11 January 2009

Weekly Viewing Roundup: January 2-10

So this is the first of what I hope will be a weekly series where I write brief comments on what movies I watch outside of the movie theatre each week. I'll reserve the longer reviews for new films, and sometimes I'll write longer posts on individual films, but I'll try to write at least something on the films I watch at home. This post includes a couple of days from last week since I'm late getting started. As I said, my goal is at least five movies a week (last year I watched 227 films!). And without further ado:

A capable biopic directed by Lord Richard Attenborough, but it has one central flaw. The movie takes the cliche biography film path by focusing on all the women in Chaplin's life. Sure there were a lot, and that's an interesting sidenote. But what makes Chaplin's legacy endure and what makes him most interesting are his films. Attenborough chooses to focus on the sordid gossip in lieu of film production. There's barely a mention of the great lengths he went to to film The Gold Rush, hardly a mention of the bravery of filming a silent film during the emerging sound era, the film that went on to be the greatest film of all time: City Lights. They don't mention clearly the formation of United Artists. Chaplin changed film history, but what we get is a laundry list of infidelities. The performances are capable enough, though Downey is a little too mumbly for my taste. Interesting, but ultimately comes up short.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Like the Star Wars prequels, it generated a lot of interest and fans early on but as time goes by it earns more detractors and more ire for George Lucas. And I do, like so many others, blame Lucas rather than Spielberg. I have the common problems with it: gophers, monkeys, waterfalls, etc. But I think I have an easier time getting past those than some. I still enjoy the film. As a piece of escapist entertainment it's just fine. And maybe that's all we can really expect from Indy. But I would have enjoyed a better script and a better conceived plot. In the end, one of the lesser entries in the franchise, but not as bad as everyone says. It will survive with the rest of them.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Unfortunately, kind of overlooked this summer. And it's box office performance seems to have tanked the next installment (unless another studio picks it up from Disney, anyone? anyone?). I am one of the very few people to have thought it better than the previous film. It's more mature and thoughtful than Lion, Witch and takes more time to develop the characters. The special effects are some of the best this year. It still has that feel of being Lord of the Rings Jr. but if the series is allowed to continue, it might stand as one of the strongest installments. Let's hope it finds a renewed life on dvd so we can find out.

The Godfather Trilogy
What can I say that hasn't already been said? It took me a few viewing to really appreciate the first film, and on this second viewing of the second film I can already begin to feel myself warming to it. They're not the most accessible films, oddly enough, but they are rewarding once you get into them. The third film has those flaws that most people mention, the second is one of the greatest sequels, to be sure. But it's that first film that ranks the best for me. It's rich and complex, and is famous for all the right reasons. Perhaps I'll write on the trilogy later on in more depth, but for now, kudos to Coppola and his team for creating a purely dramatic trilogy.

The Hidden Fortress
One of Kurosawa's lesser efforts, but even that is better than the work of most directors. A great exercise in, if not style, clear and entertaining storytelling. Part of it was the inspiration for Star Wars, and it shows. What made the first Star Wars film so successful owed a lot to this and other Kurosawa films, and Lucas seems to have completely lost that in the prequel trilogy. Kurosaswa's chief actor Toshiro Mifune is once again fantastic as the general, and the supporting players, with the exception of perhaps the princess, play along beautifully. It's gorgeously shot and works as a great entertaining adventure, proof that great art and populist entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.

In Bruges
Is this the darkest comedy ever made? Possibly. It's classified by most as a comedy and will be competing for the best comedy prize at tonight's Golden Globes, but I didn't laugh for most of it. But that doesn't mean it's not a comedy. It's the kind of humor that makes you laugh on the inside, the kind of humor that lends levity to what would have been a violent drama. It helps to balance the mood, slightly tipping it into the comedy range without being a laugh-out-loud riot. The acting is excellent, and McDonough's script deserves an Oscar nom this year. If you're familiar with his plays you will likely love the film, and the film's critical success will hopefully give him enough clout to make more. Let's hope so.

Gran Torino

Based on what I see in trailers, there is sometimes a huge gap between what I am expecting from a film and what I get. Gran Torino seemed like it was going to be a very generic tale of an old man getting to know the people he hates, having his heart softened in the process, and then having to protect them from violence. The storyline was just that, but generic it wasn't. The film turned out to be one of the best surprises of the season.

I've always respected Clint Eastwood as an actor, but here he truly carries the picture and the results are moving. He turns what could have been a racist old geezer into a humorous and, at times, charming, though still racist veteran. The supporting players can't quite match his caliber, but in a way that's okay. He's the heart and soul of the story, and his performance matches that responsibility.

