Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Last Mistress (2007, Catherine Breillat)

After specializing in on-the-nose feminist screeds for years, Breillat brings her trademark sexual politics to the period piece with fairly positive results. One of the most notable aspects of The Last Mistress is the clash between the morality of the film's period and a more contemporary view of sexual obsession. This is most explicit in the character of Ryno de Marigny (played by newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou), an upwardly-mobile young man on the eve of his wedding to a young woman of noble birth. But as Woody Allen once said, "the heart wants what it wants," but so does the libido, and the great tragedy of Ryno's life is that the two don't go hand in hand. So even though he legitimately loves Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), he can't help but be drawn to the titular mistress, played by Asia Argento. It's telling that Breillat doesn't even attempt to make Argento fit in with those around her, using her for her sexy-punk presence more than for her acting talent. This being a Breillat film, sexual desires win out over loftier goals of love. The Last Mistress isn't the change of pace for the director that some have made it out to be, but it's interesting seeing her pet themes translated to a new context.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Boy A (2007, John Crowley)

Boy A has a lot to recommend it- an affecting premise, a feel for Manchester working-class life, and above all fine performances from Andrew Garfield and Peter Mullan. Yet I’m conflicted about the movie as a whole, in large part because of its treatment of the protagonist’s past. As a story of a young man who wants to distance himself from the murder he committed as a child, I suppose it’s understandable that the movie would want to soft-pedal this aspect of his life in order to make Eric more sympathetic. Yet this also feels dishonest to me. If the movie was really serious about examining the contrast between Eric then and now, it wouldn’t shy away from the horror of his misdeeds. It wouldn’t give him a sob-story background- distant dad, sick mum- or paint him as an easily swayed kid who fell in with the worst friend possible (it strikes me as too easy to paint Philip as a bad seed while Eric was mostly just along for the ride). And it certainly wouldn’t cut away before the duo committed their heinous crime, but instead show us exactly what he did, the violence of which he was once capable. By failing to do this, Crowley and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe fail to really look at the gulf that separates the past version of Eric from the present version, now called Jack. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Boy A wants Jack/Eric to come across as a put-upon victim of people’s conceptions of his past, but making him a murderer without really facing the reality his crime is timid at best and irresponsible at worst. It’s too easy to demonize those who victimize him for his past. A braver film would force us to examine our own feelings about the character, to ask whether we can hate the sin but not the sinner.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

As a once-rabid Woody Allen fan, I still feel compelled to watch all of his new films in the theatre. On the other hand, having been burned by a number of his late-period works (Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda, Scoop) I know better than to expect a great deal from those new releases. On that basis, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a nice surprise, with plenty of gorgeous location work to match one of Allen’s more interesting screenplays of recent years. The movie’s central premise- the freewheeling (read: European) lifestyle pitted against the upper-middle-class American marriage- feels overly programmatic in spots, with the European way coming strongly out of the gate. After all, the combo of studly Javier Bardem and crazy-sexy Penelope Cruz is hard to top, especially compared to Rebecca Hall’s cheesedick businessman fiancĂ©, played by Chris Messina. But if the match seems uneven at first, it begins to make sense near the end, when Hall’s marital malaise coincides with the emotional explosion of Cruz’s rekindled relationship with Bardem, which leaves Hall conflicted, and sort of floating between the two worlds, now dissatisfied with both (the story ends on a perfect tentative note). And if you notice I haven’t mentioned Scarlett Johansson yet, that’s not an accident- Vicky Cristina Barcelona is her third film with Allen, but the first in which she seems somewhat tangential to the story, which of course is a good thing. Here she has little to do besides provide an outsider viewpoint into the relationship between Bardem and Cruz, so that we know what Hall’s getting into before she does. In addition, Johansson’s essential blankness only serves to underline the tumultuous emotional current generated by her Spanish bedmates (it’s only when the scene is really about Johansson that she founders). As for the other principals, Bardem is reliably sweet and Cruz is a firecracker, but it’s really Hall’s film, and she’s more than up to the task (click here for more effusive praise). Vicky Cristina Barcelona is hardly top-tier Woody, but it’s his best film this century, and definitely worth a look. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Winnipeg (2007, Guy Maddin)

