Scan and Pan
Friday, June 04, 2010
Ex-con Alex (Johannes Krisch) works as a bouncer in a Vienna brothel, where he carries on a secret romance with Ukrainian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko). He wants to take her away to Ibiza, so he plans a bank robbery to fund their escape together. The robbery goes tragically awry, and small town policeman Robert (Andreas Lust) and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss) are sucked into its wake.
Writer/director Götz Spielmann spins a sublime tale of tragedy, guilt, revenge, and forgiveness, while exploring the theme of responsibility and loss creating a potential space for growth. He takes an approach that can best be described as minimalist. Dialogue is sparse, and much of the film plays out slowly and quietly in longer takes, contrasting the profit-driven big city with the cooperation of the natural world, as well as a criminal and a policeman both burdened by overwhelming guilt. The simplicity and glacial pacing could doom a lesser filmmaker, but Spielmann successfully forges a compelling drama out of those elements.
From the grittiness of Vienna to the dignified grace of the rural Austrian landscape, the naturalistic 16mm cinematography of Martin Gschlacht is deceptively understated yet strikingly beautiful. Production designer Maria Gruber creates an equally naturalistic atmosphere with her sets. As part of Spielmann's mimimalist approach, there's no musical score, only some diegetic music in certain scenes.
Johannes Krisch makes an impact as Alex, portraying him as a complex, conflicted man who shows that he can be more than just a hardened criminal, but who must ultimately come to terms with his responsibility for the tragic events in order to move on. Irina Potapenko is believable as Tamara, detailing the soul killing nature of her work and how it contrasts with her relationship with Alex, without descending into the usual clichés of such a role. Andreas Lust and Ursula Strauss both deliver quite good performances as the guilt-ridden policeman and his caring but frustrated wife. Solid performances also come from Hannes Thanheiser as Alex's grandfather and Hanno Pöschl as the sleazy brothel owner.
Revanche isn't a film for everyone. Although it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, I dare say it's one of those films that you'll either love or hate. I didn't know what I thought at first, but once the end titles rolled, I realized I had been under its spell all along and it left me with much food for thought. Count me in the 'love it' camp.
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
The US Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection features a stunning transfer, full of subtle detail and even striking depth of image at times.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel across the landscape of post-apocalyptic America, a world of barren wastelands, dying forests, dead wildlife, abandoned cities, and gangs of roving cannibals. The man is determined to head as far south on the east coast as he can, with the hope of finding something better.
Music video director turned film director John Hillcoat (To Have & to Hold, The Proposition) creates an unusually intelligent post-apocalyptic drama. It's an impressively visual film, yet the images exist only to illuminate the story's world. Not once do they distract the viewer from the subtle character drama at the heart of the film. Hillcoat expertly uses the camera to tell the story in a series of vignettes as the man and his son travel across the landscape. In some ways, it can almost be described as a Biblical narrative. There's an intensity flowing throughout the film that captures you and draws you in as if you were hypnotized.
Having never read Cormac McCarthy's novel, I can't reliably say just how faithful the screenplay by Joe Penhall (Some Voices, Enduring Love) is to it, but from the plot described on Wikipedia it sounds like it's at least broadly faithful to it. A major theme explored in the film is keeping one's humanity in the most inhumane of situations. How does one stay human when mere survival is a miracle and others descend into monstrous brutality? As bleak as the story is, it carries within it the fire of what it means to be human. Although we never learn what triggered the apocalypse, clues can be interpreted as either nuclear war or perhaps a comet strike, but the ambiguity suits the story.
The imaginative but very believable world of The Road is brought to life by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Twilight Saga: New Moon), production designer Chris Kennedy (To Have & to Hold, The Proposition), costume designer Margot Wilson (The Thin Red Line, The Proposition), the visual effects teams, and the digital colorists. There's not a single wrong note in the look of the production, and the visual effects are entirely seamless.
The overcast skies and monochromatic color scheme conspire to cast a constant gloom on the screen, while the sets (including shooting locations in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oregon, and Washington State) and costumes look lived in rather than artificial. The minimalist score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (the Australian musician, not the British writer) matches the tone of the story while lurking in the background.
The cast is brilliant. Viggo Mortensen delivers a searing performance as a man who's lost his world and the woman he loves, yet struggles to survive so he can protect the most precious thing he has left, his son. Mortensen is one of those actors who doesn't seem to have a bad performance in him, and he speaks volumes here with his eyes and facial expressions. Kodi Smit-McPhee is a find as his son. It's usually asking a lot for a child actor to carry a major role in a serious, bleak even, drama. Smit-McPhee does it. He's believable, dramatic yet understated, and completely sells you on being wise beyond his years in refusing to surrender his humanity.
The stellar cast also includes Charlize Theron as the wife and mother of the two main characters, an unrecognizable Robert Duvall as an old man they meet on the road, Michael Kenneth Williams as a thief, Garret Dillahunt as a member of a cannibal gang, Guy Pearce as a character described in some places as the Veteran, and Molly Parker as the Veteran's wife.
The Road is an outstanding drama. It has a lot to say about the human condition, while being graced with some fine performances and a believable post-apocalyptic environment. It will linger with you long after the final credits roll.
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
The Blu-ray sports a very good transfer with a high amount of fine detail and a subtle but healthy grain structure, providing a rich, film-like quality.
Labels: the road
Monday, July 06, 2009
It's a big dumb action movie, but as big dumb action movies go, it's reasonably entertaining.
Two years after the events of the first film, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is off to college, leaving behind girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), parents Ron and Judy (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), and his Autobot Bumblebee, but college brings him an eventual ally in conspiracy theory-obsessed fellow student Leo (Ramón Rodríguez). Meanwhile, an ancient rogue Prime known as the Fallen (voice of Tony Todd) is plotting revenge on the human race, leading to the resurrection of his apprentice, Megatron (voice of Hugo Weaving). Can Sam and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) save the day once again?
Director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers) is never going to be mistaken for a great filmmaker, but he's a master of big dumb action movie spectacle. And, no, that's not really a slight in this case. If you want to make a film like this and do it well on the level intended, Bay is the director you want behind the camera. He delivers mayhem and action with conviction, and few directors have his eye for sheer spectacle. I don't understand why the same critics who rave about J.J. Abrams for his direction of Star Trek pan Bay for this film. I think Bay made the better of the two films. I'm sure quite a few people will take exception to that statement, but I stand by it.
The screenplay by Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Brothers Grimm) and writing team Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek) blends up high octane action, low humor, and a high stakes plot into a mostly satisfying whole, although not as successfully as the first film. I'm not even going to try to defend it as good writing, but it's certainly fun to watch it unfold on the screen. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and two young people are in love. On that level, it's actually part of the long tradition of Hollywood hokum.
It must also be said that the film contains the worst ethnic caricatures in a genre film since Jar Jar Binks and Watto in Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace. The scenes with the characters Mudflap and Skids are truly cringeworthy. Did no one involved in the making of this film, including executive producer Steven Spielberg, see these scenes and think there might be something offensive in them? Unbelievable. Note to filmmakers: applying ethnic caricatures to CG aliens or CG robots doesn't make them any less offensive.
Some have criticized the film for being too long at two and a half hours. If I have one complaint, it's the ending of the film is so damned unsatisfying, mainly because it doesn't resolve a major conflict but instead leaves it to be resolved in a third film (much as the second Pirates of the Caribbean film did). The film really doesn't feel that long until you get to the end and realize that it's all been a set up for another sequel. Then it suddenly feels longer.
I saw the film on an IMAX screen, which was worth it. Three action scenes were specially filmed in IMAX, and it's noticeable when the image suddenly fills the entire screen and becomes so much sharper.
Whatever else one can say about a Michael Bay film, they're always made with a high level of visual and technical skill, and this holds true here with the contributions of cinematographer Ben Seresin (A Good Woman), production designer Nigel Phelps (Alien Resurrection, Transformers), and costume designer Deborah L. Scott (Titanic, Transformers). Everything is as polished as one would expect.
Composer Steve Jablonsky (Transformers, Friday the 13th) layers on the bombast with a trowel, which certainly is a good fit with the tone of the production as a whole. Visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Transformers) has a bigger effects budget and more effects heavy scenes this time, and responds with seamless and compelling effects that carry the film.
Shia LaBeouf has established himself as the kind of action hero who resorts more to brains than to brawn but can still handle himself when the action begins, while also being photogenic and possessing a certain geeky charm. Once again he's called upon to add the human element to an action and effects heavy film, and once again he succeeds. Megan Fox is the drop dead gorgeous love interest, and playing drop dead gorgeous is so very easy for her, but it's her chemistry with LaBeouf that makes the romance between a geek and a grease monkey beauty seem believable. I think she's on her way to being a star, and hopefully she'll get some roles that allow her an opportunity to stretch her acting muscles. Ramón Rodríguez is the comic relief character who helps the hero and heroine, and he handles the role capably. I actually wanted to see more of his character.
The rest of the cast is solid across the board, including Josh Duhamel as Major Lennox, Tyrese Gibson as Sergeant Epps, John Turturro as former Sector 7 agent Seymour Simmons, Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam's parents, John Benjamin Hickey as the National Security Advisor, 24's Glenn Morshower as General Morshower (a character named for him, and he also played a different character in the first film), Isabel Lucas as a co-ed who shows a strong interest in Sam, and Rainn Wilson as a sleazy physics professor.
