Friday, February 27, 2009
2008 Film Roundup: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)
W. George W. Bush hadn't even left office yet, but Oliver Stone boldly took on that man who's arguably the worst president in American history, inarguably (to the honest and sane) one of the worst, and a man who raised the Peter Principle to the level of Biblical plague. W. (or "Dubya") isn't a great film, but it wound up being better than I expected, and it may grow far more interesting in future years. Stone depicts Bush as a not-that-bright screw-up, driven by the demons of alcohol and a desperate need to impress his seemingly perfect father. He's really trying the best he can, but he's in hopelessly over his head. He's also ill-served by many members of his administration, most of all Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones). Stone's depiction of Bush is thus rather sympathetic (although not complimentary). The key to the film is a strong performance by Josh Brolin as Bush. He manages to adopt many of Bush's tics and rhythms, but he doesn't let it veer into caricature. Most of the other performers are also good, with the exception of Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice. She's normally great, but Newton plays Rice as a complete caricature that would be over the top even in an SNL sketch (the prosthetics probably don't help). If you've been following the Bush administration, you'll be interested to see what nuggets of truth get slipped in, sometimes in adapted form. Cheney and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) spar, which certainly happened and was one of the most important dynamics in the Bush White House, but those specific exchanges probably didn't happen. Some of the scenes are even more speculative, of course, most notably an extended scene where Cheney lays out the case for invading Iraq (amazingly, Bush has still never revealed when and how he actually made this decision, although it is known he made up his mind many months before the actual invasion and was set on attacking while still pretending in public to be seeking a peaceful solution). In a few cases, Stone takes a public gaffe uttered by the real Bush and has him say it in private in the film. One reviewer I read felt this was unfair, that it made Bush seem dumb, but I thought it was actually kind – sparing Bush the character a moment of public humiliation that actually happened. Plus, while Bush the man is not a complete idiot, he really is not that bright, was blithely incurious, defiantly unreflective and aggressively anti-intellectual, would have rather been fishing and was happy to live in his bubble. It would be seriously hard for Stone to defame Bush's character, and all things considered, he's pretty generous because he grants Bush good faith (and doesn't depict all of his disastrous judgment and the horrible results). In some cases, Stone is far too kind to Bush, implying that he was tricked into authorizing torture when the record to date shows he was quite involved, even if the Cheney gang took the lead as they almost always did. The last few scenes are very effective. Brolin gives a spot-on recreation of Bush's inability at a press conference to name a single mistake he's made. It plays as sad, even tragic, the epitome of his failings as a human being (even if many others have paid the price for them). There's also a recurring dream Bush has of being in a baseball stadium that makes for a great punctuation mark. W. is not as accomplished as Stone's Nixon was, but I'll be interested to hear the DVD commentaries on this one, and see how it holds up over the years.
(Here's Josh Brolin on Fresh Air. Jeffrey Wright's session is more of a career overview, but does touch on W., Cadillac Records and Quantum of Solace. Slate hosted a discussion between Stone and a few Bush journalists on the accuracy of the film. The single best book to date on Bush is probably Barton Gellman's Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, which Cheney apparently liked, because it was detailed, accurate and depicted him as a masterful operator. Human beings with some sense of morality, constitutional principles, the law and history are more likely to read it as a horror story.)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Directed by Nicholas Stoller and written by and starring Jason Segal, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the latest comedy from the Judd Apatow crew (he produced). Peter Bretter (Segal), a TV composer and something of a man-child, is hopelessly in love with his TV star girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). When she breaks up with him, he's devastated, and is convinced by his friends to take a vacation. He heads to Hawaii because he and Sarah always spoke of hitting it together. Unfortunately, Sarah's decided to head there too, with her new, preternaturally mellow and endlessly sexual rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow in tow (Russell Brand, who's hilarious). Hotel clerk Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis) takes pity on Peter, and sets him up in the bridal suite. Hijinks ensue (and life lessons are learned). Many Apatow regulars are here, from Paul Rudd as a surfing instructor who takes mellow to the point of amnesia, and Jonah Hill as a waiter and stalker fan of Aldous Snow. At times, Sarah Marshall is cringe comedy – the naked breakup early on and the requested Dracula musical selection are a bit painful to watch, but also hilarious. The film is also definitely more from the guy perspective. That said, the women do get some good scenes, including a couple between each other. Sarah is given more dimension and becomes more sympathetic when she opens up with Peter later on. And while Rachel initially seems cast mainly as Peter's possible salvation, she's guarded, independent, a little crazy, and well-played by Mila Kunis. There weren't many good comedies last year, but this was one of them.
