Wednesday, December 24, 2008
What’s more, there’s a tendency among most families to assign unspoken labels to each member at a relatively early stage, then to hold tightly to those labels through the years, even past the point where they no longer apply. Little wonder that many adults see the old-fashioned family Christmas less as a pleasure than an obligation, something to be gotten over with so they can get to celebrating everything their own chosen way.
Even under ideal circumstances, Christmas with the Vuillards, the family at the center of A Christmas Tale, would be uneasy. But with matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) gravely ill, and middle child Henri (Matthieu Amalric) back at the party for the first time since being banished six years prior, it gets near-impossible to keep those old unpleasant feelings under wraps. Junon requires a bone marrow transplant, but given her rare blood type, only two family members are compatible- Henri and Paul, the teenage son of Henri’s older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who has long despised her little brother for reasons that are never fully explained.
In a more conventional film, Henri and Elizabeth would see this opportunity as a chance to reconcile, with the once-irresponsible brother stepping in to help their mother and save his young nephew the risk. But in A Christmas Tale, it doesn’t work out that way. Elizabeth- who spearheaded Henri’s banishment in the first place- has always been the good and responsible eldest child, and she resents that it’s her ne’er-do-well of a brother who will have the chance to help their mother. In addition, she sees the possibility of Paul helping her mom not merely as a chance to bring her closer to her son, but also to give him a renewed sense of purpose. Both of which are fairly good reasons from Elizabeth’s perspective, but (not that Elizabeth cares) this doesn’t leave much of a place for Henri. Does her antipathy for him spring solely from the incident in question, or is it indicative of something deeper- perhaps (this being a Desplechin film) an inability to deal with the messiness that Henri brings?
In this respect, Desplechin could be called a spiritual cousin of Jean Renoir, especially the Renoir who once penned the line- “the great tragedy of life is this: everyone has his reasons.” All too often in A Christmas Tale, the characters neglect or even hurt the feelings of those closest to them to satisfy their own interests, but in their eyes they’re just doing what they feel must be done. It can be as simple as Junon balking at the skin inflammations that could potentially result from the transplant, or as emotionally fraught as Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), wife of the youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), sleeping with her ex-lover as a means of bringing some closure to their aborted, long-ago relationship. And then there’s Henri, who despite any efforts he might make will always be “the bad kid” to his family. Is there any wonder that we rarely see him happy until he ducks out with his girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) to drop her off at the train station?
But I’ve made A Christmas Tale sound sort of dismal, when in fact it’s anything but. In spite of all the despair flying around, the Vuillard house is filled with life and even familial warmth, particularly from the kindly paterfamilias Abel (Jean-Pierre Rousillon- I love that in a Desplechin film a jolly, potato-faced guy like him can wind up with Catherine Deneuve), and no small amount of humor. And from the very beginning of the film, when the family history is recounted using shadow puppets- thus lending it a broad, archetypal quality- Desplechin’s stylistic decisions are bold, yet perfectly used. After my first viewing, A Christmas Tale doesn’t quite measure up to his masterful Kings and Queen, but it’s so full of life, with all its messiness and unpredictability, that I’m sure my esteem for it will only grow over time.
Rating: 9 out of 10.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
As virtually all of its supporters have said, Synecdoche is about nothing less than Life and Death- or, more specifically, the paths our lives take as we grow older. From the outset, Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) body is betraying him- pustules break out on his face, his eyes don’t dilate properly, a seizure leaves him unable to generate tears or saliva. This pileup of health disasters, coupled with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive leaving him, makes Caden mindful of his mortality, so he seizes on the opportunity afforded him by a McArthur Grant to turn his life into a massive theatre project.
In many films, making the protagonist a director reeks of solipsism, as though the filmmaker didn’t know anything about any other lifestyle besides a life in the arts. But here, it’s a brilliant move on Kaufman’s part, as Caden’s job and the project he mounts mirrors the impulse we’ve all felt to take control of our lives in order to make sense of them. However, Caden’s life becomes consumed by this inward-looking project, and the constant self-regard leads the production to drag on for year after year, growing far beyond his ability to control it.
But then, isn’t this how life is for all of us? In our younger years we’ve convinced that we’re the masters of our lives, only to see our worlds growing ever larger in old age while our own rules in them become smaller, until we’re not even calling the shots for ourselves anymore. Along the way, everything Caden knows and lives is lost to him- his parents, Adele and Olive, and his great love Hazel (Samantha Morton) all die, while his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams) also leaves never to return. Even time itself gets away from Caden, from the opening scene in which two nearly imperceptible temporal shifts take place, to later in the film where entire years get passed by unnoticed.
