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Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Detective-story / action-movie hybrid doesn't always work
This new "Sherlock Holmes" is an attempt to make the iconic Victorian sleuth cool for the blockbuster generation by punching up the story with fights, explosions, and steampunk style. And, while I'm not morally opposed to the idea of an action-hero Holmes, it makes the movie kind of a strange hybrid. Action movies work best when they are "dumb" (that is, when they have a relatively simple story), but Sherlock Holmes movies work best when they are "smart," with a twisty mystery that requires Holmes' intelligence to solve. Therefore, the plot of "Sherlock Holmes" is way too convoluted and contrived for what should be a simple action movie. But it's not really satisfying as a mystery story, either, because the constant onslaught of action scenes means that the audience never has time to stop and think about the clues.
Additionally, the story, about an evil lord and his secret mystical society plotting to take over the world, seems like the Victorian equivalent of a Dan Brown novel. It's a lot of hokum, in short, and I couldn't get myself to really care about it.
So this movie would really be terrible if it didn't star Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Their presence proves that even in a silly blockbuster, it's worthwhile to cast people who know how to act and entertain an audience. Because Downey always comes across as the smartest guy in the room, as well as a total eccentric, he was an inspired choice for the role of Holmes. The best scenes in the movie are the ones where he and Jude Law's Watson bicker like an old married couple; they make a great buddy-movie pairing.
Rachel McAdams doesn't have much to do in the role of Irene Adler, the designated love-interest, but she still seems miscast. Irene is supposed to be an international woman of mystery, but McAdams comes off as too young and too contemporary.
So the intelligence in this movie comes from Downey's performance as Holmes, which I guess is as it should be; I had just hoped for more intelligence in the writing and direction as well.
My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Where beauty becomes self-indulgence
Any time you put the lovely Norah Jones, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz in a film directed by Wong Kar-Wai, you're guaranteed to get a beautiful-looking movie. Unfortunately, visual beauty is just about the only thing that "My Blueberry Nights" has to recommend it.
The movie is set in kind of a fantasy version of the United States--a place depicted mostly at nighttime, with neon lights and rain-slicked streets. There are no fast-food restaurants, only homey cafes and juke joints seen near closing time. The citizens are either remarkably beautiful, or else they're crusty character actors like David Strathairn. Everybody enjoys making ponderous pronouncements about love. Nobody has a sense of humor.
The main character of "My Blueberry Nights," Elizabeth (Jones), is poorly conceived. A New Yorker who is suffering from a bad breakup, she decides to leave town and travel cross-country working as a waitress. (This is not how most women behave when broken-hearted. Especially not when a guy who looks like Jude Law is pining away for them back in NYC.) Because we don't sufficiently understand what compelled Elizabeth to go on her road trip, we also don't understand what specific lessons she is supposed to be learning from the people that we see her encounter along the way. And when a character is this hard to understand, it seems unfair to entrust her to an amateur actress like Jones.
Portman has an intriguing role as a young cardsharp that Elizabeth meets in Nevada; and Strathairn finds real pathos in his somewhat stereotypical role, an alcoholic cop in Memphis. Weisz plays Strathairn's unfaithful wife and gets to deliver a long, teary monologue in one take. But this is just another example of the self-indulgence of "My Blueberry Nights": it becomes more about Weisz's acting technique than about her character's predicament.
"My Blueberry Nights" is not a painful viewing experience, and at certain moments, it's even seductive. Still, it's appropriate that its title refers to a dessert, because it's a piece of art-house fluff.
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Bumbling detective in a bungled movie
"A Shot in the Dark" is the first Inspector Clouseau movie I've seen, and I'm rather confused as to why everyone has anointed it a classic. After seeing "Dr Strangelove" I was ready to declare Peter Sellers one of the greatest comic geniuses of all time, but this signature role of his left me very disappointed. Well, perhaps the bumbling French detective could be a truly great comic figure if he were the center of a really good movie--which "A Shot in the Dark" is not.
I think that a lot of problems with the movie lie with the direction. The opening scenes, especially, are taken at a ridiculously slow pace--I expected a fast and farcical comedy, but I got a lot of awkward pauses and stagy long takes. The whole movie would be much funnier if it were tightened up and edited with a snappier rhythm.
Other aspects of "A Shot in the Dark" are equally lazy. For most of the movie Sellers employs a light French accent, until in the final scene he suddenly acquires a much heavier and more ridiculous accent, saying "beump" instead of "bump" and other such Clouseau-isms. Did no one notice the inconsistency of this? Meanwhile, the jokes get predictable: by the halfway point of the movie, you just know that when Clouseau is asked to put a billiard cue away, he'll end up knocking over the whole cue rack, and when he tries to do a Cossack dance, he'll rip his trousers.
