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Monthly Archives: October 2010

Ten Word or Less Review: Makes one think fondly of the doofy Costner version.

When Errol Flynn rode up to the camera on horseback wearing a costume as green as a leprechauns trousers in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood no one thought for one damn second, ‘You know, I think I need someone to take nearly three hours out of my life to explain how Robin Hood got to this point.”  The green tights, the bow and arrow, that grin of invincibility, they made all the points that needed to be made.  This is Robin Hood, he kicks ass, deal with it.  Flash forward 72 years and enter Ridley Scott to hopelessly muddle up this bit of English folklore.  Scott, along with his muse Russell Crowe, have conjured up a bloated, historical epic that takes great pains to etch out every little detail that may have created the Robin Hood legend.  But despite all the Herculean effort of historical minutia being forced up onto the screen, never once does it any of it register as the least bit interesting.

Scott’s Robin Hood exist in that strange place of cinema in which most of it doesn’t feel quite right or wrong, it’s simply a steady stream of humdrum drama and an obsessive attention to historical detail that slowly feels like movie purgatory.  Going through many scripts and story revisions on its way to the big screen, the final product lacks a strong arc and is saddled with a dubious purpose.  The decision to pursue this as a prequel eliminates the trappings of a typical Robin Hood tale, fine, but in its place a tepid historical drama has been constructed, not fine.  Those looking for the visceral thrills of Scott and Crowe’s Gladiator will be sorely disappointed.  There’s virtually no action till the film’s anticlimactic finale.  The epic scope of Scott’s other recent historical action piece, Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut, is also nowhere to be found.  The only thing here is a boring collection of scene after scene in which nogoodniks scheme and plot while the Robin Hood character slowly positions himself into being declared a historical outlaw.

With no strong plot to compel the film forward stars Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett are left to try and hold the film up, but there’s no chance.  Crowe is stuck playing a Robin Hood with little in the way of heroics to perform.  One of Robin Hood’s more glaring bits of dumbness comes towards its third act when Robin Hood suddenly recalls that he’s the son of a noted rabble-rouser who wanted to inspire the meek to stand up and take power away from abusive tyrants.  It’s a ridiculous bit of 11th hour character motivation that takes a movie which was slowly moving along its own track and starts to derail it.  Blanchett is also trapped in a thankless part as the corporate mandated, post-feminist Maid Marion.  There’s no imagination to the character here and turning her into a strong-willed woman of independent means flies in the face of the historical accuracy the movie seems to be so dead set on getting right.  She too is saddled with a jump-the-shark moment in the film’s final act, showing up on the battlefield clad in armor, leading a pack of armed, vigilante children against the French invaders.  Such idiocy quickly elevates this Robin Hood from being a thing of consistent boredom to blatant stupidity.  The rest of the well known cast, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Max von Sydow, all walk through as best they can but there’s just nothing of note for anyone to do.

Robin Hood is without question Ridley Scott’s worst film in ages.  He’s recently made films more grotesque and questionable to be sure, Hannibal & Black Hawk Down, but being this long-winded and dull is the bigger crime in my book.  Feeling so completely unmoved by so much is a shocking display of ineptitude, one that many felt Scott incapable of making.  But it’s happened and now we’re left to wonder if one of our elder statesmen of movie making has begun to lose his grasp on the form.  I think there’s little doubt that Scott can bounce back, but such an epic blunder is hard to see past.

 

A none-to-bad set for a suspense thriller goes unfulfilled thanks to a second rate screenplay, lousy characterizations and uninspired direction.  Writer-director Adam Green schemes up a good scenario, three people trapped on a ski lift facing no way down for days, but he doesn’t have the necessary chops to pull his idea together.  His characters consist of douche bag A, douche bag B and douche bag A’s girlfriend.  These people suck from the get go so when things go bad for them, we don’t care.  Viewers with no tolerance for shitty characters might actually enjoy their suffering.

The action builds well on paper, someone jumps off the lift, wolves show up, frostbite sets in, someone tries to shimmy down the cable and so on.  But not only is Green a bad writer of character, he’s not an inspired director either.  He almost squeezes some suspense out of things, a few sequences work well enough, but overall success remains out of his reach.  The biggest problem with the entire effort is that there’s a pretty obvious pseudo-solution to their predicament, one that this viewer thought up right at the start, but no one in the group tries or even suggest.

 

Ten Word or Less Review: Grim, uncompromising British drama that gets under the skin.