The voice cast shines in bringing Autobots and Decepticons to life, including Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, Tony Todd as the Fallen, Hugo Weaving as Megatron, Jess Harnell as Ironhide, Robert Foxworth as Ratchet, Mark Ryan as Jetfire, Grey DeLisle as Arcee, André Sogliuzzo as Sideswipe, Tom Kenny as Wheelie, Michael York as one of the Dynasty of Primes, Charlie Adler as Starscream, and Frank Welker as Soundwave.
Turning one's brain off every now and then isn't an entirely bad thing. In exchange, you get giant robots, explosions, Shia LaBeouf, and Megan Fox. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn't as good as its predecessor, but anyone who enjoyed the first film should enjoy this one, too.
[3.5 out of 5 stars]
Monday, May 25, 2009
The fourth film in the Terminator franchise may not be on the same level as the first two directed by James Cameron, but it's miles above the weak third film and actually feels like a legitimate follow-up to Cameron's films and ideas.
Fourteen years after the nuclear apocalypse of Judgment Day when Skynet launched its attack on the human race, John Connor (Christian Bale) is a member of the resistance, but not yet the leader of it, when he becomes part of a mission that could destroy Skynet for good. He also learns that Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the young man who in eleven years will go back in time and become his father, is being targeted for termination by Skynet. Meanwhile, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), whose last memory is of being on death row fifteen years earlier, wanders into the wasteland of Los Angeles and is rescued by Reese, and after hearing an inspiring radio broadcast from Connor they decide to find him and join his group.
On first glance at his resume, director McG (numerous music videos, Charlie's Angels, We Are Marshall) may not have appeared to be the ideal choice to direct a mega-budget serious science fiction action film, but he proves to be more than up to the task, showing a steady hand with both the action scenes and the actors. His efficient storytelling keeps the film moving ahead at a good pace, but unlike some other recent genre films it never feels like it's merely rushing from one action scene to another, but instead takes some time for exploring the main characters and the themes of the story.
The screenplay is credited to writing team John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Catwoman), but also includes uncredited revisions by Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight), Paul Haggis (Casino Royale), The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, and CSI: Las Vegas creator Anthony E. Zuiker. The film is both a sequel and a prequel, and a few small plot holes aside, the story is solidly constructed. While there's nothing really surprising about where the story takes us, it does a good job of advancing the overall story arc of the franchise and some of the humanistic themes found in the second film, but while the main characters are capably written, the secondary characters seem underdeveloped.
The film owes its distinctive look to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (Drumline, We Are Marshall), who uses harsh lighting and the bleach bypass process to visually construct a post-apocalyptic future that looks hard and monochromatic, and production designer Martin Laing (Ghosts of the Abyss, City of Ember) and costumer designer Michael Wilkinson (300, Watchmen) further add to that effect with their sets and costumes. The overall feel is more credible than fantastic. Composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Spider-Man) contributes one of his typically Wagnerian scores while also incorporating Brad Fiedel's theme from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) capably oversees the work of several effects studios to create top of the line effects that seamlessly fit into the style of the production. The late Stan Winston, who provided the animatronic and makeup effects for the previous three films, died during production, but his studio completed their work on the film supervised by John Rosengrant (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Iron Man).
Christian Bale steps into the role played by Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the woefully miscast Nick Stahl in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, making it fully his own. Bale's made a career of playing obsessed, psychologically scarred characters, and count this as another successful role in that vein. Bale brings some dramatic weight to the role, allowing us for the first time to really see John Connor as a hardened resistance fighter who inspires people to follow him.
Sam Worthington is a good counterpoint to Bale as a death row inmate who awakens in possibly an even worse situation, and then must find his place in a changed world where he's apparently been given a second chance. Anton Yelchin portrays the younger version of the character played by Michael Biehn in the original Terminator, and much as he did as the young Chekov in the new Star Trek, he successfully re-creates a known character at a younger age that reflects the original actor's performance while making it his own.
While the film lacks a paragon of physical feminism like Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor, Moon Bloodgood is credible enough as resistance fighter Blair Williams, minus one scene which can only be blamed on the writers. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces Claire Danes as Kate, a character introduced in the third film and now Connor's wife, and although she has limited screen time, she radiates a quiet strength that redeems how the character was portrayed in the previous film.
The rest of the cast is generally effective, including Common as Connor's right hand man Barnes, Helena Bonham Carter as a dying scientist whose research and experiments pioneer the Terminator cyborgs, Jadagrace Berry as an orphaned child named Star in Reese's care, Michael Ironside as the leader of the resistance movement, and Jane Alexander as a compassionate woman who aids Marcus, Reese, and Star. Linda Hamilton has a voice cameo as Sarah Connor in recorded messages her son listens to. Roland Kickinger plays a T-800 Terminator, the same model played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the previous films, and Kickinger is digitally manipulated to look like Schwarzenegger.
I went in with low expectations due to the mediocre third film and television series (which actually takes place in a different continuity than the later films), but I came out feeling that the Terminator franchise has been redeemed. Terminator Salvation isn't the classic the first two films were, but it's a good film that successfully continues their story and themes into a new era without rebooting everything that came before or significantly dumbing down. It's easily the best summer movie of 2009 so far.
[4 out of 5 stars]
Sunday, May 03, 2009
X-Men Origins: Wolverine - While not without its flaws, this film is an entertaining action-oriented prequel to the X-Men films, featuring the most popular X-Man, Wolverine.
Beginning in 1845 and ending in 1979, the film explores the backstory of mutant superhero Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his relationship with his older half-brother Victor aka the future supervillain Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), and their involvement in the Team X black ops squad created by Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston).
Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) gets as much as he can out of the script with several well-conceived big action set pieces and capable performances from the main cast. There were reportedly major disputes between Hood and studio executives about the tone and direction of the film, and executive producer Richard Donner (director of Superman: The Movie) spent time on the set to smooth over the tensions. The creative differences may explain the uneven tone of the finished film, but Hood still proves capable of delivering exciting action scenes that fans will enjoy.
The screenplay by David Benioff (Troy, The Kite Runner) and Skip Woods (Swordfish, Hitman), while faithful in broad strokes to the character's comic origin, suffers from rushing from one action scene to another while leaving characters and sub-plots undeveloped. Benioff's original draft had some good buzz attached to it and was reportedly more character driven, so the contributions of Woods and three other uncredited writers may represent what the studio wanted more than what the director wanted. It's satisfactory as far as summer action flicks go, but there was room to do much more. Still, it's not the disaster that X-Men: The Last Stand was.
The productions values are high, with contributions by cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), production designer Barry Robison (Rendition, Nim's Island), costume designer Louise Mingenbach (X-Men, X2: X-Men United), and composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) leading the way. The CG visual effects are good and effectively add to the action scenes.
What really makes the film work are the performances of Jackman and Schreiber, both individually and together, providing some depth lacking in the script. Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine through four films has been iconic, and this has been true even when the scripts were lacking, and he carries this film with grit and determination. Schreiber delivers the goods as Victor, so alike his brother in some ways but also so very different. Where Wolverine struggles to control his dark side, Victor embraces his. I would have liked more screen time devoted to the dualism of these two characters and their relationship.
The rest of the cast is adequate to the task at hand, including Huston as Stryker (an older version of the character was played by Brian Cox in X2), Black Eyed Peas' singer will.i.am as John Wraith, Lynn Collins as Kayla Silverfox, Kevin Durand as the Blob, Dominic Monaghan as Bolt, Taylor Kitsch as Gambit (although his Cajun accent is weak), Daniel Henney as Agent Zero, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, Scott Adkins as Weapon XI, Tim Pocock as a teenaged Scott Summers (the future superhero Cyclops), Max Cullen and Julia Blake as an elderly couple who help Wolverine, Troye Sivan and Michael-James Olsen as young Wolverine and young Victor, and Tahyna Tozzi as Kayla's sister Emma (possibly Emma Frost). There's also a fun cameo that I don't want to spoil for anyone, but fans should love it.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine sacrifices character development and plot coherence for action, but despite its flaws it manages to be an entertaining start to the summer film season. If you like Wolverine and you like action, this film should satisfy you.
[3.5 out of 5 stars]
Sunday, March 08, 2009
Watchmen - A graphic novel once labeled "unfilmable" finally arrives on the big screen. The result is breathtakingly good. It's not quite another Dark Knight, but it's easily one of the best films ever produced in the superhero genre.
In 1986-87, DC Comics published a twelve-issue comic book series called Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Later collected as a graphic novel, this series was a revolutionary and sophisticated take on superheroes with a heavy dose of social commentary. It also became the only graphic novel to be included on TIME Magazine's 2005 list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present." After several attempts to adapt it into a film by directors including Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), and Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) all collapsed, it looked like it would never get produced. It was worth the wait.
After a retired superhero known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes that there's a conspiracy to eliminate costumed heroes, and soon the other retired Watchmen--Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode)--become involved as events begin to spiral out of control, threatening the entire planet.
Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) proves his critics wrong, myself included, by successfully translating difficult source material into such a strong film. He's always been a talented visual stylist, so it's no surprise that by using Dave Gibbons' art as a blueprint, Snyder has quite literally and vividly brought the world of Watchmen to life, allowing fans of the graphic novel to feel like they've stepped inside them. He transforms each action scene into a slow motion ballet of carnage, and the opening credits montage that reveals the backstory is brilliantly executed. What's surprising, at least to me, is that after 300's cardboard story and woeful acting, Snyder manages to tell a compelling story with good performances. Perhaps it's simply a case of rising to the level of the material he's working with.
