Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Man on Film: Green Zone

While lacking the white-knuckle action of the latter two-thirds of the Bourne Trilogy, the Paul Greengrass/Matt Damon team-up Green Zone more than makes up for the comparative lack of balls-to-the-wall, high-octane action with intrigue and tension to spare. Here, Greengrass's mastery over the suspense/action genre is on full display, opening with a hand-held sequence following Iraqi regime in power during the moments immediately following the invasion of Baghdad that deftly conveys the frenzy and chaos to the audience.

Putting the audience in a state of unease from the start, Greengrass then introduces us to Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who has spent the first months following the invasion searching for WMD, having every lead turn up nothing. With frustration mounting, he begins to delve into what we now know was the flawed case for going into Iraq.

After being (sort of) recruited by CIA man Martin Brown (played by Brendan Gleeson), Miller finds himself working in opposition to Pentagon Special Intelligence hack Clark Poundstone. Poundstone is played by Greg Kinnear, whose casting enables the fantasy fulfillment all who were wondering what happened to those conjoined twins in Stuck On You.

Well, here, you get your answer.

And while Green Zone is a slightly more serious unofficial sequel to Stuck On You, it definitely has the fun that you would hope for from that follow-up--of course, hilarity isn't ensuing; rather the fun is derived from the uncovering of a political scandal and shady dealings.

Throughout the film, Greengrass's expertise is evident, and his ability to craft an intelligent action film ultimately satisfies. Damon furthers his now deserved reputation as both an accomplished dramatic actor and a legitimate action star. The inconsistent scribe Brian Helgeland does his part to reclaim his good name, but it does feel like some of the characters are less fleshed out than they might have been in another writer's hands. Still, no one seems like they're cardboard cut-outs, so any writing complaints are nominally applicable.

What Green Zone is is a helluva ride, and it is rife with gravitas.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Reading Rainbow: In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien

I think I have officially come to the conclusion that Tim O'Brien is my favorite contemporary American author. There are others in the conversation--primarily Thomas Pynchon--but none seem to possess the ability to write in extremely readable prose while having his stories carry a significant weight with them. His books evoke intense emotional reactions yet never fall into the realm of a laborious read. In the Lake of the Woods definitely meets that description.

As is often the case in O'Brien's novels, there is a fuzzy relationship with truth and reality. This leaves the reader constantly searching for stability where it likely will not be found. In the Lake of the Woods follows a disgraced Minnesota politician who takes a break from the harsh light of the real world in the isolation of the far-removed Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota/Canada border. While on this getaway, John Wade's wife, Kathy, disappears. Given the very public discovery of John's dark past, all signs inevitably point toward the husband.

If that was all that was going on here, the novel would be pretty run-of-the-mill, but O'Brien uses the locked room mystery to great effect. As he delves into John and Kathy's past, it only muddles the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. With each detail of his service in Vietnam coming into light, the perception of who John Wade is--and for that matter, who Kathy is by her relation to him--becomes more and more tenuous. As more information comes to light, it seems that the facts of what happened on that fateful 1986 night only become more obscured.

It is the deftness with which O'Brien handles the investigation into the disappearance that vaults this book into the pantheon of transcendent mystery novels. He lays out evidence, presents hypotheses, and details the past. Through all this, he pieces together a puzzle that simply leaves you asking more questions and doesn't leave the reader worse for wear.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Man on Film: Cop Out

Randomly having decided to take in a movie Sunday night, we went out to Cop Out with open minds.

Holy shit was it bad.

It's not like I don't get what the Cullen Brothers were trying to do when they wrote the movie. It's clear they were trying to make a buddy cop movie paying homage to the Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop franchises. What those movies (especially the first in each series) had, though, were solid screenplays. They had plots. They had laughs.

This? Pretty thin on all of that.

Really, with the exception of Seann William Scott, there wasn't anything to like. Bruce Willis seemed like he was mailing it in (and I'm a big fan of Bruce Willis) and had a shit character to start with. Tracy Morgan's schtick wore thin after about 90 seconds. The next 90 minutes were interminable. Kevin Pollack was terrible. Guillermo Diaz was horribly miscast as the Mexican gang boss. Zero gravitas.
Also, someone decided that it was a good time to give Harold Faltermeyer work again. Look, I fucking love Fletch and Beverly Hills Cop. I love their scores, too.

But there was a time and a place, and it's not 2010. It didn't work in Kuffs or Tango & Cash. Why would it work now?

But what it all really boils down to is that there are not enough laughs. It's a buddy cop comedy that's supposed to hearken back to a better time in which buddy cop movies delivered both on the action and the laughs and fails on both counts. And I could go on from here, but really, what's the point? If it fails miserably at what it's trying to do, then it's a failure, right?

I had some hope for Kevin Smith after the surprisingly enjoyable Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but that goodwill has been spent, even if he wasn't the screenwriter.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Man on Film: Shutter Island

Apologies all, I really did see this roughly when I said I was going to but have been unable to get around to this until now.

Now as frequent Pricksters are aware, I actually read the book earlier in the week, so I came at this from a personally unusual standpoint. It is very rare that I actually read books that are adapted into films. I can safely say I have never read the book within a period of time in which most of my memories of the book are anything more than vague recollections of something that may have happened.

This was not the case here, obviously.

It is probably best to first touch on my feelings about the film independent of how it compared to the book.

In Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese has crafted an impressive technical film. Much like in Gangs of New York, the sets are fantastic, especially Ward C, which looks fantastic. His vision of Shutter Island and the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane is absolutely fully realized. Robert Richardson's cinematography (aside from the storm scene in the cemetery) is also magnificent, and these two elements combine to make a beautiful film. Then there is the cast consisting of Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Ted Levine, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, and more, all of whom predictably hit all of their marks. DiCaprio makes you wish that he only worked with Scorsese (or at least not ever with Ed Zwick). Ruffalo is perfect as usual.

Now, if you haven't read the book or seen the film, I would highly suggest that you not read any further. There will be SPOILERS ahead...

You have been warned.

As far as the narrative is concerned, Scorsese's Shutter Island is definitely lacking in comparison to Lehane's Shutter Island. Much of the thrust of this narrative is fueled by the seeds of doubt that are gradually planted regarding our protagonist's sanity. Unfortunately for the audience, just about any and all suspense is absent in this film is gone. Yes, one is driven to wonder what is going on to a certain extent, but the clues a dropped on the audience with the subtlety of an anvil. The perspective of Teddy Daniels is not adequately solidified as sane to then be undermined. Without that turnabout, the twist is not a twist; it's just a wrinkle.

And this is where the book plays better than the film. Lehane diligently goes about forging a bond between Teddy and his new partner Chuck. He imbues Chuck with a magnetic personality and traits plausible in a Marshal. He fleshes out Teddy's backstory, fills it with detail after detail that makes him seem more like a man and not an alterego. He adds more layers to the conspiracy, but layers that lend credence to Teddy's quest.

In the film, there is no laying of groundwork. Teddy's story and mission lacks the credibility that it has in the novel. Without that foundation, the structure of the film is a lot more fragile, the reveals are foretold in neon, and the twist is telegraphed. The instant Dr. Sheehan is said to have gone on vacation the audience knows what is really going on. Once that load-bearing card in this precarious house of cards is removed, the entire house comes crashing down.

It isn't that Scorsese's Shutter Island is bad. It is visually arresting and impeccably cast, but the screenplay is lacking something fierce in the way of subterfuge, and the narrative is lacking as a result.
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