Monday, April 26, 2010

The Good Shepherd: Who Am I?

I have a hard time getting a handle on Matt Damon. His standout roles, in my mind, have been Good Will Hunting (he should have been good in that since he freakin wrote it) and The Departed, where like most actors who have the opportunity, he


absolutely shone as the super evil bad guy. In everything else I've seen, he's basically been a non-entity, which some people see as subtlety, but which in the case of The Good Shepherd was just the absence of a solid hook for the root of his character's raison d'etre. That's reason for being in Frenchy talk.

This movie had 10 million famous people in it. Let's just go in order of appearance: Matt Damon, William Hurt, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, Angelina Jolie, Robert DeNiro, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin and then in the most useless three-minute cameo, Joe Pesci. Then there were Cubans, Russians, Germans, two deaf girls, some Congolese folks and a bunch of WASPY Yale alumni. Way too many characters to keep track of. Plus every time you introduce something new, you're just waiting for the next inscrutable piece of dialogue to exit his or her lips and hope it gives you any chance at all of understanding the overly convoluted plot.

This movie was also way too goshdarn long, at just under three hours. Here's a hint: you could have cut half the cast.

Anyway, there are a lot of problems here. The beginning of the movie suffered horribly from what I call Trailer Syndrome. They're trying to create momentum and drama, so they do a lot of fast cuts from scene to scene, they don't tell you everything that's going on and the dialogue is real punchy. You wonder if the actual movie has begun or if you're still in the previews.

The not-telling-you-everything problem lasted through the duration. That's nearly three hours of not knowing what's going on. Literally, they had to use the little location/date in the corner of the screen crutch at least 10 times, because they were dragging you back and forth through different years and countries. You're totally lost. Then you stop caring. Sadly for you, the movie is just a third of the way in.

There's also some graphic violence that they've given you about two minutes of lead-in time to try to have some emotional resonance with, but you're way past caring at that point. You just want Angelina to come back on the screen and slink about some more. Seriously, when she finally showed up at minute 58, I was like THANK GOD now something will happen. We were then treated to one of the most awkward love scenes of all time. It seems like they're trying to make you think her character might be mentally unstable, but by the emotional climax you're supposed to care about her feelings. Nothing makes any sense.

And here is where Matt Damon's character is the most muddled: he has a traumatic, fatherless childhood, randomly joins the Skull and Bones club at Yale (oh yeah, did I mention this is a Skull and Bones movie? Jesus.), in spite of that seems to be an emotionally sensitive and healthy young person, but for no reason takes off on a path of stunted misanthropy that is never resolved. Is that the point? If so...bleh. Who gives a crap? That's the most boring character arc ever.

The most enjoyable parts were the five minutes of collective screen time the child actor gets, because he's just too stinkin cute and his little sad face really tugged my heartstrings. I guess you know by now that I'm easily won over by children. But when the 5-year-old is better than Alec Baldwin, you start to wonder.

Here's the thing: movies about spies very easily spiral into badness, what with all the secret file folders, code words and efforts at mystery. This one also tries to mix in 5,000 other themes, historical events and messages and you're left just wondering what the hell it's trying to say. It's a portrait of a spy who couldn't love his family? Or is it a comment on the intelligence community? Is it trying to address class politics? Or what?

As it turns out, it's just giving Robert DeNiro a vehicle to direct in the guise of a gritty, intellectual historical drama. Yeah, that's a mouthful. Unless you're one of those guys who read every Tom Clancy book and found it riveting, I wouldn't watch this. Even those guys will need a few bathroom breaks.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pork Chop Hill: Fast Times in the East

This movie was interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) Gregory Peck, 2) the Korean War and 3) it's 1959 take on race relations.

I will watch anything, but war movies can take a toll on my interest on occasion. Mostly because many of them are attempting a kind of verité that makes is difficult to follow who is who and what is happening. This is doubly hard when everyone is wearing the same costume because they're all soldiers.

However, it was interesting to watch this and think about what the Korean War was about, who fought it, and how they called it "the forgotten war" then and it remains that way to this day. This movie is based on a book, based on a real battle during the "police action" that was the U.S. involvement in Korea in 1950-53. The sequence during the opening credits is fascinating for its framing the story in what looks like diplomatic negotiations and U.N. talks, that don't show up in the story again until the third act. The overwhelming sense is of the U.S. soldiers' weariness with the conflict, the confused motivations for being there, and the slow-moving political machine working on resolving the whole situation while seemingly unable to deal with the reality of military needs on the ground. Basically, nothing new under the sun.

Also interesting to find out that the Chinese were talking to the U.S. troops on loudspeakers as psychological warfare, playing Taps and alternately wheedling and threatening them to surrender -- that was something I didn't know about before watching this.

I'm not sure what point they were trying to make having a Japanese American character as a Lieutenant in the movie, or a black guy who keeps hiding and taking off because he refuses to die for such a seemingly meaningless conflict. There's a pointed moment where the other black guy in the platoon is acting like the other dude is being all weak and grabs him by the wrist, and they both look at their wrists, there's a big pause allowing it to sink in that, oh. They're both black. Okay, we get it. Gregory Peck ends up having to convince this guy to man up and die with the rest of the platoon because a soldier's job is to fight. Seems like they were trying to dip a toe into some of the social and political issues of the time without making too big a statement. It's also interesting to consider in light of the fact that Hollywood is still making war movies about conflicts that have not yet entered the annals of history.

