Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Mist (2007, Frank Darabont)

There's a lot to like about The Mist, which if nothing else is one of the bleakest big-budget genre movies released by a studio in years. The effects are surprisingly good, the acting solid, and if nothing else I can take away the image of Toby Jones, badass. And it's nihilistic as hell- not only does a character actually utter the line, "put more than two of us in a room and we'll start figuring out ways to kill each other. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?", but the film actually shows his insight to be well-founded. So why did I come out of this feeling vaguely disappointed? Three reasons: (1) it's not nearly as claustrophobic as it ought to be. I wasn't expecting the director of The Shawshank Redemption to be particularly adept at bringing the scares, but for all he does right here, most of the mistakes he makes as a director would be fairly easy to fix if he'd only keep the damn camera inside the store. The secret to making a great film like this is to make the claustrophobia palpable. Keep us with the characters and don't show us anything they don't see. Romero knew this when he made Night of the Living Dead, and Carpenter when he made Assault on Precinct 13 and the like. Every time Darabont cuts to a needless shot outside the store, the tension is defused, which is never a good idea. (2) The Marcia Gay Harden stuff is too broadly played. As the fire and brimstone Bible thumper who uses every misfortune vested upon the people in the story to win converts for the Lord, Harden doesn't necessarily give a bad performance, but the character seems too convenient a villain. I have no doubt that given a big enough crowd in this situation, someone would emerge spewing bile in His name, but the film makes it too easy for us to boo and hiss at her from the audience. A better film might not be able to make her sympathetic, but it might at least allow us to understand what it is about her that wins over her followers, beyond the demands of the plot. And finally, there's the little matter of (3) the ending. A perfect ending for this story might have allowed me not necessarily to overlook the film's flaws, but to forgive them. And for a minute there, the film has that perfect dark ending in its grasp. But just when it appears that Darabont will have the balls to fade to black at just the right time, the delicious irony ends up giving way to a cheaper, sub-Rod Serling brand of irony that leaves a bad taste in the mouth as the end credits roll. Seriously, Darabont- you had it. Why did you have to keep going? Rating: 6 out of 10.

Enchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)

So here it is, a Disney Princess™ movie for a post-feminist generation, in which the little girls still love their princesses but mom and dad want positive female role models for their daughters. What is an international multimedia conglomerate to do? "It's only a movie!" they say. "It's just for fun, so sit back and enjoy the ride!" But setting aside the fact that there may potentially BE an Enchanted ride in Disney's future, there's something sticking in my craw about the movie. Yes, it's kind of entertaining in its way, with the wide-eyed charm of Amy Adams and lively supporting work from James Marsden (so much more fun to watch now that he's embraced the square-jawed goofball within) and the ever-reliable Timothy Spall. But in an attempt to appeal to the princess-loving girls and appease their parents, the message at the heart of Enchanted becomes so muddled that it's hard not to doubt its sincerity. The filmmakers are at great pains to paint Princess Giselle as a strong young woman, even picking up a sword at the end to help save the day and ensure a happy ending, but the truth is that this is still the story of a girl who just wants to find true love and falls (1) at the drop of a hat for a prince that just so happens to catch her as she falls from a tree, and (2) for the first guy in New York City who shows any kindness whatsoever, who just happens to be a single dad played by hunky Patrick Dempsey. On top of that, there's an insidious undercurrent of little-girl wish fulfillment here, in which problems can be solved by singing a happy song, or worse, by stealing daddy's credit card and shopping 'til you drop (spend the pain away, girls!). There's an early scene in the film in which Dempsey gives a book about accomplished women throughout history to his clearly uninterested daughter- the same little girl who falls for Giselle soon thereafter. The camera lingers on the photographs in the book- Rosa Parks, Marie Curie- clearly underlining how old and plain-looking they are. Is Disney trying to teach children that the only women worth admiring are young and pretty? Also, the evil queen Narissa spends almost all her time decked out in a vampy black getup- when she isn't disguised as an old hag or transformed into a dragon. But you get the idea- feminism this ain't, no matter how hard it tries to tell us otherwise. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beowulf: The IMAX Experience (2007, Robert Zemeckis)

