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Style over substance, but quite a lot of style.
Western literature has been mining Greek mythology ever since the time of the Romans, but the last few years have seen a volume of screen adaptations not seen since Ray Harryhausen was in his prime. The start of the 2000s saw a couple of films set in Ancient Greece but without the gods ("Troy", most notably, then "300", though the latter adopted an oft-copied stylized book that had little to do with reality either), which gave way to myth-based adventures (the "Clash of the Titans" remake, the adaptation of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians"; incidentally, though that latter film was bad, I highly recommend the books it was based on). "Immortals" has, based on the trailers, been pegged as a "300" knockoff with the gods present. There are certainly some similarities, but Singh's visual sense is ultimately much different than Zack Snyder's was (there's a lot more beauty and colour in this world, for starters, whereas Snyder's emphasized earth tones and grime. Plot details are discussed hence, so be warned for spoilers.
In Hellenas (Greece), our hero is Theseus (Henry Cavill, the future Superman) - actually, to get this out of the way, the film uses a bunch of mythological characters' names (Theseus, Phaedra, Lysander, Hyperion), but the characters in question haven't any real relation to their mythological counterparts - the bastard son of a village woman. When the evil Heraclean king, Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, surprisingly not out of place in the ancient setting, though the heavy stylization doubtless facilitates that), sacks his village and kills his mother, Theseus finds himself in the company of Phaedra ("Slumdog Millionaire"'s Freida Pinto, on duty as the love interest for the second time this year; she has more to do here than in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", though that was the superior film), the virgin Oracle, who has prophesied that he will play a crucial role in the war between Hyperion and the gods (he seeks to unleash the Titans and end the reign of the Olympians, in revenge for the deaths of his family). Hyperion, meanwhile, seeks Phaedra, who can reveal to him the location of the Epirus Bow, a fabled weapon of immense power. A quite exceptional amount of violence ensues.
As a story with characters, it's pretty minimal, but I imagine anyone going into it expected that. I will, nonetheless, comment on the plot in one aspect: in the past I've encountered films where the hero's only heroism was all about stopping an evil that they had accidentally caused, which often doesn't come across as especially heroic; "Immortals", on the other hand, features a hero who *fails* to stop anything. Theseus would have to be considered the least successful action hero since Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (if Dr. Jones had gone on an extended vacation to Yugoslavia, would the ultimate result have been very different at all?) - in fact, you can build a pretty good case that if Theseus had done nothing at all things would have turned out better, since his only meaningful action was finding the Epirus Bow and then losing it so that Hyperion could use it to free the Titans. The gods defeat the Titans, and Theseus' killing of Hyperion is meaningless since the villain would have been killed along with his armies when Zeus collapsed the mountain. Sure, he was brave, but what did he actually accomplish in the grand scheme of things? Henry Cavill is a credible hero, and has great pecs (certainly, he feels less over-the-top than did Gerard Butler in "300", though I'm not sure whether he actually is). The aforementioned Rourke is a menacing villain, aided by the director letting him do some memorably gory things to make an impression. Freida Pinto, as I said, gets more to do here than in her last blockbuster, and I'd say she does fairly well with the movie's main female part (the movie never pretends that the petite Pinto is an action hero either, which I appreciated after too many movies featuring waifs with the combat skills of a Green Beret), though it's hardly a demanding role. Pinto is also, among the cast, the primary beneficiary of her director's aesthetic skill, as he finds many ways to showcase her beauty (a brief nude scene is not actually her, but there are many stunning images of her in a red dress). The supporting cast includes Stephen Dorff as what I suppose is meant to be a Han Solo figure, Stavros, and Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas, and Kellan Lutz as gods.
Tarsem Singh is the real star of the proceedings, though. He does some remarkable things with his camera, producing quite a few memorable images and setpieces. His use of colour stands out repeatedly, particularly the aforementioned red dress that Pinto wears (which does a great job of staying clean even in the midst of a typhoon of oil that coats everything else). His rendering of Mount Olympus is by far the best I've ever seen on film - there's not a trace of the simple fluffy clouds populated by people wearing bedsheets so often seen in older films; pure majesty. For all the inventive fight scenes, though, I don't understand how Zeus (Evans) could go the whole movie without using his thunderbolt even once (though he proves adept with chains).
As a story, this is lacking in numerous respects, but as a visual experience it's quite a marvel. I came away thinking that Singh could perhaps be a great director if would devote as much care to his stories as to the images used to tell them. As it is, we have a visually stunning mediocrity.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
An entertaining swashbuckler that gives a great character a new lease on life.
Sherlock Holmes has been identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the most frequently used fictional characters in history. Appearing first in the 60 stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he has subsequently went on to make hundreds (if not thousands) of appearances in novels, film, television, and radio, with the part essayed by a number of very talented actors, with Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett the most notable. Adventures on the big screen have been slim pickings for a while (the last really notable one was 1985's "Young Sherlock Holmes", obviously a bit of a break with traditional formulas) as TV adaptations have been the go-to medium. This new entry aims to jumpstart a new cinema franchise and introduce Holmes as a living character to a new generation of fans (as opposed to just being a cultural touchstone), with the assistance of talents like Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. This has been met with understandable wariness by longtime fans, but I would say that overall the movie succeeds admirably at its goal. Some spoilers follow.
The bare bones of the plot (summarized in innumerable places elsewhere): Holmes (Downey Jr.) and Watson (Law) crack the case of a series of ritualistic murders and arrest the man responsible, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong; doing a lot of villain-work this year, and looking like a British crossbreed of Andy Garcia and Stanley Tucci). However, even after Blackwood is hung by the neck until dead, trouble continues, and it appears that he may indeed have risen from the grave thanks to the black magic he claimed to possess. Holmes is back on the trail of the seemingly-resurrected villain, while former acquaintance Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) reenters the picture, in the employ of an anonymous stranger. And on the domestic front, Watson is getting engaged to the nice Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and preparing to move out of his Baker Street bachelor flat, much to Holmes' annoyance.
I would say that this film has been somewhat poorly-represented by its trailers and promotional material (not poorly served, though, if the box office returns are any measure), which plays up the action to a point that will turn off many diehards (though one imagines they'll still see it to feel the joy of bilious outrage). While there is certainly more physicality to this production than to your average BBC adaptation, director Guy Ritchie retains the core of Holmes as a cerebral man (and, truth be told, Doyle's original knew his way around a fight, even if the author didn't spare much prose on depicting it). Tastes change a bit, and, so long as the core of the character isn't lost, it's fine by me to show him in a few scraps.
Downey's Holmes is a brilliant/eccentric mind with addiction issues, and rather poor hygiene (I tend to think of him as being more precise, even when troubled, but whatever). But he's always on top of things. Saints be praised, though, for Jude Law's Watson, who will hopefully go a long way toward rescuing the character from the bumbling ghetto created by Nigel Bruce's characterization and carried on ever since. Law gives us a strong, confident Watson who is an indispensible part of Holmes' operation, and possessed of considerable deductive prowess of his own. The film really hangs on the Holmes/Watson interaction, and Downey and Law hit it off marvelously. The film opens in media res (a smart move, really; it's not like anyone is unaware of who these characters are and how they work), and you get a palpable sense of two people who've been working together for a very long time. The ladies threatening to intrude on this male-bonding exercise, McAdams and Reilly, are both fine, though the writers sometimes seem a bit insure of what to do with Irene (they know enough about the mythos to know that Holmes isn't the romantic type, even if this is a bit more in that direction than most depictions, so this is a fairly mild case of Catwoman). Mark Strong glowers and growls sufficiently as the villain.
While heavier on the action than your typical Holmes story, and a lot grimier in its production design (true to life, one imagines; outside of the upper class, Victorian London wasn't the cleanest of places), Ritchie and his writers retain a lot of the core Holmes story aspects. A villain with seemingly mystical powers must be confronted, and Holmes' logical mind must inevitably pierce the veil and uncover the rational explanation behind it all (outlined in a marvelous little climactic scene). And, as we find out, Holmes has been slowly building his case through the whole movie, but rarely letting anything on. The film also does a pretty good job of making Holmes' end-of-film explanation visually interesting, rather than just a dull monologue.
The film ends with some quite obvious sequel setup, and given the box office numbers, it's pretty likely we'll see a "Sherlock Holmes 2" in a few years; I welcome it.
An Education (2009)
A solid drama with a great lead performance.
