Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Shooter (2007)

Starring Mark Wahlberg

A former Marine sniper is framed by a mysterious agency in this violent thriller. Mark Wahlberg plays the sniper, Bob Lee Swagger. Danny Glover plays “the Colonel”, who supposedly recruits Swagger to help prevent an assassination. Glover imbues his role with oily confidence and charm.

Once the plot elements are set up, Swagger is wounded and on the run from a national manhunt while trying to figure out what happened and why.

Shooter is based on Point of Impact, a book by Stephen Hunter. The book is a well-written thriller, while the movie is only so-so. The translation from book to movie left behind the loving detail and believable action for a breakneck plot in which Wahlberg simply uses his guns and his wits to best his foes, one by one. Further, in the book Swagger is a Vietnam-era sniper, wounded in action, who isolates himself after the war for twenty years on a mountain in Arkansas. In the movie he’s a young Marine sniper who retires to Wyoming after a disastrous incident, with the story picking up two years later.

Ned Beatty plays a corrupt U.S. Senator, and is thoroughly unlikable in the few scenes in which we see him. While he richly deserves the end that awaits him, the dénouement of the film is a little basic and not particularly imaginative.

Fans of violent thrillers will enjoy this film. Everyone else, stay away. If you want to see a taut, well-done thriller, check out a DVD of Three Days of the Condor instead.

The Last Mimzy (2007)

Starring Tim Robbins and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn

The Last Mimzy is a charming, kid-friendly movie. A sister and brother on vacation discover a strange box in the ocean near Seattle, Washington. When it opens, they discover mysterious toys. As they play with them, they start to have new perceptions of the world and new abilities.

Rhiannon Leigh Wryn plays Emma, the little girl. She inhabits her role very well: we believe in her curiosity and wonder. Chris O’Neil plays her brother Noah; together the two must puzzle out the mystery of the toys, including what they are, where they came from, and what they must do with them. The young siblings must learn to get along with each other while confronting the challenge. The interaction between the kids and with their parents felt realistic.

Tim Robbins and Joely Richardson play the children’s Dad and Mom. The kids are becoming geniuses, but the parents are worried, and turn to their son’s teacher for help and advice. Rainn Wilson is quirky as the science teacher working to challenge and inspire his students. He reminded me of Jack Black.

Michael Clarke Duncan has a small role as the man investigating a perplexing event in Seattle for the Department of Homeland Security. He’s entertaining during the time he’s on-camera, but it’s a small role.

This film moves along slowly. This isn’t a criticism; the film gives itself the time it needs in order to tell a good story. It’s not terribly long at 90 minutes, but it felt just right.

There are a couple of unrealistic plot points in the movie involving the teacher and his girlfriend, and the Department of Homeland Security, but these don’t detract from the overall experience. The special effects showing what the various toys do are great. It’s refreshing to see a movie that’s interesting and charming, but without a lot of violence. This movie is recommended for children and for families.

300 (2007)

Starring Gerard Butler and Lena Headly

300 is a visually stunning, violent spectacle of a movie that moves along like a freight train in order to tell a pared-down story. It’s based on the graphic novel (comic book) by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

The movie title refers to the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, wherein 300 Greek warriors led by Spartan King Leonidas fought against an invading million-man Persian army led by Xerxes at a narrow pass leading into Greece. Leonidas enters the battle knowing that he and his Spartans might only be able to delay, not stop, the Persian army. The political will didn’t exist in Sparta or in the rest of Greece at that moment to mobilize and fight.

The movie is narrowly focused. Setting the stage, we meet Leonidas (Gerard Butler), his wife (Lena Headly), and a few other characters, notably the Persian leader Xerxes. Do you want deep character development, or a complicated and subtle plot? You won’t find them here. The film moves quickly along to the battle, gifting us along the way with stunning visual panoramas. The look of the movie is gorgeous. Much of what we see onscreen is created with special effects, and they’re very well done.

If you can, try to see this movie at a theater with Digital Projection. The color saturation is amazing in such a theatre. Not every film necessarily looks best in Digital Projection, but this film was meant for it. It offers iconic images and stylized violence.

This movie has two controversies associated with it, and one puzzle. First, is it too violent? It does focus on a violent (and historically significant) battle. To minimize the violence of that battle would trivialize the sacrifice of the warriors. Still, this is comic book violence, in which many are killed, but few are hurt. The film doesn’t dwell on the suffering of those who are wounded or who die. Some say this comic book quality cheapens violence; this is a question filmgoers must consider when making movie purchases and rentals. Do we want the realism of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, or the fantasy of movies like 300?

Second, some commentators have suggested that the film’s situation is somehow analogous to our own day, where a leader (the U.S. President) must valiantly confront evil enemies. Having seen the film, it seems a pretty weak comparison. These days we don’t see leaders putting themselves on the front lines of a battle in order to oppose tyranny. Further, the threat from the invading Persian army was clear; there were no phantom weapons of mass destruction used as an excuse for going to war.

Finally, why has this movie been wildly successful? I think this is because it is a well-made movie that sticks to its business and takes us into the iconic heart of a famous battle, replete with glorious visuals. Gerard Butler is convincing as the stubborn King Leonidas, and carries us along to the inevitable conclusion. Though it’s a bit early on the calendar, this is a good summer movie.