The Morgan Freeman Presidential Saga Trilogy: Olympus Has Fallen/Deep Impact/Oblivion

When Return of The Jedi came out in 1983, nobody expected to wait 16 years for another Star Wars movie to poorly detail what life was like a couple dozen years before the Second Death Star blew up. If the announcement of the prequels to these years-old films was a geek shot-heard-round-the-world, then what 2013 has brought is a BB gun going off in Altoona. Sure, they’ve tried to downplay it, but it’s pretty obvious what Hollywood has tried to do this year, and it’s a fairly ballsy move that just didn’t seem to pay off the way the filmmakers had hoped.

In 2013, major Hollywood studios managed to bring us both a prequel AND a sequel to 1998’s Deep Impact, in the course of two months. In fact, both are still currently playing as of this writing at certain theaters. Deep Impact was a modest success at the box office, making almost $350 million 1998 dollars worldwide, but has pretty much since been forgotten about, because of the overshadowing stupidity and infamousness of Michael Bay’s copycat, Armageddon. Robert Duvall; Tea Leoni; professional Helen Hunt lookalike, Leelee Sobieski; Laura Innes; and pre-Lord of The Rings Elijah Wood were no match for Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, that annoying Aerosmith song, a box of animal crackers, and pre-Lord of The Rings Liv Tyler, but Deep Impact had heart going for it. And a much more depressing ending. Most of the main characters stood around contemplating their own mortality, accomplishments and frail existence, while a giant Director’s Cut Abyss-style tidal wave wiped out anything and everything in its path. Granted, Elijah Wood driving up a hill to take Leelee Sobieski away from what I presume was a Paul Reiser lookalike isn’t the most plausible or most “real” moment I’ve seen in one of these movies, but at least it doesn’t end with the world having simultaneous celebrations and jet flyovers of a NASA shuttle landing pad.

The other thing it has is MORGAN FREEMAN AS PRESIDENT. I don’t know who made that decision (most likely director Mimi Leder, who was relegated back to TV after Pay it Forward turned out as badly as it did) but this was a stroke of genius. Morgan Freeman quickly became the most trusted movie president since Bill Pullman in Independence Day. He was probably the only person who could give confidence to people by saying, “A bunch of comets are going to destroy earth, and everyone is gonna die, except a few people who win a lottery! Those people will get to live in caves for two years and then come back out to try to make a new life on the drowned and scorched earth! Yaaaay, TEAM!”

I don’t think any of us found the rest of the characters likeable, but, man, did I want to know about this president. Where did he come from? How did he rise to power? What might a younger version of him do if North Korean terrorists staged a meticulously-planned takeover of The White House and held The President hostage inside of the secure bunker? Well, we’ve had to wait 15 years, but just like we eventually found out that Anakin was a precocious junkyard mechanic with a penchant for saying “YIPPEE”, we’ve finally gotten a glimpse at the backstory of Morgan Freeman’s President, in Olympus Has Fallen. And let me tell you, it’s a much better backstory than you’ll find in any Star War! There’s no midichlorians or Jar Jar Binkses either!

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN SPOILERS AHEAD! BEWARE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE!

Morgan Freeman was a regular, average, ordinary elderly black Speaker of the House. Until one day, North Korean terrorists staged a meticulously-planned takeover of The White House and held The President hostage inside of the secure bunker. With the President unavailable and the VP in some completely unannounced location, Speaker Freeman becomes the acting president. This was EXACTLY THE SCENARIO I WAS WONDERING ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO! How did they know? The rest of the movie shows how in this time of crisis, he became the strong, stalwart leader that a million people could follow into a magical system of caves with hopes of one day repopulating the earth.

There are a few things that aren’t specifically spelled out, like how I’m assuming he had to dye his hair and get a facelift when he began running for President, so he’d look younger and hipper to court the youth vote. Or how, I’m guessing, since the advanced technology that the U.S. Government had was compromised and used in the destruction of most of Washington, President Freeman decreed that everyone start using 1998 technology that had more failsafes. But all in all, it makes for a pretty good prequel.

I do think they went out on a limb a little by not making President Freeman the main character. See, the main character is actually some former secret service agent who is conspicuously NOT named Jack Bauer. When a giant airplane destroys a whole lot of Washington and the North Koreans kill EVERY SINGLE WHITE HOUSE STAFFER NOT IN THE BUNKER, this agent, Gerard Butler, decides to play John McClane and sneak into the White House and take everyone down himself with a lot of punching and stabbing of people in the head. I’m not joking. SO MANY HEAD STABBINGS. Also, somehow the president’s kid is the only one who has managed to hide and stay alive outside of the bunker. Gerard Butler has to save the kid, then the president, and then kill the bad guy, preferably with a knife through part of his head.

But, Director Antoine Fuqua, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH PRESIDENT MORGAN FREEMAN? He doesn’t even STAY president at the end, because Harvey Dent lived and went back to being president!

As a movie, the whole thing’s pretty okay. There’s some ridiculous destruction of Washington, plenty of civilians getting mowed down, some good Die Hard-type stuff, and plenty of over-the-top line readings, especially the hilariously-whispered titular line, delivered by some random, dying secret service agent.

***

As a prequel to Deep Impact, it’s not all that I was hoping for, but it did provide us with an insight into President Freeman’s first few hours as president, and boy did he ever deliver!

****

But what makes this whole plan really crazy, is that they didn’t just make a prequel. They shot a prequel AND a sequel at the same time, like Back to The Future 2 and 3, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and The Matrix Reloaded. And they didn’t just say “What happened to all of our favorite surviving Deep Impact characters when they came out of those magical caves?” Oh no. They went somewhere even crazier, and I really dug it. They went far into the future, with Oblivion.

MINOR OBLIVION SPOILERS AHEAD. ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Oblivion kind of follows the same model as Olympus Has Fallen, in that it relegates President Freeman to a side character, albeit an important one, and shows a major moment in his life, even if he doesn’t show up until 45 minutes in.

But what the filmmakers, notably writers Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek and director Joseph Kosinski, have imagined in the asteroid aftermath is devastating. Humanity never retook the earth. That asteroid, it seems, was sent as the first wave (pun intended) of attack by an alien race trying to take the earth. Somehow, we did win the alien war (maybe by flying biplanes into the ships’ primary weapon shafts or uploading a virus or something), but destroyed the earth and ended up living on a moon of Saturn. Tom Cruise is tasked by Melissa Leo’s character (who was the Secretary of Defense in Olympus Has Fallen and now seems to be in charge of all Earth-related matters) with flying around the remnants of New York (the Empire State Building, a former Pro-Thunderball arena, etc.) to fix droids and enormous water fusion machines, and collect “Dan Smith Will Teach You to Play Guitar” flyers that have been littering everywhere.

UNTIL HIS LIFE GETS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN!

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know this part. He finds a downed ship filled with astronauts, gets taken hostage by a group of freedom fighters, and finds out that everything is not what it seems. And you guys know who the leader of the cave-dwelling human populace is? President Morgan Freeman, who has now changed his name from President Beech to just “Beck”, because of some kind of Cloud Atlas future-speak, no doubt.

I don’t want to give away all the twists and turns, but President Beck helps Tom Cruise discover his true self and who the mysterious astronauts are, and plays a huge part in putting an end to the remaining alien threat.

There are a few continuity errors here and there, but none of those trilogy movies were perfect. Back to The Future had to replace Morty’s dad in the second one, Star Wars had that whole “Clone Wars” monologue that doesn’t make any sense, Lord of The Rings had a car in that one shot, and they never even made a third Matrix movie!

This movie is solidly entertaining from start to finish, even if we’ve seen some of these specific story elements in previous sci-fi stories, like spaceships, aliens, robots, Tom Cruise running, Dune, etc. I give it a four.

****

Oblivion is an epic story and a very strong end for a character that we’ve grown to love over these three movies and 15 years. What they’ve managed to come up with as a third chapter is even crazier than going back to 1885. As a threequel, I give it a solid four-and-a-half stars.

