December 27, 2007

Youth Without Youth (12/27/07)

Lettergrade: D-

We saw Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth last night, which I cannot really recommend due to its deeply philosophical passages and enigmatic density. I know it's a rare thing to criticize a movie for having too many layers and too much going on, but this one, based on a series of novellas by Romanian philosopher, religion professor and cunning linguist Mircea Eliade, is an art film in style and nature that demands the full attention and mental capacity of its viewer in a way that I just didn't find all that compelling. I respect the skill and craft that went into making this thing, but at the same time, I know that the end result just isn't for me.

The picture opens in 1938 Romania with Tim Roth as an old professor of 70 or so, who (like the author) has made it his life's work to study the evolution of Eastern language in an attempt to get to the root of human consciousness. He is struck by lightning one day while crossing the street, and spends 10 weeks in a hospital where doctors discover that his body seems to be regenerating to that of a man of 35. The lightning has provided him with other enhancements as well which gradually reveal themselves with time, including an elevated intellect and a split personality, more ruthlessly intellectual than the original, with whom Roth can reason and share revelations throughout the picture. It may sound like Francis Ford Coppola doing X-Men here, but it's really a bit more cerebral and oblique than that.

Anyway, after his time in the hospital is through, Roth is initially studied by local scientists, but when news of his condition reaches the top Nazi doctors of the day, they desperately attempt to acquire and study him per Hilter's obsession with immortality. As the years pass, Roth does not age... he goes from city to city, assuming various identities, and continuing to work on his book about the origins of language and consciousness. A major plot shift happens when Roth encounters a woman who has likewise been struck by lightning (played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who also played the deceased love of his youth earlier in the movie). Her post-lightning ability is that her id can move backward through time, revealing ancient, unrecorded languages and unwritten history to Roth as he continues his work.

I'll stop describing the particulars of the plot now, as I think that revealing them out of context like this doesn't really represent how they are used within the body of the film. I will state for emphasis, however, that the movie's somewhat episodic structure was frustrating in that it was hard to get a grasp on what the movie was about and where it might be going. I quite enjoy films that undergo "movements" as the picture progresses, but the various sections here felt a bit disconnected to me in a way that was more off-putting than engaging.

Another recurring point of confusion / frustration is that there are certain plot elements that are only revealed through dialogue, not through anything that we get demonstrative proof of. For example, early in the movie, when Roth is being studied by the local Romanian doctor after recuperating in the hospital, we are told that the woman next door, whom we have yet to see, is a spy sent there by the Nazis. Roth apparently has a relationship with her that has already become sexual, although I didn't have any inkling that sex was afoot, in spite of the occasional nipple that went by in one of the many hazy, ethereal dream-sequences from that section.

Coppola, best known for the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now, hadn't directed a movie in 10 years or so, and Youth Without Youth was made very inexpensively in Romania, primarily funded by Coppola's ever-successful wine business. On one hand I think it's great that there are movies like this out there, and that bold, industrious filmmakers like Coppola can find ways to make them. On the other, however, I must admit that I really had only a sliver of an idea of what the thing was about.

December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd (12/24/07)

Lettergrade: C-

I have not seen any previous version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, and therefore I am unable to comment on how faithful director Tim Burton might have been in translating the Stephen Sondheim musical for the cinema. I will say as a relative newcomer, however, that while I enjoyed several of the songs, I found the film at large to be awfully gruesome, and somewhat unpleasant to get through. I suppose one could inquire what I was expecting, seeing as this is a story of a scorned barber who kills for revenge, but I will draw a distinction between a genial sort of macabre, which most of Burton's movies have been until now, and the harsh, visceral macabre that more accurately describes this picture. Although the Sondheim lyrics are witty and playful in places, Burton's imagery rarely fits the same description, focusing instead on the grime and decay of 19th century London in addition to the dark themes of blood-lust and revenge.

At its core, Sweeney Todd is a basic revenge story along the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo. The title character, played by Johnny Depp, was once a successful London barber with a beautiful wife and young daughter. The tyrannical Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) became envious, and had Depp falsely imprisoned, leaving his family for himself. Many years later, Depp returns to Fleet Street a dark and troubled man seeking vengeance. He adopts the name of Todd, and takes up his old residence above an unsuccessful meat pie shop run by Helena Bonham Carter. Eventually, they form an alliance cemented by a series of musical duets: He will kill his way to Turpin, and she will process the evidence for use in her failing business. The cast also includes character actor Tim Spall as Turpin's lackee and Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, a rival Italian barber.

