Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Kite Runner (2007, Marc Forster)

The more Forster films I see, the more I think that the best he can manage anymore is workmanlike proficiency. None of his movies is poorly made, but they're just kind of bland and uninspired. It's for this reason that when he takes on respectable subject matter, the results are invariably labeled "Oscar-bait"- they're so middle-of-the-road that if the material does it for you, you're bound to respond favorably to the movie. Problem is, I'm not sure he's the right filmmaker for The Kite Runner. It may have seemed so at the time, as it's based on a respected bestseller, but this really needed a director willing to really dig into the more emotional aspects of the story. After all, we're dealing with lifelong guilt and shame born from fear of emasculation, both real and imagined. Sure, the Forster version might elicit approval from critics who respect his restraint and treat melodrama as a four-letter word, but seeing the tepid result makes me wonder how much better a Sergio Leone version would have been (were he alive, that is). The Kite Runner is prosaic through and through, and so when the big narrative reveals come in the story, nothing registers. For example, the scene where the adult Amir finds out the truth about his childhood friend Hassan falls flat because Forster is afraid to really embrace the melodramatic nature of the moment. In this way, Khalid Abdulla is the ideal lead actor for Forster's telling of the story- his performance is perfectly serviceable, but reveals almost nothing about the character. And let's face it, we're not talking about the hero of a Jean-Pierre Melville protagonist here- we're supposed to feel the weight of this guy's emotional struggles, and we never do. Too bad... this could've been pretty darn good. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Savages (2007, Tamara Jenkins)

If nothing else, The Savages should be considered a success because it acknowledges something that the syrupy romantic tragedy Away From Her did not- that the elderly are not simply wise and brave and saintly, but complicated humans whose bodies are beginning to fail them and whose proximity to death can be frightening. That Jenkins refuses to sanctify the "golden years" the way many films do is the most noteworthy aspect of The Savages. Beyond that, this is a pretty good movie that works largely by virtue of its modest charms. For one thing, Jenkins never tries to make this a universal story about siblings reuniting to care for a dying parent. The characters- schlubby professor John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), neurotic would-be playwright Wendy (Laura Linney), and father Lenny (Philip Bosco)- are too specific for that. Thus, freed from the need to make a larger statement with her story, Jenkins considers these three people, placed into this awkward situation. The Savages is never the stuff of heightened melodrama- there are no medical procedures, no third-act confessions, no tearful bedside farewells. In fact, Lenny is kept offscreen altogether for most of the film. Instead, the main crux of the story is the contentious relationship between John and Wendy, whose troubles and resentments can't be put on hold while their father's condition worsens. I can't quite embrace The Savages wholeheartedly- the film's too low-key to really be more than pretty good- but it's definitely worth a look. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007, Jake Kasdan)

Since Freaks and Geeks, I've been pretty predisposed to cutting the Apatow comedy factory a lot of slack. But the truth is that Walk Hard finds them sort of coasting. Don't get me wrong, Walk Hard is pretty funny, but there are also some pretty long dry patches in between the laughs. What's more, the running gags are extremely repetitive. Of course, that's part of the joke, the predictability of the story arcs in straight musical biopics being held up to scorn, but around the fourth time we saw Dewey hit rock bottom and tear apart a bathroom, it stopped being funny. In addition, the cameos are starting to get ridiculous. It's one thing to throw the Beatles into the storyline, but when the Beatles are played by Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long, and Jason Schwartzman affecting bad Liverpudlian accents, it's more distracting than humorous. To say nothing of Jack White as Elvis, Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly, and many more. That said, I laughed a good amount in Walk Hard, and I was doubled over with laughter more than once. The original spoof songs are a hoot ("Let Me Hold You (Little Man)" may be the funniest song I've heard since "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Just Adjusting"), and the way the film lampoons the various musical periods Cox travels through during his career is sometimes priceless, especially when he shuts himself in the studio for months on end recording a SMiLE-esque opus. And John C. Reilly is just about perfect as Cox, throwing himself into even the most outrageous comic scenes and showing off the musical chops he first exhibited in Chicago. Walk Hard is no Superbad in the laughs department, that's for sure. But as far as spoofs of the musical biopic go, the genre has it coming, and I think we can all be thankful that it was Kasdan and Apatow- rather than the dudes who made Date Movie- who made this. And if you see this, be sure to stay until the end of the credits. It's definitely worth it. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007, Mike Nichols)

