Saturday, August 30, 2008

Quadruple Feature Part Four: Elegy

Elegy
Directed by Isabel Coixet
Released August 8, 2008

After seeing Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, and Patricia Clarkson in other movies earlier in the day, I was expecting to get confused about which character was which. Luckily, quadruple feature film number four proved to be just as good as the ones before it, and the performances are even better. “Elegy” is a somber tale of a professor who decides to pursue a much younger graduate student only to realize that he doesn’t think she can ever be completely happy with him. The film has wonderful cinematography and deep, complex characters played by experienced, quality actors. Ben Kingsley is a great serious actor whose voice and the way he carries himself speak volumes about him. Penelope Cruz turns in what must be her best English-language performance after impressing in Spanish two years ago with her Oscar-nominated role in “Volver”. Kingsley and Cruz work magnificently together, and it’s marvelous to see such easy chemistry come alive on screen from two professional, good actors. Supporting performances from Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard are all too brief, but serve as a crucial reminder that these two need bigger roles in better movies, all the time. “Elegy” is subtly entertaining towards the start before taking a more dramatic turn, yet the transition is seamless and the movie feels complete. Its tone and story are very reminiscent of films like “Venus” and “Starting Out in the Evening”, where an intellectual’s way of looking at history and life lead him to contemplate his own life journey. The journey is terrific to watch, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a more impressive working ensemble.

B+

Friday, August 29, 2008

Quadruple Feature Part Three: Frozen River

Frozen River
Directed by Courtney Hunt
Released August 1, 2008

This tiny indie is immediately reminiscent both in tone and in style to recent similarly snowy and similarly small efforts “Snow Cake” and “First Snow”, both great films. As with those two, “Frozen River” sneaks in quietly and unthreateningly before ultimately impressing and surpassing the expectations it creates for itself. It achieves a level of gripping suspense that impresses even Quentin Tarantino, whose enthusiastic one-line review is quoted on posters for the film. And it does all that without the slightest hint of sex, and very little off-color language or violence. That to me is the mark of an impressive film (not to say that a violent film filled with sex and cursing can’t be equally terrific, this is just all the more surprising). I guess there’s a reason it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film really utilizes its scenery to its full effect, using few set pieces throughout its runtime but still managing to craft a compelling story which includes long scenes in cars. Melissa Leo, previously relegated to barely-noticed roles in movies like “21 Grams” and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”, gets her chance to shine as the matriarch supporting a family with a bare-bones job and who must seek out an alternative form of employment. Regardless of what I’ve heard about Leo’s difficult personality, she does turn in an incredible performance which is consistently great throughout the film. Though her part doesn’t demand the same dedication, Misty Upham is also good as the woman whose life inadvertently collides with Leo’s and sets her off in a whole new direction. The film is rarely showy, but it is deeply effective and very much surprising. I can’t guarantee you’ll find it a theater near you, but it’s definitely worth a longer drive to the next big city over.

B+

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quadruple Feature Part Two: The Wackness

The Wackness
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Released July 3, 2008

The title of “The Wackness” prepares you perfectly for the journey the film will take you on – a drugged-out yet remarkably grounded exploration of the intersecting lives of two malcontent 1990s New Yorkers dealing with problems at home and simple boredom with their unenthusiastic lives. The film has an incredibly distinctive style which is at times straight-up weird and at others intoxicating and moving. The music utilizes music entirely effectively, broadening the characters’ personalities while simultaneously giving the film a certain beat. Though the 90s were only a decade ago, the film still has a wonderfully appropriate dated feel which makes it all the more intriguing. It’s wicked fun to see the usually stock serious Ben Kingsley go out on such on a limb to portray a goofy psychiatrist who really has little idea what he is doing yet still searches continually for his own meaning in life. My impression of Kingsley is starkly contrasted by my lack of amusement with co-lead Josh Peck, fresh off of a Nickelodeon television show, whose lack of motivation and deep-rooted laziness seems to extend far beyond the character he’s portraying on screen. The character does contrast nicely with Kingsley’s, but as a result Kingsley is stuck with carrying most of the film all by himself. Fortunately, Olivia Thirlby, who shined recently as the best friend of the pregnant “Juno”, is on hand as Kingsley’s daughter and Peck’s love interest, a performance that showcases her talent and shows that this girl really needs to be in a lot of movies in the future. I was very saddened by the relative absence of Famke Janssen, who blew me away with her trippy performance on “Nip/Tuck” a few years ago, and who might have given an only appropriate similar performance here, or at least something along the lines of Annette Bening in “Running with Scissors”. Janssen’s screentime is limited, however, and we’re stuck with the oddball duo of Kingsley and Peck. The dialogue here is more than ridiculous, and I cannot honestly believe people actually talk like that, but it magically works just right for this heavily offbeat and massively entertaining film.

