Friday, July 30, 2010

A Reel Review: AGORA

After reviewing the behemoth film INCEPTION, it was fitting to take a step back and view an independent film that most people have not even heard of yet. Indie film can be hit or miss, full of surprises good and bad. Either way, it can always offer more than what mainstream Hollywood tends to churn out this time of year.

Director Alejandro Amenabar returns to American screens for the first time since his supernatural tension-fest THE OTHERS (2001). In AGORA, Amenabar tries to balance historical drama with the story of a remarkable woman who was ahead of her time. Amenabar stumbles with the balance, and this winds up a see-saw with a fat guy on one end and an Ethiopian on the other.

AGORA is set in Roman Egypt, 391 A.D. A slave, Davus (Max Minghella), turns to the growing power of Christianity, while falling in love with his master, the famous female philosopher/athiest Hypathia of Alexandria, (Rachel Weisz), a woman who discovers modern astronomy 1200 years before anyone else.

AGORA is set during a time when Christianity is still somewhat new, and is quickly on the rise. Conversions are done via bloodshed and stoning, and they war frequently with Pagans and Jews. It is a violent time, and Amenabar portrays the time in all of its bloody glory. Getting lost in the fighting is the story of Hypathia. Where it is customary for historical pieces to focus on an individual with historical events as a backdrop, the opposite happens here. Although significant time is spent with Hypathia as she unravels the secrets of the universe, she tends to be just a small piece in a larger puzzle. Hypathia begins as interesting character, full of wisdom and grace, but she is sadly underdeveloped, lost in the bigger picture, and we never find out just why she is willing to die for what she believes in.

Where AGORA stumbles in its narrative, it dances everywhere else. The film is beautifully shot and scored, creating an atmosphere of dread and grace all at the same time. CGI is used sparingly, which is good news because it’s not very good. It sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the striking practical camera-work and exquisite set design.

Historical detail seems to be done very well. Old customs, costumes, lifestyles and environments are brought back to life with satisfying detail. The choice to dress the Christians (antagonists) in black works well on film, as it goes a long way to discern the differences between the many warring groups (otherwise it just looks like a million guys in black beards).

Weisz turns in a great turn as Hypathia. She is convincing as an intelligent and driven woman. The film shines when she is on screen, and suffers when it veers away from her.

AGORA is worth a look out of interest in the historical figure and the time she lived in. Again, the bulk of the attention is given to the events over the individual, and film then feels like a TV series.


Monday, July 26, 2010

A Reel Series: Where have all the Great Directors Gone? Part 2

In this second part of a series, we’ll explore the recent achievements, or lack thereof, of a few directors who once dominated the celluloid landscape. Some of these big dogs have been active, while some have been content to sit on the porch.

STEVEN SPIELBERG: he was The Man for well over 30 years. The films he released in the summer were blockbusters. The films he released in the fall horded Oscars. Today, it can be argued that he has not delivered a bona-fide knockout since 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Sure there have been neat little sci-fi flicks (A.I., MINORITY REPORT, WAR OF THE WORLDS), and a handful of star-studded romps (THE TERMINAL, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN), but nothing since ’98 has been labeled a must-see-now and must-watch-again-for-the-next-ten-years film. Even his last Indiana Jones film drew more WTF moments than any film in recent memory.

His next directed film will be an adaptation of TINTIN due next year, but Steven seems to be putting his energies not into directing, but into producing (his name is on 13 films for 2011). His familiar touch and themes seem to seep their way into his produced films, which just may be becoming a bit tired and too familiar.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: the man who brought us THE GODFATHER I and II changed filmmaking forever, has been absent for what seems like forever. His last two films (2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and 2009’s TETRO), were hardly seen by anybody and received mixed reviews. Prior to those two humdingers, FFC has only done THE RAINMAKER (1997), JACK (1996) and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) since the third GODFATHER installment.

FFC has also been putting on the producing hat in recent years, and while he does have a few good films under that section of the resume, he also has a few stinkers, including two JEEPERS CREEPERS films. He currently has no films in production for himself to direct. At 71 years old, it’s doubtful he would put himself through the rigors of helming another production, and seems content to pass the reins on to his daughter. Fans of the old man do have hope that he may have one more left in him before joining Don Vito in the garden.


RON HOWARD: His FROST/NIXON (2008) gained Oscar buzz, and then he followed it up with a clunky and messy ANGELS AND DEMONS (2009), which only compounded the issues THE DAVINCI CODE (2006) had. And let’s not talk about THE MISSING (2003).

JOHN McTIERNAN: His resume once glittered with action classics such as PREDATOR (1987), DIE HARD 1 and 3, and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990). Then he stunk up the place with ROLLERBALL (2002) and BASIC (2003).

ROBERT ZEMECKIS: Has not made a film outside of motion-capture animation since CAST AWAY (2000). That’s 10 years of creepy-looking characters from the director of BACK TO THE FUTURE and FORREST GUMP (1994). Those motion-capture films have gotten better, and they are entertaining, but please Robert, do something original; three adaptations in a row (including your upcoming YELLOW SUBMARINE remake) is too much.