"An Education" is a compact little British drama that has been making the rounds in 2009, earning favourable reviews with a particular emphasis on the starmaking performance of its lead actress, which has already been recognized by numerous awards organizations with nominations. Directed by Lone Scherfig, this film boasts considerably more pleasures than just the work of Carey Mulligan, though it is Mulligan's performance that will be remembered in the long-run (hopefully in what will be a lengthy career on the screen). The film comes with a screenplay by popular British writer Nick Hornby, adapted from a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber that describes experiences approximate to the ones depicted here (standard allowances being made for dramatics).
Jenny (Mulligan) is a 16-year-old aspirant Oxfordian in early 1960s Britain (which is more or less still 50s Britain; the era we think of as the "60s" culturally didn't really start until about midway through the decade), whose parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) have been rigourously preparing her to achieve entry into the nation's top university, to the extent of mapping out her life to conform to Oxford's entrance requirements (her father informs her at one point that while she must play the cello, thus enabling her to list it as a hobby, it isn't required that she devote so much time as to actually become really good at it). Jenny is grasping for whatever straws of sophistication she can find in this rather bland atmosphere (anything French, for example; the albums of Juliette Greco) when she encounters David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who soon whisks her into a much more glamorous existence alongside his friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike, the latter having costarred with Mulligan in 2005's "Pride & Prejudice" film; Mulligan was Kitty, Pike Jane). This new world eventually dazzles her parents, but ruffles the feathers of her school authorities (Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams) in different ways. Inevitably, things will go awry.
Mulligan's performance has attracted most of the critical and awards attention, not undeservedly. A minor presence prior to this, this is the sort of performance that opens doors for actors, and one can only hope Mulligan will take advantage of it. That said, she's supported more than adequately by the rest of the cast, with Alfred Molina being particularly strong as her father. Also notable is Rosamund Pike, who's clearly enjoying herself playing the marvelously dim Helen; and Peter Sarsgaard (sporting what appears to be a credible British accent; being Canadian, I will of course defer to the judgment of actual Britons who wish to disagree), who has to walk a particularly fine line. His character is, really, a creep, but he has to simultaneously be charming enough to sell the idea that anyone else would put up with him while creepy enough that the film doesn't glamourize this sort of relationship. He pulls it off. Plot-wise, there are a few weak parts; I thought it was a bit excessive to have David and Danny go around randomly lifting stuff, in addition to their more important morality problems. And, as has been noted elsewhere, the film doesn't end especially well. It doesn't quite seem to know how to wrap things up, and Jenny's recovery after hitting nadir feels rather perfunctory (not to mention, surely it's not just Oxford or bust). Some sort of final reckoning with David would probably have been a better way to go here.
All in all, well worth a viewing.
An enjoyable diversion.
There are any number of reasons why "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" will be frequently compared to 2007's indie hit "Juno", chief among them the presence of Michael Cera, the male lead in that film, again opposite a peppy brunette who isn't quite sure what she wants in life (neither is he, for that matter). While not in the same league as "Juno" in terms of character or story (though possessed of a far less annoying soundtrack), it is worthwhile for anyone looking for an entertaining film about teens.
The titular Nick is the depressed guitarist for a queercore band (meaning, all the other members are gay), and thoroughly depressed over being dumped by his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dzienza); at the urging of his bandmates, he goes to their latest gig, largely because he has learned that his favourite band ('Where's Fluffy?') will be playing at an undisclosed location (which seems counterproductive to selling, to me, but what do I know about hipster music?). Norah, meanwhile, is a nominal friend of Tris' who has never met Nick, but knows of him through the CDs he is continually making and sending to Tris ("Road to Closure, volume 12" the most recent example), which she picks up after Tris discards them. A chance encounter leads to them meeting cute and pretending to be together, sparking a multiplicity of sideplots involving a jealous Tris, Norah's drunk friend Caroline (Ari Gaynor, who deserves some kind of prize for playing one of the least appealing drunks in recent memory), and, of course, the question of "Fluffy".
This is the sort of production that (like "Before Sunrise") hinges on the main actors' performances and chemistry, and Michael Cera and Kat Dennings succeed wonderfully in that regard. Cera, as most reviewers have noted, is basically playing the same character that he played in "Juno", "Arrest Development", and "Superbad"; it's a popular persona, one that he has honed to smile-inducing precision, and, in his defence, he is nowhere near the first actor to develop a schtick (indeed, most of the greats refined a persona and either played to or against type). Cera might try something different in the near future just to give a better idea of his rang (serial killer!), but I won't hold that against him. Kat Dennings, meanwhile, strikes a very individual note; Norah is extremely well-characterized. Dennings does a good job of showing her uncertainties and conveying her frustrated attitudes towards the still-hung-up Nick. The rest of the cast does a good job in small parts. The crew makes the New York nightlife look tremendously appealing.
Recommended as a light entertainment.
The Reader (2008)
Well, Winslet's plan to win an Oscar by starring in a Holocaust film worked.
Stephen Daldry is a director who has started to acquire a reputation for tackling books that are rather difficult to adapt, starting with his 2002 debut, "The Hours". This time, he has chosen as his subject Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel 'Der Vorleser', which was somewhat controversial at the time, attracting accusations of creating too much reader sympathy for a former SS officer. I did not find that to be the case here; what Schlink and Daldry are doing, as I see it, is raising uncomfortable questions and taking the stance that there are no neat answers (which could, I suppose, be called a dodge, or else dramatically unsatisfying).
The film, like "The Hours", has a somewhat intricate narrative structure, juggling timelines in 1958, 1966, spans from the 1970s to the 1980s, and 1995. There are points when this seems unnecessarily complicated, but it generally works well. The most effective sequences are the 1958-1966 span, where Michael Berg (David Kross) finds himself drawn into an affair with Hanna Schmidt (Kate Winslet), a Neustadt tram employee. He is 15, she considerably older. Their relationship is almost a quid pro quo of sex and reading. Then, one day, she vanishes, only to return into his life surprisingly in 1966, when he finds her on trial for her role in the death of 300 Jewish women in the final days of World War II. In the later sequences, an adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes, a long way from Amon Goethe) as he deals with the aftermath of these events.
One of the more prurient items of discussion regarding this film is that it features quite a bit of Kate Winslet naked and having sex (though 1 in every 2 Kate Winslet movies might be said to have the same). There is also plenty from the young Kross (one imagines your average young actor would be thrilled for their first role to involve a lot of time being naked in bed with Kate Winslet). There is in our society something of a double-standard regarding such underage relationships; if this film starred Brad Pitt and Emma Watson, once imagines the reaction of critics and audiences would be rather different. However, "The Reader" conveys with great subtlety the damage this does to Michael (even before the Nazi revelation). In 1958, while the affair goes on, Michael becomes isolated from his friends and ignores the more age-appropriate Sophie; by 1966, at law school, he finds himself incapable of sleeping in the same bed as a fellow law student; in the present day, we find him divorced and struggling to connect with his daughter.
On the issue of the Holocaust, the filmmakers are quite aware of the risk they run in focussing so much on Hanna; the camera tends to create sympathy, particularly as she is so scared an uncomprehending when brought to trial. We feel the temptation to make excuses for her based on illiteracy. And, at the end, the film wheels out a survivor (Lena Olin, wonderful in two scenes) to challenge this directly. Michael, whose story this is and whose views have been transplanted to the audience to an extent, squirms under her questions. As Olin says, the film cannot offer absolution, nor, perhaps, should it (that's up to you, of course).
Berg's guilt comes not just from his inability to resolve the question of Hanna, but also from his own actions in 1966, and what that says about him. On a much smaller scale, he repeats the moral cowardice of Hanna's generation which casts doubt on whether he'd have done any better in her situation.
The cast is excellent. Winslet deserved an Oscar for the work she does here (though it's more properly a supporting role, not a lead); what she does with her facial expressions in the trial scene is impressive. Kross makes a strong impression here as well. There's novelty in the presence of actors from past Holocaust dramas occupying roles much more sympathetic; not just Spielberg's Amon Goethe, but Hitler himself, Bruno Ganz ("Downfall", another film that attracted criticism of too much sympathy for the devil), as a law professor. Overall, a very strong package.
And for those who don't get the title reference, do consider watching the BBC comedy series "Extras".
Hulk Vs. (2009)
Marvel's best animated DVD yet.
Generally, I've not found Marvel's D-T-DVD stuff released so far to be that impressive, but these both really worked, in terms of what they set out to do.
Starting out, I'd say that the Hulk is really just kind of there in both stories; he's worked into the plot, but in both cases the writers basically hijacked the initial idea (Hulk vs. Wolverine, Hulk vs. Thor) to tell some other story. In Wolverine it's "finally, we get to do an R-rated version of Weapon X", and in Thor it's "finally, we get to cram in absolutely every aspect of the Thor mythos that we have any interest in onto animation" (which, given that there's both an animated series and a second D-T-DVD which is trailed here, may have been a bit unnecessary, but it's still good).