At the height of a highly divisive overseas war, two of Hollywood's biggest stars, along with one of his most respected character actors, teams up with a leading director and a big-ticket screenwriter to make a movie that more or less celebrates interventionism. Now, I'm not totally opposed to American intervention overseas- it's a tricky issue to be sure, but both sides of the argument make valid points. But I'm not sure that in our current climate it really behooves us to be approaching the issue by telling a fairly cut-and-dried story in such a toothless manner. Sorkin's script, reportedly much softened in its transition to the big screen, basically celebrates the cleverness with which its heroes facilitated the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan and helped bring about the fall of the Communist Soviet Union, a story that's recent enough that much of the audience will still feel that old anti-Soviet feeling. But how many cases of U.S. interventionism are this simple? Precious few, I'd wager. Late-reel stabs at problematizing our involvement in the war only make this more frustrating, since while they vaguely hint at darker times to come due to our withdrawing our support once the Soviets had turned tail, but also because for all the unease they're trying to stir up they're the most blatantly pro-intervention scenes of all, because they argue that we didn't go far enough. At no point in the film does it occur to a character of any substance that making our presence felt in the Afghanistan/Soviet war might not be an idea touched by unqualified awesomeness. What, was there no devil's advocate character worth mentioning? None of this would bug me so much if the movie was more entertaining, but it's neither as sharp or as funny as it wants to be. For a star-driven vehicle, the superstars leading the cast don't make much of an impression. Little wonder that Philip Seymour Hoffman waltzes away with the movie- he's the only one of the three who's well-cast for his role. Hanks conveys Wilson's integrity- after all, he's Tom Hanks- but he never convinced me of his less savory side. The boozing and womanizing and good ol' boy hellraising just don't wash with the forthright way Hanks approaches the role. Julia Roberts fares worse, as she projects far too much self-regard and composure to pull off such a passionate character- I weep to think of what a younger Jane Fonda or Jessica Lange might have done in the role. Oh, and how many mediocre movies has Nichols made in the last two decades since his ex-comedy partner Elaine May tanked with Ishtar? Come on, Hollywood- she can't be THAT big of a pain in the ass, can she? Give her another chance in my opinion. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)

Unlike most people, I approached Tim Burton's big-screen take on Steven Sondheim's Broadway classic with some trepidation. Perhaps that's because of my mixed feelings toward Burton's career. Burton has become Hollywood's Prince of Darkness, but I've always found his work to be sort of juvenile, though sometimes in fascinating ways. In the past, his best films have worked primarily as magic realism, with misunderstood man-children and baby-doll women, and chock full of lovely, off-kilter imagery. But his vision is rarely as dark as his fans insist it is- at his heart, Burton isn't a nihilistic soul but a goth romantic who grew up Fangoria and Vincent Price. Which makes him the right director for Batman and Sleepy Hollow, certainly, but Sweeney Todd is much harsher stuff. Could he manage it? Turns out I needn't have worried. Sweeney is easily the bleakest film in Burton's oeuvre, not shying away from the more unpleasant undercurrents of Sondheim's original version. Occasional trips into the more comfortable climes of Burton-land were initially distracting, but after a while I realized that Burton was actually complicating his beloved, almost schticky style. In this regard, Sweeney Todd is Burton's most self-aware film. The world inhabited by Sweeney (Johnny Depp) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) is an unforgiving one, figuratively putting people through the meat grinder even before the protagonists make the metaphor literal. So whenever the film escapes into the familiar Burton look, it's always a signal of the innocence and hope that Sweeney has long since lost. Such trifles are for the young and foolish in Sondheim's world, and Burton underlines this in the fantasy number when Mrs. Lovett dons an outfit that makes her look uncannily like Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. But even in this fantasy, Sweeney will have none of this. Much like Hamlet, his thoughts be bloody, and Burton obliges them with plenty of throat-slashings and arterial splatter (Sweeney Todd might be a musical, but leave the kids at home). But Burton isn't simply indulging the gorehounds in the crowd- he's exorcising his more sinister demons, the ones that are often glossed over in his work but occasionally peek their heads out, as in Batman Returns. The key moment in the film comes near the end, when Sweeney has discovered his disguised daughter hiding in his flat, and when called away on urgent business, he (not knowing who she is) tells her to forget his face. Time will tell if this is the case, but I interpreted this as Burton's way of telling those who love him for his more cuddly work to turn back and remember him for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. But rather than staying with the girl, the movie follows Sweeney to the terrible, inevitable end. Sweeney Todd isn't perfect- HBC's singing voice would have been dubbed had she not been married to the director- but it's riveting throughout. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007, Jon Turteltaub)

