Avatar(12/18/2009)

You probably don’t need me to tell you about the hype that’s followed Avatar, the first film from director James Cameron since 1997’s Titanic.  I’ve been following the project from a distance since it was nothing more than a vague story description years ago and have been awaiting Cameron’s return for just as long.  It was only with a story that ran in Time Magazine earlier this year that the mythical project even seemed real.  As the film started to be revealed, many decided to get a jumpstart on the backlash.  Among the comments that people began lobbing comments like: “it looks like an expensive FernGully,” “it looks like a moving Yes album cover,” “it sounds like Dances with Wolves in space,” and of course “these characters look like Smurfs.”  Even if there’s some slight truth to a couple of those statements, I don’t think the people who said them are going to stand by their sight unseen dismissals, what Cameron has delivered is a film that is far too big and too grand to be brought down by their cheap shots.

The film is set in the year 2154 on a moon called Pandora, a place with rich deposits of a rare and valuable mineral called unobtainium.  There’s a corporation called SecFor seeking to mine this substance, but they must contend with the planet’s indigenous population, a species of tall blue humanoids called the Na’vi.  Because there’s a particularly large concentration of unobtainium on the spot of the Na’vis’ capital, a huge tree that’s been hollowed out and inhabited, and they’re beginning to think about using force to take over.   Looking for an alternative, a scientific officer named Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has started a program allowing the humans to create full sized Na’vis that can be controlled remotely by humans while lying in pods back at the base; these controlled clones are called “avatars” and they hope that they can be used both for study and for the furthering of diplomacy with the Na’vi.

That’s when our hero comes onto the scene.  The company had developed an avatar to the genome of a man who was killed before he could start to control it.  Rather than scrap the expensive avatar they invite his brother, an injured marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), to control it as he shares the genome and has enough military skills to be an effective security guard while the scientists are running missions on the surface of Pandora.  Sully takes to the controlling of his avatar quickly but is still unfamiliar with the Pandoran terrain.  After Sully is separated from his group and stranded in the unforgiving forests, he is saved by a Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), who brings him into the Na’vi capital.  Seeing an interaction between Sully and a forest entity as a sign from their gods, the Na’vi decide to allow Sully to stay with them and learn their ways.  Sully begins to appreciate this culture, but his superior officers want him to use the opportunity to help them mount a military campaign.

By its nature, the film is in many ways separated into two distinct sections which are both very impressive in their own ways, the hard sci-fi world of the human base and the lush natural world of the Pandoran forests.  The human section is where Cameron shows off his ability to have live actors interact with environments that are almost entirely CGI.  Among the cool technologies on display are computer interfaces that look like some kind of holograms, a massive cryo-stasis bay seen in an amazing opening scene, some really neat looking future helicopters, and some mechanized suits that are like the 7.0 version of the one used in the final scene of Cameron’s Aliens.

But this isn’t going to be a movie that’s remembered for its well designed fort of the future, it’s going to be remembered as the film which brought the planet of Pandora to life.  In the past, depictions of alien worlds were restrained by the flora and fauna of our own world.  Tatooine was really just Tunisia, Hoth was really just Norway, and Vulcan was really just a soundstage with matte paintings of strange rocks in the distant background.  Here though, the whole world and everything in it appear to have been built from the ground up to be a truly foreign and often beautiful.  The creatures on the surface and in the air are wholly original, we see five legged beasts of burden, hammer headed charging rhino like things, and giant semi-reptilian flying creatures that are ridden by the local population.  What’s truly amazing about all this besides the painstaking design is the way it’s all integrated with the characters and the action.  It always feels like a seamless and integrated world.

Then there are the Na’vi, the film’s greatest effects accomplishment.  The Na’vi are fully CGI and but their movement and dialogue are based on performances by real actors.   This revolution in motion capture technology is the element of all this that will probably prove to be this film’s most lasting legacy.  The performances by all the people playing Na’vi is on screen and has not been muffled by the fact that they’re acting through a CGI character.  It was one thing to have a single character like Gollum being conveyed through motion capture, but an entire species is a very different thing, especially when they have this much screen time.  What we’re seeing here is less like Gollum and more like what Robert Zhemekis has been trying to do with his series of entirely motion captured films, only done significantly better.

