Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: Dorian Gray

There's this thing about Colin Firth that cuts him out to be so perfect for Oscar Wilde's work.  Not only is he the highlight of the new film Dorian Gray, but he was also masterful in 2002's rendition of The Importance of Being Ernest.  Firth may not have much leeway in his choice of roles, but the way he slips out Wilde's witticisms makes one believe that he was made for it. 
Dorian Gray is an adaptation of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Ben Barnes takes on the titular role of Dorian Gray, a young man who inherits a fortune and townhouse in England.  He's young, innocent, and naive.  He befriends painter, Basil Hallword, played by Ben Chaplin, but falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth.)  Wotton's philosophy in life is to give into every temptation on pleasure; basically he preaches to give into every sort of vice and Barnes eats it up.  Chaplin, meanwhile, paints a stunningly realistic portrait of Gray, which takes on Gray's soul (Chaplin also harbors romantic feelings for Barnes, which puts him at odds with Firth.)  Barnes falls in and out of love with the young actress, Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood), who kills herself after Barnes' character leaves her jilted.  But soon, under Firth's guidance, Gray overcomes his grief and indulges in all of life's pleasures.  About ninety minutes of softcore erotica starts as Gray has his way with every woman (and man) that he can while consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs.  All the while, the portrait takes on Gray's sins, becoming deformed and hideous while Gray himself stays youthful and beautiful.
Overall, Dorian Gray is a very dark comedy.  The film itself tries a little too hard to be artistic, which isn't too bad since it's fitting to the genre.  Fans of Wilde's dry wit will appreciate the quips and the asides, while simultaneously feeling slightly disappointed that there aren't more of them.  Barnes starts off weak, but works into his role later into the film, while Firth is definitely the reason to watch at all.  For a culture that rapidly lowers the lowest common denominator for entertainment and comedy, Wilde's re-entrance (no matter how weak) to the arena is welcomed; now if only it were done a little better.

Score: C

Review: Defamation

I rarely watch documentaries.  It's not that I am against them totally, it's that I find most of them are one-sided hack affairs that offer little insight and are truly biased.  There are a few gems (No End in Sight, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that I found insightful and worth a watch and rumination afterward, but I am always leery in basing my opinion off something I saw in a documentary.

Enter Defamation, Israeli film maker, Yoav Shamir's, attempt to explore and explain antisemitism (especially in the US.)  Shamir is embedded in the ADL as they go around Europe; he accompanies a group of Israeli teenagers as they tour concentration camps in Poland; he interviews a variety of talking heads, ranging from professors to rabbis to everyday people (Jews and Gentiles).
Shamir is not afraid to get his hands dirty and confront a person's perspective or ask penetrating questions and facts, but he doesn't wholly judge.  What comes out is an interesting and certainly eye-opening experience.  The dichotomy of a knife-wielding manic's attack on a synagogue (whose adherents later stated that they faced no antisemitism in their society) to Israeli teenagers having a run-in with some old Polish men (who were asking the innocent question, whether the teenagers were Israeli, while the teenagers quickly assumed that the men were calling them donkeys.)  Shamir puts up a comparison of observant Jews versus secular; he gives pro-Israel and Israel critics equal weight; and he puts it out there that perhaps the whole issue of antisemitism could be minimized if everyone put down their banners and really held a conversation.

Score: B

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: Big Fan

I have to give credit to Robert Siegel and his screenplays.  Big Fan and The Wrestler are both original and well-thought out Greek tragedies content with minimizing cliches.  His films underscore the heros' tragic flaws and spiraling ritual of self-destruction.

