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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gran Torino & In the Heat of the Night

Gran Torino (2008)

I found myself torn about Eastwood's 2008 melodrama. There is so much I admire about Eastwood's contemporary directing work. The willingness to deal with emotion, the restraint of his filmmaking, and the way he lets his stories unfold.

Unfortunately, I had some problems with the story and script, particularly in its attitudes towards race. While the movie is about a sort of reconciliation between Eastwood's racist old man and his Hmong immigrant neighbors, the movie kind of promotes a "good minority/bad minority" scheme. Also, is it just me or is Eastwood getting a little lazy in his growling performances? Worth a look, but definitely not up to the level of his earlier dramas Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.

Grade: B-

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

One of the best books about movies I've ever read is Pictures at a Revolution, which uses the lens of the 1967 Best Picture race to look at a defining turning point in American film. In 1967, the police/race relations drama In the Heat of the Night beat two much better groundbreaking films, Bonnie and Clyde (one of my favorites) and The Graduate and two much worse films, the dated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the much-hated Doctor Doolittle.

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are terrific as a northern Philadelphia cop who helps a Southern cop solve a murder in a racist and sleepy Southern town. After reading Pictures at a Revolution, I have a better sense of how incendiary certain moments are, such as when Poitier slaps a racist white man (see video below). The racial tension in the movie is still palpable, the performances are great, and the cinematography by the great Haskell Wexler gives a modern look to the film. Unfortunately, the murder story is frankly pedestrian and often left me bored. An interesting film for historical reasons, but no longer a great one.

Grade: B

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker

Yesterday I saw the much-heralded The Hurt Locker, and I was not disappointed. It's a tense, edge-of-your-seat, thought-provoking war movie.

A lot of what I liked about it are the things it didn't do, that war movies are prone to do. It didn't give a huge cast of characters, confusing the audience. Instead, it focused (mainly) on the 3-member bomb squad and their interactions. It didn't have a lot of shots of people on the home front reading letters and getting phone calls. In fact, it's not until halfway through the movie that we know anything of the backgrounds of the characters. The one extended segment in the U.S. was powerful precisely because the points weren't belabored earlier in the movie. It doesn't make cheap political points, on either side of the coin. I would argue that showing the reality of war inevitably makes a political point, but it doesn't hit the viewer over the head.

There are great performances in this movie by the two leads, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie. The cinematography is great, and the movie is seriously suspenseful and engaging. One minor caveat I had is that I didn't really like the ending. It actually could have ended in about two different spots before the last scene and been a better movie. But that's a small criticism for a great movie. Expect to see it on many end of the year top 10 lists, and probably on Oscar's 10-deep Best Picture roster.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Coraline (2009)

While I'm a bit sad I missed Coraline in its 3-D glory on the big screen, I was definitely glad to catch it on DVD. It's directed by Henry Selick, and I'm a fan of his past work on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.

The best part of Coraline is definitely the visuals. The movie has meticulous animation, and I think it would take several viewings to truly appreciate all that is within each frame. The story is also delightfully creepy. When watching the movie, I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland and Pan's Labyrinth. It's about a spunky preteen who finds a passage into an alternate world (where everyone has very creepy button eyes) that quickly turns from idyllic to horrifying.

I also liked how Coraline didn't feel the need to be overly heartwarming. While I appreciate the real emotion Pixar puts into its movies, I was pleased that Coraline chose frights and visual splendor as its main goals. While I enjoyed the transitions between the real world and the alternate world, there were a few moments where I thought the pacing seemed a bit off. That's a minor quibble, though, for a movie that was a lot of fun.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wizards and Romances: Harry Potter and 500 Days of Summer

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

To preface my review, I should say that I am a Harry Potter fan, thoroughly enjoy the books, but am not, perhaps, a "super-fan". I have read all the books once, seen all the movies once, and may read the books again one day. By the time the movies come out, I have usually forgotten most aspects of the books so I am not unduly upset if something is changed or different than I imagine it. I was so-so on the first two movies (a little too kiddie and conventional for my taste), but enjoyed 3-5.

So, as the fan I am, I heartily enjoyed the new movie, perhaps the best of the series so far. The 2 1/2 hour movie mostly focuses on three things: the rise of the Death Eaters, Harry's attempts to get information from the new Defense of the Dark Arts Teacher Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), and, of course, adolescent romance involving all of the leads. The movie felt about the right length to tell the stories without getting overlong or overtruncated.

I loved the set design and cinematography of this movie. Everything is shot in blues and grays, and Hogwarts seems scarier than it ever has before. The last 20 minutes or so of the movie are truly scary, and show that Harry Potter has grown up. The adolescent romance also provides a nice antidote to the darkness. The young actors perform well, and I loved the addition of Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Iris, Moulin Rogue). Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon also continue to be great in their key roles. The only reason that I don't grade Harry Potter higher is its limitations as a movie apart from the books. Without reading the books, I think the movies can only go so far as cinematic art. While I'm sure they are still enjoyable to follow as a film series, I think much of the emotional connection audiences bring to the films is from their devotion to the books (and, in this movie, knowledge of how the series will end).

Grade: B+

(500) Days of Summer

I was very excited to see this movie, since the buzz and reviews have been almost entirely positive. Here are my thoughts....

The good:
-First and foremost, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He is absolutely wonderful in this movie, and I nominate him as the next John Cusack. This is good since the movie is told from his point of view. He gives the audience a good entrance into the story.
-The style. The movie adds in musical numbers, foreign film parodies, animation, and split-screens. More often than not, this adds to the enjoyment of the movie.
-The format. I (mostly) liked seeing a relationship between two people distilled into certain days, and it was nice to have the counter handy on screen for the audience.

The bad:
-Summer. I'm kind of iffy on Zooey Deschanel (cute yes, a great actress I don't think so), but her character in this movie is very hard to understand. She is charming, yes, but what makes Josh obsess over her? It's a problem since the main arc of this movie is how much Josh learned from his relationship with her.
-The forced quirk factor. The Ikea shopping, the cute wisecracking sister, the greeting cards. It was all a little forced and artificial. A lot of times this quirk got in the way of real insight or emotion.

-I'm glad I saw the movie, I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a great future in the business, and there is definitely some talent behind the camera. On the other hand, many elements were too familiar and trite to be affecting in any way. Will I ever see this movie again? No. If I want to see a great movie about how a person grows through a relationship, I'll watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Annie Hall for the umpteenth time.

Grade: B-