Friday, March 26, 2010

A Prophet

A Prophet is that rare breed of film that is hard to come by. It has no firm character introduction, no distinct plot, no wasted dialogue on pointless exposition, no glorified violence; in short: it’s the atypical film of America cinema. Which is probably why it bleeds originality and begs to be seen.

Again, in chronicling the “plot”, there’s not much to say. A 19-year-old kid goes to prison, gets forced to join a gang or die, and slowly starts to make a name for himself in the six years he has to serve. But this isn’t the same gangster-rising-up-to-become-prison-leader flick we’ve all seen before. No. The “prophet” in A Prophet has no crowning moment of glory, no “I am the man” moment of self-gratification, which is interesting. The story evolves in such a seamless manner that when it’s over, you actually feel like you’ve witnessed this kid’s entire six years in the joint.

Casting an actor willing to go for broke doesn’t hurt, and Tahar Rahim nails it. Switching flawless from French to Arabic, depending on who he is trying to dupe, Rahim casts you under his pretentious spell; you aren’t sure if his character is either very smart, or very stupid. Every move the kid makes is a life-risking gamble, and damn if it isn’t a thrill to follow him.

But I gotta say, the standout performance is from Niels Arestrup, who plays an aged, terrifying gang leader. The dude is short, small and white-haired; not too intimating. But by the end of the movie, you’re squirming in your seat every time he comes on screen. It’s saying a lot that Arestrup’s final scene in this film is the movie’s standout moment.

I can easily see why A Prophet was nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, but that doesn’t mean the film is not without its faults. There are a few brief scenes in the movie (all involving distorted, dark, slow motion photography) where I’m not exactly sure what the hell is going on. One looks like Rahim is stabbing a guy with a fork, another are of deer running down a road. Maybe I missed something? Maybe A Prophet is a film that grows better with multiple viewings? Either way, you’re in for something new, for better or worse. A-

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Green Zone

When Barbara Streisand said, “Well… the time has come,” at this year’s Oscar’s, I don’t think she was referring to the fact that a woman had finally won Best Director. I believe she meant that The Hurt Locker has successfully ruined the war film genre, as in: “The time has come for you to do better.”

Let’s face it: we should give every movie a fair chance, but before the most recent Best Picture winner, there was not a single great Iraq War film. And I suspect the same will be said in the years after The Hurt Locker’s release.

Green Zone is just boring, plain and simple. Which is odd, given its talented director, motivated star and plentiful action scenes. The whole movie has a CIA boys vs. Pentagon boys B-movie delivery. The plot doesn’t amount to much: Damon is a chief officer in the early stages of our current war. He’s in charge of hunting down WMD's based on intel from an anonymous source. Problem is (as we all know), Damon and his crew keep coming up short on finding the weapons.

Matty gets suspicious of the intel and, with a little CIA bird whispering in his ear (a wasted Brendan Gleeson) and a snoopy Wall Street Journal writer (the token female-in-a-war-movie role goes to: Amy Ryan) whispering in the other, Damon decides to go all rouge and win the war himself. Greg Kinnear shows up as a douche bag CIA suit who is basically blamed for the entire Iraq War starting in the first place. Huh?

Director Paul Greengrass is a crafty dude. He redefined the action film with his Bourne sequels and created one of the most important films of this century with United 93, but his Green Zone is as cold as ice.

Sometimes a film comes off as not very interesting because the movie is based on an issue the audience already knows to be false. For example, we all know that no WMD's were found in Iraq, so the tension, and mystery, are completely gone. However, this is a tough argument to make, because it goes both ways.

Everyone knows that the passengers of United 93 aren’t going to make it. No one expected for Greengrass to go all Tarantino on us and rewrite history. So, why does United 93 work, but Green Zone fail? I’m not too sure. It must have something to do how the film is developed and delivered. You actually felt like you were a passenger on United 93, fighting for your life. But in Green Zone, you couldn’t be more of an audience member. Checking your watch multiple times, aching for something interesting to happen. D+

Remember Me

I’m ashamed to admit that I actually gave this movie a chance. I forced myself to see it due to its hyped denouement, and I wasn’t expecting… anything, but I actually liked some of the early scenes.