****½

As a trilogy, this is epic, inventive storytelling across a variety of genres, from action-thriller to disaster movie, to post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure. It takes real guts to make a trilogy this way, and from a storytelling perspective, it completely pays off. We see President Freeman/Beech/Beck from his political beginnings to his heroic end, from the destruction of Washington, to the destruction of the world as we know it, to the end of the struggle against our alien combatants. His story is that of one of the greatest leaders in all of fiction, that of a man who, through so many harrowing moments, has shown humanity the dignity and courage that we should come to expect of those whom we put in charge. I wish they would’ve sold this as a whole story, though. Maybe that was the big twist, but I didn’t even put the pieces together until I saw the films. I think if people would’ve known that these were sequels and prequels they probably would’ve had a higher box office gross. Despite all this, though, this is instantly one of my favorite movie trilogies of all time, right up there with the first three (of the proposed 6) Baby Geniuses movies.

*****

The Muppets

The Muppets have always been a big inspiration to me. I grew up watching reruns of The Muppet Show, the 9 episodes of The Jim Henson Hour that aired before it was cancelled, the movies, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and countless other productions. Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favorite movies ever, and a yearly staple, as is the classic “A Christmas Together” album with John Denver.

This special that was made for The Jim Henson hour but didn’t air until much later on Nickelodeon was one of the first “behind-the-scenes” videos (now a ubiquitous DVD feature) of any kind I had ever seen, and I found it endlessly fascinating. I watched it every time that I came across it on TV. I might venture to say that it has had a profound impact on where my life has taken me.

I’ve taken puppeteering and puppet-building classes, walked around the Muppet Studio in L.A., briefly met some of the current puppeteers, and last year got to make a piece of puppet magic myself.

‘The Muppets’ seems to have stolen our puppet mount-cam idea without either us or them knowing it.

But enough about me. The reason that I’m throwing this out there is that there are other people out there like me. I would venture to say that I’m at the tail end of this multi-generational fascination with these characters. The last great piece of entertainment produced with Kermit, Fozzie, etc., was Chrismas Carol in 1992, nearly 20 years ago.

The Muppets have languished in the years since then, through various changes in ownership and stewardship. There have been two mediocre theatrical movies (the last one still a lengthy 12 years ago), a failed TV variety show, a Christmas special that had its moments, another horrific Christmas special, and the terrible Wizard of Oz adaptation.

This lengthy period of brand failure is exactly what the new movie is commenting on, and it does so in such a marvelous way that all cause for concern about how it treats the franchise’s history should be thrown out the window.

Briefly, the movie’s about a two superfans (Jason Segel and Walter, a new muppet performed fantastically by Peter Linz) who travel from Smalltown, USA to L.A. with Segel’s character’s girlfriend (Amy Adams) and visit the Muppet studios, finding it decrepit and more-or-less closed. Walter finds out that an evil corporation has taken control over the studio, theatre and Muppets name and plans to run all of them into the ground. It’s up to the three of them to get everyone back together to save the Muppets legacy. To say that this bears some resemblance to the current state of affairs with the company is quite the understatement.

I watched the original Muppet Movie the night before seeing this, and I’d recommend you do the same. In addition to being able to recognize a few callback references to the original movie, rewatching “The Muppet Movie” puts things in the new film in such an interesting mindset. Kermit was once an idealistic leader, inspiring friends to uproot their lives and travel to Hollywood to become “rich and famous”. Now though, all these years later, Kermit has become sort of an out-of-touch recluse, living in a mansion with only his 1980s robot butler to keep him company. Any object that could remind him of the past, and the never-detailed, but often inferred event that caused them all to split up, is draped off. (As a side note, I would love to see this dark chapter in the Muppets history. It would be the most depressing scene ever — even more than this and the [i’m not kidding] attempted suicide scene that came immediately before it, which I can’t find now — but it would be so compelling. Side side note: this is the world where Kermit was never born.) He’s not cynical or bitter — Kermit could never be that — but he’s deeply saddened by how much he believes he let everyone down, which is a burden he’s put on himself since the first movie. Now, years after the split, he views his life’s work as a failure and sees getting everyone together as a fool’s errand, but is talked into it.

The rest of the movie parallels the original’s structure, in the “getting the band back together” sense, but it’s almost a flipped perspective. Instead of it being about the hope of becoming entertainers and being able to make people happy, it’s about the notion of losing your friends to infighting, and your legacy to years of inactivity and a company bent on ruining your name and replacing you with other people/characters. While Walter brings new energy and hopeful naivety, the rest of the Muppets seem like old souls. They’ve aged in spirit and seem a little weary. Fozzy looks a little grey. Everyone else has moved on with their lives, and it’s quite the effectively sad portion of the movie.

But the movie is greatly funny. The music is mostly fantastic, especially if you like Flight of the Conchords, whose Bret McKenzie wrote four original songs (and a reprise), and served as Music Supervisor. I didn’t really care for the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy splitscreen duet, but the Jason Segel/Walter duet, “Man or Muppet” is both catchy and hilarious. The direction (by “Conchords” TV show co-creator and director) is great, with extremely minimal CG work and many, many “How’d they do that?” moments. Segel and Adams are cute and bring great likeable human energy, even if their story feels a bit too much in the forefront.

The Muppet performers don’t seem to miss a beat at all. Considering the only original performer still involved is Gonzo originator Dave Goelz, it’s amazing that all of these characters can still “live” and “breathe” when being performed by other people. It has taken me a number of years to get used to Steve Whitmire’s slightly higher-pitched Kermit, but the range of emotion he was able to wring out of that puppet was remarkable. Eric Jacobson (Fozzy, Piggy, Animal, Sam Eagle) and Bill Barretta (Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Bobo, Pepe, Swedish Chef) are incredible apers of the original Frank Oz and Henson voices and master puppeteers to boot. There is really no difference in the Muppet characters noticeable enough to be a distraction, as in some past productions.

The woman sitting in front of me at the screening and her hippie husband left the theatre complaining about the “Disneyfication” of the franchise. Granted, she was also complaining prior to the movie about bottled water being a scam, but she does have a valid point about the movie, to a limited extent. Yes, everything is slick, polished, and sanitized. There are overhead shots of the Muppet Theatre (Disney’s Hollywood Boulevard El Capitan Theatre repurposed for the exteriors) that show a “Cars 2” billboard prominently in the background. The three new principal roles (Segel’s “Gary”, Adams’ “Mary”, and Walter) do get a little bit too much focus.

But here is why all of those complaints are wrong. Every joke or type of joke in this movie that seemed out of place actually had a precedent set for it in some prior movie or project: breaking the fourth wall, presenting a popular song in a ridiculous way (the muppet show did this every week), the over-top bad guy bent on bringing them down (Chris Cooper, doing a great job in limited screentime), even the ridiculous method by which they travel long distances.

No matter what Frank Oz says, I don’t feel that the characters were ever disrespected, with one possible exception, which I’ll get to later. In fact, I’d say the opposite. The newer characters were either never used (Clifford, Johnny Fiama and Sal Manella were completely absent), or, like Pepe, were pushed to the background entirely. Even lesser-known, older characters like Uncle Deadly, and Wayne and Wanda make appearances.

Oz points to the ubiquitous “fart shoes” joke in the ads as something Fozzie would never do, but in the context of the movie, I think it works. The characters are out of touch and desperate to figure out what people want, and I don’t think Fozzie is below pandering for a laugh. I’d say this movie is truer to the characters than the “World Where Kermit was Never Born” business.

Gary, Mary, and Walter serve as an audience proxy for younger people unfamiliar with “The Muppet Show”. And without Segel’s Gary and Walter there is no real impetus for the characters to reconcile at all, in a not-so-subtle parallel to real-life. Walter and Gary’s storylines are also so simple that they work without being too off-putting, and they’ve found great ways to parallel other character’s stories (the two duets for example).

For me though, and this comes as a side-note, and probably just a personal gripe, but considering he’s the only original performer left, Dave Goelz didn’t have much for Gonzo to do.

I know the last movie, way back when, focused on him entirely, but in re-watching material recently, I’ve realized the hidden layer of soul and sadness that Gonzo can bring, that few others have. The emotion that comes across in this song…

… is something that Miss Piggy and Fozzy are never tasked with. Most of the other characters are just one dimensional, though Rowlf has on occasion brought the emotion in his Muppet Show performances. Because of this, Kermit is left to carry that burden, but his sadness comes from his failures to live up to his ridiculously high expectations of himself as the leader and guy who manages these ridiculous personalities. Gonzo’s pathos has always stemmed from not fitting in, being weird, and not knowing exactly what he is.

