Sunday, February 27, 2011

Brian's Best of 2010

Why is this Best of 2010 list being posted at the end of February 2011?  If the Academy Awards can wait until then, so can I.

Of course, I don't follow the same rules as the Academy and I don't watch all of the same movies.  I'm going to give you my Top 10 and Worst 5 movies of the year, the best and worst actors and actresses, as well as best director, bit part and biggest surprise and disappointment.  I should point out that, at the time of this post, I have not seen The Fighter, 127 Hours, Machete, or Piranha (2010), so you might notice a discrepancy between my lists and most critical listings.  For a complete list of the 2010 films that were considered in my 2010 wrap-up, check my review index; I will have reviews for Black Swan, The Social Network, Toy Story 3 and The King's Speech later this week.

Let's begin with the bottom of the barrel...
Worst Actor: Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here.  The movie was awful, and all it did was follow him around being awful.
Word!
Dishonorable mention goes to Channing Tatum in Dear John, mostly for his godawful monologue about coins.

Worst Actress: Amanda Seyfried in Dear John.  I'm just tired of her stupid face.
Why does she have a belly bra?
Dishonorable mention goes to Tiffany in Mega Piranha, but only because she actually looked like she was trying to act in that awesomely bad crap-fest.

Biggest Disappointment: It had to be Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.  It wasn't bad, and it was visually spectacular, but I expected more from Burton and Johnny Depp.  This was their chance to get really, really inventively weird, and they half-assed the story.  Even the spectacular special effects would have been more impressive if they were a little more bizarre.  The last thing I expected to feel after watching this movie was indifference, but that's what I got.

Worst Five Movies
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street - Yeah, I know remakes suck.  Yeah, I know that the people who brought me the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake produced this, too, but it managed to get Freddy Kreuger exactly wrong.  He's not scary because he's a killer, he's scary because he's in your dreams.  This also has one of the lamest "twists" I've seen in a while.
You know it's bad when the NES version is scarier than the 2010 movie.
4. Leap Year - Romantic comedies are terrible.  Case in point.  Amy Adams is generally adorable, but not when her character is obnoxious.
3. Unthinkable - There's nothing like bringing up a controversial issue, not arguing both sides equally and still not taking sides by the end.  This movie is my all-time winner for ending a film before key plot points get resolved.  If you thought The French Connection ends abruptly, this conclusion will blow your mind.
2. Dear John - Manipulative drivel with awful acting.  I hate you so much, Nicholas Sparks.  But hey, at least he made the point that autism is not the same thing as mental retardation.  Consider me schooled.
1. I'm Still Here - Self-indulgent tripe of no value.  By far, the most painful viewing experience of the year.  When the highlight of your movie has somebody pooping on the star, you know you've hit rock bottom.

Okay, that gets some of the bile out of the way.  Now on to the fun stuff!

Best Bit Part: This award absolutely had to go to someone from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, because the movie was chock full of great minor roles.  I'm going to give it to Chris Evans for two reasons.  First, the posters for his fictional movie roles were amazing.  Second, I loved his response to someone saying they're a fan: "Why wouldn't you be?"  That was great.

Best Supporting Actress: Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass, primarily because her character was awesome, but also because her fight with Mark Strong was the only time the movie's gratuitous violence disturbed me.

Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech.  I'm a huge fan of Rush in supporting roles, and this is some of his best work in years.  Silly and touching at the same time, his performance was the perfect compliment to Colin Firth's.
This is my favorite category because there are so many great small but memorable roles every year.  Honorable mentions goes to Eddie Marsan in The Disappearance of Alice Creed for the purity of his performance in a crime movie.  It wasn't terribly complex, but it was very well executed.
Mrsan may look like a hobbit here, but he was scary in Alice Creed.
John Hawkes deserves some recognition for his work in Winter's Bone, too --- he has the most character development I have seen in any supporting character this year.


Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone.  She was just terrific.  Sure, the character was pretty good, being all tough and determined and whatnot, but Lawrence gave her redneck character real dignity.  That is no small task.
Honorable mention goes to Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.  I realize that she received Supporting Actress nods (probably because teenage girls don't win Best Actress anythings), but hers was definitely a co-starring role, and she deserves the credit for her work.

Best Actor: I didn't have a clear-cut favorite in this category this year until I watched a marathon of Oscar-nominated films this weekend.  Now, it seems pretty obvious that Colin Firth deserves to be considered the year's best actor for The King's Speech.  I'm not a huge Firth fan, but he managed to make me care about the personal problems of a foreign royal, and I didn't laugh at his stutter once in the whole movie.  And I'm a jerk, so that's doubly impressive.
"You want me to sing into this tin can?": NOT a British remake of O Brother Where Art Thou?
Honorable mentions go to Michael Cera, for his stunningly perfect work in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Jesse Eisenberg, for his fast-talking asshole performance in The Social Network.

Best Director: Christopher Nolan for Inception.  The movie was smart, visually fabulous, well-told, and well-acted.  Nolan is responsible for all of that greatness, so he wins.
Honorable mentions go to Martin Scorcese, for his beautifully directed (but a tad predictable) Shutter Island, Edgar Wright for making THE GREATEST comic book adaptation ever (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and Tom Hooper for directing the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor performances in The King's Speech.

Top Ten Movies

10. The Crazies: For my money, this is the smartest, most well-crafted horror movie of the year.  It's not Oscar-worthy, but the main characters seem reasonable and don't act stupidly.  That might sound a little simple, but it makes a potentially fun horror-watching experience into a thrilling one.
9. The Expendables: Old men make boom punch pow.  Violence good.
Fashion by Stallone.

8. Iron Man 2: It wasn't as deep as the first movie, but I love me a good sequel and IM2 delivered.  Well-directed, -paced, and -acted, this is a sequel that had only a few moments of Sequel Stupidity.  Thankfully, it balanced those moments out with Sam Rockwell being obnoxious and dudes fighting other dudes in robotic (you might even say iron) suits.  I don't know about you, but I got what I paid to see.
I can't believe they replaced Terrence Howard with that guy.

7. The Social Network: It's hard not to love a whole movie full of fast-paced witty dialogue, and it was a pleasure seeing Jesse Eisenberg step out of Michael Cera's shadow with this film.  Good performances and great dialogue --- I just wish the real Mark Zuckerberg was anywhere near this cool.
6. Kick-Ass: It answers the question of why there aren't superheroes in the real world --- because they would get ass-kicked on day one.  It's not a deep movie, but it is fun and violent.  As an added treat, Nicolas Cage doesn't ruin the film.  What are the odds?
5. Toy Story 3: Just because it makes you cry doesn't make it sad.  One of the most touching dramas about family and growing up you can see.  This is probably the best artistic statement of the year, even if it's not my favorite movie.  Pixar is the Alan Moore of animation.
4. True Grit: Certainly one of the best remakes of all time and a return to gorgeous filmmaking and quirky supporting roles for the Coen Brothers.  It doesn't quite shake off reminders of the original, but it certainly offers another argument for the importance of the Western in modern filmmaking.
3. The King's Speech: Impressive performances make this potentially boring subject matter thoroughly entertaining and emotional.  It's just really, really good.
2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: This movie was an 8-bit love song, aimed directly at my heart.  Goofy, stupid, fast, and video gamer-friendly, this movie was perfect for what it is --- a movie about comic books and video games that is as much fun as reading comic books and playing video games.
Actors holding original comic art of their characters is pretty sweet.

