Saturday, December 19, 2009

Burn After Reading

Day 353 - 12/19/09 - Movie #353

BEFORE: Another one I've been looking forward to watching, being a big fan of other Coen Brothers movies like "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo".

THE PLOT: A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it.

AFTER: I don't know, this is a tough one for me to judge, for some reason. It's definitely got echoes of those other Coen Bros. movies - with a small crime that spirals out of control, like ripples in a pond. Here there are a lot of minor sins, like marital infidelities, that seem to cause the maximum amount of confusion - everyone's cheating on everyone else at the same time.

John Malkovich is the standout as Osbourne Cox, the CIA agent who's got a crumbling marriage and a drinking problem - some of the best scenes are just Malkovich surprised by the idiocy of the other characters. It's no small feat that Malkovich can check his bank balance on the phone, and do it in a dramatic fashion. The mark of a true professional - drama is where you find it, kids.

Tilda Swinton plays his wife, who's thinking of divorcing him, so she makes a copy of their financial records, and the disk accidentally contains a draft of her husband's memoirs - when the disk gets lost, it's found by some gym employees, Linda and Chad. Linda (Frances McDormand) is an insecure serial internet-dater who wants to get money for some plastic surgery procedures, and Chad (Brad Pitt) is a muscle-headed gym trainer who sees spy conspiracies everywhere. The two set off on a course of blackmail and international espionage, but of course they're horrible at it, and things spiral out of control since they're no match for Malkovich (who is?)

Everyone in this wacky movie is connected - the agent's wife is sleeping with treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who's also married, and uses internet dating sites, where he hooks up with Linda. And Richard Jenkins plays the gym manager, who worships Linda from afar, but is below her notice. Lots of coincidences abound, mistaken identities and wacky mishaps, so somehow the movie seems to be about everything and nothing at the same time.

There are lots of mysterious limos trailing everyone around, and a lot of times the movie seems to be shot from a distance, like from the point of view of a detective or an intelligence agent. And I was bothered by the fact that a lot of the action happens off-screen, as a pair of CIA men (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons) try to piece the whole mess together.

It's an entertaining-enough farce, which for me only edged into brilliance when Malkovich lost his cool...

RATING: 6 out of 10 lime wedges

Get Smart

Day 352 - 12/18/09 - Movie #352

BEFORE: Unlike last night, this is a movie that I've been looking forward to - because I was a fan of the 1960's TV show (OK, the syndicated repeats...) and I think Steve Carell is usually pretty funny.

THE PLOT: Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 for CONTROL, battles the forces of KAOS with the more-competent Agent 99 at his side.

AFTER: Clever move, making Maxwell Smart an intelligence analyst who becomes a rookie agent - not only does it reboot the franchise and show us his origin, it strikes the right note between him being well-trained, and a total screw-up. We want him to succeed, but we also want him to be funny - too far in one direction, and you've got James Bond, and too far in the other direction, he's Frank Drebbin from "Naked Gun". So here he's got lots of intelligence (the spy kind) but no real experience out in the field.

He's teamed with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and they flirt cute as they crash a Russian arms dealer's party. Adam Arkin plays his boss, "Chief", and he also strikes a good balance between supportive and stuffy. By contrast, Terence Stamp takes over the role of Siegfried from Bernie Kopell (who also has a cameo) but Stamp doesn't really bring much to the table - not as much as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson does as Agent 23.

Another WWE wrestler, The Great Khali, plays a villain here - also cameos by Bill Murray, Kevin Nealon, Larry Miller, Masi Oka from "Heroes", David Koechner, James Caan and also Ken Davitian, that guy who played Borat's friend. Also Patrick Warburton appears at the end as Hymie the robot, which suggests that a sequel is in the works - right, Hollywood? RIGHT?

RATING: 7 out of 10 laser beams

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Avengers

Day 351 - 12/17/09 - Movie #351

BEFORE: My movie year is winding down - it's 1 week until Christmas, and 2 weeks until New Year's Eve. Now that my heavy war films are over, I'm going to concentrate on comedic spy films, holiday films, and animated animals - so, really, I'm coasting to the end. All I have to do is wrap gifts and stay on track with the numbers. I'm not expecting much from this film, other than to serve as a link to other films coming up - I suppose this week's theme is "Spy movies based on 1960's TV shows".