Although no one can deny that there's a lot of talent on screen here, I must say I found many of the characters to be off-puttingly one-note. Depp's character, for example, begins the movie focused on killing his enemies, and well, frankly, he never really shows much more complexity than that. Helena Bonham Carter's role is the most interesting of the bunch, mostly because her motivations for doing what she does during the picture are the most nuanced and, at times, mysterious. The one-dimensional nature of many of the characters is, of course, an aspect of the material that probably existed long before the makers of this film touched it, but it's worth mentioning as something that dragged the film down for me and contributes to my non-recommendation.

The material had been filmed many times before; twice in the 20s and most famously in 1936, before Sondheim wrote his stage musical based on it in '79. The musical had been taped for broadcast several times, but this is the first incarnation of Sondheim's version as a true feature film. Burton certainly didn't make it feel as if it were a filmed play: As is typical of his movies, the production design, art direction, and cinematography are all top notch. Burton reveals story points in very cinematic ways, using intimate close-ups and flashbacks to get his points across.

My complaint about Burton for a long time now, however, is while he clearly knows how to make something look great, I sometimes get the feeling that he's not terribly skilled at handling story. Of the 12 films he's directed, all but two (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands) are explicitly based on pre-existing material. Some of them have been all-around stellar pictures (Ed Wood and Pee Wee's Big Adventure in particular), but the majority seem to be awkwardly paced and in the end, strangely unsatisfying. I'm talking about Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!, his unforgivable Planet Of The Apes remake, and the visually stunning but thematically bankrupt Sleepy Hollow.

I'm sorry to say that I'd lump Sweeney Todd into that latter group in terms of pacing and unevenness. The bigger problem is that since I felt little compassion for any of the characters, by the end I was fairly indifferent about whether or not anyone would achieve the goals they had set out for. I could probably have put up with the gruesome handling of the blood-and-guts stuff a little better if the movie had simply found a way to engage. Like a lot of Burton's movies, however, this one seems to be a little more about how it looks rather than what actually happens.

December 16, 2007

I Am Legend (12/16/07)

Lettergrade: B

In I Am Legend, Will Smith faces an opponent that no amount of free-style rap can defeat: A mutated cure for cancer that turns everyone on Earth into flesh-eating monsters. The picture is partly a last-man-on-Earth melodrama, and partly an action/horror zombie flick. Normally those two genres, either separate or combined, aren't really my cup of tea, but there are several key things about this picture that I really liked. The big one is Will Smith, who gives a very strong and nuanced performance as the presumably lone survivor of the plague. The other is the stellar work by the picture's VFX team, which allows Smith to inhabit a post-apocalyptic New York City, overrun by weeds and wildlife, that looks pretty darn convincing.

Based on a Richard Matheson novel from the 50s that has been filmed twice before (once as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and then again as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston), I Am Legend stars Smith as a military scientist who works to find a cure after discovering that his blood is somehow immune to the virus. With only a trusty dog for companionship, he leads a life of meticulous routine as he experiments on captured subjects in his home lab. At night, the monsters come out and feast on whatever they can find, but Smith is careful not to reveal his dwelling and to take a number of Home Alone-style security precautions, should one of the fuckers get too close.

Like No Country For Old Men, another good picture that was released this winter, I Am Legend features lengthy scenes where we watch Smith wordlessly go about some task or daily ritual, generating enough intrigue to keep us interested in what he's doing and highly curious about why he's doing it. As the film continues, piecemeal flashbacks gradually reveal what exactly went down and how things got like they are. I didn't much care for the horror movie component of the picture, which is minimal, really, but I sure found the character stuff to be interesting, and that's where the film's primary value is.

In talking to others who've seen the flick, we all pretty much agree that the third act of the picture, which pits the Fresh Prince against the zombies in a more traditional I, Robot sort of way, is probably supposed to have a lot more impact than it really does. To put it another way, the movie kinda feels like its leading up to a big climax of sorts that never really happens. To its credit, the picture takes a good deal of time to build moods and set up a certain atmosphere, but ultimately all that effort, while enjoyable in and of itself, isn't used in a particularly meaningful way. There's a quasi-religious component introduced in the last part of the movie that comes out of nowhere (and fails to convince), but that's the only attempt the picture really makes at having a larger purpose.

The screenwriter/producer was Akiva Goldsman, one of the highest paid screenwriters of our day. Seeing as he was responsible for Batman & Robin, The Da Vinci Code, and that Lost In Space remake from 1998, it's really saying something that this movie wound up in the decent shape that its in. It should be noted, however, that Goldsman also wrote two other movies that weren't as shitty as those mentioned, but which didn't really go above and beyond on a story level either: Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind. Those films, coincidentally both directed by Ron Howard, were well-made and featured good performances, but ultimately failed to do a whole lot other than what one might have expected them to do. In other words, solid filmmaking, but a tad on the forgettable side.

