Tagged in: movie reviews

When the Male Gaze Settles on Nazi Zombies: Sucker Punch

Hot Chicks in Fantasy Land

Zach Snyder has failed colossally with his latest film Sucker Punch. I don’t mean that the movie flopped or won’t make the studio money, even though it’s been beaten at the box office by the sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and a movie where Matthew McConaughey remains full shirted. I don’t even mean the film is a failure because Snyder didn’t do what he set out to do. Sucker Punch bears all the hallmarks the director’s style: gorgeously choreographed action scenes, slick music video production styles, and an almost Kubrickian chilliness. I have no doubt that the movie came out exactly as the writer/director intended. Unfortunately, the task he set for himself was impossible.

Sucker Punch fails because Zach Snyder set out to make an exploitative movie about the exploitation of women. Which sounds all meta and awesome in a postmodern way, but isn’t possible to render in the medium of film. As Truffaut observed it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because no matter how hard the director tries to convey the horrors of war, there’s a primal appeal in watching violence. A badass is a badass, and if you film him being a badass it’s going to look cool no matter how squeamish you might personally feel toward badassery. Sucker Punch is about the exploitation of women and the lengths that his characters will go to in order to escape their male oppressors. The movie has a slightly muddled metaphysics, but basically takes place in three separate (but interconnected) levels of reality in a way that call to mind the far superior Inception, but is still its own creature. Both films share a sense of complexity and find their strength in the labyrinthine constructs of the human mind, though Sucker Punch takes itself far less seriously.

At the start of the film, Snyder shows us a montage that establishes our protagonist Babydoll just after her mother dies. The time frame is indistinct, but Snyder seems to place the action in the 50s or 60s. Her stepfather, a leering brute who we see in a rage at being left out of the will. In the first minute, he shifts from economic exploitation of Babydoll and her sister to a clearly lascivious interest. While attempting to save her from the wicked stepfather’s advances, Babydoll accidentally shoots and kills her younger sister. In the aftermath, the Wicked Stepfather ships her off to a cinematically dingy insane asylum where a sleazy and corrupt (male) attendant agrees to an off-the-books lobotomy behind the back of the (female) head doctor, Carla Gugino. Snyder establishes this as the “Asylum Level”  as the film’s ground reality. Here, Babydoll has zero agency. She is literally confined by the males until such time as she can be negated with an icepick to the frontal lobe.

Before long, she starts imagining the asylum as a brothel/burlesque. The attendant becomes a pimp, the stepfather a corrupt clergyman, and the female psychiatrist the head trainer. This is the second level of reality the “Brothel Level.” It is populated Wizard-of-Oz-style by the same people Babydoll encountered when she entered the asylum including her bevy of attractive sex workers: Sweet Pea, Blondie, Daisy, and Rocket. Babydoll is told that “The High Roller” is on his way to deflower her in five days, a span that corresponds to the lobotomy countdown in the Asylum Level. On this level, the male oppressors are exaggeration further into caricatures of corruption and privelege. The cigar-puffing “Mayor” is especially creepy.

Interestingly, at this level of reality Carla Gugino’s doctor is reduced to an active participant of the subjugation of the girls, whereas in the ground level she is only ignorant of the danger posed by her staff. In the brothel, Babydoll is forced to dance. We never see what her dancing looks like at this level, but the other characters all find it spectacular. Males in particular seem to be helplessly enchanted while she dances. The setting and costumes, as well as the pimp’s reaction seem to indicate that a pole might well complement the routine. In any case, the men are so dazzled that Babydoll hatches a scheme to steal the items she needs to escape the brothel (all items that she spotted on her way into the Asylum Level). At least she is taking an active role in earning her freedom.

But every time the music cues and we see Babydoll start to shuffle, the camera pulls in tight and we see what she is imagining as she dances. These fantastical sequences are what got this movie made, and the source of much of the criticism of the film. Sucker Punch works best when Snyder brings us into these “Fantasy Level” sequences. They can get a little samey, and do have the slight echo of a genre checklist that the studio hoped would get the geeks of the world salivating. But the anarchic energy of these scenes makes up for it. It is the cinema of “what if?”. Snyder lets fly with some of the same wild enthusiasm that would lead a kid to wonder, why can’t a cop carry an axe and fight dinosaur robots? The mash-ups in Sucker Punch at the Fantasy Level are the most fun the movie offers.

Babydoll and her sexy sidekicks use mech armor to fight their way through a battlefield filled with steampunk Nazi zombies, engage in aerial plane to dragon combat over a sea of orcs, and engage in gun/sword fights with robots on a train. How could you not like that? The Fantasy Level is the Jungian col­lec­tive un­con­scious, so it has room for all these disparate elements to live and breathe together. Babydoll’s tasks in these fictional worlds are her attempts to use her creativity to construct a new reality better and more exciting than the one that exploits her in the Asylum Level. It’s a little like the Imaginationland episode of South Park. Babydoll can use ninja swords against robots despite the fact that the Asylum Level is in the mid-20th century, because in the pure realm of the imagination all the genre tropes that have existed or will ever exist can occur at the same time.

