Friday, February 17, 2012

The Soloist (2009)

More Like A Duet, Actually

- Joe Wright is one of the best directors in the film business right now. Whether considering his highly-acclaimed 2005 adaptation of Pride And Prejudice (the best directorial feature film debut since John Huston's The Maltese Falcon in 1941 if you ask me) or the multi-Oscar-nominated 2007 war/romance epic Atonement, Wright's work really stands out in today's Hollywood.

Wright works on a smaller scale for his third film, The Soloist in 2009, but achieves the same level of brilliance of his first two films. Based on the true story of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez's (Robert Downey Jr.) writings on homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), The Soloist is a stylish, inspiring and deeply moving drama.

Bringing in Atonement buddies, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Dario Marianelli, Wright creates an amazing looking and feeling film with The Soloist. Never have the slums of Los Angeles looked so good until Wright and McGarvey captured them for the backdrop to Lopez and Ayers' story. Marianelli writes a delicate piece of music for the film and no doubt arranges the many pieces of classical music (Ayers specifically has a thing for Beethoven's music and
Symphony No. 3 is heavily featured in the film) in a quite brilliant way. The Soloist ends up just as powerful, visually and emotionally, as Wright's other films because of this quality collaboration.

Since the film is titled "The Soloist," one would naturally assume that the film centers around Nathaniel Ayers, considering the fact that he is the one playing instruments alone in various parts of the L.A. Interestingly enough, the film is really about Steve Lopez and how Ayers changes him. Robert Downey Jr. offers up one of the finest performances of his career as Steve Lopez - his calm, layered, and subtle performance brings out the dry nature (and humor) and care of the character in a way that really drives the film. Downey Jr.'s Steve character has been getting used to not really caring or having to think about anything or anyone else, since screwing up his relationship with his now ex-wife and son, but all that is about to change when Steve finds the homeless Nathaniel Ayers playing Beethoven in downtown L.A.

Steve sees a story in Nathaniel, and his research leads him to discover that Nathaniel was once a student at the prestigious Juilliard School studying the cello. Further research and time spent with Nathaniel reveals his losing battle with schizophrenia. Jamie Foxx gives a striking portrayal of Nathaniel Ayers, unnerving the viewer with Ayers' unpredictable mental state while charming them with the character's child-like manner and passion for music. Foxx is at his best here in The Soloist, also giving one of the best performances of his career. Lopez sees Nathaniel simply as an interesting subject to write on at first but the more time Steve spends with Nathaniel, the more Steve wants to help him succeed as a musician. That proves to be a difficult task, for both Steve and Nathaniel, and their relationship becomes quite complex.

Apart from the character drama aspect of the film, Wright also uses The Soloist to comment on the problems of homelessness in the United States. Unlike the many other aspects that make The Soloist a great movie - the themes of friendship, the powerful style, the incredible music, the first-rate acting, etc. - this social commentary portion of the film does not work at all. Looking at all of the homeless people presented in the film  (and, to be fair, it is unclear if Wright meant to do this or not), The Soloist presents a clear answer as to why all of these people are homeless: they are all insane!

So while the social statement of the film dies on impact, the stylish character drama played out perfectly by Downey Jr. and Foxx remains strong and easily carries The Soloist on its own. In the end, Wright delivers yet another brilliant film.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Illusionist (2006)

A Mystifying Screen Marvel

- In Victorian-age Vienna, a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) comes eye-to-eye with his long lost childhood love Sophie (Jessica Biel) on stage during one of his popular performances. She is about to wed the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) of Austria, a dangerous authoritarian-minded man. How do you stop an evil monarch from running away with your love, especially when with the competent Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) on your tail? As Eisenheim and Sophie try to rekindle their renewed love, events transpire into the intense and unexplainable. This is Neil Burger's remarkable film, The Illusionist (2006).

