Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review: Duplicity

Tony Gilroy’s first film, Michael Clayton, was a brilliant and absorbing tale of the corporate underworld, a stunning achievement for the first-time director that netted him Oscar nominations for both writing and directing in 2008. It was one of my favorite movies not just of that year, but of the last ten, perhaps even twenty years. So my expectations for Duplicity, his second movie, were justifiably high – a sense of optimism which, unfortunately, only set me up for disappointment. Whereas Clayton was sharp, savvy, and even beautiful at moments, Duplicity is clumsy, uncomfortable, and so outlandish at times that I can’t help but wonder whether the entire film is just a botched attempt at self-parody.

Duplicity opens promisingly enough. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are two spies who meet at a Fourth of July celebration in Dubai, spend the night together, and part on less than amicable terms. The next time we meet these characters, five years have passed. They’re now working for the CEO of a consumer product corporation (Tom Wilkinson) who’s out to destroy his rival (Paul Giamatti) once and for all. Or are they? The movie takes us back in time every few minutes to fill in the five-year gap and give us a clue (or two) as to what the two main characters are really up to. On paper it sounds like an interesting way to tell a story, and it is until about halfway through the film. That’s when the flashbacks start to get repetitive and, frankly, quite boring. In its second half, the main plot slows to a crawl as Duplicity lingers in the past for minute after tedious minute. One can only stand listening to Owen and Roberts wax poetic about their feelings and whether they can trust each other for so long before it gets hard to care if either one is ever telling the truth.

To step back for a moment, though, it’s worth noting that Gilroy’s first major misstep occurs before he even makes it back to the present for the first time. The film’s opening credit sequence, in which Wilkinson and Giamatti stand face-to-face and scream at each other in silent slow-motion, is almost embarrassing in its obviousness. It sets the stage thematically, I suppose, by setting up their rivalry before either one has even appeared in the story. But for a film that takes such pride in the complexity of its own narrative, this is a rather childish attempt at grabbing the viewer’s attention – not to mention that it makes the characters into one-dimensional caricatures from the onset. The scene grows nearly as tiresome as some of the later flashbacks after just a few seconds, and I’m still not sure whether the bewildered chuckles it drew from me were part of Gilroy’s intent or actually came at the director’s expense.

The movie falls flat stylistically as well. Gilroy’s shots are composed with immaculate symmetry – characters are rarely positioned outside the center of the frame, often in angular rooms with stark, blazing-white walls. The effect is certainly eye-catching, but more often than not it’s also mildly unsettling. Perhaps Gilroy was trying to be ironic by juxtaposing the story’s off-kilter characters with his perfectly balanced cinematography, but even if that’s the case, it just doesn’t work here. More than anything, looking at Duplicity for too long without blinking just made me feel like I was staring into a sanitarium.

In the end, neither the Owen/Roberts intrigue nor the Wilkinson/Giamatti subplot reach a particularly interesting resolution, and the flashbacks never amount to anything truly significant aside from a cheap twist in the film’s final moments. But it isn’t the plot that ultimately disappoints the most, even though it does command more than its fair share of logic-defying leaps of faith. Rather, Gilroy’s strange and unlikable characters are the film’s biggest letdown, especially after the finesse and nuance of Michael Clayton. Duplicity isn’t an outright “bad” film, per se, but in light of what it could have been given the capabilities of its cast and director, I can’t help but think the filmmakers just didn’t try that hard – and in an industry so hopelessly glutted with bland and intentionally brainless movies, such wastes of talent make for a particularly subversive brand of mediocrity.

Rating: ** (2 out of 4)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Charlie Sheen Will Be In Wall Street 2

I’ll admit, I was pretty down on the idea of a sequel to Wall Street when the idea first began floating around Hollywood a few years ago. There have been so many mediocre revivals of 1980s franchises recently, from Indiana Jones to Die Hard to Rambo, that a healthy dose of skepticism is certainly warranted. However, Wall Street 2 has actually grown on me a lot in the last few weeks. Just as the “greed is good” culture of its time made the original movie a compelling and well-timed success when it came out in 1987, I think our current social and economic climate will provide an excellent subject for Oliver Stone’s patented type of directorial scrutiny.

Even if that’s true, though, the biggest fear with any sequel made so long after the original is whether the same things that made it great in the first place will come together again to make something just as good. For quite a while, all we’ve really known about the Wall Street sequel was that it would center around what happens to Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) when he’s released from prison 20 years after the events of the first movie. But there was no word on the first movie’s main character, Bud Fox, who was played by Charlie Sheen.

Until now, that is. In a bit of news I just came across earlier this month, Sheen has apparently agreed to appear in the film, although from the sound of it his role will be a fairly small one. Still, his presence lends this project that last bit of legitimacy that I was looking for. As a fan of the original, I’m quite happy to see the sequel panning out so well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Thoughts on Disney Buying Marvel

In case you haven’t heard the biggest news in the entertainment industry yet, Disney purchased Marvel a few days ago for the sum of 4 billion dollars. This move came as a complete surprise, and speculation has been running rampant over what implications this could have for both companies.