The problem is that in the Fantasy Level, Babydoll acts for herself and in her own interest. She takes the initiative and through her own agency, engages in admittedly bad-ass battles. She becomes the subject of the story instead of its object. At least that’s what Snyder was shooting for. The problem is that in the Prime Reality where you, me, and Snyder all live we are watching these fantasies play out. From our point of view, these empowering acts are just further exploitations. Now, Babydoll and the girls can let it all hang out for us: The Audience Level. And because of that final abstractions, the story cannot rise above the level of exploitation: sexy girls in sexy clothes = teh hawt.

There’s nothing the director could have done. It’s easy to write Sucker Punch off as a tawdry attempt to titillate, but I give Snyder more credit. I think he did want to engage with issues of female agency. Tongue firmly in cheek, to be sure, but the intent was serious. I don’t know how much you can blame him for failing to do the impossible, but as long as he keeps delivering gorgeously constructed films like Sucker Punch, I’ll keep hanging in there for the film that perfectly matches his ambitions to his abilities.

On Shaky Ground: The Green Zone Movie Review

The Green Zone looks like a Bourne movie, which comes as no surprise considering that the director, Paul Greengrass was behind the wheel for the last two movies in that trilogy and the main character is played by Jason Bourne himself, Matt Damon. But while the visceral impact of the shaky-camera delivers the same sort of highly-immersive quality to the action sequences, the overall tone of The Green Zone is radically different from any Ultimatums or Supremacies that may have preceded it. In terms of tone, the movie gracefully avoids the more shrill agitprop of some other Issue Films that have tackled the costs of our military presence in Iraq. But it still tends toward making its points with a heavy hand and a clear agenda.

To its credit, The Green Zone is a little more The Hurt Locker than In the Valley of Elah. The film deals with the question of the lack of WMDs in Iraq in the early days of the invasion by dressing it up in action movie drag. Matt Damon plays an idealistic American special forces soldier who becomes obsessed with finding the Weapons of Mass Destruction that predicated the invasion in the first place. After coming up empty several times he begins to question the intelligence that keeps sending him on wild goose chases that yield pigeon-crap-soaked toilet factories in place of chemical or biological weapons. His questioning meets several dead-ends before he discovers an Iraqi general who has special information about the WMD program in Iraq. Spolier alert for those not paying attention: There was no such program and no such weapons.

The problem of whether the administration was merely negligent in regard to the quality of the intelligence doesn’t get a serious examination in the movie. Greg Kinnear’s shady bureaucrat takes on the role of the villain and the film clearly implicates him as intentionally working off bad intel and convincing others to do the same with full knowledge that what they had was bunk. His casual disregard for the truth and self-serving desire to shift focus away from WMDs and onto democracy in Iraq is positively cartoonish in its cliched simplicity. Perhaps such a clear-cut villain was necessary for the thriller side of the movie to come to the fore in the film’s final act but it does a poor job of dealing with the intelligence failures in an evenhanded way.

As message movies go, it’s less strident than some but more simplistic than others. Still, if it’s been a few years since you last saw Matt Damon kicking ass in steadycam, and you want to watch things go boom real good you could do worse than The Green Zone.

The Summer So Far (At the Movies)

Star Trek was amazing. I can’t imagine a better relaunch for a tired franchise than what J.J. Abrams and company delivered. I was pretty much the target demo for the reboot, since I was not a big fan of any of the previous incarnations of the series aside from a brief fluttering of interest anytime The Borg showed up. I know next to nothing about the canon or the long-term storylines. I was always slightly turned off by all the confusing time-travel nonsense that previously made the series inaccessible, and Abrams wisely sidestepped any of that nonsense while giving the diehard fans an out in the form of some easy to understand time-travel nonsense. In order to retain my critical street cred, I thought maybe they went a little over the top with the lens flares and a few of the performances (I’m looking at you, McCoy) danced precariously close to impressions. But those are minor, trivial things that didn’t keep me from enjoying a great film.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was better than I thought it would be, but still managed to kind of suck. Talk about your wasted opportunities. There was a decent story here, but the constant mutant cameos kept distracting me from it. I knew something was up when Wolverine barely showed up in any of the trailers for his own movie. The result was an overstuffed mess, with needlessly cheesy fight scenes and some suspect special effects. Not that great.

