Daily Archives: December 22, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part One (2011)

Billing itself as part one of an intended trilogy, Atlas Shrugged is an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s famous 1200-page book on the merits of self-interest. Rand has become resurgent in the last few years, a favorite author of the Tea Party, as her anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-union, and anti-poor perspective has found a new legion of fuming followers. I can’t imagine anyone else buying a ticket to the big screen version of Atlas Shrugged, a resoundingly tiresome and didactic enterprise. If this is what Part One brings, I can already predict the extensive yawning exercises I’ll have to do to get in shape for Parts Two and Three.

In the not too distant future, America’s airline industry has ground to a halt due to rising gas prices ($35 a gallon we’re told). The country has gone back to rail and leading that charge is Taggart Railway, lead by Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling). She’s trying to save her company from her lazy brother, James (Matthew Marsden), who wants to rely on bribery and his Washington friends to get by. Dagny wants to join forces with steel tycoon Henry Reardon (Grant Bowler), who has staked his company’s future on special new extra shiny steel. Other companies want to block Dagny and Reardon’s efforts, relying on Washington to write strict laws penalizing the rich and successful and spreading the wealth around to those less unfortunate. At the same time, powerful businessmen seem to be vanishing and the only connection seems to be the identity of John Galt, a mysterious capitalist with an offer no rugged man of industry will refuse.

Maybe Atlas shrugged because he got tired of how unbelievably boring this movie is. Oh my goodness, I was rolling my eyes and checking my watch every five minutes. The vast majority of this film involves ideologues disguised as characters talking about esoteric business practices. A full 80 percent of the dialogue has to be about railways and steel and this manufacturing and ore mines and… I’m sorry I fell asleep in the middle of writing that sentence. Seriously, this movie could be a cure for insomnia. It’s so crushingly boring that it makes you wonder how anyone could ever pick up Rand’s novel and think, “This deserves to be a film.” There are segments where characters will talk this corporate gobblety-gook in unbroken reams, the actors behaving like androids. Now technical talk is not necessarily a one-way ticket to snoozeville, as political and corporate dramas can be quite invigorating in the right hands (see: Margin Call). It helps when you have a story, but with Atlas Shrugged all we have are mouthpieces for a political ideology. Regardless of political opinion, the movie fails because it never makes the story feel like it matters. The dialogue is perfunctory, labored, and inert, bogged down with lazy philosophical jabs. It’s all tedious expository dialogue with no room for character. Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie completely around the conflict of whether a train will get its steel tracks? That’s it. You wouldn’t know any of this mattered without the helpful inclusion of an overly enthusiastic dramatic score. Who cares about any of this junk? If you’re looking for the most high-profile movie of 2011 to talk about the infrastructure dynamics of railways, your long wait ends here.

Dagny and Reardon are supposed to be our heroes, the champions of the not-so-little guy, and thus we’re intended to root for their romantic coupling. Never mind that Reardon is married because, in that age-old point of rom/com rationalization, his wife is a bitch. The two have one of the most robotic lovemaking scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, and this flash of sexuality and a few dirty words are the sole reason this film earned a PG-13 rating. These characters remain one-note and vacant, including icy heroine Dagny casually admitting, “I don’t know how to feel.” And then there’s Reardon, who admits, “My only goal is to make money.” What better antagonists than unfeeling heads of huge corporations who just want to be left alone so they can make their untold millions? What a great entry point for the empathy of the audience. None of these characters grow, change, learn, or even seem to reflect recognizable emotions beyond venom-filled anger. The villainous government stooges act shady, plotting the downfall of those laudable titans of industry, but it all just becomes indistinguishable chatter, villains clucking to themselves.