Now before I get too far in praising the film’s technological achievements, I do think there’s room for improvement with this technology.  As cool as the Na’vi are, they aren’t human, and I suspect we have a long way to go before an actual human could be replicated through motion capture without the uncanny valley creeping in.  You’ll also notice that there’s not a single scene in this movie where one of the Na’vi has any sort of meaningful interaction with a live action human.  While the humans often interact quite well with the CGI environments, I do suspect that some of these CGI characters would look a little less impressive if they were being compared side to side with a living breathing human for extended lengths of time. It would seem that Cameron has pretty carefully created this story to show off everything that’s good about this technology and hide some of the things that aren’t quite there yet.  There’s nothing wrong with that that and as far as the product at hand is concerned this is a wise filmmaking decision, just be a little careful before declaring this a revolution.

All of these visuals are rendered if full 3D.  I’ve been a critic of 3D ever since it started to be a craze again for the first time since the last time it died off in the 80s.  3D is a technology that for most of its lifetime has been used for one simple purpose to throw stuff at the audience for no reason other than to make the audience go “ooh” while they do it.  It’s been used largely for animated films that did not interest me and blatantly gimmicky horror films.  I’ve done nothing but laugh whenever I’ve heard people say they envisioned a time when all movies are made in 3D, I mean, do we really need a world where The Informant is made in 3D?  But for all I’ve railed against the technology, I’ve always tempered my criticism by adding the disclaimer: “we’ll see what Cameron does with it before casting a final verdict.”  So, now that Cameron has shown his hand my final verdict is that… the jury’s still out.  The use of the technology is certainly different than I expected, objects never come out of the screen, instead what Cameron has created is a canvas where there are layers of Mise-en-scène existing in a three dimensional world.  These layers look like they project backwards into the screen rather than out into the audience, and Cameron resists any and every urge to throw stuff out at the audience even when such an effect would be justifies by what’s on screen.  The result is that we are shown a three dimensional, but self contained world rather than a two dimensional world in which objects occasionally escape the screen and invade the world of the audience.  That said, technology does still seem a bit restrained by the sides of the frame, there’s a certain awkwardness when the three dimensional screen stops and the theater wall end and I think they’re still going to have to deal with this before I can fully embrace the idea, and no matter how much they improve the technology I still don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where a 3D version of Funny People is going to be worth fumbling with special glasses over. Still, I am convinced that it is worth dealing with for event movies like this.

That the technology behind this project is amazing is probably going to be undisputed, the film’s script, specifically its storyline, which will probably be more hotly contested.  The similarities between this and Dances With Wolves are not without merit, they are both largely about people from “our” civilization who find themselves stranded with a “foreign” society, where he comes to respect and ultimately defend those he once called the enemy.  Now before you declare this a ripoff, remember that Kevin Costner’s epic wasn’t the first story to have that idea either, this formula can probably be traces all the way back to the Moses story in the Bible.  Most of the best science fiction films basically retell age old stories in a new way, much the way that Star Wars an incarnation of the hero of a thousand faces or how Jurassic Park can be seen as a variation on Frankenstein.

The other issue is that a lot of the characters here sort of fit into existing archetypes.  This isn’t as much of a problem with the Jake Sully character, who mainly exists to be an everyman that the audience can relate to.  More problematic are characters like the film’s villain played by Stephen Lang, who’s pretty much a gruff cliché of an army officer and Joel David Moore’s role which is a pretty standard geek scientist.  Tough-as-nails women are a recurring theme in Cameron’s work, and there are three of them here: the main Na’vi woman fits pretty well in the Amazon warrior model, Sigourney Weaver plays a scientist fighting against the system (and the system never listens to people like this in movies), and Michelle Rodriguez plays a role that’s pretty much identical to the Vasquez character from Cameron’s own film Aliens.  Also, the dialogue here is strictly workmen-like.  There are no cringe inducing line readings, but there’s also nothing overly impressive in this writing either.

