Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Man On Wire

At the very beginning of the 1970's, Phillippe Petit was a young man in France who was obsessed with wire walking. Starting as a young boy in his back yard, he had worked his way up to stringing wires from one side to the other of high bridges and walking across (inevitably to be arrested when he came down). He was looking for the ultimate challenge. And then he heard about the new buildings that were going to open soon in New York City... the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

"Man On Wire" just might be the film you're looking for if you really want to see a movie that isn't like anything else currently out there (and if it IS just like other films playing near you, I'd be interested in knowing where that is, because you clearly have a wider variety of films in your area than we do in Minneapolis!). A documentary about one of the most amazing stunts of the later 20th century, it provides a fascinating look into the mind (and deeds) of a man who some would call crazy, and others would admire for following his dream wherever it took him. The movie admirably takes no position on this... it lets Petit and his cohorts, in recently filmed interviews, tell their own story and lets the viewer make up their mind about them. If they're anything like me (now, that's a terrifying thought!), they'll probably feel a little of both at various points in the film.

The "mission" carried out by Petit and company seems astonishing even BEFORE you've actually seen the movie, and even more amazing afterward. The crew had to get past some extremely intense security, establish a post on the top floor of one of the towers and stay there overnight while avoiding the security guards roaming the building, somehow manage to string the wire from one tower to the other (I wouldn't dream of spoiling your surprise at how they manage this), and then of course Petit had to perform the actual feat itself... about 45 minutes and several complete crossings from one side to the other of the tallest buildings in the world. It's almost as absorbing to see how Petit managed to convince so many other people, including a couple who actually worked in the towers, to facilitate his plan as it is to watch him carry it out.

As stated earlier, Petit and crew accomplished this feat back in 1974... two days before Richard Nixon's resignation (a clip of which is glimpsed on a TV)... and the interviews with them are contemporary (accompanied by vintage film footage of the planning and the actual wire walking itself), but at no point are there any comments made about 9/11. This was a slight disappointment for me, because if anyone would have had a truly unique perspective on what happened and what people felt when the twin towers came down, it would be the man who walked between them. But the movie remains resolutely focused on what happened back then. Considering how genuinely astonishing those events back then WERE, though, that's a small complaint. Being the next closest thing possible to actually being right there next to Petit as he performs possibly the most dangerous stunt ever attempted, thousands of feet above the ground without a net (and no fake movie CGI effects here, folks), knowing what could happen if there were even the slightest slip... let's just say that you'll be on the edge of your seat to a degree that puts most of even the most intense action movies to shame. Even if you're not normally a devotee of documentaries, you might still want to give "Man On Wire" a try. It will definitely take you somewhere you've never been before, and isn't that what we really want from the movies?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ghost Town

There's nothing wrong with a movie that aspires to nothing more than to simply be pleasant and entertaining... I've enjoyed my share of those. But when there are movies to see that are pleasant and entertaining as well as creative, well-written, acted & directed, and are genuinely original and unpredictable, is there any real reason to settle for less? Well, apparently there are a lot of people who think so... I keep seeing evidence that there are vast segments of the moviegoing population who love predictability and WANT to be able to tell what's going to happen in the entire rest of the movie after the first ten minutes. That's, I think, what accounts for movies like "What Happens In Vegas" (which didn't even have the virtue of good acting and writing... or even being pleasant or very entertaining) making so much money. All of this is to lead in to a few brief comments on "Ghost Town", which is indeed pleasant and entertaining, fairly well made, and certainly well acted (at least in a couple of cases), but still feels like the movie equivalent of junk food, and is something you'll probably forget about minutes after you've seen it.

The story deals with a curmudgeonly dentist (played by Ricky Gervais) who goes into the hospital for a routine minor surgical procedure, has a reaction to the anaesthetic, and dies on the table... but only for a few minutes, after which he's revived. He then finds that his brief experience of death has given him the ability to see ghosts (yes, "I see dead people"), and all of those ghosts have unfinished business that they insist HE take care of for them before they can pass on. One of them is especially insistant... a businessman played by Greg Kinnear, whose ex-wife is about to get married to a jerk, Kinnear insisting that Gervais help to break off the engagement.

Does this sound more like a movie premise, or the premise of a typically "wacky" network sitcom to you? It sure sounds like the latter to me, and the movie plays out exactly the same way. Most of the cast perform in exaggerated, mugging-and-then-waiting-for-the-laugh sitcom style, especially Kinnear, whose smug expressions and over-the-top delivery are genuinely irritating (I've liked him in other films, so it's not as if he CAN'T deliver a good, restrained performance). Just like your average sitcom, you also get music and even sound effects that keep telling you what to feel (in case you're too stupid to figure it out for yourself), multiple storylines whose problems all wind up getting resolved within a few minutes near the very end, and unlikable characters who learn the importance of being a good person (actually, there are more lessons learned in this movie than in your average school).

