Flags of Our Fathers: I'd be interested to see Flags of Our Fathers again, having now seen Letters From Iwo Jima. What I like is its ambition. It tries to tell the truth behind a myth, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, which becomes all the more surreal for the participants when they’re asked to tour America and recreate the moment to raise war bonds to save a dangerously expensive war campaign. Flags... succeeds at the complexity of saying the image was in one sense a sham, but that the heroism of the men involved was no less for that, or at least the peril they faced was no less real. That can be a hard balance to pull off, and I greatly appreciated the film's aspirations. Adam Beech is the standout of the three servicemen as Ira Hayes, an American Indian who can’t handle the pressures of the war bond tour. As he tearfully confides to John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe): “I know it's a good thing, raising the money and that, 'cause we need it. But, I can't take them calling me a hero. All I did was try not to get shot. Some of the things I saw done, things I did, they weren't things to be proud of, you know?” John Slattery is fantastic as Bud Gerber, the overall handler of the tour who really doesn’t care about the true story behind the photo; he cares how great it is for the war bond effort. Gerber’s certainly a bit of a prick, but he’s also got a point, and Eastwood wisely makes him practical and passionate rather than an amoral opportunist. The moral complexity is most welcome. Flags... has its failings, though. Flashing back and forward through time, it feels disjointed, all the more so because its scenes become highly repetitive: war scene, followed by stateside scene where Ira gets drunk and his buddies try to clean up the mess. It feels like a short story or novella stretched to feature length. Flags... also suffers somewhat from an excess of WWII hero worship. Perhaps it’s because James Bradley, who wrote the book it’s based on, was too close to the material, but his dad is presented as a saint. Yes, we buy that Doc is a good guy, but we also never really get to known him terribly well, even though he’s the central character. Similar to Charlie Sheen as Private Chris Taylor in Platoon, “Doc” is an awfully detached audience surrogate. The diptych Flags of Our Fathers forms with Letters From Iwo Jima is a laudable achievement. Unlike Letters..., it doesn’t stand so well on its own.
(Links on Letters... and Flags... are above with Letters From Iwo Jima, although their focus is that film. I also have a long overdue blog post that relates to this film I’ll link here when it’s done.)
Venus: Venus is that familiar Oscar season selection, the splendid performance in a good but not great film. Peter O'Toole aptly describes it as "a story of a dirty old man and a slut of a young woman, and then it's an examination of these two casual platitudes, for neither is the full truth. Neither is the case. It has surprises and, I hope, great humor." O'Toole is captivating as always, and it's a joy to watch him work. He veers from sweet to creepy and back again within a given scene, and in the relationship between Maurice (O'Toole) and Jessie/"Venus" (Jodie Whittaker), as in American Beauty, lust serves a largely positive, invigorating, motivating force (for him, anyway). Still, the central relationship is in some ways less interesting than his relationship with his two old and aging chums, fellow actors. They face their daily deluge of pills and indignities but work their way through such affronts with camaraderie, wit, and gallows humor. The few scenes with the always lovely Vanessa Redgrave also capture the intimacy of a long life together. While Venus might not approach the greatness of other "old man" films such as Umberto D, it's a worthy companion. If "Venus" gives Maurice some whiff of youth back, he gives her a greater sense of the value of personal connection even as he tries, like Cyrano, to face his mortality with some panache.
(Here’s Peter O’Toole on Fresh Air.)
The Last King of Scotland: The Last King of Scotland also features a great performance in a so-so film, but adds another familiar trope of cinema: the white audience surrogate as main character entering a strange new world, in this case the Uganda of Idi Amin. Forest Whitaker has delivered solid and often intriguing performances for a long time now, and he dives head-on into Amin. He presents a man of great charisma but of mercurial moods, alternating between charm and frightening rage. He bestows favors or death according to his perception at any given moment of himself in his position of power: he will be magnanimous, extravagantly so to those he perceives as loyal, then will sometimes brutalize those same people when paranoia strikes him or he feels insecure in his position. By most accounts, it's a personality profile many dictators share, and their unaccountable, unrivaled power surely can't help. However, we really don't see as much of Amin as we'd like, even though he is a disturbing figure. The scenes featuring Amin's relationship with drifting doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) seem scant compared to the scenes featuring Garrigan alone — or maybe it just seems that way because many later solo Garrigan scenes are less interesting than the central relationship and must be endured with impatience. McAvoy is a very likable actor, but Garrigan is so naïve, so impulsive, and so reckless it really strains credulity and sympathy. Gillian Anderson is good in a brief role, and Simon McBurney (a brilliant stage director) portrays another one of the creepy, morally ambiguous characters he excels at, this time as a British official. While Whitaker can be riveting, it's hard to watch The Last King of Scotland without frustration, because despite the title card about it being based on true events, it's clear we're seeing a highly fictionalized account and it seems we get only a taste of Amin without fully delving into him, his oppressive regime, and his psychopathology.
(Here’s a Slate article on the accuracy of the film. I’ve also since heard McAvoy explain that some of Garrigan’s activities are based three different real people. Here’s a Newsweek Q&A with director Kevin MacDonald. Here’s Forest Whitaker on Fresh Air and on The Treatment.)
Brick: (officially released in 2005). Brick is one of the most original indie films in years, a film noir mystery set in a high school, complete with a hard-boiled, headstrong hero, fast-talking dames, brutal heavies and a femme fatale or two. The invented slang is so unfamiliar, following the snappy patter is often more about gist, rhythm and tone than actual content. It's not until late that Brick derails a bit, sacrificing some of its carefully crafted ambience with admittedly funny bits like mom-serving-the-criminal-mastermind-milk-and-cookies. Still, tone is a tightrope for a film like this, easy to criticize, hard to sustain and execute, and I have to applaud Brick for daringness, for originality, and a distinct feel. It kept me very engaged throughout, and there’s some emotional punch to the end. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a strong lead performance, and Brick actually features more moral complexity than many film noir pieces, because the title could easily at times refer to the inventive, obsessive hero's head. Nora Zehetner as the enigmatic Laura is another standout, with Noah Fleiss effective as the thuggish Tugger, and there's interesting casting with Richard Roundtree as the principal and Lukas Haas (the kid from Witness!) as sinister figure "The Pin." If you're into off-beat indies, this is well worth a look.