In Siegel's premier as a director (he only wrote The Wrestler and The Onion Movie), Patton Oswalt stars as a man-child who lives with his mother and works as a parking garage attendant.  Oswalt must deal with his family—one brother who is a successful personal injury lawyer married to a buxom trophy wife, and a sister who is married to a husband who helps run a wholesale club store—and their insistence that he making something of himself.  He is content in his life, being a fanatic of the New York Giants and spending his time at work listening to sports talk radio and writing mini-manifestos, which he calls in to refute his on-air nemesis, Philadelphia Phil, late at night—much to the annoyance of his mother.  He and his equally schlubbish best friend, played by Kevin Corrigan, obsess over each game and play.  Oswalt idolizes the Giants' star linebacker, Quantrell Bishop.  Corrigan and Oswalt are like grown up children, though being well into their thirties, as they excitedly base their lives around the Giants' sixteen-game season.  They even go to the Meadowlands to watch the game on TV in the parking lot.
As the season starts winding down, with the Giants in the NFC East lead (being tailed by the Philadelphia Eagles), Oswalt and Corrigan are lucky enough to spot their hero linebacker one night.  They follow him and his posse, ending up in a club.  They finally work up the balls to go and say hi, but the meeting turns violently when they accidently let slip they have been tailing Bishop across the city.  Despite efforts by his friends to diffuse the situation, Bishop, like any self-respecting 'roided up athlete, beats Oswalt to a pulp and sends him to the hospital in a coma.  Things begin to close in on Oswalt as Bishop has been suspended and the police want information about the incident so the can press charges.  Oswalt's brother wants to sue the player and initiates a lawsuit.
Big Fan is not unlike the situation in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where Jonah Hill meets and pesters Russell Brand's Adolous Snow, except it didn't end with Brand beating the shit out of Hill.  Big Fan has a view on our obsession with people who play glorified children's games, yet get paid millions of dollars.  How we let our favorite celebrities practically get away with anything.

Score:  B

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: Adventureland

It's hard to believe, but there was a time before Judd Apatow was crowned king comedy in Hollywood.  It's much like how Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer are perennially locked in combat over who is the king of action (bad action, usually), except there's no one to really challenge Apatow since Mike Judge undeservedly lost favor with the powers that be.  With Apatow's rocket to stardom, where everything he blesses turns to gold, thus those associated with him do as well.
2009's Adventureland is directed by Apatow-produced Superbad, a film of high quality that served as the main launch vehicle for Apatow fame.  It's not surprising that the feel of Adventureland comes right off as Apatowian.  It just looks like it would fit right in with his long string of hits.
Set in the '80s, Adventureland is about a recent graduate, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who starts out wanting to spend the summer in Europe with his wealthy friend.  When his parents revoke their ability to support him, he's stuck in his hometown looking for a summer job before he can go on to grad school and become a journalist.  He finally nails one at an amusement park called Adventureland run by Bill Hader and his lovable wife, Kristin Wiig.  There are all sorts of characters at the park, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Matt Bush, who all make an impression on Eisenberg throughout the summer.  What else?  Oh, yeah, and the movie totally fucking sucks.

I'm serious.  I was totally sold on its rave reviews and promisingly-hilarious trailer, but the movie was the worst movie of 2009.  Kristen Stewart, someone who obviously blew her way to the top of Hollywood, sucks the air out every scene and every role she's ever had.  The humor is centered around a few non-funny dick jokes.  Jesse Eisenberg's character just comes off as a pathetic, whiny little shit.  Martin Starr excels as a sarcastic, bad-with-women, angry-at-the-world, nerdy douche whom he plays so well (in Party Down, for instance.)  Ryan Reynolds is the only bright spot of the film, and far too little is on him.  To top it all off, the movie is so inanely boring I contemplated either fast-forwarding or turning it off altogether (and I was on an airplane!!!)  Adventureland is a movie that seems like it would be a comedy because that's the only thing that would work.  The dramatic element isn't dramatic at all, and it's tough to listen to two hours of some schlob bitch about love and not getting laid.  My advice avoid Adventureland at all costs.  There are better cures for insomnia.

Score:  F

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review Sherlock Holmes

Is it bad when you don't recognize a director's work, especially if that director has carved out a look and feel in his films that are unmistakably his?  I didn't realize that Guy Ritchies had directed this film until after I had finished watching, when I was reading about the film on Wikipedia.  Looking back on it, I guess I could see that tinge of Ritchie.  Sherlock Holmes is also the first Ritchie film I've seen since Revolver, which was, literally, one of the worst films I've ever seen.

So, Robert Downing, Jr. and Jude Law team up as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Warson, respectively.  Ritchie takes some liberties with the Sherlock Holmes character, but nonetheless works within Doyle's framework.  Mark Strong is the creepy bad dude and Rachel McAdams is the femme fatale.
The scene opens up with Sherlock Holmes stopping Strong's murder of a nubile woman in a mystical, magical (almost satanic) ceremony.  Strong's character is Lord Blackwood, a nobleman and member of an underground magical society.  But how much magic is actually practiced is anyone's guess.  Strong is set to be hung, and Downing, Jr falls into listlessness after the case is closed.
When Strong's body disappears from his tomb and somebodies start dying around town, Holmes and Watson are back on the case.  There's more the film, like McAdams' character who is an 'ex'-thief and is being controlled by some mysterious fellow with a Travis Bickle-like contraption hidden in his sleeve (hint: it brings out a gun real quick.)  The police force is a bunch of bumblers.  Oh yeah, and there's some plan for England to re-invade and take over the US.
While Sherlock Holmes may not be a work of art, it is entertaining.  It may not be expertly set up like Ritchie's better films, but it is playing with a genre (blockbuster remake of some other pop-culture medium) which is inherently formulaic.  Working within this restrictions is maybe what Ritchie needed and he did just fine.

