Thursday, July 31, 2008
(Image from IMP Awards)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
The latest, probably last, and mostly unnecessary installment in the Indiana Jones franchise arrived this summer and made more of a whimper than a bang. I'm not going to waste time summarizing the plot on this occasion. Oh hell, scratch that - here goes. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and a young whippersnapper named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) become embroiled in a race with evil commie Russians led by Col. Spalko (Cate Blanchett) to acquire a mysterious crystal skull that will unleash the arcane powers of a mythical ancient civilization. Also entangled in their adventure are old flame and mother of Mutt, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), new Indy ally Mac McHale (Ray Winstone) and nutty Professor Oxley (John Hurt). Sure, there's more to the story than that, but in a nutshell, that's about it.
The biggest question mark regarding this film when it was announced was Harrison Ford's ability to sell the idea of an adventurous archaeologist at his age. And yes, Ford is too old for the role, truth be told, but despite that he manages to hold the film together and even impresses physically. This is his best performance in years and there are moments when that old Indy charm shines through. Not a patch on the Indy from the original trilogy mind you, but still, surprisingly good stuff. As for the rest of the cast, well, this film excels at wasting good actors - Blanchett and Hurt in particular really should have been used better. Blanchett is actually fairly good given the material, grating accent aside. Hurt just dodders throughout the film. The increasingly ubiquitous Ray Winstone just blurts out some lines every once in a while like some sort of video game sidekick. The surprise package is the promising Shia LaBeouf, who is actually pretty great as an up and coming adventurer. As for Karen Allen... she just seems happy to have been invited to the party, if her eternally giddy expression is anything to go by (or is it botox?)!
The basic premise of the film is sound, and could have been quite interesting. The plot is of course nonsense, but that is a given with this type of film. The problem is that the overall narrative suffers from modern action movie-itis: an indestructible hero who seems to know that he's indestructible (refer Die Hard 4.0); an excess of characters, none of whom have enough screen time or memorable moments; a dearth of quiet character moments; and an overly complicated narrative with too much dull incident and exposition.
To add insult to injury, the film violates established character continuity - for instance, Indy actually helps the Russians along the way, something the Indy of old would never have done, and for the most part he just seems to be getting dragged along during the adventure in a film in which he is purportedly the protagonist! Despite its failings, the film is still above average for the genre, and the fact that it features an established - and quite iconic - hero in a new adventure gives it some cachet.
Despite all of the original bigwigs behind the original films being involved, this one feels strangely incongruous. It feels inconsistent with the original films; even the look is weirdly different! The action is fairly typical for modern adventure films - it never feels like anything is at stake, with the heroes just going through the motions. There's a nonchalant feel to the whole film. And worst of all, some sequences are ridiculously over the top and way beyond anything featured in the original films (except perhaps Temple of Doom's plane crash) - witness the nuclear explosion at the start of the film, or the scene that features a car jumping off a cliff and onto a tree branch. Even the music - which is occasionally rousing - doesn't jump out and grab a hold of you like it did in the original trilogy. It's just there and it sounds familiar, as if it expects to simply coast on the reserves of good will we have towards its predecessors.
I've seen the movie twice now, and I have to admit that I liked it better the second time round - lowered expectations and all that! As an Indy movie it's well below par, but as a modern adventure film, it's actually fairly decent. The production values, action, drama, and comedy, are wrapped together nicely by Spielberg's natural storytelling abilities; his touch makes this better than most summer fare. Having said that, perhaps there's just a little too much George Lucas in there as well! At the end of the day 'Crystal Skull' is entertaining enough to be worth the price of admission, but it is also fairly forgettable. Ah well, they can pry my original trilogy boxset from my cold, dead hands!
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
(Image from IMP Awards)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Last year's adaptation of the first part of Phillip Pullman's much lauded (but somewhat overrated) blasphemous fantasy trilogy was met with indifference by audiences and apparently pretty much sunk New Line Cinema as an independent studio. The marketing didn't really sell the story too well, focusing as it did on the films visual aspects. And that's probably because the film itself doesn't sell its story particularly well either.
