My resolution to review every movie I see has been met with a lot of slacking thus far, partially attributable to the fact that I started off behind due to my 2007 recap. So as an attempt to get caught up, here are more capsule reviews of the movies I’ve seen that have been released so far in 2008. Recall that I’m using a 4-star scale.
- Cloverfield ()
This movie suffers from a similar malady as I Am Legend did: a great first act with a really intriguing setup featuring some excellently iconic imagery (hard to beat the Statue of Liberty’s head flying down the street), but then the story doesn’t have anywhere to go once the setup is complete. As an exercise in style and an evolutionary leap of the “found video tape” genre first pioneered by The Blair Witch Project, it’s a great success. The monster attack on Manhattan that the story centers around is handled with an expert sense of what to reveal and when; in this regard the movie really shines. The story itself, however, is hard to get into, feeling too much like the contrivance to showcase the monster attack that it is.
- In Bruges () [limited release]
Here’s a unique film that flirts with several genres: it starts out feeling like a crime-and-guns movie, moves into a buddy comedy, then incorporates some romance on its way to an action-based shootout or two, and finally settles into a tragedy with a surprising sweetness in the end. Richard Roeper recently called it “the best buddy-hitman movie since Pulp Fiction,” and while I think that might be overstating it a bit, I can’t totally disagree. The city of Bruges (“broozsh“), the oldest preserved Medieval city in Europe, serves as a fantastic backdrop to this story of two hitmen hiding out after a job gone wrong. Colin Farrell essentially plays himself, which fits perfectly in this story, and Brendan Gleeson provides the ideal counterpart. It’s too bad this film is not widely released, but it’s definitely worth seeking out if you get a chance; it’s funny and clever and exciting and painful, and I’m hoping it’ll at least find a wider audience once it’s released on video.
- Definitely, Maybe ()
Catching me (and, I assume, several others) totally by surprise, Definitely, Maybe is a romantic comedy that is both more romantic and more comedic–not to mention more entertaining in general–than the stereotype would normally lead me to believe. The film is set, via a typical storytelling-based flashback structure, in the early 90s, during Bill Clinton’s campaign for presidency, when Nirvana ruled the music world and $2 was an expensive price for a pack of cigarettes. Ryan Reynolds, by way of explaining his failed marriage’s start to his daughter (Abigail Breslin, showing she wasn’t just a one-hit wonder in Little Miss Sunshine), relates the stories of his relationships with three different women (Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher, all good in their respective roles), leaving it up to the girl to guess which one is her mother. This vehicle manages to avoid feeling overly contrived, and the story eventually reaches a satisfying–if somewhat predictable–conclusion.
- Be Kind Rewind ()
Michel Gondry, after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has carte blanch as far as I’m concerned to experiment however he likes. Sometimes these experiments are going to fail, as is mostly the case with Be Kind Rewind, but it’s still well worth seeing his attempt. The main problem with this movie is that it’s about 5 years too late: it’s hard to feel too badly for a small local video store that’s still trying to hold onto its VHS roots in the face of dominance from the big bad DVD, especially when we already know that they’re both dead formats. Then again, that’s part of what makes the world of Be Kind Rewind so surreal, even though it ostensibly exists in modern-day New Jersey. The other part is the downright strange people who live there, most notably Jack Black in a more insane reprisal of his role from High Fidelity (to Mos Def’s John Cusack), but also the citizens of Passaic in general, who buy into the “sweded” versions of films the store rents out. The movie really redeems itself in the end, though, after a hilariously evil performance from Sigourney Weaver meets a touchingly earnest performance from Danny Glover. Overall it’s an awkward experience, but one worth giving a shot.
- Vantage Point ()
It’s tempting (and not altogether inappropriate) to refer to it as 24: The Movie, but Vantage Point benefits from a tighter story and vastly superior acting than its TV-based forebear sports, not to mention a higher budget and all of the niceties that go along with it. The main 15 or 20 minutes of the story (about an attempted assassination of a fictional US president while at an anti-terror conference in Spain) is told from the point of view of six different characters, revealing more about what happened with each iteration. It’s not exactly Rashomon, but it’s a technique that’s very effective at keeping the audience’s interest and building excitement in anticipation of the climax that inevitably comes when all of the storylines dovetail into each other. The big chase scene, the plot twist, and Dennis Quaid’s leading character’s redemption are all handled ably enough, but after the novelty of the storytelling device wears off, it’s all just a bit too generic.
- Semi-Pro ()
Will Ferrell returns to the 1970s well that he previously tapped with Anchorman for a movie about the end of the ABA. This is as formulaic as all of Ferrell’s comedies, but it works better than most due mainly to the addition of Woody Harrelson to the cast, providing a much-needed counter to Ferrell’s always-overbearing lead. It also benefits from an R rating, because, well, swearing is funny (not to mention that the language fits the culture the film is trying to portray). There’s nothing ground-breaking here, but if you like Will Ferrell movies, this is one of the better ones.