So what we have is a not so creative story with a cast of somewhat stale characters and some unspectacular dialogue; why am I not concerned about this?  After all, we critics make a habit of deriding effects vehicles that put all their emphasis on effects rather than on telling a great story, what makes this different?  It’s mostly because the story, for all its familiarity, isn’t bad and neither is the dialogue or even the characters, the poor elements of the film never rarely intrude on the positive elements.  While none of these elements really help the movie, they tend not to hurt it either.  The other reason it works is that, while the story is thin, this movie isn’t mindless; there’s actually a pretty good allegory to the sad history of the Native Americans in addition to strong anti-war and pro-environment messages in the film.  Not only is the film not mindless, it also isn’t uncreative, it’s just that it shows off its creativity in its visuals and in the world that it creates rather than in its storyline.  I’m reminded in many ways, and this will probably be seen as a negative by some, of last year’s film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  That was another film which people loved to dismiss for its similarities to an Oscar winning film from the 90s, and I saw their point, but to me that was a film which took a B minus grade script and turned it into something greater though smart and impassioned filmmaking.

I should also stress that this is an action movie, and as an action movie it frickin’ rocks.  I think a big part of why the action scenes and battle scenes here are so effective is that Cameron knows that bigger isn’t always necessarily better.  When given the ability to create unlimitedly large battlegrounds a lot of filmmakers have gone way overboard and created armies larger than the entire population of Chicago shooting streams of arrows that block out the sun.  The result is usually an eyesore that is only ever seen in small parts.  There’s none of that here, all the conflicts are reasonably sized; and Cameron also knows when to cut set-pieces off before they wear out their welcome the way that, say, the battle for Zion in The Matrix Revolutions did.  The fun isn’t limited to the climactic battle scene either, there’s a great chase scene between Sully and a big lion type thing as well as an amazing fight towards the end involving the mechanized suit.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of Avatar is that it manages to generate a genuine sense of awe, which projects of lesser ambition just cannot deliver.  Cameron doesn’t just create amazing sights; he dwells on them and allows the viewer to inhabit the world of them before being shuffled off to the next adventure.  Many are comparing the film to Star Wars, and for good reason, but I think that when the film is at its best it harkens back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  In that Spielberg film the visuals had both the characters and the audience mesmerized while staring at the magic they were witnessing, I had that feeling a number of times during the journey that Cameron took me on and that is a rare thing these days.  Don’t give me nitpicks about the film’s flaws, all of which are more than made up for by the film’s many other virtues and I was positively giddy when I left the theater.

**** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: X-Men Origins: Wolverine(12/11/2009)

            Oh how the mighty have fallen.  The X-Men franchise used to be a leader in the superhero genre; the original X-Men basically kicked off the current craze and X-Men 2 was able to one-up all the other emerging franchises back in 2003.  Then a man named Brett Ratner came onto the scene and Yoko-ed the whole thing up.  X-Men: The Last Stand was a major step down from its predecessors, eliminating all the classiness that kept the series ahead of its competitors and reduced the whole thing to merely being a generic 00s action movie in the worst possible sense of what that can mean.  It’s like the series had gone from something on par with the Bourne Series and suddenly turned it into something closer to the XXX series.  To turn this into a musical analogy; the band just put out a pathetic album and decided to split up, now the popular lead singer has put together a mildly talented group of studio musician and put out a bland solo record called X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

            Those who were somewhat intrigued by the prospect teased in the trailers of a story about an immortal living through the course of history, this movie will be a disappointment.  All that material is finished by the end of the opening credits, in which the instantly healing Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber taking the role originally played by Tyler Mane) and Logan (Hugh Jackman) live through multiple wars throughout American history.  This run ends in Vietnam where their power is discovered by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston taking the role originally played by Brian Cox in X-Men 2), who decides to recruit them for Team X, a group of mutants who engage in black ops for the government.  Logan approves of this for a while, but the carnage begins to wear on him.  After a particularly tense mission, Logan decides to leave and the team disbands.  The film picks up six years later when Victor returns and murders the woman Logan was living with (Lynn Collins).  Swearing revenge, Logan agrees to undergo physical enhancements from Stryker, but soon learns that Stryker is not someone to be trusted.