Part I: Hulk vs. Wolverine
Basically a big fight scene. Wolverine is called in by Department H to deal with a rampaging Hulk, who has seemingly destroyed an entire town along the US-Canadian border. Wolverine tracks the Hulk down (not really knowing what he is at this point), fights him, and basically fights to a draw (this is the 70s-era version that Wolverine was created to fight), and then are captured by Weapon X (which apparently isn't associated with Department H here). This story is tied into the Wolverine and the X-Men cartoon, so Wolverine, Banner, Sabretooth, and Professor Thornton all have the same voice actors; also here are Lady Deathstrike, Omega Red, and Deadpool. Thornton wants Wolverine back in the program, but Deathstrike and Sabretooth would rather kill him, so they stab Thornton and, well, try to kill him. Big fight, etc. The attraction here is seeing "claw people" (as Hulk calls them) stab each other a lot with blood and stuff; Deadpool's quite funny.
Part II: Hulk vs. Thor
Starting out, I'll say that fans of Thor who were expecting an epic throwdown between the two will be disappointed here; this might more accurately be titled "Hulk walks all over Thor, and so Thor has to find some other way of stopping the Hulk". I personally have never found the uber-godmoder Hulk all that interesting, but it's an established thing, so there you go; getting past that, the story's pretty good, and if you like Thor's world pretty everybody is here.
The story takes place during the yearly Odinsleep, when the All-Father rests and all the villains try to conquer Asgard because Odin is absurdly powerful and they've only got a chance when he's not there. Thor and co. beat up all comers, as usual (Thor's getting rather depressed by this endless cycle). Loki and Enchantress capture Bruce Banner, and turn him into the Hulk; Amora then pulls Banner out the Hulk (and Loki kills him), leaving only the incarnate rage (see Hulk #300 in the early 80s), with Loki pulling the strings. However, the rage becomes too much and breaks Loki's control, and Rage-Hulk is loosed and starts destroying everything. He beats up the Warriors Three and Balder, then pummels Thor to death (to Loki's delight), and heads off towards the city; Hela is about to claim Thor's soul, but Enchantress intervenes and brings him back to life, since her whole motivation for helping Loki was she was angry that Thor chose Sif over her. Thor and Enchantress capture Loki, and Thor makes Loki go with him to Hel to reclaim Banner to put him back in the Hulk, and sends Enchantress to help Sif, who's the End Boss guarding Odin. So Thor and Loki journey thither, while Hulk punches his way through like a bajillion random guards, Brunnhilde and the other Valkyries, etc. on his way there.
As a tour of the Nine Worlds, it packs quite a lot into 40+ minutes (it's the longer of the two); both of these stories just drop you into an established world, which is refreshingly different from how a lot of these films do things; you pick up all the necessary information as you go along.
Gran Torino (2008)
Clint Eastwood: herald of multiculturalism?
Clint Eastwood returns to the screen with his second film of 2008 as a director (and his first acting role since "Million Dollar Baby" in 2004), following the Angelina Jolie vehicle "Changeling", and the result is one of the more interesting features in his filmography. Though the role of Walt Kowalski was apparently not written with Eastwood specifically in mind, it is almost impossible to think otherwise, as so much in the film depends upon the screen persona that Eastwood has painstakingly constructed in the minds of audiences over his several decades of screen stardom (drawing, in particular, upon the four films he did as Detective "Dirty" Harry Callahan, the iconic vigilante cop). The marketing suggests that this is just another such vigilante story, pitting the now 78-year-old Eastwood against another gang of ethnic toughs for the safety of his neighbours (which probably set stereotype alarms off in many a viewer). However, what the trailer suggests is not much like what the film delivers.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a just-widowed retired Ford employee and Korean War veteran living in Highland Park, Michigan. The film opens with his wife's funeral, where he scowls at just about everyone: his two sons, their wives, and their children, especially the eldest granddaughter; and he insults the earnest but inexperienced young priest (Christopher Carney) who, at Walt's dead wife's urging, has committed himself to making Walt go to confession, which the old man has no intention of doing. Walt is just about the last white person living in his old neighbourhood, otherwise populated now by Hmong immigrants. Walt is racist almost to the point of caricature (the film takes refuge in audacity; he's so virulent in his insults that it becomes a genuinely uproarious point of humour with the audience), but he's generally misanthropic, and would rather just be left alone with his dog, Daisy, and his beloved car, the titular 1972 Gran Torino. It is the car, however, that leads to him being dragged into the lives of his neighbours, the Lor family. Thao (Bee Vang) is a fatherless young man without direction in life, who, over the objections of his sister Sue (Ahney Her), finds himself drawn towards his cousin's gang. The price of initiation is the theft of Walt's Gran Torino, which he fails at; the gang attempts to drag him away, but Walt, not knowing Thao was his attempted carjacker, intervenes ("Get off my lawn."), and inadvertently becomes a hero to the neighbourhood, to his annoyance.
Resocializing Walt becomes the project of Sue, the independent-minded and Americanized daughter, who is heedless of Walt's constant insults (firing some of her own back at him, which seems to earn her his respect). In particular, Sue hopes that her brother can find a male role model and some idea of what he wants to do in life. Meanwhile, the gang lurks on the periphery.
This sounds like an extremely cliché and sentimental story of a white guy learning a Valuable Lesson about race, mixed with a standard Clint Eastwood vigilante drama about taking the fight to the local punks, but it is neither. On the former score, Eastwood's style of storytelling (and his presence in the story itself) is relentless in avoiding sentimentality; there is a strongly realistic feeling to the proceedings. There is, however, an unexpectedly high quotient of humour; the middle section of the film is frequently hilarious, making a strong case for Eastwood as the ultimate straight man in a buddy comedy (though he is also the source of most of the humour, a mix of "fish out of water" and audacious "I can't believe they went there" use of racial slurs). On the second count, the story Eastwood is telling here is actually a thorough deconstruction of the "Dirty Harry" persona that he has cultivated over the years, similar to his "Unforgiven" as a take on his old Western roles. Much of Walt's mentoring of Thao concerns views of masculinity, and the ultimate result is something audiences probably won't expect. This story wasn't expressly written with Eastwood in mind, but it's hard to imagine anyone else essaying the part, which ends up drawing so much from audience recognition of Eastwood's own history. One would never have imagined Clint Eastwood as a herald of a new, multicultural America, but that is the image this film presents us with, as the Hmong are the new defenders of traditional American family values, while Walt's family are incredibly shallow (a minor knock against the film, I think; they're so cartoonishly unworthy as to not be very believable), and there's an hysterical attack on the only other young white character as a weak imitator of blacks (or, more specifically, urban gangster/thug culture) (which the blacks don't take kindly to either; African-Americans and Latinos are tangential here, with gangs of each appearing briefly, but the focus is mainly on whites and Asians).
On the acting front, Eastwood turns in another award-worthy performance; whether or not he gets an Oscar nomination, I would count him deserving of one. Eastwood also, per another recent trend, helps score the film, and actually warbles a few bars of the theme song, "Gran Torino", which must be heard to be believed. The primary debate among reviewers of this film seems to be about whether the first-time Hmong actors that Eastwood has cast are great, awful, or something in between. Of the two main Hmong actors, Ahney Her as Sue I found to be extremely compelling; Sue is, after Walt, the film's best-realized character, and one minor issue I had with the film is how she sort of fades from view as the focus shifts to Thao. Vang as Thao is less polished than Sue, and some scenes stretch the limits of his range, but it is a credible debut.
All in all, this is one of the year's best films, and I would highly recommend it.
The Duchess (2008)
A fine period drama.
A lot of people think of British period drama as stuffy and boring, a reputation it occasionally does something to deserve, but history is anything but dull, and if you were under the impression that the past was a place of strong moral values and happy marriages that has given way to our current immoral society full of single parents and extramarital affairs, think again. Consider the subject of the life of Georgiana Spenser Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley).
Married young by her mother (Charlotte Rampling, in a wonderfully controlled performance) to William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), the foremost peer of the realm, she finds quickly that her husband (who she met only twice beforehand) is a cold and distant fellow who is only interested in a male heir. Already tasked to mother his bastard daughter Charlotte, she gives birth to two daughters, to the disgust of the Duke, who has a series of mistresses that she tolerates. The Duchess becomes a social marvel, hobnobbing with Whig politicians like Charles James Fox (Simon McBurney) and Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, later 2nd Earl Grey and Prime Minister) and politician/esteemed playwright Richard Sheridan (Aidan McArdle), whose "School for Scandal" was based heavily on the Cavendishes' marriage. She eventually finds a close friend in Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster (Hayley Atwell), and invites her to live with them, which turns out to have dangerous consequences when the Duke initiates an affair with her, and refuses to expel her. She then finds herself living in a forced menage a trois (subtle humour found in the three of them eating silent breakfasts together). Understandably, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Grey.