The screenplay by David Hayter (X-Men, X2: X-Men United) and Alex Tse (Sucker Free City), with uncredited revisions by the team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek), is largely faithful to the source material except for certain events at the end, but it's really only the method by which those events occur that has been changed rather than the events and their repercussions. The story that unfolds on the screen isn't as deep as in the graphic novel, but the social commentary in Alan Moore's works have always fared better on the printed page (see the film adaptation of V for Vendetta as another example). Still, the screenwriters deserve much credit for distilling such a complex tale into a two hour and forty-two minute film without losing the essence of the story or its characters, allowing it to be enjoyed by both fans of the graphic novel and a mainstream film audience. A three hour and ten minute director's cut will eventually be released on DVD.
The contributions of cinematographer Larry Fong (Lost, 300), production designer Alex McDowell (The Crow, Fight Club), and costumer designer Michael Wilkinson (Babel, 300) are very important to realizing the story's world on the screen. Fong's bold use of color and lighting achieves the dramatic effect required, McDowell's sets convey a sense of the real world with a twist in some scenes and a sense of the fantastic in others, and Wilkinson's costumes, designed with an assist by comic book artists Adam Hughes and John Cassaday, look quite convincing on the screen. The sweeping score by Tyler Bates (The Devil's Rejects, 300) captures the changing moods of the story, punctuated by several perfect songs (some of which were actually referenced in the graphic novel). The visual effects are outstanding, but rarely drown out the human aspects of the story.
Former child actor Haley (The Bad News Bears) dominates the film with his visceral and frightening performance as Rorschach. Crudup is chillingly aloof as Doctor Manhattan, a man transformed into a cosmic being and who seems to have lost his humanity, conveying so much through body language and subtle facial expressions. Wilson is a very believable Nite Owl, while former model Akerman is respectably solid as Silk Spectre. The Comedian is a nasty piece of work who, like many such people, is also superficially charming, and Morgan captures that perfectly. Although Goode isn't a match for how Ozymandias was portrayed in the comics, he's well-suited to the role of an arrogant genius for whom the ends justify the means.
The rest of the cast is solid, including Carla Gugino as the original Silk Spectre, Matt Frewer as retired villain Moloch, Stephen McHattie as the retired original Nite Owl, Robert Wisden as President Nixon, Frank Novak as Henry Kissinger, Danny Woodburn as Big Figure, and Eli Snyder (the director's son) as a young Rorschach.
Watchmen the film lacks some of the complexity of Watchmen the graphic novel, but I suspect the former comes as close as possible to realizing the latter on screen as one could hope for. As a film, it's excellent, offering a compelling story, quality acting, incredible visuals, and a visceral experience. Highly recommended. I watched it on an IMAX screen. If you have an opportunity to see it in IMAX, I recommend it.
Note to parents: yes, I know it's based on a comic book and has costumed heroes, but Watchmen has an R rating for a very good reason. The film has graphic violence, profanity, nudity, extended sex scenes, and a violent attempted rape. Be aware of this before deciding to take your children to see it.
[4.5 stars out of 5]
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Overall, this is an entertaining sequel to Casino Royale, the 2006 reboot of the venerable James Bond film franchise.
British superspy James Bond (Daniel Craig) seeks revenge on those responsible for the death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, namely the shadowy organization Quantum (similar to SPECTRE in the early films) and one of its leaders, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). This course of action also brings 007 into conflict with his boss M (Judi Dench) and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), as Bond's mission of vengeance threatens the interests of both the American and the British governments.
Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) seems to be influenced by the successful Bourne films in the frenetic shooting style he uses here, and for the most part it works well for creating an exciting, action-based Bond film for the 21st century, although his overuse of ShakyCam renders some scenes confusing and hard to watch. He continues the grittier feel began in the previous film, and also includes a nice visual homage to 1964's Goldfinger in one scene. Thanks to his efficiency as a director, Quantum of Solace clocks in as the shortest Bond film on record at 106 minutes. The film also redefines the meaning of the word globetrotting.
The screenplay by Paul Haggis (Crash, Casino Royale), the team of Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale), and the uncredited Forster, producer Michael G. Wilson (writer or co-writer of all five Bond films produced in the 1980s), and Joshua Zetumer results in a smart and compact action film that continues to re-build the Bond character after the Casino Royale reboot (described by some as Bond Begins) while making a 46-year-old franchise seem relevant again. The more cooly ruthless portrayal of the main character moves the franchise back toward creator Ian Fleming's novels, even as the dialogue-light, action-heavy story is thoroughly contemporary.
I recently re-watched one of the best Bond films ever, 1963's From Russia with Love, which seems almost sedentary when compared to the pace of Quantum of Solace. Pacing aside, it's nice to see the rebooted films bringing back some of the classic elements of the franchise. Casino Royale waited until the end credits to use Monty Norman's classic "James Bond Theme", while this film waits until the end credits to bring back the classic gun barrel sequence.
Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland), production designer Dennis Gassner (Field of Dreams, The Golden Compass), and costume designer Louise Frogley (Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana) contribute high production values to the film. Schaefer's hard but stylish lighting sets the tone for the entire film, while Gassner adds to the list of memorable sets created for Bond films.
Composer David Arnold, who's worked on five straight Bond films dating back to 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, provides a thrilling score while making appropriate use of the "James Bond Theme" (used more than in Casino Royale, but far less than in the pre-reboot films). The theme song "Another Way to Die" performed by Jack White (from the band The White Stripes) and Alicia Keys is seductively catchy, perfectly complementing the eye-catching main title sequence created by visual effects company MK12.
In his second outing as 007, Craig once again proves highly capable of playing the character and making him seem real, and shows why he's easily the best Bond since Sean Connery put away his Walther PPK. Craig's Bond is serious, driven, and a bit of an emotional wreck, but slowly we see him becoming the smooth spy we all know without losing the nuances Craig brings to the role.
Noted French actor Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is good as the latest Bond villain, more low-key than past villains but still a compelling character. Dench continues to be a strong presence as M, while Wright's second turn as Leiter is effective despite limited screen time.
Forster is a good director of actors and gets effective performances out of the cast as a whole, including Ukrainian model Olga Kurylenko as latest Bond girl Camille Montes, Giancarlo Giannini as retired MI6 agent René Mathis, Gemma Arterton as secondary Bond girl MI6 agent Strawberry Fields, David Harbour as CIA section chief Gregg Beam, Jesper Christensen as Quantum's Mr. White (one of the villains in the previous film), Anatole Taubman as Greene's henchman Elvis, Rory Kinnear as M's chief of staff Bill Tanner, Tim Pigott-Smith as the British Foreign Minister, Joaquín Cosio as General Medrano, Fernando Guillén Cuervo as a corrupt Bolivian police colonel, Glenn Foster as M's bodyguard Craig Mitchell, and Oona Chaplin (Charlie's granddaughter) as a hotel receptionist who catches the eye of Medrano. Noted directors Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) provide voices in several scenes.
Quantum of Solace isn't quite as good as Casino Royale, but it's still a worthy sequel and immediately ranks among the better 007 films. After 46 years and 22 films, no one still does it better than Bond, James Bond.
[4 out of 5 stars]
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
It's rare that a film lives up to all the hype, but in the hands of director Christopher Nolan and a brilliant cast, this one does.
One year after the events of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale), honest cop Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are putting the squeeze on Gotham City's crime bosses. Just when it appears that they may be winning the war on organized crime, a sociopathic agent of chaos called the Joker (Heath Ledger) begins to terrorize the city with his own twisted propaganda of the deed.
Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige) proved with the previous film that he could craft intense action scenes and intense performances without skipping a beat. In his second journey into the shadows of Gotham City, Nolan turns the intensity dial up to 11 to deliver what may be the best superhero film ever made. It's certainly the darkest one, and despite the PG-13 rating in the US, one of the most violent. It's not a perfect film, but it comes close.
Screenwriters Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan (Memento, The Prestige), and David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins) take the conflict between a dark hero and an even darker villain to almost Shakespearean heights. By not providing a definitive origin for the Joker or explaining his madness, they create a character who remains a frightening enigma. This is the Joker the way he should be, the twisted opposite of an emotionally scarred hero.
Cinematographer Wally Pfister (Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige), production designer Nathan Crowley (Batman Begins, The Prestige), and costume designer Lindy Hemming (Batman Begins, Casino Royale) render an environment that seems part of our real world while also suggesting the twisted emotional terrain that gave birth to both Batman and the Joker. Reflecting the main character's war on crime, Gotham City looks cleaner and more prosperous than in the previous film. The musical score by James Newton Howard (Batman Begins, King Kong) and Hans Zimmer (Batman Begins, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) is a dark, swirling mass of sound that captures the contradictions of Gotham City and its Dark Knight.
Bale once again brings substance to his portrayal of socialite Bruce Wayne and his obsessed vigilante alter ego, remaining the definitive Batman of film or television. What can one really say about the late Ledger's performance as the Joker except that it's brilliant. His Joker creates an indelible impression upon the screen. This isn't Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson. This is a raw, messy, stark raving mad tour de force of a performance, to the point where Ledger ceases to exist and only the Joker remains. Eckhart gives a strong performance as the idealistic Harvey Dent, Gotham City's Light Knight to Batman's Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne's romantic rival, and his performance only gets better after he's victimized by the Joker's campaign of terror.