Let me clarify. The editing and cinematography were initially crafty before become annoyingly overused. But the performances from nearly every actor, the dialogue, and the over direction fell flat from the beginning.

You know the plot: two young lovers (Robert Pattinson, from those awful vampire movies, and Lost’s Emilie da Ravin), both with death-in-the-family backgrounds, meet and forge an intense, not-at-all believable romance. Snore.

For one, the movie doesn’t even bother to explain its many subplots. Pattinson’s little sister gets picked on at school, yeah… and? Ravin’s dad (a bored Chris Cooper) has too much to drink and violently lashes out one night, yeah… and? Pattinson’s dad (Pierce Brosnan, the film’s only remotely redeemable quality) is a colossal-sized prick, yeah… and?

I imagine anyone with an average IQ will be able to “predict” the “twist” ending. An ending that offended me in ways I didn’t initially realize. Where does director Allen Coulter (who did good work with The Sopranos) get off? What warrants his cheesy ass romance with an ending of such monumental proportions? This is blatant exploitation of an American tragedy. And it pisses me off. Before its final moments, I was considering a D+, but this is the easiest F I’ve ever given.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Damn, what a background: the flick Roman Polanski finished from jail. He got the film in the can while in was in the can. That’s all I got.

The Ghost Writer - a tense, taunt new thriller - offers up Polanski’s best movie in decades (leaving out The Pianist, of course). It teases and shocks; convinces and turns; in short, it’s the best thing I’ve seen so far this calendar year. But that really isn’t saying much, so let me explain.

In atypical American cinema fashion, the first few scenes of the film do not get explained with crummy exposition dialogue, but rather by daring the viewer to guess for themselves. We’re introduced to a sly, sarcastic writer (Ewan McGregor, never better), who makes his living as a “ghost writer” (the dude who actually writes politicians’ “memoirs”), for the previous British Prime Minister (played to sheer perfection by Pierce Brosnan).

The writer, who is eponymously referred to as The Ghost, was replaced after his predecessor “accidentally” fell off a giant ferry boat and drowned. The Ghost moves into the Prime Minister’s secluded New England home (actually shot in Germany) and dives head first into some serious copy editing.

Like most of Polanski’s work, there is far more going on under the surface. The Prime Minister is deep in controversy over allegedly allowing torture against terrorist prisoners. His wife (Olivia Williams, the best I’ve seen her) is pissed that her husband gives more attention to his assistant (the superb Kim Cattrall, yes, the sex fiend from Sex and the City can act). And the story goes round and round.

As I’ve conveniently hinted at with my annoying parentheses, the acting in The Ghost Writer makes the movie. The leads all play their parts to utter brilliance, but look closely for some knockout supporting roles. Look there’s Jim Belushi (!) as a fast-talking publisher, Timothy Hutton as a sleazy lawyer, Tom Wilkinson as a shady businessman, and the great Eli Wallach as the neighbor who knows all.

The Ghost Writer is a very good movie, but I can’t lie, the end falters pretty badly. It doesn’t completely ruin the flick but without giving anything away, let me just say that a character does something that is so against their character’s sensibilities, that it makes you think: “Oh right, I’m watching a movie.” Again, by no means a total buzz kill. I mean come on, the dude did finish the movie from jail. A-

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Should be called Alice in Wonder What the Hell is Going On? I mean, I’m honestly exhausted just thinking about this overdone mess. I make it a point to watch a film in its entirety if I’m going to review it. That means, no walking out, no bathroom breaks, no falling asleep, etc. I give every movie a fair shot. But film’s as bad as this make my loyal movie-going habits very hard to follow.

I’d try to tell you what it’s about, specifically how it deviates from Lewis Carroll’s original story, but I could hardly understand what was being said.

