Friday, May 30, 2008

The Best of 2007

Ok... I never got around to Sweeney Todd and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is never going to get shipped via Netflix... I didn't see all the talked about docs Taxi to the Dark Side, In the Shadow of the Moon... but here is more or less the best of 2007.

1. Into the Wild - Just an incredibly emotional movie watching experience. Sean Penn was actually able to turn a great book into an even better film. Penn was finally able to follow up the promise of his debut masterpiece The Indian Runner.

2. Zodiac - David Fincher is borderline obsessive compulsive to detail and his adaption of Graysmith's novel shows it. Top notch all the way around and it begs for rewatches.

3. There Will Be Blood - I think this is a prime case of rewatching a film to realize it's greatness. The second and third watches of TWBB have convinced me of director P.T. Anderson's stunning brilliance.

4. The Bourne Ultimatum - Kind of a curveball here. I was quite impressed with Paul Greengrass's follow up to his disappointing first turn in the Bourne chair. The last hour is an action junkie's dream.

5. Starting Out in the Evening - 4 great actors doing a real movie for adults...a foriegn concept I know.

6. The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Well done debut from Andrew Dominik. The actors almost seem secondary to the beautiful cinamatography and music. Not for the faint of heart.

7. No Country for Old Men - Business as usual from the Coen brothers with the excellent Tommy Lee Jones and ...Josh Brolin? Not quite perfect, but very watchable.

8. Charlie Wilson's War - A well done film from Mike Nichols/Aaron Sorkin that uses Philip Seymour Hoffman to his fullest... that Tom Hanks guy isn't bad either.

9. Rescue Dawn - Another solid adaptation... only this time from a documentary by Werner Herzog. The realism will stay with you long after the film is over.

10. The Savages - Acting tour de force courtesy of Laura Linney.

I grade films rather harshly and there weren't a whole lot of them that made it over the 80 mark. Plus I'm necessarily recommending these films for anyone who isn't a hardcore film fan. Chances are if you like the Dane Cook garbage, you will not like any of these.

Starting Out in the Evening

It always amazes me when a well done film for adults slips through the cracks. People always complain about the lack of product aimed at a non PG-13 Brett Ratner crowd, but seldom put their dollars where it matters. Starting Out in the Evening currently boasts a 78 on metacritic and just under a 7/10 on IMDB, yet no saw it. Apparently even Oscar voters didn't see this strong effort from director Andrew Wagner who adapted this from a novel by Brian Morton.

Essentially this is a story revolving around 4 characters with writer Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) in the middle of it all. Leonard is approached by a grad student named Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) to help her with her master's thesis on his life and his books. The interest of a young lass brings up a conflict with Leonard's daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) who has relationship problems of her own with on-again off-again romance with Casey (Adrian Lestor). Heather is trying to bring out the real reason why Leonard has spent the last decade trying to finish just his fifth novel.

The dual storylines actually go together quite well especially if you figure out that Ariel and Casey's relationship is suppose to contrast the two sets of books that Leonard wrote. You see Leonard's characters were very different in the first books as told by Heather than the latter two. Those represent the two sides of Ariel's relationship. All of this is handled quite superbly by the director. You never get a sense that one half of the film lags in any way that would drag the other down with it.

Lauren Ambrose could play this role in her sleep and Adrian Lestor is always good. The two performances to talk about are Langella's and Taylor's Generally I have a disdain for the sterotypical character that Lili Taylor always plays perhaps best illustrated by the series Six Feet Under. She has limited range and a narrow comfort level it seems... but here she tones down the weepy put upon performance she always turns in. Instead she is able to craft an actual character with the help of a great script. For Langella, this seems a complete departure from his usual role as the man wearing the black hat. He gives a well thought out peformance that is every bit the opposite of something splashy like Daniel Day-Lewis's in There Will Be Blood. This much more subtle and nuanced. Langella lifts what could be a stuffy role with the wrong actor into something else.

All of this praise aside... I did have a problem with the ending. I don't want to reveal anything, but there is one scene that didn't play quite right. I can see how this would be accurate when you thing of the whole rather than the sum of it's parts... it is just that the tone feels off and the scene incomplete. I nitpick though and the average film goer might not even notice. This is a terrific movie for people who want more... expect more from their films.


The Andromeda Strain

Going a little old school today with the 1971 sci-fi classic The Andromeda Strain. Curiously enough it was written in book form by a young medical student named Michael Crichton and brought to the big screen by 4 time Oscar winner Robert Wise (The Sand Pebbles, The Sound of Music). Of course, even a big budget thriller looks dated thirty years down the road no matter who the director of the film... but you have to look at those things objectively.

