Saturday, March 27, 2010

A mini-movie review: Green Zone (2010)

Green Zone (2010)

Director - Paul Greengrass
115 min; R
Miller - Matt Damon
General Al Rawi - Yigal Naor
Clark Poundstone - Greg Kinnear
Martin Brown - Brendan Gleeson
Freddy - Khalid Abdalla

I’ll admit I was wary of seeing this film, thinking it would be the equivalent of a Bourne-movie spin-off (though I do like the Bourne movies) and having director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon together only hardened that pre-viewing opinion. Fortunately I did go, and though this is not exactly a film that will stand out to me 10 years from now, I think it did the trick.

To sum up this movie: Matt Damon as a US soldier uncovers evidence that the war on Iraq took place with the US government at least partially aware that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were definitely non-existent. Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson are the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’ of this potential conspiracy, and both do a pretty good job.

This is an ‘imagining’ of what could have happened, though some do believe that something like this actually did happen, and I think the premise works fine. The film does not beat us over the head with a lot of politics about what did or did not happen – it simply is an action-war film. In a year when the Hurt Locker made all the headlines Green Zone does just fine to entertain us in ways which that film did not – ‘fake’ war action that is entertaining.

*** out of 5

A Movie Review: The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Director - Roman Polanski
Writer - Robert Harris (novel); Robert Harris (adaptation)
128 min; PG-13
The Ghost - Ewan McGregor
Adam Lang - Pierce Brosnan
Ruth Lang - Olivia Williams
Amelia Bly - Kim Cattrall
Paul Emmett - Tom Wilkinson

Not since I reviewed Slumdog Millionaire (2008) have I been so conflicted on what I actually want to write about a film. To be clear, I’m not directly comparing that film to Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) in terms of content, but more-so in terms of quality of movie, suspense, score, and overall likelihood that I would tell someone else to see it. I guess it is with a slight shrug that I lean towards saying, like the recent Martin Scorsese thriller Shutter Island (2010), go ahead and see this film and enjoy it for a lot of reasons for which you may not always find yourself enjoying a movie. If I sound a bit disjointed so far it is because I truly am at a loss for the first time in years.

The premise of the film is seemingly simple: former Prime Minister Adam Lang, portrayed with great vigor by Pierce Brosnan in a role built exactly for him, is having his memoirs written by a ghost writer who turns up dead on the beaches of Cape Cod under mysterious circumstances. In steps the new ghost (Ewan McGregor) who is given the job not so much for his political contributions to the world, but for his ability to take seemingly incoherent material and turn it into a best seller (his most recent #1 was about a magician titles I came, I sawed, I conquered.) Throw into the mix the fact that as this is happening Lang is being accused of having committed war crimes and is in a sort of exile on Cape Cod with his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his personal assistant/obvious mistress Amelia (Kim Cattrall) while they decide how to proceed.

There are more parallels to real life in this film than I could possibly comprehend with my limited political world knowledge, but needless to say there are immediate comparisons to Tony Blair and his links to the CIA, as well as severely obvious references to Polanski himself, who is currently in a form of exile as he awaits facing charges stemming from a widely known story of his accused rape of a teenage girl in the United States some 30+ years ago. I don’t think all of this gets in the way of viewing and enjoying the film, though, but it is so obviously embedded throughout that you would have to be comatose to not recognize some of what is going on.

Right off I want to say that the casting of Kim Cattrall as Lang’s personal assistant is so incredibly wrong that it is difficult for me to move past it, but for purposes of the rest of the review I’ll just leave it at that, and say the rest of the cast is amazingly well put together, and if you are a follower of actors and their careers you may actually give a silent cheer to Ewan McGregor for finally getting back to some real acting. Strong supporting roles are found in by the publishing and editing team of the book, but really Tom Wilkinson as Paul Emmett creates some of the glue that holds parts of this thriller’s pages together, if only for a small, yet vital, supporting role. To discuss him any further would only lead to spoilers so I will stop short.

