Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Day with British Cinema

Dorian Gray

I went in with appropriately low expectations, so Dorian Gray did not disappoint. I’m not a horror fan, as I’ve said before, but gothic horror is better than most and this film had a wonderful dark gothic atmosphere (London is always good) evoked with brilliant cinematography and an excellent score. It also had a good story (of course it had Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece to work with), some excellent dialogue, tight editing and direction (Oliver Parker), and some good acting.

Colin Firth is, in my opinion, an underrated actor and he’s easily the best actor in Dorian Gray. When he was on the screen, I was being entertained. Ben Barnes, who plays Dorian, had his moments, but he has a way to go before I would call him a good actor. It was his acting and his character which were the biggest disappointments in the film. Since the story revolves around the fall of Dorian’s innocence and his soul, this is where the film needed to be convincing. It wasn’t, particularly in the last half hour of the first part of the film (before we jump ahead 25 years or so and the film picks up again). Too bad, because, as the previous paragraph suggests, in many ways the film deserved a better outcome.

The highlights of Dorian Gray, for me, were the thought-provoking dialogue, the character portrayed by Firth (Henry), and the potential to read more into the story than was actually shown. For example, how did the fact that Dorian grew up without a father influence his relationship with Henry and the subsequent fall of his soul? Lots of good discussion material here, which is always a good thing for me.

Enjoyable film that could have been better. It gets a solid ***.


Again I went in with low expectations and again I was not disappointed (low expectations really is the best way to go into a film!). Creation is a slow-moving quiet film that delves into the character of Charles Darwin in a way I would never have guessed. The result is a well-done period drama, with solid acting by Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, a great score, and good cinematography.

The film also had some wonderful scenes about the religious struggles Darwin and his wife went through as Darwin became increasingly convinced of the soundness of his theory of evolution. But this is also where the film disappointed me. Two fellow scientists were introduced but barely heard from and Jeremy Northam was wasted as a vicar with very little dialogue. There were missed opportunities here for a much richer discussion between the scientists and between those representing science and those representing religion. I am grateful for the way it was handled (very tactfully, I think) but would have appreciated much more.

Another enjoyable and discussable film that could have been better - another solid ***.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Crossing Over

Well, I'm long overdue. I can't wait until I see a movie I'm excited about because it's simply been a dry season for me. Crossing Over is a movie that was distinctly disappointing. It's not badly made or acted, but it committed an unpardonable sin for me. It caused me pain and suffering without adequate payback in terms of the story.

It's not that the story didn't have any merit. Like Crash, to which it seems to have been compared often, it tells a multitude of stories - somewhat interweaving - involving the tensions and clash of ethnicities. In this case, it particularly focuses on the struggles of immigration. It is true that its portrayal may be more grimly realistic than Crash (which, of course, was not exactly cheery). But the bottom line is that it didn't leave me with anything that made me glad I watched it. I didn't learn anything - anything it had to say about immigration issues, I've already seen more interestingly portrayed in Bread and Roses, The Visitor, Under the Same Moon and El Norte. And it didn't raise any new thoughts or questions, which (in spite of some faults) Crash did a good job of doing.

So, I would not recommend this film and give it **1/2 stars. Sorry Harrison.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Let me begin by reminding you that I am not a big Quentin Tarantino fan. This is not what one would infer from my appreciation of most of his films (yes, most of his films get ***+ from me), but there is something off-putting about the careless way he uses graphic violence (though it is clear in many of his films that he could have used much more) and redemptive violence (revenge is a favourite theme) that prevents me from ever calling myself a Tarantino fan. Still, there is a reason I enjoy so many of his films and that reason is what happens between the scenes of violent action. And that is why, even though I am also not a fan of war movies, I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds so much.

Tarantino must be a big fan of Sergio Leone, who was also a master of between-the-action scenes. Inglourious Basterds has the feel of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, right down to what look like rope marks on Aldo’s (Brad Pitt’s) neck (Once Upon a Time in the West, my favourite Leone film). The music, the style, and especially Tarantino’s trademark slow scenes of brilliant dialogue which you don’t see anywhere else these days all owe something to Leone (though Tarantino gives a nod to many old greats in this film). Basterds is, in my opinion, Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction. The acting was generally very good (I wasn’t sure Diane Kruger could act, but she can, and Brad Pitt was … well, Brad Pitt) though not consistently so. Particularly impressive was Christoph Waltz as the baddie (Hans Landa). The film is worth watching almost for his performance alone. The cinematography, always good in a Tarantino film, was gorgeous. The music was excellent. And the German was very good. Yes, most of this film is German or French, with subtitles, and I, for one was suitably impressed. The story was well-written and well-structured by Tarantino (despite its WWII setting, this is most definitely not based on any truth), and like I said, there were a number of great memorable scenes.