So the basics... a satellite crashes to Earth in a small New Mexico town. Locals decide to recover it and try to open it. This unleashes a deadly strain of virus this world has never seen that causes the blood to clot rapidly causing quick death. Members of the Army's project SCOOP call in the Wildfire team to contain and investigate the dangers of the virus. The team (Kate Reid, Arthur Hill, James Olsen, David Wayne) is made up all all solid actors, but names you'd never recognize right away. Wise said he did that as to not distract you from the film and it's message. He wanted you to believe that this was a real situation that could happen.

While those four actors are more than capable, the real star is the sets. Wildfire is based a elaborate facility that has been made to look like a cross between the biolabs we have nowadays and something more Kubrickian. A scene toward the end shows just how far the set design people had to go to get a shot of James Olson racing through the core.

I have no doubts that when The Andromeda Strain came out that this film was about as perfect as you can get it. However, with pacing, special effects, and just advances in science in the last 30 years you do feel as this story is diminished some. Although actors of today would do well to take a note on not trying to oversell a role. Not a bad watch... unlike the new miniseries that changed a good deal around to add more of a military thriller aspect to it.

The new miniseries adds too many faces you'll recognize. Only Benjamin Bratt and Andre Braugher have the chops to bring the goods in. Christa Miller (Scrubs), in particular, is awful in her role as part of the Wildfire team. The military aspect is played up more to create the government conspiracy plot. All of it takes a timeless story and reduces it to Sci-Fi original movie territory. I didn't make it through the second half of the new Andromeda Strain, the first half left me with the distince feeling of a turd sandwich with garnishes.

Old Andromeda Strain 80/100

New Andromeda Strain 10/100 (10 for Braugher)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jone and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Henry Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) is back at it again in this fourth film in the Indiana Jones franchise. Jones is approached by a fellow named Mutt (Shia Lebeouf)to help him locate his mom's boyfriend (John Hurt). The boyfriend was an old friend of Indiana's named Howard Oxley. Oxley believed he had located a crystal skull which is the key to a secret to a lost city of gold. Throw in Mutt's mother (Karen Allen) is really Marion Ravenwood from Raiders and you get a family get-together much like the second National Treasure. I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment. Oh and don't forget a miscast Cate Blanchett as a Russian general trying to get a piece of the crystal kingdom too.

I'm a bit late reviewing this because essentially my heart was broken. I knew it was gonna happen, but I hoped that somehow Spielberg could rescue this film from the evil clutches of George Lucas. Lucas is the man that came up with this lame-brained storyline. The setup for the film is actually quite well done all the way up til the crystal skull is revealed - then it is bye bye to logic and the world we knew of in the Indiana Jones series. It turns into a shotty episode of something resembling X-Files - without the brains. David Koepp was asked to create a screenplay based on this Lucas abomination and to be fair he does what he can.

Spielberg's elaborate stunts seem small in scale. The camera feels like it is only capturing a small bit of screen unlike the epic feel of say Raiders. Much of this has to be blamed on absurd CGI effects. Lucas is no doubt to blame for the dumbing down of this series. The latter Star Wars films suffered from the, "Hey look what we can do with CGI even if it doesn't fit with the rest of the film!" attitude. Everything feels cheap and small. I know Harrison can't do everything he used to, but that doesn't mean you have to CG other parts that could be done by stuntmen.

All that being said, you the audience get a horrible tacked on ending. I'm sure Lucas/Spielberg wanted to tie things up in a way to make to please the crowd, but more people I knew at the screening were angry since it went against everything the first films had established. Maybe it's not Indiana Jones that needs to hang it up, maybe it is George Lucas.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

P.S. I Love You

For your standard rom-com, P.S. I Love You has some pretty dark moments to the storyline. Holly (Hilary Swank)loses her husband Gerry (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor. Soon after his death, she starts receiving letters Gerry wrote before he died. Gerry has a everything plotted out to help Holly through the first year after he passes away. Holly's mom (Kathy Bates) disapproves of the lettters. She believes her daughter is never going to get over it with all the constant reminder of her lost husband. Throw in a strange dude (Harry Connick, Jr) and some friends (Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow), and you have a film.

Director Richard LaGravenese is man all over the creative map. He has made in interesting chick flick in Living Out Loud, a spellbinding doc on American cinema in A Decade Under the Influence, a contribution to Paris J'taime, and a generic teacher film in Freedom Writers. Before directing, LaGravenese made some coin and a name adapting chick novels to chick flicks. But for his writing debut, he scripted the wonderful Terry Gilliam film The Fisher King. Overall though, you'd have to say he should know his vaginal audience. This film raked in a fairly respectable total at the box office.