The rest of the cast is strong across the board, including Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins), Oldman as Lt. Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox, Monique Gabriela Curnen as Detective Anna Ramirez, Chin Han as crime gang accountant Lau, Nestor Carbonell as Gotham City's Mayor, Eric Roberts as crime boss Sal Maroni, Anthony Michael Hall as reporter Mike Engel, Keith Szarabajka as Detective Gerard Stephens, Colin McFarlane as Police Commissioner Loeb, Melinda McGraw and Nathan Gamble as Gordon's wife and son, Doug Ballard as a businessman and Tiny Lister as a prison inmate who have key roles in stopping one of the Joker's plans, and Cillian Murphy briefly reprising his role as the Scarecrow.
The Dark Knight is a masterpiece in a genre where action and visuals are too often stronger than writing or acting. Everything about this film is high quality, and it serves as an enduring testament to the talent of the late Heath Ledger. Highly recommended.
[5 out of 5 stars]
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
It would have been asking too much to expect this film to recapture the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or the B-movie thrills of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), but it gives it a good try and manages to at least achieve a similar level of entertainment value as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which it resembles both in theme and tone.
1957. Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) is kidnapped by Soviet agents led by the icy Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) to help them locate a missing artifact they believe will give them military superiority. Although he escapes their clutches, the adventure is hardly over for Indy once the young motorcycle-riding greaser Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who claims to be the son of a woman named Marion (Karen Allen) who once knew Indy, informs him that his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt) went missing in Peru after finding a mysterious crystal skull. Indy and Mutt head for South America, where they find danger and some surprising revelations waiting for them.
Director Steven Spielberg is called upon to adopt a shooting style he largely abandoned after the previous Indiana Jones film in 1989, and for the most part he succeeds in recapturing it. The film does suffer from some pacing issues and some bloat, but for a fourth entry in a nearly three decade old film franchise, it has to be judged a success. Spielberg has certainly grown immensely as a filmmaker since 1989, and it's perhaps for this reason that he can't entirely recapture his old touch for pulp adventures. Although executive producer George Lucas prefers his productions to be shot digitally now, Spielberg wisely shot on film to keep the production's look consistent with its predecessors.
The screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man), based on a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, Rush Hour 3), is solidly constructed if formulaic. Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan returns to polish up some of the dialog, but receives no on-screen credit. Many plot elements can be traced back to the unproduced Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men script by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive) from 1995, which was also based on a Lucas story, although Stuart also goes uncredited. It doesn't fail to let us know what life has been like for Indy since the last film, or what happened to his father and Marcus Brody.
The story is set in the 1950s, reflecting both the pop culture and the paranoia of the times, when even a decorated war hero like Indiana Jones could be suspected of disloyalty. While all the films have had a good amount of humor in them, this one often goes the furthest toward being an outright comedy. Some of it works, some of it doesn't, but it's consistent with the direction the franchise started taking with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Critics have complained about the film's science fiction elements, but they fit what's essentially a 1950s pulp story and don't require any more suspension of disbelief than angry spirits, magic stones, or centuries-old knights guarding the Holy Grail.
Douglas Slocombe, the cinematographer of the first three films, retired after the previous one, so the task fell to frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) to successfully recreate Slocombe's style, which he does quite well. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (X2, Superman Returns) and costume designers Bernie Pollack (Rain Man) and Mary Zophres (Catch Me If You Can) very effectively create sets and costumes that reflect the period as well as the more fantastic elements of the story. John Williams provides an appropriate score, and his famous "Raiders March" is still a thrilling theme for the exploits of Indiana Jones.
Although some have criticized the film for using so many CGI effects, Industrial Light & Magic is up to its usual high standard of work in creating those effects. The stunts were performed the old fashioned way with CGI used only to remove wires and other mechanical effects equipment from shots, and I think that's the most important thing here, the old school stuntwork.
Ford easily slips back into the familiar fedora without a hitch after almost two decades away from the role, and now Indy is older and a little wiser, but still someone who enjoys a good adventure. Following his lead role in Transformers last year, LaBeouf gives an adept performance as Indy's greaser sidekick and the son of Indy's Raiders love interest Marion Ravenwood, and it's a delight to see Allen return to the role of Marion, as her spirited presence was sorely missed in the other sequels. Blanchett is spot on as the coldhearted Soviet agent, reminding one of a classic James Bond antagonist.
The rest of the effective cast includes Hurt as Indy's old friend, Ray Winstone as Indy's fellow adventurer Mac, Jim Broadbent as the Dean of the college Indy teaches at (essentially taking the place of the late Denholm Elliott's Marcus Brody), Igor Jijikine as KGB Colonel Dovchenko, and Alan Dale as US General Ross.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an entertaining and affectionate production with nods toward all three of the previous films and television's The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. It works as a nostalgic two hours spent with an old friend who's a little past his prime but still has one last hurrah left in him. Thanks for four entertaining films, Indy!
[3.5 out of 5 stars]
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
I re-watched Starship Troopers last night. Although it has a poor reputation in some quarters, I think director Paul Verhoeven created a shockingly good film if you understand that it's actually an ultraviolent black comedy that satirizes the unreflective militarism of Robert Heinlein's novel. It's deliberately over the top as it takes aim at militarism, authoritarianism, and media propaganda, and it's more complex than it appears to be if you view it simply as a sci fi action film, although it certainly delivers some impressive action scenes to complement the satire. Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier previously collaborated on the similarly satirical RoboCop. Starship Troopers is less immediately accessible in some ways than RoboCop, but it's just as good.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I re-watched a couple of my favorite films last night. If a film is ranked among my favorites, I never get tired of seeing it again and again.
First was 1983's Videodrome, directed by David Cronenberg, and starring James Woods and Debbie Harry. Like most of Cronenberg's earlier films, it's a cult classic that deals with physical transformation, the nature of reality, and systems of control. It's brilliant and bizarre, and after seeing it too many times to count, I'm still not entirely sure what it's really about. Woods' performance is one of the film's strengths, and Harry's charged portrayal of a woman turned on by pain is erotic.
Then it was 1964's A Hard Day's Night, the first film starring the Beatles. Looking back to the Marx Brothers and The Goon Show and forward to Monty Python's Flying Circus and music videos, it's a hilarious farce told cinema-verité style by director Richard Lester and blessed with musical performances by the Fab Four. For musicians with no previous acting experience, John, Paul, George, and Ringo capably handle that side of things and their rough edges actually work in the film's favor. Ringo, especially, displays a goofy charm that steals the spotlight several times.
I also watched part of a horror film on cable called Black Dahlia that was so bad it made Uwe Boll's films look like Citizen Kane. Seriously. I just had to stop watching it after about ten minutes. I couldn't even finish it so I could write a proper review. It was directed by Boll's countryman, Ulli Lommel. If a film's bad enough to make Boll's films look good, it should be banned as a crime against humanity.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
I re-watched the first three Indiana Jones films. They're still great fun, and I find that my overall ratings of them haven't changed at all.
Raiders of the Lost Ark - 4.5 out of 5 stars
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - 4 out of 5 stars
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - 3.5 out of 5 stars
That's right, I rate Temple of Doom higher than Last Crusade. Temple of Doom is the underrated film in the series. It's not quite as good as Raiders, but in many ways it's the truest to the spirit of the old movie serials that inspired the Indiana Jones series in the first place. Those serials were basically exploitation films, and Temple of Doom gets that in a big way.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
The second film based on C.S. Lewis's series of novels isn't as smoothly realized as its predecessor, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it still offers a good amount of entertainment value.
The four English children (Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell) who became rulers of Narnia in the previous film are called back after 1,300 years have passed there to aid Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) in overthrowing his evil uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), and restoring freedom to Narnia.
Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) once again proves capable of bringing the world of Narnia to life and his background in visual effects (he supervised the effects for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin) still serves him well. However, his sense of pacing frequently deserts him this time around, delivering a film that wanders aimlessly at times and has abrupt scene transitions at others. Even though it's two hours and twenty minutes long, it feels like it was intended to be a much longer film but was reduced to a shorter running time. Editor Sim Evan-Jones (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) certainly deserves a share of the blame for the pacing problems.
Adamson and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both of whom worked on the previous film) make more changes to Lewis' novel than the last film did. The rivalry between Peter and Caspian, and the romance between Susan and Caspian, are unnecessary additions. The spectacle overtakes the story just a bit here in trying to make a bigger film. Still, it's a solid adaptation overall.
Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (Stargate, Independence Day), production designer Roger Ford (Babe, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), and costume designer Isis Mussenden (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) do a good job of building on the visual look of the previous film. It's still not quite up to the standards set by The Lord of the Rings, though. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is suitable to the story. The visual effects are outstanding, and the CGI looks smoother and more realistic this time.
Henley, Keynes, Moseley, and Popplewell again bring the characters of the children to life quite convincingly. Barnes is slightly wooden as Caspian, but still adequate to the tasks at hand. Castellitto is convincing as the villain of the piece. I've always enjoyed the performances of actor Peter Dinklage (Threshold, Penelope), and it's no exception here where he plays Trumpkin the dwarf. Eddie Izzard is marvelous as the voice of Reepicheep the swashbuckling mouse. Liam Neeson's voice work as Aslan is again right on the money. Although not strictly faithful to the novel it's fun to see Tilda Swinton return as the White Witch for a cameo appearance.