It doesn’t seem fair to give these guys shit. They have more films on the AFI 100 list than anyone, and their work is forever embedded in film and popular culture. It can be argued that any bad film by these guys is still going to be better than the bulk of what’s coming out of Hollywood recently. Perhaps the one mistake they all made is that they got so damn good at what they do, that the expectations rose higher than the moon. Even still, the problems that their recent outings have had still exist. Is it fair to blame them for everything? What contributions have the ever-meddling studios ($) and whiny Writers Guild made to their demise? The debate must rage. Hopefully loud enough to rouse the dogs off the porch and into the fight, with fangs out.

What say you?

PS In Part 3: the new hope.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Reel Review: INCEPTION

Mainstream Hollywood has taken it on the chin quite a lot over the past few years. The beatings have been justifiable: un-original movies supported by poor writing and even worse directing. With the arrival of INCEPTION, the answer to Hollywood’s problems is revealed in two simple steps: (1) Fire everybody. And (2), Let Christopher Nolan write and direct everything.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are professional thieves specializing in stealing people’s ideas/and or information. They do so by entering people’s dreams (while asleep or sedated), and stealing from their subconscious. They are blackmailed by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a zealous zillionaire-business man looking to mess with the dreams of a rival zillionaire (Cillian Murphy). They recruit Ariadne (Ellen Page), and embark on several levels of subconscious peril while avoiding the inner demons of Cobb and his wife (Marion Cotillard).

INCEPTION’s storyline banks on the adventures undertaken in the dream-world, where the physical plane can be bent to the dreamer’s needs. Just when things seem a little too MATRIX-like, things take a deeper turn when the players must dream within a dream, and then dream within that dream, and then dream within that one. What really makes INCEPTION shine is that just because the narrative switches to Level 3 and 4, it doesn’t mean attention is still not paid to Level 2. There are nearly several movies going on at once, and it requires a mental bookmark to keep track of. This is not a film for the weak-minded. There are several stories and action sequences, sprinkled with twists and turns, that are executed brilliantly and co-exist perfectly. This was a film intended to blow minds, and it does that every 5 minutes.

If the several layers weren’t enough, Nolan adds on a sub-plot with Cobb that is the true heart and soul of the film. DiCaprio and Cotillard are great together, and they make the characters come to life with their deep and convincing performances. The sub-plot is never intrusive or distracting, and actually supports the overall scheme of things throughout. For all the different things going on here, it is blended perfectly like a recipe with a thousand ingredients.

Visual effects are awesome; using very little CGI and lots of eye-popping practical effects. There are several sequences in a hotel that just have to be seen to believed. Not even Shakespeare could pen the right words to describe it. Nolan’s cinematography is an eyeball-fuck in nearly every frame; there is a lot to take in, a lot of which has never been seen before.

The score is fucking awesome and will blow your head off.

Nolan gets the absolute best out of all his actors. The aforementioned DiCaprio shines as usual, and even little Juno is convincing and at home amongst the hugeness of everything. The few cameos are welcome surprises.

Nolan has weaved and put together a tale of action, suspense, love, and psychological-assbanging that will stay in your system and be replayed. INCEPTION is original, groundbreaking and edge-of-the-seat awesomeness with intelligence and thought. Just as he did in his last feature film, Nolan will have you staggering out of the theatre.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Reel Series: Where have all the Great Directors Gone? Part 1

In this first part of a new series, we will explore a serious epidemic in Hollywood: major films and franchises being turned over to inexperienced directors who eventually drive things over a cliff.

At one time, the year was sprinkled with heavyweight names such as Spielberg, Coppola, Howard, McTiernan, and Scott. Nowadays, those names are absent, and when they do show up, the end result on the screen is far from the high standards they themselves have set. This has led to the keys to the vault being turned over to a bunch of fellas with little to no upper-level experience. While this blogger is all for giving the new generation a chance, the end results have been far from spectacular.


1. X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE. One of the most popular comic heroes of all time is given a spinoff film after wowing audiences in three X-MEN movies. Although X3 fell short, Hugh Jackman’s clawed character still enthralled geeks and moistened panties everywhere. WOLVERINE was handed off to Gavin Hood, whose previous credits were RENDITION (2007), and nothing else worth noting. WOLVERINE was met with critical drubbing.

2. DIE HARD 4. Arguably, the best action franchise of all time. Bruce Willis’ main character was an everyday joe everyone connected with; smoking cigarettes, losing the girl, and just trying to get by in the worst of situations. The beloved character and his bigger-than-life adventures was turned over to UNDERWORLD director Len Wiseman, who turned in a watered down DH4, which was devoid of cigarettes, swearing, and any sort of life.

3. HARRY POTTER. The keys to Hogwarts were turned over to TV director David Yates after four successful and enjoyable films, which made for good film while keeping the purists loyal to the novels happy. Yates could not shake his TV habits, and turned in two rushed films which were lifeless and went by in the blink of an eye.