THE PLOT: Two British agents (John Steed and Emma Peel) team up to stop Sir August De Wynter from destroying the world with a weather changing machine.

AFTER: There actually was some potential here - Uma Thurman, some tight catsuits and thigh-high boots, and lots of double-entendres about "undercover work" and "debriefings"...
Huh? Oh, the plot? (There's a plot?) Silly me, I got a bit sidetracked there. It's something to do with Sean Connery trying to control the weather...I think. It's all very stiff-upper-lip with a lot of silliness, and it's hard to tell whether Steed and Peel are flirting, or just being proper and a bit naughty at the same time.

Did I mention that Uma Thurman wears skin-tight leather suits? Wait, there are TWO Uma Thurmans, one good and one bad? Someone's been tapping into my brain's fantasies again to generate movie plots. But then there's the organization of villains, which requires its members to dress like giant Day-Glo Beanie Baby bears - you know, I don't even want to know why.

There's a nice shout-out to M.C. Escher, with a constantly descending staircase. (For you kids out there, M.C. Escher was a Dutch surrealist artist, not a rapper...) But I can't really find anything else redeeming about this film, except for the aforementioned Ms. Thurman. Talk about carrying a movie...

RATING: 3 out of 10 teacups

Mission: Impossible III

Day 350 - 12/16/09 - Movie #350

BEFORE: According to the DVD case, reviewer Jeffrey Lyons said this movie was "The best Mission: Impossible yet!" However, based on the first two films in the franchise, that doesn't seem so hard to accomplish.

THE PLOT: Ethan Hunt comes face to face with a dangerous and sadistic arms dealer while trying to keep his identity secret in order to protect his girlfriend.

AFTER: Looks like Jeffrey Lyons got it right - that was the best of the three films, partially because it was the most "realistic" while still maintaining the spirit of the first two. For example, they only pulled the latex mask "false face" trick once (OK, twice...) instead of the 4 or 5 times it was overused in the previous movie.

A lot of acting heft was added with the casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the film's villain - he worked much better in an action film than I would have expected. Hunt's botched capture of arms dealer Owen Davian (Hoffman) puts Hunt's fiancee (Michelle Monaghan) at risk - so the last part of the film is devoted to her kidnap and rescue. Plus there may be another mole high up in the IMF organization - damn, how does this keep happening?

Also starring Ving Rhames (again), Jonathan Rhys Myers, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Keri Russell, and that Simon Pegg guy (who was so great in "Star Trek" and "Hot Fuzz") Some of the castings make more sense when you realize the film was directed by J.J. Abrams, who directed "Alias", "Felicity" (with Keri Russell) and the new "Star Trek" (with Simon Pegg).

For the most part, this is a back-to-basics spy film, with more emphasis on gunplay and wire stunts over fantasy tech devices (though there are a few) - but I've got to take a point off for not including the famous "this tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds" bit...I've also got a problem with any movie (or comic book, for that matter) that takes a scene from the end of the movie and plays it at the beginning, to show us the most exciting bit that's coming up later in the film. What it suggests to me is that the writer or director doesn't have much confidence in the opening scenes of his film, or can't come up with a good way to start the story. The problem is, we the audience then spend the whole movie knowing where things are going - to be fair though, in this case, there is a twist once we reach that point...

RATING: 6 out of 10 satellites

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mission: Impossible II

Day 349 - 12/15/09 - Movie #349

BEFORE: Despite last night's "Movie: Unwatchable", I'm willing to give the franchise a second chance.

THE PLOT: A secret agent is sent to Sydney, to find and destroy a genetically modified disease called "Chimera".

AFTER: This movie makes the mistake of opening with images of Tom Cruise rock-climbing, with no visible support ropes. To someone like me who's afraid of heights, nothing that comes after this could possibly be as nerve-wracking or thrill-inducing.