The dramatic core of "The Duchess" is an examination of the limited social prospects for women in this period (though, as an aside, one imagines a great many poor women from this period would gladly enter a loveless marriage to live like Georgiana does), and their limited legal rights. Both Bess and Georgiana face adulterous husbands who hold over them the prospect of never seeing their children again as a price of leaving; getting her children back is, indeed, Bess's motive for embarking on her affair with the Duke, who, as a powerful lord, is easily able to finagle it. Georgiana, likewise, initially decides to choose freedom over her daughters, but cannot. The Duke, for his part, is a controlling fellow, raised in a very patriarchal worldview; Fiennes expertly shows his emotional straitjacketing, which at odd moments make him mildly sympathetic, though he mostly is not, particularly at the conception of his long-desired son. He's normally at a loss when called to talk about feelings.
Keira Knightley, once again travelling back in time to the 18th century (her fifth or sixth visit, I believe), does a fine job as Georgiana. Hayley Atwell is likewise very good as Bess, a character who walks the finest line between sympathy and dislike from the audience. There's a curious scene included which seems to suggest at a rather different dynamic between the two women, though this doesn't go anywhere. Fiennes, as mentioned, does his best in a rather staid role. Dominic Cooper as the young semi-radical Grey is suitable, though not of the same calibre as the other actors. McBurney and McArdle are scene-stealers in small parts as Georgiana's sympathetic male acquaintances. The set design, as one would expect, is stunning.
While not in the highest tier of British period pieces, this is a fine addition to the genre.
The latest stab at producing a piece of popular Canadian cinema works pretty well.
A revelatory experience: going to the theatre to see Passchedaele with my friend Lisa, it was, on our arrival, sold out. Not something one expects of a Canadian movie. So we bought tickets for a later showing, which was itself pretty full. So, if the goal was to attract a decent-sized audience in Canada, anecdotally they're off to a good start.
As to the film itself; the setting covers most of 1917, after the Battle of Vimy Ridge and leading to the Second Battle of Passchendaele, although most of the movie is actually set on the home front, in Calgary (Lisa, being from Calgary, remarked on the way home how weird it was to recognize most of the scenery and "they weren't even trying to pretend it was, like, North Dakota or some other western place"). The film opens with the main character, Sgt. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross, writer/director/producer/actor), serving in France; after a brief fight that leaves him injured (physically and mentally), he returns home and is reassigned to recruitment. Back home, he attempts to romance a local nurse Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas, from "Wonderfalls"), whose brother David has asthma, but desperately wants to enlist in order to win the approval of his girlfriend's father (and also for another reason, which I won't mention here, since it's a twist). Eventually, everybody ends up back in France in time for the battle.
Overall, I'd say it's a pretty good effort (and, for a Canadian film, there weren't any moments where they appeared to be insufficiently budgeted, which is a feat in an of itself), although the tone of the production is inconsistent; some parts (the love story, principally) are very sentimental, while others (the battle scenes, which may be the most realistic depiction of World War I trench combat that I've yet seen, as well as a lot of the depiction of wartime homefront society) are determinedly unsentimental (there are at least two moments involving corpses that either must have been described in a letter or else Gross has a very disturbed imagination). The actors are all very good, Dhavernas in particular being lovely and quite believable.
John Adams (2008)
HBO delivers a compelling historical drama.
HBO's special miniseries and projects have been the gold standard in quality television productions in the last decade. They have delivered many popular portrayals of American history, such as the notable mid-90s TV movie with Gary Sinise as Harry Truman, and the recent FDR bio "Warm Springs". The former work made use of David McCullough's excellent biography, and now comes "John Adams", following McCullough's book the same. The result is a quality production overall, though it is a bit slow in places.
Adams was a major player in the American Revolution, and his contribution is deservedly celebrated here, though his life presents some challenges to filmmakers; in particular, he was not really a presence in the field (so no big battle scenes or such moments of martial heroics), so the main drag comes after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when Adams is shuffled off to the Continent to impotently lobby for aid from Europe.
The basic outline of the story begins in Boston in 1774, when lawyer John Adams is recruited by the British to defend the soldiers under arrest for the famous Boston Massacre, when protesters were gunned down. The question is whether their captain gave the order to fire. This first episode plays out like a legal drama; in episode two, the scene shifts to Philadelphia, and we get a new rendition of the familiar scenes of the Declaration being argued-over and drafted, and meet figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Episode three, the weakest of the seven in my opinion, sees Adams in Frnace, doing little of consequence and bemoaning his separation from his beloved wife Abigail. Adams his little talent for diplomacy or the foreign French court, and he often finds himself getting in the way of the more skilled Franklin. Upon his return to the United States in the final episodes, he must deal with the maddeningly inconsequential role of the Vice President, the rivalry between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, his troubled presidency (with the focus being on the prospect of war with France), family squabbles (most of all his drunken failure of son, Charles), and, finally, his physical decline in retirement.
The title role is essayed by Pail Giamatti, who is a rather interesting choice for the main character in a 19th century drama; he is not the sort of heroic type one might expect. This is suited to the Adams of the story, who is, for all his positive qualities, frequently petty and short-sighted, given to bursts of anger. His wife Abigail is played by Laura Linney, who sometimes skirts too close to being a stereotypical Supportive Wife, but other times is accorded more in the way of emotion and personality variance (and Linney is a great actress). Other performances of note are Stephen Dillane as Jefferson and a drole Tom Wilson as Benjamin Franklin.
Given that the story pans from 1774 to 1826, the actors require extensive use of age makeup, and the stuff used here is very good. Giamatti, in particular, spends the last few episodes as an extremely believable elderly Adams. Being HBO, the series makes a point of giving as 'realistic' a setting as possible, rather than the spotless look of movies like "1776". Bad teeth abound as Adams grows older. The series begins and ends with two especially memorable moments of period gruesomeness: the first, a grisly tarring-and-feathering of a British loyalist, the second a wince-inducing depiction of a 19th century mastectomy.
There is a rather bizarre scene where Adams rants about historical inaccuracies in the depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which seems out of place, given that this miniseries takes liberties with history as the average production does (right down the Adams' rant itself, ironically, which he did not give). It's hard to know what to make of that moment.
Regardless, this is overall a very interesting piece of work.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Excellent most of the way through, but with a doubtful ending.
The Coen Brothers, after a decade of middling productions following the (highly overrated, in my opinion) "Fargo", hit a major success in 2007 with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. It racked up awards, ultimately winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, among other Oscars. I did not see it until February 2008, when in arrived in theatres on Prince Edward Island.
The film functions on two levels: the first is as a pure thriller, and on that level it is an all-but-unqualified success. The Coens are tremendous filmmakers on a technical level, and so they are able to conjure up a series of stunningly tense set-pieces, pitting various characters against Javier Bardem's stone-cold killer Anton Chigurh. One, particularly, is brilliant: Josh Brolin's character, Llewelyn Mars, sits in his motel room, having found the tracking device placed on his person, and listens as the ominous beeping of the tracking device (which the audience has previously observed in action) approaches: the audience is on pins and needles. A great thriller needs a great villain, and Chigurh is as good a filmic foe as I have seen in many years. He is determined, and his ability to continually keep on the trail of his opponents and absorb pan is almost Schwarzeneggerian. The Coens supply him with some grisly signature weapons as well, from a nasty-looking gun to the prominent air-fired cattlegun. Bardem's performance is quite intimidating. Elsewhere, Josh Brolin and Kelly Macdonald are strong as as his most prominent targets (the latter has a particularly fine scene right at the end).
Then there is the second level, that of a more existential drama, and on that level I am less certain. There are issues of fate, chance, and the like in play here, and the nature of evil (incarnated in Chigurh), and none are really resolved, or, as far as I can see, amount to much. The title refers to Tommy Lee Jones' character's belief that the world is becoming less and less civilized as time passes. However, the movie welcomely bucks this, as Jones' elderly uncle relates that the world has always been a cruel and hard place, and criticizes his 'vanity' at thinking he could really change it. The end is inconclusive, and I could tell that many of the audience in the theatre were not satisfied by the movie's climax (which basically avoids anything climactic). The "evil wins" motif is rather banal.
