Monday, November 27, 2006

What I'm Watching

This is the latest post in the increasingly rare series detailing my thoughts on movies I've seen recently. As usual, the holidays prove to be the best time to see a bunch of movies because we have parents in town (or we are visiting them) and thus have full-time babysitting available!

Anyway, I saw four movies over the Thanksgiving holiday, and I'll save the best for last. I'm not including photos here because it just takes too long, and there's not a whole lot of value added. You've all seen the promo photos to which I would link anyway.

Casino Royale

The new Bond film. A lot has already been written about this being a series "reboot," showing Bond as a rough-around-the-edges younger agent who is in the process of becoming the suave superagent we know and love. And I liked that angle. I liked the early scenes that show Bond doing his job more with force than with style (as when he literally walks through a wall when a leaping villain vaults over it). He is, as his boss M (Judi Dench) says, a blunt instrument. And the craggy Daniel Craig plays that version of Bond well. It remains to be seen if he'll play the "suave" Bond in future films as well as he plays the "unformed" Bond. What doesn't work as well in this film is the love story that is supposed to form the basis of Bond's bitterness and attitutde toward women. The idea is solid -- the loss/betrayal of the woman he truly loved causes him to never let a woman get that close to him again. I buy that as a concept. But I don't buy THIS love story as the one that accomplishes that. It's fairly banal and cliched, and I never sensed that Bond and Eva Green were desperately in love, though they seemed to talk a lot about it. But really, this was tons better than the recent entries in the Bond franchise, and I'm actually eager to see them explore Bond as a person (rather than as a concept) more in the future.

Stranger Than Fiction
Charlie Kauffman lite. It had the plot of a Kauffman film, but it didn't go anywhere very interesting once it established the idea. Will Ferrell's Harold Crick begins hearing a woman narrating his life. I expected and wanted to see this idea play out with more wit, a la Harold intentionally doing something different than the narrator says. There are many other examples, I am sure, none of which are springing to mind, but they SHOULD HAVE sprung to mind for the makers of the film. Instead, we get a standard love story that really doesn't go anywhere (and Maggie Gyllenhall just doesn't "fit" in this film, in my opinion). And Harold learns typical life lessons about the importance of living life to the fullest and not just counting his brush strokes as he brushes his teeth. Frankly, I think they shouldn't have introduced the Emma Thompson character so early -- Harold's curiosity about who is narrating his life should have been the mystery of the film (or at least the first half of the film), taking us on HIS journey of discovery. And speaking of his journey, I thought the film jumped a little too quickly (and conveniently) to Harold's conclusion that the person narrating his life must be an author. I would liked to have seen more of Harold trying to figure out the source of this voice. After he visits a psychiatrist, the next stop is the office of Dustin Hoffman's character, a professor of literature (who dresses nothing like a professor and has an office five times the size of mine). Really? Would someone experiencing this phenomenon really go to a professor? And would he happen to go to the professor whose favorite author ends up being the woman writing his life? That's a coincidence that's a little hard to take. I could handle a coincidence like that if the story established some sort of destiny at work here, but one if the movie's failings is that it never establishes any reason or motivation for any of this to happen, aside from alluding to the idea that Harold's watch plays an active role in it -- and that concept, while well executed with computer graphics, never made much sense to me. All in all, I found the film to be a good night out at the movies, but generally nothing to get too excited about.

The Queen
Stephen Frears's look at the behind the scenes machinations when Princess Diana died. I don't think the western world was dying for an explanation as to why the royal family behaved as it did when Diana was killed, but this film nevertheless serves up a fascinating inside look at what happened at the time. I can see why Helen Mirren is being talked up for an Oscar -- her performance as the emotionally-stunted Queen is quite good, and I did get a sense of the difficulty she had (or would have had -- I don't know how much of this is true) in trying to deal with the surprising outpouring of grief over Diana's death. The best performance in the film, though, is a more showy one: James Cromwell as Prince Philip, the Queen's husband. His character represents the frustrated and angry "old guard" that refuses to see the way the average person views the monarchy. His every frustrated utterance that the people will "come to their senses" soon enough made me laugh out loud. He simply doesn't get it, and angrily refuses to be moved, even as the Queen is sensing something amiss but doesn't want to face it. A good film, I thought, but perhaps not the amazing piece of cinema that people are claiming it is.

