Monthly Archives: March 2010

Review: The Ghost Writer

the ghost writer one sheetBased on a terrific book by Richard Harris, The Ghost Writer is an exercise in European thriller plotting and cinematography, even though most of it takes place on Cape Cod here in the United States. Directed by the great – and troubling – Roman Polanski, it has a pace that turned off many filmgoers, unfolding slowly and occasionally with the feel of a stage play, but I really liked it quite a bit.

The story revolves around former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (well played by Pierce Brosnan) who is borrowing his publisher’s Cape Cod estate to write his memoirs. As is common with these sort of politico memoirs, Rhinehart Publishing hired a ghost writer, a professional who can turn notes and reminiscences into a coherent, readable and engaging narrative. Problem is, the ghost writer has died in rather mysterious circumstances.
Enter frustrated writer Ewan McGregor, who upon being asked by the publisher why he would be a good choice for the replacement ghost writer, explains that he brings nothing to the project. But it’s that very lack of bias, of agenda, that lands him the job, and a cherry job it is, with a paycheck of $250,000 for a month’s worth of work. 
The film unfolds gradually and it’s one of a small number of thrillers where a second viewing will reveal much more about the story progression (another example: The Spanish Prisoner). I really enjoyed The Ghost Writer and felt that the visuals, the acting and the windswept setting all contributed to an unsettling but intriguing cinematic experience.

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Review: Fame

fame one sheet

In case you never saw the original, Fame follows student’s journeys through the New York Academy of Performing Arts. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Try telling a dozen stories, all simultaneously, in 107 minutes and see how successful you are. In my opinion, Fame suffers greatly from trying to put in too much story into too few minutes.
Now, I’m not your average all-American guy, mind you. Actually, my preference is for a good musical over a good football game, any day of the week. Don’t get me wrong, I love action flicks as much as the next guy, but there is something magical and breathtaking about watching a great dancer, or listening to an extraordinary vocalist or practiced musician. Performing artists can lift my spirit higher than any quarterback throwing a completed pass ever could.
HOWEVER, this 2009 remake of of the 1980 film, Fame, let me down. Yes, there were awe-inspiring vocal artists in the film. Yes, there were musicians showing unbelievable talent. Yes, there were dancers on screen performing moves and choreography that made my jaw drop. If that is ALL you want out of the movie, then go buy it on DVD right now, as you will love it.
For me, I wanted a good story that moved between, and intertwined, the remarkable performance scenes. Unfortunately, there were simply too many storyline dynamics going on, to show-off any of them effectively. Relationships between students, between parents and students, between instructors and students, and so on… you can probably tell that this was a storytelling nightmare to cram all into one film. Attempting to bring depth to the story, some wonderful actors were tapped to play the school’s staff members, including Debbie Allen (who was also in the original Fame), Kelsey Grammer (Frasier), Charles S. Dutton (Legion), Bebe Neuwirth (The Big Bounce), and Megan Mullally (Will & Grace).

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Review: How to Train your Dragon

how to train your dragon one sheetHow to Train your Dragon, the latest film from Dreamworks Animation, tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking and the only son of village chief, blacksmith and single dad Stoick The Vast (Gerard Butler). 

Hiccup is a disappointment to his father because he’s a klutz and not interested in slaying the dragons that constantly attack their village and steal their livestock.
Hiccup is also attracted to Astrid (America Ferrera) but, a tough Viking girl, she’s only interested in boys who want to kill dragons. The story begins in earnest when Hiccup is thrown into dragon training class with Astrid and other town children, while he is secretly befriending an injured Night Fury dragon he names “Toothless”.
Cute and predictable, there’s nothing exceptional about How to Train your Dragon, but it’s still a good diversion. There’s also a dry sarcasm throughout the film that I found appealing and amusing, helping adults alleviate boredom while escorting their younger charges. For example, at the beginning of the film Hiccup explains “We’re Vikings, we have stubbornness issues” and later, one of the kids in dragon training insists “it’s only fun if you get a scar!”  Worth seeing in the theater? Probably, especially if you like 3D, but it’ll be on DVD soon enough too.

