3/20/10

Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)


Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes purposely does not try to fulfill anybody's traditional expectations for a Sherlock Holmes movie. This is wise, as Sherlock is one of the most iconic and frequently portrayed characters in popular culture. Yet, it still manages to be clearly a proper enough Holmesian adventure, leaving room for some predictable Hollywood-ization.

And since Batman, James Bond and even Jason Bourne, along with a raft of Jason Statham movies, have introduced urban parkour and rapid-fire editing of such as an essential element of the modern action-adventure, this film does the same for Holmes, mostly quite successfully.

There are a number of entertaining sequences here which eliminate the need for long boring explanations of clues and information by combining thought or spoken narration with slowed-down, speeded-up or rewound action to orient us in Holmes's headspace.

And Robert Downey, Jr., is a pretty inspired choice for Sherlock. He plays him as more rumpled, disorganized, drugged out or off-in-space than the usual, but still always sharp and thinking steps ahead, perhaps partially inspired by TV's current reigning Sherlock version, "House, M.D." The relationship between Downey as Sherlock and Jude Law as Watson should also seem somewhat familiar to fans of House and Wilson on that show. At least it shows the filmmakers are up-to-date and open to new interpretations. Holmes and Watson are the quintessential bachelor adventurers and college-roommates-long-past-graduation in this version.

Holmes likes it that way, but Watson seems restive, indeed, on his way out the door, due to his impending marriage to governess Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly).

But a wrinkle in their last case, which ended with the execution of the criminal they captured, supervised by Dr. Watson, keeps them working together for at least a little longer. It seems the hanged man is no longer dead.

Here is where I groaned inside, supernatural elements in Holmes stories are plenty, but I feared the worst, that they would overtake and subsume the tone of a good mystery. They do, a little bit, but not too egregiously, and they are handled with some good detail, wit and invention so that they do not drag Sherlock too far in the direction of anti-logic, which would have been very wrong.

I found the acting strong and entertaining, with an easy rapport and humor between Downey and Law, as well as between Downey and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, an American adventuress who is the only woman who ever bested Holmes.

Overall, this Sherlock is aces, a bit shallow but still exploiting everything interesting about the character and his lore without ever getting bogged down or seriously violating the spirit of the great detective. It's a good beginning for a Downey Holmes franchise which is promised within this film, and I hope it blooms a bit darker and more faithfully in tone in the next film, more like The Dark Knight followed Batman Begins than like Quantum of Solace followed Casino Royale.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/19/10

Review: The Bounty Hunter (2010)

NO STARS

I admit I did not want to see The Bounty Hunter. In fact, I traveled to the theater specifically to see another film advertised to start at the same time. Alas, it was cancelled or incorrectly advertised, so I was faced with The Bounty Hunter. I can assure you I will write a sharply worded complaint to the management, and possibly also to Google Movies.

The Bounty Hunter stars Jennifer Aniston as Nicole Hurley, a reporter working on a big story with a confidential informant when the exigencies of the story force her to miss a court date to respond to charges she assaulted somebody somehow. This results in a bench warrant for her arrest.

Her ex-husband, Milo Boyd (Gerard Butler, WHY?!) happens to be a down-on-his-luck alcoholic gambler and bounty hunter, who of course jumps at the chance to apprehend his ex-wife, whom he dislikes immensely, or likes immensely, who cares? It's not a real tension, as there is no chemistry between the lead actors, and the script doesn't even attempt to develop it believably either.

Gerard Butler is so bad in this film that I nominate him for my oft-proposed Robot World movie, in which we take actors who have some kind of blackmail information about famous Hollywood directors or producers, or some inexplicable box office appeal which keeps getting them major leading roles in productions despite their utter lack of acting talent or actual appeal, and make them play robots, to disguise their pathological bad acting choices and make off with the loot. In fact, Butler has already done well in a similar role, in last year's Gamer.

But the script is probably the biggest problem with the film. Replacing Butler with somebody talented would not have been enough to help, unless that person were also an ace script doctor, or brought one with him. Everything anybody says is a boring cliché. Nothing is funny. Sometimes it seems as though somebody on the screen, or maybe the director, thinks something funny might have happened, so they move on to the next scene. For some reason, Christine Baranski's outtakes from The Birdcage have been spliced in. Her comic timing boldly affronts every other element in the picture, but she still can't make laughs out of thin air. Carol Kane, Jeff Garlin, Cathy Moriarty and Jason Sudeikis also appear, and let me extend my heartfelt condolences to them.