'The Golden Compass' (aka The Northern Lights) takes place in a parallel universe and tells the story of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young orphan girl living in Oxford's Jordan College. This universe is somewhat like ours, only here people's 'souls' exist in physical form alongside them as talking animal 'daemons', and society and technology are reminiscent of the 19th century but with steampunk sensibilities. Lyra's uncle, Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig), is a scientist looking into the nature of a mysterious substance called 'dust' and its relationship to parallel universes, but he is opposed by the powerful Magisterium (i.e. the Church).
Meanwhile children are being grabbed off the street by the so-called 'Gobblers'. When Lyra is invited by the alluring but sinister Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to join her in London and mingle with high society, she begins an adventure to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers, an adventure that sees her hooking up with the nomadic 'Gyptian' people and traveling to the north where she meets the mighty polar bears and Witches - including bear king Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan) and witch Seraffina Pekkala (Eva Green), as well as the charismatic aviator Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott). Lyra has one very handy tool to aid her on her quest - an alethiometer, an arcane device that tells its user the truth.
That piss poor summary only scratches the surface. Needless to say it's considerably more complicated and eventful than that, but hopefully the words above will provide some idea of what this movie is about.
As an adaptation, 'Compass' falls short, coming across as a breezy summary of the source material, which truth be told isn't very cinematic (at least in terms of structure) to begin with. The story stumbles from one scene to the next without much cohesion, and is never all that gripping as a narrative. On the one hand, it feels rushed; on the other, the book admittedly has lots of leaden bits that probably wouldn't have been all that compelling on screen! Taken on its own terms as a film, I can't imagine the storyline being all that clear to neophytes, and the very clunky introductory narrative (attempting to channel Fellowship of the Ring) doesn't work all that well. And yet, despite not being particularly accessible it's not exactly awash with thematic depth either, with the religious elements being toned down - direct references to the church are absent - and the importance of dust never being rammed home (though, I'll have to concede that they could have been planning on doing this in the sequels).
The screenplay isn't the only thing that's middle of the road however. The film is generally devoid of atmosphere and key moments seem to lack any real dramatic punch. The production values are adequate but generally unimpressive - sets and costumes don't have that lived in, "real world" feel that separate the great fantasy films from the also-rans. It doesn't exactly transport you to another world because it all feels fake. The effects are also a mixed bag, generally bland and unimpressive. I'm also really tired of lame CGI animals; did they really have to be CGI in every shot? The few action sequences present are decent but barely get the pulse racing - there's a big battle at the end that is short and mildly exciting, but that's about it. It's all tied together by a fairly generic and forgettable musical score.
Dakota Blue Richards was a casting coup as she impresses throughout and perfectly captures the impertinent and sharp tongued spirit of the character in the book. Sam Elliott is spot on as the aviator Lee Scoresby (strange that Pullman apparently imagine Samuel L. Jackson in this role!). It's also great fun to hear Ian McShane (from Deadwood, cocksucker!) as the evil polar bear Ragnar Sturlusson. The other major polar bear character, Iorek Byrnison, is quite well played by Ian McKellan, though it does seem to be a paycheck performance. Eva Green is stunning and physically just right (wink wink) for the role of the witch queen Serafina Pekkala, and she also has an appropriate 'otherworldly' quality about her. Nicole Kidman is a natural for the icy Mrs. Coulter, though hers also seems to be a half hearted performance for the most part. As for Daniel Craig, he's barely in the film and never really registers.
Overall, a decent film but nothing to write home about. I can't imagine fans of the book being too pleased. Despite the stronger source material, it's a step down from say "The Chronicles of Narnia", and falls well short of its New Line stablemate. The anti climactic ending is really a slap in the face as well given that the prospect of the sequels coming to fruition seem somewhat remote at this point.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
(Image from IMP Awards)
'Crank' is an improbably entertaining movie. It's as high concept as it gets - professional assassin Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is injected with a poison by gangster Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo) that will kill him slowly; it is also debilitating unless he keeps his adrenaline level high. The story that ensues is basically a race to find a cure and take revenge, with Chev being hyper and excited the whole time and doing insane things to maintain enough adrenaline in his system to keep the poison at bay. Also along for the ride are Chev's girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) and his snide doctor, Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam).
