Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lost Minute with Abe: The International

I'm delighted to share an exclusive item I thought lost forever. This is the only Minute with Abe filmed during my time in Italy. It was shot sideways and it was feared that it wouldn't upload correctly. Luckily, someone was able to rotate it, and I'd like to thank both Laura and Andrew for their help! Now, travel back in time a few months and enjoy this "international" experience!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Film Review: Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons
Directed by Ron Howard
Released May 15, 2009

Tom Hanks returns as Harvard’s Professor Robert Langdon in Ron Howard’s sequel to his 2006 film “The Da Vinci Code.” This time around, Langdon isn’t just gallivanting around France with Audrey Tautou, but he’s surrounded by a whole entourage of bickering police officers and security guards struggling to uncover the mystery of the Illuminati, an ancient Christian brotherhood determined to lash out against the Catholic Church and prevent the Vatican from choosing a new Pope. With a whole bunch of people involved, there’s all the more possibility for excitement, but there’s just as much chaos and disorder in store for the film’s large cast of characters.

Hanks is a great actor who has had many terrific performances in the past, but this certainly isn’t one of them. It could be his hair, since a similar poorly chosen hairstyle seemed to decrease the acting ability of one Nicolas Cage. All kidding aside, it’s the true mark of an effortless performance when an actor whose face alone has conveyed extremely complex emotions in films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Cast Away” looks puzzled and uncertain all the time. He could really have made the most of the role, but the finished product isn’t much to show off. His supporting cast is full of other actors who have done better work, and it would have been nice to see Stellan Skarsgard get truly angry as the head of the pope’s security or Ewan McGregor show both his softer and harsher sides as the pope’s right-hand man. The real find among the cast is Pierfrancesco Favino as one of the many inspectors working to help Langdon, who manages to put in much more than his role demands and shine among a crowded and overstuffed cast.

The film’s plot is more realistic and tempered than that of “The Da Vinci Code,” demanding far less suspension of disbelief from the viewer and shying away from fantasy elements that pervaded the first film. Despite that, the massive strength and reach of the Illuminati conspiracy Langdon fights against is more than hard to believe. The extent to which the Vatican itself has been infiltrated makes the film much less compelling and effective. The exploration of religion and science that the film begins to touch on is fascinating, but it gets caught up in fanciful twists and surprising events. It could have been a far more complex film dealing with theological and philosophical issues, but instead it’s a disappointing thriller that manages to keep its viewer on the edge of his seat but somehow still leave unsatisfied.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mini-Review: State of Play

State of Play
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Released April 17, 2009 (USA) / April 30, 2009 (Italy)

This dramatic thriller from the director of “The Last King of Scotland” is a decent, engaging mystery with a cast of talented actors giving so-so performances. There’s nothing I can find inherently wrong with it, but the feeling I left with was not one of satisfaction. Russell Crowe is an able actor whose bad-boy reputation has left reviewers and audiences touting his skills. Here he’s not putting in much effort, and it’s not terribly distracting because this isn’t a role that demands much. The same goes for Rachel McAdams and Helen Mirren, both of whom have great potential, one of whom will get a chance to show it in the future and the other who has demonstrated it clearly in the past. Ben Affleck is the real dud in this flick, trying to over-enunciate his words and overplay his emotions, and his overexertion of effort shows. The real problem with the film isn’t the mediocre adequacy of its performers or the lack of excitement in the script. From what I’ve read, the film has been touted mainly for two reasons. It’s based on a highly acclaimed 2003 BBC miniseries, which I imagine had more room to flesh out the characters and the plot in a more dramatically compelling manner. Twists that seemed irrelevant or odd were probably foreshadowed and more explained in the episodes of the miniseries, and the lack of hype or buzz probably allowed for a less famous but more skilled cast. The second major factor that earned “State of Play” good words is its function as a fitting tribute and swan song for print journalism. It may be an important movie because Crowe’s character insults the legitimacy of blogs and then proves his way of doing things is more effective, but that doesn’t make it a good movie. There was a lot of pressure on this film to be good, as a remake of a great miniseries and a death knell for the dying world of journalism. It’s an okay effort, but there’s not much that makes it stand out from other films.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mini-Review: Duplicity

Directed by Tony Gilroy
Released March 20, 2009 (USA) / April 10, 2009 (Italy)