Even the soundtrack is out of rhythm. It's like they had a big musical brainstorming session in search of songs whose beats would perfectly sabotage any sense of fun or forward motion. I am not exaggerating. They found the precise chunka-chunka of doom and boredom and raised the stakes with each new selection.

It reminded me of a couple of other films which were cartoonish action/romantic comedies trying for a kind of old-fashioned charm, Undercover Blues and I Love Trouble. These are not great movies, either, but they're passable. Some of the cartoonishness is actually dynamic and entertaining in those two, there is chemistry and there are jokes and set-ups, and even some romance, which basically pay off.

Not so for The Bounty Hunter. David Letterman compared it to It Happened One Night during a recent interview with Aniston, and the plot is a little bit similar. Let's just say that was an extremly tactful and personally considerate comment to have made. Aniston dared not reply or pursue the comparison, wisely. It is insulting to Clark Gable, but fortunately he cannot complain.

I hadn't felt this underwhelmed after seeing a major studio comedy since probably Beverly Hills Cop 3, which actually made me cry. The Bounty Hunter is not quite that bad, but there's nothing good about it. I could not in good conscience recommend it as a movie to anyone for any purpose.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/18/10

Review: The Lovely Bones (2009)


Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, based upon the novel by Alice Sebold, which I have only read once and don't recall much about, other than an impression that it was pretty good (probably a bit better than the film and worth rereading), is a straightforward story about parents and children, good and evil, life and death, simple happiness and equally simple tragedy. It's a good movie, even when it threatens to stray away off into some sappy What Dreams May Come territory. But, in fact, it manages to stay far enough away from a calamity like that to maintain its dramatic integrity. Also, it has better effects.

Saoirse Ronan (very good in Atonement as well as here) plays Susie Salmon, a fairly typical, dreamy teenager who (no spoilers) early on meets a sad fate at the hands of a violent, scheming predator of a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, Oscar-nominated in a good performance which is not actually his best of the year, or career, certainly).

From there Susie watches over her family, and her killer, in a sort of special-effects purgatory in which she contemplates the past and present omnisciently, though the construction of the story gives the impression that she's still in anticipation of the future, like everyone else. Here she must come to terms with her own life and death to find her way onward.

The special effects used to create this world are impressive, if perhaps a bit too typical symbolically of past-life worlds we've seen or encountered fictionally before. Still, it's contemplative, beautiful and significantly linked to the rest of the film.

But the most powerful effect, as Ingmar Bergman or I could have told you it should be, is Susie's face. Ronan is perfectly cast as Susie, and her face is the canvas upon which the most important pictures are painted, illuminated by her emotions, a sense of innocence which does not become cloying, and her wide, striking blue eyes.

The rest of the actors do a good job as well, but without the constant return to Ronan's visage for reactions to events and contemplation of violence, death, love, the film would fail. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are as good as they've ever been as Susie's parents, especially Weisz. As Jack Salmon, Wahlberg is haunted and nearly destroyed by his daughter's death, consumed by details, clues, suspicions. Weisz's reaction as Abigail is a self-protective detachment, played perfectly.

Rose McIver as Lindsey, Susie's sister, then, walks the line between her two parents' paths ably. Susan Sarandon plays Weisz's mother Lynn with humor and determination. And Michael Imperioli plays Len Fenerman, the lead investigator in Susie's murder, with palpable heart, sympathy and growing frustration.

There's a subplot with a psychic which doesn't really go much of anywhere, but it doesn't detract from the main parts of the tale, and its intersection with a boy who was Susie's first crush (Ray Singh) yields some plot resonance to almost justify it.

The Lovely Bones is not Peter Jackson's best movie, that would still have to be Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles or one of the Lord of the Rings movies (I've only seen the first--I know, heresy), but strong performances from Ronan, McIver, Tucci, Weisz, Sarandon, Imperioli and Wahlberg, a solid story, and good special effects combined with simple, powerful imagery make it a cut above, if not great.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/14/10

Review: Green Zone (2010)


Paul Greengrass's Green Zone, a fictional "true story" based in part upon the non-fiction work by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City (which I have not read), about the beginning of the Iraq War and the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction, constructs a fairly believable allegory which fits in broad strokes what we now know really took place as the Bush-Cheney administration media-flogged our nation into its desired war.

It's also a pretty neat military suspense thriller with twists and turns which are expertly handled and explicated. It's the smart kind of action picture which not only keeps the audience guessing, but thinking, as political posturing and decision-making intertwine with combat realities in some stunning montages, especially toward the end of the film.

