Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

This is a Batman movie with not very much Batman.

Batman Begins, the starting point for this iteration of the franchise, took its time introducing the title hero. That would be expected in an origin story but this is no longer the beginning - it's supposed to be the end. The public intention of The Dark Knight Rises is to wrap up the trilogy, picking up from where the The Dark Knight ended.

It doesn't, not really.

At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman is on the run, and I would have expected him to be there at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises, still an outlaw, still on the run, but poised for redemption. But no. It's eight years later, and no one in Gotham City has seen the Batman since the night Harvey Dent was killed, supposedly by Batman himself..

The movie is more a story about people. It is the story of Bruce Wayne, who begins the movie a broken man. I read an article a year or so ago that talked about what a real-life Batman would need. The author speculated on the amount of money required, the amount of training and martial arts skill, and talked about the narrow window of youth. Batman, like elite, professional athletes, would have to train for many years to become expert, and following his training would only have a few years left of his prime in which to remain effective as Batman. After that, age inevitably brings him down.

So it's eight years later and for Bruce Wayne, the window seems to have closed. He has no cartilage in either knee. His elbow is shot. He walks with a cane. Batman would seem only a dim memory for Bruce Wayne. It is also the story of Alfred Pennyworth, who panics as Master Bruce begins to flirt again with the idea of cape and cowl. It is the story of Commissioner Gordon, sidelined like the Batman; he's seen by up-and-comers as yesterday's news. It is the story of Selena Kyle, cat-burglar for hire and how her life intersects first with Bruce Wayne, and then later with the Batman. It is the story of several other minor characters who all have important elements to add to the story; Miranda, Bruce Wayne's lover and the Wayne Foundation's last hope, Deputy Commissioner Foley, political and conservative and weak but suddenly the cop in charge.

But the movie's two main characters (apart from Bruce Wayne) are Officer John Blake, who seems to be Gotham's last remaining hope, ...

... and Bane.

Bane is the most powerful, the most vicious villain that Batman has ever faced. A complete contrast from the last movie (and therefore a great story choice) featuring the Joker who was dastardly, tricky and unpredictable, Bane comes at you from the front with heavy feet and raw, terrifying power. From the comic books, it was Bane that broke the Batman's back, picking him him up and breaking him over his knee. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman and Bane fight, brutally and without finesse. It's obvious from the start that Batman is giving his best and is hopelessly outmatched. Bane allows him to land blows, just to show him. We in the audience are alarmed not just as Bane seems entirely unaffected but our sense of alarm ratchets up with every cutaway that showsthe calm regard of Bane's henchmen; they stand nonchalantly, their arms over their weapons, regarding Batman's assault on Bane with a confidence can be mistaken for boredom.

And then Bane picks up the Batman and he drops him over his knee.

It is a rare action sequence for the caped crusader who remains off-screen for most of the movie. As a result, I wonder if the character and story focus will suit the film more to adults than to kids and teens. I've heard snatches of Ian's comments to friends that seem to support this expectation. The Dark Knight Rises is the comic book movie with the least amount of comic book.

It is a grim, dark, wonderful and engaging movie. It provides a chilling sense of peril and jeopardy for Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight.

It's also a long movie, populated by a lot of minor characters who, some have said, serve only to confuse the audience. I shared a similar sense of it from the first teasers and casting announcements. Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is HE playing? Marion Cotillard, same thing. Is this just Chris Nolan populating the movie with as many actors as he can from Inception (five?)? I would have been in complete agreement with this criticism ... right up to the last 15 minutes of the movie.

So, geez, am I really going to be the dissenting voice regarding Anne Hathaway? She has been receiving raves for her performance as Catwoman and, okay, she is good in the role. She is also very beautiful and a fine actor and her performance in this movie has been overhyped.

Finally, why three? Why is three such a magic and absolute number in this current trend of superhero movies? I'm not sure if the surperhero genre is blessing or bane for those who want to see honest-to-god good movies. But with the resolution (or not) of this Batman trilogy, it's as plain as the nose on your cowl that there remain several more excellent stories to tell. And it's a shame that this very talented team of director, writers, crew and actors are apparently not the ones who will be back to tell them.

