Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Fighter


I despise the sport of boxing, considering it (and its relatives) only a tiny step up from gladiator fights and therefore not fit for a civilized society. So films like Raging Bull, Rocky and Million Dollar Baby may be great films, but I have no interest in seeing them again. This is also why I have avoided watching The Fighter until now, despite feeling in my gut that it would be another great film. Well, that and the fact that I’ve never liked Mark Wahlberg and he had the starring role.


I still don’t like Wahlberg. In a film where the highlight is the incredible acting (and I am talking mindbogglingly good acting, well deserving of the Academy Awards two of them received), Wahlberg is the one disappointment, unconvincing as Micky Ward, the fighter trying one last time to make it big. Or maybe it is Ward that is unconvincing in the midst of an otherwise very dysfunctional family (his father notwithstanding).


If this film had been full of fights and all about boxing, I would have yawned (or grimaced) and given it three stars for the acting. But it was not. Instead, it was about Ward’s dysfunctional family relationships, focusing on his brother Dicky (Christian Bale, whose acting skills are amazing). Given that The Fighter is based on a true story and all these people are still around, I was very impressed by the honesty of the portrayals. Micky’s scary mother (awesome performance by Melissa Leo) and foulmouthed girlfriend (Amy Adams performing as well as we have come to expect) were very well-drawn characters and felt like the real thing. I was also impressed by the way this dysfunctional family was not taken to extremes, allowing for an inspiring and hopeful ending.


I was surprised by how much I appreciated the cinematography in The Fighter. For this kind of film, I expected grainy handheld camera work, but it mixed up its styles and was beautiful to watch.


The Fighter gets ***+ despite its subject matter. My mug is up.


For a new update on The Tourist, see comments under that film.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Tangled


Imagine my surprise when the self-declared ‘bad guy’ in Disney’s latest film gets tripped by Rapunzel’s chameleon sidekick and falls out of a high window to her death. From Snow White to Enchanted (there it was the chipmunk), Disney has sent bad guy after bad guy plummeting to their doom at the end of the film. Of course, in this case the bad guy was going to die anyway, which makes it even more infuriating. If Cal Lightman had been watching my face at the end of Tangled, he would have seen not surprise but a flash of utter disgust. When is enough enough? Why does Disney have to do the same thing over and over? WHY (because children have come to expect this at the end of a Disney film is most assuredly NOT a valid response, true as it may be)?


DISNEY, FOR THE SAKE OF ALL THE GENERATIONS OF CHILDREN WATCHING YOUR FILMS IN THE YEARS TO COME, PLEASE STOP IT ALREADY!


Without those few seconds of deeply offensive and unnecessary madness, this would have been a wonderful addition to Disney’s list of fifty animated features. All the writers had to do was let the old woman vanish under her cloak like the Wicked Witch of the West (that would still have involved killing off the villain at the end of the film but not in such a horrifying and murderous fashion). But no. What on earth went through their minds? And it’s not just the fall that’s the problem. It’s the fact that the ‘bad guy’ is never redeemable. Here you have a film where one of the protagonists is a criminal. What happens to him?Redeemed! Another major character (and real star of the film in my opinion) is a ‘bad’ horse. Redeemed! An entire pub full of nasty and vicious criminals. Redeemed! Every last one of them. Redeemed! It’s almost like the writers were trying to make a point and do something original. But no. Because THE REAL BAD GUY is as irredeemable as ever! They say Woody Allen is derivative, but Disney has been making the same film for 73 years now.


And what’s with the cast iron frying pan? Is it supposed to symbolize a less lethal weapon than the sword? These frying pans are deadly and our hero should have been pushing up the daisies after the first blow from Rapunzel!


Another day, another rant! Bet you can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow. Isn’t vacation fun?


Back to business.Tangled is a gorgeous (in 2D) and hugely entertaining film full of interesting characters, decent songs, and a wonderful theme about everyone having a dream (what a great humanizing musical scene in the pub). Not that the dream theme is new either, but I’ve always been a sucker for it. And the filmmakers didn’t even overdo the action the way many 3D animated films do. Up until the end, I was going to write about why I liked this film better than Rango. But then came the end. The inevitable end. The idiotic end. The utterly unoriginal end. Madness. Enough. For the second time this week, I can’t find my mug.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger


Do you ever wonder why no matter how bad a film is there are always a couple of major critics who liked it? And how no matter how good a film is, some critics are not that impressed? I can find you just as many reputable reviews that tell you how horrible the acting was in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger as there are reputable reviews which tell you how great the acting was. How can this be? Can’t professional film critics easily tell the difference between good acting and bad? Isn’t that why they are paid the big bucks?