(Here’s writer-director Rian Johnson on The Treatment.)
Apocalypto: Most reminiscent of Cornel Wilde’s 1966 film The Naked Prey, Apocalypto is a decent chase flick (some segments were very well shot and edited, some were surprisingly second-rate, to my eye). Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw is fantastic, and whether you like Gibson’s filmmaking or not, he’s good at delivering some good action scenes, vile villains, crude jokes and buddy humor. Some of his characters veer toward caricature, but he does draw them clearly and efficiently, and he keeps his focus on human emotion, most of all with Jaguar Paw. Jaguar Paw's fears are primal and his perils palpable because for every situation, Gibson keeps us right there, showing us Jaguar Paw’s reactions, as well as his ingenuity and will to survive. I had no illusions that it was historically accurate, however, and I find Gibson's use of violence gratuitous, at times sadomasochistic (not that that’s a surprise to anyone who’s seen Passion of the Christ). The film basically depicts the noble savages versus the (semi-civilized) savage savages.
The "eclipse" bit has been a cliché for years (I remember as a kid seeing Hergé use it in Tintin, among other places).. My facetious, spoiler-laden one sentence review about how you know this film was made by Mel Gibson film is here. My non-facetious comment is that I didn’t like the very end, which adds what seems like an odd, forced element. Regardless, Gibson deserves credit for the the film’s merits as an action flick and criticism for its inaccuracies (as well as plenty of criticism for his personal failings).
It also occurs to me that if Frank Miller and Mel Gibson ever make a film together, it will create a perfect storm of hyperactive testosterone and sadomasochism that will result in more dismemberments, maimings and blood explosions than any other movie in the history of cinema.
(Here’s a Washington Post article on the historical accuracy angle.)
Nacho Libre: Hey, I laughed. What I respect about Nacho Libre is the trailer tells you exactly what you’re going to get, and after that, you’re either in or you’re out. This was a fun, silly summer comedy. Jack Black boldly makes comic effect of his, umm, less than Olympian physique, and while there’s plenty of slapstick, the filmmakers have an affection for the characters that made me root for these underdogs rather than just laughing at them.
The Pursuit of Happyness: It seems about once per year that Hollywood makes a very Hollywood film that nonetheless is quite good. Last year I’d say it was Cinderella Man, and this year it’s The Pursuit of Happyness. This real life, triumph-over-adversity tale is inspiring and affecting. And while this dynamic made it a natural for Hollywood, it's hard to remember the last major film to even broach the subject of being homeless in any serious way (maybe The Fisher King). For that matter, when was the last major Hollywood film that really pushed home how hard it is for honest working stiffs to make a living and raise their kids? Perhaps many people don't need a reminder, but I appreciated The Pursuit of Happyness trying. Will Smith delivers his best performance to date as Chris Gardner, and his son Jade Pinkett Smith is impressive (the real Gardner has a brief cameo at the very end of the film). I cared about these characters. Also, this film makes one of the best recurring uses of a prop I can remember, in this case an unusual bone density scanner.
(Here’s an NPR piece on the book of Chris Gardner’s real story.)
Click: I actually enjoyed this film more than I anticipated, but my expectations were very low, and I completely understand the low esteem in which many people hold it. I doubt it’d hold up to a second viewing. Stories with this basic theme, some sort of device to control your life, are pretty common, and while Click is not the dumbest, it's also not the most clever or moving. Even though they try to address it in the movie, yeah, it really is pretty preposterous presenting the stunning Kate Beckinsale as loving accessory wife to Adam Sandler’s Michael Newman, considering he’s not a catch for any external reasons, but also really not that nice a guy. There were just enough funny gags scattered throughout, and enough of a real point buried underneath ("Be Here Now"), that Click kept my attention. Still, Sandler was best in Punch Drunk Love and The Wedding Singer, where he had a sweetness and vulnerability. It’s gotten old, and he’s too old, for the obnoxious, arrested-development man-child shtick to really work anymore, and he just doesn’t have the depth or nuance here to play Jimmy Stewart. If you’re a diehard Sandler fan, it might be worth it, otherwise, your time is better spent elsewhere.
Curse of the Golden Flower: Director Zhang Yimou has one hell of an eye, and this film tries to be The Lion in Winter meets kung fu meets operatic emotions meets living chess set. It features some fine actors, most notably Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat. The battle scenes are impressively staged, and Yimou manages to create an odd, distinct world of treacherous and possibly incestuous court intrigue in a rainbow sherbert imperial palace filled with ornate armor and extravagant gowns with push-up bodices. Still, I have to say I was left a bit cold, as I was with Yimou's visually stunning Hero and kinetic House of Flying Daggers. I miss the intimacy and realism of his 1991 film, Raise the Red Lantern, also starring Gong Li. Here, I could see most of the plot twists coming and I could never quite sympathize with the characters. Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) seems too resigned to a horrible fate, and when Emperor Ping (Yun-Fat)'s motives for being incredibly cruel are revealed, his actions seem all the more petty versus justified. This film delivers on spectacle, but I never felt a deeper emotional resonance with it. I do know at least one person who loved this film, much more so than Yimou's two other recent martial arts epics, so depending on your tastes, you may want to check this one out.
The Promise: Reportedly a very expensive movie to make, China's The Promise doesn't look like it. The effects look distractingly cheap and unconvincing, and while some of the fights were cool, personally I just never really cared about the characters (in sharp contrast to an earlier Chen Kaige film, Farewell My Concubine). It's partially because a mean promise extorted by a goddess from a starving child doesn't seem to hold much moral weight, and petty grudges held from early childhood as life-defining moments smack more of serious character flaws than the "classic tale" veener they're supposed to have. Blind reverence for cruel monarchs and other ill-behaving authority figures also doesn't really play well (for me), especially when the hero is so clearly more virtuous but also unquestionably much more powerful than any of his foes. There's humility, and then there's "I grovel like the worm I am below your feet for no apparent reason other than my evidently horrendous self-esteem and internalization of a nonsensical, oppressive class system." In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh suffer unrequited love due to a sense of nobility and honor, not from lack of self-worth! It's also that I personally prefer (as critic Stephen Hunter has put it) the Japanese style of martial arts film – anticipation, leading up to brief, violent action, versus the Chinese tendency for supernatural feats acted out against a pretty tapestry (that at its worst, swallows character and a human core). Realism is pretty quickly out the window in this film, even emotional realism, but at least give us a good fairy tale! I wanted an engaging love story and some good action, but you're much better off with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or any of Yimou's films.