The rest of the cast is solid across the board, including Pierfrancesco Favino as Miraz's military commander, Damián Alcázar as the scheming Lord Sopespian, Vincent Grass as Dr. Cornelius, Warwick Davis as Nikabrik the dwarf, and Ken Stott as the voice of Trufflehunter the badger.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian has more flaws than its predecessor, but it's still an above average fantasy film that children and fans of the novel should enjoy. The third film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is in pre-production and may benefit from a different director in Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist, The World Is Not Enough).
[3.5 out of 5 stars]
Thursday, May 08, 2008
The golden age of films derived from comic books continues with a production that immediately vaults into the category of the best superhero films.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a billionaire playboy and a brilliant engineer. While in Afghanistan to demonstrate his new weapons system to American military brass, including his old friend Lt. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark is severely wounded during an attack on his military convoy and is taken hostage by the Ten Rings terrorist group and their leader Raza (Faran Tahir), who wants Stark to build a weapons system for him. Stark and fellow captive Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who creates a device to keep Stark alive despite his injuries, instead construct a metal battlesuit that Stark uses to stage an escape. Returning home to America, Stark finds himself changed by his experience as a captive and decides to stop manufacturing weapons. His decision puts him in conflict with his mentor and corporate second in command, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who challenges Stark for control of the company and uses his battlesuit designs to become the villainous Iron Monger. Can Stark save the day as Iron Man?
Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) completely gets what this film and by extension the superhero genre are all about, injecting high flying action, a sense of humor without getting campy, and a respect for the genre into a thoroughly entertaining two hours of cinematic fun. It's a tightly constructed film that effortlessly succeeds on all intended levels. It doesn't break any new ground, but it's a satisfying and high quality production that ranks among the best of the superhero films. I was initially concerned when Favreau was hired as director because his previous films just seemed to lack a certain spark, but that spark is here in spades.
The screenplay by the writing teams of Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Children of Men) and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (Shadow of Fear), along with a final polish by the uncredited John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride) and some uncredited additional dialog by comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis, is top notch and faithful in tone to the source material. The script was more of a guide for the director and actors, with much of the dialog improvised on set, giving a much more naturalistic feel to many scenes.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) provides a sleek visual style as polished as Iron Man's armor, matched by the sets of production designer J. Michael Riva (Zathura, Spider-Man 3). The three versions of Iron Man armor were created by Stan Winston Studios, with the final form based on designs by artists Adi Granov and Phil Saunders. The score by Ramin Djawadi (Blade: Trinity, Mr. Brooks) is perfectly suited to the story, with just the right amount of bombast befitting of the film's title (the Black Sabbath song of the same name is used over the end credits). The visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic are up to their usual high standard of work, featuring seamless CGI.
Downey is absolutely perfect as Stark/Iron Man. The roguish charm, the ego, the determination, and the transformation into a hero...it's all here, and Downey's presence lends weight and believability not only to his role but to the film as a whole. While Bridges' performance isn't on that level, it's still a solid counterpoint to Downey's as Stark's mentor turned foe. Howard captures the personality of Rhodey. Gwyneth Paltrow has fun with the role of Pepper Potts, Stark's enamored personal assistant.
The rest of the cast is also well chosen for their roles, including Toub as Yinsen, Tahir as Raza, Leslie Bibb as a reporter Stark has a one night stand with, Bill Smitrovich as General Gabriel, Clark Gregg as SHIELD Agent Coulson, and director Favreau as Stark's bodyguard/driver Happy Hogan. Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee has a cameo as a benefit party guest mistaken for Hugh Hefner. Paul Bettany is another nice touch as the voice of JARVIS, an advanced artificial intelligence program that Stark uses (in the comics, Jarvis is a human butler).
The summer film season just got kicked off in a spectacular fashion. Whether you're a comic book fan or just an action movie fan, Iron Man will leave you completely satisfied and then some. Just be sure to stay past the end credits for a special bonus scene that sets up future developments in a fan-thrilling way.
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
If the definition of a good family film is one that successfully appeals to all members of a family, no matter their ages, then this fun little picture meets the qualifications to be labeled a good family film.
Nim (Abigail Breslin) is a girl who lives on an island in the South Pacific with only her scientist father (Gerard Butler) and her animal friends as companions. After her father goes missing while conducting research at sea, Nim emails adventurer Alex Rover (also Butler) for help, but Rover is only a fictional character created by novelist Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), an agoraphobic and obsessive-compulsive who's urged by her own fictional creation to venture outside her home to the South Pacific to answer Nim's pleas for help.
Directors Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, who previously collaborated on Little Manhattan with Levin as director and Flackett as writer, deliver a playful and laugh out loud adventure comedy with light fantasy trimmings. It's a successful throwback to the kind of live action family films Hollywood used to do so well once upon a time. Yes, that means it's fair to call it predictable and lightweight, but it's also funny enough and short enough to provide above average entertainment that the entire family can enjoy together. I enjoyed it on the escapist level it's intended to be taken at.
The screenplay by Levin, Flackett, Joseph Kwong (Growing Pains) and Paula Mazur is based on the novel by Wendy Orr, and if the plot summaries of the novel I've perused are accurate it appears to be a reasonably faithful adaptation.
Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Bridget Jones's Diary, Æon Flux) provides the film with an appropriately bright and polished look, while production designer Barry Robison (Wedding Crashers, Rendition) creates a believable world for the characters to inhabit. The score by Patrick Doyle (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Eragon) is right at home with the material. Visual effects supervisor Scott Gordon makes good use of CGI to bring Nim's animal companions to life as wonderfully realized characters in their own right.
What really makes the story work as well as it does is its cast. Breslin, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 2006's Little Miss Sunshine, once again proves to be a capable and charming young actress who can carry a film and make you believe in her character. Foster takes on a rare comedic role and does just fine with the lighter material, also displaying a good knack for physical comedy when required. I disliked Butler's obnoxious performance in 300, but he's in good form here as both Nim's loving father and the fictional adventurer that exists inside the head of his creator. He's especially good as the latter, and one wishes they could make a spinoff film about that character. The principal actors all have nice chemistry with each other.
Also good are Michael Carman as the captain of a cruise ship, Anthony Simcoe as his first mate, Maddison Joyce as a young boy passenger on the ship who encounters Nim, Peter Callan and Rhonda Doyle as the boy's parents, and Jay Laga'aia as a helicopter pilot who helps Foster's character get to the island.
While Nim's Island hardly breaks new ground, it's an effective piece of family entertainment that succeeds at what it's trying to accomplish.
[3.5 out of 5 stars]
Monday, April 14, 2008
Keeping with the theme of re-watching DVDs in my collection, I turned my attention to the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon on Saturday night.
It has long been one of my favorite films from the classic era of Hollywood. It's also widely considered to be the first film noir, and many of the conventions of the genre are established in it. Its quality is even more remarkable an achievement when one considers that it's John Huston's first film as a director.
Based on the influential 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett, Huston's Oscar nominated screenplay is unusually faithful to its literary source for a Hollywood production. He essentially condenses it for the screen and removes material deemed inappropriate by the Production Code--mostly sexual content, particularly the homosexuality of several characters (although the film still manages to imply much of it).
As directorial debuts go, it's a great one, but it was only second best in 1941, which happened to be the same year that Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was released. Both The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane were nominated for Best Picture, although only Welles earned a Best Director nomination. Neither film won (nor did Welles win as a director).
The production values are high across the board, with the moody cinematography of Arthur Edeson (Frankenstein, Mutiny on the Bounty), the well-designed sets of Robert Haas (Knute Rockne All American) and the score by Adolph Deutsch (They Drive by Night, High Sierra) standing out.
As is usually the case with a great film, one of its many strengths is its cast. Humphrey Bogart is absolutely perfect as private eye Sam Spade. Something I like about Bogart's Spade is what a complete bastard he can be. He's very much an anti-hero. My favorite line comes when Spade slaps Joel Cairo and then tells him, "When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it." Then he slaps him a few more times for good measure. He epitomizes the tough guy detective, and one can justifiably say that his performance here is the blueprint for the character type in future film noirs.
Bogart got the job only after George Raft turned down the role because he didn't want to work with a first time director. Ironically, Raft would later turn down the lead role in Casablanca, which again went to Bogart, who turned in another memorable performance. How much different would the careers of both actors have been if Raft had accepted both roles?
The rest of the cast is every bit as good, including Mary Astor as manipulative femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre as the effeminate Cairo, veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut as the Fat Man (which earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor), Lee Patrick as Spade's secretary Effie, Jerome Cowan as Spade's ill-fated partner, Gladys George as the partner's wife and Spade's lover, and Elisha Cook Jr. as the Fat Man's boy toy and hot-headed gunman Wilmer.
In 1989, the Library of Congress' National Film Registry placed this film on its list of "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films". If one was to compile a list of films worthy of being seen before you die, I'd argue strongly for the inclusion of The Maltese Falcon. "The stuff that dreams are made of", indeed.