B+

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Quadruple Feature Part One: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Directed by Woody Allen
Released August 15, 2008

More so than many other filmmakers, it’s largely true that Woody Allen simply remakes the same movie every time he releases a new film. The parallel was especially clear when “Match Point” came out and resembled his earlier film “Crimes & Misdemeanors”, transplanted from New York to England, with the Woody Allen character and the humor missing. That particular translation was an effective one, and one that I enjoyed quite a bit. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” once again takes Allen away from his familiar city, maintaining ties to New York with frequent phone calls but to a much lesser extent that something like “Everyone Says I Love You”, where characters travel often to foreign cities but ultimately remain grounded in New York. The usage of Barcelona as a central locale is certainly effective, taking full advantage of the colorful country and the rich culture. Allen solves the problem of having all his foreign characters seem far too much like New Yorkers by making sure that everyone is in fact a native New Yorker with the exception of true-life Spaniards Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. That said, his characters are still completely typical, identifiable Allen characters – people who talk incessantly and overanalyze any situation that may come their way, and speak much more eloquently than might really be true (Scarlett Johansson beginning her sentences with “I must apologize…”). As long as Allen’s around, there’s plenty of inconsequential adultery to go around, and that’s one of the film’s chief problems. The ride is loads of fun, but in the end nothing really goes anywhere. That’s not a spoiler, rather an observations that Allen allows the center portion of his film to speak for itself instead of actually bothering to resolve any of the story. I was hoping for some sort of grand finale with a wink-wink conclusion that both applied to the movie and aligned with Allen’s traditional finishes. There’s no such feeling of satisfaction, which only brings the film down from a great movie to an entertaining one. Rebecca Hall, who I’ve championed as an actress since her performance in the James McAvoy starrer “Starter for 10”, is one of those typical Allen characters, but she plays the role well and adds another impressive performance to her resume. Scarlett Johannson has the least showy role of both the movie and possibly her career so far, though you wouldn’t know it from the way she handles herself with the rest of the cast, so constantly flirtatious yet simultaneously intelligent. There are deeply rooted problems with Johansson’s character, a young woman content to suffer wasted months of affection to step aside to make someone else happy. I don’t think there are people like that who actually exist and maintain such a positive outlook on life. Bardem and Cruz have been better in other films, and here they play their characters just as they should. Look for great supporting performances from former recurring “Six Feet Under” guest-stars Patricia Clarkson and Chris Messina. The film, luckily, does save itself from becoming far too ridiculous by clocking out after only about an hour and a half, and while the ride seems over a bit abruptly, it is enjoyable and worthwhile, just not as good as you might expect from a filmmaker as experienced in effective romantic comedy.

B-

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Monday, August 25, 2008

Home Video: 21

21
Directed by Robert Luketic
Released March 28, 2008

This movie fits the prototype of a story with a protagonist who starts off leading a relatively slow normal life with his fair share of problems and then eventually gets entranced by and embroiled in a fantasy lifestyle. There’s little more to this film than that one-line description. Jim Sturgess, who hit it big last year with “Across the Universe”, has immense trouble masking his British accent and mustering up enough enthusiasm to play his role effectively. Kate Bosworth manages to be the biggest waste of space since Patrick Dempsey in “Enchanted” last year. Kevin Spacey tries his very best and gives an impressive performance given the material. The remainder of their card-counting team is well-cast, but it’s not like any of them have much to do. Laurence Fishburne should be glad that he should soon be joining the cast of “CSI” since great roles seem to be eluding him lately. The casting decision I take issue with most is Josh Gad as our protagonist’s best friend. Gad is hardly a good actor, and if he must be in something, I’d hope he’s relegated to his unfunny role on the even unfunnier sitcom “Back to You” and the sure-to-be-awful upcoming comedy “The Rocker”. He certainly doesn’t belong in this film. The fact that I stress Gad’s miscasting so much is that there is little to say about the film. It’s entirely predictable and none too rewarding.

