Friday, November 16, 2007

Movies opening this week

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, dir. Sidney Lumet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I had been really looking forward to this movie, and it did not live up to my expectations. It's an okay heist thriller, but the whole jumping-around-in-time bit really breaks up the story in a bad way, and has become way overused in pseudo-hip crime pictures. The good performances make up for it a bit, but not enough. (I refrained in my review from sounding as pervy as all the lonely middle-aged male film critics and noting how good Marisa Tomei looks naked in this movie, but I'll say it here: She looks damn good naked, and she's quite naked in this movie.) Opened limited Oct. 26; in Las Vegas this week

Beowulf (Voices of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Reviews for this film have been bafflingly positive, but I thought it was pretty much a mess. Sure, the 3D technology has improved a lot over the years, but no matter how cool it looks they are still doing the exact same thing with it - "Look! The sword is coming right at us!" - and it gets old after a few instances. And motion-capture technology has improved, too, but still falls right in the uncanny valley and, furthermore, seems a little pointless to me. Making characters who look exactly like actual actors is better than using the actual actors why? I realize the sets and creatures need to be computer-generated, but when you've already got dragons and sexy seductress-monsters, why not just make it all at least a little stylized? Take advantage of the capabilities of computer animation, maybe?

Technology aside (although that's clearly what people care about here), the story just doesn't work. Making an ancient epic relatable to modern audiences is tough anyway, but the writers (Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, no hacks) take an odd route here, turning Beowulf into an arrogant jerk who never quite gets his comeuppance, and adding an overtly sexual element that doesn't make much sense and only provides for a lot of silly moments. The first half of the movie is remarkably campy, with all sorts of dumb double entendres and a completely absurd scene in which Jolie's evil sexpot seduces Beowulf, stroking his very phallic sword slowly up and down while it pulsates, and finally, when he succumbs to her womanly wiles, explodes into a stream of liquid. I mean, really. I was honestly agape at the stupidity of this scene.

That's not even to mention the fight between Beowulf and the monster Grendel, in which the hero is naked (in apparent fidelity to the source material, okay), but since this is a PG-13 movie (completely unjustifiably, incidentally) they can't show his naughty bits. So Zemeckis goes to laughable lengths to hide them behind every phallic object imaginable, recalling the bit in which Austin Powers hides his member behind bananas and so on. I will concede that the final action sequence, with Beowulf fighting a dragon, is sort of awesome. But everyone calling this the future of movies is way off the mark. At least, I really hope so. Wide release

Love in the Time of Cholera (Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt, dir. Mike Newell)
(Disclosure: This movie was produced by the people who own the company I work for.) I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel a few years ago, and it's such an immersive, otherworldly experience that this film completely fails to capture. Newell sticks fairly close to the events of the novel, but he loses so much of the spirit. Obviously, any adaptation would have to cut a lot out of the novel, and the little digressions have so much to do with creating the overall feel of the story. And it's always going to be tough to span 50 years with the same characters; Newell opts to use aging makeup, which is not particularly convincing and mostly just distracts from the story and the characters. But using different actors for different time periods would just have been distracting in a different way. Still, I can't help but feel that this ethereal, magical-realist novel might have been adapted successfully by a more inventive, magical-realist director, like maybe Julie Taymor, or Terry Gilliam, or Tim Burton. Newell is a competent journeyman, and he's made a nice little period romance here, but he hasn't even touched Marquez's genius. Wide release

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, dir. Zach Helm)
I thought Helm's script for Stranger Than Fiction was clever, but not quite as clever as it thought it was, and Marc Forster's lively direction brought it to a higher level. Here, directing his own script, Helm shows his limitations with a story that has some cute ideas but ultimately goes nowhere. There's just no dramatic tension in the story of the Willy Wonka-esque owner of a magical toy store who decides to pass it along to his young apprentice. Portman is fine but sort of bland as the young woman who isn't sure she wants to take over the store (and definitely doesn't want her mentor to die a nebulous, G-rated death), and Hoffman is really irritating as the pointlessly oddball Mr. Magorium (he was much funnier, and much more restrained, in Stranger Than Fiction). Bateman's straitlaced accountant isn't a villain, but he doesn't really end up learning to appreciate magic, either. The whole movie sort of just sits there for a while, then ends. Kids might find all the magical toys amusing, though. Wide release

No Country for Old Men (Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
I am one of the few defenders of Intolerable Cruelty (I actually think it's one of the Coens' most entertaining films), but I don't have much good to say about The Ladykillers, and I'll at least admit that Cruelty is rather slight. No Country is, as nearly everyone has said, a powerful return to form for the brothers. I tend to prefer their dark dramas over their comedies (as much as I love The Big Lebowski), and this one ranks right up there with The Man Who Wasn't There and Miller's Crossing. It's incredibly bleak and intense, with a wonderfully creepy performance from Bardem as the psychopathic and emotionally detached villain. There are long, intricate dialogue-free sequences simply focused on the mechanics of evading someone who's chasing you, with meticulous attention to small details. There's also a surprising amount of humor, although like the rest of the movie, it's as dry as the ever-present Texas dust. The suspense is relentless until the extended coda, which at first seems a little anticlimactic but actually wraps up all the movie's themes nicely, showing how helpless all the characters really are, no matter how in control they think they might be. It's one of the Coens' most thematically rich films, a very effective genre piece and definitely one of the best movies of the year. Opened limited Nov. 9; in Las Vegas this week

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