Terminator: Salvation was entertaining, although it also has to fall into the missed opportunity column. I was glad to see the action shift to the actual post-apocalyptic war with the machines instead of time travelling to kill the future messiah. The Fallout-esque scene where Kyle Reese and Marcus Wright survey the rubble that used to be Los Angeles was appropriately foreboding, while the advanced technology of SKYnet made for some sweet-ass chases and battles. The plot veered wildly from awesomeness to incoherence, averaging out to highly unlikely. Not everyone has motivations that make sense and people behave in strange, illogical ways. I also wish that the previews hadn’t revealed Marcus Wright’s true nature, as the plot treats it like a surprising revelation. I would have figured it out pretty quickly, but it would have been more enjoyable if they at least tried to keep it a surprise.

In Star Trek, Starfleet Academy is based in San Francisco in my old neighborhood. That was kind of cool, especially when the evil Romulan warlord started to destroy it with his Fire Drill of Death. But I started to feel like Hollywood was trying to tell me something when SKYnet also chose to put it’s headquarters in San Francisco. Suspicious…

Derivative Pap, Actually: He’s Just Not That Into You Movie Review

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I am not the target market for He’s Just Not That Into You. Even putting my Y-chromosomes and dangly bits aside for a moment, my disdain for the source material alone is enough to put me outside the target demographic of single women who can’t figure out that a guy who treats them like crap might not like them. I have never kvetched with a gaggle of my best guyfriends over whether the type of shoes a girl was wearing might change the meaning of her unfulfilled promise to call me later.

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I worked at a bookstore when Greg Behrendt’s inexplicably popular book first rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists, and even then I was mystified by its success. While I didn’t read it outright, I did glance through it a few times to the point where I feel confident that I understand its premise of laying bare the male psyche for female readers. What I don’t understand is the appeal. None of the author’s points were insightful enough for true self-help stuff, nor were they funny enough for pure comedy.

It seemd like a bunch of glaringly obvious observations about men’s romantic behavior injected into some mildly amusing scenarios and anecdotes.

And it was. That summary could serve as the log line for the film version as well.

The performances are all solid enough and the film never descends to palpable awfulness, but it never transcends its source material to become anything better than a mildly inoffensive exercise in bland.It tries for all the right notes and never totally fails to hit them, but it elicits more smirks than laughs (although there are a few chuckles).

The problem isn’t that there are too many stories, but the film does linger on a few for too long and crams too much action into them. I suppose that to illustrate the book’s advice, the movie had to have several different stages of relationship to work with, but there is no real economy of storytelling. The longstanding tension between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston over not getting married despite seven years of being together, for example sputters on long after the audience gets the point. Bradley Cooper once again plays kind of a douchebag, but does an excellent job at making his part of a married man driven to stray by the wily charms of skinny-dipping yoga instructor Scarlett Johansen into a relatable character.

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I like a good romantic comedy as much as the next guy. I have no problem with films designed to tackle issues of dating, love, and romance although the vast majority of them seem kind of stupid. Billed as a date movie, He’s Just Not That Into You certainly delivers the goods. It is mildly amusing, and not a complete waste of time. This one might have been better than average: a large cast of photogenic characters at various stages of romantic entanglement play out their stories in a series of slightly interconnected vignettes. But I know Love, Actually. I have seen Love, Actually. And this film, sir, is no Love, Actually.

Two Candy Hearts (Out of Five):

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Visitors and Vikings, Monsters and Mead: Outlander Movie Review

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Here is what you should know: Outlander is a retelling of Beowulf where the hero is an intergalactic soldier who, after landing on 12th century Earth, teams up with a bunch of  Viking warriors to slay an alien monster that caused his space ship to crash.

That’s right. It’s about Vikings versus Aliens. If the premise alone isn’t evocative enough, this film includes a scene where the warriors attack the extraterrestrial Grendel with swords forged from the crashed space ship.

outlandersword1If that description strikes you as more head-shakingly goofy than fist-pumpingly awesome, than you will hate this movie. Also, we are not friends anymore.

It sounds like the type of high-concept drek that should air on the Sci-Fi channel some Saturday night between Mansquito sequels and in lesser hands it could have been. But high production values and a full-on commitment to the story keep Outlander in the realm of true pulp storytelling. All the actors seem to have fun with their performances without descending into pure camp. This movie is fun from start to finish.

Jim Caviezel plays the titular hero. He is a soldier named Kainan from an alien race who comes hurtling down to Earth in the opening scene. After he burns a computerized crash course on local language and customs into his retina, he sets about tracking down the monster (called a Moorwhen) that caused his ship to go down and killed his commander. He soon finds himself in Heurot, a Viking settlement where King Hrothgar (John  Hurt) and his hot warriorress daughter Freya (Sophia Myles) like to pass the time practicing their sword fighting in the mead hall and contemplating an arranged marriage with bad-boy Wulfric, who soon becomes a rival/BFF for our alien hero.

