Saturday, February 27, 2010

Trouble at the Tolstoys'

The Last Station wasn't quite the movie I was expecting; that's both a good and a bad thing. Surely, I thought, a film about a Dying Writer and his Moral Struggles would be dark, grim, and gloomy; The Last Station is not. On the other hand, I left the theater thinking the film could have benefited had the actors and writers shown a little more of the restraint that this sort of serious period costume drama is supposed to exemplify.

While critics are supposed to abhor introductory explanatory text even more than they despise voiceovers, I think The Last Station makes the right decision by opening with an epigraph and a few paragraphs of contextualization. While the movie retains some over-obvious explanatory dialogue about Tolstoy's radical philosophy and his disagreements with established religion, we're not burdened with too many improbably didactic conversations. The film establishes its story quickly: It's 1910, Tolstoy is old, sick, and a utopian philosopher. The Great Man wants to change his will and give his copyright to the Russian people. His long-suffering wife objects.

Though The Last Station's plot and – to be honest – the film's advertising revolve around the dispute between Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), the audience hardly receives these characters unmediated. Instead, we see the disintegrating Tolstoy household through the eyes of Tolstoy's new secretary and amanuensis, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy). At times, The Last Station almost abandons the story of Tolstoy and Sofya for the romance between Valentin and Masha (Kerry Condon), but the film's ostensible purpose returns in the final act; Masha is almost entirely absent the last third of the film. Valentin, however, is nigh-omnipresent. He's miraculously present at just about every dramatically significant moment that occurs around the Tolstoys. Mostly he just takes notes and witnesses; it takes a frustratingly long time for him to actually influence any of the events that happen all around him.

Before seeing the movie, I'd read that The Last Station suffered from overacting. I'm not sure that the fault lies with the actors; rather, the screenwriters call for such extremes of emotion that credulity strains. Worse, I thought that many scenes were just wrong for the performers; Helen Mirren may be a great actress, but her presence is so, um, regal that it's hard to believe her smashing crockery and screaming. She does a fine job portraying Sofya slowly cracking, but she seems off when her character finally breaks apart. Plummer does well with what he's given, but we never gain much sense of his genius or the reasons for his philosophical convictions. Perhaps he just wants to be unhappy? The Last Station doesn't try hard enough to make sense of Tolstoy; something's missing at what should be the film's center.

More than one literary critic has claimed that the Great Russians are in fact quite funny, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Last Station is often quite comic. There's a running gag about Valentin's propensity to sneeze when nervous, a humorous Tolstoy bedroom scene, and a few jokes at the expense of Paul Giamatti's character's mustache. The Last Station, given its actors and subject matter, could easily have ended up tediously dreary. I'm glad it didn't.

Much of The Last Station takes place indoors in turn-of-the-century opulence, though there are several lovely outdoor scenes. The landscape – apparently German in real life – looks appropriately Russian, and a few scenes were evidently shot on location in Russia. Alas, there's one major barrier to suspension of disbelief: The protagonists' language. Much as I hate to admit it, I would have liked this movie more had it worn subtitles. There are many scenes where the English dialogue goes more or less unnoticed, but at other points the script uses far too many colloquialisms. Especially bad is a joke revolving around an English language pun...

I enjoyed The Last Station, but it's not a film I ever desire to watch again. The characters alternate between being too passive and too dramatic; one feels that the scriptwriters let down the fine actors. Though the material and the cast promise much, the film itself remains merely competent. The Last Station isn't dour or depressing, but it's hardly lively either. Perhaps I should have skipped the movie and just read the book?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Masters of Uninvolving Gameplay. Sandwich.

Mr. Keeley and I have a running joke. We say that Resident Evil 5 is the only game we have ever played ironically.

It is not just the script; bad video game scripts are a dime a dozen. While Resident Evil 5's script indeed ranks among the worst, this game is inept on every level – from game design to art design to animation to acting. For decades, film fans have been watching terrible movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Plan 9 from Outer Space not merely because they tell idiotic stories but also because they are beautifully bad works of filmmaking. Resident Evil 5 is the video game equivalent; it is so earnest and so inept a video game that one cannot help but love it.

As Capcom releases the game's final downloadable episode this week, it presents an interesting quandary for a fan: What should Resident Evil 6 look like? Should the developers attempt to make a modern game – one where players can walk and shoot at the same time?

They risk losing some of the game's charm that way. I have never come to tears laughing at a game before I played Resident Evil 5. Every moment brings a new expression of just how stupid the game's design is. Why does a rocket launcher take up as much space in your inventory as an egg? Why is there a cover system that makes you stand up to heal yourself? Why does 90% of the dialogue consist of "Come on!" and "Okay!"? Why do zombies bounce between walls like ping-pong balls when you shoot them? Why is there a giant, ancient city underneath sub-Saharan Africa that is populated by zombies who operate elaborate booby traps, and also houses a multinational drug corporation headquarters?