1. Inception: Don't ask questions about the ending.  Just smile and laugh.  The always interesting Christopher Nolan crafted his masterpiece here.  The acting is very good, with many actors doing a lot of little things well; the plot is labyrinthine to explain, but understandable when you see it; the visual effects are unique and awe-inspiring.  This is a film that dreamed big and achieved everything it reached for.  It is absolutely the most impressive film I have seen all year.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Fountain

If I could live forever, I would avoid ever seeing Requiem for a Dream again.
Darren Aronofsky has a reputation for making movies that mess with your head.  I will admit that I haven't been keeping up with his career (I'm seeing Black Swan this weekend, but I still haven't see The Wrestler), but this fits with my first-hand knowledge of his works.  I enjoyed his first film, Pi, because it was weird; I hate Requiem For a Dream because I found it pretentious and ridiculously depressing.  But the man is up for another Oscar nomination and is going to direct the X-Men spin-off, The Wolverine, so I thought I should check out the man's work.

Those with elephantine memories might recall The Fountain as one of those Hollywood projects that was destined to fail.  It had a big budget and some big name actors attached, but it never got made, even after Brad Pitt grew this fantastic beard for the lead role:
Beard tentacles!
Sadly, Pitt left the picture to star in Troy, which wasn't good, and Aronofsky was left back at square one.  But, being a determined man, he retooled the script, cut the budget in half, and convinced two fairly big name actors (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) to star in the film.  Even this didn't keep the movie from flopping in the box office, but with an auteur like Aronofsky, that doesn't necessarily indicate a bad movie.

The plot is difficult to summarize.  It is not told in a linear fashion, but that is not because the plot is trying to postpone a relevant twist until the end of the movie.  No, this movie is nonlinear for symbolic purposes.  There are actually three storylines.  The first involves a Spanish Conquistador searching for the fountain of youth for his queen, the second is about a modern-day scientist that is desperately trying to cure his wife's brain tumor, and the third is about a futuristic astronaut that is trying to reach a distant nebula.  Making things extra difficult, Hugh Jackman plays Tomas, Thomas, and Tom in the three storylines, respectively, and Rachel Weisz plays Isabel and Izzie, respectively.  Man, this is getting complicated even before I attempt to summarize it.

Here's the gist of the stories.  Tomas the Conquistador wants to save his queen from the Spanish Inquisition; she convinces him that the only way to do that is to find the fountain of life.  If he succeeds, she will become his wife.  The movie shows him being convinced by the queen and in the jungles of America on his search.  There are no Spanish accents to be found in this film, though.  Thomas is a talented neuroscientist whose wife, Izzy, is terminally ill.  Instead of accepting her death (as she has), he throws himself into his research, desperate for the breakthrough that she doesn't demand, but he so desperately needs.  Tom is inside a large bubble (who needs a spaceship in the future?) with only a few personal items and a dying tree (that might be Isabel?  Maybe?); his goal is to reach a nebula and be consumed by it, which will somehow give renewed life to the tree.

The three stories are mixed together so that they all climax at about the same time.  The obvious implication of the characters names is that they are the same people/souls, and all three stories are trying to find a way to come to terms with death.  Now, that is a pretty big issue --- does this movie have what it takes to handle it?

Not especially.  It's overly ambitious (do you really think they're going to come to a satisfying conclusion about eternal life here?), but that doesn't mean that the actors or director did a bad job assembling this movie.  Yes, I'm a little suspicious as to why Pitt had to grow such a massive beard but Jackman just grew a goatee, but that doesn't negate what was done on screen.  Since the movie is, essentially, divided into three distinct parts (regardless of how interconnected they may be), each part deserves a satisfying conclusion.  Do they get it?  Well...not so much.  What viewers do get is a few half-baked ideas about eternal life.  Does eternal life mean living as normal folks know it, or does it mean joining some other consciousness?  Is eternal life a good thing, or a curse?  Is it better to fight or accept death?

I don't know what to tell you.  You would think a movie that tackles such deep issues would take a definite stance on this, but I'm not seeing it.  Of course, Aronofsky could be making a singular point and is just obscuring it in metaphors.  Maybe.  But I think it is more likely that the confusion I felt while watching the movie is representative of the film's message.  Life and death are The Big Issues, and this movie is not nearly equipped to deal with them.

My problem with The Fountain could have been with its pretentiousness.  It certainly is full of itself, but I'm okay with that when a movie is trying to make a big statement about important things.  No, my problem is with its execution.  There are three storylines in this movie; there only needs to be one.  I actually liked the modern day story; the acting was good, it had the most believable characters, and it had the most depth.  The other two story lines are just weird.  Do we need a Conquistador that literally turns into flowers?  That seems doubtful.  How about a tai chi practitioner that eats tree/woman bark to sustain his life?  Unlikely.  Both of those storylines were beyond odd to watch and, in the end, they left me speechless.  That's not a good thing.  I was only rendered speechless because I don't like to curse out loud when I'm home alone.
Why is this tree hairy?  ***sound of head exploding***

The film's biggest crime is not even its WTF moments.  It wants to be an important talking piece about death, but it falls so short of its goals; this movie isn't bad because it aimed for the stars, but because it fell so short.  By cut-and-pasting the three narratives together, The Fountain succeeds in drawing parallels between its three Toms and their situations.  That same process cheapens the emotional impact of modern-day Thomas' story; his Izzie has warmth and depth and is genuinely interesting, but the subtlety of Rachel Weisz's performance is lost when it is edited to parallel a bizarre space bubble riding, tree-eating cosmonaut.

The Fountain is what many critics might call an "interesting failure."  That sounds a little pompous to me, but there is some truth to it.  There is no denying that Darren Aronofsky is a talented director.  His movies are always visually imaginative.  He gets some very good performances from his actors, even in unusual roles.  I didn't like the story lines of Christmases past or future here, but the primary storyline had some very good acting.  Rachel Weisz was excellent as Izzie, Hugh Jackman was good as Thomas (less good as Tom and Tomas, though), and the supporting cast was solid.  Ellen Burstyn, Ethan Suplee, Sean Patrick Thomas, Mark Margolis, and Stephen McHattie all make appearances in this movie, although only Burstyn has the opportunity to act much.  Now, if Aronofsky could just make a movie that isn't miserable to watch, he'd be great.

Despite the impressive visuals and the occasionally impressive acting, The Fountain is still a narrative mess.  There's a small voice in the back of my head that keeps suggesting that maybe I don't get it, but I think I do --- and I'm not impressed.  What is the lesson here?  Maybe the bigger the central idea, the less convoluted it needs to be.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

Mark Ruffalo has come full circle for me.  The first time I saw him, in You Can Count On Me, he played a charming and cool (but immature and selfish) brother/uncle that can't quite get his act together.  In The Kids Are All Right, he plays a charming and cool (but immature and selfish) sperm donor dad that has found a niche for himself and doesn't know what to do with the knowledge that he is a father.  Congrats, Mark, your character has grown up a little.

Actually, the story is not really about Paul (Ruffalo); it is about Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their two kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson).  Joni and Laser are half-siblings, with Nic having carried Jules in the womb and Jules having Laser, with both kids sharing the same sperm-donor father.  Life is pretty good for their family --- the kids seem pretty well-adjusted and they have a pretty sweet home in California --- but there are two problems.  The first and most obvious is Joni preparing to leave for college in a few weeks.  The other problem is the stagnant relationship between Nic and Jules; they are becoming a bickering old couple and decades-long problems are starting to make their way into everyday arguments.