(Update: Here's a good recent interview with Jason Segal on Fresh Air.)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Hollywood could do far worse than making more like this again. Set in London shortly before WWII, Miss Pettigrew… aims to be a farce and a romp with a little depth as well. It's a bit disjointed, but it's anchored by great casting and delightful performances, most of all by the two female leads. Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a middle-aged governess who can no longer get hired honestly, so she uses her wiles to finagle a gig under false pretenses. But it turns out actress and singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) doesn't need help handling children – she's juggling three men - Phil (Tom Payne), a fickle young producer who might cast her in his hot new production, Nick (Mark Strong), a sleazy nightclub owner who she lives with, and Michael, a brooding piano player who really loves her (Lee Pace, who played Ned in the unfortunately short-lived Pushing Daisies). Whatever her other faults, Guinevere Pettigrew is both discreet and quick-witted, her rescue attempts are clever and funny, and Delysia is as grateful for Guinevere's efforts as she is hopeless at managing her own life. Guinevere is much more appreciative of Michael's real passion for Delysia than Delysia is, having lost a great love years before. There's a nice middle-aged love story that emerges between Guinevere and fashion designer Joe (Ciarán Hinds, who's always good but gets to play a welcome warmer role here). They remember the Great War, as the younger folks don't. But Edythe (Shirley Henderson) is determined to snag Joe, and sets out to eliminate Guinevere as a rival. Some of the film's maneuvering may wind up being a bit predictable, but it's still pretty fun to watch due to the performers. It's hard not to like McDormand as Guinevere, who's less impressed by fancy living than she is desperate simply to eat. And Amy Adams is charming as ever, once again committing fully to her character and with a great feel for the genre. Delysia is very much an actress, a flighty social butterfly, but Adams gives her high energy and rapid, mercurial shifts that leave everyone dizzy. There's a naïve transparency to her schemes and a few moments of endearing vulnerability that make her thoughtlessness more forgivable somehow.
Iron Man: Iron Man was one of the pleasant surprises of the summer, thanks to a ceaselessly entertaining performance by Robert Downey, Jr. as the rakish, eccentric playboy and technological wunderkind Tony Stark. The filmmakers smartly give him a computer to banter with in his lab (computer voiced by Paul Bettany), and a surprisingly strong supporting cast, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard. Wisely, the filmmakers also concoct a cinematic device to allow us to see Downey's face even when he's in the Iron Man armor (which obviates the Spider-Man franchise's contrivance of having him rip off his mask all the time). Director Jon Favreau, who has a small role, said he was a bit nervous about directing a big effects movie, but he does a good job, mostly by keeping the effects at the service of the story. He maintains his good comic sense and a focus on the characters, most of all in Downey/Stark's reactions to all these gee-whiz toys, from jet boots to his newly-discovered sense of morality. If there's a weakness to the film, it's in the villain, and the somewhat by-the-numbers nature of the final showdown. Still, while Iron Man lacks the depth and complexity of The Dark Knight and some other super-hero flicks, it shows once again the benefits artistically and commercially of really good casting and assembling the right filmmaking team for the material. (The post-credits scene was fun, too.)
(Here's Jon Favreau on The Treatment and playing DJ.)
The Incredible Hulk: While this reboot of the Hulk wasn't as strong as Iron Man, it was a vast improvement over Ang Lee's 2003 film, which started off pretty well and quickly went downhill. Cleverly, the new team gives us an opening sequence that recaps Lee's Hulk film with the new actors, a sort of Hulk 1.5 that allows us to acknowledge the earlier film or ignore it completely. The biggest single upgrade here is Edward Norton, a cerebral but energetic and focused actor. When we first meet up with Norton as Bruce Banner, he's in hiding from the U.S. army in Brazil, studying his Portuguese, working on a bottling plant floor, taking yoga lessons to better control his temper, and trying not to lose his cool. Liv Tyler plays Betty Ross this time around, and William Hurt is her hard-nosed father, the army general determined to track down Banner. Tim Roth is good as an aging special forces op with an addiction to the promise of greater physical power, and Tim Blake Nelson is well cast as a slightly mad and definitely goofy scientist. The glue for the movie is the love story, which Norton and Tyler sell pretty well. (The funniest scene is in a bedroom where Banner is scared about getting too 'excited.') Some of the minor characters are surprisingly interesting. Betty's new man Leonard, played by Ty Burrell, doesn't appear much, but he's given a couple of great lines and a distinct character in a brief scene with General Ross, and it's refreshing that he's not portrayed as just some stiff. Alas, the predictable big CGI showdown is just not as interesting as any of that, with monster one fighting monster two, and the titular green monster issuing his patented catch phrases. (There's also a bold physical move from Banner before the big showdown that I found very problematic story-wise, most of all because it's unnecessarily reckless to the point of being suicidal.) But I really did like the yoga and meditation ideas, and Banner's anguish trying to find some cure or way to manage his tendency to, um, transform into a giant green monster when agitated. It gave the whole story a human focus and more understandable stakes. The shout-outs and inside references in the film are many. Norton wrote at least one draft of the script, apparently re-wrote many scenes, and was unhappy with the final cut. I don't know all the details, but from what we've seen of Norton's work here and in the past, he's got pretty good taste. We'll see if he sticks on for another one.