26 December 2007


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Written & Directed by: John Carney

Grade: B+

Once opens with real-life singer-songwriter Glen Hansard (of "The Frames") busking on a Dublin street corner while a pissed-up bloke pisses in an adjacent alley; if this is going to be a musical, then it sure as hell ain't Vincente Minelli behind the camera. It turns out that Once is a musical, naturalistically shot with a shaky handheld, one that stays true to the romantic core of the movie musical and its MGM standards while stripping away its artificial pretensions, particularly its penchant for unaccompanied spontaneous singing: its characters may break into song, but they do so because they're musicians, and they only do so with their instruments, or at least their discmen, in tow.

But you might say Once is deceptively natural as, while it may present an imperfect world, it's unfailingly pleasant, constructing a universe in which able, willing and available musicians occupy the streets like ripe apples in an orchard, simply waiting to be plucked, and everyone—from parents to loan officers to recording engineers—is just dying to help make one's dreams come true through support and cooperation; where all it takes to succeed is a generous helping of talent and charm. If not in its style, then at least in its story Once is a standardly romantic and fanciful musical. Hansard and Markéta Irglová, a classically-trained pianist/flower girl with an Eastern European accent, meet cute on the corner one evening when he's banging his guitar and screaming his little head off; she's an Eliza Doolittle figure and Hansard's her Higgins, except he doesn't want to tease a proper English accent out of her—though she could use one—but rather draw out her musicality.

As Rogers and Astaire expressed their feelings for one another through dance, Hansard and Irglová express their budding emotions not through a kiss—or, heaven forbid, lovemaking—but through music, through vocal harmony and guitar-piano interplay. Together, they're two musicians for whom life is a folk opera with little room for unsung speech; when they try and explain themselves through dialogue, they fail to connect, but through their instruments they transcend the divide of spoken language (her Czech is better than her English) to find common ground in the shared vernacular of indie rock love. Over the course of a week they feel out each other's musical styles, recruit a band of street musicians, record a CD, and then go their separate ways. It's cute but not aggressively so, emotionally subtle and secure in its simple sweetness.

Hansard and Irglová, both non-professional actors exuding high levels of charming sincerity, aren't your typical movie lovers: he's hung up on an old flame and she's the mother of a small child and married to a man back in Czech Republic, though they're estranged. While your typical movie musical uses music to bring two innocent young lovers together, Once uses two young lovers to bring its music together; when the demo is done, the lovers split. Rather than a kiss goodbye, in keeping with non-physical character of their relationship, the parting gift is a piano, and that musical connection means more than any smooch ever could.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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Written & Directed by: Woody Allen

Grade: A

Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Woody Allen's many penetrating cinematic analyses of the contemporary culture and his own kind: affluent, intellectual and neurotic New Yorkers. It might be his finest as well, although with such a strong catalog of films it's difficult to ascribe such superlatives to any individual Allen movie.

The film, a masterpiece of ensemble acting—Allen's mastery as a director of actors is often and unfairly overlooked—is built around a collection of spouses, siblings, friends and in-laws on the cusp of mid-life crises, each with a conspicuous lacking of varying kinds: Dianne Wiest, who steals the show with a performance so palpably nervous, insecure and strung-out that it approaches Woody Allen levels, lacks the direction of a career or relationship; Allen himself lacks the comfort and security of spiritual certainty; while Michael Caine, who won an Oscar for his performance, and Barbara Hershey lack romantic satisfaction in their respective relationships. It lunges them, ultimately, into an affair, following an awkward courtship (brilliantly executed), even though Caine is married to Hershey's sister, the titular Hannah (Mia Farrow).

Beginning at one Thanksgiving, that American, non-denominational celebration of family togetherness, and ending at another—with one more in between—the characters set out on chaotic, destructive attempts, doomed to failure, to fill those voids in their lives. The character arcs follow a parabolic trajectory: a plunging descent into abjection, followed by a redeemed return to originating normalcy. It is at once distancing and inviting, alternatingly pushing us away with its alienating chapter titles and drawing us in with its intimate, multiple point-of-view voice-over narration, a parallel to the characters' vacillating behavior towards one another.

One of Hannah and Her Sisters' driving dilemmas is, is "finding the right person" so important that it morally permits the destruction of families and the devastation of individual people? Though released before Allen's very public personal troubles, as a tale of interfamilial infidelity and betrayal Hannah and Her Sisters is, in hindsight, a personal working through of this question for Allen, a veiled, disturbing and piercingly autobiographical confessional of lust and domestic dissatisfaction. It seems, now, no accident that Allen cast himself as Farrow's ex-husband and she as an actress garnering raves for her portrayal of Ibsen's Nora; it seems as though he was practically begging Farrow to get the hint and leave him before he lost control of himself, advice that unfortunately went unheeded.

Though everyone gets a happy ending in the film—or at least deceptively happy, as it's tough to believe any of these characters could have lasting and meaningful relationships, evidenced at least by the ambiguously optimistic revelation that concludes the picture—Hannah and Her Sisters preaches that getting love right takes a couple of tries. "Boy," Allen naively observes in the film, "love is really unpredictable." The film is rife with divorcees and relationships that are like drinking glasses teetering on the edge of a coffee table, waiting for one slight push to send them on a shatter-bound course to the floor. Even the relationship between Hannah and her sisters' parents, a superficially pleasant and loving old couple with a seemingly happy marriage enduring through the decades, is exposed as a mere front behind which a couple of bitterly jealous and contemptuous old-timers have hidden their animosity and extramarital trysts for years.

But Hannah and Her Sisters concerns more than the mere crises of the heart and body, branching out to explore a crisis of the soul as well. (Allen would expand on this religious-philosophical aspect in his subsequent masterpiece and Hannah's companion piece, Crimes & Misdemeanors.) Allen plays a hypochondriac whose brief confrontation with mortality sends him hurtling on a seriocomic quest for meaning, including a stab at Catholicism that hilariously manifests itself in the seemingly compelled purchase of not only crucifixes but Wonder Bread and Hellman's. Despite its levity, the spiritual journey builds to a gorgeous and moving climax in which Allen, in a moment of rock-bottom despair, unlocks the meaning of life via a screening of Duck Soup. The secret to enjoying life, Allen tells us, is in finding the strength to enjoy living, God or no God, lover or no lover. It's a much needed lesson for any Woody Allen character—any modern human being, that is.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

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Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Kelly Masterson

Grade: A-

After at least a decade, if not much more, of lackluster films from Sidney Lumet, the fading titan has strikingly returned to form with a fiery, blustering crash. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is easily the best-acted film of the year, but what's more is that it's a sharp piece of cultural criticism about late capitalism and the depths of tragedy it's capable of producing.

Nearly three-quarters of the way into the film, Marisa Tomei asks her husband, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, for car fare to her mother's house; "I could really use some money," she says, and she might as well be speaking for every character in the film. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is about money, pure and anything but simple: its role as America's driving force, main object of desire and the one thing of which no one seems to have enough.

Hoffman is introduced in a position of dominance, retrocopulating with his wife Tomei (it's surprisingly graphic, despite being filmed in a non-revealing long shot), a dominance he'll resume, though not in a porously-penetrative way, throughout the rest of the film in regards to his little brother, played by Ethan Hawke. Hoffman pushes him into a robbery he doesn't want, nor have the brains, to commit but both, to their undoing, are in desperate need of the cash they assure themselves that they'll score. (And Hoffman, the cokeheaded corporate exec, is too much the coward to do it himself.)

Hoffman is obsessed with the pathetically unrealistic idea that if only he could get he and his wife back to Rio, where they spent the opening scene in giggly, orgasmic bliss, they could solve all of their marital (er, sexual) woes. "I need money," Hoffman says, "I want to start over again." Meanwhile, Hawke is in debt to just about everyone he knows and not only can't he pay his child support, he can't even afford to follow through on his promise to his daughter to send her on a field trip to see The Lion King on Broadway, humiliating her with his poverty in front of her entire grade-school class.

