Review: Paradise Now (2005)

17 08 2009

Paradise NowI actually saw Paradise Now over a month ago and have waited to write my review because I didn’t have the words to describe my feelings concerning this film. For some reason, this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps that’s the point, but I’m not sure the chaffing was due to the quality of the filmmaking.

My greatest struggle in this film centered on the believeabilty of the main character Said (Kais Nashif). The choices made by Said, if accurate to reality, made no sense to me. Again, this may be the point. But to say that Westerners and those in the Middle East don’t understand the world in the same way is not really saying much of anything. What is it exactly (or, at least, more exactly) that causes or encourages this gulf in worldview? Addressing that question would have made for more interesting viewing. Yet, as I’ve said in other reviews, to knock a story for not addressing a question you want it to address is unfair. Still, concerning the story they have chosen to tell, it is one that I neither comprehended nor enjoyed terribly much.

Review: Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

16 08 2009

Smilla's Sense of SnowOccasionally, a quality film flies below the radar such that you only hear about it many years after its initial release. Smilla’s Sense of Snow is not one of those films. I had high hopes for this winter tale upon discovering that its cast included the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Jim Broadbent, Richard Harris, and Julia Ormond. Unfortunately, even strong actors can’t overcome a ridiculously bad screenplay. The screenwriter’s plot trappings are so nonsensical that one wonders, for instance, why someone didn’t stop and ask, “Why does this doctor have a light panel to view x-rays wall-mounted in his dining room?” And, yes, the film does reach that level of lunacy.

I’d like to say that this movie, which is filmed mostly in Scandinavia and Greenland, has beautiful cinematography to make up for its lack of a taut story, but even on this point it mostly fails. Now, to be fair, this film is over 12 years old and camera technology wasn’t then what it is today. Still, movies like Titanic and Saving Private Ryan were filmed at roughly the same time and they have breathtaking cinematography. I expected more especially with regard to the Greenland insert shots.

My greatest fear in reviewing Smilla’s Sense of Snow is that I might actually cause it to appear on your radar screen. So, to avert that possibility I encourage you for the first, and hopefully last time, to forget everything I wrote in this review . . . especially the name of this film.

Review: Little Women (1994)

15 08 2009

Little WomenWhile I’ve watched Little Women at least two times prior to my viewing of it for this review, I have never stopped to consider its values (or deficits). I always thought highly of it, but the more I’ve consider it critically, the less I like it. I think the story pales in comparison to Jane Austen’s work which is far more intelligent and witty. Granted, it may not be fair to compare the two, but nonetheless, I found this film rather flat and one-dimensional. Of course, I’m comparing Austen films with Alcott films . . . and that’s saying nothing concerning the quality of the writing that inspired these films.

Beyond my comparative dislike of the story, I found the acting in this particular film rather one-dimensional. Each daughter seemed to cover a particular “emotional state” and something about that didn’t sit well with me. I actually liked Claire Danes performance better than the rest and while I didn’t fully comprehend Christian Bale’s motivations, I thought he was solid. In spite of some of its quality acting, I found the film too glossy for my liking. I recommend Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility as a better film from this same cinematic period (i.e., mid-1990s).

Review: The Nanny Diaries (2007)

13 08 2009

The Nanny DiariesI wish someone would have warned me to avoid The Nanny Diaries. For the sake of my cinematic self-esteem, you have to agree that the film does seemingly have promise. Successful and talented actresses such as Laura Linney and Scarlett Johansson don’t generally make schmaltzy films. Further, having Paul Giamatti on board certainly adds cache. Yet, this film is bad . . . very, very bad.

I can’t quite put my finger on where it goes wrong. Perhaps it’s the flat story that tries to be humorous or significant, but comes off one-dimensional and forced. Not a single actor seems to be having any fun and when you watch the DVD’s outtakes you are struck by the absence of chemistry among the cast. Scarlett Johannsson is a wet fish throughout and Laura Linney, while solid, has played this same character so many times it’s tiring. As for onscreen romance, Johansson and Chris Evans suffer under such a contrived storyline that they don’t have much hope of success in pulling off anything even remotely genuine.

Outside of acting and story, the film has little else to commend itself. The soundtrack is forgettable, the set design unoriginal, the costuming perfectly adequate, and the cinematography spectacularly bland.

All told, The Nanny Diaries makes for such a mess of a film one wonders why no one on the creative team stopped to ask, “What the heck are we doing here?” Perhaps I should have known better than to watch a film that made zero impact on the cinematic Richter scale, but I followed my blind (and, yes, naive) optimism. At the very least, I’ve sacrificed myself so that you too don’t have to suffer this dreadful film. And, yes, that’s what I whisper to my inner child to console myself over my lost naivete and the disappearance of 104 minutes of my life.

