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Saturday, December 23, 2006

XMAS movie marathon

Well, I've finished college and I'm unemployed. Which, for whatever sucks about it, does afford me loads of free time. Scads, even. Some of which I've spent filling out grad school applications, some of which I've spent karaoke-ing with friends, some just reading and vegging at home. But it has also afforded me the opportunity to catch up on movies. I'm not going to get into the gory details, but let's just say I have a lot of movies stored up, which I've acquired over the past 2 years or so, but haven't had the time (due to school and work) to watch all of.

So I've fired up my gorgeous (splendiferous, in fact) Sony 50" SXRD widescreen HDTV, turned up the 5.1 channel surround sound, dimmed the lights, made popcorn here and there, and acted like Roger Ebert in the comfort of my own living room. And now I'm going to "BLOG" about it! Aren't you fortunate. Here are my thoughts on the movies I've watched in the past 4 days or so.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand

This is the one not directed by Bryan Singer. I want to say Brett Ratner, but I don't want to look it up to be sure. The story picks up after Jean Grey has died saving her fellows (or something along those lines) in movie number 2.

X3 is certainly a capable action flick. The effects are good, which is to say they're mostly not noticeable. The only "off" effect present is in flashback scenes with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, playing Prof. X and Magneto, respectively. Some sort of CG "smoothing" effect was done on their faces. It looks okay when they're stationary, but something is just not quite right when they speak. Some element of lighting or translucency. Sorry folks, CG just isn't there to this point yet (which means it isn't yet at the point to realistically render human characters sans actors, either).

The movie seems much more concerned with action than with characterization, as opposed to the previous 2 movies. "Angel" is introduced, but is completely undeveloped. None of the characters grow or change. An attempt is made to introduce pathos by "killing" Cyclops, Prof. X, and Jean Grey again. It falls flat. I'd give this movie a 6, though, just for being a good looking flick which holds the interest. The DVD transfer is excellent, as are the other two. Detail is high, edge enhancement and digital "noise" are low, colors are well saturated, and blacks are deep.

Story 5
Acting 6
Directing 5
DVD Transfer 9

Batman Begins

This one I had seen several times before, but I was in a comic book movie mood. It is a "reboot" of the movie franchise, directed by Chris Nolan (Memento) and starring Christian Bale in the title role.

Batman Begins is almost a "tale of two movies." Luckily, both are entertaining - the first movie because of the story, the second because of the excellent cast and decent directing.

The first hour of the film traces Bruce Wayne's evolution from being a young, angry boy witnessing the murders of his parents; to an aimless drifter, trying to find a path to assuage his anger, fear and guilt; to a nascent crime fighter trying to save his city from urban decay on scales both grand and small. Liam Neeson is typecast as the wizened sage who lends him hard-won wisdom - but hey, he's typecast for a reason. He's nailed the role by now. Bale inhabits the character, lending him a gravitas that carries the movie, and would have carried it even if his acting colleagues had not been so equally good.

The second hour follows "Batman" after he has returned to Gotham, made his debut, and is unraveling the plot against the city. Cillian Murphy is quite good as Professor Jonathan Crane, AKA Scarecrow, who gets his start as a corrupt prison psychiatrist. He is in the pay of mobster Carmine Falcone, played ably (if a bit hammily) by Tom Wilkinson. Gary Oldman is Lt. James Gordon, in an INSPIRED bit of casting which both plays him against type and NAILS the Frank Miller version of the character. Michael Caine portrays Alfred Pennyworth, imbuing his performance with such warmth and empathy that he becomes the father figure of the film. Katie Holmes, whose role has been criticized, to my mind does a fine job as Rachel Dawes, an assistant DA and childhood friend of Bruce Wayne who tries her best to fight the rampant corruption of the city. I agree she's a bit young and slight, but she actually acts pretty well in her scenes, particularly when she scolds Wayne for his (ultimately unsuccessful) revenge plot against his parents' killer.