Pretty good fun, truth be told, mostly because the movie wholeheartedly embraces its ridiculousness. In fact, Book of Secrets is actually more enjoyable than its predecessor. It's certainly more outrageous, as the mystery takes the cast to some of the world's biggest landmarks- Buckingham Palace, The Library of Congress, Mounts Vernon and Rushmore- as well as taking on some pretty big game, like a conspiracy to kill Lincoln and a super-duper MacGuffin called the President's Book of Secrets. In my review of the original I derisively referred to it as "The Da Vinci Clone," but comparing Book to The Da Vinci Code movie makes for a study in contrasts. Think about it- if you're making an adventure/puzzle movie in which the heroes are trying to uncover ancient mysteries while jetting around the world, would you want it to be dour and humorless or light and fun? Book works where Code didn't because Da Vinci played the shadowy intrigues deadly seriously, whereas Book makes the right choice and kids them. Also, Cage has more fun this time around, whereas last time he was squarely in action hero mode and let sidekick Justin "Is This the Baywatch?" Bartha tell all the jokes. Sadly, Diane Kruger still mostly a wet blanket, although at least Helen Mirren and Ed Harris are along for the ride, to varying returns. And of course, best not to pay the story too much mind, especially not the weird thematic inconsistencies- OK, so it's fine for Cage to chuck a wooden artifact into the Thames to get the baddies off his tail, but not so much for Harris to burn a letter from Queen Victoria? But I did have a pretty good time, I must admit. Book of Secrets will never be mistaken for great cinema, but it'll certainly make a passable rental next spring. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence)

As a longtime writer for TV and the movies, Richard Matheson's work even in novel form lends itself to a cinematic feel, and as long as filmmakers who adapt his work remain fairly close to the intent of the originals, the stories are hard to mess up. I had some reservations these last few months about this, the third big-screen adaptation of Matheson's I Am Legend, fearing that star Will Smith and director Francis Lawrence (of the putrid Constantine) would turn this into an action thriller. Thankfully, Lawrence and his screenwriters realized that much of the novel's power lies in its starkness, its portrait of a man who represents the last outpost of humanity fending off the monsters, set against a metropolis-turned-ghost town. It's a lonely life, with Smith hunting and gathering and experimenting to find a cure during the day and barricading himself in his home by night, with only his dog to keep him company. There's something uncanny about a city that has been emptied of all other human life, not least when Smith finds himself in deep trouble with no one to bail him out. But even the more mundane details of city life are gone, especially the din of human noise that one learns to tune out after living in the city long enough (this is why the flashback scenes, which would under most circumstances feel perfunctory, make sense here, as they're a flurry of human activity that contrasts with Smith's present-day life). I was so impressed with how well Lawrence captures this undercurrent in Matheson's story- much better, it must be said, than The Omega Man, which stupidly turned the non-speaking monsters into Communist hippie Druid dudes who never shut up- that I was a little disappointed when the film became a more conventional humans-vs.-monsters thriller once a few more people arrived on the scene, although I did appreciate how ill-prepared mentally Smith was for their arrival. Nonetheless, I Am Legend is surprisingly satisfying for a big-budget SF thriller, with Smith at his most restrained in ages (no "aw hell nos", for one thing) and some impressive production design of NYC in ruins. Last Man on Earth is still the best adaptation of the story, but as a remake, this will do quite nicely. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Margot at the Wedding (2007, Noah Baumbach)

