Friday I mentioned my plans for a big movie marathon. I actually saw about 10 movies in the theater and watched another five at home. I wanted to get to more current releases, but the damn schedules just weren't going my way. Regardless, I noticed an unfortunate common thread among all the current releases: filmmakers creating scenes but not movies. The vast majority of all the current films I saw suffered from a lack of consistency in tone and story. Well, I might try to write more about all of these at a later date, but just so everyone would know I actually am as insane as I sometimes report to be, here's a run-down of my past four days (with some basic yeas and nays – click the title for brief comments):
- Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst: a sad skip-it
- Being Julia: skip-it
- Birth: wanting to be seen, but skip-it
- National Treasure: just above the see-it line
- Alexander: Stay away – far, far away. One of the worst of the year.
- Spanglish: Just misses. Skip-it.
- The Woodsman: See-it, but be prepared.
- Closer: See-it, but no huge rush.
- The Stepford Wives (DVD): The original. See-it to see what the remake did wrong!
- The Boondock Saints (DVD): Skip-it, unless you've seen Overnight.
- In the Mood for Love (DVD): See-it/Rent-it.
- Baadasssss! (DVD): See-it, and see the film that inspired it.
- The Human Stain (DVD): See-it, but it's lacking.
- Intolerable Cruelty (cable): See-it, if there's nothing better.
- The Aviator: Very big see-it, but get comfortable.
- Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: You haven't read the books – see-it! You've read the books – skip-it!
More substance after the jump ….
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst: Great story, crappy filmmaking. While the film is a decent record of events, no additional insight or questions are answered. Too much style (quick edits, fast music), not enough substance. A recurring thing in movies these days, and sadly, it seems to now be one in documentaries too.
Being Julia: If not for Annette Bening, this movie would be utterly worthless. A mess of an adaptation that gets just about everything wrong. A collection of scenes with little attention to transitions. The film is slightly saved by a fun and funny final 15 minutes, but too little, too late.
Birth: Great premise, highly stylized, but ultimately a big bore that doesn't go far enough. Nicole Kidman proves again that she's a better actress (as opposed to movie star) than people often recognize. Director Jonathan Glazer makes this film as cold as his Sexy Beast was hot. The story of a 10 year old boy claiming to be Kidman's dead husband has phenomenal metaphysical possibilities, but ultimately it just falls flat, and even Kidman's bravura performance (one scene at the symphony where the camera doesn't leave her face for a full minute or two is amazing) doesn't save the film.
National Treasure: Yes, I said see-it, and I'm as surprised as you. If you had told me that out of the four films I saw on Thursday, this one would be the most enjoyable, I would have called you a liar. But it was. No, it's not a great movie. Yes, the plot has dozens of holes and ridiculous inconsistencies. And most importantly, there is no logical reason that this film has any right or need to be two-and-a-half hours long; 45 minutes could have been cut out very easily to create a much tighter movie. Still, it was fun, with a clever little historical tie-in and some decent action sequences. In the grand scheme of the best or worst Hollywood has to offer, this falls right in the middle as simple, good, fun mindless entertainment, and that's not always a bad thing.
Alexander: Awful. Shockingly awful. I sat there wondering how it could be as awful as it was. How did such a great director like Oliver Stone make a movie this bad. Absolutely one of the worst of the year, and deserving major Razzie consideration across the board. Probably the longest three hours I've spent doing anything this year. It made Troy seem fantastic and short by comparison, and it was neither.
Spanglish: Not exactly a disaster, and the film has some good moments, but it doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a romantic drama with light moments? Or a slapstick comedy with heavy situations? Ultimately, it's a bad sitcom. All the actors are good, and Paz Vega is simply one of the sexiest women to ever appear on a movie screen (considering she's sharing time with Téa Leoni, that's saying something too!), but they're acting in different films. Plus, I can't imagine that a feminist reading of this film could have anything positive to say, which is probably why EW's Lisa Schwarzbaum goes overboard in calling it so vile. Notice I've said nothing about Adam Sandler -- that's because this really isn't a Sandler movie, but he's quite good, endearing even, and one of the film's bright spots.
The Woodsman: This is one tough movie with an absolutely phenomenal performance by Kevin Bacon in a complicated role as a pedophile just out of prison. The film itself is uneven, but one scene in particular near the end will make you squirm in your seat. There's a lot wrong in first-time director Nicole Kassell's film, but it's still worth seeing, and Bacon holds it all together.
Closer: I walked out of Closer on Broadway some years ago having really "enjoyed" it, yet I recently discovered that it didn't prove all that memorable. Bits and pieces came back during the film, but ultimately, I'm guessing in a year or two, I will again not remember what it was about. Director Mike Nichols does a good job returning to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory, but this film's dealings with the human condition, the meaning of love and how adults hurt each other leave you empty rather than enlightened. Julia Roberts is terribly miscast, but Natalie Portman is great, and Clive Owen gives one of the best performances you'll see on-screen this year.