Three Straws.

P.S. It hurts my heart that so many people, out to participate at this movie's premiere, same as me and my son,  people who were out with high and gleeful expectations to be entertained and just have fun, ended up being shot to death in Colorado. I am at a loss to express the horror of it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Three isn’t a lot.

It’s not a lot if you’re collecting playing cards, it’s not a lot if you’re putting books on a book shelf, and it’s not a lot if you’re buying grapes at the store (but, on the other hand, it’s great for lists).

So after only three Spider-Man movies, it seemed pretty early to be hitting the reset button.

Nothing changed my mind about that after seeing the first few teaser trailers. Or glimpses of the updated costume.

So now let me go back a little farther. It’s September 2009 and I’m in Toronto to see a U2 concert. This is only relevant because the concert happened to be going on the same time as TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). For TIFF, I waited in line for the chance to see two movies -  one I got in (Whip It) and the other I didn’t (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). When the one I didn't see finally aired on The Movie Network, I was completely charmed by it and all of the performances in it.

Some years later it was announced that Andrew Garfield, who played “Anton” in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, was to be the new Spider-Man. My reaction was, "Oh!!" Building on this news and successive spidey-trailers, the more I saw of the movie, the more I wanted to see it.

The clear strength of this latest version is its cast. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are clearly too old for high-school, but, really, so what. Watch them try to talk about going out for a first date in the high school corridor and tell me they’re not wonderful. Rhys Ifans is mostly known playing a string of eccentrics (notably Notting Hill and later Xenophilius Lovegood in Harry Potter) but in this and last year’s Greenberg, he’s been very good as the guy sadly but nobly carrying the invisible burdens life. His nobility is corrupted in the Amazing Spider-Man (not all his fault) and he becomes another in a list of reluctant villains. The Lizard does not seem to be trending well on that list (will anyone ever supplant Doc Ock at the top?), but that’s not Ifans’ fault; the Lizard is completely generated by CGI and my brain kept getting images of its talking face and saying, no. No.

On the other hand, Spidey gets to do some mighty fine SFX stuff.

Remember the ‘60s cartoon where Spider-Man is web-slinging over the city and he shoots his webs to somewhere up above the camera frame on to things you can’t see (clouds?)? In advance of the first of the Tobey Maguire movies, I would lie awake and wonder how they would craft this into the film. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing Spider-Man crashing George-of-the-Jungle style into a wall on his way down. How do you attach a web to a building and have physics on your side to swing up from the bottom of the arc without the building getting in the way?

Okay, so there you have a glimpse into my admittedly bizarre brain, but I bring it up only in reference to the climactic battle, where a very cheesy scene results from a specific collection of New Yorkers rallying to come to the aid of their new hero. But as contrived as it is, it pays off into the best web-swinging scenes of the franchise. Overall, I liked the physicality of this new Spider-Man and not just in regard to his stunts. The way he moves and especially the way he smart-mouths bad guys, cops and citizens, (“Hey, I’m swingin’ here…!”) are more in line with the character from the comic books. Also, when Spider-Man gets beat up, Peter Parker is the one who has to bear the cuts and bruises which, absent suit and mask, have nowhere to hide. At the end of the movie, Peter comes home and you figure that Aunt May knows. How could she not know.

The Amazing Spider-Man has left room for improvement. There will obviously be sequels to make the effort. Sally Field as Aunt May is a big name in a thankless role. Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben doesn't fare much better. The Lizard, well, we talked about him.

So many familiar plot points from the original movie are recycled into this one; both end with the rain falling on so many dark blossoms of funeral umbrellas. I liked this movie better than the original Spider-Man but somehow it still felt too soon, maybe only because the origin story had to be told all over again.

Two major plot points were left glaringly unresolved and serve only to whet the appetite for the next instalment: What was it exactly that happened to Peter’s parents, and who was that mystery guy in the jail cell. Could it finally be … Electro?

