Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays from Wild Lines!

Greetings! It's Christmas Eve-- or it will be in a few hours, I guess-- and I'm spending another holiday in the Windy City, working for a better (and more financially stable) new year. No plea for sympathy here: Christmas ranks about 12th on my list of favorite holidays (somewhere between Earth Day and Columbus Day), so I'd much rather spend it making some cash then participating in archaic, State-sanctioned Christian rituals. Okay, I'm being a little harsh. The X-Mas tree in my living room lends a nice glow to our apartment, especially when coming home after a night of work. I also got the warm-and-fuzzies today opening gifts from Brandon and Mary-- it's been years since I did the whole presents thing, so that was sweet. And I do miss my family.

But given the killer time I had last Christmas in Chicago-- Mallory visited, booze was consumed, and awesome movies from Mexican autuers were watched-- I'm glad to be exactly where I'm at. Tonight's highly reverent plans? Beer with my buddies and The Kingdom. Thank the Lord for terrible, socially irresponsible American action movies!

Still working on capsules for everything I saw this fall. It's proving a more time-consuming task than I imagined, and with other writing responsibilities on the horizon, I may have to bail on the project. Look for a full review of P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood in about a week.

I'll leave you with a clip from my all-time favorite Christmas movie. Those in my immediate family should instantly recognize it. Those who don't should seek it out. It's pretty wonderful. Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fall Movie Guide, Part II

More reviews. Seeing so many that I can't keep up. Next up on the watching schedule: Juno and The Kite Runner. I hope, I hope, I hope I get to see There Will Be Blood soon!

Beowulf. From a buck-naked fight scene, to Anjelina Jolie's slinky demon body, to a pointy sword that melts into a puddle of metallic goo, this has to be the most sexually suggestive Hollywood action blockbuster in years—at times, it's more like a Russ Meyers sleazefest than a Robert Zemeckis joint. The constant innuendos and heaving bosoms and phallic symbols hilariously enliven what is otherwise a pretty standard-issue (albeit modestly scaled) post-Lord of the Rings fantasy epic. Employing the same unnatural, motion capture animation style he introduced in The Polar Express, Zemeckis transforms his actors—including a de-aged but fearsome Ray Winstone and a hammy Anthony Hopkins—into dead-eyed, wax figurines straight out of the Shrek movies. The cartoon imagery doesn't always gel with the pomp and circumstance of Roger Avary and Neil Gaimon's script, but it does allow for a couple of gnarly set-pieces: a climatic duel with a fire-breathing dragon and a knock-down, drag-out fist-fight between Beowulf and the rampaging abomination that is Grendel. Speaking of the latter, the biggest mistake made by this umpteenth adaptation of the epic poem is disposing of Crispin Glover's deformed, hysterical beast-man at the end of the first act. Everyone knows that it's Grendel, not Beowulf, who captivates in this oft-told tale. C+

Dan In Real Life. If not quite the only reason, Steve Carell is certainly the best reason to see this completely harmless, kind-of forgettable rom-com distraction. Dialing down the man-child wackiness he's become famous for, Carell slides comfortably into the role of Dan, an advice columnist and father of three who falls for the sexy, sophisticated and very French Marie (Juliette Binoche, as sexy, sophisticated, and French as they come). Unfortunately—ironic bad luck alert!—she's already dating his younger brother (a shockingly tolerable Dane Cook). Stranded with the two at his parents’ house for a long weekend, Dan suffers various embarrassments and awkward encounters, some of them heavily contrived—as when he gets trapped in the shower with Marie and ends up jumping out a window—but Carell never stoops to Ben Stiller hysterics. His performance is a marvel of quiet comic agony, of exquisite grown-up suffering, and even after the film settles into its cliché-driven homestretch, the star keeps the laughs and pathos in about equal supply. In other words, as sitcoms go, this one’s not half bad. But it’s not “The Office” either. B-

