Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

2007 Film Roundup, Part 3: Also Noteworthy

The Lookout: Screenwriter Scott Frank's first stint as a director didn't get as much attention as Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, perhaps because it didn't star Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who were at one time considered. The Lookout might be all the better for the smaller feel, though, and it was one of the better early releases of 2007. High school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) suffers a tragic accident due to youthful negligence, and his memory and internal censor are damaged in the process. His roommate is Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a blind man with a sardonic wit. Chris attends weekly sessions with a therapist, Janet (Carla Gugino, who's very good but who barely appears; I want to see her in some leading roles again). He depends on routine and writing reminders in a small notebook, and can't hold down complex jobs, but cleans a bank lobby at night. This makes him the target of Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), who was a couple of years ahead of him in high school. Gary's charismatic but shady, while the affectionate charms of Luvlee (Isla Fisher) are even harder for Chris to resist. Read the title of the film again, and you can guess at the basic plot — but it takes a number of unexpected but very interesting twists, and it's always centered on character. Lewis may be blind, but he has a good nose for a scam. He senses something's off, and tries to warn Chris, but Chris isn't that eager to hear. Meanwhile, Chris makes for an interesting hero. He's still racked with guilt over the accident, and views himself as damaged goods with some cause, since he's still affected by it. He's a young man who made a horrible mistake, but is basically good-hearted. He's too trusting, but he's ultimately no fool, and quite clever despite his disabilities. The cast is uniformly excellent, the plot is inventive and engaging without being gimmicky, and The Lookout features a couple of scenes (Chris approaching a young woman also in the accident, for instance) that are liable to stick with you afterward.

(Here's Scott Frank on The Treatment.)

Charlie Wilson's War: I'm going to go ahead and quote what I previously wrote:

Charlie Wilson's War is an excellent film, one of the best I've seen all year. Overall, the cast is superb. The film combines substance with wit to spare. Aaron Sorkin is a master of exposition, using it as ammunition and often off-setting it with comedy and other activities: sitting in a hot tub, a belly dance, the old West Wing walk and talk, a dance of dueling meetings reminiscent of the Marx Brothers. Director Mike Nichols knows the medium well, but he's also an actor's director, well beloved by them. Hanks is quite good as Wilson. I still think Julia Roberts is miscast, but I understand why she was cast (huge box office draw). I was ecstatic to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman cast as Gust; it's a perfect fit and one of his most enjoyable performances, and that's saying a lot. His first scene alone is worth the price of admission, and he and Hanks have great chemistry. Ned Beatty plays a small, key role. The film even has Amy Adams, splendid as always (see Junebug if you haven't), although a friend of mine noted, she should have been sporting big hair for the era (as most American women in the cast are).

As the film notes at the start, it's based on the true story (chronicled in the book of the same name) about our funding of a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, largely spurred by an unlikely figure, inveterate boozer and womanizer Charlie Wilson, Democratic Congressman of the Texas 2nd. The film's gripping and entertaining, and sometimes quite moving. There's a brief scene where Wilson speaks with some child victims of bombing in Afghanistan, and it's tastefully done, but it certainly hit me in the gut. (Sorkin and Nichols even humanize the Russians a bit.) Charlie Wilson's War's impressive because it's pretty damn ambitious, covering a vital but largely unknown chapter of our recent history, being extremely informative while avoiding what Sorkin once called the "eat your broccoli" feel. It's a very enjoyable watch.

Alas, as the same post and this follow-up post explores, the finished film has some notable historical omissions. An earlier draft of the film mentioned bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and they've been expunged. Apparently, this was due to a lawsuit or two and possibly Tom Hanks' concern about offending anyone. It's a real shame, rather gutless and irresponsible historically and artistically. Read the posts for much more on these issues.

(In addition to those links, here's Fresh Air with George Crile and Charlie Wilson.)

