandhi) usually focus on said leader dealing with crisis after crisis. This film, about the presidency of Nelson Mandela and how he set out to repair the rift between whites and blacks in post-Apartheid South Africa, chooses the narrow focus of Mandela using his support of the mostly white rugby team, the Springboks, to show goodwill towards the whites and to build unity by supporting the team’s bid for the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is predictable, simplistic, and naively pat, but it is a well-intended drama held together by the performances of Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the Springbok’s captain, Francois Peinaar.

As Mandela, Freeman imitates the South African president’s slow speech to an irritating extent, and after the first few inspiring speeches his words fall somewhat flat, but Freeman conjures a commanding presence and he portrays Mandela’s enthusiasm for the team and his love for his country genuinely and touchingly.

Matt Damon has that solid, sporty look that works for his character, and it’s hard not to root for him. He shows convincing devotion to his team, and he fits believably into the rough, chaotic action of ruck and maul, and elements of the game that must be totally alien to American audience members: the unique scrum, which is like bighorn sheep butting heads, and the even more unusual lineout (my favorite), when teammates are able to hold a leaping player up in the air so that he can catch the ball being thrown into play.

The film starts skillfully with two parallel scenes of tension. The black head of Mandela’s security is not happy about having to include white members of the police as part of the security force. After all, these are the same police who arrested men like Mandela and his followers. As they go over the president’s schedule, tensely crammed together in a small room, Mandela faces his staff, the white members grumbling about how they expect to be fired. But Mandela’s dramatic speech convinces his staff that they are all needed to guide Africa along a new path.

As politics hang in the background, the film turns into the typical sports movie as the underdog team wins its way to the championship match and, predictably, wins the big one. With all the hackneyed shots of jubilant spectators, the big game is something we’ve seen before, but Freeman’s and Damon’s solid performances made me care about what happened even though I knew what was going to happen.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

One fine Saturday morning in late October, Dale Barbara, Stephen King’s requisite outsider-hero, heads out of the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill. Suddenly, a woodchuck gets sliced in half, a plane crashes inexplicably overhead, and “Barbie” and the two thousand residents of Chester’s Mill are trapped inside a dome-shaped force field.

A town isolated by a dome-shaped force field? Ring a bell? Sounds like The Simpsons Movie, but rest assured that King started a novel with the dome idea well before the movie. As a matter of fact, the prolific bestselling author of Under the Dome proved publicly that he had written two versions of the story back in the 1970s under the titles The Cannibals and Under the Dome. Still, some of the novel’s key elements are mighty familiar: the town cut off from the rest of the world (John Wyndham’s story “The Midwich Cuckoos”, later adapted into the film Village of the Damned) and the novel’s thematic focus on the violence that results from paranoia and fear(Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" and King’s own The Mist). (In order to avoid a spoiler, I won’t mention another famous Twilight Zone episode it resembles.)

But when King grabs you with all sorts of shocking disasters, pernicious subplots, and weird surprises and never lets you go for 1,072 pages, you settle back, enjoy the smoothly written read, and forget about the borrowings. Since his early classics, King has developed an inimitable talent for sketching small-town Maine life, creating memorable characters you can like or hate out of stock roles: the outsider, the selectman, the police chief, the newspaper editor, the minister, the town drunk, often fleshing them out by delving into their dark secrets, which King just loves to do.

This talent runs throughout Under the Dome, King’s thriller/science-fiction page-turner. At first, I found it hard to accept the town’s rapid disintegration. King skips over a period of mutual cooperation that is often the case in novels about survival in a small isolated society – a sci-fi sub-genre I enjoy. (My favorite is S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, in which Nantucket Island gets sucked back in time to 1250 B.C.) In a couple of days, power-hungry town selectman Jim Rennie uses fear of the dome to take control and cover up a whole saga of corruption. He hires “brownshirts” and soon has the town under his thumb. But as an allegory, the scenario works: shades of Hitler – and after 9/11, it didn’t take the Bush administration long to raise the fear factor in America.

While examining how fear leads to social collapse, King also uses the dome device as an allegory for the dangers of global warming and pollution: as the days go by, think what the car exhaust, generator fumes, meth lab, and wood fires are doing to the air quality? In this decade of notable post-apocalyptic movies (I Am Legend) and novels (The Road), King effectively puts his two cents in on that scenario as well, and his treatment of it is superbly written and graphically shocking.

But here the conflicts and issues are the focus, not the science fiction. Not much time is spent on delineating the science of the dome, and sometimes King writes himself into a corner when it comes to technical details. In this novel, he resorts to awkward devices like sheets of lead used to make an anti-radiation suit and car tires used as breathing devices.