Since these characteristics are basically the entirety of Walter’s personality, and his character arc, this brooding side of Gonzo gets pushed to the backburner, and even his comical side does as well. I’d be interested to see his number of lines compared to other characters. I get that not everyone can be properly serviced, but as a member of what I consider to be the core four characters, he feels like an afterthought. You can sense the regret in Fozzie and Piggy, but Gonzo has just seemed to move on. And this overlooking of him is even sadder considering Goelz is the longest-tenured performer here.

I have some mixed feelings about the end, but I have to talk about it in vague ideas. Basically, I feel like it glosses over a majorly important plot point, but the way in which it does this seems to render it fairly unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It sort of takes their literal goal and says their figurative one is more important, which is a great idea, but leaves the main plot as almost a side story.

On the whole though, I felt every emotion I was supposed to, including my normal disinterest in Miss Piggy. I welled up a few times, laughed a lot, and left with a smile on my face, and no feelings of contempt in my heart. I never once thought that they ruined a good thing here, and that’s all I could ask for.

The crux of this movie is whether or not The Muppets are a viable entertainment in today’s pop culture landscape, and I’d say that with the right material (and this is great material… mostly fleece and foam… wocka, wocka), they can be. Let’s hope that the kids that are getting their first taste of these characters feel the same way.

****½

Drive

"Drive" : a new scent for men. From Calvin Klein

How far can you take the idea of creating a nondescript character before you have one that is boring and unlikeable? That’s the argument that’s running through my head as I write about the new Ryan Gosling vehicle (literally), “Drive”.

“Drive” is the story of a mechanic/Hollywood stunt driver/robbery wheelman, who operates under a strict set of rules, like “The Transporter” from “The Transporter”… except without all the parkour/judo/kickboxing, gravity-defying ludicrous automotive action, over-the-top bad music, tied-up Asian people, and shirtless oil wrestling. He shows up someplace at a given time, for five minutes. “If something happens in that five minutes”, he drives them away to safety, if not, he leaves. This is all set up in a pretty brilliant opening, but all of that promise and cool, retro, James Dean withdrawn charisma start to fade away the further we get into the film.

The unnamed driver (more on this later) goes about his business, doing a Hollywood stunt or two, working at Bryan Cranston’s garage, and meeting a doe-eyed neighbor, Carey Mulligan, and her son. He bonds with them, and Cranston tries to get him set up as a racecar driver with a two mob-tied investors (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). And through all of this, Gosling’s driver fails to do three things: drive a getaway car in another heist, talk, and show any discernible characteristics aside from being quietly trustworthy (if it were any other guy, I’m sure it would come off as creepy stalking and not stoicism). Yes, the unnamed Driver probably has the least amount of dialogue of any action movie hero I’ve ever seen. But that’s the point. The movie’s overt 80s motifs (most prominently, title font and score) point towards this being a deconstruction of the talky, quippy action movies of that era and their stars (Bruce Willis and Arnold mostly).

But as much as the promotional materials want to portray this as an action movie (to the point where some woman is suing over false impressions from the ad campaign), it is anything but, aside from the beginning and one fantastic sequence in the middle. The movie plays more like a Michael Mann, slow-burn film where the tension comes from characters who have made poor choices facing inescapable decisions that result in violence. Lots of violence.

It’s not that the movie has a crazy-high, cartoonish body count like something like “Commando“; it’s more that the movie goes along with this slow-paced character drama that sporadically erupts into single acts of extreme brutality. We’re talking heads getting smashed, shot, and stabbed, with seemingly unnecessary close-ups and a lot of blood. And that’s just some of it. The thing is, all of these incidents come so abruptly and are so brutal, that after such long periods of quiet they prove to be immensely unsettling. And that’s the point. It’s there to show you that violent action movies SHOULD BE unsettling, and we’ve become so desensitized to that. But does that make for enjoyable entertainment? I don’t know.

It’s the exact same problem I have with the main character. Does a non-character make an interesting “hero”? We’re supposed to root for this driver because he’s in a tough position. Because he makes a choice to help this woman, a choice that ends up not only putting him in a rough position, but is the first human thing he has done in the film, and perhaps in his life. See, he doesn’t have a character name. He doesn’t say anything. He lets other people make decisions for him. He’s just a driver. He has no characteristics that make him appealing as a person. He has no backstory. But then he makes a decision. ONE CHOICE. And, judging by the song that plays over the end credits, this makes him not only a “real hero”, but a “real human being”. Take a listen:

Surprisingly, I think I liked the first-half set-up of the movie more. I was enjoying the change of pace of having this understated, sub-textual relationship-building between the two leads. But once everything starts to fall apart, the driver becomes so hellbent on getting out of the mess he’s in that he basically turns into a psychopath. He’s truly frightening. It becomes like rooting for Michael Myers to just kill everyone, and is that something we really want to do? Not only that, but is this movie saying that transforming yourself from someone who doesn’t care about anything into someone who will brutally hunt down and murder people make you a hero and a human? Or is it again subverting that idea about old-school action movies?

**

“Drive” gets two stars for trying something interesting and different with its characters, having some fantastic acting, and two-to-three great sequences. It also includes a main character that is terribly hard to root for, surprisingly small amounts of action scenes (despite the advertising all but promising us “Fast and Furious 6”), and off-putting bits of hyper-brutality. I’m completely stuck in trying to grade this movie, as I love the guts it has in what it’s trying to do, but I can’t truthfully say I had an enjoyable experience. I guess that was the point?

The Empty Bookshelf Guide to the 2010 Oscars

This won’t be a guide to all of the awards, but we’ll get through all of the important ones. I’m structuring this as an “Empty Bookshelf Guide” and selectively using the royal “we,” though I’ve not consulted with the Junior Staff for their opinions.

The format will be listing the ten Best Picture nominees, and being that the majority of the nominees for the “big” awards are culled from the Best Picture list, we’ll weave through the other categories and touch on those where appropriate.

In no particular order…

Toy Story 3
I saw this after hearing many peers (mid to late 20s) breathlessly explain how this was “the most emotional movie in the history of ever.” It wasn’t, and it’s not. I’ll award it points for being ostensibly a kids movie which presented a moment where the characters are resigned to their fates and have lots of time to realize that it’s going to happen, but points are deducted because the movie doesn’t follow through with it. That’s manipulative, not emotional, fellow 20-somethings.

The Kids are All Right
This movie is perfectly….fine, but it had no business being nominated and serves to show why so many people outside of California hate California. No, not because of the same-sex parents (which, by the way, is completely not what the movie is about and has little to do with the plot other than it enabling the “kids meet their sperm donor father” plot), but because of the darn “localvore,” organic-this, organic-that California silliness. Think the tone of American Beauty, but less fun. Also, what the heck is going on with the title? The Who song is “The Kids are Alright” which makes some sense and would fit movie (in terms of a title). Spelling it “all right” implies something like, “The Kids are All Correct” – I don’t think that makes sense. There are two kids in the movie, so that would mean, “both of the kids are correct.” Hmm, that still doesn’t really jibe with the movie. Both Mark Ruffalo and Annette Bening were nominated, but try to describe these characters in more than three words, and you’ll find that there wasn’t much material for them to work with and make memorable characters.

Inception
Remember when everyone was like, “The Dark Knight should have been nominated – I mean, it would never win, but it should’ve been nominated?” Inception. Great movie. Nominated. Won’t win. (for such a “smart” story, it was slightly reliant on guns in the third act – blech, I hate using lingo). Also, for you folks arguing/discussing the ending of the movie and whether it’s “real.” Just stop. The whole point of the ending was that it was ambiguous. Speaking of which, Inception had, far and away, the Best Original Screenplay.

The King’s Speech
See? The title’s a double-entendre! Seriously, though, this is a tough one. The movie made speech therapy interesting (sorry for any speech therapists who are reading), and sent me to Wikipedia to read more about that odd time in the British Monarchy, BUT….but, there were better movies that came out in 2010. Honestly, there’s not one thing I’d change in the movie (other than maybe having Guy Pearce play his character from Ravenous instead of a prince, but I digress), but it was just too staid, too safe, and didn’t surprise me (other than the “making the development of modern speech therapy more interesting” thing). In terms of acting for accolades, speech impediments and British Royalty both seem like low-hanging fruit, but darn it, Colin Firth should win for Best Actor.

