Thursday, March 13, 2008
2007 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest
Sunshine: As many a critic has noted in various formulations, Sunshine starts as 2010 (more so than 2001) but then winds up closer to Event Horizon or even director Danny Boyle's own 28 Days Later. It's a shame, because visually Sunshine is one of the most stunning films of 2007, showing mastery of, and uncommon delight in, light, shadow and color. The sci-fi plot is rather far-fetched, but provides a great excuse for meditations on mortality and purpose, as well as examining the dangers of cabin fever on a long space voyage. The sun is dying, and a crew of astronauts seeks to deliver a massive payload mined of all Earth's remaining resources to re-ignite the sun. The ship, the Icarus II, can only survive on their approach due to a carefully-calibrated, massive, reflective heat shield kept pointing at the sun. The mission becomes imperiled when they take a detour to examine the abandoned, original Icarus of the previous mission, which mysteriously lost contact with Earth. Cillian Murphy, playing physicist Capa, proves he can carry a film, with Rose Byrne as Cassie another standout. Chris Evans, a bit annoying as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, is actually pretty good here as the hot-headed but ultimately practical Mace. His character is certainly egotistical, but in his own way can be unselfish. Michelle Yeoh as Corazon the biologist/gardener is a bit under-used, but the cast overall is solid (and it's sorta cool to see so many Asians crewing this essential mission). It's a shame the script basically exhausts its thoughtfulness so close to the ending, and that Danny Boyle's skills as a filmmaker exceed his as a storyteller, but put Sunshine in the flawed-but-interesting category. If at all possible, try to see this on a large screen.
(Here's Danny Boyle on The Treatment and with Rob Vaux.)
Eastern Promises: While not quite as good as the previous David Cronenberg-Viggo Mortensen venture, A History of Violence, this one is still well worth checking out. Naomi Watts plays Anna Khitrova, a nurse and midwife in London who treats a run-down young Russian woman, Tatiana, who dies giving birth to her baby. Tatiana leaves behind a diary, but it's written in Russian. Going off an address in it, Anna winds up at the restaurant of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a shady figure who is eager to get the diary, offering to translate it and find Tatiana's family. There Anna also meets Semyon's driver Nikolai (Mortensen) and Semyon's mischievous and menacing son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Nikolai is an intriguing, morally conflicted figure, working for the alternately avuncular and menacing Semyon, trying to keep a rein on Kirill, warning Anna (although not necessarily kindly), and apparently doing both good and evil deeds. What is his real agenda? Meanwhile, Anna's uncle Stepan starts to translate the diary, and Anna begins to realize she may have entered a very dangerous world. Eastern Promises ends a bit abruptly for my tastes, but I have to say I really like Cronenberg's cosmology and aesthetics here and in A History of Violence. These are real people versus cartoons, every character has dimension, nuance, and subtext, the performances are good, and the worlds we enter are intriguing and disturbing. Violence can be depicted in many different but still effective ways, and 300 clearly pursues different goals than Eastern Promises. Still, on the whole, certainly in a more realistic drama like this, I prefer the anti-glamor approach Cronenberg uses. It's extremely effective in one of the film's most memorable scenes (and I won't give anything more away).
(Here's Cronenberg and Mortensen in a good interview on Fresh Air.)
The Great Debaters : Every year there's a pretty "Hollywood" film that's pretty damn good, and for 2007 I'd say it's Denzel Washington's second film as a director, The Great Debaters, set in 1935. Washington is fantastic as always as Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College, a black school in Texas. Tolson sets up a debating team and pits them first against other black schools, and then the white ones, with impressive success. Forest Whitaker is also great as the very intelligent, very reserved Dr. James Farmer Sr., another heavyweight professor at the college. Gina Ravera and Kimberly Elise are good in supporting roles as their respective spouses, Damien Leake is memorable as Wilson late in the film, John Heard brings some complexity to the local sheriff, and blues great Alvin Youngblood Hart, who plays on the soundtrack, is a musician at a backwoods juke joint. Still, as Washington himself was the first to say, the real core of this film is the impressive performances of four young actors: Nate Parker as Henry Lowe, Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke, Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer Jr. (no relation to Forest), and Jermaine Williams as Hamilton Burgess. Yeah, there's a message, but the movie's also entertaining. Young James Farmer is the moral core to the film, smart but shy and awkward, wanting to win the approval of his taciturn father, struggling to understand the world and deal with authority, and hopelessly smitten with Samantha Booke. It's not hard to see why, given that she's sharp, passionate, compassionate and lovely, and the love triangle that develops among the students provides for both some drama and humor. Smollet may be the standout of the four, but I hope this film helps accelerate all their careers. I do think Washington can be a bit of a sucker for the "teary" scene, and do wish the film hadn't changed UCLA to Harvard for the final debate, but UCLA didn't mind and Harvard deserves points for being good-natured about it, and allowing the crew to film there as well. Still, while this is a classic Hollywood underdog tale, it deals with racism pretty starkly — and also more realistically than some other Hollywood fare. In any case, I'm a sucker for any film that drives home how taking charge of one's own education and learning can be among the most revolutionary acts. Washington as Tolson puts it more poetically when he says, "The slave masters in the colonies of Virginia were having trouble controlling their slaves so they sent for Mr. Lynch to teach them his methods. Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Keep the body, take the mind… I am here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind." Amen.
(I don't know how many people caught Washington doing the interview circuit for this film, but the dignified roles he so often plays (and plays brilliantly) obscure what a great sense of humor he has. His Fresh Air interview is good, but he's really funny in his interview with Elvis Mitchell at The Treatment. He makes interesting comments about how he didn't want to make the films too heavy or distorted, and explains a revision he made on the set in how Samantha responds to an apology from Henry. It plays beautifully in the film. Also, Stephen Hunter's review is one of the better ones I read.)
Waitress: Waitress is an above average mini-major/semi-indie, with its most winning device the names of the pies Southern, small town waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) comes up with, like "Pregnant, Miserable, Self-Pitying Loser Pie — Flambé, of course," and "I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie" (changed to "Bad Baby Pie" for the menu). Pie-making is Jenna's passion, her art, and her job, and while her pie narrations give us insight into her private thoughts, nearly all of her interactions with other people grow out of her pie-making as well. It's the reason cranky diner regular Old Joe (Andy Griffith) comes by, it's something her incredibly selfish, loutish husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) disparages and tries to control, and it's one of, well, several reasons Doctor Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) really notices her. Trapped in a horrible marriage, Jenna is dismayed to discover she's pregnant, and bemoans that she let her husband get her drunk one night. Now it looks like there's no escape. Doctor Pomatter is awkward, but pays her a type of attention she hasn't received in years. Russell and Fillion are very good in their many comic scenes, with the humor initially stemming from Jenna's utter lack of enthusiasm over being pregnant. The female camaraderie and dialogue between Jenna and her co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelley) is another strong feature of the film. Waitress has a nice tendency to flesh out its secondary characters and give them some contradictions, nuance and a memorable moment or two. Some critics felt Earl was too loutish, but that didn't bother me too much, because sadly, there are men who are that domineering. There were some other factors that troubled me a bit, though. (SLIGHT SPOILERS) Jenna declares at one point she won't get an abortion — okay, fine, but that's as about as much rationale as we get. I suspect the filmmakers didn't want to offend anyone, but it seems like a bit of a copout, since it would help to know our main character better. Given Jenna's feelings about the pregnancy, the cursory treatment is bit jarring — but the truth is, Waitress is a light romantic comedy with some darker moments, and the pregnancy is a plot device (although a central one). Meanwhile, Eddie Jemison's character Ogie has some redeeming features, I guess, in that he is dedicated to Dawn, but he starts off basically stalking her, and I felt uncomfortable with her giving in to him. This is a mostly comic universe, and Dawn and Becky are foils for Jenna in their relationships with men, but I still felt Dawn was sort of worn down versus won over. Since I liked her character, I'd have liked some clearer sign she had set down some boundaries or that Ogie had gotten a clue. There's also a montage with Jenna looking dumbstruck and then grinning that just doesn't work. I applaud the willingness to experiment and take a chance, but Jenna's expressions are just too over the top and cartoonish, violating the tone and realism of the film up to that point. But while it pulled me out, it certainly didn't kill the movie. Finally, near the end of Waitress, the film seems to embrace the very sentimentality it's eschewed for most of its more witty run. That's a shame, even if it doesn't kill the film either. Waitress remains worth a look. I never watched Felicity and have only seen Keri Russell in a couple of films in supporting roles, so I was quite impressed by her overall. She's very likable, and the film depends on her ability to sell the light comedy, the sarcasm, and a few more tender and serious moments. The chemistry she and Fillion create is great, as is the dynamic between her and Hines and Shelley. While it has its bumps, Waitress possesses some great scenes and many original touches. It's all the more tragic, then, that writer-director and supporting actress Adrienne Shelley was murdered shortly after the film was completed, because a budding, promising career was cut short.
