The Prestige (2006)
This film is, on the surface, a story concerning rival magicians in Victorian London. But, at the heart of things, it is really a film about film-making.
As far as I'm concerned, the goal of any film is threefold. I call it the 3 Es: Engage, Entertain, and Enlighten. Before either of the later two can happen, the audience must first be engaged. This means giving them a point of reference; that is to say, introduce them to something familiar right off the bat: a character that is relatable, and a situation or conflict that is easily comprehended. Once the audience is engaged, it is the filmmaker's duty to then entertain them, by putting the established characters in humorous or nerve-racking situations. There is a certain flare for creating truly entertaining scenes that only a few select directors possess. There is a kind of showmanship quality to film-making. The final thing a film must do is enlighten the audience. That is, the film should come to a point that stimulates the mind of the viewer. This is not always achieved and is even more difficult to pull off than pure entertainment. This third aspect is what separates great films from those that are simply good. It helps the film stick in people's minds long after they have seen it.
The above three elements of the film viewing experience are directly comparable to the three stages of a magic trick, as discussed in "The Prestige". These are The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. The Turn is when the audience is shown something ordinary; a handkerchief or a small bird. This is much like the beginning of a film when the audience is engaged by something equally familiar. The second part is The Turn, when the ordinary thing is made to do something extraordinary, like disappear. "But," as Michael Caine's character says in the the film, "you wouldn't clap yet. It's not enough to make something disappear. You have to bring it back." This seemingly miraculous return of the vanished object is The Prestige, and it is the most important part of the trick. These latter two parts are similar to the way entertaining the audience can bring them to something enlightening; how a heart pounding chase scene can wind and twist and turn, and then deposit us at some great, profound truth.
Another convention of magic tricks that is shared in film-making is the suspension of disbelief. It is said in the film that the audience knows that it is only an illusion, but they don't want to know how it is accomplished. "They want to be fooled", as they say. This is equally true with the film viewing experience. Any individual of even average intelligence knows full well that what they are witnessing on screen is not entirely real, but they ignore that fact. They want something extraordinary. They want to see something aside from their familiar reality. They want to escape, and it is the job of both the magician and the filmmaker to render a believable fantasy for the viewing public.
Filmmakers are the magicians of their day. With both magic and cinema, people go to the theater to see something outside of their own, regular experience. They are, at first, presented with something against which they can compare their own lives. "I know what this is. I get this", they think to themselves. Then, through this relatable proxy, the audience is taken on a journey into previously unknown territory, where they witness things they had never imagined and certainly did not expect. Then, at the end of this voyage, and indeed because of it, we come to a profundity that we had not known, yet it is undeniably true. We leave the theater having gained a fuller experience. Or course we know it was all smoke and mirrors, but to dwell on this notion would ruin something very special.
Funny Ha Ha (2002)
Every filmmaker has a responsibility to at least make an attempt to create something that is visually compelling. That is the reason film, as a medium, exists. Funny Ha Ha is not a film. It is filmed, but it is not a film by the definition given above. No matter how well written the dialogue is or how subtly performed the acting is, it is a worthless endeavor if the VISUAL aspect is ignored. If all you care about is acting and dialogue, then put on a play. Films are visual. The writing and acting are a part of it, but it is nothing without the visuals.
To see what I mean about film being a visual medium, go watch KOYANISQATSI and POWAQQATSI. They have no actors or talking, but they are two of the finest films ever made.
Funny Ha Ha is a waste, and if it is indeed the "citizen kane" of mumblecore, I will be staying away from the entire genre.
Tristan + Isolde (2006)
There are 3 kinds of actors:
1. Those who are only as good as the films they're in. 2. Those who are bad even in excellent films. 3. Those who are always good, no matter the quality of the film.
Sophia Myles falls into the third category. Her portrayal of the lovelorn Irish princess, Isolde, single-handedly saves this film from being just another tired period piece. She and James Franco (Tristan) have a surprisingly real chemistry, and their delicate forbidden romance is the heart and soul of "Tristan and Isolde".
