Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

2006 Film Round-Up, Part 3: Other Notable Films

Little Miss Sunshine:
The indie and comedy hit of the year, Little Miss Sunshine earned all its good will and plenty of positive word of mouth by delivering a funny, witty, poignant film of many layers that's a blast on first encounter and gets better with each viewing. People just love this film, and for good reason. All of the characters could easily be just shallow and self-consciously quirky, but the script, the direction and performances all steer away from that. As odd as this family may be, they're recognizable and real, and each one of them has a handful of moments that flesh them out. Although Dwayne (Paul Dano) is committed to being a silent, sullen teen, at a crucial point he still pens a note to tell his little sister Olive (the adorable, impressive Abigail Breslin) to "go hug mom." (He's too cool and invested in his image to do it himself, but he still cares about his mom.) Later in the film, Olive demonstrates an amazing instinct for how to reach out to her brother. The most obnoxious character in the family, patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) and the most entertainingly caustic, "Grandpa" (Alan Arkin), have a brief, lovely moment in the van after Richard gets some bad news. A conversation between Frank (Steve Carrell) and his nephew Dwayne on a dock is the moral highlight of the movie, a quiet, moment of insight and connection that helps set up the unforgettable, energetic climax. It's impossible not to root for Olive throughout, and she's a real kid versus the Hollywood wise-cracking, artificial-supposed-to-be-precious kind. Americans love underdogs, but the dirty secret is that they love underdogs who win. Little Miss Sunshine is a great comedy, and a great film, because it in addition to all its obvious merits, it tackles those issues. Almost every character is obsessed with external success and recognition in some manner, as opposed to valuing the effort put in. Audience members might be Richard in real life, but it’s Olive who's going to win them over. Little Miss Sunshine also celebrates family in a non-treacly way, loving people for their goofiness, not despite it. Like many of the best comedies, from Shakespeare to Raising Arizona, Little Miss Sunshine possesses a strong anarchic, anti-establishment streak while simultaneously affirming the value of human connection.

As if you haven't seen the film! The first time I saw Little Miss Sunshine, I felt the major development with Grandpa and the family's solution to it broke the tone and suspension of disbelief for me somewhat. It didn't bother me as much the second time. Expectations dictate that Dwayne must speak at some point, but the Hollywood cliché is that he'd say break to say something sweet to his sister. Little Miss Sunshine explodes that cliché, and the cause of him breaking his silence is ingenuously set up. Similarly, I knew there had to be something brewing with Olive's final number, because we're very deliberately (if justifiably) never shown it in advance. But so what. Sure, in this day and age — and certainly after this movie! — most baby beauty pageant acts might receive some sort of pre-screening. But so what. I know this film has gotten some minor backlash over some of the issues I mentioned above, but I'm happy to defend it to the hilt, just as with a beloved dysfunctional family member. Luckily, not many people need convincing on this point. This is a great flick. While its success means a ton of crappy ripoffs will be in the wings, it also means some good indies might get a more serious look from distributors.

(I was fortunate enough to hear a lecture from screenwriter Michael Arndt last fall about the endings of movies (he has been working for Pixar), and he's a very sharp guy. He examined what made for a crowd-pleasing ending in Star Wars, The Graduate, and Little Miss Sunshine, and broke the films down along three conflicts and storylines: the external conflict, the internal conflict, and the philosophical conflict.)

(All from Fresh Air, here’s the directors and writer, here’s Greg Kinnear, and here’s Alan Arkin.)