Knocked Up: Pregnancy films abounded in 2007, with Knocked Up and Juno being the most prominent and financially successful. Some people felt Knocked Up was good but ran too long for a comedy, while some others criticized it because they felt it was pushing social politics they disliked. While there's a place for such criticism, it's important to remember that Hollywood's main agenda is to make money, and writer-director Judd Apatow is a comedy guy, not to mention one who's produced more original, subversive and substantial work than standard Hollywood fare. While I don't think Knocked Up is as consistently good as Apatow's 40 Year-Old Virgin, it still provides some very funny scenes and big laughs. It also supplies a more serious look at the realities of relationships than many a Hollywood film, albeit mainly through the B-story of married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife in real life). Pete provides one of the memorable lines of the movie, that "Marriage is like that show Everybody Loves Raymond, but it’s not funny. All the problems are the same, but… you know, instead of all the funny, pithy dialogue, everybody is really pissed off and tense." As for the main plot, you know it from reading the title and seeing the trailer. Up and coming career broadcaster Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl, who enjoyed an extremely successful year) has a one-night stand with slacker's slacker Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), and winds up pregnant. Now, I'm willing to buy that the stunningly gorgeous Alison would go with scruffy but funny Ben for one night, and she has to choose to keep the baby or else there's no plot, but it really stretched plausibility that Alison didn't really consider an abortion for more than about ten seconds, and that she felt any obligation beyond a conversation or two to make a relationship with Ben work. Neither of these are political objections, they're narrative ones, and as in Waitress, the consideration of abortion is so cursory it felt to me like a copout. The issue is more glaring in Knocked Up because Alison is young, has some healthy ambition, and just had a big break in her career. Meanwhile, Ben is the sort of guy Alison would almost certainly dump under normal circumstances. Heigl (who loved working on the film overall) has complained that the female characters in the film are humorless, and she's got a point, but then, even given for comedic exaggeration, Ben and his slacker buddies take the child part of man-child to ridiculous extremes. These more extreme choices in the A-story make for an odd fit with the more realistic (if still exaggerated) B-story. Alison's sister Debbie has an acid wit, and Leslie Mann plays her with memorable verve, but at times she really lays into her husband Pete. Meanwhile, while Pete does need his own space, he deals with the issue poorly and is at times remarkably inconsiderate. They really could use some marriage counseling, or at least some honest communication. Ben gravitates toward Pete, and Alison naturally sides with her sister, making for some interesting gender divides. Pete and Debbie are both a cautionary tale and mentors for the younger couple, in their way. Ben finally earns Debbie's respect, but not in the way either of them might expect. Knocked Up isn't as relationship-wise as say, Annie Hall or a number of other works, but for a raucous summer comedy it does better than most in dispelling the happier-ever-after horseshit and capturing the idea that relationships succeed only with a more mature approach to the many inevitable bumps (baby or otherwise).
(Here's Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen on Fresh Air and Apatow on The Treatment. Here's that Washington Post interview with Katherine Heigl, and a Fresh Air interview with Paul Rudd, although his interview focuses more on The 10 Commandments. In the first interview, we learn that a surprising number of incidents in the film are based on real life — and perhaps it's not exaggerating that much! Paul Rudd apparently thought Leslie Mann hated him at first, and Mann had to explain, "Paul, I don't hate you. I hate Judd," since Paul was basically playing her husband. Keep in mind this comes from Apatow and Rogen, but I know of at least one other comedy couple, Bill Lawrence and Christa Miller, who can be similarly vicious but love each other — at least according to Lawrence.)
Amazing Grace: While it's a decent film regardless, your affection for this film will likely depend on your passion for its subject, which is not only ending the British slave trade in 19th Century Britain, but the trials of sustaining political activism in the face of daunting, even overwhelming opposition. Splendidly cast as William Wilberforce, Ioan Gruffudd captures the intelligence, charisma and passion of the man. Wilberforce is the conscience and William Pitt the operator in Pitt the Younger's parliament, but the morality of ending the slave trade conflicts with the economics. The impressively versatile and chameleon-like Romula Garai plays Barbara Spooner, a bright, witty activist herself, who wisely counsels the ailing Wilberforce against his doctor's advice for restraint: the real danger to his health lies in trying to suppress his political passions. As with many a reform movement, the abolitionists often disagree about strategy and tactics, but make progress through a mix of passionate persuasion, practical arguments and ultimately, impressive craftiness. Albert Finney only appears in about three scenes as former slave trader turned priest John Newton, but he's beautiful in all of them. The rest of the supporting cast is equally impressive: Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Rufus Sewell, Bill Patterson, Toby Jones and (new to me) Benedict Cumberbatch. If you know the story of how the title's song was written, or if you're of a liberal bent in your politics, you're more likely to be moved by this film directed by Michael Apted, but it's definitely worth a look. (Gruffudd, by the way, does films like the Fantastic Four in large part because it allows him to do films like this.)
(Here's a series of NPR pieces on the film and the history behind it.)
The Simpsons Movie: The Simpsons Movie had ridiculously high expectations for it, akin to Star Wars Episode I and Matrix Reloaded, if of a much goofier variety. For the most part, The Simpsons Movie came through, with some really funny gags delivered rapid-fire. If you care about the plot, as imdb describes, it's basically: "After Homer accidentally pollutes the town's water supply, Springfield is encased in a gigantic dome by the EPA and the Simpsons family are declared fugitives." Plus, Spider-Pig. But it's the Simpsons. You're either in or you're out. I was a late convert to The Simpsons, because I viewed it as watered-down Life is Hell, I didn't find choking children particularly funny, and typically I don't like stupid characters, nor watching characters be perpetually humiliated. But I was won over. I'd say the magic of The Simpsons is two-fold. One, it has a remarkable facility to appeal on a basic level to a wide audience while delighting a smaller group with clever references and asides. Two, it has great affection for its characters, just as the Simpsons do for one another. Homer Simpson is close to id personified, dumb partially by choice and normally seeking instant gratification. However, while his selfishness reaches comic extremes, deep down he does love his family and will ultimately make sacrifices for them. While it's frightening to put him a position of responsibility (like, say, at a nuclear power plant), it's hard to dislike the guy too much. Fans of the series will love the many small details and shout-outs in this movie, and casual viewers will still enjoy this entertaining flick, that does manage to briefly feature almost all of the show's massive horde of characters. Meanwhile, Dan Castellaneta, who plays Homer and a multitude of other characters (as do Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria), really is one of our brilliant comic actors. Homer Simpson may among the dimmest of reluctant heroes, but if even he can succeed, why not the rest of us? Banish plump Homer Simpson, and you banish the whole world!