Hot Fuzz: There are few genre-blending films that can compete with the audacity of Hot Fuzz, taking quirky English countryside comedy-mystery and mixing it with over-the-top Michael Bay buddy action movie. The results are sometimes bizarre, often brilliant, but never, ever dull. Super cop Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is so damn good at catching the bad guys he's made the rest of London police force look bad, so his bosses (Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman, in fun, small roles) ship him off to the quietest town in England. There, the by-the-book cop's cop and man's man Angel must suffer dealing with the quirky incompetents in the local police force, most of all alternately annoying and likable goofball Danny Butterman (Nick Frost). Things grow more complicated with a series of improbable and gruesome murders, and Angel is determined to uncover the truth. Is local big shot Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton) the villain, or one of the many other colorful locals? Hot Fuzz may features even more unnecessary fast cuts than The Bourne Ultimatum, but for my money, it's far more entertaining. The only warning I'd issue is that in its loving parody of gratuitous violence, Hot Fuzz at times will be too violent for some peoples' tastes, although most of its dismembered heads and flying leg kicks are so cartoonishly over-the-top you'll likely laugh even as you wince. The cast includes many British comedy stalwarts, plus very funny, possibly unrecognizable cameos by Peter Jackson and Cate Blanchett. The same team provided one of the best movie parodies (Don't) in Grindhouse. As with their other feature effort, Shaun of the Dead, this is a affectionate parody from gents who really know and love their movies, tweaking conventions and expectations but intent on delivering the good stuff.

(Here's Edgar Wright on The Treatment and with Rob Vaux.)

Atonement: Beneath the Masterpiece Theater sheen lies a pretty good movie. Keira Knightley plays the haughty Cecilia Tallis, who finds herself attracted to Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), but she can't admit it to herself, especially given the class divide, so naturally she torments him. Although Cecilia's rich family paid for a first-rate education for Robbie, he is the son of servants and a servant himself. Meanwhile, there's Cecilia's little sister, young aspiring writer Briony Tallis. (You know she's upper class, with a name like that! And what are the odds that Romula Garai would play another Bryony within a year?) 13 year old Briony has something of a crush on Robbie, too, and misconstrues a series of unusual and troubling events at the family mansion, which in turn sets a number of unfortunate developments in motion. Cecilia and Robbie are so seldom together in the film that their relationship is more defined by absence than anything else. While this longing drives the film forward in later scenes, it would be stronger if (despite their British reticence) we had a better sense of their love being one for the ages before their separation. The more compelling story winds up being that of Briony, who as she grows older is haunted with regret, realizing she may have made a terrible mistake. The period is treated in interesting fashion. Initially, since the upper class Tallis family live in such a cloistered, time warp setting, barring a passing reference to Hitler, a period car and the like, there are times it might as easily be WWI as WWII. The war only really intrudes later in the film. Some of the military scenes are nicely staged, but they're largely a backdrop. The war serves mainly as a plot obstacle for Cecilia and Robbie, while it seems Briony as a nurse confronts its horrible consequences more. I can't speak to the film as an adaptation, although veteran writer Christopher Hampton is generally superb at such tasks. I've read book reviews with reactions ranging from love to loathing for the original novel by Ian McEwan. (POSSIBLE SPOILERS) The themes of truth, memory and fiction can be powerful, and Atonement could easily have veered into the chestnut territory of art being self-serving lies. While there's a touch of that, Atonement's stance is more that art can be used to spur great self-examination or offer forgiveness. The Rashomon elements of the film work quite well, as does Dario Marianelli's Oscar-winning score, which using typewriter keys, appropriate as Briony goes over and over events in her mind... or writes and rewrites them. At its worst, Atonement veers toward soulless epic, but what really saves it is a few warmly human performances. Even when alone, Cecilia is too aloof and Robbie too reserved for my tastes, and while Saoirse Ronan is impressive as 13 year old Briony, she's a rather cold child (as the plot demands). In contrast, while Brenda Blethyn as Robbie's mother Grace only appears briefly, she's appealing as always, and Romula Garai as young nurse Briony makes for a much more vulnerable, engaging focus (Garai really changes her appearance from movie to movie; I didn't even recognize her at first). Finally, Vanessa Redgrave in the final, extended scene, wondrous as always, makes for one hell of a closer.