When it comes to film critics, Woody Allen films are in a league of their own. Critics just love to talk about how derivative Woody’s recent films are, basically all telling the same story, a story Woody told better decades ago, when he made Husbands and Wives (one of my favourite Allen films). So most of Woody’s films of the past fifteen years have been panned by the critics (with the exception of Match Point, another one of my favourites, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which the critics liked more than I did). But almost invariably the critics pan these films because they were directed by Woody Allen, who has apparently lost his way, is bored, is just pumping out the same films over and over because he can or because he has to, etc. This does not impress me. As a lifelong Woody Allen fan, who has seen almost every one of his films, I can say that I have never seen a Woody Allen film I did not enjoy (including that bizarre Shadows and Fog and the messy Cassandra’s Dream). And every single one of the panned ‘derivative’ comedy dramas Woody has made in the past fifteen years is head and shoulders above the the average comedy drama made in those same years, many of which the critics liked better. For me, the critically-acclaimed The Hangover cannot begin to match the worst of Woody’s films. Sure, Woody Allen films are not for everyone (especially those who like today’s excuses for comedy dramas), but I wish the critics, who can’t even tell if Woody’s actors are doing a great or horrible job, would get off his back and let the master do his job, which will always mean a mixture of failures and successes.


Okay, that’s my rant for the day. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (which I will hereafter refer to as Stranger) is Allen’s latest typical derivative comedy drama. It takes place in London (which in an Allen film always seems to remind me of New York City) and concerns a thirty-something couple and her parents. All four of these people are unhappy and think about life married to someone else. In one case, we even get to see what that looks like. And in one particularly brilliant scene, the theme of ‘the grass is always greener’ is summed up beautifully. But the pursuit of happiness and the greener grass does not work out well for three of the four people involved. In fact, they only become more miserable and no doubt wish they could go back to what they once had. In my opinion, these four stories are told very well and are full of humour and irony. Sure, I prefer Mike Leigh’s England, with his stories at the lower end of the social ladder, but this is still good filmmaking.


As for the acting? I thought Gemma Jones was magnificent, as always. Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts also did very well, in my opinion. The only weak link was Josh Brolin, who was a good casting choice for the role but couldn’t quite pull it off. The supporting actors were more than adequate. As was the cinematography.


I was planning to give Stranger *** but realized that this was only because almost no reputable critic gave it more than that. It’s not easy to go out on a limb and say you like a film that all your favourite critics have panned. You can’t help but feel you must be missing something. But darn it, I really enjoyed You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and I’m going to give it ***+. So there! My mug is up and I hope Woody still has a few more films up his sleeve.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Rango


I went into the theatre knowing that my favourite film critic (Ebert) had given Rango four stars. Perhaps if other critics had leaned toward three stars or less, I would not have had such high expectations. As it was ….


Rango starts very strong (as many films do), with much clever and witty dialogue delivered by Johnny Depp as the protagonist (Rango). Johnny continues to impress me with his range, and he, like the rest of the voice cast, was outstanding in this film. The characters in this film were brilliantly conceived and drawn as well as acted. I was also particularly impressed by the gorgeous 2D cinematography (an animated film not available in 3D - what’s the world coming to? Better days, I hope).


Rango features allusions to (and even characters from) many other films, including Chinatown, High Noon, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and even Star Wars. This was again very cleverly done and frequently brought a knowing smile to my face. And then there was the Mariachi band with more clever lines and a great running gag.


So Rango was a lot of fun to watch. But (I hope you knew this ‘but’ was coming) ultimately Rango failed to live up to my high expectations. Basically, I think Rango was too clever for its own good. There were so many clever lines and scenes that the filmmakers failed to notice that the rather lackluster plot had been overlooked. While there were some deviations from the classic Western plot (including a very welcome attempt to challenge the typical story of the go-it-alone hero with his endless redemptive violence), much of the story was predictable. Worse, much of the story was filled with silliness and pointless action seemingly for the sake of showing off the filmmaking and the endless film allusions (including one from Apocalypse Now which did not work for me at all). With the steady decline of my enjoyment of, and engagement with, the film as it went on (appearance of the ‘man with no name’ notwithstanding), I could not help but feel unsatisfied when the closing credits came on and revealed that Jake the rattlesnake was played by Bill Nighy (how had I missed that?).


Because some parts were so enjoyable, I’m going to give Rango ***+, though just barely. My mug is up but I wish the flavours inside blended into a more satisfying whole. Note to parents: In my opinion, this film is aimed more at adults than children, though older children will certainly enjoy it.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Knight and Day


Don’t you just have to love a film that begins with the hero/protagonist killing a bunch of innocent men (most of whom probably had loving families at home) for laughs? Oh yeah, this is going to be fun!


