Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Watch

Some comedies have such outrageous premises, that a viewer can be turned off only to discover that if the material is handled with care, the result is hilarious. That seems to be why Ted was the "it" comedy movie of the summer. Teddy bear comes to live... that might be a movie I avoid. MacFarlane managed to really approach the film with such enthusiasm that he created something genuinely unique. Not so much the case for The Watch. The unique concept is that a neighborhood watch committee that often deals with petty crime, find themselves face-to-face with an alien invasion in small-town America. Great idea, but poor execution.

The script by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, and Jared Stern, takes the safe and typical route of having generic set-ups that seem to only be "enhanced" by the occasional dick or sex joke. This movie is the glaringly cliche scenario of "bunch of mismatched characters have to work together to get along and solve a problem and they each learn a lesson". Each character turns out to be a blatantly obvious buddy-comedy archetype that is suited to each of the individual actors' careers. Vince Vaughn's character is loud. Ben Stiller is the voice of reason. There is a twist involving Richard Ayoade that doesn't matter whether you see it coming or not, because has little to no effect on the film other then setting up the battle royale finale (fans of BBC programming will recognize the actor from Chris O'Dowd's show "The IT Crowd" but he is also an up-and-coming writer/director of comedy-dramas). Jonah Hill is tasked with playing a sociopath and nothing about his scenes or dialogue ever really clicks with the film. In fact, his brand of dirty-humored fish-out-of-water roles from films such as Superbad or Get Him to the Greek would've actually been a welcome addition to this group (see him in 21 Jump Street for a recent fantastic comedic performance).

There are a bunch of subplots in the movie, but like I was saying about the twist involving Ayoade's member of the watch, it all just strings the movie together to get the viewer from start to finish, but there is only that energy without any inspiring choices being made past that. Akiva Schaffer seems to struggle a bit with some wild cinematographic choices, but he and the cast do their best to at least get a few laughs here and there. There are enough small one-liners and situations to make this somewhat passable, but the movie is ultimately a lost opportunity as it amounts to a bunch of randomly connected scenes with the f-word being shouted on occasion.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, serves as a fantastic bookend to the series. When I think of some of my favorite literary trilogies, the middle chapter usually remains my favorite. The idea of pulling from the first installment, leading into the final installment, and still telling a complex and fascinating story seems to pique my interest more than the beginning or end. This third film picks up on many of the ideas from Batman Begins and is sure to use a more epic canvas presented in The Dark Knight to express them. The ideas of morality and terrorism from the second film are still here, but they've been partially supplanted by ideas of class warfare and the personal salvation that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) began to face the moment he fell down the hole in the back of Wayne Manor.

Batman has remained such a fascinating character because of how he has faced much darkness and continues to perservere. Therefore, writers David Goyer, Christopher Nolan, and Jonathan Nolan realize how to play with pushing Bruce to his limit and pay homage to Bat-writers from Frank Miller Scott Snyder. The rest of Nolan's crew are once again at their best. Tension-building cross-cutting and juxtaposition in the editing, a resounding and layered score, and some of the best cinematography for a noir-ish and stylized blockbuster... I can't say enough kind things and I realize that anything I say hasn't been said before. I do recognize some of the criticisms about the need for a constant level of action at certain parts, but the quieter scenes still stand out and are handled beautifully that their impact is not lessened by say a car chase or a fist fight. Nolan's filmmaking can be described as relentless. There is enough purpose to the chaos he presents to warrant study leading to a result that can feel weighty. I loved digging into Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception- but as a comics fan, I just sort of let these films pass by me and not think or pick them apart too much of it.

The cast is also great. Hathaway and Bale have fantastic chemistry and Hardy presents a new menace much different from those played by Neeson and Ledger. Over the course of three films, Batman has been given a very unique world to inhabit. I look forward to seeing if someone else will pick up the mantle soon. Sorry, nothing that unique to add to the conversation, but in this case I kind of like it that way

Thursday, October 4, 2012

To Rome with Love

Having directed about a movie per year since the late sixties/early seventies, the quality of Woody Allen's films waver. Sometimes he'll have a string of successes or perhaps a few flops and a hit. Such is that of a career in film lasting over forty years with about just as many films. I've mentioned this before and perhaps it's just my tastes, but Allen seems to be on a "every three films is another triumph". I say that more so critically speaking as audience members and cinephiles do respond to some of his more less notable works. That being said, I liked Match Point (2005) and disliked to varying degrees Scoop (2006) and Cassandra's Dream (2007). I liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and disliked to varying degrees Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). I liked Midnight in Paris (2011)... so already I was superstitiously worried that To Rome with Love wouldn't hold up. It's a mixed bag.