I return again to the humor, which caught me off guard. Some of it is racial in nature, almost a laughter of disbelief at a person saying the things that he says. But it's not limited to that. The way he treats people is cruel at times, but he thinks it's hilarious, and because of that, we do too. It helps lift the film from its possibly cliche trappings.

I'm still kind of processing the film, so I'm not sure of what to say. And that's okay, I think. Suffice to say that it is a very poignant and tender exploration of racism and friendship. It deals with racism in a much more complex and intelligent way than a lot of other films that purport to explore it. It's not the cut and dry violent force like in Crash, and it almost continues the conversation started in 50s and 60s films like Giant or In the Heat of the Night.

In terms of violence, it can also be seen as Eastwood's answer to the violence of some of his earlier films, particularly the Dirty Harry films, in the same way that Unforgiven was his answer to the violence of his Westerns. Parts of it are a little simplistic at times, plotwise, but it never ceases to couple that with further depths of the central character, which Eastwood will always be remembered for.

10 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I never quite understood the appeal of Forrest Gump. I mean, I get it. A man lives through a lot of history and stumbles into major world events and throughout it all he's just trying to find his love and take care of his mama. Interesting concept I suppose, but not particularly well made. Definitely not deserving of a best picture Oscar. Just goes to show the infectious power of optimism to ride a movie to awards season glory (as we're about to see happen again with Slumdog Millionaire.

But enough about mediocre films. I bring up Gump because The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares with it both a plotline and a screenwriter (check other sites for detailed breakdowns of similarities between the two films, culminating in what might be a case of self-plagiarism). That said, Button has the distinction of being a well-made film.

Visually, it's quite stunning. This might be one of the best uses of computer-generated effects ever seen, because it's actually put to good use for character portrayal rather than merely background painting. Brad Pitt is able to extend his performance beyond the limits of his body and what makeup can do. It's quite a feat.

The story has surprising drive for its type, being able to pull interest from an audience for over two and a half hours with not many clear goals and objectives for the title character. But it's as much Daisy's (Cate Blanchett) picture as it is Benjamin's. So we watch in hope that these two satellites orbiting the breadth of the earth will finally collide.

That said, when they finally collide, it becomes a little less interesting, for a time. It's a sad fact that happiness is not as interesting to watch as pain. But things don't stay that way. For most of the picture, indeed in its most interesting parts when Benjamin is traveling, Benjamin's strange malady is almost an afterthought. It consumes the physical nature of the character but his spirit is enough to push it into the foreground. The attention that must be paid to it by Benjamin and Daisy toward the end sparks new life into the plot for the last section of the film. It's strange and almost off-putting in a way. It mirrors real life, where for most of our youth we don't have to think about our physical limitations. We can do anything. Then suddenly, our bodies put limits on our dreams. Things cannot be as they once were, and we start to despair.

The film has many of these interesting insights, stemming from Fitzgerald's original story, and, to a lesser extent, Eric Roth's screenplay. But it's David Fincher and his actors who breathe great life into it. They meander and detour, sometimes frustratingly, but always come back to the central point: that we have a finite number of opportunities in life, and they will end. It's a flawed film, but a good one, and one that shows that David Fincher does have some heart in him, beyond the flashy tricks and creeping dread showed in films like Fight Club and Zodiac. He took good advantage of this opportunity, and it shows.


After some of his previous efforts, Valkyrie seems like an odd choice for Bryan Singer. No superheroes, and no crazy twist ending. In fact you already know the ending. But it's a marvel that it doesn't lessen the suspense. We know Hitler survives this assassination attempt (at least I hope you know enough about history to know that). But it's still an exciting film.

It's not a particularly great one, but it's solid. It's able to keep the audience going and move the plot without it falling apart. The performances, again, aren't Oscar material, but they move the story. And in the end that's what the movie is all about, the story. About the central fact that some Germans wanted Hitler dead. It's an important point to make, and the film's focus is admirable.

That said, there are drawbacks. The points where the film does deviate from that central purpose spoil the flow. We don't need so many diary entries by Tom Cruise's Count von Stauffenberg. We don't need to see every argument made to get people on the side of the resistance. We get the point early on: Hitler is bad and something must be done.

All in all, quite capable and satisfying for what it is. May not be remembered as one of the great war movies (a genre I've always been a little bored with) but an effective outing to the theatre. I hesitate to call it escapist, but maybe that's what it is. It doesn't break any new ground necessarily, despite the film's advertisements as "the story that has never been told...until now." It's escapist in the sense that it's an exciting suspense thriller made just that much more authentic by its historical trappings.