The Departed: Poor Scorsese has been a victim of his own accomplishments, where every one of his films has been judged against his previous masterpieces, with a few critics even wondering if he’s just declined. I still need to see Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong film that The Departed is based on, which some claim is better. Regardless, I found The Departed taut, gripping, and fun. Not surprisingly, it features short scenes of extreme violence, and thus isn’t for everyone, but audiences really enjoyed this one. It's got a great basic plot premise, two competing moles. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) serves on the police force but secretly works for the mob, while Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a deep undercover cop infiltrating the most notorious local gang, led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). One of the best scenes in the movie occurs when Costigan and Sullivan duel back and forth during a sting operation without knowing each other’s identities, trying to tip off the cops and mobsters respectively without blowing their own covers. In this film, a cell phone ring can also take on deadly import, laced with a delicious tension. There are wheels within wheels here, a complicated, fun and engrossing chess game with bouts of brutal action and some really cracklin’ dialogue. While Alec Baldwin as Captain Ellerby and Mark Wahlberg as Staff Sergeant Dignam have smaller roles, they each have several great scenes and fantastic lines. Nicholson is so effortlessly menacing it’s easy to take his great performance for granted, just as Martin Sheen perfectly captures the paternal nature of the undercover division’s Captain Queenan. Damon, normally playing a hero, makes an awfully good calculating villain (shades of Ripley), and baby-faced DiCaprio is really starting to grow into a fine actor and become convincing as a young man. The great tension of the film is that sometimes you’ll find yourself rooting for Sullivan and sometimes for Costigan. (You might not want Sullivan to "win," but we spend so much time with him at times it's easy to wish that he doesn't get caught.) There’s also the question of how deep Costigan can get involved with Frank’s gangsters before becoming morally corrupted, and at times it seems Sullivan is just an ambitious yuppie climber in a particularly bloody trade. As Sullivan’s girlfriend Madolyn, relative newcomer Vera Farmiga is fantastic, giving a depth, tension and consequences to Sullivan’s actions. The tension ratchets up even more when in the course of her psychiatrist job she’s assigned to evaluate Costigan, and some romantic sparks fly. She gives some much needed female dimension to a film that’s brimming with testosterone, male chest-beating, and very much about fathers and sons. Queenan is clearly a father figure for the dedicated but unbalanced Costigan, and both Costigan and Sullivan essentially try to prove themselves the better “son” to Frank Costello, if for different reasons. (The Departed also features nice supporting work by Ray Winstone and Anthony Anderson, in a rare dramatic role.) In the third act, the film becomes a bit weaker, because suddenly Costigan seems to act much less intelligently than before — but I really want to see the film again to judge this better. The very end is highly satisfying. The trick of a great thriller is to keep us on our toes, keep us guessing, tweaking our expectations and giving us what we want, but in unexpected ways. The balance of plot to character leans much heavier toward plot than in most of Scorsese’s films, and I didn’t care about the characters as deeply as I did in some of his other films, but boy, was I engaged. The most seemingly effortless job of all comes from Scorsese himself, a master at his craft aided by usual culprits editor Thelma Schoonmaker (winning another Oscar for her work) and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. I need to watch The Departed again as well as Infernal Affairs, but this is easily one of the most entertaining, energetic films of the year. If America could produce more films like The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, and Letters From Iwo Jima every year, I’d be pretty happy.

(Here’s Mark Wahlberg on Fresh Air.)

The Queen:
Although I love Stephen Frears and Helen Mirren, I was wary about seeing this film. I must confess, I am far from a monarchist and tried to avoid the oversaturated news about Princess Diana back during her reign of People magazine just as I do with Anna Nicole Smith these days. However, it’s great (and if even I liked it...) Witty, briskly paced, and only 97 minutes, The Queen manages to depict a transformation in several characters with elegant economy, and delves into the odd, anachronistic institution that is the British Monarchy in modern, democratic Britain. It’s the glimpse into this unusual world and its sometimes bizarre mores and rituals, centered on a captivating character, that is likely to suck you in. Mirren has always been superb, capable of great power and tremendous nuance, and makes Queen Elizabeth II a fascinating figure. Her counterpart is new Prime Minister Tony Blair, vibrantly played by Michael Sheen. I had no idea this brief period in Britain was so momentous on a cultural level, and it’s interesting to listen to Frears and Mirren talk about the British reverence for the Queen, who has never before been depicted on film. Playing such a well-known, well-regarded and still-living figure could not have been easy, but if Mirren’s gotten anything less than a rave anywhere, I haven’t seen it. Given that Mirren’s a tremendously sensual person, the complete transformation she accomplishes into the formidable but un-sensual queen is all the more impressive. Thematically, there’s a real Shakespearean element as Elizabeth’s ideas about how she should conduct her public role come into conflict with her shifting private feelings. Perhaps part of the film’s appeal is the wish fulfillment of seeing a national leader bow to reason, learn something and adjust. We would like to think they all would be so wise. Regardless, The Queen’s a film of intelligent speculation and strong characters dynamics. I’m still not a monarchist, but The Queen accomplishes what most good movies do: it makes the unfamiliar known and makes the familiar new and intriguing.