Dreamgirls: Dreamgirls is a fun, good film, based on the stage musical of the same name and centered on a great subject: the increasing success of black pop music in the 60s and 70s and the struggle of black acts to "break through" while trying to maintain some vestige of their original identity. In this case, the main focus is the "Dreamettes," based loosely on The Supremes, with Eddie Murphy playing a James Brown-like figure and a few other acts seen in passing. The two great advantages of musicals is the incredible energy level they can achieve and the platform they give for outsized emotions. That said, I personally tend not to like musicals because while I appreciate the skill of the performers, musicals tend to be very schmaltzy and sappy as well as dramatically weak and predictable. In the case of Dreamgirls, the music is also very inconsistent in quality. Some of this is deliberate. The film twice plays with how the original R&B version of a song is transformed into a bland, whitebread song and a disco song, respectively. Dreamgirls starts with a bang, a rapid collage of Motown-like acts, and Effie's signature song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is quite effective. However, some of the other music falls in the bad, unmemorable showtune variety. This seems particularly unnecessary in the backstage songs, where there's no reason to go bland Broadway, and it seems like a lost opportunity. Dreamgirls also suffers from the typical Oscar musical ambition, adding in three or four original songs to be eligible for a Best Song nomination, but only one, "Listen," seems to add much to the characters, and it's also clearly an excuse to let Beyoncé Knowles cut loose. The song "Family" is reprised later for irony when the camaraderie between the principals has been mortally wounded, but this contrast would be dramatically stronger if the gap between the first and second appearance of the song weren't a mere 10-20 minutes. Jamie Foxx is good as usual, Danny Glover has a nice supporting role, Eddie Murphy delivers his best dramatic performance to date, and Jennifer Hudson is a promising newcomer as Effie. Hudson's got some serious pipes, and her key song earned deserved applause in the theater where I saw the film, as it did across the country, apparently. She moves through a range of emotions in that one song, and I think deserved her Oscar nomination, but I wouldn't have given her the win, because the rest of her emotional palette runs almost exclusively from sullen to brash headstrong. Her showstopper seemed a wonderful highlight moment rather than the capstone to a layered performance (but I also wasn’t charmed by the character’s self-destructive nature). If singers tend to get too much credit, comedians often don't get much respect, and while a gifted comedian, Murphy has done some really, really stupid comedies over the years, which hasn't helped his image. Thus, it was nice to see Murphy's nomination (even if the prospect of seeing "Norbit – starring Oscar-winner Eddie Murphy!" struck Academy members with fear). I'm not that familiar with the original stage musical, so I can't fairly evaluate the film as an adaptation. However, as a fan of Motown, R&B and a lot of the acts Dreamgirls references and plays homage to, I think its biggest and toughest competition is reality. If you read the Dreamgirls imdb page, there's currently a pretty defensive "fan" piece about the film, show and its music. Sorry, we can't be intimidated and bullied into liking the music, thinking it's brilliant, or thinking the film doesn't reference some famous acts and people. The Motown and R&B songs from the era are by and large infinitely better (personally, I'd say some of the best pop music America's produced). Dreamgirls is a good film, and it deserves credit for what it is and what it does well, but doesn't have the depth, originality and soul to deserve to be called the best picture of the year. Still, it has its devoted fans, and your time could be far worse spent than on this one.
(Here’s the clip of Hudson’s big song. Here’s director-adapter Bill Condon on Fresh Air and on The Treatment.)
The Illusionist: While I prefer The Prestige, this film may also be worth a gander. Edward Norton is a meticulous and often bold actor, Rufus Sewell makes a good villain, and Paul Giamatti does nicely as always as a policeman with a love of stage magic who's caught between pursuing career success or the truth. It's a bit hard to fairly judge Jessica Biel; she's pretty in an unconventional way, and has some decent scenes, but like many a female character, she mainly serves as the prize to obtain. The fatal flaw in this film for me was the bad visual effects for the stage magic. The computer-generated images were obviously computer-generated, but it wasn't clear if they were supposed to be real or not. This becomes a big problem because the central question, especially later in the film, is whether Eisenheim (Norton) is performing real magic or stage tricks. Also, some of the tricks shown Eisenheim could not perform in real life, certainly not in that period. The film thus depends on an ambiguity it severely undercuts. In contrast with The Prestige, this made for a frustrating versus delightful view, for me at least. There's intentional and unintentional ambiguity, and filmmakers want to avoid the latter. Not to be too harsh, but as an audience member I want to be asking the questions the filmmakers want me to ask, not wondering if something is intentional or is instead the result of a filmmaker's mistake or budget constraints. I thought the first half to three-quarters of the film was great, but for me, the suspension of disbelief or "illusion" was broken later on because I was forced to ask questions about the film-making versus the plot. That said, I'd still rather see an interesting-but-flawed film like The Illusionist over most Hollywood summer fare.
(Here’s Norton on The Treatment, although it’s mostly about the film Down in in the Valley.)
World Trade Center: Hitting viewers' emotions with a more typical Hollywood style versus the understatement of United 93, World Trade Center affected me much less than Paul Greengrass' docudrama (and less than I expected). It's no surprise the story of cops John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) and their families was made into a film. It's well cast, and a great deal of time is spent with fretting spouses Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Still, the film shifts in tone and focus after the opening of the film, which is tense and disturbing as the towers fall. At the beginning, director Oliver Stone wisely shows some restraint, down to only showing the shadow of one of the planes, because he knows the material evokes power on its own. He seems to forget this later on, when rather than underplaying the intense emotions simmering below the surface to allow them full flower and effect, he tends to shove them in our faces. This film also suffers somewhat from the static nature of the situation, as McLoughlin and Jimeno are trapped, and their families can only wait. For the most part, Stone avoids politics, making it all the more jarring when he inserts them, such as a strange dolly move ending on a close-up on a guy (real life figure making a cameo?) who says "Bastards!" in a tone more fitting the Perils of Pauline than the rest of the film. Many conservative pundits loved this film, and I don’t begrudge them that — but I found it very revealing that the National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez adored this film and respected United 93, but was also bothered because she felt United 93 essentially humanized the terrorists too much. I much prefer United 93, but some people found this film powerful, and the subject matter can evoke highly personal reactions. Obviously viewers can decide which film better suits their personal needs and aesthetic tastes (if either does).
