Friday, 30 January 2009

Movie Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

In a movie in which every character is being mean to every other character, and all the characters are either inept, self-obsessed, or just plain stupid, at least one character needs to be sympathetic enough to make us care amid the oozing awfulness. Burn After Reading fails this test, and it simply disintegrates into a painful spectacle where every attempt at humour or satire falls flat. That the usually brilliant Coen brothers cooked up this turkey just adds bitterness to the bad aftertaste.

Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) are employees at a scuzzy gym managed by Ted (Richard Jenkins), and they stumble upon a CD that appears to contain CIA secrets. The files on the CD belong to Osborne (John Malkovich), a CIA agent on the back-end of his career, and whose marriage to Katie (Tilda Swinton) is imploding. Chad and Linda, in way over their heads, attempt to blackmail Osborne, primarily because Linda wants to finance her plastic surgery.

Katie meanwhile is having an affair with Harry (George Clooney), a Treasury Department agent, who at the same time starts dating Linda, not knowing that Linda is involved in blackmailing his lover's husband. As the blackmail plot unravels, Linda and Chad try to sell the CD to the Russians, and the consequences are bad for everyone, and lethal for a few.

All this rich material for satire on spies, spying, extra-marital affairs and obsession with fitness must have looked hilarious on paper; on the screen, all the targets are missed. The characters come across as failed cartoons drawn with thick crayons. No one appears to act on any idea unless the action is idiotic, and the persistent meanness and dumbness with which all the characters treat each other results in all of them deserving whatever gutter fate the movie chooses to assign.

The high-powered, all-star cast bumbles along not quite knowing if this is the latest Ocean's 11 spin-off or a discarded sub-plot from Syriana. The lack of any character depth or meaningful evolution leaves the acting talent out in the cold. Malkovich as Osborne Cox is given the most to work with, but while his character is entertaining, it remains strictly one-dimensional.

After the Coen's brilliant No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading is a steep drop in form. Any movie in which the Russian embassy spooks are the most sympathetic characters is bound to be in no small amount of trouble.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Ghost Town (2008)

A small, low key romantic comedy that borrows extensively from many other movies and achieves very little that is new. Ghost Town is only enjoyable in the sense that it is inoffensive, steers clear of cheap laughs, and at least aims for the slightly cerebral.

Ricky Gervais (from the original British version of The Office) is Bertram Pincus, a dour dentist who has all but given-up on any positive aspects of humanity, and is self-satisfied going through life alone and with an air of over-bearing pessimism.

After briefly dying on the operating table, Pincus wakes up with the ability to see and interact with ghosts who are all around us, hanging around the living due to various unresolved pre-death issues. The ghosts in Ghost Town are thankfully not scary or ugly, just normal looking and slightly pushy folks waiting for help. Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear, strangely the most likeable thing about the movie) is the pushiest among them, having been literally run over by a bus without resolving his marriage issues. He wants Pincus to sabotage the relationship between his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) and her new hunky boyfriend.

What follows is a predictable relationship between Gwen and Pincus, which is as unbelievable as the quick transformation that Pincus subsequently zips through to become a caring human being. The emotional evolutions are abrupt and handled with a dramatic shortage of subtlety, thanks to the predictable script (David Koepp and John Kamps) and bland direction (Koepp again).

Gervais tries hard but his character is given precious little to work with, while Tea Leoni has to make us believe that she will fall for a rude and overweight dentist when her current boyfriend looks like most women's white knight. She also has to make us believe that she is a paleopathologist. None of it rings true.

A movie that passes the time, but not necessarily time well spent.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Book Review: Outliers - The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

After exploring the little events that make a big impact in The Tipping Point, and the way that we think in Blink, in Outliers Malcolm Gladwell explores the topic of success. It's an entertaining, accessible book that brings a refreshing perspective to the topic. Rather than focus on the role of the individual, Gladwell looks at everything that surrounds the successful individual in time and space.

In his own quirky style, Gladwell goes on a journey of discovery into the societal, cultural, family and pure luck elements that need to come together to help an individual succeed. Gladwell never diminishes the value of individual initiative and intelligence; he simply shows that these elements are in themselves not the whole picture. A large part of every success story can be traced back to ancestry, family, opportunities, dedicated practice (rather than natural talent), and things as mundane as birth year.