This is a gripping film experience most of the way through, but the ending does not work as the ending of a thriller, and I never found the other themes particularly well-developed; ultimately, I give it a seven, since it is still first-rate most of the way through, and I know a great many people saw more in the movie then I did.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight delivers the film fans have been waiting for.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan relaunched Warner Brothers' dormant Batman franchise with "Batman Begins", an exceptionally well-made film that took a realistic, detailed approach to the origins of DC's biggest hero (arguably the most popular hero in the world). Now, three years later, Nolan and his star Christian Bale return to the property, and they deliver what is perhaps the greatest superhero film ever made (and a great film, besides), one that will become the model all others will look up to.
The first movie ended on an optimistic note: Batman had saved the city, and had "really started something", in Gordon's words: however, one tease at the end (the Joker's playing card) hinted at the violent chaos to come in the next movie. And here, Nolan delivers on that, in the form of the late Heath Ledger, in a performance that is already becoming legendary. Gordon closed the last film with a prediction that Batman's presence would lead to escalation in the criminal community. He was right. The desperate Gotham mafia (a coalition of Slavic, African-American, and Italian gangsters) turn to the Joker to deal with Batman before he brings them all down. The Joker enacts a campaign of terror designed to smoke Batman out: the caped crusader and his chief allies, DA Harvey Dent and Police Commissioner Gordon (the first film's Commissioner Loeb is among the Joker's first victims), along with assistants Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, must deal with this embodiment of chaos. Dent, as well, is romancing Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a superior replacement for Katie Holmes).
Nolan and his screenwriters draw on several different comics sources to create their vision of Batman, the Joker, and Gotham. The most obvious among these are Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke" (perhaps the seminal Batman vs. Joker story) and Jeph Loeb's "Batman: The Long Halloween", which involved Harvey Dent and the struggle between Batman and the mob. Moore's Joker was conceived of as having no fixed origin, and Nolan follows throuhg with this: the Joker has no origin, though he offers several different versions to different people.
Conversely, the film diverges noticeably from the comics in its depiction of Two-Face. There is no split personality in evidence, nor any of the psychological problems that said personality springs from. Two-Face has more or less been cut down to his gimmick, and then a new rationale for the gimmick constructed to suit the themes of the film. Eckhart is very compelling as this version, which also sports some effectively grisly makeup/effects.
"Batman Begins" was notable for being the first Batman film to really be about Batman, instead of being a showcase for various freakshow villains; this is dialled back a bit in this film, where the villains take more of a centre-stage. Batman still has a significant character arc, but the story is less about him; notice that the buzz surrounding the movie centres on Ledger, not Bale. That Batman is less of a focus is not a bad thing in and of itself, so long as the villains are well-done, which they are. Caine, Freeman, Oldman, and Gyllenhaal are all effective supporting cast.
One of the most notable things about this film is its ability to make the audience doubt the outcome, bringing the storytelling styles that have flourished in the comics industry for at least twenty years to the big screen at last; Spider-Man succeeded in 2002 where he failed in the comics in 1973, but now the audience is never sure whether Batman's allies will reliably make it out alive. It's a jolt that one hopes will allow future comics adaptations to reach the greater diversity of outcomes that the comics currently enjoy.
A bravura effort from all involved.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
A worthy period piece from Anderson.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson does another period piece, skipping further back in time then he did with his famous 1997 work "Boogie Nights". This time, the destination is the United States in the early years of the 20th century, with a brief epilogue set some time after the Wall Street crash of 1929. The subject is the California oil industry, based (very, very loosely) on Upton Sinclair's famous book "Oil!". The character is Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in his second Oscar-winning role.
The story follows Plainview as he pursues his dream of earning enough money to separate himself forever from other people, who he despises as a general rule. He has a son, H.W., who he actually does care for, though at the same time he loves money; one is reminded of one analysis of Shylock that said that the most charitable thing to be said about his attitudes was that if he didn't put his daughter before his ducats, at least the reverse wasn't true. Plainview is given a hot tip by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about huge amounts of oil in his home town, and hurries to buy up all the neighbouring areas. The major other character is Eli Sunday (also Dano), a would-be evangelical preacher and miracle-worker. If Plainview is brutal capitalism, Sunday is fundamentalist religion (recalling the huckster faith-healers of later decades). As business grows, the conflict between the two grows based on minor acts of spite and conflicting worldviews.
The character of Plainview is the movie, basically. As played by Day-Lewis, in a volcanic performance, he is a mass of contradictions and impulses: he genuinely cares for his son, but at the same time he is driven by greed for money. When his son becomes deafened in an accident, Plainview first cannot stay beside him because of the accident, and later, struggling to deal with it, sends him away to the city. In what I think Plainview regards as Sunday's most offensive act, he forces him to face up to this action and show genuine weakness and desperation to escape the possible wrath of God. Plainview later reenacts this scene at the climax, with the roles reversed, to remarkable effect. Occasionally, he explodes into violence, particularly when family is brought up; as he relates to one character who later falls victim to this violence, he doesn't like people, and at times he seems like he does want to reach out. Ultimately, though, he is a cynical, vengeful, black-hearted old man that Ebenezer Scrooge would be appalled by.
Anderson and his crew meticulously reconstruct the time period, conveying the many dangers faced by the pioneer workers in the early oil industry. More than one many dies a grisly death as a result, and blows sting the audience as sharply as the bolts from Anton Chigurh's airgun.
On another note, this is often called an adaptation of Sinclair's "Oil!", but it is not, really. Anderson takes one or two ideas from the novel, perhaps, but among other things, the names are all changed (Plainview and Sunday have been given Meaningful Names in lieu of the more ordinary Ross and Watkins), an the plot is different, focussing on the father character. Most significantly, the moral of the story is completely reversed: the tycoon in Sinclair's novel is a genuinely likable figure who is corrupt and brutal because the system is corrupt and brutal. Anderson remakes this to the story of a sociopath who is rotten because of his own nature, with the system itself apart from him seen much more benignly. There are mentions made of monopolies held by men like John D. Rockefeller, but all the other characters seem reasonable and cower in fear of Plainview. Not that it isn't a good movie, but it seems a strange adaptation that completely changes the meaning of one of the great social commentators of the 20th century.
All in all, I quite quite liked this movie; as a film, I felt it was much more wholistic than the Coens' "No Country For Old Men" (though my personal vote for the Oscar would have been "Atonement").
Get Smart (2008)
A TV adaptation done right.
The last few years have not been especially kind to the studio comedy, but there have been the occasional lights, a few of which featured Steve Carell (such as the hilarious "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"), an excellent comedian who got his start smartly playing dumb on "The Daily Show"). Of all the types of comedy, one of the most hard-done-by is the adaptation of a popular television show. There have only been a couple of decent ones, and "Get Smart" is easily the most successful such film that I've seen yet. I was not a fan of the original show (well before my time), so I entered the theatre neither burdened by nostalgia or expectations that might slant my judgement in either direction.
Steve Carell is Maxwell Smart, an analyst for CONTROL, a secret government agency that concerns itself more or less entirely with fighting KAOS, a sinister, ideologically-vague organization that dates from the Cold War. He has always wanted to be a field agent, and is applying for the eight time (being obese scuppered his previous bids); this time, he has it all together. The Chief (Alan Arkin, in a lovely supporting role) doesn't want to lose his best analyst, but, when KAOS learns the identity of all CONTROL field agents, he has no choice but to put Smart on the case, in the company of the sexy Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, a long way from "The Princess Diaries" and "The Devil Wears Prada"); the two travel to Moscow. Also on hand at CONTROL are Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson, aka, The Rock, soon to be Black Adam in director Peter Segal's "Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam"), the #1 agent who is actually rather nice to Max; Agent Larabee (David Koechner) and Agent 91 (Terry Crews), who fill the jerk roles; and Masi Oka and Nate Torrence as Max's analyst friends. The face of KAOS is Siegfried, played by Terrence Stamp (who doesn't appear to have been told he's in a comedy), with assistants Shtarker (Ken Davitian) and Dalip (Dalip Singh).
"Get Smart" is clearly comedic, but what sets it apart from, say, "Austin Powers", is the level of verisimilitude it employs in its satire of the spy genre. A single gander at one of the "Austin Powers" films would be enough to mark it as a comedy, but "Get Smart" is the sort of parody that strives to closely emulate the look of the genre; in this case, spy films. There is minimal difference between the look of this movie and "Alias" or "The Bourne Identity". There are some genuinely terrific action scenes, with all involved acquitting themselves well, even Carell, though there's a comedic slant to everything he does; Hathaway is particularly plausible as an action girl.
Overall, it is a very well-made, entertaining comedy.
The Third Man (1949)
A noir journey through postwar Europe.