Matt Damon plays weapon-hunter Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, skeptical of the intelligence he is tasked to investigate, as mission after mission turn up not only no weapons of mass destruction, but no reason to believe anyone could have ever credibly believed or reported they had ever been at the locations indicated.

His expressed skepticism at an otherwise gung-ho briefing suddenly brings him to the attention of major players in the arrangement and prosecution of the War, including CIA officer Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who is clearly based upon New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and a top Pentagon official with broad field discretion and political backing from Washington, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear)--each, of course, for very different reasons.

My major complaint about the film is how it emblemizes the foreign forces at work in Baghdad in these four characters. It's understandable for dramatic reasons, of course, to abridge the story in this way to tell it in an involving way, but on the other hand, it takes away from the feeling of everyday life in unique circumstances not to focus more on particular characters, particularly characters in Roy Miller's normal sphere of contact. It sharpens conflicts which really must have played out more messily, but detracts slightly from the realism and believability of exactly how they're portrayed here.

Two major Iraqi characters seem more effective at illustrating the conflict from that viewpoint. One is mostly a fleeting but frightening shadow on the run, General Al Rawi (Igal Naor), the man who supposedly would have been in charge of Saddam's major-weapons programs, if they had existed. He doesn't say much, but Naor exudes a menace and power, as well as fear of and pragmatism in the face of imminent death, which instantly accomplishes just what is needed in the story, every time. He makes Al Rawi stare out of the eyes of a dictator's strongman. The second character is Miller's translator, Seyyed Hamza (Said Faraj), who gets much more time and attention to develop properly than most of the other major characters. Not much more can be said about the character of Hamza, however, without giving a lot away, but he has some striking monologues which communicate obvious, heartfelt emotions with more complex shadings which make him both an individual and representative of more unseen Iraqis, or those shown only in the background of this story.

The acting is all superb, rescuing some plot points which seem to strain at times and smoothing out the final product with, often, sheer acting bravura and dedication. Damon's performance in particular paints over more than one or two incidents which seem starkly contradictory or even false in terms of what a similar real-life Roy Miller probably would have done, or been able to do. In his portrayal, he doesn't make them stick out like the sore thumbs they sort of inescapably are. (No spoilers!) Amy Ryan looks about as little like Judith Miller as physically possible, but she embodies this character completely, sometimes almost sneakily.

Kinnear is stolid, and some scenes from the trailer which hint at a smarmier and less interesting role than the one he plays in the film are not what they seemed. Hey, misdirection in a trailer, what a concept. I approve--though, in this case, I must say, it created some truly lowered expectations which might have made me lean toward skipping the film altogether and thus miss having them pleasantly dashed.

Green Zone tells an involving and important story suspensefully and well, and brings a particularly tragic and duplicitous period in our recent national history to light. It makes the audience consider and reconsider events as they must have happened (as opposed to the fictional retelling--of the film, of the contemporaneous media narrative) in immediate, dramatic and perhaps hitherto unconsidered ways. Greengrass's previous "true story" movies, and the action mettle he displayed in his previous collaborations with Matt Damon, the second and third Bourne films, suggest a trajectory which certainly and appropriately runs through Green Zone. It's very, very good.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/5/10

Review: Up in the Air (2009)


Jason Reitman's Up in the Air is pretty overrated. There's a lot of unemployment, and it's about a guy who fires people for a living and it has a zippy script and A-list actors doing a good job, so it's no surprise it's zeitgeist-y and Oscar catnip, but like Reitman's previous film, Juno, it's more likable and glib than profound. The book is based upon a novel by Walter Kirn, which I have not read, though I have read some of his short stories and articles, which I found uniformly worthwhile.

George Clooney does a pretty good job as Ryan Bingham, a rootless corporate wanderer who flies around firing people for company bosses who don't know how or can't be bothered. Bingham makes a sort of religion out of doing his job well, avoiding entanglements and staying in constant motion. He's even bottled his philosophy into a motivational speech which he delivers in whatever's left of his free time.

Bingham stays in constant motion, on autopilot in fact, until he's confronted with a young business school graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, very good), with a new scheme for his company's business which would strand him at home, where he might have to get a dog or grow petunias. Clearly, this must be stopped.

Bingham's plan is to put Keener on the road with him, show her the ropes of what can be a particularly nasty and depressing business, and see if she can stand up under it. He's nice enough to her, but doesn't shield her from the realities of what they do.

In the meantime, Bingham has started up an affair with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, wonderful), who seems to be sort of a female version of himself. She's open, funny, pragmatic and seems as interested in Bingham as he is in her. Ryan and Alex's paths cross with Natalie's at a memborable conference they crash for the music, dancing and free booze.