United, then, by a shared indigence, Hoffman enlists Hawke to rob a Westchester jewelry store, a mom-and-pop operation in the most literal sense, as their parents own and operate it. This is the sort of premise that comic films are made of, but Lumet and screenwriter Masterson play it straight. (They take a moment to laugh only once, at a mildly ridiculous costume that Hawke dawns on the day of the robbery; Lumet seems prone to finding comedy in costumes, as the only other time I can recall him making a successfully funny joke was when Al Pacino showed up in Serpico absurdly dressed, for no specified reason, as a hasidic Jew.)

Hawke is initially uncomfortable with the idea of knocking off his parents' joint, making excuses to his domineering big brother. "I got a kid," he whines. "You got shit," Hoffman counters, correctly. That oppressive need for dough that the brothers share sets into a motion a tragedy that, like its characters debts and obligations, builds and builds until each player in the tragedy is left shattered. It's just one harrowing thing piling on top of another, until the pile's too deep to be dug out from under, Lumet suffocating the characters and audience alike.

No one does straight formal filmmaking—not to mention direct actors at an Elia Kazan-level—like Sidney Lumet. (Pronounced Luh-mett, by the way; as Foster Hirsch says, "he's not French, he's a Jewish kid from Brooklyn!") Having gotten personal flair out of his system as early as 1964 with The Pawnbroker, Lumet, in his directness and faithfulness to his source material, is a screenwriter's best friend. Having come from television and the theater, Lumet comes to cinema with the old-fashioned idea of the text as king. Disregarding a few editing flourishes that take us through the film's jumbled temporal structure, Lumet's style is the epitome of directorial restraint.

Though that's not to say that he's pejoratively "by the books," just a director in total control and, at his best, comfortable enough with his own talents and story to avoid making any misguided attempts at overextension. (Though it should be noted that despite his capacity for mastery he's had more, much more, than his fair share of clunkers.) An extended long take of Hoffman unfastening his shirt's buttons and fixing himself a drink is a testament to Lumet's brilliant filmmaking patience, while the Looney Tunes short playing on the television in the background is a nice touch, suggesting the silliness and cartoonishness of Hoffman and his big robbery plans.

But Lumet never lets the film descend into the zany—thankfully, as the director barely has a funny bone in his body—keeping it soaked instead in hard-boiled, absurdly depressing high-cynicism. The story moves back and forth through time, switching points of view using the robbery as its center; the crime itself, which of course goes horribly awry, begins the film and serves both as a repeated point of return or departure for the various narrative strands. I understand that the technique is meant to underscore the characters' detachment from one another—the filmmakers refuse to even let their narratives proceed together!—but the gimmicky structure detracts a bit from the film's central narrative thrust; as the story winds down, though, and the characters become more and more tied up in one another, the filmmakers allow the competing strains to integrate. In its last act, the characters, united, place a period at the end of the grim parable.

At the film's heart are three clashing males: Hawke, as a man-in-debt way in over his head who can't drink or steal his way out of it, gives his most impassioned and dynamic performance to date, certainly coaxed out of him by the masterful Lumet, while Hoffman is, at least at first, a bit more restrained, going from giggling through his role to becoming a man gone mad, having entirely fallen apart. Both actors are phenomenal, but trumping them all is Albert Finney, channeling the spirit of Peter Finch (who got himself an Oscar thanks to Lumet), as the boys' father. Hoffman maintains control over his dimwitted little brother, but Finney controls them both; as his character of the weepy and angry old father dominates his sniveling children, so too does Finney dominate the film. From all sides, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is full, in bursts, of loud, conspicuous emotions as the dramatic intensity unceasingly increases. But those emotions never ring false or stink of misguided overacting; they maintain a startling level of emotional genuineness, the performances unsettlingly naturalistic.

Though Before the Devil Knows You're Dead presents an America totally fucked by debt, it still maintains that crime doesn't pay. Crime is just about the worst route, in fact, in this punishing, unforgiving film without the faintest glimmer of hope or moral direction in which every plot point is another crank of the vise around the audience's throats. "The world is an evil place," a jewel-fencer says, declaring the film's theme. "Some of us make money off it, others get destroyed." So you might as well swallow a bottle of pills now and get it over with. In his cranky cynicism, but not in the freshness of his direction, Lumet is showing his age.

24 December 2007

Gone Baby Gone

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Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard

Grade: B

Give Ben Affleck credit for two things: he knows Boston and he knows his little brother Casey is a hell of an actor, and with those two assets in tow his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, a nasty tale of human monsters and missing children, isn't nearly as inauspicious as cynical viewers might expect from the hitherto largely lackluster actor. With its authentic sense of place, the film rises above the head of your average abducted child procedural in a manner its director rarely rises above the head of your average actor—through naturalistic credibility.

Casey stars as a private eye, teamed up with his girlfriend Michelle Monaghan; together they're like Nick & Nora, Jr., trying to prove they can play ball with the big boys when hired by a missing girl's aunt to assist in the "neighborhood aspect" of the abduction investigation. Casey "knows people who don't talk to the police," i.e. neighborhood hooligans, the people around whom he grew up—people who cuss like sailors, drop their r's and say things like "pawsitive". (Welcome to Boston: when Casey asks a kid who's blocking his car to move his bike, the no-more-than-ten-years-old rapscallion replies, "go fuck your mother!") The film has such a strong sense of realism that when characters brandish guns, as they occasionally do, the weapons serve as legitimately potent objects of menace—and not, as is par for the course in Hollywood pictures, mere movie props—genuinely upsetting the power balance in any given scene in which they appear.

Affleck's set-ups are largely by-the-books, but they serve his film well by staying out of the way of the story, which, for the first hour at least, is dynamite. Casey and the cops, including Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, spend their screen time tearing through the dark Dorchester underground, revealed to us by the light of the projector bulb, probing the circumstances surrounding a little girl's mysterious disappearance from her mother's house; Gone Baby Gone is a tense, street's-eye view of the investigation, and the filmmakers even turn the genre on its ear a bit by making the grieving mother, a masterfully filthy performance from Amy Ryan, the antithesis of the sympathetic victim. She's an odious drunk and a cokehead, a stupid and selfish woman who seems more concerned with concealing her shady lifestyle than cooperating with the investigation. It makes all the people trying to help her, except Casey, livid. "Do you even give a fuck about your kid?" an exasperated, irate Harris finally shouts at her, speaking for both himself and the disgusted audience.

But the filmmakers don't go so far as to facilely reduce Ryan to an out-and-out creep either—it's a complex performance and a complex character, with glimmers of sympathetic sadness; even though she comes across as the worst possible kind of mother, somewhere beneath the layers of drug-induced apathy is a broken-up and loyal mom. That's the first hour of Gone Baby Gone in a nutshell, a complicated film not easily reduced to simple archetypes, one rife with good guys (and bad) but no heroes or good deeds, only abject duty and misguided altruism. While the standard missing child story is about rescuing an innocent from the grip of the evil forces of the world and returning it to the protection of its family, the lines are not so clear cut in Gone Baby Gone, which presents all sides as tainted and sullied. "Half the people he knows are degenerates," Harris says of Casey at one point. "Yeah, you know who the other half are?" Casey replies, "cops," underscoring the fine line that separates the two.