At first, these questions frustrated me, but soon I began to see things differently. Watching a massive axe flying through my character and doing no harm, simply because I was in the process of picking up loose change, is not frustrating. It is an amusing sight to behold. Add in cooperative play, where one can share these moments with a friend, and a session of Resident Evil 5 often becomes uproarious.

Still, Resident Evil 5 was not made by a fertilizer salesman on a bet; the game was a multimillion-dollar production. This fact is apparent when looking at the game – character models are extremely detailed and effects like mutating creatures are excellent. So, while kitschiness can be forgiven to some extent, a big-budget series continuing down such a path would be difficult to excuse.

Resident Evil has been in this position before. Back in 2004, much of the gaming press was criticizing the series as stale and archaic. After all, the early Resident Evil games had a camera system that made walking in a straight line across a room one of the games' greatest challenges. The fact that the games still worked this way well into the 21st Century was a joke. But in early 2005, Resident Evil 4 came out and brought the series to the forefront of action/horror games. The player was granted freedom of movement that was more consistent with games of the time and quick-time events (Press B now to dodge the axe!) gave the game's cutscenes greater immersion. It looked like Resident Evil was back on track.

Naturally, when it took five years to release 5, expectations were running a bit high. Revolutionary sequels like Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2 or Assassin's Creed II only took a couple of years to develop, after all. Yet what fans received was a hollow retread of 4 – a game that made few improvements and that proved many of its predecessor's innovations had now become clichés. (Every mediocre game is now riddled with tedious quick-time event sequences; they are a bane of modern gaming.) It also proved that, while 5's failures were often amusing in how miserable they were, the series would again be forced to evolve in order to survive.

I do not know what Resident Evil 6 should look like. I could create a list of suggestions but, really, what it needs are things that I have not yet seen. With the release of Mass Effect 2 last month and Heavy Rain yesterday, I feel as if the rule book for video games is being rewritten on a weekly basis. Video games are now more emotionally engaging than ever before – I let out involuntary yells as I leap out of collapsing buildings in Uncharted 2; my lip quivers as I play with my only surviving son in Heavy Rain. Today, video games clearly have the power to scare the crap out of me.

I want Resident Evil to make it happen, but it is up to the developers to figure out how that can be done. They can start by making a new game – not the same one I have already bought twice. I doubt that I will find another failure very endearing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

An Italian Hell

Before I properly start my review of Gomorrah, a very fine 2008 film from Italy, I must offer a bit of context for my praise: Whenever a gritty and decently-made gangster film or TV series appears, critics tend to praise it for its realism and/or its departure from The Godfather. The Sopranos is more realistic than Goodfellas is more realistic than dePalma's Scarface, etc. It's an old reviewing trope, and one I'm not able to dispense with here. Gomorrah is the most realistic crime film that I have ever seen. Rarely have I been so shocked, moved, impressed, and convinced by a film.

Unlike most films about the mafia, Gomorrah's source material is nonfiction, specifically Roberto Saviano's 2006 book. One tends to trust Saviano's take on the criminal group the Camorra, as the author has been the target of more than one attempted hit since his book's publication; one doesn't want to believe the horrors that Saviano recounts, yet the Camorra have rather compelled our belief.

Gomorrah the film is not a direct adaptation of Gomorrah the book. Rather director Matteo Garrone draws inspiration from the book to present a whole series of stories of the Camorra. The movie's several stories intercut without intertwining; the only constant is the baneful presence of the mob. Not only does Gomorrah fail to provide contrived linkages between characters, it fails to give us a villain. The corrupt Naples shown in Gomorrah lacks a Don Coreleone or Al Capone; even the up-market suit-wearing mobsters seem to take orders from above. Evil is all over.

The opening shot of Gomorrah is a closeup of a middle-aged man in a vertical tanning bed. It took me a few moments to place the blue tanning lights; the salon looks almost unreal. Throughout the film, this sense of unreality somehow coexists with a knowledge that we are watching a sadly plausible depiction of Neapolitan life. The murders, corruption, horror, and cruelty of Gomorrah are far more distressing and disorienting than their more traditionally cinematic counterparts.

Five stories run throughout Gomorrah. The first, and most heartbreaking, is the tale of Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a very young boy who wants to be in a gang. Try as his mother might, Toto will not be drawn from his dream; we get to witness his awful corruption. The second story shows us two foolish teenagers who also want to be mobsters; they steal weapons and drugs from the Camorra and don't quite understand how deadly their heroes and foes are. From their first appearance, we know Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are doomed. One only wonders how unpleasant their inevitable deaths will be. A meek Camorra banker stars in the third and most open-ended story. The fourth story concerns a tailor with ruthless mob connections. The final tale shows us high-level mafia business and a functionary who, God help him, develops a conscience.

