Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Every now and then, a movie slips by me completely unnoticed. I attribute this to my location, where the local theaters would rather show Did You Hear About The Morgans? for three weeks instead of bringing in something other than another romantic comedy that deserves more screen time. I am then forced to wait for the film to hit the DVD stands before I can see it for the first time, let alone review it. So I have determined not to let the local theaters dictate which movies I can review based on what they are showing and present to you the first installment of “DVD REVIEWS.”
“War is a drug.” From the opening quote by Chris Hedges, the audience is aware that they are not attending their typical war film. Then again, the war in Iraq isn’t a typical war and in many ways, it is a war of uncertainty. U.S. soldiers experience difficulties distinguishing enemies from the rest of the civilians and for Staff Sgt. William James (in an Oscar worthy performance by Jeremy Renner), whose main objective is to diffuse bombs, it seems that everything can be a potential IED. And yet, despite the fact that his job could literally kill him as it did to his predecessor, James approaches a bomb with an unbelievable air of confidence as if he enjoys the pressure brought on by the pressure of the situation.
James’ confidence borders on cockiness and doesn’t sit well with the members of his support squad, including Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Sanborn follows the rules and procedures to a ‘T’ and he and his men are charged with protecting James as he focuses solely on diffusing the IED. Naturally, because he and his men are worried about potential enemy fire, Sanborn wants to do things by the book so that they can get in, get out, and live to see another day. Sanborn and his crew do no take kindly to James’ seemingly unnecessary risks and view his overconfidence as hazardous, not only to those around him but to James as well.
James does take risks in which the term “bold” would simply be an understatement. Walking straight into a bomb site without first examining the situation or disconnecting radio contact with Sanborn during a diffusing seem crazy as opposed to brave. And yet, he focuses so intently on the task at hand that even though he is extremely reckless, he still is able to perform his job with the precision of a heart surgeon. James is fully aware of the fact that these bombs need to be diffused and no one can do it better than he can and when he is at work, exhilaration and focus consume him and put him in a place where nothing else matters.
This juxtaposition of confidence in the face of a live IED builds an intense amount of suspense, proving that director Kathryn Bigelow knows exactly what she is doing. She makes the audience fear for the wellbeing of SSgt. James while anticipating one false move that will result in his demise. The tension created from every bomb diffusion is simply remarkable. What is amazing is the simplicity of the situation that generates such an intense reaction from the viewer. The hero is in danger and we fear for his life. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, said that a bomb under a table that explodes creates shock, whereas a bomb under a table that goes unnoticed while the people at the table play cards creates suspense. Such it the case with The Hurt Locker, only this time, the bomb is under the ground, in a car, or strapped to an innocent citizen.
The Hurt Locker has been deemed as one the defining movies of the decade. After finally witnessing it firsthand, that statement is not too far off in its assumption. Bigelow creates a level of suspense that hasn’t been touched since the films of Hitchcock and also masterfully combines that suspense with the story of an ambiguous man who seems to believe that the only way to live his life is to risk it every single day.
Monday, January 18, 2010
When thinking of a post-apocalyptic world, images that are presented in John Hillcoat’s The Road come to mind: hopeless desolation in which one must struggle valiantly simply to survive. Such is not the case in The Hughes brothers’ blockbuster The Book Of Eli, which contains certain elements that are traditionally associated with films depicting the Wild West.
Denzel Washington plays a man who, thanks to the movie title and a K-Mart employee name badge seen later in the film, the audience knows as Eli. He is shown making his way west for some unknown destination. It is later revealed that in his possession is a book that contains great power and can be the salvation of humankind. Thanks to the tagline, “Religion is Power,” it is pretty obvious what book Eli is carrying. On his journey, Eli crosses paths Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who is scouring the barren landscape trying to find this particular book, because he believes that this book will allow him to expand his rule over what remains of the country.
The remainder of the plot can be predicted, mainly because the outline of this story in its entirety has been used time and time again. The hero and girl are holed up while the bad guys have “got the place surrounded.” Through some miraculous feat, the hero and girl escape with their lives and continue on their quest while the bad guys are shown that crime doesn’t pay. Overused? Yes. But that doesn’t take after from its cinematic value, which comes through in this film.
The Book of Eli is an extremely fun movie to watch, mainly due to the fact that Washington and Oldman are simply phenomenal actors who excel playing the protagonist and antagonist, respectfully. Adding to this is an exceptional performance by Mila Kunis who plays Solara: the damsel in distress turned hero. These casting selections seem to be window dressing, disguising several flaws that are ignored because they make the movie more entertaining.
Flaws in a movie do not always equate to a poor quality film. Looming plot holes, such as the mysterious source for the large cache of weapons and ammunition or why it has taken Eli 30 years to walk across the country, simply don’t matter because without them, the entertainment value is diminished significantly. The fact of the matter is that even though there is no explanation why there is a stash of military weapons hidden in a couch, the audience simply doesn’t care.
The Book of Eli, while not the greatest movies of the year, is well worth the price of admission. Denzel’s performance alone makes the movie enjoyable which, of course, is nothing new and the Hughes brothers throw in a huge twist at the end that will leave the viewer stunned. Above all else, the film breaks up the monotony of destruction and despair that has monopolized the post-apocalypse theme by simply injecting a tiny amount of adrenaline and excitement. Yes, it is flawed in its presentation, but because of the value that comes from these lapses, it is easy to argue that the film is flawed to perfection.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Being familiar with the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, it is an understandable train of thought to think that filmmakers would struggle in recreating the image that is created through the author’s prose. Indeed, the film version is devout a certain emotional quality to it, but that doesn’t take away from the overall product to the point of running the film.