Yet for all its starkness, punctuated occasionally by typically Kaufmanesque non sequiturs, the film’s tone morphs gradually into a kind of warm ruefulness once it becomes clear how much possible happiness Caden has lost due to his inability to stop thinking about himself all the blasted time. Yet by the time this happiness comes within reach it’s too late, and the tragedy is that Caden recognizes full well that he won’t have another chance like it again. By the end, all he can do is to look back at a life of intense self-regard, and to reflect on the idea that to truly know oneself can be a source of misery rather than pleasure, and that all his attempts to create something larger than himself have fallen flat.
This is why, even in her absence, Adele may still be Synecdoche’s key supporting character, even more than Hazel, Claire, Olive, or even Sammy (Tom Noonan), who has been tailing Caden for two decades for reasons unknown but to himself. Through her art- postage stamp-sized miniature oil paints- Adele embraces smallness rather than being unwittingly consumed by largesse the way Caden is. Perhaps that’s why she needs to escape him, since she knows innately what it takes Caden a lifetime to learn. And if Caden could only stop and think about it, perhaps he might realize that Adele’s success through modestly-scaled art is a rebuke to his own ultimately-failed grandiosity.
Early in Synecdoche, New York Adele tells Caden, “everyone’s disappointing, the more you know someone.” Yes, and doubly so when that someone is yourself.
Note: Looking over this review, I can’t help but noticed that I’ve completely neglected to mention such things as direction, performances, and technical elements, although they’re all top notch, all the more impressively so for being Kaufman’s directorial debut. All I can say in my defense is that, cosmetic differences aside, I was so consumed by my own identification with Caden’s plight that I found it difficult to think of the filmic aspects of it. At numerous points in the film, Caden sees himself in the world around him, and I felt much the way watching the film itself. Make of that what you will.
Rating: 10 out of 10.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Saturday, November 15, 2008
The trouble is that Leigh’s storytelling, such as it is, feels too neat, with the drama in the film centered almost entirely on Poppy’s interactions with Scott (Eddie Marsan), a bitter driving instructor prone to emotional outbursts. From their first scene together, Leigh positions Scott as Poppy’s polar opposite, and whatever tension can be found in Happy-Go-Lucky comes from the friction that builds between them. Which is fine, I suppose, except that (a) the difference in tension between the Scott scenes and the rest of the film makes the other scenes feel slight by comparison, and (b) by so neatly cordoning off the really dramatic stuff from the rest of the movie, much of the human messiness that can usually be found in Leigh’s work is lost. Aside from Scott, most of the other characters who surround Poppy tend to accept her as she is, even the ones who don’t really know her. And while it’s true that her kind of happiness is generally infectious, surely there are people who don’t always respond to it and aren’t complete psychos. By limiting the spectrum of human behavior this time around, Leigh has made the world he’s created with his performers far less varied, and consequently less interesting. None of this, however, is any fault of Hawkins, who manages the difficult feat of creating a character who’s genuinely warm and caring, and takes a role that might have been insufferable in other hands and makes her really lovable.
Rating: 6 out of 10.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
When I first heard the premise for Role Models- a pair of slackers get ordered by the courts to become mentors to troubled youth- I didn’t have much hope for it being good. It seemed like something out of high-concept Hades, reminiscent of a cheesy 80s-era sitcom. Yet somehow, Role Models makes it work. With a game cast, it’s that rarity- a comedy that’s not just funny but legitimately likable.
Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott star as Danny and Wheeler, a pair of thirtysomethings who pay the bills by hawking energy drinks in public schools. Depressed after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), Rudd crashes the company truck, landing them in court with two options- a month of jail, or community service. Naturally, they choose the second option, and wind up in the "Big Brothers/Big Sisters"-esque "Sturdy Wings" Program, where each is paired up with a "little". Wheeler’s young charge is straight out of the comedy playbook, a ten-year-old named Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson) with a mouth like a sailor. But Danny’s "little" is more surprising- a high school social leper named Augie, who devotes all of his free time to a medieval role-playing society that requires its members to dress up and do battle with makeshift swords and axes. Needless to say, the court-ordered mentors have their work cut out for them.
The film’s story is formulaic enough that the ending is more or less a foregone conclusion. However, there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way, provided you’ve got a taste for raunchy humor, including plenty of profanity from the young scene-stealer Thompson. Most of the movie coasts along on the strength of its jokes and gags, which hit more often than they miss. But it’s in the final reel or so that Role Models kicks into overdrive, as Augie enlists Danny, Wheeler and Ronnie for the "Battle Royale," in which all of the members of the role-playing society take the field to fight each other to the simulated "death." I’d go into more detail, but I’d hate to spoil the fun.