But unfortunately Gone Baby Gone begins to get a bit too full of itself in its later sections; by going to such pains to besmirch the institutions of police and family from top-to-bottom, it abandons some of its complexity and finally redeems Casey as the lone honorable hero, however ambiguously so. Gone Baby Gone's got a lot of "third act problems," as the characters sit around talking, dragging the film out to explain the central mystery's finer points, winding up with a story so complicated it approaches the convoluted as the filmmakers, over and over again, explain what happened only to take it back and explain it again with a different slant. In the end, the point is that, if family makes you who you are, as Casey intones at the film's start in voice-over, then children belong with their parents. For Casey, that's a black-and-white principle with no space for nuance, which would be fine except that director Ben goes to lengths far too great to hammer it home.

19 December 2007

The Reckless Moment (1949)

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Directed by: Max Ophüls
Written by: Henry Garson & Robert W. Soderberg
(adaptation by: Mel Dinelli & Robert E. Kent)

Grade: B+

A taut and nifty melodrama-noir with a strong reactionary bent, The Reckless Moment is essentially about love and the the redemptive acts of seflessness it can inspire, but it's also about teaching a woman to know her place and the chaos that occurs when the nuclear family unit is splintered. The story is compelling enough, concerning Joan Bennett and the heap of trouble she gets into when she covers up a murder committed, accidentally, by her daughter, Geraldine Brooks. Yet The Reckless Moment's main attraction isn't its script, however crackling it is at times, but that it sports master stylist Max Ophüls behind the camera (here credited as the mildly Americanized or, given the proximity to the end of WWII, de-Germanized "Opuls". Nothing cries "Kraut!" like an umlaut.)

Ophüls, a bona fide master of camera movement and mise-en-scene, densely packs the frames with people and objects, allowing the camera to soak up the ornateness while emphasizing the crowded, crushing character of both Bennett's domestic and criminal lives. ("You don't know how a family can surround you at times," she laments at one point.) Though set in the boondocks, 50 miles outside of Los Angeles in a small, somnolent seaside town, Bennett and her family's waterfront house, the film's primary location (it feels like a lightly opened-up stage play) is lavishly decorated. The camera, for its part, often winds through the film's narrow aisles and hallways, following Bennett as she passes through them, figuratively navigating the labyrinth-of-lies that she's wrought.

After Bennett hides the body of the dead man, an Irish blackmailer comes a-callin', played by a strapping James Mason with a come-and-go brogue to match his fleeting meanness. Mason soon falls for Bennett, acting as surrogate husband (her man is away on business); he tries to help her deal with the threat posed by his boss, a tough-as-nails Roy Roberts, as Bennett scrambles to come up with an unreasonable amount of cash. She goes so far as to pawn her jewelry, echoing a scene Ophüls would revisit four years later in his renowned film The Earrings of Madame de..., a French melodrama whose main character is a pair of earrings; for an opulent stylist like Ophüls, a woman losing her jewels, her source of pride and grandeur, comes across as high tragedy.

Bennett begins the film as the only stolid figure surrounded by a tic- and gesture-crazy cast (eg. a nail-biting daughter; a watch-setting, hair-combingly slimy Shepperd Strudwick.) But as the situation becomes increasingly dire, she gradually loses her composure, until by the film's end she is sprawled out on her bed in a fit of tears. Despite having sassy lines like, "when you're 17 these days, you know what the score is; you're not a child anymore," The Reckless Moment is a deeply conservative tale, one about a woman who's punished, essentially, for making big decisions without consulting her husband, for trying to wrest control of a situation and a family she has no business, as a woman, controlling. Her selfless act of love for her daughter, cleaning up her manslaughter, gets her into more trouble than she can handle; her act of love makes her a prisoner and a victim. She's finally saved, though, when her love is paid in kind by the selfless act of another, of a man (Mason), that finally sets everything right. She ends the film on the phone with her husband, telling him that everything's going to be OK...once he gets home, and the family unit is restored.

18 December 2007

The Mist

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Written & Directed by: Frank Darabont

Grade: B

At its heart, The Mist is an allegory; unfortunately, for at least the first two acts (i.e. most of the film), hyphenate Darabont makes the easy mistake of getting lost trying to find it, to the detriment of his characters' development. Set in a small town, the film is populated by cardboard cutouts of your standard archetypes: the religious fundamentalist, the haughty fella from the city (black, natch), the reckless small-town simpleton, etc. etc. The drama is clunky—especially as Darabont has a bad habit of trying to score cheap pathos points by suddenly giving an ancillary character some depth and then killing them immediately thereafter (eg. James Whitmore's character in Shawshank, Alexa Davalos here)—the acting wooden and/or cartoonish (Toby Jones, in a wonderfully natural performance, and William Sadler are the exceptions), the writing outrageously obvious and blandly blatant as characters spout the film's Big Themes and debate pat philosophical matters.

But as characters die off and the survivors begin to act more as rival mobs than individuals, The Mist starts to come to life as it settles into its symbolism. The premise is simple, in an old-fashioned horror movie kind of way: after a nasty storm, a New England town (as the film is based on a Stephen King novella, it is of course set in Maine) is besieged by a mysterious fog, er, mist, that kills those who wander into it, trapping two dozen or so residents and tourists behind the vulnerable glass walls of a supermarket. What's in the mist? Giant bugs—such as locusts the size of cats—and pterodactyls, for starters; essentially, The Mist is a battle between the prehistoric as it encroaches on modernity, a peculiar metaphor for the invasion of the backwards terrorists emerging from their caves to strike America. We even find out that the monsters are the result of an army experiment gone awry, that the mist attacking America is blowback from military malfeasance—just like 9/11. (Here, though, the threat—the mist—is literally "blowing back.")

But, in the end, The Mist is less interested in how and why the town is being attacked than in the attack's polarizing effects on its populace, the peril dividing the microcosmic community into opposing sides and turning many of them to a paranoid and angry form of religion. (Sound familiar?) Terror(ism) becomes the lesser threat as the loss of reason that follows the onslaught of religious fervor emerges as the true menace. As the tension becomes, increasingly, between our heroes, led by Thomas Jane, and their fellow man—and not between man and the menace "out there"—The Mist's intensity rises, building to a bleak and miserable finale as our small band of protagonists take their chances in the threatening unknown. Darabont doesn't take sides with any of the pigheadedly certain parties in The Mist; it's a celebration of level-headed agnosticism, easily read as both anti-science and anti-religion, anti-military and anti-civilian. There's a twist ending following Jane doing something stupid that, taken with the conversion of the grocery store's masses, serves as a warning to the audience: basically, disasters may cause a tragic loss of life, but it doesn't mean it's the end of the world. Instead, he suggests that maybe Americans, to their own detriment, have overreacted to what happened on September 11th, and maybe they ought to try and gather their wits before giving into their fear and doing something rash like, say, starting a war.

17 December 2007

I Am Legend

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Mark Protosevich & Akiva Goldsman

Grade: B-

When will science ever learn? I Am Legend, based on the same-name novel by Richard Matheson that has been adapted directly at least twice before (including, unremarkably, as the Charlton Heston camp vehicle The Omega Man), bears a blatant similarity to 28 Days Later, another recent film about the outbreak of a virus that turns mankind into a large pack of cannibalistic zombie-like creatures. It even lifts a shot from that film directly, of the larger-than-life shadows of the approaching monsters, as a way, presumably, of paying homage. But while Danny Boyle and Alex Ross' film was a multilayered assessment, and broad critique, of the contemporary culture, one with a powerful anti-military streak, I Am Legend is a deeply conservative, religious and anti-science polemic. In short, regardless of its source material (from which I understand it liberally departs), it's a conspicuously Americanized take on its English predecessor.