The Fighter
I generally avoid boxing movies – there’s just something about the false romanticism applied to boxing that grates on my nerves, so this one of the ten movies I was least looking forward to seeing. So, it was a pleasant surprise that it almost avoided any sort of the phony, down-on-his-luck BS that accompanies stories like this. Christian Bale should win Best Supporting Actor. In principle, he’s a bit too much of a capital-A “Actor” for my tastes, but darn it, if you told me he wasn’t the same person who plays Bruce Wayne, I’d believe you (of course I’m ignoring the significant physical change and just going by cadence, body language, and tics). Now, Wikipedia says he stayed in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling, and that’s enough to make me want to slap someone. In terms of the movie, unfortunately it relied too much on the main character being a complete dolt about how much his family was holding him back, so even though it was (closely) based on a true story, that took me out of it. “Bartender with a heart of gold” is bit tougher to pull off than “prostitute with a heart of gold,” but both are in the realm of “awards-bait,” but Amy Adams should win best supporting actress (and they didn’t “uglify” her to really pull on the award strings, so that counts for something).

Black Swan
This is the best movie of 2010 and maybe the best movie of the decade (whether the 2000s or the 2010s). There, I said it. See my comments above about “the development of modern speech therapy” and replace that with “ballet.” The screenplay and direction combine to hit notes of hard drama, suspense, sexy thriller, sports-drama (underdogs and all that), psychological horror, stuff-jumping-out-at-you horror, as well as the risky “movie within the movie.” Visually unique, maybe it’s not for everyone; here’s a negative review where I’d actually agree with him about pretty much every point, EXCEPT that my conclusion would be that it all worked. The last few shots (when she’s at the top of the “mountain” on the stage then jumps as the music hits the false crescendo until the fade to white) are perfect filmmaking. Every detail is perfect. The music (seriously the song has two finale crescendos which strike wildly disparate moods, yet are both…perfect. Those crazy Russians), the disconcerting push-pull as she appears to float onto the waiting mattress, her eyes, the audience which can’t contain its cheers which continue through to the end titles. Natalie Portman (who the Internet has apparently always thought can’t act?) should and will win the Best Actress award, but I see the Best Picture trophy going to a safer pick. Darren Aronofsky should be a shoe-in for Best Director, and Black Swan should also win for editing. Also, give it the Best Cinematography award, too. Sure, you’re thinking True Grit (“ooh, sweeping vistas!” says my dad) or The Social Network (“they shot so much in low light – think of the types of lenses they needed to use!” says the movie nerd [note: “nerd,” not “geek”]), but this is an artistic award, not a technical one, and the only truly unique “sweeping vistas” I’ve seen were in The Fall. It’s easy to make a sunset look artistic.

Soapbox warning: for you internet folks out there complaining that Clint Mansell was not eligible for the Soundtrack award, listen to his “arrangement” of the most dramatic and compelling scene of the movie with the most complementary music (the final scene), then compare it to Tchaikovsky’s original. Go on. I’ll wait. Yeah, adding two measures of glorified vamping to give the director room for another shot before the big finish doesn’t mean that the Academy’s rules are old-fashioned, and it was a travesty he was not DQ’d. Sorry, internet.

True Grit
Along with The Fighter, I wasn’t looking forward to watching this, but it was a pleasant surprise. It kept its “Coen Brothers-ish” tone under control for the most part which kept me happy, but they couldn’t let a few of their beloved “American Eccentrics” stop the movie dead in its tracks (specifically
the “doctor” with the bear skin); “hey character actor – how about you stare at the main characters and say things in a weird syntax with an even weirder, non-placeable but eminently ‘American’ accent while we roll the cameras until we get a take we like.” Also, what’s more Coen-ish than a precocious 14 year old girl with a passion for lawyering (and revenge)? BUT, my main concern was that Jeff Bridges was going to turn his role into a vanity project with the huge leeway afforded by the character’s accent (and wanting to separate the role from John Wayne’s original take on it) and tear up the scenery. I was pleasantly surprised that once I accepted his growling accent after five minutes of it, I was on-board and for such a broadly drawn character, and I actually enjoyed watching him. Hailee Steinfeld didn’t so much act as successfully spit out the typically Coens-ish dialogue (that’s not a knock on her), and enjoyable to watch or not, she wasn’t a supporting actress, she was the whole F’N show, so out of principle I won’t even consider her for that award.

The Social Network
Keeping up the theme of “making something not-interesting interesting for two hours,” The Social Network worked. I was less enamored than many others (Mark goes to California, his best friend is royally screwed, the movie abruptly ends). Aaron Sorkin avoids his typical speechifying, and provides the Best Adapted Screenplay, which is why the movie is so enjoyable, and actually could be the reason that Jesse Eisenberg won’t be stuck playing “think ‘Michael Cera,’ but with darker hair” roles until he’s 35. Like other David Fincher movies, there’s a lot of crazy special effects/camera tricks going on which don’t call attention to themselves (the crew race was filmed with no one in the stands, and famously quoted by people who have the internet, the twin jerks were played by one guy.) Speaking of the twin jerks, the fact that they’re entitled jerks but that you still get a sense that they were unceremoniously screwed by Zuckerberg hints at the strength of the screenplay, actors, and director. Also, because True Grit was not eligible for Best Soundtrack (and TRON Legacy wasn’t nominated to provide some competition), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross should get an Oscar to match their Golden Globe. (special note: I’m still undecided about the TRON Legacy soundtrack. I agree with this review more than I disagree with it. The album is a little too “safe” and doesn’t stand out as anything other than a post-Batman Begins soundtrack.)

Winter’s Bone
I knew nothing about this movie when I saw it other than its poster. Naturally, I assumed it was about kids hunting for treasure while it was cold outside. With a canoe. Wow, that was not what the movie was about. At all. Unless a deadbeat dad is considered “treasure” in the sadder parts of Arkansas! Ha! Poverty Humor! Speaking of poverty, the movie was more enjoyable than this critic implies [special note: he uses the awesome and awesomely made-up word “yokelocracy” (and if you saw the movie you’d understand how precisely appropriate his word is)], but I agree with his point that the movie is glorified “poverty porn.” Maybe it was written/based on some intensely researched and nuanced perspective of the greater Ozarks, but if I were to be tasked with “write a three paragraph description of the meth-addled South,” I don’t think it’d be too different from what we see up on the screen. Like “The Kids are All Right,” [alternatively titled: “Both Children are Correct”] it won’t win and has no business winning, but they needed ten nominees to make up for not nominating “The Dark Knight” two years ago.

127 Hours
Coming off of “Slumdog Millionaire,” and one of my top 5 movies, “Sunshine” (well, the first two-thirds and the final 3 minutes of it), Danny Boyle had an opportunity to establish himself, but he didn’t trust his sound team enough. Let me explain. This movie should really be titled, “he cuts his own damn arm off with a dull blade,” so, of course, that’s the critical moment. It makes the movie. Sound people in Hollywood were drooling for this contract; what exactly is the sound of a dull blade cutting through ligament, tendon, flesh, muscle, bone, and marrow? Well, they came up with it (did they ever), and instead of letting the sounds speak for themselves (hmm – I guess that’s an oddly literal figurative expression in this case) Boyle kept the camera in a series of tight shots of the cutting process, when the risky move would have been to re-establish the precariousness of the situation with a shot showing the entire canyon, then letting that sickly sound establish that the cut had been successful. Risk = reward, and Boyle didn’t trust his sound team with that risk. It needed only to be visually OR aurally shocking; both were too much.

So, some wrap-up to cover all of my bases…

Other than Natalie Portman, I don’t think Black Swan will win anything, so generally, where I circled Black Swan, transfer it to The King’s Speech.

Best Picture Nominee I liked and appreciated as a “good” movie, but would actively avoid watching in the future (also called the Schindler’s List award): Winter’s Bone.

Safe pick for the Best Picture Nominee I would recommend to my mom (who doesn’t like violence, excessive swearing, excessive sex, excessive volume, and is a constant risk for falling asleep any time after 9:00PM): The King’s Speech.