And in the end, Role Models is a lot of fun, courtesy of its talented stars and a handful of ringers in the supporting cast. After years of dependable supporting work, Rudd makes the most of the lead role here, and Scott is better than he’s been since the American Pie movies. Among the supporting players, Jane Lynch is memorable as the founder of "Sturdy Wings", who has an alarming tendency to bring up her old drug addiction at inappropriate moments. But best of all is Mintz-Plasse, who became a cult figure as Superbad’s "McLovin", here playing an even more awkward character this time around. Like Danny, we can’t help but look at him with dumbstruck awe when we first meet him, but as the story progresses, we grow to really like the kid and his unorthodox hobby. Role Models is a nice surprise, not least for all of you unreformed KISS fans out there. You know who you are.
Rating: 7 out of 10.
What makes a James Bond movie different from a regular action movie? Bond movies have always been famous for their stunts, their chases, their gadgets, their villains, and their women. But then, you can find these in just about every action movie. No, I think what really distinguishes 007 from the everyday high-octane thriller is its style. From the beginning, Bond has been about wish fulfillment, in which audience members who yearn for globetrotting, high-rolling adventure (all in the service of one’s country, of course) can feed their fantasies, safely, for the price of a movie ticket. No matter what actor plays the role, the style has always been the most important element of a Bond movie, and it’s what’s most lacking in the series’ latest installment, Quantum of Solace.
What makes this especially disappointing is that the previous 007 adventure, Casino Royale was a high-water mark in the series, a fusion of the classic Bond style and the grittier, more hard-edged feel of the modern action movie. However, this time out the scales have tipped too far in the latter direction, with Daniel Craig’s lean, mean 007 reduced to an bullet-headed action figure. Making matters worse is the film’s over-reliance on the kind of frenzied, choppy action sequences that have been in vogue after the popularity of the Bourne movies. The fights and chases become little more than incoherent messes of motion and color, and more than one potentially exciting scene is squandered because it’s almost impossible to make out what the heck is happening onscreen.
As in any James Bond movie, there are a handful of worthy moments, including some lovely locations, and a few returning characters from previous adventures, most notably the invaluable Judi Dench as the long-suffering M. Yet for the most part, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I’d seen most of Quantum of Solace before, and done better. In the past, Bond movies have set the pace for the action genre, so it’s a little upsetting to see the series ripping off other hits. I’ve seen all of the Bond movies at least once, and although I’ve sat through a number of subpar ones (you can’t convince me that Moonraker wasn’t meant to be a comedy), I’ve never been bored with any of them until now. To my eyes, 007 movies are about entertainment, and by failing to be much fun, Quantum of Solace fails the first- and most important- test of the series. Disappointing all around.
Rating: 4 out of 10.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
2005’s animated hit Madagascar was a pleasant surprise, taking a relatively standard-issue fish-out-of-water storyline and jazzing it up with vibrant animation and a surprisingly heady nature-vs.-nurture theme. Now the original Madagascar gang is back with the sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, in which our heroes’ disastrous attempt to return to New York City causes them to crash-land in the African savanna. All of the major characters are back again this time, not just the central foursome (Ben Stiller as Alex the Lion, Chris Rock as Marty the zebra, Jada Pinkett Smith as Gloria the hippo, and David Schwimmer as Melman the giraffe) but also returning favorites like the lemur King Julian, voiced by Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen, and a quartet of resourceful no-nonsense penguins. Frankly, all this familiarity makes the movie feel somewhat stale, with many of the jokes coming off as retreads of the original movie. There’s even a fairly gratuitous and distracting subplot involving a group of American tourists who are forced to fend for themselves, with the group led by the same feisty granny who beat up Alex with her handbag in the first installment of the film.
