Friday, November 26, 2010

"Oops." - 127 Hours

In Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, my favorite moment comes when Aron Ralston (James Franco), his right forearm pinned between a rock and cliff, performs for his camcorder, conducting a mock talk show interview with himself. In actuality or in a hallucination, Aron berates himself for being the big hero. “I can do everything on my own,” he says, and the film cuts to shots of Aron leaving work without telling his co-worker where he’s going and rushing out of his apartment without answering a call from his mother. When the mock interview zeroes in on Aron’s tragic act of hubris – not telling anyone that he was venturing solo into rarely frequented Blue John Canyon in Utah – Aron looks dejectedly into the camera, body slumped, eyes forlorn. “Oops,” he utters weakly. Here, Franco’s eyes skillfully register how radically he has screwed up and how he has wronged others by being an outdoor isolationist who has alienated himself from his family, his friends, and a woman who loved him (Clémence Poésy). In another great moment, we clearly see the seriousness of this “oops” in the best shot featured in any film this year. Aron has just fallen into the narrow slit and gotten his arm pinned by the boulder. Desperately, he calls out to the two female hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), he had recently left. The camera swiftly pulls out of the slit to an eagle’s-eye view of this distant crack lost in a vast wasteland of rock. Aron is all alone. Big “oops” indeed!

Boyle’s perfect little film is a riveting series of dramatic moments, linked seamlessly by flashy but meaningful montage editing, featuring imaginative cinematography that offers countless visual surprises: the lone bike chained to a tree; the interior of Aron’s plastic drinking bottle; an inside look at his exploratory blade touching bone. Montage suggests how Aron Ralston, the super-wired, outdoor-thrill junkie, the ideal model for a North Face or Eastern Mountain Sporting catalogue, is the kind of twenty-something dude with the time and money for outdoor adventure, the kind of guy who brings a fiercely self-competitive drive to a wilderness regarded as an awesome outdoor playground made just for him. Unfortunately for Aron, this sense of entitlement to what nature has to offer in the way of fun leads to an obliviousness to nature’s power to kill you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the right place at the right time - The Next Three Days

The most satisfying thing about The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis’s modest gem of a suspense film, is that it delivers the action and escapism of a thriller, but it also orchestrates a contemplative, indie-toned first half that is a compelling examination of a complex hero. John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a college professor and an ordinary family man who, after pursuing every legal means to exonerate his wife for a murder he knows she did not commit, is pushed to the edge and decides to spring his wife from prison.

The Next Three Days plays thoughtfully through a first act in which John Brennan, the soft-spoken literature professor, transforms gradually into a not-so-mild-mannered, hard-bitten guy driven by a determination to free his wife. The film quietly traces his ups and downs as he interviews Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson in a stagey cameo appearance), an ex-con Internet celebrity famous for his many escapes from prison, buys a gun he doesn’t know how to load, risks shopping around for fake passports in the mean streets of Pittsburgh, braces himself for a bank robbery in order to finance the escape, and goes up against drug dealers to get ready cash.

Crowe does a masterful job of portraying John’s burgeoning determination. He uses his played-out glare to show this determination turn into monomania. His face goes unshaven, the scars from a beating linger long on his face (not vanishing after a few days as in some movies) as symbols of his descent into wrongdoing, and he shuffles along with a lack of agility that he might wish he had in order to carry out his plan.

Elizabeth Banks as Lara Brennan is equally effective as she portrays a woman for whom the deepest horror of incarceration is being separated from her young son. Banks gradually replaces her bright optimism in her early scenes with a harsh gloom compellingly shown in her unwashed hair and wan face, and when she shocks John with an admission of guilt, her eyes are coldly convincing. Meanwhile, John wants his wife back, but the motivation for his ruthless transformation is more about reuniting mother with son than with reuniting himself with his wife, and that’s what ensures that we’re on John’s side once the escape begins.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Action Weekend, Part II - Unstoppable

I rather like the action movies of Tony Scott. True Romance (1993), my favorite Tony Scott, is more than an action movie, but it ends with his signature bloodbath shootout. Enemy of the State (1998) ends with a similar shootout, and it begins with a thrilling pursuit of a hapless eyewitness of Federal skullduggery by government hitmen using high-tech surveillance. Man on Fire (2004) features a memorable Denzel Washington performance and an intense shootout when kidnappers abscond with Dakota Fanning. I also like the brash boldness of the scene in which Washington faces off a Mexican official and his carloads of body guards with a rocket launcher. Way back when, Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) included a hilarious demolition-derby vehicular chase, and The Fan (1996) blended gripping suspense with a classic De Niro psycho portrayal.

More recently Tony Scott delivered decent thrills in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009). He allowed Denzel Washington time to stretch his acting muscles on a quirky character who is not a cop, and he delivers some tense moments, but too much fooling around with shaky camera shots, jump cuts, and multiple 360 spins around characters cause too much distraction.