(From Fresh Air, here's Simpsons writer-producer Al Jean and the voice of Bart, Nancy Cartwright. From 2003, here's Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and a great interview with Simpsons composer Alf Clausen.)
Rendition: Is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) colluding with terrorists? Well, when his wife is all-American blonde Reese Witherspoon and she's pregnant with their next child, I'm going to bet… Seriously, Rendition seemed to receive an undeserved amount of animus. While it wasn't a great film, I appreciated that it tried to tackle a very serious contemporary issue, the U.S. policy of "extraordinary rendition," where we disappear a captive to a foreign nation where either we or surrogates will torture them. Witherspoon's quite good as Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi, the wife trying to get answers about where her husband disappeared to, seemingly mid-flight. So is Jake Gyllenhaal as Douglas Freeman, a CIA agent thrown in over his head when the local lead man is incapacitated. There's also a superb scene between Peter Sarsgaard as a Senator's aide and Meryl Streep as an U.S. intelligence bigwig, where Streep gives the authoritarian devils their due. While Witherspoon is sympathetic in her quest, the real core of the film for me lies with Freeman watching a man be tortured and coming to doubt the man's guilt. Yes, some aspects of the man's story don't make sense, but there are also reasons to doubt his confessions. Meanwhile, Rendition plays an interesting twist with the torturer's storyline in the unnamed foreign country, and suggests that personal and political myopia may be related. Given the stunning prevalence of the false belief that torture saves lives (which this blog has covered in some depth) and the preponderance of that view in pop culture, most of all 24, I have to be grateful to any film that rightly questions its efficacy. Better narrative films can still be made on this subject, but Rendition does capture one maddening aspect: the implacable nature of an oppressive bureaucracy unwilling to admit mistakes. (I'm still waiting to see Oscar-winning doc Taxi to the Dark Side, which I've heard is fantastic.)
(Here's David Edelstein's review for NPR.)
Breach: A dramatization of the true story of notorious double agent-traitor Robert Hanssen, a veteran CIA agent, this is a solid but not exceptional drama/thriller. I'm lukewarm about Ryan Phillippe generally, but he's pretty good as Eric O'Neill, the young agent assigned to assist, and secretly spy on, Hanssen (the real O'Neill was a consultant on the film). Laura Linney delivers one of her better supporting performances as Kate Burroughs, the CIA agent O'Neill reports to on Hanssen. However, the real star and reason to see the film is Chris Cooper as Hanssen, a smart, domineering, maverick of a man with some odd and occasionally disturbing peccadilloes — in addition to his selling secrets to the Russians, of course. What makes the film interesting is that he bullies O'Neill, but also is a genuine mentor at times. He talks a fine game on honor, God and country, but we also know he's a traitor. Cooper presents Hanssen as an intriguing enigma, although the film fails to answer some key questions (probably because the real Hanssen has refused to explain himself). Some of the cat and mouse games between Hanssen and O'Neill, who's a quick study, are pretty engaging, as are some of the boundaries issues when Hanssen starts pushing religion on O'Neill's foreign-born wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas). It's also an interesting glimpse into CIA culture and life at "the Company," particularly in that era. (Having grown up in the D.C. area, I always enjoy the location shooting, too, and trying to place it.) However, my biggest question is about a sequence that should have been one of the lynchpins of the film, where O'Neill tries to download the contents of Hanssen's PDA. I had first heard O'Neill describe the actual events in a Fresh Air interview (linked below) before I saw the film, and his account was gripping. Yet despite O'Neill claiming the film was very true to life on this sequence, the finished film doesn't fully match his description. I don't know if it was re-edited after he saw it, or if some brief set-up scenes were also dropped. However, what's so striking to me is how much less suspenseful and cinematic the film is on this incident, how easily it could have been dynamite, and how at least one seeming invention of the film seems to make no sense even solely in the context of the film itself (a seemingly random, unprompted memory by O'Neill). That's a major warning sign to me as to Ray's feel for the medium and material. Overall, I'd say Breach has some great moments, but plenty of unrealized potential as well. Fans of Cooper, Phillippe or spy flicks will likely enjoy this one, though.
(Here's the real Eric O'Neill with Billy Ray on Fresh Air, and a Washington Post film forum with Billy Ray, Chris Cooper, and Eric O’Neill. Here's Chris Cooper on Fresh Air about his new film Married Life, but also Breach.)
American Gangster: It's hard to go too wrong with Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian. American Gangster is well cast, well acted, and Scott keeps everything moving despite a running time of over two and a half hours. Considering the nominal hero and villain don't really meet 'til near the end, it's a credit to everyone involved that our interest rarely flags. There are so many canonical gangster flicks already, it's sort of hard to break into the pantheon, and I'm not sure yet that American Gangster does. However, it boasts a few distinctive elements. Frank Lucas (Washington) is a black man trying to break into an Italian-dominated crime world, and his ingenuity, drive and devotion to his family and friends is hard not to admire, although he can also be brutal. Meanwhile, Detective Ritchie Roberts (Crowe) is a mess on the personal front, but so dedicated, honest and humble on the job he's very likable as well, especially after some noble sacrifices. This contrast makes for interesting viewing, and being based on real people and events gives the story an extra hook. Most of all, the film's appeal is the performances and the relationships. Washington and Crowe always make interesting viewing, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ruby Dee and Carla Gugino are all good supporting players. (Although I'd like to see Gugino get more screen time in something! We'll see about The Watchmen.) I still prefer The Godfather series, Goodfellas, Miller's Crossing and several other flicks, but this is a solid film, and some fans of the genre really liked it.
(Here's Ridley Scott on The Treatment.)
Sweeney Todd: It's been years since I saw the musical on TV, so there are far more authoritative takes on this film as an adaptation. None of the voices are particularly strong, but as character singing, it mostly works, especially given the more intimate scale that film allows. In terms of acting, I thought the casting was quite good. Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is a sympathetic figure up to a point, robbed of his livelihood, wife and child by an evil, lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who has him arrested on vague, never specified charges. Helena Bonham Carter can do quirky macabre characters in her sleep. There's some very dark humor which makes the film entertaining for most of its run, and the arterial blood splatter is so extreme there's a comic edge to its gruesomeness. But the whole thing is awfully bleak, and by the end, I found myself not really caring about anybody. (SPOILER) By not ending with the young lovers, there's really little hope in the film. Also, the chorus from the stage musical is gone, meaning my favorite closing lines (some of the few I remember) were missing: "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd / He served a dark and hungry God / To seek revenge may lead to hell / But everyone does it and seldom as well / As Sweeney, As Sweeney Todd / The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Now that's some panache. Instead, Burton chooses to end with a gothic, macabre tableau, which has its symmetry and narrative justification, but from which I felt unsatisfied and detached. For revenge tales, I still prefer The Count of Monte Cristo (the best film version is currently the miniseries starring Gerard Depardieu), or Shakespeare's work, versus this more Jacobean bloodfest.
(Here's Producer Richard Zanuck on Fresh Air, mainly about his career as a whole.)