            The first problem here is the new set of mutants.  Liev Schreiber is pretty good in his role, even if they make no attempt to connect the continuity between his role and the Sabretooth from the first X-men film.  The rest of the cast is second string at best and embarrassingly stupid at the worst.  Many of the actors here like Taylor Kitsch and Daniel Henney feel like bland models from central casting.  Will.i.am, an incredibly lame musician who makes one of the worst screen debuts in recent memory, plays a teleporting mutant who’s basically a poor man’s Nightcrawler.  Then there’s The Blob (Kevin Durand), a character they really just shouldn’t have tried to translate from page to screen.  Compare this cast to the rest of the series, which was populated by great character actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen, even the smaller roles were filled by cool character actors like Alan Cumming and Anna Paquin. 

            To the film’s credit, it has two action set-pieces that are pretty cool.  One is scene where Wolverine is attacked by a helicopter while fleeing on motorcycle, which is probably the film’s highlight.  There’s also a fight scene towards the end which is fairly creative.  However, outside of those two scenes the action here is lame.  The problem is that all the mutants here are not just super-powered, they also seemed to have acquired crazy matrix-style acrobatic moves that they use to ridiculous results.  The biggest offender here is the character of Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) who can apparently deflect the bullets of multiple fully automatic rifles with his swords and then split a bullet in half in mid air… right.  He’s not the only one either.  In the previous X-films the characters had powers, but were essentially human outside of them, this went a long way towards grounding the films.  In this film pretty much every power automatically comes with superhuman speed, strength, endurance, agility, and balance.

            There’s a wide variety of other problems of course.  The political allegories which even the bland Brett Ratner movie had the courage to tackle had basically been abandoned here.  Also, the special effects can be pretty bad at times, they’re fine in the big set-pieces but the CGI gets iffy during some of the quieter scenes in need of effects.  The movie also has a lot of trouble staying in the continuity of the series, I already mentioned the Sabretooth disconnection that can only be seen as a retcon, but there’s also a nonsense plot device added to explain how Wolverine no longer had his memories in the later installments.  There’s also an astonishingly predictable twist that the audience is in on long before Wolverine is.

            What hurts about this movie is that it really could have been good if the people producing it had actually given a damn.  There was room for interesting material in Wolverine’s origin, and every once in a while the movie shows signs of life, but its ultimately undone by its compromised by a central lack of ambition.  It’s clear that the producers had done the math and realized they could get a great opening weekend by slapping the X-Men name onto any semi-competent movie and decided to deliver just that, a semi competent movie, and by all accounts they were able to fool a lot of people into showing up to see it.  To return to my music analogy, the 20th Century Fox had better hope that this band can settle their differences and make a comeback album, because audiences aren’t going to put up with these half-assed solo albums for much longer.

*1/2 out of Four

Up in the Air(12/4/2009)

            I’m not the first person to point this out, but it increasingly seems like George Clooney is the last representative of a certain kind of unapologetic movie-star acting.  Clooney will never have his work analyzed the same way someone would analyze a performance by, say, Daniel Day-Lewis or Robert De Niro when he was at his best; but in the right role this can be more of a strength than a weakness.  Much the way someone like Cary Grant became a legend by simply playing variations on an established persona, Clooney has been giving audiences what they expect from him since he left behind his TV origins.  Clooney’s newest film, Up in the Air, is not an exception; he gives exactly the performance you expect him to give and that’s not a criticism.