In addition, once the gang reaches the savanna, each character gets its own storyline, with varying levels of interest. The lion’s share of the screen time (sorry) goes once again to Alex, who is not only spectacularly unsuited to life in the wild- another plot point from the original movie- but now finds himself reunited with his alpha-lion father, nicely voiced by the late Bernie Mac. However, I was much more entertained by the subplot involving Marty and the pack of zebras, who not only look exactly like him but act and talk like him as well, creating no small amount of confusion. That said, the animation is even more eye-catching this time around, with lots of vivid color and inventive (though hardly realistic) character design. And there are still plenty of funny moments, most memorably those involving the scene-stealing King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen is priceless as ever) and those crazy penguins. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa won’t win the franchise any new fans, but it should please most people who enjoyed the original film, especially kids.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
The trailer for Rachel Getting Married suggests a story in which Kym reconciles with her family, hugs are exchanged, and everyone parties till dawn backed by a samba band. But don’t let this fool you- it’s pretty strong meat. At various points in the story, it’s hard not to hate all of the characters at least a little bit- Kym for bringing her family such misery, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) for not trying to understand where Kym is coming from, their dad (Bill Irwin) for being ineffectual, their mom (Debra Winger) for running away when she’s needed. Hell, even the wedding itself seems too good to be true, like a liberal wet dream of a multi-culti secular wedding. It’s just so perfectly planned (by Rachel and her prissy best friend Emma, no less) that it feels like a rebuke to the messy, down-and-out life that Kym has been leading ever since she got involved with drugs. Watching Kym navigate her way around the wedding is a reminder of what it can be like when everyone seems to be enjoying themselves except for you.
Like Robert Altman before him, the Demme of Rachel Getting Married knows that sometimes, it’s better to let character establish themselves by the ways they interact with each other than to simply announce who they are to the audience. By plunging headlong into the story, the film completely immerses the audience in the dynamic of the Buckman family. Because of old wounds and tragedies, they just can’t connect as they should, so that even the most innocuous and oblivious gestures (like Kym handing dad a stack of plates) can be blown completely out of proportion. In lesser hands, the situation around which Rachel Getting Married is built might have come off as a comedy of discomfort in a Ricky Gervais vein, but here the laughs don’t come. Here, as Octave said in Rules of the Game, “the great tragedy of life is this- everyone has his reasons.” In a way, Rachel Getting Married plays like the humanist counterpart to the misanthropic Burn After Reading- in both films, the characters get so caught up in their own blinkered versions of the world that they can hardly be bothered with empathy.
Rating: 9 out of 10.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Rating: 6 out of 10.
Rating: 8 out of 10.
Monday, October 20, 2008
That said, the movie still mostly works, at least enough to make it Stone’s most watchable movie in more than a decade, which I’ll grant you isn’t saying much. I liked the bifurcated structure of the story, which allows Stone to juxtapose the almost inspiring story of Bush’s rise from alcoholic rich kid to national politician, with the more sobering behind-the-scenes re-creation of the planning of the Iraq War. Truth be told, I could have gone for at least another hour worth of the latter, especially the dialogue-heavy intrigue of the various Cabinet meetings. For me, there was a voyeuristic kick to seeing the ways in which W. was manipulated by some ("Vice" Cheney, "Rummy" Rumsfeld, "Genius" Rove) and enabled by others ("Guru" Rice), while others still (particularly Colin Powell) got more or less left out in the cold. Part of me wishes that Stone could’ve gotten the financial backing to make this Che-style, perhaps with the early years called "Junior", the later called "W.: The President” or something along those lines.
If nothing else, this structure would strengthen Stone’s central thesis, which states that George W. Bush might have been an archetypal American success story, had he never been elected President. In the film’s view, Bush was a spoiled rich ne’er-do-well who spent much of his younger years rebelling against his family’s legacy, only to give up alcohol and find religion, and eventually becoming successful in his own right. Compared to most men, he achieved success in life. Unfortunately for him, history will compare him not to the balance of Americans, but to American Presidents, who by and large are considerably tougher competition. In the film’s view, it was his bad luck that he had to rely on an inner circle of advisors more than most men in his position, thereby making it easier for the aforementioned manipulators and enablers to spin reality for their own political gain.
But really, if the film works at all, it’s because of Josh Brolin, who plays the title character from his drunken Yale years through the Presidency. Naturally, Stone gives Brolin the W. "highlight reel" moments- was there any doubt he’d say "misunderestimate" or "won’t get fooled again"?- and Brolin handles them nicely. Yet this isn’t simple mimickry- he’s made to look and sound the part, yes, but he also does a startling job of getting to the heart of a man who some might consider to be history’s greatest monster (excepting Jimmy Carter, of course). In many people’s eyes, Bush was a dope and a dupe, a son of privilege who coasted on his family connections and good ol’boy charm. Yet damn if Brolin doesn’t almost make him sympathetic in a way even Stone’s tired Freudianism can’t manage. If last year’s trio of breakout performances weren’t enough of an indication, W. should remove all doubt- Brolin is the real deal, folks. Time to recognize.
Rating: 6 out of 10.