(On separate installments of Fresh Air, here’s director Stephen Frears and star Helen Mirren.)

United 93: Saying United 93 is an “important” film makes me feel as if it’s an “eat your broccoli” piece, something one should feel obligated to see but won’t enjoy. The truth is it’s in an entirely different category from most movie-making. This is a great, important film, amazingly crafted and compelling, but the subject matter is something every viewer has his or her own reaction to, and not everyone’s up for seeing this. Similar to many of the most effective Holocaust narratives, United 93 wisely underplays the powerful emotional content, allowing each moment to speak for itself. It’s frankly a tough, unenviable task for British director Paul Greengrass to be the first out of the gate with a major 9/11 film, but he was exactly the right pick for it, this was the right time, and this is exactly the right movie to be first. Greengrass’ restraint and respect are commendable, and as American a story as this is, it probably helps to have someone with compassion but a little distance at the reins. It’s also completely non-partisan. This is about human beings, history, perhaps even healing, not political statements. Using many of the real participants, the film acts as a historical document where possible, and engages in intelligent speculation elsewhere. (The only times I felt pulled out a bit was during some of the speculation near the end, actually, because I couldn’t help but realize it was.) Using relatively unknown actors to fill out the rest of the roles was also a wise, essential choice. Some of the details are striking. It’s astounding that 9/11 was for Ben Sliney (who plays himself) his first day on the job as FAA Director of Operations. His unprecedented call to ground all flights after the two tower hits is all the more remarkable and courageous given this. For the most part, the film depicts people doing their best to come to grips with a terrible, unprecedented situation. As the chaos unfolds, they have to cobble together and adapt because there’s just no framework for processing it. As with Letters From Iwo Jima or a Brecht play, you know what’s coming, but that increases the tension rather than lessening it, and as with all good drama, even if you know the outcome you can find yourself wishing that this time it will play out differently, surely somehow it can. As with Letters..., the people on United 93 are fully aware that their chances of survival aren’t great, but they choose to act anyway. That does take a special sort of courage.

Greengrass received blessings for the project from all forty families of the victims, an extraordinary endorsement. This is anything but an exploitation film. If anything, it is a monument, and I’m quite certain the magnitude of Greengrass’ achievement will be much more appreciated in years to come. Critic Ann Hornaday had a great line: ""United 93" is a great movie, and I hated every minute of it." I know people who could not bear to see this film. I was wary of it, but while I was caught up in it, and the memories were inevitable, I found it quite bearable. For most, the most emotional moment is the ending. For me, for whatever reason, it was the second tower hit. Perhaps it’s because then the inevitable progression was clear. United 93 was one of the best film of 2006, but everyone will have to gauge for themselves if it’s for them.

(Here’s a good interview with Paul Greengrass. There are many good reviews out there, but I’d like to highlight two of the best, from Ann Hornaday and Rob Vaux.)

Casino Royale:
It’s normally too easy for critics to dismiss a genre or blockbuster film, but this was one of the most satisfying, pleasurable views of the year for me. If only every re-invention or re-working could be this potent, fun and stylish! Daniel Craig may well be the best actor to ever play Bond, but he also completely sells the character — a brawler in a tux, a tough guy with a sharp and nasty wit, and in this film, a warrior with a gruff exterior to cover a surprisingly tender side. Most of all, Craig is completely convincing as a badass, and that’s essential for Bond. Everything is re-tooled to a more realistic and human scale. Some longtime Bond fans didn’t like the lack of gadgets, thought the film should be set in the 60s, and the film does drag near the end (it’s at least 10 minutes too long), but I loved this flick. It worked wonderfully as an origin flick, with so many great touches: the black and white opening, with a direct salute to the Bond series POV blood shot, the card games, several great fights, and an amazingly kinetic chase sequence early in the film. This is a Bond who is bright but makes mistakes, and compensates in many cases by being tough, relentless and sometimes just lucky. One complaint: French actress Eva Green is spot on in her tone as Vesper Lynd, but her accent is a bit odd and her diction garbled, and she often pitches her voice low to be dramatic. The end result is it’s very tough to tell what the hell’s she saying at times (I couldn't decipher one of her key lines in the trailer, actually, despite multiple attempts, until I heard it again in the film, in the theater). Still, the scene between Lynd and Bond when they first meet on the train is a first-rate, fantastic piece of flirtatious character exploration, and all the exchanges between Bond and M (Judi Dench) are a joy. You fully believe M cares for Bond in a somewhat maternal way but nonetheless believe she’ll have him killed as she promises if he breaks one of her edicts. The suspense is often character-based, and the drama and action enhance each other well. Bravo, and keep ‘em coming.