For all of this, the movie is by no means aggressively bad (like "Made Of Honor", for instance, or the previously referenced "What Happens In Vegas"). There are some good, funny gags, some interesting characters, and in particular, a couple of very good performances. The storyline between Kinnear's ex-wife (played by Tea Leoni) and Gervais may be predictable in the extreme (when Gervais starts getting to know Leoni better in order to figure out how to best break up her engagement, is there any audience member who has ever seen a single romantic comedy who will not be able to figure out how the two of them will wind up?), but they both avoid the usual sitcom/romantic comedy performances and create authentic characters in a way that helps you to care about them in spite of the predictability. Gervais in particular is a marvel... practically everything he says or does is hysterical. The man is a comic wonder, and his sarcastic, bitter character is a genuine stich. So there are certainly good points to this movie.

However... and I'm sure you knew there would be a "however"... that's not enough. At least, not enough for me. I suppose it could just be because I've seen so many movies that I know all the tricks and prefer movies that avoid them... and actually LIKE movies that surprise me now and then... but "Ghost Town" doesn't quite do it for me. If you're a regular viewer of "Two And A Half Men" and shows of that sort, it might be more your style. In fact, here's a little test. Do you go into hysterics at the thought of a character (Gervais) whose last name is "Pinkus" constantly being referred to by a supposedly sophisticated, upper-class type (Kinnear) as "Pink Ass" almost all the way through an entire movie? If so, then you should probably rush out to see "Ghost Town" when it finally opens on September 19th. You should probably hurry, though, and not take too long. I have the feeling it might not be around for much longer after that.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just What The World Has Been Waiting For

I can hear it now... "Look, everyone, there's a new post on JOE'S CORNER again! At last, the darkness has gone away and all is right with the world! Hallelujah!" No, wait, on second thought, I don't think that was exactly what I heard. In fact, you should be ashamed of yourselves! Just for that, I'm going to go ahead and write this entry anyhow!

ANOTHER thing that the world has certainly been waiting for is another reviews of a tiny little independent movie that very few people have seen, called "The Dark Knight". In spite of my almost always seeing films in second run discount houses these days, I made a rare exception yesterday and caught a matinee screening of this little-seen effort. I am very definitely glad that I did.

Three years ago, when I saw Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins", I thought that the definitive Batman movie still had yet to be made, but that Nolan had come closer to that goal than anyone else yet had. Not only has he improved his aim this time around, he's hit the target dead center.

As virtually everyone knows by now, this was Heath Ledger's last completed film, and there is considerable talk about the possibility of his getting an Oscar nomination for his role as the Joker. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that happens. I'd be the last person to put down the highly talented Jack Nicholson, but Ledger is infinitely better in the role... Nicholson was fun, but Ledger gets spookily under the skin of all of the Joker's terrifying madness, making you forget every other role you've ever seen him in (you certainly won't recognize the Ledger from "Brokeback Mountain") and convincing you that you are watching an actual homicidal lunatic of frigtening power. This is evil personified. And in spite of Ledger's outstanding role, he doesn't overshadow the rest of the cast... Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are possibly even moure memorable here than they were in "Batman Begins", Maggie Gyllenhaal is a colossal improvement over Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, and Aaron Eckhart is brilliant as D.A. Harvey Dent, both before and after he morphs into the legendary villain Two-Face.

The plot? As if everyone doesn't know this by now, but just in case: Batman has improved the crime situation in Gotham City sufficiently that he's seriously considering retiring and leaving it all to dedicated new D.A. Harvey Dent... when along comes the Joker, determined to show how thin the veneer of civilization in Gotham really is, and how easily even the best of its citizens can be brought down to the level of animals willing to do anything they have to in order to survive, even at the expense of their friends and families. Obviously, Batman is determined to prevent this... and the fight is on.

Those who come to this movie just for the big action scenes will certainly not be disappointed. But there is so much more to this movie, a greater depth that you almost never seen in comic book adaptations. Would you expect a comic book movie to feature examinations of whether people are essentially good or evil, questions about the very nature of right and wrong, startlingly explicit parallels to some of today's major political and social questions (will George W. Bush love this movie? I somehow don't think so)? And all of this accompanied by explosions, car chases and heroic doings. And in spite of the dark, serious and somber nature of much of the film (it is an authentic Batman movie, after all) it is surprisingly hopeful in the end, showing us that we don't have to inevitably go down the dark path.

This is certainly the movie that Batman fans have been waiting for through the past many decades of the wretched 1960's TV series, the adequate but not QUITE right Tim Burton movies, the horrible Joel Schumacher films, and even Nolan's previous and highly admirable first Batman film. But it should also attract (it certainly seems to have done so, so far) audiences who couldn't care less about Batman but just want to see a commercial Hollywood studio movie with some substance to it. And, of course, some of the best performances of the year. It's probably inevitable that there will be another Batman movie after the success of this one. I can only hope that Warner Brothers will be able to talk Christopher Nolan into taking charge once again. At this point, I'm convinced that he's the only filmmaker who knows how to do it right.

And while I'm here, these are some of the movies I've seen over the past couple of months that I think you should check out:

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
In Bruges
The Forbidden Kingdom
Under The Same Moon
Iron Man

And your life would not be poorer if you never saw these:

10,000 B.C.
Drillbit Taylor
88 Minutes
Baby Mama
Made Of Honor
Speed Racer

Expect a review of "Ghost Town", starring Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear, tomorrow or Saturday. I have a pass to a free sneak preview tonight. The movie isn't supposed to be released until September 19th. talk about sneak previews...