            The film is largely a character study about a man named Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who claims to have only spent forty out of the last 365 nights  at his one room apartment in Omaha, the rest of the time has been spent traveling.  Bingham is not married, he has no children, and he neither has nor desires any possessions that can’t be fit into a carry-on bag.  He is not merely content with his lifestyle; he takes pride in it, even going so far as to hold public speaking events where he preaches the values of cutting the burdens out of one’s life.  The lifestyle is made possible by Bingham’s unconventional job; he works for a company which sends out agents to other companies in order to deliver the bad news to the employees that they’re laying off.  Bingham doesn’t take pleasure in this somewhat morbid task, though he does see a sort of dignity in his methods, but he’s primarily doing this so he can continue to live in transit. 

But this way of life is being threatened.  A young woman named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who has recently begun working at Bingham’s company, has proposed cutting the agency’s travel budget in favor of firing people via webcams.  Bingham protests this new way of operating vehemently both because it strikes him as indecently impersonal and secondly because it would kill his traveling lifestyle.  Bingham’s boss (Jason Bateman) decides to send Keener out on the road with Bingham in order to better assess the viability of her plan.  Bingham reluctantly brings her along hoping he can convince her against her plans.

That summery is really pretty deceptive, firstly because I have yet to bring up the character of Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who is the main love interest for George Clooney.  It’s hard to fit her into a brief summery because this script can be surprisingly un-formulaic in many ways.  Goran and Bingham meet early in the film and bond over a shared love of air travel and the amenities it can entail. She then leaves the film for a while as the story between Bingham and Keener develops before re-emerging somewhere in the middle of the second act. 

First and foremost, it should probably be established that this whole business of Bingham’s agency threatening to turn into a web-based rather than travel based process is, for the most part, a rather elaborate MacGuffin.  It’s also a MacGuffin that can rather stretch believability at times, I’m not sure I entirely buy that this company is going to be all that interested in Keener’s plans in the first place, nor do I particularly buy the elaborate on the road training they decide to put her through.  However, quibbling about this is to miss the point, the real reason the film has brought these two characters together is to see how their world views will clash.  Keener is someone with a rigid plan for life, she’s someone who has a very specific vision of her future which involves a husband, a suburban house, and two and a half kids; the notion of someone who would want something else for themselves is kind of a shock to her. 

This clash of views does play out in a pretty amusing way, but it’s also probably one of the film’s biggest weaknesses.  Keener is a character that can be almost cartoonishly naïve at times, I can understand that they were trying to create a character who was as determined in their way of seeing the world as Bingham, but her worldview is derives less of conviction than it does of obliviousness.  She says and does things that I can’t really picture anyone, no matter how naïve, saying.  As such she comes off less like a natural character and more as some kind of walking symbol of everything that Bingham isn’t, at least during the scenes that place more emphasis on this clash of personalities.  Fortunately, the Keener character does evolve over the course of the film and becomes more believable later on, the second half of the film fares a lot better than the first.

The character of Goran also feels pretty artificial early in the film.  They meet in an airport bar and start bonding over their wide array of traveler’s discount cards.  Maybe there really are people who think that frequent flyer miles are dead sexy, but I’ve never met them and hope I never do.  Of course that’s just a cutesy way to establish that this woman is pretty much the female equivalent of Bingham, but again the screenplay’s habit of tailoring characters to contrast the lead works against it.  Fortunately, the Goran character becomes more human as the film progresses much the way the Keener character does.  The relationship does work pretty well in the film as well, largely because Cloony and Farmiga have really good onscreen chemistry. 

Jason Reitman, who’s consistently proving to be a reliable director of slightly stylized realities, certainly crafts the film well.  Reitman is a director with the valuable talent of being able to employ a number of tricks but without allowing them to become distractions.  A good example of this are the methodical steady-cam shots of Bingham’s rolling carry-on bag as it twists and pivots.  He shoots it in a way that perfectly expresses Bingham’s methodical nature, but he doesn’t get carried away and turn it into some sort of extended tracking shot.  That kind of ambition with restraint is a very hard tightrope to walk and it’s a skill that’s easy to overlook. 