Review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

10 08 2009

The Hurt LockerPerhaps I give film critics too much credit. Have you ever had a similar thought as the credits roll on a film that “shouldn’t be missed” or is “one of the year’s ten best”? As I walked out of the theater following a showing of The Hurt Locker, the most intelligible statement I could make was “huh?” What in this particular film so caught the attention and high praise from such a plethora of critics? Here is a film, after all, about the war in Iraq — a topic far from the most popular with critics or the general populace.

My first thought was that somehow I missed an underlying anti-war message, which I could see people rallying behind. Yet, after racking my brain, I couldn’t arrive at a single scene in the film that spoke for or against the war. I give the filmmakers credit that they rightly let the war be the backdrop for the telling of a very particular story. Truth be told, one could have chosen the Vietnam War or Korean War and told a very similar story.

So, where does this leave us? Why do critics love this film? Sure, the cinematography is amazing and things being blown up is a definite draw. Yes, the acting is quite good, but not so stellar as to warrant the critics’ current love fest with this film. As for the story itself, it is compelling enough and does have a particular point which the filmmakers make blatantly obvious at the beginning (see the quote in the film’s first frame). Still, many films have similar qualities yet don’t garner half as much praise as The Hurt Locker. The movie is entertaining, but far from worthy of the critical accolades it has received.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie for what it was — an interesting story about a bomb squad unit during the Iraq War. The storytelling gets a bit muddled in the middle when the film moves away from disarming bombs and spends a good 20 minutes in the desert with snipers. Even with this slight hiccup, however, I found myself committed to the story and its characters. Yet, let’s be honest here, the “moral” of the story (if you will) is not particularly new or mind-blowing; and the film’s images, while beautifully shot, aren’t so revolutionary as to warrant special attention.

At the end of the day, I can only hypothesize concerning why critics have crowned The Hurt Locker their current film prince. I suspect that due to the recent void of decent war movies, a film with modest qualities like this one appears amazing. Yet, hold it up to say a Platoon or a Saving Private Ryan and one quickly sees The Hurt Locker for what it is — an entertaining, but unoriginal film that won’t much be remembered one year from now.

Review: 12 (2007)

9 08 2009

12This Russian-language film provides a powerful retelling of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1957 film 12 Angry Men. Set in contemporary Russia, 12 does a masterful job of re-framing the story to be both culturally relevant and current. Like the original classic, this film takes place predominately in a single room — in this instance, a school gymnasium where the jurors meet to decide the fate of a young Chechen teenager accused of murder. I stand amazed that in an era of green-screening and multi-million dollar special effects, a 160-minute movie can be set in a single locale and remain captivating.

This film’s story arc and plot focuses more on community, relationships, and storytelling than the original 12 Angry Men. The 1950’s classic was bent more toward reason and persuasion, while this film tended toward the heart as the motivating factor in determining guilt or innocence. Reason wasn’t all together disregarded, but it became a minor consideration in comparison with the need for each juror to connect with the details of the case from an experiential level. This form of plot structure created a wonderful opportunity for the 12 actors to shine as each told a portion of his personal story. I’ll admit, however, that there were at least two occasions where I struggled to see the connection between the story and the case at hand, but this didn’t necessarily make the story itself any less engaging.

Potential viewers of this film should be forewarned that it is long (over 2.5 hours) and that the first thirty minutes test your patience as the jurors settle themselves in the jury room and get down to business. I think this beginning portion of the film could have been substantially shortened with little loss, but this matter is quickly forgotten when the jurors start telling their stories. The inter-splicing of scenes from the defendant’s childhood do eventually help to explain elements of the case and provide some emotional connection with the accused; however, the repetition of the images does get slightly annoying after two hours. One particular scene of a dog carrying a portion of a man’s arm still makes no sense to me and had seemingly no relevance to the story at hand.

While not a perfect film and definitely in need of some minor edits for time considerations, 12 provides a fascinating look at Russian culture. The acting is top-notch and the stories told so compelling that you’ll be glad you stuck with it. I recommend this film to those interested in foreign cinema and those who loved 12 Angry Men.

Review: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

8 08 2009

(500) Days of SummerHave you ever had the experience of walking through a local art fair and finding, sandwiched between the caricatures of rock stars and stale cityscapes, a unique piece of art that’s as refreshing to the imagination as it is stirring to the soul?  A special something that resists being categorized, yet beckons like a good friend to sit with it a spell and enjoy its company.  In the realm of film, (500) Days of Summer waits quietly between the mindless CGI-riddled blockbuster and the drunk road-trip movie for its opportunity to steal you away and remind you of the beauty and magnificence of true cinematic art.