Originating from Steven Millhauser's short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist," The Illusionist is wonderfully imagined on screen through director Neil Burger. Few modern films are as effective in taking the viewer away into a story as The Illusionist; an elaborate and involved story of love, murder and magic with enjoyable, well-rounded characters at the center. The atmosphere is palpable with thick mystery, deep feeling and a visually gripping picture. Dick Pope's Oscar-nominated cinematography work is one of the most admirable aspects of the film with stunning lighting and rich coloring. Other fine special effects visuals are included in the film, most notably some intriguing illusions advised by magic experts James Freedman and Ricky Jay, as well as many impressive set decorations and beautiful locations (the film was shot in the Czech Republic, doubling for the film's Austrian setting).

Contemporary musical genius Philip Glass scores the film, and writes a fantastic piece of music. The score is melodious, soulful, stirring, mystical and so much more! Glass makes quite a wonderful contribution to the film with his work – and it really is a huge part of the film, enhancing the tone of the film to the fullest. Even without the accompaniment of the film, Glass's score is a brilliant piece of stand-alone music.

While everything that makes up this film is all top-notch, what really makes The Illusionist an excellent film are the great characters and accompanying performances. Edward Norton is a fantastic lead as the main character, Eisenheim the Illusionist – perhaps not the a career defining performance (such as Primal Fear (1996) or Fight Club (1999)) but one that I think is one of his bests. The Eisenheim character is not really overflowing with emotions and Norton portrays this passionate magician with an intense subtlety, creating a man more dark and reserved but always doing things that you do not expect without going crazy on screen.

Rufus Sewell gives a solid performance as the antagonistic, selfish, pretentious and flat-out spoiled brat Prince Leopold. As a leading member of an extremely privileged class, Leopold is used to getting everything he wants and walking all over everyone in his path. However, when this Illusionist comes along and begins to take everything away, he goes mad. Leopold is indeed a loud, angry character and, unlike Norton, Sewell does go crazy on screen to superb effect as the monstrous antagonist but also allows the audience to sympathize with the character to a degree.

Although not one of the interesting characters of the film, Jessica Biel manages a good performance here as Eisenheim's love Sophie. Biel is not exactly a celebrated acting talent - and for good reason - but she really surprises in The Illusionist, even performing an accent very well.

Paul Giamatti on the other hand gives the best performance of the film and one of his very best performances ever as Inspector Uhl. One of my very favorite actors working today, brilliant in just about everything he has appeared in, Giamatti is especially brilliant in this film as the torn Inspector. Giamatti emits so much magnetism in his performance, bringing Uhl to life in an extremely impressive way: altering his voice, his mannerisms; virtually transforming himself into a character so different than he is used to playing. The Inspector Uhl character is my personal favorite thing about The Illusionist. The entire film takes the viewer on a great journey through the difficult, the dangerous and the unexplainable. Who could be a better guide than Giamatti's Inspector Uhl?

One of the things that The Illusionist does that both excites and confuses viewers is not give a clear-cut listing of explanations for everything that occurs in the film - much is left open-ended to be based on audience speculation. Was what we just saw fantasy or reality? Was that real or only an illusion? The whole movie is supposed to rouse that feeling in the viewer and if you ask yourself those kinds of questions after the film is over, The Illusionist has done you justice. Besides that however, The Illusionist is simply a brilliant film with a story that will keep you guessing, a look that will keep you gazing, music that will move you and performances that will leave you spellbound.

CBC Rating: 9/10

The Prestige (2006)

"Making something disappear isn't enough;
you have to bring it back."

- In turn-of-the-century London, two rival magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), obsess about upstaging the other to dangerous ends in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006). A film that I suggest you see at least twice, The Prestige first displeased but then intrigued me. I did not care for The Prestige very much the first time around but I ended up liking the film very much after my second viewing - all my questions were answered and I was able to view the film in context with its ending, rather than being fully engaged in its dense plot. The Prestige is a well-made film with many admirable traits; however, I do not think that it is the brilliant film that its reputation suggests.