F

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008

Film Review: The X-Files 2

The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Directed by Chris Carter
Released July 25, 2008
Seen July 27, 2008

Talk about the disappointment of the century. I watched the entire television series in preparation for this sequel no one was clamoring for. Having been intensely dissatisfied with the conclusion of the show, I was hoping this could be the second chance to get it right for the “X-Files” legacy. Sadly, this doesn’t even come close. The first tragic mistake is the title: the tagline “I want to believe” refers to a poster David Duchovny’s Agent Mulder had up on his wall in his office which shows a blurry photograph of a UFO, referring of course to a belief in extraterrestrial life. You’d think the movie would have something to do with aliens. Not in the slightest. The film is akin to a lackluster normal episode of the show. None of the show’s legacy is at all preserved. The token theme music plays only for a second at the beginning, and then when a picture of President Bush is shown, a cheesy gimmick which makes the whole show and movie seem trivial. Trailers touted that “only a case this big could bring Scully and Mulder back together”. That sets the film to be immensely unfulfilling, as the case is rather boring and nowhere near “big”. The casting of the psychic as a pedophile seems altogether weird and serves little purpose. Scully and Mulder seem to have lost much of their token chemistry. Casting rapper Xzibit as one of the FBI agents is an explicable decision, and I’d be hard-pressed to come up with as wooden an actor to fill his shoes. Amanda Peet also turns in a horribly forgettable performance, which is especially depressing given her recent great work on NBC’s failed drama “Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip”. Throw on top on that a wasted Callum Keith Rennie (one of the Cylons from “Battlestar Galactica”) with a despicable accent and the most ludicrously inane plotline in recent history and the result is a failure of a film which left me feeling absolutely disgusted.

F

Friday, August 15, 2008

Film Review: Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller
Released August 13, 2008

Parodies are a tough business. Humor is the ultimate goal, but if you’re a true master of mockery like Mel Brooks, it’s important not to go too far off the deep end and lose the story in attempts to be funny. There are a number of laughs throughout “Tropic Thunder”, however, the movie descends into lunacy far too quickly. Rather than focusing on parodying war movies, the film turns its attention to making fun of the mentally challenged and putting Jack Black to comic use. Ben Stiller has always been fairly overrated in my mind, and if anything I suppose I prefer him as his idiotic Zoolander t-character instead of the uninteresting lead he’s playing here. Jay Baruchel does his very best to portray his thinly-written character, and Steve Coogan, so brilliant in “Happy Endings” a few years ago, is criminally underused. A supporting role by Tom Cruise is absolutely ridiculous, but he’s good for a few laughs. I just wonder whether he knows he’s also making fun of himself. Now Robert Downey Jr. is the only real reason to see this film. It’s as if he’s in a completely different movie, a far better one, entirely immersing himself in a character styled in the vein of super-committed actors like Daniel Day-Lewis. Downey is outright hilarious, and impresses far more than the rest of the cast. The good news is that the movie is preceded by several fake trailers, which are, sad to say, far funnier than the movie ever is.

F

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Film Review: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Released July 18, 2008
Seen July 27, 2008