Set in the near future of 2016, this adaptation feels strangely dated, most notably in its ascent of railroads. There’s some ham-handed throwaway line about the cost of gas being so high so America just reverted back to the good old locomotive. I find this deeply implausible. It would have made more sense to actually make this a 1950s period piece, the original setting of Rand’s novel. We’re constantly told about the instability in the world via newscasters and announcers, but we don’t ever see the effects of this world in crisis. Mostly that’s because we’re hobnobbing with the rich in their boardrooms and cocktail parties, but there’s a scene where Dagny exits her limo and walks in a huff down the streets, which are empty of those dirty hordes of bottom-dwellers we’ve been hearing about. Apparently a world in crisis has done little to upset the disadvantaged, or the cities have just been very adamant about cleaning up the riffraff. The world depicted does not seem realistic. Would the country so easily go back to train travel where Dagny’s super train can cross 200 miles in a single hour? What about international freight and travel? I guess that still has to run on all that precious petrol. I’d assume that by 2016 the world will still be an interdependent, globalized economy, so I would think that the United States would face more dramatic tension than the oversight over a railroad company.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to a mostly conservative, mostly Christian fan base, the quality of movies is almost irrelevant. Movies like Left Behind, The Omega Code, Fireproof, or the recent Courageous are not expected to be good movies by traditional standards. They are sermons packaged in the guise of popular entertainment, which means that the artistic particulars come second to the message, and often do. Atlas Shrugged seems to fall into this same category. The production is very low budget, hence all those conversations in offices, and the CGI that is utilized looks pretty chintzy. The acting is profoundly bad, with Schilling (TV’s Mercy) giving a flat, monotone performance throughout, closer resembling a well-dressed mannequin than a human being. And naturally subtlety goes out the window in favor of reconfirming the belief system of the people buying the tickets. I have no issue with movies that adhere to an ideology, whatever that may be, as long as the message doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Atlas Shrugged is not a good story, not even close, and the message can be all too bludgeoning at times, like when Dagny incredulously remarks, “What’s with all these foolish altruistic notions?” The movie seems to be bristling with anger and many a character spits venom at the very idea of government involvement, unions demanding safe working conditions, and regulation in any form, red meat for the Tea Party faithful. Without that red meat, or the film’s strident message, there would be no reason to watch this mess.

And now I’ll shed my objective reviewer cap briefly to get on my own little soapbox and denounce the dangers of Randian politics. To be fair, I’ve never read an Ayn Rand book and honestly have no inclination of ever reading one of this woman’s polemics. I just feel I have better uses of my time than reading a justification for sociopathic greed. Rand’s extreme philosophy has been described as reverse Marxism, wherein the social elite is being sucked dry by the lechers of the world, those who do not contribute to the value of society. And for Rand the only value is money. The world, Rand posits, would be a better place if man would only think of himself. I fundamentally disagree with this notion. Remember that part in the bible where Jesus gives money to the rich and tells the poor to suck it up? Rand’s self-involved philosophy seems like a round of consumerist Calvanism, rehashing a skewed religious perspective that was popular with the upper classes because it provided celestial reasoning why the rich were so rich and the poor were so poor. You see God wanted you to be rich, that is why you were born into a wealthy family, and he wanted all those miserable poor people to suffer. To help out the poor would therefore be blaspheming God’s infinitely unknowable plan. The basic plotline of Atlas Shrugged, though only teased in Part One, is that the rich will get tired of being burdened by societal constraints and up and leave us all. Here’s a good question: if all the billionaires in the world were to vanish, do you think everything would grind to a halt? Would we all be so out of luck without the super wealthy telling us what to buy? It’s like the reverse of 2006’s social satire A Day Without a Mexican, proposing that the American economic engine would be severely stalled if all the undocumented workers were to vanish. Under Rand’s narrow line of thinking, the rich are that way because they are the best and brightest, the innovators. Nowhere in that equation does Rand leave room for the rich being rich due to lies, cheating, nepotism, and rigging the system for the continued benefit of a select few. I’m not meaning to begin a screed here, but I think the 2008 economic meltdown proved what happens when business is left to regulate itself. The economic collapse also proved that just because you’ve got some letters in your title (CEO, CFO, etc.) does not mean you’re the smartest egg. Cronyism and a scoiopathic desire to look out for one’s self-interest above all else is what brought the world on the brink of economic collapse. For me, recent history is a rejection of Rand’s theories, not corroboration. Okay, soapbox put away.

