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Ghost Protocol is the rarest type of film, one where I never once notice its length. It could have gone for three hours and I wouldn’t have noticed. It combines the best of a thriller and an action movie, where it entertains between all the big set pieces, and of course really shines during those big set pieces. Going in, I was a bit worried. Not only did I believe that movies are an inefficient medium for this type of entertainment, I remembered that I hated this type of film. It shares qualities of James Bond and Jason Bourne, but it’s actually a good-time movie, one with the imagination and light-heartedness to stand apart from its overly gritty contemporaries.
A few years ago, probably 2007 or whenever Casino Royale came out, I came to terms with my thoughts on the action movie, and the thriller movie. In trying to parse out just why I didn’t like Casino Royale, or any James Bond movie not starring Pierce Brosnan (although strangely I suppose I did enjoy The Man with the Golden Gun when I saw it), I happened upon a television, which had on display Jason Statham’s face. I decided that this was The Transporter, or one of its sequels, and thought hey I like Jason Statham. Something happened to me then that had never happened before: in ten seconds, I was overwhelmingly bored by a movie. It was just him expositing, talking about drugdealers or something. I recognized this scenario as one of obligatory exposition, and couldn’t handle it.
When two characters sit down and move forward the plot, sometimes that’s fine, if the story is interesting enough. The story in an action movie is rarely exciting, even if it isn’t formulaic: guy’s daughter is kidnapped, goes after those responsible to bring her back. Is that Commando, or Taken? If it’s girlfriend it could be The Marine and a number of side-scrolling beat-em-ups on the Nintendo. The Hollywood action movie is also typically a high-budget affair, so set-pieces are those invested in. You can’t pack ninety minutes of high-budget action into a movie — those in-between moments are a necessity. Some filmmakers are able to make the in-between just as entertaining, like Robert Rodriguez or Jonnie To. Others aren’t.
Now, when you say “thriller,” my mind goes right to Jason Bourne. When I saw The Bourne Ultimatum in theatres, I must have been fourteen. I wanted an action movie. But this thriller didn’t have enough action to compete with John Woo, and not enough drama to be anything else. I simply could not wrap my mind around what made those movies so popular. Nowadays I get it, though I still have yet to revisit that particular trilogy. Maybe when Jeremy Renner stars in The Bourne Legacy, I’ll check that one out. One series that this confusion still holds for is Bond, because none of those movies — with the exception of the nineties and early 2000s era — have over-the-top action (or Colin Salmon*). And of course, none of them have compelling stories or drama.
All that leaves is the character. James Bond is similar to Indiana Jones — he’s cocky and he’s a womanizer, but James Bond to me isn’t nearly as cool. Probably because being cool is the only thing he’s there to be. He drinks his drink and has PG to PG-13 sex with women, never once drinking from the Holy Grail or, I don’t know, tossing the idol. Where’s the draw? I’ll take Mission: Impossible over James Bond any day, although ironically Ghost Protocol is the only one I’ve seen in full.
Ghost Protocol does not deal in overwrought storytelling — its exposition is light on its feet, being delivered while other things are going on, and never the exact center of attention. While story is being processed, beautiful locales are on display and characters are interacting with their often witty back-and-forths. Here characters are actually intriguing despite being flat, such that I genuinely hope to see all four back in another movie, hopefully teamed up with Ving Rhames. Maggie Q I could go either way on. Simon Pegg is Simon Pegg — put him in a good movie and he’s great (in a bad one he’s good), Paula Patton is the attractive and very badass agent, and Jeremy Renner is the data analyst — with a secret. Each character gets his or her moment in the sun, so they don’t feel like dead-end red shirts or useless expendables here to make Tom Cruise look more like an action star. He does look an action star — I think the gratuitous rock-climbing sequence in Mission: Impossible II he demanded from director John Woo is evidence enough.
Beyond that, most of the time the actual exposition is, quite simply, compelling. As an operation is being laid out it’s pretty neat, but doesn’t of course match up to the execution. The gadgets and even the ingenuity these characters utilize make for very tense, very creative near-future espionage situations. It’s like Metal Gear Solid, but just a movie, not a movie with quick-time events. In one instance, a massive image screen is used to fool a guard into believing nobody is in the hallway, when in fact Simon Pegg and Tom Cruise are there, and in another, the team fools two people into believing they are meeting in one room, while in reality, two meetings are taking place, and they’re intercepting information. In the latter example, disguises and contact lens cameras are required, and when things go wrong, fast-thinking and briefcases that print paper inside get thrown into the mix.
