Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Illusionist

"Everything you have seen here has been an illusion"

Written by:
Neil Burger and Steven Milhauser

Directed by:
Neil Burger

Edward Norton
Paul Giamatti
Jessica Biel

My rating: 2/5

"What a disappointment" was what I could be heard shouting all the way home after seeing this movie. The one thing worse than a bad movie is a movie that was well capable of being good but was obviously just too lazy to accomplish quality. The ever-lovely and talented Mr. Norton has a real knack for picking such films and The Illusionist is no exception. The story follows Eisenheim the Illusionist as he tricks and magicks his way to happiness with the love of his life, the Dutchess Sophie, betrothed to the dastardly Prince Leopold.

The simple plot allowed plenty of spce for magnificent conjuring and interesting set-pieces and while I kept repeating to myself that it's unfair to compare it to The Prestige, I found myself awfully disappointed in the fact that Eisenheims "illusions" were too far-fetched to ever believe they were possible. The difference between The Illusionist and The Prestige is that the former made no effort to make the audience believe in Eisenheims skill as a performer. He never claimed magical powers but they never explain how he gets butterflies to carry an audience-member's hankie back to her, or his use of holograms in the 18th century.

Another major problem was the stiff lack of chemistry between the two leads. Edward Norton probably knew his vast superiority to the awfully unconvincing Jessica Biel and they never got past the "polite" stage in their supposedly profound relationship.

On the plus side, the film looks absolutely stunning with oscar-nominated cinematography. Some of the stage performances were nicely designed. A strong performance from Paul Giamatti as the conflicted police inspector is also noteworthy. Unfortunately, Norton's performance never quite rises to the occasion. For a performer with Norton's famed intensity, it is disappointing (there's that word again) to see such a lazy attempt here.

As an extra disappointment, the film has a horribly executed "twist" ending. The only shock in that twist was that I realised I wasn't supposed to realise what was going on. Yet another film that depends on its twist ending but unfortunately treats its audience like idiots.

If you want my advice, forget The Illusionist and watch The Prestige twice instead. And if you're looking for a typically brilliant Edward Norton performance, don't waste your time with this, hold out for his magnificent turn in The Painted Veil instead.

Charlene Lydon

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Good Shepherd

"It isn't about dedication and loyalty, it's about belief in what we do."

Directed by: Robert De Niro

Written by: Eric Roth

Starring: Matt Damon, Billy Crudup, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, John Turturro

My rating: 3/5

After De Niro’s last uneven foray in directing, A Bronx Tale (1993), it is fair to say that audiences across the world treated the prospect of this film with mistrust. However, The Good Shepherd proves to be a pleasant surprise in all respects. The film tells the fictionalised story of the early days of the CIA and one of its most powerful figures Edward Wilson played brilliantly as always by Matt Damon. His life is chronicled in a truncated narrative that starts at the end and catches up over the course of the film. He is slowly sucked into the lonely life of a CIA operative, without ever really having any choice, but without ever really objecting. His detachment from his wife and children is the main focus of the plot, along with his lack of ability to maintain friendships in the cutthroat world of political intelligence.

De Niro has created a very dark portrayal of the soullessness required for what Wilson believes is patriotism. The choice of Damon as lead actor was inspired because there are very few actors who can play a person with no feelings, yet evoke sympathy in an audience. As he did in The Talented Mr Ripley, and more recently, The Departed, Damon plays a corrupt, abhorrent individual who remains quite human and allows his audience to sympathise with his situations.

While I’m sure the epic nature of the film was intentional, it is difficult to ignore the nagging feeling that if Mr. De Niro didn’t wear the crown of “The Greatest Actor Who Ever Lived”, the film would have been cut down to the two hours it should have been. At three hours, it moves along far too slowly and although the story is intriguing, it feels slightly vain to move the story along at such a painfully slow pace.

However, if you can sit through the first half, you will most certainly be so intrigued that the second half will fly by. The fluidity and layered texture of Eric Roth’s screenplay is captivating and as the story unravels, the film begins to feel like an enormous success.