Knight and Day actually has a lot going for it (more than I would have thought possible before going in). Tom Cruise is perfect for the role of Roy Miller, a super-spy who makes James Bond look like an old man. It’s a role that needs to be played with just the right amount of ‘a wink and a nod’, the kind that Johnny Depp apparently failed to pull off in The Tourist. Cruise does this effortlessly (perhaps too effortlessly?). And Cameron Diaz does well with her role as the woman unwillingly caught up in Miller’s insane killing spree as he runs for his life. The cinematography is gorgeous and much of it is filmed in my beloved Europe (even in Austria for once). The dialogue and some parts of the story are relatively original and intelligent for a silly action film. And there are a number of genuinely funny scenes (there’s a great line in the film, delivered deadpan by a CIA director as she describes agent training: “Love and empathy - we train it right out of them.”).


Sure, Knight and Day makes little sense, but this is not meant to be a serious spy flick (again, this is ‘apparently’ where The Tourist lost its way). So, aside from the nonstop ‘killing for fun’, what’s wrong with this film? Lots, really (e.g. the plot is full of holes of all kinds), but the bigger question is: Can there be anything right with a film in which the audience is invited to laugh as the hero mows down everyone who gets in his way, innocent or not?


This dilemma is not uncommon in the genre I call ‘suspense comedy’ and in some adventure films like this one. As with some of those other films, I found Knight and Day an entertaining film to watch but only as a guilty pleasure, because I could not let go of of the endless lighthearted violence. So part of me wants to give the film ** for being so offensive; another part thinks I need to ‘give it a rest’ and give the film the *** warranted by my enjoyment of the film. I can’t find my mug.


One new review a day coming this week. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing Rango.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story (Adjustment Team) by science fiction master Philip K. Dick. A number of films have been based on Dick’s short stories and three of those films (Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly) are among my top 100 films of all time. I even found many things to like in the violent Schwarzenegger film Total Recall. This should bode well for The Adjustment Bureau. But if you have ever read Dick’s short stories and compared them to the films, you will know that identifying those films as based on one of Dick’s short stories does not mean the same as identifying a film as based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. This has never been more true than in the case of The Adjustment Bureau. Only the barest of ideas have found their way from the 23-page story to the film. Not one character in the film resembles a single character in the story. Hardly a word said in the film can be found anywhere in the story. And even the overall theme of The Adjustment Bureau, which is absolutely critical to how (and how much) one appreciates the film, is never more than hinted at in the story.


So The Adjustment Bureau is NOT Philip K. Dick’s story but a story by George Nolfi, who also directs the film. Nolfi is responsible for writing such mediocre film screenplays as The Sentinel, Ocean’s Twelve (ouch!) and The Bourne Ultimatum. This would have been helpful knowledge for me prior to seeing The Adjustment Bureau. It would have appropriately lowered my expectations (though I think this is Nolfi’s best work to date).


Nevertheless, I must be honest and say I enjoyed the film in spite of my unwarranted expectations. I mean, let’s think about it: You have a sci-fi film (not really sci-fi at all but I won’t get into that) starring one of my favourite actors (Matt Damon) that not only has theological implications (as many films do) but is actually full of pure theology from beginning to end (very rare indeed). Theology, sci-fi, film and Matt Damon is a combination that cannot help but fascinate me, no matter how much better it could have been done (and it could have been done much better - the film’s screenplay is full of holes and inconsistencies, not to mention frequent problems with logic).


Before we examine the film’s flaws, let me say that the cinematography and score are both well done and Matt Damon’s understated performance is almost perfect for the role of David. Emily Blunt is also a very good choice for Elise. Indeed, the romantic element in this film worked very well for me because of the acting by the leads along with the sharply-written dialogue. Add theology to this mix and there is a lot to like about this film. But the theology is also the biggest flaw in the film. Unfortunately, to analyze that theology requires me to say much more about the film than you should know if you haven’t seen it and you know how much I hate doing that. On the other hand, what is the point of this blog if I can’t analyze one of the few popular theological films of our time? So this is where I warn readers to stop reading after this paragraph unless they don’t mind reading spoilers (and if you haven’t seen the film, you SHOULD mind, though that’s just my humble opinion). I do recommend that you go see The Adjustment Bureau. Based on the way it managed to captivate me in spite of its flaws, I am even going to give it ***+.