I did think that the sequence where Sellers and Elke Sommer go on a date and narrowly escape being murdered several times was rather well done--then again, ANYTHING would have to be better than the embarrassingly dated scene that takes place in a nudist colony. This is an example of the worst kind of 1960s wink-wink nudge-nudge sleaziness--the type of scene that "Austin Powers" mocked.
The plot of "A Shot in the Dark" is standard-issue Agatha Christie stuff, with Clouseau attempting to prove that a beautiful housemaid (Sommer) is innocent of a string of murders, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But though the early part of the movie is weighed down by a lot of tedious examination of the murders, the filmmakers forget the plot as the movie goes on. In the final scene, they basically throw up their hands, admit they're bored with the story and characters, and tack on an arbitrary conclusion. So in the absence of an interesting story, skillful direction, and a sense of good taste, what are we left with? Peter Sellers doing pratfalls and talking in spoonerisms. Which isn't enough for me, thank you.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Works better as an India travelogue than as inspiring drama
"Slumdog Millionaire" uses a clever narrative strategy to tell the life story of Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old former slum kid, and at first, that was one of the things I liked best about the movie. When Jamal wins ten million rupees on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", the police don't believe he could have done it without cheating, so he must explain how he came to know the answers. Cue a series of flashbacks of Jamal's life, each of them incorporating the answer to one of the game show questions. It's an innovative way to tell a story, and the flashbacks are all exciting and dramatic. Jamal has confronted murderous religious mobs, sinister orphanage-keepers, and tough modern gangsters in his young life.
But the suspense disappears somewhat when you realize that no matter how much filth and poverty Jamal encounters, no matter how many villains pursue him, he will survive to appear on the game show. Furthermore, it becomes increasingly clear that Jamal's story is a fairy tale, and that destiny is going to work in mysterious but positive ways to make sure that everything turns out all right.
Thus "Slumdog Millionaire" works better as a tour of modern India than as a story about Jamal Malik. There is a terrific montage sequence set on a train, an interlude at the Taj Mahal, and some thought-provoking scenes of the gentrification of Mumbai. Meanwhile, the movie also gives an un-sugarcoated look at some of India's major social ills: religious conflict, extreme poverty, and prostitution/exploitation. Danny Boyle manages to fit this all together by directing everything in an exuberant, colorful, quick-cutting style. Even the subtitles are playful and color-tinted! (Most of the film is in English, except for the scenes where Jamal is a very small child and speaks Hindi.)
Dev Patel, who plays Jamal at 18, has an open, innocent face and frequently seems a little out of his depth. This quality is useful during the game-show scenes, when Jamal is in the hot seat and dazed by his own success. But he otherwise seems like a nice suburban kid: someone who witnessed the horrors that the younger Jamal has seen should be both grittier and more soulful. The same goes for Freida Pinto, who plays Jamal's love interest Latika: she is a very pretty young woman but hard to believe as a former street waif. Additionally, Latika is not given much of a personality, which makes the love story hard to really cheer for.
Ultimately, "Slumdog Millionaire" failed to move me, despite how hard it tried to do so. The flashy cinematography and propulsive action made the movie fun to watch, but also made it difficult to connect emotionally with the characters. And although the movie is meant to be the inspiring story of an underdog who triumphs, it makes clear that Jamal succeeds because destiny has chosen to smile upon him. He's a good-hearted and sympathetic boy, but a passive character in his own life. "Slumdog Millionaire" wants us to think "It's OK that Jamal suffered all these hardships, because it enabled him to win millions of rupees and the girl of his dreams," but what about all the other Indian slum kids who suffer with no hope of relief, whom Fate has not chosen to favor?
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The New Charlie Kaufman: More Ambition and Less Joy
"Synecdoche, New York" feels like the work of a man gripped by fear, grief, and a sense that time is running out. The most ambitious of Charlie Kaufman's movies by a long shot, it is also the bleakest. Though Kaufman's work has always had a streak of comic miserablism running through it, his earlier movies are so creative and original that you feel invigorated by watching them. They're consistently delightful, and in the case of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," even profound.