 
Never Let Me Go begins with a title card which swiftly sets us up for a tale of alternate reality.  We’re only told that a medical breakthrough occurred in the 1950’s and that by the early 70’s the average human lifespan is over 100 years of age.  Though a science fiction set up on paper, there are virtually no sci-fi trappings to be found here.  Never Let Me Go is instead an unsettling tale of three people trying to play out their romantic fates, all the while facing a future that will render their life journey devastatingly short.
Never may try viewers for several reasons, the first of which is its quiet, understated first act.  Little more than a boarding school drama at first, Never introduces us to Ruth, Tommy and Kathy, three pre-pubescent school mates feeling out their way through early adolescence.  They fumble through their first steps for romance, dealing with usual adolescent escapades.  Then one day a new teacher arrives.  The new teacher sees how these special children are being raised and what’s not being told to them.  One day, no longer able to keep up the facade, she tells the children about the truth of their existence and what future awaits them.  She humbly informs the class that they are clones, and that when they reach adulthood they will have to donate their organs one by one, and when they can donate no more they will ‘complete’, i.e. die.  Never Let Me Go changes gears from a remedial British drama about youth to a romantic tragedy which slowly devastates.  Flash forward several years and Ruth (Keira Knightly) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) have become lovers while Kathy (Carey Mulligan) quietly pines for Tommy in quiet solitude.  All three still face that crushing future of ‘completion.’
What slowly begins to dawn on the viewer about Never is its abandoning of all that is conventional within stories such as these.  None of these characters seems openly scared of their fate or attempts to run from it.  The movie simply doesn’t take that well-worn path, it doesn’t even present running away and surviving as a viable option.  This is a solomn world these characters live in, a dystopia where escape to something simply doesn’t exist.  No matter how instinctually wrong their actions, or lack of, may seem to an average viewer the film is, more importantly, honest with itself and to its story.  Ruth, Tommy and Kathy go through a slowly evolving romance which takes place over a decade which becomes quietly devistating for all of them.  Few films sneak up on you with this level of emotional heartbreak.

All three central performers turn in top level work.  Keira Knightly, unshackled from Pirate duty, makes the easily loathsome Ruth into a sympathetic soul.  Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), is the innocent at heart Tommy, a young man who sees his future of donation and completion  and can still smile because of those around him.  Carey Mulligan’s Kathy is the center of the film and its narrator.  Mulligan has scores of pathos in her eyes.  Her calm soul helps hold these friends together through life and eventually completion.
Exquisitely and serenely directed by Mark Romanek, Never is so unorthodox, so rooted in despair, that it’s no surprise many viewers found it unrelatable and/or distant.  So many films come from a place where the actions of characters will envoke empathy and a sense of commonality with the protagonist that to witness a story where such considerations are dropped is almost heresy.  And more than just being turned inside out on a character level, it’s a sci-fi story with little to no sci-fi elements.  This is no high-tech world of special effects wonders.  It’s a thoroughly soggy British landscape that reflects the dour emotional palatte of the story, nothing more.  Romanek draws excellent performances out of everyone and while not likely to win any awards for speed, Never’s methodical pace eventually contribute to its overall success as a piece of gut wrenching cinema.
Never Let Me Go may never find any kind of wide acceptance.  It’s very much a creation which lives on its own and doesn’t make considerations for viewers looking for the norm.  It’s the kind of weird, haunting and profound little movie that those who decide to embrace it will do so wholeheartedly.  The rest of the world will simply let it pass unnoticed, which is a shame.

Ten Word or Less Review: Like

When word first circulated that someone was going to produce a movie about the inception and creation of facebook, the online world scoffed just a little.  Yes, David Fincher was directing and Aaron Sorkin was writing and there was an abundance of talent in front of and behind the camera, but all the same.  Facebook?  That initial reaction fades when you stop thinking about facebook as a collection of banal observances about everyday life that your friends drone on about and more as the defining social tool of the past century.  How often does someone launch a service that goes on to be utilized by 500,000,000 million people and growing?  The Social Network is a gripping drama which delves into a topic which like it or not, understand it or not, defines a lot about who people are today.

To cut to the chase, The Social Network plays like a 21st century grandchild of Orsen Welles undisputed heavyweight Citizen Kane.  Both movies share a similar structure involving a constant flashing forward and back which slowly exposes the life of an exceedingly powerful individual.  In the case of Social, we follow facebook’s disputed inventor Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as he both creates the worldwide phenomena and is sued after its creation by multiple parties for stealing it.  But also like Kane, Social is interested in the emotional roots, or lack there of, of its creator.

Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is a tightrope walk of a performance.  Zuckerberg is played up as a wildly intelligent but emotionally prickly individual, who for all his smarts, can’t be the least bit empathetic towards others.  He steps on other peoples emotions out of a penetrating, knee-jerk intelligence which alienates himself from others.  In short, he’s an asshole.  He isn’t popular within the Harvard social circles he needs to be and is fishing for an idea to create that popularity when he’s approached by the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer), two jocks with a simple idea that Zuckerberg runs with in his own direction.  That, coupled with a strong desire to show up his ex-girlfriend in some form, leads to Zuckerberg to initiate the website that will radically alter the entire world.  This warts and all portrayal of Zuckerberg gives the performance a credibility it might not otherwise have.  Social Network abandons the all too common philosophy that says we have to like a character in order to watch them.  We don’t, we simply have to be riveted by watching him, even if he is a jerk.

Social Network’s entire cast is made up of new talent which shines bright.  British actor and future Spiderman Andrew Garfield stands out as Zuckerberg’s over trusting friend, classmate and initial business partner in the facebook venture.  Justin Timberlake blows into the movie like a tornado with a scene stealing performance as leach-like Napster founder Sean Parker.  Timberlake’s often implied talents have finally found a role which let them come through.  Armie Hammer jumps out of nowhere, packing a run-of-the-mill TV show resume, to play both Winklevoss twins in a bit of inspired technological trickery.  He successfully embodies both twins with distinct personalities.  In all the film begs for the often discussed but never executed “Best Ensemble Oscar.”

Driving this unlikely machine of a movie is acclaimed director David Fincher.  Fincher has successfully made a movie about the launching and development of the website and for his next trick he should think about producing an epic about toilet paper production.  I have no doubt it would be the greatest thriller ever made.  Fincher crafts a story which pops and sizzles at every turn despite the seemingly mundane nature of what’s playing out.  Social Network is crafted with his impeccable eye for fetching visuals.  He’s become less showy with age and the less-is-more aesthetic suits him well.  He makes his movie zip with tight editing, solid story structure and drawing good performances from actors who would stand out less under the eye of a lesser storyteller.

The Social Network is a case where expectation and acclaim live up to the hype.  Whatever fictions have been constructed for the sake of dramatic arc shouldn’t dwelled on or overblown by those looking to take the film down a notch.  It’s an achievement which stands above most other works in the market place and should be considered essential viewing by anyone who enjoys great movies.

 

Ten Word or Less Review: A Katherine Heigl movie as directed by David Cronenberg.

There’s a large romantic comedy subgenre about clueless idiots being thrust into parenthood, forced to raise a child and having no ability to do so.  Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg and Tom Selleck helped pioneer this nonsense.  The kids cry and puke and mess themselves and the new parents become flummoxed as their formerly neat, shit free little lives become unfurled.  But eventually they learn to love the little runt they’ve inherited; they grow emotionally and become better people.  In short, it’s a delivery device for sentimental crap.  Splice is a delightfully twisted, science fiction variation of this tired story.  Unexpected baby isn’t left on a doorstep but instead a genetic hybrid of numerous creatures, blended together in a genetic cocktail by Mommy and Daddy.  Baby eventually grows into a strange but sensual looking humanoid that has a tail with a deadly stinger on the end.  Her presence creates lots of mixed emotions in both parents and, this being a Frankenstein story, eventually leads down the primrose path to Hell.

Clive and Elsa (Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley) are a couple of world renowned geneticists, as well as a childless married couple too.  The dynamic duo have created the world’s first synthetic animal, a phallic shaped slug creature which the two hope will provide proteins which will cure disease.  In a moment of reckless abandon, the two take their experiment to the next level and before either knows exactly what’s happened, they’ve synthetically birthed Dren into the world.  The two behave like a lot of new parents.  Elsa is immediately overcome with a motherly instinct who wants to nurture her creation while Clive is initially terrified at what they’ve done.  Their newborn at first looks like a alien spawned, two-legged, hairless cat, but within weeks Dren takes on more human characteristics, eventually becoming a full-sized, female being played by French actress Delphine Chaneac.  To the parents surprise she can leap 25 feet in the air, breathe under water, has a tail with a deadly stinger on its end and sprouts functional wings.  Needless to say she’s the apple of mommy and daddy’s terrified eye.