(Here’s a Slate article about the actual rescue attempt and accuracies and inaccuracies in the film. On separate editions of Fresh Air, here’s Maggie Gyllenhaal and here’s Maria Bello.)
Happy Feet: Happy Feet runs — or, rather, tap-dances — away with a classic kid’s tale, that of the ugly duckling, except here rather than being a swan among ducks, or a reindeer with red shiny nose, it’s a tap-dancing penguin. There’s a core appeal for that storyline of the outsider who doesn’t fit in, is rejected, finds some other misfit friends and then has a shot at saving the community or earning their respect somehow. It’s the hero’s journey where the hero is not even seen as a hero at first. Happy Feet has plenty of humor and energy — plus Robin Williams. Many of the song, dance and action sequences have a great kinetic energy. The biggest problems involve the later plot. An environmental theme is only natural (no pun intended), but it seems like a forced fit at times.
This is most pronounced near the very end, when the film seems to reach its natural ending with Mumble winning the community over, but then keeps going for about 20 minutes more. While it’s to be expected that Mumble should save the community, the whole Mumble-captured-in-a-zoo-returned-to-the-wild-and-awakens -the-consciousness-of-humans-by-tap-dancing seemed a bit too much, in terms of suspension of disbelief, the tone of the film earlier, and subtlety. However, given that this is an animated film by George “Mad Max” Miller about tap-dancing and singing penguins, that’s probably not that important, and this is a fun family film.
(Here’s George Miller on The Treatment.)
Over the Hedge: This may have been my favorite animated feature of the year. There's some sly satire of suburbia, the voice casting was good, and the pacing is very fast and tight. Several of the gags were quite original, funny and well-designed visually, most notably a death-trap laden backyard, the fight to save a food cache from explosion, and RJ (Bruce Willis)'s demonstration about the mores of food and trash in suburbia. (My favorite character was Hammy, the hyper, ADD squirrel, voiced by Steve Carrell.)
Cars: I love Pixar and they have never made a bad film. However, anthropomorphic cars just aren’t my thing. The voice casting is flawless (Paul Newman, George Carlin, Larry the Cable Guy), the plot is clear and most of the gags are funny. There are plenty of great little touches, such as casting Click and Clack from Car Talk in small roles, and the end credits riff on previous Pixar features brilliantly. I can’t imagine anyone else getting this much depth out of anthropomorphic cars. That said, personally, while I really enjoyed some specific moments, many of them involving Luigi and Guido (Tony Shaloub and Guido Quaroni), I just didn’t care that much about the characters, the big race or love this film as I do Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles or Monsters, Inc.
Running With Scissors: I know two devotees of the book, but in the film version of Augusten Burroughs memoir, the episodic nature of the material and the detatchment of main character Augusten as played by Joseph Cross don't help for an engaging view. Evan Rachel Wood as Natalie, an angstful young woman, registers far stronger than Cross, and there are some moments, such as Natalie and Augusten rebelliously smashing the kitchen ceiling, that play well. Alec Baldwin also has a nice turn as Augusten's father, but the star of the film is undoubtedly Augusten's narcissistic, individualistic mother, Deidre, played by Annette Bening. When she's not on screen, the energy and drive of the film disappears as well. Bryan Cox seems to play his role as Dr. Finch too subdued to be Deidre's match, and Cross can't fill the void of either of them. If you're a devoted Bening fan, check this out, but overall I was unsatisfied and underwhelmed.
(Here’s Annette Bening on Fresh Air, and Augusten Burroughs, from 2004.)
The Fountain: Art house with a capital "A" and You'll either love it or hate it! comes to mind. More precisely, The Fountain seems to have a sliver of people who love it, a larger group who sorta like it, a still larger group who appreciate its ambition to not be a cookie-cutter film but think it fails, and a sizable if smaller group who genuinely loathe it. I fall somewhere in the 2nd and 3rd groups. I felt The Fountain was an intensely personal, sincere piece, so it didn't strike me as that pretentious. It's really a tone poem more than a narrative, as it flits back and forth between present, past and future, and possibly fiction, imagination, and reality. Jumping from 16th Century conquistador times to the present to a future with a partially organic space-ship, The Fountain's external reality is never supposed to be clear, but the relationship between Tomas/Tommy/Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) and Queen Isabel/Izzi Creo (Rachel Weisz), with its themes of love and regret, is supposed to be the film's core. Herein lies the chief problem with the film for me, rather than its non-linear approach and art house aesthetic. The core relationship needs to be stronger. We only get a scant few passages about love with endless repetition of the same dialogue, which is not terribly resonant. Tomas has a put-on-a-pedestal love for Queen Isabel, whereas future bald astronaut Tom has only memory and imagination, while Dr. Tommy Creo has a somewhat constipated relationship with his wife Isabel/Izzy. He loves her, but we enter their relationship at a juncture of strain and dysfunction due to her terminal illness, and never really get a sense of a wonderful-relationship-that-has-since-become-imperiled. The obsession for Tom's character comes through pretty clearly, as do some of the death and rebirth themes, but the love plays out much less so. Izzy is clearly Beatrice to Tommy's Dante, a humanizing influence to a cerebral, driven man, and in this sense Tommy puts her on a pedestal as well, even if he often pushes her away inadvertently. But Rachel Weisz' screen relationship in The Constant Gardener is much more intimate, and I just think some of the same emotional territory – in a sci-fi film, no less! – is much better handled in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (despite the big plot differences). Credit to writer-director Darren Aronofsky for trying something different, distinct and memorable, and trying to achieve some cinematic poetry, but I don't think he's entirely successful.