300: I have mixed feelings about 300. In the positive column, director Zack Snyder does a great job of staging the hyper-stylized action sequences and capturing the aesthetic of Frank Miller, who wrote and drew the original graphic novel. On the other hand, the film isn't reliable history on many key points surrounding one of the greatest battles of all time (Thermopylae, in 480 B.C.), and is at times dramatically ludicrous. If you take 300 as over-the-top popcorn entertainment and keep Frank Miller's attitudes in perspective, it can be an enjoyable enough flick for its glorious excess. If, as do some of its right-wing fans do, you take it as definitive history, treat it as I, Claudius (as Sadly, No! joked Victor Davis Hanson did), or use it to shill "The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori," well then, you deserve to be mocked. I joked last year that some day, Frank Miller and Mel Gibson will collaborate to produce a movie with more sadomasochism, gratuitous violence and ridiculous caricatures of testosterone-jacked masculinity than any film in history. The combination of homoeroticism and homophobia in 300 makes for some chuckles, and many a reviewer commented on how ancient Sparta apparently had a surplus of ab machines. (SLIGHT SPOILERS) Meanwhile, I could only groan at the lecherous, leprous high priests and the misshapen hunchback ('Gosh, I sure hope he doesn't tell the Persians about the secret back path!'), not to mention Miller's juvenile, revisionist Dolchstoßlegende plot choices. Likewise, I had to scratch my head at the killer horseman who comes from and disappears to nowhere, and the deep pit that (at least per shot selection) suddenly materializes from the ether. The final standoff is also strangely anticlimactic. Regardless, Snyder knows how to make a striking image, and the stylized violence is both beautifully staged and brutal. That's a harder feat that may be imagined, and the filmmakers deserve credit for it. (I am, however, concerned about how Snyder's version of the landmark comic book limited series The Watchmen will turn out. Some of the cast at least seem pretty good, but if we're talking filmmakers who have adapted Frank Miller for the screen, Christopher Nolan would be a far better fit, to my mind. But we'll see.)
Shooter: Based on a novel from a series by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter, this film was much better and more enjoyable than I expected for some summer entertainment. Bobby Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) has a conservative bent, but of the NRA, militia, live in the woods with his dog, don't trust the government, libertarian variety versus the authoritarian zealot type. Ex-military, as an expert sniper he's called in as a consultant because of a supposed death threat on the President, only to find himself framed in a conspiracy. Michael Peña is a cop who senses something's off with the official story on Swagger and starts digging. Kate Mara plays the wife of Swagger's former unit buddy; Swagger still feels guilty over his death. Wahlberg as Swagger makes a credible hero on the lam. He's bright, resourceful and skilled, but he's not James Bond or Jason Bourne superhuman, either. The glimpse into sniper culture and portrait of political and corporate power is also fairly interesting. There's also a really funny scene involving a reclusive gun expert. (SPOILER) Danny Glover and Ned Beatty make for great villains, although I must say one of them is dispatched rather abruptly, which is unsatisfying due to the earlier buildup. But overall, Shooter is above average for the genre.
(Here's Mark Wahlberg on Fresh Air, mainly speaking about We Own the Night. Last year's roundup features Wahlberg on The Departed and his life.)
Grindhouse: Grindhouse is actually two short features with some trailers and filler added in, to recreate film-going experiences of the early 70s, with much of the footage scratched up for good measure. I agree with Rob Vaux on this one: A- to Planet Terror, A to the Preview of Coming Attractions, and B- to Deathproof… well, I'd actually give the last one an even lower score. You can check out Lance Mannion's "Just what movies does Quentin Tarantino love?" and a later, related post for more on these issues, but I agree that Tarantino just does not love movies in the same way that the Coens, Wright and Pegg, Scorsese, Woody Allen or a number of other filmmakers do. Tarantino loves a very narrow range. Most pertinently, he doesn't love movies the way Robert Rodriguez does, and most certainly he doesn't love his audience. I saw Grindhouse in a pretty full theater opening weekend, and the audience loved some of the previews and Planet Terror, but only sections of Deathproof. Here's the key distinction for me: Rodriguez set out to make a film he and his buddies would really enjoy, but the audience would as well. Tarantino made a film just for himself and his buddies.
Rodriguez' segment Planet Terror is often gruesome, generally comically so, but we're all in on the joke. Every over-the-top moment elicited gleeful groans or cheers in my theater. Even the sections of "missing" footage are a wink to the audience, as key plot points and explanations are leapt over. But we love it — because art is life with the boring parts taken out, or in this case, outrageous fantasy B-movie schlock with the good stuff amped up to 11 and the boring parts ripped out by their bloody entrails. Rose McGowan as go-go dancer turned zombie killer Cherry Darling is fantastic: sexy, sharp-witted, tough-as-nails and deadly. Planet Terror has plenty of stunt casting and inside jokes, but everyone has a great feel for the material, most of all director Rodriguez, who has everyone play it pretty straight. No one lets on that having a gun for a leg or riding some, umm, undignified transportation is anything less than deadly serious. If you're of delicate sensibilities, keep in mind that while Planet Terror's tone is darkly comic, part of that's being gratuitously gruesome, with some zombie bodies virtually exploding in blood. But if you're cool with that, it's great fun, more inventive and memorable in its short running time than most escapist fare.
Turning to Tarantino's Deathproof… about that thing about art being life with the boring parts taken out? Um, yeah. Even the French didn't like this one. It's all the greater letdown after Planet Terror. In the positive column, some of the stunts in the brief action sequences are impressive, Kurt Russell makes a good villain, Rosario Dawson and stuntwoman (as herself) Zoe Bell are quite charismatic, and the grrrl power aspects of the story are cool. But Tarantino makes us suffer through a helluva lot for that. Do we really care about the queen bee dynamics of a group of young women and their repetitive and often pointless dialogue? Do the critics who took special pains to praise Tarantino's 'women's dialogue' (I'd say Waitress is superior in this aspect) really think it's both so ground-breaking and fascinating to hang out with said women smoking pot on a weekend night? Stephen Hunter called it "a car chase movie fused with a women's acting workshop," and I've seen other critics run with similar analogies. For comparison, transcribing surreptitiously-recorded public conversations (an old writing exercise) is not the same thing as writing good dialogue either, which depends on more than supposed verisimilitude (and Tarantino is no Chekhov or Rohmer here, exploring the nuances of real life). Tarantino's extended cameo in Deathproof is a further sign of his self-indulgence, especially since his character Warren the bartender is conspicuously enjoying himself as he serves up yet another round of drinks at a point when everyone in the theater is restless and could really use one. I read that Tarantino has more "backstory" for Russell's character Stunt Man Mike in the longer, European version of Deathproof. Why the hell couldn't we have gotten some of that instead in our version? Might the otherwise unexplained motivations of the villain of the piece be slightly more important than yet another mention of the film Vanishing Point or some other Tarantino "aren't I cool" pop subculture digression? The cumulative effect is mind-numbing, and I hate to say I've rarely been so tempted to walk out on a movie. (SLIGHT SPOILER) While Stunt Man Mike's secret wimpiness makes for a chuckle or two, it also sorta defuses the stakes of the film, because it's more impressive to defeat a strong villain. But, ehh, many bullies deep down are cowards, so all right.
