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2010 YEAR END MOVIE BLOW OUT PART II

by Jordan Hiller Posted: 01-10-2011(Viewed 22703 times)

2010 YEAR END MOVIE BLOW OUT – PART II 

for PART I of Jordan Hiller's 2010 Movies Year in Review - click here

The Social Network

The elegant irony of Facebook, if you believe everything you see and hear during David Fincher’s full throated, full throttle champion about the evolution of this planet’s preeminent online social network, is that Mark Zuckerberg, a Jewish kid with an iluy’s computer kop, who cared nothing for accumulating wealth and created the site (or, more accurately, improved upon the blueprint of existing sites) with the sole intention of it being cool and cutting edge, wound up achieving inconceivable wealth while his web-footed offspring became a haven for geeks, introverts, yentas, and their grandmothers to post trivial status updates, deploy mass invites to lame events, and snark back and forth about miscellanea. Facebook became, much like its founder, an entity that, at most, artificially exudes an aura of buoyancy and trendiness, but underneath the confident, savvy shell and on the other side of a bright, shiny façade, there are only people, replete with insecurities, confusing pixilated contact for relationships, and possessing a deleterious fixation on public opinion.

Not to say that Facebook isn’t engaging, addictive, or tremendously useful in numerous contexts. I am not anti-Facebook, nor am I a chronic visitor, but the The Social Network suggests (through a crackling Aaron Sorkin script from the Ben Mezrich book, The Accidental Billionaires) that Zuckerberg’s original design for the site, its intended manifest destiny, disintegrated in a flash when it became a generic, consumer darling.

It is hard to call someone worth approximately nine billion dollars and who was recently proclaimed 2010’s Man of the Year a failure. It is even more difficult to establish the argument convincingly. However, Fincher and The Social Network make a vigorous run at it.

Director David (Seven, Fight Club) Fincher has cranked out a riveting, thoroughly entertaining film anchored by a lead performance from Jesse Eisenberg that casts a hypnotic spell on its audience from wordy opening break-up scene to a final excruciating image which brings matters full circle. I would never be so bold to say that Jesse Eisenberg can do it all, but after seismic turns in Adventureland, Zombieland, and The Squid and the Whaleland, we know he can do brainy, neurotic boyishness (like the smart man’s Michael Cera), and The Social Network allows the young actor (who very well may score Oscar gold this year) to bring that character into full realization.

Instead of telling the story in boring linear fashion, the film jumps cleverly back and forth to and from a pair of law offices where a disinterested, abrasive Zuckerberg is being deposed. The twenty-year-old is at the center of two lawsuits; one alleging he stole the concept for Facebook from a pair of blue blood Harvard twins, the second for fraudulently ousting his best friend, business partner, and financier from the company.

The setup has us wary of Zuckerberg’s nature early on, but two minutes with the asshole would have the same effect. Sorkin’s screenplay conducts a full-on flogging of Zuckerberg, his apparent soulnessness, and hysterically warped perspective. As portrayed by Eisenberg, the founder of Facebook is bright, but his intellect is never as intimidating as it should be because it remains connected to an immature, stubbornly vindictive host. The plaintiffs suing Zuckerberg are not worried. They are not overwhelmed. They are annoyed. They are perplexed by their adversary’s futile position. They are forced to put up with ridiculous arguments, listen to vivid delusions, and patiently wait for the big check at the end of the rainbow.

Those whom Zuckerberg cheats and manipulates are not depicted as saps or suckers, which would have been the case if the film chose to make its protagonist likeable. Instead, Zuckerberg’s victims are merely his antithesis - reasonable, mature, and human.

After the film, when I logged onto Facebook, I felt dirty. Well, dirtier for doing so than usual. The movie, essentially about a brutal, staggering loss of innocence had succeeded in stealing the luster from a simple, mindless, superficial online world of pictures, poking, and unnaturally befriending strangers.

The Social Network is a movie, and the value of the movie should not be determined or affected by the value of Facebook. The merits of Facebook can be debated; the merits of The Social Network are undeniable.