The Good Shepherd: At least one critic dubbed The Good Shepherd “the Godfather of spy movies,” and that’s not a bad comparison, except The Godfather explodes with outsized Italian passions while The Good Shepherd simmers with the quiet resentments, privileged entitlements and secret ambitions of some very uptight Yalie WASPs. Matt Damon is superb as the supremely taciturn Edward Bell Wilson, who is recruited first during WWII for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and then later for the newly-formed CIA. He becomes an expert in espionage (and would make one hell of a poker player). Based on the true history of the CIA but with fictionalized elements, The Good Shepherd is especially timely on the issues of torture and civil rights. Director Robert DeNiro is rarely flashy but quite skillful is laying out every scene, and our understanding of most characters will shift, sometimes radically, as the film progresses, especially when it comes to their loyalty and innocence. This is not a film for a lazy audience, as DeNiro often hinges an important revelation on a implication, or a prop. Meanwhile, the bigger questions are, what is the emotional cost of becoming a “spook”? What does it cost one’s family? Angelina Jolie fought for the role of “Clover”/ Margaret Wilson, but she isn’t on screen much and seems miscast here. While she and Edward are supposed to have a mismatched marriage, Jolie is some sexual jungle cat paired with Damon’s calculating monk. Michael Gambon is brilliant as always, John Turturro contributes his usual great energy, and Mark Ivanir is riveting as a torture victim. DeNiro reports he only really acted in the film to secure funding and for sales, but he’s great as usual, and given his statute it’s a wise move that he makes himself the practical-but-not-preachy conscience of the American spy world. The only actor who seemed ineffective to me was Eddie Redmayne as Edward’s son, Edward junior. It may well be the script more than his performance, but the character seemed far too naive for the spy game, especially in his beliefs of the importance of his personal life to world powers engaged in a fierce geopolitical struggle. The last section of the film focuses more on Edward and Ed junior, and it rang a bit false to me. With Italian mobsters, it might have been operatic. With the reserved, WASP-y Edward, there’s no Michael Corleone moment. I was engaged by this film throughout, but I find the subject matter fascinating and enjoyed the nuance. I do know several people who didn’t enjoy it all, mainly because they never felt invested in the characters. I would agree this is a pretty cerebral film, with an unemotional, or at least repressed, main character. If you want to see a dramatic, transformational personal arc, this is the wrong film for you, and while there’s a great deal of intrigue, this is a serious drama, not a summer popcorn thriller. It’s likely to find a smaller but appreciative audience.

(Critic Stephen Hunter’s review gives some superb background on the history the film is based on, and Hunter’s interview with DeNiro is also enlightening.)

