Monday, January 29, 2007

Mission: Impossible III, 4, Feast

Here's a surprise: Mission: Impossible III (2006, J.J. Abrams) [76] doesn't suck. After seeing it in the theaters earlier this year, I took another look at it on video, fully ready to demote it from my top ten. It couldn't be better than the solid Casino Royale, could it?

Not only is it better than the Bond, it's even better than I originally thought. No, it's really nothing more than a trifle -- the intense opening promises a grimmer, grittier tale than what's delivered -- but it's a well-crafted one. I suspect an underlying reason why I prefer it over the new 007 is because I can sense the tectonic shifting required to "reinvent" Bond after forty-some years, and, as good as the result is, the strain shows. There's a self-consciousness that can't be avoided, what with the martinis, the cars, the women. Bond is constrained by his past even as they try to reinvent his future. M:I's Ethan Hunt, on the other hand, lacks any historical weight; the only continuity is Tom Cruise's boyish superstardom (and the cunning buisness sense underneath that persona). That, along with having a series of wildly differing directors each time lends the series to reinventing itself each time. (Both David Fincher and Joe Carnahan were attached to M:I 3 at different points; can anyone imagine them being allowed to shoot a James Bond film?)

So what does J.J. Abrams bring? Where De Palma brings his setpieces, executed with the soul of a technocrat, and Woo brought, well, his doves, Abrams brings a Spielbergian sense of pop filmmaking to the film. Undoubtedly this is due to Abrams' television history, and while some would hold that against him, it's just what the movie needs -- every character is, if not deep, then sharply and effortlessly defined, the dialogue is snappy (Laurence Fishburne delivers his bon mots with gusto), and each scene is built with a craftman's touch, making its necessary story points and moving on unhurriedly. Not exactly groundbreaking, but this kind of polish, which you see all the time in Hollywood films from the Fifties and earlier, seems more and more rare.

It almost goes without saying that Abrams also brings in Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman's a kind of an insurance policy here; should things veer towards the too-near or the too-cute (and they do, with every good guy character given puppy-dog likability) Hoffman's no-bullshit indie performance style gives the film some seriousness as a counterbalance. (Admittedly, that seriousness is just another checkmarked item on a Hollywood blockbuster to-do list, but it's welcome anyway.) It's an odd sight watching these two actors play their scenes together -- even odder than watching them in Magnolia, or Hoffman vs. Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Cruise is all about letting his stardom do most of the heavy lifting (and I don't mean that pejoratively), conveying emotion in an acceptable, abstracted shorthand, while Hoffman is about interiority, letting the audience watch him think. The end result isn't sparks; they actually kind of act past each other, or perhaps more accurately, the two approaches are locked in an unbreakable orbit around each other. Fortunately, this is mirrored somewhat in the plot, as Ethan thinks he knows everything he needs to know about Hoffman's Davian, but actually knows very little.

The same day I watched the slick craft of Mission: Impossible III, I also caught 4 (2006, Ilya Khrzhanovsky) [81], which is about as far on the opposite stylistic spectrum you can get without going into Brakhage, et. al. At turns hilarious and horrifying, it's a look at modern day Russia that feels like it's being made up as it goes along. Characters are introduced, then dropped; what seems like an important scene in the overall story turns about to be a footnote. (It's like the anti-Crash or anti-Babel in that regard.) And the style changes radically over two hours, starting with a Roy Andersson-esque opening shot, then sequeing into a somewhat stagy, dialogue-heavy bar scene, then shedding that and becoming a Dardennes Brothers-style existential look at the daily struggles of an extremely poor village outside of Moscow. (And that's really only the tip of the iceberg; The Great Sicinski can break it down for you further.) I can imagine some see this stylistic ADD as waffling or film student excess (it kept me constantly engaged, fwiw), but what Khrzhanovsky is getting at, I think, is that is to really show the reality of 21st Century Russia, one style, whether naturalistic or fantastic or symbolist (or even all in the same shot) can't cut it. And that reality -- capitalism run amok, so crazy that it literally takes bread out of the mouth of its people -- is pretty damn harrowing.

A few quick notes about Feast (2006, John Gulager) [33]: 1. Yes, John Gulager can direct. Thanks to him, the final Project Greenlight looks like a real movie -- you know, a story told in pictures. 2. Unfortunately, it's not a story worth telling. (Conflict of interest/sour grapes alert: My writing partner Martin McClellan and I made the Top 100 in Project Greenlight 3, which you can read about here. We never read the original draft of Feast, though.) The freeze-frame intro gimmick isn't that amusing and the structure is lumpy, with no sense of pacing or build-up. (There's no real logic to how the monsters attack -- I get the sense that they could break in and kill everyone in five minutes if they tried, but they don't simply because there's eighty minutes to fill.) 3. The shock humor doesn't work because there's no wit underneath it. The fate of the biker chick (played by Gulager's real-life girlfriend) is supposed to be edgy or something, but it genuinely offended me, and I'm not easily offended. 4. On the TV show, there was an unsuccessful audience preview, where it was revealed that the knuckleheaded audience wanted to know where the monsters came from, and the filmmakers struggled to come up with an origin scene for re-shoots. Guess what? No origin scene in the final version. Fuck you, test audience. 5. The best thing about the movie is the second to last shot, a long take (remarkable for this particular movie) that's quite funny and wouldn't be out of place in an old Kiarostami flick. I hope that Gulager makes another movie.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Miami Vice, L'Intrus, V for Vendetta