This was going to be a mini-review when I left the theater, but even now as I move to another paragraph I find myself needing to continue in depth. The movie is set among storm after violent storm, and at some point you have to wonder if it isn’t a bit too much of a smack in your face to handle. Metaphors are everywhere! And it would take a professional film critic with thousands and thousands of movies in his memory to untangle all that Polanski is referencing here (I assume Hitchcock is found throughout but I am no Hitchcock historian.)

The film does set itself up very well for what it is going to become – a political thriller with twists and turns that you may or may not figure out along the way, but it also takes some ridiculous clich├ęd turns which, for lack of a better way to put it, turned me off. At one point we get a short conversation with an old man on the beach that, given what we as the audience have already figured out, seems so gratuitous that we have to wonder how someone with the reputation of Polanski would feel the need to hit us over the head with yet another un-needed device.

My real problem with the film comes from a fundamental disagreement with the turn of the plot, from that of an ordinary writer with no family and seemingly no friends doing a job for money ($250k to turn the book around in a month) into that of a super-hero detective tracking down and trying to uncover a potentially earth-shaking political conspiracy – where did his motivation to become involved in all this come from? I feel this character would have simply got on a plane and gone back to London to work on his next fluff piece.

The score by Alexandre Desplat is wonderful and fits the film perfectly, always moving the action forward and adding to suspenseful scenes, and the cinematography makes you really feel the isolation of the characters as they are mainly holed up on an island amidst turmoil of storms and politics. Polanski certainly has a command of the telling of a story, but I found myself wondering throughout the entire film if I wasn’t being taken for some sort of campy ride with a predictable arc, and yes, I suppose that is all well and good especially for a film released in the dead months of early Spring, in the end I wanted and expected more.

*** and ½ out of 5

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Movie Review: Fish Tank (2010)

Fish Tank (2010)
Director - Andrea Arnold
123 min; UK
Mia - Katie Jarvis
Tyler - Rebecca Griffiths
Joanne - Kierston Wareing
Connor - Michael Fassbender

The British film Fish Tank is a rare movie-going experience, in that we the viewer move from simple voyeurs to the feeling that we are participating in the story to, finally, the feeling that we are the main character, somehow trapped in the same existence and the same feelings of hopelessness and despair that permeate her life. The her I refer to is Mia (Katie Jarvis), a 15 year old teen living a pretty lousy life in Essex with her little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and her single, party-going mother (Kierston Wareing). The three of them co-exist in a flat that is always dirty and they speak to each other with no hint that they are a family – calling one another ‘cunt-face’ or ‘fuck-head’ is a common theme and not one used in light humor.

The beauty of this film is found in the overwhelming feel of despair and alienation which Mia projects. The film is shot wonderfully from her point of view, so that we are always aware that the world in which we are thrust is what this angst-ridden teen is seeing and interpreting, a very important aspect to keep in mind since it always leaves open the possibility of an unreliable narrator or a revisionist view of the world. But that is all an afterthought really, as we navigate the life of Mia who has no friends (she head butts another girl in the face causing her to bleed profusely from the nose), is failing at school badly (she is preparing to be moved to a boarding school for troubled youths in a few weeks), and her only release in life is stealing whatever small amounts of cheap booze she can and retreating to an abandoned flat where she can express herself through hip-hop dance routines – we see her longingly view music videos and mimicking the moves as if she is fully aware that her only chance at a better life involves her getting far away from the one she currently has. At one point we almost believe that she may have a chance, but we are never quite sure what she believes.

The film really picks up with the introduction of Connor, played by the wonderful actor Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds; Hunger) who arrives at the home one day with the intoxicated mother and quickly becomes a staple in their lives. This is obviously the first man in any of their lives who even remotely borders on being a good person and it is clear that Mia has some extremely conflicted views of the situation, emotionally, sexually, and just from the point of view of not trusting anyone but needing and wanting that trust. Connor’s relationship with Mia teeters on the edge of sweet and tender (he removes her shoes for her as he puts her to bed) to the genuinely nice (he offers her a video camera to make a dance audition tape) to the ambiguously pedophilia/opportunistic actions of a man and a teenage girl.