 

Waiting For “Superman”

 

So the audience of the public school system documentary Waiting for “Superman” is either supposed to get depressed into action, enraged into action, or overwhelmed into inaction. It is hard to figure what value lies in analyzing or involving oneself in something as disastrously unfixable a mess as something like America’s public schools (or the Middle East, the New York Mets, etc.). One would guess the only reason to do so would be to exhibit the smarts of the analysts or the thankless devotion of those in the trenches. Even worse is myself who (likely because my kids are in private schools) submits my two cents via criticizing the critics.

But do not be naïve. It does not require someone with no subjective personal stake in our country’s public schools to be so cynical, morbid, and aloof as to remain completely disinterested and removed. Waiting For “Superman” constructs two arguments really well: A.) While there are plenty of parents frustrated and feeling victimized by the awfulness of the public schools, there are even more who don’t give a damn, and B.) The tragic fate of our public schools is not a problem plaguing just those who cannot afford better. The failing education system in America is dragging this country into a technology, job opportunity, and overall global competition hole so void of light and hope that we may never dig out. In other words, Waiting for “Superman” exclaims with gun to the temple severity, this is your fight as well. And we cannot afford to lose.

Writer/Director Davis Guggenheim’s film is breezy considering how utterly depressing the subject matter. Guggenheim’s narration is stand-up comic fluid, his voice and tone light and lively. The documentary often uses stylish animation to depict statistics, education philosophy concepts, and the infuriatingly self-serving machinations of school boards. These eye-catching diversions certainly concretize the information and make the ideas palatable, but they likely distract from the importance of the conclusions. Guggenheim appears to be struggling with the same conflict that teachers face daily. Do we package lessons in a way that is easy to digest, or do we do so in a way that drives the point home?

Regardless of the stark contrast between Guggenheim’s delivery and his documentary of dour predictions, it all comes down to the kids. The talking heads, think tanks, and union chiefs can argue day and night about policy, aptitude tests, rubber rooms, and employee reviews, but honestly, it’s the kids who are suffering. They suffer at home with unprepared parents (hallelujah if it’s not the grandmother doing the job); they suffer with poverty and crime on the streets, which makes dropping out such a natural transition; and they suffer in school where overcrowding and under-performing is the status quo.

Guggenheim makes sure to focus on four arbitrary public school students who have entered Charter School lotteries, promising escape, a caring environment, and a more promising future. Their chances of gaining entry are slim and the film does not (and of course cannot) provide a happy ending for all of them. We are left with the bitter tears of a wounded parent, and even worse, the quiet confusion of a child left out in the cold. Now multiply that heartbreak by five million.

The heroes here are individuals shaking up the school system like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee – The villain is the Teachers’ Union, personified by its leader Randi Weingarten. The name Waiting for “Superman is derived from an analogy recounted by Canada, where he, in childhood, was told that George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on TV, had died. Despite this, young Geoffrey, who himself faced dire circumstances growing up and in school, maintained a belief that Superman would still miraculously arrive one day to save him.

So the message then is either that there is no waiting for Superman, and educators like Canada and Rhee are bravely taking on the superhero's role in trying to rescue our schools, and by that I mean the students. Or the message is that we Americans are infected early on with false notions of hope and optimism; an irrational belief that everything is going to be okay. And this disease is blinding us from the truth; preventing us from tearing the system down and rebuilding it from scratch. Action or Inaction? Guggenheim leaves that decision for us.

 

 

Inception, Black Swan, and Shutter Island

 

Bryan Singer started the craze with The Usual Suspects and M. Night Shamylan took it to cultural phenomenon levels with The Sixth Sense. For a while it felt as though every other new release promised a twist ending that would shock viewers, flip the whole movie on its head, and leave audiences gasping for air. The formula demanded that minds be blown in a scintillating instant, but also for filmgoers to remain satisfied because the story would compute even once the time was taken to reprocess it. Naturally, copycat scripts often did not match the high hopes of studios looking to ride the bandwagon and mass produce ingenious eleventh-hour surprises.

A trio of films this year, two of them starring Leonardo DiCaprio, present cognitive labyrinths suspended by illusion, and each shoots for a doozy reveal just before the closing credits.

The subtlest of the three parting gifts, and it is far from subtle, is the spinning top which precedes the fade out on Chris Nolan’s masterpiece, Inception.