Juno: This most financially successful of Best Picture nominees earned an initial wave of praise, then some backlash, but despite a few stumbles, it's a very good, funny, smart, endearing little film. Like Knocked Up, it centers on a pregnancy, but this time it's teenager Juno MacGuff who's with child. As for any "political message" to Juno, as screenwriter Diablo Cody put it, "We didn't intend to make a movie about teen pregnancy and the options available to people who find themselves in that situation. We just wanted to tell a personal story about maturity and relationships. And the pregnancy just kind of motivates the story." I thought Juno's decision to leave the local family planning clinic and have the baby was a bit abrupt, if much less so than in Knocked Up. Still, since she's an off-beat teen clearly skeeved out by the clinic, it sorta worked for me, and I accepted it as a necessary plot point. Juno starts out self-consciously quirky, with an early scene featuring Rainn Wilson particularly overwritten. It quickly settles down, though, and not coincidentally gets much better as it focuses more on the characters. Ellen Page is delightful in a breakout performance as Juno, smart, sassy and sarcastic, confident beyond her abilities, but reflective enough also to realize that, as she puts it, she's "dealing with things far above [her] maturity level." The rest of the cast is equally superb. Alison Janney as Juno's stepmom is a particular standout, and Jennifer Garner delivers her best serious performance to date as Vanessa, who plans to adopt Juno's baby along with her husband Mark (Jason Bateman). What makes the film really work is that beneath the sass and entertaining banter, the filmmakers really care about their characters, who all have some nuance, depth and a moment or two. While being pregnant is a reality check for Juno all on its own, she also has to confront the fallibility of other people as well as her own shortcomings. After Thank You for Smoking and now Juno, I have to say I'm quite impressed with Jason Reitman as a director. He's got a great comic feel, but also a love for character and an understanding of the core of his stories. It's no surprise, then, that he consistently gets such good performances, not merely from individuals, but from ensembles. The two films have the energy, rhythm and wit of screwball comedies, but Reitman can also deliver more serious moments without going maudlin and sappy. I will say I'm not crazy about the soundtrack, because I think there's far better indie music out there. I was a bit surprised that when Reitman asked Page about what music Juno would listen to, she said The Moldy Peaches, because Juno in the film expresses a taste for much harder stuff. But I guess it sorta works, and sorta grows on ya. I've met people who thought Juno was over-hyped, and I agree it was during the peak of the craze, but I can't blame the filmmakers for that, and I've yet to meet anyone who didn't actually like it. Go see it if you haven't already. (Oddest promotion, since Fox marketed this one very hard, was seeing a Juno billboard truck driving in morning gridlock in Los Angeles the day of release.)

(Here's a good Fresh Air interview with Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, The Treatment with Reitman, and Rob Vaux's set of four interviews with the cast and crew. Finally, if you're a fan of the Moldy Peaches, here is a reunion session they did for NPR.)

Superbad: 2007 was a great year for Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, but also for Michael Cera, a key character in Juno and one of the stars of Superbad. Superbad has both realistic and fantastic elements. The relationships between Evan (Cera), Seth (Jonah Hill) and "McLovin" Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) ring emotionally true. Seth especially is awfully crass, but the scenes are true to high school life and pretty damn funny. Meanwhile, Bill Hader and Seth Rogen as a pair of cops provide quite a few laughs, but their actions increasingly strain plausibility. You're not likely to care, though, because the whole ride is so fun. The film takes place within 24 hours, and the setup's pretty simple: it's the end of senior year, there's a big party, and Seth and Evan promise to get the booze to impress hostess Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Martha MacIsaac), respectively… with the hopes of getting laid as well. But the night takes a series of bizarre turns. Director Greg Mottola has a good feel for comedy, staging many scenes well, but this sort of material lives and dies with the performances and relationships, and that's what makes Superbad memorable. The shy Evan is definitely more likable, but while Seth can be a raging ass at times, he has his redeeming features as well. Screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg spent years writing and revising this one, eventually with notes from Apatow. The character names are no accident (they even had a buddy named Fogle growing up) and the film's jam-packed with real incidents as well as wild inventions. Superbad is rated R mainly for swearing, so if you don't like cussing, definitely skip this film. It's also definitely a film made from the male adolescent perspective, although nicely, Jules and Becca are both given their due with real scenes, thoughts, and feelings (for more of the female perspective, check out Juno, Mean Girls, Saved, Clueless, My So-Called Life and maybe some of the top tier of WB series). While Seth especially talks a big game, he and Evan also aren't just interested in Jules and Becca from a libido standpoint, either. Superbad works because it really captures all the joys, comforts and petty annoyances of adolescent camaraderie, as well as the anxiety about graduating and going separate ways.