The film, inspired by the 14th century Italian literature The Decameron, includes several tales of love set in the city of Rome. A lovely European city with comedy and romance and therefore, a classic Woody Allen set up. As hinted at above, not every story is the best. Of the four- I disliked one, thought two were so-so, and liked one.

The one that I liked followed Jerry and Phyllis (Woody and Judy Davis- both whom I haven't seen in a film since 2006), a couple who go to Rome to visit their newly engaged daughter Hayley (Alison Pill). Upon meeting the Italian inlaws, Jerry reliezes that the patriarch of the family has an amazing voice, but only when he sings in the shower. Jerry plans to showcase the tenor, but his in-laws don't wish for fame and fortune. These segements called back to the some of the absurdity that Allen's earlier humor had (Bananas and Sleeper come to mind) and would later be sprinkled sporadically over the rest of his slate. Sometimes I used to have trouble with Allen's acting as I found that his surrogates such as Owen Wilson or Larry David (recent examples) had a much more nuanced balance to reigning in the neurosis. With age, Allen seems to have a better handle on that aspect of his primary characters with his own acting chops, making his performance in this film a welcome (re-)surprise.

The two tales that left a mediocre impression included a case of mistaken identity starring Penelope Cruz as a hooker and another more fantasy-based story about a man (Roberto Benigni) who is suddenly an overnight celebrity and his mundane life is documented with an outrageous amount of press. The jokes in these cases get tired pretty fast, but the performances by Benigni, Alessandro Tiberian, and Alessandra Mastronardi are inspired and humorous to say the least.

The fourth vignette is about Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally (Greta Gerwig), two Americans living in Rome who are visited by Sally's friend Monica (Ellen Page). Jack falls for Monica and my issue with this comes down to Page's portrayal. I don't buy her as a seductress perhaps because of the nature of Allen's script in comparison to her acting style. Alec Baldwin plays a real-life apparition that guides Jack (see the movie to make more sense of that) and that also falls flat quickly.

The film, like many of Allen's work set in exotic locales, feels like a plesant stroll more than anything else (no pun intended). Perhaps after his next film, I'll see an Allen production that I'd go on to rank alongside his best.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey

Written and directed by actress Angelina Jolie, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a love story set against the backdrop of war. Nothing too unique there as that story model has been featured in everything from Gone with the Wind to A Farewell to Arms. This has a bit more of a Romeo and Juliet sensibility to it as the lovers at the center of this story are separated by opposing sides of this conflict- the real-life Bosnian war that drew lines and separated those of gender (men raped women on both sides), religion (Christians against Muslims), and race (Serbians against Croatians). I should add that I'm not really familiar with the conflict and that any information I've retained has been from the movie so I do not mean any disrespect if I'm unintentionally simplifying or undermining any of the real issues that were at stake.

Therin, however, seems to lie a chief issue I had with the film. Global conflicts are incredibly difficult to understand. You have such vastly different cultures and beliefs that I sometimes feel one can't ever break down the emotions that ran high in World War II just as one can't decipher chaos in the Middle East in a two hour movie, speech, or newscast. Hell, there are social issues here in America that have so many facets to them that I often can't properly form an opinion because of there being more than two sides to a story or issue. Jolie certainly has a political point to her film, but she is smart enough to underly it with presenting at least another side. There are horrible atrocities that the camera doesn't shy away from by Serbian Christians against the Muslims. Then again, there is a scene where Bebojsa (Rade Serbedzija) delivers a powerful monologue about atrocities that were committed against Serbian Christians by others. I don't use the world "powerful" or "horrible" lightly. This film has a lot of raw emotional in how moving and involving it can be, but the story never does anything too significant with that energy for my liking.

The war is mostly seen through the eyes of the at-odds lovers Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Alja (Zana Marjanovic). To make a comparision to a favorite movie mine, Schindler's List often cut away from the main characters to give other points of view to the genocide at hand. Jolie's film seems to just stay with the two characters and the scenes where they are together are certainly well acted and handled, but then the story seems to become just about them. This isn't so much a case of a film that feels splintered, but there is a great concentration on explaining, justifying, condemning, etc. the conflict that is sometimes placed aside for the development of two characters. I find the development to be fascinating and one of the best cases of subtle melodrama in recent memory, but when the script changes to depicting atrocities, I'm wondering if that was the best way to tell the story.

Either way, it's an impressive directorial debut and it's beautifully photographed by director of photography Dean Semler. Jolie definitely understands how important it is to know where the camera should be as it is to have a great understanding of story and character. It certainly helps the film's attempted meshing of love and war.