Inception is about as ambitious and heady a science-fiction production as even a confident filmmaker will ever endeavor. It topples such

standouts as The Matrix, Twelve Monkeys, and Battlefield Earth in scope, depth, and complexity. It is the film by which to measure the density of all others. In it, we are transported to an unspecified future where a group of mind infiltrators - experts at invading a person’s dreams to extract secrets - are challenged to perform an operation called “inception,” whereby a thought is artificially implanted into the dreamer’s consciousness. The team, comprised of DiCaprio’s tormented point man, Cobb, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s smooth as silk number two, Arthur, Ellen Page’s pert, rookie architect, Ariadne, Dileep Rao’s skeptical chemist, Yusuf, and Tom Hardy’s rakish forger, Eames, is hired by a powerful dangerous man (Ken Watanabe) to take down a mega-corporation by inserting a seed-notion into the mind of a powerful, slightly less dangerous man (Cillian Murphy). The stakes for the fugitive Cobb are raised when he is promised a clean record and return to his family if the team pulls off the “never before attempted” mission impossible. I know, sounds rather chaotic and farfetched; the kind of movie that presents such an untenable, sci-fi premise that intelligent viewers keep it at arms length regardless of the stellar special effects and proper-sounding techno-babble. No need to watch Inception, however, with a mental or emotional buffer. Chris Nolan, a fanatically particular, vigilant, and cerebral filmmaker, is no gambler charlatan. If it’s not right, he simply doesn’t allow it to exist in his work. Inception is built with the same architectural meticulousness that Cobb expects Ariadne to employ when designing dreamscapes: If the synthetic dream does not seem one hundred percent real to the dreamer, the dreamer sounds the alarm, attacks the invaders, and the operation fails. Nolan knows that movie audiences are visitors in his dream, and if they sense a lack of authenticity, they attack in the form of distance, impatience, ambivalence, or boredom. Nolan directs from his own brilliant script, and the reason all the pieces come together so seamlessly, is because Nolan has created his sci-fi world - its principles, laws, codes, configurations, and terminology – with precision, to the point where the audience has no choice but to believe and allow Inception to envelope it.

The spinning top (in the film called a totem) is a device utilized by Cobb to reveal whether he is still in someone’s dream or has returned to reality. If it spins on to infinity, the world Cobb inhabits is an unreliable fiction. It is a world, however, where Cobb is comfortable, focused, and, to a degree, in control. If the totem eventually teeters, wobbles, spins out, and stops, the walls, floor, sky, and earth are real. In the real world, Cobb is lost and forlorn. He exists in a state of excruciating anguish following his wife’s (sensual, sinister Marion Cotillard) dream-invasion related suicide. In the final reel, Nolan leaves the totem spinning, placing Cobb’s fate in limbo, and our dream called Inception to linger on forever.

 

Darren Aronofsky has been messing with our heads since his breakthrough film, 1998’s Pi. After excessively bending minds and straining his considerable cinematic ambition with 1996’s failure, The Fountain, Aronofsky returned to straightforward storytelling with 2008’s well received The Wrestler. As his father was a teacher in Flatbush Yeshiva, Aronofsky may be familiar with Maimonides and the medieval Jewish philosopher’s position that one extreme must be countered by another to reach the righteous middle ground. After The Fountain’s inanity and The Wrestler’s ordinariness, Black Swan finds Aronofsky back in his element. The emotional crisis in this elaborate metaphor and waking nightmare of a film resonates completely, while the filmmaker’s flair for disturbing, David Cronenberg style prickliness remains front and center.

Nearly every shot of Black Swan is stomach churning. From the obsessive close-ups of  ballerina slippers spinning deftly, crunching on the tips of toes, to contrasting claustrophobic spaces with those wide and empty, to the manic, rigidity of this year’s Best Actress winner (and everyone’s favorite Jewish daughter) Natalie Portman’s pale throat, deep eyes, and unnervingly slender torso. Black Swan takes great pleasure in depicting constriction; the feeling of being so restricted, confined, and repressed, that it borders on suffocation. In Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin’s story focusing on Nina Sayers, a talented, but emotionally guarded dancer, being awarded (or perhaps burdened) with the lead in her company’s performance of Swan Lake, Aronofsky holds his audience’s throat with both hands and squeezes, firming his grip with each scene. If we are not asphyxiated by the end, we are certainly exhausted from the struggle. 