Settle down, horror nerds. Yes, Alfredson’s fusing of the vampire movie with a coming-of-age story is a pretty good idea, especially in the character of Eli, a vampiress who can never grow up. It’s a shame, then, that he never manages to settle on a style. In the movie’s more dramatic moments, Alfredson’s camera accentuates the frosty greyness of his settings, a directorial decision that helps to underline the tentativeness of the film’s central relationship between the eager Oskar, who’s trying to deal with his newly-acquired hormones, and Eli, who’s (understandably) reluctant to get close to him. Trouble is, the vampire story also requires some scenes of violence, and this is where Alfredson stumbles, by shooting in a hacky style that emphasizes special effects with little regard to character. The film never manages to navigate the difficult balance between its two sides, so instead the tonal transitions make the movie feel schizophrenic, like it’s vascillating between Tsai Ming-liang and Paul "Not Thomas" Anderson. Seeing it at the Horror Marathon really drove this home. The horror buffs naturally ate up scenes in which SPOILER a room full of house cats attacked a woman END SPOILER, but I was more interested in the dynamic between Eli and Oskar than the relatively uninspired action scenes. Which, of course, made it all the more disappointing when Alfredson attempts to resolve their complex and fascinating relationship by SPOILER having Eli swoop in to exact revenge on the bullies who’ve been menacing Oskar throughout the film END SPOILER. Even if the scene in question wasn’t cheesy looking, it still would’ve felt like an easy copout. Still, it’ll have to be better than the upcoming remake, no?
Rating: 5 out of 10.
Spike Lee is one of the most fascinating filmmakers currently working in Hollywood, not least because his bold, seat-of-the-pants filmmaking style can just as easily result in transcendent masterpieces as jaw-dropping fiascos. Yet somehow, Lee’s take on an old-fashioned combat film, while closer quality-wise to the negative end of the spectrum, is actually far less interesting than such outright disasters as Girl 6 and She Hate Me. Some of the blame for this can no doubt be laid at the feet of the novel (by James McBride) on which the film is based. While Lee’s big-studio backers no doubt were relieved that the novel might serve as insurance against Lee’s more inflammatory impulses, the film has a bloated, digressive story that distracts from the power of the movie’s central idea- the harsh realities faced by African-American fighting men in WWII. It’s a powerful germ for a story, and the film’s most effective scenes focus on this idea, especially a flashback scene set in a Deep South ice cream parlor in which German POWs are permitted to eat but not black soldiers. It’s a shame about the other, say, two hours of movie that focuses on other matters. It would be bad enough if these scenes were serviceable but semi-extraneous, but that they’re almost entirely lame makes them all the more disappointing since they distract from what should be the good stuff. The biggest offender is the framing device, which wastes almost half an hour of the movie by setting up a contrived happy ending through a series of nigh-impossible coincidences. But there are numerous other plot strands- a romantic triangle involving a white-appeasing staff sergeant (Derek Luke), his militant second in command (Michael Ealy, a talented actor who’s wasted here), and a pretty local woman; the friendship between the gigantic simpleton of the bunch and a young Italian boy; the subplot involving the local partisans- that are nearly as bad. And not helping matters is Terence Blanchard’s score, which Lee cranks up so loud it’s almost oppressive. In the end, it’s pretty much Spike Lee on autopilot, which is just about the last thing I want from the guy.
Rating: 4 out of 10.
You know, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a movie in which a guy who ducks out of weekly Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings to nail other group members, makes extra money on the side by pretending to choke on food in restaurants in the hope that the Good Samaritans who save his life will be compelled to help him financially, and is briefly convinced that he’s the half-clone of Jesus Christ due to a genetic experiment involving his mother and the 2000-year-old Holy Foreskin to be so, I dunno, bland. But there it is, probably the least edgy adaptation of a Chuck Palahniuk novel that would have been possible. It could have worked with a ballsier filmmaker at the helm, but while neophyte Gregg is reportedly a big fan of the book, he just doesn’t have a handle on the tone of the film. Because of this, the best he can do is to sustain an Alexander Payne-lite feel of broad yet ironic comedy, largely sketching over the more unpleasant facets of Victor Mancini’s (Sam Rockwell) personality and difficult history with his mother in favor of lampooning easy targets like people who work in colonial re-creation exhibits. Consequently, the movie has the vibe of a failed Alan Ball-scripted pilot for a cable series, rather than a full-fledged movie. The rating below is largely due to Rockwell, who is the perfect Victor for all seasons, not only for this version of the story but also for the inevitably better telling that will play only in the minds of those who read the book.
Rating: 5 out of 10.
Rating: 6 out of 10.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Friday, September 19, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
Most obviously, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is such a puffed-up prick he doesn’t realize how off-putting he is, and he’s so consumed with taking offense to others calling him a drunk that he can’t acknowledge his problem. But even a relatively benign character like Linda (Frances McDormand) isn’t immune- she’s obsessed with getting cosmetic surgery (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me”) in order to attract the caliber of man she desires. This colors almost all of her decisions throughout the film.