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Director Guillermo del Toro has a great eye as well as a natural feel for fantasy worlds with a dark underside. Hellboy II's production design is often eye-popping - and the film's never boring - as Hellboy and the gang race to save the world yet again (this time from the Elf King's unstoppable Golden Army), but the whole thing's not all that compelling, either. The 'outcasts feared by a world they fight to protect' thing is well-trodden territory thanks to the X-Men, and Hellboy's desire to be recognized plays as more juvenile than tragic. This is especially the case given how blasé he and his fellow superheroes seem when the human members of their team are killed in horrific fashion. Hellboy (or "Red") has some swagger and style, which adds some fun to everything, especially the fight scenes. But his relationship with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) plays more like rote sitcom, certainly not like a Love to Risk the Planet For. Far more interesting and poetic is the romance between Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and the ethereal elf Princess Nuala (Amanda Watson). It's mournful Nuala, and her vengeance-driven brother Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who give the film most of its emotional weight. Government handler Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) has some funny bits with Hellboy, as does the disembodied German mad scientist Johann Krauss. There's a great drunken sing-a-long between Hellboy and Abe as they try to puzzle out the mysteries of womankind. They also bond over pining for their deceased adoptive father (John Hurt, seen in flashbacks and always welcome). The action scenes are well-staged, too, with the final fight dynamic and inventive. It's worth a look, but doesn't top my recommendations. I just never found Hellboy (who also suffers some dodgy post-dubbing) that engaging a hero. I haven't read the original comic book series, and fans of it or the genre might well rank this one higher.
Also – Hey, Prince Nuada, don't give out a guilt trip to the hero about killing some creature that's 'the last of its kind' if you sic it on him to kill him first!
Hancock: The slightest of the superhero entries of the year, Hancock starts with an entertaining premise and a bang, but then veers wildly. Will Smith is Hancock, blessed with super-strength, near-indestructibility, and flight, but is also an immature hot-head and a raging alcoholic. He has the tendency to destroy lots of property the few times he attempts anything heroic. However, he does manage to save the life of Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a struggling PR guy, who takes it upon himself to reform Hancock's image with the public. Hancock hits it off with Ray's son Aaron, but Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) is much more wary. Smith and Bateman have great chemistry, and the first two sections of the movie – grumpy, inept superhero, and superhero awkwardly trying to clean up his act – are quite fun. But at that point, we're about an hour in, and there's nowhere else to go – and the film jumps the rails. You may see the big twist coming, or not, and it's sorta intriguing in the short run. But the film either can't make up its mind or just keeps on introducing new mythologies and subplots. The last twenty minutes have a somber, melodramatic tone that's completely at odds with almost everything that's come before. The end result is not satisfying. (However, I do know some people who loved Hancock because they didn't see the twists coming and found the ending unexpected.)
One of the villains (Eddie Marsan) starts spouting an odd monologue near the end that suggests he's part of an ancient secret society or something. I suspect some relevant sections were cut out of this 92 minute film (apparently the unrated version runs 102 min), but regardless, this section plays oddly, and not in the boy-that-villain's-creepy sort of way, but in a what-the-hell-are-the-filmmakers-going-for way. The end of the film's the wrong time for reams of exposition, whether from the villain or the wounded damsel. And while it's fine to go for laughs and threaten tragedy in the same film, there has to be some traces of the full palette earlier on. Hancock feels like they came up with some fun gags but then just made stuff up as they went along, and it plays as lazy rather than inventive.
(Here's Jason Bateman on Fresh Air, although it's more of a career overview.)
Quantum of Solace: The latest James Bond flick suffers from several factors, most of all that it has to follow Casino Royale, one of the very best in the franchise, and that it's essentially a mop-up for that film. Bond is set on revenge, and has less time for the panache and romance that so define the character. Notable exceptions include a clever intel sting at an opera, and a little strategic flirting. The screen time for the "Bond girls" is skewed, at least to my tastes – Camille is not that interesting a character, and Olga Kurylenko's performance isn't that strong (the best scene with her is an apology from Bond, but that's really all Craig). In contrast, we see comparatively little of Miss (Strawberry) Fields (Gemma Arterton), who shows some wit and ingenuity in addition to her lack of self-control. Mathieu Amalric makes a good villain as Dominic Greene, and his invocation of environmentalism to dupe rich philanthropists is one of the more interesting aspects of the film. Jeffrey Wright has a few nice scenes as Bond's CIA chum Felix Leiter, and the notion of American and British interests being at odds – and definitely at odds with morality – give some more, welcome complexity. Judi Dench as M is fine as always, and she and Daniel Craig as Bond have strong chemistry. M clearly has some affection for Bond, and tries to protect him, most of all from himself, stepping in to play the disciplinary parent when demanded. I understand that the script was rushed due to the writers' strike, and Marc Forester is normally a fine director, but I fear this entry in the series is something of a placeholder. Let's see how the next one shapes up.