This isn’t the first time Julia Roberts and Clive Owen have acted together. Their last collaboration, in Mike Nichols’ 2004 film “Closer,” garnered huge buzz and an Oscar nomination for Owen, and a surprising lack of mention of lead actress Roberts. Here, Owen once again has the flashier role, but it’s the chemistry they have together that really makes the film work. Owen and Roberts are a thoroughly entertaining duo of ex-government agents who join forces to pull off a huge score, tricking everyone in their path to steal a boatload of cash. The setup seems complicated, and it sure is. Some may be frustrated by the confusing way in which the plot is rolled out, but finding out is just part of the fun. Paul Giammati and Tom Wilkinson are superb as rival corporate CEOs whose companies are infiltrated by both Owen and Roberts. The score by James Newton Howard is appropriately bouncy and perfectly energetic. The script has terrific twists which excite and entertain without stopping. My only major objection is that the ending, while still great, feels a bit random and too tangential to the main focus of the film’s plot. Regardless, it’s a fantastic ride that’s a nice surprise among the usual crop of sub-par spring films.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Mini-Review: What Just Happened

What Just Happened
Directed by Barry Levinson
Released October 17, 2008 (USA) / April 17, 2009 (Italy)

It's unlikely there's ever been a film with a title more doomed to define its outcome. The movie is a complete mystery, not regarding what will happen, but how anyone thought this movie would be a good, or rather an acceptable, production. The sense of laid-back effortlessness is devastatingly obvious. Robert DeNiro, once a great actor, walks around the set with little emotion and barely raises his voice to an audible pitch. The entire cast is one big group of friends - DeNiro and Sean Penn have starred in films together in the past, and Penn is married to Robin Wright Penn and cast Catherine Keener in his recent film "Into the Wild." It's as if this group of buddies was gathered together to sit around and talk about the movie business, and no one demanded a convincing or progressive story. Director Barry Levinson has made great large-scale films in the past, like "Bugsy," but this isn't a true effort. The synopsis of the film bills it as "Two weeks in the life of a fading Hollywood producer who's having a rough time trying to get his new picture made." That's hardly a compelling concept for a film, and it can't really get away without any legitimate progressive story. Casting both Sean Penn and Bruce Willis as themselves seems especially lazy, since the only way this movie could have been a little bit creative was if the story had been remotely original. Tragically, it's far from it, and manages to be boring and predictable. When it ends, the likely sentiment viewers will have is relief that the unneeded experience is over.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mini-Review: Gomorra

Directed by Matteo Garrone
Released May 16, 2008 (Italy) / February 13, 2009 (USA)

I missed the theatrical release of this highly acclaimed foreign film which was controversially snubbed from this past year's Best Foreign Film Oscar lineup. I did get the chance to see it on DVD when it was screened in my Italian Cinema course in Florence. The opening scene of the film is certainly visceral and visually impressive. The cinematography in the film is incredible, and the excessive amount of graphic violence makes the film a powerful and heart-wrenching film. Putting that aside, the film's pace and many plot threads and characters is extremely confusing. The story and each of the newly introduced characters are very hard to follow. The Sicilian dialect even requires subtitles for native Italians, and I think this is one case where the foreign nature of the film probably contributed to all the positive buzz. While I do acknowledge the impressive aspects of the film, I am convinced that the tendency of critics and reviewers to put successful foreign films up on a pedestal certainly came into play here. It's still worth checking out, but make sure you're ready to follow closely along.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mini-Review: The International

The International
Directed by Tom Tywker
Released February 13, 2009 (USA) / March 20, 2009 (Italy)

This dud of a thriller from the director of acclaimed films like "Run Lola Run" and "Heaven" is one of those films that should never have been made. It's hardly an intriguing premise, and gets boring and stale only moments in. You've already seen the whole movie if you've seen the trailer, and the most obnoxious thing is that the final scene is captured in the trailer. Clive Owen is inexplicably and inconsolably grumpy, leading a team of disgruntled and unenthusiastic agents trying to bring down a corrupt international bank. Naomi Watts, an actress extraordinaire, should probably cross this off on her resume as the one black spot, even worse than "Le Divorce." The only bright spots in a glum, deadbeat film are the fairly awesome Brian F. O'Byrne (Brotherhood) and the score by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and director Tom Tywker. The failure of this film's logical progression isn't due to inconceivable plot twists, but instead because of a progression of events which doesn't stay focused, and it hardly resolves anything. The ultimate telltale sign of this disappointing film is the loud sigh of surprise when the film ends at what seems like an arbitrary moment. Skip it for sure; it's absolutely not worth it.