In typical Gladwell fashion, elite athletes, The Beatles, Bill Gates, lawyers in New York who specialize in corporate take-overs, the smartest man in the United States, Korean Airline Pilots, feuding families, the father of the US Atomic Bomb program, and Chinese rice farmers are all linked together to demonstrate how powerful outside factors play a large part in determining success and failure.

Gladwell's flowing and entertaining writing style continues to improve. He is more succinct, repeats less, and does not stray into needless details as often as he used to. His arguments and narrative hold together throughout the book, despite the diversity of examples.

As he reveals the layers of support that various success stories have received, Gladwell's message is that in understanding the societal and cultural factors that help achieve success, we can better harness their power. One of the later chapters in the book drives this point brilliantly by examining the positive impact of a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy in the Bronx.

Outliers is a timely reminder that all success stories owe a debt to forces much greater than the individual, and that ultimately the human family is strengthened by expanding on the available opportunities to benefit an ever growing number of deserving people.

Published by Little, Brown.

285 pages plus Notes and Index.

Note: Gladwell's The Tipping Point is reviewed here.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Movie Review: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

It will be hard to find a big-budget movie that has more hammy over-acting than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The major musical film productions of the 1960's, like My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, never took themselves too seriously, but the cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang take the cheese factor to a whole different, and rarely seen, level.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The film as directed by Ken Hughes and produced by Albert Broccoli's James Bond production team, is squarely aimed at the child market, and it is, after all, based on an Ian Fleming story that he wrote for his children. The movie does not pretend to be anything other than a live-action grand comic adventure, and delivers the over-the-top exaggerated emotions and visuals that would consequently be expected. However, at an overblown running length of 2 hours and 27 minutes, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is likely stretching the attention span capabilities of its target audience.

Dick Van Dyke is Caractacus Potts (there are no subtleties in this movie), an eccentric but broke inventor and single dad, who transforms an old race car into a gleaming, floating, flying beauty of a machine. Gert Frobe is Baron Bomberst, the overblown ruler of the mythical Vulgaria, who decides to steal the magical car at whatever cost. Instead he ends up kidnapping Potts' dad (Lionel Jeffries), who is eccentric enough to makes his son appear normal. The second half of the movie has Caractacus saving his car and the people of Vulgaria from their tyrannical ruler.

Part of this adventure is a story-within-a-story, but that does not really matter -- it is all a vehicle for grand fun, some good laughs, and an old fashioned romance between Caractacus and Truly Scrumptious (no subtleties at all), the daughter of the town's candy baron. Scrumptious is played by Sally Ann Howes -- the only performer in the cast almost trying to take her role semi-seriously.

Consistent with the grand comic theme of the movie, the supporting cast is terrific and colourful: Benny Hill as the toymaker of Vulgaria; the two Vulgaria spies (Alexander Dore and Bernard Spear) who provide probably the best laughs of the movie; James Robertson Justice as Truly's dad; and Anna Quayle as Baroness Bomberst.

The song melodies are catchy and memorable, but the lyrics are quite forgettable. The music and lyrics are by Richard and Robert Sherman, and the fact that the Shermans are not household names is a warning of sorts. Still, there are some good musical moments, most notably the "Me Ol'Bamboo" and "The Roses of Success" numbers. Unfortunately, there is also the truly atrocious and seemingly endless "Lovely Lonely Man" that Howes is saddled to deliver.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a movie with a line of dialogue, brilliantly delivered by Robertson Justice, that goes as follows: "I suppose you blue-faced baboons have an explanation for this outrage?!" In the context of the movie, it works and it is very funny. Surrender to the child-like charms of this movie, and it will deliver an afternoon of innocent fun.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace (2008)

So here is the obvious little fact that seems lost to some movie-makers: when every scene is trying to be a highlight, none of them are.

