Saturday, March 19, 2011

Two Recent Movies: Rango and The Adjustment Bureau

Rango is a delightful psychedelic comic western that plays with genre tropes creatively and successfully.  Johnny Depp somehow comes to embody his digital alter ego completely, creating one of the most distinctive vocal performances from identifiable star since Robin Williams in Aladdin.  The movie manages to reference dozens of other film classics--from Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy to High Noon to The Searchers to Star Wars to Apocalypse Now to Chinatown--yet it remains its own distinct beast.  Its references and parodies are more classic and creative than the pop culture jokes of the average Dreamworks movie, so it feels less bound to one time and place and more timeless--like Blazing Saddles rather than Scary Movie.  (A scene involving gophers flying on bats through a desert canyon to the heric strains of Ride of the Valkyries played on banjos is a highlight.)  The colors and textures and details are all beautifully done, and the action scenes are absurdly complicated and exciting, reminiscent of director Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  In fact, the whole film clearly displays the same sensibility that made that trilogy so off-the-wall hilarious and exhilarating, but without the overly long and convoluted plots that started to make those go stale.  Rango may lack a little bit itself in the pacing/structure departments--it could use a bit more logic and character development in order to increase our emotional connection with it all--but it makes up for it by doing so many things we haven't seen before.  An excellent film for the whole family.

Rating: 8/10 stars

The Adjustment Bureau is a light, clever, exciting thriller that satisfies in both the entertainment and the emotion departments.  The plot follows Matt Damon, a rising star politician, as he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman, but is then pulled apart from her by mysterious forces who claim to control every aspect of the world, keeping everything on plan behind the scenes.  This premise may seem similar to The Matrix, 12 Monkeys, and Dark City, and it is, but the way it plays out is original enough that these similarities cease to matter.  This conceptual hook has many potential philosophical implications, but the movie doesn't really want to get into these.  It throws a couple ideas out there, but mostly it just wants to define its world well enough for the plot to work, and if we judge them only by this, the ideas work quite well.  Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau doesn't try to engage with murky ambiguities in the way of other Dick adaptations such as Blade Runner, and because of this is always seems a bit too pat and easy, but it's probably a good thing first-time director George Nolfi didn't try to make the film do too much.  Spielberg attempted both thrills and philosophy with another Dick adaptation, Minority Report, and ended up with an uneven film which couldn't really deliver either.  There is only one point when The Adjustment Bureau really seems to insult our intelligence:  When one of the higher-ups at the Bureau describes their interventions in history, and reveals the screenwriter's utter ignorance of anything outside Western history and willingness to impose general morals onto entire historical eras in completely silly ways that made me roll my eyes and grumble.  Fortunately his lecture was over soon.

The rest of the film works surprisingly well, and proves to have quite a script (also by Nolfi, who previously wrote The Bourne Ultimatum).  It moves quickly, but is also willing to take surprising risks in its narrative, leaping ahead periods of months and years more than once.  The film has a pleasing retro style, filled with fedoras and trench coats, but playing out mostly in the day in downtown Manhattan, with plenty of shiny surfaces and good-looking people.  Nolfi also knows how to construct a chase scene, and there are several here which are just darned fun, especially with the clever ways Damon has to go about dodging the supernaturally gifted Bureau members.  Indeed, much of the film's fun is watching as Damon sets out to outsmart them, figuring out their rules and exploiting loopholes ot get back to his girl.  Ultimately, though, it all comes down to the fact that I liked both Damon and Emily Blunt, and wanted them to end up together.  There cause was worthwhile in my mind, and because of that I was willing to go along for the ride and be satisfied with the ending.

Rating: 7/10 stars

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ten Favorite Films of 2010

1. The Social Network
The most fast-paced, exciting, witty, flat-out brilliant film of the year.  This is not some stuffy drama or pseudo-documentary, but a great work of entertainment that also happens to dissect a generational moment.  I saw this film more times and spent more time thinking about it than any other film this year.  Will it stand up 15 years from now?  Only time will tell, but my gut says yes.

Read my fuller thoughts here.

2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
If The Social Network was a dissection from above, Scott Pilgrim is the embodiment of the chemical experience of living within the millennial generation.  Directed by Edgar Wright, who I believe is fast approaching greatness (but without a trace of smugness about it), this is unlike anything made before, a film where humor can come from every possible direction involving every technique in a director's arsenal.  While I admit the possibility of The Social Network's fade from consciousness, no such thing will happen here.  Underrated and under-seen on first release, Scott Pilgrim will go on to be a comedy classic, beloved decades from now by audiences and critics alike.

See Review here.