(Here’s the official film website, and here’s Darren Aronofsky on The Treatment, and again in an online discussion. I actually asked one of the questions featured, but it was about a previous film.)
Inside Man: This crime thriller gets better as it goes along, delivering a satisfying conclusion despite some stumbles along the way. Director Spike Lee benefits from a splendid cast, with Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, not to mention strong supporting work from Christopher Plummer, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe. Washington grounds the film as he always does, and while several of the characters are enigmatic and multi-layered, Clive Owen is probably the most intriguing. As the head of a gang of bank robbers, he's key for revealing that the motive for the robbery-hostage situation is far from conventional. The fractured time format really did not work for me except as an overall framing device. The shift in tone was often radical and jarring, and became both jarring and tiresome when Lee kept repeating the same gag over and over again ("you can leave"-"no you have to stay"). Lee's obligatory "the cops are racist" bit is also really tiresome, most of all because it's such an awkward, extraneous fit here. Whereas racism is a integral part of Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Get on the Bus, here it's just tacked on. I completely buy the premise that there are racist white cops on the NYPD (and I'm willing to see a film about that), but I do not buy that any of them are so stupid as to use a racial slur when addressing a superior officer who's also black (the conversation's not even heated). Come on. The bigger issue is it’s an unnecessary distraction to the story. Spike Lee also continues to have a very odd and often off-kilter feel for music. The incongruous Bollywood opening theme actually works surprisingly well for this Manhattan caper due to its sheer energy, but when it comes to traditional film scoring, Lee unfailingly underlines everything in on-the-nose fashion. As with his directing overall, a little more subtlety and nuance would be welcome, but this is an above average thriller.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: (officially released in 2005) Even if you haven't read the novel (I haven't), you may know that this novel has been considered almost impossible to adapt and veers off on tangents, so appropriately, so does the film. The film-within-a-film framework, with characters talking about the book and the challenges of their film adaptation of it, can be an awfully precious device, but here it's done with a light, witty touch and is clearly an essential, wise choice. I don't buy that Steve Coogan, playing himself as well as Tristram Shandy, is a jerk, and the scenes of him being a jerk are too many, getting awfully repetitive — but there's some good comedy there as well. Gillian Anderson has a great small role as herself, the star who loves the book and is essentially conned into participating to scam more money for the budget. Naomie Harris as Jennie, the only other person on the set who's apparently read the book, also has a nice performance (even though a nice English major type like her deserves a better man). Proof that Coogan is not the egomaniac he pretends to be is in how much screen time he gives to Rob Brydon. This film is uneven (as it frankly must be), but Brydon is fantastic, and Brydon and Coogan together are hilarious. The opening scene with these two, and the ending credits of this film, with the two of them just riffing, is funnier than most comedies you'll see.
V for Vendetta: Although the odd, brilliant author of the original comic book series Alan Moore disowned the film, it preserves far more of the original than I expected. While Natalie Portman's accent starts off pretty shaky, her performance as Evie and her transformation forms the core of the film. Hugo Weaving plays vigilante V with the requisite calm panache (although the sound mix muffles too much of his voice). The film crafts an effective aesthetic of this future dystopia of an England under an oppressive regime. While John Hurt makes for a more passionate, Hitler-esque "Leader" than the cloistered fat cat of the comic book, this isn't a surprising change, he's a fine actor and it works (it's also ironic casting, since Hurt played Winston in the most recent, underrated film version of 1984). I was also mightily relieved to see they didn't screw up the issue of V's identity, because I have no doubt Hollywood pressured the director James McTiegue and his producers the Wachowskis to change this essential element (this occurred for the film 8mm). The original comic was meant for people who didn't "change the channel" from the news. The world has changed a great deal since the comic book's debut in the early 80s, but much of its thoughtfulness survives intact, with added moral quandaries about terrorism and armed resistance. As in the comic book, V does not kill innocents, but he has no reservations about killing. He opposes a clearly oppressive system, but he also destroys national landmarks in the process — and isn't the point to reclaim them, toppling the bastards but not the edifices themselves? While I'm sympathetic to those who criticize V for Vendetta on a number of details, it still gets the overall story right and is much more thought-provoking that most films in the comic book or sci-fi/action genres.
(Here's a good article from British newspaper The Telegraph that summarizes some of the issues of production and adaptation. And here's a Publisher's Weeklyinterview with Moore.)
Superman Returns: Superman is probably the most famous comic book hero, and also probably the most boring. When it comes to external conflicts, he’s so powerful no foe can really compete (unless they’re a trio of Kryptonians, as in Superman II). As cool as that bullet-eyeball shot is, wouldn't it be more interesting if it actually stung a little or slowed Superman down? (These same invincible-omnipotent issues are why DC Comics had John Byrne completely rework Superman over a decade ago, now.) Meanwhile, when it comes to internal/personal conflicts — well, here it's that he left for several years and his gal naturally moved on. Most arch villain plans are pretty silly, but Lex Luthor's plot here is nonsensical. As one critic pointed out, his new continent is barely fit for a mountain goat. The film starts with some steam, notably the sequence with Superman trying to save a plummeting airplane. Alas, the film meanders and drags on after about an hour or so (but then, the first Donner Superman film had pretty atrocious pacing as well). Brandon Routh has the thankless task of succeeding Christopher Reeve as Superman, and while he doesn't possess all of Reeve's comic gifts, he's not that bad, actually. Similarly, Kevin Spacey ain't Gene Hackman, and frankly, isn't half as adorable as he thinks he is, but he still brings some menace and style to Lex Luthor. The casting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, however, is near fatal. She's a pretty young woman, but hopelessly out of her depth. All of 22 during filming, she looks like a college student at the oldest, yet we're supposed to believe she has an elementary school-aged son and even more unbelievably, a Pulitzer? Margot Kidder as Lois had some spunk, some moxie, the oblivious selfishness and selective use of charm that captured the character and sold her as both a top reporter and object of Superman's affection, even despite his better judgment (Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark also excelled at this, as did screwball comedy heroines such as Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday). Lois has to be a fast-talking dame, a tough broad, a take-no-prisoners-damn-the-torpedoes-I-need-that-damn-story type, not some timid teen beat cover girl pretending to be a career woman. While Lois is clearly no contender for mother of the year, she also drags her son into some highly dangerous situations, more out of thoughtlessness than journalistic dedication. Director and co-writer Bryan Singer also piles on the symbolism, the best description I've heard being "Space Jesus." Singer's a gifted director, but any way you slice it, this film was a disappointment. He needs a strong producer and tighter script to keep him focused and on track.
