madness

I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing...

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You know the summer's almost ended when...
madness
firebluespinel
...almost three weeks can go by without your even noticing! Apparently I did an old review post on August 4th...and now here it is August 21st, and I haven't written a damn thing since then. Thanks for your patience! I actually have a real-life post coming up soon, so watch for that if you're on my flist, and I hope to be starting some 30-day memes soon, but in the meantime, it's just slow enough at work that I can run out another old review post. Today's old reviews are:

L.A. Confidential
4.5 stars

Three cops with drastically different lives, goals and styles. Three cases that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. And a sinister undercurrent of corruption that none of them saw coming. L.A. Confidential, adapted from the James Ellroy novel of the same name, is the best detective movie to come out since they heyday of the black-and-white detective movies over fifty years ago. Its plot is tight as a drum, and even the twists have their own twists. Each character is fleshed out and performed to an Oscar-winning caliber (though the Academy itself turned up its nose at all but one). And most importantly to me, the intelligence never backs off and the excitement never falls away. Keeping both of those meters this high for an entire film is the mark of a phenomenal piece of moviemaking.

L.A. Confidential not only assembled an amazing cast (several of whom were still relative newcomers in 1997), but it used that cast perfectly. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce were letter-perfect to their parts in ways I've rarely seen since. James Cromwell is a great character actor, but coming off of Babe, no one knew he could play a villain--let alone play one so well! Kim Basinger, it seems, has done very little recently, but as far as I'm concerned that may be because this was her best role ever. David Strathairn and Danny DeVito were awesome in supporting roles. I also commend the film for its sharp, hardboiled dialogue, its gradual bringing of the three separate plots together into one seamless whole, its gritty action scenes, and its excellent job as a period piece.

If I had to list the best films that came out of the 1990s, L.A. Confidential would be near the top, close behind American Beauty and The Matrix. It's one of a few films I honestly never get tired of.


Star Trek (2009)
4.5 stars

I'm sure everyone is aware that this was not the first Star Trek movie to come out. (I think it's actually the ninth.) Moreover, many of those films, especially the recent ones, just didn't do very well outside of the Trekkie culture, cementing the idea that Star Trek was primarily an old-fashioned franchise whose place in the 21st century was merely a backward-looking niche. Trekkies, however, still love the franchise, and doubtless had very specific ideas as to how any movie featuring the original characters should look. So not only did director J.J. Abrams have a big task in front of him in proving the "old-fashioned" assumption wrong, he also had a pretty fine line to walk between staying true to the original characters and completely redefining and updating the franchise, both of which were arguably necessary.

As far as I'm concerned, Abrams hit a home run. Not only did he walk the aforementioned line better than anyone anticipated, he created a masterpiece of filmmaking that not only satisfied old-school Trekkies but also made Star Trek accessible and exciting for non-Trekkies, Next-Gens, DS9s, Star Wars fans, and anyone who appreciated the Trek concept but just don't/didn't like William Shatner. This film unified the old and the new seamlessly; just as Casino Royale masterfully portrayed the beginning of Bond in a day in age fifty years after he actually started, this Star Trek took us forward in time to look backwards, at events that happened before Shatner and Nimoy ever boldly went where no man had gone before. And in doing so, it took an old story and made it into something completely new--a prequel that looked and acted like a sequel. (More importantly, it made that particular idea work amazingly well, something Star Wars was not able to do.)

J.J. Abrams' genius aside, this film did something else I really like in movies: it assembled a cast largely from little-known actors that worked better than a cast of well-knowns could ever have done. Granted, some of the actors in this Star Trek have been in other films or show before: Zachary Quinto in Heroes; Karl Urban in LOTR and The Bourne Supremacy; Eric Bana, John Cho, Simon Pegg and Zoe Saldana each in two or three mainstream movies. The only actual newcomers were Chris Pine and Anton Yelchin. But none of the cast were so established in films to seem at all typecast, or famous enough to give the impression that the film was a star vehicle for them (except Leonard Nimoy, and he doesn't count here since he was essentially playing himself). And each cast member played his or her role flawlessly. Cho and Yelchin as Sulu and Chekov were priceless; Pegg brought his trademark slapstick/snark to a young Scotty; Quinto was masterful as the emotionless Vulcan who could not escape his emotions and discovered he didn't want to; Nimoy's cameo just rocked; Urban showed he was quite hilarious as well as a badass; and Pine took to Kirk like Christian Bale took to Batman. The cast's general young age, in addition to fitting the story and adding to the movie's marketability, brought great freshness and energy to match the movie's excellent action scenes. Plus, as if all that weren't enough, all the characters were just generally likeable! I haven't been this impressed with a full ensemble since The Italian Job.