While I've enjoyed a number of Guy Maddin films and flat-out loved a few of them, I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a Maddin fan outright, largely because in many of his works, his style tends to wear thin by a certain point, around the time it begins degenerating into a schtick. However, just the thought of his 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee makes me absolutely giddy, and My Winnipeg is damn near as good, which leads me to believe that Maddin's movies work best for me when they spring from somewhere in his subconscious, buried though the personal stuff might be under layers of cinema-drunkenness. So it is in My Winnipeg, which is just as quirky as anything Maddin has directed, but also feels semi-confessional, as though Maddin is giving us a good long look into the memories and fever dreams that were inspired by the city he has always called home. Of course, as tends to be the case with any vision as singular as this one, there are bound to be some literalist wags who question the veracity of this so-called documentary. Surely, they'll say, Maddin is taking severe liberties with history, fabricating wholesale a legendary Winnipeg that has never existed, comprised of "ever-opiating nuns" and ice-choked horses and "man pageants." To which all I can say- aside from "have you ever SEEN a Guy Maddin film?"- is this: look at that title again. Just like Fellini gave the world his Roma, so Maddin gives the world HIS Winnipeg, and all the fantastical wonderments it summons in his mind. It's key that Maddin describes the two dueling taxicab companies, one servicing the marked roads, the other the alleyways. Maddin's interest has always been in the alleyways- of cinema, of civic history, of his own mind. Yes, the Winnipeg history that has been committed to paper might not include half the legends that Maddin has formulated for it, but that doesn't matter one damn bit. His Winnipeg- where the Black Tuesdays patrol the ice long after the Jets have left town, where sleepwalkers steal into their old homes protected by city law, and where Guy's mother (who despite the director/narrator's claims of veracity is played- pricelessly- by Detour's Ann Savage) looms as large in the city's soap opera as she does in Guy's life- might not exist anywhere but his own mind. But damn if it isn't a great place to visit, even if you wouldn't necessarily want to live there. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008, Dave Filoni)

Ever since the days of Walt Disney, animated films have appealed largely to family audiences, and most movies that have appealed to adults have done so for a limited audience of fans, generally of Japanese anime. But there's always been some degree of hope that a movie might emerge that transcends the usual kids/nerds audience to pull in a mainstream, grown-up audience. I suppose one couldn't blame me for thinking The Clone Wars might be that movie, seeing as how the Star Wars imprimatur has always guaranteed box office, even with the shabby prequels of the past decade. However, I underestimated how much the franchise has been pitched to children in recent years, something that has long left Star Wars curiously bloodless and sanitized. So while there's a certain thrill in seeing the Star Wars universe freed from the corporeal realm into the freer format of animation, The Clone Wars is still very much a product, slavishly engineered to sell video games and toys. Worse yet, it turns the saga that has captivated three generations into the space-opera equivalent of a Disney Channel sitcom, giving Anakin a sassy female apprentice name Ahsoka who refers to her new master as "Sky Guy." Blech in my opinion. In addition, much like the "prequel trilogy", the story gets entirely too bogged down in intergalactic politics, as if the negotiation over trade routes through the Outer Rims was what drew millions of people to Star Wars in the first place. I suppose the best thing I could say about The Clone Wars is that it's better than Attack of the Clones, but I mean jesus, it'd pretty much have to be. But if you're looking for a true breakthrough in non-kiddie animation, you'll have to content yourself with Ratatouille, a movie I'm still not convinced was actually made for children. And bless it for that...

