Monday, August 22, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

A well-made movie that raises intriguing questions, but gives no answers.

Enforcer: You don't have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.

David Norris: You expect me to believe that? I make decisions every day.

Enforcer: You have free will over which toothpaste you use, or which beverage to order at lunch. But humanity just isn't mature enough to control the important things.

Free will or predestination? I was surprised to find such a timeless question at the forefront of this big-budget Hollywood film. It’s a difficult discussion that no filmmaker could possibly develop in 100 minutes, but The Adjustment Bureau provides both a thought-provoking plot and an entertainingly slick production.

David Norris (Matt Damon) has just lost the senatorial election by a landslide. He walks into the deserted men’s bathroom to practice his concession speech, but his impassioned rehearsal is interrupted by Elise (Emily Blunt), a woman hiding from security in a stall. Though their meeting is awkward, the electricity between them is undeniable. But their love is not meant to be. Their lives are [supposed to be] on different paths, orchestrated by the Adjustment Bureau, an organization that painstakingly ensures that each person’s appropriate destiny takes place. David fights back against the Bureau, wanting above anything to be with Elise. But as the fight escalates, he quickly learns that gaining Elise will mean losing everything.

Contrary to the trailers’ suggestion, this is not an action film. This is a slowly paced drama with only a few thrilling sequences; interest is mostly kept by a mysterious, supernatural plot and some unexpected twists. Every supernatural thriller and sci-fi film has the difficult task presenting a new universe where new “rules” apply. Sometimes this is done seamlessly, the audience lured into suspending their disbelief. But in this film, the “rules” of David and Elise’s fictional reality appear arbitrary, unbelievable, and even downright ridiculous. And since these rules are necessary to propel the story, the plot itself irritated me on several points—such as the Adjustment Bureau’s inability to function around water, or the necessity that all operatives wear hats. It drove me crazy.

The acting is generally good from Damon and Blunt, and Terence Stamp unnerves as the creepy and soulless Thompson, the Bureau’s top enforcer. The dialogue had some good comedic moments, relaxing the tense atmosphere, but at times it felt awkwardly unnatural and forced, as though there was a lack of real chemistry between the leads. The dialogue was also frequented by profanities, and sex was used to propel character development as the lovers slept together in a steamy (yet non-explicit) scene that distracted from the true beauty of their relationship.

The score was fitting but not extraordinary. Thomas Newman’s orchestrations are simple, relying heavily on simple piano themes, soft strings, and the gentler percussion instruments. The score added depth to each scene and reflected the emotion of the moment.

The Adjustment Bureau raises interesting questions and forced me to ponder and really contemplate the ideas behind its story. The conclusions are theologically troubling, as the story analogizes the Adjustment Bureau to God and angels, but it does provide fodder for discussion. I won’t be changing my worldview because of it, but the viewing caused me to re-examine my own thoughts on the issue of free will versus destiny.

But despite its questions, the movie never provided any real answers. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t know how to properly tackle such a huge subject; perhaps they were purposely vague to promote independent thought. The film generates good discussion starters and features a strong cast and bold, if underdeveloped, storyline. It had amazing potential. But instead of greatness it is just okay. I didn’t love it; I didn’t hate it. Watch it and decide for yourself.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Not a family film, but a true legal thriller with strong characterization and a complex plot.

As both a fan of film and a student of the law, I’m always on the lookout for a good legal thriller. Good lawyer movies are hard to find, lawyers generally being the villains rather than heroes. Since I enjoyed the novel, I was excited to see the critically acclaimed film adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer.

Mickey Haller is a slimebag defense attorney willing to do whatever it takes to get his clients off the hook, even if it means bribery or bending truth. He’s presented with the opportunity of a lifetime to represent Louis Roulet, a rich and famous realtor who has been accused of sexually assaulting a young woman. As the representation progresses, Roulet maintains innocence but Mickey begins to sense that there’s more to this case than meets the eye. Mickey develops a conscience and seeks to do what’s right as he’s caught up in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a dangerous killer, the body count rising at every turn.

The plot is complex and features a collection of characters all somehow interconnected. It forces the audience to think and put pieces together for themselves, never taking a second to pause and explain what’s happening. It’s bold and bound to cause some confusion, but if you can follow the story it’s a fun yet somewhat far-fetched thriller.

I was sucked in immediately by the film’s energy. The cinematography is kinetic; the camera pans and jerks about, constantly zooming in and out. The colors are bright and each shot feeds off the urban beauty and electricity of downtown L.A. The soundtrack also echoes this, the pulsating beats of hip hop and rap accentuating the aggressiveness in the film.