Why are the major franchise being helmed by virtual no-names? Money would be the obvious answer. These guys came cheap, and the remainder of the dough could go to visual effects, location-shooting, and actor salaries. Some years ago, Ron Howard was set to direct a little film by the name of THE ALAMO (2004). The studio balked at Howard’s budget (and presumably salary), and Richie was shown the door. The project was turned over to relative newcomer John Lee Hancock, who turned in a somewhat dull and critically slammed film. It can be argued that Howard’s exit marked the beginning of the epidemic. Out go the big names, in come the little guys. It’s just a theory, and what should also be considered is that maybe the old guard is just getting “too old for this shit”.

In Part 2, we’ll take a look at some of the older heavyweights who have not turned in a knockout in several rounds. Chances are you’ll recognize them.

What say you?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Reel Review: PREDATORS

With splatter-man Robert Rodriguez stepping into the producing shoes of another PREDATOR film, the stage seemed to be set for a solid revitalization of the franchise. The 1987 PREDATOR over time has become a classic, only to be followed up by a lame sequel and even lamer Predator vs. Alien spinoffs. PREDATORS, despite having ten zillion references (rip-offs) and a direct link to the original, a lot went wrong on the way, making this PREDATOR an unforgiveable bore.

A gaggle of badasses comprised of soldiers, mercenaries, convicts and murderers are abducted from Earth and whisked away to a game-preserve planet, where they are hunted by the Predators.

That one sentence just might be the shortest plot synopsis ever written by this blogger, and that’s really all there is to this film. It’s a cut and dry story of different folk from different walks of life put in a box and shaken up. The problem is when the box is opened after shaking, nothing of substance comes out. The characters seem to just exist to shoot things and swear a lot, and their interactions with each other are also light and very underdeveloped.

The lack of a real plot, or even a subplot, makes PREDATORS paper-thin. The pacing of the film suffers from our heroes (ha) wondering what is going on. The first and second acts drag on and on and on, and despite the fact that they are being hunted; there are no feelings of pending doom. The action scenes take a lot of pages out of the original film, and by the time they do roll around, a lot of interest has been lost.

With the exception of some shit-looking CGI alien-dogs, the visual effects are pretty good. The Predator creatures are nicely realized, as the filmmakers wisely stick to the practical costumes and masks. What the creatures actually get to do in the film is a little weak however, and they really don’t get utilized as much as they should be.

Adrien Brody gets most of the screentime and dialogue. His character, like all the others, is underdeveloped with no development. Lawrence Fishburne makes a short appearance that is confusing and weak, and Topher Grace’s character, despite having a few interesting turns, also falls short of anything resembling substance. Alice Braga’s character shows hints of depth, and she carries the role well in her limited action.

Director Nimrod Antal photographs everything in a dark tone which manages to create a barrier and makes it difficult to get wrapped up into things. The look of the film is really the smallest of problems, as there is an overall lack of emotion, energy, and most of all dread (not good for a “horror” film). It’s slightly better than PREDATOR 2, and any of the AVP films, but that’s not saying much at all. As a standalone it’s dull and lifeless.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010


THE LAST AIRBENDER is M. Night Shyamalan’s first attempt at an adaptation of previously established material. After his last pair of critical-disasters, the once heralded filmmaker made what seemed to be a logical step into a big-budget, effects-heavy fantasy film to presumably salvage his career via summertime box-office number$. However, M. Night fails to employ any of his signature touches in this, the biggest POS of 2010 thus far. Boring, uninspired, and devoid of life, AIRBENDER would not even entertain a 10-year old.

Divided into four nations (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water), the world is in chaos, all because the Avatar (Noah Ringer), also known as Aang, has been lost for a hundred years. His frozen ass, along with his fuzzy, floating riding creature, is accidently thawed out by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), who are residents of a Water tribe. Realizing his destiny, Aang and his new pals set out on a path of destiny, looking to improve upon their element-bending powers and thwart the evil deeds of the Fire Nation.

The journey of Aang and his gang (hey, that rhymes) is a classic, albeit overused journey of destiny and adventure. AIRBENDER manages to kill the charm by telling an adventure story where little seems to happen. The film is loaded with exposition, with the life beaten out of it by uninspired dialogue that is so bad it’s nearly shocking. Overall AIRBENDER feels like watching someone else play a videogame: Action Sequence. Cutscene to gain more powers. Action Sequence.

Not much time is spent on character development, as their relationships are wedged together like a square peg in a round hole. The real shocker of this film is just how BAD the acting is. The wooden dialogue is supported by the oak-like acting that borders upon amateur hour. The most developed character is Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), but he does very little with the material given to him, and still manages to hold on to the slackjawed, droopy-face look he sported in SLUMDOG (which only confirms his suspected limited range).

AIRBENDER is all flash with no substance. Not even the action sequences with their bloated CGI can breathe life into it. M. Night seems completely absent from the final product; gone is any kind of tension-building or clever camera-work. The one-time Oscar-buzzing director has really Jumped The Shark, Nuked The Fridge, and Shit The Bed with this one.