Will Smith stars as the Last Man on Earth, or at least New York, the sole human populator—he has an adorably loyal German shepherd to keep him company—of a Manhattan with no bridge access to the rest of the world. I Am Legend is best in its early setting-establishing scenes, as Smith, doing an excellent job of keeping the film compelling, interacts with his canine companion as though he were a child—having one-sided arguments about eating vegetables or taking a bath—while wandering, by daylight, a stunningly desolate and decimated New York City overgrown with CGI weeds and full of CGI deer and rusting CGI cars. He does the post-apocalyptic tourist thing, of course: fishing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, practicing his golf swing off the wing of a fighter jet aboard the Intrepid, and deer hunting at a neon-less Times Square, one so dangerous, populated by lions and tigers (oh my!), that you get the sense that not even Giuliani could clean it up.

Nor could Giuliani likely take on the hungry and homicidal hellions that overtake the city at nightfall, while Smith is safely locked down in his secret (and spacious!) Washington Square townhouse. (Surely, with the world gone to such shit a year after the 2008 election, Rudy's been elected president?) Director Francis Lawrence, whose only previous film credit (music videos aside) was directing the by-most-accounts inauspicious Constantine, proves himself a surprisingly deft filmmaker, crafting a large handful of effective sequences, particularly an early scene in which Smith searches for his runaway dog in a darkened, and presumably zombie-filled, warehouse. The tension is marvelously sustained as Lawrence is coyly withholding, showing us only a quick glimpse, after much built-up anticipation, of the huddled zombies—with their backs turned, no less. (There's also a brilliantly bizarre scene in which a bit of dialogue from Shrek, recited from memory by Smith, takes on a double meaning and moves the film along.)

I Am Legend's problem is that, as well-crafted as it may be, the script is downright atrocious. (Co-writer Akiva Goldsman is responsible for penning such gems as Schumacher's Batman films and three out of Ron Howard's last four films.) Using lines like "social de-evolution is complete" and cheap (but unfortunately necessary, I suppose) techniques like having Smith keep us up on the narrative through direct address video journals is forgivable, as are the copious plot holes, but once the dog is inevitably, and shamefully, hurt in a deplorable bit of emotional manipulation around the middle of the film, it's all downhill as the film sputters on into nonsense theology blended with boilerplate action. Turns out that Smith isn't the last man on the earth, just the last black man, with the sloppy last-act introduction of some secondary characters to whom Smith can preach the Gospel of Bob Marley, like a college freshman trying to make friends at orientation, and deliver lines like, "God didn't do this, we did." Early in the film, the camera lingers on a poster still hanging on the streets of New York that reads, "God still loves us." Amidst the destruction it seems ironic, but we soon discover it's meant more as an admonishment to the audience. Take note that it isn't an accident that, from what we can gather from the quick flashbacks, the threat to America's stability begins in Manhattan, that hotbed of secular humanism.

16 December 2007

Sweeney Todd

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Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan
Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

Grade: A-

Before the opening credits, Sweeney Todd features a strident organ that, note by note, builds to a blastingly cacophonous chord. When the credits do roll, subsequently, they're rolled over the travels of a streaming trail of syrupy blood; taken together, the first minute or so serves as a warning from Burton to the audience that the film you're about to see is not only going to be loud, but violent, too. It's fair warning, if you catch it: a Hollywood musical—and yes, Sweeney Todd is an out-and-out musical, approaching the operatic in its spare use of unsung dialogue—has never before been so unapologetically gruesome nor so horribly cynical, operatically tragic and unsparingly unforgiving. If the heyday MGM musicals (see: That's Entertainment!) serve now as a symbol of cultural and cinematic innocence, then Sweeney Todd is the film that slits their throats and bathes in their blood.

Not that I've got anything against the old Hollywood musicals, but contemporary cinema hasn't been kind to their legacy with folderol like Moulin Rouge (best characterized by its boing boing boing sound effects) and Chicago; as one of my former professors, Foster Hirsch, used to say, they're musicals for people who hate musicals. Sweeney Todd, on the other hand, is more like a musical for people who hate people, a terribly contemptuous film whose guiding thematic principle is, as Johnny Depp sings in the title role as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, "everyone deserves to die." Let Sweeney Todd be the paragon of early 21st Century musical moviemaking, a reflection of the real-life violence that characterizes our present wartimes. The sweet and lachrymose pathos of Edward Scissorhands, the other Burton-Depp collaboration about a troubled barber, has been supplanted by a dark and bitter animus that nevertheless manages to move in the grand tragic tradition of Verdi, thanks in large part to Depp's complex and emotional performance.

Structurally, via Sondheim, Sweeney Todd is largely conventional, fitting the MGM template as a high-on-coincidence tale (albeit one of revenge) with a central romantic couple and a secondary, complementary couple. But while the young and incidental B-couple may get their happy ending, Burton executes it with the care of a contractual obligation; he just barely takes the time to divert his focus from Depp's lamentable butcher barber. (As one character puts it, in a bit of delightful wordplay, Todd is "the very last word in barbery.") What makes Sweeney Todd such an atypical film is its front-and-center brutality; where, in your run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick, the camera would ordinarily cut away before a throat is slit, Burton shows the slicings to us full-on, absent any of the tongue-in-cheekiness that accompanied the hyperviolence in Tarantino's Kill Bill dyad. Watch the skin of throat split apart and the blood flow, over and over again as Depp takes his revenge against one man out on the entire city of London. I couldn't help but start to giggle a bit, incredulously, at the sheer audacity of it. What a terribly impolite Christmas movie.

Burton, from Sondheim's source material (a helluva score), does a heck of a job balancing the unwinking bloodletting with a bit of dark comedy, courtesy of, primarily, Helena Bonham Carter, Depp's partner in crime who uses his victims' corpses as meat for her fledgling meatpie business. One number in particular, "A Little Priest", is a hilariously gleeful celebration of cannibalism whose comedy, nevertheless, does nothing to diminish the straight horror of the related murders. Burton in recent years has seemed to become and more enamored with the movie musical, to varying degrees of success. (Good, particularly on subsequent DVD-viewings: Corpse Bride; dreadful: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.) Here he finds the worthy material that offers him a chance to perfectly interweave his two central passions, Gothic horror and the musical. As both elements are the very essence of Sondheim's show, a more appropriate director couldn't have been found for the adaptation.

07 December 2007

The Tripper

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Directed by: David Arquette
Written by: David Arquette & Joe Harris

Grade: C -

The Tripper fails inasmuch as it disappoints, taking a deliciously potent political premise, a serial killer dressed up as Ronald Reagan butchering hippies on holiday, and then practically ignoring its politics in favor of producing a dreadfully "fun"—that is painfully mediocre—slasher movie.

With such a rich, if farcically overt, political text (you could hardly call it subtext) to mine, it's a shame that the movie is so carelessly thought out that it spends most of its time focussed on producing just another dismally lame horror flick. Aren't there enough of those shelf-fillers hitting the DVD racks every week? The man in the Reagan costume, with a vocal impression to match and a gang of dogs named Poindexter, Meese and Nancy, doesn't even appear until 50 minutes into the film. In the meantime, Arquette introduces a cast of cartoonish characters and overcompensates for his directorial insecurity, this being his debut, by brandishing an exhaustingly flashy style, as when a red filter is added to the on-screen image every time someone is killed to emphasize the point that bloody murder is bloody.

When it isn't mired down in petty subplots and its own garishness, The Tripper (notice how closely it sounds like "The Gipper"), set in the present day, depicts an America at war with foreign nations, the environment and itself—a culture wholly deprived of compassion, one of violence inspired by its savage erstwhile leader, Mr. Reagan, whom the film accuses of establishing a legacy of polarization and destruction that extends into the present day; that is, don't blame Bush, at least not entirely, for the state of the country today, because it all reaches back to Ron Reagan. Tree huggers put redwoods before people, everybody's high on drugs and the right is even killing their own, as when "Reagan" has an axe poised above his next victim and the victim whimpers, with incredulity, "but I'm a Republican!" America is one big confused and hostile mess.