"Synecdoche, New York" certainly aspires to profundity, but it's lost the sense of delight. It follows its protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard, for about forty years of "one bad thing after another." The only good thing that happens to him--he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant--turns out to be a curse in disguise, as he feels he must prove himself worthy of the grant, and spends the rest of his life conceiving and rehearsing a massive theater piece that never opens. Rather than engaging with life, he becomes lost in the world that he has created, building an exact replica of New York City inside a New York warehouse. The last part of the movie is a blur of deaths and funerals both real and re-enacted.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the best sad-sack actor working today, plays Caden. He gives a fearless performance, but he's maybe too passive in the role--not displaying enough of the mad-genius ambition that propels Caden to create such a huge work of art. Catherine Keener, who was so sparky and vibrant in "Being John Malkovich", plays Caden's first wife as a glum-faced shrew with awful hair.
Brightening things up a bit is Samantha Morton, giving a very charming performance as the guileless box-office girl Hazel. And in a brilliant bit of doubling, Emily Watson plays the actress who plays Hazel in the play-within-the-movie. Hope Davis, in a small role as Caden's therapist, seems to have wandered in from another, less dour Kaufman movie--she'd fit in with the mad scientists of "Eternal Sunshine."
For me, the scene that encapsulates "Synecdoche, New York" shows Caden working on his magnum opus late at night. He has hired thousands of actors and now needs to tell them what their roles are, so he writes short scenarios on pieces of paper and distributes them to his cast the next morning. As the camera pans over the slips of paper, which cover the floor of the warehouse as far as the eye can see, we note that every scenario is sad and depressing: "You were raped last night." "You just lost your job." Thousands of papers, and not a happy one in the bunch.
If the movie took a skeptical attitude toward Caden's belief that only unhappy situations can make for great art, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But because the movie, instead, reinforces the idea that depression = genius and genius = depression, my entire belief system rebels against it. People have called "Synecdoche, New York" a profound commentary on the life of artists--but if being an artist was always like that, who would ever choose to become one?
One could see parallels between Kaufman's life and his protagonist's: like Caden, Kaufman has won a coveted honor, and his first project after winning is deliberately big and ambitious. In my opinion, Kaufman richly deserved his Oscar for the "Eternal Sunshine" screenplay. But he won't deserve any more Oscars if he spends the rest of his life self-consciously trying to make Great Art, at the expense of the light and witty touch that is the reason we came to love him in the first place.
Kind of amazing and kind of a mess
Like many fans of "Moulin Rouge," I've spent the last seven years wondering how Baz Luhrmann would follow it up. The answer is that "Australia" is a mixed bag: rarely have I enjoyed so many moments of a movie while acknowledging that it doesn't work as a whole. There are patches of really astounding film-making in "Australia"--though to appreciate them it helps to have a high tolerance for stylization, corny jokes, old-fashioned movie moments, and the rest of Luhrmann's bag of tricks. All the same, there are just too many disparate elements crammed into the script, and it doesn't hold together.
Unsurprisingly, "Australia" is a great-looking movie, and because it's less frenetic than "Moulin Rouge," it's easier to appreciate the beauty of the images. The opening shot is an audacious homage to a famous image from "Gone with the Wind," and from there the movie is filled with memorable sights both natural (the soaring landscapes of Australia) and human (Hugh Jackman emerging clean-shaven in a white dinner jacket). Besides the "Gone With the Wind" allusions, there are frequent references to "The Wizard of Oz"--"Australia" begins in 1939 and thus pays tribute to the two most famous movies from that year. I found the allusions and the 1930s atmosphere delightful; any film that features movie stars in beautiful costumes dancing to "Begin the Beguine" gets extra points in my book.
As she did in "Moulin Rouge," Nicole Kidman throws herself into the frequent tonal shifts of Baz Luhrmann's world. First, she plays Lady Sarah's snooty repression for laughs, then she embraces the melodrama of the latter part of the film. (How can a woman who has so little vanity when it comes to her acting have so much vanity when it comes to the smoothness of her forehead?) Hugh Jackman performs a variant on the brawling, riding, strong-and-silent type, though he does get to deliver an affecting monologue and cry on cue to demonstrate his inner sensitivity.
The adults in "Australia" know that the movie requires them to play archetypes, not real human beings. Brandon Walters, however, the child actor who plays the half-Aborigine boy Nullah, is too young to realize that this is a stylized and schematic movie in which he is supposed to embody the archetypal Cute and Plucky Orphan. Therefore, he plays Nullah with absolute sincerity, and as a result, Nullah is the only character that you believe could have ever existed in the real world, not merely in silver-screen imagination.