But most movies seem to function better with actual plots, so this time it's a super-flu virus (how timely, just 9 years before Swine Flu) called only by a code name. Ethan Hunt has to find out what it is, where it is, and how to stop it. To do this, he has to recruit a rogue ex-agent's ex-girlfriend to work on his team, joining Luther (Ving Rhames, carrying over from the last film), Australian guy. But Hunt makes the mistake of falling for the girl while recruiting her, so watching her seduce her ex is his own personal torture.

My main problem with this film is the overuse of latex masks and synthetic voice-changers as these sort of ultra-perfect disguises, which means that though you see Ethan Hunt/Tom Cruise on screen, it might actually be another character in disguise, or when you see another character, it might be Ethan Hunt... Of course, the disguise tech in the real world is nowhere near as good - so there are 4 or 5 of these "AHA!" moments when someone pulls off their fake face to reveal their identity, and it rings about as true as a lame episode of "Scooby-Doo". (Oh, look, it wasn't Bigfoot at all! It was just old man Jenkins!)

And once again, the climactic stunts (this time on motorcycles) are just way too far-fetched to be remotely believable. But at least the tech got a little better, with GPS locators and digital cameras...

Also starring Thandie Newton, Brendan Gleeson, Dougray Scott, Richard Roxburgh (who played Dracula in "Van Helsing") and William Mapother - who just happens to be the cousin of Tom Cruise (born Thomas Mapother). William has been on "Lost" and in the film "In the Bedroom", but he started out as Clint Howard to Tom's Ron, taking bit parts in many of his movies ("Born on the Fourth of July", "Magnolia", "Vanilla Sky", "Minority Report", etc.)

RATING: 5 out of 10 betting slips

Mission: Impossible

Day 348 - 12/14/09 - Movie #348

BEFORE: Well, it only took me 13 years to get around to this one - and as a bonus, back-to-back Jon Voight appearances!

THE PLOT: An American agent, under false suspicion of disloyalty, must discover and expose the real spy without the help of his organization.

AFTER: Jon Voight plays Jim Phelps, who was the lead agent on the TV show of the same name, formerly played by Peter Graves in those classic opening scenes where the tape would self-destruct. Without giving too much of this movie's plot away, it's carefully crafted to replace Phelps with his protege, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and to let everyone know that this isn't your father's spy story. The old TV show would famously feature a revolving-door cast of agents, that most often included a disguise expert (Martin Landau), a tech guy (Greg Morris), a muscle-man (Peter Lupus) and, um... the "woman" (Barbara Bain).

This movie starts out with a very similar group of agents - and the initial mission is to recover a stolen list of U.S. spies working in Europe and their code names. But it turns out the mission is a dodge, designed to root out a mole in the IMF, and the list was never in danger. Since Ethan Hunt survives the mission, he is thought to be the mole.

But here's where the movie lost me - to prove his innocence, Hunt assembles a new team of former agents to break into CIA headquarters and steal the REAL list - which he had falsely been accused of trying to steal. Huh? Wouldn't that make him guilty of doing the EXACT same thing that he knows he is innocent of? Doesn't that, in essence, make him the mole that he's accused of being? Isn't it, like, illegal to break into the CIA and steal something, even if you've got good intentions for using that thing?

You probably know the famous iconic scene with Cruise suspended from wires, trying to get the disc from the computer room - but the context around it, the reason for him being there, makes exactly zero sense. So I have to call "Shenanigans" on the movie after this point, especially the extremely improbably stunts and explosions in the climactic scenes, involving a high-speed train and a helio-copter.

You can tell the movie was made in 1996, because Hunt uses Usenet to contact the buyer who's interested in the list. USENET? Yeah, I just knew all those rec.forums were fronts for terrorist groups and arms dealers...but was there really ever a user group devoted to the Bible's Book of Job? And not just one, but several, since Hunt spends all night sending random e-mails to the moderators of different Bible groups. Right... Apparently it was really tough to be an international man of mystery before they invented the World Wide Web.