After 2005's The Squid and the Whale and now Margot, Baumbach has become a kind of poet laureate of domestic dysfunction, crafting precisely-written tales of epically strained families that exist that elicit just enough uneasy laughter to qualify as comedies. In many ways, Margot is even better than Squid, although its problems are also more pronounced. But first, the good stuff. As expected, the cast shines, from the great performance by Nicole Kidman on down. Even Jack Black, who seems like the oddball in the bunch, rises to the occasion- as Malcolm, the layabout fiancée of Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Black channels his manic presence into a role so convincingly that for the first time I could imagine him stepping outside the kuh-razy Jack Black persona in future projects. In addition, the family dynamic, especially between Margot and Pauline, rings uncannily true, with the two sisters feeling completely free to pummel one another with put-downs and snide remarks because they know each other so well- and indeed are so similar- that they know exactly how far they can go with each other. The stuff within the family- what with Margot and Pauline, and Malcolm, and Margot's distant husband and the writer she's sleeping with, plus the preteen children of Pauline and Margot, who are about as well-adjusted as kids could be under the circumstances- is so good that there's a near-masterpiece hiding inside Margot at the Wedding. So it's more than a little disappointing when Baumbach leaves the nest for even weirder pastures. Was the stuff with crazy neighbors the Voglers really necessary? I don't think so. Likewise, the business with an old family tree feels too on-the-nose symbolic for the movie, especially when it comes to when, and where, and how it comes crashing down. Still, Margot at the Wedding is sort of stunning when it's in its element, which thankfully is most of its running time. I'd gladly sit through the more iffy material again and again for moments like the one where Pauline, in mid-argument, addresses her older sister as "dude."

Also, FYI, since I saw her in The Squid and the Whale I've had a gigantic crush on Halley Feiffer, and with Margot at the Wedding it continues unabated. Just in case you were wondering.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sleuth (2007, Kenneth Branagh)

I count myself as a fan of the original 1972 version of Sleuth, but I wouldn't presume to say that the story couldn't be told again in a different style. But not this- anything but this. As if to willfully distance themselves from the film's predecessor, Branagh and (slumming) screenwriter Harold Pinter play a kind of mind game with the original's fans by keeping little other than the premise and the character names. What's more, Branagh attempts to allay the stagebound setup by tricking up his direction practically beyond comprehensibility. Branagh fills the screen with surveillance cameras and tight closeups of his actors, and the set, which in the Mankiewicz version was overflowing with the ornate toys and games with which Andrew Wyke amused himself, now feels like nothing so much as a challenge to the production designer to dress the set entire from the Sharper Image catalog. In addition, Branagh and Pinter lose the class envy that was so integral to the 1972 version. Whereas the original Andrew Wyke (played deliciously by Sir Laurence Olivier) was the son of a noble family who resented the low-class upstart Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) horning in on his woman, here Wyke (Caine again) is merely a rich guy who doesn't want to give his wife up to Tindle (Jude Law) without a fight. As a result, much of the character's motivation is lost- when Olivier's Wyke plays mind games with Tindle, it's because he's entitled- no, duty-bound- by his position to do so, in order to put him squarely in his place. Without the class issues in play, the characters' gamesmanship becomes little more than dick-measuring, which is borne out in numerous distracting exchanges between the two ("Is that your car?" "Which one?" "The little one." "Yes." "Mine's the big one."). Likewise, the scenes with the inspector are seriously bobbled. SPOILER: While Mankiewicz was content to show the characters mostly in long shots, which accentuated the stagebound setup, Branagh pushes all the way in on his actors' faces, which causes the inspector's secret to have the exact opposite effect as it should. Mankiewicz's theatricality was ideal, underlining the nature of the inspector as a theatrical device. By comparison, Branagh's closeups on his face don't so much defy us figure out what's going on as they clue us by their very insistence that this guy who isn't listed in the opening credits and who we've never seen before now might not in fact be who he seems. It's a colossal miscalculation on the film's part, and consequently it never recovers. In the final reels, Branagh and Pinter tack on an additional act that delves into darker thematic territory, but it's both gratuitous and sort of ugly, with an unfortunate attempt to sway the audience's sympathies towards one of the two men, when part of the deliciousness of the original was how these guys, for all their differences, were kindred spirits in gamesmanship. So, for the second time in as many days, I find myself taking a movie to task for taking itself too damned seriously. And shouldn't Sleuth, of all movies, be fun? Rating: 3 out of 10.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007, Chris Weitz)