Watching Up in the Air I found myself reminded of a relatively forgotten 2005 film called The Weatherman, in which Nicholas Cage played a T.V. weatherman who needs to come to terms with their own mediocrity.  Both are films about middle-aged men going through existential crises, both have similarly sarcastic voice-overs, hell, both even used Iggy Pop’s “The passenger” for their trailers (then again what trailers aren’t using that song these days?).  In spite of all these similarities the two movies are perhaps opposites if one thinks about it, The Weatherman is about someone who hates his job and comes to terms with it by the end while Up in the Air is about a man who loves his job and begins to question it by the end.  Perhaps what can be learned from this unintentional similarity is that discontent can hit anyone and that the feeling will still be the same even if the paths it takes is pretty different.

So, what we have here is a well acted and well directed movie with good dialogue… and it didn’t really do a lot for me.  Like with An Education earlier this year, what we have here is a very well crafted movie with a story that maybe doesn’t deserve all the talent that’s been put behind it, especially during its rocky first half.  This may simply case where I might just not be the right audience for this story.  Though this isn’t really a comedy, the audience I was with were laughing at a lot of parts of this which weren’t all that funny to me.  This is certainly a very enjoyable and entertaining movie which will probably deservedly be a hit with audiences, but I don’t think it really rises above the level of “pleasant” all that often.

*** out of Four

The Road(11/30/2009)

            In the waning years of this decade, 2005-2008, we began to see a number of powerful films from American directors (or at least directors working within the studio system) that seemed to be subconscious reactions to post-9/11 confusion, anxiety, and Bush era discontent.  Among the film’s I’d include in this bubble of creativity are Children of Men, Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and to some extent The Dark Knight.  Though part of me is afraid that I’m just lumping together a bunch of great movies that happened to be made around the same time period, I can’t help but make this link.  All of these movies seemed to be made with a certain intensity, they were all movies about uncertainty, about people who had to reconsider their assumptions or about people who fail to rethink their assumptions and paid for it.  I bring this little movement up because I think it’s over, most of the films made in the last two years have not really seemed a part of this, possibly because the election of Barrack Obama has changed the political landscape, cynicism is out and hope is in.  The Road, a film which was going to come out in 2008 before it was delayed, might just be the final film we’ll be seeing from this brief but rewarding movement of Hollywood cinema.

            Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning Cormac McCarthy novel of the same title, The Road tells the story about a father and son trying to survive in a tough environment.  In the vague future of this film, society has collapsed and the environment has become harsh.  We are never told if this apocalypse is the result of environmental decay, nuclear warfare, or some sort of disease, but what’s important is that most of the people are gone, the cities are in ruins, and the sun is constantly being blocked by clouds.  We see this world from the perspective of an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his unnamed son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who must both try to walk south in order to escape the approaching winter cold.  The son has never really known a better world than the one he lives in, we are told through flashbacks that he was born on the eve of the apocalypse and that his mother (Charlize Theron) has long since passed away. 

            The film is all about survival, what survival is worth and what you’re willing to do in order to survive.  The Mortensen character is someone who values surviving above all else, he’s not someone who is going to let the dimness of the world force him to give up on living as many other people in the situation are reported to have done.  He tells his son that the two of them need to “carry the flame,” to remain human in the face of the horrible things around them, he wants his son to think that the two of them are the “good guys.”  For the most part the two live up to this aspiration, at least when compared to the “bad guys” that we encounter, particularly armed gangs of cannibals that roam the desolate countryside.  At the same time, being a “good guy” isn’t always easy and Mortensen’s character must make tough decisions about how to treat the people they encounter like a hungry old man (Robert Duvall) and a hungry thief (Michael K. Williams).  One also gets the sense that Mortensen’s character has become understandably paranoid, that occasionally he displays caution that hurts him rather than saving him.  These occasional moments when reality challenge the “carry the flame” philosophy that he’s trying to hand down to his son, and in some ways his attempts to be a good man and a survivor become mixed messages for the boy.

