Sunday, November 25, 2012

One 24-Year-Old, Five Twilight Movies

Spoilers for the last two Twilight movies.

As of twenty-four hours ago, I have seen every single movie in the Twilight saga. Offering comprehensive criticism would be both redundant, in light of the fact that Twilight has been the Internet's punching bag for the last five years, and impossible. I really don't know how I feel about the films at all. They're so dramatically inert that they are rarely fun to mock, and even when the craftsmanship is decent (Eclipse, Breaking Dawn Part 2), it amounts merely to a streamlining or beautification of total uneventfulness. I don't relate to any of the characters or situations, and the saga isn't exactly a must-see cultural phenomenon since the majority of people will likely turn against it or forget about it within the decade.

And yet I watched all of them. I even paid ten dollars to see the final installment in theaters, which I regretted just like I knew I would. Just like the previous four, it was 20% moderate schadenfreude, 80% tedious moping. So the odyssey came to a close and I found myself no more aware of why I stuck through it all.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lincoln: Anatomy of a Rottentomatoes Capsule

"Daniel Day-Lewis characteristically delivers in this witty, dignified portrait that immerses the audience in its world and entertains even as it informs."

-'s summation of the 90% positive critical response to Lincoln

a) "Daniel Day-Lewis characteristically delivers"

Oh, yes. Coming in as a shocker to absolutely no one, DDL knocks another one out of the park. What's that "one" exactly? Over a dozen weighty, metaphorical monologues, most of which are underscored by a typical John Williams orchestra wank in order to remind us to be moved or stimulated or wryly entertained. He's the smartest, saintliest man in every room he enters, which ultimately grows weary because we already know he's right and we already know that the 13th Amendment will be ratified. It's like trying to convince an audience that Hitler was evil. Lincoln's hollow racial motives are handwaved away via one conversation with a tearful black maid, and what few personal demons we are privy to are teased out by - surprise! - his wife. Using a woman to peer into the troubles of a venerable public figure feels cheap and common. And sure, Lincoln was a great man, but Amelia Earhart was a great woman and that didn't stop critics from crashing that plane. That film had its problems, but it's not like Lincoln doesn't either. Biographical sanctification, long decried as a major flaw for any biopic, is apparently excusable here through the efforts of DDL alone. He's great. Of course. But the Lincoln he portrays is shallow, made to sound deep through densely worded politicking and a surfeit of three-minute tangents (also given an attempted handwave by a character attempting to make Lincoln sound like he isn't the best storyteller in the world). The entire movie is a gift from him to Spielberg, a two-point-five hour long Oscar reel for a man that hardly needs it.

b) "in this witty, dignified portrait"

Counterpoint to "witty": how about babbling? Again, the movie is so enamored with its own wordiness that anything that could be remotely construed as wit becomes agonizingly protracted. Not that I expect Tony Kushner, an awfully long way from Angels in America, to Sorkinize 1865 political parlance, but every single scene and dialogue has the same rhythm: slooooow. The only change from line to line is volume, because even with the linguistic evolutions that have transpired over the last century and a half, people still used to shout when they got angry.

Counterpoint to "dignified": any scene with James Spader's woeful political buttonpusher W.N. Bilbo. The movie's most gruesome scene, involving a wheelbarrow full of limbs, paired with its refusal to show the assassination of the president under the insinuation of "dignity." The very idea that a film that contains at least half an hour of gale force monologuing has any grasp of the kind of restraint necessary for aforementioned "dignity".

c) "that immerses the audience in its world"

The movie looks beautiful; top shelf Janusz Kaminski, reverently lighting and shooting the film like a collection of Old Hollywood portraits. That's basically where my praise for the movie ends. Immersion is awfully difficult to reach when the only noteworthy characters you've got to guide you through this Congressional marshland are DDL, a serviceable Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field doing a pretty unremarkable Long-Suffering Wife, and about five useless minutes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This movie doesn't skimp on its casting, with a gallery of fresh and familiar faces alike, but it suffers a similar fate to last year's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in that nearly all of these faces are used to push a point of view or political stance rather than do anything vaguely human. They are not, nor does the movie ever even pretend to care that they should be, people. The only differentiation between a majority of this movie's hugely overstuffed cast is what kind of Muppet they look like. Forget any hopes for a notable African-American presence in the film, by the way: their sole purpose is to remind us, by standing in silent solidarity while their light-skinned oppressors propel all the action forward, that this was a very good thing to happen for black people.

d) "and entertains even as it informs."

