Fri, Feb 13, 2009

: The International

I was looking forward to this one: a great cast, an intriguing topical premise (a major international bank involved with shady dealings), and a good director. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that enthused after I saw it. It wasn’t bad. The cinematography is excellent, with gorgeous architecture from around the world show in exquisite detail. The acting is okay, but the actors weren’t given much to do. And while the premise of the story is good, the characters aren’t fleshed out so we don’t much care what happens to them. The film is also uneven in pacing and action, at times playing out like a top-notch thriller, then going into long stretches of talking, and then going into a crazy gun battle that goes on forever. It’s a bit bizarre. It even devolves into a strange philosophical discussion on the nature of evil and crime and how to stop people when our whole justice system is designed for their existence. Normally that might have been perceived as a positive to me, but in a different film. It just didn’t fit here, and the producers didn’t do anything with it. Ultimately this is just okay. I liked certain aspects but was disappointed by enough others that in the end, I just didn’t care for it. It’s too bad.

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: Empire

Author: Orson Scott Card

This is an unusual book by scifi author Card — it’s a modern political drama based on the premise of a new American civil war. Could that happen? How? Card answers those questions in a way that’s chillingly possible: as soon as any one group feels violence is the only tool they have left in their arsenal, they’ll use it, and the states will be divided. But the story’s extremely uneven, with scenes of crazy action (the President gets blown up) glossed over in a few pages followed by many pages of political dialog and analysis. While the history lessons are interesting, they feels like they belong in a textbook, not a novel. Still, the concept is unusual enough to be worth reading, and the political reality is sobering enough to make it worth your time.

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Thu, Feb 12, 2009

: Coraline

Author: Neil Gaiman (novel)

If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably think this film is okay or pretty good. If you’re a fan of the book, however, you’ll come away disappointed. That’s a shame, for the animation is fabulous. The 3D version is worth the trouble and it is well suited for this kind of stop-motion animation. The level of detail is astonishing. For instance, in one scene a character pours coffee and though the mugs are a tiny part of the overall screen, I could see a droplet of coffee splash out of the cup and trickle down the side. That was realistic and considering the difficulty of implementing something that subtle via stop-motion is impressive. Unfortunately, the writer changed much of what was good about the book. Why, I’m not sure. I thought it might have been to make the story long enough as the film feels padded over the first half, but then the last third feels rushed, which is weird. The two main problems I had with the story modifications — spoiler warning — are 1) a new character, a boy Coraline’s age, is added. This goes completely against the whole point of the book, which is that she is lonely and alone and bored. Inserting this superfluous boy changes the dynamic of Coraline’s character, and not in a good way. People who haven’t read the book wouldn’t notice this, but book fans will be horrified. 2) The terrific ending in the book, where Coraline outsmarts the witch, is changed to an accidental victory (with a little help from the idiot boy). Why? Why? Why? I find this change incredibly shocking as that aspect of the book’s plot was terrific and really showed that Coraline was an intelligent, above average girl. She’d gotten a bit lucky throughout the rest of the story and so for me, that ending was crucial to the novel. In the movie that “fate” aspect is made even worse, with Coraline receiving help and good fortune and hardly doing anything on her own. At least the book had foreshadowing and made events look plausible; here stuff happens without any logic behind it at all. Despite these writing flaws, the movie did improve on several problem areas of the book. For instance, one area that troubled me about the book was how quickly the “alternate world” Coraline discovers turns sour. I wanted to see her more tempted by that world and her “other mother,” not almost immediately want to go home to the real world. The movie does this superbly well, with Coraline visiting her Other Mother several times and the place initially being very pleasant and only gradually showing a darker side. There were a few other places were the film script fixed minor issues with the novel, but I still don’t understand why they made those two crucial changes which pretty much ruined the film for me. It’s very sad because there’s so much to like. Many of the “boring” parts of the book are some of the film’s best scenes: the bizarre theatre of the actresses, the circus mice performance, Other Father’s piano song, the whole garden scene (which is not in the book at all but wonderfully illustrated). These are areas where the film enhances what the book only sketched. One of my favorite things was the whole spider motif of Other Mother, with her parlor web and her hand becoming an artificial metal claw that by the end of the film is independent of her and looks extremely spider-like. Certain things like that are absolutely classic and put this among the best films of all time. But the destruction of the author’s writing is absolutely criminal and ruins what could have been a fantastic work. It’s such a shame. In short, if you’ve read the book, see this just for the animation and be prepared for disappointment and you’ll come away pleased. If you haven’t read the book, go to be entertained and you will be impressed. Don’t expect the greatest film of all time, as the weak areas do show through, but expect an average story and you’ll get it.

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: The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky

I’m a big Aronofsky fan and was really curious about this film. It’s amazing in many ways, but ultimately I felt the story was a too mundane for this to be a great work of art. It’s the story of a wrestler struggling to hold on to a career that was at its peak 20 years earlier. Health problems force him to retire and face life as a non-wrestler for the first time, and we watch as he struggles with relationships and work. It’s an interesting environment, the whole wrestling scene, and Mickey Rourke’s performance (as well as Marisa Tomei’s) is fantastic. Both are completely believable as beautiful, broken people, scarred by life. Their relationship is unlike anything we’ve seen before and is fascinating. Unfortunately, the alienated daughter relationship is predictable and familiar, and while that doesn’t diminish its power, it does weaken the overall story which felt anticlimactic. The ending, however, was terrific: not what I expected. It was not satisfying, but it was appropriate, and the more I think about it the more I like it. Overall, this is a film to see for the performances and for the unusual environment (pro-wrestling) more than the fairly ordinary story. Recommended.

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Fri, Feb 06, 2009

: Push

I’ll admit I was not excited about seeing this; I really wanted to see Coraline, but I wanted to see it in 3D and that meant going to a theatre further away, so I saw this instead. Big disappointment. The trailers made me think it was derivative, reminding me of Jumper and TV shows like Heroes and though it turned out to have some interesting ideas, the way they were implemented was ultimately disappointing. It’s not really an action film; it’s not a special effects film; it’s not a comic book film; it’s not a film noir, though it has that kind of mysterious tone at times. In short, it’s a film that isn’t quite sure what it is and ends up being nothing. It’s not the worst film; it’s just decidedly average. There are some intriguing ideas: for example, the whole “how do we come up with a plan which the enemy prophets can’t predict?” presented a fascinating problem, but the solution was implemented in such a clunky and clumsy manner it was confusing at best and boring at worst. Basically, this is a movie with some really good scenes, some really poor scenes, and the whole thing averages out to the utterly mundane.

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Tue, Feb 03, 2009

: Coraline

Author: Neil Gaiman

Cool little book. I’d bought this years ago and it’s been on my to-read this forever, but with the film coming out, I had to read the original version first. It tells the tale of a little girl name Coraline (not a typo) who discovers a magical door that takes her in a mirror world. At first it seems cool and better than the real world, but then she discovers it has serious drawbacks and is actually an evil trap. She has to figure out how to escape and rescue others trapped there as well. Very well done, though in places the foreshadowing’s heavy-handed making things too predictable, and the story as a whole feels rather slight in the end. Still, it’s fun, and extremely well-written with terrific descriptions. (My favorite was this: “It wasn’t the kind of rain you could go out in—it was the other kind, the kind that threw itself down from the sky and splashed where it landed. It was rain that meant business, and currently its business was turning the garden into a muddy, wet soup.”) Delightful, though perhaps a bit ominous for younger kids. I can’t wait to see the movie.

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