            Viggo Mortenson is an actor who’s been working since the mid eighties, but he was completely off the radar until he came out of nowhere and appeared in the Lord of the Rings trilogy in a starring role in which, against all expectations, he thrived.  He continued to deny expectations when he continued to do amazing work in his post-Aragorn work, partly because he seems to have refused to do roles in frivolous between his serious roles.  Working with David Cronenberg he did great work in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both films where he must be a very tough character but one with a complexities and vulnerabilities beneath the surface.  That’s probably what makes Mortensen so special, he’s like a modern Clint Eastwood, a strong silent type but one who’s more than a stupid action hero.  This quality is what makes him perfect for his role here, he needs to be a strong person who’s been molded by a tough environment, but he’s also a caring father who needs to have the tough of a parent throughout.  

            The rest of the cast has also been very well constructed.  Any movie that has a large role for a ten year old kid has a pretty big hurtle to jump because nothing can kill a movie quite like an annoying kid.  Fortunately the kid they found, Kodi Smit-McPhee, has pulled off his role admirably.  It helps that the character he’s playing has had to mature to some extent beyond his years because of the tough situation he’s in.  That tends to erode a lot of the lame kid stuff that can so frequently lead to groan inducing line readings.  Aside from the two central roles, every person that these two encounter seems to be perfectly cast.  Charlize Theron manages to deliver an understated performance for a character that might have easily been overplayed and there’s also a neat small role for Guy Pearce that I won’t give away.

            Of course this is a film that’s defined by its post-apocalyptic setting, and John Hillcoat has made this setting into a character.  Hillcoat had done a similar thing with the Australian Outback in his previous film, The Proposition, which was reportedly inspired significantly by Cormac McCarthy’s earlier work.  This is a director that knows how to film desolation and he does it exceptionally well here.  In fact, visually, this is the best post-apocalypse on film since George Miller’s The Road Warrior, and it might even surpass that car warfare classic in its vision.  Most of the film depicts bleak and worn out forests, filled with trees who seem to have shed their leaves.  It’s always cold, that’s the threat they’re running from, and snow occasionally enters the frame which is an interesting departure from the desert locales that usually characterize the genre.  The sky is always overcast and the world seems to have the color sucked out of it.  The remnants of society that are left over, like a scavenged coca-cola can, add more to the feeling of loss than the destroyed landmarks that are usually found in this kind of movie.

            This is also a movie that is capable of operating like a thriller when it needs to.  The movie opens with a tense standoff between a threatening raider and a frightened Viggo Mortensen.  The tension here is excellent and the abrupt way it ends is the perfect capper.  An even better scene occurs later on when they sneak into a seemingly abandoned house only to find some profoundly disturbing things are happening there.  This scene is as frightening as anything seen in a horror movie this year, and the fact that it furthers most of the film’s themes while also providing visceral chills to the audience is a testament to Hillcoat’s abilities as a director.  That said, this isn’t really a thriller even if individual scenes are very tense.

            I won’t lie, this movie isn’t exactly a laugh riot.  This is a movie that can be a bit tough to watch, it’s a downer and it isn’t exactly “fun.”  Great films are usually challenging and they’re not always going to be a light-hearted evening out, but this is a movie about the end of the world and it isn’t some kind of juvenile work that things the end of the world is going to be a blast.  If “fun” is all you want out of a movie, then you’ll probably be well served by 2012, it’s your loss.  That’s going to be one hurdle for this film; another is going to be the inevitable comparisons made to 2007’s Oscar winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men.  No, this film isn’t going to be as great as that Coen Brothers opus, then again very few movies are.  This may not be an instant classic that everyone will agree on the way No Country for Old Men was, but it is far and away better than most anything you’re likely to see in theaters on any given week.  This isn’t 2007 and I don’t think we’re going to get too many more films like this for a while.  Appreciate this one while it lasts.

**** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Brothers Bloom(11/27/2009)

            If you listen to a lot of podcasts like I do, then you’ve more than likely heard of Rian Johnson, a promising young director who’s developed an impressive web presence.  Johnson’s first movie was a film called Brick, which took all the style and lingo of film noir and pulp novels and places them into a high school setting.  I thought Brick was a neat little film but I wasn’t wildly thrilled by it, it was a well made movies with a concept that was sort of fun, but it was a pretty shallow movie.  Now Rian Johnson is back, and with a bigger budget and a cast full of name actors to make a film called The Brothers Bloom.

            The elder of the two Blooms is Stephen Bloom (Mark Ruffalo) and the younger Bloom is known only as Bloom (Adrien Brody), and he’s the one we follow through the movie for the most part.  These two brothers are con men and have been for years.  They take part in elaborate “long cons” that take them all over the world and usually seem to end with Adrian Brody pretending to get shot.  Their partner in crime is a mysterious Japanese woman known only as Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) who loves explosives and speaks very little English.  Brody’s character has grown tired of this life and wants to retire but, to quote the third Godfather film, just when he thought he was out, his brother pulled him back in.  The two plan to pull off one last con, the mark is a Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) a rich young woman with no direction in life.  The plan is to tell Stamp they are smugglers and have her take part in their smuggling endeavors, thus giving her the adventure she wants but ending that adventure by ripping her off.  The only problem is that Brody’s character is beginning to really like this girl.

            Probably this film’s best asset is its cast who in many ways elevate a lot of this material.  The standout is probably Mark Ruffalo, who’s a character actor that I shouldn’t underestimate as often as I seem to.  With his performance here Ruffalo is able to balance the way his character tends to be likable while behaving like a bit of a fox.  Brody also works here, I really like how that guy is able to do leading man performances without feeling like a phony movie star.  Rachel Weisz is also pretty effectively charming, she’s doing sort of a giddy Natalie Portman kind of role here and she makes her character a lot more believable than it should be.  Rinko Kikuchi is also a pretty neat little mysterious presence and there are also neat little parts here for Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell.  They even manage to bring Ricky Jay in as the narrator, an appropriate choice if ever there was one.

            The problem here is that this movie is way too clever for its own good.  Rian Johnson is basically trying to make an anti-con man con man movie.  Deciding that it is too predictable to have yet another one of these movies where one of the characters turns out to be playing everyone the whole time, he’s decided to play with that trope.  The problem is that instead to reducing some of the trickery, he’s kept all the double and triple crosses and added extra meta-junk to the proceedings, and the result is a bit of a mess.  The movie forces us to deal both with the crazy plot while also having to contend with the Adrian Brody characters lightweight existential crisis and the relationships between everyone, I’m not sure Rian Johnson really knew which of these elements he wanted to emphasize and the movie suffers for it. 

            The other elephant that’s in the room is that Rian Johnson has ripped off Wes Anderson’s style from head to foot.  This style theft is undeniable and Johnson seems completely unapologetic about it.  This is problematic on many levels, not the least because Wes Anderson movies are getting tired enough when the real McCoy is making them without the imitators diluting the style further.  It’s not just the bright visual style and use of classic rock that contributes to this either, the script also fits into the Wes Anderson mold pretty neatly with its use of twenty-something angst set against a playful adventure story in a whimsical environment.  The pathos of these movies is beginning to feel pretty insincere and the comical quirks are quickly going from being charming to being obnoxious.  I’m just really tired of seeing movies that have the tone of comedies without the laughs and that’s increasingly what these Wes Andersonian movies are beginning to boil down to.

            Rian Johnson is a promising filmmaker but he needs to stop trying to hide behind his cleverness and just tell a damn story.  This movie is able to pass the time well enough but it amounts to nothing and I found the ending to be pretty unsatisfying both on an emotional level and as the end to a con.  There are worse ways to spend two hours, but this is a movie without weight that I will quickly be forgetting about.

** out of four