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If you have ever seen any movie ever, you should know the village soon comes under attack by the Moorwhen. Kainan has to help the settlement fight off the creature as well as attacks from a nearby town whose war-chief blames the Heurot for the slaughter of his own village. Perennial genre star Ron “Hellboy” Perlman plays the rival chief, and brings some welcome bad-assery to the film with a war hammer and celtic facial tattoo.

Most of the film revolves around Kainan slowly gaining acceptance into the Viking society. The story plays fast and loose with the Beowulf myth but includes many of the essential beats like the warriors settling down to party after killing a bear and mistaking it for the true monster and a climactic showdown in an underwater cave. There are a few digressions, including the budding romance between Kainan and Freya and an extended (to the point of becoming tiresome) exploration of some Viking drinking games (although the shield running sequence does come into play later). It bears a few cursory similarities to other retellings of the legend, but the fanciful space opera elements and the flashbacks to Kainan’s time as a colonial soldier set it apart. And the fact that the story is engaging, the cinematography is coherent, and the special effects servicable (excepting a few questionable scenes with the monster) set it apart from other recent Viking fare. I did not like Pathfinder.

I am a sucker for mythological remixes. I love to see Bewulf with aliens, The Odyssey in early 20th cenutry Dublin, or Orpheus as a rock singer. I also have a documented prediliction for awesome (and ridiculous) premises, and the very idea of Vikings fighting aliens is enough to get me into the theatre seat. So maybe I’m not the most impartial of judges for this movie, but from where I stand Outlander delivers on the premise and then some. Gimmicky? Sure, but the film is comfortable with that and so am I.

Four and One-Half Alien Spacemetal Swords (Out of Five):

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This Movie Was As Cute As Something, But I can’t Think of What: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Reviewed

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a good movie, whose grasp never quite closes around the great it is clearly reaching for.

Bard Pitt plays Benjamin, who is born old and grows younger. He loves a woman. He meets people. He has adventures. His story ends as all life stories do.

Benjamin Button is not alone. The idea of someone aging in reverse, becoming physically and mentally younger as they grow chronologically older, is not a novel one. At least as far back as Arthurian legends about Merlin, reverse aging has been a mainstay to certain genres of fiction. In this film, no real explanation is given as to why Benjamin is born in the shriveled husk of a hollowed out octogenarian (although baby-sized) and continues to “move in the other direction” as time passes.

The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The film suggests it may have something to do with a blind clock maker’s masterpiece, a timepiece designed to run in reverse so that it may undo some of the horrors of world war I, but for the most part Benjamin’s condition operates in the heightened reality of magical realism. People he meets just accept his curious malady without asking too many questions, and so should the audience.

The film could have worked just as well if the eponymous character aged like everyone else, and the storytelling device works to add poignancy and thoughtfulness to the movie rather than a pointless gimmick. Without it, the film would feel even more like a retread of Forrest Gump than it already does. Coming from the same writer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares more than a few thematic and structural similarities with the earlier film. Both feature an odd social outcast as the main character, spending a lengthy first act on the wacky characters they met as they grew up before chronicling their epic lives. Both Benjamin Buttons and Forrest Gump carry decades-long torches for seemingly unattainable girls next door until such time as the women realize the error of their ways and accept that the men of their dreams were right in front of them the whole time. There is even a hummingbird in Benjamin Button that performs the same symbolic role as the feather in Forrest Gump.

While this film may be guilty of playing a few of the same notes, the feel of the song is vastly different. Benjamin Button is both more lyrical and more wistful than its forebear. The story feels slightly more artificial, in the sense that the narrative hangs on the artifice of Benjamin’s condition and the poetry of seeing a man drift toward youth and irresponsibility even as his mind gets older. The price for this lyricism is the occasional foray into pretentiousness. While more often than not, he takes a light touch, director David Fincher is sometimes guilty of beating a metaphor into the ground. I was worried that the gimmick of Brad Pitt running around in old man make-up and computer-generated images of his altered face would prove too distracting but for the most part they weren’t. The early part of the film, wherein Benjamin is tiny and outwardly elderly has an appropriately eerie vibe but by the time he sets out to sea the off-putting effect has mellowed. What is left is the story of  a man’s life.

The biggest complaint I had with the movie was not necessarily its prodigious running time. I’m perfectly happy with long movies. And the story never felt particularly draggy, but the present day story was far too intrusive. The meat of the movie comes from Benjamin’s journal, which a young woman reads aloud to her dying mother as Hurricane Katrina closes in on the hospital. As a framing device its effective (although the presence of the storm doesn’t really add anything and feels decidedly tacked-on). Yet it seems like every few minutes, the central narrative arc pauses while we get a meaningless update on the present day. If some of these momentum-killers disappeared, the movie would be shorter and tighter. They feel like padding.

