Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The American (2010): A Boring and Unconvincing Movie

The American
The American is a considerably slow paced drama starring women's favorite George Clooney. It's considered by some critics (including Roger Ebert) to be a very well made movie but I do not share their opinion. In fact, I think it has a number of flaws. It is definitely not a movie for everyone's taste but this is not what makes are film bad or good. The American failed to convince me its main character was really what he was supposed to be according to the major part of the film. It also failed to get my genuine involvement from the beginning. Finally, I felt the filmmakers had tried to replace the movie's lack of qualitative content with beautiful scenery shots and excessive nudity but somehow this mix didn't work for me.

The American, Jack or Edward (George Clooney), is a skillful assassin who is also good at making high-grade weapons. When an assignment in Sweden goes wrong and he loses the woman he is involved with, Jack meets Pavel (Johan Leysen), the man he works for, in Italy. Pavel sends Jack in a small countryside village and further assigns him a job specified by Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). The job is to construct a weapon and Jack wants this to be his final assignment from Pavel. Meanwhile Jack under the name of Edward becomes a friend of local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and begins a relationship with local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido). At the same time someone wants Jack dead.

It's obvious that the film tries to represent the American as an expert and impenetrable assassin. The problem is (possible spoilers ahead) we see Jack making a professional mistake in Sweden. Whether it is his first we do not know. Instead of trying to correct it, we see Jack making several new relationships immediately after he arrives in Italy. And these do not involve only women but also other locals. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that a skilled killer is going to walk alone across empty streets leaving his back fully uncovered while expecting something bad to happen.

Another thing not working for me was The American's slow pace. Especially in its first third the movie was extremely slow and unpromising. I've been wondering whether anything will occur at all.

I've read Roger Ebert pays a huge attention to two words, "Mr. Butterfly", in his review of The American. He says they are spoken by the wrong person only once and that this detail of the movie is crafted very well leading him to exaltation. Well, it could be I've missed that great scene but I think it's more likely people are looking for something splendid yet not existing in this film. If we take Ebert's example, only two women in the movie articulate the phrase “Mr. Butterfly”. First, neither of them uses these words only once. Second, both of these women have very good reasons to pronounce the words at every single occasion they do it. Sometimes, we can even assume they have more than one feasible reason. It's easy to consider Clara or Mathilde to be the wrong person but it's hard to put any huge significance in their use of "Mr. Butterfly".

Indisputably, the movie has its good moments. It shows beautiful Italian places and villages. It's nice to see Michele Placido's daughter, Violante, in the role of Clara. George Clooney is cool as usual and makes a decent restrained performance. The final shot of the film is great and symbolic. And it has a butterfly in it. But these moments were not enough for a captivating movie. For me, The American was not convincing and its second half was not strong enough to override the boring beginning.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012): A Great Cinematic Experience If You Do Not Expect the Meaning of Life

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is the latest film which Lana and Andy Wachowski (the creators of The Matrix) have been involved in. Cloud Atlas is considered by many (especially among its fan base) a revolutionary movie in regard to storytelling. It is also considered to deliver six different but well-connected stories, which have a profound philosophical meaning when seen as a whole. I do not agree with either of these arguments. I still think the movie is good though; only my reasoning behind it is not going to be the same.

Cloud Atlas tells six stories that takes place between 19th century and the distant future in parallel. The directors use the same actors for various roles and in a given space of time the character a particular actor play could be with a different gender or race. There are so many various impersonations that at times it is difficult to recognize the actor behind the character. This could seem like a mess but in fact, it's not bothersome at all. The change between the stories is not chronological and it's harder to follow it in the beginning. But once you become relatively familiar with each story and more importantly when (and if) you understand that there is not actually anything invisible, which you're missing, connecting the stories, the task of following them gets easier. I won't even try to describe the stories. They are about freedom, rebellion, seeking for a hidden truth and this is all you need to know.

The cast of the movie (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, etc.) has coped with the heavy task to render up to seven characters per actor very well. What I do not find to be quite successful is the actual connection between the stories. It relies mainly on the same characters and a few objects or events artificially tying the stories together. Thus I neither think the storytelling is really revolutionary nor there is such a huge meaning behind the movie. But this is actually a problem you could think thoroughly of only after the ending of Cloud Atlas.

And this is what makes the film working. When you are in the cinema, Cloud Atlas is really absorbing. You do care for the characters (well, at least for some of them). You want to see what is going to happen next in each of the stories despite realizing they are not so masterfully interconnected. The visuals are stunning. The music is good. The overall cinematic experience is great and you can hardly get bored during the long continuance of the film.

So, despite my opinion that the stories are not very well connected or revealing the meaning of life I can only admire the brave decision of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis to make this beautiful and tricky film. Cloud Atlas might not be really groundbreaking or making a perfect sense but it is superior to many movies which are easier to follow and undoubtedly reasonable. See it once and you may want to see it again.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Jackie Brown (1997): A Conventional but Well Told Story

Jackie Brown
There are many of Quentin Tarantino's fans that think Jackie Brown is his poorest film. I would actually vote for Death Proof in such a competition but I can understand to a degree where their underappreciation of Jackie Brown comes from. First, it is the first Tarantino's full feature movie released after Pulp Fiction and since the latter is really great people's expectations for its successor should have been quite too high. Second, Jackie Brown is just not as "extreme" as other of Tarantino's films. Despite demonstrating many of his filmmaking trademarks, it is probably his most mainstream effort to date. But these two observations do not make the movie bad. It's fairly good and it's satisfying on many levels.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant using the airline she works for to smuggle the money of arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When the FBI and the police, in the face of Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen), decide to catch the arms dealer they try to force Jackie to cooperate with them. She has a choice between jail and giving Robbie up but the latter could be more unpleasant than the jail cause Ordell Robbie does not leave people talking about him alive for too long. In this situation Jackie succeeds to enchant her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and with his help she prepares a plan to get her out of the mess relieving herself of both the Feds and her boss.

As Tarantino's film, Jackie Brown delivers many of the goods or techniques one would expect. There is enough talking, partially irrelevant to the plot, of course. There are memorable characters and as usual the most colorful ones are amongst the supporting cast. We should mention Robert De Niro in the role of somehow dysfunctional ex-con Louis Gara and Bridget Fonda who plays one of the many Ordell's girlfriends, Melanie Ralston. Unsurprisingly, Quentin Tarantino offers a non-linear narrative. There are plenty of deaths too. The ending is not a huge surprise but endings have never been excessively surprising in Tarantino's movies anyway. As crucial as the plot might be the most important thing about his films has always been the way he tells a story.

Compared to the director's previous (and next) movies this one is probably his most conventional. Yes, it is not up to the standard of Pulp Fiction, which is a hard to match film, and this may be considered disappointing by certain people. The use of superfluous talking is not comparable to some of Tarantino's other movies and in this regard Jackie is closer to the broader audience although not being so Tarantino-ish is likely not to the taste of the director's core fan base. A piece of criticism could be mentioned against the screenplay too for not being very original.

But the lack of timeless greatness aside, when you add the cool performances of Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster to the almost expendable but funny supporting characters of Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda plus the fine soundtrack you get an entertaining movie. Jackie Brown may not be as innovative as Quentin Tarantino's previous efforts but it is still an amusing thriller and if approached without prejudice it can ensure a few hours of good time.