Three Straws.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Let’s start at the beginning, which for a Pixar film is the "short" that precedes the movie. La Luna is an engaging little story about a family business. Three generations of workers – father, young son and old grandfather – are gathered in a rowboat for their daily chore. The row boat is named La Luna. It's implied that this work has been done for generations and story of this little movie is to show you exactly what that work is. You get the idea it is very specialized work indeed once the anchor thrown overboard to attach to … the moon. The characters are drawn simply, speak in grunts and chuffs that are vaguely Italian, and the movie, while sweet, is largely unremarkable until the wonderful payoff at the end.

The main show is Brave.

This is Pixar’s first original story after two years of sequels (Cars 2 and Toy Story 3) and I had high expectations. I was disappointed. Technically, the movie is a wonder of modern craftsmanship. The heroine’s wavy red locks are the star of the show and I was reminded, from all those years ago, of Sulley from Monsters, Inc. and the talk of what an achievement in animation it was for Pixar to be able to make his fur move the way it did. Merida, the young heroine of Brave, is upstaged by her hair. The movie’s set pieces are so extra-ordinary, that you’d be excused for thinking they are real. The castle, the woods, the craggy Scottish shore are wonderfully rendered. They are exquisite. They are beautiful.

The story sucks.

Pixar made great movies by blending state-of-the-art animation with characters you love and wonderful stories. Everything was story. I’m a big Pixar fan which puts me on a list with maybe a couple of billion other people and I have combed the behind-the-scenes featurettes on their DVDs where directors and animators drive home the importance of character, animation and story, story, story! In Brave, the best parts of the story are at the beginning, and these you’ve already seen in trailers. Moving on, the main character does something so ghastly, so selfish and so seemingly unforgivable that she puts herself beyond redemption. She and the movie move on rather cavalierly without any requisite measure of regret or contrition. The story that never hits the appropriate emotional response to her horrid deed.

Well, of course it doesn’t. It couldn't. That would have been too dark for a modern Disney movie.

Yes, a Disney movie. How much of the Pixar magic got lost in  the takeover, I wonder. Maybe because the bar was set so high by Pixar’s forerunners. Or maybe it's because Disney has its coroporate fingers in Pixar. Merida, after all, is being hailed as the newest Disney princess. That pantheon is diminished by her inclusion.

Brad Bird talks on the commentary track for The Incredibles about different aspects of the animation – how Pixar's Spanish animators were the best ones for feats of strength, how (and why) a junior animator was put in charge of the villain, Syndrome. While I watched Brave, I thought more about junior animators; there is so much "cartoonishness" - mugging for the camera, over-the-top expressions. It rang sour notes and distracted me from the story. Merida’s father, the King, moves and acts and grins like a buffoon. The mother, after her change-of-life event, moves in comic grotesque, displaying exaggerated surprise and suffereing endless pratfalls. Yes, there were several scenes that made me laugh, but the wit and grace of previous Pixar movies is only a spectre of its former self. It is harder to find in Brave than a will-o-the-wisp.

Brave is beautiful, misnamed and mediocre. It breaks my heart a little. Two Straws.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers

I wanted to see this movie but, despite all the buzz, I had a healthy reserve of doubt. There were a bunch of things that made wonder whether expectations might be too great for the movie to live up to.

First off, it's an ensemble piece. I figured it would be so easy for the story to lose its focus and its balance with all these different movie stars playing all these different superheroes.

Secondly, of the Marvel movies leading up to "The Avengers", "Iron Man" was the only one that really stood out. "Thor" was mediocre by critical accounts and the studio couldn't make a good "Hulk" in two tries. In spite of my angst over the casting of Chris Evans as "Captain America" (Johnny Storm, fer chrissakes!) I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed that movie.

Finally, from the moment the credit cookies rolled in "Thor", it was clear that Loki was to be the first super-villain for the Avengers and I confess to have thought, "Really? Loki?"

So, here we go. All these divergent parts of mixed quality get thrown into the Marvel blender and what do we get?

Well, what we get is a great movie.

I blame, in order, Joss Whedon, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. And Tom Hiddleston.

