Monday, May 28, 2012

Movie Reviews: Chronicle, Men in Black III, Cars 2


With very few exceptions, I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t like the sensation of being scared, and so I have little interest in spending time and/or money watching something that is primarily interested in scaring me. One of the consequences of this avoidance, however, is that I have no real experience with the increasingly popular “found footage” genre, which (other than Cloverfield and a few other minor films that I have not seen) is mostly contained to the horror genre. As a result, this approach—especially in the context of a superhero origin story—seemed fresh and interesting.

Chronicle is the story of how three relatively normal teenage boys gain superpowers. Andrew, played by Dane DeHaan, is shy and introverted, frequently bullied both at school and by his unemployed, alcoholic father. His cousin Matt (Alex Russell) is a stoner with a fondness for pretentious philosophy, but is still able to fit in much better than Andrew. Matt’s friend Stephen (Michael B. Jordan, of The Wire and Friday Night Lights) is an extroverted golden boy, good at seemingly anything he tries and an aspiring politician. One night at a rave that Matt convinces Andrew to attend, the three find a mysterious meteorite (or something….) that grants them the power of telekinesis. As the boys use their powers, they grow stronger and stronger, eventually allowing the boys to fly, lift cars, and more. But although the three become fast friends, all is not well with Andrew, who remains lonely and isolated.

First time director Josh Trank elected to approach the story through the “found-footage” route—Andrew begins the movie by starting to record his life, perhaps out of some sort of quirk or perhaps to try and stop his father’s abuse. While occasionally there are moments where it strains credulity that Andrew would be filming, for the most part the presentation is a great choice. Not only does it help freshen the overdone superhero origin story, but it also does a great job of bringing a sense of reality to the proceedings*. Things get considerably easier once Andrew gets his powers (and the ability to levitate the camera), and eventually the film incorporates other recording devices, such as security footage and cell phone cameras**.

*This is why the found footage approach is so popular with horror filmmakers; the immediacy it brings has a lot of potential to be quite frightening.

**The film never explains who exactly stitches all of the footage—from two of Andrew’s cameras, one of which is lost early in the film, as well as the other various recording devices—together. However, there are hints that the government may know more than anyone lets on, and perhaps they are the ones to edit the film together. Or maybe I’m thinking about it too much.

The format, as well as the tight and efficient screenplay, also helps to establish the characters—both the main trio and the supporting players—in a fairly limited amount of screentime. The first act sets up the trio, especially Andrew (who is, after all, the one shooting the film at the beginning) quite nicely, establishing three dimensional and well-motivated characters. The second act, during which the trio experiments with their powers, is probably the most entertaining (certainly it has the most moments in the trailers for the film). The boys do almost exactly what you’d think for three ordinary kids given telekinesis—they play mostly harmless pranks on people in a toy store, play football in the sky, flip up a girl’s skirt, and so on. It’s convincing on both an effects level and a character level. No one watching the film is going to be able to sit through it without imagining what they might do with similar powers—I particularly laughed when Stephen uses his telekinesis to flip a bunch of Pringles into his mouth. The verisimilitude and affability that the film establishes goes a long way in making the third act—which is considerably darker—effective and believable. I also quite enjoyed the havoc wreaked on Seattle during the movie’s climax

The acting, done by professional but little-known actors—is quite good. DeHaan is given the most to do and nails Andrew, a kid who is awkward and lonely but quite fun-loving when given a chance. Michael Kelley, as his father Richard, is good as one of the more disturbingly realistic abusive parents shown on screen recently. Jordan is given the least screentime of the main trio, which is a shame, and we never get to see him out of the context of the other two. As a result, he is the least well-drawn. We see more of Matt because his girlfriend (an underwritten character) is doing some filming of her own for her blog, and as a result his character arc is almost as convincing as Andrew’s.

With a fresh approach to the superhero origin story, Chronicle is an effective use of the “found-footage” genre of filmmaking, and makes me interested to see what director Trank does for his next project (Chronicle allows for but hardly demands a sequel). A few characters (mostly Stephen and Matt’s girlfriend Casey) are somewhat underdeveloped, but overall the movie works surprisingly well as a character piece. It’s a worthy effort, and quite a good little movie.