Just about all the performers in Gomorrah impressed me, but I was especially taken with the younger actors, upon whom the film relies so much. Abruzzese's Toto breaks our heart but not our suspension of disbelief. Petrone and Macor, as the teenage thugs, make their boastful and foolish characters remarkably sympathetic; their gleeful target shooting spree, their strip club visit, and their terrified meetings with mob enforcers all ring true. The world-weary protagonists of the other stories are fantastic, yet the heart of the film is with the doomed youth.

Whereas most crime films set their various lawbreakers against a glamorous-if-gritty urban backdrop, most of Gomorrah takes place in the bleak and rusty tenements that provide the Camorra with its true power base. When the film moves outside the tenements, it's rarely pleasant: An abandoned quarry may be starkly beautiful, but it's also an ideal dump for toxic waste. There's a very short Venetian sequence; I was almost shocked to remember how beautiful Italy can be.

The opening sequence in the tanning salon ends in a quadruple murder; after that first salvo, we don't see another murder for ninety minutes or so. Gomorrah doesn't shy away from violence, but its great accomplishment lies in its depiction of a sick culture. The scenes of a twelve-year-old selling cocaine are far harder to watch than the occasional gunfights. Gomorrah has more than its share corpses, but it possesses an even greater amount of dead souls.

Gomorrah is a great film about radical evil. Like the last movie I reviewed, it's worthy of its shiny Criterion release. Again like that film, it deserves far more attention than it has received. Watch it and weep.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Minor Masterpiece from Austria

After my last review, of a mediocre action film, I wrote that I would need an art film to serve as a palette cleanser of sorts. I don't know that the 2008 Austrian production Revanche qualifies as "arthouse" – it seems insufficiently pretentious to me – but it's a fine film, and worthy of its 2009 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.

For its first forty minutes, Revanche doesn't feel like a single movie at all; instead it seems like two separate films. Movie One tells the story of Alex (Johannes Krisch), a former convict turned handyman of a Viennese brothel. Unbeknownst to corpulent and rich pimp Konecny (Hanno Poschl), Alex and the beautiful Ukrainian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko) are lovers. Circumstances drive Alex to rob a bank; here Movie One intersects with Movie Two, the quiet story of policeman Robert (Andreas Lust), his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), and their peaceful rural existence. At this point, the film changes its focus yet again; the movie abandons the city for the country, previously minor characters come to the forefront of the action, and once-important figures vanish into the past.

Given that the movie's title is a synonym for "revenge", one expects Revanche's plot to follow a rather typical trajectory, a course ending in bullets, blood, forgiveness, and sorrowfully rousing music. To its eternal credit, Revanche does not take this path of least resistance; despite its suspense and its occasional violence, the film is at heart a quiet and unconventional character study. What begins as a bleak neo-noir quite naturally transforms into a modern pastoral. What some viewers might label an anticlimax seems to me the natural and right conclusion.

Revanche has beautifully simple cinematography. There are many wide and almost static shots of the Austrian countryside and the beauty of nature and painful close-ups of loss and desolation. The violence is discreet, not grotesque, while the motionless and somewhat distant camera renders the sex more curious than erotic. Director Gotz Spielmann doesn't hesitate to show flesh, but his interest is in people, not their bodies.

The acting in Revanche is uniformly fantastic. Krisch is great as the gruff yet "soft" Alex, criminal, lover, and perhaps avenger. Even at his most foolish or disturbing, he's a compelling and sympathetic character. When he robs his bank and ruins his life, the gun he carries is unloaded. Another standout performer is Ursula Strauss, who does an extremely good job "selling" some of Susanne's frankly implausible actions. Though the script lets her down at times, Strauss remains mostly believable. Given what her character eventually does, this is high praise indeed. Finally, I wish Andreas Lust had had more screen-time as Robert. He disappears for much of the film's second half; I would have liked to have seen more of his guilt and anger.

Alas, Revanche does have its flaws. Most troubling is the aforementioned lapse in Susanne's characterization. Her ill-conceived actions serve the plot very well, but they do a grave disservice to her previously-established personality. That Revanche manages to recover its audience testifies to its otherwise sterling quality; similar writing mishaps would destroy a lesser film. Though most of Revanche is enthralling, the film's pacing is far from perfect; we spend altogether too much time watching Alex splitting wood on his grandfather's farm.