Much like its protagonist, the film has a surfeit of adrenaline flowing through it from start to finish. The outrageous plot is not half bad given that it's basically designed to get Chev from one ludicrous scenario to the next. It features lean storytelling that is fully committed to its premise; it's also completely irreverent, with a hero who is a remorseless, amoral killer willing to do whatever it takes to survive. And while the movie is action packed and full of violence - there are car chases and shootouts aplenty - it is also very funny, with a darkly comedic tone throughout. If you think about the premise, the inherent comedy value of a guy doing anything to stay excited ought to be self evident. And Chev stops at nothing to stay frantic, including having sex with his girlfriend in a public place in front of a throng of cheering onlookers!
In many ways 'Crank' has the feel of a video game, with stylistic flourishes that seem to evoke the GTA series, and it even references video games directly on a few occasions. The action is exciting, with inventive sequences, snappy editing and kinetic camerawork; there's also an interesting use of first person / odd camera perspectives and sometimes bizarre on screen text. Overall, with its colourful visuals and thumping soundtrack, the film is quite successful at making the viewer maintain the same level of excitement as its hero! Jason Statham is by no means a great actor but he has his niche and is perfect in this sort of role - he's an explosive presence and has always exuded an air of barely contained rage, and this film allows him to unleash it. Amy Smart is also smokin and strangely sweet as his dumb blonde girlfriend. Dwight Yoakam is hilarious as the Doc who seems like he's just wandered onto the set by mistake. The rest of the actors make for a colourful lineup and round out an effective cast.
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor crafted an inventive and exhilarating experience with 'Crank', one that I thought might be somewhat fun but which ended up leaving me wearing a pretty big grin throughout its runtime! Sure it's daft as hell, but it isn't ashamed of that fact at all - in fact, it embraces it! I'm quite curious to see how the forthcoming sequel will turn out; needless to say, it's on my to watch list!
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
(Image from IMP Awards)
Into the Wild (2007)
I expected to find 'Into the Wild' to be a good film, but I was surprised at just how good Sean Penn's latest directorial effort is. His other films that I've seen - 'The Pledge' and 'The Indian Runner' - were pretty good but just shy of being truly great. This film, however, is at another level and is absolutely terrific.
Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer (which I now must read!), it centres on Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man with promising career prospects who upon graduating from college decides to leave his life behind, assume the name Alexander Supertramp, and journey to Alaska to live in the wild. He gives away all of his money to charity and moves from place to place by hitchhiking or sneaking rides on trains while doing odd jobs to get by. He also befriends various interesting people along the way. The film cuts back and forth between his journey to Alaska and the story of his subsequent life in the Alaskan wilderness. The different threads are bound together and given context by the narration from his sister Carine (Jena Malone) that explains his troubled childhood. There's also the occasional scene where we witness his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) trying to cope with his disappearance.
I was captivated by the film from the start. There isn't much meat to the story, which is surprising given its 150 minute runtime, and at its core it's simply a journey - but what a journey! There are some stunning visuals and unforgettable moments that bring McCandless' adventure to life - many scenes are devoid of dialogue and rely on visuals and sound alone, and they bring to the fore the solitude and beauty of the environments he passes through. It's also very much a character study that attempts to explain his behaviour, to allow us to understand him and his past and how it affected him and drove him to find meaning outside of society and people (though ironically his journey brought him into contact with many interesting people along the way). Despite his actions being borderline insane, the manner in which he tried to push himself to the limit somehow comes across as strangely romantic. The film is only successful in explaining McCandless upto a certain extent though; at some level there's something about his actions that really defies logic and explanation, and Penn almost seems to be mythologizing the man and his adventure. Ignoring his love of adventure, McCandless character also embodies the undercurrent of contempt towards modern society and consumerism that permeates the film as well, but fortunately this isn't too heavy handed and as a thematic element never overwhelms the film.