The Darjeeling Limited. Hilarious, deeply moving and sweetly silly, timeless in its idiosyncrasies—The Royal Tenenbaums remains one of the sparkling gems of 21st century American filmmaking. It’s also a damn tough act to follow: six years and two feature films later, writer-director Wes Anderson is still treading the same water, going through the proverbial artistic motions while he (presumably) plots a proper encore to his turn-of-the-century masterpiece. This is not that encore. Though certainly an improvement on the smug, oh-so-deadpan posturing of The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited suffers from its own distinct set of problems. Formless and ramshackle where Aquatic was carefully, joylessly manufactured, Anderson’s latest finds three estranged brothers (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody) reuniting for a tour of India, a disastrous vacation/bonding experience/spiritual journey that begins aboard a wondrously cramped, cross-country passenger train. It’s business as usual for Wes, who employs his favorite stylistic crutches, err, trademarks—symmetrical compositions, whimsical slow-motion, and a Kinks-heavy soundtrack—in aid of a sporadically insightful portrait of brotherly discord. As the squabbling siblings, Wilson and Schwartzman do agreeable variations on their stock personas, but it’s Brody, a newcomer to Anderson-ville, who affords the film a smidgen of genuine, real-world emotional import. Counting as something of a modest return to form, Darjeeling is frequently charming and light on its feet, but its total lack of ambition—narrative, aesthetic, or otherwise—suggests that its once-promising creator is afflicted with a rather serious case of arrested development. Also, an incidental side-note: Anderson’s casting of minorities as one-note comic accessories has officially run its condescending course. B-

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. For a film about a full-on quadriplegic, this one really moves. Director Julian Schnabel and master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski thrillingly aestheticize the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the Elle magazine editor who suffered a stroke and developed “locked-in syndrome,” a rare condition that traps a perfectly functioning brain within a completely paralyzed body. Beginning with a bravado, unbroken recreation of Bauby’s wide-eyed, post-accident P.O.V., Schnabel and Kaminski use a range of evocative visual and sonic techniques to render palpable his shifting states of mind and body. When Bauby’s imagination begins to break free of its corporeal prison—with writing as the key to his escape—the movie follows suit, expanding its stylistic palette accordingly. If the flashbacks to the author’s swinging, pre-accident days feel like biopic filler, they afford Amalric a wider range of tools than the single blinking eye and internal voice-over he otherwise employs. A lush feast for the eyes—not since Volver have beautiful women been so lovingly, angelically photographed—Diving Bell boldly champions the cathartic, healing power of art, for those making it and those experiencing it. A-

Exiled. Stone-cold gangsters in sunglasses and trench coats point shiny pistols at each other. For two hours. Little more than an endless string of balletic, nearly self-parodic Mexican standoffs, Johnny To’s Exiled is the GQ magazine of Hong Kong shoot em’ ups: it sure looks spiffy, but what does all the macho posturing really add up to? A prodigious craftsman, To can stage the hell out of a set-piece—the opening sequence, a Leone inspired game of mounting, suffocating tension, is a doozy. But he falls way short in his attempts to seriously explore masculine codes of honor and brotherhood, mostly because none of his interchangeable cipher heroes possess a single iota of personality. Concluding with a perfect defining image of action movie excess—the slow-mo, mid-battle plummet of a Red Bull can—Exiled has cosmetic coolness to spare, but you try finding a soul in there. C+

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fall Movie Guide, Part I

I realized this week that I've seen far too many movies this autumn-- some great, some mediocre, some atrocious, all worthy of discussion-- to let my utter lack of free time stop me from writing about them. Sleep and sanity and other responsibilities be damned, I've decided to throw together my thoughts on this fall's cinematic output, or what I've seen of it anyway. Over the next few days, I'll be writing capsule reviews of everything I've seen from September 1st to now. That's somewhere near 30 pictures, I'd reckon. They won't be full analytical examinations of the movies, but rather just fleeting summaries of their relative flaws and merits. I'm sometimes wary of assigning a grade or letter value to a film, if only because such absolutes often stand in sharp contrast to the more complicated, less cut-and-dry feelings I have for a work. But I'm okay with using them here-- these are reviews as shards of opinion.

In any case, here's the first crop, listed alphabetically. Enjoy!