It's of interesting note that the film is actually the third adaptation of the novel. In this case, the third time really is the charm. The first adaptation is 1931's The Maltese Falcon with Ricardo Cortez as Spade and Bebe Daniels as Brigid. The second is 1936's Satan Met a Lady, a much looser adaptation done as a comedy, with Warren William and Bette Davis in the main roles (although with different names than in the novel or other films). I haven't seen the 1931 version, something I should rectify soon, because it's currently available on DVD. While the 1936 film isn't a classic, I do enjoy it for its more screwball aspects and Davis having fun as a femme fatale.
I think my next re-watch will be The Thin Man, another adaptation of a Hammett novel.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
It's hard being a horror film fan some days. You have to see a lot of chaff to get to the occasional good stuff, and sometimes it seems like filmmakers aren't even trying to make something good. This film is a good example of that.
Two young American couples (Jonathan Tucker and Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey) on vacation in Mexico meet a German tourist (Joe Anderson) who tells them that he knows of an archaeological dig at newly discovered ruins in the jungle. Looking for some more excitement before they return home, the couples and their new friend travel to the ruins but discover a little more excitement than they bargained for.
Fashion photographer turned director of television commercials Carter Smith makes his feature film debut, and fails in just about every way possible. If he understands the concept of generating suspense, his flat direction of every scene doesn't show it. No suspense, no horror and no entertainment value sums up my experience of this film. Take away the ample gore and there's nothing at all horrific here except how awful the production as a whole is. It's like one of those horrible films the Sci Fi Channel is notorious for broadcasting, only with more gore and bad words. Same level of badness, though.
Scott B. Smith (A Simple Plan) adapts his own novel into an over-simplified and predictable screenplay with paper-thin characters and dialog that is frequently laughable. The ending itself is a cop-out compared to the bleak ending of the novel. It's not often that the original writer deserves some of the blame for how a film adaptation turns out. This is one of those times.
The talents of noted cinematographer Darius Khondji (City of Lost Children, Se7en) are absolutely wasted here, as director Smith wants everything lit as bright and flat as possible. Khondji complies, but it's nothing that any average cinematographer couldn't have done just as well.
The cast is adequate to realizing the paper-thin characterizations, which is a kind way of saying not very adequate in terms of quality. The biggest disappointment is Malone, who quickly gets on your nerves and stays there. The only other actor I'm familiar with is Ashmore, whose work as Iceman in the X-Men films showed more ability than is on display here. I'm going to take a stab and say the inexperienced director was a factor here as well.
As the tourists in the film discovered too late, The Ruins are best avoided. Enter at your own peril.
[1 out of 5 stars]
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Charlton Heston. Yet another link to the old days of Hollywood is gone. His list of credits is impressive, including Dark City, The Greatest Show on Earth (winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1952), The Ten Commandments (with his iconic performance as Moses), Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1959), El Cid, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Planet of the Apes, not to forget his roles in films of more dubious quality such as Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Earthquake, and Solar Crisis. And he could even make fun of himself, as he did in Tim Burton's otherwise dismal remake of Planet of the Apes.
The only Heston film that I have on DVD is Touch of Evil, which I re-watched Sunday night. Now Touch of Evil is an interesting topic on its own. It was a B-movie that in the hands of director Orson Welles became the last great film noir of the classic era, and it wasn't until Roman Polanski made his 1974 neo-noir Chinatown that another classic came along, although one could argue that Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 classic Alphaville had elements of noir in it.
And even the greatness of Touch of Evil was partly obscured after the studio (Universal) took the film away from Welles in post-production, bringing in Harry Keller to direct some new scenes and editing it without Welles' input. It was still a good film, but it wasn't until much later that one was able to fully appreciate just how good it was. Welles left a detailed 58-page memo about how the film should be edited, and in 1998 the closest thing possible to a director's cut was finally constructed according to that memo.
Walter Murch, editor of Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now, skillfully re-cut the film to Welles' specifications and allowed film lovers to see what studio hackwork had blurred for decades. Of course, even the studio version couldn't hide Russell Metty's starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematography or Henry Mancini's score, both of which contributed to the essential tone of the film.
Touch of Evil is a wonderfully baroque film noir with a tawdry underbelly and a surprising sense of humor that keeps it from becoming too grim. On first glance, Heston would seem to be miscast as a Mexican police official, but with the exception of a non-existent accent, he's really quite good as the straight-arrow Vargas. Of course, the real star of the film is Welles, masterfully chewing the scenery as a corrupt, racist cop from the American side of the border. With much padding to add to his physical bulk, Welles literally and metaphorically throws his weight around as both actor and director.
The stellar cast also includes Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Mort Mills, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Cotten and Mercedes McCambridge in a brief but memorable cameo. It's the kind of film that could only have been made by the Hollywood of the past, and Heston is an essential part of it.
I recently also re-watched one of my other favorite classic noirs, 1944's Murder, My Sweet. Based on Raymond Chandler's novel, Farewell, My Lovely, it was the first screen appearance of Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe. Director Edward Dmytryk (who later testified against the film's producer, Adrian Scott, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities) provides one of the truest adaptations of Chandler, filled with the seamy atmosphere of Los Angeles in bygone days captured by the moody cinematography of Harry J. Wild.
Marlowe is portrayed by Dick Powell, previously known as a youthful looking star of musicals and light comedies. Certainly not an actor at the time who would be considered ideal for the role of a cynical, tough guy detective, but it's an offbeat casting choice that works very well, capturing the cynicism of Marlowe without allowing the character to become unlikable.
Marlowe has been subsequently portrayed by numerous actors over the years: Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, Philip Carey, James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, James Caan and even Danny Glover. I would argue very strongly in favor of Powell being the best Marlowe of them all, with Bogart coming in a close second. Of the actors that Chandler saw in the role before his death in 1959, Powell reportedly was also his favorite.
Murder, My Sweet's cast also includes Claire Trevor as the femme fatale, Anne Shirley as her step-daughter (and Marlowe's love interest), Otto Kruger as quack/criminal Jules Amthor, and former wrestler Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Moose Malloy, whose performances collectively add to the quality of the production.
Murder, My Sweet may take a few liberties with Chandler's novel, but it's remarkably successful at transforming the rhythms of Chandler's words into a visual form. It's pretty close to being pure Chandler in moving images. The second best screen version of a Chandler novel would be Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep in 1946, sizzling with intensity and gifted by the performances of Bogart as Marlowe and a young Lauren Bacall as the story's femme fatale.
But for my money, Murder, My Sweet and Dick Powell are still the best.
Monday, March 24, 2008
It's getting to the point where I feel like I don't even need to watch an American remake of an Asian horror film. I can just assume it's inferior and be absolutely correct in that assessment. Take this film as further proof of that.
Photographer Ben (Joshua Jackson) and his new bride Jane (Rachael Taylor) travel to Japan for a honeymoon before he has to begin a new work assignment in Tokyo. While driving to Mount Fuji, Jane accidentally runs over a young woman (Megumi Okina) who suddenly appears in the middle of the road. No body is found, but soon strange flashes of light begin to appear in Ben's photographs and weird things happen to the couple, leading Jane to believe that they're being haunted by the young woman's spirit.
The original Thai film released in 2004 was one of the more terrifying and palpitation-inducing films I've had the pleasure of viewing. This remake is anything but. Despite being an American production, the director is Japan's Masayuki Ochiai (Saimin, Kansen), whose flat direction drains all of the suspense out of the story. I'm not surprised by this result, because I wasn't very impressed by his earlier work on 1999's Saimin, which had the same flaws and was an unscary mess. Instead of using atmosphere and carefully executed camera work to generate scares like the original did, he resorts to cheap jump scenes that we've seen too many times before.
The screenplay by Luke Dawson is generally faithful to the original film's story, but he's managed to take something that was unpredictable and scary and transform it into something that is predictable and boring. It's been dumbed down, over-explained, and generally made as obvious as possible for its intended teenaged American audience.
Jackson is too wooden and Taylor too histrionic as the protagonists. Okina, previously a victim of a ghost in Ju-on: The Grudge, is effective as the ghostly antagonist. The cast also includes David Denman and John Hensley as Ben's friends, Maya Hazen as Ben's assistant Seiko, and James Kyson Lee as Seiko's ex-boyfriend who publishes a magazine dealing with the phenomenon of spirit photography.
Shutter is a dull, unimaginative remake of a really good horror film. It should only prove frightening to someone who has never seen a horror film before, let alone a good one like the one this is based on. Take my usual advice in these matters and just watch the original on DVD.
[1.5 out of 5 stars]
Saturday, March 22, 2008
A pretentious exercise in satire that has no apparent reason to exist, seeing as how it's a scene-for-scene remake of a 1997 film from Austria by the same filmmaker.
A wealthy married couple (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts) and their young son (Devon Gearhart) arrive at their lake house for a vacation. Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), two charming young men who initially appear with one of the couple's neighbors, take the family hostage, treating it as a game and betting the family that they won't be alive when the next morning arrives.
Writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher) remakes his own earlier production of the same name, but to lesser effect. What seemed daring eleven years ago now seems merely shallow and pretentious, especially when moved to an American setting. Haneke thinks he's being far more clever than he actually is, and the whiff of authorial smugness wafting from the screen is somehow appropriate for a film that offers up such leaden satire.