Babel: The third of his “trilogy” of non-linear films, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is also his most ambitious, set in Morocco, Japan, Mexico and the United States, as he tries to show the hidden ties that bind us and the vast chasms that alienate us. A film full of many gems, in Babel the parts nonetheless do not add to a greater whole. While everyone, actors and non-actors alike, give great performances, the two Oscar-nominated actresses, Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko and Adriana Barraza as Amelia are standouts. I found the sequences with Chieko, a deaf girl in Japan, the most affecting, perhaps because she’s the most wounded, having lost her mother through unusual circumstances we’re not certain of until the end (if then). Rejected by a cute boy or two due to her deafness, she compensates by becoming more sexually provocative and self-destructive. It’s clear she desperately needs some human connection, and her well-intentioned but reserved father Yasujiro (Kôji Yakusho) struggles to help but fails. The sequences with Chieko high and on a swing set and later in a deafening dance club, exposing her subjective perception of the world, are bravura filmmaking, some of the most poetic and masterful of the year (Iñárritu, a former club DJ, planned out every shot and cut of the club sequence in advance). Meanwhile, Amelia is just a good woman trying to do the right thing and honor her family who winds up getting caught in an increasingly nightmarish situation. The schism in the marriage of Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan’s (Cate Blanchett) may or may not be avoidable, but the tragedy that befalls them is completely unnecessary, and that’s what makes it so terrible. While the film shows it’s useful to at least try to learn another language or two, it also shows that more than language separates us. Except in Japan, the cops are mean, and apart from the cops, most of the pain and suffering results from ignorance or accident, not malice. Babel’s greatest wisdom is that much suffering, and much alienation, is not due to “evil” per se, and is avoidable. The storylines seemed to end rather than conclude, apart from the Chieko-Yasujiro one, which has some poignancy. (There’s also one weird seeming discrepancy between the Richard-Susan and Amelia storylines as presented with the time flashes, but I'll have to see the film again to be sure.) I still prefer Iñárritu’s much more intimate 21 Grams, but this is well worth a look.

(Here’s Iñárritu on The Treatment.)

Little Children: Ah, yes, another satirical look at suburbia. What makes Little Children so good, besides the astounding Kate Winslet, is that while it may poke gentle fun at its characters, it never truly mocks them. Even the most unlikable of characters, former child molester Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) and the obsessive Larry (Noah Emmerich) have dimension to them. They may not always be sympathetic, but they are understandable. While Sarah Pierce (Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) may be wrong to start their emotional and physical involvement, their marriages are in poor shape, and not entirely due to them. Similar to Babel, the denizens of suburbia in Little Children may be miserable and make bad choices, but it’s more due to their inherent natures, tough situations, and their confusion at trying to deal with those than malice. Sarah struggles with being an extremely bright woman robbed of almost all intellectual stimulation, caring for her young daughter as a stay-at-home mom. Ronnie has to fight his own disturbing urges. Larry is so filled with rage it’s poisoned him and all his relationships. Brad is still trying to find his place in the world or recapture his glory years, but is essentially being forced into a career role that doesn’t suit him (although I found him more immature and unsympathetic as the film went on). Winslet, a dedicated mother in real life, remarked that she’d probably be pretty harsh in judging Sarah Pierce if she met her, but you’d never guess that watching her performance, which is remarkably present, open and real. It is that suspension of judgment by the filmmakers that makes this film so welcome. One warning for the squeamish — there are some rather disturbing scenes, including an act of violence foreshadowed throughout the film.

(Here’s Little Children novelist Tom Perrotta on Fresh Air.)

Borat: Borat specializes in a a type of cringe-comedy also seen in The Office, and it’s not for all tastes. It’s more performance art than comedy in a way, and while some evoke Andy Kauffman to describe Sacha Baron Cohen's work as Borat, the closest contemporary parallel is probably Stephen Colbert, if he adopted a really obnoxious persona and went into places where he might get beat up. Like Colbert, Cohen uses his character Borat to mock his targets in a highly ironic fashion. He’s also the best type of fish-out-of-water — it not “let’s laugh at the yokel,” although Cohen plays with that approach, but “let’s question this society I’m stumbling into.” Still, the best parallel to Borat is probably Groucho Marx (albeit more crass and less clothed), because Borat embodies the long comedy tradition of anarchy and upheaval of social mores. (I also find it hilarious anyone could accuse Cohen of being anti-Semitic, as I’m sure he does, too!) Whatever you think of Cohen, he is fearless, and earned my respect for that. While the film is episodic and uneven, I don’t think any film made me laugh harder all year, and the packed theater I saw it in went crazy at several points. The highpoint is probably the nude chase in the hotel, and several people in the theater couldn’t breathe as a result. I’ll take some unevenness for that sort of laugh any time.

(Update: Sacha Baron Cohen's interview on Fresh Air is back up, and can be heard - for now - here!)