It seems to me that the Johannes Krisch's Alex is the highlight of the film. He's occasionally brutal, often desperate, and dangerously obsessed, yet Krisch allows us to see that his character is, at heart, a good man. Early in the film, Alex's ailing grandfather Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser) says that men who go to "the city" end up "either arrogant or a scoundrel." Alex, he concludes, is a scoundrel. At the time, we accept his harsh judgment. As the film progresses, however, both Hausner and the audience come to realize their error. The script sets up a number of parallels between the criminal Alex and the cop Robert; for once the comparisons are neither specious nor relativistic. And though the film establishes the affinities between the two men, no character ever appears to lecture us on the irony of their similarity. Yes, this film respects its viewers.

Though it's a trifle too long and sometimes painfully inconsistent, I nonetheless highly recommend Revanche. It's unconventional, suspenseful, surprising, and most of all moving. The film received very few theater showings in this country; I hope its recent Criterion release will help it find a larger audience.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2009, a.k.a. Ten Reasons Why Avatar Does Not Deserve an Oscar (Part Two)

The first five films were presented this past Tuesday in Part One.

As a movie about the war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker was overdue, but it was decidedly worth the wait. Director, Kathryn Bigelow captures the tension, the ugliness and the aimlessness of the conflict by keeping her camera grounded and her characters adrift.

Presenting the war through the exploits of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) – the leader of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit – these themes are distilled into a series of intense standoffs. Watching James attempt to defuse homemade explosive devices is inherently dramatic, but Bigelow never overplays her hand. Instead of opting for overdone, ticking time-bomb scenarios, she spreads the fear evenly; the entire film is awash in an unremitting sense of latent danger. The villains are faceless specters; their motivations are never examined. It is never clear if anything is being gained through James' successes beyond a temporary reprieve from death.

James is burdened by these ambiguities on some level and, at one point, even attempts to find direction by seeking reprisal. Even he knows, however, that he is a man who thrives in the isolation of the battlefield, independent of concerns like morality. The Hurt Locker presents an Iraq suspended in space – a place where there is no up or down, just the task at hand. It makes this relatively bloodless war movie one of the most unsettling I have seen.

To say that Quentin Tarantino's films can often be challenging to watch is an understatement. Regardless of whether one is troubled by his self-indulgent tendencies or his indifference toward good taste, however, Inglourious Basterds will likely prove to be a hell of a lot more fun than his past films.

It helps that most of his sadism is directed at Nazis this time around. Tarantino milks the World War II setting for all it is worth, gleefully flouting historical accuracy to great effect, but still playing upon common knowledge of the period. Sure, we have seen assassination attempts on Hitler in films before, but has such a scenario ever been executed with such deft dramatic build-up as it is here? Hell no. Tarantino displays a newfound capacity for restraint in the lengthy standoffs that are this film's greatest strength.

Having Christoph Waltz play the villain helps, too. He is nearly as instrumental in creating the film's most intense scenes as Tarantino. His Colonel Landa is the sort of devilishly calculating villain that every Hollywood film wishes it has. He completely overshadows the film's Hitler, who becomes a caricature. Just about every character in this film, though, is entertaining in their own right – something to be expected from Tarantino. What is unexpected is that they populate a story free of pretension. Inglourious Basterds is a giddy, pulpy rewriting of history and, because of that, it is one of Quentin Tarantino's most successful works.

Paranormal Activity is 2009's Cinderella story – not merely because it was lucrative but also because it was a wake-up call for the horror genre. Oren Peli's concept was time tested: A couple is living in a potentially haunted house. His execution is brilliant in its simplicity: One location, two actors and a camera. The result is the rebirth of the classic nail-biter.

By sidestepping the humorless sadism of torture porn and the worn-out conventions of slasher films, Paranormal Activity rediscovers the soul of the horror genre. A majority of the film consists of a static, night-vision shot of a couple's bedroom and Peli uses this narrow perspective to tightly control what the audience knows. Fear, after all, is all about the unknown. Characters run offscreen forcing the audience to fear the worst for them, sounds ring out with no hope of revealing their source and various bizarre phenomenona are depicted with chilling detachment.

Limiting the scope of the film also allows it to closely follow the degrading mental state of the two characters. It drags the audience down with them. As the characters become more and more terrified of nightfall with each passing day, the audience comes to dread each successive bedroom scene more than the last. Peli does not merely trap the film's action in this house, he traps the audience within the narrative, making it impossible not to become emotionally involved. You will dread going to bed after seeing Paranormal Activity.

Leave it to Wes Anderson to make a kids' movie about a guy going through his midlife crisis. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wholly unique experience – a mingling of a classic children's storytelling with one of the most idiosyncratic directors around. What makes it so great is that it does complete justice to both halves of its pedigree.

