Sunday, May 27, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón is a very talented director whose mad skillz I had recognized as far back as 1997, when I saw A Little Princess (yes, DVD rental choices were scarce at that time). That film had spectacular cinematography and storytelling.

This film shows off mad skillz as well. Great filmmaking, good acting, great cinematography, good story... and .... somehow the whole package just doesn't work.

The problem might be that it's an annoying movie. They're trying to make some kind of point about politics today. I think. Right? Were they? Anyone? Because whatever current political message they were trying to connect to the story in this film -- that women can no longer have children in the future -- it just didn't come together. Michael Caine plays a political cartoonist that's friends with Clive Owen's character. In his house he grows pot, has a lot of "Don't invade Iraq" stickers, etc.. I guess he's kind of like a hippie in the 90s who still protests the Vietnam war. I don't know about you, but I ignore those people because they're insane. But this movie is in the future, so his hippieness is about something in our present, therefore it's meaningful. And then we have some people who are supposed to be good, but are labeled as terrorists, or are they good, or are they bad. Whatever point is being made here, it's jumbled and confused.

It's sad that the movie is so annoying because it should be recognized for the technical achievement of filmmaking. Repeatedly, Cuarón is able to pull off very long action sequences in a single shot -- with the help of deft visual effects of course. The first one, an action sequence in a car, is just awesome. I'm surprised people hadn't tapped Cuarón for an action film before, because what he does here is very effective. He also used an effect that I had prototyped in 2000 for a film, which was to have digital blood stick to the lens assembly in an action scene. Sadly, the director (not Cuarón, another guy) never got to see that because my visual effects supervisor wouldn't show it to him. However, it's used much more effectively in this movie. Cuarón leaves the effect on the screen for a single shot that's at least a minute. That's bold. He's a director that's not afraid to take chances visually, and most of those risks work out.

[Aside: I guess it's a lot like JFK in that regard. JFK is a technically brilliant movie, takes a lot of visual risks, but is annoying as hell. Oliver Stone is an expert at making those. Check out The JFK 100: One Hunded Errors of Fact and Judgement in Oliver Stone's JFK. ]

People either like or hate this movie. I like some aspects and hate others, but I don't agree that the movie is overrated because, on technical level, the filmmaking is very good. I agree that other than to appreciate the technicals of this film, there is no redeeming reason to watch it. If you don't appreciate that sort of thing and are just looking for a movie to entertain you, this is definitely not it.

JSS Rating: Borderline...Good/Good.

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Apparently, you can say a movie is "based on a true story" when it's pure fiction set within broad truths. Here are the things in this movie that we know are true:

  • World Wars were fought between 1914-1918 and again 1939-1945.

  • The CIA is a US Government agency.

  • Hitler, Castro, Kennedy and Arbenz were all real people mentioned in the movie.

  • The CIA tried to launch an invasion against Castro called the Bay of Pigs.

  • Robert De Niro should not be directing movies.

  • Eric Roth is a hack.

Those are the truths, because everything else in the movie is pure fiction. If you think this is based on the history of the CIA, understand that none of the names used in the movie are real except the four that I mentioned above. Why? Because there's so much fiction in The Good Shepherd that they would have gotten their asses sued by using real names.

How do I know? Becauase I'm reading The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA by Evan Thomas, where the author uses the real names. I had come into The Good Shepherd thinking that it would be about Richard Bissell. Instead, we get a fictional character that's not really historically interesting.

All of this is why I generally hate docudramas. I can't stop focusing on the inaccuracies in the movie. I tried very hard to judge this movie on its own though, as just a product of entertainment, so how's this for critque:

De Niro should not be allowed to direct movies, fiction or pseudo-fiction.

He took great subject matter -- the CIA between WWII and the Bay of Pigs -- and made it sensational, overlong, and confusing. For the content that's in this movie, it's easily 1 hour too long. The sensationalism was over the top... pretty much all button-pushing current political topics attempt to be touched on (waterboarding, LSD, assassinations). But the main issue is the editing. There are flashbacks, flash forwards, flash sideways, flash unders and the actors are not visibly different enough to distinguish what's going on. When you see title cards explaining where you are in the timeline, that's indicative of poor filmmaking. The story couldn't hold itself together without these cards.