The Prestige: As Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday put it, “If you see one magic-at-the-turn-of-the-century movie this year, make it The Prestige!” Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan delivers a captivating tale of obsession and rivalry. The battleground is stage magic, with all its tricks and reversals, and the script wonderfully mirrors that, delivering one twist after another. However, almost all these twists are married to character, so it never feels that gimmicky. Even if you see one of the two major twists coming (or the many smaller ones), the film is satisfying. The magicians reading each other's journals makes for a great framing device, where the magician seemingly on top is dethroned and supplanted, for at least a stretch, and it's hard to tell what's a con and what isn't. This adds intrigue rather than frustration. If there’s a fault to Nolan, it’s that he tends to be a very cerebral director, and the obsessive nature of these characters won’t engender sympathy from many a viewer. Also, Scarlett Johansson, while a promising young actress, still struggles with accents and that extra level of nuance. (At her first entrance, I thought, “Oh, she’s an American in this one,” only to hear her inconsistent British accent in subsequent scenes. She’s sharp, very pretty and picks good projects, but I hope she continues to develop her chops, because it’d be a shame if she didn’t reach her full potential.) The underrated David Bowie has a nice creepy turn as enigmatic scientist Nikola Tesla, and Michael Caine delivers one of his better recent supporting performances as a mentor whose conscience is eventually aroused by the escalating rivalry. Caine’s Cutter probably becomes more of an audience surrogate than either of the two leads. This film’s unsettling and disturbing aspects come less from visceral shocks (although there are several) than watching the extremes these characters are willing to pursue, and the clear cost this has on them and those who care for them. This sort of tone is not for everyone, but if you liked Nolan’s other films, Memento and Batman Begins, definitely check this one out.

Notes on a Scandal: "Oh, it’s Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, of course they’re good, but do I really want to make the time to see yet another meticulously acted British drama?" I'd say yes for this very engaging film. Judi Dench as Barbara Covett makes a great screen villain, an aging, female Iago, a calculating spider, toxic and controlling. She can only interact with other people through a voyeuristic, secret, mocking disdain or through manipulation.

For all her adopted airs of superiority, she's so ferociously in denial of her own identity, most of all her sexuality (she pushes away even her sister's kindness about this) and so deeply insecure that she attempts to engineer indebtedness in her victims to feel valued. It's the only way she knows how to relate. Dench is always good, but she's fantastic here, and as much as I adore Helen Mirren and am happy to see her win her Oscar, Dench's performance here is probably better. Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart is ethereral, and while Bill Nighy is consistently solid, as her husband he has two to three moments late in the film which are so well written and so pitch-perfect in delivery it’s easy to overlook how damn good he is. That’s true of the film as a whole. Patrick Marber (Closer) is no stranger to sexual politics and crafts a strong script (I can't speak to it as an adaptation). Meanwhile, Director Richard Eyre has a conductor's sense of tempo and shifts, and expertly leaves several moments uncertain. You really aren't sure what the outcome of some scenes will be, and Phillip Glass' score adds to the sense of unresolved, floating unease. For instance, just when you start to feel sympathy for Covett, she acts like a sociopath. When Sheba flees reporters back into Barbara Covett's flat, has she surrendered? Is she trapped, as Covett, well, covets? When Sheba goes to face her husband after the affair, standing in the doorway, the scene is drawn out tensely - will he actually take her back?

The one major stumbling block for me with this film was the affair itself. Obviously, it's plausible that a teacher would have an affair with a high school student. However, Stephen is only 15 in the film — probably because if he were older, there wouldn't be the same legal penalties involved. But wouldn't the scandal be enough even without the age factor? He still looks mostly like a kid, not quite a strapping young man. Also, Sheba Hart has a family and children. Even though she's unhappy and restless, she doesn't fit the more intensely lonely profile of most female offenders (in America, at least). Some critics found these factors really derailed the movie for them. Blanchett sells it about as well as anyone could, but there's no doubt it hurts the film (although it's probably unavoidable given the source material). Of course the affair will be troubling, but it seems we need to buy it more readily. For a recent comparison, in Match Point, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is clearly a cad for cheating on his wife (Emily Mortimer), but it's pretty easy to see why a man like Wilton is tempted by a woman like Nula (Scarlett Johansson). Notes on a Scandal works well as a film of intrigue, and splendidly as a character study, but you'll have to gauge for yourself whether these characters are people you'd like to spend time watching.