The Departed

As I said earlier, I saved the best for last. Martin Scorsese's new film is a bold return to form for the aging auteur. I am, I admit, a huge Scorsese fan. His films were part of the reason I wanted to be a filmmaker. And The Departed is a dynamic film where no one is truly innocent and yet some are clearly more guilty than others. I was left rather speechless at the end, a rarity for me, and I immediately wanted to see the film again (rarer still these days). The efficiency with which the film establishes its plot and characters is breathtaking -- the pace of the first 30 minutes or so is blinding. And it slows down only a bit when it gets into the meat of the story. I want to wax eloquent on why I loved this film so much, but it boils down to a few key things: great and complex characters (Leonardo Dicaprio's Billy Costigan is terrific, and Matt Damon as the Irish gang's mole on the force is fantastic); Scorsese's irrestistible style (and I need to mention Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant editing, which helps to make Scorsese's shooting style work to tell a story); and great writing (the story/script is really terrific, taking the viewer to unpredictable places and rarely giving in to cliche or predictability).

I need to see it again to make more critical comments; frankly, I was overwhelmed with the cinematic experience because I haven't seen a movie this good in a long time. But it's clear to me why people are talking about it as Scorsese's best film in ages. On a side note, I don't see this is a "return to the gangster genre" film -- people keep saying it's the only thing Scorsese is good at. But this film is nothing like Scorsese's other greatest film, Goodfellas. Casino felt like a Goodfellas retread, but this isn't the same animal. It feels like something else entirely, and it boils down to being a great story with more twists and turns than you know what to do with.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Chris! I found your blog after we met at the Virginia Film Festival and have enjoyed reading it. I particularly enjoyed this entry with your thoughts on current films.

I was struck by quite a coincidence--I just saw "Stranger Than Fiction" yesterday and this morning wrote and posted a review to my website. For the most part, I agree with your comments. "Charlie Kauffman lite"--that's a great phrase to describe this movie. I wish I had used it. If you're curious, you can check out my review:

http://www.chisdes.com/stranger.html

Also, based on what you have written, I'll have to go check out "The Departed." Thanks for the recommendation.

Jonathan Chisdes

11/27/2006 9:18 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Thanks for dropping by, Jonathan. I'll check out your Stranger Than Fiction review, too!

11/27/2006 9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Chris.

Oh, and by the way, you forgot to mention that your friend Tony Hale was in it, in a small role. I hope you enjoyed his performance (although he was funnier in your film).

Jonathan

11/28/2006 8:21 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Jonathan,

I don't know why I didn't think to mention that -- his role was smaller than I had hoped in this movie, because he's a great comic actor.

I liked your review, btw. It reminded me of one of the things I really didn't like in the film -- the idea that they would have to struggle over whether or not to kill a man in a book if it meant a real person would die. Why is that even a question? It seems like a black and white issue to me, and if it's NOT -- if her artistry is so significant that the loss of it would be a tragic thing -- well, let's just say they didn't exactly establish that fact in the movie.

11/28/2006 8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris,

Thanks. I'm glad you liked my review. And you're right about the issue of whether or not to kill him. I really wish it had been better developed. Someone should have made some argument about art being eternal and greater than any one single individual, blah, blah, blah ... It would have made the issue more interesting. Besides, I was still waiting to find out if Will Ferrell wasn't actually real, he just thought he was. Maybe he came into existence because Emma Thompson was such a great writer. And that rasies the question, if he was fictional, what about the people in his world like Maggie Gyllenhaal? Was she fictional too? There were just way too many interesting questions that the film didn't even attempt to answer--or ask, for that matter.

And yea, it's too bad Tony Hale's role wasn't bigger.

Jonathan

11/28/2006 12:36 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Agreed -- all of those issues would have made it a better film, a more interesting and introspective film (but also funny).

11/28/2006 1:21 PM  

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