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My Week(s) in Movies (8/9–9/5)

September 6, 2011

SKYLINE* — My post on framing a few weeks ago applies here. SKYLINE hit the cineplexes of the world to powerfully negative reviews, and in that context I can see the problem. The project is direct-to-video, or made-for-TV quality at best, with the exception of the visual effects, which are top-tier quality — which only makes sense, as the film was produced by a visual effects company foraying into full production.

(This makes a hilarious kind of sense of the Donald Faison character, who lives the ostentatious rockstar lifestyle in a swanky, expensive penthouse — but he’s not a rock star, he owns an effects company. I’d say that everyone’s got their own Mary Sue, and even that it’s a second magic bean, but apparently that condo does belong to one of the directors, who does own a visual effects company. I hope the company pays well, since the company artists who worked on this had to spend their days looking at what their boss goes home to.)

Framed in the context of a direct-to-video/made-for-TV production, SKYLINE is top of its class. A dubious honor, sure, but my point is that as a Netflix Instant impulse viewing, I didn’t hate it. At just over 90 minutes, it doesn’t greatly overstay its welcome (although I think the film would have been improved by dropping the last 5 minutes) and there are just enough moments that are actually pretty solid to have kept my interest between the duller bits, where unpleasant L.A. people (even the characters supposedly not from here have that vibe) fail to gain my sympathy or desire to see them survive.

In the old days, you used to be able to tell when you were dealing with a visual effects shot because suddenly the camera would be completely stationary, in a wide shot, regardless of the style of the rest of the film, as it was essentially impossible to do the effects otherwise. Today, in a film like SKYLINE, it’s the opposite — you can tell when you’re dealing with an effects shot (besides the obvious presence of alien technology) because all of a sudden the shooting style gets way more dynamic, energetic, and interesting. Whenever the directors are in their comfort zone with effects, they’re excited to show off what they can do. But when they’re not dealing with effects, they seem to forget that they could continue making the film that way and keep that momentum going. It feels like the non-FX scenes are just filler, an excuse to get to the next setpiece. Which of course they are, but the movie should at least try to pretend otherwise.

I will say that I think the filmmakers do show some real skill. Amid the SyFy Channel fiddle-faddle of plot and characterization, here are a few moments of genuine, effective horror on a par with 80s John Carpenter. They’re revisited to the point that they completely lose impact eventually, but there’s no denying that they have the impact the first time. And in the action moments, they show a great facility for constantly cranking up the tension, raising the stakes, and throwing up new obstacles for the characters to overcome.

It’s not a great movie. It’s not even really a good movie. But it’s not a terrible movie, I don’t think, and if you’re clicking aimlessly around Netflix some evening looking for light entertainment, you could do a lot worse.

I LOVE YOU, PHILIP MORRIS* — This movie has nothing to do with cigarettes. Let’s put that out there right up front. This is a movie about a gay con man (Jim Carrey) who falls in love with another, very sweet and innocent inmate (Ewan MacGregor) during one of his stints in prison. Said sweet-and-innocent happens to be named Philip Morris. Based on a true story.

I thought it was great. Carrey plays his role riding the fine edge of manic and serious that he’s matured into so well, and MacGregor plays the innocent Southerner superbly. His accent is probably awful to a Southern ear but it worked fine for me, and the chemistry between the two of them really made me believe them as the characters and completely forget that I was watching two actors, who I’ve seen many times before, go gay for pay. It doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that it’s a gay relationship, either. That’s just what it is and it tells you a story about it. A dark comedy with some real heart. Definitely worth checking out.

COWBOYS & ALIENS — Aww, maaaannnn.

I was excited about this film. I wanted so badly for it to work. It’s a neat idea with the potential for a lot of fun and excitement and nods to both genres, I like Daniel Craig, and I want to continue liking Jon Favreau because the first IRON MAN was great and in every interview he seems to be so passionate and earnest and down-to-earth. I just wanted this to work, dammit.

But it doesn’t. Even adjusting for the fact that it’s doing a Western and so it’s going to take its time and the pacing will be a little more relaxed, it’s dull and plodding and the action isn’t exciting and gets quickly repetitive and there are too many magic beans and turn-your-brain-off moments for my taste.

I think what I would’ve done differently, or what my note would have been at the screenplay stage had I been asked, would be to change the type of Western the aliens invade. They decided to go with a classic Man With No Name archetype — when I think it might have been more interesting to start from a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid buddy/bandit film. Inject some character and humor into this thing, because there isn’t any in the current version. Everyone just stands around gruffly saying exactly what they’re thinking and/or whatever the plot needs them to say or do.

This could have been amazing, a classic of both genres. Instead it’s fairly pointless and completely forgettable. So disappointing.