I know I'm being very harsh on Tarantino, and I'm certainly willing to give Deathproof another chance. But my harshness is because I really enjoyed Planet Terror and the hilarious trailers, and sitting there opening weekend at the midpoint I was planning to enthusiastically recommend seeing Grindhouse in the theater as Rodriguez and Tarantino intended. I really wanted to like Deathproof. But while home viewing doesn't give the full experience of a crowd, the scratches, and the reel jumps, it does allows for an easier escape or fast forwarding. Pulp Fiction has some really wonderful, memorable sections, and Tarantino pretty consistently delivers some great moments in his films even they're uneven and bloated with self-indulgent stretches. But in Deathproof, Tarantino commits the worst cinematic sin of all: he's boring.
In addition to 2007's Hot Fuzz and some of the filmmakers mentioned above, for comparison consider Raiders of the Lost Ark, a B-movie made into an A-movie. Spielberg and Lucas loved the old adventure serials of their youth, but they borrowed selectively, trying to deliver the same thrills they felt as kids, but doing so spectacularly with their bigger budget, giving more depth and character than the serials, and paring away the dull and stiff bits of the originals. (For that matter, there's Touch of Evil and some other pulp-ish classics.) One could debate about the line between artistry and fetishism, but while Tarantino delivers some great moments, I think he crosses that line in the wrong direction.
(From The Treatment, here's Robert Rodriguez, and here's Quentin Tarantino.)
Disturbia: Using the Hitchcock classic Rear Window as a launching point, Disturbia rather cleverly sets a rationale for our young hero Kale Brecht (Shia LeBeouf) to be under house arrest during the summer, and comes up with a solid pet-the-dog hook for Kale to be both bad boy enough to warrant such treatment yet wholly sympathetic. Shia LeBeouf just makes a great lead. He's got the charisma, energy and brains to keep us watching, and he's a real kid, full of insecurities, charm, occasional bullshit but also reluctant vulnerability. He's complimented by his goofball friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) and tormented with desire for his attractive new neighbor, Ashley Carlson (Sarah Roemer). When Kale thinks he's spotted another neighbor, Robert Turner (David Morse, who excels at methodical creepiness) commit a murder, the gang seek to investigate — but that ankle bracelet of Kale's is quite the impediment. Things get weirder when Turner seems to be romancing Kale's mom Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Several factors make Disturbia better than the common crappy remakes and knock-offs of superior films. First among these is LeBeouf, who's very engaging. Second is that film uses Hitchcock but doesn't feel enslaved to the original film, so some of its choices are less predictable. Lastly, Ashley is given a fair amount of characterization and smarts rather than merely being a hormonal rite-of-passage for Kale. Disturbia's not as good as Rear Window, of course, but to be fair, that's an all-time classic. If all teen summer flicks were at least as decent as this, Hollywood fare wouldn't be quite so bad.
Fracture: This film is really all about the cast. Watch Anthony Hopkins strut his stuff as wiley Ted Crawford, who claims to have shot his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz), but has seemingly concocted the perfect defense. Can D.A.'s office hotshot Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) take him down? Will he pursue this case to the end, or ditch it for a lucrative but less ethical legal gig with a big firm and the lovely Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike)? This courtroom drama is actually quite clever with some of its twists and turns, but the real fun is watching Hopkins and Gosling go at it, since they're both excellent. David Strathairn may be the best of several supporting players as D.A. Joe Lobruto, mentoring Gosling with a eye and hope for his potential but also quite realistic. Some critics complained Hopkins is too Lecter-like, but then, Lecter is a gas to watch. This isn't a classic for the ages, but it's an above average courtroom thriller with entertaining performances, and further proof of Gosling's promise.
Spider-Man 3 : Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are among the best superhero films ever made, which makes Spider-Man 3 that much more of a disappointment. There's just too much going on, and without a strong focus. A few superhero films have gone with two villains in the third installment to try to up the stakes, but here Spidey's dealing with at least four conflicts. He needs to deal with the Sandman, and Venom, and the new Green Goblin (his former best pal Harry Osbourne), and his romantic troubles with Mary Jane. It's just too much. I've heard director Sam Raimi was forced to add in Venom to his completed Sandman script, which if true, explains some of the mess. But while the Sandman's rebirth is one of the film's highlights, and a great example of using visual effects to tell a story and root it in character versus just delivering spectacle, overall, the Sandman's not a very interesting villain. Moreover, inserting him into Spider-Man's origin story (which I don't remember as part of the comic book continuity) seems like both a rude and ineffective intrusion. Venom's origin is almost completely glossed over, although to be fair the comic book version (Secret Wars) is far too complex to fit in. When black-suited Spidey is around, it does allow for great character development, as Peter Parker/Spider-Man gets nastier, initially to his benefit but eventually going too far. Meanwhile, the Mary Jane storyline provides some of the better scenes, in that Peter has grown more egotistical, and while a nice guy, he's not a great listener. The Bruce Campbell scene in the film where he channels John Cleese as a Maitre D' is brilliantly executed, dramatically substantive while very funny at the same time. Alas, the same is not true of the rest of the film. While the previous two films featured some great scenes and a few mediocre ones, they never had bad scenes, and Raimi unfortunately plunges over that line here. One of the jazz hep cat montages of Peter strutting even shows extras reacting negatively to Peter before he interacts with them, and the whole shtick becomes over the top and jarring, as is the jazz club scene (whereas the "Raindrops" montage in Spider-Man 2 walked up to the line but stayed within it). There's still some great stuff, though. The two scenes fighting Harry as the Green Goblin are among the best in the film. The first is visually spectacular, as Peter must somehow retrieve the engagement ring for Mary Jane, escape death, and take out Harry without killing him. Meanwhile, the second shows us Spidey getting nasty, and it's startling, satisfying, and a bit disturbing. But these are scenes rooted in character and key relationships. I hope Raimi gets back his mojo and more importantly, his internal or external editors and restraint, because at his best he's an exciting fanboy filmmaker.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End: The first film was a bit bloated but I liked it a great deal, and I enjoyed parts of the second but was disappointed overall. Here, I just did not care much. With Depp's shtick, a little goes a long way, and there's just too much of it. Lord Cutler Beckett makes an awfully dull, bureaucratic villain for a swashbuckler, and I'm not sure the filmmakers even bothered to remind us of his name or what his agenda was at the start of this film. I never really felt there was a love for the ages between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) in this film. Thus, the central trio (and occasional love triangle) that made the first film so much fun just isn't very compelling here. Knightley is a decent actress, but just isn't a convincing badass (or to be fair, this sort of badass). Much more interesting is the side love story between Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Tia Dalma/Calypso (Naomie Harris), but it really comes out of nowhere plot-wise in the series. Keith Richards' cameo also lacks energy. Having Geoffrey Rush back gives the film its greatest gusto, but there are just too many damn subplots and too much side business, so that while individual scenes or bits may work, the whole is stuck in the doldrums. By the time the "More ninjas!" huge CG finale came, I just wanted it to be over. Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott are very bright and talented, as well as kind to aspiring screenwriters, but this is just not one of their best.
Oceans's Thirteen: The good news is that it's better than the second one, the bad news is it's not nearly as good as the first. Al Pacino makes a fun villain, Ellen Barkin enjoys herself as his right-hand gal, and David Paymer does well a (literally) plagued hotel reviewer. As with the second film, the filmmakers decide the plot is merely incidental to hanging out with the crew. Admittedly, some of the banter is pretty enjoyable, since Clooney and Pitt have great chemistry and their tormenting of the self-doubting, surprisingly-gullible-for-a-con-man Linus (Matt Damon) makes for some great running gags. (I could have done without some of the in-jokes, though.) Alas, while the heist in the second film was a giant cheat, here the actual heist is actually fairly clever, yet it's just rushed over. What made the first film so much fun was the characters, yes, but also that an impossible task was set and then we watched in fascination as to how our wacky band would pull the whole thing off. Here, there's not much peril, and it's rare that we feel they won't succeed. Had there been a little more focus on the heist plot, the stakes and tension would have been raised, and the film overall would be more engaging. As it is, it's mainly a fluffy trifle, worth a gander if you enjoy the stars and one to avoid if you don't.