While the ending maybe isn’t as climactic as one would imagine it should be, and the denouement feels a pint cheesy, I enjoyed it all. In fact, the former helped me along with the whole time thing. When the climax hit, I hardly realized. Tom Cruise was fighting the villain, and I thought to myself: Oh, this movie must be over soon. That’s kind of sad.
I really don’t have much to say here: it’s a very good time at the movies, a true blockbuster that doesn’t push genre boundaries, but revels in its form. I don’t know why this movie wasn’t called Mission: Impossible IV (who am I kidding, of course I do) but hopefully it isn’t the last sequel, and there’s much more to come. And although I did mention earlier that movies are an inefficient medium for this kind of thing (something I’ll try to expand on later), TV or video-games can’t always have Tom Cruise scaling the largest skyscraper in the world.
Man, when he said “mission accomplished,” and pushed the button, I died in laughter.
*Colin Salmon is a totally cool guy. Anybody who likes Paul WS Anderson movies should recognize him, and he was going to be the next Bond on the recommendation of Pierce Brosnan. But the studios went with Craig. Nothing against Daniel Craig, of course. He was great in the Dragon Tattoo, another movie out right now worth seeing. Make it a double feature.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Note: It’s kind of confusing, but the post “1. The Ghost in the Shell,” did not mean that that was the #1 thing of the year, despite it following the other two Year End Review posts.
Here on Dreck Fiction I’ve talked about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at length, so this will probably be retreading old territory — bear with me. In the end, the most awesome thing I saw this year came out last year, Edgar Wright’s third, and in my opinion, best movie — crazy as that sounds. When I first saw the movie over the summer, I was blown the hell away. Unfortunately I saw it the last day it was available OnDemand, one of the motivating factors behind the big decision to press enter. I always knew I was gonna like Scott Pilgrim; the trailers seemed promising and I had a lot of faith in Edgar Wright to make something that was at least entertaining. I remember very specifically — quite a feat, as I saw this perhaps five months ago — my dad came in the room and delivered some message so I had to pause the movie, and I paused it right before the Ramona/Roxy fight, maybe after Ramona threw Ann (who?) away. Sitting there, I was just thinking to myself, “I’ve really enjoyed this movie so far. I like the direction this is headed.”
As somebody who’s invested some time in learning about filmmaking, it’s hard for me not to zero in on the technical side of things, and ever since I started this blog I tend to think critically about movies when I’m watching them. Scott Pilgrim actually rewarded me for being aware of the filmmaking, because it’s such a finely crafted movie that when immersion is eschewed in this way, it’s a good thing. It allowed me to notice the details, which to director Edgar Wright are extremely important. The frame is always brimming with significant details and easter eggs — and boy does he and DP Bill Pope love the frame.
In terms of the look of the movie, it’s not even “look what we can do,” not even “look what we can do and how well” — it’s a spectacle resultant of very measured craft. Every eyepopping moment on screen, whether a product of the camera movement, clever composition, actor blocking, or visual effect, means something. Of course, the point of contention then for critics is that what it all means may not interest them, but that’s no excuse to not recognize the inspiring brilliance in this film’s making. Scott Pilgrim, appreciated today only by a small but very, very vocal minority, will have genre standing as time goes on.
It’s an outstanding example of the action-comedy, which, like the horror-comedy (of which Edgar Wright so excelled in six years earlier), requires a hefty amount of balance: tone, structure, wit — these elements aren’t enough, it’s within their combination that Scott Pilgrim and Slither and Desperado and other great, modern genre-mashups emerge. They must work with each other; this doesn’t feel like an action movie with comedic elements or a comedy with action scenes, it’s a whole film that plays out from start to finish, and by the time we reach the end, we’ve laughed, we’ve been excited, and we’re had our hearts warmed. The manufactured feel of so many other comedies and so, so many other action movies was left at the door.
The film had a predestination in terms of its artistic success, just like The Thing (2011), the next Mary Elizabeth Winstead movie, was doomed to critical and commercial failure at the point of its inception. It was based on preexisting material, which is a first for the director, though at the time of screenwriting the final volume had yet to be released, which led to some merciful reshoots* at the end of production. I’ve never read the comic, but I think the process and idea of adaptation set the wheels in motion for Edgar Wright. He took on a mission and was rather noble about it. Like Rodriguez wanting to make Frank Miller’s Sin City over Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Wright strove to recreate the comic, but adapt it to the moving medium of film.