(I heard Rogen and Goldberg speak about the film at length here in L.A., but alas, that's not online. The Apatow and Rogen interviews I've linked with Knocked Up further down focus mainly on that film, but there's some spillover to Superbad. Meanwhile, you can watch and listen to score composer Lyle Workman discussing his work. )

Ratatouille: Pixar so consistently delivers good films it's easy to take them for granted. Ratatouille centers on French country rat Remy (Patton Oswalt), whose refined sense of smell and taste helps prevent his family and larger rat clan from being poisoned by the local farmers. But he has higher aspirations. He believes what famed (and recently deceased) Parisian chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) says: "Anyone can cook." When Remy winds up in Paris, he feels compelled to intervene when he sees Linguini, a kitchen boy at Gusteau's restaurant, "ruining the soup!" Remy saves the day and creates a masterful soup, but is discovered and captured. Luckily, before Linguini drowns Remy in the river as ordered, Remy and Linguini manage to communicate. They start an unlikely partnership, with Remy cooking and Linguini taking the credit. Linguini's rise through the ranks, though, creates anxiety for the current owner,
Skinner (Ian Holm), as well as Colette (Janeane Garofalo), who had been helping Linguini but feels betrayed when she's passed over. Meanwhile, supercilious food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) threatens to review the restaurant yet again, which could rescue or sink it. As director Bird Bird's pointed out in interviews, the idea of a cooking rat is not one most studios would have approved, but the biggest trick for making good movies is simply having good judgment and trusting it. At its heart, Ratatouille is a classic follow-your-dream underdog story. There's also a fair amount of Cyrano thrown in, although rather than Remy writing love letters for Linguini to Colette, he's, um, cooking. (But that is still very French!) Ratatouille manages the neat trick of celebrating epicureans, artistry and refinement while also being anti-snobbery. For me, the three best Pixar features are still Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, but Ratatouille is certainly a solid addition to the Pixar canon.

(This Fresh Air interview with Brad Bird and Patton Oswalt is very funny. Here's also The Treatment and The Business, both with Brad Bird.)

The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher): This Austrian film based on a true story won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Yes, there are many Holocaust films out there, but it's only natural given the inherent drama of the events, and The Counterfeiters is a worthy addition to the canon. In this case, we focus on Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), an expert counterfeiter thrown into a concentration camp as a "habitual criminal." But the cop who busted him is now a member of the SS, Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), and "Sally" is transferred to a special unit, put in charge of trying to counterfeit the British pound and the American dollar. The unit's dynamics are interesting: there are Slavs and Germans and Poles, capitalists and Marxists, and bankers and criminals like Sally. They don't always get along. Still, Sally and the others are happy to survive. However, when the Marxist Burger (August Diehl) realizes that they're playing a crucial role in the Nazi war effort, he wants to sabotage it. Sally quips that he'd rather possibly die tomorrow than die for nothing today. What makes him a fascinating character is that he's one hell of a survivor, and seemingly amoral to that end, but in actuality, Sally sticks his neck out for others a tremendous amount. He does so most notably for Koyla (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young Russian architecture student prone to funks that Sally tries to alleviate. Koyla's also suffering from worsening tuberculosis, which is contagious and a major threat to all the inmates. The inmates do have one doctor among them, and he's a good one, but he lacks medicine, which Sally is desperate to acquire. Meanwhile, even though Sally doesn't particularly like Burger, he respects and occasionally protects him, and forcefully. Karl Markovics is not a conventionally handsome man, and his face is often an impassive cipher, which he uses to great effect. When he chooses, small gestures and facial expressions speak volumes. There's at least one scene where he carries on a conversation of sorts with Herzog without even speaking. The last shot and line are memorable, as is the sequence preceding it. Meanwhile, I've never seen a ping pong table used for such absurdist, ironic and chilling effect in a film. Unless you can't take the subject matter, which naturally can be brutal (although this one's much less so than Schindler's List and The Pianist, I'd say), it's well worth a look.

