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My Week(s) in Movies (4/17-5/7)

May 8, 2011

Still not doing great on the watching movies front, but I’ve managed to collect enough over the last few weeks to warrant a post:

CITY OF EMBER — I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around how completely dull and senseless this film was. It felt like I was watching a movie from a mile away — like there was a story there, maybe even interest and tension, but it was far removed from where I was observing it.

The film begins with humanity apparently on the verge of wiping itself out somehow. It’s never made clear how — war, overpopulation, global warming, what? Doesn’t matter, it’s just the excuse for the “greatest minds in the world” to come up with the stupidest plan imaginable. They’re going to:

  • build a city (really more of a small town) deep underground, because that’s totally simple to do
  • evacuate some people to it (what’s the selection criteria for the very few denizens of humanity’s last hope? Shut up, that’s what)
  • censor their society and culture in order to intentionally erase the historical memory of humanity’s previous folly (because those who forget history thereby avoid repeating it — that’s the saying, right?)
  • put a return-to-the-surface evacuation plan — the surface they’re going to purposefully try to make everyone forget exists, per the previous bullet point — in a locked box with a countdown timer, written in English and printed on regular paper
  • make the evacuation plan absurdly complicated, including building the city as essentially a giant puzzle-box to be solved
  • set the timer for 200 years, because these supergeniuses figure whatever’s gone horribly wrong will probably have sorted itself out by then, based on absolutely nothing but pulling the number 200 out of the air and agreeing that sounds fine
  • per the “erasing historical memory” mandate, tell no one at all the significance of the box, just tell them to pass it along down the generations
  • assume nothing can or will go wrong and build no failsafes for anything.

If these are the most brilliant minds in the world of the story, no wonder we’re at the brink of disaster.

That’s the prologue. The story takes place in the city that they did indeed build, called Ember, 200 years later when the box — lost and forgotten decades ago — finally pops open. The society of Ember makes no sense but the movie pretends it does, having many moments where I’m apparently supposed to be on board with something being terribly wrong or off-kilter even though I have no basis for knowing what constitutes on-kilter.

For example, they have a ceremony called Assignment Day, a rite of passage for every child of Ember to be assigned the job they will do for the rest of their lives. But apparently Assignment Day happens just whenever, because most of the kids look about 10, some look about 5 and the main characters look about 18. And then when the male lead is assigned to be a “messenger,” the movie reacts — in the way it’s shot and edited and scored — like that’s a terrible thing to have happened to him, but I’m only 5 minutes into the movie and have no idea why it would be so. And it’s never made clear, because he switches his assignment with a friend (if you can just do that then what is the point of — ah fuck it) who is thrilled to be a messenger and everyone just moves on. It’s like that the whole way through. Stuff happens and happens and happens the end. We’re supposed to care because the movie’s hitting its beats but I have no connection to the characters and there’s never a sense of tension.

The performances are uniformly awful and bland — I have never seen a movie where you could feel the fact that the actors have just recently been hanging out in their trailers. They don’t buy into the world, at all, so the audience can’t either. At the climax of the film the city is falling apart, and the characters are saying urgent things, but in completely casual tones of voice, strolling around when they should be running. It’s especially bizarre because this movie has extensive sets, a lot of the chaos was happening practically, and yet they were as detached from it as if they were just in a big blue room. The music tries like hell to put some urgency and emotion into the things going on onscreen, but it just makes the lack of such things even more apparent. What a pointless mess.

RANGO — Naturally, any computer animated movie these days gets compared against the WWPD (What Would Pixar Do?) standard. Which is particularly ironic in the case of RANGO, since Pixar used to be a division of ILM that was sold off when they wanted to focus on producing their own content and that was not deemed, at the time, an investment that Lucasfilm wished to make. Twenty or so years later, ILM is producing their own content because with the VFX industry becoming increasingly commoditized, owning your own content is becoming the only sensible investment.

So does RANGO stack up against the Pixar high-bar? I think absolutely. It’s certainly the best looking animated film I think I’ve ever seen — ILM brings all their years of experience creating CGI intended to blend photorealistically with live-action photography, and just uses it to make everything in the frame, with some creative stylizations here and there. Story-wise and character-wise, RANGO is very strange in its details while simultaneously grounding those details in the tried-and-true Monomyth structure.

RANGO is not a film that Pixar would have made — it’s a little too idiosyncratic and esoteric, and adult, for their style, which tends to be more broadly accessible — but that just means that it has a clear and distinct voice of its own, rather than a pale imitation of Pixar’s. I thought it was great and will probably pick it up on Blu-Ray, especially if there’s some good special features on there.

IP MAN 2* — Apparently the original IP MAN played it extremely fast and loose with Chinese history, and IP MAN 2 is even guiltier of same. I totally do not care in a movie like this as long as the fighting is cool. I get that it may be  offensive to misrepresent history to those who care deeply about it, but I don’t think anyone’s watching movies like this for historical accuracy. I wouldn’t be upset to watch a Revolutionary War movie where George Washington was a kung fu master laying a single-handed assbeating to the entire British army, as long as the fighting was cool. I know it’s not real.