(Here’s Bryan Singer on The Treatment.)
X-Men: The Last Stand: This film was surprisingly good and effective, not a classic for the ages, perhaps, but better than I expected. Hollywood takes on the Phoenix storyline, the most famous in the history of the popular X-Men comic book. The best critiques I've heard come from other people. "Joel" argued that this film was in fact better than the first two, but no fans wanted to admit it because the director was Brett Ratner. He also argued that the TV show Heroes was what the X-Men films should have been, and this third film was the strongest because it jettisoned most of the gay allegorical elements Bryan Singer focused so much on in the second film especially, to the detriment of the pace and overall story. I have to agree, at least in part. (In the comics, the "mutant" metaphor, with powers most often manifesting during adolescence, was an ingenuous way of capturing the turmoil and alienation of being an adolescent coupled with the fantasy of having super-powers and a secret identity. Several fun pieces have also spoofed the X-Men's tendency to lapse into angst-fests.)
I disliked how easy and irreversible the "mutant cure" was (although the final shot suggests it may be reversible) and I also disliked the character choice and major plot point of Magneto discarding Mystique after a heroic sacrifice by her (and does even someone who views his species as superior kick Rebecca Romijn out of bed?). However, as "Drew" pointed out, in the great sequence when Ian McKellan as Magneto is concentrating hard, moving the Golden Gate Bridge, you're completely sold — that's what a man moving the friggin' Golden Gate Bridge would look like. The X-Men series suffered in part from its source material — there's a damn lot of characters for a new viewer to assimilate, and a lot of storylines to weave in. However, at its best, strong performances from actors such as McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Famke Jannsen help ground the films and sell the fantasy.
The DaVinci Code: Rather than the geek love fest between two scholars this film should have been, it seems as if the two leads are sleepwalking through it. Perhaps they, and director Ron Howard, were just overly deferential to the rather silly-and-portentous original material. Audrey Tautou is normally a fine actress, but perhaps working in English threw her. While Tom Hanks’ character Dr. Robert Langdon is not supposed to be an action star, where’s the energy? Where’s the excitement, the curiosity, the thrill of the hunt, the sense of danger? While the cheap summer rip-off National Treasure two years previously was similarly ludicrous, at least it was fun and had some spark. When Rachel Weiss played an intrepid, plucky and clumsy Egyptologist in The Mummy, she brought a verve and urgency to the role. No, we in the audience didn’t believe in the City of the Dead or whatever, but we were willing to believe she did, and were happy to go along for the ride. We believed the passion of Harrison Ford (or River Phoenix) as Indiana Jones when he growled a line like, “Those pieces belong in a museum!” The only one who seems to be having any fun in DaVinci is the always-excellent Ian McKellan, who’s the sole actor who attacks his allotted reams of exposition with any sense of joy or excitement. Perhaps because DaVinci pretends to be actual history, it gives the film both an advantage and disadvantage. The suspension of disbelief is aided by the familiarity of the “clues,” but this boon may be off-set by a rejection of the core plot as too fantastical because of our familiarity. I’m not sure, and have not read the book. Regardless, this is not an engaging film. Some books do not translate well to the screen, and exposition-heavy films can struggle, but many critics have expressed their befuddlement and frustration that the book is actually more cinematic than the movie. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.
(Here’s Ron Howard on The Treatment, and here’s a Fresh Air on Opus Dei.)
Déjà Vu: (SPOILERS) As thrillers go, you could do worse. The basic mind-trip paradox story is pretty common, but it's much more difficult to make a good, successful film in this vein that it looks. Many peter out or cheat. Déjà Vu tries hard to make its preposterous premise both visual and believable, and partially succeeds in both categories. The "viewing into the past" device allows for great roaming camera shots that break up the exposition fest of the first half of the film somewhat. A mobile version of the device is also introduced, clearly to add some excitement and a chase scene that's pretty successful, most of all because of the novelty of Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) chasing a suspected killer (Jim Caviezel) while in different timelines, running parallel. The credibility is most helped by the masterful Washington. He is so engaged, so intense, so emotionally involved as local New Orleans cop Carlin trying to solve a horrible terrorist act and the related murder of the lovely Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), he makes us ride along. However, all suspension of disbelief was broken for me when the operation's chief agent (played by Val Kilmer) decides to look the other way and risks letting Carlin change the future and also blow the project's cover when Carlin insists on going back in the past to try to save Claire. (That's one helluva wingman move from the Iceman, I guess.) Still, I was invested in seeing the ending because of Tony Scott's taut direction, Washington's intensity, Patton's convincing fear, and Caviezel's chilling turn as the villain. The script is tight enough that puzzle pieces fit into place in a pleasing way, or else shift unexpectedly, leaving us uncertain as to whether tragedy is predetermined or is avoidable. Even if you guess the twists of the aftermath, up until the final showdown, there's some uncertainty about which direction the film will head, or at least how specifically it will get there. Déjà Vu lacks the dark poetry and moral complexity of Twelve Monkeys, but as a popcorn movie, it ain't that bad. (I think Déjà Vu currently holds the record for the highest-selling spec script ever at 5 million dollars.)