(500) Days of Summer tells the story of a man, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who meets a woman, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), but is not a love story (or so we are told by the narrator). The story unfolds in a most unusual manner eschewing the linear and embracing relational intersections.  Lest you worry that the clever, non-sequential manner of the narrative will leave you confused, the film’s editing and overall story structure provides plenty of tracking beacons.  Unlike almost any film in recent memory, (500) Days of Summer succeeds in capturing its story’s emotional reality not through words or character, but in the very nature of the shots and the manner in which they are ordered.  The movie’s amazing soundtrack also lends much in providing emotional context to the film.

As for the story itself, one is tempted to call the film’s narrator to account for it feels very much like a love story; however, the more one sits with it, the more he realizes that the story is about the nature of love and not the love of two particular people.  This may all sound like arguing over semantics to you, but understanding the difference here is crucial for determining whether you walk away from this film crestfallen or with the hope that love can exist and should be sought.

The film’s technical qualities are top-notch.  I rarely have opportunity to highlight a film’s editing, so special credit goes to editor Alan Edward Bell for weaving seamless a story that could have easily ended up more a ball of tangled yarn than a beautiful tapestry.  Both Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel rise to the challenges presented to them in this film and move their characters between the ups-and-downs of love with a pitch-perfect amount of joy and despondency.  Music supervisor Andrea von Foerster’s experience in television is evident by the song choices in this film as she deftly selects a wonderful mix of music from fringe artists.

I loved the use of split-screen in this film, but admit that while this was the correct choice for the particular scene it made for nearly impossible viewing (i.e., I could really only watch one side or the other).  Outside of this small blemish, the movie’s only other drawback might be that the non-linear storytelling almost necessarily demands that the viewer stand outside and peer into the action versus truly entering into the story.  This wasn’t so much my experience, but I could see this easily happening for those audience members who want a straight-forward love story (of course, for those viewers, I’d also like to remind them that this isn’t a love story at all).

If you’re like me and appreciate the hidden gem of a film tucked in amongst all the cinematic riffraff forced upon modern audiences today, (500) Days of Summer is a must see.  While not exactly the “feel good” movie of the summer, it is perhaps the best piece of film art thus far presented in 2009.

Review: On the Edge (2001)

7 08 2009

On the EdgeAs I say about so many films that tackle deep subjects, “I wanted to like this movie,” but for all its fine elements (acting and soundtrack are first rate) On the Edge doesn’t fully succeed as a story.

I suppose there is a start of a story here and my real struggle with the film is that I didn’t want the answer to be that if a man finds a woman and a woman finds a man then all will be resolved and healed. This is a typically American “happy ending” and I expected this European film to give me something a little weightier. Now, it doesn’t have a ticker-tape happy ending, but (sadly) the film does very nearly acquiesce to the American sentiment that a male-female relationship is the cure for significant past hurts.

Healing is complicated and far from linear, so I felt the screenwriter diminished his voice and thereby his story by resting his ending so firmly in the embrace of two young lovers.  Still, for a small, low-budget film, On the Edge has some quality scenes and a strong cast committed to their characters.  There are far worse movies one could watch on a Friday night, although this one will not necessarily leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

Review: Everything is Illuminated (2005)

6 08 2009

Everything is IlluminatedIronically, Everything is Illuminated defies description. Not a straight comedy nor drama, but an amalgamation of the two with a strong east meets west feel. Minimalist set decoration, color palette, and even dialogue provide a strong post-Soviet sensibility to the film, yet moments of great beauty shine through like a field of sunflowers on a gray day. The film’s cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, deserves special recognition for blending perfectly these two worlds and painting an appealing landscape that defies gross sentimentality while maintaining a stout heart.

The film is wonderfully cast. Elijah Wood is especially brilliant as he combines wide-eyed wonder with a deep well of thoughtfulness and, dare I speculate, sadness in his portrayal of Jonathan Safran Foer. This may be the perfect role for Mr. Wood as it draws upon his natural ability to express internal struggle with little more than his body language. Eugene Hutz plays his character, Alex, with real warmth and compassion hidden beneath a layer of silly naivety.

As for the story itself, I found it strangely compelling and engaging. Important is the story’s moral of finding peace with oneself, one’s life, and one’s decisions in spite of the sands of time continually slipping away. The juxtaposition of the two main characters, one always looking back and afraid to look forward and the other always looking ahead and afraid to look back, proves that perhaps the best we can do in life is to live in the moment and show ourselves great grace with regard to what has been and what will be.