 

Aronofsky does not disguise his intention. Loosely interpreting the narrative of the late 19th century Russian ballet Swan Lake, wherein one prima-ballerina typically (but not necessarily) plays both the part of Odette and Odile, two young women with remarkably similar appearance but conflicting agendas (both aim for the prince’s affections), the film stands upon the foundation that Odette, the white swan, is good and innocence while Odile, the black swan, is sin, temptation, and lust, and that the lead dancer must realize the white without and the black within (or vice versa) before taking the stage.

Portman plays Sayers like a frozen coiled spring, controlled, frigid, and tightly wound. The objective of Nina’s Machiavellian director (wolfish Vincent Cassel) is to embarrass, pressure, and manipulate her into letting go, and then an even more intriguing study Aronofsky depicts is what will be the result for Nina? Will the metamorphosis take her somewhere beautiful or terrible?

The process whereby Nina strays from her pristine, obedient ways - a regimented schedule, an unhealthy deference to her embittered mother (creepy Barbara Hershey) - and explores Nina’s devilish black swan dark half is where Aronofsky and Portman excel. Portman is the ideal muse, once again attempting to shed her saintly, adorable persona, as she commits fully to a role that requires not only a high degree of technical physical prowess, but an uninhibited display of an adversarial and sexual awakening that is difficult to (and not to) watch.

As Nina’s transformation progresses, the lines between reality, fantasy, sanity, and madness begin to blur severely, and Aronofsky wields a dark wizard’s magic in challenging his audience's ability to decipher what and who deserve our trust. By the end, when matters spiral into chaos, murder, and mayhem, we are about as confident that none of it is really happening as we are that Nina has leapt off the stage into the true artist’s paradise-abyss.

 

Of the three films discussed, Shutter Island is the genuine progeny of the genre as it literally slams its audience in the face with a gimmick finale that uproots everything and creates a cranium-numbing topsy-turvy effect, demanding viewers review every moment that has occurred since the first frame. The most impressive achievement for legendary director Martin Scorsese (slumming it in a sense, but for our benefit), and writer Laeta Kalogridis (a screenplay based on Dennis Lehane’s novel) is that, unlike most similarly intentioned thrillers (The Perfect Getaway comes to mind) the new reality effectuated by the surprise ending actually stands up on second, enlightened viewing (much like The Sixth Sense and The Others).

Scorsese and DiCaprio, in their fourth film together (half way to Scorsese/De Niro), again create an intense, provocative film-going experience, where the ride, accommodations, and destination are all first class. Though Shutter Island is surely a departure from The Departed and does not live up to or intend to live up to its Best Picture pedigree, it is evident that we are in the presence of a premium cast and in the hands of a hall of fame filmmaker. Scorsese, always a cinema fan first, knows that movies are meant to be an escape, and there is no more thorough, all encompassing an escape than a movie where a seasoned professional director owns the material.  This is especially gratifying and specifically necessary when the story being told is as convoluted as the one Shutter Island ventures.

In it, DiCaprio plays a brooding U.S. Marshall named Teddy Daniels who emerges from the Boston fog in the opening scene aboard a boat heading for Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane. Because this is a movie where nothing is what it seems, we spend two anxiety-filled hours engrossed, wondering what exactly the hell is going on. Why is Teddy really there and how much does it have to do with disturbing visions of a burning Michelle Williams? Are the psychiatrists at Ashecliffe (ghoulishly ambiguous Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) really trying to keep Teddy there for their own devious purposes? Are the patients in on the plan as well? Is Shutter Island one of those ubiquitous horror-fiction realms where “no one ever leaves?” The levels of uncertainty only deepen as the film goes on. Pathways to resolution either tunnel underground meeting dirt-mound dead ends or wander off rocky cliffs. If it were not for the likes of Scorsese, DiCaprio and the other A-listers involved, we might just begin to doubt whether a satisfying conclusion is in the cards.