Atlas Shrugged the film seems almost like an unintended ironic statement on Ayn Rand’s belief of the superiority of the individual. That’s because movies are a profoundly collaborative medium, where many hands toil away to create a work of art. It is not the result of one man or woman but the results of hundreds of men and women working together, each knowing their role, playing their part, and working toward something greater than individual self-interest. Huh, how about that? It pretty much doesn’t matter that Atlas Shrugged is a powerfully boring, braying, incoherent, tedious chore that is merely a message disguised as a movie. The intended audiences will more than likely hail the final product, ignoring “details” like the talky exposition-heavy dialogue, horrible acting, laughable special effects, and plodding pacing, and overall poor production. The Rand faithful are not going to this movie to be entertained, they are going to see their beliefs reflected upon the big screen. The overall quality of Atlas Shrugged is an afterthought to them. I just wish it wasn’t an afterthought to the people making the movie.

Nate’s Grade: D

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

In the span of three months, two Pixar vets will be making their live-action filmmaking debuts. Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) is directing Disney’s big-budget John Carter of Mars adaptation, which will be released this March. But first is the awkwardly punctuated, colon-hoarding Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (henceforth referred to as M:I 4), directed by Brad Bird. Any fan of The Incredibles (and who isn’t) knows that Bird is a terrific visual stylist who can compose remarkably exciting action without overlooking characterization. If anyone was ready for the leap into live-action, surely it was this man. Bird is the real star of the movie, and he aces his debut. I think he’s finally living up to the potential he showed with TV’s Family Dog (please note the tongue firmly planted in cheek here).

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF squad are on the run. They’ve been framed for an explosion that took out the Kremlin. The president has invoked “ghost protocol” meaning that the IMF no longer exists, and every member is cut loose. That means Ethan and his newest team, techno wizard Benji (Simon Pegg), feisty Jane (Paula Patton), and the mysterious Brandt (Jeremy Renner), have no backup. They are considered rogue agents and Russian’s own special police force is hunting them down as well. Hunt and his team must track down and stop an international terrorist, Hendricks (Micheal Nyqvist, the Swedish Girl with Dragon Tattoo series), who sees the global benefit of nuclear catastrophe (I suppose surviving would be the catch). Hendricks has gotten hold of Russian nuclear launch codes and now is looking to put the final pieces together to initiate a war between the United States and Russia, plunging the world into disaster. Hunt’s team travels around the globe to stop this bad man and his bad plan.

Bird delivers in a major way in his live-action film debut. The man behind two of the best animated films of all time and Ratatouille, has shown that his keen skills of directing animation have easily translated to real people and real-ish explosions. Bird is a mad genius when it comes to staging elaborate action sequences; he teases out his action with organic consequences and his camera makes adept use of space and geography, and best of all you can easily follow what’s going on in the frame. So when we have an action sequence that takes place in the tallest skyscraper in the world, you know Bird is going to make fine use of this fact to accentuate his action. And the man does so in spades. The Dubai sequence is probably the how-did-they-do-that? standout that people will be most talking about. Hunt has to climb the outside of the aforementioned tallest building in the world using nothing but some special sticky gloves that don’t always work right. He has to climb several stories up, and then there’s the matter of going back down without them. But M:I 4 doesn’t rest on its laurels, because immediately after this sequence we have a feast of thrills. We segue right into a meeting between two parties where Hunt’s team has to pose as each member of this sit-down, orchestrating two separate simultaneous false meetings with the real bad guys. The two meetings dovetail one another as far their needs, making for a blissful parallel of escalating suspense. And then even after this, we get a foot chase into a sandstorm, which then becomes a dangerous car chase into a sand storm. And there are even more great stunts and spectacular action to come, notably a fight in a futuristic car park where the cars tumble from level to level.