Fincher is an old hand at directing Pitt, having done so in the seminal Fight Club, and before that in Se7en. They work well together, and Pitt has more dramatic weight on his shoulders this time around since he serves as the movie’s through-line. He must carry the audience from the end of World War I to the nascent 21st century, and although he meets several colorful characters along the way, the story unfolds from his point of view. Cate Blanchett plays his true love. The two leads look very pretty together, and they each give their roles a solid portrayal. They’ve worked together before, and their chemistry is convincing even if Pitt’s accent slips occasionally.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons involves a great deal of travel and all the locations from Murmansk to Manhattan look beautiful, but the heart of the film is in New Orleans and Fincher seems incapable of taking an ugly shot of the city. But for all the strength fo the actors, the talent of the director, and beauty of the story the movie falls flat.

Far from bad but well short of great, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gets:

Three and One Half Creepy Old Man Babies (Out of Five)
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It Didn’t Quite Move Me: The Spirit Reviewed

The Spirt Movie PosterIf I don’t see a certain number of comic book movies every year, they threaten to revoke my geek credentials. But I was excited to see The Spirit, the first solo directorial effort of esteemed comic mainstay and Sin City creator Frank Miller.

The story of murdered rookie beat cop Denny Colt’s posthumous war on crime was never really all that compelling. Killed in the line of duty, Colt (played by perfectly servicable if slightly bland Gabriel Macht) mysteriously returns to life and decides to use his status as a postmortem P.I. to go places the police can’t and wear the ties they won’t.

Gabriel Macht as The Spirit

He conspires to work with police commissioner Dolan ( an awesomely grouchy Dan Lauria (a.k.a Kevin’s Dad from The Wonder Years (side note: I really want to see a remake of Grumpy Old Men starring J.K. Simmons and Dan Lauria))  to rid central city of its criminal element. This mostly means battling the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson at his hammiest and least restrained) and dealing with an old flame turned art thief Sand Saref (Eva Mendes).

As an origin story, it works to set up the world that The Spirit operates in, but it lacks the pathos and iconic identification of a rocket hurtling to earth carrying the last survivor from a doomed planet or an irradiated spider granting amazing powers to a teenager who quickly learns the relationship between power and responsibility. (Hint: they correlate). The Spirit in the comics served as more a storytelling vehicle for Will Eisner to explore the bleeding edge of what was possible to convey with words and pictures. Will Eisner literally wrote the book on how to tell stories in comic books, and The Spirit offered  fine experiments in composition and motion but the source material doesn’t scream out for adaptation to the movie screen.

Frank Miller is an odd choice to make a Spirit movie. Will Eisner created the character in 1939 and despite numerous revisions and reinterpretations over the years, The Spirit seems to work best with a kind of “Gee Whiz” optimism that pulls away from the babes and bullets of Frank Miller’s noir-tinted wheelhouse. I know, I know. The man sat at the feet of the Master and his close personal relationship with Eisner does give him a plausible reason to want to spearhead The Spirit’s transition from comics to film. But Miller’s overly muscular approach to visual storytelling doesn’t mesh well with the character. The result is a kind of Sin City-lite. The Spirit spends a good portion of the film offering tough-guy first person narration about how much he loves his city and his plan to kill his opponent The Octopus “all kinds of dead.”

This tone clashes horribly with the bits and pieces of screwball comedy and excruciatingly unfunny attempts to incorporate visual humor into the story. One scene where the Spirit finds himself suspended from a gargoyle and has to save himself by removing his belt and swinging to safety as his pants drop falls particularly flat. But there are a few genuinely funny moments. Jackson’s performance is way over the top, but sometimes his bizarre portrayal of the mad crime lord approaches camp brilliance. The scene where he lectures the Spirit while wearing a Nazi uniform for no discernible reason while his assistant Scarlet Johanssen  poses under a picture of Hitler is delightfully surreal.

The recurring gag of the effect the Spirit has on the ladies is also pretty funny. It seems like the eponymous hero can’t walk more than a few steps in his city without some woman trying to jump his bones.

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All the dames, broads, and skirts that throw themselves at him seem powerless to resist his charisma. Even the anthropomorphic personification of death is putty in his gloved hands.

Those of you of a more feminist or Freudian bent will likely have some serious issues with the way Miller depicts women. For all his obsessions with showing the female form in fetishistic display of all sorts of cleavage and the frequent reminders of The Spirit’s desirability, the narration constantly reminds us that he loves his city (who he personifies as feminine: ” My city screams. She needs me. I am her Spirit.”) more than any actual woman of flesh and blood.