At the urging of her brother, Joni contacts the sperm bank to contact their sperm daddy.  Being a pretty laid-back quasi-hippie, Paul is agrees to meet the kids.  Pretty soon, they are spending more and more time together, which adds more friction to Nic and Jules' relationship; since they are (not surprisingly) very liberal parents, they theoretically support the kids meeting their bio-dad, but in practice he's an unexpected monkey wrench in their last few weeks with Joni.

While considered a comedy, I would argue that this is a drama that gets some humor out of intentionally awkward scenes.  So don't walk into this expecting a lot of laughs.  The film, co-written by director Lisa Cholodenko, seems to cherish real-life moments that tend to make me cringe.  People without good singing voices singing Joni Mitchell at the dinner table?  Check.  A teenage boy making the idiotic decision to rummage through his parents' bedroom for some pot to smoke and instead finds sex toys and porn?  And then he decides to watch the porn?  Great job, kid, you're scarred for life and it's your own damn fault.  Whatever the situation, it is generally pretty awkward and uncomfortable.  And how does a progressive gay couple give their son the most redneck name in the world?  Laser?  Seriously?  Ten bucks says his middle name is "Tag."

The acting is the film's strong point.  Mark Ruffalo can play a believable California stoner in his sleep and, while this part was kind of a retread for him, this reminded me that he can actually be a pretty endearing actor to watch.  Julianne Moore was also good as the similarly unfocused Jules; I thought she captured the confusion of love and passion well.  I was expecting a little more from Annette Bening, given all the accolades she has gotten for this movie.  She was fine as the uptight parent and the condescending lover, but I didn't see this part as anything spectacular.  All three gave subdued, realistic performances.  Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson were good too, but neither really has a moment where they really shine as performers.

I am beyond thankful that this movie treated Jules and Nic as a couple and not a gay couple.  There were no speeches about how theirs might be a different kind of family, but a family nonetheless.  There was no homophobia in the movie.  The kids are, indeed, mostly all right.  The cliche Lifetime movie plots are nowhere to be found in this film.

So, what are we left with?  This is a movie about a couple that has hit a rocky patch in their relationship.  Unfortunately, I didn't buy Nic and Jules as a couple.  I get it, they're not at their most lovey-dovey right now, and opposites attract and all that, but I didn't see much chemistry between the lead actresses.  Individually, their performances were fine, but together I was unimpressed.  I feel like a jerk suggesting this, but I think the most noteworthy thing about this movie is that it treated homosexual characters like people, instead of as stereotypes.  As such, this movie seems more timely than actually good to me.  I wanted to like this movie more, but Nic was an unappreciative bitch and Jules chose to rebel in the least convenient way possible.  I sympathize with their situation, but without seeing more of what makes them supposedly work as a couple, I was never invested in seeing them save their marriage.  And that means that this story never quite fulfilled the promise that its acting made.
 ***UPDATE 2/24/11***
After I posted this, I realized that I had forgotten to mention the conclusion of the story.  One of the strengths of this movie is its realism.  Even if you don't care about the characters (like me), the story itself is very believable --- and that's nice to see, coming from a concept that could have been a Farrelly Brothers movie (just a guess at their title: Sperm Daddy).  Yes, the conclusion to Paul's part in the story was pretty low-key, but it felt right.  The same goes for end of Jules and Nic's story.  Some questions are left unanswered, sure, but that's okay in a movie that is trying to feel like real life.  Now, if only they had convinced me that Nic and Jules were a good couple, and this movie would have been pretty good.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dollman vs. Demonic Toys

After watching a really, really good movie, I sometimes make a conscious decision to watch something that is just awful, kind of like a cinematic palette cleanser.  Now, I would like to draw your attention to this film's title.  Yes, this is a "versus" movie.  Yes, that means that the characters are from other movies.  In fact, there are characters from three different movies in Dollman vs. Demonic Toys.  The first, obviously, is Dollman.
Probably not a porno, despite the tagline.
The titular character, Dollman (Tim Thomerson), is a police officer from another planet who was shrunk down to thirteen inches when he passed through a wormhole or something stupid on his way to Earth while pursuing a galactic felon.  Now he's stuck here, with only a tough guy attitude and a gun that somehow makes things explode, despite being proportional to Dollman's stature.  If you are asking yourself aloud why you have seen this film, I can answer that: you watch a movie with Jackie Earle Haley in it every Wednesday night.  Remember?  Just as obviously, the next movie is Demonic Toys.
Apparently, these toys have been possessed by demons who want to resurrect their king demon or something along those lines.  The only person in their way is Judith (Tracy Scoggins), a hard-nosed lady cop.  They may have magic, but she has a gun.  And, because I know you're curious, the jack-in-the-box doesn't actually speak; he slithers around like a snake, with canned maniacal laughter whenever he's on screen.  Fun fact: this movie was written by David S. Goyer, co-writer of the Blade and Christopher Nolan Batman movies!  Rounding out this trio of true cinema is Bad Channels.
I cannot WAIT for Robot Wars!
This movie features aliens that want to steal Earth women, I assume for breeding purposes.  How should they go about this?  If your answer was to secretly broadcast alien radio waves across a local commercial radio station's signal, you're only part of the way there.  The affected women will show symptoms of receiving the signal (they will start dancing and flirting) and then vanish.  They will reappear inside some alien test tubes (at the radio station, obviously), but they are shrunken down to eleven inches for...um...ease of transport, I guess.  While the aliens were eventually thwarted, one of the shrunken girls was not returned to her original size.  In the movie, the poor girl is Bunny, but apparently she didn't want to be in the crossover event, so they retroactively decided that Nurse Ginger (Melissa Behr, who has sadly chosen to not continue acting and became a professional artist instead) was the unluckily shrunken maiden.

You might be wondering why I know so much about these three movies.  No, I did not watch all three movies and then choose to watch the crossover event that nobody asked for.  I'm fairly certain that would have made me sterile.  This movie has about eight to fifteen minutes of flashback time devoted to each film.  Dollman vs. Demonic Toys is only 64 minutes long, so that means that between a third and half of the film is devoted to learning the all-important back story for these well-developed characters.  If you look at this in terms of efficiency, I learned about four movies that, individually, are no doubt unwatchable.  But I did so in a little over an hour, which is like watching four ineptly made fifteen-minute mini-movies, or an average night of Adult Swim programming.

I think I can safely ignore the acting quality of Dollman AKA Brick Bardo , Officer Judith, and Nurse Ginger, right?  Aside from them, DvDT features the acting talents of Phil Fondacaro, who you might remember as the Ewok in Return of the Jedi that died...that's right...he was the one wearing the teddy bear suit.  Director Charles Band is perhaps best known for his work in films family films like Evil Bong II: King Bong, and I think his work speaks for itself without my "analysis."  Let's just revel in the awesome story here, okay?