And then, in a scintillating instant, the floor disappears, and we plummet along with Teddy into a chilling ocean of clarity. With one fell swoop, the messy unraveling mystery, neatly and completely, well, ravels. And the film is even better when watched a second time, knowing the truth. Not in the sense that the suspense has evaporated, but because we are able to appreciate the full mastery of Scorsese and the consistency of the supporting performances (Mark Ruffalo is an exquisitely nuanced stand out). It is almost stunning that we initially missed the evidence. Shutter Island proves that explosive twist endings that blindside an audience can still be accomplished at a high level after all these years. All you need are the choicest ingredients. 

 

A film of distinguished derivation aiming for similar effect, but crashing colossally in its shallow attempt is: 

The Ghost Writer

The great Roman Polanksi’s latest about a nameless ghostwriter (played smartly by a restrained Ewan McGregor) hired to edit and revive the memoir of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (devilish, regal Pierce Brosnan), after the original ghostwriter is found washed up on shore, dead. The atmospheric film, painted with clean lines in the palate of mist and grays, tries very hard to evoke great political thrillers like No Way Out and The Manchurian Candidate where espionage is uncovered at the “highest levels of power,” as well as the Hitchcockian standards (screeching string music, old-timers hinting at dark secrets, winding roads like eyes tunneling), but for all its ambience, all sharp, taut, and mysterious, the payoff is for the birds. Unlike the films mentioned above, The Ghost Writer purposefully holds its cards tight, revealing nothing, allowing the questions to mount like dirty dishes piling up in the sink, entirely reliant that a powerful dishwasher will swoop in with a rag and detergent in hand. The book upon which the film is adapted, Robert Harris’s The Ghost, can take solace in the story’s provocative, veiled skewering of Tony Blair and his involvement with the war on terror and perceived lapdog relationship with the U.S through the similarly delineated Lang. Books, because you live with them as they are read, are as much about the journey as the final destination. Unlike books, film is a fleeting visual medium where the viewer is incapable of bringing anything significant to the experience. A reader can make a so-so book work. A movie needs to work on its own, and therefore to succeed, it must meet or exceed its design.

The raison d’être for filming a political thriller is to yank the audience into a maze, stress the magnitude of the situation due to the players involved, throw in a terrible crime, reveal some corruption, and top it off with a final scene that, while making sense, drops jaws on a dime. After all, the foundations of suspense are easily manufactured; it is what that foundation supports, how precisely the bricks and mortar fit that makes the structure worth entering, exploring, and maybe if timeless enough, inhabiting. And because we are rolling with a consummate professional like Roman (Chinatown, The Piano) Polanski, we assume that our satisfaction is all but guaranteed.

For two hours, Polanski lives up to his reputation and creates palpable tension, unfolding the layers of deceit and intrigue like the petals of an exotic carnivorous flower. We learn that our ghostwriter's much venerated predecessor was found on a part of the beach that does not synch with the tide. We learn that Lang is having an affair with his personal assistant (Kim Cattrall doing a British accent, perfectly fine but distracting because she has become none other than Samantha Jones). We learn that Lang has a secret past. We learn that Lang's wife (delicate, morose Olivia Williams) is an independent woman, but hurt by her husband's philandering. There are about a dozen or so more tantalizing tidbits that we gather along the way, making for a nice laundry list of clues. Since this is the kind of movie where amateurs and everymen tend to be more daringly curious than normal folk and prone to unsolicited investigations, and since everyone around him is acting so overtly suspicious, our ghostwriter seeks out the “truth” and gets in over his head. One particularly nice touch, incorporating modern technology into the genre, is where our ghostwriter is lead to an important piece of evidence via the pre-programmed voice navigation system in a borrowed car. So far so excellent.  

That said, the movie falls flat in its final revelation and therefore, in my opinion, falls flat in its entirety. I would not put the narrative conceit The Ghost Writer perpetrates in its final moments past a doped up high school sophomore in a screenwriting elective. It is that uninspired. Making matters worse, it attempts to cover up or distract from the cop-out resolution with a desperate last second exclamation point which inexcusably trades shock value for closure.

If I wanted to end this article with the disappointing abruptness of The Ghost Writer, I would.