The film boasts some very strong acting, with standout performances from Ryan Phillipe as Louis Roulet and Michael Pena as Mickey’s former client, Jesus Martinez, who is currently serving time but still claiming innocence. Matthew McConaughey is comfortable in his role as attorney and he looks natural and poised inside and outside the courtroom. The acting by William Macy and John Leguizamo, however, is quite disappointing.

The dialogue between the characters feels natural and sincere, much of it taken directly from the novel. The scenes between Mickey Haller and Jesus Martinez are perfect, charged with emotion, anger and regret. Unfortunately the interactions are also laced with strong profanity. The language is frequently vulgar and crass and, due to the nature of the plot, sex is a common topic. There is also a sex scene, with no nudity.

What I loved most about the book were the courtroom scenes as Haller fights all odds to free his client. Generally, lawyer movies spend little time in the courtroom for fear of boring their audience; this is not the case here. The trial scenes are riveting and I was glued to the screen. The direct examinations bolster; the cross examinations devastate. The scenes feel over-dramatic and totally Hollywood but they work very, very well.

The Lincoln Lawyer is everything an attorney movie (and a book adaptation) should be. The plot is complex and suspenseful, the acting strong, the characters rich and the courtroom scenes exciting. But a recommendation is hampered by heavy profanity, crass dialogue (within the context of the plot) and a sex scene. It’s a solid film but one to view with discretion.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cars 2 (2011)

Stops short of Pixar’s normal Bluebook value, but the animation is in excellent condition.

In 1997, Pixar delivered its first smash hit, Toy Story. Not only did the film boast ground-breaking computer animation but it was a deep emotional narrative with lots of heart and humor. Since this release, Pixar has become a powerhouse of entertainment, consistently raising the bar of animated movies and delivering eleven acclaimed films. So when the negative reviews started pouring in for Cars 2, I thought that this time Pixar had truly delivered its first lemon.

Lightning McQueen, world renowned racing champion, is ready for some time off. He’s headed back to Radiator Springs, seeking to relax and refuel after winning his 4th Piston Cup. But his vacation stalls when he accepts a challenge to race in the World Grand Prix, taking place in Tokyo, the French Riviera, and London. Mater tags along and, after being mistaken for a secret agent, is caught up in a dangerous international spy game. It’s now up to Mater, and British spies Sally Shiftwell and Finn McMissile, to save Lightning from a flaming burnout.

The plot is fun but it’s no match for the narrative genius of Pixar’s other films. It was, however, surprisingly far superior to the first (and, I thought, somewhat lackluster) Cars movie. The story wove in twists and turns, much like the grand prix racetrack itself, and although the outcome was never in doubt, the road getting there was always suspenseful. The story was bogged down, however, by some oft-tread clichés, including themes of being true to yourself and being a good friend.

These infantile themes also reflect the majority of the humor of the movie. The jokes were definitely geared toward a younger audience, slapstick comedy taking the front seat. But there was still much humor to enjoy—the subtle references to other Pixar films (the drive in theater playing “The Incredimobiles”), the dialogue between Lightning and arch-rival Francesco Bernoulli, the hilarious moment at the Arch de Triumph roundabout, and the always-subtle car puns.

Giaccino’s music paid tribute to old James Bond scores—brassy blasts and percussion-heavy motifs punctuating each scene. It works well in the film but it’s too bombastic to be enjoyed on its own.

The real showstoppers here are the animation, car races and action scenes. From the beginning, my eyes were dazzled by an explosion of color. I would hasten to say that this is some of the most stunning and gorgeously vivid animation I have ever seen. The palette was brightest during the opening race in Tokyo, the neon greens, blues and reds splashing the screen with jaw-dropping brilliance.

Pixar animators are truly innovative craftsmen when it comes to car race and action scenes. These are beautifully choreographed as Mater, Sally and Finn often make narrow escapes by utilizing Bond-like gadgets to escape. The unique scenes kept the suspense revved up and made for one exciting ride.

I left the theater wondering why the majority of critics (and friends) hated this film so much. Yes, the narrative is weaker than past Pixar gems, and it is often burdened by clichés, but the plot still manages to be a lot of fun. The humor is often immature and geared for a younger audience, but there are still plenty of laughs for more sophisticated audiences to enjoy. The flaws are far outweighed by the strengths, especially the creative action, exciting racing scenes and, above all, brilliant animation. While not up to normal Pixar standards, this is a strong sequel, outclassing its predecessor in almost every way. Ignore the critics; this is no lemon.