Day By Day

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Movies -- Mission Impossible 3 and the Da Vinci Code

Twice now in the past few weeks “She Who Must Not Be Named” has wanted to go to the movies. The trouble is, there has been nothing out there that I particularly wanted to see. It was different for her. She wanted to check out Mission Impossible 3 because, no matter how weird he gets, she still likes Tom Cruise [I think it’s the boyish smile that gets her]. And besides, she noted, I have expressed a lot of admiration for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work, and he was in it. I tried to explain to her that I don’t go to the movies to see stars, but to no avail. And, the film was getting good reviews. So, off we went to the multiplex.

It was a harmless couple of hours. Lots of things blow up real good – my personal favorite was the destruction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – a sequence worthy of Michael Bay [and if you think that is damning with faint praise, you are right]. The plot, such as it was, did little more than string together the boom boom sequences.

The few attempts at characterization were inept and just plain ludicrous. Middle aged man/boy Ethan Hunt, played by man/boy Cruise, is goofy in love with a much younger girl, played by Michelle Monaghan. Through the first half hour of the film he displays his love with ostentatiously ardent smooches and little bits of whimsical behavior that are supposed to be endearing, but are just plain creepy because they resonate with the TomKat thing that is one of this month’s tabloid obsessions. The bad guys are maliciously so; the good guys suffer greatly. Camraderie is shown through occasional lame jokes. In short, there’s no effort at all to develop meaningful or even slightly believable characters or motives. This is standard for a summer action flick, and this is by no means the worst, although it was a bit painful to see so talented an actor as Billy Crudup wasted in a nothing part.

The continuing theme is the hoary old, “can’t let anyone know I’m a superhero because that would put them in danger” bit from the comics. And, of course, the villain does figure out who Ethan’s beloved is, and puts her in danger. Beyond that…, nothing. There’s a “maguffin” that everyone is after, but it’s so unimportant that we aren’t ever told what is at stake here. The whole thing is paint by numbers moviemaking, and it becomes tiresome awfully fast.

The structure of the film is primitive. You have a race against time in which a complex bit of business must be performed in a given time and then you watch the actors do their thing while the clock ticks down in the background. I kept waiting for the timer to stop, showing the digits, “007” [that’s how old the cliché is – they were already making fun of it back then – actually, I seem to remember that D.W. Griffith used it in “The Lonedale Operator”]. First time movie director, J. J. Abrams seems to have enjoyed this so much he did it again, over and over. As a variation he throws in the one where action is going on behind the back of the villain’s henchman, and if he just turns around before the tech fix is completed the whole gig is blown, but of course he doesn’t turn, and the hackneyed story goes on.

That’s the pattern – gin up the tension, release it, gin it up, release it, gin it up… toss in a plot reversal here and there, and so it goes. All in all, the movie was more tiresome than offensive, although it did have three elements that mildly upset me. The first was Tom’s obviously fake expressions of affection for his wife and her passive acceptance of his silliness [including an impromptu wedding in the basement of a hospital; believe me, women take weddings a lot more seriously than that]; the second was the misogynistic treatment of the female figures [including an all grown up Keri Russell]; and finally they, for some reason, chose to end with a hip hop number that was terribly out of phase with all that had gone before. But those are minor quibbles. This is just what it claims to be – a piece of action fluff made for fourteen year old boys -- no more and no less. I felt my time was wasted, but if you like to see things go “boom” or can fall for a boyish smile, this one’s for you.

Then there’s the real stinker – The Da Vinci Code[or as I like to think of it, "Mission Implausible"]. Here the massive publicity blitz is what drew us to the theatre. All of her girlfriends, it seems, had been discussing it and it was all over the TV, and it seemed to be one of those “happening” things to do. Bad reviews notwithstanding, and despite a total lack of interest in the themes of the film, “She” wanted to go, mostly to be able to say she had seen it when the subject came up.

DVC is not a technically bad movie. There’s a lot of talent and movie-making knowhow on display here. But seasoned pros like Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Ian McKellen and Opie are imprisoned within a ridiculous storyline that makes them all look foolish. The plot is pure hogwash – clichéd, lunatic, nonsensical hogwash. This in itself does not have to doom a picture, as the first “Matrix” film shows -- it is still possible to pull off a stylish coup -- but Opie and his gang don’t seem to be up to the challenge. They decided to take the whole crapulent mess seriously. They chose badly.

The characters are absurd, from Paul Bettany’s mad albino monk, to Tom Hanks’ Harvard “symbologist”, to Ian McKellan’s loony grail nut, to Audrey Tautou’s whatever the heck she is. The story lurches from one incredible situation to the next, with plenty of plot reversals, and lots, and I mean lots, of talk about really, really stupid stuff. Opie does the best he can, intercutting the narrative with flashes of violent action from the past, but the movie still drags, to the point where I was noticing just how terribly emaciated Miss Tautou is, and that little dark spot on her neck, and that strange hair style Tom Hanks had and how his weight changed from scene to scene, and how convincingly Ian McKellen captured the moves of a terribly crippled man in some scenes, and how he seemed to forget all about it in others. The point is, in an effective thriller, the audience is too involved to notice these inconsistencies. Here they leap off the screen.

In this film even the good stuff turns sour. Ron Howard’s devices for illustrating mental processes for instance, so effective in “A Beautiful Mind”, seem just silly here – probably because the mental processes depicted are themselves so silly. The story is structured like one of those early computer games, where you cannot advance until you solve a puzzle, which is followed by another puzzle, and another. Here the solutions to the puzzles are absurd and arbitrary and at the end there is only one puzzle remaining to be solved – “why would anyone pay attention to this steaming pile of excrement?”

The solution – precisely what brought us into the Cineplex on a Spring afternoon. Sony, knowing they had a lemon on their hands, made lemonade with a massive, yearlong, marketing campaign in which they played the media the way Heifetz played the violin. Peter Boyer, writing in the New Yorker, describes the operation of the campaign [here]. Tim Graham documents [here] its effect in the form of unparalleled amount of free positive publicity this movie got on the MSM [especially on NBC, which seems to have fallen in love with the ideas behind the movie].

Boiling it down to a blurb…. The DaVinci Code is a triumph – of marketing, not movie-making.


Now she wants me to take her to see the new X-Men flick. I asked why -- she's not a SF or comics fan -- and she said something about Hugh Jackman being really buff. Sheesh!

I note that the reviewers agree that it doesn't have the deep resonance the first two had. I suppose by that they mean it doesn't have a gay subtext like the first two. If so, it will be a relief.

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