Graham Greene is one of the most acclaimed authors of the 20th century, and, unlike many such literary talents, he recognized the merits of film, and took work as a screenwriter for the British film industry, including several collaborations with producer/director Carol Reed, of which "The Third Man" is the most famous. Greene's works tend to be divided into two main genres: his meditations on Catholicism in the modern world ("The Power and the Glory", for example) and his work in the spy and crime genres, the category to which "The Third Man" belongs. It is also the high-watermark for director/producer Reed, though he would only earn his Best Director Oscar some two decades later with the musical "Oliver!" "The Third Man" is one of the great achievements in film noir, and, perhaps, in film in general.
Greene's path in researching the film is in many ways mirrored by the character he ended up creating, one Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten, a prolific actor of the era who never reached the level of recognition of Stewart, Grant, or Bogart); arriving in Vienna, Greene prowled the bombed-out streets and drank in the Casanova Club, talking with local officials. He was inspired by stories of postwar shortage, organized smuggling, and the interaction of the four great powers in the early days of the Cold War. Martins arrives, having been summoned by his prewar friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles, in what is, apart from Charles Foster Kane, his most famous role), only tot find on arrival that Lime has been mysteriously killed in a car accident. The local British security chief, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) insinuates that Harry was a notorious racketeer involved in everything up to and including murder, and Martins, a writer of pulp novelettes about gunslingers, refuses to let that explanation stand. He delves deeper into Harry's world, from acquaintances such as Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutch, who couldn't appear less trustworthy if he tried) and Dr. Winkle (Erich Ponto), who were both present at his death, and, most importantly, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a Czech living in Austria on a forged passport provided by Lime to help her avoid repatriation to Soviet-held territory. Martins' first big lead? Witness reports that an unidentified third man was present at Lime's death.
"The Third Man"'s plot suffers from a case of what TV Tropes would call a 'Rosebud': the fact that the main plot twist is common knowledge because of the movie's notoriety (and, like the original Rosebud, Orson Welles is involved). We all know that Harry Lime isn't actually dead because he is due to appear and give him famous speech about cuckoo clocks (though Welles is listed in the opening credits, so perhaps it was never that big a secret). However, there is still plenty in the movie for the viewer to be surprised about, just as "Citizen Kane" retains its lustre.
The movie has several great performances, starting with Cotten as the 'very American' (in the worlds of Peter Bogdanovich) lead man, Alida Valli as Anna, Trevor Howard as Calloway, and an enjoyable comic turn from Bernard Lee (later M to the Connery, Lazenby, and Moore incarnations of James Bond) as Calloway's batman, a sergeant who is quite a fan of Holly's writing. The performance that everyone always ends up talking about is Welles, however, in what amounts to an extended cameo (two scenes, the second with basically no dialogue).
The other notable production components include the music, provided by Anton Karas on his zither string instrument, who was hired on the spur of the moment after impressing the director at a wartime party, and it was an inspired choice, though it may jar some people expecting more traditional noir stuff. The film is filmed in the actual postwar Vienna, still a place of ruined buildings, providing for a very high level of verisimilitude.
Pixar works its magic once again.
Over the years, Pixar has regaled us with stories involving children's' toys, ants, things that go bump in the night, fish, superheroes, and culinarily-inclined rats; so we now arrive at the next logical step: mostly-mute robots. The result is Chaplin's "City Lights" crossed with a bevy of science fiction (notable nods are made to productions such as "2001: A Space Odyssey"), made with Pixar's now standard charm and craft. And the result may very well be Pixar's finest piece of work to date, which is no small thing in a catalogue that includes "Toy Story 2" and "The Incredibles".
WALL-E, a little robot, inhabits an abandoned, garbage-clogged Earth some 702 years in the future, after humanity abandoned the world as uninhabitable, leaving robots behind to clear things up. Over the centuries, most of the robots broke down, leaving only one, the title character. He has evolved a personality, and collects choice items for storage in his house, where he lives with seemingly the only other living creature, a cockroach. Then, one day, a spaceship deposits the ovoid probe droid EVE in the vicinity, and the lonely WALL-E is smitten. Eventually, he wins the all-business EVE's affection, before a turn of events forces the little robot (who looks like a mini-trash compactor with tank treads for legs and binoculars for eyes) to go on an epic adventure into outer space which I won't go into too much detail on, as this is a movie best experienced.
WALL-E, EVE, and the various other robots in the movie are triumphs of design, whose deliberately inhuman appearances do not prevent them from coming across to the audience as profoundly well-realized. This is not such a revelation as some would have you believe; R2-D2 and the magic carpet from "Aladdin" illustrated the depth possible and achieved here. WALL-E and EVE are a magical screen couple, despite dialogue that consists of each others' names, and some random guttural noises; inflection and some expressive eyes carry the day. The animation of the various human characters renders them more unreal in many respects, given what humanity has become in its 700-year absence. Pixar has been delivering the gold standard in CGI for years, and they don't stop here, even as the technology has become far more widespread (there were no less than three non-Pixar CGI films at my showing of WALL-E).
This is most definitely a film with a message, but it is artfully incorporated into the main story, which is all about EVE and WALL-E. Adults will spot more clearly the finer points of the story about environmental responsibility and consumerism (the latter is, somewhat hypocritically, perhaps, packaged in what will undoubtedly be a heavily-commodified production).
And, hey, you may develop a new appreciation for the film version of "Hello, Dolly!" while watching this.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Hulk returns to theatres, with more action and less introspection.
I just got back; all in all, I'd say pretty good. It's hard to compare it with Hulk '03 as to which is better, since they're very different types of films, but I'd say this definitely meets audience expectations a lot better.
Edward Norton was good in the lead part, although, and perhaps this is a deliberate emphasizing of his need to control himself, he rarely seems to get very emotive, even when he's supposed to be really angry.
Liv Tyler; I really like her as an actress, performance-wise here I'd say she's a bit weak in the first half and really good in the second. Admittedly, some of that could be that when we first meet her the director spends a bunch of time shooting her in slo-mo with a lot of shots of her looking uncertain/stunned. Starting with the big shootout at the university ("DAAAD!") she won me over.
Very effective use of humour; the interruptus scene in the motel room had the audience laughing hysterically.
I think they overused the "Betty calms the Hulk" routine; I count at least three instances, possibly more.
The villains, however, I didn't think much of, at least in human form. Tim Roth doesn't convey much menace as Blonsky; this is one instance where the CGI creature works a lot more than the actor (among other things, and I know this is something that can't be helped, he looks like a midget standing next to Ross (ie, pretty much all his scenes)). William Hurt as Ross wasn't nearly as good as Sam Elliot, though, to be fair, the character lacks the depth the first movie gave him. The biggest problem I have with Hurt's Ross, both in terms of writing and acting, is that there's really no sense that he gives a damn about Betty beyond one or two perfunctory expressions; the real conflict in Elliot's Ross made for a much more interesting dynamic.
One problem with writing the Hulk and villains is that he inevitably faces them as the Hulk, rather than as Banner, and it's really, really hard to convey any continuity in what the Hulk's personality thinks from transformation to transformation, especially since his expressions in battle are always very simplistic. Lee's Hulk did a really good job of investing the conflict between Banner and the remade Absorbing Man with real weight (it just fell down in the physical aspect, which this movie delivered on).
Great action; in terms of the finale, they outdid Iron Man in this respect; I think this is probably the best super-brawl that's yet been filmed in live-action, though (as Ebert pointed out in his review), the lack of any real relationship between Banner and Blonsky prior to the fight means it's mainly just a big fight.
Excellent cameo by Stan the Man, which reminded me irresistibly of "I Am Furious (Yellow)".
I give it an 8/10.
Iron Man (2008)
Marvel Studios scores in its first shot.
It'll take another viewing to confirm, but we may possibly have reached Nerdvana with this movie (incidentally, we got a trailer for The Dark Knight, but it was the teaser they initially released; meh; also, there was the Incredible Hulk teaser, which people seemed to like). I got into comics through the animated adaptations of things like Spider-Man and X-Men, so I only knew of Iron Man from his appearances in the 90s Spidey cartoon for a while. Recently, though, you can't throw a rock in the Marvel Universe without hitting Tony Stark, and I've been following the excellent current run by Charles and Daniel Knauf, as well as his appearances in other titles like Captain America, and reading the collected editions of his classic stories.