The subtext about audience enjoyment of cinematic violence has been better explored by a film like The Devil's Rejects, which I find far more subversive than the original Funny Games or this remake. There's such a chasm of emotional detachment in Funny Games that one simply cannot connect with it. If Haneke wants to make us uncomfortable accomplices to torture and murder, then he needs to make us enjoy it and then he needs to make us feel uncomfortable about enjoying it. Boring us, as he does here, defeats his own purpose.
The talents of a gifted cinematographer like Darius Khondji (The City of Lost Children, Se7en) are wasted on a production that the director wants lit in such a flat manner. Production designer Kevin Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction, Michael Clayton) perfectly realizes the bourgeois lifestyle of the family.
The cast is the film's only strong point. Pitt and Corbet perfectly capture the banality of evil in a chilling fashion as a latter day Leopold and Loeb. The performances of the actors playing the family are also quite good: Roth plays against type as the helpless father, Watts is compelling as the traumatized but defiant mother, and Gearhart is believable as the terrified child.
The real torture in Funny Games is that which is visited upon the audience by a filmmaker more intent on wagging his finger in our faces than on telling a compelling story or even making us feel something.
[1.5 out of 5 stars]
It looks far more interesting in advertisements than it is in actuality, in large part due to a stunning lack of originality.
2035. Twenty-five years after the Reaper Virus ravaged Scotland and the British government built a wall across the north of England to keep the infected and dying inside, the virus reappears in London. The government knows that some people survived in Scotland, so they place Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who as a child was one of the last people to make it out of Scotland, in charge of a team to go there to locate a possible cure. When the team reaches Glasgow, they discover it's now under the control of a gang of cannibalistic punks calling themselves the Marauders. Can Eden and her team survive the Marauders and find a cure before it's too late?
Writer/director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) tosses Mad Max, Escape from New York, Resident Evil, and 28 Days Later into a blender and pours a tall glass of unpleasant cinematic mess for the audience. Marshall the director has a certain flair for action scenes, but Marshall the screenwriter lets him down with a derivative story and worse, one that takes itself far too seriously. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, it could have been campy fun. Marshall's earlier films were creative genre films, which makes this one even more disappointing.
Marshall works with some familiar creative personnel from Dog Soldiers and The Descent, including cinematographer Sam McCurdy, who delivers some stylish lighting, and production designer Simon Bowles, who creates a convincing post-apocalyptic Scotland. The score by Tyler Bates (The Devil's Rejects, 300) is adequate.
Mitra, a former live action model of Tomb Raider Lara Croft for public appearances and promotions, is surprisingly credible as a female Snake Plissken (the anti-hero from Escape from New York), but she's consistently undermined by the poor writing. Craig Conway is energetically over the top as Sol, leader of the Marauders, but his schtick quickly becomes tiresome. Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell appear to be just picking up paychecks as, respectively, Eden's boss and a rogue scientist.
The cast also includes Alexander Siddig as the British Prime Minister, David O'Hara as the real power behind the government, Darren Morfitt and Sean Pertwee as two scientists sent on the mission, MyAnna Buring as the rogue scientist's daughter, and Lee-Anne Liebenberg as Sol's beloved, Viper.
Doomsday is an inferior post-apocalyptic action film that copies much better films without understanding what made them entertaining. Do yourself a favor and go watch those films instead.
[2 out of 5 stars]
Monday, March 17, 2008
A light truffle of a romantic comedy that provides a moderate dose of amusement.
Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a down on her luck governess in late 1930s London. After being fired from several jobs due to her personality, she steals a contact from the agency she works for and suddenly finds herself working as the personal secretary of singer and actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), leading to a whirlwind of a day helping Delysia resolve her romantic entanglements while finding some of her own.
Screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) adapt Winifred Watson's novel for the big screen, and along with director Bharat Nalluri (The Crow: Salvation) do a credible job of evoking the spirit of 1930s romantic comedies, but this film could use a bit more screwball and a touch more fizz to really stand out. Nalluri's best work here is with his sparkling cast, but he struggles at times with keeping the tone light and the pacing steady.
Cinematographer John de Borman (The Full Monty, Ella Enchanted) employs soft lighting to play up the romantic angle in an excellent fashion, while production designer Sarah Greenwood (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) and costume designer Michael O'Connor (Nomad, The Last King of Scotland) convincingly recreate a bygone era. Paul Englishby (Magicians) adds a jazzy score that bounces along from start to finish.
McDormand delivers a winning performance as the dour governess who suddenly blossoms into a fashionable personal secretary under the guidance of a vibrant younger woman. Adams once again demonstrates what a funny and charming light comedic actress she is as the ditzy Delysia, and also gets to show off her singing abilities again (as she did so well in last year's Enchanted). Lee Pace (star of television's Pushing Daisies) is good as Michael, one of Delysia's many paramours, although one wishes that his character had more to do in the film and was written to stand out more as a love interest. Reliable Irish character actor Ciarán Hinds has fun with a more romantic role as a fashion designer who falls for the title character.
Among the other notable performances are Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in two of the Harry Potter films) as a friend of Delysia and Miss Pettigrew's rival for Hinds' character, Tom Payne as the wealthy young producer of a musical Delysia's trying to get the lead role in, and Mark Strong as Delysia's club-owning sugar daddy.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day lacks some of the zaniness and energy necessary to be really good screwball romantic comedy, but thanks to the cast it's an above average film with decent entertainment value.
[3.5 out of 5 stars]
Monday, March 10, 2008
A quirky romantic comedy with touches of fantasy, a winning cast, and a little bit of magic.
A curse put on a wealthy family generations ago finally comes to pass when Penelope (Christina Ricci) is born with the nose and ears of a pig. Her frantic parents (Richard E. Grant, Catherine O'Hara) fake her death and hide her away for years. Believing that the curse can be removed if a man of her own kind (meaning one of privilege) falls in love with her, they bring suitable young men to court her, but they all run away when they see her. One of those men, Edward (Simon Woods), is publicly ridiculed for his stories of a pig-nosed monster, and hatches a plan with dogged reporter Lemon (Peter Dinklage) to expose the truth in a bid to restore his reputation. Their secret weapon is Max (James McAvoy), a down on his luck blue blood they hire to court Penelope and take a photo of her as evidence. Will Max be able to go through with the plan or will he fall in love with Penelope instead?
Director Mark Palansky (a former assistant to Michael Bay) makes his debut with a project that on the surface sounds like a Tim Burton film. While Palansky lacks the unique visual flair of Burton (or even Bay), he ably blends comedy and romance into an entertaining brew with a feel good message. The film proceeds in an uneven manner at times, but there are enough strengths on display to offset that. The screenplay by Leslie Caveny (a former staff writer for television's Everybody Loves Raymond) provides a story that's one part charming modern fairy tale and one part an important message about beauty and self-esteem, the latter aimed at the young female demographic that the production seems tailor made for.
The cinematography of Michel Amathieu (responsible for the "Place des Fêtes" segment of Paris, je t'aime) is competent but also a bit flat. Although it was filmed in London, production designer Amanda McArthur (Passion in the Desert, St. Trinian's) niftily constructs a cityscape that's not-quite London and perhaps is a metropolis that only exists in this tale. The score by Joby Talbot (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) ably complements the story's different textures.
Ricci is really a lovely presence here, filling the screen with an innocent charm and sweetness that makes it all the more heartbreaking when she experiences rejection after rejection. Of course, on a physical level, Ricci is so lovely that even a prosthetic pig snout can't disguise it and the suspension of disbelief necessary to buy into the story must be extended to men fleeing in fright at her appearance. Ricci's on-screen charm is ably matched by that of McAvoy, which adds to the strong chemistry they have. Grant and O'Hara give fine comedic performances as Penelope's parents.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, including Reese Witherspoon (one of the film's producers) as the first real friend Penelope makes, Dinklage in a dryly funny turn as Lemon, Burn Gorman as another reporter, Woods as Edward, Ronni Ancona as a matchmaker, Lenny Henry as a detective, Nick Frost as a gambling acquaintance of Max's, and Richard Leaf as a barman.
Penelope may be fairly predictable in the way romantic comedies tend to be, but the journey is what it's all about and the cast is what makes it such a fun one to take. Take it for yourself and you'll also fall in love with the film and its titular character.
[4 out of 5 stars]
Thursday, March 06, 2008
This teen comedy had its release date changed several times before it was finally dumped in the off-season, usually a good indication that a film isn't very good. Not this time. This one is actually a quite good and quite funny film about teens and their problems.
Rich kid Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) gets kicked out of yet another private school, so his mother (Hope Davis) sends him to a public school. He doesn't fit in at first, being mocked for his style of dress and beaten up by the school bully (Tyler Hilton). After being prescribed Ritalin by a psychiatrist and enjoying its effects, Charlie begins to sell his pills to other students. With his popularity suddenly rising, Charlie decides to counsel his fellow students and get them the drugs they need to deal with their emotional problems, a course of action that puts him in conflict with the school's alcoholic principal (Robert Downey Jr.) while also winning Charlie the affections of the principal's teenaged daughter Susan (Kat Dennings).
First time feature film director Jon Poll (a former film editor whose credits include Monkeybone and Meet the Fockers) takes a decidedly low key approach to the story that allows for a surprisingly thoughtful examination of teen angst. The screenplay by Gustin Nash is a refreshing 21st century take on the time honored student vs. principal genre, resembling as much as anything a darker John Hughes film filled with edgy satire but still having an emotional core that understands its characters' need for popularity and self-expression as they're poised between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. If some of it seems familiar at times, its snarky sense of humor (right down to "no teenagers were harmed during the making of this movie" in the end credits) and engaging cast allow it to rise above that.