Back to the film at hand, I found myself wondering why this film was constructed the way it is? You get a very anticlimatic double ending that leaves you with questions... and not in a good way. You basically follow Holly through the story with flashbacks to explain how she fell in love with Gerry. In real life, Holly sleeps with Gerry's friend from Ireland seemingly with his blessing from beyond the grave and maintains some sort of thing with the Connick, Jr character. It all feels awkward...

That is probably the best way to describe the entire film: awkward. The tone is all over the place...the characters are all over the place... the script is all over the place. Somehow I think I did like it. I say I think because I had a ton of issues with it. Butler and Swank REALLY work their asses off here.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

Writer/Director Rebecca Miller tells a strange story about a man named Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) raising his daughter Rose (Camille Belle) in a 1980's commune. The commune is pretty much dead except for the title characters. Jack is an idealist who tries to keep the island on which his commune resides free of riff raff. The plot starts unwinding when Jack, who has a heart condition, invites his quasi-girlfriend (Catherine Keener) to live with them and baggage. The baggage being her two teen sons. One of which named Thaddius (Lewis's future costar in There Will Be Blood Paul Dano) who has designs on young Rose.

Basically it is a reverse Oedipal tale where the daughter finds it impossible to love any other man than her father. Jack realizes it too late to fix things. The rest of the plot is mostly cliche stuff. The real reason to watch The Ballad of Jack and Rose is for Miller's eye for the camera and her real life husband Lewis's work. This is by no means a great or even original story, but you are engrossed in this family's life and feel sad when it is over. In the end I liked more than I hated.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man has always been at it's core a story about a drunken, spoiled genius. So it seems perfect that director Jon Favreau fought to get the perfect actor for the role: Robert Downey, Jr. Obviously the parallels in the personal life of Downey echo some of those for this legendary comic book character who out of the suit in Tony Stark.

Stark is the son of a famous industrialists who built the family empire around weapons manufacturing. Tony has a close call with Afghani rebels on a business trip. He mananges to escape by constructing a crude suit made up of various parts stripped out of the rebel weapons. Upon learning that most of those weapons were made by his family's company, Stark tries to change his stripes by shifting the focus into another avenue. This action is met with disapproval by his top adviser Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Something seems to be going on under the surface and of Stark Enterprises...

Favreau wouldn't be anyone's first, second, third, etc to direct a big budget action film. In fact his last project, Zathura, had a large budget only to fall flat at the box office. Thankfully, Marvel felt as if he was the right guy to add a little more than we usually get from a comic book story. Favreau is an expect at adding humanity to his projects and that comes in very handy for this dark story. The special effects are well done even if the action sequences might need a bit more work in the next one.

Downey is always a wonder to behold, but alas sometimes his projects aren't. Here, he gets a meaty role almost tailored to his every strength. Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges are also excellently cast in the supporting roles. The only problem is Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's assistant Pepper Potts. I've said it before, but Paltrow is like listening to a robot with dialogue. You barely even get the Dunst Effect (two emotions) as someone forgot to change the microchip in her head.

In the end, you get a very well made MOVIE. I think that is the key with so many people having fawned over brainless trash like Transformers. Iron Man deliveres a story with convincing characters ACTORS playing them. The bar has been set high for the summer.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

A comedy directed by Jack Kasdan (The Zero Effect) and written by Kasdan and Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) has a lot to live up to. Maybe that's an unfair expectation to put on a well intentioned film, but it is what it is. Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is more or less a knock off of Johnny Cash with Darlene (Jenna Fischer) his June Carter. Most of the film is a direct spoof of the Cash biopic Walk the Line with a few added changes later in the story. Such as when Cox tries to revive his career as a protest singer ala Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea. The film sticks with straight up spoof for most with very few gags requiring a set up. The songs were all composed by the writers (and some friends) with only one of them really working in "Let's Duet".

If it sounds like I'm not that excited about the film then you get my point. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments scattered throughout the film... it is just that there is so much dead space between them. The ending doesn't quite work that well either. Kasdan can do satire well as in his remarkable skewing of the television industry The TV Set. Unfortunately, Walk Hard falls squarely in the assine genre of Talladega Nights and Semi-Pro. Props do have to go to star John C. Reilly who keeps the whole thing from sinking. Having an actor who can do all his own singing ensures you are taken out of the story by bad lip-syncing (Streets of Fire hello?). I can only give this a modest recommendation.