Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tangled (2010, Greno, Howard)

Rating: **1/2

Tangled is a very strange title for any animated feature, not least for the 50th animated feature coming from the Walt Disney studios (it seems more like something out of early Fassbinder – or late Julia Roberts). The movie, though enjoyable, has a rather dull look to it – all honeyed golds and pinks, like those Barbie (or My Little Pony) straight-to-DVD movies that you don’t want your kid to watch. What’s more troubling, though, is that there’s little sense of wonder in the whole production. The script sits rather uneasily between a straight retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, and the morbidly Shrekian notion of destroying all faith in fairy tales as such. Once the off-screen narration begins and you hear the compulsive, self-conscious (and borderline apologetic) qualifiers in the first couple of sentences, it’s easy to get apprehensive – and for a reason.

The movie doesn’t really believe in the elation of romance, or rather – it believes in it and it doesn’t, by turns. You won’t find anything in Tangled that would match the silly energy and giddy flow of the “Whole New World” flying-carpet sequence from Alladin (1992) – here, when Rapunzel leaves her tower for the first time, she becomes so anxious and guilt-ridden that her brief shrieks of joy are interwoven with violent sobbing and therapy-session banter between her and the Flynn Ryder character. It works as a joke, but undercuts the inner workings of the story and makes the final pay-off matter less.

I liked most of the film, but it lacks a sustained tone as a whole. I’d much prefer the filmmakers to take sides more forcefully: either they’re into the whole ironic deconstruction thing, or they tell an engaging, energetic tale of magic, romance and adventure. It was the unity of tone made The Princess and the Frog (2009) so successful and it's the lack of it that makes Tangled, well, flawed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Breathless (1983, McBride)

Rating: ***1/2

Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) is in many ways even more radical an aesthetic statement than Godard’s celebrated 1959 version. By switching the nationalities of the main couple, as well as by trading Paris for gaudy California, McBride shifted the meanings of the original material, and yet managed to preserve its core. The main theme here (as it was in Godard) is the displacement of an individual in democratic (i.e. Americanized) culture. McBride’s protagonist is even more steeped in pulp references and there’s more glee in his infatuation with the Silver Surfer comic-strip character than there was in Belmondo’s emulating Bogart’s cool.

McBride’s forceful visual style, and his stunning use of expertly choreographed long takes (my favorite is the long, teasing sex scene involving imaginative use of an answering machine and a plate-glass shower curtain), owes more to classical Hollywood storytelling than to Godard’s jump cuts. Thus this Breathless may seem less distanced from the popular culture intoxication that it both mocks and embraces. The scene with the couple making love in front of a movie screen on which Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) is playing, is both tacky in its shameless TV-ad-like gloss and stunning in how literal-minded and arresting its central metaphor is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Unstoppable (2010, T.Scott)

Rating: ***

More of a fun ride than a movie proper, Tony Scott’s Unstoppable makes no claims to subtlety, and is in many ways an even more radical disembowelment of the modern action flick genre than Scott’s jittery Taking of Pelham One Two Three (2009) remake – with which it shares a star, a style and (though this remains to be seen) probably a box office pull.

The premise of having one million tons worth of steel blindly speeding down the railroads of industrial Pennsylvania has an dumb impact of its own. Having cast Chris Pine – for whom the earthly mph must be something of a trifle after having experienced the warp speed in last year’s Star Trek (2009) – and Denzel Washington as the two barely-delineated but amiable buddy-leads doesn’t hurt either.

Unlike in Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994), the menace here is the speed itself, and not just any stock-psycho (be it Hopper, be it Travolta) spurting demands and/or prophecies into his phone (thus transforming the hair-raising action sequences into moral struggles between good and evil).

Now, a stray unmanned train speeding toward doom isn’t exactly tough to politicize, either. One can clearly see Scott sympathies lying with the blue-collar workers whose guts, hunch and experience save the day in spite of the big bosses’ failed attempts to act. (This working-class optimism is so clear-eyed and populist that we are never pushed too far to acknowledge the obvious guilt of Ethan Suplee’s slob-mechanic, whose very negligence triggered the whole event and resulted in a death of one person).

Still, the movie is so unashamedly mechanical and its mode such a willful assault of our senses, that after 100 minutes of Scott’s signature firecracker-zooming, compulsive fast cutting and non-stop flow of Harry Gregson-William’s throbbing score, one can end up too exhausted to fully partake in the closing on-screen elation of a feat spectacularly accomplished.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Due Date (2010, Phillips)

Rating: ***

With all its lazy sitcom writing and its grating overload of dog reaction shots, Due Date strikes me as this year’s most rousing comedy, thanks to a happy pairing of two extremely odd and brilliant comic actors. The volatile straight man Robert Downey, and the hirsute nutball Zach Galifianakis make a great team together.

Todd Phillips doesn’t have the scale (or sensitivity) of, say, Jonathan Demme: his mix of abrupt action sequences and run-of-the-mill character comedy is purely mechanical, and never does it account for a genuine shift in tone. The shocking jolts (car crash, gunshot, etc.) keep coming and never truly disrupt the characters’ comic rapport with the audience. Still, it’s due to Phillips’ remarkable timing that those jolts aren’t just slapstick effects devoid of consequences. There’s a dark, surrealistic streak in Phillips that came to light a year ago in The Hangover (2009), and is on display in Due Date, as well.

The new movie is more dutiful in hanging onto generic rewards offered by the buddy movie, but the oddity of particular choices made by Downey and Galifianakis defy all conventions. (The scene in which Downey spits in the little mutt’s muzzle in ager has a raw energy that’s both scary and convulsively funny.)