So that's one reason why "Australia" is such a mess: Luhrmann's love of movie archetypes and over-the-top scenarios conflicts with his desire to treat the discrimination faced by Aboriginal Australians with the seriousness it deserves.
Furthermore, the story of "Australia" is all over the place. It switches between several narrative threads, introduces a new narrative more than halfway through, and the characters' motivations have to change in rather arbitrary ways in order to keep up. Thus, despite "Australia"'s nearly 3-hour length, parts of it still feel rushed or under-motivated. We never get a real sense of what Lady Sarah was like back in England, which leaves her under-characterized for the whole movie. And not enough sexual tension is allowed to build up before Sarah and the Drover first kiss--perhaps some of the scenes that developed their love story have been trimmed? At some points, it's like the script has been written in shorthand.
"Australia" has a really exciting first half, centered around a cattle drove and stampede in the Outback. I'm inclined to think that perhaps the movie should have limited itself to the drove and its immediate aftermath--but instead, "Australia" skips forward three years to the Japanese attack on the city of Darwin. That's when everything just becomes too much, excessively resorting to the old children-in-peril trick to manipulate the audience.
Still, if Luhrmann had told only the story of the drove, his movie would have been basically an "Australian Western"--very entertaining and beautifully shot, but probably not ambitious enough for him. He's trying to create a mythic, epic Australia, and nothing less than a switch to World War II drama halfway through will satisfy him.
The History Boys (2006)
So glad it was preserved with cast intact!
I saw "The History Boys" on Broadway and it is something worth cheering about that it was made into a movie with its original cast intact. As a theater fan, I wish this sort of thing happened more often--but it was especially necessary, I think, for "The History Boys." This story, of eight lads striving to get into Oxbridge and the teachers helping them along, wouldn't work if it was Hollywood-ized, if it had American actors in it, or if the witty conversations about poetry and grammar were cut out for being "too highbrow." And it's an ensemble piece, so the rapports between the characters and Alan Bennett's sophisticated dialogue feel natural because the actors are so familiar with their roles.
Occasionally, I thought some of the actors' gestures and reactions were a bit too big and "stagy," not quite right for a film. Still, I can't imagine this cast ever being bettered. Samuel Barnett (Posner, the shy gay boy) sings a painfully earnest rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Dominic Cooper (the cocky, over-confident Dakin), Jamie Parker (Scripps, the voice of reason), and Russell Tovey (Rudge, the jock who everyone underestimates) are all just right. Frances de la Tour's portrayal of Mrs. Lintott is wonderfully dry, and Stephen Campbell Moore shows the vulnerability beneath Mr. Irwin's glib exterior. And Richard Griffiths provides the movie's heart as Hector, a broken giant of a man.
As for the story, I thought "The History Boys" offered some interesting perspectives on old-fashioned single-sex education and the threat of sex between teachers and students; the characters' reactions are not always what you'd expect. Alan Bennett writes from a sympathetic perspective: except for the headmaster, who's just blustering and out-of-touch, no one in the film is perfect and no one is a villain. This results in a complex debate on whether we should love learning for its own sake (Hector's perspective), or for the practical advantages that it gives us (Irwin's). Most importantly, the characters don't just learn about great literature and art--they learn about their own flaws and those of others.
With its theatrical roots, "The History Boys" is a rather talky movie, and I know that I was predisposed to like it by having seen it onstage. Still, I believe it is well worth the slight intellectual effort to get to know these Boys and their teachers--and I am so glad that moviegoers as well as theatergoers have been allowed this opportunity.
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Yeah, Jane Austen is still relevant
There've been plenty of recent movies based on Jane Austen's novels and even her life story, but "The Jane Austen Book Club" might be the first movie to consider the phenomenon that Austen has become nearly 200 years after her death. It follows several middle-class Californians who (like this film's intended audience) love Austen's writing and insight into human relationships.
After Sylvia's (Amy Brenneman) marriage falls apart, her friends start a book club to distract her. Prudie (Emily Blunt), a neurotic young French teacher, also has marital problems--she thinks her husband is not sensitive enough. Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the only male in the club, joined in order to get to know Jocelyn (Maria Bello) better, but that's not an easy task. The youngest and oldest club members--impetuous lesbian Allegra (Maggie Grace) and warmhearted den mother Bernadette (Kathy Baker)--are there mostly to support the other characters.
The ensemble cast is a bit of a mixed bag. I felt like I knew Jocelyn and Sylvia more from what the other characters said about them than from Bello's and Brenneman's performances. Dancy is charmingly geeky but has trouble disguising his British accent. Blunt, however, does a good American accent and isn't afraid to show Prudie's needy and unlikable side.