I always like Giancarlo Giannini, who reprises his role as Mathis here, but as soon as Bond shows up at Mathis' idyllic little villa persuading him to do one more job, there's an inevitable trumpeting of "terminal cliché."
(Here's Marc Forster on The Treatment.)
Good: Based on a stage play, Good centers on a literature professor in Germany during the Nazis' rise to power, and his friendship with an old friend, who's Jewish. John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is not happy about seeing books burned, nor about being told that teaching some books is off-limits. Meanwhile, at home he has to contend with an aging mother with dementia and a wife who seems afflicted by bouts of depression. A female student, Anne (Jodie Whittaker) makes a play for him, and his initial resistance doesn't last long. Based on his own experiences, John writes a novel advocating for voluntary, compassionate euthanasia, and this attracts the attention and approval of the Nazi party, including (he is told) Hitler himself. Anne pushes him to accept an honorary role in the S.S. for career advancement and a better lifestyle. Needless to say, this drives a further wedge between him and Maurice (Jason Isaacs), a friend of his from their army days together in WWI. A Jewish psychiatrist, Maurice is no longer permitted to practice, and his other rights are being taken away, one by one. He's obstinate about leaving, too, proclaiming he's as German as John or anyone else. By the time Maurice pushes John for help in fleeing, the possibilities of escape are much more slim. John embarks on a race to save Maurice at increasing risk to himself (it's obviously even greater for Maurice). I really wanted to like this film, and appreciated its depiction of one of the most important aspects of the Nazi rise to power – the gradual stripping of civil rights. The film fictionalizes some aspects of the Nazi's T4 program, a subject I covered in a post last year and of considerable interest to me. However, Good starts as a film about a friendship, or even as a character study of John, and then opts for an abstract ending. Earlier in the film, John has some aural hallucinations of people breaking into song when he is under distress, and these are supposed to set up the ending, but they don't really succeed. Similarly, John has a crucial confrontation with Anne late in the film that's surprisingly calm given the content. We're willing to accept this, expecting that a blowout or some bigger scene or payoff is coming later. But it never does. Even if John is a detached intellectual, and even if the filmmakers are wisely trying for an understated approach given the enormous emotional impact that easily comes with the Holocaust, the end result feels wrong. A film that we've stuck with winds up just not being satisfying – and I mean this narratively, not just emotionally. More discussion of this in the:
I think the filmmakers could have achieved a much more powerful ending with only a few changes, which is part of what's frustrating. Perhaps the ending works better on stage. But as it stands, the big payoff is supposed to be that, rather than the music being in John's head, it's very real, as he faces the dark absurdity of concentration camp prisoners being forced to play music. The whole world and not just John's imagination has gone mad. Okay. But that's a metaphoric and intellectual grace note rather than a narrative conclusion with emotional punch. The last shots pivot from John to Holocaust victims, as if to drive the point home of the reality of what happened historically, or to try to remind us that even if John saves Maurice, he is but one of many, and many more will (and did) die. All that's fine. But we've been focused on John, and on the friendship of John and Maurice. The shift depersonalizes the story rather than making it more universal, which can be better achieved here through specificity. Remember the end of The Bicycle Thief, where (Spoiler if you haven't seen this classic), our hero submerges back into the crowd dejected, since part of the point is that his story is but one of many. However, we are given an ending to his story to some degree, even though we don't know exactly what will happen to him next. There is an emotional climax and conclusion even though there's some uncertainty plot-wise. We've seen our hero risk everything on a desperate action, and fail. Likewise, I don't think the audience needs or expects a happy ending for Good, but as with No Country for Old Men last year, I think most people want to see that conclusion, even it's tragic, rather than major events occurring off-screen. Narratively in Good, the momentum is for John to see Maurice – whether alive, or dead, or alive and it's too late. Or simply imagine John searching frantically through the rows of prisoners, looking for Maurice, thinking he's found him, and then that dynamic continuing, maybe escalating, with a simple pull away and fade out. The film even uses some footage precisely like this, yet still opts for a different capstone. The problem is that rather than the film ending with John, our closest audience surrogate, and his reaction to the Holocaust and his growing, terrible realization of being too late and completely inadequate, Good goes abstract, perhaps trying to confront the audience directly. But while audiences don't necessarily want to feel happy leaving a story (or else, as it's been pointed out before, Romeo and Juliet wouldn't remain so popular), they do want to feel something. There's also no reason why a story can't have intellectual heft and emotional weight. Alternatively, if you're going for a little Verfremdungseffekt, for god's sake, set it up better.