Maybe that's the worst thing you can say about I Am Legend: It's got some nifty acting and some great sequences, but you may not think about it much after its over. I know that's not a terribly glowing endorsement, but the movie does have several strong components that make it worth seeing, and in a season populated by pictures like National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets and Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, it will do.

December 14, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen (12/14/07)

Lettergrade: F

I've seen all three Ocean's movies now, but I honestly haven't gotten much out of any of them. They're heist movies, I guess, but more than that they seem to be excuses for the lead actors, many of whom are friends in real life, to hang out on lavish locations, wear silly costumes, and collect some nice Warner Bros paychecks. I'm sorry if that sounds cynical, but as the movies never seem to have any over-reaching themes, and the characters are not given much personality or complexity, I have to assume that the cast keeps coming back because the work conditions are pleasurable, if nothing else. Having had a couple shitty jobs lately myself, my hats off to them for finding a fun work environment and steady income, but I must say I sorta wish they were interested in telling a good story or two while they were at it.

The movies have had increasingly convoluted plots, and director Steven Soderbergh doesn't seem especially interested in letting Joe Audience know what the fuck is happening in any of them. It's a curious approach, but I guess his mission was accomplished: I went through most of Thirteen not understanding what the guys are trying to do or how they're trying to do it. There are many scenes where one of Ocean's gang is dealing with some elaborate Star Wars-like piece of equipment or interacting in strange ways with other mysterious characters that you don't know anything about and for objectives that remain largely unclear. I guess the interesting part is supposed to be listening to the groovy music while the celebrity cast unpacks shit and talks vaguely about plans that won't be unveiled until the movie's climax. During those lengthy and plentiful scenes, with no discernible plot to contemplate, I usually found myself wondering if there was anything I needed to unpack in the other room myself, but that's neither here nor there.

In this one, the guys all convene in Las Vegas after Elliot Gould, a charter member of the previous movies' Ocean's gang, has a heart attack and is rendered in a "sort of" catatonic state. Flashbacks quickly reveal that he got this way because he unwisely entered into a business partnership to open a new casino on the strip with Al Pacino, only to be double-crossed and squeezed out. Gould even says that Pacino has done this to every other business partner he's ever had, but nevertheless he was stupid enough to take no precautions whatsoever. This supreme act of gullibility and astonishing idiocy on Gould's part is too much for George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and they decide to help Gould enact revenge by sabotaging Pacino's opening night.

From then on out... aw fuck, it doesn't really matter. I think there's a scene in all three movies where the guys are confronted with some elaborate obstacle, and then an expert in a specialized area of criminal activity grimly says, "Forget it: It can't be done!" This is followed, of course, by a scene where the guys find a way to easily do it anyway, courtesy of some crazy long-shot idea that someone on the team has come up with. That's pretty much all there is to know about the plot, and if that sounds like thoughtful, engaging filmmaking to you, by all means please enjoy.

While we're talking about curious patterns, there are two things about this movie that I want to mention: One is that the film has a real hard-on for The Godfather. I mean, I love that movie as much as anyone, and it _is_ cool that Pacino, The Godfather III's Andy Garcia, and Scott Caan (son of the original movie's James Caan) are part of the cast, but I don't understand why so much dialogue came directly from that film and what all the references were about. The other thing I want to make note of is that all the characters seem to wear a lot of crazy costumes in this one. I cannot remember if Eleven and Twelve were like this, but in this one it feels like every few minutes there's a scene where Don Cheadle impersonates a dare-devil motorcyclist or Clooney comes out wearing a crazy Italian mustache or Matt Damon sports a shamefully unconvincing prosthetic nose. It could just be the filmmakers' loving tribute to the Chevy Chase classic Fletch, but it still seemed cartoonishly excessive and virtually pointless.

Ultimately, however, Ocean's Thirteen, like its predecessors, has bigger problems that mostly stem from the fact that there's very little tension in any of the proceedings. In all three films there's a point where the film slyly lets you know, "Don't worry: Clooney and Pitt had it all figured out well in advance and took care of everything!" Um... where's the fucking drama in that? I kinda thought that heist movies are generally able to get some good milage out of unexpected things going wrong. The Mission: Impossible movies, for example, feature a lot of elaborate heists, and they manage to keep it all fresh and exciting. I guess you can walk away from the entries in the Ocean's series marveling at what fine administrators Clooney and Pitt are, but the filmmakers could benefit from going for something with a little more pizzaz and showmanship. Will Danny Ocean win? He always does. He seems to have no doubt that he will, and there is no doubt on the part of anyone else in the movie either.

