August 31, 2010

Eat Pray Love - 2010

Director: Ryan Murphy
Writers: Ryan Murphy & Jennifer Salt
Starring: Julia Roberts, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Javier Bardem

"To lose balance for love sometimes is part of living a balanced life." Elizabeth Gilbert (Roberts), a New York journalist writing a piece on a medicine man in Bali, asks the man about her relationship. He predicts she will be married twice, one short and one long, so she instantly begins to doubt her marriage to Steven (Crudup). One night, after praying to God for the first time, she nigh-spontaneously realizes she doesn't want to be married anymore. After a brief fling with an actor (Franco) from a play she wrote, she decides to fulfill her dreams of world travel by indulging her body through Italian food and her soul through a stay at an ashram in India before returning to Bali at the behest of the medicine man.

Despite this film's 38% on RottenTomatoes, I went into it wanting to like it. Julia Roberts is a great actress, and America's Sweetheart for a reason. This movie is a misuse of her talent. I can only fault the story so much, though, as it actually happened (more or less). They needed her to make this work, though, because otherwise you end up hating the protagonist when she leaves her husband instead of working out their marital issues (I still hated her for it). Franco is one of the high points of the film, despite his little screentime. His character provided some great laughs, with exchanges like this:

"How did you become a vegetarian?"
"I saw some cows slaughtered once."

Sounds better than it looks on paper, I promise. Crudup dancing (albeit in an inappropriate flashback) is good for a chuckle too, and (apparently by accident) he produces some sympathy post-divorce. And as much as I've enjoyed Jenkins in the past (you may recall his work as the bald gym worker in
Burn After Reading), his well-accented Texan in this film's tendency to refer to Roberts as "Groceries" bugged me, reminiscent as it was of Jay calling Silent Bob (both of Kevin Smith fame) "Lunchbox," the difference being that Roberts is thin enough for her clavicle to poke out for half the film and a little bigger. Bardem's role in this magnifies that from No Country For Old Men; without the funny haircut, cattle gun, and coin, he's a total pushover. If you're a woman who has ever had relationship troubles, or wants to travel the world, see this movie; if you're anyone else, take a pass on it. D

August 29, 2010

Legends of the Fall - 1994

Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: Susan Shilliday & William D. Wittliff
Starring: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond

"Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends." Colonel William Ludlow (Hopkins) and his sons Alfred (Quinn), Tristan (Pitt), and Samuel live out in the middle of nowhere Montana. Despite the objections of their father, the three brothers hop the border and join the Canadian military when World War I starts brewing, and the soon-to-be-married Samuel dies in a hail of German bullets. In addition to less severe injuries sustained by Alfred, the entire family is shaken by these events, notably Tristan. What unfolds is an epic tale of self-exploration in post-World War I western America.

Before seeing this film, I had never heard of Zwick, Shilliday, or Wittliff. Upon completion, I know why; in the dichotomy presented in the above quote from the film, they clearly fall in the "crazy" category, not "legends." Unable to cope with his self-supposed failure to protect his younger brother in the war, Tristan completely deserts his family (including the wife that was nearly Samuel's) to grow out his hair and beard and tour the world, cutting out the hearts of anything he can get his hands on, as he did to his brother's corpse (because the WWI dead didn't get sent home to their respective countries, apparently). The family that the story follows is a motley crew of accents, with Quinn sounding unplaceable, Pitt vaguely southern, and he pretty much always sounds. Oh, and the whole story is told by a Native American character that they mention would "never lower himself to speaking English." Ponder that for a moment. Said character also somehow outlives Tristan, even though he was already an old man in the 1920s when Tristan had just started his family. Legends of the Fall? More like Legends of the Fail. I would not recommend anyone waste 135 minutes of their life watching this. F

August 13, 2010

The Life of David Gale - 2003

Director: Alan Parker
Writer: Charles Randolph
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney

"No one who looks through that glass sees a person; they see a crime. I'm not David Gale. I'm a murderer and a rapist...four days shy of his execution." This harrowing story follows David Gale (Spacey), a former philosophy professor and member of anti-death penalty organization Deathwatch, as he tells the story of being falsely accused of the rape and murder of colleague Constance Harraway (Linney) to a reporter (Winslet) who is his last-ditch effort at avoiding his last days coming prematurely.