Filmed on location in a CG-enhanced Chicago, a wonderful sense of realism pervades the film. Nolan aimed squarely at grounding the character, as opposed to going "cartoony" as some of the more execrable previous films had - and it succeeds fabulously. "Batman Begins" would function as a regular action thriller without the costumes. It really ramps up the thrills and suspense.

Some things which nagged me: the cartoonish squalor (given the realism of the rest of the film) of the neighborhood surrounding the Opera house outside which the parents are shot; the constant mispronunciation of Ra's Al Ghul (it should be Raish Al Gool, not Roz Al Gool, it comes from the Arabic for "The Demon's Head"); a certain character switcheroo, which I won't reveal; how the heck Batman's grappling hook remains attached the the speeding train in the film's climax.

The DVD transfer is pristine. While the movie is extremely crisp and detailed, not one instance of edge enhancement of video noise caught my eye. For such a dark palette, every black is rendered very deeply with loads of detail.

Overall I give this movie a 9. It really succeeds as an entertainment outside its genre, is splendidly cast, and its failures, if any, are marginal.

Story 8
Acting 9
Directing 8
DVD Transfer 10

Hard Eight

Paul Thomas Anderson's first feature film shows surprising polish. It must have been evident to anyone that this was a director worth watching very early on. When you watch a movie by a "Director" with a capital D, it kind of begs the question - what makes someone a Director as opposed to just some schmuck who yells out "action?"

I've never made a movie. I don't know all the different roles in any encyclopedic way. Does a cinematographer have something to do with the greatness of a shot composition? Or is that the director? Does the casting director have a greater say in some inspired casting choice than a director? I don't know for sure. But I do know that we don't hear much about those role-players when it comes to film. We hear about directors. Sometimes screenwriters. But mostly directors.

So I have to assume that the director is the one who makes the most important creative choices in the movie-making process.

For instance: casting. P.T. Anderson is known for his ensemble casts, and reusing actors frequently. John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman had their big breaks in Anderson's films, each appearing in the first three. Reilly is a particular standout in this film - his dumb, sweet, but slightly dangerous persona really makes watching the film electric and exciting. He is unpredictable, but never in an outlandish way. Philip Baker Hall as Sydney (the original title of the film) could arguably be seen as the central character, but his harsh monotone delivery, though effective, cuts him off from the audience like a noir character cutout. Gwyneth Paltrow is good in her role - the more I see of her, the more I respect her.

Then there's Technique. Anderson is known for his tracking shots - shots which can seem indulgent or cliched if done wrong - but can really work to set mood, place, and theme if done well. A great tracking shot can create "movie magic," the feeling that you're THERE. The feeling that what endangers the characters also threatens you. It quickens your pulse, fans the flames of the emotions intended, it really is the mark, I think, of a great director. Tracking shots, pans, closeups, and compositions are all key elements in creating this magic. Anderson obviously paid attention in film class, because he gets them all done right.

Editing is key. Many a great film has been sabotaged by a director who didn't know when to say no. (See: the Star Wars prequel trilogy) Making a choice as to what just doesn't WORK is the critical one for a film director. Sometimes it's a storytelling choice, sometimes one take of a performance over another, sometimes a setting. But great directors never have us looking at our watches in the theater - nor do they leave us unsatisfied and wanting more explanation. They create characters and situations with these choices that make the movie, whether 90 minutes or 4 hours, a self contained world, with its own sense and rules, which transports us there. Without this critical eye, a movie is just actors pretending that stuff happens.

Hard Eight, a story about a simple guy down on his luck who finds a mentor and a troubled love interest, works. The locations work, the technique works, the music works, the casting works. It's not as inspired as his later stuff (especially Boogie Nights), but it shows the seeds of it, and is enjoyable and transporting in its own right.

The transfer is fine - lots of close-ups and face shots make for an easy job of transferring. Blacks are fine, detail is fine. It's just not a WOW DVD. Not that it really matters a ton. The transfer never gets in the way of being transported by the skill of the craft displayed. Overall, this movie rates an 8.