Thank You for Smoking: Satire can be very hard to pull off, but the perfect casting of Aaron Eckhart as amoral charmer and tobacco flack Nick Naylor makes this film an enjoyable ride from start to finish. The trick the creators grasp is to make the Devil charming, smarter and just plain more fun than the stiffs that care about such inconsequential things as, oh, preventing lung cancer. Even though Naylor's obviously serving evil causes, he's got style and savvy to spare, and then there's the Yuppie Nuremburg defense (or Yuppie Faustian bargain) he cites: He's got a mortgage to pay. All the supporting cast is great, from J.K. Simmons as a blustery boss, Cameron Bright as Nick's son, Sam Elliot as a cancer-stricken Marlboro Man type, William H. Macy as a Senator, Todd Louiso as his inept aide, and Maria Bello and David Koechner as the other two members of the "MOD" squad (Merchants of Death, alcohol, tobacco and firearms). One of the standout scenes involves the MOD squad bragging about how many customers their products kill to complain about how hard their respective jobs are. (Rob Lowe is also fantastic as a Hollywood exec, and the footage on his lobby's giant TV of a killer whale attack is a brutally funny touch.) Finally, Nick's relationship with his son provides a nice, natural storyline for Nick to develop a conscience. As a teacher of mine once said, it's a useful talent to know how to bullshit. He might have added, it’s also important to know when to throw it away.

(Here’s director Jason Reitman on The Treatment. Here’s book author Christopher Buckley on Fresh Air in 2000, and in an online discussion after the film was released.)

Stranger Than Fiction: You can find plenty of stories-about-stories, especially in postmodern fiction, and the my-life-is-just-someone-else’s-story is hardly new. Stranger Than Fiction succeeds because it delivers some of the fairly-obvious-but-good jokes, yet also invents very clever and unexpected ones. Most of all, it’s got a strong cast and fleshes out its characters to make them quite likable, and delivers a highly satisfying and even moving ending rather than running out of steam. Will Ferrell plays a clown and an ass very well, but he brings a sweet, endearing vulnerability to schlub Harold Crick, who is bewildered to wake up one morning and discover someone narrating his life that only he can hear. Harold doesn’t quite “meet cute” with the feisty Ana Pascal (the adorable Maggie Gyllenhaal); they “meets audit.” Emma Thompson, always a pleasure, here plays reclusive, quirky and acclaimed novelist Karen Eiffel. The filmmakers get in some of the expected digs about her eccentricities and self-absorption, but then give her a soul and a conscience as well. Perhaps the most entertaining character in the movie, however, is Dustin Hoffman as Jules Hilbert, literature professor, who sees Harold’s predicament as a puzzle and a game. A more predicatable script would have made Eiffel the completely detached, amoral one. Hilbert’s obliviously self-centered joy, Ana’s passion and Eiffel’s goofiness all play nicely off Harold’s earnest befuddlement. Queen Latifah as Eiffel’s handler and Tony Hale as Harold’s best work buddy Dave also contribute nicely. If the film as a whole is about stereotypes defying their assigned fates, the film does a good job of presenting clichés and then tweaking them, at least a little. David Rose wrote a great essay about Hamlet’s enduring appeal being that everyone can relate to being cast in a role that’s not really a good fit or is just unfair. Harold starts hapless and passive, but even though he’s in way over his head, he takes action and tries his best, giving him some heroism. His final decision regarding the role he seems assigned achieves a real poetry (it reminded me of Tusenbach’s last scene in Three Sisters). I went into this film with modest expectations, but I really enjoyed it, as did the audience (which included many writers). Granted, I haven't seen Stay, but I've been pretty impressed by Marc Forster's directing in this, Finding Neverland, and Monster's Ball. (He's next slotted to direct the film adaptation of The Kite Runner.)

(Here’s Will Ferrell on Fresh Air.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I take slight issue with your statements about the affair with the 15 year old in "Notes on a Scandal" stretching believability. That kid is exactly the kind of kid who could easily derail a teaching career. Cocky, yet needy and utterly obsessive. That was one element of the film that had me immediately saying, "Of course!" That's a dangerous student right there, and Lord knows, anyone who has taught has encountered one of the dangerous ones.