No End in Sight : While much of the material in this excellent, Oscar-nominated documentary by Charles Ferguson on Iraq will not be new to news junkies, even they will appreciate many of the details, and it's a superb primer for those who haven't been following Iraq that closely or haven't read one of the dozen or so superb exposés on the Bush administration's astounding incompetence. While No End in Sight speaks with several authors of said exposés, it concentrates on staffers who were actually there on the ground in 2003. Most of these people are career government employees, dedicated and bright, without much of an axe to grind. Their frustrations seem much more about not getting the job done versus settling any sort of personal vendettas. No End in Sight is extremely well edited and flows nicely, but its chief virtue may be that it's so detailed and persuasive even many conservatives reluctant to hear its message have been convinced, including Stephen Hunter, his annoyingly vague (and possibly, strikingly ignorant) slams notwithstanding. (If you follow the link, is he attacking Michael Moore? Robert Greenwald? 9/11 conspiracy theorists?) The sad reality is that some people will always shoot the messenger, but No End in Sight manages to drive home the harsh realities of Iraq to a wider audience and documents some key follies, and for that we can be grateful.

(No End in Sight uses some footage from Frontline's excellent episode "The Lost Year in Iraq," which can be viewed online here. You can see a trailer of the film and read Charles Ferguson's online chat at Crooks and Liars here.)

Sicko: While Michael Moore occasionally makes choices I don't like, I admire his dedication. For all the attacks he receives — and he received many baseless hatchet jobs over Sicko — the film examines an extremely important subject, health care in America. Moore makes viewers much more aware of how the health care systems of Canada, France and the U.K. function. When it comes to basic care, as a United Nations study showed, those countries provide better care much cheaper (40% cheaper in the case of the U.K.). While there are legitimate discussions to be had about health care in America, the national discourse is badly skewed, and misleading, outlandish claims or outright lies by opponents to health care reform commonly go unchallenged. Michael Moore points out that what we accept as normal, an insurance-dominated health care system, is not the norm in most other industrialized nations. I cringed a bit when Moore took ground zero workers to Cuba for health care, because I knew his critics would pounce on it, but let's be honest, they'd pounce regardless, and it's not as if many of them are operating in good faith. And, besides, the people Moore takes receive necessary heath care, thanks to Moore, who's done more on the issue than most of his critics. And if those sequences shame the people who should have provided those workers care in America, well, all the better. Some of the stories in Sicko, of insurance companies refusing to approve potentially life-saving treatments because they're "experimental," are wrenching. It's all the more disturbing in the case of a woman who worked at the very hospital that refused to give treatment to her dying husband. (The recent, tragic story of Nataline Sarkisyan shows such events are still occurring.) Footage of a mentally ill homeless woman being "dumped" on a curbside is also troubling. There's some very good work out there on health care reform, but the political will is painfully lacking. Credit Michael Moore for pushing the conversation.

(From Crooks and Liars alone, just to give a sampling:
"Big Pharma and Health Insurance Companies Go After Michael Moore"
"Another attack piece on Michael Moore by the LA Times"
"SiCKO has Blue Cross Scrambling…"
"Michael Moore demands apology from Wolf Blitzer"
"CNN “Reality Check” That Got Michael Moore Fired Up"
"SiCKO’s Truth Squad Sets CNN Straight"
"Michael Moore vs Sanjay Gupta"
"Did CNN Try To Make Michael Moore Look Bad?"
"Wife Of Victim From Michael Moore’s Sicko Responds To Stossel Hit Piece")

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