The movie builds like a great meal. Appetizers open with the "minor" characters, Nick Fury, a new babe (Cobie Smulders, Canadian!), Professor Selvig, whom we met in "Thor", and the new guy, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Now let's add Black Widow in a bit of a soup and let her show off for a bit. Hey, there's Bruce Banner, just hanging out and trying to be nice and you realize it might be fun just watching Mark Ruffalo eat dinner, he's that good. Speaking of eating, now comes the main course: Iron Man becomes Tony Stark who has a wonderful, playful scene with Pepper Potts and things could have gotten very interesting except for the sudden knock on the door, I'm sorry, it's the fate of the world calling. Downey and Paltrow could do this forever.

Thor's more tardy entrance to the story is magnificent. Dessert is served.

So now we have the whole set. Except at first, the pieces don't quite fit together. Well, of course they don't.

Robert Downey Jr. carried both of the Iron Man movies and one of my concerns was that the weight of all the Avengers might be too heavy for those shoulders. But the wit and repartee and the "voice" of Tony Stark are everything they ever were, unaffected by the addition of the rest of these super egos.

And Loki? Well, Tom Hiddleston has one of the purest, most wonderful smiles in the movies and when you put this smile on the baddest bad guy, what you get is one of the bestest evil villains of all time. Loki is having so much fun, you kind of get carried along with it. You can't help liking the guy a bit.

In fact, the movie's greatest strength is its sense of fun. Nick Fury's job is to paint the most dour prognosis for mankind, but, sorry Nick - this movie has laugh out loud funny moments, and a lot of them. Interplay between the characters is delightful, at first when they aren't really getting along (for crying out loud, Tony Stark intentionally zaps Bruce Banner because he figures it might be a kick to get a glimpse of the Hulk in the doctor's eyes) and then later when fate moves in its sad way, at last to mesh this dysfunctional set of super-divas into The Avengers.

My concern over all these stars and all these characters was handled beautifully through the story. No character got short shrift, everyone had their chance to rightly earn the mantle of "hero". And not from any of their past movies, from this one. And this Hulk has the advantage of finally looking like the actor who's playing him. For whatever that's worth.

I'm reminded of the best parts of Quentin Tarrantino's movies: those moments where characters take their great dialogue and just talk. Of course "The Avengers" has great fight scenes - Iron Man vs.Thor, Black Widow vs. Hulk, Thor vs. Hulk (twice, the second time to hilarious effect), Hawkeye vs. Everybody, Loki vs. ... well, everyone has a very good reason to be the one to finish off Loki. And the last licks are the best licks.

But yeah, while the fights are great, the moments when the characters just talk to each other are equally as entertaining. This is the element of writing that takes the movie from good to great. Banner and Stark show off their IQs, Romanoff and Loki each have a way with their words. As does Thor, who is openly mocked by Stark, and why not. Nick Fury has to shoulder a lot of the exposition, but is there a better actor to listen to than Samuel L. Jackson? And Tom Hiddleston is a constant entertainment; he has so many bad things to tell you, but there is just so much joy in his face as he says it.

The one weak link is Chris Evans who comes across as a little wooden, having to play Captain America as a one-dimensional, super squeaky clean boy scout. It's a tall task to have Captain America hold his own against those other powerhouses - no, not Iron Man and Bruce Banner , against Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. Chris Evans doesn't quite get there. Cap does come up a few levels for the last act, capably stepping in to take leadership of the Avengers, this is the guy we remember from "Captain America".

Marvel always throws in credit cookies and it's worth the wait to see the gang assembled at the absolute end of the movie. And before that, we're treated to a sense of who's up next for "Avengers 2". Will I have similar pessimisms leading up to the next outing? Probably. Will the Avengers deliver as good as this one? Here's hoping.

Three Straws.



The Avengers is a great fun film to watch if you know what I mean. There's a lot of action but also lots of humour to go with the movie. I think there is too much action in the Avengers and I'm wondering if it's a problem or not because there's probably about a minimum of 2 min between action sequences but it still has some funny jokes to heal all the action. That's most of the greatness and the weaknesses of the movie but all in all it's still a good movie.
                                                                                                                                       three straws

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Welcome to 1930s Paris where everyone speaks with a British accent.