Okay, if you are still reading, I will assume you have already seen The Adjustment Bureau. I watched it with my daughter Katrina and her husband Paul. Paul enjoyed the film as much as I did (maybe more), but Katrina couldn’t stomach what she called the “dumbed down philosophy/theology”. I understand. The pop philosophy/theology offered in The Adjustment Bureau is infuriating at best. But I must make it clear again that I am so impressed that a popular film of our time even tried to deal with serious theological issues that I can’t help but applaud the effort. This film may not have offered logical profundity but it did make me think, and I love films that make me think.


So, as you know, The Adjustment Bureau is all about free will. At various points in history, God (called The Chairman) has experimented with giving humans free will, but always regretted it (Dark Ages, 20th century, etc.). As an alternative, God has developed The Plan, which may not have given us a perfect world, but at least we’re still here (as one of the Chairman’s agents (angels?) states). Deviations from The Plan require immediate adjustment by God’s agents to bring it back on course. Humans can make little choices, but when it comes to the big stuff, we have no free will at all. But what if one of us pesky humans just can’t take a hint, risking a ‘lobotomy’ to pursue the love of his life, a pursuit which puts a very critical piece of The Plan in jeopardy? Well, in the end (and I can talk about the end because you HAVE seen the film!!!), God is so impressed with David’s fight for free will that God changes The Plan accordingly and everyone lives happily ever after. One of the ‘angels’ even tells us that maybe God wants us to make more of an effort to step outside of the roles that have apparently been forced on us.


Lightweight theology to be sure, and full of inconsistencies (it is revealed to us that David’s determination to fight The Plan is based on his determination to stay with an earlier version of The Plan, so where is his free will in all of that? Answer: It ain’t there). But there are many thought-provoking ideas thrown in along the way. For example, God’s agents are not always sure that sticking with The Plan is right or that the adjustments they make to maintain The Plan are the best thing (one agent in particular is haunted by his past efforts). This presents a depiction of God as both a heartless and distant tyrant (The Chairman) even while there are hints that God visits us in various guises and is impressed when we fight against his/her wishes. A mixed message, but good for discussion. As is the way the film seems to suggest that free will is the greater good even while it questions humanity’s ability to handle it.


One idea I latched onto is the way angels are constantly making little adjustments to our lives to keep us on the straight and narrow. We trip over or drop something and miss a bus that would have led to a deviation from The Plan. This is a central theme in my own theological framework, though I come at it from a very different point of view. I believe not that God has a great and perfect plan for our lives and is constantly making little coincidental adjustments to keep us in line with that plan, but that God is constantly offering us little opportunities to follow a path that will ultimately be better for us and the world we live in. These opportunities can indeed come in the form of delays that cause us to miss a bus, but even the delay is only an opportunity, let alone what happens after the delay. If we fail to take advantage of the opportunities, as we frequently do, there will be countless other opportunities to follow the path of Jesus toward a fuller humanity. Always we are free to choose, even if we will ultimately be happier with a choice that stays closer to that path. If we had no free will, the choices and opportunities would be but a silly computer game and following the path would lead nowhere, because the very definition of humanity includes, for me, the necessity of free will. Some in the world will have far more choices and opportunities than others (and therefore also more responsibilities) but almost everyone, no matter what their situation in life, can exercise the free will to respond to the countless small opportunities God puts in our path each day. Well, that’s what I think anyway. But I would need at least fifty pages to expound on this to my satisfaction.


At this very moment, I am trying to decide whether to take advantage of an opportunity that suddenly fell into my lap. I have only minutes to decide. To take advantage of the opportunity might very well get me closer to the path I desire to follow. But what if, instead, it is a distraction from an even better path? This, my friends, is the joy of life for those who still believe there is a God of compassion who desires the best for each and every creature on our planet.


The Adjustment Bureau could have been a great film (as Ebert says). It wasn’t, but I think it will make a great discussion film for Christian groups (only one scene with bad language). Like I said, my mug is up anyway, with ***+.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Tourist and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: Two Underrated 2010 Films


The Tourist


The Tourist is the latest film from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who directed my favourite film of 2006 (The Lives of Others). The Lives of Others was adored by critics. The Tourist, an old-fashioned (I’m talking 60’s) adventure film starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, was panned by critics. In my opinion, it is not deserved.


Sure, The Tourist is silly, illogical and predictable, with a wildly over-the-top score. It also suffers from the Christopher Nolan implausible-planning syndrome. But compared to most of the junk that passes for action and adventure films these days, I found The Tourist calming and enjoyable. I mean, how bad can a Johnny Depp adventure film shot almost entirely in Venice really be?