Risky pick for the Best Picture Nominee I would recommend to my mom (but wouldn’t want to be in the same room or reachable by telephone after): Black Swan.

Best Picture Nominee I would not want to watch with my mom in the same room: Black Swan.

Best Picture Nominee I’d flip past on TBS during another show’s commercial break, then watch until well after the original commercial break ended, causing me to miss my show: True Grit

Best Picture Nominee I’ll watch out-of-order in 5 minute chunks on FX over the course of two months: The Fighter.

Best Picture Nominee which needs a sequel or spin-off (degree of difficulty, low): Toy Story 3.

Best Picture Nominee which needs a sequel or spin-off (degree of difficulty, cash-in): The King’s Speech.

Best Picture Nominee which needs a sequel or spin-off (degree of difficulty, high): True Grit (maybe about Matt Damon’s character?)

Movie which could easily get a spin-off or sequel but shouldn’t: Inception.

Movie which should’ve taken the place of either “Both Children are Correct” or Winter’s Bone: Blue Valentine.

Best Picture Nominee about which I wrongly underestimated before I saw it: The Fighter.

Best Picture Nominee to recommend to people who don’t usually like ‘Best Picture Nominee-type movies’ (degree of difficulty, The Departed): The Social Network.

Best Picture Nominee to recommend to people who don’t usually like ‘Best Picture Nominee-type movies’ (degree of difficulty, The English Patient): Winter’s Bone.

****½

Four-and-a-half stars – It was a pretty good year for movies.

2010 Academy Awards


Alec and Steve were the only friends left at “Oscar’s” birthday party after mom kicked Kratos out after “the incident.”

Some quick thoughts opinions:

The “interpretive” dancing to accompany the Best Music (Original Score) nominees was tacky and plain-old ridiculous. Being that the music was written for a movie, why not show either a) a montage/custom trailer showcasing the music against the images or b) show a specific scene from the movie as-is which highlights the connection between composer and the visual material. The eventual winner, UP, has a sequence which would have lent itself perfectly for, you know, showing the effect of the music instead of a bunch of people spinning on their heads or doing the robot. If they want to show break-ish dancing, America’s Best Dance Crew does it better (and without the false pretense of it being “fine art.”)

Aside from the fact that a movie which would be more properly described as “rendered” (or raytraced, or something or another) rather than “filmed,” won for Best Cinematography, why did they show no clips, again, showcasing the recognized, excellent cinematography? I believe only the title cards were shown. Sure, most of the movies (except, Harry Potter, I believe) were shown in other awards’ intro sections, but movies are a visual medium, show it if it’s awards-worthy! Or maybe you could get the interpretive dancers to movieoke the scenes in question.

The Best Actor/Actress “wedding toasts” are still awkward and unnecessarily long. BUT, watching the obligatory “Oscar-bait” scenes are usually just as cringe-worthy. Of course, this year we got to see what happens when a “who’s that guy?” actor without a compelling story (acting debut and [celebrated for some odd reason] morbid obesity, for example) gets nominated…Colin Farrell is left to relate stories from their time off set during the filming of SWAT because there is no body of work to reference (yet?). Consider it a tie between the old “bait” and new “toasts” methods. [Jeremy Renner absolutely deserved to be nominated and would not have been a surprise winner, and unrelatedly, SWAT wasn’t all that bad of a movie, either].

In terms of Best Picture and Best Director (considering them interrelated here)… eh, The Hurt Locker was good, but felt a bit incomplete. Imagine a collection of seven interrelated short stories, any of which could be swapped for the climax of the movie. Unique, yes, but District 9 took another unique presentation method and did it better. The Hurt Locker would be somewhere below Up in the Air, District 9, An Education, and even Avatar on my list.

P.S. The Blind Side is an awful, awful movie. Meryl Streep did “I get what I want,” bad-ass chick better in The Devil Wears Prada, though Sandra Bullock was definitely the best part of the movie (which is notable because there was anything in it that could be considered “best”).

**½

Urgent Warning Review: The Last Templar

Later tonight, NBC will be showing the second half of the two part “The Last Templar” mini-series. DO NOT WATCH THIS. It’s rare that I feel tasked to present my opinion as a public warning, but it is entirely, absolutely necessary in this case.

I’m not proud of myself, but I fell for the “well, I should probably buy a book before I get on an airplane for thirteen hours” business model. That’s right – I spent $10, the full retail price, based only on, “I liked The DaVinci Code well enough and that giant red cross on a white background on the cover of the book looks familiar. Ooh, it has ‘templar’ in the title, too.” Not one of my finer moments. Not one of my finer moments.

templar cover

Don’t fall for it – you’re better than this. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Why the warning? People are quick to complain about The DaVinci Code for perfectly valid reasons; poor structure (action, explanation, action, explanation, ad nauseum…), clunky writing, the fact that it’s more-or-less the product of generously editing Angels & Demons and using “find and replace” to swap “Catholicism” with “Christianity,” and so on. BUT, The DaVinci Code worked well enough. I liked the book enough to also read Angels & Demons as well as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and most significantly, there are few people have haven’t read The DaVinci Code, and I really don’t know anyone that truly hated it. I stand by the complaints detailed above, yet I wouldn’t tell someone not to read it if I were asked.

Of course, based on the overwhelming financial success of The DaVinci Code, a cottage industry sprang up around the Knights Templar and literary background checks of Jesus H. Christ ranging from the academic to the pulpy. Simply everyone who’s remotely interested in such things has read at least The DaVinci Code and is acutely aware of the recently-renewed discussion on whether Jesus should be referred to as “Dude” or just “dude.”

The Last Templar is the second worst kind of “DaVinci Code cottage industry” detritus. The single most damning error of the book is that the characters live in a vacuum where The DaVinci Code never existed. This is preposterous – as readers, we’re no longer shocked that there are “major revelations” about Jesus’ divinity and holding that like a carrot to keep the reader engaged just doesn’t work. Within the world of the story, it’s equally ludicrous that an archaeologist would be shocked (SHOCKED!) to hear that there are alternate theories of Jesus beyond those of the Gospels and Qur’an. It’s just plain inexcusable.

The story itself is of the relic-hunting variety: beheadings, ancient mythology, suspect foreigners, the two lead characters getting it on, a encryption/decryption/codex device, and so on. Passable, but the obliviousness detailed above checked me out of the book almost immediately. Well, the obliviousness and the fact that the romantic thread in the story was written with the fluidity and grace matching that of a teen-aged love letter saying, “I want to do you.”

I do have to comment on the selection of quotes on the front and back covers. On the front, we see “Like The DaVinci Code, Khoury’s novel features age-old mysteries that play out in a modern setting.” Let that sink in a bit. It’s equivalent to the quote reading, “The DaVinci code is a book. This novel is also a book.” There’s not even an implicit recommendation; in fact, one can extract an almost negative tone from it, as if the quote continued as, “…, but this is not even The DaVinci Code.” Imagine a Battlefield: Earth poster saying: “Star Wars was a movie in space. This one is, too.” No, don’t fall for it.

Moving to the back cover we see, “[will] satisfy your historical thriller craving.” One could say the same thing about Stalingrad Vodka and alcoholism. Similarly, “For those who think Dan Brown doesn’t write fast enough,” doesn’t actually provide a comment on the quality of the book. Think of a review of the Arena Football League: “Because the NFL off-season is February to August.”

½

The Last Templar mini-series gets half of one star. Bad books make for bad movies. Sure, the guy who got dumped on Scrubs is perfectly likable and Mira Sorvino looks fancy, but you’re better than this. If you feel the need to get your artifact-hunting itch scratched, re-read or watch The DaVinci Code, or, even better, read The Rule of Four.

Southland Tales

southland
Silent Bob or ZZ Top Member? You be the judge.

Is it possible to make a movie that is at once pretentious, derivative, completely incomprehensible, insanely long, outrageous just for the sake of it, tonally off-balance, with tons of distractingly recognizeable actors, and somehow surprisingly engrossing? Honestly, Southland Tales lives up to its negative hype. It is a car wreck of epic proportions. You sit there completely sucked in, but with your jaw hanging open wondering how a movie this completely off-the-wall bad can take itself so seriously, or even how it got funding in the first place.