And what’s going on with Harry, played by George Clooney? He cheats on his wife (who for reasons of her own doesn’t seem all that broken up about it) with Osbourne’s wife (Tilda Swinton), each of whom refers to the other as “a cold, stuck-up bitch” until we start to wonder if that’s Harry’s type. In turn, he cheats on them by hooking up with women he meets through the personal ads, including - you guessed it- Linda. Yet I don’t think he means any harm- he’s simply addicted to sex as an end in itself (look at the gift he makes for his wife) with little regard for the personal entanglements that can result. But then, he’s pretty oblivious all around, as evidenced by the severity of his reaction to an untimely surprise.
Of course, it goes without saying that Burn After Reading is impeccably acted- few filmmakers rival the Coens for their ability to get the most out of their actors. I’m thinking in particular of Malkovich, whose reptilian pomposity has rarely been effectively utilized, and Brad Pitt, who continues to demonstrate his knack for kidding his himbo looks by playing a gym rat whose general befuddlement quickly leads him to get in over his head.
Many of the film’s detractors have taken the Coens to task (yet again) for showing contempt toward their characters. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In many ways, this is a kind of comedy corrective to the self-righteous posturing of movies like Crash and Babel, with the Coens handling their characters’ travails with biting wit, rather than wailing and gnashing their teeth about human frailty and the impossibility of connecting with those outside our personal bubble. They’re cranky and misanthropic, but they’re also right, and the film makes its points in a way that’s both more entertaining and less pious than either of these bits of Oscar-bait.
Look at the film’s final scene, in which (after all the shit goes down) a pair of CIA agents, played by J.K. Simmons and David Rasche, tries to suss everything out only to throw up their hands in frustration. Like us, they can’t help but marvel at the huge mess that’s resulted from a relatively insignificant matter- blackmail, possible treason, bodies piling up- that has poisoned everyone it’s touched, even those rare people who’ve acted in a relatively selfless manner. I was reminded a bit of the faeries and spirits of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who despite their role in the human characters’ misadventures are also detached enough to try to make sense of human messiness. “What fools these mortals be,” indeed.
Rating: 8 out of 10.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
One of the tricks to making a successful documentary isn’t simply finding a story that’s worth telling, but telling that story in a way that’s both cinematic and narratively involving. In that respect, Man on Wire is one of the best documentaries to come along in years. Of course, it helps to have a good story, and Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center is a doozy. But if Marsh had simply taken a talking-heads and photo-montage approach, the result would be better-suited to a stylistically inert program on the History Channel. Instead, Marsh intersperses the usual documentary stuff with dramatic re-creations of the day’s events, structuring the story as a kind of caper film (the film’s tagline calls the incident “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”). It’s a daunting task, trying to wring suspense from a story to which we already know the outcome- Petit is interviewed for the film, after all- but ultimately the gambit pays off. That it does is in large part a triumph of filmmaking technique, as Marsh and his interview subjects do such a good job of getting us caught up in the procedural details and snags of the day that one almost forgets that the ending is a foregone conclusion. This makes it all the more effective when Petit finally gets out on that wire for his historic crossing. I think it’s also key that Marsh refuses to invoke the specter of 9/11 for this film- when Petit (an extremely engaging subject, it should be said) speaks of “conquering the towers,” his aims are edifying rather than destructive, and in the end, what makes Man on Wire such a vital film is that it reclaims, albeit briefly, the World Trade Center from the hateful ideologies that tore it down. Even if the incident was little more than a extreme stunt, it matters little in light of the quixotic genius of it, and Man on Wire stands as a testament to the lengths a man will go in order to pursue a mad, brilliant dream. Rating: 9 out of 10.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Rating: 6 out of 10.
