Thursday, January 28, 2010

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters


Directed by Seth Gordon

Who knew competitive arcade gaming could be so completely engrossing? Documentarian Seth Gordon takes what is, to say the least, a marginal subject and turns it into a nail-biting, maddening, oftentimes hilarious and ultimately uplifting piece of filmmaking.

Billy Mitchell, an egotistical, mulleted superstar of the gaming world, had held the record for the highest score on "Donkey Kong" since 1982, an almost mythical record that some felt would never be broken. When everyman high school teacher Steve Wiebe suddenly breaks Mitchell's record seemingly out of nowhere, he sets off a maelstrom of controversy in the tiny, incestuous world of competitive arcade gaming.

As "Spellbound" did for the spelling bee, "King of Kong" will (maybe?) do for competitive gaming, pulling millions of viewers who, until now, had no clue such a thing even existed into its world. Gordon's documentary is utterly engrossing from start to finish, a David vs. Goliath tale of an outsider coming in and trying to knock off the unquestioned king of gamers. Gordon's film is most notable in how it clearly pits mild mannered and all around good guy Wiebe against the unbelievably self absorbed and risible Mitchell. The Wiebe vs. Mitchell showdown makes Larry vs. Magic look like boring crap, frankly. No, I'm not kidding.
Gordon's choice to so clearly cast Wiebe as the good guy and Mitchell as the bad guy does, however, beg an important question; Should documentary filmmakers feel the need to give their subjects a fair shake even if they don't deserve it? Billy Mitchell in no way is shown by Gordon as having any redeemable characteristics beyond his success as a businessman and as a competitive gamer. He's shown as being self absorbed, mean spirited, and generally as not being a man of any integrity. In interviews Gordon has stated that Mitchell is actually far worse than he is shown in "King of Kong," and that he (Gordon) actually gave him a fairer shake than he probably deserved. I think documentary filmmakers tend to often be obsessed with presenting both sides of a story and refraining from typecasting characters as either good or bad. The nuance, in most cases, is needed as so few things worth documenting and investigating further can be as easily classified as good or bad. However, if you run across a guy like Steve Wiebe who, based on all accounts, is a stand up guy, and then you come across a guy like Billy Mitchell who, again by most accounts, is a horrible person, is it not responsible to present them as such? Sure, Gordon overdoes it a bit, showing Wiebe at one point taking time off from his busy gaming schedule to frolic in the ocean with his wife and kids while soft music plays in the background. I still can't fault Gordon, however, for showing us how he saw it. That's what a documentarian is supposed to do, after all.



Directed by James Cameron

Sometimes on this blog, I tend to review rather obscure (sometimes because they're not very good, but often because they're just really, uh…foreign). "Avatar," suffice it to say, is not one of those movies. James Cameron's massively expensive, massively succesful sci-fi adventure has already been watched by basically everyone in North America and it will likely end up breaking every box office record ever set (without adjusting for inflation, of course. I see you, "Gone with the Wind!") After finally getting with the program and going to see it in 3D last night, I can see why this jaw-dropping, eye popping spectacle will continue to rake in the cash for months, even years, to come.

Sam Worthington plays a paraplegic ex-marine (somewhat unconvincingly, I must say...) named Jake Sully who takes over his deceased brother's place in a scientific program on a distant planet called Pandora. The program aims to help Sully and others infiltrate the local indegenous population, a race of semi-giant, vauely human bluish creatures through the help of avatars, or bodies that resemble those of the natives but are controlled remotely by humans. At the same time, the multinational corporation that is mining Pandora's rich energy reserves plans to use Sully as a pawn in it's efforts to drive the natives from their land.

"Avatar" cost over $300 million to produce and it certainly looks like a film that cost that much to make. The graphics…are…awesome. This can't be stressed enough. They're awesome. I watched "Avatar" in 3D because the IMAX showing was booked soild and even in 3D, without the wraparound IMAX screen and the 45 degree angled seating, the film was still a physical experience leaving me clutching by seat a few times as I followed Jake as he darted across tree branches and ahng off of cliffs hundreds of feet in the air. I can only imagine how much better the experience would have been on IMAX which makes me particularly bummed that it was sold out. Nevertheless, the visual spectacle of "Avatar" remains potent no matter how you watch it because the animation is just that good.

The other aspects of "Avatar" are a bit disappointing, to be sure. The dialogue is woefully bad at some points and the film's environmental message is hamfisted on all fronts. I laud filmmakers who find intelligent or engaging ways to grapple with the planet's continued over reliance on fossil fuels,deforestation, and our general willingness to continue treating nature like it will spontaneously regrow after completely ravaged it but a little bit of nuance would have certainly helped "Avatar" gets its message across with a bit more credibility. The underlying message is certainly worthwhile, but I don't know if audiences need to be reminded for three hours how badly we've managed the ressources of our planet.

Nevertheless, harping on a film like "Avatar" for anything other than its visual appeal is missing the point completely since everything else in "Avatar" is simply there to butress its visual brilliance. As blockbusters go, this one is certainly worth watching and on the biggest screen you can see it on at that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Man on Fire


Directed by Tony Scott

Tony Scott's "Man on Fire" completely wastes the talents of two of American film's greatest actors, Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken, in an unbelievably lazy action films that manages to be offensive, boring, and laughable, all at the same time.

