09 June 2013

Thoughts on a Four More Movies

The Debt — This is one of those movies with a great cast that fails to live up to the potential of the people in it.  Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington.  First off, Chastain and Worthington have terrible accents.  They don't sound German when they're trying to sound German.  They don't sound like they're native Yiddish or Hebrew speakers either.  Chastain sounds American, and Worthington sounds like an Aussie, or both thinly veiled.  That both are very well-cast in their roles — as (respectively) the terrified government agent and the pining loner incapable of reaching out to others or sharing his burdens — is unfortunately obscured by the bad voice acting.  Alas.  In the future timeline, Wilkinson and Mirren do a much better job.  Mirren's part is easily the best-acted in the film.  Beyond these technical shortcomings, the film suffers from an absence of meat.  Too little happens, too little is revealed to excuse the amount of tension we're put through.  Split-timeline stories generally need a lot of complexity in order to prevent the future narrative from making the past boring.  There is one complication in this story, it comes out of nowhere, and its implications are not sufficiently weighed out in screen time to make us appreciate its significance.  The unfortunate thing is that in essence the plot, the actors, the camerawork, and everything else are amazing.  I could see this being a brilliant movie telling a gripping story.  But it doesn't.  It barely tells a story at all.  I'm told the Israeli original is better.  (2)

X-Men: First Class — It has been three years since I last saw the original X-Men trilogy.  I remember finding the first one lame, the second very enjoyable, and the third over-kill.  This film has a cast loaded with little bits of excellence.  The weakest point is Kevin Bacon, whose German accent is horrible.  Aside from that, we have the amazing Michael Fassbender as Magneto, that kid from About a Boy as Beast, Jennifer Lawrence (whom I honestly really dislike) as Mystique, January Jones as diamond-lady, etc. etc.  It's nice to just go around saying "oh, it's that guy" in this movie.  You'll do it every few minutes.  In terms of content and execution, the film puts us through the ever-present mutants-vs.-humans debate, peppered with anti-Bush and pro-gay-liberation dialogue here and there.  What places this film rather differently from the earlier ones is that here Charles Xavier is a young rich kid and not a Gandalf type.  His schemes are half-baked, and his arrogance is clearly evident.  This de-stabilizes the exterminate/integrate dichotomy at the core of the series.  Here "integration" is represented by a naive, coddled intellectual who just wants things to stay where they are, more or less, and is eager to help out the authorities in any way he can.  "Extermination" is also somewhat confused here, represented by both a former Nazi and the son of one of his victims.  How exactly Magneto's psychological genesis is supposed to make sense, I have no idea, but 3/4 through he completely switches attitudes, going from a vengence-obsessed Wolverine type to a genocidal maniac.  What?  Oddly enough, Fassbender's Irish accent starts breaking through just when his character switches sides, which makes the transformation even more difficult to watch.  On the whole, however, execution is very good.  It's a pleasure to watch this movie. (3)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine — I had not seen this film before today.  I remember it coming out and remember vaguely intending to see it at some point, but never got around to it.  Honestly, it's kind of lame.  Much of the film seems to be an excuse to show how veiny Hugh Jackman's muscles are, including one especially laughable scene in which he wakes up screaming, flexing his neck at the camera.  The brutality of the movie makes it unpleasant to watch at times, with hints of Watchmen sprinkled throughout, though obviously without a social commentary.  As always in this franchise, the story must return to the integrate/exterminate question.  This time, the villain is a non-mutant military guy, bent on developing a mutant super-weapon to use to destroy all the other mutants and save humanity.  Since most of the core plot elements here have been worked through in earlier X-Men movies, it feels like there should be more work done here to make the story interesting.  There isn't, though.  Pretty much exactly what you expect to happen happens, and then the movie ends. (2)

Days of Heaven — It's difficult to talk about Malick's movies.  Perhaps this is in part because he's half the movie snobs' golden boy, and everything he does is so obscure and indeterminate.  Well, Days of Heaven is the one that cemented his film career, and kept him famous for 20 years until he did The Thin Red Line.  It's a beautiful movie.  There are many, many shots here that are simply perfectly composed and could be excised and displayed independently. My favorite is probably one toward the beginning of a freight train going over a bridge against a blue sky, with a thin trail of smoke lingering behind it.  What about the writing?  The plot?  I'm not sure about the plot, really.  The story, as I've said somewhere before, is strongly reminiscent of the adventure of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, or with Abimalech, or both.  It was Abimalech, right?  Anyway, the best part is the little girl narrating, just like the best part of Badlands is Sissy Spacek's bizarre romantic account of the events we're watching.  There's not much I can say about it, though.  What does it all mean, if anything?  Unsure.  (4)