Is the deal really a cause for worry? Maybe, maybe not. Some people seem to think that it could lead to the “Disneyfication” of Marvel’s movies and/or comics – a rather absurd proposal, if you think about it. Despite its clean-cut, family-friendly image, Disney has distributed the likes of Sin City, Pulp Fiction, and plenty of other violent or otherwise “mature” media through Miramax (which it also owns), so the issue isn’t one of what level of explicitness Disney will allow its new subsidiary to “get away with.” Besides, after the financial debacle that was last year’s Punisher: War Zone, Marvel swore off making R-rated films in the future anyway.

The real issue, I think, is one of creative control over Marvel’s franchises. I’m not too concerned for Marvel Publishing, which handles the publication of Marvel’s extensive line of comic books. Since Marvel’s rebound from bankruptcy in the late 1990s, its publishing arm has maintained an unprecedented level of creative autonomy (and critical acclaim) which I seriously doubt Disney would feel any need to dismantle. (As a brief side note, though, I do wonder whether this deal could lead to Marvel absorbing Boom! Studios, another comic book company which for the last year or so has been publishing a number of well-received comics based on Disney-owned franchises, including Toy Story and the Muppets.)

To dwell on publishing for just a moment longer, I think it’s important to remember that Marvel hasn’t merged with Disney – Marvel is now simply owned by Disney, and as such it will remain a mostly self-directed institution. So for those worried that Mickey Mouse will soon be joining the X-Men by corporate mandate, you have nothing to fear (although if fan art like this piece provides any indication, it might not be so bad!).

So with Marvel’s comic book universe fairly safe, in my opinion, my main concern in is over what will now happen to Marvel Studios. This is the independent production studio, owned by Marvel, which has so far brought us Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and which is currently producing next year’s Iron Man 2. Several more Marvel movies, including Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers, are also lined up for the studio.

I have commented before on this blog that I felt Marvel Studios’ legal and financial independence gave it a level of creative control that we are never likely to see from DC, since it is owned by Time-Warner. Forming its own production studio was a major triumph for Marvel in that regard, which makes it a bit sad to see the company essentially “selling out” when it’s proven that it can be both financially and critically successful on its own.

I’m still somewhat optimistic, on the one hand, because Disney has done such an excellent job in its handling of Pixar, which has perhaps the single greatest track record of any production studio in history. But fundamentally, this deal is still about Disney making more money, and the difference between Pixar and Marvel is that Marvel has many more long-standing franchises that have the potential to be exploited, for lack of a better word. Disney will do whatever it feels it needs to in order to protect its own financial interests – and if this means, for example, forcing Marvel Studios to crank out a third Iron Man movie without the same care that was devoted to the first two movies, I have little doubt that Disney will do so. We’ve already seen this same scenario play itself out in Sony’s mishandling of the third film in the Spider-Man franchise, and with a fourth film on the way (and, supposedly, a fifth as well), the cycle seems almost inevitable.

Of course, the true effects of this deal probably won’t be felt for at least a few years. I imagine Marvel Studios will continue to operate as it is now through the completion of its current slate of films, at which point it will either close its doors or take its work in whatever direction Disney feels best. This might not end up being a bad thing at all – it’s not as if Disney doesn’t have an eye for great filmmaking. The point is simply that Disney will have a tremendous influence on what Marvel-based movies are made in the future, for better or for worse.

Friday, September 4, 2009

In Case You Were Wondering...

If you’ve visited this site recently, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. There are reasons for that – legitimate ones, in my opinion, although I’ll leave that decision up to you. The big one is that I really haven’t seen many movies this summer. My only trips to the theater in the last few months have been to see Public Enemies and Funny People on their opening weekends, and Inglourious Basterds this last weekend. I’ve only rented one movie that I can think of, and that was a few weeks ago now.

Why have I watched so few movies lately? The main reason is that I spent a large portion of this summer interning in a congressional office in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful experience, and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I met a lot of wonderful people there, and I made a lot of valuable connections too. But it did take up a lot of my time and energy each day, and very rarely did I have two hours to sit through an entire movie – my free time came more often in 20 to 30 minute bursts, which I typically spent watching 30 Rock, a show I hadn’t seen before this summer (and which I highly recommend).

Since my return from the Capitol, I’ve been catching up with friends, trying to keep up with the first few days of classes, and doing a good deal of reading. (For those wondering, my graphic novel review blog is still in the works – in fact, the domain has already been created. I have a number of reviews written, but I want to make sure I have enough done in advance to prevent the same stop-and-go difficulties I’ve had with this blog.) Although I’ve watched a handful of movies since being back, my viewing time continues to be mainly concentrated on TV shows, predominantly 30 Rock and The Shield – which, now that I’ve begun watching the fourth season, has joined the ranks of The Sopranos and Lost as one of my all-time favorite shows.