The original Ocean's 11, the one made in 1960 starring Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack, wasn't that good a movie, and it was a bit curious to me that anyone would choose to remake it in the first place. Soderbergh had just come off dual Best Director nominations the previous year for Erin Brockovich and Traffic (the latter of which he won), and it seemed like a heist movie made by a filmmaker of his caliber would be something worth seeing. I actually saw his Ocean's remake twice, thinking that there must have been some other layer there that I had missed the first time. Ultimately, I think I realized that it was a remake inasmuch as a bunch of celebrities had a great time making a fairly shallow movie about knocking over a Vegas casino, and not much more. There could be something more interesting and post-modern buried in these films, but it clearly takes a viewer more sophisticated (and devoted) than myself to spot it.

(seen on DVD)

December 2, 2007

Enchanted (12/02/07)

Lettergrade: B+

Send-ups of classic Disney fairy-tale pictures seem to be more common these days, but as far as I'm aware, none of them have done it nearly as well as Enchanted. I'm not sure what the secret is... the movie has an excellent cast, catchy songs and score, and a good director named Kevin Lima, an alum in various capacities of the early 90s Disney animation renaissance, who keenly fills the movie with in-jokes and references so intricate, only the most dedicated of Disneyphiles might be able to catch them all.

All that aside, though, Lima and the other filmmakers have an excellent sense of what made a lot of the older Disney hallmarks resonate with audiences in the first place, and they do a fine job of reworking the formula here. Pretty much every facet of the picture is right on. If you break it all down on paper, Enchanted might be as guilty of being homogenized, overly sweet, and as absolutist as the movies it pokes fun at. The difference, however, is that the film is witty and inventive enough to keep me, a hardened cynic at 29, charmed and in laughter for pretty much all of its running time. The film is born out of love for its source material while never submitting to obvious or petty jokes like the Shrek movies do.

The opening segment closely matches the animation of beloved early 90s classics like Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin. Amy Adams voices Giselle, a traditionally-animated princess who, on the day of her wedding to a fantastically smug Prince Edward (James Marsden), is banished to the live-action New York City, courtesy of evil bitch Susan Sarandon (who plays evil bitch Queen Narissa). The film is primarily a fish out-of-water story with Giselle having to apply her fairy-tale intellect and world-view to her new three-dimensional surroundings. I don't like describing movies in terms of other movies (unless some shameless ripping-off has occurred), but a good analogue for Adams' Giselle is Will Ferrell's Buddy in Jon Favreau's Elf, another splendid picture in which the enthusiastic earnestness of the lead in question won me over with much aplomb.

Giselle is never fully exposed to the true horrors of the Big Apple (which do not seem to be part of this New York anyway), but instead is taken in by a pretty decent guy played by Patrick Demsey, who thinks the girl is probably certifiable, but is sympathetic and charitable to her anyway. Demsey's character is a divorce attorney who has a nice relationship with his six-year old daughter and a long-term girlfriend who's on the verge of becoming his fiancée. Soon, the self-absorbed Prince Edward arrives in NYC and begins to search for his betrothed while Tim Spall, a double-agent who lusts for Queen Narissa, poses as Edward's faithful servant while sabotaging his mission.

A responsible movie review, I feel, should not reveal aspects of a movie that the audience may take immense pleasure in discovering, so I'll stop with the specifics now. Suffice to say that Lima knows the Disney classics inside and out, and has a lot of fun playing with familiar elements... be it pushing our heroine's ability to commune with nature to ridiculous extremes, or in stretching the credibility of a spontaneous musical number in Central Park. The one false note might be the somewhat perfunctory action climax, which feels a little out of tune with the rest of the movie. I will say, however, that one brief not-so-hot scene in the midst of a very enjoyable 1 hour 50 minute running time is something of a minor miracle, and a batting average that most family pictures would kill for.

One last thing to note is that (much like in the film Pleasantville) the characters from the animated world who get exposure to more complex ideas and feelings start to really expand as the film progresses. No one plays these subtle epiphanies better than Adams, who greets her on-screen encounters with vacant naiveté while working just enough subtle nuance into her performance to suggest wheels turning and revelations being made. It's tricky material to play and its success is imperative to the film ultimately earning its ending. Adams pulls it off expertly, and it is hard to imagine the other elements of the picture coming together nearly as well without her at the center of everything.

In the final stretch, Enchanted is not entirely able to hide that, while made with lightly subversive tongue-in-cheek care, it is still designed to fall within that most desired and universal genre of all; the profitable money-maker. I'm not a fan of the obligatory Carrie Underwood single that pops up toward the end, nor do I care for some of the more corporate touches, but in spite of the decisions that might have been made with marketing in mind, one has to admire that this is still a pretty good movie, full of charm and class. Family movies that the whole family might actually like are a rare and treasured thing these days, and when they come about as well as this one does, it's hard to sit in the theater and not feel a certain degree of enchantment.