 

Salt 

With men, the litmus test is simple. If you can carry an action film, you are a movie star. With the ladies, the formula to transform an actress from “it girl” to full-fledged movie star is more vague, and even if defined, complicated. The “it girls” come and go faster that you can say Rachel LeighCookWeiszMcAdams. The road to stardom typically begins with shallow but winning teen flicks, followed by small head-turning cameos in blockbusters, then an assembly-line romantic comedy where they match up with an equally unpolished “it boy,” which if it enjoys a profit results in a moderately budgeted solo vehicle directed by someone with a résumé, and if that movie makes one hundred million dollars, we initiate movie star discussion. Or you can be Angelina Jolie who never nursed a broken heart in a high school flick, or was forced to feign love in a cheesy romantic comedy, or even had to play opposite Hugh Grant. She went straight from the fringes of Hollywood to winning an Oscar for 1999’s Girl Interrupted (and seemingly stealing Winona Ryder’s mojo in the process) and she never looked back. Angelina, blood vile dangling across a healthy chest, took the men’s route. She zoomed to the head of the class and graduated immediately to headlining franchise action movies and breaking up marriages, as if there was no alternative means. She was like a fresher, more luscious, more dangerous Sharon Stone, but because of her youth, she had a longer shelf life, and because of that Oscar, acting credibility. Hollywood was ready to lap her up. Angelina became a movie star, but she was never anyone’s bowl of milk. She did it her way.

Salt, a movie ironically originally intended for a male lead, is a terrific, frenetically paced suspense movie with diesel action. It would be simplest to pitch it as a Bourne Identity film with a female doing the butt-kicking, running, and hopeless explaining, but it turns out Matt Damon is half the man Angelina Jolie is. Phillip (Patriot Games) Noyce’s film employs that same acrobatic, no hesitation fighting style that we have come to expect from our new breed of intelligent action movies. Intelligent only because the hero expertly wielding knife, gun, boot, and fist is articulate, the film editing is razor-sharp, and the soundtrack isn’t power-ballad residue. A “realistic” adventure, however, this is not. Salt is a brazen, over the top fugitive flick and bone-cruncher. And much like Ms. I-adopt-kids-of-different-races-and-get-in-the-faces-of-world-leaders-and-I-like-being-a-mom-but-not-a-wife-thank-you-very-much-good-day, Salt doesn’t owe anyone an apology.

Angelina Jolie plays someone named Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative (with training in explosives, assault weapons, hand to hand combat, disguises, telepathy, balloon animals, miming, puppeteering, and crepe making) who may or may not be a very unique (and rather inconceivable) breed of KGB agent. Our sympathies are with her because she appears falsely accused, she loves her husband and wants to protect him above all, and because she has the lips, eyes, and various other angelic features of Angelina Jolie.

The film takes that premise and those ingredients and runs with them at mach-speed toward and through a series of window panes, allowing the glass to shatter, sending broken shards of bone and blood careening through the universe, the projectiles to fall and impale where they may. The question is whether the script by pros Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland has the wherewithal to pick up the pieces. Being that Noyce directed Jolie once before, in 1999’s serial killer detective movie, The Bone Collector, history suggested they were up to the task.

The reason Salt succeeds is because it believes in its lunacy and goes for it in a frank, but fabulous way. Besides watching the car wrecks and bodies gleefully pile up, movies like Salt want to keep you guessing. And because Salt luxuriates in its preposterousness, we are subject to its wacky dynamic, and the guessing game becomes that much more fun (though I did predict the “secret” villain based on a rather telling casting decision).

After 2008’s searing A Mighty Heart, about the abduction and final days of journalist Daniel Pearl, Jolie made Wanted. She followed that pulpy, violent comic book fable with Clint Eastwood’s brutally somber and serious Changeling, which immediately preceded Salt. A mindless action flick. A reminder that Jolie is one of our finest, most sensitive actresses. Based on the pattern, Jolie’s next outing should be a prestige piece; some period drama directed by Sam Mendes, perhaps, about a woman assisting terminally ill children in the third world. Actually, up next is Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom of Doom. Hey, she does it her way.

 

 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World &  Kick-Ass 

About halfway through the extraordinary, exhilarating Kick-Ass, a character references a comic book called Scott Pilgrim as an example of the sort of cool, relatable graphic novel that, unlike typical fantastical “superhero” comics, is tolerable for more sophisticated, less geeked-out consumers. How interesting a development then that Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World were released only months apart in 2010. The movies are thematically different, but they are both adaptations of comic books which attempt to defy comic book capabilities as well as broaden the potential audience for a growing and evolving literary medium.