Score:  B

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: The Ghost Writer

I guess the time had to come, and quickly, when I lost all credibility in the eyes of readers.  I am here to admit that I have never seen a Roman Polanski movie before today.  I've been to the place of his birth (Paris) and upbringing (Krakow), but I never saw Rosemary's Baby, The Ninth Gate, Chinatown, The Pianist or any other film written, acted, or directed by Polanski.

So, I started watching the movie on a blank slate, knowing only vaguely about the film.  But throughout the opening, something struck me.  It was the music, of all things.  Pacing beautifully along with the picture, the imagery and soundtrack are expertly and lovingly combined.

Based off the Robert Harris book, The Ghost Writer follows an unnamed writer assigned to writing down a former-Prime Minister's memoirs after the previous writer is found dead from a suicide.  The whole cast is largely typecast, and no one stars in a role they haven't before, even if they are a little tweaked.  Ewan McGregor plays a writer who seems not to care much about anything at all, seemingly hating having someone take all the credit for his hard work.  Pierce Brosnan is right at home as playing the PM with something to hide, Adam Lang, a Tony Blair allegory.  Brosnan is never beyond his comfort zone as a polished, urbane man of mystery, but he seems to be hiding something darker and more sinister.  Kim Cattrall is Brosnan's buxy assistant, and there are whispering hints of an affair; while, Olivia Williams is Brosnan's dark, brooding wife.  William's character is introduced as a bit vulnerable, but she too seems to be hiding some hidden monster.

Most of the film takes place on the perpetually-gray, constantly windblown coast of Martha's Vineyard.  McGregor starts out trying to edit and finish the book in a month (later cut down to two weeks) while trying to figure out what's going on.  He's not getting much help, as Brosnan's character is accused of war crimes.  His accused actions: allowing the CIA to capture and torture (killing one) British citizens in Pakistan, even though they were suspected terrorists.  As the media bears down on Brosnan's peaceful hideaway, McGregor finds himself pulled deeper into the mess and trying to figure out what happened to his predecessor, and whether he got more than he bargained for when he signed up for $200,000.

The whole film is expertly made, and I as I said before: the soundtrack is one of the best I've heard in a long time.  Polanski is clearly a master film maker, and The Ghost Writer is definitely something that shores up his credibility.

Score: B+

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Harry Brown

I'm writing this as the first review because, well, it's the latest new movie I've seen.  It's not the latest movie I've seen (that goes to Knocked Up), but it is so far the most recently released.

Let us get down to business.
How was the movie?  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great.  I selected it because I thought that it would be a better-made version of Law Abiding Citizen, a horrible piece of crap that people around me seem to like for reasons I can't exactly figure out.
Michael Caine plays the titular Harry Brown, a retired ex-Royal Marine living in 'The Estate', a rough-and-tumble set of high-rises.  Caine's neighborhood is terrorized by hooligan youths who spend most of their time in a pedestrian underpass.  The movie's first scenes depict a gang initiation of a new, young member, then cuts to some gan gmembers riding about on a scooter shooting at a mother walking her baby, killing her (as they flee, they get hit by a truck.  Justice is served.)  David Bradley enters in as Caine's chessmate/best friend who is especially terrorized by they youths and is eventually knifed in the underpass.  The two detective, Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles, half-heartedly go about trying to solve the Bradley's murder.  Trying to solve is actually a bit too much; trying to convict the perpetrators, since they already know who did it, they just don't have any proof.  Meanwhile, after being assaulted on his way home and killing the attacker, Caine decides to take matters into his own hands and clean up the estate.  His military training and experience comes into use as he goes around vigilante-style knocking off the dregs of society.
The thing about Harry Brown is that it is incessantly dark.  Even scene is poorly lit, more fit for a post-apocalyptic thriller than a contemporary revenge film.  It also takes quite a long time to really get going too by dragging its feet through the first act.

Score:  C