The Proposition: (officially released in 2005) This extremely violent western from and set in Australia is striking and memorable, great on its own terms, but certainly not for all tastes. Guy Pearce continues to pick interesting, off-beat roles, Danny Huston delivers his best performance to date as the messianic, bloodthirsty gang leader Arthur Burns, Ray Winstone is his best since Sexy Beast and Emily Watson and John Hurt are always welcome. The initial set-up is simple and great: Charlie Burns (Pearce) and his younger, comparatively innocent brother Mike are captured by Captain Stanley (Winstone). Desperate to capture oldest brother Arthur after a brutal massacre he perpetrated, Stanley releases Charlie with the promise he'll spare Mike's life if and only if Charlie delivers Arthur in a few days. Charlie is put in an impossible situation where he can't win but must do something, and must choose between his two brothers. Pearce plays Charlie as quite the indecisive cipher, not sure of anything but his contempt for others. He's like the hardcase Aussie outback version of Hamlet. Meanwhile, while Charlie nominally starts as the protagonist, we gradually get to know Captain Stanley much better. While initially he seems a very cruel man, willing and eager to torture, he becomes progressively more sympathetic. His attempts to connect with his wife (Watson) are fumbling, and she cannot forgive him when she finds out he let Charlie go, because her best friend was one of the victims of the massacre. Stanley increasingly becomes the voice of reason and restraint when his own men exceed decency and when the cold official Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) turns up and meddles with the terms of Stanley's proposition to Charlie. Meanwhile, Arthur and his singing sidekick seem relatively civilized until they cut loose against their foes, quickly and brutally. It's our shifting perceptions of the main characters that make The Proposition so interesting and memorable.
Blood Diamond: Surprisingly, Blood Diamond is a good character film with several taut action sequences that avoids full-blown lecture mode from writer-director Ed Zwick for most of the picture, predictably lapsing into it in the end. It's mostly a rescue caper, with Solomon Bo (Djimon Hounsou) trying to save his son from impressment in a child army, smuggler-mercenary Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) willing to help him to get a giant uncut pink "conflict" or "blood" diamond," and reporter Maddy (Jennifer Connelly) trying to blow the whole corrupt diamond business wide open. DiCaprio's finally not coming off as too damn young, and delivers a strong performance as Danny Archer. Archer is a driven, selfish schemer more because he's a survivor than his inherent nature. DiCaprio sells the gradual unveiling of the many levels to this man. Connelly very effective as Maddy, not shy about using her looks or charm to get a story, but — unlike Kate Bosworth, come to think of it — Connelly's convincing in her worldliness, ambition, and cynicism tinged with idealism. There's also some pretty sharp, smart dialogue. Meanwhile, Djimon Hounsou delivers another dignifed, powerful performance. The thing is, Hounsou's better than this. He possesses Toshiro Mifune-level intensity, and Zwick is so happy to have this at his disposal he has Housou yelling full-blown for much of the film, especially at the end. Housou's so grounded he can sell these outsized emotions, but it really seems like a waste, like using a Porsche as a snow plow. Also, while Solomon is supposed to be the honest African in contrast with Archer's white plunderer, Zwick pushes Solomon to levels of naïveté implausible for a man intent on rescuing his son. Honesty is one thing, but are we really supposed to believe that a man willing to do almost anything to restore his family would be completely unequipped to tell even the smallest of white lies? It's supposed to be a comic moment, so maybe it's not that big a deal.
But Zwick at times forces the story where he wants to go versus where it seems inclined to move naturally, most pointedly with the sort of tragic, noble death that just feels forced as well as horribly protracted.
(Here’s Ed Zwick on The Treatment.)
All the King’s Men: Not every old book is a classic, and one book review I’ve read would suggest that the flaws in this film adaptation are in some cases flaws in the source material. While writer-director Steven Zaillian has done some fine work in the past (Searching for Bobby Fischer, A Civil Action, the screenplay for Schindler's List), and this film boasts a fine cast, it's an uneven and muddled waste of talent. I even love political films, but All the King's Men is just not that compelling, most of all in its main characters. Jude Law is a meticulous actor, and works well in supporting roles, but as a general rule, he can't carry a movie. Journalist Jack Burden (Law) is drifting and seemingly lacking in motivation for most of the film, making him a frustrating rather than intriguing cipher. Willie Stark (Sean Penn, full of bluster with an often indecipherable, guttural accent) starts off as an underdog, populist champion of the little guy, but quickly becomes corrupt, making him unlikable as well — and Burden even sees this! The central dilemma is never convincing. Why in the hell is Burden possibly going to destroy the man he admires and views as a father (Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin) for a politician who, at best, is only a shade better than the men he's replacing? This is especially incomprehensible when Burden shows so little passion for anything, and considers this huge moral betrayal with all the enthusiasm and turmoil of a feckless man eventually giving in to the waiter's suggestion to try the catfish special despite his misgivings.
(SLIGHT SPOILERS) Furthermore, how can a supposedly smart man, Dr. Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), possibly be so stupid, and how could anyone manipulate any human being in such a specific direction with so little effort and without explicit direction? Don't we at least need a devil-whispering-the-plot-into-his-ear scene? Why would a very smart woman, Ann Stanton (Kate Winslet) sleep with a corrupt man, when there's barely a scene to justify the attraction? And how can we like a protagonist who won't sleep with Kate Winslet when she's offered herself up on a platter and they've always adored each other? His reason for begging off is some lame timidity about despoiling the innocence of their unrequited young adult romance, but he doesn't even have the guts or decency to explain that to her, leaving her feeling ashamed and denying her any type of satisfaction. I'm partially joking, but it defies most human psychology, and also means we have a "hero" who never really acts. He drifts, and his regrets will be not acting when it's obvious he should, and folding like a cheap deck of marked cards to a bully he should obviously oppose. Honorable characters are intriguing, stylishly amoral characters are as well, but bland, gutless depressives, not so much. He's a writer — at least go on an angry, self-loathing bender, and denounce someone boorishly, or something! All the King's Men's grand moral lesson is unclear. Perhaps it's supposed to be that everyone gets corrupted, but that's not true, it's naïve and simplistic, and anyway, George Orwell delves into that theme with infinitely more insight and sophistication in Animal Farm. More to the point, the film fails as a character study and rings false in terms of human psychology. I wish the best for the talented Zaillian in his next effort, but this film is long, feels long, and really has nothing there to grasp hold of for a viewer.