Appaloosa: It's nice to see a decent western, and Ed Harris (who also directed) and Viggo Mortensen have good chemistry and a great feel for the genre. They play long-time friends and freelance lawmen who arrive at a troubled town. They're willing to take on the local tyrant, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and his gang, but they insist on full control of the town first. Virgil Cole (Harris) is the sheriff, and laconic Everett Hitch (Morgensen) is his deputy. Virgil also takes a shine to traveling piano teacher Allison French (Renée Zellweger). who entrances him like no woman he's been with before. But calling her fickle would be an understatement - the Grey's Anatomy crew look like long-suffering, self-sacrificing characters from a Russian novel compared to the flighty Allison. Virgil's so smitten he even thinks of settling down with her. But as Everett learns more of Allison's true nature, he's left with the dilemma of whether to tell Virgil, and if so, how much. Everett fares much better with his town paramour, Tilda (Cerris Morgan-Moyer), who certainly looks out for herself, but is also practical and counsels Everett honestly, most of all about Allison. Meanwhile, there's Randall Bragg to catch, and during a wilderness pursuit, hostile Indian tribes to survive. In the Leone tradition, most of the action is anticipation and build-up, punctuated by sharp violence. The camaraderie and droll wit of Virgil and Everett are Appaloosa's greatest strength, while its biggest flaw is how repetitive it grows near the end – how many scenes of Allison's fickleness do we really need to see? Still, all this does set up the final struggle for Everett, and the very end is good (marred only by an unnecessary voiceover).
(Here's Ed Harris on The Treatment.)
Son of Rambow: There's a joyful abandon and innocence to childhood play that Son of Rambow captures well and gives the film its charm. In early 1980s England, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) belongs to a religiously austere family still dealing with the recent death of Will's father. Will gets preyed on at school by Lee Carter (Will Poulter), the local troublemaker, in part because Will is hopelessly naïve. But one day, Will – who watches no TV or films – sees a bootleg of Rambo, and it has a profound effect on him. As Lee and Will set out to make their own sequel to Rambo ("Son of Rambow") they start to develop an unusual but very real friendship. Lee's home life is troubled, as well. Meanwhile, French exchange student Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk), considered the coolest kid in school by the awestruck English kids, decides he wants in on the movie, which grows increasingly elaborate and out of control. There are some really funny scenes, especially involving their creative but fledgling filmmaking. Some viewers will consider this a hidden gem. (Writer-Director Garth Jennings is probably best known as the director of The Hitchhiker's Guide, and Will's mom Mary is played by Jessica Hynes of Spaced.)
(Here's Garth Jennings on The Treatment.)
Body of Lies: It's hard to go too far a field with a Ridley Scott film, and this Middle Eastern spy thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe is above average for the genre, although not a knockout. It does a nice job of presenting (to American audiences) a more complex view of the Middle East. DiCaprio as CIA field agent Roger Ferris and Crowe as agency puppeteer Ed Hoffman have good interplay. Ed isn't an out-and-out bigot, but he's an imperialist unapologetic at flexing his superior power to protect America and his soccer-loving kids. For short-term gain, he really doesn't give a damn about burning a source and careful work by Roger, who has to deal with the fallout, most of all with Syrian intelligence chief Hani (Mark Strong, who's excellent and had a good year). The most unrealistic aspect of the film is the romance that develops between Roger and local nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). The relationship itself isn't that implausible, but the risks Roger takes after such a short period of time are. Based on David Ignatius' book of the same name, perhaps Body of Lies the film simply is forced to condense too much from the source material. If you're a fan of the genre or the team here, it's worth a look.
Stop-Loss: Director Kimberly Peirce's first film since 1999's excellent Boys Don't Cry is ambitious but uneven. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and his army buddies Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are back in Texas after a tough tour in Iraq. They're wound up tight, and at least two of them are suffering from varying degrees of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The transition back to civilian life does not go well, especially for Tommy, and Brandon gets an additional shock when he's stop-lossed, his tour extended against his will when he was finally due out. Brandon's a red-blooded, flag-waving Texas boy, but he's being screwed over and isn't happy about it. Accompanied by Steve's girlfriend Michelle (Abby Cornish), he tries to set things right. He naively decides to seek out the senator who has promised to help him out if he needed anything. In the process, he discovers a whole network of AWOL soldiers fleeing similar circumstances, finds his notions of friendship and honor challenged, and also confronts his own psychic wounds. As in Boys Don't Cry, Peirce is very good at capturing the mores of small-town masculinity. She also deserves credit for trying to tackle a serious subject of some complexity. However, I think Stop-Loss struggles because some of Brandon's moves stretch plausibility. It's easy to buy that he'd be angry, but less credible that he'd go to certain extremes and then also wind up making the final decision he does. These narrative jerks seem to be more about Peirce trying to thread the needle – how can she make Brandon realistic, admirable but also a deserter, have him make a courageous choice that would also be respected by his former buddies, and so on. The film has a bit of an identity crisis, a lack of confidence in its own convictions, or a lack of conviction on its subject. Stop-Loss has some good scenes and highlights the dilemma of being stop-lossed, but these other elements leave it feeling muddled.