In this era of soulless CGI talking animals, a film made like Fantastic Mr. Fox was sorely needed. This film wears its rustic aesthetic on its sleeve, steeped in warm wood tones and autumn foliage. Every character looks as if the animator's hand has just left them, fur bristling with each movement. Such an authentic style is the perfect vehicle for a story about identity. This seamlessly fits in with Anderson's oeuvre, not only because Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a close cousin of Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou, but because Anderson's affinity for rigid framing and blocking easily translates to stop-motion animation.

Furthermore, Anderson's clever, rapid-fire dialogue is a welcome upgrade for a genre plagued by the obnoxious dichotomy of ham-fisted puns for the kids and glib double entendres for the parents. When talking animals can be made truly palatable, instead of merely tolerable, for adults, it is a promising step for American animation.

With A Single Man, Tom Ford manages to make tragedy beautiful. That is quite the achievement for a first-time director.

The film slips us into the mind of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a reserved college professor, as he contemplates suicide in the wake of his partner's death. His depression combines with the rigid superficiality of the 1960's to create a vivid study in emotional detachment. Ethereal sequences deconstruct the facades worn by various incidental characters feature by feature. It illuminates George's pain, as he savors every detail, prematurely mourning the loss of his own life.

Still, the film is anything but a slog. George is not humorless and neither is Ford. What could have been the grimmest sequence in the movie is easily one of the funniest and George's encounters with various characters show that he is not inclined toward misery. It means that, for all of George's detachment, the audience is consistently engaged with his emotions. This is a melancholy film – undeniably potent in its depiction of despair but, nevertheless, hopeful and invigorating.

If it were not for Eduard Grau's cinematography, these qualities would not have been quite as potent. His compositions carefully confine George's interaction with the world and his judicious use of color lend particular impact to George's fleeting moments of happiness. Far too often, dramas of such gravity lack a strong visual component, but A Single Man provides a truly immersive emotional experience.

2009 was an interesting year for film, and I believe this list represents it well. The combined revenue from all of these films probably pales in comparison to that of Avatar, but ambition and individuality are rarely awarded with popularity. The Academy has chosen to squander its chance at recognizing such valuable qualities. Fortunately, that hardly means that all moviegoers must do the same.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2009, a.k.a. Ten Reasons Why Avatar Does Not Deserve an Oscar (Part One)

A few months ago, I ranted about how the Academy's decision to expand the nominations for the Best Picture Oscar to ten was little more than a ratings-grabbing gimmick. With the 82nd annual award show coming next month, time has proven that my fears were justified. The inclusion of ten films in the running has done little to make the race more interesting; there is no question about what movie is going to win the top honors this year. Yet, seeing films like District 9 and Up nominated is undeniably intriguing. It proves that, in an ideal world, more nominations really would lead to a more interesting show.

That is why I wish to make a list of my own. It is by no means a definitive list, as I hardly saw every movie there was to see last year. Instead, take it as a humble suggestion of what the Best Picture nominees might look like if the Academy was truly interested in picking the ten best films of last year – without prejudice, pretension or any goddamn blue aliens.

Coraline is a rare breed – a kids' movie that will make parents want to leave the theater. That the film can be quite disturbing, however, is exactly what makes it so successful. Grappling with change as a child can often be a harrowing experience and Henry Selick's vivid fantasy captures every bit of the emotion that goes along with it. Coraline is not afraid to tap directly into the greatest fears children have and bring them to beautiful, exciting, horrifying life.

When the eponymous character begins to escape into a parallel dimension where her parents are more lively, attentive and fun, the visuals explode with warm, inviting color. It leaves no doubt as to why she would want to escape the dreary, decrepit reality of her life. Yet Coraline's doppelganger mother becomes increasingly fixated on keeping her in this fantasy world as it gradually degrades into something surreal and dangerous. The stop-motion animation in this film is impeccable – realistic and subdued when necessary, but more often vivid and expressionistic. It creates a fun ride, yes, but it also communicates considerable emotion.

Furthermore, the film provides the rare opportunity to see a strong girl as a protagonist. No prince sweeps Coraline off of her feet; she fights her own battles.

It may have been marketed as the successor to Superbad and its protagonist may only be four years older than those of that film but, Adventureland is a far more mature film. James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated college and, unsurprisingly, is stuck at home without a job. It is not long before he is forced to lower his standards and apply to work at Adventureland, the local bargain-bin theme park.

There are numerous strange coworkers, belligerent customers and exchanges of dry banter, but this film slowly reveals depth that goes well beyond the territory of teen slacker comedy. Ryan Reynolds' character may seem like the typical mentor-in-debauchery, but the truth about him is far sadder and far more believable than such archetypes. James' workplace romance with a girl named Em (Kristen Stewart) is equally complex – she provides fleeting moments of respite from his life of unremitting disappointment. The moments where their relationship is working beautifully represent the restlessness and the stasis of suburban life with montages of flickering fluorescent light and serene nightscapes. Adventureland's characters, themes and setting are all bound so closely that they create an uncommonly authentic portrait of this unique stage of life.