Ugh, but only in the most insulting way possible. Spielberg wants us to remember that history can be fun too! So what better way than to break the flow of a movie that's already excruciatingly long and boring by inserting scenes where James Spader is really wacky? Did you guys know that people said fuck back then? Did you know that they made jokes about poop? They really are just like us! There hasn't been such an ill-conceived marriage of drama and comedy since...well, Cloud Atlas. Call this the year of ponderous, overreaching bullshit.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall: The Bond Brand

Skyfall is a good, solid Bond movie. Not without its problems, if you choose to disregard the predictably hyperbolic BOND IS BACKers: the third act is a pretty thorough wash, squandering a handful of intriguing ideas laid out by the first two; not every action scene lands; and the normally reliable Naomie Harris is terrible in ways that bode ill for future films in the franchise. For the most part, though, the movie is an exciting, beautifully shot, intuitively paced entry in the canon, an effort that buries the forgettable Quantum of Solace and restores its flagbearer to nearly full vitality.

What caught my attention, however, was Skyfall's frequent self-reference and its acknowledgement of Bond as an indelible cultural standing stone. The film is peppered with inside jokes, many of which I'm sure I didn't catch because of my lack of comprehensive Bond knowledge; it also focuses on the perceived obsolescence of England's beloved old guard, Bond and M, and how there's no room for their clandestine methods in a world "without shadows." Bond may be Bond, sure, but is Bond enough these days? Can the world still rely on this aging, lecherous old boozehound? The answer is yes, of course, but the film constructs itself around the incomprehensible possibility that it can't. Skyfall is obsessed with its roots and using them to entertain, raise thematic questions, and perhaps redundantly in the face of its 50th anniversary, celebrate itself.

But does it earn that right? Preying on nostalgia is dangerous, and though it typically pays out considerable financial and popular dividends, it can also make the work in question seem opportunistic or manipulative. This has become an exceptionally popular tactic in the last decade, with remakes and reboots and reimaginings galore. What makes Skyfall's frequent callbacks to its lineage problematic, however, is that the Bond franchise has been transformed so radically in those 50 years that Craig's recent iterations hardly feel like Bonds at all. Sure, there's goofy humor and intermittent camp to be found, most of which is provided by Javier Bardem's hilarious turn as a bottle-blond M-hating ponce with some icky secrets. Skyfall is careful to parcel these Silly Scenes separately from its Serious Scenes, and a majority of the film gives way to a granite Bond deftly maneuvering through action setpieces of desperate urgency. Certainly a far cry from the likes of the Connery Bond films, where he would rarely even take cover during firefights, or especially the iconic-in-a-bad-way intro to Thunderball where he flies away on a jetpack George Jetson-style. Somewhere along the way, probably after Die Another Day came out and was pilloried by the public, some suit at MGM realized that Bond was going to have to start pulling his weight in order to justify his blockbuster status. No more of this hokey claptrap, unless the script specifically calls for a calculably groan-worthy pun or some "witty" "banter." (Side eye to Harris.)

Overriding any concerns of tone, however, is that Bond has always been a commercial icon. Universal consistency be damned: the Broccolis, MGM, and their superspy lovechild have always answered to the dollar before all else, reaching waaaaay back to those conspicuous crates of Red Stripe in Dr. No. These movies have never been shy about embracing shiny, shiny capitalism, what with the cool brand-name cars and the increasing prevalence of recognizable corporate logos on fancy gadgets. Skyfall itself features plugs for Heineken, Omega Watches, a whole bunch of Sony shit, a resuscitation of the classic Aston Martin, a theme song by ostensibly the year's most popular singer, and a bevy of other goodies for us to subconsciously assimilate. Though Phil Rosenthal's "Forming a Bond with Brands" does a good job at delineating the science of restrained yet overt product placement, it misses the rather obvious fact that commercial restraint is not really necessary in a film franchise twenty-three entries strong. The supposed evils of product placement should hardly be a concern when the franchise's most lucrative product is, has been, and always will be Bond himself. So long as his name remains, these films can be changed and warped beyond familiarity, fluctuate in quality, fellate themselves shamelessly, shovel in wares from every gadget-peddler in the world, and people will still go to see them in droves. The Bond brand is unstoppable. Everything else should feel lucky to share the screen with him.

B (is for Bond)