(Here's Kimberly Peirce on The Treatment.)
The Bank Job: An above-average heist flick, The Bank Job benefits from its "based on a true story" cachet and some interesting plot choices. Martine (Saffron Burrows) recruits Terry (Jason Statham) and his crew of slightly inept small-timers to break into a bank's safe deposit vault. It's the 70s, and the real-life heist was notable because the gang used a lookout and walkie-talkies. The police heard the plotting on their CBs, but couldn't tell which bank was being targeted. The police race to find the gang before they can carry out the robbery. Meanwhile, Martine doesn't tell the gang that she's after the contents of one specific box, and who's put her up to it. The gang soon finds themselves pursued by more than just the cops, and they no longer know who to trust as the entire affair turns far more dangerous than they'd ever anticipated. Burrows plays a bit of a femme fatale here, and it's the best role I've seen her in recently, with decent chemistry between her and Statham (Terry's an old flame of Martine's). Statham's mainly an action guy with a brooding presence, but he does well here. The biggest problem I had with the film is that it starts as more of a fun flick, 'slightly bumbling crew pulls off impressive heist,' but then turns far more violent, including a pretty brutal torture scene. If you can stand that, though, the endgame maneuvering is pretty well-handled.
Get Smart: This innocuous summer flick based on the old TV series benefits from some decent casting and some fun sequences. It's more violent and less silly than the TV show, and the deluge of spy spoofs and action comedies since the original aired hasn't helped the freshness factor. While Don Adams played Maxwell Smart as an often inept agent with unshakeable, undeserved confidence, Carell plays Max as more of a bumbling schlub who tries to cover. For the most part, it works, even if one of the signature gags ("Would ya believe…?") falls surprisingly flat here. But Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway (as Agent 99) have good chemistry, Alan Arkin's line delivery about a swordfish is hilarious, and the supporting geek squad ain't bad. (I also always enjoy seeing D.C. locales.) This doesn't top my recommendations, but it's an okay rental.
Righteous Kill: I wasn't expecting a modern classic like Heat, but boy, was this underwhelming. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino are veteran cops who once planted evidence on a violent criminal after he managed to escape conviction in court. Now someone is picking off various criminals who've escaped legal justice and is leaving little rhymes behind. The culprit seems to be a cop. Members of the department suspect the seasoned and very cranky Tom 'Turk' Cowan (DeNiro). Most of the actors seem to be phoning it in and just tired, although Pacino at least seems to be having a little fun as David 'Rooster' Fisk. The key problem is that Righteous Kill is a gimmick-twist film, and it suffers from the classic flaws of most such films: its reveal is fairly predictable, and the film is less interesting after the reveal. Given that you have DeNiro and Pacino together, the focus should be on them and their relationship. There's some of that, but what's presented is awfully repetitive – Turk bitches about something, Rooster makes a wisecrack; Turk pisses someone off, Rooster tries to smooth it over. Righteous Kill's main virtue is as a showcase for the versatile Carla Gugino, playing the alternately steely and sexy Karen Corelli.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Speaking of disappointments… Most everybody ranked this the third-best Indy film. We've got a lot of affection for our grizzled hero, and it's fun to see him in action again. While he's still tough, it's his craftiness that gives him the edge in most jams here. Shia LaBeouf is normally a fine young actor, but as greaser hothead Mutt Williams, he doesn't seem to have much chemistry with Harrison Ford as Indy. Indy ribbing Mutt also grows old pretty quickly. The problem isn't so much Indy as it is Mutt being a pretty slight, unvaried character. In the era of the film, the Nazis are done, so it's up to the Russians to play the baddies. Cate Blanchett veers so far into camp she gives the only bad performance I've seen from her, as top Soviet operative, Irina Spalko, boasting thighs-of-steel and apparently really crappy telepathic abilities.