C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA* — A very clever, if flawed, alternate-history look at what the world might be like had the South won the American Civil War. Rather than going a straight IDIOCRACY route of setting some story against the textural backdrop of the CSA, the film is presented as a British (therefore, presumably, unbiased) documentary about the fictitious nation’s genesis in the Civil War and the course of its history afterward. It is also presented as though airing on a CSA television network, and so natural commercial breaks in the documentary lead to advertisements for products of occasionally stunning racism (made all the more stunning by an out-of-universe, real-world coda to the film, pointing out that the majority of the advertised products were, in fact, real at some point in our own nation’s history).

Overall, the alternate history is hit-or-miss in terms of plausibility and originality. In some places it feels like writer-director Kevin Willmott really thought through the logical progression of his alternate history and the ideology of the imaginary country — such as when the CSA does not involve itself in the European theater of World War II because, at heart, it sympathizes with Hitler’s passion for purifying the human race (protesting only that the extermination of undesired peoples is a waste of perfectly good potential slaves — although the word they use is “livestock”). In other places it feels like he took the idea as far as he could, and then fell back on real history to springboard from there — such as when the stock market crash of the 30s caused the imperialistic nation to become politically isolationist; never mind that the circumstances and economy of this other nation would have been totally different and the market crash therefore might never have happened, nor indeed would the stock market necessarily have existed at all. He also has the Confederacy immediately re-annex the North, re-forming the Union under different management.

I think it might have been interesting to see the history of the two Americas side-by-side, but he seems to have preferred the “dark mirror” approach overall. Big moments in history still happen, but now with a twist — as in the WWII example above, or when John F. Kennedy wins the Presidency as a Republican candidate (the two parties never having swapped ideologies with the exodus of the Dixiecrats) and his assassination becomes due to his abolitionist policies, essentially making Lincoln’s death into Kennedy’s. Lincoln himself is never assassinated, but dies in Canadian exile after being granted a pardon for war crimes by President Jefferson Davis.

The alt-hist doesn’t always keep great track of its own thread. For example, some talking-head historians reference how, in the period of Reconstruction, literature and other popular media avoided the topic of slavery entirely and instead romanticized the war as being about freedom and patriotism — but then excerpts from works of Reconstruction pop culture refer quite directly to slavery as a central issue. Said talking heads also have a tendency to speak in such a way as to sound like they’re repeating Confederate spin rather than objective history. It makes sense in the case of certain talking heads who are proud CSA citizens, but expats, black Canadian historians, and even the British narrator also tip a little too much toward CSA newspeak at times.

All that said, the film’s creation of a detailed and plausible alternative history is more clever than not, and while the occasional flaw may keep it from being a work of complete genius, it’s still pretty damn smart and interesting.

Where the film really shines, though, is in the style and execution. Clearly designed in emulation of Ken Burns’ THE CIVIL WAR, the film nails that documentary style and pacing to a T. On top of that, whenever the film references some other media — such as an Academy Award-winning film from the alternate 1940s, or the 1950s thriller I MARRIED AN ABOLITIONIST — the excerpts perfectly capture the feel of the referenced times in every detail. Mood, cinematography, nuances of performance — I really believe that I’m watching a movie from the ‘40s or clips of a beloved 60s sitcom (Leave It To Beulah). Not only is Willmott’s command of style and understanding of how to emulate such a broad range impressive on a technical level, it gives the history of the CSA a depth and richness that brings the whole thing to (often terrifying) life.

As mentioned, it has its rough spots, but overall this is a well-produced, thought-provoking look at what might have been, with an appropriate satirical bite towards what actually was/is. If you’ve got Netflix, it’s definitely worth your 90 minutes.

HOWARD THE DUCK* — After literally a lifetime of hearing about what a mess this film is, I finally watched it in preparation for a Down in Front episode on the subject. Naturally, we speak quite at length about it in the commentary itself, which should be released in the next few weeks. The upshot is that, in my opinion, this is not the worst big-budget movie ever (anymore, at least — looking at you, Shyamalan), and does not present a challenge to my view that any story or premise can have a good potential execution.

Such a thing as a good HOWARD THE DUCK is conceivably possible. Figure out the tone rather than leaping between family fare and adult, put down the duck puns and back away slowly, and engage a bit more in the social satire which apparently was the original function of HtD comics (I haven’t read any). For more on the subject, check out the eventual commentary.

SOURCE CODE — Another film I watched for Down in Front (and with commentary forthcoming).

It’s a challenging film, and one that bears at least a second viewing, because they pull out a plot twist a good 2/3 of the way through that kind of changes everything, and IMO improves it in the changing. But, the first time through you’ve spent an hour thinking it’s one thing and not really caring about it, so the reason to care comes a little too late and feels almost like a cheat. But so far I like Duncan Jones, he does well with engaging yet almost minimalist storytelling, and I’m looking forward to what he comes out with next.

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