Looking only at the plot, this is a pretty standard origin film; we get the modern version of Tony's beginnings as detailed by Warren Ellis in "Extremis" (with Afghanistan instead of Vietnam), and Pepper Potts is Tony's Girl Friday, though otherwise this is strongly influenced by the Layton/Michelinie period, particularly the presence of James Rhodes as the lead male supporting character, the main villain, Obadiah Stane (he doesn't last enough to be christened the Iron Monger formally, though he uses the term in conversation earlier), and Tony's immediate motivation for becoming a superhero, which is modelled heavily on "Armour Wars". But it's the execution, the details, and, yes, the Downey Jr., that make all the difference. Robert Downey Jr. owns all, no doubt; he's utterly fantastic as Tony Stark. Jeff Bridges is very strong as Stane; he's up there with McKellen and Defoe as realizing the best film villains of the current revival. At first I was a bit put off by Terrence Howard's voice as Rhodey (softer than I had imagined; in my head he's always been more of a Dorn/Haysbert type), but he's good; Paltrow does a good job too.
The film is peppered with setup for future stuff: SHIELD (and, if you stay after the credits, ole Nick himself, talking about his "Avenger Initiative"), an expansive terrorist network referred to as the "Ten Rings" (of the Mandarin), and, my favourite, Rhodey vowing "next time, baby" on seeing a silver-grey suit of Iron Man armour.
Mild criticism might be that the final defeat of the Iron Monger is vague and not especially climactic, but it suits the purpose well enough, and the preceding fight between the two armoured knights is awesome.
The adaptation is stronger than the source, in my opinion.
I was never a huge fan of the original story; I quite liked the idea of the story, but how it was actually told just didn't click for me, because of the art (which I found unsuited to the subject; it's hard to take seriously a story where all the women are cherubs) and the crowded, unfocused story. However, I am a huge fan of the DCAU animation crew, so having them adapting it was a huge plus, and I figured that the need to cut for a 75 minute movie would actually work to the story's benefit. And, indeed, that's the case here.
There's been a lot of characters and scenes excised, but what there is almost qualifies as a photographic/word-by-word reproduction of the book. Cooke was involved in the DCAU (Batman Beyond especially), so his work translates very well to the Timm animated world. On the stuff that was cut, principally:
1. The Challengers, apart from Ace Morgan. 2. Minor cameos in the book are cut down to visual cameos here, including Green Arrow and Adam Strange. 3. In particular, the really dumb scene with all the mystical heroes deciding not to help stop the destruction of the world because this is 'a new age' isn't here, which is a huge plus. 4. The only really notable scene from any of the kept plots that isn't here is Superman's visit to Themyscira and his conversation with Diana about leadership; instead, there's a scene with Lois that addresses basically the same theme. 5. The 'John Henry' plot, which is confined to a news report here. 6. The Losers.
The story itself is still basically focused on Hal and J'onn (it feels even more Hal-centric here than the book, maybe because they cut all the thought monologues, which affects J'onn a lot more than Hal). One of the things that I do credit the book for is writing one of the few versions of J'onn I've ever found interesting; conversely, the book-Hal is saddled with some truly horrid dialogue, which is absent here, so that's another plus for the film.
My one real complaint: incredibly, despite the fact that her part is minor, the DCAU crew finds room to screw up Wonder Woman's mythos. In the book, the scene where the Centre overwhelms Themyscira is preceded by a snippet of Diana and some other Amazon cheerfully fencing; in the film, the other Amazon is angry with her, says that many of them want "new leadership", and then attacks her. For Heaven's sake, people, the DCAU's botching of the Amazons was already one of the few black marks on the whole enterprise, and you still haven't found time to actually read any of her comics? That does not fill me with hope for the WW animated movie in the works.
Overall, though, a strong effort from the reliable Timm animation crew, and I hope to see many more works from them in the future.
One of my favourite films of 2007.
Every so often, a little independent film produced on a shoestring budget becomes a critical and box office hit, propelling its star into the spotlight. The most recent example of this would be "Little Miss Sunshine", which eventually secured an Oscar for veteran supporting actor Alan Arkin (with a little help from "Norbit"). "Juno" follows in the footsteps of that film, but it earns considerable marks for being much, much less annoying.
The story is about the title character, Juno, a teenaged girl who gets pregnant after having sex for the first time with her friend Bleeker (Michael Cera, best known for the TV series "Arrested Development" and the hit film "Superbad"), and decides to keep the baby after an abortive visit to an abortion clinic. She picks Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner, from the great TV series "Alias", and Jason Bateman, also from "Arrested Development") as the adoptive family for her child. One of the notable things about "Juno" is that, until the third act, there really isn't much in the way of dramatic conflict; Juno's parents (J. K. Simmons, best known as J. Jonah Jameson in the "Spider-Man" films, and the invaluable Allison Janney of "The West Wing") are unconventionally accepting of this development, and do no become the needlessly confrontational figures so often seen in films like this. When the real drama comes, it involves Juno and the Lorings, particularly the prospective adoptive father.
The performance of actress (and Atlantic Canadian; woot!) Ellen Page has attracted most of the critical attention, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actress that she may very well win. It is indeed an impressive performance, worthy of the award. Also impressive is Jennifer Garner, a favourite actress of mine, who takes a yuppie stereotype and injects it with humanity and vulnerability. The rest of the cast is also strong.
The sole sour note, in my opinion, is the soundtrack, which is composed entirely of annoying indie acoustic music with pretentiously nonsensical lyrics. This is one area where I'd have preferred a more traditional approach.
"Juno" is often grouped with "Waitress" and "Knocked Up" as a trio of 2007 pregnancy comedies where unplanned pregnancies are taken to term; the politics of this has been debated in some circles. In my opinion, "Juno" argues that while abortion should be available, it is a practice that many find unacceptable, even if they are open in principle to it (it also rather prominently mocks pro-life protesters) ("Waitress" I would characterize as more clearly pro-life, at least in the perspective of the main character, although that is also a choice).
Anyway, this is a very enjoyable film, and highly recommended.
An excellent turn from all involved.
Like so many of the best films of 2007, "Atonement" does not see wide distribution until 2008, owing to the practise of holding back the so-called Oscar-bait movies until limited release in December, to meet the Academy's deadlines while keeping the movies in the minds of voters. And so, at January's end, I finally got to see the new film adaptation of Graham McEwan's novel "Atonement" (I have not read the novel).
The story follows Cecilia and Briony Tallis, two sisters from an upper class family in interwar England, and Robbie, their groundskeeper who has also been patronized by their father, and gone on to some education. The opening segment (covering perhaps the first hour) is set in 1935, and shows how Cecilia and Robbie's burgeoning relationship becomes the victim of a lie told by Briony, who does not understand what she sees, and how her own feelings cause her to act. The next segment, set in 1940 on the eve of the 'miracle of Dunkirk', depicts the fallout of this lie, as Briony, now a young woman, tries to make up for what she has done. Finally, there is an epilogue set in the present day, where the question of Briony's atonement is examined at the end of her life.
Briony, the central character, is played by three different actresses in the course of the film: first, Saoirse Ronan as a 13-year-old girl; by Romola Garai as an 18-year-old; and by acting legend Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman. All three actresses are fantastic; most of the critical acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, has accrued to Ronan as the young Briony, and she would be a worthy recipient of the award. Keira Knightley, the big name in the cast (re-teaming with Joe Wright, her director on "Pride & Prejudice", one of my favourite recent films), is impressive, and develops good chemistry with James McAvoy as Robbie. Also present in a minor role is the great Brenda Blethyn (also of "Pride & Prejudice").
The most talked-about scene in the film is the depiction of the beaches of Dunkirk in the days of the evacuation. The five-minute continuous tracking shot of soldiers walking through the chaos has already become famous; there is tremendous poetry in Wright's visuals, as the music of singing soldiers swells, abandoned Ferris wheels absently turn, and horses are shot for lack of food and transport.
The conclusion of the film is remarkably powerful, aborting the expectations of a traditional Hollywood period drama; sins, it seems, cannot always be made up for like in the movies. There is also the question raised of whether fiction can/should be used in the way Briony ends up using it, and whether she is simply continuing to deceive herself at the end of her life. This is by no means a happy film, and some unaware viewers expecting a companion piece to Knightley and Wright's "Pride & Prejudice" should look elsewhere; but for an adult tragedy, this production has few compeers this year.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Quality entertainment for adults.
This new release from director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It focuses on the titular Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-TX) (Hanks), known as "Good Time Charlie" for his swinging lifestyle, who becomes the key player in getting the US government to fund the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 80s.
It's an interesting movie; not as witty as Sorkin's The West Wing (although there are a couple of long-take scenes set in hallways), but there's a lot of humour, although the subject-matter is serious. As drama it's rather sedate (a bit like "Good Night, and Good Luck"), and the storyline doesn't really have any inherent conflict for the heroes to overcome, but I didn't notice this until a review pointed it out; most of the movie just documents the actions of the three principle characters and their interactions.