Officer Judith has been spending all her time staking out the toy warehouse where the demonic toys were last seen when a homeless man accidentally falls through the roof of the warehouse.  He dusts himself off, admires his warm and dry new hangout, and does what anyone would do if they were trespassing on private property that obviously has a security guard --- he finds a tricycle and rides it around the warehouse, honking the horn and making lots of noise.  And, like all warehouses, there are many items organized on shelves, out of their packaging and plugged in.  Anyway, homeless Joe rides his trike into a cardboard box, which causes another box to fall and hit him on the head, instantly killing him.  It looked and sounded like an empty box, but those corners can be sharp.  I wouldn't have thought that a box would kill him after he fell through the roof without any damage, but I guess I learned something today.  As his corpse hits the ground, homeless Joe's head empties the several gallons of red syrup that we all keep in our noggins.  The "blood" touches a particular cardboard box, which allows the demonic toys to suddenly appear, thanks to the healing power of sugar.  Officer Judith (I'll just call her OJ from now on) runs in, guns blazing, but forgets that she was the only person that saw Demonic Toys; the other police that show up and the security guard think she's nuts, which leads to her being suspended from her job.  Put yourself in OJ's shoes.  What would your next step be?  If you answered "track down an eleven-inch-tall woman," you are obviously ingesting hallucinogens stupider than this movie shockingly correct.

Meanwhile, Brick Bardo is on a quest to find the only woman his size, to let her know that "she's not alone."  Great.  She has one choice in men, and he's actually an alien.  Lucky gal.  And let's be clear --- there is never a moment of doubt that Brick is going to lay (see what I did there?) Nurse Ginger.  She's kind of ditzy, he's kind of noir-hero-ish --- the end result is never in question.  Anyway, OJ finds these two and, for some unknown reason, never asks Nurse Ginger (who was the only one of the two she was tracking) for help.  Instead, she asks the thirteen-inch-tall Brick Bardo.  What can he do that any normal-sized person cannot?  Aside from chasing the demonic toys inside vents, nothing.  Obviously, Dollman and Ginger join forces with OJ to fight the evil toys.

And in case that quick summary doesn't entice you, here are some of the film's highlights:
  • The evil Baby Oopsie Daisy explains the toys' plot as follows: Oopsie Daisy will rape Nurse Ginger, impregnate her, and the baby will serve as a vessel for the toys demonic master.
  • Yes, the plot hinges on a miniature woman being raped by a baby doll.  And impregnated.
  • In a fight sequence against an evil GI Joe figure, Dollman reaches for a weapon and finds a hockey stick...in his size.  Hmm...
  • The GI Joe figure absolutely, positively does NOT look like a grown man wearing an ill-fitting helmet/mask.
  • Dollman has a powerful space gun.  He shoots it all the time.  And his ammo is made from...Unexplainedium?
  • To set the mood for mayhem, Baby Oopsie Daisy puts on a bitchin' rock 'n' roll record.  I bet you didn't know they made turntables scaled down to baby doll size.  I bet you also didn't know that the records available for such a small player would be contemporary rock music, instead of lullabies.
  • When Baby Oopsie Daisy is preparing to get sexy with Ginger, we see several shots to show the scale of the doll to Ginger; he's enormous and she's not.  To keep the illusion of the actors' size difference, there are several shots of Oopsie Daisy's hands pawing at Ginger.  These fake hands are not at all made of balloons or shiny foam.
Is this a bad movie?  Duh.  It is cheaply made, has laughably bad sets, the acting is horrid, and the script (co-written by David S. Goyer) is just sad.  I will admit that I enjoyed this more than I thought I would.  The short running time (while maybe fifteen minutes too long) was a major factor in this, but I also enjoyed the utterly ridiculous recaps of the prequel movies.  Dollman was surprisingly almost amusing at times, which was far more than I anticipated getting from this movie.  This is a piece of trash, but I mean that in the nicest way possible.  It's not like they made a movie called Dollman vs Demonic Toys and expected it to be a critical darling, or even something that would reach theaters.  The movie is silly junk; the filmmakers know it, I know it, and you knew it as soon as you read the title.  There is something to be said for successfully making an intentionally bad movie.
This movie isn't even (too) painful to watch.  If you see it with friends, I give it a Lefty Gold rating of

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From Russia With Love

The overriding theme of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, is that James Bond is awesome.  The theme of the second James Bond movie, From Russia With Love, is that James Bond is awesomer than before.  Do you really need proof?  Fine.  One of the central plot lines in this movie has a low-level Soviet agent defecting to England because she fell in love with the photograph of Bond in her Soviet files --- and British Intelligence's reaction is "While unusual, I'm willing to believe it."  That's right.  Bond is so manly that the mere sight of him causes the ladies to defect (which sounds like a dirty fetish, but is instead just dangerous).  In short, James Bond's picture is more awesome than most men in person.

The film opens with a dangerous cat-and-mouse game where James Bond is stalking/being stalked by an agent of SPECTRE, the international organization of eee-veeel.  The SPECTRE agent, Grant (a young Robert Shaw) actually gets the upper hand and garrotes Bond to death!  Well, it turns out to be a random dude with a Mission Impossible II-quality Bond mask and a tuxedo, so it's not all that impressive.  Still, we learn a few very important things about SPECTRE in this scene.  First, we learn that SPECTRE is willing to kill people to better train their agents, which is a very eee-veeel thing to do.  Second, we learn that this exercise takes place on --- wait for it --- SPECTRE Island.  For an organization that keeps the names of its agents secret (we see Numbers One, Three, and Five in this film), that is a hilariously not secret name for their secret base.  I hope that's the actual name of the island, as it appears on maps.  And thirdly, SPECTRE fully expects to kill James Bond while wearing a tux.  Sure, that's a possibility, I guess, but why go to the expense of fitting a corpse-to-be with a nice tuxedo and then have his death bowel spasms soil the suit?  Wait...don't tell me...I can figure this one out...SPECTRE has their live bait wear tuxedos because...um...their international crime syndicate uses dry cleaners as legitimate business fronts for their terrorist activities!  I feel so smart right now.

Anyway, SPECTRE's ace planner/eee-veeel chess master, Number Five, comes up with a plan that will achieve three objectives if successful: it will increase tensions between East and West (this was the Cold War, you know), SPECTRE will get a valuable decoding device, and James Bond (Sean Connery) will die for meddling with Dr. No in the last movie.  The plan is to convince a loyal and beautiful Communist worker with access to the decoding device to pretend to defect to England; she will offer to steal the device, but only if James Bond is the agent assigned to aid her defection.  SPECTRE will kill everyone involved and steal the decoder, leaving the West to believe that SMERSH (Soviet counterintelligence) did the deed and vice versa.  Bond and MI6 (British Intelligence) assume that it is all a trap, but the decoder is worth the risk, so Bond agrees to go to.  Of course, a picture of the defecting Soviet, Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi), helps Bond make his decision. 
No wonder she wants to defect...they can't even afford pants in Russia!
As far as Bond plots go, From Russia With Love is one of the most straight-forward.  We know that Tatiana isn't terribly duplicitous.  We know SPECTRE is pulling the strings, and we know who their agents are in the film.  We know that Bond knows that this is all a trap.  This is all set up at the beginning of the movie, so there's no real twist in this film.  Instead, we get to see the best espionage-counterespionage Bond to date.

Once again, Sean Connery is James Bond, and he's so good in this movie.  He's not quite as cocky as he gets in Goldfinger, but still well aware of his charms.  Heck, he should be --- the story is based on the premise that his looks are undeniably defection-worthy.  Aside from that, though, this is perhaps the smartest and most realistic Bond of the sixties; he's a little more sophisticated, a little less campy, and he's a lot more confident.  How else do you explain this exchange?
Tatiana: My friends call me Tanya.
JB: My friends call me James Bond.
[...]
Tatiana: I think my mouth is too big.
JB: I think it's just the right size.  For me, that is!
Bam!  Now that is how to simultaneously distance yourself emotionally and yet also innuendo yourself into some sexy time!  James, you are the master.  That dialogue is a little dirtier once you know that Tatiana was naked under some bedsheets while they introduced themselves and SPECTRE agents were, for some reason, preparing to film them having sex.  I guess the "P" in SPECTRE stands for "Perverts."
...because when I think "Russia," I imagine belly dancers and cat fights.