I don't know about you folks, but I thought this was pretty awesome. Admittedly, a lot of it has to do with the spectacle, especially when you catch it with all of the 3D IMAX trappings. But while I'm a little uneasy judging this movie by a different technological yardstick than most movies which I'm content to see in a conventional theatre or on DVD, the truth is that Zemeckis pretty made this for IMAX, and it uses the format so well that I find the idea of watching this in any other format kind of unappealing. But sweet jeebus is this thing beautiful just to look at- the humanoid character designs are still a bit off (though they're certainly a vast improvement over The Polar Express) but the settings and especially the monsters are sort of breathtaking. But beyond the eye-candy aspect of Beowulf, I also enjoyed how screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary dove into the ideologies of story's setting- namely, a pagan kingdom on the verge of being taken over by Christianity. The hedonism and dick-measuring, ¿quien es mas macho? monologues that the heroes freely indulge in during the early scenes later give way to a more measured, morally-questioning mentality as Christianity takes over. Beowulf himself even admits that this is happening as he approaches middle age, remarking that people often seem to be more interested in being martyrs than heroes. Somewhat miraculously, the film is fairly consistent in this regard- compare to the muddled ideologies of 300, which claimed to advocate freedom for all while glorifying a proto-fascist culture. Some of the unironic testosterone-spouting (and Austin Powers-style genital-covering in the Beowulf vs. Grendel fight) comes off as silly, but while I admit that I laughed at these moments I like to think that I was laughing WITH the movie. In his best films, Zemeckis has taken effects-heavy projects and somehow made them lots of fun- harder than it sounds, I'm guessing- and he does the same with Beowulf. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007, Sidney Lumet)

OK dudes, I don't get it. What are you seeing in this movie that gets you all excited? Maybe it was the incestuous crime story and the Carter Burwell score, but for at least the final hour of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead I kept flashing back to Fargo, a movie that does a story like this RIGHT. A lot of it comes down to directorial style, or in Lumet's case a lack thereof- in Fargo, everything was in the service of a specific Coen brothers worldview, albeit one that's darker than usual. By contrast, Lumet has never been one to impose himself too heavily on a film, which often means that Lumet's work succeeds or fails based on two things- script and performances. Sadly, the script here comes across less as a finished, ready-to-film work than a first draft waiting to be ironed out by a John Sayles special spit'n'polish. As a result, the snazzy chronology doesn't work as well as it should, since too often it feels like if the story was told in a straightforward manner the reviews would probably be mediocre instead of the cavalcade of raves I've read thusfar. In addition, the characterizations are for the most part sketchy, which means that the talented cast has to shoulder the burden of answering our question, "who are these people?" Alas, few of them do. The women come off worst- Rosemary Harris has almost nothing to do, Amy Ryan doesn't have a single significant line of dialogue that doesn't revolve around wheedling ex-husband Ethan Hawke for money he doesn't have, and Marisa Tomei (who is so hot here, BTW) ends up playing the unsatisfied wife role. Even actors in more significant roles tend to go overboard on the tics- Hawke appears to be on constant anxiety mode, while the usually-dependable Albert Finney screws up his face and stumbles around like he's drunk on grief. There are two exceptions. Philip Seymour Hoffman actually makes the lead role work, but seeing as how he's playing an amoral sucker who gets himself in over his head and isn't expected to endear himself to the audience, some of that is just that he was the right guy for the job. But best of all is Michael Shannon, last seen in William Friedkin's Bug, who displays the same unhinged intensity here in a mere two scenes that cut through the actorly bullshit and chronological dicking around in a way that made me briefly sit up and pay full attention. But these two aside, I was left with thinking, in the words of Matt Damon, "qui gives a shit?" And more importantly, why should I? Is it a case of Imminent Death Syndrome? Because that would place us all in an awkward position.