Director Vincent Natali infuses Splice with a lot of unorthodox turns.  In a world of square movies Splice is a bit of a dodecahedron.  Those expecting a straight up horror film or Species inspired gore fest will be under whelmed by the restraint with which the movie is guided.  Though visceral moments are around a turn or two, Splice is first and foremost a domestic drama with tightly wound beats of tension and apprehension.  The squeamishness it draws from a viewer is more related to the unearthly appearance of its genetically altered critters and the questionable behavior characters begin to exhibit in its later act.  David Cronenberg probably sits somewhere and thinks of this movie like a proud papa.  Clive and Elsa gradually slip away from being the point of reliable protagonists and become characters that make us uncomfortable because of their strange decisions and even stranger motives.  Natali isn’t out to make Clive and Elsa either sympathetic or contemptible people.  They’re simply two incredibly intelligent people who begin to make bad decisions rooted in selfishness which they themselves don’t see.

Brody and Polley make a believable pair of people who have lived and worked together at great length to achieve something great, only to watch it slowly destroy them both.  Their arc is traditional within the mad scientist movie realm but Splice never feels like over worn material.  Like many memorable achievements in the genre, Splice draws upon its predecessors to achieve something uniquely its own.  In the end the movie as a whole is itself a Frankenstein creation.  Something cobbled together from pieces of other movies to create a new thing which defies simple explanation or dismissal.

Appreciators of odd, unique and creepy film experiences will gleefully dwell on Splice.  It’s a well constructed sci-fi tale that works on numerous subversive levels.  Anyone tied to and dependent on safe narratives which don’t push or prickle are advised to stay an arms length away.  Splice is too peculiar a creature for most and is destined to be appreciated by admirers of that which is weird.

 

Ten Word or Less Review: Excellent remake of excellent original.

A lot of skeptics said that remaking the acclaimed Swedish vampire effort Let the Right One In was a fool’s errand.  It’s a morally perplexing tale rooted in a type of character ambiguity that sometimes borderlines on maddening.  High romance isn’t the order of the day, nor is straight ahead horror scares or traditional action beats.  Many assumed it would simply be a dumber version of the same story or radically reworked for the thickish American movie goer and in the process completely loose any point for existing.  But director Matt Reeves has sidestepped the slippery slopes of remaking an acclaimed foreign film.  To the shock of many he has remade the Swedish classic in a way that will make fans of the original happy.  How?  He didn’t change much of anything accept the title.

Let Me In, like Let the Right One In, follows an emotionally isolated and lonely young teen named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  Owen is cruelly victimized by bullies and has no friends.  He spends his time alone in his room, spying on his neighbors and indulging in disturbing revenge fantasies against the bullies who terrorize him.  One day a strange girl named Abby (Chloe Moritz) moves in next door and Owen suddenly has someone to talk to and give him real advice.  Even though Abby tells Owen that they can’t be friends, every night like clockwork she appears and the two become strange companions.  Abby is aloof, cryptic and secretive of her circumstances because she’s a vampire in hiding.  Her ‘Father’ (Richard Jenkins) is a servant of sorts who kills victims for Abby to drink their blood.  Soon Owen thinks he has a best friend, but the frozen, unspecified town falls into uncertainty as bodies begin to pile up.

Let Me In is the kind of achievement which Gus Van Sant wanted to accomplish with his ill-advised Psycho remake.  Reeves has focused his efforts to recreate the original movie almost beat for beat, but also give it a look and style that doesn’t feel like effortless copycatting.  The performances by Moritz and Smit-McPhee hold the film up high and give the story emotional resonance.  If either of them had faltered then Let Me In probably would have died fast dramatically.  All of the untraditional horror carnage is also in place.  Abby and her father don’t just kill ‘bad people’ ala Dexter.  They stalk whoever is a possible victim out of necessity.  If she doesn’t feed she’ll die and it’s as simple as that.  This lack of moral hand wringing over killing innocent and even likable characters will probably leave a lot of viewers feeling creepy or removed from Let Me In.

Though both versions of the story have found a lot of acclaim they both suffer from a similar fault that’s worth mentioning.  Not explaining the details of Abby’s predicament as a vampire is understandable but the character is a shade too aloof, maybe by a few degrees.  We’re never quite clear about what Abby wants from Owen or why she’s chosen to befriend him the way she has.  There are lots of places to take this discussion and I’m sure plenty of admirers have worked out any number of answers, but I think a few small details about Abby may have made the situation feel less sketchy.  Considering what Let Me In accomplishes it’s not a deal breaker at all, but something worth mentioning.

At its end Let Me In, like its Swedish cousin, is a movie that crafts a touching relationship about a meek, lonely boy and the ruthless killing machine who befriends him.  Its peculiar and untraditional point of view flies in the face of average movie moralizing that most films are slavish too.  Let Me In requires its audience to reconcile the horrible acts some of its characters perform out of survival and go along with them regardless because despite the things these people do, they’re still sympathetic.  All this gives Let Me In a strange edge to it that few movies, even horror films, would even think about touching.