An adult Alice (played by Mia Wasikowska, who was a sheer revelation in HBOs In Treatment) stumbles down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, which is far from wonderful, both visually and cinematically. Somehow, with a consistent wave of incoherence, we figure out that this is actually Alice’s second time in Wonderland, but who cares? What significance does this give? I have no idea, but the characters spend an awful long time talking about it.

I’m not even going to explain the plot any further, because you know for the most part what it’s all about. Let’s focus more on the shallow path Tim Burton’s career has recently gone down. I may get some flack for this, but Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride, Big Fish, Planet of the Apes; they are all bad films. Some way too over-the-top, some overly sentimental; it’s all just… bad.

What happened to the guy that gave us insight into new worlds via Edward Scissorhands, Bettle Juice, and Ed Wood? I want the Tim Burton we all love to come back.

In the meantime we’re stuck with this meandering mess, which I guess the kiddies will enjoy, but really, does it take that much to visually stimulate a 6-year-old? The 3-D effects are lame and never once used to the film’s benefit. Johnny Depp, obnoxiously caked in makeup, is damn near incomprehensible through a bullshit accent. Anne Hathaway looks like the ugly uni-brow chick from Dodgeball, and Helena Bonham Carter, yet again, is just doing her husband a favor.

I tried to cut this Alice in Wonderland a break. But if it looks like shit and sounds like shit, it must be shit. I’ll admit, Wasikowska has an early charm that should take her places. Other than that, this film is a date you can be very very late for. D-

Brooklyn’s Finest

If you are in the mood to laugh your ass off at actors you thought were good, delivering some of the worst scripted dialogue in years, then Brooklyn’s Finest is right up your alley.

So what we’ve got are three cops, each with their own boring-as-all-hell plotline (none of which ever connect by the way). One is old, one is bad, and one is confused. Boo who. Look, there’s Richard Gere, with a lousy accent and even worse facial expressions. Do we actually believe that his character wakes up every morning with a shot of bourbon and a lame suicide attempt? Awful.

Then we’ve got Ethan Hawke (who is slowly becoming one of the most blatant over actors working in American film) as a cop with a big family but little funds. So hey, why not try to rob a half dozen thugged-out, gun-toting black dudes and steal their drug money? Great idea!

Then, right as we’ve given up all hope, we entrust ourselves in Don Cheadle. He can save this two hour and 20 minute dud, right? Not a chance. Sorry Don, Johnny Depp portrayed the whole cop-in-way-too-undercover bit far better in Donnie Brasco.

Brooklyn’s Finest is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who hasn’t made a good (or even decent) flick since the mediocre Training Day in 2001. Some may think that Tears of the Sun was badass, or that King Arthur rocked, or that Shooter was oh so clever. Not me. Maybe if Fuqua tried a story that’s never been done, it’d be somewhat enjoyable. (Note: according to IMDB, Fuqua’s next film is titled Pablo Escobar; please hold your applause until the end of the review).

I was actually rooting for Brooklyn’s Finest, and although my interest and hope died early, I felt like the Cheadle story was enough to not make the film a total disaster. That was until the movie’s climax, when everything went to shit. I mean, way deeper shit than it already was in. F

The Crazies

Loyal readers to this blog will know that if there’s one thing I hate about American cinema, it is the damn repetitiveness of most mainstream movies. If The Crazies was the first small-town-infested-with-deadly-virus-that-makes-innocent-citizens-go-nuts movie I ever saw, it’d probably be pretty cool. But because there are nearly a half a dozen of these produced each year, it is nothing new.

Don’t get me wrong, I love leads Timothy Olyphant (who should’ve won Emmy’s for his work in HBOs Deadwood) and Radha Mitchell (who can make crappy flicks like Feast of Love and Melinda and Melinda bearable), but they can’t save this washed-up mess.

You get the idea. Throughout this movie, I felt like the director was wasting my time. And I don’t want to do the same here with you. D