The rest of the acting is actually pretty good.  Daniela Bianchi isn't a great actress, but she's believable as the too-good-to-be-true Russian doll; this movie is so many things, but it is also one of the great inflators of the male ego --- a beautiful woman chooses to endure great hardship and danger, just to satisfy her lust for a man she has never met.  Basically, she has to look sexy and act attracted to Bond.  It's not tough work, but she succeeds.  Lotte Lenya was good as Number 3, the prototype for Frau Farbissina of the Austin Powers series, but I was really impressed by Robert Shaw.  I've seen this movie a dozen times, but this was the first time I recognized him --- he's so young, and thin, and...blonde!  He is a worthy adversary for Bond and, aside from indulging in every Bond villain's weakness (monologuing), one of the most formindable foes he faces in the entire series.  The rest of the cast are the normal bit players.  Bernard Lee returned as M with Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny.  Desmond Llewelyn made his first appearance as Major Boothroyd from Q Branch (not just "Q" yet); his character was played by another man in Dr. No.  I was also surprised to recognize Eunice Grayson as the first woman we see Bond with in the film; she's the same actress and character that Bond met playing baccarat in the last film.  You don't usually see Bond girls popping up in more than one film.  I guess Bond was a little more commitment-friendly in the old days.  I mean, if you can count sleeping with four women in one film a "commitment."  We also see the mysterious Number 1 in this film, but never his face.  He doesn't appear to be very nice, though.

This movie has an awful lot of suggestive content for a movie made for mass consumption in 1963.  Aside from Tatiana throwing herself at Bond, not even making him undress her, there are a number of oddly lewd moments in From Russia....  For instance, the head of MI6 in Istanbul is in his home, trying to read his newspaper, but his stupid wife keeps pestering him to spend time with her in their bedroom.  He sighs and says, "Back to the salt mines," and kisses her.  Callous?  Yes.  Awesome?  Of course.  Then there is the time when Bond settles a feud between two gypsy women by (presumably) having a threesome.  I'm not saying his plan didn't work, but I don't know if his plan and the gypsy plan was one and the same.  And, of course, there is the sex tape.  What exactly was SPECTRE going to do with a sex tape?  Blackmail Bond?  I would have assumed that dirty man whore makes his own tapes, probably with gadgets on loan from Q Branch.  Do they expect him to have shame over his promiscuity?  Talk about not knowing your victim.  Granted, none of this, even the threesome, is as suggestive as the name Pussy Galore, but I'm surprised this didn't receive more protests for inappropriate content when it first came out.

This is the first Bond film where the man gets some gadgets to play with.  Q Branch supplies James with a briefcase equipped with a hidden throwing knife, 50 gold sovereigns, a tiny sniper rifle, and a teargas trap to nail anyone trying to snoop in the case.  No, it's not a laser wristwatch, but it is baby steps in the direction the series would soon take.  Overall, the briefcase seems fairly plausible and every part of it was used in the movie.

Okay, so it's pretty obvious that I like this movie.  It can't be perfect, though, can it?  No, it can't.  While I'm perfectly fine with Terence Young's direction (he and Connery work well together), and I enjoyed seeing how Young handled a more professional supporting cast than in the last movie, I didn't see the point in the boat chase.  Sure, I understand that it is part of the falling action and it helps show that the Double-0 agent is always in danger, but boat chases are always terrible.  Always.  Please, prove me wrong.  The movie also disappoints by having Bond drink an unnamed mixed drink, champagne, and gypsy wine, but never his signature drink.  This is also the only Bond movie (aside from the theme-less Dr. No) to not have the theme song sung in the opening credits --- it's instrumental, for some unknown reason.  It's not even a bad song, either.  I was surprised that two of the SPECTRE numbers (the big time agents) die in this movie; it leaves things a little too tidy for my liking.  This movie feels like they were planning to build up to something significant with SPECTRE in the next film, but killing the agents we know allows Goldfinger to be SPECTRE-free.  It's an odd choice to have them so prominent here, but with nothing to lead them into the next movie.

That is totally just nitpicking, though.  From Russia With Love is my favorite Bond movie.  You can make a case for Goldfinger (and I will when I review it), but this is the one that sets the standard of excellence in the series.  It's smarter than most, but also slower than most, I admit.  However, these are the most well-developed Bond characters we will see for a few decades, and that makes up for the lack of explosions and goofy henchmen.  This is the first Bond that actually feels like a real spy story, and it's a good one.  After this film, the Bond movies take on a life of their own, mostly independent of Ian Fleming's novels, but this is tough, gritty, suspenseful, and genuinely cool.

Monday, February 21, 2011

44 Inch Chest

I don't know why, but the buzz I heard about 44 Inch Chest was that it was a risque exploration of misogyny.  That's not something that I always enjoy, but I do like British crime stories, and I generally like Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Ian McShane; I've also heard that the writers, who wrote Sexy Beast, have a talent for over-the-top characters.  All of that combined with the tagline ("The Measure of Revenge") to make me think that this could be a decently cool movie.

The story begins with Colin (Ray Winstone) on the floor of his home, which appears to have been recently ransacked.  At first, I thought he was dead, but it turns out he was just in shock.  You see, his wife of over a decade, Liz (Joanne Whalley) just left him.  One of Colin's buddies calls him on the phone, gets a mumbled reply, and hurries over because something is obviously wrong.  Once Archie (Tom Wilkinson) is able to comprehend what has happened --- Colin is doing a lot of sobbing and playing Nilsson's "Without You" over and over again, which would be more than enough for me to slap him silly --- he decides to do what any good friend would in a similar situation.  Archie calls together Colin's closest friends --- Mal (Stephen Dillane), Peanut (John Hurt), and Meredith (Ian McShane) --- and they all agree that the one way for Colin to get over this emotionally devastating moment is for him to spend time with his friends (obviously), drink a lot of liquor (makes sense) and then torture and murder Liz and her lover (natura --- wait, what?).  Colin had dragged loverboy's name out of Liz before she left, so the friends find his work, kidnap him, and throw him in a cupboard until Colin can work up the desire to kill the bastard.  What are friends for?

I'm going to go ahead and say that the general premise of this movie is awesome.  It takes a classic idea, that of a cuckolded man reacting to his situation with violence, and twists it around; instead of Colin being the bloodthirsty and revenge-obsessed monster, his friends are.  In fact, they heckle Colin for not immediately killing loverboy.  If I were in Colin's place, I have no doubt that my friends would choose to cheer me up with friendship and booze (and, let's face it, movies), but murder seems like an unusual remedy for soul-crushing depression; I doubt more than one of my friends would suggest that route to happiness. 

This was the first full-length motion picture directed by Malcolm Venville, and I like his style.  There are large chunks of this movie that take place within the mind of Colin, with his friends personifying his conflicting thoughts.  This could have been very confusing, since the friends are physically present as well, but Venville finds a way to differentiate between the imaginary characters and the actual ones.  I thought that all the actors were directed well, even if I hate seeing Ray Winstone as anything less than a scary mofo.  But even that worked out well; when Winstone switched from sobbing self-pity to helpless rage, the contrast made his anger seem all the more dangerous.

