Best Picture Odyssey: “American Hustle”

When I was a little kid, I didn’t understand how keys worked. All I knew was that mommy or daddy stuck a key into the doorknob, jiggled it a little, and the door magically became openable. I didn’t understand that the turning of the key was what did it, and my brain didn’t have enough information to come up with a valid answer. So I decided that maybe if I put the key in the doorknob and shook it so that it made the same sounds that it did when mommy or daddy did it, the door would probably unlock. I tested this hypothesis, and of course it failed. I bring this up because it’s such a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with American Hustle. David O. Russell doesn’t know how to make a thoughtful, engaging film. He just knows what one sounds like. American Hustle is him shaking the hell out of that key so that it makes just the right noise, and he gets the exact same result that I did.

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Some Assembly Required: A Review of “The Avengers”

There is no reason that The Avengers shouldn’t be my favorite movie of the year. It’s a nerd’s paradise. A film showcasing the fighting teamwork of all your favorite superheroes against an extraterrestrial threat, complete with all the requisite explosions and destruction, and on top of it all it’s written and directed by Joss Whedon. How could this not be an amazing movie?

This review won’t win me any fans (especially considering the monstrous box office earnings that were just announced), and you can go right ahead and call me a nitpicking moron if you want to. I get it. To a lot of fans, criticizing this movie is like criticizing your baby. But I refuse to hold back on that account. Enough beating around the bush: I don’t think that The Avengers is a very good movie. However, I also think that it is the perfect comic book movie. Not perfectly good, perfect. These statements are not contradictory. At least, they don’t have to be.

Let’s face it, people. The Avengers is flawed. And I’m not talking about little problems with the plot here and there, the film is fundamentally, structurally, a total mess. Now, you can enjoy it all you want (and I’m getting to that), but you have to admit that the film is problematic. I had a hard time articulating why it left me so empty, even after seeing it twice back-to-back, but I came up with three explanations:

1.) It consists of more setup when we were promised a final payoff,

2.) It was a film that should have been epic with a very limited scope and imagination,

3.) It has no arc, and therefore it doesn’t feel like a full movie.

We’ll run them down in order. Remember that article I wrote that was all about what The Avengers would mean for future Marvel movies? No? Well, go read it. I like it a lot. Anyway, in that article, I talked a lot about how this film would be the culmination of four years of moviemaking, how each previous movie in the franchise was nothing more than setup for this epic grand finale. It turns out I was wrong about that. I know people who were annoyed that movies like Iron Man 2 and Thor were bogged down by pointless advertising for The Avengers, and I’m sure that those people are pretty pissed off right now. The Avengers turns out not to be the grand finale we were promised, but yet more advertising for future Avengers titles. When all the Avengers are finally together, fighting as one to defend Earth, it didn’t feel like a big culmination to me. Part of the reason, I think, is that we have spent so little time with most of these characters. The movie thinks that it can just throw Captain America at me and expect me to automatically love it, but I feel like I barely know him. Whedon is a good writer, and he does his best to dig deep into every character, to give the audience a feeling that these guys aren’t plastic action figures. He succeeds (and the actors all do a great job of helping him with that whole idea), but I found myself wishing that the characters would just get back to their own separate movies so that more time could be spent exploring them. In the case of Iron Man, the hero who audiences know the most, he felt completely out of place. Whedon is a great writer, but his quips are much more at home in the mouths of Captain America or Hulk than Iron Man. Now, his writing of the character could have worked, but Robert Downey Jr. plays it all wrong. He doesn’t give the lines the speed or the intensity that they need. One scene in particular is pretty cringe-worthy because he keeps pausing when he should be speaking rapid-fire. 

Now on to my second point. Why is The Avengers not more ambitious than any of its predecessors? I expected the first true superhero epic, a film that spanned the entire globe, with tons of imaginative but brief battles between our heroes and villains, all leading up to a showstopping, explosive finale wherein New York is trashed by aliens. Well, we certainly got that last part. Actually, The Avengers stays confined to only a handful of locations. We spend more than half our time on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier, and the rest of the movie battling in New York. Aside from a brief trip to Germany and a fight (between the heroes!) in a forest, the film barely moves an inch. Not only that, but the entire plot happens over the course of a single day. Tony Stark never even changes his shirt. Because of this, the film feels incomplete. Even though it seems to have told a complete story, it only felt like the first two acts (at most) of the story. Not enough happened to justify the bombastic battle at the end (a battle that is great fun, by the way, and worthy of the highest praise). I know people are going to disagree on this point most strongly, but this is based on my subjective experience with the film. It was both painfully slow and way too fast at the same time. It seemed to rush through plot points even though it had so few to begin with.