But for all its flaws (though they are many) I left the theater feeling satisfied. In fact the film was almost exactly what I expected. The Spirit was an enjoyable movie that was kind of ridiculous. And kind of awesome. The awesome outweighs the ridiculous and that’s more than I get from most comic book adaptations.  It looked incredible. Miller used a whole color pallet and he is obviously still in the process of honing his skill with creating moving images. The film could have been more dynamic, but it was Oh-So-Pretty.  I imagine that those seeing Miller’s name attached and expecting a Sin City quasi-sequel will leave the multiplex disappointed, because the formal style of that movie informs this one, but the end result is totally different.

It is also kind of goofy. But if you are willing to go along for the ride, there are pleasures mixed in with the detritus. It gets:

Two and a Half Red Ties (Out of Five)

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Not Quite the Dark Knight: Quantum of Solace Movie Review

While he doesn’t live in a cave of wear a cape, James Bond has more in common with a certain Gotham-based crimefighter than either party would be willing to admit. At least in their cinematic outings, they both have parallel histories of strong starts to their respective series followed by eventual and continuous decay as the franchises devolved into campy schlock. In the case of Batman, the downward spiral involved increasing numbers of villains, Joel Schumaker, a Bat-Mastercard, and nipples on the Batsuit. For Bond, the trend toward cheesiness occurred over a longer time span and so was more incremental, but it is still easy to see. 007 is an M.I.6 agent tasked with international espionage. Voodoo, space lasers, and ice palaces are as far away from the roots of the character as it is possible to get.

And so it was that both franchises were rebooted with an eye toward getting back to the basics of each character, taking a gritty and (slightly more) realistic approach in order to expose the raw nerve endings that make the characters work. Batman Begins recast the superhero as a damaged and implacable force that created the whole Batman persona as a means of dealing with his loss and pain. In Casino Royale, James Bond had his origin reset to the present day and his adventures were given a more modern, brutally in-your-face aesthetic while the character himself was allowed to be more human, making mistakes and even falling in love. Both films were bold choices that succeeded largely because they eschewed the silly excesses of the films that came before.

But why am I blathering on about Batman in a Quantum of Solace movie review? I think the comparison is apt one, and it goes quite a long way to explaining my sense of dissatisfaction as I left the theatre on Friday night. It was the philosophical similarity between Batman Begins and Casino Royale that gave me hope that Quantum of Solace could be what The Dark Knight was: a game changer. It could have been that rare sequel that takes what as come before and ups the ante without going so far over the top that things get ridiculous. It could have furthered the themes and characters of its predecessor, while digging in to create a deeper and more complexly layered film. That didn’t happen.

Don’t get me wrong, the new James Bond film isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. It is a solidly entertaining addition to the franchise. Quantum of Solace shows remarkable restraint in fighting the urge to up the stakes. One thing that really grabbed me with Casino Royale was the refusal to create an artificial “save the world” scenario for 007. Bond had to bankrupt a arms dealer in order to bring him into custody and learn more about the shadowy criminal organization he belongs to. That is exactly where Quantum of Solace picks up, with Daniel Craig’s James Bond bringing the last link to the mystery group in for questioning. The interrogation does not go well and James Bond soon finds himself pursuing a mystery that leads him to an evil environmentalist and a properly understated scheme to manipulate natural resources in Bolivia. There are no overly-complicated death traps or plots to demand ransom from assembled world leaders. There are no gadgets or invisble cars.

This 007 is more visceral and immediate. Owing to a healthy dose of Bourne-ification, Craig’s Bond is more likely to bludgeon an opponent to death with a heavy book than a laser beam from his watch. Which was awesome.He is also frailer and more human. While the film takes place in a world governed by action movie physics where falls from great heights do not kill or break bones and high speed car crashes cause scrapes and small cuts instead of greivous bodily harm that puts people intraction, there is still an air of believability. This James Bond gets hurt, and he doesn’t always know the right thing to do.

But the latest entry doesn’t do anything drastic to the formula it laid out in the previous film. It is another serviceable entry in the series. While the action sequences are occasionally a bit too choppy to really work out what’s going on there are enough set-pieces to take the breath away of even the most jaded action film junkies. Some of them are occasionally juxtaposed with local color type actions, like a Spanish horse race or an Italian opera production and the effect doesn’t really work. The film is at its best when Bond is single-mindedly pursuing his goals and the focus stays squarely on him. He once again has to go off the grid and pursue his own agenda that only more-or-less coincides with his M.I.6 superiors. Judy Dench is once again awesome as his perpetually exasperated handler M. C.I.A contemporary Felix Lighter is back again in a slightly underdeveloped side-plot about blowback and the willingness of intelligence agencies to deal with some real bastards when their interests happen to align.

There is also the requisite seduction scene, where Bond gets in touch with his archetypal inner Mac and effortlessly puts the moves on a local field agent.