The latest Bond movie is a mish-mash of attempted highlights, and they all fall into the been-there, done-that category: the car chase; the foot chase; the fight to the death in a hotel room; the boat chase; the airplane chase; the jump from an airplane without a parachute; the out-of-the-way high-tech building that explodes at the ho-hum climax of the movie. The scenes come one after the other at a dizzying pace with no attempt to take the time to build up any kind of thoughtful plot or character. We are left with a hodge-podge of ridiculous scenes that melt into one big mess of boring action.

Director Marc Forster does not help things at all in the editing room. His idea of introducing fake kinetic energy by micro-editing every scene, ensures that we never actually know what is going on. It is a lot easier to chop a scene into a million tiny incomprehensible edits than to actually plan an action scene into a truly visually stunning sequence. The lack of thought in the movie is therefore confounded by a lack of any truly stunning action moments, since no moment can actually be memorable if it lasts for all of 1/1,000th of a second.

So here are the broken pieces of the attempted story in Quantum of Solace: Bond (Daniel Craig) is still pursuing the shadowy evil organization Quantum that he was after in Casino Royale. He is a bit off-mission, since his attention seems to be just as focused on getting revenge on the killers of Vesper, his love interest from that Casino mission. Quantum has infiltrated the British Secret Service, so Bond and M (Judi Dench) do not know who to trust, as Bond runs around Europe and South America in search of the next chase scene.

This all leads to a Mr. Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a member of Quantum masquerading as a high flying environmental entrepreneur, whose latest scheme is to help overthrow the government of Bolivia, (with help from the CIA, naturally), in favour of ruthless military dictators in return for Quantum controlling a piece of desert -- below which runs the water supply for the whole country. Or something. The holes and unexplained developments are much larger than the plot itself, since the movie never actually pauses to give the unfolding story or any of the characters a chance to breathe.

The Bond girl, although remarkably there is neither sex nor even romance between her and Bond, is Bolivian secret agent Camille out to stop Greene from handing her country to the junta, but also pursuing her own revenge theme. As played by Olga Kurylenko, Camille is actually the most interesting thing about this movie. The airhead role goes to actress Gemma Arterton, playing an MI6 agent named, wait for it, Strawberry Fields. She does get into bed with Bond.

After the intense and emotionally involving Casino Royale, where the characters mattered and the plot was allowed to develop, this latest Bond outing is an unfortunate disappointment.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Movie Review: It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

It's A Wonderful Life is a life-affirming movie released in the year after the end of World War 2. It has endured as a story of hope and of believing in the good that life has to offer.

The son of the local banker who specializes in providing home loans for the disadvantaged, George Bailey (James Stewart) grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls. He is a dynamic young man who dreams of leaving to the big-city college and of eventually achieving greatness in engineering. He embodies the dreams of a country with unlimited potential, emerging victorious from a tumultuous war.

Events in life take unexpected turns. Bailey has to take over his father's bank and becomes a beacon of good in a community otherwise dominated by the evil financier Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). A series of poorly-timed crises gradually conspire against Bailey and finally force him to reluctantly abandon his dreams of ever leaving Bedford Falls. His brother achieves fame in the military and his friend achieves riches in the emerging world of industry. George Bailey just gets married to the beautiful and supportive Mary (Donna Reed), has several children, moves into a dream house, and develops loyal long-standing friends and the gratitude of the entire community.

But one final crisis at Christmas pushes Bailey over the edge, and he decides that he is more valuable dead than alive. At the moment of suicide, a guardian angel intervenes to demonstrate the true meaning of life.

Frank Capra directed It's A Wonderful Life in a whimsical style that never takes itself too seriously (George Bailey's entire life story is a flashback being witnessed by angels in the form of stars), yet nails superb heights of emotion when needed. In addition to the powerful final 30 minutes when George gets to witness what life would have been like without him, there are terrific scenes involving the developing romance between George and Mary, including a stunning telephone conversation where Capra captures what the dawn of love means without the lovers even talking to each other.

James Stewart was born to play George Bailey as a complex, multi-dimensional man grappling with the forces of destiny, at the same time awkward and confident, decisive and full of doubt. Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore are solid in support, but all the supporting characters are strictly one dimensional.

A classic fairy tale for adults and a survival guide for the highs and lows integral to navigating through life, It's A Wonderful Life never gets old, just better with repeated viewings.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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