Sunday, October 02, 2011

Movie Log: The Illusionist, Win Win, Thor

These three movies have nothing to do with each other, except that I've seen all of them recently. But Three Things Make a Post.

Firstly: There's a particular kind of movie -- often those made in countries other than my own, and with aspirations to Higher Art -- of which my wife will say, after watching for half-an-hour or so, "This is slow." It's not necessarily a bad thing, since a slow movie can still be a good one. But it does mean that this movie is not trying particularly hard to maintain one's attention.

The Illusionist is an exceptionally slow movie; one might feel like wandering out of it, absent-mindedly, several times during its length, and it doesn't really go anywhere, either. It is exceptionally pleasant to look at, I have to admit, but that may not be sufficient for many people. It's also the kind of animated movie -- like The Triplets of Belleville, the previous movie made by many of the same team -- that attempts to maximize its geographic reach by avoiding dialogue, and particularly meaningful dialogue, as much as humanly possible, and by setting its action in an essentially secondary world that doesn't closely match any time or place of our own world. So this is both a story that one understands purely by looking at it, and a story that is in no hurry to go anywhere or show us anything.

Somewhere in France -- probably Paris, says this jaded American -- a minor magician whose sign proclaims his name to be Tatischeff is seeing his career ebb lower and lower with the advent of the first wave of rock & roll musicians. Having lost his gig there, he heads off to a city I could tell was meant to be Edinburgh, though the movie doesn't explicitly say so. (The Illusionist doesn't explicitly say anything.) His gigs there, and elsewhere in the vicinity, don't go much better -- except, perhaps, for on on a remote island, where the daughter of the owner (Alice) becomes fascinated by him.

Tati heads back to the mainland after his show, and Alice follows, eventually living with him in a run-down flat in a hotel full of odd, and mostly declining, performers. Alice thinks Tati can do real magic, and gets him to buy her new shoes, a dress, and other things, though his act is playing to tiny houses.  Minor events pile up, lovingly, until the movie ends, equally in a minor key. It's all very subdued and quiet, to the point of completely stopping in its tracks several times in its mere eighty minutes.

This is a movie to watch if one is in a mood for contemplation and thoughtful slight amusement; anyone looking for even the slightest bit of action in their films should cast their eyes elsewhere. I do have to admit that I wasn't myself in quite the proper frame of mind for it, so it may have hidden depths that I didn't see -- but, if so, those depths are very well hidden.

Secondly: Paul Giamatti is the great sad sack of our time; if he's at the center of a movie, you can be sure that he's a poor schmo weighed down by everything in his life, with very little chance of getting free or finding real happiness. And yet he ends up in movies that are basically comedies a lot of the time, which is mildly puzzling.

Win Win is one such movie: Giamatti is Mike Flaherty, a slowly failing small-town lawyer in suburban New Jersey (New Providence, to be precise) whose second job coaching the local high school wrestling team brings him about as much joy and equally as much success (i.e.: none) as his law practice. He can't afford to keep up the building he uses as an office, and his bills aren't getting paid as quickly as they should be; he desperately needs another source of income. (For some reason the movie never quite states -- despite being made this century, and not the last one -- Mike's wife Jackie, played by Amy Ryan, not only does not work, but the possibility of her doing any sort of work never even comes up, not even at the very end, when it clearly should have been on the table.)

He finds such a source when one of his court-appointed clients -- the aging and increasingly dementia-damaged Leo Poplar (Burt Young) -- needs a guardian, and Mike steps up, ostensibly to help Leo stay in his home when the state would instead put him into a nursing home. Since Mike is played by Giamatti, the very next scene shows Mike putting Leo in that very same nursing home.

Complication arises in the form of Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who ran away from his mother, Leo's estranged daughter, and is found by Mike on Leo's doorstep. Kyle turns out to be mostly a good thing for Mike's life, though; he moves into the Flaherty family basement and quickly becomes a star on the high school wresting team Mike coaches. But soon his mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) arrives, wanting her piece of Leo's money, and Mike's lies are no longer as easy or defensible. Mike, though, in best Giamatti-character fashion, finds a way to come through, working his essential mensch-ness and hangdog willingness to give in.

Win Win is a comedy in the sense that it's funny intermittently (on purpose), and in the Shakespearean sense that things turn out OK for the main characters in the end. But it's not a genre comedy, and its essential purpose is not to make its audience laugh. And it raises more questions than it really wants to answer, or is able to answer. But it has a collection of good performances, and it's a solid example of How We Live Now -- even if I did wish, afterward, that it had a little more of the focus (and the burning center of Peter Dinklage, an actor who commands attention at all times, and always deserves it) of director Thomas McCarthy's first movie, The Station Agent.

Thirdly: Thor is a big summer blockbuster based on a Marvel comic -- hey, I'm not complaining; I've read comics (and reviewed them!) for ages myself -- so it won't do to place much critical weight on it; this is not a movie that can stand the strain. Anyone who expected more from director Kenneth Branagh -- who once was one of the favorites of The Wife and I, back in the halcyon days of Henry V and Peter's Friends and the sublime Much Ado About Nothing -- will be disappointed; Branagh's Shakespearean ear does keep the Asgardian cod-Stan Lee dialogue flowing smoothly, making sense, and away from the silliness that it wants to fall into, but he otherwise tells this story straight, making the usual Hollywood adjustments to turn a slick comic-booky story into a slick big-movie story. (Both are equally obvious, but with different requirements.)

However, seeing this at home, on a TV that is not 3D and gigantic, in a room that does not have a fancy soundsystem and a method for excluding all light, did emphasize Thor's great drawbacks: it's much too dark too much of the time, with action that can't really be discerned on anything less than a really big, hypermodern screen, and it's alternately too loud (when things are exploding, screaming, smashing, or otherwise being sound-effected) and too quiet (when anyone is talking, usually one second after an explosion, etc.). So I spent my time both squinting and running the volume up and down, which did not make for an immersive, deeply entertaining viewing experience.

Chris Hemsworth, as Thor, is an appealing slab of beefcake, with an engaging smile. And his supposed love interest -- though this is so boyish a movie that it barely halts to hint at the possibility that a boy looking for his lost hammer might possibly want to talk with a girl -- is the always professional Natalie Portman, equally professional here, though I'm beginning to wish that she'd do something with her nice-girl, china-doll demeanor rather than just sitting there, professionally and demurely, all the time. There are a pile of other people in this movie, though most of them aren't given much to do -- the Warriors Three are less dashing and grim and voluminous than they should be, Lady Sif a pale fourth wheel to them, Stellan Skarsgard almost thrown away as Portman's mentor who gets to be the token guy-who-knows-Norse-mythology, and Anthony Hopkins brings his best paycheck-collecting demeanor as a mostly comatose Odin -- with the only exception being Tom Hiddleston's scenery-chewing Loki. (Kat Dennings, as the third speaking role in Portman's scientific crew, is amusing but intersects the plot precisely never.)

So Thor chugs along, just slightly too slow for its own good, from one set-piece fight to another, and -- like every other comic-book movie -- labors under the delusion that what we really want to see is the hero struggle to get his costume/powers/magic plot token, so that he can get to the point where he should be at the beginning of the movie. (Hollywood: no more origin movies! Ever! I don't even want to see a flashback scene. Tell a story of your hero doing something instead.) It does exactly what it was designed to do, which is exactly the same thing as every other movie in this genre.

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