The Tripper doesn't shy away from being explicitly political at times: the end credits are accompanied not only by some pumpin' reggae but also by a polemical jeremiad by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., about Reagan's record as the country's worst environmental president, and the killer is revealed to be one of the mental patients that Reagan released, by slashing the budget, while governor of California. Basically, The Tripper points its finger at Ronald Reagan for ruining the planet: "one asshole goes crazy," the sheriff explains at the end, appropriating the trickle-down effect language of Reaganomics, "and the whole world goes to shit." If only the film had the credibility of thematic focus and narrative discipline to back up its politics, rather than wander aimlessly like an easily distracted stoner (the film opened on April 20, 2007), it could've sat proudly on the shelf next to Joe Dante's Homecoming.

05 December 2007


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Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Diablo Cody

Grade: C+

Enough with the superserious abortion movies, right? 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days wins the Palme D'Or and it's all like, ugh, I get it. Can't we have, like, a really cute movie about how carrying a baby to term is a totally awesome experience? About, as Nathan Lee wrote, "how totally hilarious and super-sweet it is for a 16-year-old high-school girl not to have an abortion"? Isn't it time the Gilmore Girls crowd had a movie about teen pregnancy to feel good about and call their own?

Or so went the reasoning, presumably, behind the ultimately misguided decision to produce Juno, an often insufferable piece of hyperquirkiness, from its indie lofi soundtrack right down to its lead's hamburger-telephone (awww!), not to mention that one character's one and only vice is...orange tic tacs! Hee hee, gr8!

The title character, played by Ellen Page (last seen, by me anyway, trying to chop off Patrick Wilson's hoo-ha in Hard Candy), is described in the film as "just...different," a line that just about sums up the film's proud celebration of how, like, totally friggin' unique it is. (That's why it's named after it's main character!) Director Reitman's previous outing, Thank You For Smoking, wasn't exactly lacking for personal style, but Juno cranks the idiosyncratic aesthetic up to 11. "You're, like, the coolest person I know and you don't even have to try," Page tells co-star Michael Cera (God bless him), who replies, "I try really hard, actually." So too, to an unflatteringly conspicuous degree, does the film.

Page gets impregnated—whooops! LOL!—by her BFF Cera and because, so it seems, the abortion clinic is like totally lame she decides she'll keep the baby and give it to some couple who needs it. Thanx! Her decision to keep the baby in her belly seems, like the film, perfunctory at best and self-righteous at worst. Thank You For Smoking's crackling cynicism has been replaced by a smug hipness, Napoleon Dynamite devoid any glimmer of goofy charm, that leads the filmmakers to often pause the film to discuss matters of Great Importance, like whether '77 or '93 was the best year for rock, or whether Dario Argento is a better splatterist than Herschell Gordon Lewis. (Get the references? Cool, right?)

When, midway, Juno begins to lighten up with the preciousness and honestly confronts, or at least hints at, the complexities of the adoption process—from the role of the perspective parents (maybe they can't conceive on their own for a reason?), the emotional difficulty in carrying a child to term only to surrender it upon its birth, a pregnancy's irreversible effects on a romantic relationship—it begins to do better as a film, but just about squanders all of its dramatic capital with a right-out-of-Full House climactic conversation between Page and her father, J.K. Simmons. "Find someone who'll love you for you!" K!

Simmons, Cera, and Jason Bateman round out the film's margins nicely (in addition to a fine cameo from Rainn Wilson), but it's not their film, even collectively; it belongs, of course, to Page in the eponymous role, who gives a commanding performance and thoroughly creates a credible character out of Juno, with a hand from Diablo Cody's script I'm sure. But unfortunately that character is obnoxious to the point of bordering on the outright unlikable—an incessant wisenheimer. In short, a real-life teenager. (Ugh!)

26 November 2007

I'm Not There

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Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman

Grade: B

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, aka "The Bob Dylan Movie", attacks, head-on, the hokum that is the standard Hollywood biopic. Even though it doesn't entirely succeed, it does offer a blessed aesthetic alternative to the boilerplate formula of dreckish fare like Ray. Point well taken and much appreciated, Mr. Haynes, if nothing else.

Essentially, Haynes' film is an aggregation of six different films about Bob Dylan, each adopting a distinct tone and a different actor to play the man himself; the film never actually mentions Him by name, instead offering a series of pseudonyms and aliases, including "Woody Guthrie" and "Arthur Rimbaud". Haynes takes on the role of master of the remote control, flipping between these disparate incarnations as though they're playing on all the movie channels concurrently. The substance of I'm Not There isn't in the content of any of these takes on Dylan's life and psyche, so much as it is in their assemblage, with Dylan's music (both in his own voice and in cover versions) binding them together.

The best of these sections—which otherwise include a faux-documentary with Christian Bale in the Dylan role (looking like he's bent in a fetal position even while standing up), a face-to-face interview with Ben Whishaw as Bob, and three others—is, by far, the one with Cate Blanchett (!) as ca. '65 Bob Dylan. Haynes feels most at home as a filmmaker there, stylizing the section as a blend of Pennebaker pastiche and Fellini homage. (Those thick black shades seem equal part accurate historical artifact and Mastroianni tribute.)

As the opening credits state, the film is "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan," and Haynes attempts to piece together, fractured piece by fractured piece, the famously unknowable man who called himself Dylan. Importantly, I'm Not There is not an attempt to get at who Robert Zimmerman was, but an examination of how measures of man and mythos combine to produce celebrity and, ultimately, legend. That is, it's not about who Bob Dylan is, but an exploration into what "Bob Dylan" is and what it's like for a man to wear that mask.

For all the cleverness of the film's form, the unevenness of the different sections of the film—the one with Richard Gere as a 19th century frontier recluse in a Wild West Anatevka is, for the most part, pointless—indicates not that Haynes & co-writer Oren Moverman didn't have the right idea but that maybe they weren't the ones to make it work. (In fairness, they do come up with some wonderful moments, such as when Dylan & his band, at their infamous electric appearance at Newport, symbolically turn to the audience and spray them with machine gun fire.) After all, if I'm Not There, as it is, had rather stuck with the Blanchett section of the film and dropped the rest, sorry to say that it likely would've been a better, if less interesting or notable, film. Hopefully, if anything, I'm Not There will at least inspire future filmmakers considering a biopic to try something fresh and not to rely on the same old failed conventions.

Hot Fuzz

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Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Grade: B

Though British, Hot Fuzz is part cheeky send-up of and part loving homage to the American action film. (And that's not Sam Peckinpah or Don Siegel, mind you, but less "respectable" fare such as Bad Boys II and Point Break.) The impeccable straightman Simon Pegg stars as a London supercop who, because his diligent policing makes his fellow bobbies look bad, is reassigned to the English countryside beat, which the filmmakers use as an opportunity to play every Kinks song with "Village Green" in the title. (All two of them!)

Hilarity ensues, as do a series of gruesome murders, a halfhearted commentary on the dark underbelly of England's superficially serene rural areas. But Hot Fuzz isn't really concerned with politics so much as it is with hilarity, and as with the filmmakers' previous outing, Shaun of the Dead, the film's ample amount of laughs stem, in equal measure, from the genre spoofing as well as from the natural comic acumen (and comic-foil rapport) of the leads, Pegg and Nick Frost. They're the best duo working in comedic films today, in that old-fashioned funnymen sort of way, carrying on in the rich tradition of Abbott & Costello or Randall & Klugman. (Hot Fuzz also acknowledges its place in the continuum of English humor by casting as Pegg's superiors, in order of rank from lowest to highest, Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy.)

Hot Fuzz's problem, though, is that it gets a bit carried away with its genre-indulgence, pushing the two hour mark to to cram as many extended shoot-ups and car chases as possible into its second half. Still, the leads' gifts for comic delivery and the filmmakers' deeply felt appreciation of the genre keep it compelling enough, if a bit trivial, through to the end.