As if you didn't see any of this coming, since her name was in the credits… It was nice to Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood again (in Raiders, she's one of the great heroines), but I thought they overdid the banter-while-in-peril between her and Indy. And while I appreciate that she wasn't made just a damsel in distress, there also seemed to be a "what sort of action-y thing can we have her do?" element to some sequences. The film overall is sold as a romp, which is fine, since the series always had a great deal of fun, but its best sequences have always been funny and dramatic and gripping. There's not much suspense in the film, and the fun sorta peters out (maybe less so if you're enjoying all the in-jokes). Indy 4 makes for a great test case for plausibility and suspension of disbelief. Yeah, in earlier installments we've seen deific face-melting and near-immortal knights, but those films gave us grittier-if-outlandish moments earlier on, and wisely saved the most amazing fantasy for the endings. Also, given Indy's archeological focus, ancient divine treasures do actually fit the mythos much better than aliens. We have seen cliffs suddenly appear in the middle of deserts so that evil Nazis could obligingly plummet off them to their deaths with Wilhelm screams, but we haven't seen anyone drive a jeep up a young tree to flip the vehicle into a river chasm. And while the nuclear test sequence is funny and creative on its own, it tells us that reality itself is now a farce, and also provides a stunt that's hard to top. The film's most lasting contribution will probably be adding "nuking the fridge" to the media geek lexicon. For all that, Indy's earned his happy retirement, so thanks for the memories.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Yes, the Star Wars franchise still has luster yet to tarnish. This animated feature was made to launch a new animated series aimed at a younger audience, and takes place between episodes II and III of the film series. Anakin is a skilled rapscallion of a Jedi who exasperates Master Obi-Wan but has not turned over to the Dark Side just yet. They're tasked with rescuing Jabba the Hut's kidnapped infant son. Ah, but there's a wrinkle in that Anakin must also take on an apprentice! You thought that no one could outdo Jar Jar Binks in the annoying category, but once again, Padawan, you underestimated Lucas. Edit Jar Jar out of The Phantom Menace, and the annoyance will rise again, more powerful than before. This time, it's Ahsoka Tano, the "youngling" assigned to Anakin, and while a little more girl power ain't a bad idea for the series, surely they could have done better than junior high's latest Jedi. The banter between Ahsoka and Anakin would be irritating even if it weren't excessive, with their traded "Sky Guy" and "Snips" nicknames merely the most grating feature. The drawing style is very angular, and is sometimes a bit off-putting, at least with Count Dooku (after seeing him in the live action films). But the animation is generally smooth. As with the second trilogy of films, the characters and relationships are the weakest part, but there are a few intentionally funny moments, and some of the action sequences are pretty interesting. If Lucas had to expand his universe, the era depicted is probably the best for it, although I don't know if the subsequent series really adds much to the mythos, having not seen it. You're best off taking this on its own terms or avoiding it.
Prince Caspian: The biggest problem for Prince Caspian is its source material, which isn't as strong as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of the best of the C.S. Lewis Narnia series. The Pevensie children are pulled back to Narnia when Prince Caspian, marked for death by political rivals at the castle, blows a magical horn fabled to summon help. But it's a few centuries later, and Narnia is not as they remembered. They've grown up a bit since, too, and while some of them are ecstatic about returning, others yearn for their teenage lives and the promise of adult life back on Earth. All the kid actors are pretty good here, and Liam Neeson remains a fantastic pick to voice Aslan the lion. Ben Barnes, playing Caspian after also starring in Stardust, has a decent feel for the genre. The evil, heavily-accented humans are less interesting. The wisdom of the talking animals and fantastical creatures seeking to be lead by (more virtuous) humans struck me as a bit questionable. (And how exactly did mere humans, even heavily armed, send magical creatures on the run in the era before the film begins?) Devotees of the series will likely prize this film more, but at 150 minutes, it felt long and disjointed to me – it's an okay flick, but a bit of a placeholder before the next film, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Leatherheads: George Clooney's third feature as a director is a screwball-inspired romp through the 1920s and the early days of professional football, when playing was a part-time gig and the college game was far more popular. Clooney plays Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly, the player-coach of a dying franchise who sets out to recruit aw-shucks war hero and college star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski from The Office). Meanwhile, reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is also after Carter, because his war hero story smells a little too good to be true. Dodge and Lexie vie for Carter, and Carter and Dodge wind up both vying for Lexie. Clooney pays homage to Horse Feathers and other screwball comedies, and has particular fun with some of the prohibition speakeasy scenes, chases and fights. It's not a masterpiece, but it's an enjoyable watch, especially for fans of the genre. Students of football history will appreciate some of the authentic touches. (Lastly, Zellweger isn't bad, but - I hate to say it – during every close-up, I found myself wondering how much plastic surgery she's had done, and whether she could even fully open her slit-like eyes anymore. It's a shame, because that work was always unnecessary.)