The story of The Road is one that is very familiar with audiences, mainly due to the fact that the tale of a post-apocalyptic world has been rehashed several times over throughout the last several years. We focus on a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to escape the harshness of their former home and reach the assumed safety of the southern seashore, avoiding highway robbers and cannibals in the process. There is no explanation for this recent destruction and instead focusing one’s attention to the future safety of the duo as they make their way through the desolation.
Director John Hillcoat is able to beautifully capture a certain part of McCarthy’s writing in portraying the destroyed landscape around the man and they boy. The way that McCarthy described the desolate setting was in a beautiful hopelessness and Hillcoat was able to translate this paradox onto the screen in a successful manner. Despite the lack of wildlife, vegetation, or even clean, ash-free air, the wide-angle shots of the surrounding devastation are awe-inspiring and at the same time give off the impression that all hope is lost.
The biggest difference between the film and its source material were the characters. Hillcoat was able to avoid exerting any extra effort to make the man and boy heartwarming in any way, and yet the way that they were portrayed created an immensely larger amount of emotion than perhaps McCarthy had intended. In the novel, the dialogue between the man and boy was succinct and to the point. There was a slight hint of deep affection within the interactions between the two, but just like the events leading to the apocalypse, McCarthy diverts attention from this deep connection and forces the reader to accept that it is present without any reassurance. Hillcoat does, at times, present the man as McCarthy had intended especially when dealing with his interactions with the old traveler (Robert Duvall) or the potential thief (Michael Kenneth Williams). Ultimately, however, Hillcoat and Mortensen simply portray a watered down version of the main character, not giving him anywhere near the amount of depth or power that he had in the novel.
McCarthy is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult writers to film. His prose is rivaled by only a few, which must have proven a challenge for the director, producer, and actors alike. And while the film isn’t able to capture the power and emotion that McCarthy instills in his novel, I don’t believe that they could have done any better than their final result. The film and the novel are both extremely powerful and moving and are perfect counterparts to one another: the novel hits the reader with the emotion that McCarthy intends with his beautiful and deep writing and the film is able to visualize the beautiful and hopeless desolation. And, if nothing else, the film will give readers a greater appreciation of a fantastic piece of literary work.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Despite being a frequent moviegoer, I have never walked out of a movie thinking, “This will change how films are made from now on.” That streak was broken after seeing James Cameron’s latest monster, Avatar. Cameron’s excellent use of CGI effects along with live action acting combined with the amazing 3D effects simply blew me away, exceeding every expectation that I had going into the film, which is something that Cameron has proven time and time again that he is fully capable of doing.
Set in the year 2154, a resource-depleted planet Earth sends representatives to Pandora, a small planet rich in a mineral that earth desperately needs. Certain humans are selected to control avatars of the native species, the Na’vi. These avatars are controlled neurotically while the human remains in a trance like state. This is an appealing characteristic for the main hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is a paraplegic filling the role of his deceased, genetically identical twin for whom an avatar was specifically created. These avatars are then used study the native species up close and venture out into the Pandorian world, since the atmosphere is not breathable. Multiple references can be found within the storyline to movies such as Dances With Wolves and the Disney film Pocahontas (the Na’vi can be interestingly compared to the Native American Indians in more than one way), while Cameron is also inviting the audience to compare the film to contemporary politics: armed forces moving in on an area in order to forcibly obtain precious resources. However, while it is clear that Cameron doesn’t hide his opinions, he also doesn’t make these “morals” overpower the rest of the movie.
Avatar incorporated groundbreaking technology in the special effects department at a time when it seems as if things can’t get much better. Pandora is largely composed through CGI and the Na’vi were created through motion capturing techniques but both the planet and the species were created so convincingly that the audience begins to forget that they are fictitious. Cameron’s creation of Pandora was especially breathtaking with the exquisite landscape in which even the tiniest detail was not left forgotten and the bioluminescence of the entire planet made you believe that not only was Pandora real, but that it was a life entity functioning entirely on its own. All in all, considering the CGI regurgitation that has been produced as of late, it is extremely refreshing to have computer-generated images that convincingly lead us to believe that they are reality.
Cameron’s last theatrical monster, Titanic, broke the 3-hour mark in regards to length, but it did so in a way that didn’t make it seem like it was too long. Such is the case with Avatar. Running at 162 minutes, it certainly doesn’t feel too long, mainly due to the fact that there is so much for the audience to take in, even after the amazing special effects. There are the standard human storylines, of course, but because the Na’vi are created in such a convincing way, their individual stories become important as well. Add in the planet that is its own life force and a war in which the human supporters of the Na’vi help by joining the resistance and the end result is an audience that is asking for more after the credits begin to roll. Adding to all this is a phenomenal cast including the lovely Zoë Saldana as the Na’vi princess Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Stephan Lang, and Joel David Moore.
What people will be talking about long after these storylines fade from memory, however, is the groundbreaking usage of 3-D film technology. So often, 3-D movies were thought of as a gimmick and were used, more often than not, as attractions at a theme park. Cameron’s handling of 3-D changes this whole mindset. Simply put, the usage of 3-D in Avatar is to enhance the overall product and not once is it used simply because it is there. It was nice to have a 3-D movie in which the fourth wall wasn’t intentionally violated over and over and over again. The 3-D technology was carefully implemented in this film and because of this it worked to perfection. And if this is the way that 3-D movies will be handled in the future, many exciting things are in store for moviegoers.