Transformers: Finally, Michael Bay is paired with actors commensurate to his talents — giant CG robots. Still, buying giant, alien robots with the ability to change shape may be easier than buying Megan Fox as Shia LaBeouf's high school love interest. When I saw the film, the audience laughed when "Based on the toys by Hasbro" appeared in the opening credits, and considering the toys were originally taken from a couple of Japanese toy lines and thrown into a new, invented American storyline, expectations of coherence or depth might be misplaced. (Volkswagen must be kicking itself for not allowing good alien robot Bumblebee remain a VW bug in this film.) That Transformers succeeds as well as it does is largely thanks to LaBeouf being so damn likable and engaging. As young Sam Witwicky, LaBeouf does banter, teenage bravado and shame very well, and sells the "gee, whiz!" aspect that this green screen acting requires. (And remember kids, even if the world needs saving, your parents can still embarrass you by talking about sex in front of that girl/guy you want to impress.) As to the plot — Bay can't be bothered even to name the good Autobots nor the evil Decepticons until very late in the movie, and when two of 'em wrassle, it can be awfully hard to tell them apart. (I heard this complaint a lot, and hell, I had some of the toys as a kid but was still confused at times.) I saw this at a preview screening with two hardcore Transformers fans, one of whom thought it was pretty good, and the other who thought the action scenes were all poorly staged and felt the same emotional letdown folks of my (slightly older) age felt at Star Wars Episode I. Lance Mannion makes the good point that at least the screenwriters gave love interest Mikaela Banes (Fox) a useful plot skill with her mechanic smarts. Hugo Weaving provides the (heavily processed) voice of chief villain Megatron, Bernie Mac has a funny cameo, and John Turturro and Anthony Anderson compete with the robots on chewing up the scenery, but it's mostly silly fun. This one isn't top of my recommendations list, but some people loved it as a popcorn movie, and it was better than I expected. If you'd like it, likely you've already seen it, or nothing I can say would stop you.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Credit the franchise for continuing to demonstrate near-impeccable casting, this time with Imelda Staunton as fascist-in-oppressive-pink Dolores Umbridge, the bureaucratic Ministry witch who proceeds to lead a "witch hunt" at a school for witches and wizards. Most of the essentials of the book (to my mind, the most interesting of the series barring the final one) survive intact (I missed the visit to the wizarding hospital, an affecting chapter in the book, but they wanted to keep it moving). Harry acts out, not because he's under the evil Voldemort's control, but because he's a petulant teenager. He also faces the important truth that even the adults he looks up to, including his dead parents, are fallible. Umbridge's zeal for regulations is nicely visualized with a towering wall of them, there's a number of well-done montages, and the final wizard duels are among the most visually exciting sequences of the series. Best of all, when Harry trains Dumbledore's Army, there's a real sense of magic and wonder again, and the final scenes have all the menace and tragic weight they should. Many of the young actors are much taller and more adult now, sometimes disconcertingly so, but they've also grown as actors. On the casting angle — Michael Gambon is one of my all-time favorite actors, but there are times he feels odd to me as Dumbledore. Richard Harris, also a fine actor, played Dumbledore at far too slow a pace for my tastes, but did capture an otherworldly feel. Gambon is both less tender and startlingly present, the Dumbledore you'd want with you in a knife fight. Still, considering the increasing machinations in the wizarding world in this installment and the remaining two, Gambon may work out well. Certainly it was a treat to watch two superb actors, Gambon and one of my other favorites, Ralph Fiennes, engage in a much anticipated magical duel and really sell it. Here's hoping the final two — err, three films — are as good as this one (Deathly Hallows is being released as two films, as is planned for The Hobbit).
The Bourne Ultimatum: If Jean-Luc Godard snorted a few lines of coke and then made an action film, it might look something like The Bourne Ultimatum. The cast is great (Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox) and the plot isn't bad for the genre. Super-agent Jason Bourne (Damon) no longer experiences discovery as he did in the first film, nor does he really have the emotional attachments he had in the second. Here he's just a bad-ass who rarely if ever makes mistakes, rendering him less intriguing from a character standpoint, but still somewhat interesting as a action-thriller protagonist. How much you enjoy this film really comes down to taste — and given its box office and award success, some people really did like it. I found myself very frustrated by its style, longing for a few wide shots and shots held for longer than a second to actually see the action. There's a hand-to-hand fight that winds up in a bathroom that's fast, kinetic and gripping, where the tight focus, rapid-cut style works superbly. But it's a technique that should be used selectively, and in most other instances, it was serious overkill for me. An elaborate car chase with some obviously expensive stunts is filmed where director Paul Greengrass gives us the chaos, but can never be bothered to map out the basic geography (whereas Ben Hur, Rob Roy, No Country for Old Men, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and for car chases specifically, The French Connection, Bullitt, Ronin and The Bourne Identity all do). Even the establishing shots feature unnecessary snap zooms, and there's an early shot where Bourne simply walks towards the camera and the cameraman can neither keep him in focus nor in frame. What's maddening is that many films hide their crappy action sequences with shaky camerawork and quick editing, whereas The Bourne Ultimatum has some well-staged sequences that are nonetheless covered in a way to give raw sensory data rather than narrative coherence. I know some people really liked this one as a popcorn action flick, so know your own tastes and seek it out or skip it accordingly. I greatly admired Greengrass' United 93, but I wish someone else had directed films 2 and 3 of the Bourne franchise, or else that Greengrass could have dialed it down.
(Here's Paul Greengrass on The Treatment.)
Rush Hour 3: If you can't spot the bad guy after reading the cast in the opening titles, you don't know your schlock. Even within dumb summer action comedies, there are good and bad entries. The first film in this series was sorta fun, the second was far slighter, and this one continues that slide. There's a fairly funny "Who's on First?" type scene that shows Chris Tucker knows his comic timing, and Jackie Chan continues to be his own special effect, with one really cool stunt involving a banner during the extended final showdown. If you're a diehard Jackie Chan fan and go in with really low expectations, you might enjoy parts of this, but do make sure they're low. Director Brett Ratner shot much of the second film in Vegas because he wanted to hang out in Vegas, and I strongly suspect he shot this one in Paris for similar reasons. At least when Alfred Hitchcock did something similar to hang out with Grace Kelly in the Riviera, he gave us a decent, fun film in To Catch a Thief.
Stardust: Original author Neil Gaiman is in that rarefied company of del Toro, Burton and Gilliam as a master of fairy tales and mythology. He clearly understands the key elements of the genre, well enough that he can tweak them in intriguing ways, alternately troubling and delightful. This film adaptation of his novel is faithful overall, a bit less dark, but funnier, and many original touches shine through. Charlie Cox makes for a likable hero as Tristan Thom, who vows to cross the wall between his small town and faerieland to retrieve a fallen star, all to win the hand of the young woman with whom he's besotted. His quest becomes more complicated when he discovers the star is a living being, Yvaine, played with spunk by Clare Danes. Furthermore, she's being pursued by a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) who wants the star's heart to restore her faded youth as well as that of her two witch sisters. If that weren't enough, a group of princes compete to retrieve the star and kill each other to claim the throne, their nefarious schemes observed by an audience of disfigured ghosts of the previously dispatched princes. As a fantasy, Stardust isn't stupendous, but is above average and worth checking out for fans of the genre. The dark comedy of the princes' plots against each other is entertaining, Pfeiffer excels at sexy deviltry, and the various episodes Tristan and Yvaine encounter are mostly quite interesting and significant to their characters and relationship versus mere padding. I wasn't crazy about the major additions made to Robert DeNiro's character, and as good an actor as he is, he seemed a bit out of place in this film — but I also know people who loved him. Peter O'Toole and Ricky Gervais round out a fine cast in small, fun roles.