Director Martin Scorsese treats us to an uninterrupted opening shot in his movie “Hugo” that shows us this magnificent city from the air; the camera first shows it as roughly concentric circles of light, seen from Zeppelin height, moving through a Fodor’s tour of highlights: headlights and taillights that stream like long ribbons around the Arc de Triomphe, a swoop past the Eiffel Tower (no embellishment needed) a final approach to Gare Montparnasse, the camera diving down to the tracks, rushing into the station, speeding not just between trains but also passengers (and I’m wondering, am I still watching “Tintin”? Are all these people animations?) finally coming to the end of the line to once again soar upward into the station's vaulted heights, slowing, settling, finding and framing the giant clock-face where, peering out from behind the number 4, spying on happenings below, is a boy. Hugo. A face within a face.

It is so magnificent that the opening shot warrants an end credit.

From here the pace slows for a while and much is done with little said. We learn that Hugo is a fixer of things, a sort of urchin, a sort of thief, living alone and by his wits in secret apartments within the giant clock. This seems appropriate enough in that Hugo’s father (Jude Law) and uncle work with clocks and gizmos and watch springs. Apart from his memories, Hugo’s sole companion is a boy automaton that sits at the table, broken and neutral but seeming to regard everything with a sense of patient expectation. His father found it, and fixing it was to be a hobby for the two of them. We can do this, said the father to the son, because we’re watchsmiths. The father’s use of second “we” was poignant.

The movie quickly establishes its set of characters and draws them in untrustworthy shades of good and bad. There is the evil and comic train inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) who has a Doberman, a small jail cell for captured orphans and a balky metal leg brace. Where Scorcese’s camera effortlessly accompanies the boy through the grandness of the clock’s interior, the station inspector’s leg is not built to facilitate the same pursuit. There’s the young girl whose love of books informs her vocabulary and she treats herself to the considered use of words like “reprobate” and “seclusion” and “superlative”, which she finds as delightful in her mouth as maybe Smarties. There’s the old man at the toy shop who through merciless effort and outward appearance is a cruel, cruel man. But here’s the first real hint of greatness in the movie: you disbelieve him. It’s a wonderful performance by Ben Kingsley.

The movie describes a great circle of a story. The boy believes the automaton holds a secret message from his father but lacks a critical piece. The girl solves the mystery of the automaton’s heart-shaped key. The automaton solves the mystery of the unhappy man in the toy shop. The unhappy man made movies. A full-moon of a circle.

Movies, this movie tells us, let you see your dreams in the daytime. In fact, this movie tells us a lot about movies. Isabelle, the girl with the heart-shaped key, has never seen one. And so Hugo (himself evocative of "Oliver Twist") takes Isabelle to sneak into a showing of “Safety Last”. It is fortunate that they are discovered and thrown out only after having just viewed the most iconic scene from that movie. The image of Harold Lloyd clinging to life by a minute-hand will later have great import for Hugo as he finds himself pursued by the Station Inspector to the crossroads of escape or capture.

The more you know about the earliest movies, the more you are likely to enjoy “Hugo”. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I have only recently seen for the first time some of the great films of Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton. So in "Hugo" you get peeks of the magnificent shot from “The General” - Buster Keaton sitting stone-faced as the train’s great connecting rod starts to move. There’s Charlie Chaplin and a young boy - it must be a scene from “The Kid”. And key to this movie, you watch as a rocket is launched to approach the moon, which turns into the Man in the Moon, and the rocket hits him dead in the eye. That movie, “A Trip to the Moon”, was made by Georges Méliès and the more you know about him going into "Hugo", the more delighted you’re apt to be.

Some irresistible sidebars: If you were to attempt to draw an arc along the whole history of movies, could you have done a better job than pulling together a cast that included Christopher Lee, Jude Law and Sasha Baron Cohen? I nudged Ian at the cameo Scorcese made as (what else?) the photographer. And it took a moment, but I finally placed the man playing René Tabard as the actor who plays Arnold Rothstein in "Boardwalk Empire", executive produced by Martin Scorcese.