The movie, Richard Kelly’s follow-up epic mess to cult hit Donnie Darko leaps from place to place like a kid on a playground after too much candy and juice, and usually leaves you wondering who these characters are and why are they doing whatever it is they’re doing, that is, if you can figure out what they are doing.

Full disclosure: I like Donnie Darko. I’m a little bit bitter towards it, but I like it. I think it’s a fantastic collection of scenes and ideas that fit together tonally, but don’t really make a coherent story. And I’ve tried to figure out the story. I was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon before the movie had even come out. I found the website, which at the time was something to behold, via a small article in EW magazine. Watched a bootleg copy of it while it was still in theatres. Had no idea what I just saw. I watched it over and over again, showing new people every time. I couldn’t figure out the master plan of what was going on. Things were so disjointed, and there was never any exposition to give any clue as to what happened at the end. I bought the DVD, and when I listened to the commentary track, I was surprised to find out that the director also seemed not to know. There was no explanation. He was just putting stuff in that he thought would be weird. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me again… uhh…. you don’t get fooled again.

I really can’t imagine that there was any plan going into this movie. Something about an extremist future, with big-brother republicans selling out for some kind of perpetual motion machine, and “neo-Marxists” (his word, not mine) bent on destroying everything for some reason. The media is a hyper-conglomerate of entertainment, commercials (most notably a car commercial, featuring two Hummers [the car] having sex with each other), propaganda, and news. And for some reason, every show is taped on a beach. The guy who created this energy machine (which looks exactly like the gyroscope in Contact) is somehow trying to take over the world by cutting off people’s hands or something. Some people are trying to blackmail The Rock, whose father-in-law is running for Vice President (i think?). Drugs are involved, needless to say. Whatever satire Kelly’s attempting, it’s either already been done, or it’s too broad to be saying anything, really.

Justin Timberlake is a “Revelations”-reciting narrator who sits on a machine-gun pedestal on the beach, looking to shoot God knows what, and really serving no purpose other than lip-synching to a song by “The Killers” in some sort of arcade, about halfway through. Sarah Michelle Gellar is a porn-star/talk show host who is either trying to blackmail The Rock or wants to be with him. I couldn’t tell. I don’t think she could. Sean William Scott plays twins. Cheri Oteri and Nora Dunn are crazy “neo Marxists”, as well as Amy Poehler. And if three SNL alumni aren’t enough, Jon Lovitz plays a racist cop. And if “SNL” isn’t the only Saturday late night sketch comedy show on your radar, “Mad TV”‘s Will Sasso is also there. Thow in the motley crew of John Larroquette (who’s actually pretty good), Mandy Moore, an unrecognizable Kevin Smith, the Highlander as an ice-cream-truck-driving arms rocket launcher salesman, Wallace Shawn in a dress and makeup, Bai Ling, and Janeane Garofalo in two seconds of screen time that amount to her being an extra (granted i think her part was entirely cut out), and you’ve got a cast that is seriously going to distract, even if you had the most engrossing material.

southland-tales
If you think there’s too much going on in this poster, wait til you see the movie.

Not that the material couldn’t be interesting. It’s got all the elements that could make it completely engaging: blackmail, WW3, cutting off people’s fingers, perpetual motion machines, The Rock, fake murder plots, a giant blimp, memory loss, drugs, public beach mounted gun stations, and, yes, time travel. The problem is that there’s way too much of it, and a lot of it for no reason. That someone saw this script and said “let’s fund that” is remarkable. I really can’t understand how someone didn’t tell this guy to pare the story down to something that had actual character motivations you could follow. You know when you start a movie and the first title says “Part 4” (the first three parts were released as comics and one wonders how much more coherent they were), that things are going to be confusing. Even more remarkable is the amount of on-camera talent in it. How any of the actors could play these scenes is baffling to me, because I was constantly asking “Who’s that? Why is he doing that? What’s his purpose in this movie? For what reason is he so important that he’s the narrator?”, and if I was while I was watching, I guarantee that the actors were asking ten times as many questions. I’d like to have heard Kelly’s explanation as to why The Rock always put his fingertips together melodramatically when he was confused. EVERY TIME! And I wonder if The Rock could tell me that. Yes, there’s something to be said of making the audience think and figure something out, but like I said before, “I’m not getting fooled again”.

There is also something to be said for style over substance, but while it looks good (especially the blu-ray-quality version), and has some strangely unique things to it, most of it just felt like a rip-off of something else. There were multiple David Lynch moments, including a random group of recurring background little people; a strange old asian lady talking some kind of prophetic nonsense; and a recontextualized version of a highly-recognizable song, sung in a foreign language by a woman on a stage. The extremely ensemble and spread-out nature was taken right from P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (as, it seemed, was the strange pacing of a lot of it), which in turn (at least i hear) was supposed to be a Robert Altman homage. Lastly, and most importantly of all, he’s completely ripped off of himself. Incomprehensible time travel/ Dimensional rifts; someone getting shot in the left eye; large aircraft falling out of the air; the end of the world; wormholes (the effects work even looks the same). It’s all there. It’s not that the style is bad; it’s just incredibly unique while at the same time, paradoxically all been seen before. (figure that one out).

The theatrical cut is two and a half hours, one half-hour less than the widely-derided Cannes cut of the film, which you can see in parts, in low-quality video on the YouTubes, if you’re a masochist. I’d like to think that the missing half-hour explained some of the things I didn’t get, but judging from those reviews, I’d be wrong. (Though, from the few seconds of these clips I’ve seen, at least the narration is different and makes more sense). The movie cost between fifteen and sixteen million dollars to make, and was released in only 67 theatres (even limited releases usually get about 300), for a whopping $270,000 domestic gross. Yes, that’s “thousand”. After seeing it, one can easily see why. Not that I wouldn’t watch it again, mind you, but only with people who have no reservations and are willing to sit through the whole thing. I’d like to see the confusion and anger on their faces, and at the same time their desire to keep going because it can’t get any more outrageous. Oh yes. It can. Just for the sake of being outrageous.

*½
Southland Tales takes all the faults of Donnie Darko and magnifies them tenfold. It’s not a failure of style, as the film’s got that in spades, but it is a complete failure of storytelling. Characters completely do major things for no reason, the order the scenes are in leaves you even more confused, and finally when a strange cabal of characters sits The Rock down to explain the whole story (for no other reason than to explain it to the audience), it makes no logical sense whatsoever. I guess there’s at least an attempted explanation.

One star for allowing my friends and I to complain about how none of the story worked, and half a star for the cool scene where Sean William Scott was messing around with a mirror that took about half a second to mimic his action.

When in-character WWE wrestlers interview movie stars.

Check out these two videos of “The Miz” interviewing the cast and director of “The Dark Knight.” I realized that the hype machine for the movie was pretty crazy (even crazier now that it’s obvious that the movie could have sold itself on its own merits), but I had no idea they were so desperate to allow a WWE “representative” to interview the stars.

The image of a ridiculous wrestler (title belt draped over his body) interviewing Maggie Gyllenhall is really one for the ages as is her confusion when he insists on playing with the action figures. Likewise his mustache discussion with Gary Oldman of all people hits “awkward” right on the head. (I guess Oldman insisted that he not be interviewed by someone wearing a championship belt from a fixed “sport.”)

Also of note is Christian Bale’s look over to his assistant as he has no idea how to react to “The Miz.” You’d think they could’ve had an interesting comparison of the injuries accumulated in filming a fight scene (Bale seems intense enough to acquire injuries during filming – it looks like he has marks on his arms from filming Terminator 4 around the time of the interview) to the injuries in wrestling or stories about “working through pain in the name of entertainment” – who knows.

Anyway, enjoy the awkwardness.

Superstar To Superstar: Miz interviews the stars of “The Dark Knight” – Part I.

Superstar To Superstar: Miz interviews the stars of “The Dark Knight” – Part II.

*****

There’s a reason that professional wrestling will never be considered a “mainstream” form of entertainment. This is it.

Nate’s Review of Cloverfield

Before I get started, be sure to check out Nate’s review of Cloverfield. Make a point to check out the comments – they get to the crux of the argument and Ken Matthews (yes, that Ken Matthews) even weighs in. No, we don’t take celebrity lightly here at The Bookshelf.