Remember the Colin Farrell who stole scenes from Tom Cruise in Minority Report? What happened to that guy? He doesn't show up in Miami Vice (2006, Michael Mann) [38], but then, that's really the least of the film's problems. Ostensibly based on the TV show (which I never saw), the feature version is so bland, so lacking in distinction, it may as well be called Drug Bust!. We know the Mann m.o.: men who define themselves by their work, who have to define themselves that way because the world they live in is slippery, amorphous, and only they can bring meaning to it, while the whole package is delivered with operatic brio. This was best demonstrated by Heat, where his Dostoevskyian universe felt grounded in everyday banal reality, the grand philosophical crises of cops and robbers undercut, as in the famous robbery sequence, by the dull clack-clack-clack of gunfire.

But where Heat had actual characters to organize this worldview around, here he has department store mannequins named Sonny and Rico, and the drama required to bring his m.o. in focus is replaced by hot air and testosterone. Most scenes are standard issue my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours confrontations between our undercover heroes and drug lords, whose trust they want to earn. But there never feels like there's anything at stake. There's a middle-section romance between Sonny and Gong Li's assistant drug lord or whatever she's supposed to be, and we're expected to care because... why? They have hot monkey sex? All that's left is the visuals, which have been bafflingly heralded in most quarters. At the risk of sounding like A----- W----, I can't help but think this approval boils down to "Oooh, pink sky! I've seen that in real life!"

While there's nothing wrong with appreciating Miami Vice as a series of abstract images, it doesn't really hold up, because there's still an underlying reliance on Hollywood conventions of structure and closure. Had Mann really jumped in with both feet, Drug Bust! could've looked a bit like L'Intrus (The Intruder) (2006, Claire Denis) [70], a spy tale at turns haunting and frustrating. The story, as far as I can tell, is about Louis, an old man living in Switzerland, who is actually a Russian spy. His heart is going out on him, so he retires and arranges to have a heart transplant and, with a new lease on life, attempts to regain ahold of the past that slipped away from him while he was a spy. I think. The film is fragmented and impressionistic, so that summary is possibly full of errors -- and I've seen it twice.

(I want to pause to note that the first time I saw it was in a theater, and near the end, there was a projection problem, and the image started to darken, very slowly, over the course of ten minutes. Despite this, I was always enthralled, and if Louis' problem had been glaucoma, I'd never even known there was something wrong.)

Still, the plot is somewhat secondary. It's the succession of images that enthrall: a baby's smiling face, a dog chewing on a human heart, the black ocean, the oppressive weight and hugeness of a steam ship contrasted with floating ribbons dispersed in its honor. Between this and the monolithic score by the Tindersticks, the film creates a wonderfully oneiric mood, where the distinction between reality, memory, and dream dissolve. Yet this is also the source of my frustrations; at times, it's so cryptic, that it can feel like the movie is drifting off without you. The ending is particularly irritating -- no summation, no resolution, it just disperses the way it floated in. (Does this make me a hypocrite w/r/t my problems with Miami Vice? Then so be it.)

However, the emotional journey of Louis is never less than clear. Despite the occasional obfuscations, we discover just how isolated this old spy is, how pathetic his attempts are to engage with life again, not realizing that, despite his money, his connections, and his new heart, he is no longer the one in control. Louis returns to Tahiti to find the son he believes he has from a past affair (while essentially ignoring the one he has in Switzerland), and the people there play a trick on him. I can't decide if this trick is cruel or hopeful, but it definitely comes out of pity.

A few quick notes about V for Vendetta (2006, James McTeigue) [57]: 1. No, not as good as the comic. 2. Yes, it's been dumbed down, most egregiously in presenting V as an uncomplicated hero, where Moore always viewed him with some suspicion. 3. The direction is pretty clumsy -- repeating Evey's childhood trauma in the present, with the same exact camera setups comes across as comical, and the hectic opening, cramming too much in fifteen minutes, makes the film feel shallower than it actually is. 4. However, a few moments make their way from the comic more-or-less unchanged, like Evey's interrogation, Valerie's letter, and V's confrontation with the doctor, and the movie is stronger for it. 5. Still, I was shocked by how moved I was by the final sequence, invented for the film, where the army of Vs take off their masks, and some are revealed to be characters who had died earlier -- the one moment of fanciful unreality in a film that takes itself way too seriously.