Emile Hirsch is simply brilliant, disappearing into the role and really becoming the character (cliched, I know, but so true here!). McCandless was intelligent and good natured, and perhaps a little quixotic and foolish as well, but always fascinating, and in many ways his audacious recklessness was inspiring. Hirsch really brings these traits to life without making the man ever seem bonkers or too detached from reality; he's relatable and sympathetic. His interactions with the supporting cast are also terrific, and while there is at times a sense of over-earnestness to them they serve to show how he affected the people he met, and how he himself grew and changed as a result of meeting them. All of the cast are terrific, but Hal Holbrook's much lauded performance as the lonely old retiree Ron Franz is worthy of the praise and accolade it has received.
On paper this film could have been repetitive and dull, but it ends up being incredibly varied and with its intercutting timelines and sense of progression it never comes close to being boring. It's a bit long but, I think, quite well paced. I found it to be exceptionally well made in every way; the performances I've already mentioned, but there's also the awesome photography and soundtrack that add so much to the mood and enhance the overall experience. Despite being overlooked during awards season, I'm fairly confident when I say that 'Into the Wild' is one of the best films of 2007.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
(Image from IMP Awards)
Deliver Us From Evil (2006)
'Deliver Us From Evil' is a documentary that tells the story of child abuser priest Oliver O'Grady, and how the Catholic Church attempted to cover up his activities by moving him from parish to parish during the 1970s and 80s. It does this by presenting three different perspectives. One perspective presents the stories of several of O'Grady's many victims and their families via often emotional interviews. Another recounts the activities of the clergy using witness accounts and recordings of depositions given by various, often very senior, members of the US Catholic Church (they declined to participate in the documentary). Third, and perhaps most interestingly, are interviews with Father O'Grady himself, living freely in Ireland and being incredibly candid about what he did and about the Church's complicity in allowing him to get away with it. Interspersed are various interviews with other involved parties such as lawyers and psychologists.
O'Grady is really the most intriguing part of this film - the man is disarmingly charming and engaging, and it's easy to see see how he took people in and worked his way into their confidence. He shows absolutely no remorse for what he did and describes his actions in a calm and collected manner, and sometimes even presents himself as a victim, describing his 'indulgences' in much the same way an alcoholic might describe giving in to drink - in his mind the kids were temptations dangling before him. He's clearly disturbed, but given that he knew at least on an intellectual level that what he did was monstrous it's impossible to feel any kind of sympathy for him, even when certain revelations about his past are made that may explain his actions. And there are some moments, such as where he sits down and writes ridiculously patronizing letters of apology to his victims, that make you want to just punch him in the face.
The true villain of the piece, however, is the weaselly Church, as can be seen in the accumulated evidence and the deposition videos where various members of the clergy try to conjure up excuses and fail miserably; the dishonesty is written all over them. The segments involving the victims describe how O'Grady earned the trust and respect of their families and the ways in which he abused them; they also explain how the families felt betrayed by both him and the Church, an anger that lives on because their lives are in many ways still in tatters so many years later. Many of the interviews are quite emotional and serve as a strong counterpoint to O'Grady's cheerful, nonchalant countenance, constantly serving to remind the viewer of the gravity of what he did and the inherent injustice in the fact that he gets to live his life as a free man.
This may be a documentary, but it's far from the bland 'talking heads' style that the presence of an abundance of interviews might suggest. There's a strong visual style, with varied camera angles and establishing shots being used judiciously. The editing is also well done, and the film is structured as a pseudo-narrative that builds up towards a dramatic payoff of sorts. There are strong musical choices as well, somber and appropriate.
Taken at face value 'Deliver Us From Evil' doesn't offer anything new in terms of facts, but it presents them very effectively and provides faces and a human element that transcends those facts and turns them into a real punch to the gut. Watching this, one can't help but feel sympathy for the victims and their families while also feeling a fascinated kind of loathing towards the perpetrator of the horrendous crimes that caused so much suffering. Above all, however, this is a film should make anyone (apart from the brainwashed) who sees it feel nothing but contempt and unbridled anger towards the cruel, exploitative institution that let it all happen while turning a blind eye, and subsequently tried to cover it up when the shit hit the fan.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
(Image from Amazon)
Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 2 (2001)
I thought the first season of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' was terrific, but this second season manages to be - quite improbably - even funnier. I can't really think of anything significant to add to what I've already said about the show. The writing is brilliant, with tightly plotted, layered stories that seem to pay off every setup in unexpected and hilarious ways. And what setups! Each episode is typically 30 minutes long and they cram a lot of good stuff in there. The hit to miss ratio of the jokes is very, very good.