Meanwhile, King packs his tome with the needful things he can’t resist: references to music lyrics to reflect his cool taste in music; references to T.S. Eliot to show that he has read classic literature; allusions to his own novels to remind you of what he’s written; aggravating colloquialisms like “two days and change” that are uttered repeatedly by multiple characters; numerous references to pop culture; prolific product placement; put-downs of people not from Maine – especially people from Massachusetts who are called “Massholes;” references to masturbation, sodomy (with every mention of prison), penis size, breast size, and bodily excretions of all kinds (when characteres die they are always pissing and “beshitting” themselves).

But although he can be self-consciously silly and naughty, the King of Horror has a sharp talent for gripping and frightening the hell out of the reader – and he did that for this satisfied reader with this novel. At times, too, he can be quite terse and smoothly eloquent, as he is throughout this epic depiction of society’s tendency to feed on itself. Twisting orange-red petals of fire hung above it in the air, a flower that was still opening, an American Disaster rose.

(Note: With its action, suspense, and sci-fi, Under the Dome seems destined for the big screen – and note the jacket cover illustration (above and below). It is a CG-enhanced image designed by King himself – a ready-made movie poster. Be sure to click on it for a pretty awesome cinematic image.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Brothers

First of all, when the helicopter carrying Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) gets hit by a missile and goes down in a lake in Afghanistan, his family is told he is dead, and I don’t think the military would do that. I think they would say his helicopter went down in a lake in Afghanistan, and he is missing and presumed dead, but his body has not been found – an entirely different pronouncement.

Thus, Brothers starts rather early with a shaky premise that kept distracting me because at that point I wasn't grabbed by the story enough to forgive a shaky premise.

What follows is a story we’ve seen before, examining the psychological effects of war on a returning soldier – in this case a soldier returning from the current war in Afghanistan – and how his psychological torment comes between him and his family. And when a film covering some of the same ground as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home doesn’t deliver at least the same sort of emotional impact, I have trouble being engaged.

Certainly some of the acting is engaging enough. As Sam’s wife, Grace, Natalie Portman holds up the whole film with her portrayal of a woman devastated by war in two ways: first, she suffers the death of a husband and the father of her children; then, perhaps worse, she suffers as Sam returns to the family psychologically damaged by his experiences.

Tobey Maguire plays a convincingly tender-hearted father reduced to eye-bulging madness, while Jake Gyllenhaal, as Sam’s brother, Tom, spends most of his time acting disaffected: casting down his eyes, slouching, rolling his eyes at his father (Sam Shepard) who favors Sam, smirking at his own bad behavior, and not shaving. Gyllenhaal is never given much time to flesh out a clear back-story for his bitterness or to convince us that he and Sam are close. Carey Mulligan, as the wife of another soldier killed in the crash, doesn’t have much to do. In fact, her wordless first appearance is befuddling.

But the best performance comes from little Bailee Madison who plays Isabelle Cahill, Sam and Grace’s nine or ten-year-old daughter, an adult-child in the making, who is just old enough to recognize the changes in her tormented father and to express, through her rebellious behavior, that he is tearing the family apart. Jim Sheridan's direction of this young actress is the film's best achievement.

The film includes two genuinely intense scenes: one in which Isabelle builds tension during her sister’s birthday dinner, and another in which Captain Sam Cahill is forced by his Afghani captors to make a ghastly choice in order to save his life. Clearly, the film is about serious issues, but I was only briefly touched here and there by the seriousness of those issues.

Perhaps the film suffers by trying to tell a story in 112 minutes that probably needed more time. There is no time to build some tension leading up to the fateful crash. The helicopter takes off; then it crashes. There is no time to evoke an alien atmosphere in the Afghanistan scenes: we see some rugged that could be anywhere and some costumed extras holding AK-47s. I never felt there. There is no time to show a slower, more convincing transition leading to Sam’s return to his family; there’s no de-briefing, rehabilitation, delay. And there is no time to make us truly feel the supposed close bond between the eponymous brothers – which seems to be what the film is about.

As there is a minimalism to the middle-class setting in which the Cahills live (their austere kitchen has a stove standing in the middle of the floor), there is also a minimalism to some of the dialogue, but this cuts out needed development of Tom Cahill and his relationship with his brother. As for the cinematography, the movie seems filmed without any sort of aesthetic appreciation for the cinematic image. Perhaps the director didn’t want anything distracting the viewer from the seriousness of the story, but when that aspect of the film is not always very engaging, it’s nice to have something artistic to look at.