Monday, January 4, 2010

Loose Ends: Holiday Leftovers

So here’s some quickie reviews of movies I saw (y’know, for fun) over the holidays. All three are currently in wide release, etc. etc.

Avatar: Well, it’s awfully pretty. And the special effects are amazing, yes, and the 3-D is phenomenal. And for some people (okay, apparently, based on the box office, for a lot of people) that’s enough, but that’s not what I go to the movies for; the fact of the matter is, the surplus of impressive visuals can’t make up for the boilerplate dialogue, murky political allegories, and general silliness of the entire enterprise. There was a time when James Cameron was a writer of lean, mean, terse but effective action screenplays; this one is a load of bloated nonsense, full of paper-thin characterizations and slangy dialogue (“You’re the man, doc!”) that sounds dated now, to say nothing of how it would play in 2154, when the picture supposedly takes place. If his third act is any indication, Cameron just wanted to make a big action movie, so I’m not sure why we needed all the goofy mumbo-jumbo that precedes it—it’s as if just crafting a well-made potboiler along the lines of T2 or Aliens isn’t enough for “the king of the world” anymore. That’s too bad; he remains a technically dazzling filmmaker, and he can still put an action sequence together like no one else, but Avatar tries too damn hard to do too damn much for too damn long.

Sherlock Holmes: Guy Ritchie hasn’t directed a truly great movie in damn near a decade, so it’s a surprise to see that he’s done such a bang-up job with his admittedly risky take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character, re-imagined here as an action hero as skilled with his hands as he is with his brains. The screenplay (by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg) works in much the same way that William Goldberg’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did: by importing a quippy buddy comedy dynamic into a seemingly incongruent time and place, and taking it for a spin. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law couldn’t be better in the leading roles (though Rachel McAdams’ character is a third wheel, and is played like one), the production design is first rate, and Hans Zimmer’s janglingly enjoyable score keeps things zipping right along. It’s a little overwrought, sure, but as popcorn entertainments go, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

The Road: Director John Hillcoat (of the raw, brutal Aussie Western The Proposition) creates a dark, powerful take on Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, full of strikingly dystopian imagery and ruthlessly unvarnished storytelling (“Two left… one for you, one for me”). The scenes of violence and suspense have a disturbing immediacy (aided greatly by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ frightening score), while Joe Penhall’s screenplay adaptation nicely preserves McCarthy’s sparse but poetic dialogue. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are outstanding, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams shine in their unexpected bit roles, and Charlize Theron is effectively utilized in the kind of flashback glimmers that seldom play in other films, but work here. It’s a tough, difficult picture, but it packs a wallop.

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