25 November 2007


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Directed by: Nimród Antal
Written by: Mark L. Smith

Grade: B+

At root, Vacancy is a horror movie about two characters who gradually become aware that they're two characters within a horror movie, but Antal keeps the tone straight-faced, blessedly avoiding any Scream-style, self-aware cheekiness. Packed full of conventional set-ups, the film stars Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale as a married couple on the verge of divorce, on their way home from Beckinsale's mother's home on a side road, having made the fundamental mistake of getting off the interstate. (Never get off the main road!) A lot of "we're not lost!" bickering ensues, then the car breaks down, the mechanic can't fix it till morning and there's a nearby motel with no other guests, only a creepy night clerk (a mustachioed Frank Whaley).

Beckinsale refers to their stay in the filthy room they rent as their "one last great adventure together," but she is unaware of the real adventure about to unfold! In a well-crafted sequence of Wyler/Toland-esque close-ups—the film is full of artsy angles and is gorgeously lit, courtesy cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, of Pulp Fiction fame—Wilson starts popping-in video tapes lying on top of their room's television set, finding a series of gruesome snuff films that he slowly begins to realize have been filmed in the very room he and his wife occupy. With hardly a moment to think, the events that start off the tapes begin to happen to them: there's deafening banging on the wall; the power flicks on and off; the door, chained shut, rattles on its hinges.

The couple manages to stave off their murder long enough for the film to become a home-invasion thriller, albeit one set in a very cramped home. (It may be the honeymoon suite, but it's still a motel room.) The recent French film Ils (Them), a similarly metacinematic home-invasion horror flick, may be a little more clever and executed a bit more tautly, but, especially for a Hollywood flick, Vacancy is surprisingly smart and tight, clocking in at only a few minutes over eighty.

Wilson, whose usual easygoing and deadpan comic style allows him to easily disappear into an everyman horror-protagonist, finds the time to go through some of the tapes, looking for mistakes past victims have made and essentially parsing the horror conventions, searching for a way to survive. "It's not enough that they rob and kill these people," he says pitiably, "they want to watch it, too." Yeah, America, what's the matter with you? When a truck driver turns up, Wilson and Beckinsale bang on the window of their locked-room as though it's the movie screen, begging for help until, when the driver slowly approaches their room and the couple sees the killers following from behind, they reverse roles to become the typical spectator, shouting the standard horror movie response: "look out, behind you!"

The filmmakers aren't quite able to keep up with the film's postmodernist angle, and what began as a sort of commentary on horror movie violence slips into an exercise in mere horror movie violence, but Vacancy, still, is the product of strong filmmaking, and it's short and well-paced enough to go by quickly and stirringly, without ever getting too full of itself.

23 November 2007

Southland Tales

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Written & Directed by: Richard Kelly

Grade: A-

Southland Tales, an apocalyptic fever-dream of a film, is both, or perhaps neither, a failure and a startling success. As a political fable and a largely impenetrable allegory, let's say it's a spectacular failure. All at once, it's an exhilarating and confounding examination of cinematic spectatorship, metaphysics, Christian mythology, soldier's remorse and the current state of Americo-geopolitics. It also dabbles—why not, at this point?—in time travel theology and a rift in the fabric of the fourth dimension, but that sort of philosopho-scientifica is only to be expected from Richard Kelly, the film's young director who, six years ago, made the impressive and unexpected Donnie Darko.

Like that film, Southland Tales seems hell-bent on contemplating a series of compelling cosmic conundrums that no one but Kelly has ever bothered to brood over. (For example, if a time traveler came into contact with his double, would it affect the speed of the earth's rotation?) For the first several reels, I really wasn't sure what to make of Southland Tales; the early parts of the film are mired down with extended exposition, setting up Kelly's batshit yet surprisingly, and frighteningly, reasonable vision of an American future in which all hell has broken loose following a nuclear attack on the Texas town of Abeline. "This is the way the world ends," Justin Timberlake, our narrator perched atop an ocean turret, informs us, alluding to T.S. Eliot. (Set on the eve of the '08 presidential election, the Republican candidates for president and vice president are, respectively, men named Eliot and "Bobby" Frost. Make of it what you will.)

Ostensibly, Southland Tales is a somewhat long-winded account of terrorism's indirect effect on civil liberties, the hitherto rowdiest and most lyrical expression of post-9/11 and Iraq War anxiety, but though politics are a substantial part of the film, they're really only the jumping off point. That's the thing about Southland Tales: it's madly ambitious to the point of becoming intimidatingly sprawling. (Trying to actually summarize the plot would be pointlessly reductive, as it's far too complex to boil down in a reasonable amount of space, thus the film's central problem.) Like Mulholland Dr., which it evokes and borrows from—including the songstress Rebekah Del Rio, who pops up to sing what sounds like the National Anthem—it seems like it might be better suited to a television series or some other more leisurely narrative medium. (A three-part prequel, written by Kelly, has been published as a graphic novel.) That it's tonally inconsistent, bouncing carelessly between puzzlingly broad comedy and straight-faced earnestness, is no help in trying to parse its message and meaning.

It's easy, as many critics (and audience members, surely) have done, to write-off Southland Tales as a convoluted catastrophe, but it's so dense with message and meaning that it's not something to be so easily written off. The film may not exactly work, but at least it's not as a result of laziness or lack of substance like so much substandard fare. After Kelly gets his exposition out of the way (one wonders if a pre-film backstory handout, as I understand was given out to accompany David Lynch's Dune, might have been appropriate), he starts flexing his technical muscles and the film gets tighter and tighter in their grip until the credits roll and the audience, or the parts of it that haven't walked out anyway, is left breathless. Nearly the entirety of the film's long climactic sequence, set upon a "megazeppelin", is a masterpiece of form, and both a musical sequence/beer commercial set to a Killers tune, featuring a lip-synching Timberlake on a break from his narrator role, and a scene in which Seann William Scott teases his "delayed reflection" in a mirror are unforgettable. (As is, to cite one more, the image of two cars boinking one another, a nod to the fornicating airplanes in Dr. Strangelove's opening credits.)

Through Mr. Scott's character, one thing Kelly's film does, and does extremely well, is expressionistically investigate the nature of remorse, and as such, for me, it recalled last year's much-derided (wrongly so!), poetically epic The Fountain. Mr. Scott, most familiar from his turns as Stifler in the American Pie series, gives the film's most revelatory performance, although Sarah Michelle Gellar, a co-star, proves herself a surprisingly deft comedienne. (I assumed she was only capable of producing lame horror movies.) Scott shows a dramatic range I would never have expected; unfortunately, it doesn't look like a turning point for his career as, according to IMDb, his upcoming projects include titles like Ball's Out and Coxblocker.

The entire film is populated by cultural icons, including the Rock, er, Dwayne Johnson, Mandy Moore and a handful of SNL castmembers past and present, all of whom find themselves hooked up with the underground movement resisting the sinisterly corrupt bureaucracy oppressing the film's near-future United States. Despite the film's showbiz satire and Hollywood send-up, the suggestion is that the American opposition, for better or for worse anyway, begins in Hollywood, and hence the film. Indeed, one of the government's monitors in the film, and one of the audience's surrogates, played by Michele Durrett gluttonously stuffing cheese puffs into her mouth (does anything more aptly spell "American"?), becomes politically active only after she reads the prophetic screenplay-within-the-film that parallels the story we're seeing. That is, Southland Tales says that it takes Southland Tales to help save the day, and of course ordinary people are only going to see it if there are famous people in it.