Moon proves right the old cliche that says "less is more." Indeed, much of Moon is less – from its cast of essentially two to its cramped moon base setting to its extremely understated style. Making it any other way would have greatly diminished the power of its story.

It is the story, after all, of one man. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is hired to manage a moon base alone for three years. We witness his day-to-day routine in this completely isolated home and then we witness his slow degradation. Moon, however, never takes the obvious route. When a second Sam appears in the base, it does not symptomize some crack in his psyche, even if he fears it might. A memorable sequence has Sam silently assess his double over a series of days, as he slowly realizes that he has not gone mad – he has met his clone. Thus begins the evolution of the relationship between Sam and Sam.

There are still elements of paranoia, deftly underplayed by director, Duncan Jones, but they focus on the mystery of clone Sam's origins. It results in a film that constantly defies expectation, even in a subgenre that regularly flounders in the shadow of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yes, Jospeh Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are an indie movie dream team, but that did not guarantee that their coupling would yield a great movie. 500 Days of Summer does not merely rise to this challenge, though – it breathes new life into the stale romantic comedy genre with a style that constantly innovates without ever feeling contrived.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote a story that almost seems to take place in the head of Tom (Gordon-Levitt). It is a series of non-chronological moments from the course of his relationship with Summer (Deschanel). It allows the film to carefully explore how even the greatest romances can be, at once, thrilling and quite misleading. The highs are silly, funny and even breathtakingly beautiful. The lows are cryptic and often use clever editing to highlight their disparity with Tom's expectations. In the film's final act, things only become more chaotic as Summer's mysterious behavior becomes more difficult to understand. Fleeting moments from throughout their relationship flash by, and only toward the very end do they fully reveal their significance.

500 Days of Summer takes a unique look at romance and succeeds far beyond expectation. With there being no ground better-tred than romance, can praise get much higher than that?

The Harry Potter film series has not always been something worth watching. The fact that The Half-Blood Prince stands on its own as a great film, however, is a powerful indication of how far the series has come. For the first time, the series has imbued its nuanced fantasy world with vast emotional depth, proving that no franchise, no matter how trendy or profitable, has to settle for low artistic value.

Most people will know this story's tragic ending before they sit down, but that only enhances the film's powerful sense of tone. The wizarding world is becoming more dangerous by the day and Harry is fully aware of this. Excellent cinematography, deft direction and fine performances wring every conceivable drop of foreboding out of this story, even as the Hogwarts students sail ever-further into the silliness of adolescence. In fact, the film's numerous moments of comedy never clash with the overall tone; they, instead, throw the darker components into relief. When the giggling crowds of students fade into the grim shadows of Hogwarts' hallways for the final act, the burdens beset upon Harry, Malfoy and others are exposed as patently unfair.

I, for one, would never have expected this series to become as resonant as it has. Yet the efforts of an incredibly talented cast and crew – director, David Yates, in particular – have managed to elevate a childrens' fantasy story to something truly worthwhile.

The remaining five films will be presented this Saturday in Part Two.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

From Paris, with Mild Affection

Normally I would not go to see a movie like From Paris with Love. As much as Mr. Hollis-Lima might bemoan my penchant for mediocre action films, it's rare that I will pay $10.50 to see them in a theater. I should no doubt have missed John Travolta's ultraviolent Gallic romp, had I not known that Taken's creative team had reunited for Paris. Director Pierre Morel and producer Luc Besson had already made one great guilty pleasure action film; perhaps this would be another.

Taken wasn't really about a character; it was about an emotion: righteous anger. Still, Liam Neeson provided a wonderful central figure and action hero; he made the movie. From Paris with Love isn't a lone avenger movie; it's a buddy action film. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Reese, an assistant to the US ambassador to France. With his pencil mustache – which, shockingly, survives the movie – and his penchant for chess, Reese is a rather comic figure. True, he does some US espionage work on the side, but it mostly consists of planting microphones and surreptitiously changing car license plates. James Bond he's not. Through a rather silly plot twist – an embassy shortage of spies – Reese gets partnered with veteran black ops agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta), the principal source of this film's R rating. Wax is bald, bearded, foulmouthed, amoral, violent, and perhaps too fond of coke, hookers, and his sidearm. Rhys Meyers carries the plot, while Travolta handles the action sequences.