The Stepford Wives: Ever since seeing the amazingly horrible remake earlier this year, I wanted to revisit the 1975 original. I suppose the justification for a remake was making it funny because the original certainly wasn't, nor did it need to be. Of course, since the remake wasn't actually funny -- oh it had jokes, just not good ones – there really was no reason for it. The original is a film very much of its time – expansion of the suburbs, the end of Nixon-era America, post-Civil Rights, mid-women's lib and ERA movements – and at the end of the day, there's no happiness in Stepford. It's not an amazing movie, but it's a very good one, and in its own way, very scary. Not a bad rental, and certainly better than the crap released this summer.
The Boondock Saints: I mentioned Overnight back in November (fifth item) -- amazing story, crappy film in which we see the meteoric rise and fall of aspiring filmmaker Troy Duffy who had the world handed to him by Miramax based on a spec script and then shot it to hell. He did make his movie though, and this is it. What's on the screen is an example of a Tarantino-wannabe who obviously thinks much more of his talent – which is there but raw and needs to be reigned in – than he should. The movie is filled with clichés, sometimes trying to give the audience a wink at the same time but usually just falling flat. Like so many other films, there are great sequences, but it just doesn't all come together. Still, it's understandable why Miramax thought what was on the page might hopefully be its new Reservoir Dogs. But it's not.
In the Mood for Love: I went to see Days of Being Wild a week ago so it seemed only natural to finally revisit In the Mood for Love, and am I glad I did. I'm no Wong Kar-wai expert, but both of these are excellent movies, and In the Mood for Love is an example of a great filmmaker working at the height of his craft.
Baadasssss!: I was really pleasantly surprised by Mario Van Peebles' homage to his father's unwavering and determined efforts to make a revolutionary independent film, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. Mario doesn't shy away from showing his dad as an asshole, probably since some of that behavior was actually directed at him when he was a little boy. But he also does a great job illustrating how Melvin Van Peebles beat all the odds and helped change the nature of the film industry, especially when it comes to black filmmakers' place in it. If you've never seen Sweet Sweetback's, it's worth a viewing. It's not a great movie, but it is an important one, and as a historical document representative of a specific time in our history, it's a fascinating picture.
The Human Stain: I've had an Academy screener tape of this movie sitting on my VCR since last February after finishing Philip Roth's great novel. I have a feeling I would have liked it much less had I watched it right after reading the book. What director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer gave us is a very safe, middle-of-the-road adaptation, except in the casting of Anthony Hopkins which caused so much controversy. Unfortunately, in trying to squeeze most of the plot elements into the film (although it does manage to cut a chunk out as well), the power of the novel is mostly lost. Still, it's not a bad movie; it's just not extraordinary either.
Intolerable Cruelty: The Coen Brothers have slowly but surely tried to put their own spin on all kinds of film genres and styles, and much of the time they've been incredibly successful. Their last two films, however, haven't been up to snuff. The Ladykillers had its moments, but ultimately was just silly, and compared to the original film, it just wasn't very good. Intolerable Cruelty isn't a remake, but it's the Coens' version of a '20s or '30s screwball romantic comedy; needing a modern twist, it centered in the world of divorce. But it just didn't work. It's not awful, but it many of the jokes simply sputter along, and George Clooney's bug-eyes and head-turns … well, he's no Groucho Marx.
The Aviator: I've got a lot to say about this film (as any reader of this site can imagine), and I won't get into all of it now. What I will say is that I really liked The Aviator. It may be a bit on the long side, but its three hours don't feel anywhere near as long as, say, Alexander's. What we have is a master filmmaker showing how effortlessly he manages his craft. But effortlessness does not present extraordinary work, and what The Aviator is missing is the same thing we haven't seen from Martin Scorsese in a long time, although it tries – a deep investigation of the dark places of the human psyche examined by showing normal people doing extraordinary things. Maybe that's the problem with The Aviator: Howard Hughes was anything but normal, and his life was literally bigger-than-life – how does one fit all that into a movie? That's where screenwriter John Logan gets into trouble. Nevertheless, it may not be the best movie of the year – it might crack my top 10, but that's still DEVELOPING! – and it's not Scorsese's best work, but it's still a phenomenal piece of filmmaking, with a magnificent performance from Cate Blanchett, and more proof from Leonardo DiCaprio that he is much more than his modern matinee-idol persona. I just wish most people would allow themselves to not see him yelling "I'm the king of the world" and look at this dynamic performance for what it really is. Anyway, more on this later ….
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: It is impossible to look at an adaptation of a well-loved series of books as separate from its source material, but in this case, it certainly is helpful to do so. Director Brad Silberling does his best to create an Addams Family for 2004, straight down to the presence of executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld and the Edward Gorey-inspired end title sequence. On its own, the movie is OK: kind of fun, visually exciting, and a reasonable story, with only an unrestrained Jim Carrey overdoing his schtick weighing the picture down. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, is a highlight. Looked at as an adaptation, however, Silberling and screenwriter Robert Gordon have basically ruined the heart and life of the books, giving little more than lip-service to the entire child-empowerment and adult-blindness themes in favor of additional (and unnecessary) plot elements and more spectacle-laden sequences. Visually, the film is wonderful, but in making the story more complex, it actually becomes less interesting and more predictable. Basically, just as Chris Columbus ripped the life out of the first two Harry Potter books, Silberling has mangled the first three Snickets.