The director is careful to never really place blame on anyone, but to merely show us through Mia who these people represent to her life. This girl is damaged in ways most people do not know, but we root for her and we hope that she gets her audition. This is a bleak and powerful film that will have you questioning a great deal about what it is like to be in a position like Mia and how exactly someone like this can ever make a change for the better. The story itself is fairly straight-forward, but Jarvis takes this character and makes her so powerful and vulnerable and real that we lose ourselves in her passion. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and is just recently released in the USA.

***** out of 5

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Mini-Movie Review: Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island (2010)
Director - Martin Scorsese
138 Min; R
Teddy Daniels - Leonardo DiCaprio
Chuck Aule - Mark Ruffalo
Dr. Cawley - Ben Kingsley
Dr. Naehring - Max von Sydow
Dolores - Michelle Williams

I think the people behind the making of this film knew exactly what they had on their hands when they decided to release it at the start of a year (typically a time where not too much is going on as far as movies go) in that what they have is a very good movie, but not a great movie, and setting it loose on the public against a deluge of pretty awful other choices made sure that it would be a success.

Don't get me wrong, this is a pretty darn good suspensful thriller, and everyone involved does a good job with their roles. The island itself takes on a life as a character through the eyes of the director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio as the federal agent investigating the disappearance of an insane asylum escapee does some fine work. You don't need to know more details of the plot - think of a stormy island off of Boston that holds insane criminals in a slightly post-WWII setting and a strange unfolding mystery.

But that is where things sort of end. If I were grading this as a teacher the report card would probably be an across the board B+, a solid showing but with room for improvement. Where would improvement come from? That's the tricky part. For me, this film was such a throwback and compilation of past great films and techniques that the simple fact that I feel like I have seen this movie before just makes it fall short. Sure, many films are remakes or retellings of very familiar things, but this one was also trying very hard to make us aware that we were watching a film using those techniques.

I enjoyed this film and I got my money out of it, but I'm not going to throw it a perfect score because it has an all-star cast and production crew.

*** and 1/2 out of 5

Friday, March 5, 2010

A mini-movie review: Alice In Wonderland (2010) - **Spoilers possible**

Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Director - Tim Burton
Writers - Linda Woolverton (screenplay) Lewis Carroll (books)
108 Min; PG
Alice - Mia Wasikowska
Mad Hatter - Johnny Depp
Red Queen - Helena Bonham Carter
White Queen - Anne Hathaway
Blue Caterpillar - Alan Rickman

"Off with their heads!!! OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!!!" the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) with the light bulb head screeches over and over and over and just when you think (hope!!) she has stopped, then over and over and over again throughout the fantasy based film Alice in Wonderland. I would have gladly accepted decapitation had I known for what I was in store.

Nothing in this film works with the small exception of the first 10 minutes of the reality based story - Everything past Alice falling down the rabbit hole is a letdown, especially and including Johnny Depp as the mad hatter and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, both of whom decided to go all entertainingly-challenged on us. The familiar voice of Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar is the only dimly bright spot in the piece.

I wonder who this film is targeted towards? Surely adults will not enjoy this darkened version with little wit and surely children will not enjoy the rabid beasts and lack of cuteness. Surely this film is a total failure and you know what my final verdict of the film is? Certainly, but don't call me surely.

* and 1/2 out of 5

Perhaps this is a 5 star movie in 3d but I will never know as I have retired the funky glasses forever and chose to dislike the regular old 2d version. I guess it is possible the good stuff happened during the 15 minutes I totally dozed off or the 10 minute ending I missed since I decided to simply cut my losses and walk out.