From Paris with Love is full of action scenes and shootouts, though only one strikes me as at all inspired. Early in the film, Wax and Reese "infiltrate" (i.e. ventilate) a drug dealer's compound. Wax rushes up a spiral staircase, instructing his protege to stay a flight below him. The camera lingers on Rhys Meyers as we hear gunshots, screams, and thuds. Bodies bounce off the stairwell and roll to Rhys Meyers' feet, but we never see the violence. It's a funny and effective sequence, doubtless the film's high point. This isn't to say the rest of the movie's action is bad; it's just not terribly good, though I admit I did like the machine-gun-wielding chefs in the Chinese restaurant gunfight...

If not always plausible or original, the action sequences are at least shot well, with perhaps one exception – they're all well-choreographed and easy to follow. The one rather poorly done gunfight does at least have John Travolta running in slow motion towards the camera firing two Uzis at once as plaster mannequins shatter around him. At times, From Paris with Love gets so campy one imagines it as an eighties action movie.

For most of its running time, From Paris with Love is an ultraviolent comedy of bad manners, so the film's forays into moral ambiguity and/or seriousness seem out-of-place, especially since they are so quickly forgotten. At one point, several French police officers get blown up because Wax cannot save them without endangering thousands of lives; Reese protests and tries to save the ill-fated cops, but they die anyway. In the next scene, everyone's making jokes; Travolta even alludes to his character in Pulp Fiction. Our hero also recovers far too quickly after an absurd plot twist involving Reese's Parisian fiancée (Kasia Smutniak). While I've never been one for political correctness, it does seem rather odd that the film's villains are a) mostly ethnic and b) generally nameless. Heck, I'm not sure we ever hear the head terrorist speak – he lingers threateningly in a few scenes, drives a car in a chase sequence, and finally gets blown up by John Travolta's rocket launcher.

I've already spoken a bit about this film's plot, but I don't know that I've conveyed quite how ridiculous it is. Not only is it ridden with plot holes, but the film expects us to believe that most US intelligence cars are equipped with hidden rocket launchers, machine guns, and magnums. Travolta's character wears a watch that uplinks to and controls spy satellites. At least he doesn't drive an invisible car. The central terrorist plot is ridiculously over-elaborate and full of unnecessary risks. Characters act excited about the prospect of enemy intel, but then, for the sake of audience reaction, kill terrorists they could easily have taken alive. Most action movies, it's true, have such silly plot contrivances, but few movies hang together quite so poorly as this one.

Despite the film's title, From Paris with Love doesn't do too much with its setting. Yes, we see the Eiffel Tower and we hear "J'ai Deux Amours" on the radio, but the story could take place just about anywhere. It's a shame; there are few cities more cinematic than Paris. I didn't need a shootout in the Louvre or a fistfight atop Notre Dame, but couldn't we have had just a little more sense of place?

Taken was a great bad movie; From Paris with Love is only an OK bad film. It's a lot of fun, but all too often it strains our credulity without actually thrilling us. Its nods towards drama embarrass, while its action is by-the-numbers. Alas, it also does little with its Parisian setting. There are far worse action movies out there, but I wouldn't recommend seeing this one in theaters. Wait for the Netflix or don't watch it at all. Between this and Edge of Darkness, I think I'm done with trashy action flicks for a while. Any good art films on the horizon?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Closing Its Doors. For Good.

During the airing of Dollhouse's series finale on Friday night, Fox cut off the show in the middle of what I can only assume was the final scene. Considering this show's short, tumultuous history, what could have been more appropriate?

Dollhouse should not have had a second season. The show's ratings were consistently in the toilet. Countless shows have gotten sacked after one or two episodes with the sort of ratings Dollhouse invariably received over its 25 episode run on Fox. Perhaps the folks at the network felt guilty about their idiotic treatment of Joss Whedon's last show, Firefly. Perhaps they knew that Whedon's rabid fanbase would guarantee great DVD sales. Perhaps they had lower expectations in this age of internet, video games and cable TV. Regardless, Dollhouse's improbably long run had nothing to do with the show's quality. It was too damn inconsistent to sell on the grounds that it was a critical hit. Time and again, Dollhouse would make fools of pundits like me, following moments of genuine brilliance with disastrous stumbles. So, now that the show has reached a finale that was as much of a mixed bag as ever, how much will the show really be missed?

After the First Season ended on an extremely high note, I, like many others, was convinced that Dollhouse had found its groove. Mr. Keeley reviewed the Second Season premiere, "Vows," as a newcomer to the series and approved of it – with a few reservations. Those reservations were not misplaced and, for viewers of the First Season, the episode's flaws were disconcerting. "Vows" displayed far too many of the issues that plagued the series' earliest episodes, as I explain later in that post myself. With the following episode, "Instinct," the series bottomed out. An absolutely boneheaded premise was coupled with little-to-no advancement of any major plotlines.