And remember kids, crime doesn't pay.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Control (2007, Anton Corbijn)

There's very little a filmmaker can do to transcend formula, once he's committed himself to a fairly straightforward retelling of a famous musician's life. Which is another way of saying that Corbijn can't quite break out of the musical biopic template with his account of the rise and fall of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, although it's to his credit that I thought he might after a while. For most of the film, I was struck by how Corbijn transcended the clich├ęs largely through directorial choices. There are many bleak offerings in the genre, but none so consistently downbeat as this. The black and white 'scope (mmmmmmmmm... b/w 'scope) goes a long way, removing a lot of the happiness from the images, but I also appreciated that for over an hour, Corbijn mostly sticks to diagetic music, either from the band's performances or from the radio. In doing this, he successfully avoids "Walk the Line" style pitfalls, in which the songs the characters sing parallel their lives or vice versa. Sadly, this doesn't last- once Debbie finds out Ian's been cheating, Corbijn holds on her while "Love Will Tear Us Apart" plays on the soundtrack. Pity, really- I'd though Corbijn might've known better. Nonetheless, well worth seeing, with Morton awesome as usual and Sam Riley uncannily embodying Riley throughout the film. And it's hard to argue with the songs themselves, innit? Rating: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Country For Old Men (2007, Coen brothers)

I'll do my damnedest not to spoil this for everybody, but sweet mother of tears is this thing BLEAK. It doesn't start out that way- for most of its running time, Country is a superior crime thriller, with Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) being pursued by "ultimate badass" killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, scary as fuck), while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows at a distance and tries to make sense of it all. Make no mistake about it, these scenes become almost painfully suspenseful, not least for the way many of them elide dialogue almost entirely. But about twenty minutes before the end (I'll tread lightly), the film undergoes a shift in gears as profound and fascinating as anything I've seen onscreen since Lars cued up the Bowie at the end of Dogville. Rather than showing us the showdown the story has been working up to, the Coens back away and let us see the aftermath through the eyes of Sheriff Bell. At that point, it becomes fairly clear that Chigurh is meant to be something beyond a simple psychopath, perhaps even the very embodiment of Evil (strange then, how specific Bardem makes him, all the more chilling for the small touches he brings). It's here that Bell's presence in the story comes into focus, as a witness to the encroachment of evil into the world he thought he knew, not only in the form of Chigurh, but also the teenage boy he speaks of at the beginning, the California senior-citizen killers, and so on. "You can't stop WHAT's coming," as a character says, since after all he's talking more than just a human being. The end of No Country is almost bereft of hope, imagining a future in which Evil becomes a tangible part of everyone's lives, taking their souls as a matter of principle, never so sinister as when offering people a slight glimmer of hope that they'll make it out alive. You can fight, you can run, or you can bury your head in the sand, or you can accept that evil is coming for you- in the end, it won't make a lick of difference. But at the same time, it's too simple to chalk it up to a "fear the future" mindset- Evil has always been around, says the film, and the only reason Sheriff Bell is around to fear its coming is because it hasn't yet come for him. At the screening I attended, the crowd seemed genuinely disturbed and kind of annoyed by the film, due in no small part by its refusal to play nice. But for those of us who are actually willing to listen to what the Coens are actually saying, No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece. Rating: 10 out of 10.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

American Gangster (2007, Ridley Scott)

Every movie has its own optimal duration, and in the best cases the movie that makes it to the screen is exactly as long as it needs to be. Both Satantango and The Heart of the World are sort of unimaginable at any length besides the ones they so fortunately ended up with. American Gangster isn't one of those cases. At a shade over 2 1/2 hours, it's long enough to announce that it means to be taken seriously, but not long enough to really delve into the details it needed to show us. I can imagine this story playing out at 100 minutes as a tense, gritty crime story, or at 3 1/2 to 4 hours, or even at miniseries length, getting down to the nitty gritty of the case. But the rule here is to judge the movie on the screen, and in that respect it's pretty good- a thoroughly professional job, but hardly revelatory. Washington gets the showier of the two principal roles, and while he's fine in the role, it's really not much of a stretch for him, even when he's lighting a man on fire and then shooting him. He's all steely intensity here, occasionally allowing a wide smile to play across his face for any number of reasons, but concentrating much of his performance into his darting, ever-calculating eyes. However, unlike most reviews so far, I was actually more interested in Russell Crowe's storyline, especially in the way his dogged band of do-gooder drug dicks solved the case not necessarily by being smarter or craftier than the crooks, but by catching lucky breaks and flying by the seats of their pants (look at the way one of his team, played by RZA, improvises during a bust). Also, Josh Brolin continues to surprise- he was one of the few bright spots of Planet Terror, and by all accounts he's great in No Country for Old Men. So nice to see that there are still some man's man actors around, eh? Rating: 6 out of 10.