Also notable is Rufus Sewell as Marke, king of the united English tribes, and Tristan's adopted father. Sewell brings an electrifying honesty to a role that, in the hands of a lesser actor, would have come across as merely villainous.
James Franco is adequate as Tristan, but he mostly wears the same, brooding expression for the whole film. It is Sophia Myles who makes "Tristan and Isolde" worth watching. Remember her name; I reckon we'll be hearing more of it.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
"The Bourne Ultimatum" is like no other film I've ever seen. It takes the precedent for action film-making set by "The Bourne Identity" to a whole new level.
This is an action film in the truest and purest way. It consists almost entirely of marvelously choreographed fight scenes, chase scenes, both on foot and in cars, and so on.
While the first two films focused on story and character as well as action, "Ultimatum" throws the former two out the window and elects instead to take the latter and run, nay, sprint with it to the finish line of this fantastic trilogy.
Director Paul Greengrass, most notable recently for the painfully intimate and real "United 93", proves with "Ultimatum" that he is one of the most capable action filmmakers around. This being his second contribution to the Bourne series, after "The Bourne Supremacy", I essentially see his "Bourne" movies as two parts of the same film.
If you're looking for a smart, fun, and exciting time at the movies, "The Bourne Ultimatum" is it.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
"Little Miss Sunshine" is a very funny film. The writing is smart, the acting is pitch perfect, and the adept direction from the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris keeps the film rolling along at a charming pace, much like the yellow VW bus that carries the Hoover family from Fresno, AZ to Rodondo Beach, CA for a beauty pageant.
While the writing is sharp, it is really the performances that make this film what it is. The whole cast is in fine form, but two really stand out: Grandpa (Alan Arkin), and Olive (Abigail Breslin), the eldest and youngest, respectively, of the Hoover clan. They have a chemistry that is enchanting and utterly believable, and their relationship is the rock that anchors the film.
Also notable are Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette as Richard and Sheryl, the mom and dad of the family. Collette is engaging as always; playing yet another stressed out mom, but with honesty and grace, again, as she always does. And Kinnear, who is growing on me with every film he does, brings a wonderful nervous determination to his role as an aspiring motivational speaker.
Rounding out the cast is the depressed odd couple of Dwayne and Uncle Frank, played dryly by Paul Dano and Steve Carell. They are more spectators than participants, as compared to the rest of the family, but their subdued commentary on the absurdity that transpires provides a good balance to their more electric relatives.
The film is very enjoyable, aside from a disturbing array of child beauty queens, whose presence is funny until you learn that they are played by real beauty pageant veterans, complete with their real costumes and makeup, which make them look more like prepubescent Real Dolls than actual human girls. At one point during a pageant, Richard asks the man next to him, "Is your daughter in the competition?" to which the man replies, after removing an earplug, "First time?".
Hints of pedophilia notwithstanding, "Little Miss Sunshine" is a fine film, and may find itself regarded as a classic in years to come.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
*** This comment may contain spoilers ***
"Spiderman 3" is by far the worst of the Spiderman trilogy.
Whereas the first two films are well done, mature, intelligent, and fun, the last is simply a sad imitation of it's much superior predecessors.
Many negative reviews have cited the crowded cast of characters as the reason for this film being subpar, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. I think the wide array of characters is a good thing, especially since I found just about all the supporting cast much more enjoyable and compelling than The Big Three: Peter Parker/Spiderman (Toby Maguire), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and Harry Osbourne (James Franco). In fact, my three favorites were:
- Thopher Grace as Eddie Brock jr., who always makes a point of slipping in the "jr." when introducing himself. He brings everything that made him funny and likable on "That 70's Show" to his maddeningly small part here. Watching him, during the half-dozen five minute scenes he has scattered throughout the film, I began to realize that it was he, not Toby Maguire, who should have been cast as Spiderman to begin with.