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Review: Repo Men

Repo Men PosterLet me just start my review by saying that Repo Men was awful. Graphic, bloody, and with a staggering body count, this is all that’s wrong with Hollywood action films, a glossy sheen on a completely vapid, empty story that works against itself in scene after scene. Then, the worst of all is the surprise ending, a twist that’s always frustrated me. I won’t reveal it, but if you do suffer through this dreck, you’ll know exactly why it’s a formulaic ending that ruins all but a precious few films that utilize it.

sf/x: deep breath.
Repo Men explores a dystopic future where cities look curiously like the brilliantly realized urban landscape of Blade Runner and artificial organs, “artiforgs”, have been perfected and replacement eyes, ears, voice boxes, kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, kneecaps, etc., are not only manufactured by a variety of companies worldwide, but there’s also a thriving black market in replacement parts (a la Minority Report).  Problem is, these artificial body parts are extraordinarily expensive, so just about everyone opts for a payment plan. Miss a few payments, though, and the repo men show up to reclaim their wares.
Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are repo men working for The Union, one of the companies that sells replacement organs to hapless citizens. “You owe it to your family, you owe it to yourself” is the company slogan and its bland showroom reminded me of the retail pet cloning business in The 6th Day
Some bad films show up on the scene and are just dumb. I can live with that. But when a script starts out with the lead character musing on the dilemma of Schrödinger’s cat, asking “how can something be dead and alive at the same time?” and ends up such a complete narrative mess, it’s beyond just disappointing. Trust me on this one, just skip Repo Men.

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Review: Green Zone

green zone one sheetI had high hopes for Green Zone. I really did. I’m a big fan of the Bourne movies and thought the sullen, slightly dazed but explosively violent character that Matt Damon played in the trilogy was perfect, a breakout role for him and a chance for us to see him as a cool – and different – sort of action hero.

Matt Damon stars as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller and with an occasional nudge by CIA chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) he gets increasingly frustrated by the dangerous missions his team’s sent on, finding empty warehouses where intel has pinpointed WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). Leading the government conspiracy is Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear). The final ingredient in the stew is Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who shows up at semi-random points mostly as a device to propel the storyline.
Unfortunately, while Green Zone was exciting and visually impressive, Damon was completely flat and unbelievable, one of the most actionless action roles we’ve seen on screen in a while. Worse, the sinister government plot to manufacture weapons of mass destruction as justification for the Iraqi invasion was daft and shallow, played out more like a comic book action story than a serious wartime thriller.
To be fair, though, the film did draw me in and it wasn’t until the last thirty minutes or so that it became increasingly unbelievable, with twists and scenes that made me literally laugh out loud at their absurdity. I can’t reveal the plot holes without spoiling the film for you, but suffice to say, by the end of the film, it’s clear that Green Zone is more of a wish fulfillment story, a fantasy about how we presumably hope a lone agent of truth would ferret out what’s really happening outside the green “safe” zone in Iraq.

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Review: Alice in Wonderland

alice in wonderland one sheetLewis Carroll’s immortal story Alice in Wonderland has been brought to the big screen many times, notably 1951’s animated Disney classic that memorialized the different characters in the story for many adults. With 61 title matches in the Internet Movie Database, it’s safe to say it’s a popular starting point for movie makers.

That’s an intimidating challenge, especially for a director like Tim Burton who generally tackles stories that haven’t been shown in film before and can be crafted in his own unique style. Think of A Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish and Mars Attacks!  Prior to this, the most popular story he’d tackled was Willy Wonka, which he twisted unpleasantly with his muse Johnny Depp proving too creepy in the title role.
And so it’s with a palpable sense of relief that I can report Alice in Wonderland is terrific. It’s the kind of story where Burton’s dark vision works perfectly, where the strange, moody and oft-sinister fantasy world Carroll described in the book (and its sequel Through The Looking Glass) can finally be brought to the big screen in glorious 3D.
There are nods to other films — the opening is very reminiscent of the 3D fly-through of London that opens A Christmas Carol, some scenes look like they’re from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Underland (you read that right, “Wonderland” was a mis-pronunciation by Alice, according to the film) at moments looks an awful lot like the planet Pandora from the blockbuster Avatar — and the ending is typical clunky Burton, but it’s still a fresh and delightful take on the story.

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