Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Recent Movie Roundup 9

Obviously, the real movie news of the week is the release of the new Watchmen trailer (beautiful and despite my misgivings, quite promising, though I'm not as in love with the original book as some) and the even newer Star Trek trailer (awful, and looking very much like your run of the mill J.J. Abrams crapfest). Still, here are some looks at the leftover films of summer and fall.
  1. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) - My expectations for this film were somewhere in a sub, sub-basement beneath the movie theater, what with my lukewarm reaction to the first film and the even more tepid critical response. Which might go some way towards explaining why I enjoyed it as much as I did. The first Hellboy film couldn't stop undermining itself, inching towards the over the top weirdness of the original comic's universe and then immediately retreating into the standard superhero film template as though afraid that that weirdness would put audiences off. It thus ended up being neither one thing nor the other. With Hellboy II, the franchise seems to have cut loose and embraced the fact that this is a fantasy universe in which a disembodied spirit with a German accent walks around encased in a rubber suit ordering SWAT strikes and liaising with officials in Washington--a cross between Pan's Labyrinth and Men in Black. I'm also not sure where the loudly voiced complaints about the film's plot came from, as to my mind it was no sillier than that of any summer superhero film: villain X seeks artifact Y with which to enact apocalypse Z; hero A and his/her/its team to the rescue! Add a couple of fun action sequences and a reasonably lucid progression from one plot point to another and you're good to go.

    Where Hellboy II actually fails is in its characters, who are not simply flat--I don't look to superhero films for nuanced character work--but almost incidental to the film, either dull or underdeveloped or both. The title character has almost precisely the same character arc in this film as he did in the first one--wants to be good, destined to be evil; wants to be a regular guy, is a giant, red-skinned demon with horns and a huge stone fist--with a romantic subplot thrown in that is so by-the-numbers that neither he nor his lover can seem to work up much of an interest in it, while the secondary characters are hardly even there, merely engines to move the plot forwards. On the other hand, this is easily the most stunning film I've seen since Wall-E, though it seems wrong to mention the two films in the same breath as their visual approaches are so different. In an industry dominated by CGI, Guillermo del Toro's reliance on physical effects and puppetry is both shocking and refreshing, a veritable feast of texture, grime, and beauty that might have crawled out China Miéville's head (now there's an idea: once he's done with The Hobbit, have del Toro makes a miniseries out of Perdido Street Station or King Rat). The film's beauty carries it through the rough patches created by its shoddy characterization--we may not care about Hellboy and his friends, but we sure as hell enjoy seeing through their eyes. The result is far from perfect--I don't think I've unreservedly loved any of del Toro's films other than The Devil's Backbone--but despite its flaws it is a lot of fun to watch.

  2. Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs (2008) and Futurama: Bender's Game (2008) - The good news is, the Futurama films keep getting better and better. The bad news is, even the best of them isn't as good as the original series's mediocre episodes. Like The Simpsons before it, Futurama told stories in a haphazard manner, starting an episode with one plot and then lurching into another with almost no warning. This kind of rail-jumping was amusing in 22-minute increments, but in a 90-minute film it quickly begins to pall, especially when it becomes clear just how padded those 90 minutes are with material which, in the show, would quite rightly have been left on the cutting room floor.

    The Beast With a Billion Backs is the more egregious offender on all these counts, telling a story that is essentially a protracted sex joke (never a particular forte of this show) via an extraordinarily circuitous and ultimately tedious route, which involves Fry falling in love with a girl who wants him to be her fifth boyfriend, Amy and Kiff getting married, an alien tentacle attack, Bender joining a secret robot fraternity, and Zapp Brannigan being far less amusing than he usually is. I'm also annoyed that the Fry/Leela romance seems to have been done away with entirely, and, even worse, that Amy and Kiff's relationship is perhaps permanently sundered. Bender's Game is no less meandering, but still a lot better than Beast With a Billion Backs because much funnier. The film's second half is an extended Lord of the Rings/Dungeons & Dragons parody that is wickedly funny and plays to the show's strength as a series by geeks, for geeks, and fully grokking the geek mindset. Once again, the feature-length format works against the film, which means that despite mining similar ground it doesn't scale the heights of the series's more psychedelic episodes such as "Fry and the Slurm Factory" or "The Sting," but unlike Beast With a Billion Backs or the utterly forgettable Bender's Big Score I didn't find myself looking at my watch or waiting for a less interesting segment to pass. This is still not Futurama as I love and remember it, but Bender's Game, at least, is an acceptable stand-in.