Yelchin's combination of vulnerability and quiet charm brings the title character to life with a subtle shading rare for such a young actor. He's someone to keep your eye on as his career develops further. Downey's performance reveals a keen understanding of what makes his character tick, a man who routinely drowns his pain in alcohol, and he's able to bring some depth to the role that makes him more interesting than just being the authority figure tying to keep the crazy kids down. Dennings supplies some fresh-faced charm as Charlie's love interest.
The supporting cast is also very good, including Davis as Charlie's ditzy mother, Hilton as the school bully, Mark Rendall as an outcast who expresses himself by writing a play, Dylan Taylor as a mentally handicapped student befriended by Charlie, Derek McGrath as the tough-minded superintendent, and David Brown as a sympathetic police officer.
I have to admit, I liked both Charlie Bartlett the film and Charlie Bartlett the character. There's a certain sweetness to both of them that allows the film's message that the problems of young adults are ignored or minimized by those around them, including authority figures, to resonate with some emotional depth. Also, it's just plain funny.
[4 out of 5 stars]
Friday, February 29, 2008
Based on Philippa Gregory's novel, this historical soap opera set amongst the Royal Court of Henry VIII of England is insufferably tedious.
The scheming Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) seeks to increase his family's position by offering his niece Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) to be the mistress of Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Although there are immediate sparks between the two, the Duke of Norfolk considers Anne a liability after an accident that causes the King to be injured and instead aims to have her sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) replace her in the King's affections.
Director Justin Chadwick (responsible for multiple episodes of British television's Bleak House) earns high marks for how he visualizes the story, but deserves failing marks for how he handles it as a drama. It plays out very predictably, full of melodrama bordering on the risible at times and about as deep an exploration of its characters as a piece of tissue paper. The surprising thing is that Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen) has contributed such a weak screenplay. Granted, it's based on someone else's novel, but one expects better from a proven screenwriter. Never have I been so pleased to see someone's head removed from their body as I was when Anne Boleyn experiences that fate here, because it meant that my suffering through two hours of tedium was finally at an end.
The best part of the film is the beautiful lighting of cinematographer Kieran McGuigan (a veteran of British television shows like Bleak House and Spooks) that reminds one of the great Baroque paintings. There are so many scenes that could be freeze framed and placed on a museum wall as art. Production designer John-Paul Kelly (Bloody Sunday, Venus) and costume designer Sandy Powell (Interview with the Vampire, The Departed) do an outstanding job of re-creating the 16th century Royal Court with sumptuous sets and costumes.
Portman once again amply demonstrates what an overrated actress she is, while Johansson just isn't very credible as a 16th century English noblewoman. Rumors of discord on the set between the two may explain why there is so little chemistry between them on screen as sisters. Without exception, the rest of the acting is all on the surface without digging any deeper, which must be partly blamed on the director. The cast includes Bana as Henry, Morrissey as the Duke of Norfolk, Jim Sturgess as Anne and Mary's brother George, Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas as the parents of the Boleyn siblings, Benedict Cumberbatch as Mary's first husband, Ana Torrent as Catherine of Aragon, and Juno Temple as Jane Parker.
The Other Boleyn Girl is almost a complete waste of time. As beautiful as it may be to look at, its predictable melodrama will have you wishing you were somewhere else. Do yourself a favor and just be somewhere else.
[1.5 out of 5 stars]
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Writer/artist Darwyn Cooke's award-winning comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier is adapted into a quality direct-to-DVD animated film that's superior to many of the live action superhero films released in recent years because it gets what superheroes are about on a mythic level.
As the plot is described on the DVD cover: "With Cold War paranoia putting Superman (voice of Kyle MacLachlan), Batman (voice of Jeremy Sisto) and Wonder Woman (voice of Lucy Lawless) under government suspicion, only the gravest threat imaginable can force these heroes--along with an army of newcomers including the Flash (voice of Neil Patrick Harris), Green Lantern (voice of David Boreanaz) and Martian Manhunter (voice of Miguel Ferrer)--to unite."
Cooke's comic book miniseries is a complex tale told across over 400 pages filled with multiple subplots, some of which aren't strictly necessary to the main story, but the screenplay by Stan Berkowitz (a former staff writer for the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited animated television show) successfully pares the story down to its essential elements without losing its epic feel, while building it around the character of Green Lantern. The pacing could be better in some instances, but overall the story works quite well in animated form.
Veteran producer Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited) and first time director Dave Bullock (a storyboard artist for Timm's previous productions) deliver good animation that captures the nuances of Cooke's art while also accurately reflecting the Silver Age influences on his story. The production justifiably earns its PG-13 rating, as there are a couple of instances of vivid violence and disturbing imagery, as well as an overall tone suited to an older audience.
The closing montage set to John F. Kennedy's presidential nomination acceptance speech (the source of the phrase "the new frontier") perfectly captures the spirit of hope and scientific progress from that period in American history that was also so much a part of the Silver Age of comics, but earlier in the film the realities of McCarthyism, Cold War paranoia, and civil rights struggles are touched upon as well (the last when a news report mentions that a black superhero who fights against the KKK has been killed by an angry mob).
The score by Kevin Manthei (Invader ZIM) has an appropriately heroic dimension to it, although the theme isn't as immediately memorable as the one Lolita Ritmanis composed for the Justice League show.
Voice director Andrea Romano, another veteran of Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, is up to her usual high standard of coaching voice performances out of her cast that are just right for their characters. Boreanaz finds the right balance of idealism and angst as emotionally damaged Korean War veteran Hal Jordan, soon to receive the awesome power and responsibility of being a Green Lantern. MacLachlan plays up the earnestness of Superman without sounding corny, Sisto's deep voice helps to make him a compelling presence as Batman, Lawless is perfect as a different warrior princess than the one she's most famous for portraying, Harris captures the insecurity of the Flash when the fate of the world is literally in his hands, and Ferrer is convincing as an alien trapped on Earth trying to find a way to fit into human society.
The supporting cast is equally up to the task, including Brooke Shields as Carol Ferris (Hal's boss and love interest), Kyra Sedgwick as Lois Lane, Phil Morris as government agent King Faraday, Keith David as the Centre (the global menace in the story), John Heard as Hal's pilot friend Ace Morgan, Vicki Lewis as Iris West (the Flash's love interest), Jim Meskimen as Detective Slam Bradley (a character who shares the same creators as Superman), Alan Ritchson as Aquaman (a role he previously played in the live action Smallville television show), Lex Lang as Rick Flag, and Joe Mantegna as a sleazy Vegas crooner who hits on Iris West.
By adapting Cooke's miniseries and doing it well, Justice League: The New Frontier continues the tradition of excellence in superhero animation that Warner Bros. Animation began when Batman: The Animated Series debuted on television in 1992.
[4 out of 5 stars]
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
What is it about having a story told to us that we enjoy so much? Is storytelling something that someone else must do for us or is it something that we can participate in? While attempting to answer both questions, this delightful comedy serves up a lot of laughs.
Video store owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) has to go away for a few days and leaves his store in the hands of his only employee, Mike (Mos Def). Mike's best friend Jerry (Jack Black) gets magnetized in an incident involving a transformer and accidentally erases all of the tapes. When the store's most loyal customer, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), demands to rent Ghostbusters and threatens to tell Mr. Fletcher if she doesn't get it, Mike and Jerry hatch a crazy plan to use a video camera to re-create the films using themselves as the actors and crew.
Writer/director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) applies absurdist humor to the task of exploring the social nature of the creation and ownership of art. If that sounds too highbrow, its philosophical structure is wrapped in a shiny package of goofy charm that makes its points in an entertaining fashion. Gondry's films can be inconsistent, particularly when he also writes them, because he is seemingly compelled to explore every artistic impulse that comes along, but this is also what makes them so fascinating to watch. The swing and a miss here is the story's relatively shallow emotional resonance. That flaw doesn't keep it from being good, it just keeps it from being better. The hilarity of Mike and Jerry's shabby remakes of films is what makes Be Kind Rewind work.
Unlike Gondry's previous films, which were stylized and verging on surrealist at times, here cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Summer of Sam, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) uses a more grounded visual approach that nicely complements the story along with the sets of production designer Dan Leigh (Basquiat, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), which transform a rundown section of Passaic, New Jersey into a wonderland of possibilities.
Black brings just the right note of well-meaning insanity to the character of Jerry, and his earnest attempts to re-create famous film characters just get funnier and funnier. Mos Def's Mike is more of a straight man to Black's Jerry, but his low-key approach to humor works just as well. Veteran actors Glover and Farrow are very effective in their roles. Melonie Diaz sparkles as Alma, a woman who becomes part of the films when Mike and Jerry need an actress for Jerry to kiss instead of mechanic Wilson (a hilariously deadpan Irv Gooch) in drag. Also funny in smaller roles are Sigourney Weaver as an attorney who goes after the video store for copyright infringement and Kid Creole as the manager of a rival video store.
Be Kind Rewind is a film for adults that has the sensibility of a children's tale about how magic is made, a combination that Michel Gondry is well-suited to creating on the screen. For the most part, he succeeds.
[4 out of 5 stars]