Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Dark Knight

Well, we've been silent on this one long enough. It would probably be good to write out a quick review on this movie without the background of it sitting sweet as the number one movie of all time on imdb. But how can one ignore such a thing?

First of all, after Batman Begins made me believe there could be such a thing as a good Batman movie (no predecessors had ever convinced me of this), I had looked forward to this movie as much as many others. I actually went to see it during its opening week - almost unheard of movie promptness for me. And it was not at all disappointing. It was a good, solid follow-up to the previous movie.

I was even as impressed as others by Heath Ledger's Joker (I felt the character lacked a bit in consistency partway through, but then inconsistency is exactly his trademark so I didn't feel I could hold this against him.) It was a brilliant new version that was all the more brilliant by reminding me enough of the original TV version in spite of its new interpretation.

And while I wasn't particularly critical of Katie Holmes as many others were, Maggie Gyllenhaal was a clear improvement. She has an amazing ability to combine toughness with vulnerability.

Philosophically or thematically, I saw no improvements over the last one - a little more diverse in its deep thoughts, but at a price of being a little scattered. I think the final choice lost me, but I guess one shouldn't fault a movie for having a different point of view.

This is where a simple review of good movie should end, but something has to said about its #1 status. And that is: please no. This is simply not #1 of all time movie quality. Yes, it is very good for what it is, but it did not have the universal quality or even internal consistency of quality required for such status.

I don't want to provide a list to bash a good movie, but here are two deal-breakers that stop me from seeing it as #1:
- the whole sonar glasses thing: one big distraction from start to finish, very disappointing and pointless
- the whole Harvey Dent storyline just didn't quite work for me. It didn't win me over. I don't think I can say more without getting into spoiler territory (which I'm very proud at avoiding so far) so I'll stop there.

Nevertheless, when judged as a comic book action movie it's worth **** with mug held high.

Soon, I'll add another review for the other big summer movie which actually impressed me more (partly because I expected it less).

Monday, 14 July 2008

Mamma Mia!

Music, memories, mayhem, mediocrity, magical and messy movie moments, and Mad Madam Meryl – Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! has actually been released in London before the U.S. so I get to be an early reviewer of this strange film. It’s a film that will be appreciated or hated by people in different ways, depending on their age and tolerance of musicals.

Let me say from the start that I think the 70’s was the very best decade for music (sorry, I just can’t help it) and I was an open fan of ABBA from their first day on the world stage to their last (and of the later music of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in the musicals Chess and Kristina fran Duvemala). I also love musicals in general as well as many of the filmed versions of stage musicals. Given these facts, one might wonder why I have never seen Mamma Mia! on stage (after all, living in London, I could have done so at any time in the past six years). The answer is that I prefer my musicals to have original songs, not stories using (or, even worse, built around) existing songs (Moulin Rouge is a magnificent exception). I had a feeling that I would enjoy the staged version of Mamma Mia!, but that it would not particularly thrill me (not $50 worth anyway), so I kept putting it off. But I could not resist going to the filmed version (for only $9), which, unfortunately, confirmed my feeling (the feeling that I would be disappointed).

Besides some great ABBA songs, the best thing about the film was the gorgeous setting – a Greek island. That this was the best thing is probably not a promising start for a review. The next best thing was the performance of Meryl Streep, who sang better than anyone else in the film and whose exuberance made me feel young again (because I am considerably younger than she is). In fact, the film seemed designed to appeal to my age group and to help us feel young again – in that, at least, it succeeded, at least for me. The problem with Meryl’s performance being the highlight is that I have never been a fan of Meryl Streep (I think she is an excellent actor; I just don’t like her very much). I do like Pierce, Colin, and Stellan, but was not impressed by any of their performances in Mamma Mia! And while Pierce deserves some credit for effort and bravery, he should not be considering a singing career.