It feels more like the short sideplot is part of the mix because it is expected in a James Bond flick, not because it actually has anything to do with the story. This is odd, because the filmmakers have shown an admirable willingness to break with tradition in service to the plot. His sidekick for the film is less a love interest than a thematic counterpoint to Bond’s quest for vengeance, although it doesn’t really go anywhere. I think I was expecting a bit more introspection on Bond’s part, a deeper look at the man behind the character. I don’t want to see him in therapy talking about his feelings or anything, but a bit more cinematic delving into what drives 007 would have been nice. Craig’s performance is strong, if a little one-note. The sum total is a film that suffers from raised expectations. Quantum of Solace could never do what Casino Royale did. You can only reinvent a franchise once, and without the breath of fresh air quality, what we are left with is a perfectly acceptable continuation of this iteration of James Bond. It doesn;t overreach and it doesn’t fail. If that seems like I am damning it with faint praise, I don’t mean to. I liked it and I am looking forward to the next one, but it does seem like they missed an opportunity here.

The Deflated: Body of Lies Movie Review

Leo angrily waits for his biscotti.

Leo angrily waits for his biscotti.

Body of Lies: What I Thought

Ridley Scott directs a screenplay by William Monaghan that adopted a novel from David Ignatius. Monaghan also wrote the Departed, which was bad-ass and shows he has a knack for adaptation. The result here is a film that reflects its pedigree as a page-turning thriller, but is curiously short on stylistic flourishes. Leonardo DiCaprio and his laughable beard star as a C.I.A. field agent who is working in Iraq at the start of the film, but the plot takes him all over the middle east. Russell Crowe and his laughable Southern accent play his perpetually distracted handler who monitors the goings-on from the safety of Langley. DiCaprio is trying to flush out an Islamic terrorist who is responsible for a series of bombings across Europe. There are the requisite number of twists, turns, and double crosses as the operation plays out. Much of the movie takes place in Jordan. DiCaprio sets up shop and has to contend with the ineptitude of the local C.I.A. station, the cumbersome meddling of his superiors, and a thorny relationship with the head of local intelligence.

Body of Lies is an espionage movie, not an Issue Movie. That’s an important distinction to make, and Body of Lies is a better film for it. To be sure, the story does make a few points about the way America conducts its clandestine foreign policy, but it does so with a relatively restrained hand. Scott (almost) never beats you the over the head with the political commentary and the film is at its best when it sticks to the plot and allows us to watch some realistic spying. Body of Lies has more in common with lighter fare of the Spy Games school than the more contemplative likes of Syriana (which was excellent) or Lions for Lambs (which was not)).

The only critique that the movie makes with any firmness is that foreign intelligence comes from the men on the ground, and the suits who run the show need to pay more attention to their human assets. Sure, there are headfakes in the direction of issues like torture and the film even opens with a quote about the dangers of blowback. But the makers of Body of Lies don’t seem to have their hearts in creating a searing indictment of anyone except for the Fat Cats in Washington. Crowe’s character is clearly removed from the realities of the espionage game. He is sharp, and has some charm and intelligence so he isn’t a total straw man. But compared with Dicaprio’s field agent, who not only speaks Arabic but has a strong grasp of the local culture and how to navigate through it, he can’t measure up. With some admirably spartan flashbacks, Scott conveys the idea that this knowledge likely comes from DiCaprio’s failed marriage to an Arabic woman. The result is that he has a real stake in the proceedings personified in the form of Aisha, his love interest. Crowe’s character spends the whole movie ignoring his family as he speaks to DiCaprio on a bluetooth headset. He even orders an assassination at his son’s soccer game.

The performances are generally strong, although Crowe’s accent is a little over the top and Dicaprio’s fades in and out like Kevin Costner’s English one in Robin Hood. The commercials created more of a sense that Crowe and Dicaprio would be working at cross-purposes, or at least have an adversarial relationship. There was room for that in the script, but the way Scott films their scenes gives the impression of a more muted conflict between the two. This feels like something of a missed opportunity. Body of Lies would have been even more interesting if the two leads engaged in some serious verbal sparring. As it is, their exchanges feel more like frat boy banter than two people seriously arguing. Despite the fact that Crowe’s meddling causes some serious problems for DiCaprio and puts him in danger more than once, it never seems like the two are on a real collision course. Their conflict plays out in their contrasts. Crowe is doughy and aging. DiCaprio is lean and on the rise. Crowe is out of touch and distracted. DiCaprio is saavy and engaged. Parallel structure is all well and good, but would a more intense confrontation have been too much to ask?