My earlier complaint about how events felt a little random still applies but to be honest it's just a stylistic choice and, given how the randomness allows the show to segue from one insane scenario to another in which Larry squirms uncomfortably, it's a hard choice to criticize. Plus, there is now a story arc of sorts in this season as well - an element that was absent in the first - about Larry's attempts to start a new comedy series with one of the actors from Seinfeld.
It may be a tad predictable at times but most of the scenes play out so well and are often so unexpectedly capricious you hardly notice. Larry David is amazing as... Larry David, and it must be said that Cheryl Hines as his wife and Jeff Garlin as his agent provide brilliant support, particularly Hines as Larry's improbably tolerant (of him, that is), eternally humiliated companion who somehow manages to convince the viewer that she's not insane for being married to him.
All in all, brilliant and a must see! HBO has a virtually flawless track record for me thus far - ignoring the fact that they keep cancelling shows, but hey, at least they made brilliant shows to lament in the first place! Fortunately 'Curb' wasn't one of those that met the axe, and there are another 4 seasons for me to catch up with.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
(Image from Amazon)
I've fallen behind on these reviews, so this is going to be brief.
I've praised writer Stephen Moffat before several times on this blog, and was thrilled to hear that he was working with Spielberg and Jackson on Tintin. So it's quite disappointing to find that his mini-series 'Jekyll', based on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, is not upto the standard I was expecting. It's overlong and drags badly, feels repetitive and has some lame twists and turns, is populated by poorly written characters, and features some rather lame comedy beats. In fact, the supporting characters are almost uniformly unappealing, especially the lame lesbian detective team and the villains. The story isn't bad, being a sort of modern day 'continuation' of Stephenson's classic book, but there's such an insistence on Americanizing things with cheesy covert agencies and evil 'Americans' with terrible accents. It just tries too hard. To be fair, it's not all the fault of the writing, as some of the blame must go to the too flashy direction, cheap visuals, and average performances. And the soundtrack is just horrendous; I rarely feel this way but I was wishing there was a way to simply turn off the music, particularly the grating main theme!
The show isn't bad, however - it has a secret weapon, one that elevates it to watchable. That weapon is James Nesbitt, who is simply brilliant as both Dr. Jackman and the villainous Hyde. His transformation is so incredible that it's hard to believe it's the same man! While his portrayal of the good Doctor is great - desperate, tired, but full of resolve - it's his turn as the insanely maniacal and charismatic Hyde that thrills. Superb stuff, a performance that makes you forget the show's weaknesses. Ultimately however his work is simply not enough to elevate 'Jekyll' to anything above decent, but without it I can't imagine I'd have sat through more than an episode. As it stands, I wouldn't say it's worth watching - in fact, the critical love this has received beggars belief - but perhaps it's worth checking out the first episode, just to see Nesbitt in action!
Monday, July 07, 2008
(Image from Amazon)
Medium - Season 2 (2005-2006)
I wrote a fairly comprehensive review of Medium's first season, and really so little changes in the second that there's nothing new to say. It's business as usual. Which is actually something of a problem when the first season was already threatening to be formulaic; now, it unquestionably is. All of the pluses are still there, and it's certainly very well made, but it is undeniably 'comfort TV', the type of show where you know exactly what you're going to get with no surprises. The plot twists lack any real zing. I still enjoyed it, but when there's no overall story arc or change in the formula, it becomes repetitive pretty fast. Especially when there are 22 episodes in the season! The show is good enough to warrant watching another season (I think), but if the creative team don't shake things up a little in Season 3, I can't imagine staying around for the fourth...