Finally, the “arc” problem. The Avengers feels floppy, like a limp noodle of a movie. In my article predicting the lasting effects of this film, I stated pretty firmly that the film would make strong character decisions. This wasn’t a question, it was an obvious assumption. I was positive that Whedon would not only give each Avenger equal screentime, but also develop them in such a way that it would reverberate into their follow-up stand-alone features. Oh how wrong I was. The film contains not a hint of character development, or even exposition. Well, okay, I’ll forgive that the film neglects to explain the motivations or traits of each character. After all, these guys have been introduced at length in the previous Marvel movies. But my disappointment came at the fact that nothing new was done with these characters.

Now you’re probably wondering, “After all that, how can he say that it’s a perfect movie of any kind?” Well, look again at the things I complained about. The film takes no time to explain its characters, it feels deliberately inconclusive, it sounds just like…wait for it…

A comic book.

The success of The Avengers is in the way that it emulates its source material so exactly. It is the first and only comic book movie to transcend the medium of cinema and become, literally, a comic book on screen. Many films have tried this, and they failed because they focused on aesthetic. The Avengers becomes a comic book in the way that it treats its characters, its plot, and ultimately its audience.

Now don’t think I’m dissing comic books with those complaints. I have a lot of respect for the medium, and I am fully aware that it is capable of extraordinary storytelling. However, The Avengers taught me an important lesson. I don’t think that I’m a comic book fan. For years, Marvel movies have been convincing me that I was. But those movies were, well, movies, and this really isn’t a movie so much as a comic book in the way that it tells its story. I love Joss Whedon, I love these characters, and I’m very happy to see them succeed financially and critically as they have. But this one wasn’t really for me.

Mission Accomplishments: A Review of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

I like Tom Cruise. I know that that’s a highly controversial statement, but I can’t help it. The man is a really great actor. Now don’t get me wrong, in real life he’s absolutely batshit crazy, but on screen he is always a force to be reckoned with. Except, maybe, in the Mission: Impossible films. I enjoy the original 3 films in the series, but none of them really make an impact. They’re films that always seem to hover over being really entertaining, but never make that last step. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (which, by the way, has one of the worst titles in recent memory) makes that step. It is a phenomenal film.

The movie is executed flawlessly. Director Brad Bird, whose previous films are some of my favorite of all time, proves here that he is one of the best action directors working today. Every fight, every chase, everything is blocked and shot beautifully. Of course, Cruise himself shares some of the credit for this. After all, he really was hanging off of the tallest building in the world for the film’s Dubai sequence. He is a fearless actor, and it totally pays off in the final product.

The film’s story is, admittedly, a little cheesy. How many times are screenwriters going to go to the “nuclear war between USA and Russia” well before it runs dry? It’s just so lazy. Because of this, the film suffered something of a stakes problem. We’ve seen this device so many times that it is obvious what the outcome will be. What works far better is the personal stakes for the characters. When Cruise dangles off of that building, it is nail-biting. Even the other members of his team (played capably by Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner) get moments like this. When Pegg injures his hand during the climax, it is a great reminder that our protagonists are not superheroes. Cut them and they bleed. The audience finds it completely believable that any one of them could be killed. The realism that that lends the movie does a staggering amount of good, and most action movies don’t even bother with it. The most recent Die Hard film, for example, literally turned John McClane into an invulnerable superman. The first Die Hard, which M:I – GP owes a tremendous debt to, acknowledges that McClane is a mortal man. McClane gets really messed up in that film, which is simply good storytelling.

This movie absolutely needs to be seen in IMAX. I simply can’t imagine seeing it in a different format. IMAX really does make all the difference here. The film is so beautiful that it takes your breath away, and the transition from scenes that were shot in IMAX to the regular footage is barely noticeable. I believe that IMAX really is the way of the future when it comes to movies, and I haven’t seen a better indicator of how great it is in a very long time. No matter how far away your nearest IMAX theater is, this is worth the drive.

From what I understand, this was meant to be Cruise’s exit from the series, a sort of torch-passing to Jeremy Renner, who would then become the main protagonist. If so, this film works perfectly to do so. But I do hope that Cruise sticks around. He really understands the genre that he’s working in, and it’s clear that he loves making these movies. It’s because of him, really, that they keep getting made, so let’s give the man some credit. I’ll allow his insane behavior if we keep getting movies as good as this one.