30 December 2008
  the dark knight

honestly, i waited just about as long as i could to see this movie, which is sort of surprising, because i really enjoyed batman begins. granted, i'm no super hero movie afficionado (i think i've seen a grand total of three or four-- all batman) but i thought batman begins was a really good action movie, well acted and interestingly written. and i fully intended to go and watch the sequel in the theater. of course, then the hype began. and, as everyone who knows me knows, i am not one for joining crowds. i sort of run screaming away from them. so there was no way i was going to wait in line for a movie everyone was telling me to go see. still, i pretty much had to see it eventually, even though there was pretty much no way that it could live up its gargantuan buildup.

and of course it didn't. . . sort of. reading the entertainment weekly blog, i came across this slapdash, but on point review by mike bruno. basically he says that there was nothing wrong with this movie, but when he finally watched it, his expectations had been raised to such a dizzying degree that there was no way it could have been good enough to please him. quite honestly, the last time i can think of that a movie had this much public build-up was when titanic came out in 1997. the difference, however, is that titanic lived up to and probably exceeded the hype. the dark knight is, in contrast, a fine but dramatically dramatically dramatically overexposed and overrated film.

. . . that is, with one exception. heath ledger, i think, actually did live up to the hype for me. his performance really was exquisite. the weird thing is that i have seen him in several films, and he has never pulled off a performance like this before. i mean, where did this come from? how did he get so talented all of a sudden? and this wasn't one of those philip seymour hoffman as truman capote perfect person for the role kind of moments. i mean, he should have been the WRONG person for the role, but for some reason it worked. i absolutely think he deserves to be mentioned as one of the best performances of the year, and not just out of any need to memorialize him. he's just plain good.

on the other hand, there were quite a few things about this film that really could have been better. first of all, and most importantly, it is entirely too long. there are long, really boring sequences especially in the second half that really begged to be curtailed by a better director and editor. this should have been a punchier and more energized film. instead it verged on being too cerebral at points, and without a doubt too self-important. second, whereas i really liked christian bale in batman begins, here his performance is really overdramatic and frankly weird (especially when he is playing batman). once again, i think a better director would have reeled him in. and finally, as in batman begins where katie holmes is poorly used window dressing, once again, here, maggie gyllenhal, probably one of the best young working actresses is completely underutilized. i think in some ways the script actually makes her look bad. is there some reason these comic book guys can't write a decent part for a woman? and if they are going to continue writing these women as shallow and one dimensional, cast someone who can pull that kind of performance off.

in any case, i sort of liked the dark knight. i especially enjoyed the parts with heath ledger as the joker, and i would definitely consider him for a best supporting actor nomination. but if this film gets any more nominations, either for best pic, screenplay or director, it is without a doubt the result of a campaign of unparalleled strength.
29 December 2008

without a doubt, milk is helmed by a terrific cast. there isn't a single cast member who doesn't perform ably. and without a doubt, this film tells a supremely interesting story, an incredibly important one for u.s.-american white middle class gay history. and without a doubt, harvey milk and his collaborators are extremely passionate about their work. so how come this movie turned out to be so incredibly dull? and how could a story as passionate as this one about people so devoutly committed to a cause come across on screen as so dispassionate?

now i certainly don't think milk is at all a bad movie, but i expected that i would enjoy it so much more than i did. the problem here doesn't lie in the acting. sean penn is really terrific, as one might expect. and the problem doesn't really lie in the screenwriting or directing. they are equally skilled (as one might expect). the problem for me lies in the fact that everything here is exactly what one might expect. there is nothing out of the ordinary, nothing surprising, nothing to help the story emerge out of utter tedium.

perhaps the real problem is that i just don't enjoy biopics all that much. i just find this sort of a movie so cliched and formulaic. it's almost as if when you watch these movies you can write it along in your head as the images come across on screen. (i.e. okay, here's the part where the person struggles with inner torment. here's the part where she/he decides to make a change. here's the part where she/he works hard to make something of her/himself. here's the part where she/he finally achieves what she/he set out to do. etc). i really think that a biopic of harvey milk, such an iconoclastic yet idioyncrantic figure needed to break out of this mold. in short, there could have been SUCH a much better movie made about this man, especially when so many talented people are involved in making it.