19 November 2007

No Country for Old Men

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Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Grade: A

The Bros. Coen's No Country For Old Men opens with a series of shots of the West Texas landscape. Cinematographer Roger Deakins fills the screen, primarily, with the land, leaving very little visible sky, signaling to the audience that the story you're about to see is not one of heavenly redemption but one of earthly sin, a story set in a violence-ridden world devoid of any divine interaction, let alone intervention. From frame one, the directors make it clear that whatever's about to happen, it's not going to end well.

The bloodletting begins moments into the very first reel, in which we see the film's supervillain, Javier Bardem, kill the film's first victim, a sheriff's deputy—the first thing to go in this depraved world is, of course, the order of law—in a strangling struggle with, brushed across his face, the terrifying look of a clown having a perverse orgasm. Bardem, a merciless killer or, as the film calls him, "the ultimate bad-ass", plays every one of his scenes with a sense of unflappable menace, countered by a watery-eyed gaze of profound feeling that elevates his assassin extraordinaire beyond a stiff Frankenstein of a sociopath.

In the scene following the handcuffed garroting, Bardem kills a motorist with his preferred method of murder: a jolt from an air gun, ordinarily used to slaughter cattle, to the forehead. (Conveniently, he also uses it to open locks.) Bardem the manhunter is then paralleled to Josh Brolin the antelope hunter; introduced setting up a shot on the desert plains, the Coens foreshadow the bloodshed and role reversal (hunter to hunted) about to befall him. The catalyst in this disastrous transformation is the suitcase full of hundred dollar bills in $10,000 stacks that Brolin stumbles across, while hunting, in a gory milieu of dead men and dead dogs (and a trunk full of brown heroin that Brolin wisely lets be.) But by taking the cash, he gets bounty-hunter Bardem on his trail and spends the rest of the film running across Texas trying to lose him, with hangdog sheriff Tommy Lee Jones, with a wit as dry as the surrounding desert brush, one step behind them at all times, bearing witness to the destruction they've produced.

No Country for Old Men works as a perfectly-executed piece of genre fiction, suspenseful and frightening, just like its source novel by Cormac McCarthy, which it smartly follows almost to the letter, excising only some extraneous characters to maintain the script's disciplined focus. The film's greatest asset, though, is that the Coens have thankfully dropped their propensity for eccentricity, which has always been their Achilles' Heel as filmmakers. No Country for Old Men has no goofy central or ancillary characters; front and center, there are only serious actors at the top of their games while the film's margins are filled-in by authentic Texans. (Beth Grant's turn as Brolin's mother-in-law is the only exception, but her appearance is so brief that it's easily forgiveable.) The Coens mercifully, by and large, don't portray the film's Texans as quirky and exotic goofballs as they did to the Midwesterners in Fargo or the Southerners in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

No Country for Old Men is an action film both measured and grave, opening as a Jim Thompson-esque crime saga set on the Texan sands, but as it moves along the film acquires an allegorical depth, raising questions about the state of American culture and morality as it follows a steady stream of blood that's all been spilled over a few million dollars. "It's all goddam money," an El Paso sheriff notes. The Coens take McCarthy's grumpy red-state gripes, like the one about kids with green hair, with a grain of salt, but nevertheless stay to true to his overarching theme: the violence that Jones is seeing, that causes him to declare, "I feel overwhelmed", isn't novel—it may be a bit gruesome, as Bardem kills people as though they're cows, for Pete's sake, but certainly not moreso than the violence of Blood Meridian—just another iteration of the frontier violence that harkens back to the old days of Indian battles. (And, if you follow the logic, all the way back to the American revolution.) "What you got ain't nothing new," Jones' uncle, Barry Corbin, tells him. "This country's hard on people." America is a country founded on violence that has never stopped fighting, whether against the elements or, as is more common, one another.

15 November 2007

Margot at the Wedding

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Written & Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Grade: B

Despite its titular allusion to Baumbach's buddy Wes Anderson—really, outside of The Royal Tenenbaums, when was the last time you heard the name "Margot"?—Margot at the Wedding owes more directly to the films of Woody Allen, though to the sort of Woody Allen picture that isn't very popular; Margot... is Baumbach's Interiors, his very own wealthy/WASPy family drama set in the country. (There's also a central character reviled by her family for, in part, turning their private lives into thinly veiled fiction, à la more popular Allen vehicles like Hannah & Her Sisters and Deconstructing Harry.) The film, with its surfeit of Serious Squabbles amongst kinsfolk, comes close to self-indulgent territory, and in the spirit of the Bananas-loving public who didn't understand Woody's stab at Bergmanesque solemnity, you want to take Margot's director by the shoulders, shake him, and say, "lighten up, Baumbach!"

That's not to say that the film is entirely devoid of comedy; the young Zane Pais and the rest of the kids have their share of very funny scenes, proving, when considered with the performances of Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline and the other youngsters from The Squid and the Whale, that Baumbach is particularly adept at writing for and directing young people. But rather than stick to what he knows and what he's good at, he unfortunately gave into the irresistible temptation to work with Nicole Kidman, who isn't as deft in handling his particular brand of comedy and its obligatory delivery style; Kidman may be one of our most notable performers, but she, as was on display in Bewitched, is not our most capable comedienne. And why put Jack Black in a movie, as Kidman's brother-in-law-to-be, if you're just going to cast him against type as a dour depressive? Between spots of inspired amusement, including a punchline about punching people, Black's performance feels artificial otherwise, like a manic comic actor consciously and conspicuously playing himself down. (That's not to say I miss Black's usual consciously played-up mania, but pitched somewhere in the middle he's like baby bear's porridge—just right.)

Baumbach's films have always felt imitative, right from his debut Kicking and Screaming, which easily evoked Whit Stillman, right down to the casting of Chris Eigeman. But nevertheless, in fairness, he has always managed to craft his films with a unique voice; that is, Margot at the Wedding may recall Woody Allen—with nods to Mike Nichols in a silent underwater plunge and even John Boorman, presumably, with a backwoods family of frightening mountainfolk—but it's not exactly derivative, just...reminiscent.

Kidman stars as the eponymous Margot, a cold, controlling and caviling Manhattan mother, and the wedding is her sister's, taking place at their (upstate? Long Island?) childhood home where the engaged-to-Jack-Black sister, Jennifer Jason Leigh, is living.

"I thought she wasn't speaking to you," Pais asks his mother, Kidman, in reference to his Aunt Leigh.

"No, no," Kidman answers reassuringly, before adding, "I wasn't speaking to her."

Margot is superbly characterized by Kidman—what she lacks in comic skills, she makes up for in dramatics—in cooperation with Baumbach, with lines like, "watch my jacket!" selfishly spoken to her son during a bit of horseplay, or "I don't really listen to music anymore," meant, of course, to clue us in to her frigidity, both emotional and sexual. (Though Margot speaks and is spoken of as being sexually active, the only sex we see her engaged in is masturbation, and it's unsuccessfully short of climax; sex pops up in the film mostly as an external threat, showing up in peepholes, Polaroids and surreptitiously stashed pornography as well as being manifest in nymphet neighbors.)

Margot is haughtily dominating, even lecturing strangers on a forest trail about proper parenting in addition to trying to break up her sister's upcoming marriage—when Kidman complains that Black is driving too fast, Leigh notes, "Margot would insist on driving if she knew how"—but at the same time she pushes everyone away: her husband, played briefly by John Turturro in an endearing and forbearing turn, and even her son, whom she cruelly criticizes at one point for, essentially, hitting puberty. ("You used to be rounder," she tells him accusatorially, tears in his eyes.) She needs to be in charge, but she doesn't seem to want anyone around of whom to be in control.

Margot at the Wedding, like a great Woody Allen movie, is full of characters psychoanalyzing one another to avoid confronting themselves. "Pauline has transferred all her stuff on to me," Kidman charges of her sister, not realizing, or admitting, that she, and every other damn character, is doing the same thing. Unlike a great Woody Allen movie, though, there's no sympathetic anchor, or at least someone alluring, holding Margot at the Wedding down. Margot, in her middle age, has turned into a mean person, and is destroying the people, her family, around her.