-Thomas Haden Church as Flint Marko, who deserves better than to be in a bloated special effects orgy. He brings a very real honesty to his role as the main villain, who becomes a monstrosity known as Sandman due to falling into a large, um... well, I don't know quite what it is, but it apparently scrambles molecules, and is kept in the middle of a park for some reason with it's top open, I guess so escaped convicts can fall in and become super-villains.
-Bruce Cambell as the Maître d' of a restaurant in one scene, where Kirsten Dunst sits around looking depressed and Toby Maguire looks dumb. Bruce Cambell is flat out hilarious in this small glorified cameo. But all through this short scene, all I could think about was how awesome he was in "Buba Ho Tep".
LIke I said, it's not the large cast that hurts the film, it's how all the characters are handled. The movie is almost 3 hours long, yet, with all that time, we still don't get to know any of the characters. If you want to see how a large cast of characters can be balanced well, just watch "Nashville", or "Gosford Park", or just about any Robert Altman film for that matter.
For about the first 2/3rds of the film, it plods along as a tired comic book adaption, but at a certain point, it goes completely off the rails. In fact, after 20 minutes, you can't even see the rails. What rails?
The catalyst for the extreme rail-jumping is when Peter Parker is covered in Black Oozy Stuff From Outer Space, which forms itself into a black version of his familiar red and blue spandex. It also makes him Evil, or to be more precise, Emo. Seriously, not to long after getting the black suit, he looks at himself in the mirror completely seriously and GIVES HIMSELF SWOOPY BANGS!!!! I'm serious! He takes his newfound emo-ness and kills all the bad guys who just don't understand him.
Eventually, he morphs into this weird, emo-meets-Hitler-meets-Willard lady's man, who walks around town dancing and and buying expensive clothes. There is one scene that is truly bizarre, wherein Peter Parker goes to the coffee house that Mary Jane works at, with (gasp) another woman, and proceeds to dance, push people around, and ultimately knock Mary Jane on the floor. This prompts her to ask Peter "Who are you?" to which he answers, "I don't know", and runs out of the place all emo and stuff. Right around this time, I started to wonder if the person at concessions had spiked the popcorn with acid.
"Spiderman 3" is essentially a big budget B-movie, which goes wacky around the 4th reel. Do not pay money to see this, unless you are hopelessly in love with Toby Magiure and his big, stupid smile.
Team America: World Police (2004)
A big part of what makes "Team America: World Police" such a comedic masterpiece is that everything that happens (gun fights, explosions, Inspiring Messages, sex) is depicted with puppets.
It makes sense that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the writer/directors of this film, originally wanted to use the script from "Armageddon". They ended up changing their plans due to legal problems, but the film is essentially the same. By throwing in every conceivable Big Action Movie cliché, Parker and Stone have made perhaps the most perfect send-up ever of the all those Michael Bay explosion movies.
The stars of the film are Team America, a group of special government agents. They don't fight terrorism, they seek it out and obliterate it, even if that means destroying most of Paris in the process. There are those out to stop our intrepid band of All-American Heroes, including Kim-Jong Il, and various Hollywood liberals such as George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore, and Sean Penn (who apparently wrote an angry letter to Parker and Stone in response to this film. Christ, Sean, get a sense of humor).
And then there's the soundtrack, which is something else entirely. From the "Montage Song", to "I Miss You, And Pearl Harbor Sucked", every song is priceless and hilarious.
"Team America: World Police" succeeds on just about every level. See this movie.
Amer-ica, F**K YEAH!!
Clerks 2 (2006)
It happened to George Lucas, and now it has happened to Kevin Smith. What am I talking about? Alien abduction? no. A brain tumor? unlikely. I am talking about once great filmmakers who, for whatever reason, have lost their ability to make good movies. With George Lucas, this was obvious with Episode 1.
And so it goes that "Clerks 2" is Kevin Smith's "Phantom Menace", and Mooby is his Jar Jar.