The plot of the movie twists and turns. At one point Ben Kingley’s character sadly tells Hugo that happy endings only happen in movies. Since we know he’s in one, Ben has given away the finish.

I have only two complaints. One is that the 3D effect was often distracting and jarred me out of the story. Admittedly, the distraction grew less as the movie went on. And to give it its due, there were scenes in the clock tower where the combination of camera angle and 3D provided a fantastic sense of depth and a delightful lurch in the stomach.

My other smallish complaint was with Sasha Baron Cohen who seemed to bring to the movie certain improvised moments whose tone ran against the grain. As well, there were times when his accent would wander and for several lines I found myself suddenly listening to Ali G where moments before there had been the Station Inspector.

Here's where I found greatness in this movie. Your results may differ.

There are several side characters, lesser characters, say, that all have parts that, while not directly serving the main plot of the story, reinforce its key theme. They also live much of their lives in Gare Montparnasse accompanied by waltzes on French accordions (lucky them). There’s the fat man wooing the spectacled woman only to be rebuffed repeatedly by her dog. There’s the pretty flower girl who has the eye of the Station Inspector, and after a few balky attempts, together they finally get to paint a more loving and sympathetic dimension to the Station Inspector. There's the book store owner who growls from his high perch (it's Christopher Lee - how could he not growl?) but in the end provides vital connections for the two young heroes. All of these characters have purpose, and that purpose is persist and succeed and elevate the people you care for. Where the movie began by showing us what we thought to be good guys and bad guys, by the end of the movie we're able to see good in everyone.

All parts are good parts.

The greatest good is Hugo’s. He has told Isabelle that he prefers to see the universe as a perfect machine, and given the assumption of perfection, there can be no extra parts. He tells her this because he does not yet know what his part is supposed to do, but intrinsically he knows that it should be useful, it should have a specific purpose and it should be good. In the end, Hugo’s isn't only that good thing that's fixed the automaton, but a great thing that's fixed a man.

My breath caught as I realized this movie had been talking to ME, that the movie was telling the whole audience that everyone's life has meaning.

That there are no spare parts in the universe. And all parts are good parts.

Four straws.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

(Thanks to conviction and planning, overcoming the obstacle of only ONE daily showing and that at noon, Ian and I watched this movie in 2D. We were still distracted by shots that were obviously made to be showcased in 3D.)

One of the things I seem to have left behind as an adult is the joyous experience of reading the collection of Tintin books, those thin, massive hard-cover comics. I read them as a boy in Bermuda, those and Asterix and Obelix, which came as identically built books. More than any individual plot, I can remember the assortment of characters and the joy of reading them. So in describing the movie "The Adventures of Tintin" I would be unable to tell you if the movie was based on any of the books except that I'd read somewhere on the internet that it includes the plots from three. Because I had loved the books in my youth, I knew from when I first heard about it that I would want to see the movie. The sequence included in the movie trailer of the sailing ship cresting the desert dune and dragging the sea behind it was the clincher if one was needed and it wasn't.

This is a beautiful movie. From the opening scenes in the outdoor bazaar, lost on the ocean and then in the desert, the middle eastern seaport, the movie is brilliant bright colours and exquisitely rendered. The animation is so realistic, you forget that it's a motion-captured, computer-generated character, except for reminders from exaggerated noses. Remember the complaints from "The Polar Express" and its successors about how no one has yet solved the motion-capture problem of dead, creepy eyes? Well, problem solved. Stephen Spielberg directed this movie with assistance from Peter Jackson (Peter Jackson as second unit director? There was a surprise). Around about the time that he directed "A.I." I noticed how Spielberg loved to craft shots from mirrors and reflected surfaces, a technique he uses wonderfully and repeatedly in Tintin, transitions that take inspired and innovative advantage of motion capture's faux-reality, including a shot that zooms into the remarkably life-like eye of his character, through the pupil and into the next scene.