Nate, Nate, Nate. So many words. The movie didn’t “work” because of the medium on which it was delivered. It worked (and worked quite well) because of typical disaster movie conventions (and I don’t mean that in a bad way). The “found footage” created a new way to present those conventions; it didn’t make them “new,” but it serves to create a “wall” in the viewer’s mind when he sees the “character presented as initially important dies abruptly and shockingly” so he doesn’t say, “wow, this is like every other disaster movie ever.” Likewise, the whole “cast in the darkness struggles to find a flashlight, then once they find it, they immediately illuminate something that jumps up and wants to kill/maim/eat them” is perfectly fine – it’s been done before. “Found footage” doesn’t change the presentation of that event – it’s always a point-of-view shot and someone either dies immediately or is injured to the degree of eventually becoming a nuisance (or worse) to the group. I didn’t feel any closer to the characters on the screen than with any other well made action/disaster movie. Was it better than “The Day after Tomorrow?” – absolutely, but the difference isn’t in the “medium,” it’s in the competence of the director and the writer to make it compelling. “Found footage” isn’t a smokescreen which obfuscates the director’s lack of talent or the scenarist’s lack of imagination – he’s either a good director or not, the script is either good or it isn’t.

cloverfield
As I’ve said, the monster was looking for delicious human brains. Imagine how disappointed it must’ve been when it realized the meal outside the restaurant wasn’t real or life-size. Kind of like a pedophile outside a Bob’s Big Boy…yikes. I think that one crossed a line.

Why Cloverfield worked was because of the little decisions made in the screenplay and the directing. There’s not “cheese” in the story or the presentation. The “lovey-dovey” story is restrained and as realistic as it could be in a movie about a gigantic lizard making a buffet out of New York. The love story (effectively the pulse of the movie), has as satisfying conclusion as one could hope for, maintaining a reasonable suspension of disbelief inherent is going to the movies. And, no, the “found footage” doesn’t assist in building up the suspension of disbelief. Know what? I sat in a movie theater at the beginning of Cloverfield, and I left that same movie theater. I wasn’t transported (to a dream world of magic). During the movie, I was still in that same theater. I didn’t forget that. I could get “lost” in the movie, but it’s happened in plenty of other movies which were not “found footage”-based.

The success of Cloverfield is due to the director and writer not taking any easy ways out (other than the camera battery, walking distances, and other shortcuts necessary for the mechanics of the story – not the story itself, mind you). A less engaging version of this movie would have the disaster “following” the characters instead of the characters more-or-less being in the middle of it. They try to take direction, but in the end, they’re at the mercy of the situation, not the screenwriter’s goal of killing of some number of characters in 10 minute intervals. It’s not an Indiana Jones movie where there is literally nothing that the hero can do without it backfiring. The characters never got guns, but you know that the writer wouldn’t have stooped to one of them getting killed because his or her gun got jammed. The writer realized that the story was larger than that. The audience doesn’t need manufactured drama in a world in which it has been established that a 60 story, seemingly bulletproof monster with a taste for mammal blood, much less human brains is on the loose. There’s plenty there already without resorting to cheese. In fact, it’s not until the lead-in to the climax of the movie (it involves a helicopter) that the “bad guy” seemingly singles out the heroes. Previously, Smashy McWrecksALot sort of did his own thing, getting mad at the military for shooting at him and causing people to make allusions to September 11, 2001. Suddenly, something very bad and very focused towards the main characters happens. It takes two-thirds of the movie to finally cave in to the demand that the bad guy single out the heroes. And, all things considered, it’s fine by me. The story went that far without something disgustingly coincidental happening, and given the unexpected nature of the actual event, I’m all for it. And, there were B-2 bombers in the sequence, so that’s practically a get out of jail card for the writer as far as I’m concerned (though, it wasn’t even needed in this case). And none of that required first person “found footage” to work.

“Found footage” adds nothing to the final presentation other than “it was a good movie and the video camera part was cool.” I know, that goes against paragraphs and paragraphs of Nate’s review, but in the end, it’s no different than a movie shot in one take, a movie presented as four simultaneous one-take shots, or a movie presented as a documentary which is definitely not a true documentary. Any adds a touch of “clever” to a movie, but the “traditionals” – directing, writing, acting – are what make it watchable. The Blair Witch Project made it so people were ok with a movie being presented as if footage were found after some event, but it lacked the “traditionals”, and ended up being all schtick and no substance. Cloverfield should’ve been the first “found footage” movie, if only for it to get thought of more highly than The Blair Witch Project for the academic accomplishment of making the concept work.

**

Nate’s Review of Cloverfield gets two stars. Basically, the message is the message. The “medium” may add something to it, but in the end, people are attracted to story and emotion, not technique and the ephemera of film production. In fact, I’ve always interpreted “the medium is the message” as the medium says more about “where we are” than the message itself. For example, the fact that someone can be in the supermarket, see someone trip over a cracked egg and knock over a ceiling-tall paper towel display, open his telephone, video record the event, then instantly send it to any number of other people to view on their phones, computers, TV’s, etc. says more about “our situation” than the fact that a movie was made about a monster using New York City for tackle drills and it was presented as if someone found a video camera. Of course, I’ve not taken any media theory classes, much less read that guy’s book, but that’s what I take from his famous quote. And no, when the first mainstream movie presented as if it were “found” cell phone video footage comes out, that’s not saying any more about our current state than the fact that Cloverfield just gave the “disaster movie” genre a big F-U middle finger and said “beat that.” Cloverfield just realized that the key to connecting to audiences is by turning a huge event (monsters attacking a city) on its ear by focusing on a tiny group who aren’t in a position to fix the problem and showing how they handle it and each other. It’s always been assumed that a “bigger picture” perspective with a secondary focus on a small group of charismatic characters was needed for a disaster movie, but Cloverfield is proof otherwise, focusing on that small group and barely even addressing the “bigger picture.”

****½

Cloverfield itself gets four-and-a-half big stars. As I was walking out of the theater I thought to myself that the story and its presentation completely precluded a sequel (wondering about a sequel is a good sign that the movie was well received) – then re-reading Nate’s review, he pointed out that there is plenty of material to be mined from other groups of characters – specifically, not yuppies – affected by the event. As I said above, the movie worked so well by taking a huge event and focusing on a tiny slice of it. This contrasts with Juno, which left me slightly disappointed as it delivered a relatively small event and focused on a small group of characters. (At the risk of digressing, Juno was very good, not great. Witty dialog that writers in their 20’s put on the page because they like to think they were that sharp in high school [they weren’t] aside, it just seemed like a small story presented on a small scale. The big “drama” event wasn’t quite “big” enough. Granted, it wasn’t overwrought, but it seemed to play it slightly too safe.)

Cloverfield

Pirated video that shows clearly what the monster really is.

It’s been a while since we’ve posted… I know.

To put it simply, Cloverfield is effin’ scary. I would venture as far as to say that it was the most viscerally affecting movie I’ve seen since Children of Men. This isn’t just a monster movie; it’s a movie, that, like The Mist and I Am Legend before it, plays on our greatest unthought-of fear, that something so disastrous could happen that all manner of government protection would be rendered moot. Mass chaos with no way out, and nothing to keep you alive but your own strength of will in circumstances that you’d never imagine yourself in. Cloverfield is so effective at what it sets out to do, reminding us that our modern “civilized” society is one catastrophic event away from being reduced to nothing more than bickering people who’ve been taken over by primitive “fight or flight” survival instincts.

The way the reviewers have talked about it, I’m sure you’ve all heard complaints ad nauseum about the “lack of story”, the “unlikeablility” of characters, the illogical choices made by certain people, and that it didn’t make sense for someone to keep recording through the whole thing. Honestly, I didn’t care about any of those things at all, and it’s a testament to how involving the movie is that I only once stopped to think about the fact that a camera battery wouldn’t last as long it does, and only one other time to think about how long it would take them to walk in a subway tunnel the distance that they said they did. Despite the rich, hipster vibe that the characters exuded, I didn’t really find them all that grating, even though it was basically as if Godzilla interrupted an episode of Felicity (with good reason; both the executive producer and the director were co-creators of that show). If they indeed go ahead with a sequel to be shot in the same style, telling a different story from the same night, I would love to see people from the opposite end of the spectrum and how they managed, how different their priorities were, and just how they would differ in their actions in general.