7 Good. B.

Men in Black III

The original Men in Black (MiB from here out) was a fun diversion, a sci-fi/spy comedy largely fueled by the chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The film had great franchise potential, which is why it was such a disappointment that the sequel was so bad. Ten year later, the crew comes together for a third go-around. While still short of the bar set by the first film (which is no masterpiece itself), at least this movie is basically competent, something that could not be said of its immediate predecessor.

Agent J and Agent K (Smith and Jones, respectively) are back, still laconically protecting earth from omnipresent aliens. This time the threat comes in the form of Boris the Animal (or as he prefers, just Boris, played by an unrecognizable Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Concords). Boris is the last member of the dangerous Boglodites, whose invasion was foiled by K forty years before. Seeking revenge on K for this and the loss of his arm, Boris escapes a lunar prison (in a scene so wrought with nonsensical moments that its best not to think about it too much), finds a time travel device, and hops back to 1969 to kill K. To prevent K’s death, and the Boglodite invasion, J must also go back…to the future! Crap, wrong movie. Anyway, hijinks ensue when J arrives in 1969 and promptly meets young K, played with gusto by Josh Brolin.

It must be said that some aspects of this movie feel tired. The humor seems forced, and there is more than one scene in which Will Smith is clearly trying too hard to capture his basic Will Smith-ishness. The chemistry between Smith and Jones (who is in the movie for a surprisingly brief period; at least 2/3 of the film takes place in the past, with Brolin) is sagging though not gone entirely. The action is largely perfunctory, and the effects work not great. The character of Agent O (played in the present by Emma Thompson, and in the past by Alice Eve), who is set up as a sort of love interest for K, is annoyingly underserved, given perhaps two dozen lines in the past and present combined. MiB III is not as worn out as many recent third installments of tentpole franchises (Spider-Man, X-Men, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Shrek all come to mind), but there is more than a little redundancy.

Still, all is not bad. The movie has some fun with its time-travel premise*, and its vision of the late 60s is entertaining (with an especially fun cameo by Bill Hader as Andy Warhol). Jermaine Clement does a good job making Boris genuinely creepy, although the climactic encounter with him is disappointing—as a villain he’s a step down from the Bug from the first MiB and several steps up from Lara Flynn Boyle from the sequel. The worms and Frank the pug—so annoyingly prominent in the second movie—are mercifully absent (save for a couple of seconds). However, the highlight is Michael Stulhbarg as Griffin, and eccentric alien with a sort of precognition*—he experiences all potential timelines at once, like a non-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan, which he acknowledges is “a pain in the ass”. Stuhlbarg plays him beautifully, and the movie does a great job of presenting his abilities (he can see how things might play out, but cannot know for sure until they actually do).

*Though the film is almost entirely unconcerned with thinking about the more subtle/challenging/interesting consequences and paradoxes of time travel. Donnie Darko this is not.

* And a proclivity for multiple layers of ill-fitting clothing. Griffin is basically what Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man would be like if he became homeless—a distinct possibility considering where that movie ended.

All told, MiB III is a perfectly average, forgettable summer popcorn movie. While ideally the movie would rediscover the stuff that made the first so memorable, it does manage to avoid the missteps that made the sequel equally memorable, if for entirely different reasons. At this point, I think I’ll take “forgettable”.

6 Decent. C.

Cars 2

From the release of Toy Story in 1995 until 2011, Pixar managed an incredible streak of both creative and commercial success (discussed in a previous post). The only blip was 2006’s Cars, a movie that I (like many critics and audiences) was not nearly as enamored of as Pixar’s other offerings. Although overall I found it fairly dull, with far less interesting characters than most Pixar movies and little plot, it had its redeeming features. The lengthy second act, during which Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) learns to take things slow in the gorgeously pastoral Radiator Springs, is nicely staid, and the relationship between McQueen and the older racecar Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) was well-done. It was hardly a bad movie, and indeed probably above average overall—it was just bad relative to Pixar’s absurd standards. So what happens when the studio inexplicably* revisited its worst film, then takes out all of the parts that made it decent while simultaneously focusing attention on the movie’s most annoying character? Well, you get Cars 2.