- The Other Boleyn Girl ()
If the Showtime series The Tudors didn’t already exist and weren’t done so well, this movie might’ve been more intriguing. As it stands, though, it pales in comparison; in contrast to the TV series, it ably compresses the story into movie length, but it manages to miss all of what makes the oft-told tale of Henry VIII’s appetite for lust interesting. It makes no sense to me that somebody would want to endeavor to make a movie that is essentially entirely about sex while trying to avoid actually addressing (or depicting) the sex at all, but that is exactly what has been done here. It doesn’t help that Eric Bana’s take on the lustful king basically involves trying to look as stoic and indifferent as possible, even while he is going to such lengths as separating England from the Catholic church and changing the laws of his country all in the name of scoring himself a piece of tail. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson are both very good in their roles as the sisters who compete for their king’s affections, but the 16th-century idea of what passes for salacious just doesn’t translate for 21st-century audiences. What we end up with is a very nice-looking movie with high production values that is utterly boring and uninteresting.
- 21 ()
Very loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s excellent book Bringing Down the House, 21 is a pretty formulaic story of a young hotshot student who starts out humble and focused on his studies, is introduced to a more exciting and riskier world than what he’s used to, becomes comfortable in this world before allowing his own developing cockiness to become his downfall, and then is once again humbled just in time to return and make things right. That the actual story of the MIT Blackjack Team has been dumbed down and oversimplified for its Hollywood telling is not surprising, but this film is so loosely based on actual events that one is left to wonder if it was a preexisting script that was simply moved to a Boston setting after the rights to Mezrich’s book were secured. Still, though, it’s an enjoyable film, managing to keep things interesting and moving along, even if the story itself is a bit played out and dull. The cast is good, with Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Spacey playing roles that appear to have been written specifically for them, and Jim Sturgess showing that he’ll continue to be a good leading man for years to come. Just don’t expect to learn much about real-life events.
I’ve also had a chance to catch up on video with some of the movies from last year that I missed in the theaters:
- Sunshine ()
Danny Boyle’s space odyssey starts out as a broadly-scoped tale of a group of future astronauts sent to reignite the dying Sun, but then devolves into a claustrophobic scarefest that hearkens back to Shallow Grave (his directorial debut). Everything is well done, from the acting to the special effects to the well-told exposition, but the change of gears around the film’s midpoint is a bit jarring and off-putting, not to mention disappointing. Once you get past the apparent change in genre and the film’s pace adjusts accordingly, though, everything is once again well done and engaging, and the film’s conclusion is fitting of its beginning.
- 3:10 to Yuma ()
A remake of a film from the 50’s based on one of Elmore Leonard’s earliest stories, this is a classic Western retold with contemporary flair. The story is tight and well-told, the production values are high, and the acting is first-rate, with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe achieving a perfect balance with their characters on a level much more subtle than good guy/bad guy. There’re plenty of exciting action sequences here, but the quiet scenes with Bale and Crowe–especially during the third act–are even better.
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ()
The legend of Jesse James is larger than was the man himself, and in a similar vein this movie about his murder attempts to tell a larger story than what is actually there. There’s a lot of wide shots, soft focus, and somber music, all of which serves to depersonalize the tale that is essentially about an obsessive fan. The pace throughout is slow and delicate, again trying to put more import into the events than should be needed. Everything about this movie is well done, but in a manner that feels almost sterile and makes it hard to get into.
- We Own the Night ()
Starting out as a story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law, this film seems to experience somewhat of an identity crisis about halfway through and becomes a story about cop-partner brothers instead. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that it feels like so much of the first part of the movie is spent setting Joaquin Phoenix up as being in a position to ascend in the ranks of the crime family he is associated with that it is actually disappointing when he (somewhat abruptly) switches sides. It’s still pretty good after that point, but more stereotypical than I had been expecting.
- Gone Baby Gone ()
Ben Affleck’s [feature-length] directorial debut stars his brother Casey in one of his 2 roles from 2007 that showcased how talented the younger Affleck really is (the other, of course, was his turn as Robert Ford). In fact, the whole cast here is quite good, with Amy Ryan’s foul-mouthed lower-class Bostonian mother deserving specific mention (not to mention an Oscar nomination). The story itself is intriguing, ultimately presenting both sides of a morally polarizing dilemma without necessarily taking a stance, preferring to leave it open to the audience for debate.
Starting this week, I’m making a renewed effort to write full reviews of every movie I see, particularly those that are released in theaters, but hopefully some new releases on video, too. Hopefully I don’t end up with another post like this full of capsule reviews–not because I don’t enjoy doing them, but because that would mean that I’ve allowed myself to get behind again. In the meantime, I hope someone enjoys the ones above.