The acting was good all around.  As I mentioned, Ray Winstone plays outside of his comfort zone as the heartbroken Colin, but his intensity is still obvious.  I would have preferred more of his anger and less of his crying, but that's because I get a little uncomfortable watching frightening men cry.  Tom Wilkinson did a good job as the most reasonable and understanding friend of the bunch, although I was never clear on why his character (who seems nice) would be a party to murder.  Stephen Dillane, sure, I can buy that.  Ian McShane?  Definitely.  But Wilkinson's character felt a little out of place.  I definitely enjoyed McShane's homosexual gambler character; I usually don't include sexual orientation in character descriptions, but it's a significant part of his character.  Normally, British crime movies spend a decent amount of time ridiculing gay characters, but McShane's strong and charismatic jerk was a refreshing take.  John Hurt was amusing as the hate-spewing Peanut, although his bit about Samson and Delilah was a strange detour in the story.  It's hard to judge Joanne Whalley's performance, since it takes place primarily within Colin's tortured mind; she assumes whatever personality suits the plot at that moment, so it's not your typical film performance.

Now, you might assume that I really enjoyed this movie.  Well, I didn't.

Despite some clever direction, solid acting, and a good premise, 44 Inch Chest has one major weakness: the story.  The premise is established within the first seven minutes of the film; Colin is heartbroken and loverboy is kidnapped.  The rest of the movie (about a hour and a half) is Colin deciding whether or not to kill the guy.  Let me tell you, that time drags.  Nothing happens in this movie after the kidnapping.  Each of the friends tells a story about something that loosely relates the their current situation, Colin acts wounded and lame, and then it cycles again.  And what is the deal with these friends?  None of them appear to be criminals, so their quick and confident kidnapping and their pestering of Colin to kill loverboy is damned odd.  They act like professionals, but at least two of them (McShane and Winstone) are explicitly not hoodlums.  Leaving that unexplained in a dialogue-heavy movie is very unusual.  The dialogue is okay, but it's not fantastic, and it absolutely needs to be when the audience is waiting 90 minutes for one character to make one decision.  And that's what this movie boils down to: a lot of good work wasted by a story that could have been told in ten minutes.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Brothers

Beware movies that take their inspiration from classic literature or foreign films.  In this case, Brothers is a remake of the Danish film, Brodre, and both are inspired by the epic poem The Odyssey.  If you aren't familiar with Danish cinema, rent some Nicolas Winding Refn movies and you've pretty much caught yourself up on their last 20 years of international impact.  Ooh...are you just going to take that sick burn, Denmark?  Probably.  Anyway, when movies cite The Odyssey as an influence, it usually just means that a husband has been away and returns to a wife that may or may not have moved on without him.  To give you an idea of how different Odyssey-based films can be, O Brother Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain both claim it as a source of inspiration.  So how will Brothers handle this age-old plot structure?

Shortly after his nogoodnick brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), is released from prison, US Marine captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is set to leave for yet another tour of duty in Afghanistan.  Sam is a loving husband to Grace (Natalie Portman) and father to his two daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare).  Tommy is having trouble adjusting to life outside of prison, spending his time drinking and arguing with his father (Sam Shepard).  Shortly after being deployed, Sam's helicopter is shot down, leaving only him and one other solider (Patrick Fleuger) alive; they are "lucky" enough to be taken prisoner in a remote Afghan village.  After weeks and even months of being starved and tortured, Sam is rescued by incoming US soldiers; his helicopter-mate did not survive.

Meanwhile, Tommy had finally decided to stop being a bum and remodeled Sam and Grace's kitchen and had become a constant help with Isabelle and Maggie.  When Sam's "death" was announced, Tommy and Grace bonded over their mutual mourning over Sam.  Their friendship deepens over the ensuing months, and Tommy takes on more of a fatherly role with the girls.  When Sam returns home, everyone is ecstatic --- except Sam.  He's still on edge after his months of trauma.  He alienates his daughters (who don't understand his problems) and tries to get Grace and/or Tommy to confess to an affair.  Well...he uses language a little coarser than that, but you get the picture.  Time passes, but Sam isn't getting better; he's just one careless remark away from snapping.  What kind of remark?  How about Isabelle getting angry at the dinner table and shouting that Mommy and Uncle Tommy have sex all the time?  Congratulations, kid, you're grounded for instigating homicide.

Before I go on about the acting in this film, let me state how nice it is to see Tobey Maguire in a drama again.  I know, he made two in between Spider-Man movies, but Spidey 3 was so bad that I almost forgot why I liked him in the first place.  He's really, really good in dramatic roles.  And he handled not only a high-strung and dangerous character here, but an impressive physical transformation into an emaciated wreck.  It would have been even better if Sam actually had a personality before he left for his tour of duty, but this was some impressive acting anyway.  Jake Gyllenhaal was also good, but he definitely had the easier role; all he has to do is act reasonable, and he's doing his job.  Similarly, Natalie Portman did what was asked of her, but her character didn't have a whole lot of depth; Portman did a great job handling the variety of emotions that her part demanded, but you don't really learn much about any of these characters enough to truly like or feel sorry for them.  The supporting cast is solid, but they don't offer a whole lot that is interesting.  The kids were pretty good (for child actors), Sam Shepard can still play a hard-ass, and Ethan Suplee is still a bumbling but lovable friend character.

Jim Sheridan's direction is pretty okay.  I thought there was a pacing issue in the film, but more on that later.  I thought all the actors were handled well, and Sheridan captured a lot of small moments effectively.  This movie is definitely carried by the performances of its stars, but I honestly felt that --- good as they were --- Gyllenhaal and Portman could have been better.  That's kind of an elitist gripe, I realize, but they've both played more well-rounded characters with more depth before, and this was a stellar opportunity for the director to get a smorgasbord of great acting.  It was an opportunity that was considered, but ultimately not seized.

At its core, Brothers is little more than a Lifetime movie of the week with some superior acting.  It's a pretty melodramatic story and the plot hits all the typical beats.  The problem with this movie is, unfortunately, the story itself.  The camera shows all the important things that happen during Sam's "death."  What messed Sam up in the head so much?  Did Tommy and Grace sleep together?  We already know, because we saw it happen (or not happen).  Where's the drama?  Where's the suspense?  In the end, when Sam finally tells someone else what scarred him so badly in Afghanistan, I was left indifferent because it wasn't a bombshell for me any more.  It would have been nice to see things through Sam's eyes when he got home, or at least shown his suspicions of Grace and Tommy growing over time.  Instead, whenever he got one of them alone, he started grilling them.  That made the post-Afghanistan part of the film feel very condensed, which in turn made the pacing of the whole film a little lopsided.

Here's what I would have done to make this film better.  I would have shown everything up until Sam being declared dead and then skipped forward however many weeks or months.  I would have shown Sam's Afghanistan experience mostly in flashback and the same for Tommy and Grace's relationship, leaving the ultimate answers to the film for the very end.  As it is, not edited by me, the movie struggles to rise above mediocrity despite some good acting.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Aeon Flux

More like Aeon Sucks!  High five, anyone...?
I love movies that are set in the future.  They often tell us what will happen to us soon, or maybe even in the recent past.  For instance, I bet you forgot all about the huge gang wars that divided the city of Los Angeles in 1997, to the point where gangs had minor fiefdoms.  Well, just watch Predator 2 and catch the history lesson.  Aeon Flux may be set in the far future, but it references a disease that wipes out 99% of the Earth's population in 2011.  So...nice knowing you, I guess.  Suck it, Mayans, you were off by a year!