Across the Universe. A two-hour-plus Flower Power Gap ad. Like last year’s Bobby, Julie Taymor’s Fab Four musical reduces the counter-cultural movement—its music and its ideas—to nostalgic kitsch, a series of slogans and postures and Kennedy-era clichés. Freshly scrubbed teen mannequins croon hit-or-miss Beatles covers in a Disneyland version of the 1960s. Taymor packs her Broadway-ready fantasia with wall-to-wall allusions (a bowl of strawberries here, a Magical Mystery Tour there) but she never cuts to the heart of the band’s cultural impact, their mystique or their near universal appeal. Hers is a shallow jukebox tribute. Try Todd Haynes’ dense Dylan deconstruction instead. D+

American Gangster. Ridley Scott is no Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann. He proves that handily with his latest, a slick but empty crime epic that possesses neither the detail-oriented precision and pop electricity of the former’s work, nor the gritty, erratic poetry of the latter’s. Tracing the fast rise and hard fall of Frank Lucas, a powerful, real-life drug lord in 1960s Harlem, the film is long on plot, but short on energy, feeling and dramatic heft. Denzel Washington grandstands lazily as Lucas, a bigger-than-life figure that Steve Zaillian’s unwieldy screenplay fails to ever properly humanize or develop—he’s a faceless icon, not a character. (By contrast, Russell Crowe sleepwalks through as the schlubby detective on Lucas’ case.) A coldly proficient action director, Scott’s at home in the sterile corridors of empty space ships and the open plains of barren, ancient battlefields. It’s the real world—and the real, flesh-and-blood folk who occupy it—that he can’t seem to fathom. American Gangster strives for Godfather-style gravitas, but its maker hasn’t the heart or the soul for the job. C-

The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. A work of disquieting power and striking visual splendor, Andrew Dominik’s long-delayed second feature re-imagines the modern American Western as equal parts tone poem and prickly, complicated character study. It’s a genre film of the Terrence Malick variety: patient, entrancing, and deeply, rewardingly philosophical. In the performance of his career, Brad Pitt plays the infamous outlaw Jesse James as both man and legend, a loose-wire contradiction, drunk on his own mythos, yet haunted by the dawning revelation of his very real mortality. Even more remarkable is Casey Affleck as the craven, obsessive Bob Ford, drawn like a moth to James’ fading flame, his intense hero worship the movie’s first casualty. Bob and Jesses’ fates are linked from the beginning, and the film builds slowly but surely to its inevitable conclusion, unfolding like a vivid, fever-dream eulogy for a dying era. Beautiful and completely gripping from start to finish, this could damn well be the movie of the year. A

Atonement. The frenzied pitter-patter of a typewriter sets the pace instantly for this handsome and surprisingly urgent adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel. Sidestepping the mannered stiffness of Merchant & Ivory, director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) sets his watch to the quickening pulses of his young, well-to-do protagonists. There’s a charged, kinetic energy, especially, to the extended first act, during which socialite Cecilia (Kiera Knightley) falls for classmate and groundskeepers’ son Robbie (James McAvoy), while precocious, 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) watches on, gears of jealousy and confusion turning in her head. A betrayal shifts the action from a vast English estate to the French frontlines of WWII, and the film, perhaps to its detriment, widens in scope. Despite a jaw-dropping, long-take survey of the battlefield, Atonement’s a better chamber drama than it is a war movie, and one gets the distinct impression that the novel’s intricacies have been truncated and simplified for the big screen. Still, the cast is first rate (particularly Ronan, with her silent, penetrating stare) and Wright whips the could-have-been-turgid melodrama into a chaotic tempest of emotions. If but all Oscar-bait, prestige pictures could be this dynamic. B+

Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. When critics write that Sidney Lumet directs this dour, ruthlessly nihilistic crime thriller like a man half his age, what they’re really saying (whether they know it or not) is that the 81-year-old filmmaker is now dabbling in the sort of flashy, gimmicky, time-jumping pyrotechnics he blessedly avoided for most of his career. Like Reservoir Dogs recast as a King Lear family melodrama, Lumet’s latest centers on the botched robbery of a mom-and-pop jewelry store by the owners’ bitter, middle-aged, strapped-for-cash sons (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, as the two most genetically unlikely movie brothers since Twins). First-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s nonlinear storytelling—first we see the failed heist, then the planning, then the grim aftermath—is effective in tying up loose ends and revealing the “big picture,” but it consistently cuts the tension in half, drawing us out of the conflict to gawk instead at the script’s showy, Byzantine structure. Lumet’s still a master of the mundane—nobody captures the tacky clutter of boardrooms and office buildings better– and the veteran filmmaker is aided immeasurably by a commanding cast, with both Hoffman’s loutish bully and Hawke’s simpering loser given a respective driving meltdown scene to make their own. But it’s all in service of a dime store Greek tragedy, and mixing up the scene numbers can’t distract from the empty core of the thing. C+