Ever since Alan Moore’s Watchmen broke hallowed ground in 1986 and 1999’s Mystery Men (based on characters from Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics) brought the percolating concept to theatres, comic books and their film adaptations, which traditionally told the stories of costumed heroes with super powers, have become more willing to explore the possibility of costumed heroes without powers.

Although an instinct exists to place both Pilgrim and Kick-Ass in the same basket, it would be remiss to do so. As much as the two characters and their movies feel nonspecifically similar, what they have in common is at most inconsequential window dressing. Both films are self-aware, trendy movies that express up to the moment youth culture, are fueled by fresh soundtracks, and feature characters that live in the “real world” yet do battle with enemies in a manner evocative of the comic book universe.

Scott Pilgrim is about a confident twenty-something who falls for a girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is attractive and seductively tough/vulnerable, but not the Helen of Troy the plot requires) and then is made aware that he must defeat her “seven evil exes” in order to exclusively win her heart. Kick Ass presents the misadventures of an unpopular teenager pretending to be a superhero for no good reason. Pilgrim tells of an awkward romance while dodging the bedlam that breaks out whenever an evil ex shows up. Kick Ass revels in blood and guts, growing more and more aggressive with gory violence as the film goes on.

Neither film strays too far from its source material and both are remarkably proficient translations of mood and style, but the final products make clear that only one book supported a movie.

Edgar (Shaun of the Dead) Wright, a very intuitive British filmmaker who clearly likes to get funky, brings the black and white Scott Pilgrim to full color life in the form of hipster icon Michael Cera. The day will come when Cera will play someone who isn’t the human incarnation of a baby bird, but it hasn’t yet. As Pilgrim, Cera, in all his droll glory, is permitted to go a little Jackie Chan, but he does so in reluctant, baby bird fashion (though it is nice to know that rage is in his arsenal of nervous-tick expressions). The evil exes (played amusingly by the likes of Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, and Jason Schwartzman, among others) appear in succession, and Pilgrim dispatches them with various degrees of effort and spectacle. Because Scott Pilgrim is creator Bryan Lee O’Malley’s ode to the Toronto slacker scene, the bad guys – who each represent some form of either Catcher in the Rye phoniness or corporate selloutocity – are depicted in Japanese/manga comic book style and when beaten are eviscerated, leaving a pile of coins reminiscent of old school video games. As much as the action sequences are inspired – choreographed and CGIed to brain-tingling effect – the manner in which they are captured serves no viable purpose. The film feels like a quirky experiment, not an essential whole.

Wright reverently transfers the comic from page to screen, but what worked over six books (only the second of which was called Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) becomes tedious and repetitive in abridged, consolidated, live-action form. This is not to suggest that Scott Pilgrim does not have its delights.      

Videogames, smart ass banter, comics, emo rock, gay roommates, disdaining the mainstream in theory, but venerating it in actuality, holding short-term dead-end jobs to pay the rent while waiting for your band to explode, and a pretty sweet love story are all here to amuse and amaze in concentretated bursts. Wright just seems to use so much fuel for individual rocket-propelled moments that the overall production runs out of gas.

Scott Pilgrim is a film where youth is power and power is music, video games, and confronting your exes with how great your current hook up is, but like most hipsters you meet, it is more impressed with itself than anything else.

Kick-Ass is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The movie and the comic book are a perfect match. In fact, the two projects were conceived simultaneously and the synergy shows.

Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. groundbreaking book is the kind of film I would write shameless “print me” advertisements for. I’ll try one right now: “Surprisingly original and total awesomeness!” Okay, maybe I’m not the next Peter Travers (or even Peter Hammond), but Kick-Ass is such an exciting, refreshing development in comic book filmmaking that I want to shout it from the rooftops.  

The differences between the comic and the film are negligible, limited to minor narrative choices that the screenwriters and the comic scribes agreed upon. Both tell the tale of Dave Lizewski (anti-leading man Aaron Johnson), a high school nobody who, after getting mugged, decides he’s not going to take it anymore. The result is an untrained, but irrationally motivated kid looking for trouble with a squeaky voice, two wooden clubs, and disguised in scuba gear. After a viral video of Kick-Ass taking a severe beating to protect a stranger explodes online, the real bad guys, mistaking Dave for a formidable adversary, come gunning for him.