I was already wondering if I would bother to watch the next episode. The realization that Dollhouse would never be a consistently good show dawned on me.

This is partly why the episode that came three weeks later was such a revelation. To call "Belonging" bold is an understatement. It told the story of Priya (Dichen Lachman), a young woman who is the object of a self-indulgent doctor's desires. This doctor, Nolan Kinnard (Vincent Ventresca), tries to sweep Priya off of her feet upon meeting her, but she quickly comes to hate his decadent lifestyle. After she publicly rejects him, he hatches a complex plan with a simple goal: enslaving her. The result is that Priya becomes Sierra, a doll whom he buys on a regular basis – a doll imprinted as a pliable, approving version of Priya.

If most network television dramas made their darkest qualities so plainly visible as Dollhouse did in this episode, they would be be cancelled. Only the show's lack of popularity can explain why Fox was allowed to air this, one of the most horrifying hours of television I have ever seen. For, as sick as the premise is, the unmitigated moral ambiguity of its conclusion is what leaves the deepest mark. When Topher (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse's typically amoral scientist, discovers Sierra's true origins, Nolan is exposed. Nolan demands exclusive use of Sierra by threatening to use his power to destroy the Dollhouse. Topher is forced to comply. Instead of giving Nolan his version of Priya, however, he secretly imprints her with her original personality. He explains the situation to her and, powerless to help any further, gives her to Nolan.

It is not long before Nolan realizes that Priya is not as compliant as she should be. With this realization, he attempts to rape her. She fights back and kills him. Topher, still concerned for her, finds her in shock next to Nolan's body. In order to save both Priya and himself from punishment, he is forced to dispose of Nolan's body by cutting it into pieces. The experience leaves Topher emotionally decimated. The moment when he is forced to wipe the mind of Priya – a person for whom he has come to deeply care – is perhaps even more painful. This character once embodied the gleefully amoral scientific progress that defines the Dollhouse. With the conclusion of this episode, however, he had borne all of the pain and horror that his work could cause.

It is tough to hate a show that can be this good.

Soon after "Belonging" aired, the Dollhouse cast and crew must have learned that the show would not be back for a third season. This is evident in the marked change of pace that occurs after this episode. Suddenly, what seemed like seasons worth of plot was being poured into a few episodes.

Rarely do viewers get to experience the work of a group of talented writers who are holding nothing back. This led to a run of several good episodes, a few of which rank among the best of the series. The world of Dollhouse was deepened. The characters were developed further. The plot moved with the sort of self-assurance that only a show with its end in sight can. Even some of the vagaries and weak spots from earlier in the series were revisited and improved. It was apparent that Dollhouse was set for a fantastic finale... until "The Hollow Men" came along.

This, the penultimate episode, was a veritable mess. A huge twist that suddenly cast Boyd (Harry Lennix), a beloved hero of the Dollhouse universe, as the chief villain of the series backfired in countless ways. Nothing in his newly-revealed, evil plot explained away 24 episodes of unwavering heroism, and the purpose of that evil plot was never coherently explained. Furthermore, the episode threatened to sully what brilliance came before it. The revelation about Boyd not only provided a wildly unsatisfying end for a consistently enigmatic character, but it cast a shadow over all of his previous actions; the severe damage done to Boyd was retroactive. Also, the idea that a show as morally complex as Dollhouse could boil the solution to all of its plot threads down to killing one villain and destroying one computer mainframe was downright laughable.

"The Hollow Men" was clearly a casualty of dwindling budgets and quickly approaching deadlines. Most of the episode had the usually-excellent cast running around a series of generic hallways, barely able to hide their confusion as they performed scenes that had little consistency with the nuanced characters they had worked so hard to build. This was a letdown of the high order of Neon Genesis Evangelion's finale. While the episode was thankfully not Dollhouse's last, the bad taste it left will remain a reminder of how the show was inconsistent to the very end.

The series finale was far more satisfying. While it did create a few plotholes for the sake of bringing characters together, it remained true to the theme, tone and characters of Dollhouse; under the circumstances, it was the best farewell for which fans could have asked.

There is much for which fans of Dollhouse can be thankful. That the series got a second season, much less a chance to provide closure is something of a miracle. Fox was downright charitable in letting the series continue as long as it did. The Second Season had a number of truly fantastic episodes that easily overcame the few bombs. Nevertheless, being a fan of Dollhouse was an abusive experience. Dollhouse may have improved over its mediocre first episodes, but it never gained stability. When it was good, it thrilled like no other show could, but that rendered its disappointments all the more painful. That is why perhaps the greatest thing for which fans should be thankful is that the show has finally come to an end. In the afterlife of DVD, those disappointments can be omitted with the press of a button.