Monday, January 19, 2009

Quickie video reviews

I've been intermittently sick the past few weeks. Partly as a consequence, I've been spending an unusual amount of time sitting around watching videos, including some that I've seen before. I'll try to extract some value from this lost time by passing on some brief remarks:

Casino Royale
Surprisingly good. Tightly constructed and executed with grace and wit. Additionally, the action is shot with uncommon telegraphic clarity for a modern action movie: if you pay close attention, you will understand where everybody's body is at all times. I received other people's positive reviews with skepticism, but that skepticism was overcome. Note that I don't like other James Bond movies.
Tian Mi Mi (a.k.a. Comrades: Almost a Love Story)
My quest to watch every Maggie Cheung film continues. This film is, also, surprisingly good, and I plan to write a lengthier post on it Real Soon Now. English subtitled videos of this film are difficult to obtain, but if you can get your hands on it, you should give it a watch.
Duo Luo Tian Shi (a.k.a. Fallen Angels)
Still one of my favorite films ever. I actually like it better than Chungking Express or In the Mood For Love, Wong's two best-known-stateside films. The memory of this film's visual potency is pretty much indelible, but I had forgotten how kinky and how silly this movie is. And the final shot still slays me; it may be one of the most miraculous moments in all of cinema.
The Lady Eve
Vastly overrated. It's watchable enough to hold your attention for 90-odd minutes, but it's neither especially funny nor especially romantic. It also has not aged well; to take one random example, Pike's reaction to Eve's "confession" of her non-virginhood just doesn't resonate anymore, and without this tension there is simply no potential energy to be released by laughter. On the other hand, Barbara Stanwyck does have nice legs.
Friday Night Lights (first season & half of second season)
Not the sort of show I usually watch, but I put this on my Netflix streaming queue based on recommendations from various quarters (e.g. Yglesias). And it's not bad, at first. Small-town life is sufficiently foreign to me that there's a voyeuristic, almost anthropological charm to watching this carefully textured depiction of it. On reflection, however, every other virtue seems balanced by a significant flaw: the sports scenes are well-executed, but highly predictable; the actors' body language and line delivery are uncommonly naturalistic for television, but the dialogue itself is frequently preachy or contrived; the characters and their interpersonal relationships are layered and well-drawn, but the writers cannot resist the temptation to tie up most conflicts with a neat bow within 1 to 3 episodes. Given this mixed bag of fundamentals, much hangs on the execution of particular episodes or character arcs. On balance, I found the first season enjoyable enough to bear its flaws; by contrast, the second season goes precipitously downhill in many ways, and I've mostly been playing it in the background while I putter around on my laptop.
Batman Begins
Significantly worse than my memory from seeing it in the theater. The movie comes apart badly after Wayne returns to Gotham. The League of Shadows plot feels wildly implausible*, and the stagey "urban chaos" scenes in the Narrows feel too theatrical and insufficiently cinematic. Also, the writing throughout leans too heavily on awkward verbatim callbacks (repetitions of lines said earlier in the movie). On the other hand, Katie Holmes is nowhere near as bad as is popularly remembered; the problem is that she's turning in a merely adequate performance in a movie populated by Christian Bale and Gary Oldman. (*Of course, all comic book movie plots are implausible in some sense, but what I'm saying is that it feels implausible — that is, it strikes a tonally false note, and I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe it's because I'll suspend disbelief for a hokey magical ninja cult boasting (perhaps falsely) about thousand-year-old conspiracies in the alternate-universe Tibetan mountains, but I can't do the same in the context of Manhattan/Chicago Gotham.)
The Dark Knight
Better than my memory from seeing it in the theater. I recall thinking that the Two-Face transformation seemed abrupt and ridiculous, but on rewatching, it holds together somewhat better. Dent's vigilantism begins with straightforward acts of revenge, which seems psychologically plausible, and proceeds to total derangement only by degrees. It's not completely successful, but it doesn't ruin the movie. (However, the coin gimmick remains silly.) In retrospect, Heath Ledger's performance has been overpraised, but it is compelling; listen to how he uses his voice. Finally, the action set pieces remain spectacular.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree with your review of "THe Lady Eve." It certainly has not aged well.
    I feel sometimes reviewers cut these movies a lot of slack because consensus dictates
    they are good. They just rely on these opinions but don't really look at the film itself.
    Maybe the mainstream critics are afraid of contradicting long standing reviews as to not
    be seen as pariahs.