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

Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller)

There are few more masturbatory genres than the showbiz satire. It's not unlike the semi-inexplicably popular blog Stuff White People Like, in that the group that's ostensibly being ribbed is actually getting congratulated on how cool they are. This goes double for Hollywood satires, since they're invariably made by those with power within the moviemaking system, which affords them a comfortable enough position to get away with playfully gumming the hand that feeds. Short of honest-to-goodness blood-drawing satires like Sunset Blvd. or The Player, most movies about moviemaking succeed or fail on the basis of entertainment value, and in that respect, Tropic Thunder works pretty damn well. Which basically means that I laughed a lot. You won't gain much new insight into the ins and outs of the studio system or the nuts and bolts of big-budget filmmaking, but it's funny stuff. Much of this can be credited to Stiller the director's willingness to go as far as it takes to get laughs. Years of safe, family-friendly twaddle have no doubt given him an itch to push the envelope of good taste, and thank goodness for that. But while racially-dicey plot points or newly-controversial scenes involving Stiller as "Simple Jack" might seem politically incorrect to a fault, it's all in the service of a story that time and again sticks it to those whose lives have kept them at a distance from the mores and standards of the outside world. Likewise, Stiller thankfully distributes the good stuff to his (highly talented) cast- a heroin-addicted low-comedy star played by Jack Black, a John Milius-esque screenwriter played by Nick Nolte, a trigger-happy explosives guy played by the suddenly ubiquitous Danny McBride, and the cheerfully vulgar (in every way) studio exec played by SPOILER Tom Cruise END SPOILER. But best of all is Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, the obsessive Method actor who comes off as a cross between Russell Crowe's mannerisms and Daniel Day-Lewis' acting style. Kirk's pigmentation operation might have come off as a shameless schtick in less capable hands, but Downey makes Lazarus into a fully-functioning character- which of course makes him even funnier. Not all of Tropic Thunder works- after a while the plot doesn't matter as much as the movie thinks it does- but it's mostly a blast, containing at least one bit of shocking laughter as memorable as the gas-station fight in Zoolander. The movie's no classic, but I won't lie to you- I damn near laughed until my eyes started raining. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pineapple Express (2008, David Gordon Green)

One thing that bugs me about most "pot movies" is how cartoonish the main characters tend to be. It's strange- despite these movies' appeal to a pot-friendly crowd, most of the protagonists come off as wacky stereotypes who get bug-eyed and nuts whenever they toke up, not unlike the players in Reefer Madness and its ilk. One of the most refreshing aspects of Pineapple Express was that, for all the craziness that happens, Dale (Seth Rogen) and Saul (James Franco) mostly come off as a couple of regular guys who enjoy smoking marijuana. This helps the movie avoid many of the standard pitfalls of the genre, in particular the semi-obligatory "hallucination" scene in which the imagery gets psychedelic and the music blares, just so you know how spaced-out the pot-smokers are feeling. Instead of visualizing the experience of being perpetually stoned, Green and his stars give the movie a laid-back vibe befitting the protagonists' chemically-facilitated shared mental state. They still get carried along by the plot, but at their pace, rather than the tricked-up pace of a movie that aches to get them from one misadventure to the next. The misadventures that do befall them are sort of uneven, but when the movie is on, it's ON. I'm thinking in particular of an uproarious fight scene involving Rogen, Franco, and perpetual scene stealer Danny McBride, in which none of the participants looks like they've thrown (or taken) too many blows in their lifetimes. Naturally, this makes for some priceless comedy, especially when the fighters begin looking for random objects to hurl at each other. I also liked the fact that the movie actually took time to explore the dynamic between the two hit men (Kevin Corrigan and a hilarious Craig Robinson) who are tailing the heroes. I'm sort of conflicted about the movie's final action sequence, which for all intensive purposes places the heroic trio in the middle of a low-rent 80s-style action movie. It's funny to watch the clearly overmatched characters try to fight off the more experienced villains, but it gets sort of numbing after a while. Still, in spite of its flaws (which are many), there's plenty of fun to be had at Pineapple Express, and the laughs that come courtesy of Rogen, Franco, Robinson, and especially McBride make this well worth your time. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008, Rob Cohen)

I know I’ll take some flak for this, but I enjoyed the hell out of the 1999 Mummy remake. Great cinema it’s not, but it’s got a Velveeta charm that goes down easy, and no goals other than showing the audience a good time (any movie that begins with its leading lady knocking over a library full of book shelves clearly isn’t aching to be taken seriously). However, the sequel The Mummy Returns is a bloated mess that doesn’t have nearly enough fun with itself, and unfortunately the latest installment in the series, The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor, is closer to the spirit of the second film than the first. It’s an OK time-waster, but not much more than that.

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.