[Warning: The following paragraph contains a major spoiler]

This said, my greatest dissatisfaction with the film is that the grandfather kills himself in the end. For a film that labels itself as “illuminating,” this plot twist did little to help its cause. We are led to believe that the grandfather has come to a place of freedom with regard to his sad past; this final act, however, proves that perhaps, in spite of what we’re told, he did not. It’s this “perhaps” that I’m struggling with. The opaqueness of the sentiment behind the suicide left me feeling anything but illuminated.

All told, Everything is Illuminated remains a captivating little story that has a somber joy about it. I would recommend it for its acting and beautiful photography, but encourage viewers to prepare themselves for a less than fully illuminating film.

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

4 08 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceI can’t image seeing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at a midnight release.  I watched it mid-day on a Saturday and fluctuated between nodding off, looking at my watch, and examining the finer intricacies of my stadium seat’s functionalities.  Yes, it was that boring.  Now, mind you, I’m likely preconditioned, after the five previous Potter films, to expect a bit more wand-yielding, spell-casting excitement, so my tolerance for 153 minutes of googly-eyed teenagers waxing eloquently about snogging is low.

Thankfully, the film does have a few appealing elements.  First and foremost, Jim Broadbent.  Bravo for casting such a talented, multi-dimensional, seasoned actor for the role of Professor Slughorn.  I perked up every time he came on screen.

Along with this fine addition, I found myself thankful for the opportunities presented in this film to see more of Hogwarts.  I sensed, whether rightly or not, that the director made a greater effort in this film to display more of the castle.  From the library to the potions classroom to the room of requirement, I marveled at the wonderful set decoration.  I found it a significant reprieve that we didn’t have to suffer this dialogue-laden film in the same small number of rooms.  The film’s set decorator had to be tearing her hair out by the end of it, so please know Ms. McMillan that it wasn’t all in vain.  Without your work, I most certainly would have been checking under my seat for dropped change.

One final positive deserves mention.  I actually found some of the dialogue generally amusing.  I laughed on at least three occasions (mostly at Ron, I admit) and remember how thankful I was for those small moments to keep me going in this marathon of a movie.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince makes, at best, a half-hearted attempt to entertain its audience.  The film could have been more thrilling, or at the very least, 30 minutes shorter. It succeeds in being little more than a pre-game warm-up for the remaining two films in the series.  At least it provided me with ample opportunity to familiarize myself with my stadium seat, now I will have maximum comfort when Potter 7.1 rolls into theaters.

Review: Vantage Point (2008)

3 08 2009

Vantage PointAs an action film, Vantage Point delivers. Great car chases, buildings blowing up, characters running, jumping, shooting, fighting, and general chaos abounding. None of the acting performances are particularly bad, but none are particularly memorable either. Sigourney Weaver is completely wasted, however, and one wonders why she signed on to this film in the first place.

As for the story itself, I found it quite engaging and not as “tired” as other critics suggest. It’s a pretty straightforward “assassinate the president” sort of plot with a few unusual twists and turns thrown in. I give special honor to the person running continuity on the set . . . not an easy undertaking with the story being told from multiple angles.

While the movie succeeds in the action genre, it struggles in the narrative arena. I appreciate that it tried to be clever in telling the story from five different perspectives, but I concur with others who have said it got tiring to see pretty much the same footage five times. The movie never really takes off until we leave behind this forced multiple-angle bit; unfortunately, this doesn’t come until 20 minutes from the end.

Vantage Point is an action film that tries to be more, but fails in the effort. That said, it remains an enjoyable enough movie that will certainly engage your senses . . . especially in the final act.

Review: Valkyrie (2008)

1 08 2009

ValkyrieHo hum, another mediocre film about World War II. Valkyrie isn’t the worst of the lot mind you (I give that distinction to The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas), but it failed to grab my attention. The film’s somewhat confusing plot and plethora of characters played a significant role in my inability to connect with the story. I actually have a suspicion that the release of this film was delayed because they had to go back and film some pick-up shots or re-edit the film to include that montage (of sorts) explaining the plot to kill Hitler. Someone must have clued the filmmakers in on the fact that the audience needed to see what was going to happen before it happened, so they would have some idea of what was going on when it happened and where it was all leading in the end (got that?).