And the fighting in IP MAN 2 was damn cool. Sammo Hung, the action director of the previous film, reprises that role behind the camera as well as taking on a role in front of it and doing his thing like he hasn’t aged a bit. Sammo Hung, like Donnie Yen, is one of the alongside-Jackie-Chan greats of Hong Kong cinema whose fame hasn’t transcended the ranks of kung fu cinefiles here in the states. Aside from being wicked talented in choreographing, shooting, and performing fight scenes, Sammo’s kind of a fat guy. I don’t say that as an insult, I say that because in my view it adds another layer of awesome to his resume. Despite being overweight, he can jump and flip and do the splits and keep up with his kung fu brethren. Basically, you look at Sammo no matter who you are and think, “Christ, I have no excuse.”

(Apparently Sammo even filmed and performed in one of the film’s setpiece fight scenes only weeks after heart surgery. No excuse!)

In his younger days Sammo often took the role of the comic relief, the hero’s fat friend who could, if push come to shove, also take care of himself well enough. In recent years he’s spent more time behind the camera, but when he steps in front of it he’s aged very well into the archetype of formidable kingpin. You know the character, he’s bossing everyone else around but looks like wealth has made him fat and lazy, but then when the hero shows up the kingpin can dish it better than anyone and you suddenly understand why all these badasses he had as his henchmen were afraid of him.

The film changes its mind about what story it’s telling no less than three times, but each story is interesting and does resolve well enough. It’s not Hollywood structure, but it’s good enough to get the job done and not get boring in between the fighting.

I was also impressed by how well they represented the fighting styles. IP MAN did a great jjob with Wing Chun, and IP MAN 2 did the best job I’ve ever seen of integrating Western boxing into the flow and rhythm of a martial arts fight. This is definitely on my list of films to return to for inspiration in choreographing fight scenes.

THOR — I’m going to just cross-post pretty much verbatim my thoughts from a thread on the Down in Front forums discussing the film. There’s some spoilers. Continue at your own risk, or come back after you’ve seen it…

The premise-writing formula I’ve heard is “What does the hero want, what’s standing in his way, and what terrible thing will happen if he doesn’t succeed?”

When you apply that to THOR, you get this:

What does Thor want: To reclaim his power (in the form of his hammer) and return to Asgard.
What’s standing in his way: Ultimately, his own arrogance, which has made him unworthy of the power (IOW he has to learn great responsibility to earn back his great power). And also S.H.I.E.L.D., I guess. Sort of. Not really.
What terrible thing will happen if he doesn’t succeed: …you got me there. I have no idea.

I mean, okay, you’ve got Loki usurping the throne from Odin (at least the movie treats it that way, but he’s actually got the legitimate claim as far as Asgard is concerned[1]) and giving Asgard over to the Frost Giants. Let’s leave aside for a moment that, as we find out, he’s not actually doing that, and pretend he is. What if Asgard was taken by the Frost Giants? I mean, that sucks for Asgard, but how does that suck for Earth? I guess the Frost Giants would start attacking Earth again, since Asgard is apparently all that stands between them and us. But how did the Frost Giants get to Earth before without the Bifrost?

Now let’s come back to the part where he’s actually not letting the Frost Giants take over Asgard. Why the fuck does he pretend he is? Just to amuse himself by punking the Frost Giants? He doesn’t seem amused, he seems like he’s going to cry with overwhelming emotion in just about every scene. To impress his father by defeating/destroying them? Even accepting that Odin can see and hear everything even while he’s in a coma (oh, did I not mention he’s in a coma? Because he is, for no reason. Except that there’d be no movie if he wasn’t), how does Loki expect to impress his father and show up Thor by doing the exact thing that got Thor banished to begin with? And why does he try to destroy Thor and Earth when all he has to do to win is leave them alone?

The climax of the movie comes down to Thor trying to stop Loki from destroying the Frost Giants’ planet with the Asgardian rainbow bridge, which is for some reason a rainbow laser when Loki wants it to be. This is akin to Aragorn deciding he has to stop Frodo from destroying the Ring — not because he’s being mind-controlled by Sauron or the Ring’s power, but because he’s decided that Orcs are people too — and we’re expected to root for Aragorn despite the rest of the story. The Frost Giants are the enemies of Asgard and that’s all we ever know about them.

They also have nothing to do with Earth. Earth is not threatened in any way by the outcome of the film’s climax. Thor succeeds: Earth is fine. Thor fails: Earth is fine. Why is Earth even in this movie?

Asgard is fine in both scenarios, too, for that matter. If Thor never returns to Asgard, Loki pretends to be giving Asgard to the Frost Giants but isn’t, and wipes them out of the universe completely. The threat of the Frost Giants eliminated, Asgard is peaceful for the rest of eternity under Loki’s rule.

So the only thing threatened at the climax of this movie is the planet of the faceless bad guys. None of our characters are in any danger, short or long term, at all.

Wanted to like this. Was looking forward to liking it based on the reviews. There is genuine humor in the movie and the characters all felt like real people, to Branagh’s credit. But what they want, and why we should want it too, doesn’t ever connect.

  1. Odin banished Thor and then fell into a coma, both of his own accord. You could argue that Loki goaded Thor into attacking the Frost Giants and hence earning his banishment, but a bit of weaksauce reverse psychology is hardly Machiavellian villainy. If their system of passing the crown works anything like ours, Loki is the legitimate heir to the throne and frankly ought to step up and lead.
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