Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Movie Reviews: Clearing Off the Table

In the spirit of fall premieres and getting this blog ready for a full (and hopefully more prolific) fall season, I first knew I needed to update that sad little sidebar over there. Step 1: refresh the movie reviews! These stretch back a bit into the summer, but consider it making up for lost posts.

Never Let Me Go
I had just finished the book last week, which was maybe not the ideal setup for me. Even in the best book-to-film adaptations, you can't help but connect more dots than the movie does, and you end up wanting to hand out addendum sheets to the audience so you can explain why such-and-such gesture means so much more because "In the book..." But with that issue aside, and allowing for a slight dissatisfaction with too much voice-over at the end, I could not have been more devastated by the cool, heartbreaking beauty of this movie. Mark Romanek figured out a way to tell this story where the restraint of the filmmaking matches the characters' almost dreamlike walk through life. I've seen several criticisms of the story that boil down to wanting the characters to fight back against the system and receive some kind of catharsis through struggle. I'm sure that would have made a fine movie, but it's not this one. This is a movie about childlike obedience woven into our fabric so well we keep it ad adults. It's about clinging to life not through struggle but by staring death in the face. Speaking of which, Andrew Garfield's big, open face just totally wrecked me, but the entire cast is pulling its weight, down to the scene-and-a-half's worth of work by Domhnall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough. It's better not to know too much about the story going in, even though the book held its "secrets" far closer to the vest than the movie does. But it helps to let the world of the movie unfold for you all at once. B+/A-

Animal Kingdom
Strong enough that I wound up thinking of Goodfellas on one or two occasions but even stronger that it carves a place for itself inside a very crowded crime-family genre. Two things deserve the most credit for helping elevate it, one of which is the already much ballyhooed performance by Jacki Weaver as the -- as Danielle Staub would say -- MATE-ree-ark of what turns out to be a frighteningly disorganized criminal empire. There's a slow burn to Weaver's performance that progresses not by revelations but by degrees, and the calmness with which she switches gears could strip the meat from your bones. The film's other secret weapon is its virtuosic building of tension. A car backing out of a driveway, a man standing at the foot of a bed, an art gallery rendezvous -- all of them pitched to the shattering point but never quite getting there. The cast is brilliant, in that Winter's Bone way where even their faces seem utterly perfect. If you're lucky enough to have it playing near you, see it. A-

Piranha 3D
This is a movie that does everything it sets out to do and not a bit more. Even better, Alexandre Aja delivers boobs-n-gore without the obnoxious self-congratulation of an Eli Roth (who, yes, makes a cameo as a wet t-shirt maestro, and you'll enjoy what becomes of him). The piranha kill in ways that are overwhelming (which occasionally short-circuits the 3-D technology, granted) and/or inventive, though the best kill of all is one of the few fish-free deaths. In terms of the acting (...I know, but stick with me), Elisabeth Shue is a total trooper and gives a believable, wink-free performance. Meanwhile, the Oscar campaign for Jerry O'Connell as a barely-veiled Joe Francis character starts with me. And if there were a category for Best Ham-tastic Cameo, I'd be churning out For Your Consideration ads for Christopher Lloyd too. B+

I Am Love
I so wanted Tilda Swinton's dissatisfied adopted-Italian character to return to Russia at the end so that I'd have been able to call this "One woman's erotic journey from Milan to Minsk." It didn't stop me from humming the only five known bars to this song for the next week or so. Anyway, Tilda Swinton once again gets a chance to show off her versatility while keeping in touch with that very Swintonian otherworldliness that we all love so much. The film itself doesn't always trust her, really laying on the horn when it comes to certain visual cues (yes, they're making love in the grass just like ALL OF NATURE -- I'm sure we'd have grasped that without the diversion into Planet Earth). A good movie, but not the great one many have raved about. B-

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
This one I just didn't get. Not as in "didn't understand," but I honestly do not see what other people see in this. I get why people would WANT to love this. Edgar Wright is one of the more root-able names in Hollywood, and it tries really (REALLY) hard to expand the language of movies to fit a "video game generation" that I am a part of, even if I don't understand the full vocabulary. But why anyone thought this particular story -- of feckless Scott Pilgrim and his even less substantial dream girl and the Seven Evil Exes conceit that sounds like a good idea until you realize you have seven (well, six) tedious battle scenes to endure -- would be the one to bring us to the promised land, I have no idea. But I'm the guy who doesn't see the appeal of the graphic novels either, and even the Pilgrim haters seem to agree that the books were better. I've already sung the praises of the supporting cast, so let me just weigh in on the whole Michael Cera Issue. I don't have a problem with an actor playing the same type in multiple movies -- there are actors who are chameleons and there are actors who are archetypes, and we need both of them. But I don't think that was Cera's problem in this movie. Scott Pilgrim, as conceived in the comics and screenplay, is certainly enough of a departure from Cera's sweet, shy yearner; he just doesn't give that good of a performance. He registers blankness too often when he should be registering apathy or weakness or even ironic bravery, and that blankness leaves the viewer nowhere to go but to project his well-established persona into that negative space. I suppose it's six of one and a half dozen of the other when it comes to Cera shouldering the blame for Pilgrim's failure, though there really should be more to spread around. C

Here's another one that knew exactly the kind of movie it wanted to be -- the kind of dumb, fast, star-driven thriller that I look for in the summer. Thankfully, it delivered where so many others failed. Here's where I need you to LOOK AWAY if you care at all about not being spoiled for this movie ... okay? ... spoiler time .... OK, so where does the Liev Schrieber reveal rank on the list of most obvious secret bad guys in movie history? You've got a movie about secret Russian sleeper agents within the U.S. government and we're NOT supposed to suspect Liev? He's got the map of Vladivostok written on his face! B

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I can't account for my semi-love of Scott Pilgrim. The supporting does indeed rule, but I'm not as annoyed by Michael Cera as I usually am (and I actually find Anna Kendrick funny here). It's weird and irreverent and probably the most fun of the year for me.

The more I move away from Salt the more appreciation I have for it, not great not even VERY good but definitely sure of itself, and at the end of the day that counts for a whole lot at times.