The film was a little light on plot, and it did move fairly jerkily from point to point, especially in the first half hour or so. I was more than a bit surprised at how little time was spent at the StarFleet Academy itself. I remember the first installment of Starship Troopers, for example, focused a lot on the training part of space combat. Given the Star Trek characters' age, I think I expected something similar, rather than a jump from joining to shipping out to being thrown into the "real world" so to speak. But in the grand scheme of things, neither a slightly sub-optimal plotline nor a fast-forwarded sense of progression could make this film any less awesome or enjoyable. For my money, it really was one of the best films of 2009, and I would recommend it to anyone--Trekkie or no.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
4 stars

I really want to review the entire movie series as a whole, once it's completed. So I'm not going to say TOO too much here. But I will say this: few book-to-movie transitions are as captivating, as thrilling or as satisfying as those we've seen in the Harry Potter films. The actors, as I'm sure we all know, were picked with the characters in mind, and I haven't seen a failure to match yet. The stories are filmized with a fairly minimal loss of content...usually one to three fairly important points get glossed over, but one to three out of, say, fifty or so is not a huge margin for error. And the movies have done a really great job of showing Harry et al growing up in a realistic way. HP6 is very much on par with the preceding five, and it set things up for the seventh and final film really well, I thought. My only complaint was the handling of Snape as the Half-Blood Prince and the complete absence of the attack and battle on Hogwarts grounds that went on during the murder of Dumbledore. Those parts should have been fleshed out more. But everything else in the film was well up to the standard of all the HP films, and I certainly loved watching it.

Crossing Over
3 stars

Alright, I admit it: it is possible to have too much of a good thing. I know I've gone on at some length about how amazing, gripping, and ingenious films like Crash, The Air I Breathe, and Vantage Point are because of their adept handling of multiple characters and storylines that have little to do with each other but intersect in interesting and emotional ways. And I stick to that opinion. But if you take that concept, scale its intensity back a bit, and focus it a bit too narrowly on the circumstance that makes those characters and storylines cut across each other to begin with, you tend to wind up with a well-meaning but largely ineffective film, whose impact is much more hit-or-miss than universal. The 2008 film Fragments (review forthcoming) is a great example of this phenomenon: in juggling so many disparate storylines and characters, it lost a lot of its emotional impact. A similar statement could be made about Crossing Over.

Like the race issues in Crash, the ever-present spectre of illegal immigration could be seen and felt in every moment of Crossing Over. And like Crash, this film did a solid job of portraying the desperation, desire and frank ugliness that many, many people reduce themselves to in order to live illegally in America and, hopefully, attain that magic green card. Lies, fraud, forgery, and prostitution were just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy to believe the pity and compassion in Harrison Ford's eyes, because the hopeless situations his character (a border patrol agent) saw were portrayed very realistically. Yet despite that character's sympathy, many of the situations themselves seemed impersonal, unbelievable, or just lacked the emotional grip I think they were supposed to have. The movie's scattered group of characters and their sporadic connections had much to do with this flatness, as well as the fact that many of the characters were fairly one-dimensional even when their situations were not. And, frankly, watching the ugly side of human nature raise its head isn't all that fun when it isn't glamorized.

Along that line, the best parts of Crossing Over had nothing to do with the darkness in men's hearts. The best parts, the parts that made watching the rest of the film worth it, were the parts that involved kindness. Harrison Ford's character goes out of his way to find an immigrant child's family. Jim Sturgess pretends to be a rabbi to get a job in the States, gets caught in his pretense and has to perform part of a Jewish service in front of a real rabbi--and the real rabbi not only doesn't give him away, but invites him to come to his own temple. A teenage Asian boy has a change of heart in the middle of a convenience store robbery and turns on his confederates--and even though guns go off, the victims in the store tell the police that particular boy was not involved in the holdup. Ashley Judd's character, heartbroken over a little black girl's failure to be adopted, finally decides to adopt the girl herself. These moments are few and far between, and come fairly suddenly, but they show poignant glimpses of the emotional impact that the film was trying for but didn't quite make. They also make the movie worth a rental, if not necessarily a purchase.