  3. Quantum of Solace (2008) - When I wrote about Casino Royale I called it an utterly serious film about the creation of an utterly ludicrous person. Having created that person, I expected the second film in the rebooted Bond franchise to move back towards the standard Bond template: the gadgets, the fancy soirees, the tux, the casual misogyny. Instead, Quantum of Solace feels very much like the middle part of a trilogy. Most of the film is spent tying up the loose ends from Casino Royale, as Bond tries to track down the people responsible for Vesper's death, in the process uncovering a far-reaching conspiracy, the defeat of which will no doubt be the focus of the next film. This, however, leaves Quantum of Solace curiously plotless. A lot happens, sometimes a little too quickly for someone whose recollection of Casino Royale is less than impeccable to follow, but all of it feels like a means to an end rather than significant in its own right.

    Not helping matters is the plain fact that if Casino Royale was influenced by the Bourne films, Quantum of Solace is trying to be one--a dour, lethal man nearly crushed by a grief he won't let himself express, seeking vengeance with burning intensity against a powerful, faceless organization while the camera careens crazily around him (I'm reliably informed by people more knowledgeable about these matters than myself that there's a difference between good and bad shaky-cam direction, and that Quantum director Marc Forster's work falls in the latter camp while Bourne director Paul Greengrass makes the former. I hate all shaky-cam, but the camerawork in Quantum, though rarely much fun, at least shows the characters' full faces when they're on screen, which is more than one can say for Greengrass's work). Without wishing to sound like one of those people who are complaining because Bond only shags one of the Bond girls (though I hardly think this fact makes the film significantly less misogynistic than your average entry in the Bond franchise, given that said girl is hardly on screen and promptly killed off once Bond is done with her), I don't see what's Bond-ish about Quantum of Solace. Casino Royale managed to revamp the franchise while still preserving its essence, but Quantum of Solace, though by no means a bad film--it certainly does move, and though I still think Daniel Craig is playing Bond like an empty person, I'm coming around to the notion that this is intentional--seems to be trying hard to be something else, something much more generic.

  4. Blindness (2008) - Having been less than blown away by José Saramago's novel, I thought there was a good chance that I'd enjoy the film adaptation. Most of the things that aggravated me about Blindness--the overbearing narrative voice, the haphazard attention paid to real-world details and common sense, the everyman and -woman characters--would almost certainly fail to make the transition to the film medium, leaving only the meat of the novel, its description of the stifling helplessness of sudden blindness and the collapse of all social institutions in the wake of such an epidemic. Unfortunately, Don McKellar's adaptation, though addressing all of these points, fails to move far enough away from the novel. The characters are the film's biggest problem. The script makes a few cursory attempts to turn these ciphers into individuals--the thief's injured sense of superiority, the prostitute's flirtation with the doctor before they both lose their sight, the hints of strain in the doctor's marriage--and the fine cast also does a lot on this score, but in the end these still aren't people. When I saw Susan Coyne playing a woman in the main characters' ward, I was distressed, because I really didn't want to see Slings & Arrows's Anna be raped and beaten as I knew this character would be, and the film had done nothing to make Coyne's character something distinct from the character I'd already seen her play. I liked this version of Blindness better than the book (though I find the choice to excise some of the more brutal scenes in the novel rather wimpy), but it's not the film I hoped it would be, and a sadly wasted opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Watching Quantum of Solace reminded me of some of your reviews of Battlestar Galactica, and the complaints I shared with them: among other things, the assumption throughout that merely naming a lot of topical real-world issues is enough to look important and insightful, and the habit of the story to jump into interesting set pieces, plot twists, and sequences without much idea of how to get in or out of them. And I think the shaky-cam was more bothersome in this film than in most because it begs for direct comparison to Casino Royale, a film that was refreshing for sticking out as a piece of clear, unambiguous action with a causality you could follow from shot to shot.

I'm not one to believe that films have to stick to their sources, but it's amazing how consistently the Bond films flag in plotting the further they diverge from Ian Fleming (GoldenEye being the only major exception I can think of).

And: agreed on the Abrams Star Trek. The fact that they kept the colours of the original costumes while making everything else look so sparkling and glossy seems to sum up the entire direction of the project.

Tzvika Barenholz said...

Hey, I grew up on Felicity. Abrams isn't so bad (although his Star Trek movie will inevitably suck)

Anonymous said...

I totally agree about the Futurama movies (and Hellboy 2 as well, but that you know already). While I do believe that Matt Groening and co. should move to bigger-scale projects - specifically, theatrical films - I also think they should let go of their old franchises while doing so. A good example would be the British Aardman animation studio - I thought their first theatrical feature, `Chicken Run` (based on an original script) was amazing, but found their second feature, based on their familiar `Wallace and Gromit` characters, to be so-so.
I totally disagree, however, about the Star-Trek trailer. I think it looks cool.

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