Around the same time I started reading Tintin, I discovered the hard-boiled detective books of Ed McBain whose 87th Precinct series include repeated appearances by the two homicide bulls, Monaghan and Monroe. As often as I've read those books, only recently did it occur to me that perhaps Monaghan and Monroe were an hommage to Thompson and Thomson. I would watch a movie that was ONLY about Thompson and Thomson (or maybe it's Thomson and Thompson). I'd forgotten about their trademark patter as evidenced by an early exchange:

Thompson: It's childishly simple!
Thomson: To be precise: it's simply childish!

The casting of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as these two inspectors was sublime.

So with all this, why did I get the sense of being a little underwhelmed when I left the movie theatre? Let me try to spread some blame for this.

Start with the plot. The film moves from place to place without a sense of purpose or connection beyond a simplistic motivation of a scavenger hunt. The person whose half of the review you won't see at the bottom of this expressed a similar sentiment as we walked through the parking lot to the car: "It didn't seem to be about anything." And as you get to the end, in spite of the movie only being a treasure hunt, a greater goal seemingly remains to be continued.

My bigger complaints concern the two main characters, Tintin and Snowy. I realize and accept this is not a traditional cartoon. The character design for this style of animation is going to mean that Tintin isn't going to look like Tintin. But somehow I found it distracting. There's the cowlick, and it's not quite right. The face is not quite right, and dammit, his socks are supposed to be white. The story opens with Tintin having his caricature being drawn. Behind him is a gallery of faces straight from the comics and of course the final drawing of Tintin matches the way you've seen him in all of his books. It was a message straight from Spielberg. This is as close as it's going to get.

Snowy was the bigger distraction. Unlike his master, Snowy was created and rendered as the perfect match to his comic book persona. My issue was not how he looked, rather that the dog acted as Deus ex machina for at least a half a dozen plot points through the movie. Let's put Tintin in a really sticky wicket. How will he get out if THIS!!! Over and over the answer was: the dog. Over and over. And over. It became banal.

It's been a week since I saw the movie and I'm still hung up over what rating I'd give the movie. Three stars or two? "The Adventures of Tintin" was like this beautiful and exquisite goblet of cheap wine.

Ian says three straws. So.

Three Straws.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (IMAX)

There are a few actors that I will go to see in a movie, regardless of what the movie is. While Tom Cruise might be one of the other ones, the guy on screen that made me think this was Simon Pegg.

Simon Pegg has a wonderful, comic quality about him. He may be playing the same guy in most of his movies (and this too may be true of Tom Cruise) but I find Pegg a treat to watch on the screen.

So what a wonderful decision, for me a least, that the minor character he played in the last MI movie has been promoted in this one. "I passed the field agent test!" Pegg's character exclaims. Ethan Hunt reacts with a look of disbelief but, wisely for the sake of the plot, does not pursue the subject further.

"Ghost Protocol" has been invoked by the President of the United States following a particularly nasty occurance that has, understandably, pissed off the Russians. It seems the IMF is to blame. As a reult of the President's invocation, we get:
a) one of the one of the worst film titles of the year, and
b) the complete disavowal of the IMF agency by the United States Government.

"Disavow" is a favourite word in the Mission Impossible lexicon. It's seems like it's the worst thing that can happen to an individual agent but in this movie, the entire organization has been disavowed.

But does this really change anything? I mean, isn't every IMF team disavowed from the get-go? Isn't that what they're told right of the bat: Should you or any member of your team be caught or killed ... etc and etc?

Being disavowed then is merely table stakes for Ethan and his team. We need more. Also for this movie, less.

"Less" because not only does Ethan receive the standard "no government support", he must complete this impossible mission with a substandard team comprised of the affformentioned Benji Dunn (Pegg) and William Brandt (Jeremey Renner) who comes aboard almost by accident. Brandt is not a field agent, he's an analyst, and a good one, but what good will he be in the field? There are interesting answers to this question. Rounding out the team is Jane Carter (Paula Patton), the only other apparently competent field agent, the kick-ass chick with the wounded heart. Finally, to complete all those zany stunts in their respective futures, they are going to have to scrounge whatever gear they can find from a passing boxcar (but what a boxcar!). Oh, and lets make the gear sorta like the agents: often unreliable.