More often than not though, I found myself sitting in my chair, with my mouth wide open, totally enraptured by what was going on. Would I too be able to climb across a roof of a forty-story building that was leaning at a sixty degree angle from the ground, only being held up by the building next to it? Would I have gone back to save someone from a giant killer spider-crab in a pitch black subway tunnel? Why was this monster movie the first one that ever made me question the lengths I would go to survive? As intense as it was, The Mist, never made me feel this way, despite the fact that the subject material was quite similar. In my opinion, it goes to media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s statement from his book “Understanding Media:Extensions of Man“, that “The Medium is the Message”. To put a very long and convoluted series of the oftentimes contradictory thoughts by a raving Canadian lunatic into a simplistic summary, the method by which a message is sent from one person to another is oftentimes more important to the delivery than the message itself. The best example of this is the famed Nixon-Kennedy debate where the majority of radio listeners seemed to think that Nixon had won, while the television viewers, able to see Nixon’s body language, sweating, and poor make-up job, were convinced that Kennedy won. On a side note, I always wondered if the people who did that study took into account the differences in politics between the people who listened and people who watched, and if that played into their answers to the question.

How this idea of medium applies to Cloverfield is that we’ve been programmed with the language of film over the past one-hundred years. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we’ve come to expect a certain syntax. We don’t notice it though, until a reverse angle of a shot doesn’t match, or an edit isn’t smooth. The Mist lives by these rules, and the whole time it tries to invoke this question of “what happens when the world goes to hell?”, while also playing it like a 1950s B-horror movie creature feature. Issues with the unfocused nature of the plot set aside, it’s the fact that the movie’s presented in the language of Film that makes you step back and realize how preposterous the story really is.

Ironically, it’s the movie inspired by the crude and incredibly repetitive Godzilla series that has effectively transcended this medium and broken out of the box, leaving genuine lasting emotion. The same way that we’ve been trained to understand that movies aren’t real and that we shouldn’t feel anguish when Jason Vorhees, “an unstoppable killing machine“, hacks someone up with a machete, we’ve been trained to recognize video as infallible. Which affects you more: watching an alien pop out of someone’s chest killing them in a movie, or watching a video of a skateboarder falling fifty feet to a hard wooden surface and seeing his shoes explode, but then being able to walk off, relatively unharmed? We haven’t yet learned to apply the same reality filters to video that we currently do to film, and this is what Cloverfield exploits.

No matter how many times you try to tell yourself this movie isn’t real, the medium that the message is delivered in contradicts your thoughts and plays to your instincts. What would happen if you took this movie over to undeveloped parts of Africa (as McLuhan puts it, a place where people have not been “immunized” to this medium) or if someone years down the line saw this without the context to put it in? It’s very likely that they might think it actually happened, especially if they’ve seen the 2001 attack footage. Critics (used literally, not film critics) of the movie have been saying that it exploits September 11th imagery, but I would argue that it successfully uses those scenes we have committed to memory to scare us in a very real way, much more than any slasher flick or monster movie has done before. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been spending a large amount of time in the area that was directly affected in the movie. It’s more likely that I was less able to discern the difference between the two because when the twin towers fell I was watching it on a movie screen in a film auditorium. Watching Cloverfield, it was hard not to think back to this moment and relate the two, drawing all that emotion out.

One of the most harrowing scenes in the whole thing is the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which I’ve walked over a few times. It may very well be the most frightening destruction of a major landmark ever to be created in a movie, far scarier than anything in the modern classic Independence Day or its red-headed step-brother The Day After Tomorrow, completely because of its realism and the point of view of the person delivering the message.

Here’s where the debate rages though. Should a movie be judged on how effective it is at making you feel a certain way, or on the quality of story and characters? If it uses the story and characters as well as technically impressive work to achieve this emotional effect (such as in I Am Legend), then it’s obvious that it’s a good movie. What happens though, when the two aren’t mutually exclusive, when character development and a tight story take second chair to exceptional method and incredibly well-realized scenes? Is it still a good movie? This isn’t to say that Cloverfield offered no cohesive story or successful characterizations (the realism in the actors’ portrayals ” not so much film acting, but moreso being in the situation with a natural intensity that you would expect of someone living out this unthinkable scenario””certainly drives the moments and carries the film as much as the technique), but it’s a chase movie in the most basic sense. Something’s attacking, nobody knows what it is, but we’re running from it. There’s really nothing more to it than that, and I would be hard-pressed to say the movie had an effective story to tell, instead opting to give you a few character dynamics and letting them provide the motivation for an hour’s worth of recorded events. I’ve heard completely mixed reviews from friends and film critics in regards to this movie, and it seems as though this question of how to judge is where the basic disagreement lies. For me, the movie was incredibly effective at what it set out to do, and was plenty enjoyable from start to finish (and I loved the epic “Cloverfield Theme” that scored the credits) and that’s all I can ask for in a threatrical experience.

One last thing. If in my diatribe about the presentation of the movie I left out the success of The Blair Witch Project, which this movie couldn’t have come about without, it was because that was not a successful movie. Where the difference between the two films lies is that while The Blair Witch created a very real found-footage aura, it was overly-long and for the most part, boring and whiny. Think about it. The bulk of the movie was about kids wandering around the woods and arguing with each other. It took on the found-footage medium and while it succeeded at creating a realistic portrayal of what one might look like (as in “normal people are generally boring and spend a lot of time fighting and talking about nothing at all”), it completely failed as entertainment for all but about 15 minutes. It had a few interesting story elements, but needed to pad out its runtime with lame characterizations and nothing really happening. It was also completely visually uninteresting, giving you nothing to fall back on when you got tired of all the complaining going on onscreen. Cloverfield takes a look at the mistakes of this film and basically imports action movie beats into the style in order to fix its problems, never stopping to let us take a breath or think about all the implausibilities. The people behind this movie have brilliantly created a hybrid “found-footage/blockbuster action movie” medium, and by doing this, it skews our perception of its events, leaving our common sense to duke it out with our basic media instincts, and that is why it truly succeeds.

****½

Cloverfield is not only a genre-redefining movie, but a medium redefining movie that uses the language of video and film together to confuse our perception of events. You know it isn’t real, but once it wraps you up in its swift pace, that notion leaves your mind, making the horror of the scenario all the more genuine. The entire group of people involved were committed to making you believe that this had really happened, and they succeeded admirably at doing it. Now next time, give us some better characters and a more plausible story arc for them.

While I’m at it….

The Mist
*½
I really wanted to love it, but it completely tears itself in two directions, trying to be a giant killer insect horror movie, and a bold statement on how far our civility falls when we’re presented with dire circumstances. Not only that but characters are either underused (Andre Braugher) or completely over-the-top crazy (Marcia Gay Harden), and though Tom Jane gives a strong performance (before he brings it on a little too strong at the end) he can’t keep down all my hatred for the main antagonist, the crazy religious nut-job who wants everyone to repent or die. If it’s supposed to be allegory, it takes a very ham-fisted approach that really turned me off. Subtlety isn’t this movie’s strong point. Visually, it’s spectacular, but unfortunately a great premise is undermined by story issues, probably stemming from the source material. Much like most of the movie, the end sort of rips off of “Night of the Living Dead” in its painful irony, though it may have one of the best “downer” endings I’ve seen in a long time.

I Am Legend
****
Visually, the most realistically drastic transformation of any actual location that I’ve ever seen put to film, I Am Legend decides to “show” us, and not “tell” us about the collapse of humanity, unlike The Mist . By that I mean that while the previous movie spends its time preaching to you about how everyone will turn on one another to survive, this movie shows the result of that, in a devastatingly real fashion. You are left to create your own account of how it all went down, only giving us brief glimpses into society’s fall in flashbacks that serve more to develop Will Smith’s character’s personal story. It was completely refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t give you every detail and leaves some things open to the imagination. Will Smith’s character and portrayal are perfectly subtle in the ways that his past, his loneliness, and his obsession with curing the sick have taken its toll on his sanity, but the critics are correct that unfortunately all of this strong set-up seems to devolve with about twenty-five minutes left into some more action-oriented, less suspenseful version of Signs, right down to the “oh, it all makes sense now, God has a plan for me” revelation. I Am Legend is a completely haunting vision of what life would be like if you were the last person on earth, Zombie storylines aside.