Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Parade of Sixes (and one Four)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (David Yates)- by now, most moviegoers have formed a more or less ironclad opinion on the Potter franchise, and Deathly Hallows the First is not a movie that’s going to change people’s minds. But for those who’ve been following the series to date, this seventh installment provides a compelling contrast to the previous entries. A lot of this is due to Harry and the gang being removed from their usual setting- the film lacks the comfortable structure of a school year at Hogwarts, with the attendant classroom misadventures, relationship troubles, and everything else that implies. Here, Harry and his friends are no longer insulated from the magical world as a whole, and their having to make their own way leaves them far more vulnerable, thereby adding a new urgency to the film that wasn’t there previously. That said, like most of the other Potter movies, the filmmaking is more staunchly professional than inspired, and the storytelling, even with the necessary cuts to the source material, feels as dutiful and slavish as ever (also, I despair that of all the Potter directors, only Cuaron was able to locate the grey area between whimsical wondrous “good magic” and the sinister Dark Arts). Still, while it’s not great cinema, it’s one of the better entries in the Potter series, and sets up next year’s allegedly final installment pretty well. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (Zach Snyder)- If nothing else, Guardians deserves to be seen for its pure visual splendor- the geniuses at Animal Logic have created a richly detailed and immersive world for this film completely out of 1s and 0s, and Snyder’s visual bombast is surprisingly well-suited to animated fantasy. It’s sort of a pity then that the rest of the movie falls short of its images. Guardians’ screenplay comes off mostly as a standard-issue fantasy formula- only, you know, with owls- and consequently the storyline of the film contains precious few surprises. This wouldn’t be such a glaring issue for me if Ang and I weren’t currently reading the Ga’Hoole books with the Offspring, in which much of the story is focused on the workaday details of its characters’ lives- for example, young hero Soren and his friends attend classes after their arrival in the Ga’Hoole tree, but while Snyder treats these classes as snippets in a montage, author Kathryn Lasky takes time to lay out the content and context of their lessons (I’m a procedure guy, what can I say). Snyder, never a particularly deep thinker, also fails to wrap his mind around the ambiguity of the film’s battle scenes, in which the peace-loving intellectuals from Ga’Hoole fight to prevent the owls of St. Aggie’s from spreading their evil agenda throughout the world. Instead, his attention is solely on the choreography of battle, with all the slow motion and lingering shots that implies. And yeah, the battles are visually stunning- the whole movie is, really- but if Snyder would pay as much attention to his characters and their thoughts as he does to every feather and leaf, Guardians might be worthwhile as more than just eye candy. Rating: 6 out of 10.