The film is also muted in terms of its visuals. There are some action sequences and they play out clearly and serve the plot well, but they have none of the panache of Scott’s usual work (the opening battle in Gladiator for example). There is some fun with satellite imagery, but Body of Lies mostly plays it straight. It isn’t a bad film. It’s an interesting story well told but it lacks that certain something. It wins points with me for not going overboard and inflating itself with a sense of purpose, but I can’t shake the feeling that Scott erred too far in the other direction. The result is a workmanlike film that I doubt I will remember at all until it comes on HBO next summer.

A Documentarian In Search of a Terrorist Mastermind (and a Thesis Statement)

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is Morgan Spurlock’s follow up to Supersize Me. It first came out  back in April, and I meant to see it at the time but I think I was too busy shaking with pre-exam anxiety to get out to the theaters. It just opened here in Australia, so I thought I’d take the second chance to see it on the big screen. I do love documentaries.  Generally, I like Morgan Spurlock. I enjoyed both his previous feature and his FX series 30 Days, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into when I bought my ticket.

The conceit of this latest documentary is that Spurlock’s partner is pregnant, and his impending paternity inspires him to make the world a safer place for his child. In order to accomplish this, he sets out to find the most dangerous man in the world: Osama bin Laden. It’s pretty thin as inciting incidents go, but Spurlock plays it straight by focusing more on his travels than his actual goal. In order to find the Al-Quaeda mastermind, Spurlock traces a path through the Middle Eastern world.

This is the core of the film. He starts in Egypt, and his quest takes him to Isreal, Suadi Arabia, Afghanistan, and finally to Pakistan. The destinations are set up with interstitial animations that look like the pre-level cut-scenes froma video game. Indeed, after Spurlock establishes his goal, there’s a mildly amusing videogame sequence where he fights a CG avatar of Bin Laden, utilizing special moves like the “Redneck Rage” and the “Mustache Ride.” Heh.

Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock

The animated aside to explain or illustrate a point is a common Spurlockian trope, which he actually uses less than I was expecting. The bulk of the picture consists of Spurlock visiting different locales and talking to the locals. He starts by asking them if they know where bin Laden is, which usually elicits a laugh. Then he goes on to interview the subjects on what they think of American foreign policy.

As much as I like Spurlock, his work does tend to suffer from what I like to call the “No shit?” factor. Supersize me and most episodes of 30 Days offer a useful look at some aspect of American culture, but obviousness of the positions undercuts the point that Spurlock makes. For example: Supersize Me.

“Really? Eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month straight is bad forr you and fattens your ass while clogging your arteries? No shit. I had no idea.”

Or the episode of 30 Days where he and his partner decided to live on minimum wage for the eponymous time period. His earth-shattering conclusion: living on $5.50 an hour is really hard, almost impossible in the modern economy. Stop the presses!

What makes his work worthwhile is the way he uses these stunts to explore the edges of the issue. Supersize Me touched on the way the food industry as a whole works, and the ways in which agribusiness has affected the American diet. In the minimum wage episode of 30 Days, he explored the deeper economic forces behind income inequality. The “No Shit?” Factor is a tool he uses to flesh out his theses.

At least that is the way it usually works. I was a little disappointed by Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?preciesly because Spurlock wasn’t pursuing a specific point of view. If he had a thesis, it would have to be that many citizens and average people in the Middle East are critical of the way America pursues its interests on the world stage. Welll, there’s your “No shit?” moment, but the incidental details are absent this time around. There were fewer graphs and asides that articulated subtleties. There wasn’t much in the way o sutblety at all. Instead, Spurlock opted to usethe human element.

The weight of the film comes from the earnestness with which his interview subjects articulate their thoughts and fears. There’s more of an emotional punch, but less overall depth. His focus is on the everyday citizens (when he can get to talk with them openly. There is an extended sequence where he is run out of an Israeli neghborhood by some very angry Hasidic dudes, and one where his interview with some Saudi youths is carefully overseen by some officials, who the boys keep looking at as they answer). He speaks with everyone from radical clerics to University students and poor farmers. He covers all his bases. To his credit, the film never devolves into blatant America-bashing. There are moments when the repeated refrain of “I have nothing against the American people, but their government is a real problem” gets old. Spurlock could also do more to present the view of the American foreign policy establishment. If for no other reason than for valid contrast. But he keeps it at the man on the street level.

He doesn’t really offer any grand conclusions, aside from the fact that men like Osama bin Laden don’t just spring fully formed from some malevolent spring of pure evil. They are created by their times and shaped by the religious, social, and economic forces of the world in which they live. Understanding this is important, to be sure. But I can’t help but feel that Spurlock is better when he has a clearer axe to grind and a more specific enemy to assault. American hegemony is too broad and the social factors he examines to varied. He needs someone even more evil to go up against. Like McDonald’s. The film is interesting and Spurlock is an engaging presence, but his point would have been stronger with a clearer purpose. As it is, it serves as a fine survey. But in order to reveal more, he needs a more clearly articulated thesis.