Beowulf: I saw this in 3-D on an IMAX screen, which is probably ideal. Most of the voice actors are well cast, with Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn and Brendan Gleeson. (John Malkovich isn't that bad here, but while superb in some roles, he really shouldn't be cast in any more period films any more than Keanu Reeves or a dozen other actors.) Angelina Jolie gives Michelle Pfeiffer a run for her money in the sexy demon woman category for the year, delivering a silky vocal performance of purring flattery and subtle menace (oh, and gilded nudity with stiletto heels). Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote the script, makes the most changes from the original poem in regards to Grendel's Mother (Jolie), imbuing her with a dash of John Gardner's Grendel, a splash of Morgan LeFey, a sprig of Boorman's Excalibur and a sprinkling of Macbeth's witches, centering most of all on the themes of ambition and fate. This re-telling also deals with the power of stories and their tendency to re-invent the truth to deify their heroes. Truth be told, this Beowulf is brave, but isn't terribly likable beyond that, and while he does try to redeem himself, the question remains as to whether human folly triumphs over its more heroic aspects. Still, this film is mainly about spectacle, and for the most part, Beowulf delivers. I still find the computer animation is a far cry from watching real humans, but students of the medium may find this an interesting viewing alongside those eager to see the misshapen monster Grendel and the golden, glowing dragon.
Enchanted: Since I adore Amy Adams (see Junebug if you haven't) but detest cheap sentiment and the selling of a princess mentality, I suppose I'm a good test case for Enchanted. Many stories have dealt with the crossover of characters from a real to fictional world or vice versa, but there's a new wrinkle in Disney poking fun at its own princess franchise. Enchanted basically breaks into three sections. The first takes place in animated fairy tale land, and is a sugary onslaught of Disney schmaltz that threatens to induce a diabetic coma, as virginal sap Giselle (Adams) is set to marry the dashing but dim Prince Edward (James Marsden). When jealous Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) dispatches Giselle to our cruel world, we enter live action, and the second, most entertaining section of the film. Giselle's naïveté must contend with New York City and such world-shattering concepts as anger and the prospect of not living happily ever after. Finally, in the third section, the film tries to have it both ways, tweaking the whole Disney princess myth but also affirming it as well. It was too much to expect Disney to stab the heart of its franchise to death. Enchanted is a good family film that adults can enjoy as well — depending on your tolerance for saccharine, because although the cloying sweetness is tweaked in the middle section, schmaltz mocked still entails some schmaltz. Enchanted works as well as it does due to Adams' guileless, charming and versatile performance. Well-versed in musical theater, she flings herself into the glitz with joyful abandon. But also watch the scene where as Giselle she experiences anger for the first time, her frustration and then delight switching on a dime, or the depth of pathos but feel for comedy as she confronts the (for her) absolutely horrific idea of divorce. Adams never condescends to the material, but gives multiple layers to a character who is far less vapid than she is merely innocent. Marsden has great fun as the dippy Prince Edward, Timothy Spall is cornering the market on evil henchmen, and Patrick Dempsey is mostly his characteristically drowsy self as pretty boy love interest Robert. The final showdown attempts to give some girl power to Giselle, which is nice, but there's also a key plot moment involving Pip the chipmunk that's supposed to be a callback to the animated beginning that doesn't read well, and is awfully abrupt and unsatisfying given its significance. Two other points: the lyrics to "Happy Working Song" are pretty funny, but if you're a stickler, in the song Giselle shows knowledge of our world her character doesn't have yet, and while there's a neat angle to Giselle's empowerment in the final scenes, it's disappointing that Disney couldn't have made a further break and instead has her essentially shilling… Disney. (Again, expecting otherwise was just too much.) Enchanted does make for good family viewing, I know one curmudgeon who hated it, several schmaltz lovers who adored it, and many schmaltz-haters (including me) who really enjoyed parts of it, mostly that second section. A little wit is better than none at all, and you could do far worse.
The Golden Compass: This fantasy film based on a series of books was widely panned. I didn't think it was that good, but I enjoyed it more than most because I found the world intriguing, and in sci-fi and fantasy, as Isaac Asimov observed, the world and "background" is often half if not more of the story. Figuring out the warring factions and the rules of daemons and their bonds with humans kept me somewhat interested. That said, the film suffers from a real "More ninjas!" feel, as the filmmakers try to stuff in everything they can and substitute spectacle for story. The biggest problem is its episodic, low-stakes narrative. Time after time, young heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is put in peril and then almost instantly rescued by an outside agent, and she often seems utterly blasé about it all. She does show some ingenuity, most of all in claiming to be the armored bear Iorek Byrneson's daemon. The bear fight is one of the few instances where the outcome feels uncertain. But overall, it's hard to care. The most glaring deus ex machina is the golden compass itself, since it always answers every question Lyra has unfailingly. If she were more unsure of its clues, perhaps there'd be more suspense, but the filmmakers opt for visions for Lyra, so the compass adds some cinematic flair but robs the story of dramatic tension. I can't speak to the film as an adaptation, but regardless, this consistent element is not a good narrative choice. The film does boast an noteworthy adult cast, including Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliot, Eva Green, Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi , great British stage actors such as Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Clare Higgins and Simon McBurney, not to mention the voice talents of Ians McKellen and McShane as well as Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates and Freddie Highmore. However, while Fellowship of the Ring ended with momentum and left the audience longing for more, The Golden Compass just sort of… ends, with many questions dangling but without strong interest from the audience in seeing them answered (except perhaps through reading the books). Based on the box office return on this film (barring huge profits overseas), I'd be surprised if they finished making the series (at least on this scale).
3:10 to Yuma: Director James Mangold consistently delivers solid if not quite stupendous films, and this remake of 3:10 to Yuma (I actually haven't seen the original yet) is above average largely due to a strong cast led by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It's only in the last 20 minutes or so that the plot grows preposterous and spoils the fun. Crowe is great as charismatic outlaw Ben Wade, a scoundrel, but a brave, skilled one with a sense of both style and honor. Bale as homesteader Dan Evans brings his usual intensity to the role. Despite the risks, Dan agrees to help escort Ben to the prison train to Yuma because he and his family badly need the cash. Neither Ben nor Dan is morally pure nor an outright villain, and these ambiguities make for interesting character interplay in between the action sequences. Almost everyone the escort meets wants a piece of Ben, it seems — either for the reward, or for revenge, or to free him. Ben's gang, led by the menacing Charlie Prince (Ben Foster in a breakout role) is the biggest threat. Peter Fonda has a key smaller role as grizzled vet Byron McElroy (also morally questionable), Alan Tudyk has a nice turn as a frontier doctor, and Logan Lerman as Dan's son William must try to decide between the glamour of the charismatic, successful Ben Wade and the honest but seemingly futile code of his own father. What's so refreshing about the film is how so many characters act out of rational self-interest. Bribery, profit and survival are the prime motivators in many a scene. This backdrop makes a nice contrast for our nominal hero Dan Evans, who wants his money, but also feels he must reclaim his tarnished honor despite the peril. The problem, though, is the finale, most of all with Ben Wade's character. He's been the sort of guy who will do a kind deed when possible for personal amusement and panache, but not if it's going to risk his own neck. The finale seems to be a betrayal of the tone and sophistication of what's come before, and several developments strain credulity. I kept thinking of Falstaff's lines, "What is honour? A word ... Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday…" It's nice to see a decent western, but this one could have been much better with less sentimentality.