Valkyrie does tell an interesting and important true story (albeit confusingly), but beyond this it doesn’t have much else to speak for it. The visuals aren’t particular compelling and the acting is what it needed to be and nothing more. As an aside, I did find it interesting to note that Tom Cruise can’t seem to get away from eyeballs in his films (think Minority Report here). And what happened to Kenneth Branagh’s character? He is shipped off to the frontlines after the first 20 minutes of the film and we don’t see him again until the last 2 minutes. True, it wasn’t his story being told, but it seemed like they threw in that last scene as an after thought. I’m not sure what else they could have done, but I would have like to have seen something different or more with this character.

Those interested in history will appreciate this film. I valued it to the extent that it told an important story about brave men and women who stood up for what was right even in the face of almost certain death. These people deserve to be honored, I’m just not convinced Valkyrie is the best telling of their story.

Review: Billy Elliot (2000)

29 07 2009

Billy ElliotEvery once in a great while a film comes along that so blinds a person to its faults that he labels it “perfection.” Billy Elliot is that film for me. Rarely does a film capture so exquisitely the passion of youth without letting it become melodramatic or cliche. At its core, this is a film about following one’s heart no matter where it leads and refusing to let judgment or antagonism scuttle a dream or anesthetise the soul. Billy Elliot reminds us that we must push forward, we must try, and we must love deeply. And, it does all that with a strong wit and an amazing soundtrack.

Jamie Bell, as the title character, proves his acting chops at a very young age. He carries a very challenging role on his small shoulders and does so with bravery, humor, and a smile that will melt his most resistant critic. Julie Walters, as Billy’s ballet teacher, plays her character Mrs. Wilkinson with such skill and passion that she too deserves special mention here.

Kudos also belongs to the film’s music supervisor Nick Angel who created perhaps the second most important character in the film outside of Billy. Mr. Angel’s choice of mixing classic ballet music with 1980’s British punk may at first seem surprising, but it so captures the undulations of our young protagonist’s life that we almost fail to take heed of how important a character it is in creating and modifying this film’s mood.

I am confident that no small number of viewers will revile against the rather stereotypical Hollywood ending to this film. I have no response to such critics other than to encourage a second viewing of the film . . . it may just soften your heart.

No one can shake my resolve that Billy Elliot is filmmaking at its best. You really should consider revisiting this small little cinematic gem. If you’ve yet to have the pleasure, may I encourage you to just buy the DVD as it is a film that you’ll most definitely want to watch again.

Review: Hancock (2008)

28 07 2009

HancockHancock is proof-evident that the Hollywood machine is still going strong. Superhero movie – check. Big name stars – check. Tons of action – check.  Lack of meaningful story – check. Massive amounts of storyboarding – check. Uber CG (which was awful, by the way) – check. $300 million dollars in the bank – check. Hancock has all the components of a summer blockbuster, but misses what makes a truly successful film – heart. I’ll take a $5 million dollar passion project versus this Goliath of a film looking to score big money at the box office.

Now, don’t get me wrong, making money and paying back creditors is great, but so too is making quality entertainment. This movie just wasn’t very fun. It had a great concept, but got lost somewhere along the way in executing a story that (1) made sense and (2) was sincere.  At best, this film is a Little Debbie snack cake that you nibble quietly while waiting for a main course film. You’ll forget Hancock the minute The Dark Knight is served.

Review: The Village (2004)

27 07 2009

The VillageEveryone loves to hate at least one M. Night Shyamalan movie and, at least before Lady in the Water and The Happening, The Village topped most folks’ list. I don’t understand that. In spite of all the rancor against it, I found The Village both entertaining and engrossing. Shyamalan continues to improve as a director learning the art of putting story first and himself last (well, at least, second . . . now I wish he’d give up casting himself as an actor in all his films).

The Village is beautifully shot, has an amazing soundtrack by James Newton Howard, and has spot on costume design (in fact, I can’t get the vibrantly used colors of red and yellow out of my mind’s eye). I’d be remiss in not mentioning Bryce Howard’s compelling performance as Ivy Walker as another high point in this film.

I also enjoyed the story even if this is the one area that seems to trip people up in the end . . . and I literally mean in the “end.” I need more than two hands to count the number of viewers who have loved the movie until its final minutes. Some have called the ending lame, corny, or another Shyamalan gimmick . . . I found it interesting and it made me think a bit more about the nature of humanity. The film could have ended in a thousand different ways, like any story, but this particular ending didn’t jar me like it did for some (how would they have wanted it to end, I wonder?).

There is so much positive in this film, it’s hardly worth mentioning the somewhat unbelievable plot point at the end where a character finds a certain important something under a floorboard. Would they really hide that something in that room? I think not. Still, this minor point of doubt isn’t enough to ruin an otherwise well-crafted film.

If you haven’t seen The Village lately or you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it as another fine film in the Shyamalan series.