3. Toy Story 3
I did not know how to properly describe this film when I first saw it.  Mostly this was just laziness, but it was also a feeling that there was nothing more to say and an inability to articulate what I loved so much. I now realize that the film's deceptive simplicity can obscure how much there really is to say about it.  Toy Story 3 completes one of the great cinematic trilogies, a hilarious, heartbreaking ending that completely lives up to its illustrious predecessors.  I will admit that the first half hour of the film is rather familiar, hitting the same notes as the earlier films but at a higher velocity.  Sometime around the moment the toys discover how bad Sunnyside Preschool really is, though, the film comes into its own, taking on greater depth and intensity until the shattering climax and denouement.  Some may accuse the end of being manipulative, but for those of us who grew up playing toys Andy and are now in college ourselves, these movies will be treasured forever.

My original review is pitiful, but you can read a wonderful write-up of the ending here (scroll to the bottom).  I also love this review, which I think sums up my opinion of the trilogy very nicely.

4. Inception
I may as well state it now: I have come to the conclusion that Inception is not a masterpiece.  It lacks the richness and the emotional/philosophical complexity that we should expect from a true masterpiece.  Yet I reject the argument it is a failure or an offense to good taste.  It is still one of the most ambitious blockbusters in decades, a thrilling and engrossing work that I have watched several times and will continue to watch in the future.  Remember the awe at the layers of dreams; the beauty of a hundred falling water droplets; the exhilaration of the spinning hallway fight.  Recall the incredible images:  Paris folding back on itself, a marketplace exploding all around you, a train hurtling through traffic, Marion Cotillard's face.  Remember what it felt like when Christopher Nolan performed an inception on you in the end, making you wonder what was real and what was not.  This is a singular film, and it is worth remembering.

Fuller thoughts here.

5. Winter's Bone
One of the most powerful pieces of cinema to come out of Sundance in years, this movie is engrossing and horrifying in equal measures.  It is engrossing because of the subtle, accomplished direction and the incredible performances from Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, and the rest of the cast.  It is horrifying because in many ways it is true.  I know people who live like this, I've encountered them at work and school; they would not look much out of place in southern Indiana.  Of course, the story here is full of gory details that shouldn't be taken as typical, so it shouldn't be taken as a documentary.  But it can and should be taken as a powerful, involving narrative that holds the fascination of the best gangster movies: it lets us see into another world, one we wouldn't want to live in, but a place we can't look away from no matter what happens.

6. Mother
I see this film as similar to Winter's Bone in its dark, violent quest narrative, and it is arguably the better piece of cinema.  Its direction is certainly more creative and accomplished, its cinematography more carefully composed and starkly beautiful.  I think Winter's Bone just strikes closer to home, so I put it higher.  But part of the fascination that this film has is its foreignness and strangeness.  So strange, in fact, that I suspect it feels very odd to most Koreans as well, though there are no doubt a couple points which make more sense to them than to me.  The story is a twist on the Hitchockian wrong man thriller, and it involves tension, red herrings, and carefully constructed set pieces that would make the master of suspense proud.  Hye-ja Kim, as a woman trying to prove her condemned son innocent, is obsessive, righteous, motherly, and disturbed in equal measures.  The violence, when it comes, is brutal and unexpected, and the strangeness of it all holds a dread fascination.  Again like Hitchcock, Bong does not shy away from Freudian psychological implications, and his character are more tragic for it.  This beautifully shot and constructed movie deserves to find an audience outside of the arthouse.

7. True Grit
A triumph of old-fashioned moviemaking.  The Coen Brothers leave behind most--but not all--of their weirdest tics to craft a film that is completely satisfying on the most basic of movie-movie levels.  The characters are warm and sympathetic, the emotions are genuine, and the action is exciting.  The most pleasurable part of the film, though, is the dialogue.  Transcribed almost verbatim from Charles Portis's source novel, the characters' everyday lines sound as if they were 19th century orators, expressing everything in long, eloquent, un-contractioned sentences.  The cadence of their speech is pleasurable in itself, and hilarity flows far and wide.  The film surpasses the original in every way, except for one:  It doesn't have John Wayne.  Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a delightful, entertaining character, but he ust doesn't have the same presence or persona that Wayne had which made his performance legendary. This doesn't matter, though, because the focus of the films is different--where the original was a John Wayne star vehicle, this is a character-driven drama focusing on Mattie Ross, here played by Hailee Steinfeld.  Steinfeld, to put it bluntly, is a revelationgiving my favorite female performance of the year, and blessedly banishing memories of Kim Darby's obnoxious performance forever.  The cinematography and musical score by regular Coen collaborators Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell, respectively, are both beautiful, as usual.  It is the film's coda, however, which endows it with its power.  After the raucous, entertaining story ends, the characters are left to continue on with their lives.  And their lives are not necessarily happy or fulfilling.  Happily ever after is a myth--life doesn't just go on without incident.  "Time just gets away from us."