The year is 2415 and all human life is within the contained city of Bregna.  Of course it is.  And just as obvious is the fact that life in Bregna is pretty perfect.  Except for the fact that it is under a benign totalitarian rule, with Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) as the leader.  Oh yeah, and people have bad dreams.  That's a bummer.  Speaking of bummers, some people in Bregna just disappear, without a trace.  Bad dreams and disappearances lead to unrest, and the underground movement against the Goodchild regime is called the Monicans.  Aeon (Charlize Theron) is a Monican assassin, assigned by The Handler (Frances McDormand) to kill Trevor Goodchild.  The job is tough, but Aeon does a bunch of physically impossible things (while not breaking a sweat) and eventually reaches Trevor...but cannot pull the trigger.  Somehow, she knows him; even more disturbing, Trevor knows Aeon, and calls her Katherine for some reason.  Sensing that something is wrong with her mission --- and her understanding of Bregna --- Aeon escapes and vows to uncover the one secret about Bregna that will explain everything.
Sadly, this lawn crawling is part of the best action scene in the movie.

You may recall the anime series of the same name that Aeon Flux is based on.  Or not.  It was weird, obtuse, and was guaranteed to leave a new viewer completely confused.  The characters didn't speak any languages, they were either quiet or they made weird noises.  There wasn't really a plot, but there was a whole bunch of interesting things to look at.  With that in mind, I assume Aeon Flux's screenwriters had carte blanche when putting together this plot, and yet they came up with a pretty terrible story.  I don't want to spoil the twist in the plot, but it's pretty basic sci-fi stuff and it's not handled with either intelligence or ingenuity.  It's not all the story, though.  For a movie with so many random and weird futuristic things, like killer lawns and hands where your feet should be (to be fair, that was just one character), a lot of Bregna was very reminiscent of the 20th century.  Do you wonder what fashion will look like in 400 years?  For most people, exactly the same as today; that makes sense, because normal dress today closely resembles that of 1611.  The only people that wore unusual clothes were the abnormally hot, like Charlize Theron.
Why is she wearing boob drapes to bed?
Sure, I could pick on the science behind the story, but that factors into the big twist.  I do wonder how any of these people became more or less superhuman.  That's not really explained or even mentioned.  And some of the stuff is really weird.  Take the scene where Aeon catches a fly with her eyelashes.  Um...awesome?  What is that supposed to show me?  That she needs to wash her eyes now?  I don't get it.  I also don't get how Aeon and her friends are such efficient assassins.  Since the only army in Bregna is the one that protects the government, shouldn't the list of crack shots in the city be pretty well-known?  For that matter, I would think that, with so few humans left, the impossibly gifted ones would be relatively well known.  And yet, Aeon (who the two heads of the government both recognize on sight) lives an anonymous life?  I am willing to turn off my brain to certain things when watching dumb movies, but don't mix stupid action movies with pseudo-science fiction. 

I will give director Karyn Kusama credit for making a visually interesting movie.  It doesn't look very realistic and often looks like it's in Technicolor TM, but I don't know if she was going for plausibility, so I won't knock her for that.  Does this movie stay true to the television series?  Not particularly, from what I can recall, but I'm okay with that.  If you are a big fan of the show, you should know that there was no way in hell that a comprehensible live action movie could be made from it; while this takes several liberties with the source material, I think it did the best that could be expected.  In other words, I don't know why they wanted to make this movie, but it came out as good as it should have.  In still other words, any reliance on the original material guaranteed an incomprehensible product, and this movie should never have gotten beyond the planning stage.

But it was made, and actual actors signed up to star in it.  After a couple of serious dramas with critical acclaim, Charlize Theron was apparently tired of looking less than supermodely, so she took this role.  At least, that's the only reason I can think of for an Academy Award winner to agree to this tripe.  Her acting was decently mediocre, and probably better than the script demanded, but she still didn't do anything special.  I would put her work in this movie on par with her commercial work.

"Gold is cold"? What, is she writing the lyrics to Goldfinger?  That's okay, though; she just had to act to the standards of her co-stars.  You may remember Marton Csokas as the villain from Kangaroo Jack and xXx, and if that doesn't give you a hint about his acting talents, I don't know what will.  Jonny Lee Miller is just about as accomplished an actor as Csokas, but he plays a pretty annoying villain here.  I was also disappointed in Sophie Okonedo (the lady with hands for her feet) --- she's better than this.  Speaking of disappointment, what the hell was Frances McDormand doing in this movie?
Helena Bonham Carter looks great!
Pete Postlethwaite popping up for a bit part I am willing to accept, but McDormand is a genuinely fantastic actress.  Did she hear that this movie already had a slumming Academy Award nominee (Okonedo) and winner (Theron) and figured that no other film has had so much underachieving female talent in it?

[Side note: drop a comment if you can think of a movie as bad or worse than Aeon Flux with this many Oscar-worthy actresses in it.]

For this film to have worked on any dramatic level whatsoever, it needed to, at the very least, shown the populace being genuinely disturbed by their bad dreams.  Those dreams are a symptom of the city's horrible secret, and just mentioning that people have bad dreams doesn't justify assassination or toppling governments.  For this movie to work on an action movie level, it needed better action scenes.  That's pretty basic.  For this movie to work as a science fiction film, it needed more convincing science and fiction.  When I think about Aeon Flux, I am left thinking of a killer lawn.

And that's a pretty lame scene to sum up a movie.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The American

It's kind of funny, when you think about it...The American is a mostly European movie.  Sure, that makes it easy to figure out who the titular character is, but it's still a little funny.  Well, it's not very funny, but nothing in this movie will get that funny again, so take the grins where you can, people.

Jack (George Clooney) is apparently spending a holiday in a remote, wooded area in the wintertime with his lady love.  As they take a stroll in the fresh snow, Jack notices a set of footprints in the snow.  He immediately grabs his lady by the hand and rushes to the nearest shelter, provided by some large rocks.  It was just in time, too, as gunshots ricochet off the rocks.  Jack pulls out a gun, which surprises his lover, flanks the shooter and shoots him dead.  He then orders his lady to run back to their cabin and call the police; she takes two steps and Jack shoots her in the back of the head.  Wait...the hero executes his lover?  Interesting.  He then circles around to the nearest road and sneaks up on his assailant's back-up, killing him, too. 

Jack changes his look (he shaves off his beard and cuts his hair) and makes his way to Rome, where he contacts Pavel (Johan Leysen).  Pavel acts as a go-between for Jack and his employers.  They meet, Jack tells his story, and Pavel tells him to go into hiding; Pavel gives Jack a cell phone, a car, and a town to lay low in.  Jack follows his instructions, but caution gets the better of him and he ditches the phone and the car and finds another small town to hide in.  Eventually, Jack contacts Pavel again and is offered a job.  Jack is apparently a custom weapon maker, who dabbles in killing for hire.  His customer, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), is interested in a gun with the power of a submachine gun and the range of a rifle, but with stealth.  She's not the only new friend Jack makes while in hiding; he also frequents a particular prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), who likes him enough to see him socially.  Between visits from these two very different women, Jack also notices strange men paying him particular attention in town.  Who is trying to kill Jack, and why?  Why does he do what he does?  Should we hate the player, or just the game?  I won't lie to you; not all of these questions are answered in The American.

