Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I've seen this happen in other people's lives, and now it's happening in mine

3:10 to Yuma: Third acts aren't usually the best part of a film, but here they are, probably because that's the original bit-- the short story and later stageplay-- that the screenwriters are writing around. This remake of a movie that adapted a play that adapted a short story or whatnot is okay, I guess, but that scene in that one room holds all the power, and all the thematic presence. Everything else is just there to fill in the run time.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen:
A fanciful look at the power of belief and imagination, dressed up as a truly bizarre Terry Gilliam adventure movie. Really quite fun, though, although I could've done without the Robin Williams shtick. Everything else is grand, however, from John Neville as the titular Baron, to a young Sarah Polley as the precocious young girl who accompanies him on his adventures, to round up his former compatriots and save the town from being sacked. Throw in a dozen other familiar faces, from fellow Python Eric Idle to a teenaged Uma Thurman. Then, go nuts. It's a cool kooky movie.

It's been too long since I saw this, and I really don't have anything specific for it. It was okay, an almost paint-by-numbers Western epic set in the Australia of some decades back, and it's okay if you like that kind of thing. I didn't run screaming, so there's that. But it's also pretty darn forgettable. Nicole Kidman's the proper English lady who meets the rough and tumble Hugh Jackman, and together they've got to save her cattle ranch or something, and a half-white, half-Aboriginie kid who becomes mixed up in these affairs. Points for Bryan Brown, though. But no Paul Hogan? For shame.

Before Sunrise/Before Sunset: I finally got to see both of these in a sort of double feature format, and I absolutely loved the experience. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play two characters who have a chance meeting on a train in Vienna and spend an entire night walking and talking, and falling in love-- in the sequel nine years later, they encounter one another again in Paris and do much the same as in the first one. The entire focus of both films is on two people talking-- over, over, two-shot, etc. The dialogue sounds like that kind of pseudo-intellectual bullshit you might not put up with in reality, but in the films, it endears you to the characters. The things they say are the story, shaping what plot there is, who the characters are, and what they will be. The young romantics (and apparently professional conversationalists) reunite nine years later, echoes of that one night they shared in the past, defined by their missed chances. Both films really have a marvelously naturalistic style to them, and work as fantastic companion pieces. Exceptional acting from the two leads, combined with passive direction that really puts focus on the characters and the dialogue. When I eventually run my hole-in-the-wall independent movie theater, I'll run this as a double bill sometime. I could probably go on about these for ages. I think I'm in love with these films.

J. Michael Straczynski wrote this; he also wrote Spider-Man comics for several years, and one can see the relation between the two concepts in the notion of power and responsibility. Angelina Jolie plays a mother whose child goes missing; the police find and return a boy, a boy who isn't her son, but the cops refuse to admit a mistake and eventually send her to a mental hospital. Of course, their comeuppance eventually comes up. As this is a Clint Eastwood movie, it occurred to me to think of it as a Western; one woman versus overwhelming odds, but with the posse she manages to accrue, she gets the job done.

Disney never really needs to make another movie again after this one; it's the apotheosis, really, of the entire storytelling engine they've been using for decades. Animated princess (Amy Adams) finds herself banished to the real world, and learn that fairy tale love might not be as happily ever after as she originally imagined. The "real world," of course, starts falling into line with animated Disney tropes as worlds collide. But it's fun, and sweet, and aims higher than most of these cartoons, meaning parents should enjoy it along with kids. (Side note: James Marsden only ever plays the role of the boyfriend/husband who the lead female ditches for another guy, doesn't he?)

Gone Baby Gone:
I suppose we'd call this neo-noir, wouldn't we? Ben Affleck puts in a surprisingly good directorial effort with the story of a young private eye dispatched to find a kidnapped girl, and all the harsh and grisly directions it takes him in-- leading to a pretty good moral dilemma, but it's about power and responsibility again-- and "our hero" follows up on his original responsibilities, and bears the consequences. Affleck succeeds with the casting-- I'm not talking about his brother Casey, Morgan Freeman, or Ed Harris, or any of that-- I'm talking about all the folks in the background, ripped from the streets of Boston, perfectly matched to their slum-ish surroundings. Weird looking folks-- regular folks from regular streets. It adds realism. Also? Amy Ryan is good at this stuff.

A super twisty-turny remake of the original Sleuth, also starring Michael Caine, this time as the old man, with Jude Law as the younger guy. Blatantly adapted from the stage, but captivating in the performances, though it starts to go a bit too out-of-left-field by the end. Still, keeps the audience guessing.

Taken: I've been waiting to see this one for a while, thanks to the pure elegance of the trailer. That's where the plot really should've started; the obligatory 25 minutes of set-up wasn't really needed, as everyone watching this just wants to see Liam Neeson destroy people. Should've started like Crank. But otherwise, it was a good action piece, as one expects from Luc Besson. It reminded me of, say, Garth Ennis' Punisher MAX series. You know with absolute certainty that Liam Neeson will complete his mission; it's all about how he takes the bad guys apart. Their inevitable comeuppance. I love inevitable comeuppances.

WALL-E: My word, this film was just absolutely brilliant, wasn't it? From the animation-- so intent on appearing like an actually filmed movie that they hired Roger Deakins, los bros Coen's favorite cinematographer to consult on the lighting-- to the romance-- who knew two robots with a limited vocabulary would be so captivating?-- to all the little details and laughs Pixar loves to throw in-- only they would have the balls to make a couple clips from Hello, Dolly vitally important to the emotional throughline of the story-- yeah, a great movie. The story's superb, an utterly scathing satire on how our consumer culture is destroying the planet and turning us into fat, helpless babies. One tiny robot, the Johnny-5-lookalike Wall-E, however, gets caught up in a HAL-esque robot conspiracy when he discovers one weak sapling still on the otherwise desolate Earth. From there, it's a race to save the future of humanity. My, what a charming, smart, fun, funny, exciting, and emotional bit of work, certainly Pixar's finest.