Story 7
Acting 9
Directing 10
DVD Transfer 7

The Aviator

Speaking of Directors with capital "D's," very few conversations about this happen without the mention of Martin Scorsese. You can love or hate some particular film of his, but I defy anyone to knock his talent. He is a "transporter" par excellence.

First, a word about the performances. I just have to come out and say it - Titanic bedamned, Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor. Not just good, great. He inhabits his roles in a way generally unlike most successful Hollywood actors. His Howard Hughes is simultaneously charming, complex, offputting, and always fun to watch. Cate Blanchett is one of my favorite actresses ever, and she plays the role of Katherine Hepburn, which could have turned into an awful caricature, quite convincingly and charmingly. Scorsese obviously excels at casting his films, as each and every additional player is so perfect as to blend in completely into the "reality" of the film.

And this is where directing comes in - Scorsese is a transporter of the utmost degree - he channels a Hollywood of the 1920's and 30's which, if it didn't exist in this way historically, does now. Choices in shots never break the illusion of reality. Choices in costume, lighting, music, and color (he saturates certain periods so they look like film from that era) create a magic which truly sucks your mind and body into the place he tries to create. This is a film that any student should watch if they want to learn mastery of movie magic.

All in all, the Hollywood 'biopic' often strays into pat storytelling, and Aviator comes close (i.e. the tortured genius, the unreceptive public, all those old cliches.) But it is told so well that for me the movie was less a story about Howard Hughes than a meditation on a time, a time travel machine, whisking me to a fascinating place that I wanted to just drink in the details. Bravo.

As a DVD, The Aviator is tough to beat - the transfer is clean and beautiful, and gives a vivid canvas to Scorsese's various effects. The audio deserves special mention - it is mixed extremely well, always delivering surround ambiance with music and sound effects (and the roaring crash of an airplane), but keeping the dialogue mixed at a sufficient level never to get lost in the cacophony. Overall, this movie rates a 10, for sheer artistry. Maybe it's a 9 if you're not particularly interested in the period. But to rate it lower would just very likely be dishonesty or churlishness.

Story 8
Acting 9
Directing 10
DVD Transfer 9

Gangs of New York

All of which serves to make Gangs of New York an interesting counterpoint. If Aviator encapsulates everything great about Scorsese as a director, perhaps 'Gangs' pretty much sums up everything else. Now again, I personally don't think much can be faulted in terms of technique. But the story itself, which Scorsese chose to direct, is trite, cliche, and hackneyed. DiCaprio again stars, this time as Amsterdam Vallon, the son of an Irish immigrant who seeks revenge for his father's slaying in a gang war. He goes up against Bill 'the Butcher' Cutting, played by Daniel Day Lewis with a hamminess rarely seen in serious cinema. Cameron Diaz is the improbably beautiful and also improbably not-a-hooker Jenny Everdeane, the neighborhood beauty with mysterious ties to both men. A typically strong supporting cast includes John C. Reilly as flunky turned corrupt cop Happy Jack, Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, Liam Neeson as, you guessed it, the grizzled father figure, the slain Priest Vallon, among many other fine performances.

Why doesn't it work? Well, for one thing, where Aviator's three hours whizzed by, Gangs' three hours seem a chore about a third of the way in. I think it's the basic triteness of the story. Character motivations are paper-thin, and the sense of time and place is never really crystallized. It's hard to judge whether this is a writing problem or a directing one - but Scorsese certainly never saves the script by inserting a scene which could have broadened the context. I knew, in an academic sense, that perhaps neighborhoods in 19th century New York might have attained this level of squalor, but it never felt real. Perhaps some establishing shots of the rest of the city might have improved this sense of place, I don't know. But it all felt disconnected to me as a viewer.

The characters don't add much, either. When the accents don't get in the way of comprehension, a general inability to identify with them gets in the way of enjoyment. How do these characters get food? What do they fill their days with? If Amsterdam Vallon's life upon returning to his neighborhood is any indication, either he did absolutely nothing for 18 hours a day, or the movie only takes place over about 4 days total. There's just a whole lot of nothing in between fight scenes and bawdy barroom set pieces.