The Reader
2.5 stars

This is my problem with the Oscars: they rarely, if ever, seem to adjust their ratings and decisions to reflect entertainment. In fact, while the Academy is probably right to ignore some films made just for entertainment's sake, the majority of the movies nominated by them are ones that the general public hasn't seen because they just aren't that entertaining. Exceptions exist--Eastern Promises, No Country For Old Men, American Beauty--but for the most part Oscar-nominated movies are chosen for their cachet, their emotion, their depth and their intellect rather than their entertainment value. There needs to be a middle ground here--the impression given is that those factors and entertainment are mutually exclusive. They aren't, and somewhere along the line the Academy has forgotten that in order for movies to count as "good" or "award-worthy," people have to WANT to watch them, not just see them because they feel obligated to by an Oscar nomination.

The Reader is a classic example of an Oscar shoo-in that needs an entertainment boost. Kate Winslet does a really great acting job, which is hard to do while also appearing naked for much of the movie, and a few aspects of the relationship between her and the boy/Ralph Fiennes are intriguing, but by and large the movie itself is a snoozer. I have heard people describe it as moving, impactful, dramatic, brutally honest, nuances, and controversial, and they're right, it was all of those things. But it was also long, slow, inscrutable, overly subtle, implausible, contrived and boring. Hugh Jackman's intro song to the Oscars where The Reader was nominated for Best Picture probably summed up this film the best: "The Reader...I didn't see The Reader." Neither did anyone else outside of the Academy, Hugh. Good call.


Defiance
4.5 stars

Videogame critics recently have been complaining about the sheer volume of WWII games on the market right now. The Nazi-killing bandwagon has been absolutely overloaded and is in danger of running off the road. What these critics probably know but are not saying is that WWII movies experienced that market glut long ago, with the result that any war movie made these days is usually just written off as having been done before. So when a film comes along that actually has done something DIFFERENT with the WWII setting, that film is even more remarkable than its own merits would make it. Defiance is exactly such a film.

What makes Defiance so excellent lies in three factors. First, it's a true story, but it's one that few people outside of eastern Europe have ever been really aware of. Amidst the continent-shaking cataclysms of WWII, the flight, survival and triumph of a small group of Polish Jews very easily got lost in the shuffle, their nobility and grit kept alive only in their memories. Director Edward Zwick found about their incredible story more than sixty years after it happened when he was shown the obituary of one of the brothers who led the group of Jews out of Poland. So while it does involve WWII, it portrayed a side of that war completely new to Western audiences.

Second, Defiance focused intensely on its characters, a group of Eastern European Jews, as a people unto themselves who fought and worked for their own freedom and won it with very little outside help. The Allies were far away and unreachable, even the group's enemies were impersonal and did not appear overmuch. The film had not one American, Brit or Frenchman in it, relatively few Russians, and hardly any Nazis. The main characters were all members of this group of refugees, and nearly all of them were fleshed out as the new community began to take form in the forest. And the way that community was built--the way people from different backgrounds, jobs, income brackets, political persuasions, came together to work for their collective survival and normalcy of life--was extremely touching.

And third, the performances of Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber were some of the best I saw in 2009. Not because they showed how versatile and commanding those two men are as actors (though they did), but because they became their characters in a way that, to me, transcended acting. Watching Daniel Craig play James Bond or Liev Schrieber play Sabertooth is enjoyable because they are good actors and fun to see play badass parts. Watching them play the brothers Tuvia and Zus was far more than merely enjoyable. There was literally no separation between watching the two actors and watching those two brothers as if I'd been there in that Belorussian forest sixty-odd years ago. They didn't act; they WERE. And that's beyond rare in films these days.

Defiance was not always easy to watch. The hardship this group of refugees went through was harsh, at times excruciating, and they struggled as much within their own ranks as they did against nature and the Nazis. But the moments of connection, of unity, of faith, and of triumph made the tough parts so, so worth it. This was one of the best films of its year, no question.


That's it for now. Time to get ready for the show tonight. Thanks for reading!

FBS

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