As the new school semester starts, I foresee myself watching more movies than I have been in the recent past. This is thanks in part to a film class which promises to do an excellent job of filling in the gaps in my own knowledge of the history of film, especially in terms of international cinema, and also thanks to my own building desire to start writing about film on a regular basis again. However, I find my interest in new releases waning at the moment. This will probably change as we enter the last quarter of the year – typically the time when the year’s best movies are released – although I find myself irked by a few recent developments, namely the delay of Scorsese’s Shutter Island until February of next year.

My hope is that with this most recent return to the blogosphere, I’ll be able to maintain at least a semi-regular presence here. I’ve learned a lot about my own writing process and style (what works, and what needs improvement) through constructing these posts over the last few months (almost a year, actually!), and I hope to continue developing my own skills and entertaining people at the same time. There are a few things I’m really interested in trying out here, and I look forward to posting them and hearing your thoughts soon.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And Then There Were...Ten?

A few months ago, I thought the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had finally gotten its head out of the sand. Now, I’m not so sure. The Academy’s president made a rather surprising announcement today: for the first time in more than 60 years, next year’s Academy Awards will have 10 nominees for Best Picture instead of five. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009... Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going allow Academy voters to recognise and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.

Personally, I don’t think this makes a bit of sense. Even with five nominees, there always seems to be at least one that isn’t in the same league as the others. And with ten nominees, I don’t even want to think about how much garbage is going to be included. People will argue that there are “deserving” movies that don’t get nominated each year, but if you think about it, that’s kind of the point. If every good movie was nominated, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to be a nominee.

Of course, I’m prepared to eat my words if this ends up working out for the best, and the Academy has proven me wrong before. But for now, I have my doubts – and if I see any Transformers posters with the words “For Your Consideration” on them come this fall, I swear there will be hell to pay.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: Drag Me To Hell

If all you know about Drag Me to Hell is what you’ve seen in previews, then it isn’t the kind of movie you think it is. Trailers and TV spots have done their best to make Sam Raimi’s return to the horror genre look like a mere Saw or Hostel clone, but in reality it has very little in common with those movies. While Raimi is best-known by many people today as the director of the Spider-Man films, his best work is undoubtedly the Evil Dead trilogy, which mixed low-budget (but entirely believable) scares with physical comedy to create an experience that was at once hilarious and horrifying. Raimi revives his own tradition with Drag Me to Hell, which is more than worthy as a spiritual successor to the director’s previous work.

Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a loan officer who evicts a creepy old woman from her home in order to curry favor with her boss. The woman’s response? She puts a curse on Christine, giving her three terrorizing days to live before demons will quite literally drag her down to Hell. With the support of her loving boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and a helpful fortune-teller (Dileep Rao), Christine sets out to stand against the forces that are after her and to avoid the fiery fate that lies ahead.

One of the movie’s biggest draws is how fully-developed these characters are. Lohman has never been a particularly notable actress, but her convincing portrayal of Christine should definitely cement her reputation among horror fans. Long’s performance is also surprisingly genuine, and you can’t help but feel for him as his character sticks with Christine despite his increasing skepticism towards her. Their relationship is the most endearing part of the film, making it tough (but still funny) to see it put through the wringer – for instance, when evil spirits sabotage Christine’s first meeting with Clay’s parents.

But the real stars of the movie are Raimi and his special effects team, who offer up plenty of sticky, oozing and frequently cartoonish frights. There’s fairly little actual blood, and it goes to show that excessive amounts of hyper-realistic gore aren’t what make a horror film worthwhile. Although Drag Me to Hell doesn’t rely on slapstick as much as Evil Dead and its sequels, it certainly pays homage to the series with its claustrophobic camera movements, creaky sound effects, and the occasional flying eyeball. The movie’s intermittent computer-generated effects aren’t nearly as convincing as Raimi’s signature low-budget techniques, but thankfully they’re not used all that often.

What I love most about Drag Me to Hell is that it’s both a breath of fresh air and a campy, nostalgic look back at what horror can and should be. There hasn’t been a horror movie quite like it since Evil Dead II, and there may not be another until after Raimi has finished with Spider-Man 4. I hope there will be, though, and that Drag Me to Hell proves popular enough among the legions of Saw and Hostel fans to warrant more films that cleverly blend horror and comedy. I’m tired of the gore-for-its-own-sake, torture-porn trash that rakes in the big money each and every Halloween – it’s time for us to return to the idea that horror can be scary, funny, and original at the same time, and Drag Me to Hell shows us that it’s possible.

Rating: ***½ (3.5 out of 4)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Good Lord, Why??

Honestly...what did the human race do to deserve this kind of punishment? And is it too late to redeem ourselves??