Thursday, October 27, 2011

Puss in Boots (2011)

Puss gets his own film, but can't carry it. 

I was initially interested in Puss in Boots because of my love for the Shrek franchise (or at least the first two films), but the trailer looked pretty painful. Sadly, the trailer does the film justice. Its art and animation are its only strengths.

Puss teams up with former partner Humpty Dumpty and the seductive Kitty Softpaws to steal magic beans, grow a beanstalk, ride the beanstalk up to the castle in the clouds and steal some golden eggs, making them forever rich. Along the way they encounter adventure, revenge and romance as well as a host of marauding outlaws, vicious beasts and an angry monster.

As I was watching, it became apparent that Puss in Boots hoped to ride Shrek’s success and launch a brand new franchise. But Puss lacks any of the charm that made the first Shrek movies so delightful. Gone are the witty cynicisms, the backhanded slams of fairy tale characters and conventions. Gone are the hilarious pop culture references and the sarcastic one-liners. Instead, all that’s left are weak attempts at humor consisting of potty jokes and a few puns that try to support a film mostly devoid of laughs.

To its credit, there were a few solid moments of genuine comedy. The filmmakers did their research on feline behavior, which they exaggerated in hilarious fashion. Anyone with a cat will appreciate as Puss chases light reflections, performs a litter box dance, and brings a dead bird to his human “mother” as a present. These gags worked while others fell flat, often reverting to tasteless bathroom humor and innuendo. An early scene takes place in “Dance Club” (an attempt to spoof “Fight Club”), where Puss and Kitty dance to the death. The scene is long, cheesy and unnecessary, failing to satirize one of film’s most iconic locales.

In an attempt to manufacture character, emotion and concern for our feline hero, a long flashback highlights his early years. I realized that I was supposed to be rooting for him, but I was unimpressed. Puss is amoral, committing all manner of villainy as he earns a bad reputation in his attempts to—ironically—maintain his good name. The characters of Humpty and Kitty were likewise shallow and undeveloped.

Despite the weak characters and sub-par narration, the nonstop action was plain fun. There were some incredible chase scenes, my favorite being one over the rooftops of Mexico’s quiet streets. The horse-carriage race through the desert deserves mention for its stunning effects, brilliant choreography and sheer entertainment value. The film pops in 3D and is, to date, the best 3D I’ve seen.

The animation is Dreamworks’ finest work, far surpassing even that of this year’s Kung Fu Panda 2. The detail is incredible: the characters’ fur is very realistic, while Humpty’s face was eerily photorealistic—making him look creepy and out of place in a cartoon. The backgrounds are vivid and the sets gorgeous. The animators also did a fine job picking their “shots,” taking the film to a new level of cinematic artistry; my favorite was when Puss stood on a roof in Mexico, his profile silhouetted against the full and milky-white moon.

Puss in Boots is a film that barely entertains while watching. The animation is gorgeous and the action scenes are riveting. However, the story was predictable, pointless and gave me no character to care about. The humor was generally infantile and the good laughs too few and far between. This one is for the dogs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Drive (2011)

Surprisingly slow-paced yet unrelentingly brutal.

Drive is unique. It’s so different that one enraged film-goer is suing Hollywood to stop showing “misleading previews,” while another, inspired to do something “courageous and epic,” threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods during a golf match. With all this buzz, it seemed like a film I should watch—and review.

What makes Drive different? My first hint that the film would not be as expected was the opening scene, a riveting—yet lackadaisical—car chase through downtown L.A. It captivated me in a way that no car chase ever has. The atypical song playing in the background; the utter calm and cool of the driver in the midst of such a stressful situation. I was immediately immersed—a feeling that stayed with me for the rest of the film.

The unnamed hero (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt car operator and mechanic who moonlights as a getaway car driver. He meets the girl next door (Carey Mulligan); they fall in love; life is good. But when the girl’s husband comes home from prison, in debt to thugs, our paramour offers to help satisfy the husband’s debt. He volunteers to drive the getaway for a burglary that will clear the debt—but the heist goes horribly awry, someone ends up dead, and he narrowly escapes. Now on the run from the mob, and intent on protecting himself and the one he loves, he fights back.

Ryan Gosling is incredible. His face and expressions exude such a mix of boyish charm and grandfatherly sageness that he melts into his character and you can’t help but root for him. Forget the fact that his character is a criminal and eventually a murderer. You like him. You want him to live. You want him to win. The supporting cast also performs very well, notably Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston.