Although highly touted by fans and critics, the all-star acting in the The Prestige did not particularly impress me. Hugh Jackman has not done anything to impress me and, while his performance here as Robert Angier is easily his best to date in comparison to the rest of his sorry career, he fails to impress here as well if not simply because Jackman seems unable to infuse his characters with any amount of depth. Christian Bale has grown to be considered as one of the best actors of our generation but I disagree. I find Bale to be a hit-or-miss actor; knocking your socks off with one performance (like The Machinist (2004)) and then boring you with another (like Public Enemies (2009)). Bale gives a very disappointing miss here, as he has given some amazing performances in the past but he simply sails through his role in The Prestige with seemingly little feeling at all. And I just felt bad for Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, whose characters are so flat that no amount of talent or effort could really bring them to life.

While neither starring performance is particularly great, all of the characters are just plain unlikable on paper in my opinion. This has nothing to do with the fact that their actions are that are unlikable and deplorable, as I can enjoy characters that are not "good guys" in film (Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men (2007) and Geoffrey Rush's Inspector Javert from Les Misérables (1998) come to mind immediately). It is simply because none of the characters really spoke to me or had anything redeeming or relatable about them at all.

And while the film's famous final twist is shocking, I still do have a bone to pick.... The most shocking part of the twist is that Alfred and Fallon were actually twins the whole time. This is supposed to be the big payoff for the film but when one actually thinks about it, the twist falls apart. The film explains Alfred and Fallon's famous trick and the resulting turmoil in their lives. Each one of the brothers took turns assuming "prestige" duties every other night and therefore had to both live as "Alfred" and "Fallon." Since one loved Sarah and the other loved Olivia, their lives were never complete and generally fell apart when both women became fed up with Alfred's seemingly two-faced nature. They were supposedly forced into this arrangement in order to keep up the illusion - but it was really done for no reason whatsoever. So let me get this straight: Alfred and Fallon have time to be alone by themselves - applying makeup to whoever was going to be Fallon that night, inventing illusions and plotting against Angier - but they could not find the time to be with the woman of their choice? They could have easily stayed with the women they wanted to, all the both of them had to do was say "hey baby, I gotta take a leak" and then come back to each woman as themselves, then just stay the hell away from one another. Bada bing. Problem solved.

The fact that the main characters (and performances of those characters) let me down the most contributes greatly to my unwillingness to name The Prestige as some kind of modern cinematic wonderment. Although I disliked this crucial element in The Prestige and therefore cannot fully join into the chorus of unlimited praise for the film, I would still have to say that it is a very good movie thanks to its other high quality aspects.

My favorite piece of The Prestige is Michael Caine's supporting performance of Cutter. Michael Caine is simply one of my favorite actors of all-time to being with, and his supporting role in The Prestige really highlights why. Caine really lights up the screen and steals every scene away from the Hollywood blockbuster stars. As Cutter, Caine has a very worn and worldly presence throughout the film, really the only character who sees things as they really are, and of course delivers a very layered and likable performance.

Outside of Caine's showing, two more specific things about The Prestige are most definitely apparent to me: 1.) The writing is great and 2.) the production values are stunning. With Christopher Nolan directing as well as co-writing, and Jonathan Nolan co-writing as well, the Nolan Brothers make one thrilling on-screen adaptation to of Christopher Priest's novel about the dangers of obsession. Each twist leads to more twists which proceed to even more twists as each scene builds more and more towards the shocking ending. The visuals are great: the set designs, costumes and makeup are also top-notch in quality and there is no questioning why Wally Pfister received an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography work on the film.

I like the overall story, the technical aspects are very admirable and I cannot say enough good things about Michael Caine's supporting performance - but a few aspects remain that are not particularly enjoyable or interesting. The Prestige is a really good film but it seems to be receiving some sort of modern masterpiece status from many moviegoers - and.... I guess I just cannot agree.

CBC Rating: 8/10