The "more" part of Ethan's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to prevent global thermonuclear war.

At the risk of being all spoilerish, let me tell you about a couple of trends I've noticed from the last three Mission Impossible movies. First, you know that whole, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it," part? They always do. Second, every single one of these missions has proved to be not so impossible after all.

The job of the movie's director, then, is to employ whatever slight of hand techniques he can to provide as much "wow" as he can on the way to the IMF saving the world.

Who better, then, than the guy who gave us The Incredibles and The Iron Giant (if you haven't seen that one, GET IT). Brad Bird adapts elements of French farce to the action genre and layers it with several coats of IMAX. The movie opens with an IMAX flyover of Mumbai and it recalled for me the opening sequence of The Dark Knight, which also had parts of it filmed in IMAX.

Let me clarify: I am not predisposed to paying the extrta money to see an IMAX adaptation of a movie filmed in some more standard format. What I will pay extra money for is a movie filmed with an IMAX camera. So, when I heard that sections of The Dark Knight were filmed with the IMAX camera, I went to see it in IMAX. And I loved it. Here too in Mission Impossible, select scenes have been rendered with the IMAX camera.

And ... wow.

One of the strength of this format would seem to be how it really gives a sense of height. In this movie are dizzying scenes as the IMAX camera first flies over the top of Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world and then later, from 130 stories up in that same building, the camera exits the window along with Ethan Hunt. And also your stomach. The ground looks just like it is in real life: a LONG WAY DOWN.

I learn afterward that all the exterior stunts were done without CGI so when you see Tom Cruise at 130 stories up, clinging and swinging along the side of the building, what you're really seeing is Tom Cruise, a mile up in the air, clinging and swinging along the side of the building. Opinion is divided as to whether Mr. Cruise, just shy of his 50th birthday, is committed or ought to be.

I was reminded of a key staple of French farce as I watched other key action sequences that were built on the frantic opening and closing of doors, first in a prison compound, then a hotel and finally in a super-high-tech parking garage - which has no doors, but when you see it, you'll know what I mean.

Being a movie geek, I couldn't help notice a seeming collection of tributes sprinkled throughout the movie. There is, of course, Tom Cruise running. In every Tom Cruise movie, there must be a straight-on shot of Tom Cruise running. The number 47 appears very conspicously at least twice (look it up). The disembodied voice relaying that self-destructing message is the same guy who did the comuter voice from Nomanisan Island in The Incredibles. The title sequence seemed to be a nod to Space 1999 and the re-imagined Battlestar Gallactica, sprinkling scenes from the upcoming action throughout the opening credits. Tom Wilkinson provides a call back to the movie The Hurt Locker as that movie's star, Jermey Renner, sits right next to him (if you don't know what I mean, ask me after you've seen the movies). I also noticed a couple of very clear references to video games, either intended or not. Brad Bird lifts a swinging-on-a-rope stunt straight out of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (or perhaps it's an hommage), and Ethan grabs an accidental hoodie causing him to resemble the main character from Assassin's Creed, a look Ethan liked so much he does it on purpose for the end of the movie.

Ah, yes. The end of the movie.

The hallmark of a Brad Bird movie has been its strength of relationships. The Incredibles was about superheroes who found their super strength in the bonds of their family. Rattatouille was about a relationship between a boy and a rat transcending the most severe of social mores, not to mention the Public Health Department. The Iron Giant was about how a robot became so much more than what it had been designed for.

I was ready for something like this from Ghost Protocol. After all the action and excitement have died down, there is a series of scenes tacked on that gives the characters something to be human about. It is the Brad Bird touch, finally. It is a good scene but it feels just that: tacked on. What could have been done differently? I'm not sure. The world must be saved first, after all. The clock is ticking and dammit, there's no time to explore relationships when the missiles are in the air.

The first goal of a Mission Impossible movie is to thrill, and this one? Success! On many occassions, as the chartacters were hurled out to teeter over the very knife edge of calamity, I was gasping and flinching and recoiling in my own seat, so great seemed their peril.

Three straws.