There is a lot more to Kick-Ass than an eccentric accidental superhero trying to keep his secret identity. There is a lot more to Kick-Ass than a high school fantasy comedy about a nerd taking control and getting the girl.

Let me now try another one of those movie-ad blurbs: “Risk taking and radical!” That one is not going to cut it either, but it is imperative to understand that Kick-Ass is not a shallow, or surface-only diversion. While Dave is exploring his inner vigilante, we are introduced to a diabolical father-daughter team of “actual” superheroes in that they are highly proficient assassins on the side of good. The father, Big Daddy, is played with maniac merriment by Nicolas Cage, who serves up a reminder as to why we used to love and respect him. The eleven year old daughter calls herself Hit-Girl and is as comfortable and handy with deadly blades as she is with salty speech. Actress Chloe Grace Moretz does her best to fill Hit-Girl’s portentous shoes, but the effect of small body doing big things with a dirty mouth remains uneven. I am not bothered or offended by cute, young Moretz playing the adult part as some were. I just wish she maimed, killed, and swore more convincingly.

Although we take the wild ride with Kick-Ass, it is Big Daddy and Hit-Girl that infuse the movie with heart (and add an element of disturbing intensity). Luckily, this is only the beginning of the saga, and by the end of this first installment, we have the makings of a wounded, but dynamic team of heroes and the emergence of a vivid, outrageous supervillian.   

I feel another one of those promotional exclamations coming on: “Be there in 2012 for Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall!” Seriously, be there.

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

 

As it marches resolutely to an audacious conclusion, the Harry Potter series grows corrosively darker and meaner, and in that sense less familiar to the fans who have watched Harry, Hermione, and Ron charm their way through some lighthearted, some more challenging, and some comparatively murky adventures over the years. While the last few films (each boldly directed by David Yates) have featured more fright and plight than anything else, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow Part 1 cuts all ties with its PG Harry Potter roots and starts to take the shape of an exhausting Lord of the Rings-style epic, and that’s not a bad thing. The universe for English wizard, troll, goblin, and elf literature is an intimate one, and, all credit to J.K. Rowling for her generous imagination, J.R.R. Tolkien supplied the blueprint. In Deathly Hallows, we encounter a desperate, but determined Harry on the run as he attempts to singlehandedly carry the burden of a Horcrux like Frodo carried the ring of power. Voldemort and his Death Eaters are back in vigorous health, all intimidating, seductive, and influential, and only a small band of pure hearts remain engaged in a good versus evil war that appears impossible to win. We are country miles from relatively inconsequential Quidditch matches, Diagon Alley shopping sprees, and jitters over the strict new potions professor. As we watch the penultimate film as if dragged through a thunder cloud of black mud, we are nostalgic for the days when trouble meant being caught out after curfew by Severus Snape. We are in fact removed from all the endearing details that made Harry Potter films a charming and pleasant experience early on. What remains is a heart-pounding, difficult, challenging, and very often stunningly beautiful film about friendship and, surprisingly enough, the ugliness of fascism.

Yates’ film, from the Steve Kloves screenplay (Kloves wrote seven of eight) takes its time establishing the quiet scenes and the graveyard humor, particularly as naturally occurring between our three heroes, to give the film a gravity that spectacular broom-chases and narrow escapes from the Ministry of Magic could never accomplish on their own. A mesmerizing animated sequence inserted into the film to reveal and explain the source of its title, is the kind of artistic highlight that demands audience reverence. And, like much of this film, it is devilishly terrifying.   

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is an adult movie with adult themes and, finally, an adult cast. Any traces of pre-pubescence lingering on the faces and physiques of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint in prior films has disappeared. And just in time. What lies ahead is no road for unsupervised children, even those as talented, precocious, and eminently durable as Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, like all good sendoffs, brings back allies and fan favorites from the past, to help Harry along and to sacrifice for him as the young wizard fulfills his destiny.

The domineering final stretch of a story that has become as much popcorn distraction as old, reliable friend is shaping up to be part family reunion, part merciless slugfest. We muggles are appropriately overwhelmed with sadness, warm anticipation, and dread.  

to read Part I of  2010 Movies Blowout, click here


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