Sunday, January 28, 2007

Great films from 2006

These are my reviews from films that were worth seeing in 2006 but not "excellent."

********** Great Films (in alpha order) **********

Casino Royale:
Country: USA
Genre: Action, Bond Movie
The Bond franchise gets a desperately needed make-over with Casino Royale a simultaneous return-to-the-roots and modernization staring Daniel Craig. The film starts out brilliantly with trio of dazzling scenes (a dark, brooding intro to Bond achieving double ‘0’ status, the best credit sequence yet designed and an exhilarating on-foot chase that is truly mind-blowing). Unfortunately, after the first fifteen minutes (the finest launch in Bond history), the best is over—and well above two hours remains.
Martin Campbell (who also made Goldeneye a standout bond feature) never quite regains the initial energy or the fresh coat of dark, gritty paint that colors the opening moments. After an early, forgettable beach scene, we’re right back in standard action fare territory. Too much foot-dragging goes on between the action pieces, including an underused Body Works set, a poker game that doesn’t get exciting until the last hand and an interminable 15 minute interlude that grind the film to a halt in the last act. On the plus side, Eva Green makes an excellent Bond girl, making use of the rare (for Bond films) gifts of personality and dignified dialogue from the screenwriter. Balancing the scale is Le Chiffre, a ho-hum villain who battles Bond using scowling.

The Departed:
Country: USA
Genre: Action, Gangster
Like Casino Royale, The Departed is a fine action film that stands head-over-heels above the average action feature from the past ten years but fails to meet its full potential. Martin Scorsese remakes the 2002 Hong Kong success Infernal Affairs, a film too good and too recent to need remaking. While I have to admit Scorsese improves on the original, he completely ruins the best the scene from his source material (a wire-tapping game of nerves between an FBI strike team and a gang negotiating a major deal). Tipping the scale towards Scorsese’s version are an epic climax at a construction site and a revamping of the romantic subplot.
An undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) joins a gang and begins to climb the ladder under his crime lord (Jack Nicholson) while meanwhile an undercover gangster (Matt Damon) infiltrates the FBI under captain Queenan (Martin Sheen). They are both assigned to find the moles in their respective organizations. The brilliantly contrived story allows for a maximum of tension, clever intrigue and violent action but Scorsese can’t help himself from overdosing near-terminally on his trademark sexism, racism and homophobia. The all-star, all-male cast does their best, but for a film with so many famous faces, the performances are not where they should be.

The Inside Man:
Country: USA
Genre: Heist Movie, Police Procedural
Spike Lee tries on the Hollywood genre suit and finds that big production values look rather spiffy on him. Denzel Washington and Clive Owen star as, respectively, a cop and a robber squaring off at a New York City bank heist. Following both sides of the legal fence, Lee’s lens takes in a wide variety of New York denizens and sneaks in segments on race, class and post-9/11 reactions. The script is clever and relatively lean, given its ample length, keeping audiences guessing at every turn in a genre that many had said was losing its punch. Sadly, for all the good writing, the originality is somewhat low, and the final ten minutes should have been cut out entirely.

A Scanner Darkly:
Country: USA
Genre: Science-Fiction, Psychological Drama, Police Procedural
A Scanner Darkly is a surprisingly accurate adaptation of Philip K Dick’s sci-fi novel, uncompromising in its complicated, ambiguous layers. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover narc in a future ruled by recreational drugs and shifting identities. The combination quickly propels the protagonist into a distorted frame of mind where reality is deteriorating and nothing is what it seems. Richard Linklater reuses his paint-over-film effect that he pioneered to equal success in Waking Life. Non-fans and even PKD fans who haven’t yet read the book might find the film hard to swallow, but the movie stays true to the original conception and sees many of PKD’s best reality-bending ideas brought to completion.
Keanu Reeves gives a surprisingly fitting performance, perhaps because his face is painted over and he plays a confused drug-abuser.

Country: UK
Genre: Horror, Comedy
An unashamed exercise in genre fun, “Severance” succeeds far better than any like-minded ilk in recent memory. For once a horror-comedy earns genuine scares and genuine laughs (usually one obviates the other). The plot concerns a department of British arms manufacturer, Palisade, that is rewarded for their recent sales records (due to combat against international terrorism) with a team-building wilderness vacation in Eastern Europe. If it sounds like a bad idea, you’re right. Isolated in a grimy cabin, they are soon set upon by something hungry for vengeance, and the gore begins to flow.
“Severance” doesn’t try particularly hard to mask its rather heavy-handed political message, but it packages it so well as entertainment that it’s almost indistinguishable. Decent performances, an impressively well-handled structure, impeccable pacing and plenty of surprises keep the film well above the genre standard. Some complaints mar the slick surface though, such as the overly stereotyped and well-worn personality types and a handful of jokes that go on too long, but overall it’s an ideal film for an evening with a small group.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley:
Country: Ireland
Genre: Heritage Film (Period Piece), War Film
Review: (Reproduced from an earlier email)
The Wind that Shakes the Barley is Ken Loach's latest radical political film and possibly his best. It follows two Irish brothers in 1920 who decide to join the IRA and experience compelling, though occasionally brutal, drama as they fight for independence. In addition to taking the Golden Palm, the film has broken all Irish box office records, ending the 54 year reign of "The Quiet Man" (I'm not joking) as the most popular film in Ireland. Not surprisingly, the British government attempted to reduce the number of screenings in the UK. Despite my own personal bias against Loach's particular bland of melodrama and preachiness, I found that I was very impressed by the film. Though initially morally black-and-white the film is surprisingly complicated and the acting is superb.

Country: USA
Genre: Documentary
Lightweight, but highly entertaining documentary from the Errol Morris handbook. Focuses on crossword puzzles, their creators and the world’s best players. Charming and well-made despite being relatively historically unimportant.

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