Well, whatever. Technical merits: The DVD looks good, but not great. With so many bright outdoor scenes, the level of graininess just doesn't strike my eye as acceptable. Interior scenes are lush, however. The soundtrack is interesting, especially during the opening scene, with a martial drum pacing the buildup to the first gang battle. Overall I give this movie a 6. The film maker is obviously talented, but this is an abortive effort which never clicks.

Story 5
Acting 8
Directing 7
DVD Transfer 8


Todd Solondz opens up a whole can of worms when discussing directors - what of the director whose technical talents (or budgets) are not the primary appeal of his or her work, but rather their story and editing choices, directing of actors, and the like?

Happiness is gripping from beginning to end, mainly because of its complete moral ambiguity and unwillingness to hold the viewer's hand in making value judgments of its characters. Any movie whose protagonists include an unrepentant child molester who drugs his targets; a lonely, overweight man who masturbates incessantly and stalks his high-rise neighbor; the overweight woman who reaches out to him and reveals a dark secret of murder; a female naif in search of a man, who unwittingly drives one suitor to suicide and finds another who is a Russian con man; among so many others, is obviously not a film cut from the same moral cloth as your average Hollywood drivel.

Solondz finds what is human about each character and shows it on the screen without repentance or the kind of distance most storytellers choose to "play it safe." In this, his work achieves a sort of novelistic quality - just like an omniscient narrative which places you inside the heads of sometimes unsavory characters.

A wealth of technical merits is not what you need to watch Happiness for. The DVD transfer is abysmal - a non-anamorphic letterboxed 4:3 image with loads of noise, crap black levels, and mediocre sound. It's not as though the imagery would lend itself to a splendiferous transfer anyway - color palette is muted, most shots are static medium shots of dialogue.

But this is not a movie to miss if you like to be challenged and provoked by what you watch. This movie is not for the faint of heart - not because of its outrageous violence or gore - but because of its unflinching nature and unwillingness to settle for pat, trite stories and characters with whom no one could find easy fault.

Story 9
Acting 9
Directing 9
DVD Transfer 4

V for Vendetta

Here is a movie which falls in the "could have challenged politically correct mores more than it did, but nice try" category. Adapted from a middling Alan Moore graphic novel by the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame/infamy), it prospers and suffers in the same ways their previous trilogy did. It is ambitious and slickly produced, with neat action scenes, an impression of depth, but not as much meat as something like Happiness (apples and oranges perhaps, but valid I think nonetheless - I'm talking about moral meat). I certainly applaud their willingness to portray the story as one of justifiable terrorism against an oppressive government. I just think they could have done better both with choosing their source material or in fleshing it out in new and interesting ways. Frankly, the comic book-style conceits of a government-engineered super soldier just detract from the potential power of the piece to challenge and perplex.

Casting is pretty good, as Stephen Fry adds nice, sad notes as a homosexual government-run TV producer in danger of being outed to the arch-conservative government bureaucracy; Portman does a passable British impression (but again seems leashed by comic-book-y writing tropes and does not shine as brightly as in something like Closer); Weaving's voice-acting as V is suitably creepy (though one cannot help but feel he is wasted behind a mask and cloak the whole film); and John Hurt is quite nice as the evil, sneering, hypocrite of a dictator in this fascist England fantasy.

Overall, I found the political elements of the film interesting and provocative, but felt it was undercut by the material itself and by the Matrix-style sound effects and fight scenes. Guys, martial arts swords just do not sound like that and fly like they do in the Matrix. When the Matrix is presented as an alternate reality, it can be suspended in disbelief. But V for Vendetta cries out to be more serious, and just doesn't fly.

The transfer is nice. Sound effects are crisp (regardless of their hampering of story), black levels are good (important in so dark a film), and colors are rich.

Story 7
Acting 8
Directing 8
DVD Transfer 9

((More to come.))

Corpse Bride
Little Miss Sunshine
Human Nature
Stranger Than Fiction
The Departed
The Prestige


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