Rating: 5 out of 10.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Friday, August 15, 2008
Edited 8/18 to add: The more I think about this, the more I hate it. It's not simply that the filmmakers take the Star Wars mythology as the springboard for a bit of third-rate fan-fiction, then sell it to a crowd who's clearly clamoring for more Star Wars-y goodness. It's also that it's numbing (the action sequences go on forEVER), cut-rate (the backgrounds are OK, but the characters are stiff and un-pleasing aesthetically), and worse yet, soulless. The biggest problem with the prequels- worse even than the shitty dialogue and overly glossy effects- is that the human element that made people fall in love with the original movies just isn't there. The major characters in the prequels are almost all Jedi, which gives them cool powers that can be exploited to full effect with modern CGI, but also places them on a different level than normal everyday humans. One major reason the original films worked is because the human audience had non-Jedi characters to serve as surrogate characters. It's the reason Han Solo was such a fan favorite- not only was he super-cool, but he was savvy enough to fight alongside the Jedi, even if he didn't share their powers. But there's none of that here, merely a boring Jedi and his annoying apprentice, who keeps saying stupid shit like calling R2D2 "R-twoey." Gag me. Honestly, when the laws of physics don't apply to your characters, you'd better make them really damn interesting if I'm supposed to care. And man oh man does this movie ever fail. Rating: 3 out of 10.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Part of the problem here is that it actually expects the audience to care about the domestic difficulties in the O’Connell family- Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evie (Maria Bello) have seen the excitement drain from their marriage ever since they’ve retired from mummy-hunting, while college-aged son Alex (Luke Ford) doesn’t get along with his dad. Are we meant to see these storylines as anything more than perfunctory excuses to give the characters something to talk about when they’re not fighting off undead baddies?
Fraser, to his credit, maintains the right spirit- he’s never been a great actor, but he’s always been at ease working with special effects, and he’s good at winking at the story when need be. But Bello’s incarnation of Evie feels out of place here. As an actress, I prefer Bello to her predecessor Rachel Weisz, but whereas Weisz demonstrated a comic verve that turned the character from a standard-issue damsel into sort of an eccentric, Bello instead makes Evie a tough babe who can fight alongside the boys. More politically correct, certainly, but not especially entertaining either. And if Bello’s character feels out of place, Ford’s just doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t help that Ford is under the impression he’s meant to be a straight-up action hero here, which sort of throws a wet blanket over the proceedings.
In many ways, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the most ambitious entry in the series, beginning with establishing the film’s Chinese setting (Egypt is an obvious fit with mummies, but history-deficient audiences need a little more convincing when you move them elsewhere). But while Cohen goes to great lengths to situate his story in a Chinese context, it’s rarely convincing, thanks in no small part to subpar special effects. The Mummy impressed me with its CGI back in the day, but here the effects look shoddy and cartoonish. The problem with this is that the movie clearly wants us to be awestruck by the magnitude of the undead armies or the scope of its far-flung locations. Unfortunately, there’s a high-gloss sheen on practically everything that was computer-generated, and it’s difficult to be enraptured by something that’s obviously made out of 1s and 0s. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a step above The Mummy Returns, but it’s still pretty shabby goods, and I’m hoping the film’s abrupt ending means that the series has finally drawn to a close.
Rating: 4 out of 10.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Most superhero movies square their protagonist off against a nefarious counterpart, but The Dark Knight has more on its mind than a hero/villain showdown. For much of the film’s running time, Nolan contrasts Batman/Bruce with district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), newly elected with the goal of bringing Gotham City’s criminals to justice. The two men have similar goals, but while Batman lacks faith in the system to accomplish his desired end, Dent is the face of that very system. Even though he admires the swift justice administered by the Dark Knight, Dent positions himself as “the white knight,” seeking to eliminate crime through due process. If Bruce Wayne is a pragmatist, Dent is a seemingly incorruptible idealist, a point driven home by his Obama-esque campaign slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”
For a while, Dent’s brand of justice works, cutting a large swath through Gotham’s criminal underworld. But all this changes once The Joker (Heath Ledger) enters the picture. We first see The Joker in the film’s opening scene, staging a robbery on a mob-owned bank only to kill all of his cohorts and escape, alone, with the cash. The Joker isn’t like the other villains prowling the streets of the city. Whereas the established crime syndicates live by their own codes and rules (and have made arrangements with the police in order to survive), The Joker’s sole purpose in life is to stir up anarchy- to leave the populace of Gotham teetering on the edge and let them push themselves over.
Heath Ledger’s Joker has gotten a lot of attention from the press since his death, but I think the character would be one of the great villains even if were still with us. To begin with, Ledger is a far cry from the statelier style of Jack Nicholson. Whereas Nicholson’s Joker was too similar to the Jack persona to be truly scary- more kooky uncle than stone-cold psycho- Ledger immerses himself fully in the character, making him a knife-wielding punk-rock criminal mastermind.