*Or not—apparently merchandise related to Cars sold like gangbusters, so from a financial perspective it was an obvious choice to revisit.

The sequel takes place an indeterminate amount of time after the first film. Beginning with a prologue right out of a Bond movie (unfortunately, it misses a golden opportunity to end the scene through the scope of a tank gun), British Agent Finn McMissile (voiced, in a highlight of the film, by Michael Cain—or at least someone doing a darn good impression. Steve Coogan?) discovers a dastardly plot involving a giant oil field in the middle of the ocean. After barely escaping, the film opens up with McQueen’s return to Radiator Springs. However, instead of showing things through McQueen’s perspective like in the first, we instead see things through the affably ignorant eyes of our new protagonist, the formerly supporting Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Soon McQueen is drawn into the elite World Grand Prix, hosted by billionaire Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), a former oil tycoon who is using the event to premiere a new clean alternative fuel. However, dastardly Bond-ian things are happening in the background, and Mater is drawn into helping McMissile and rookie field agent Sally Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to foil them.

So…yeah. I hate to rag on Pixar, a studio that I adore, but this movie is not just bad by their standards, it’s a genuinely bad film. The new British cars are fun, the animation is unsurprisingly top-notch (though not as good as Pixar’s other recent films—Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 all look better), and I laughed a few times, mostly at the admittedly clever names the writers thought of (one of the Grand Prix announcers is Brent Mustangburger). Other than that, however, the film is close to an unmitigated disaster.

The problems start with the premise. The best parts of Cars involved its laid-back sensibilities, a rarity in CG animated movies. As mentioned above, the second act in Radiator Springs is the movie’s best. So what does the sequel do? Take us on a grand, globe-trotting espionage spoof. I understand the idea—you don’t want a sequel to be a retread of the original—but little of the new material works. The Grand Prix isn’t exciting, probably because relatively little time is spent on it, and the new McQueen rival (an Italian Formula 1 car) is too much of a jerkass to be sympathetic but not villainous enough to despise—the dreaded Boring Zone. The newly added espionage elements also largely fail; the parts that are played straight are clichéd and uninteresting (I easily called the ultimate villain about two seconds after his/her introduction, despite the identity being withheld until the climax), and the parts played for spoof similarly fall flat. Other movies, from Austin Powers to Get Smart have done similar things much better.

The writers also had to deal with the unfortunate passing of Paul Newman, and Doc Hudson (the source of much of the pathos of Cars) was written out. The other residents of Radiator Springs, including Bonnie Hunt’s Sally (who I also enjoyed in the first film) have been reduced to little more than cameos. The only exception, of course, is Tow Mater.

I understand that many people—especially children, apparently—consider Mater (and, more broadly, Larry the Cable Guy) to be a riot. Not me. In the first movie I found Mater to be irritating if largely inoffensive by virtue of his limited screen time. No such luck here—he’s the protagonist. Mater’s shtick of affable idiocy is incredibly irritating; his ignorance, harmless in the context of small-town America, becomes borderline offensive in the segments of the film set in Japan. The film tries to add dimensions to Mater towards the end, but its attempts to give him moments of self-reflection and realization, while appreciated, don’t really work. The film tries to give Mater an arc not dissimilar to Buzz Lightyear’s from the first Toy Story, but succeeds about 10% as well. If that.

The messages that the film tries to get across are similarly lazy and annoying, and decidedly un-Pixar. The studio has excelled at including mature subtext to its films—just look at Cars 2’s most immediate predecessor, Toy Story 3, which had all sorts of nuanced and subtle examinations of growing up, friendship, and personal responsibility and freedom. Cars 2 tries to have a message about the power and importance of friendship—McQueen and Mater are, rather inexplicably, best buddies—but it’s a little Saturday-morning-cartoonish, obvious and trite. The film also has something to say about Big Oil and renewable resources, but whatever the movie is trying to get across is muddled, simplistic, and stupid. I’d only be doing the moral of film a very mild disservice in comparing it to Captain Planet.

Here’s hoping Brave, which comes out about a month from this writing, is a reversion back to the norm for Pixar. Or at least the mean.

5 Bad. D+

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