The film starts off with the good old Quick Stop from the first "Clerks" burning down, shown with really poor visual effects that any 9th grade computer animation student could pull off during second lunch. Dante Hicks, our hero, reacts to this calamity by strapping on a dumbstruck expression, which he wears for the duration of the movie. His trusty sidekick, Randal, arrives and delivers some Clever One Liners.
The two friends, finally given a chance to move on with their lives, decide to get jobs flipping burgers at Mooby's, a restaurant that seems to have more employees than patrons.
Enter Rosario Dawson, who deserves better. She is a fine actress, but all Smith can think of to do with her is have her say "ass to mouth" over and over and jiggle her boobs to "ABC" by the Jackson 5 in an excruciatingly out of place dance sequence.
Also on the menu (eh, get it, because that's about how complex the humor in this movie is), are Jay and Silent Bob, a parade of cameos, a big fat biker and the donkey who loved him, and a sexless teenage boy, who is actually the funniest character in the film. Pillow-pants is the 37 of the this movie.
The script (there was a script?) consists of unfunny gross out humor, unfunny pop culture references, unfunny sight gag, unfunny racism....
All in all, "Clerks 2" has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are some Smithphiles who try to justify the film by claiming that it deepens the relationship between Dante and Randal, but really, the only relationship deepening I saw was a seen late in the film where Randal confesses his love for Dante, whose dumbstruck expression is truly put to the test.
The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
"The Bourne Supremacy" is a worthy follow up to "The Bourne Identity". But, unlike "Identity", this installment is not a classic.
"Supremacy" is by no means a bad film. Oh contraire. It is finely crafted, with excellent action scenes, juxtaposed with moments of tenderness.
What keeps this film from attaining the magnificence of it's predecessor are a number of elements:
-The middle child syndrome. This is typical of any second film in a trilogy, where it essentially ends in the same place it started.
-But mostly, it's the overdone steadycam (or shakeycam) technique that the director, Paul Greengrass, seems to love so much. It's fine to convey a sense of realism and immediacy, but when the camera moves so much that the viewer can't even keep track of the action, that's a problem. I actually had to look away at several points to avoid a migraine. Sometimes, Paul, you need to whip out the good old tripod and slap the camera on there.
-Lastly, this film just doesn't seem to have the same heart that "Identity" had. Perhaps that stems from Franke Potente's severely diminished role here.
Despite these shortcomings, "The Bourne Supremacy" is a very good action film, and it does well to link the the first ("Identity") and last ("The Bourne Ultimatum") films of the trilogy.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
There are those who say that the book is always better than the movie. These people have clearly never seen "The Bourne Identity", which is based on the book of the same name about a CIA agent who washes up in the Mediterranean Sea with two bullet holes in his back and no memory of who he is.
What strikes one first about the film is the action.
Two scenes stand out.
First, there is a scene in Switzerland, where our hero, Jason Bourne (played with honest intensity by Matt Damon), climbs sideways across a snow-covered wall of the US Embassy. The stunt is amazing yet believable, and is an experience that can only be found in a movie. Sorry authors, but no collection of words, how ever elegant or intelligently constructed, can possibly convey the same tension and white knuckled excitement that this scene has.
Secondly, there is a now famous car chase through Paris, which is, frankly, awesome beyond words.
Aside from the action, the film excels with smart and breathlessly smooth plot development, which should be studied in film and script writing classes.
Lastly, perhaps the film's strongest element next to it's action scenes is the acting. Chris Cooper is electrifying as always here, playing a sinister CIA desk stooge, who orchestrates the hunt for Bourne while answering to a gruff Brian Cox.
And special attention should be paid to Franke Potente as Marie, a nomadic German girl who gets recruited by Bourne to drive him to Paris. The world was first exposed to her in the German indie film "Lola rennt", and here she is a refreshing presence amide all the spy intrigue. She plays Marie with a down-to-Earth honesty that works as an excellent balance to Damon's action anti-hero. Their chemistry is fresh and very real. These performances cannot be found in books.
All things considered, "The Bourne Identity" is one of the 10 best action films ever made.