when milk reaches its dramatic denouement after the inevitable assassination i somehow knew that i was supposed to feel really emotional about what i was seeing, but somehow i couldn't bring myself to experience any emotion at all. similarly, after harvey finally wins an election, the cast responds with such deep excitement at the accomplishment; yet, somehow i find it difficult to believe that anyone cares that much. it's like, yeah they are going through the motions of caring, but does anyone here really care? when all is said and done, it's like, i think everyone would be more than happy to let this whole political thing go and return to the party scene at any moment. the entire course of events in this movie comes off as something of a whim.

and so, i am left at the end of this movie asking the question: why can't anyone make a movie about gay people that seems to show any real understanding of what it feels like to be gay, with the exception of "having a good time?" yes, we've seen a hundred movies about gay party boys (even some good ones), but this was an opportunity to show another side of gay men, and i honestly think it failed to do so. there is more to gay men than coming out (beautiful thing, get real, broken hearts club), getting laid (bareback mountain, trick) and partying (party monster, 54). somehow, someone needs to make a gay movie that shows a more human side of gay communities. and milk isn't it.

not that there aren't some good aspects of this film. emile hirsch is one of the standouts, perhaps the only actor who, for me, instills any depth of character into the role he is playing. sean penn is terrific in the lead role, although in some ways i still think maybe he could have been better. and josh brolin is sort of surprisingly good at playing a character as enigmatic as dan white. also, i think that gus van sant did a really good job of recreating 1970s san francisco. i definitely feel like i have a good sense of what it must have been like to live in this place at this time.

in fact, i really don't think that i can point out a single detail of this film that i would describe as bad. just disatisfying. one of the sort of strange things though is that james franco is getting critical attention over josh brolin and emile hirsch. franco is without a doubt the least capable actor playing the smallest and least interesting character in the film. there's very little acting going on here.

in the end, i have already seen quite a few really terrific movies this year, and milk is certainly nothing like slumdog millionaire or others that i have found so eminently exciting. but i guess if i were in the mood for a nice nap, i might think about watching it again.
16 December 2008
  slumdog millionaire

slumdog millionaire was bound to take over the crown from little miss sunshine and juno as this year's most overrated film, but something went wrong. it's actually good. really good. unbelievably good.

i went to see this movie not knowing much about it, but fully expecting to be, at best, nonplussed. after all, essentially every single person who has seen it has liked it. i've really yet to read a single negative word written about it. any movie that is this well liked HAS to be a piece of garbage right? who wants to watch something that doesn't arouse at least a little bit of dissent? give me lars von trier and todd solondz any day. you can keep steven spielberg.

but i have to say, to my complete surprise, practically as soon as the movie began, i already knew i was going to like it. the editing, the cinematography, the music just jump off the screen, and by the time i saw the title i was hooked.

slumdog is without a doubt one of the best movies i have seen in years and probably the best love story that has been made since titanic. i hesitate to offer even so much a brief sketch of the movie's plot, since it seems to me part of my enjoyment came in not knowing what to expect or what i was watching. and also this is definitely a hard film to describe in a paragraph. it is about a lot of things. religion, u.s.-american tourism and development in the majority world, women's opportunities, organized crime and, most importantly, friendship. slumdog is hard to classify even in terms of genre. some moments are comedic, some dramatic some suspenseful. if it reminds me of any other movie, it might be requiem for a dream with just a bit of trainspotting thrown in. but even these comparisons are unworthy, since it is much more droll than the former, and more hopeful than the latter.

one of the true stars of this film for me is the editing. it is definitely one of the most cleverly strung together narrative sequences i can remember seeing. i think boyle (and his Indian "codirector") deserve a great deal of credit for their vision here, but this film would certainly never have come into its potential without the masterful way in which it was edited together. It is so fun waiting for the next scene, guessing what's going to happen next, being surprised at the ways these disparate scenes eventually all come together so perfectly.

another star is the score. a little bit of bollywood, a little bit of hip hop, a little bit of folk music all blend together here to form a really intriguing soundtrack that is SUCH a welcome respite from the awful music for juno that i had to listen to all through the awards season last year. it would be a shame if a song from slumdog ("o saya?") weren't oscar nominated.