The performances are quite good, too, although Hanks as a womanizing drunk can be a bit of a hard-sell (in some scenes he looks a bit uncertain about how much enjoyment to play Charle as having in all his antics). One place Hanks unquestionably succeeds is his accent; Hanks is a rarity in that he is a major film star who can adopt an accent for a whole movie without it seeming a gimmick; Charlie's Texas twang is as believable as Forrest's Alabama schtick or Viktor's pseudo-Eastern Europe tone. Julia Roberts (in the first major role I've seen her in in a while) is good as a the conservative socialite who interests Charlie in the cause of the Afghans, and Hoffman is dynamite as Gus, the CIA operative assigned to the Afghan desk.
A decent adaptation, dragged down by Zemeckis' choices.
"Beowulf" is the classic work of Old English literature, but, truth be told, it really isn't much of a story, when viewed in a modern sense; Beowulf fights Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a dragon, winning in each case simply because he can, dying in the final combat, which is completely disconnected from the previous two parts. Tolkien forgive me, but that is my view of the story. Here, Gaiman and Avary solve the structural problem of the disconnect between the first two acts and the third; at the same time the story changes rather dramatically, and is no longer a straightforward heroic tale, but a story about a flawed hero perpetrating a lie and having to face the consequences. Devotees of the classic will take issue with this, but I don't. I find this story a lot more interesting.
The major problem with this film is the way Robert Zemeckis chooses to film it. Zemeckis has always been very interested in pushing technical achievement in his film; "Forrest Gump", for example made virtuoso use of editing and CGI to insert Tom Hanks into 40 years of American TV footage. However, in the last little while, his new project as become creating totally photo-real CGI, and he's lost the human element in the process. I am not saying that CGI cannot be used for human characters; Pixar has done so quite successfully; but attempts to completely replicate real actors simply have not worked yet, and, as detailed by the "Uncanny Valley" effect, the closer they look to real, the more apparent the flaws in the technology become. The stylized humans in "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" were much more fully realized as characters. Zemeckis should either have shot this in live action, or animated it in a more animated fashion where such matters aren't important.
Nevertheless, and interesting production.
Across the Universe (2007)
Apparently filmed using a kaleidoscope...
Julie Taymor's new movie has been getting somewhat middling reviews (on the high end, the all-father of critics, Roger Ebert, gave it four stars and said it was the only movie at the Festival that he saw twice), and I can see both sides of the coin, although I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.
The film is a musical set in the 1960s, following various characters through the various signature features of the era (student activism/militancy, anti-war protests, the civil rights movement, the draft/Vietnam, the sexual revolution, drug culture), all set to over thirty Beatles songs. Pretty much all the characters are named after characters in said songs: Jude, Lucy, Max, Prudence, Sadie, etc. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a Liverpool dockworker who decides to go to America sort of on a whim, and ends up meeting Max (Joe Anderson), and then Max's family, including his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude falls in love with Lucy ("She's got a boyfriend." "That's alright. I've got a girlfriend."), and eventually everyone ends up living in New York, in a single apartment populated by a bunch of other characters, including an Asian lesbian runaway named Prudence and two singers modeled on Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The plot isn't particularly important (one of the main criticisms of the film in reviews). The movie is all about the songs.
On the subject of the music, a lot of the really big Beatles tunes are absent here, and even having a character named after one doesn't necessarily mean it gets in (Maxwell does wield a hammer at one point, but the song itself is absent). I had never heard of a lot of them (my knowledge of the Beatles isn't particularly deep). Everybody can sing quite well, and Sturgess and Wood have good romantic chemistry. Since this is a Taymor film, the visuals tend towards the quite extravagant, often going to full-blown music video rather than musical in the traditional sense ("Strawberry Fields Forever" particularly). One thing that I really liked was that Across the Universe is quite unequivocally a musical where people burst into song; one of the problems I had with Dreamgirls was that for a long time it was ambiguous about whether or not the characters were just singing the songs on stage or were actually in a musical, so that it was jarring when the film started to have characters singing conversationally.
And this movie has Bono show up as a hippie guru singing "I Am The Walrus", which sequence appears to have been filmed using a kaleidoscope; and not one, not two, but five Salma Hayeks as sexy nurses at a VA hospital.
As You Like It (2006)
After Henry V (which is objectively the best movie ever made), Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet (two-disk DVD arrived in the same shipment as this), and Love's Labor Lost (haven't seen it), produced between 1989 and the present, Kenneth Branagh adapts the pastoral comedy As You Like It as a film. Sadly, this was never released in theatres outside of Italy (of course, the Bard isn't a huge draw at the box office), but it's now out on HBO DVD (and has a really annoying set of commercials appended to the start that you can't fast-forward or "menu" through).
Anyway, when I first heard that Branagh was directing this, I was both thrilled and a bit disappointed, the latter owing to the decision to film one of the comedies rather than one of the tragedies or histories (I'd kill to see him film Macbeth; what's that, witches? You say that if I...). But, take what you can get. Anyway, this is set in 1880s Japan "for some reason" (as one review put it), and, truly, the setting doesn't add a whole lot. Apart from ninjas, which are always cool.
For those who don't know the plot (which, there's a good chance you mightn't, this not being Hamlet): The good Duke Senior has been banished from his kingdom by his evil brother, Duke Frederick, and fled with some accompanying lords (most notably Jacques) into the forest of Arden (here pronounced "Ard-en" rather than "Ar-den"); however, the good Duke's daughter, Rosalind, is still in court, being kept their by the evil Frederick because his own daughter, Celia, refuses to live without her. In the play, the sense is that this has been the case for a while, but the film actually begins with the banishment, so the whole affair from start to finish seems to last for a couple of weeks. Anyway, Frederick eventually decides to banish Rosalind too, because everyone loves her and feels sorry for her; however, Celia runs off with her, and they take the court clown (Touchstone) with them for no particular reason. Also fleeing into the forest are Orlando and his servant Adam, to escape the wrath of Orlando's jerk older brother; Orlando is in love with Rosalind. Rosalind adopts the guise of a man named Ganymede (two maids shouldn't travel alone; although they then decide to bring an actual man with them, although he's a clown, so maybe he doesn't count), and Celia starts calling herself Aliena, and they settle down in a shepherd's cottage. There are about five different love stories preceding from this point. And eventually everyone lives happily ever after.
In terms of actors, let's first account for the usual Branagh people (Shakespeare roles in brackets):
- Richard Briers (Bardolph, Leonato, Polonius, Nathaniel) is Adam, Orlando's (and Orlando's father's) faithful servant. A rather small part for him, but he's got one great little scene early on. - Patrick Doyle (Soldier, Balthazar, better known as his composer, but whenever there's singing to be done, he's in) as Amiens. He actually has some dialogue other than singing. - Jimmy Yuill (Captain Jamy, Friar Francis, Alexander, Dull; perennial bit-player) as Corin the shepherd. - And last, but certainly not least, the man, the myth, the legend: Brian Blessed (Duke of Exeter, Antonio, King Hamlet's Ghost). Brian Blessed fans, this is your movie, because he plays not one, but two parts: both good Duke Senior and evil Duke Frederick (one wears white, the other wears black).
Branagh himself is conspicuously absent here (he almost played the part of Touchstone or Jacques, but ultimately cast Alfred Molina and Kevin Kline in those parts; Molina is great as a very Chaplin-esquire character; Kline has the famous "All the world's a stage" soliloquy). Despite this being set in Japan, there are only two Japanese actors worth noting, playing Sylvius and Phoebe (the pathetic shepherd and his cold mistress), but we also have two black actors as brothers Orlando and Oliver (at least we're not being sold Keanu and Denzel as siblings this time). Romola Garai is Celia, and she's also quite good (mostly she does physical comedy/mugging to all the craziness going on around her).
And finally, there's Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind. She is, simply, great; she's the equal of Emma Thompson or Kate Winslet in Branagh's other Shakespeare films. She has what would seem to be the difficult role of pretending to be a man, but it's not actually hard at all, because the director's strategy seems to be to have everyone just act like she looks like a man, without making any attempt to actually make her seem one (her disguise really amounts to cutting her hair shorter, and occasionally wearing a hat). She's a delight the whole way through, and most of the actual humour really comes from the surreal way everyone acts like she's a man when really she's Bryce Dallas Howard with a haircut and (occasionally) a hat.
Now, on to negatives; it really comes down to the fact that this is a rather slight play, and thus a rather slight film. There's nothing remotely approaching any of the dozens of profound moments in Henry V here (which, again: best film ever); it's mostly just fun performances and witty character interaction. All the same, if you enjoy Branagh and/or Shakespeare's comedies, I'd recommend giving it a look.
And Kenneth? Seriously, Macbeth.