Friday, May 20, 2005

Very brief thoughts on "Sith"

I'm working on a piece for TFJ on the Star Wars saga, so I'll be brief: Revenge of the Sith is a masterpiece. It shows Lucas as a filmmaker ferociously at the top of his game. Sith is, perhaps, the greatest bridging film in the medium's history. Never has a single film so decidedly wrapped up an entire mythology in one swoop. It is a heartbreaking, poetic, haunting, beautiful, powerful film. The political strategizing of the first two prequels which Lucas was so harassed for come together in such a gosh-wow explosion of sociological precision, the prescience of the director's vision is startling.

The Old Hollywood narrative conceits (theatrical dialogue, grandiose staging) are ever-present, but they've never been more charming. Nor has a Star Wars film ever featured better acting. Christensen and Portman make the doomed romance of their leads palpable and tragic. McGregor is extraordinary in one of the most heartbreaking of all the Star Wars trajectories: the man who must destroy his best friend...his brother.

As Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious), Ian McDiarmid is astonishing, giving a showboating, grandly affecting portrayal of political and ideological power run amuck (he comes off as a supernatural Karl Rove/Dick Cheney hybrid). It's certainly an award-calibar performance, but, you know...yeah right.

Lucas may forever remain a whipping boy...for always doing it his way. He's the most successful independent filmmaker of all time. Perhaps it's why he's so resented. He's also one of the most skilled formalists in the world, and Revenge of the Sith is his great Star Wars swan song. It is, and will likely remain, the best film of the year... a true masterpiece.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Notes on Assault on Precinct 2.0

Ethan Hawke may be the best actor of his generation. From the loopy, undercover drug addict of the opening scene to the drunken, manic-depressive louse of the film's second act, to the rousing, manned-up hero of the denouement...Hawke is a marvel to behold.

This update, muscular and surprising, captures Carpenter's spirit, if not his pared-down, Hawksian formalism. Major characters die at the drop of a hat and the action unfolds at a non-stop, breathless pace.

The disaster is lived-in. It's a flawed film, but an affecting one.

Alone in the Dark

It's tepid cinema, truncated, abbreviated. It panders to the kind of aesthetic that says loose cutting and sloppy formalism is not only ok, it's the way studio films should be done. Alone in the Dark is a genre film with no direction. It's Aliens without the brains. Pitch Black without the dense geography. It grasps at focus, only to slip constantly into chaos. It is, quite literally, a film that is everything to no one at all.

The worst film of the year.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Unleashed, indeed

The new Jet Li/Luc Besson/Louis Leterrier opus, Unleashed, is such a rich cinematic experience, one almost wonders how it ever got made in the first place. A brutal, yet thoughtful, action picture in the vein of Besson's La Femme Nikita and Leon, Unleashed is the ultimate hybrid genre picture.

The story of Danny (Li), a Chinese boy raised from a toddler by a brutal loan shark (Bob Hoskins), trained as a fighting dog, brutalized and demeaned his whole life. With a metal dog collar around his throat, Danny becomes a hound from hell when the collar is removed, doing whatever his "master" says.

When he is freed one day (by an assassination attempt by a "business associate" of his master), Danny begins a new life with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman, sturdy, sagely as ever) and his step-daughter. They teach him, quite beautifully, of the wondrous little joys of life, something he never knew before. When his master comes to reclaim him, Danny fights with all his might to leave behind his violent past.

Li, as an actor, has never been more effective. His turn in Unleashed is astonishing, subtle and rich, as great as any other dramatic actor has delivered this year.

Leterrier (The Transporter) has proven himself striking genre formalist. Unleashed is a vast improvement over the entertaining but flawed The Transporter. He has crafted a stylish, affecting thriller, the year's best film thusfar.