With such a huge ensemble cast which includes Joe Pesci, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Michael Gambon and an outstanding Billy Crudup, it is difficult not to be impressed with this film on some level. Overall, however, the film is over-long and drags in a few too many places. I recommend it for those patient souls who enjoy a smoky political thriller but who are willing to sacrifice three hours of their busy life in order to do so. A tough journey, but worth the investment.

- Charlene Lydon

The Queen

"Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think we're mad!"

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Peter Morgan

Starring: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell

My Rating 4/5

The Queen deals with the period of time just before and after the death of Princess Diana and the angry speculation surrounding the Royal Family’s staunch silence. The family’s disdain for the princess is not focussed on or frowned upon. Frears treats it as a matter of fact, rather than a controversy. When the messenger arrives relaying the news of Diana’s death, Prince Philip rolls his eyes and says “What has she done now?” This, along with the Queen’s solemn, pensive reaction embodies the overall detachment that the Royal Family felt from the Princess. The Queen didn’t feel that her death had anything to do with her family because she was no longer part of it.

As a film, The Queen unfortunately creates a rather “made by the BBC” visual tone. It has very little cinematic merit in that respect. However, absolutely every other aspect of it is pure cinema at its best. The delicate breaking-down of the title character is perfectly paced and perfectly well-rounded. The film isn’t trying to get you to embrace the monarchy again. It merely helps the audience to understand the intricacies of being raised as the future Queen of England.

The greatest accomplishment of The Queen is its perfectly balanced representation of its heroine. Never becoming propaganda, it both humanises her and shows the depths of her inability to engage with normal human emotions. The only person responsible for this accomplishment is Helen Mirren. At this stage in her career, the legendary quality of her acting accolades has become joke-worthy (perhaps not as much as Judi Dench, but not far behind), but this performance will certainly go down in history as one of the most accomplished performances ever committed to celluloid and the showers of awards are completely deserved.

Overall, an almost perfect film with faultless performances by all concerned. An interesting set of extra features makes this film a welcome addition to any DVD collection.

- Charlene Lydon

Music and Lyrics

"That's wonderfully sensitive... especially from a man who wears such tight pants."

Directed by: Marc Lawrence

Written by: Marc Lawrence

My rating: 1/5

To call this film run-of-the-mill would be an insult to the usual Drew Barrymore run-of-the-mill romantic comedies. The film struggles along, trying its best to be charming, but only succeeds in treating the audience like monkeys. Despite some funny, dialogue at times, it wastes the obvious talent of two of our generation’s most enchanting rom-com actors.

The main plot of the film revolves around Hugh Grant as former 80s idol Alex Fletcher. He is now washed-up and playing high school reunions and county fairs. When he gets the opportunity to write a song for a huge pop star, he must write an amazing song in two days. The only problem is, Alex Fletcher has an almost mystical inability to write lyrics. The audience is given no explanation as to why he wouldn’t even consider making an effort. Luckily, his replacement plant-waterer lady, Sophie (Drew Barrymore), begins butting into a lyric writing session with her airy-fairy rhymes and Alex is blown away, begging her to join him just to write this song. Chalk and cheese, this terrible twosome, her quirky ways annoy him, his frivolity disgusts her. However, over time, they develop a very special bond. Yadda yadda yadda.

The problem with Music and Lyrics is not merely in its impossibly obvious plot, nor can the dialogue be held completely responsible. Some responsibility must be taken by the lazy performances by its two stars who are supposedly doing exactly what they are both famous for: being charming. Hugh Grant’s cheeky, rich guy with no heart was perfected in films like About a Boy, but here he hams it up far too much, over-acting so much that it is impossible to believe anything about his character. The lovely Miss Barrymore, whose whimsical charm has made so many mediocre films tolerable just seems lazy here. Her acting is competent as always but as with Hugh Grant, she comes across as a parody of her own persona. The overblown inevitable climax is unbearably sappy and the couple are just as mis-matched as they were at the start, but are obliged to follow the exact structure of the romantic comedy genre.

In its defence, there is a very funny music video from Alex’s former band that gets the biggest laugh in the film and is quite accurate. If you have very, very low standards and have seen everything else showing in the cinema, perhaps you could tolerate this effortless mess, but overall, I’d rather be revisiting The Wedding Singer for the hundredth time

Charlene Lydon.