Furthermore, if Hunt had no intention of letting the arms dealer transmit the coded list - why not just give up a disk with a bunch of random, real-looking names on it? Why risk everything by giving them a copy of the real, actual list and putting American spies' lives on the line? This is like the Valerie Plame scandal, only 100 times worse!

Supporting work by Emmanuelle Beart, Ving Rhames, Jean Reno, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vanessa Redgrave. But why was Emilio Estevez, who played the tech expert in the film's first mission, completely left out of the credits?

RATING: 4 out of 10 floppy disks

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Enemy of the State

Day 347 - 12/13/09 - Movie #347

BEFORE: Alex, I'll take spy movies for $400...

THE PLOT: A lawyer becomes a target by a corrupt politician and his NSA goons when he accidentally receives key evidence to a serious politically motivated crime.

AFTER: Will Smith plays Robert Dean, a well-intentioned lawyer whose friend accidentally records the murder of a U.S. senator by shady government forces, led by a guy named Reynolds (Jon Voight). Dean's friend (Jason Lee) slips him the disk while being pursued by government agents, and then he himself becomes a target of NSA surveillance, framed for adultery, shot at, and pretty much put through the wringer until he surrenders the evidence. He hooks up with "Brill", (Gene Hackman), who's an ex-NSA man himself, and together they try to clear his name and monkey with the government agents.

What's most amazing is the fact that this movie was made before 9/11, before the Patriot Act, and before President Cheney was even in office - so it's pretty uncanny to see that someone predicted government wiretapping, phone surveillance, and all the trampling of the little guy's rights that came along with it...

There's a lot of cool technology in play, like satellites and hidden cameras, and cel phone recording, and I wish I could say that it all adds up to a coherent whole, but I'm just not sure that it does. Similarly, there are a lot of cool actors who play bit parts in the NSA unit, like Jake Busey, Seth Green, Jack Black, Barry Pepper, Jamie Kennedy and Ian Hart - and I think that if they had cut down on the number of actors, maybe combined a few roles to make one "tech expert", this might have worked better. Does it really take TWO cool slacker guys to tell us what the satellite camera can see, each time it gets used?

I've got a few other nits to pick, too. There are 100 senators, so if the surveillance bill isn't likely to pass, does that mean that killing ONE senator is going to make a difference? What are you going to do, keep killing senators until you get 51 of them to will support your bill? And then there's the climax of the film, where Dean decides that it's a good idea to put the NSA men who want to kill him in the same room with the mob bigwig who wants to kill him, and just sort of hope that a wacky misunderstanding between them will save his behind... And what was your back-up plan if that didn't work?

Also with cameos from Jason Robards, Gabriel Byrne, Tom Sizemore, James LeGros, Dan Butler and Philip Baker Hall. That's a lot of talent wasted in tiny roles for one film...

RATING: 5 out of 10 smoke detectors


Day 346 - 12/12/09 - Movie 346

BEFORE: Let's stick with the theme of international intrigue...

THE PLOT: When straight arrow FBI agent Roy Clayton heads up the investigation into a dangerous international conspiracy, all clues seem to lead back to former U.S. Special Operations officer, Samir Horn.

AFTER: Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, who's a former U.S. citizen working for Arab terrorists (or is he?) in planning bomb attacks on U.S. embassies, and then a large-scale operation in the U.S. He's being pursued by FBI agents (Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough) and seems to also have contact with a CIA agent (Jeff Daniels). So who is he really working for, and what is his ultimate goal?

Since the whole movie hinges on this fact, I won't be divulging it here. But this was an OK, just-twisty-enough thriller, with an interesting take on the nature of terrorism, and the lengths that some people will go to in order to carry it out, and to try to stop it.

However, it encountered some of the same problems as "Munich" - without giving anything away, I'll just state my opinion that if you're one of the "good guys" conducting an operation, and you're wondering if the operation has gone too far, there's a simple test. When one innocent bystander dies, that's a sign to pull the plug. If you don't, then there is no difference between you and the actual terrorists...

RATING: 5 out of 10 suspicious briefcases