Burn After Reading: The Coen Brothers decided to follow up their Oscar-winner with a lighter, off-beat comedy. It's not a classic like Raising Arizona, but it's still entertaining. John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a disgruntled ex-CIA agent writing his memoirs. He accidentally leaves them behind on a disk at the Hardbodies gym, where they're discovered by employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and her airhead sidekick Chad (Brad Pitt). They're convinced it's valuable, bribe-worthy stuff. Meanwhile, Harry (George Clooney) is cheating on his wife with Osbourne's icy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), and several other women. Ted (Richard Jenkins) is smitten with Linda, who's clueless about it, and is obsessed with getting the money to "have her surgeries" to look younger. Almost all the characters are actually pretty obsessed with exercise, physical health and (to a lesser degree) having someone in their lives, but you won't be surprised to learn that their efforts to secure happiness are often self-destructive. What makes Burn After Reading fun is that no one really knows what the hell is going on, and they keep interweaving and colliding with funny (and sometimes violent) results. In the end, it's a pretty dark comedy (hey, it's the Coens), and there's one character who meets a very undeserved fate. But fans of off-beat flicks will really enjoy this one. My favorite element is probably the scenes between J.K. Simmons and David Rasche as two CIA agents trying to untangle everything while trying to avoid saying what they're really talking about. It makes for awkward, absurdist comedy all too appropriate for the Washington, D.C. setting.
Kung Fu Panda: Po the Panda (voiced by Jack Black) is a lazy glutton but obsessed with martial arts and the exploits of the famed Furious Five, the apprentices of Master Shifu at the local temple. Shifu's own master, Oogway, has decided it's time to find the prophesized Dragon Warrior, and all the mightiest warriors including the Five are trying out. Po is desperate to watch, but his adopted father insists he take the noodle cart for sales instead. By a series of comic events, Po makes his way into the demonstration, and Oogway declares him the Dragon Warrior, to the amazement of all, including Po himself. Kung Fu Panda starts with a pretty stock plot, but grows surprisingly good. It starts with plenty of fat jokes, but Shifu soon learns to harness Po's gluttony to positive effect, and Po's physique becomes more a subject of celebration than ridicule. Po gradually wins over Shifu and the Five, who initially resent his presence. But will it all be enough to defeat Shifu's former star apprentice turned to the dark side, the dread Tai Lung (Ian McShane)? King Fu Panda wound up being much better than I expected, and I've met many viewers who felt the same. (Picking Jackie Chan to voice one of the Five is more about the martial arts connection than vocal talent, but it sorta works.) Definitely watch through the elaborate ending credits.
(The Business has a segment on creating the end credits, and you can see them here, although be warned the video will play and can't be paused.)
Mongol: (Released in Russia in 2007, up for a Foreign Language Oscar as a 2007 film, given a limited release in the USA in June 2008.) This Russian film directed by Sergei Bodrov about the early life of Genghis Khan boasts some gorgeous vistas and good battle scenes. Young Temujin (later Genghis Khan) is a chieftain's son who becomes a target of his father's foes. Captured and kept as a slave, they plan to let him live only long enough until he's tall enough for them to murder with clear consciences. Temujin has other plans, though, as well as a few allies, and he escapes, but with his tormentors in hot pursuit. Running across the taiga in a slave's yoke on foot chased by men on horseback isn't the easiest thing. This is one tough kid, who grows up into a very determined man. Mongol suffers a bit from repetiton – Temujin is captured and escapes several times throughout. The love story between him and first wife Börte also smacks of some historical revisionism (given that he had other wives), although according to the historical account he did indeed fight to rescue her when she was kidnapped. The film also captures his charisma, his good judge of character, his unusual generosity to his followers, and his strategic and tactical brilliance at defeating larger and better-equipped armies. The film drags in the 'third quarter,' but is worth a look for those interested in this history and historical epics in general. The film ends as Genghis Khan is just getting started as a world conqueror, and two more films are slotted to be made.
(I'm afraid I still need to catch up on many of the finer details of Mongolian history, but it's always been funny the way the West lauds many of its conquerors yet vilifies Genghis Khan (and often lauds his grandson, Kublai Khan). He certainly wouldn't win any humanitarian awards, but he was extremely innovative, and in some ways, ahead of his time. The Smithsonian did an extensive exhibit several years back on Genghis Khan and the many positive contributions he made to Mongolia – commission of a set of laws, religious tolerance, some introduction of meritocracy, and so on.)
I didn't get a chance to see Valkyrie, Frozen River, Changeling, Let the Right One In, I've Loved You So Long, Gommorah, Departures, Man on Wire, Che, Mamma Mia, Sex and the City, and many others.
Last year's roundup also included a list of more suggestions for the rental queue. Feel free to add any in the comments here.