This movie feels SO European.  Part of it is the unfamiliar cast, aside from Clooney, but the rest comes from the tone.  There is very little musical score in the movie; most of the sound is ambient.  There is very little dialogue in the film, and there are no monologues or voice-overs to let you know what characters are thinking.  It is very common for several minutes to pass without anything said on screen.  This is a movie that is trying to live up to the title of a thriller --- this movie is about building suspense.  But, like I said before, it is doing so in a European art-house fashion, which means that there is very little action and lots of anticipation.

The acting is good throughout.  George Clooney is surprisingly subdued, but it matches the character well.  I was surprised at just how old Clooney can look with a full beard; it's not because he's gone gray --- the man is a silver fox --- but his "concerned" look causes his forehead to crease, showing enough deep ridges to be favorably compared to a pack of hot dogs.  Seriously, it's like his forehead is ribbed for her pleasure.  It goes away when he smiles, but he's going to look crotchety in his old age, I can tell.
Clooney's future
I liked Violante Placido, and not just because she is apparently very comfortable with nudity; there have been many hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stories over the years, but it was nice to have one that was pretty independent.  The rest of the supporting cast was adequate, but not bad.  Paolo Bonacelli introduces the concept of Jack's remorse, Thekla Reuten embodies the danger inherent in his lifestyle, and Johan Leysen is dangerously noncommittal.  Little was demanded of these actors, since the story belonged to Jack and how he saw things closing in on him.

Not everyone is going to enjoy director Anton Corbijn's adaptation of the novel A Very Private Gentleman.  Corbijn goes out of his way to show and not tell things, and that leaves the audience with the burden of figuring things out for themselves.  It's very doable, of course, but not everyone likes that much work when they watch a movie.  It was beautifully shot, but the pacing was intentionally slow.  And it's not just a little slow, either --- this is worse than church traffic slow.

I enjoyed a lot of things in this movie.  I appreciated the cinematography, I liked the acting, and it was pretty cool watching Clooney build a gun from basic parts.  I really liked the way that Jack was overly cautious about Clara's affection for him; it was very anti-spy movie for him to get answers first and sex later.  The first scene was completely awesome and some parts of this movie were suitably nerve-wracking, too.  In truth, this movie felt like a proper spy story.  It's intelligent and patient and, when the time comes, full of cat-and-mouse strategy.  I just wish it was more exciting.  As much as I enjoyed the movie, I found my attention wandering.  The film isn't too long, clocking in at just over 100 minutes, but it felt at least half an hour longer.  I hate to be another stupid American viewer, but the movie's pace was glacial.  If you cut out twenty minutes of nothing happening, I would have liked it a lot more.  As it stands, though, I'm going to have to dock it some points for losing my attention, despite a lot of quality work involved.
I would like to state that I reserve the right to come back to this movie at a later date and upgrade that rating.  I may have just been restless tonight.  Regardless, this is a well-made film, even if it is occasionally boring.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Taking of Pelham 123

Woo!  Let's hear it for remakes!  WOO!  Yeah...I may be overcompensating.  Let's hear it for train-based thrillers, then?  Woo...?

In the mid-70s, Walter Matthau starred in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  While making a movie about criminals with a master plan was certainly not new at the time, the sarcastic and light-hearted tone of the main characters added some unexpected levity to a subject matter that would normally have been deadly serious.  It is that tone, more than the crime itself, that made One Two Three a success.

Fast forward thirty years or so, and it is naturally time to remake this movie and update it to modern times.  The Taking of Pelham 123 (check it out --- the numbers aren't spelled out any more...edgy!) makes a few important departures from the original film.  Four armed men seize control of the New York subway train leaving Pelham station at 1:23, led by a man who will eventually identify himself as "Ryder...with a Y" (John Travolta).  Ryder alerts the on-duty train dispatcher, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), and demands $10 million in ransom for the hostages he has.  The city of New York has one hour to comply before Ryder starts killing hostages.  That's all well and good, and the mayor of New York (James Gandolfini) is willing to pay the ransom, but how does Ryder expect to escape?

I am not the biggest fan in the world of Tony Scott's direction, but the man has made some pretty good movies over the years.  This might not be one of them.  The movie has plenty of scenes shown in fast motion, often followed up with extremely blurry slow-motion shots.  Is it because the camera is showing things passing by from the train's perspective, and then slowing down to show something important?  No, I think it's done simply to look cool.  And it does, it just doesn't have anything to do with the story or characters, and that irritates me.  The rest of his direction is fine, I guess.  I think he hasn't been bringing out the best in Denzel in their past few collaborations, but even mediocre Denzel is still pretty solid.

This is the third time Tony Scott has directed Denzel Washington, after Man on Fire and Deja Vu, and I am very surprised that they keep working together.  Sure, Man on Fire was awesome, but Denzel is capable of a lot more than what Scott demands of him in these thrillers.  Yes, he was fine in this movie.  His character was changed significantly from the original film to add depth and moral ambiguity, and Washington conveys those differences well.  It's just not a great role in a great movie.  John Travolta is partly to blame for that.  I hate it when Travolta plays villains.  For some reason, playing morally bankrupt characters gives him a license to overact and deliver incredibly stupid lines.  It all began back in Broken Arrow, and he has managed to find the most ridiculous lines in every mean character he's played since.
(Link) View more Riley Hale Sound Clips and Vic Deakins Sound Clips
This movie's winner for my "John Travolta 'Yeah...ain't it cool' Award" is:
"[Walter Garber] sounds sexy.  He'd be my bitch in prison."
Thanks for the insight, John.  Basically, Travolta misses the mark on being sinister and instead is an over-animated egomaniac with a "cool" mustache. The supporting cast is full of really good actors, but their characters aren't too spectacular.  James Gandolfini is the best of the bunch, with Luis Guzman and John Turturro playing pretty vanilla characters that are there just to propel the plot.  That really disappointed me, since I like all three actors.

I would also like to call out Brian Helgeland's script.  While Helgeland is capable of some pretty great work, he leans more toward bad writing.  This isn't one of his better efforts.  Since the movie is a remake it's easy to see what was changed in the script.  Helgeland added copious amounts of profanity, unnecessary car crashes, and the typical movie stereotype of New Yorkers (you know...loud-mouthed jerks).  Personally, I think the writing matches up pretty well with Scott's jittery camera work, but it's not terribly thrilling and just turning up the attitude of the bad guys doesn't fix that core problem.  And what was with changing the names of the bad guys?  In the original, the villains had code names, so they couldn't be identified; they went by colors, an idea later copied in Reservoir Dogs.  Instead of sticking with the original smart idea (and drawing comparisons to Dogs), he came up with..."Ryder with a Y"?  What, am I supposed to infer that this train rider is a rebel because he's only sometimes a vowel?  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  My least favorite thing about the plot is Ryder's motive. SPOILER: Ryder is already rich, and doesn't need the ransom money.  He already has $2 million, and it's been invested in gold for about a decade.  This is all just to make him obscenely wealthy.  What a boring motive for a villain.

This isn't a bad movie, but it's just not that great.  They updated a movie by removing all the charm from it, replacing it with random F-bombs and Travolta-stache.  The cast is very talented, but the script isn't very interesting, which is hard to do with a heist movie.  It is fast-paced and manages to keep the puzzle pieces falling slowly enough so that there is always something to learn, but it's just not enough.  This is just a bland product with some good ingredients.