(Here's Peter Fonda on Fresh Air.)
I Am Legend: Post-apocalyptic stories have a certain fantasy appeal and inherent hook as we initially follow our heroes around and see how they survive, amuse themselves, and have the run of what's left of the world. I Am Legend (the third film based on Richard Matheson's novella of the same name) is no exception as Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), possibly the last man on earth, tours about a deserted Manhattan, accompanied only by his faithful dog, Sam. He faces four daily trials: try to contact any other surviving humans, try to find a cure for the zombie vampirism affecting the island's remaining residents, try to stay alive, and try to stay sane. Will Smith excels at selling all of these. When Sam runs after a deer into a vampire "nest," Neville's fear is palpable. Only his desperation not to lose Sam pushes him reluctantly into the dark warehouse, and Neville's barely contained fear makes it a tense sequence. While Smith is able to flash his trademark charm, mostly in banter with Sam, his depiction of growing cabin fever is affecting, and it appears the "stay sane" trial may be the most difficult one of the four. Whatever the other merits or flaws of I Am Legend, Will Smith makes a fantastic leading man, credible as both a scientist and a man of action, and delivering acting of subtle shades as well as energy. That said, I Am Legend does have it flaws. For starters, when it's one man against one hundred or more, it hurts when any one of the one hundred seem more powerful (physically, anyway) than our hero, and some are shrewd to boot. We want a tough fight, not an impossible one. The other problems lay in changes to the source material — less a matter of plot than one of general tone. The original ending is novel, unexpected and memorable, but too dark for Hollywood studio tastes, so that change isn't terribly surprising, down to the complete inversion of the meaning of Matheson's title (shades of the studio's radical recut of Huston's Red Badge of Courage). The filmmakers do introduce moral questions to Neville's cure experiments that keep some of the original story's distinctive unease. But the introduction of a religious theme near the end seems tacky, abrupt and hackneyed, a betrayal of the film we've seen up to that point. (Note: Matheson also wrote the teleplay for The Night Stalker, the modern vampire TV movie that later spawned the fun, unfortunately short-lived Kolchak series.)
The Kite Runner: Directed by the versatile Marc Forester (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Ficton), The Kite Runner's main virtue (for Western audiences) is a glimpse into the recent history and culture of Afghanistan, and the mores of Afghani immigrants in America. Young Amir and Hassan are best friends back in Afghanistan, but there's a schism in that Hassan is Amir's servant and Hazara, a mostly Shiite ethnic group in predominantly Sunni Afghanistan. The bookish Amir desperately wants to impress his more forceful father Baba, a widely admired and successful man. During one fateful day, Amir abandons Hassan to a cruel fate due to fear, and the shame haunts him, even after Amir and Baba flee during the Soviet invasion first to Pakistan and then to America. Amir is coaxed back as an adult to Afghanistan (the Taliban is in power) when an old family friend calls him and tells him, "There is a way to be good again." Based on the popular novel of the same name, The Kite Runner loses some detail but actually improves upon the book in several instances. It eliminates several far too pat coincidences, drops several digressive plot points late in the story, and gives at least one character (the head of an orphanage) far more depth and moral due. The kite-fighting scenes are pretty engaging, Homayoun Ershadi is memorable as Baba, Khalid Abdalla seems a bit bland as the adult Amir but has his moments, Atossa Leoni is mainly asked to supply her sweet smile as Soraya, but does what she can with a small supporting role, and the child actors aren't bad. Do know going in that this is not a children's movie, and brutal violence is central to some scenes, even if they are shot fairly tastefully.
(Here's Marc Forster on The Treatment and Khaled Hosseini on Fresh Air.)
The Hoax: Based on a true story — mostly — The Hoax tells the tale of Clifford Irving, who bullshits his way to a huge book contract by claiming to be writing the biography of reclusive, rich eccentric Howard Hughes with Hughes' cooperation. I'm not a huge fan of Richard Gere, who plays Irving, but he's better than many of the movies he appears in, and he does a splendid job here. The audacity of the gambit, and Gere's great chemistry with Alfred Molina as Irving's researcher partner, Dick Suskind, makes this a fun view. Faced with a test of nerve, Suskind typically flop sweats while Irving grows bolder. Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Hardin, Stanley Tucci and Zeljko Ivanek round out a good cast, and it's always nice to see Eli Wallach, however briefly. Director Lasse Hallström keeps everything moving briskly, and dishonest though the whole enterprise is, it's hard not to root for these scoundrels — up to a point. Irving ultimately is a user of people, and when his schemes seem relatively victimless, they're far easier to excuse than when he plays a higher stakes, nastier game. Late in the film, fiction and reality seem to blend for Irving, and the question rises as to whether he's delusional, bought his own BS or a pawn in some larger game. ( The real Clifford Irving did not like the film, for what it's worth.)
(Here's Richard Gere on Fresh Air.)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley: (officially released in 2006) In 1920s Ireland, brothers Damien (a medical student) and Teddy start by fighting for the Irish resistance against the English but eventually part ways over a problematic truce with the English. Cillian Murphy makes for a good lead as Damien, who is sensitive enough to find the whole conflict distasteful, but idealistic — or realistic — enough to take increasingly harsh measures. After the film establishes that the English were right bastards, most of it focuses on the difficult moral choices faced by the Irish and their often harsh consequences, and does a pretty good job of depicting complexity and the arguments of competing factions. Directed by Englishman Ken Loach, not one to shirk from politics or refrain from social criticism, this film won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 2006. Alas, I saw this film on a substandard print with quiet, murky sound running off the optical, such that it was hard to tell Damien and Teddy were even related for a while, so I feel hampered in fairly critiquing it, and would like to see it again. Suffice to say that if you find the subject matter intriguing, seek it out. (The song that gives the film its name is an old favorite of mine; you can hear a version and watch the trailer to the film at this older post.)
Dead Silence: Perhaps you occasionally enjoy watching bad films, or belong to a group of like-minded folks. There were a few such groups at my college, and the hard core film geek posse was one of them. In 2007, the L.A. chapter of this group selected Dead Silence for an outing, and we were not, umm, disappointed. Brought to you by the Saw team, this film starts with a title card that says, "In the 6th Century B.C. it was believed that the spirits of the dead would speak through the stomach region of the living." Still, that pales in comparison with what's indisputably the best line of the film, "In the town where I come from, ventriloquist dummies are a bad omen." Maybe you shouldn't have accepted that package and taken the damn thing out of its case, then, huh? Or perhaps you could have mentioned or reacted to that whole "bad omen" thing before... oh, never mind. There are actually a surprising number of films, shorts, and stories about supernatural ventriloquist dummies, which are admittedly creepy. Dead Silence does provide a few eerie moments, you may not see its final twist coming, and the sound-leaving-the-room-before-an-attack device is actually very effective. But there are also plenty of times you'll be slapping your head at the stupidity of the characters. "Don't go in there!" Oh... never mind.
Bonus Interviews: I haven't gotten a chance to see the films yet, alas, but this Fresh Air interview with John C. Reilly and Jake Kasdan on Walk Hard is pretty damn funny, and The Treatment's session with Seth Gordon on King of Kong is fascinating.