Hollywoodland: Ben Affleck is good! He's actually quite good here, as George Reeves, TV's Superman (Affleck won the Venice Film Festival's Best Actor award). Did Reeves actually commit suicide, or was he murdered? The heart of this film occurs between Reeves and "the older woman," Toni Mannix (Diane Lane). When it shifts to the fictional detective Louis Simo (Andrien Brody), it loses steam and focus, most of all because the film sets out to solve a mystery it theorizes about but never solves. As Lane put it in an interview, the glamorous Mannix is most caught up by the fear that Reeves will "turn in a 40 for two 20s." Reeves, meanwhile, is trying to break through to serious acting after shooting to fame in a kiddie TV favorite. All of his breaks come from Mannix or more directly from her husband, with whom she has an "open marriage." When Reeves strays with a younger, quite predatory woman, he jeopardizes his career as well as relationship with Mannix, who at times seems to want a kept boy, but certainly wants to see him miserable if he's not with her. But did she , her husband, or Reeves' new fiancée kill him or did he off himself? While the period detail is fun, Simo is an unlikable protagonist, showing up drunk and disheveled to pick up his kid from school, and is rather callous toward everyone. He moves beyond cynical antihero to lout. Still, the big problem is the plot, because by shifting the focus from Reeves and Mannix to the death itself, the film promises something it just doesn't deliver (contrary to some of the publicity and interviews given about it, by the way) . While we do get a much better picture of Reeves from the film, we do not get a clearer view of his death, and the film ends rather than concludes, leaving an unsatisfying taste.
(On separate editions of Fresh Air, here’s Ben Affleck and here’s Diane Lane. Here’s director Allen Coulter on Weekend Edition.)
This Film is Not Yet Rated: If you're a movie buff, or passionate about fighting censorship, this great documentary is essential viewing. The film has helped to finally change some of the practices of the highly secretive, inconsistent and conservative MPAA ratings board — but we'll see what they actually do. You can probably guess some of the findings here: the ratings board is harsher in rating sex than violence, harsher rating gay sex than straight sex, and studio films get much more detailed notes and more favorable treatment than small indies. (As the filmmakers note, the extreme consolidation of media ownership doesn't help, either.) However, there are likely tidbits you didn't know, such as the role the clergy play in film rating appeals! Combined with a history and overview of the ratings board and interviews with filmmakers is an engaging investigation into who actually rates the films, as the filmmakers hire a private detective to dig around. (Hint: Raters don't match the description put out by the MPAA, and despite their claims, they do indeed count how many times profanity is used and of what sort). This documentary becomes highly self-referential and directly enters the fray when the first cut of This Film is Not Yet Rated is submitted for a rating to the very group of raters it's filmed! For more detail, let me recommend Rob Vaux's review, which opens with a great anecdote about horror master Wes Craven and the shifting, never certain ratings line. This film is educational and a great deal of fun.
(NPR did a passel of short pieces on this documentary and the resulting changes. The Business also did an interview with Joan Graves, the MPAA Ratings Board Chair, who spins more than some political hacks.)
An Inconvenient Truth: While some have called this documentary the most expensive power point presentation ever, it's very educational and clear. Documentary films do not need a uniform aim or style. Michael Moore makes cinematic essays or op-eds, while this is more of a science section feature (a previous Oscar winner, Erroll Morris' Fog of War, is essentially one long interview). My one quibble is that the animated sequences showing flooding aren't clearly put in a context of, "this could happen by year X if we don't act," and the imminence of the threat is not clear. Still, I certainly learned much more about climate change, and more about Al Gore as a person. I think it's pretty cool that it's become one of the top-three grossing documentary films to date (March of the Penguins and Fahrenheit 9/11 being the other two). It's been funny and unsurprising to see the variety of baseless attacks on Gore launched by conservatives and thoroughly debunked by many liberal blogs. Regardless of one's political leanings, I think it's pretty hard to fault Gore, considering he gives his share of the profits to charity, something few if any of his critics would do.
Iraq for Sale: Although I found this Robert Greenwald documentary not as tight or effective as his previous piece Outfoxed (on Fox News), and much of its content will not be a surprise to news junkies, this is important material and Iraq for Sale lays out most of the major villains involved in unchecked war profiteering in Iraq. As with climate change, this should not be a partisan issue, but most previous attempts at oversight were shut down by the 109th Congress, and only now is anything close to a Truman Commission progressing to investigate. Iraq for Sale does do a nice job of putting faces to some of the stories of contaminated food and water for troops, and civilian contractors being put unnecessarily in the middle of lethal fire fights.
Baghdad ER: 60 Minutes did a similar, subsequent piece on the care that American troopers get in Iraq, but Baghdad ER offers a valuable glimpse into the dedicated doctors, nurses, pilots and other personnel who try their best to save lives, limbs and peace of mind for injured soldiers and marines. It's occasionally gruesome viewing, although the filmmakers intentionally left out some of the most unsettling footage. While the medical staff often adopts gallows humor to cope, there's absolutely no doubt that these men and women deeply care about their job, with some viewing it as a holy charge. It's hard not to think of M*A*S*H when the doctors perk up at the sound of choppers and head out to collect the wounded. Still, I thought the most poignant section was when everyone was asked what they wanted for July the 4th that year, and at least one guy says something like, 'No deaths, and no bodies in my ER.'
(Here’s a gripping interview with the filmmakers on Fresh Air.)
Tristan + Isolde: When a movie’s based on an Arthurian legend, I’m simultaneously more inclined to like it but also steel myself for disappointment. It’s sort of a nice change of pace, I suppose, to watch the pretty people in the latest teen romance swoon, fret, wallow in unrequited love and requited angst in a period setting versus at Annapolis or Hollywood High. Honestly, though, my experience seeing this not-awful but not-overwhelming film are inextricable from the audience experience. It seems I saw this with the local chapter of the James Franco fan club. These young ladies shrieked not only when Franco as Tristan first appeared, but every time. Although the film had been out for only a week (maybe two), they’d obviously seen it before at least once, because they were saying some of the most florid lines along with the film. There’s no question Tristan and Isolde lacks the cultural depth of Mallory’s telling of the tale or Wagner’s opera, but one must consider its target audience. It does have much more cultural depth than American Idol. The funniest moment for me was probably when Isolde (Sophia Myles) bowed to a sense of duty and slept with King Mark (Rufus Sewell), who is, after all, her husband. “See? I told you. She’s a slut,” came the judgmental voice behind me. Who says the youth of today have no moral compass?
Snakes on a Plane: It pains me that I missed what surely must be the greatest film since Citizen Kane. I shall rectify this at some point. But in the meantime, follow the link for two of the posters — in French!