Certain movies exist that I really enjoy 95% of the way through, and then the ending leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Life of David Gale is one of those. Spacey is in top form, Winslet is the most convincing Brit-as-American I've ever seen, and Linney is superb in her emotionally and physically pained role. The plot's very well written, and makes some great points about its controversial subject. There's some wonky cinematography in there as well, but it's nowhere near as off-putting as the revelation that Spacey's character drops on the audience in the last half hour of the film. I can't say any more, but it's one of those moments that makes you want to throw a heavy object at your screen. Overall grade: B

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - 2010

Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Edgar Wright & Michael Bacall
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin

"If you want something, you have to fight for it. Step up your game, Scott. Break out the L-word." Scott Pilgrim (Cera), a jobless 22-year-old in Toronto currently dating 17-year old Knives Chau (Wong), meets literally the girl of his dreams Ramona Flowers (Winstead). Upon an abrupt breakup with Knives, Scott soon learns that to prove himself worthy of Ramona, he must defeat her seven evil exes in hand-to-hand combat.

What can I say about the glory that is Edgar Wright? After proving his worth on the small screen with the TV show Spaced, he took on the zombie genre with Shaun of the Dead and followed it up with the buddy cop homage that was Hot Fuzz a few years later. Now he's crossed the Atlantic and made his first big-budget Hollywood film (although it was shot entirely in Toronto, Canada), and I couldn't be more pleased with the result. The film's incidental music is inspired, the fight scenes are an art form unto themselves (almost as much as the plot-centric music provided by Beck and Broken Social Scene), and it's in the vein of films like Watchmen and Sin City that have seemingle filmed panels in motion and put them onscreen (certain bits of backstory are literally shown as bits of the graphic novel). Fans of the original work should also be pleased, as long as they aren't overly purist; while the movie's a bit action heavy, compressing a good portion of the less visually dynamic bits (especially in volumes three through five), it's a fairly loyal adaptation overall. Some big moments are missing (the chase through Honest Ed's with Todd Ingram and Knives's dad slicing through a streetcar with a katana, for instance), but even despite a slightly changed ending, it's got the action, humor, and heart that made Scott Pilgrim the graphic novel successful to begin with, and that's what matters at the end of the day. A+

August 12, 2010

Winter's Bone - 2010

Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes

Ree (Lawrence) has a terrible life. Not only does she live in the Ozarks (a part of the country full of the sort of people who hunt their own food and join antigovernment militia groups), but her dad (a known meth cooker) is on the run, having put up their house for his bond, and her mom is mute and incapable of performing her maternal duties. This leaves Ree, along with some occasional help from her uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), with the Herculean task of both raising her younger brother and sister while searching for her father so their house is not taken.

Reviewing this movie puts me in a weird place. Is it well-made? Undoubtedly. Are there some wonderful performances from our (mostly unknown) cast? Certainly. I personally can't wait to see Lawrence as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, and Hawkes was nigh unrecognizable from the last time I saw him onscreen. The cinematography makes it all fall apart for me. Something about the way that it's shot lends the idea that at any moment, the characters are going to talk to the camera, thus revealing the true documentary nature. I don't mean to belittle the plight of Ozark dwellers, who I'm sure have been in similar situations to the plot of the movie; I just found it off-putting. It's also a little light on backstory--not a lot of specifics on how a few of the characters know each other, what happened to them before the events of the film, that sort of thing. I guess I'll have to give this a B- for now, all things considered.

August 6, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire - 2010

Director: Daniel Alfredson

Writers: Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg

Starring: Noomi Rapace & Michael Nyqvist

The second film of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy continues the adventures of hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist). In this follow-up to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist takes up a co-worker's investigation of a sex trafficking ring following the death of said co-worker and his girlfriend, and Salander must clear her name when framed for their murders (in addition to the murder of her guardian).

This film is head and shoulders above most of what Hollywood produces nowadays (Cats and Dogs 2: the Revenge of Kitty Galore, for example), but it was a little disappointing compared to the first film. Blomkvist doesn't have as much to do in this film, but this has a silver lining: a lot of Salander's important backstory is exposed, ending the shroud of secrecy the character was cloaked in for the first film. Fire's plot is also a bit more straightforward, and includes a couple trite moments. My main fault with the film, however (which I won't go into too much for spoiler purposes) is that the big reveal in the climax requires a major event from the first film to be considered in a different light than I understood it at the time. It also ends on a negative (and slightly ambiguous) note, very much the Empire Strikes Back of this Swedish saga.

It was brought to my attention that I should start explicitly rating the films I see, rather than just a yes/no. I can't think of a personalized replacement to replace the hackneyed star system (suggestions are appreciated), so I'll go with the slightly-less-used school grade version instead. This one gets a B+.