In Unstoppable Scott puts the restraints on the flashy affectations, and he even takes time for a contemplative shot of the sun rising into the clouds over a railway yard, perhaps a tribute to the working class heroes featured in this film, men who risk their lives on the job but also suffer lay-offs and forced retirement with half pay. That tribute, however, does not extend to the clotpoll whose negligence starts the ball rolling and sends Engine Triple-7 down the line without an engineer.

Without much ado, Scott allows the action to be truly unstoppable, and he pumps up the tension by raising the stakes to the limit. Not only is Engine Triple-7 pulling a long train, its air brakes are disconnected, and it’s traveling at 70 miles per hour. In addition, some of the freight cars are filled with highly combustible chemicals! Not only that but the train will be passing through little towns that could be obliterated by a toxic spill! On top of that, the train is heading for a notoriously sharp curve, too sharp of a curve to take at 70 mph! Oh, and the curve happens to be right next to a bunch of fuel storage tanks! Oh, and that’s right in the middle of a big town! Phew! We’re in trouble!

A U.S. Marine dangling from a helicopter can’t stop the speeding red demon. An engine backing into the front of Triple-7 can’t slow the monster down. So it devolves to experienced engineer Frank (Denzel Washington) and fledgling conductor Chris (Chris Pine) to pursue the train, “grab it by the tail,” and slow the mother down!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Action Weekend, Part I - Skyline

After a slow, poorly acted, poorly written beginning in which a 20-somethings couple, Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson), visit their high-rolling friend Terry (Donald Faison) and his chippies in a swanky crib in a high-rise apartment building in Venice, California, tension mounts as bolts of light shoot down from the sky, like in War of the Worlds (2005), and huge alien spacecraft that look like sculptures of metallic refuse, as in Independence Day and District 9 hover over the city, and if you look at the alien light for too long, you get all veiny and blotchy and turn sort of alien, as in District 9.

As squid-like mechanical drones (The Matrix) with probing tentacles (War of the Worlds) patrol the city, and after the huge aliencraft do alien-abduction on an industrial scale by vacuuming up the populace of L.A., the big dilemma for the dudes and dudettes hanging around Terry’s pad is should they stay put or make a break for it, and even the line, “I hate L.A.” falls flat.

The bickering slows things down even more, but then the U.S. Air Force arrives and we get dogfights as massive as something out of Independence Day and as cheesy as Dragon Wars.

Though the over-exposed, smoggy look of the film makes the opening scenes murky and like they’re out of focus – which is a daring thing to do for a low-budget movie that should at least offer in-focus images as an asset – that smoky look pays off in a nice aerial sweep over the vacuumed city as well as in the film’s signature shot in which Jarrod and Terry stand on the roof and see the awesome alien invasion panorama.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fun with Megamind

Seemed like the movie offerings had slumped into a lull this weekend on stormy Cape Cod. Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours had gone exclusive on me and wasn’t playing here, and action-weekend with Unstoppable and Skyline starts this coming Friday. But I convinced my daughter to see Megamind with me, we both deemed it a worthwhile entertainment, and I genuinely laughed out loud a number of times.

This energetically paced animated Deconstruction of the superhero genre certainly gets the casting right. Brad Pitt voices Metroman, the vainglorious Superman-like superhero of Metrocity who struts like a rock star in front of his hero-worshiping populace. Will Ferrell voices Megamind, the rival superhero who has devoted his life to the pursuit of bad and who feels big regrets when he finally defeats Metroman. In live-action films, I have to say I can't stand Will Ferrell, but here his repertoire of voices shows genuine talent. Tina Fey is perfect voicing the perky, sassy, coy newscaster, Roxanne Ritchi; and Jonah Hill basically voices a cartoon version of his character from Superbad. Here he plays the nerdy cameraman whose crush on Roxanne drives him psychotic when Megamind tries to turn him into a good-doing superhero, Tighten, to replace Metroman.

Lots of fun is had with the superhero genre as Megamind flips the hierarchy. Megamind, the big blue-headed mastermind of evil must save the day while Metroman goes reclusive to escape from his responsibilities, growing a beard and turning to music in another of the continuing and already tiresome parodies of Joaquin Phoenix’s break from his acting career.

But there are parodies that work quite humorously here – including one of Marlon Brando in his Jor-El role from Superman: The Movie, and a nifty allusion to Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan – though I guess it comes off as kind of ominous.

When the duel between the insane Tighten and the well-meaning Megamind, aided by his henchman Minion (voice by David Cross): an alien piranha in a fish bowl, turns the city into a battleground, the CGI-exploding-buildings are as realistic as the CGI-exploding-buildings in a live-action feature. Though I’m not a big fan of CGI renderings of animated characters, which lean toward caricature more than whimsy, something subtle but amazing is done with Megamind’s poor-waif eyes and his little blue mouth that stretches and constricts when he misses his nemesis Metroman or when he is rejected by the object of his desire, Roxanne. Voiced by an actor I can't stand, Megamind becomes a rather endearing, memorable character, a big part of what makes Megamind a worthy addition to the growing list of successful animated features released this year.