It's also not a good sign when the supporting characters in the film blow away the main character. De Niro, Turturro, Hurt, and even Tim Hutton's 2 minutes in the movie give you more compelling character development than do Matt Damon or Angelina Jolie. Damon is neither evil nor good, he's just kind of a bump on a log. There's no reason to root for or against him. That might have been the point, but if it was, doesn't it seem like a waste of film? Why make a movie about someone who just sits there?

I did find the first half of the movie entertaining. Maybe it's because that was before it had gone way off in terms of history. I won't give anything away, but the first real plot twist in the movie seems way too contrived, and it goes downhill from there.

JSS RATING: BAD GOOD™. Congratulations De Niro! You've hit the jackpot with a trademarked Bad Good™ rating from Joel Schumacher Sucks. Bad Good™ of course means it was supposed to be an A-list movie by design, but it actually is bad. Oscar is a sucker for Bad Good™ movies. Previous recipients include Forrest Gump, which Eric Roth actually won an Oscar for.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Departed (2006)

Scorsese, supposedly a great director who makes great movies, hasn't made an great movie since Goodfellas. There, someone finally said it.

You may have previously read my review of The Aviator, which was a terrible movie that got nominated for an Oscar (never forget the Oscar rules: making a movie about Hollywood itself automatically gets you nominated). Casino was forgettable. I didn't see "Bringing out the Dead" or "Gangs of New York." Those had 6.6 and 7.2 ratings respectively on IMDB, where every Scorsese, De Niro, Pachino, etc., movie is overrated.

Scorsese's problem is that he tries to force a movie, rather than show us, via the film medium, a story. The camera is there to do one thing: record the story. Sure, there are symbolic things you can do with the camera, but the goal is not to overmake a movie for art's sake. That's what film school projects are for. In regular movies, camera tricks should only be used when they help tell us something, not to force them for your "signature".

Prime example of forcing shots is Brian DePalma. ONCE in his career, the top-down shot worked really well. It was in The Untouchables, after Capone had beat the guy with the baseball bat.

Let me give you an example of a Scorsese forced scene -- actually in Goodfellas. Remember the sweeping cameras over dead people put to Clapton music? Well, thanks to Youtube, here it is for you to remember. That's an example of forcing a shot. The scene is memorable, sure, but it plays like something out of a NYU film student's mob movie. Sweeping camera moves, just like top down cameras, are almost never necessary to tell the story. They're put in there to exaggerate the drama. But if the scene is that really that dramatic, you don't need it. In DePalma's favor, at least top down cameras have the symbolism of someone rising to heaven. Sweeping moves don't mean much beyond "I'm a pretentious jackass".

Getting to The Departed. Fortunately, this is one movie that Scorsese decided not to overmake too much. He mostly let the story tell itself, and actually, it is a great story. The movie keeps you pulled in thoughout. I honestly didn't think the acting was that great. I'm shocked Marky Mark was able to get an Oscar nomaination for his performance. All he did was swear up a storm. His dialogue and delivery was entertaining, but unnecessary for the story and certainly not Oscar-caliber.

Of course, Scorsese uses every chance possible to work 60s music into his movies, and The Departed is no exception. It starts off with a 60s scene of a younger Jack Nicholson and a kid version of Matt Damon, then leads into "Gimme Shelter". Scorsese has used this song in his films now three times. I didn't know that until I read it on Wikipedia, so are they shitting me? Can this guy become a cliche of himself any more than he has?

The Departed is, no surprise, too long. Maybe half an hour. Overall, for a long movie this one will keep your interest. I found the ending very unsatisfying -- and this is where Scorsese tries to work in his needless camera tricks -- but it is a decent film. Not Oscar-winner worthy. I'm not sure why they insist on giving those out every year. Instead, they should give it out every 5 years. That's about how often Hollywood makes a truly worthy film.

Rating: Good/Good. Worth a rental. HD-optional.