The Square (Nash Edgerton)- the signature image of this Aussie neo-noir is the face of its protagonist, Raymond Yale (played by David Roberts). A middle-aged man in a dead-end marriage, Ray has a worn and weary-looking face, with deep lines framing a mouth that’s in a perpetual scowl, and a brow that only seems capable of expressing anxiety. But then, there’s little to express in The Square, set in a world of crooks and shady sorts that exists largely to be escaped. We’re in Coen brothers territory here, particularly the Coens of Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men, and Edgerton does a solid job setting the tone so that there’s little hope even before things start to get really, really bad (which of course they do). But while The Square is a solid genre piece, it’s rarely more than that, both because its tonal range is so narrow and because the screenplay is tragically short of the sort of vivid characterizations that distinguish the film’s influences. Consequently, The Square comes off less as a free-standing creation than as a demo reel for its maker. It’s an efficient machine, but it falls short when it comes to honest-to-goodness vision. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé)- of course, there’s plenty of vision to go around in Noé’s latest, a dazzling formal experiment in which we follow a man’s soul as its leaves his body after death. Much like in Irreversible, Noé makes extensive use of an ever-moving camera and invisible edits, and he shoots almost entirely from a first-person perspective, all the better for us to experience the protagonist’s “death trip” through his own eyes (so to speak). Noé has always been a bold filmmaker, and it’s this boldness that allows him to find transcendent moments in a narrative that otherwise might come off as morbid or maudlin. Trouble is, these transcendent moments are inextricably linked to ideas that are, to put it mildly, sort of dopey. The primary thematic inspiration for Enter the Void is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but there are very few ideas on display here that aren’t expressed more artfully- and succinctly- in Revolver-era Beatles songs like “She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which was originally titled “The Void”, dontcha know). And while it’s admirable of Noé to sustain his formal experiment far longer than most directors would have, the truth is that at upwards of 2 ½ hours, Enter the Void wears pretty thin after a while. Still, no one is making movies like this nowadays, and if I have to sit through two-odd hours of tedium in order to experience a strange and magical image like two people making love while soft colored light wafts from their coupled genitalia, I’ll make the sacrifice. At least I’ll know I’m in the hands of someone who’s trying something new and different, and who isn’t afraid to fail big. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Chloe (Atom Egoyan)- That’s more than I can say for Egoyan, who back in the nineties was one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers before losing his way in this past decade. Nowadays, Egoyan appears to be following the Scorsese template of “one for me, one for them,” which isn’t a bad way to sustain a career as a filmmaker, but which doesn’t seem to be working for him. Even more than Where the Truth Lies, Chloe is a baldly commercial project- a remake of the forgettable French drama Nathalie…, with a screenplay written by someone else. For the first two-thirds, Chloe is sort of effective, as Amanda Seyfried’s titular prostitute spins yarns to suspicious wife Julianne Moore of her husband’s (Liam Neeson) infidelity, and Moore finds herself both angered and turned on by the revelations. It’s a fairly good idea for a movie, and I can imagine Egoyan making something really striking had he made a film entirely of the conversations between the two women. Unfortunately, Chloe is far too conventional for this, and after about an hour of humming along fairly serviceably, the film degenerates into Fatal Attraction territory, with Chloe falling hard for Moore’s character and doing everything she can to insinuate her way into her family’s life. Chloe is never a great movie, but it’s still disappointing to see the bottom fall out of it, especially considering that its maker should have known better. But hey, naked Seyfried is worth a rental, right? Rating: 4 out of 10.

Additionally, I’ve seen plenty of other movies lately that I haven’t had the chance to write about (sorry buds). Some brief thoughts… I’m sort of intimidated by the prospect of reviewing Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, mostly because there’s so much movie there, not to mention that compared to most movies of its sort it feels pretty free-form. It’ll take me at least a second viewing to suss out how I feel, but the filmmaking brilliance on display is undeniable [8 out of 10]… RED commits the grievous sin of assembling Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Brian Cox and giving them almost nothing to do that’s actually interesting. I mean, really- why should we care about Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker’s childish flirtation when these four great actors should be running the show? [4 out of 10]… Soul Kitchen essentially takes every cliché of the ethnic crowd-pleaser genre (restaurant division) and livens them up with lots of style and panache, courtesy of director Fatih Akin. It’s nothing you haven’t tasted before, but it goes down easy. Soundtrack is pretty kickass too [6 out of 10]… there’s not much I can say about The Oath that the great Michael Sicinski hasn’t already said, but I was most interested here in how Poitras portrays Abu Jandal, the former Al-Qaeda operative-turned-taxi driver. He’s a wealth of contradictions, and I found him pretty fascinating [7 out of 10]… likewise, I’m fascinated by the complexities of the late Pat Tillman, and the best parts of Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story embrace these many sides. Sadly, the film itself isn’t so multifaceted, but it’s still a worthy portrait [7 out of 10]… having sat through my share of business courses in the last few years, I was somewhat less surprised by the revelations found in Inside Job than most audience members, but if you want a single-serving primer of what went wrong in our economy, this’ll do nicely [6 out of 10]… finally, jackass 3D is more of the same, and even if it never quite hits the high points of number two, it’s still entertaining as all hell [7 out of 10].

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