One goofy thing is Gregory Peck's character is continually handing out raisins to his men, saying it's important to have iron in your diet. Like he's got this big thing about raisins. Hard to tell if that was a real concern during the war or if it was a screenwriter's attempt at a quirky character trait.

There were a few choice comedic moments here and there, but the standout scene for me was when the platoon has gotten to the bunker at the top of Pork Chop Hill, taking it from the Chinese, but is so reduced in number that they don't think they'll be able to hold it (thus looking death eyeball-to-eyeball). The remaining 25 G.I.s are madly sandbagging themselves into the bunker as the Chinese approach with flame throwers. I won't tell you how it turns out, but for a black-and-white war movie from the '50s, that was a pretty darn good suspense moment for me.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Thanks, Yahoo Movies, for making me look like a total blogging amateur with that massively sized video embed covering up my really interesting sidebar. Not that my skillz aren't completely unveiled with that poorly aligned header photo up there... anyway, now the cat's out of the bag. This blog is not professional. SNEAKALOO.

Incoming: 'The Other Guys' Trailer

Need a laugh? Watch this trailer real quick and commence crossing fingers that this one leans more toward Anchorman and less toward Talladega Craps. This movie contains: Will Ferrell, Marky Mark, The Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton and apparently everyone else who felt like making a cameo in an Adam McKay movie (damn).

Also: new review tonight after I watch a movie of some sort. Potentially, Pork Chop Hill.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Kick Ass intrigues

Interesting. I may have to see this now. Well, you knew I would eventually.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bright Star: Twinkle Toes

If I had seen this movie around age 15 or so, I would have been mooning around reading Keats for about a week afterward. As it is, I mooned about for around an hour wishing I had at least one empire-waisted, flowy white dress and little soft leather slippers.

The lowdown is this: Fanny Brawne meets John Keats when they both move into the same estate outside of London. She's into fashion and designing her own clothes, and he's busy becoming one of the most revered Romantic poets in history. It's kind of opposites attract until she reads all of Milton in one week to prove she's sincere in her admiration. He's totally blown away and they smooch.

Now sidetrack for a second: can you imagine being penpals with John Keats? It would be really hard to outdo him on the romantic longing and such. Fanny could only hope her handwriting was better.

This movie is self-indulgent: visual time is spent on some overly beautiful stuff, it noodles around with the history it's based on and it can feel a little like hipster 1800s, if you can imagine what that feels like.

But there was also some really delightful stuff: an adorable little curly-redheaded girl (Fanny's little sister Toots), some interesting music, the genuine cuteness of the budding relationship and the setting and costumes. Hard to say if some of the hats they used were period or just fun for the designers to make, but I'll let it slide.

The highlight was the acting of Abbie Cornish, who plays Fanny. I wanted to say she was cast for her fingers alone. If she's never been a hand model, she should certainly consider it. And when they shoot her sewing, she looks exactly like she knows what she's doing. And it doesn't hurt that the rest of her is pretty gorgeous, too. But the truth is, she did the work on this one! I was convinced she was who she was pretending to be. For many movies, that's saying a lot.

I think a lot of times you can tell when an actor's really invested time in making sure they inhabit the character they play -- and the payoff when they're successful is huge. When a character feels genuine, it's hard to know whether to attribute it solely to the actor or director or costumer, even. But I think in this case, a lot of credit goes to Cornish, who up to this point, I only knew as the girl who maybe broke up Reese Witherspoon's marriage to Ryan Phillippe.

Her delivery of dialogue was really interesting. I think with period pieces we're used to a lot of flippy, crisp, witty stuff in British accents. Cornish changed the pace of her speech to sound less like a recital and more like naturally reactive banter. Her pauses and movements were unpracticed and realistic. When she cries, as she has to more than once and at least once with epic grief, she cries like I myself have cried over love and love lost. Okay, now I'm writing like a damn Romantic poet.

The actor who plays John Keats, Ben Whishaw, I just saw in Brideshead Revisited on Netflix Instant. He was brilliant in that as the flighty party child Sebastian. So I know he has chops, but I think his Keats was slightly too delicate and sensitive. This might be Jane Campion's direction. That said, he and Cornish seemed to really, genuinely enjoy each other and their interactions as their characters fall in love are sweet and give you the butterflies. It's not all soft-focus-in-candlelight and major-pause-before-they-kiss like a lot of romance movies can be. And they don't get it on either, so they avoid the horrible pitfalls of period piece love scenes ("ouch, that's my corset string," or "dude, you smell like last week's lemon curd.").

This is definitely one to let your male counterpart skip out on. He will be bored. But if you're like me and have a soft spot for textiles, flowers in spring, English poets and all that other cheesy crap, this is one to rent and bust out some Ben and Jerry's with.
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