Bird has such a firm command of his action, exercising his inspired imagination and all the tools in the special effects paint box. The screenwriters deserve recognition as well, Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, both of whom honed their writing chops on J.J. Abram’s sublime spy show, Alias. Their opening sequence, an escape from a Russian prison, sets the stage with Bird’s smart execution; setting up a problem and then letting the situation play out in surprising yet logical and clever ways. It may not have the epic scope of a Michael Bay flick, but Bird’s action is cool without having to be exhausting or noxious. The frenetic pacing rarely lets room for breathing. One of the film’s quiet moments ended in such a jarring fashion that it startled me and I kicked the patron sitting in front of me. I must also credit Applebaum and Nemec for producing the only Mission: Impossible movie that did not involve a turncoat. I was starting to think that IMF’s Human Resources department was in needing of a good housecleaning. Bird, and the screenwriters, has delivered a Mission: Impossible movie so good, with such kinetic and rewarding action sequences, logically utilized gadgets, sexy cars, sexy gals, and exotic locales. They’ve basically made the best Bond movie not to bear 007’s likeness.

Like the previous Mission: Impossible flick, this one emphasizes the team aspect, which makes a more fulfilling and interesting set of missions. M:I 2 became the “Ethan Hunt kicks people in the face for two hours movie,” which Chuck Norris might approve but otherwise was lacking. When J.J. Abrams got on board in 2006, the brand finally got back to its roots. And a team working together with individual strengths makes for a much more satisfying mission that also allows for multiple points of action. Simply out, if you have three people that need to do stuff in synchronicity, it plays out much better than watching Cruise kick people in the face. Choreography is always better when you have more dancing partners. Anyway, with  M:I 4 we get some terrific teamwork that can be just as thrilling as the action sequences. Besides the breathless Dubai sequence, there’s a great sequence where the team has to infiltrate a sleazy Indian businessman’s (Anil Kapoor, the TV host from Slumdog Millionaire) cocktail party to get some special satellite codes. Jane is tasked with seducing the sleazy guy, Benji is left to operate a mechanical rover with a powerful magnet that will levitate Brandt, in a metal suit, across the system’s super hot inner mainframe, and Hunt is trying to lose his Russian pursuers. It’s a great sequence where all the pieces come together for maximum effect.

Cruise has done plenty in the last five years to destroy audience good will, so it’ll be interesting to see if audiences warm back up to the man with the million-dollar smile. Cruise has always been an actor of ebullient energy and charisma, and this has always aided him in action settings and M:I 4 is no different. He’s still a credible action hero and a born movie star, whatever audiences think about his increasingly polarizing personal activities. Lessening Cruise’s load is a smart move, and Pegg (Paul) can provide needed comic relief while Patton (Precious) supplies the sizzle. My goodness can this woman fill out a dress in marvelous ways. Not to be completely sexist, she does a fair amount of ass-kicking too. Her fight with the French femme fatale agent (Lea Seydoux) was all kinds of awesome. Renner (The Town) seems groomed as a potential heir apparent for the franchise. His character is given a small amount of depth to work with, the guilt of a mission gone wrong that has a very personal connection to Hunt. At this point, Renner can do no wrong as an actor in my book. Although there’s only a nine year age difference between Cruise and Renner, so I don’t know how much more mileage that gives you as a franchise. Regardless, Renner is an actor of great conviction and intensity even when he’s silent.

In terms of the franchise, I’d say this fourth installment is just as good as Abrams’ M:I 3, though Abrams had a much better villain and the added emotional urgency of hunt’s wife in distress. Seriously, this is one really boring and completely interchangeable villain. For a movie about the world being on the brink of thermonuclear Armageddon, why do the stakes feel so low? It’s probably because the movie has deliciously orchestrated and eye-popping set pieces but very little urgency. World War III has never felt so ho-hum. Still, it’s hard to fault an action movie when it delivers such high amounts of adrenaline, perfectly packaged in well-developed action beats. This is a high-flying popcorn spectacle of the top order, a grandiose piece of Hollywood escapism. Mission: Impossible 4 is pretty much everything you’d want in a summer blockbuster, only shuttled to winter. I think Bird’s future is limitless, in animation and live-action, and I think the Broccoli family would do us all a favor by tapping Bird to direct a Bond movie. M:I 4 is a pretty good resume for the gig. That would be one mission to die for.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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