Critics were not impressed with Johnny’s performance. Johnny plays an average-Joe math teacher from Wisconsin who gets caught up in a wild adventure in which he is hunted by both criminals and IRS agents. Playing it straight can’t be easy for Johnny and, while it’s not his most convincing performance, I thought he handled it fine. Critics thought Johnny was too straight, but if he had played it any lighter (with a wink and a nod), the predictable plot would have been even more predictable. And Johnny’s co-star? I am not an Angelina fan, but I thought she was fine too.


So if you are looking for a lightweight piece of escapist enjoyment, I would not hesitate to recommend this fun adventure film. I give it a solid ***.



Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


More surprising to me was the mediocre critical reception of Oliver Stone’s sequel to his 1987 Wall Street. Despite a number of critically-acclaimed films, I think Stone is an underrated director and the critical response to Money Never Sleeps is an example of this. I’ve always thought Stone was one of the best directors out there. With its gorgeous cinematography, great score, generally excellent acting (Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon are exceptional in small roles) and solid direction, Money Never Sleeps was, for me, a better film than its predecessor.


Michael Douglas returns as Gordon Gekko, the greedy Wall Street dealer who isn’t worried about who he steps on to get to the top (an apparently common problem on Wall Street). In Money Never Sleeps, Gekko has just been released from the eight years he spent in prison for his various crimes (the ones depicted in Wall Street). The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis reveals how unlikely such incarceration actually is. That crisis forms the background to Money Never Sleeps and Gekko does a fair bit of sermonizing as he analyses the crisis (the emotional version of 2010’s best documentary, Inside Job). So did Gekko change in prison? At first it appears that he did, as he enlists the help of his daughter’s fiancĂ©, Jake (played by Shia LaBoeuf), to try to win his daughter back. Gekko’s daughter, Winnie, played as well as I have come to expect from Carey Mulligan, wants nothing to do with her father, whom she blames for her brother’s suicide. Will Gekko change her mind? Was enlisting the help of Jake a good idea? I’ll let you find out, but let’s just say that the way this plot element is played out is key to the critics’ negative opinions of the film.


I agree that the film is flawed (e.g. LaBoeuf’s relatively weak performance in the lead role) and that the ending veers well off the rails. And yet, most of the film’s flaws, including the ending, point to one particular directorial decision, a decision that may be as positive as it is problematic. What is that decision? It’s to play this anti-Wall Street film in a soft and hopeful way instead of Stone’s more typically angry angle. Money Never Sleeps seems to say that while greedy Wall Street giants may be running and ruining the world and messing with the lives of millions of people, we should not give up hope. Maybe someday, somehow they will wake up and think about future generations the way Gekko does (sort-of). Maybe even if they don’t go to prison, they will lose the respect of the masses and find a measure of humility. Because who can believe these men (and they seem to be all men) are really happy? When the young up-and-comers like Bud Fox (Wall Street) and Jake Moore go down that road, it doesn’t take long for them to understand that their very souls are on the line.


If you want anger, watch Inside Job. If you want hope, with some New York City romance on the side, watch Money Never Sleeps. I give it ***+. My mug is up for both these films.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Defendor

Recently, I enjoyed a Canadian movie about a super hero of sorts. Defendor’s (Arthur Poppington’s) superpowers are his courage and his freedom from the ability to over-think his way into passivity. I suppose one might also want to add a little creativity for developing his own weaponry – a brilliant mix of appropriately boyish ideas combined with a trench club inherited from his grandfather.

The movie is billed as a comedy, which may have hurt some of the responses to the film. Certainly it has its comic touches that are often quite effective (“No, not the lime juice” comes to mind). But it is also a relatively serious drama that explores significant themes. Some have charged that the result is an uneven tone or a lack of cohesion, but I thought it all worked together fairly well. Sure, there were a few things that could have been done a little better, but for a low budget movie the results are excellent. The acting all around is top notch. Woody Harrelson is perfect in the main role and it’s hard to find any real shortcomings in all the supporting roles.

You might argue, Vic, that the film contains traces of the ubiquitous myth of redemptive violence, which it does – his trench club is not used lightly. However, in a world of guns, Arthur’s refusal to turn to lethal force (“Guns are for cowards”) is at least a step in the right direction. The movie brought to mind Gandhi’s belief that cowardice and passivity are worse than violence.

I loved that Arthur’s friend and protector is not family. And I loved that connecting one-on-one with Kat made it impossible for Arthur to stay in his Defendor voice – a solid reminder that the main thing that brings out the weirdest parts of mental illness is isolation. I’m a little on the fence, but since it’s a low budget Canadian movie and since critics have often been too harsh with it, I’m going to give it ****