Monday, August 03, 2009

My Xbox is now pretty much just a Netflix machine

I may be busy, but since when has that stopped me from setting aside 20 hours a week to watch TV? Eh?

A delightful Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn/other-people-you-know caper picture that twists the plot about every ten minutes to keep the audience on their toes (or the edge of their seat), like a humor-laden Hitchcock. But I expect nothing less of Stanley Donen.

Charlie Wilson's War:
I had no idea who was behind this as I watched it, but it makes sense that it's a Sorkin/Nichols joint. It's just damn well written, filled with quick dialogue delivered by clever actors like Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a surprise guest appearance by Ned Beatty, and good based-on-a-true-who-cares characterization of Wilson himself.

Can I use the word "delightful" again? Henry Selick brings the goods when it comes to stop motion, and a creepily cute Neil Gaiman story is perfect material for him. A young girl finds a tunnel to another world where button-eyed doppelgangers of her parents seem to care more for her than her real parents do, but that's before all the body horror creeps in and only this lonely girl can save the day. Also: Keith David. See it.

From the director of Amelie, eh? Well, it's set in a dystopia where food's hard to come by and a butcher/landlord feeds his tenants by chopping up the hired help. Gotta love the French. Wonderfully bizarre, sweet, ridiculous, and exciting, it reminds me of Dead Alive, but with cannibals instead of zombies.

Dexter seasons 1 & 2:
I'd seen a few episodes of this before, but watching them all from the beginning-- well, now I'm hooked. As I'm sure you know, Michael C. Hall plays a serial killer who works for the cops and kills murderers to sate his needs, and who has trouble processing human emotion-- but then, how does that make him different from any other male? The first season, based on a novel, is mostly marvelously plotted, a tight suspense thriller; the second season initially sacrifices plot in favor of character, delving further into Dexter's underlying psychosis, before pulling the rug out from under him-- and the audience-- a few times. Do we root for him? Do we hate him? Should we? There's really some fantastic writing on this show. Also, grisly murders. Everybody wins!

The Fall:
Quite possibly the most gorgeously shot movie in the last decade or so, Tarsem's The Fall was on my list just because Lee Pace, of Pushing Daisies, was the star-- but man, I'm glad I watched it. It's a period piece story of a crippled stuntman (Pace-- and they actually managed to convince the crew and the other actors that he was a paraplegic) who tells a young girl an epic adventure story in order to get her to sneak meds to him so he can commit suicide. The story within the story was filmed in about 18 different countries, according to the credits, with minimal CGI-- and these locations are utterly amazing, breathtaking in their beauty. Action, unrequited love, bandits, pirates, and Charles Darwin-- it's got everything. But the visuals! They're the best part.

I watched this because I was promised Kristen Bell in the slave Leia outfit. Shallow, I know, but not as shallow as this incredibly unfunny movie about a bunch of hopeless Star Wars geeks who infiltrate George Lucas' compound or whatever. But hey, a Shatner cameo! All is right with the world.

The IT Crowd season 2:
I'd watched season one a little while back, and so I watched this too. Six episodes isn't so bad for a sitcom that's usually on the cusp of being clever and funny but never quite manages to reach it. But hey-- this season has two former stars of Garth Marenghi's Dark Place! Yeah! Richard Ayoade either brilliantly plays bizarre, awkward, inept characters, or he's the William Hung of acting. I'm pretty sure it's the former.

Leverage season 1:
I'd watched this as it aired weekly on TNT, but I'm rewatching it again on Netflix, in lieu of purchasing the DVD set. But I have to say, this is a marvelously well-done show, and watching it in the intended order, as opposed to TNT's slapdash reordering, opens one up to the subtler character arcs and recurring gags and plot bits. It's a bad-guys-gone-good con artist heist show, very similar to the BBC's Hustle, and just as cool and tasty. Tim Hutton leads a magnificent ensemble, but it's usually Beth Riesgraf, as the slightly-crazy master thief Parker and Aldis Hodge, as uber-geek hacker Hardison, who steal the show. The writing is very strong-- hurray for John Rogers and his crew. Season 2's on now, so catch it if you can.

Party Down season 1:
I didn't know what to expect from this, a comedy show about a group of failed actors and Hollywood types who work for a catering service, starring people who are sort-of vaguely familiar (plus Jane Lynch and Martin Starr, who I guess are vaguely familiar to people who aren't obsessed with pop culture), co-created by Paul Rudd and the guy who did Veronica Mars, among others. But it turns out it's quite funny, very crass, and successfully manages to make me care about the characters, not just chuckle at their antics.

The Puffy Chair:
So I loved Baghead, also from the Duplass brothers, right? So naturally I'd love this, the little indie movie that put them on the map and stuff, right? Well, no; the main characters generally come off like unlikable assholes or unlikable fools, as they do exactly the opposite of what sane people would do on their long journey to deliver a chair to the protagonist's dad for his birthday or something. It's mumble-y, relationship-y, and seems to be about the pointlessness of just about everything. I really, really hated it.

Son of Rambow:
This was good'un, though. From the directors of the pretty-okay Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, with Jessica Hynes/Stevenson of Spaced in a dramatic role! But what it's really about is a sheltered, awkward boy and a pain in the ass troublesome boy who team up to film a sequel to First Blood. Yes! It's about weird kids becoming cool and cool kids being weird and dogs attached to kites and friendship and all that, but it's a good little movie.