Like Shakespeare’s Iago, this Joker is evil, pure and simple, and every mocking attempt on his part to provide a context or rationalization for his actions only underlines how reductive such rationalizations are when they’re presented seriously in other films. It’s a genuinely disturbing performance, not least to my Knight’s Tale-loving girlfriend. But at the same time, there’s something fiendishly pleasurable about the way Ledger operates in the role, from his delivery of the line, “no, I kill the bus driver” (and its priceless aftermath) to his final fade out. Ledger is in rarefied territory here, joining a murderer’s row- ranging from Alex DeLarge to Daniel Plainview- of irredeemable heavies we can’t help but love.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Nolan’s screenplay is the way he integrates probability problems and game theory into the storyline. Time and again characters are forced to play the odds in order to make a difficult decision. Many of the Joker’s threats carry a heavy price- to name one example, Batman can turn himself in, or the Joker will kill one person every day until he unmasks himself. Or the film’s climactic sequence, in which Nolan employs a variation of the classic game theory problem The Prisoner’s Dilemma to pit two ferries full of people against each other.
But again, Nolan isn’t just showing off here, but setting up perhaps his most important dichotomy- choice versus chance. For all his love of justice, Harvey Dent believes in luck, jokingly flipping a two-headed coin whenever he has to make a tough decision. But when he’s horribly disfigured by an accident (causing him to become “Two-Face”), this belief in chance takes on a deadly undercurrent, as the lives of those who’ve wronged him rests on a coin flip, Anton Chigurh-style.
By contrast, Bruce- who of course is a “two-face” himself- represents choice. As long as he continues fighting crime by night, a happy life with his true love Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) will be out of the question (can it be a coincidence that Rachel is not only Dent’s current girlfriend but also a prosecuter herself?). Eventually, he must turn his back on the police department and the populace itself in order the catch the Joker. And in the end, Batman takes the rap for Two-Face’s crimes in order to protect the good name of Harvey Dent. In other words, he inverts the prisoner’s dilemma- rather than letting Dent take the fall in order to free himself, he chooses to become a fugitive and face the maximum punishment. This decision affirms not only Bruce’s sense of morality, but his humanity as well. It’s a bold choice, but a necessary one, allowing the city to keep its white knight even while it turns on the dark one.
The Dark Knight isn’t quite a perfect comic book movie- the action sequences are too haphazardly-directed for that- but it lingers in the mind far more than more conventionally exciting superhero movies can hope to do. Unlike most movies of its kind, the film carries a real feeling of danger, as Nolan isn’t afraid of exploring some terrifying areas most movies wouldn’t touch, even killing off more than one significant character in the interest of thematic resonance. Most blockbusters feel like fairy tales- there’s some tension, some suspense, but in the end the bad guys are punished and everyone lives happily ever after. But the events of The Dark Knight will change- even scar- the characters forever. The Dark Knight isn’t just a classic comic book movie, but a pretty great movie in general, and I can’t wait to see it again.
Rating: 9 out of 10.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Disney and Pixar Animation Studios have made another winner with the new computer-animated film WALL*E. Set in the distant future, the movie tells the story of a little robot, the Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class (or WALL*E). WALL*E spends his days roaming the abandoned landscape, cleaning up the trash left by the people who’ve abandoned the Earth. Centuries of sifting through human garbage have made WALL*E intensely curious about the planet’s former residents, and he keeps a collection of “treasures” in order to study them. Then one day, a ship descends from space bringing another robot, the sleek, ultra-modern EVE, whose mission is as mysterious as her origins, and who eventually becomes WALL*E’s friend. But when the ship returns to take EVE away, WALL*E sneaks aboard as well, and goes on a journey beyond anything he could have possibly imagined.
As you might guess from the plot synopsis above, WALL*E is not your standard-issue kids’ movie. Since their founding in the 1980s, Pixar has always been committed to expanding the possibilities of animation, and WALL*E continues their almost unprecedented winning streak. In many ways, WALL*E may be their boldest and most experimental movie to date. To begin with, the story doesn’t rely on a comfortable plot so much as it tells a story, seeing its hero’s experiences almost entirely through his eyes as we follow him on his travels. The effect is disorienting at first- the movie doesn’t give us any more information to work with than WALL*E himself would get. Likewise, the story features surprisingly little dialogue, especially from WALL*E and EVE, who have few words at their disposal. But if you’re willing to pay attention and give the movie a chance, your patience will be richly rewarded.
Like all of Pixar’s movies, WALL*E is a feast for the eyes. The early scenes on Earth are wonderful- I could have watched another half-hour or so of WALL*E going about his daily routine- and the animators pack them with all sorts of perfect little sight gags. But the movie’s cleverest visual surprises occur once WALL*E travels into space. I won’t spoil any of them here, except to say that the world WALL*E encounters is a far cry than most movies’ speculations on the future. WALL*E is above all a work of true vision and imagination, one that’s sure to captivate children and adults alike.
Rating: 8 out of 10.