This one's got visual spectacle and invention out the wazoo, but it's curiously inert and joyless. A lot of that has to do with the nature of fantasy on film- more than any other genre, fantasy has a certain out-there element that tends to come off as goofy in the wrong hands, even with the best of source material. The key to doing fantasy well is to acknowledge the goofier aspects of the film, rather than trying to play them off with a straight face. Consider the difference between the infectiously cornball original Star Wars trilogy, with its gee-whiz hero and puppety oddball creatures, and the dour sequels, bogged down by galactic politics and thin-ass characters who Lucas tried to fob off as Shakespearean. So it goes with The Golden Compass, a perfectly serviceable fantasy movie that is rarely much fun. Oh sure, it's a treat for the eyes, with effects that don't aim for photorealism so much as a painterly beauty, and the sets and contraptions have a degree of wonder. But even from the beginning, the storytelling is so portentous that it becomes suffering. After all, we're talking about a movie in which the characters' souls manifest themselves externally as animals- surely you could have a little fun with this. There are a few moments in which the goofy stuff is played at the right pitch- the ursine battle only needed the Channel 4 News Team to become a bear fight for the ages- but not enough to make the movie enjoyable. Likewise, the only cast member who appears to be enjoying himself is Sam Elliott- Daniel Craig and Eva Green have almost nothing to do, and Nicole Kidman is perfectly OK in the as Mrs. Coulter, but although she's pretty and cold, a little comedic haughtiness would have served the role well. Also, Alexandre Desplat's score sometimes sounds a lot like the song "Somewhere Out There" from An American Tail, which got a bit distracting, as I doubt it was the filmmakers' intention to make me think of Feivel during the climactic ice battle. Still, hardly the worst post-Rings fantasy around, I suppose. Rating: 5 out of 10.

My Kid Could Paint That (2007, Amir Bar-Lev)

I'm not as effusive about this as a lot of people, but there's a lot to respect and enjoy about it. Frankly, I didn't find the Bar-Lev's portrayal of art-world fickleness to be half as interesting as the larger story it tells, a real-life distillation of the principle put forth by Freddy Riedenschneider's old pal Heisenberg. What begins as a happy little girl who enjoys painting gets pulled every which way- by art dealers with dollar signs in their eyes, by art-world tastemakers ready to jump on a hot new talent, by journalists who first smell a story, only to change the story once the original well has run dry. Most compellingly, Bar-Lev isn't immune from this level of interference, although he doesn't realize it until too late. He comes into the Olmsteads' lives in the interest of telling the truth and quickly ingratiates himself into the family, but in the end even he has an artistic agenda he's working, and to his credit he keeps that in the film. But amid the storm, the still center is Marla herself, who is able to ride it out mostly because she's oblivious to what's going on. Yes, she's carted around to openings and TV interviews, but she's young enough that she doesn't seem to realize that there's anything strange about the things happening around her. Lucky her. Rating: 7 out of 10.