The film (and some of this probably applies to the stage musical) had far too many flaws: 1) The plot, if it can even be called that, was just silly; 2) The acting was not strong enough to help; 3) Neither was the chemistry between the characters; 4) Aside from Streep’s Donna, there was almost no character development; 5) There were inconsistencies involving time periods; and 6) The first half-hour was almost painful to watch and I would not blame those who might decide to walk out at that point. The pain came primarily from the over-the-top madness of the three women who are at the center of the film. These three women are responsible for most of the mayhem and the messy movie moments. I rarely enjoyed what they did, including their performance of “Waterloo” during the credits.

Nevertheless, I DID enjoy Mamma Mia! Yes, hard as it is to believe after what I hope was a suitably scathing critique, I did get caught up in the magic of the music, especially when they started to sing some of my favourite ABBA songs, like “Our Last Summer”, “SOS”, “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It All”. Meryl Streep’s performance of the latter was the highlight of the film for me (even if I am not a fan). I happened to visit the Greek islands twice in the late seventies, during the days of ABBA, so the film succeeded in taking me back to that time in a unique way. And, after all, this musical is surely not trying to be anything but a lot of fun. For the last half of the film, I resigned myself to getting into the spirit of the fun and just enjoyed the beautiful scenery and the music. What’s wrong with having a good time watching actors make fools of themselves?

So, yeah, I actually have my mug up for this mess. If you like the music of ABBA, chances are you will enjoy it too. ***

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Thiessen Bros. return to (Maddin's) Winnipeg

On Canada Day, Walter and I went to see the critically-acclaimed My Winnipeg on London's south bank. It was a special screening, with the director (Guy Maddin) there to do the narration of the film in person. Having grown up in Winnipeg, we had a particular appreciation for the film and could more readily separate fact from fantasy in Maddin’s documentary/mockumentary (docu-fantasia, to use Maddin’s term).

We both enjoyed the experience, and the film, though neither of us was sure it deserved the level of critical acclaim it has been getting. I don’t want to be too hard on one of Winnipeg’s few famous film people, but I found the film a little uneven. There were parts which were plain hilarious (and hilariously Canadian/Manitoban) and parts which were particularly funny or moving for me as a Winnipegger. But there were a number of scenes which didn’t work for me and I could not quite understand how his obsession with hockey helped the film.

Many critics liked the innovative style, the mix of bizarre fantasy and insightful (though personal) documentary, and the way My Winnipeg conveyed Maddin’s family life and his struggle to leave his home town. All of these were fascinating to watch, and I appreciated the old-fashioned European feel of the film and the marvellously evocative black and white cinematography, but I am not one who applauds innovation for its own sake. Still, whether or not it was because I grew up in Winnipeg, I did enjoy the film very much and it was a precious experience to see Guy Maddin standing in front of us for the whole film (and to watch a film with Walter). If you are in the mood for something completely different, this is for you.

***+ My mug is definitely up. For Walter’s response, see the comments (?).

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The Visitor

The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, is a wonderful humanizing film about a lonely man’s encounter with three people who, in just a couple of weeks, will completely change his life. Richard Jenkins delivers an absolutely magnificent (and seemingly effortless) performance as Walter, the protagonist, a widower who hates his life as an economics professor in Connecticut. He goes to New York for a conference and finds illegal immigrants staying in the apartment he owns there. Trouble follows, but the story unfolds in an incredibly quiet, understated and natural way. After watching the film, I saw a poster in the London subway quoting a critic who called The Visitor a “master class in subtlety”. That is a perfect description of the film. Like The Edge of Heaven, The Visitor is profoundly moving without being at all sentimental. The performances are all completely natural and every moment of the film feels authentic, proving once again (see review of The Edge of Heaven) that films do not need washed-out hand-held cinematography to feel real. The Visitor is, in fact, a gorgeous film to watch.

Simple yet elegant, this film about the power of unexpected friendships is an honest and heartbreaking look at life in New York after 9/11 and it will almost certainly make my top ten films of 2008.

**** My mug is up and full of the good stuff. Jackie, you might not want to wait for Netflix to see this one.