The plot is strong—complex but never confusing. The dialogue is incredibly sparse and much of the story and emotion is carried by the non-verbal action on screen. Long silences, extended slow-motion shots and awkward and unnatural pauses add a certain ethereal quality. The soundtrack is unexpected, a blend of 80s styles and electro-pop score. These attributes all combine to give the film a unique feel—a bizzare, highly stylized indie action flick with no flashy CGI, big explosions or elaborate set pieces. Its minimalism is its greatest strength.

Even though I had been warned, the violence was brutal and disturbing. The last half of the movie presents death after death, killing after killing. The shift from atmospheric drama to wild action movie is jarring, kicking my pulse into overdrive. Heads explode, skulls are bashed in and knives slash in an unrelenting and shockingly bloody assault.

The little dialogue is polluted by plenty of profanity, usually uttered in long spurts by the most vile characters. It’s unnecessary but not glaringly out of place as it fit with the characters’ despicable villainy. One scene in a strip club, I’m told, shows some nudity, but I can’t tell you any more than that—I fast forwarded.

Drive is slow-paced yet frenzied; laid back yet it will quicken your pulse. It’s bloody, it’s graphic, it’s unrelenting, and it’s stylistically unlike any other film I’ve seen. It's brilliantly engineered but difficult to stomach.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Limitless (2011)

Imaginative visuals, an absorbing storyline, and a disquieting topic make it a trip.

Limitless is part action, part geeky—too introspective to really belong in the first category, but too frenetic and fast-paced for the latter. The fourth movie to be directed by relative unknown Neil Burger, it has some rough edges—although, on the whole, I was positively impressed.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is both protagonist and first-person narrator, and the sequence of the movie follows closely the personal details of his sometimes vivid, often hazy, and occasionally schizophrenic life. The story opens some twenty stories high, with Eddie poised on the edge of a rooftop, his toes hanging over the brink—but instead of the cinematic freefall I expected, the film kept me continually on edge.

The crux of the tale is thus: never-do-well Eddie comes across a super-drug, NZT-48, which unlocks the unused potential of his brain, allowing him to learn new skills, put details together in unimagined ways, and maintain a surge in creativity. But like all drugs, it has side effects—and this particular one includes relentless thugs and Russian mafia who won’t hesitate to kill to get the pills. Eddie suddenly is confronted by the temptations and threats of limitless achievement, imminent self-destruction, determined enemies, and a limited stock of NZT-48.

The camera-work was phenomenal. A signature effect was the mile-long zoom down city streets, through windows and cars, in and out of crowds, beyond mirrors. When Eddie first took the NZT-48, everything became crisp and clear, shadows faded away, light spread. Colors melded, melted, blurred and blazed. His view of his surroundings expanded like the widening lens of a camera, obscure details reorganizing into useful patterns and prompts—and pictures skipped crazily as hours disappeared in seconds. The visual effects alone are worth seeing.

Cooper is an able and enjoyable actor. From the unkempt man on the street to the almost superhuman Wall Street consultant, he always appeared comfortable in his role(s), yet never lost his unique style. The supporting actors also fit excellently: as Eddie’s on-again-off-again girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), as the sharp investment broker (Robert De Niro), as the accented mafioso who rued his minced vocabulary (Andrew Howard). While these secondary characters were somewhat one-sided and incompletely developed, they were also human and feeling.

The movie’s score was largely trash, too often harsh and strident, psychedelic trance composed of electronic drum machines and an eternally recurrent refrain—which harmonized with the narcomanic nature of the movie’s theme, but earned no place in my off-screen playlist. It didn’t jar; it just didn’t impress.

Brief flashes of disturbing material complicated my general liking for the movie: a series of fleetingly passionate sexual encounters; a couple shots of disarmed hands hacked off their owners; PG-13’s one escalation of vulgarity in a verbal confrontation; and one disgusting yet hypnotic scene where a man struggles to lap from a drug-rich pool of blood as it horribly spreads its perimeters. In any case, these segments were emphasized more by their scarcity than their abundance.

While the plot showed numerous incoherencies, all were scruples; none detracted from my viewing. The story was at times predictable and unexpected; controversial and tame; hackneyed and original; maddening and mentally provocative. It was strange, but not too strange; striking, but not staggering. With reservations, I couldn’t help but like it.

Maybe most unnerving was its elevation of the highs of the central substance; I felt an uncomfortable tension between the allure of NZT’s potential and the poison of its sting. In the upside-down world of the drug, Eddie’s aspiring spirals sometimes seemed like tailspins. If the movie was making some broad statement about narcotics, its interpretation is limitless.