Familiarity with Austen's six novels may not be an absolute necessity to enjoy this film, but it probably helps. For instance, Allegra's story is OK on its own but becomes more fun if you realize that she parallels the character of Marianne from "Sense and Sensibility." My favorite scenes involve all six club members ostensibly discussing Austen's books but really using them as code to talk about their own relationships. It reminds us of how relevant Austen's work still is.
Still, "The Jane Austen Book Club" often feels more like a competent but not ground-breaking TV series than a feature film. The episodic structure (each section of the film is devoted to a different Austen novel) and relatively large cast of characters seem to belong to television, and since the movie juggles so many story lines it can't develop them deeply. Also slightly disappointing is that the movie doesn't capture the wit and humor of Austen's novels nor make any new claims about love and relationships in the 21st century. It's smarter than the average chick flick, but not destined to become a classic.
Defiant, and still powerful
The credits of "Z" end with an anti-disclaimer: "Any resemblance to real persons or events is DELIBERATE." So, though the characters in the movie speak French and live in an unnamed Mediterranean country, it's only a slightly fictionalized account of something that really happened in 1963 Greece. Conservative generals orchestrate the assassination of a popular liberal politician (Yves Montand), then do everything they can to stop the truth of the conspiracy from coming to light.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the judge investigating the "incident." He's a youngish guy, maybe a little inexperienced, but steadily gaining in confidence and determination to uncover the conspiracy. Marcel Bozzuffi gives a memorably vicious performance as one of the hoodlums who assassinates the Deputy. "Z" isn't really about its characters as individual people, though--more about how they operate in the context of the political systems surrounding them.
Most of "Z" is filmed in engaging political-thriller style, with some tense action sequences and a driving, rhythmic score. But the ending is especially powerful because it reverses everything that happened so far, relating the worst possible outcome in a detached, journalistic tone. Yet a world of anger and defiance underlies these final moments.
Certainly, it was a brave act to make "Z" in the late 1960s, and several of the film's crew were exiled from Greece when they made it. In some ways, the movie is very much of its era: it must have resonated with Americans who had seen several assassinations in the 1960s and with French people who had lived through the riots of May 1968.
But what interests me is that a surprisingly high number, 10 percent, of IMDb users have given "Z" just one star. If a movie has a lot of 1-star ratings yet is generally considered well-made (like "Z"), this suggests that it is controversial, that it still frightens people, that its message is too hard to take. But despite all those 1-star ratings, "Z" won't just shut up and go away. As long as corrupt governments exist, this movie's message will remain alive. After all...that's what "Z" means.
Iron Man (2008)
A comic book movie that's more than a cartoon
The character of Tony Stark/Iron Man is like wish-fulfillment for comic-book nerds: an engineering genius, a mighty superhero, and a debonair ladies' man all at once. That combination might sound improbable on paper, but Robert Downey Jr. makes it believable, and very entertaining. He credibly shows Tony's transition from amoral opportunist to responsible hero, but fortunately never loses his sense of humor. His quick-witted, sarcastic line readings keep you aware at all times that there's a human being underneath that shiny metal suit.
Indeed, it sounds weird to say this about a superhero movie, but the best thing about "Iron Man" is that it's somehow realistic. For instance, Iron Man's nemesis isn't just some random guy who dresses up in a supervillain costume and plots to rule the world. Instead, he's Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Tony's business partner, who doesn't like the way Tony is running the company and crafts his own metal suit in retaliation. Also, it makes sense that if a superhero suddenly emerged on the scene, the U.S. military would want to monitor what was going on--which leads to the movie's best action sequence, as Iron Man is attacked by two American fighter planes. Tony Stark's Los Angeles feels like our world with somewhat cooler technology--not enhanced with extra bright colors as in the "Spider-Man" movies or extra gloom as in "Batman." The movie even has some contemporary relevance, questioning how to behave responsibly in a world threatened by terrorism.
The storytelling of "Iron Man" is generally solid, though the movie maybe spends a bit too long on sequences of Tony constructing and testing the Iron Man suit, first in Afghanistan then back in America. I mean, Downey does a good job of acting with only robots and gadgets to keep him company, but it's even more fun to watch him interact with his straitlaced pal Rhodey (Terrence Howard) or his concerned and capable assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
We'll certainly see more from all these performers (except Bridges) in the inevitable sequel, now that this movie has told the hero's origin story in such an enjoyable way. Marvel Studios has definitely grabbed the brass ring with "Iron Man," its first-ever release.