With such a dedicated force at the helm, there should’ve been little doubt in my mind that Scott Pilgrim was a movie to look out for, and right now there’s little doubt in my mind that the director’s fourth movie will be one to watch. It’s a pretty bold adaptation — in these days of Nolan’s Batman and endless reboots (these X-Men weren’t gritty enough), Scott Pilgrim feels fresh. The creators behind the film obviously adore the movie medium, and don’t shy away from its possibilities. Some people (I think) have called Crank one of the best comic book movies ever, because it is exactly that, despite not being based on anything.
Crank is the antithesis to a movie like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or any of the X-Men movies, which like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider and all these things — it revels in its form. Movies, like comic-books, have a heightened reality, but somehow this gets lost in Hollywood’s endless struggle to be super serious and realistic. I’m not saying that when Peter Parker and Mary Jane upside-down kiss that CG hearts should come out, because that would be inappropriate to its foundational laws of reality, but the dedication to realism has led filmmakers to want to play it safe in terms of spectacle.
With such high budgets, why don’t we ever see something that’s completely balls-to-the-walls? Like fucking Punisher: War Zone! Christ, every time I gotta complain about these damn comic book movies that’ll always be mentioned. War Zone wasn’t made on a $100 million budget, but it was totally fun. It had energy. Like Scott Pilgrim, which, because it was made on a very high budget, was able to go above and beyond. Very rarely in that movie has a frame been untouched by frenetic computer enhancements and craazy color.
At the end of the movie, we know that the heroes are going to fight the villains, probably in New York, and they’ll throw cars around. With a movie like Scott Pilgrim, it’s a mystery as to what’s simply going to be seen next. And when something wild happens, it’s almost always logical or, at least, never truly out of left field. Giant animated yeti is going to fight dragons in the middle of a battle of the bands? Sounds alright to me.
Well, that’s probably enough of my Continuing Adventures in Eternal Praise for this One Movie for now. I kind of lost steam there towards the end, but those comic book movies always piss me off, so when I perceive a chance to rant, I’ll take it.
So there you have it. Those are the ten best, and two worst, things I saw this year. Overall, it was pretty solid. Last year there were actually ten movies, but hey — if TV shows are gonna be as good as Arrested Development, I’ll certainly take TV shows. Good night, and have a happy New Year! (Excuse me if you don’t celebrate New Year’s, I know that’s not very PC of me**).
*The original ending to the movie was changed when the final book was released. Originally, and you can still see these scenes in the DVD, Scott ends up with Knives. Thankfully Brian Lee O’Malley was there to save the day, and Edgar Wright was so goddamn dedicated to being true to the source…
**HAHA SOCIAL COMMENTRAY
Tarantino is famous for cool dialogue and infamous for his passion for cinema. His next movie, Django Unleashed, just seems so obvious that I face-palmed when I read the title – it might seem he’s been on an homage kick as of late, and this just falls in line, but no, appreciating the history of film has been a constant in the filmmaker’s career. Those two elements, dialogue and cinemaphilia, are what make the writer/director great in my eyes, and often intermix, whether it’s Samuel L. Jackson talking about John Woo movies or the girls in Death Proof arguing over Vanishing Point/Pretty in Pink, it’s all great stuff, and it seems to come so naturally to the guy.
Part of what makes his dialogue so good is not what typically makes writing great. Tarantino dropped out of high school halfway through, so I imagine his literary background is relatively small in comparison with other writers of his kind. He also said “hell no” to film school, but I don’t know what they teach in film school. So his diction and syntax and all that conventional mechanical stuff isn’t what makes Tarantino’s writing, what makes his writing is his talent to create cool characters. Jules in Pulp Fiction, The Bride in Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds, and of course Zoe Bell as Zoe Bell in Death Proof all have mythological depth in terms of cinematic and genre language.
That, and they’re just really cool characters, and once Tarantino takes the massive effort to construct a very cool character, it becomes easy for him to make them say things that are equally cool, which is the part that translates directly to the screen – and it seems effortless. For the audience, these guys are just fun to watch.
As of late, Tarantino has caught a lot of flack I feel, and I’m beginning to notice that each successive film he makes gets worse and worse paced. Reservoir Dogs ran at a fairly brisk pace, but Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof were bizarre with their unbalanced chapters. I feel like as Tarantino delves deeper and deeper into genre revisionism, he alienates certain audiences (not so many ‘got’ Death Proof, but Inglourious had general appeal for the most part) and it doesn’t help that the movies drag, and some of the dialogue bits are just too much.
So I’ll start this with what some consider to be his greatest movie, Pulp Fiction, and work my way up to Inglourious Basterds, which I just watched back-to-back with… Ponyo?
I liked Ponyo.