one of the biggest treats for me in this movie was actually the end credits. i thought it was so clever how boyle seemed to be developing this entire movie out of a basic bollywood foundation, but transforming it into something amazingly, radically different. and then, in the end, he brings it all full circle with this playful bollywood finale, splicing the dancing cast members with brightly colored art. i really enjoyed that part.

if i have anything bad to say about slumdog, it's that i wish i hadn't watched it so early in the awards season. i can't imagine that anything else i have yet to see will be able to match this one. i won't disallow the possibility, but if anything better than this comes along, it would make 2008 one of the best movie years ever.
15 December 2008

sometimes i can understand why people might be rooting for a movie to fail. for example, it doesn't surprise me at all everytime m. night shyamalan makes yet another gawdawful disaster and critics seem to silently cheer, since he is such a pompous and self important ass, and there is understandably some joy to be had in watching him receive some comeuppance. however, often times this sort of cheering on failure seems to arise out of nowhere. to be perfectly honest this seems to happen to movies that are helmed by women, that is, at least when women star in movies but not as busty violent femme fatals. Look at Angelina Jolie. Every time she legitimately tries to act in a movie (Changeling, A Mighty Heart) critics seem to pay little attention, whereas when she pulls her boobs up out of her tank top and kicks men in the face (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted) everyone cheers her on. In fact, a lot of movies starring women seem to get dissed before they are even out of the chute. It wouldn't surprise me if critics had written their witty put downs of Diane English's The Women before they even saw it this summer.

Enter Australia. For some reason, every time Nicole Kidman makes a movie, it is understood that it will be getting bad reviews. And I just had a feeling even before this movie came out that it was bound to get trampled. Unfortunately, this is one instance where it pays to look past or at least through critics' reviews and reserve comment for oneself.

Australia is by no means a perfect movie, but maybe it is enjoyable precisely because it is charmingly imperfect. The narrative is strung together in a sometimes awkward way, but this is emblematic of Baz Luhrmann's work in general I think. The biggest mistake might come in the featuring of the aboriginal boy Nullah as narrator and costar. At times, his colloquial narration and strange obliviousness do come across as bordering at annoying. However, he always seems to get by on cuteness at least. And there are times, especially towards the end of the film when Hugh Jackman is obviously overacting to a degree, but there is some enjoyment to be had in watching even this melodramatic performance.

Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, who seems to have taken the brunt of the negative attention regarding the movie (surprise surprise) is really quite wonderful here. I doubt that this role actually involves a great deal of acting for her, but she does nice work with it, not only playing the dramatic parts well, which isn't much of a surprise, but actually being more convincing with the comedic elements that I have ever seen her before.

For me the real triumphs in this movie are the cinematography (the filming of the stampede scene seems especially masterful) and David Gulpilil as aboriginal patriarch King George. I would never expect critics to pay much attention to this sort of understated role, but I think it is absolutely amazing how Gulpilil just fades into the scenery here. Never once did I believe he was actually acting in this movie. It seemed more like he was just part of the landscape where the filming was taking place.

Australia is really a beautiful saga, sort of evoking Cold Mountain or maybe Titanic, full of action and never boring. At over two and a half hours in length, I expected there to be some weak spots, but it trucked along so quickly with so much story, that it seems to go by in a flash. The characters are surprisingly few for a movie of this magnitude, but the good thing about that is that they are each very well developed and fun to follow. (Gawd how much did I want to throw a brick at Fletcher's face when he was threatening Lady Ashley at the farm). And the scenery is so beautiful that it is just one of those movies that would be fun to watch even if the story was nonexistent. In sum, this is really a fun movie to watch. And honestly, can we just agree that not every movie has to be a total downer to be quality?

We can also agree, however, that Australia was never going to be successful. After all, it stars a woman. A final tip for Kidman, incidentally my favorite working actress. If you want to revive your career, you are going to have to put on a corset, work on your kickboxing, and get cast as a sexy sidekick to like matt damon or george clooney. you need to work yourself into that steven soderbergh cool clique and out of the baz luhrmann, lars von trier artistic ghetto.
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