8. A Prophet
The story of a boy who becomes a man, a petty thief who becomes a master criminal, a sympathetic youth who becomes a monster.  Masterfully directed by Jacques Audiard, this film follows 19-year-old Malik, a young French Arab, as he serves his 6 year term in a French maximum security prison.  Within days of his first arrival, he is recruited by the Corsican mob who rule the prison and charged with killing a fellow inmate.  If he refuses, he will die himself. The resulting murder attempt is one of the most tense and suspenseful scenes I have ever seen.  The story is filmed naturalistically, observationally, with characters who all seem like real people, and a rhythm which allows tension to build and recede at a realistic speed. There are tensions within the prison between Muslims and Corsicans, blacks and whites, and these are explored in detail.  One thing that struck me was the strange leniency of the French prison system--whoever heard of giving prisoners their own televisions where they can watch porn, or letting them out for a day to visit friends and family?  And yet, inside the prison, the inmates are at risk of rape, violence, and death almost constantly.  When it was over, I felt as if I had come through a prison sentence along with Malik.

9. Four Lions
A comedy about a group of British Muslim buddies who decide to follow their dreams and blow themselves up.  The film is shot on handheld, digital cameras, and is obviously low budget, but its brilliance is evident nonetheless.  This is a movie that deceives with its silly humor, focusing on the complete idiocy of almost every one of its characters.  It mocks the simplistic, "believe in your dreams" rhetoric of so many movies today, along with bro-mance and other genre tropes.  The most competent of the would-be terrorists has a loving wife and son who fully support his efforts to achieve his goals.  It comes off as a cross between The Office and Cool Runnings, except that this is a comedy which isn't afraid to punctuate laughs with exploding bodies.  It's hard to get more subversive than this, and its commercial appeal is no doubt limited by the uncomfortableness of its premise.  In fact, the movie was probably a dangerous one to get made, considering the willingness of Muslim extremists to kill anyone they consider to have insulted their religion.  Which is exactly why this is an important film that needed to be made--what better way to combat terrorism, or any evil, than to mock it and laugh at it, and show that we are not afraid?  This movie belongs to a long tradition including the great anti-Nazi films The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, and Der Fuehrer's Face, and it fully deserves to be in their company.  We should never let it be said that Donald Duck had more bravery than the filmmakers of today. 

10. The Secret of Kells
Technically, this film premiered in 2009, but it only made it to a couple of theaters in California for an Oscar-qualifying run.  It really came out around the country in 2010, and that's when I saw it, so that's when I'm going to include it.  This film is beautiful and unique in a time when so few hand-drawn animations are, a stylistic masterpiece full of swirls and tiny details, with a flat-but-exciting look that shows the influence of The Princess and the Cobbler and perhaps Samurai Jack.  The greatest influence on the film's look, though, is the Book of Kells, one of the greatest illuminated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages, and the subject of the film.  The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels, beautifully illustrated in incredible microscopic detail, and hand-written by monks over a period of decades.  Few books from that era survive, for the monasteries where they were created and preserved were the constant target of Viking and barbarian attack.  The movie is a fictionalized tale of the creation of the book, made for children but filled with complex adult themes.  In fact, the film is a meditation on the nature of tradition culture in times of barbarism, holding up the artist and the scholar as the bastions of civilization.  It is also an exploration of early Irish culture, dramatizing the conflict between traditional pagan religions and the new Christianity.  The plot is perhaps rushed, and the characters are not as fully fleshed out as we often call for, but this is a genuine work of art that is like nothing else out there today.  Don't let your children miss it.

You can find another good appreciation of it here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trailers for Most Anticipated Movies of 2011

There are many great movies coming out this year, none of which I have actually seen, obviously. There are several, however, that I am especially excited about, so I thought I'd feature them here. Of course, many movies coming this year have yet to put out trailers or even production stills yet, so I can't say much about them.

Among those I'm most looking forward to are:  The Invention of Hugo Cabret, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, and Chloe Moretz;  The Adventures of Tintin, a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson starring Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis, and Simon Pegg and Nick Forst, though they will all be covered up by motion-capture CGI to represent the classic characters from the comics;   A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortenson and Michael Fassbender as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, respectively; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Daivd Fincher and starring the beautiful Rooney Mara as the piercing- and tattoo-covered Goth-hacker, Lisbeth Salander;  and finally, the return of Whit Stillman, writer/director of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, with new film Damsels in Distress, starring Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody.  All of these films look fantastic, and I encourage everyone to check them out.

My top trailers are after the jump.  I didn't want to slow down the load time too much with so many more videos on the front page.