We do learn that Bingham has some family connections, however reluctant he may be to spend much time or thought on them, when he invites Alex home with him for his sister's wedding. We meet both of his sisters, Kara (Amy Morton, very good), who's getting a divorce after many years of marriage to a man Bingham barely knows, and Julie (Melanie Lynskey, "Two and a Half Men," Away We Go, also very good), who's marrying Jim Miller (Danny McBride, pretty funny), a lovable goofball with cold feet.

Jason Bateman plays Clooney's boss, and is quite good. Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliott have effective cameos, along with a string of actual fired workers who play workers Bingham fires.

There's a lot that's amusing or interesting in the film, but there are connections that just aren't made or made well. I won't spoil the ending, but I must say it's weak, despite confronting in a useful way some of the more tired conventions of similar films. The last line of the film, in my opinion, is much too epigrammatic, too easy, and at the same time overambitious. It doesn't work, and it unbalances the film.

I've seen Up in the Air twice by now. It's not bad, and again, the actors are talented and working well with okay material. But it's sort of like Jerry Maguire without any earnestness, and what was good about Jerry Maguire was mostly earnestness. The film's best acting Oscar nominations are well-deserved, script, pic, director not so much, I think.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is truly disappointing, an effects-wizardry extravaganza with not much going on. There's so little character development that it's sometimes hard to care who is who or what is happening. I glanced at my cell phone for the time a lot during the second hour and that's pretty rare for me, but the display looked cool in IMAX 3-D.

Mia Wasikowska is picture-perfect as Alice Kingsleigh, now twenty, who as a child used to have strange dreams of what the audience knows is Wonderland, and a father, Charles (Marton Czokas), who would kindly remind her that she should never be afraid of dreams, after all, she could always just wake up. But at twenty, her father has died, and his trading company is in new hands. And Alice, a bit of a rebel, seems to be the only one in her circle who does not think of herself as in danger of looming spinsterhood.

There's an engaging, if a bit cartoonish beginning, as Alice travels with her mother to the home of her father's business partner, where some surprises are in store.

But Alice is distracted, she keeps seeing a white rabbit in a waistcoat flitting through the bushes, or gesturing at his pocketwatch. Nobody else seems to notice, even Aunt Imogene (Frances de la Tour), who's a bit touched. But at a crucial moment, Alice decides to follow the rabbit, who leads her (back?) to Wonderland, or Underland, or howsomever you say it.

This movie claims to be based on both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and it displays both a pretty impressive visual exposition of the stories and the sort of encyclopedic knowledge of them which can sometimes unfortunately lead film adaptations to be boring to those who do not possess such knowledge.

Characters and dialogue are given short shrift, there's very little humor which connects, but whatever monsters and talking animals seem to know what's going on. It feels rote and underimagined.

The way the story is presented also invites unfortunate comparisons to the superior second Narnia film, Prince Caspian, whose fantastic characters are as obtuse, but wonderfully explicated and exploited for their visual and character quirks in a way this film never seems to consider.

There are some excellent performances. Wasikowska is picture-perfect, as previously noted, though sometimes overwhelmed by the effects, which at times literally clash with her relatively calm and realistic take. Good voice work is often wasted on characters whose plotlines don't really pay off, especially most of the talking animals, and Johnny Depp is not very good, and doesn't seem to have much to do, as the Mad Hatter. Helena Bonham Carter is spot-on as the Red Queen, however, as she interrogates frogs or screams, "Off with their heads!" and Crispin Glover is pretty good as her minion, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway is not bad, and has some funny moments.

Unlike some effects movies I might see again just for the effects, even if the story is weak, this Alice really did not knock my socks off, and I would probably decline the chance to see it again, even free. It is neither Tim Burton nor Johnny Depp's greatest two hours. But it is a movie, with some decent performances and some striking visuals, so I've given it my slightest condemnation at two stars.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/3/10

Thune (again) leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for February

Sen. John Thune (SD) led February voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

February 2010

#1 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 29.4%
#2 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 22%
#3 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 19.2%
#4 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 7.3%
#5 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 4%
#6 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 3.4%
#7 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 2.8%
#7 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 2.8%
#7 - Other ... 2.8%
#8 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 2.3%
#9 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 1.7%
#10 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 1.1%
#11 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... .6%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... .6%
#12 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 0%

177 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) was added to the poll this month after winning the straw poll at the CPAC meeting. You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Alex
Choose Our President 2012