Friday, December 30, 2011
Earlier I talked about Steven Spielberg's transition from live action to computer animation in The Adventures of Tintin. Well here we have someone doing the exact opposite. Brad Bird, director of three excellent animated films (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), tries his hand at live action with the latest entry in the Mission Impossible series. Surprisingly, he is far more successful at his transition than Spielberg. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a great achievement in solid, smart, incredibly exciting action filmmaking.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol begins with our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in prison for unspecified reasons. A breakout is initiated by two new team members, Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg). They are tasked with retreiving a stolen briefcase that contains Russian nuclear launch codes. As usual, not everything goes according to plan and the team is framed for something they didn't do. The team is sent scrambling, with analyst Peter Brandt (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining them. They must retreive the nuclear launch codes to clear their names and prevent nuclear war.
Brad Bird's The Incredibles had some of the most fun and exciting action sequences I've seen in a film, but much of that had to do with Bird taking advantage of the seemingly unlimited capabilities of computer animation. So it was a bit of a surprise to see him do such a masterful job setting up incredible live action set pieces here. The much talked about one takes place in Dubai on the tallest building in the world as Ethan attempts to enter one of the higher floors from the outside. Not only is it one of the most viscerally exciting action scenes ever, but it also serves as a brilliant tribute to Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! Bird also shows prowess designing action sequences in confined spaces, as in the film's ending which takes place in a parking garage and has a fascinating finish.
Apart from the great design of the action sequences, what makes Bird so successful here is the complete confidence he has in everything he does in this film. Lesser action directors (Michael Bay, I'm looking at you) often fall into the trap of rapidfire cutting to make their otherwise dull action scenes seem more exciting, but there is thankflly none of that nonsense here. Bird is confident enough in the way he's set everything up that he is able to let the camera linger, and in fact often builds tension precisely because the camera doesn't move. A great example is a clever caper sequence inside the Kremlin where Hunt and his team take inspiration from Bugs Bunny in designing a fake background to fool a guard.
Tom Cruise slides comfortably back into his old role and is completely convincing in the action scenes, while providing a calm charisma elsewhere. The new members of his squad are all solid choices. Simon Pegg does a good job in not overplaying the silly action sidekick schtick. Paula Patton has the right combination of sex appeal and physical presence. And Jeremy Renner has fun playing a bit against type as an analyst that may or may not be in over his head. The cast has a strong chemistry and they all play off each other very well. This is a team that I can't wait to see work together again.
The story, such as it is, is appropriately intriguing and never relies on stupidity or laziness. It's all a big MacGuffin because we know the bomb isn't gonna go off and start a nuclear war, but the film keeps challenging the audience on this point, throwing in new wrinkles now and then that make everything seem hopeless. There's a dramatic subplot for both Ethan and Jane, whose loved ones have both been killed, but it is handled in a limited and remarkably restrained manner. Brad Bird just manages to get every single thing right in this film. His previous three films have all received my highest rating and made my top 10 list for their respective years. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol will make it 4 for 4. It is one of the best films of the year.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 12:05 AM
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody last collaborated on Juno, the dramedy about a pregnant teen that went on to great success and won Cody an Oscar for Best Screenplay. One of the things I loved most about that film was how it challenged audience expectations of what characters would be like, such as completely flipping the script on the Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner characters. In Young Adult they're ready to challenge the audience again by presenting them with a thoroughly unpleasant main character.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a writer for a popular series of young adult books. With her life in a bit of a tailspin, she decides to return to the small town she abandoned years ago and win back the heart of her former high school boyfriend. The problem is, he is now married with a child on the way. That doesn't even faze her, as she's convinced herself that he's completely unhappy and will drop his small town life to head back with her to the city.
It's very difficult to do a movie about an extremely unlikable person, so it's a credit to Reitman and Cody that this movie works at all. Most impressive is that they're willing to go all the way with it, too. This isn't some moralizing parable where the hero learns her lesson by the end. In fact, one of the more remarkable things about Mavis is that she doesn't change much at all through the course of the movie. This is a terrible person and Charlize Theron has a great time playing that up as much as possible.
The only person in this film that is really sympathetic is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate that Mavis didn't have much time for. He is best remembered for being the kid that got severely beat up for being gay, although he repeatedly protests that he's straight. Now she becomes his closest (only) confidant and they make for a very awkward pair of friends. Oswalt gives a terrific performance here, alternating between sadsack loser and snarky observer, essentially providing a surrogate voice for the audience.
These two characters are interesting enough to carry the story, even if it does take some turns into uncomfortable territory. Mavis' constant efforts to win back her ex are really difficult to watch. Eventhough we hate her, she's no cardboard character and it's still hard to watch her get her comeuppance. There are some good laughs provided by Oswalt's critical commentary of her behavior, but for the most part this is a pretty grim affair.
The result is a movie that is admirable and at times fascinating, but not very enjoyable. Mavis is not a character we ever root for, not even as some kind of wicked anti-hero. At the same time, it's hard to root against her, because she's not some kind of evil monster, just a sad and pathetic person. It's still a worthwhile film to watch, but if you were expecting the fun loving sarcasm of Juno, you'll be in for a rude awakening.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 2:53 PM
Monday, December 26, 2011
One of the advantages that animation provides is the freedom with which to design completely original moments of physical movement without being confined to the trappings of live action.A recent film that demonstrated this perhaps better than any other was Pixar's The Incredibles, which was directed by Brad Bird. Bird was able to stretch his imagination with the action scenes and th result was one of the most exciting films of that year. Steven Spielberg is perhaps the best ever at creating memorable and original action set pieces in the live action medium, so it was a very exciting prospect to see him tackling the unlimited capabilities of computer animation with The Adventures of Tintin. Unfortunately, he was only half successful as the exciting action scenes were undone by a poorly structured and uninteresting story.
The Adventures of Tintin is based on a popular comic book series in Europe of the same name. It follows a young reporter named Tintin whose investigations get him mixed up in some wild adventures. He has a trusty sidekick dog named Snowy and two bumbling detectives (named Thompson and Thomson) who help him out. The film version sees him getting mixed up in a mystery involving a model ship that many people seem very eager to get. When it is stolen from his house, he goes on what turns out to be a globetrotting journey to recover it and prevent those who stole it from their nefarious deeds.
Spielberg does make good use of computer animation. The action sequences in Tintin are incredibly thrilling and exhausting. He designs very creative chase sequences that seem to never end, much in the great tradition of the Indiana Jones series. One of my favorites is Snowy's attempts to rescue Tintin after he's been kidnapped. There's also a dangerous seaplane adventure where Spielberg comes up with a long list of creative problems for our heroes to encounter. The film really comes alive during these moments.
What really hurts the film is some baffling storytelling choices. The story starts off as an interesting mystery and Tintin's efforts to solve it were engrossing. However, the film makes the bizarre decision to completely stop at the 2/3rds mark and have one character explain everything through an endless series of expository flashbacks. The movie just completely dies right here with all the momentum they'd built from the stunning action sequences just completely falling apart. And after all that, the true resolution of the mystery is a major disappointment.
Another problem is that the characters never come alive. We don't learn much about Tintin other than he's a plucky and resourceful investigator. More time could've been spent at the beginning giving us more of a glimpse who he is instead of just thrusting him right into his mystery. The bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson have a few amusing moments, but more often than not the slapstick chemistry between these two does not work. The villains and pirates that populate the mystery plot are all tired stock retreads. It says something that the most fascinating character in the entire film is Tintin's sidekick dog Snowy. It's rare that I don't like a Steven Spielberg film, but he really misfired with this one.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 10:55 AM