Washington plays boduguard Creasy, a down on his luck alcoholic who, seeking an outlet to his violent impulses, takes a job as the private protector of a wealthy couple and their daughter in Mexico City. When the daughter is kidnapped, Creasy vows to mete out biblical vengeance on her captors.

This film is, in all aspect, a miss. It's poorly shot, poorly edited, poorly acted by its secondary actors, and most of all extremely poorly scripted. This is a film that likely could have worked fairly easily, seeing as how the premise is simple enough and the producers somehow got Denzel Washington to sign on. Rather than letting the formula play out to its logical conclusion, namely a solid but undistinguished revenge flick, director Scott tries to get fancy and fashion in avant-garde, gritty, crime flick with socio-political undertones. It all falls miserably flat, of course, but there's plenty of blame to go around when a film is this bad. In the case of "Man on Fire," as already mentioned, Washington gets little help from his supporting actors (though Dakota Fanning, despite being miscast, is solid in her role) and the production values of the film are pathetically low for a film with such a significant budget. There's also nothing worse than watching clueless big studio film people try to fashion a political salient film, which this film tries doggedly to be without much success.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Departed


Directed by Martin Scorcese

Martin Scorcese's Oscar winning remake of the Hong Kong classic "Infernal Affairs" is a great example of how a remake, in the right hands, can be exciting, different, and almost equally groundbreaking as its predecessor.

Matt Damon stars as Colin Sullivan, a protégé of Boston crime boss Frank Costello who joins the Boston Police Department and quickly rises through the ranks while working as a mole for Costello. Unbeknownst to him, fellow officer Billy Costigan has been tasked by Sullivan's bosses with infiltrating Costello's organization and acting as their man on the inside. Both moles begin to suspect that the side they are working for has been infiltrated, leading to a cat and mouse chase between the two men as they attempt to root each other out.

Although "The Departed" is a great effort from Scorcese, it's not "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas" and his Oscar victory was likely more of a lifetime achievement award than anything else. That said, Scorcese's interpretation of "Infernal Affairs" is very well done and he respectfully and accurately pays homage to the source material while still making "The Departed" his own creation. Where a lesser director probably would have just copped out on settled for a lazy copy of the original, Scorcese strays rather far from the source and truly remakes "The Departed" into something that resembles "Infernal Affairs" little aside from the basic premise of moles infiltrated in opposing camps. That said, any remake, no matter how little it resembles the original, will be compared to its predecessor and when holding up "The Departed" to "Infernal Affairs" the latter film is far, far better at playing the moles off each other and building suspense by bringing them oh-so close to discovering the other's identity as the film progresses. "The Departed" takes a while to really start building the same type of suspense and by the end of the film, when the two moles finally face-off, you feel like they've been thrust together as opposed to having rooted each other out.
Where "the Departed" may not live up to "Infernal Affairs" in regard to its narrative, it certainly gives away nothing to the original in its sleek production values and reliance on top flight actors. Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio, once maligned as vapid pretty boys with limited acting chops, have over the years proven themselves as capable leading men and both are fantastic in their roles here. Multiple supporting spots by other big names such as Alec Baldwin, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Whalberg give "the Departed" the star studded treatment that "Infernal Affairs" also boasted (albeit with Hong Kong actors). Scorcese directing is, as always, slick and gritty and bursting with energy.
Unlike some, I don't immediately whine and moan when I hear that Hollywood is planning on remaking an Asian action or horror flick. "The Departed" is a perfect example of how a talented director and cast can remake a movie into something different and exciting while at the same time introducing large numbers of casual filmgoers to the original source material. Too bad so many remakes are shameless money grabs directed by C-list directors and hack actors...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Science of Sleep


Directed by Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" showcases both the director's original aesthetic but also his utter inability to make anything resembling a coherent film when left to his own devices.

Stephane, a graphic artist from Mexico, is lured to Paris by his estranged mother by the promise of a job in a design firm. He finds out to his horror, however, that the jobs consists of doing the layout for corny novelty calendars. He escapes his dreary life by chasing his neighbor, the bohemian Stephanie, while at the same time combatting a weirdo sleep disorder.

Michel Gondry, like his sometime collaborator Charlie Kaufman, is a director who often does best when he works with others. Left to his own devices, he mostly produces imaginative but sloppy work that seems to do away with plot and character development entirely in favor of arts and craft set pieces. Gondry first came to prominence due to his music videos and his style has always seemed better adapted to that medium. "The Science of Sleep" suffers to make any sense and stumbles through its running time with no clear idea of what it's about or where it's going. In the end, Gondry's film annoyed me more than anything because I felt the whole enterprise made zero effort to connect with the viewer. Much llike "Be Kind Rewind," Gondry's latest effort which I also disliked, "The Science of Sleep" seems to have been an excuse for Gondry to extract some cash out of a studio and just go do his own thing rather than make a real film. Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both great actors in their own right, are utterly wasted here.