I’d like to preface my review by stating that I did in fact like the movie. I read that a critic wrote that he didn’t like the movie and received monstrous amounts of hate mail due to his validly expressed opinion. With this review, I aim to do the same. That said, I didn’t love the movie quite as much as the general public. I wasn’t a fan of the last Batman movie, “Batman Begins”, whereas nearly everyone else in the world loved it. The same seems to be even truer for this newer installment, which already ranks #3 on IMDB’s top 250 list. I did enjoy “The Dark Knight”, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. To begin with, Batman is hardly in the movie. I understand that this is supposed to be all about the Joker, and that’s all good and well, but for a movie that attempts to stress Batman’s dual role in the city of Gotham, I would have thought he’d be more front and center. Heath Ledger does turn in a tremendous final performance as the twisted Joker, and he truly carries the film. His character is a carefully-crafted villain who really shines throughout the whole movie. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal, usually a fantastic actress, is hardly better than her predecessor in the previous film, Katie Holmes. Aaron Eckhart isn’t used nearly as well as he could be, especially given his excellent fast-talking performance in “Thank You For Smoking”, which might have led into a perfect portrayal of Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face. The movie, which clocks in at about two and a half hours, packages its action and plot sequences into several meaty sections. A lot happens at once but all in all little actually occurs throughout the film, a problem the first film had. Without ruining the movie’s finish, I’ll simply say that while I can appreciate the desire to craft an ending similar to that of the comic book storyline, I don’t feel that the film appropriately set itself up to end up in that position. The film does boast some terrific music, impressive effects, and that fantastic turn from Heath Ledger. Anyone else will tell you they loved it, and I’ll tell you that I liked it. I have heard the IMAX experience is the way to go, so if by some crazy chance you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to consider upgrading.

B

Monday, August 4, 2008

Triple-Feature Part III: Get Smart

Get Smart
Directed by Peter Segal
Released June 20, 2008
Seen June 29, 2008

I’ll first note that I’ve never seen the original television series which spawned this remake. I will also note that I don’t consider an extensive homage to be meritorious just for being a throwback (see my recent review of the new Indiana Jones movie). A movie should be able to stand on its own two feet without relying on support from constant references to source material. I don’t know whether this movie does that; all I know is that it certainly doesn’t succeed on its own merit. There’s not nearly enough action or comedy here to make up a movie, and thus the experience is rather unfulfilling. I’m using the first two “Rush Hour” movies as my template of effective action-comedies, where the entire cast is funny but there is drama occasionally and the characters make it work. While this movie shouldn’t necessarily be compared to those, it’s clear just how little everything works. The plot is a joke, and the action scenes, instead of being clever, are cheesy and stupid. Steve
Carrell is given far too little to do, and the comic relief is left to a giant brawny sub-villain and geeks played by Masi Oka (Heroes) and Nate Torrence (Studio 60). Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris) and David Koechner (The Office) are hardly funny, and The Rock, who I’ve seen give decent performances in bad movies like “Walking Tall” and “Southland Tales”, is also given poor material. I’m beginning to suspect that Anne Hathaway was very actually a good actress. I think it was the youth factor that made her role in “The Princess Diaries” work, and I had my doubts about her considerable talents when she appeared in a small role in “Brokeback Mountain” just a few years ago. She displays absolutely no chemistry with Carrell, and while I can see what she was going for with the role (Eva Green in “Casino Royale”), she fails miserably. The movie is additionally saddled with three actors way past their prime, who for the most part seem to be scrounging for roles just as poor as
these the past few years (with a few notable exceptions, such as “Little Miss Sunshine”) – Alan Arkin, James Caan, and Terence Stamp. This may be a throwback to the old days, but from what I’ve seen here, I don’t think I want to go back.

C-

Friday, August 1, 2008

Triple-Feature Part II: Wall-E

Wall-E
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Released June 27, 2008
Seen June 29, 2008

It’s a wonder that seeing this movie ten minutes after walking out of the ultraviolent “Wanted” didn’t make me fall asleep in this one as it did my brother. “Wall-E” is one of those movies that opens to universal hype and you have to think that it couldn’t possibly be that good. The good news is that it is a fantastic film. Like many Disney and Pixar movies before it, it straddles many lines in terms of its applicable and target audiences. “Wall-E” is a movie anyone can easily enjoy. Much like “There Will Be Blood”, the first stretch is dialogue-free, but it’s the marvelous nature of the imagery and the music that makes it work so well. It’s a simple movie with a strong message, yet the message doesn’t eclipse the film so much that it dilutes it, which is fortunate. Wall-E himself is easily the most adorable protagonist in recent memory, and Eve makes for a great costar. Anyone who thinks that animated movies are just for kids should think again and go see this heartwarming film. See it for yourself.

B+