If the ending had worked for me, I’d have been tempted to give Inglourious Basterds ****, but it didn’t work for me. And of course the graphic violence was rather offensive, though when you go to a Tarantino film, you have to expect that. But this film was much better than I expected (thank goodness after the disappointment of District 9), so it gets a solid ***+.

See below for other new reviews.

District 9

Science fiction is one of my favourite genres, though well-made sci-fi films are not common. District 9 is one of the most highly acclaimed sci-fi films in a very long while (though Moon was highly acclaimed and deservedly so). So forgive me for thinking Star Wars or Alien or Dark City or Close Encounters or Blade Runner or Minority Report or even Planet of the Apes.

How do you turn a brilliant original opening half hour of sci-fi into a tedious same old same old violent shoot-em-up? You make District 9! Can everyone hear me say: “I’m DISAPPOINTED ! (like Kevin Kline of course)? This film had so much going for it (Neill Blomkamp, are you listening?): brilliant acting (standout performance by Sharlto Copley – bet you never heard of him before), great music, fantastic special effects, and, in the opening forty minutes, lots of wit, intelligence and pointed satire, condemning our treatment of refugees, the arms industry, racism, the media, and on and on. Great stuff! And then comes the second half of the film. Sorry, guys, you can’t successfully turn invention into a gory redemptive-violence bloodfest no matter what you’re trying to say or how sympathetic the characterisation. There were so many things wrong with the last half of this film that I wouldn’t know where to start. Of course, some things were wrong from the start. Grainy hand-held cinematography – need I say more? There’s also a disturbing, though ultimately forgivable, lack of logic in the attempt to pretend that most of the film was being videotaped live in a mockumentary style.

What is ultimately NOT forgivable is that this film is so highly-acclaimed. I just want to scream! If films like District 9 and Star Trek and The Hangover get such acclaim and are also popular (and yes, I could throw Slumdog in there too, though I liked it more than the others), then filmmakers are just going to make more of this stuff. We need more sci-fis like Moon (and all those mentioned above) and fewer sci-fis like District 9.

District 9 could have been a great film but it died halfway and gets only *** for the excellent first half.

See below for other new reviews.

The Hurt Locker

Wow! What a film! The Hurt Locker defies any quick attempt to put it into a genre. I suppose you would have to call it a war movie, but it’s unlike just about any war movie you’ve ever seen. Not that it’s an anti-war film; it defies being labelled as that as well. What it is, is an example of superb filmmaking, thanks to the direction of Kathryn Bigelow, the writing of Mark Boal (who wrote one of my favourite films of 2008, In the Valley of Elah), and the outstanding performance by Jeremy Renner (among others). I’m no fan of war movies and I’m no fan of the kind of camera-work employed in most of this film (as you all know), but I AM a fan of awesome filmmaking that is so good it makes me forget that I am not a fan of those other things. Indeed, it almost makes you forget you are watching a fictitious film. The Hurt Locker looks and feels like an amazing documentary. It puts you into today’s Iraq so completely that afterwards you will feel like you’ve been there – like you have been an American soldier or an Iraqi civilian or even an Iraqi “terrorist” (but mostly the soldier). What an achievement! Guaranteed to be in my top five films of 2009, this film gets an easy ****.

However, great as this film is, it is most definitely not for everyone (I’m talking to those of you who are not as desensitized to intense military violence as I am). Be warned.

That’s two **** films in a row, both in genres I don’t care for. Next week I go to see a highly acclaimed film in one of my favourite genres – sci-fi. Will we have three **** films in a row? Stay tuned.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

500 Days of Summer

I had to wait a whole month to get a response to my request for a good old-fashioned comedy, but the amazing thing is that there was a response at all (good comedies are so incredibly rare these days). 500 Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb, is the exact opposite of The Hangover (see below). Instead of a stupid lewd unfunny comedy with an idiotic excuse for a plot (The Hangover), we have a wonderful, original, warm and funny romantic comedy with a real story which even gives some thought to one of my favourite subjects – coincidences. This non-Hollywood comedy features great acting, great dialogue, brilliant editing, tight direction, and an ending so good it’s worth a star by itself. The story jumps all over the place but that works perfectly in a thoughtful comedy like this (not to mention that it’s a nice original idea). There are references to other films and genres and styles, and they all work perfectly too.

But that’s not to say that the film is perfect (as a perfectionist, I demand a lot). 500 Days of Summer does drag here and there – you can’t sustain a comedy about a relationship like this indefinitely. So normally I would give this film a solid ***+, but because it’s a romcom I actually liked (romcoms is among my least favourite genres) and because of the great ending, this gem gets a whopping ****. Watch it, and stay away from the rest.

Note: I’m busy busy busy these days, so of course I’m seeing five films at the cinema in six days – that’s the way my life works. Stay tuned.