Baumbach buttresses that theme with symbols, including a tree on the estate of the girls' childhood home that's rotting at the roots and killing the vegetation around it; it falls over, of course, at a climactic moment. (It's unfortunate, however, that by that point, rather than wishing the characters had gotten out of its way, I was hoping for the whole odious lot to get smushed underneath it.) In a culture and a presidential race in which "family values" are trumpeted as an essential component to a functioning democracy, Margot at the Wedding rejects that sort of sloganeering by exposing the animosity that often characterizes the bonds of family. Sure, no one loves you like your family does, but no one has the capacity to hate you quite that much, either.

14 November 2007

Black Book

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Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Written by: Paul Verhoeven & Gerard Soeteman

Grade: A-

For a movie that looks so "Hollywood", Black Book (Zwartboek) is terribly grim, but that's because, despite its epic surface, it isn't Hollywood at all. Tail between his legs, unappreciated auteur Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Robocop) retreated to his native Netherlands, where he'd had a successful pre-Hollywood career, following 2000's uninspired Hollow Man—as a fan of Verhoeven's Hollywood work, even I wouldn't stick up for that one—to get back to his filmmaking roots; he has triumphantly reemerged with this bitter romance that, incidentally, serves as a nice allegory for his American career.

Black Book stars Carice von Houten in a masterful and old-fashioned kind of performance (she is compared twice in the film to sirens of the silver screen) as a Dutch Jew during World War II, first as an Anne Frank-type in hiding and later as a member of the Resistance, for whom she infiltrates the Nazis as a spy; it is on her own, though, that she falls in love with an SS officer (!), Sebastian Koch (fresh off of Das Leben der Anderen). Black Book could've settled to be some sort of unusual romance, but because Verhoeven and Soeteman insist on keeping matters so unrelentingly dreary it's instead less a bodice-ripper than, well, a major downer. C'est la guerre, I suppose. (Or c'est le Verhoeven.) It seems like every plan in Black Book goes awry, every escape and/or rescue ending in gun violence and bloodshed; it's just one failure after another, with von Houten just about the only one scraping through it all.

That's in large part because, as a woman, she has one advantage all other characters seem to lack (at least when dumb luck isn't enough)—her sexuality, and a conscious awareness of its power. (In contrast to Halina Reijn, her comic fille de joie foil.) In an early scene, von Houten, a Jew on the run in Nazi Germany, is riding on the back of a bicycle past some German soldiers; she picks up her dress just a few inches to their fox-whistling delight, showing that even in war sex still trumps ideology. Later, when Koch asks von Houten if she's Jewish, she pulls his hands to her bare breasts and asks, "are these Jewish?" The sex that ensues seems to imply the answer is no, though it's probably a question best referred to a theologian.

So Black Book is somber, yet sexy, both bleak and beautiful, as von Houten dyes her hair a stunning platinum blonde when she joins the resistance. She's the only one who can move with ease from the grays of the opposition's warehouse-hideouts (talk about a political movement in need of a woman's touch) to the blaring technicolors of the Nazi parties.

Most everyone in the film is made unsympathetic by Verhoeven: the resistance fighters corrupted and self-interested, more concerned with saving a handful of their own than a few dozen Jews, and the Nazis, well, are the Nazis. Even the Krauts, when freed at the war's end, turn vile and are scolded by their liberators: "you're as bad as the Nazis!" (Remarkably, or scandalously, one of the only other sympathetic characters is Koch's SS officer, even though he never even does anything particularly heroic except fall for a Jewish girl.)

The audience's enduring ability to sympathize with von Houten is, at least in part, a result of her being Verhoeven's diegetic stand-in. Before the war, von Houten was a singer, and as she says early in the film, "one day you're singing, the next you're silenced." Sounds, too, like a mournful remark from our hero director, effectively banished from the Hollywood scene. Verhoeven is best-known for making Hollywood blockbusters with a subversive twist, sometimes so subversive, as in the case of Starship Troopers, that the anti-fascist subtext went right over the heads of many viewers. In Black Book, the Third Reich functions as Hollywood and von Houten is Verhoeven, both an insider and a member of the opposition, and as such in time all sides turn against von Houten and she is left unable to sing and ultimately she finds herself relegated back to her homeland; the bookends that frame the flashback that makes up the bulk of the film finds von Houten living in Israel, just as Verhoeven wound up back in the Netherlands.

Of course if the film were merely an allegory for Verhoeven's career it would be offensively self-aggrandizing, but it can at least serve as a clue as to why the director took an interest in the girl's story and made the film in his homeland. When von Houten is humiliated by being stripped topless and having a vat of feces poured on her head, it doubles as Verhoeven's telling the audience all about how American audiences and producers shit all over him.

Just like as in Verhoeven's Hollywood career, there's no happy ending for von Houten. Verhoeven sticks up for the Jews early in the film when a man who says, "if the Jews had listened to Jesus, they wouldn't be in this mess" gets his house and family exploded but, when the film ends in Israel amidst gunfire, it feels like a political statement about the Jews' arc from aggrieved to aggressor, though it might just be the director indicating that this shit's never over. As von Houten cries in the third act, "when will it ever end?" . With all the Nazi's talk of "defeating the terrorists" throughout the film, it's hard not to start connecting the film's story to the present day, so to answer that question: never. Groan.

12 November 2007

Hotel Chevalier (Short Film)

Full Credits from IMDb

Written & Directed by: Wes Anderson

Grade: A-

If Hotel Chevalier were nothing but just some short film, it couldn't help but feel incurably slight; if I could only use two words to describe it, they would be "wide" and "yellow". (If there was a word for Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)" I'd make that three words, as that song plays nearly non-stop throughout the film.) But it's not meant to stand entirely on its own, and from its attachment to The Darjeeling Limited (it's called that film's "Part One") it musters some heft, ultimately overcoming the fact that ostensibly it feels like it was made as an acting exercise or as a sneaky excuse to get Natalie Portman naked. In the end, it really isn't slight so much as it's subtle and stinging.

In fact, Hotel Chevalier is a pitch-perfect prologue to Darjeeling. The short marks a genuine departure for director Anderson that Darjeeling only hopelessly hinted at; while the visual aesthetic is unmistakable, mostly vanished is his characteristic whimsy and his comedic self-defense mechanism; Hotel Chevalier is naked autoconfrontation, both serious and sad, just short of crossing the line into self-indulgence. The credit for its success belongs to Jason Schwartzman and Portman and their stellar performances; the script is sparing and the dialogue largely unrevealing (though it has its share of great lines: "I promise, I will never be your friend" among them), with all the backstory filled in by gestures between the leads, who obviously spent a lot of time with Anderson developing the characters' histories. The result is a film that needs nothing spoken and yet is still silently and painfully sad. When Portman arrives at Schwartzman's hotel and he jerks away from a kiss, it speaks volumes more than a subsequent exchange:

"Are you running away from me?" Portman asks of Schwartzman's holing up in the French hotel.

"I thought I already did," he answers.


The short can be downloaded for free on iTunes, seen in theaters before The Darjeeling Limited (and presumably on the coming DVD) or you can watch a clip here, though beware it's terribly cropped. (The original is noticeably wider at 2.35:1.)

05 November 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Full credits at IMDb

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman

Watch the trailer

Grade: A-

The Darjeeling Limited opens with Bill Murray racing to catch the film's eponymous train but, for better or for worse, he doesn't make it. It's a clever little in-joke from Anderson, who has featured Murray in his last three films (and as such could be credited with reviving and redefining his career, Lost in Translation be damned)—Murray has missed the train and, in effect, missed the film. Outrunning him, however, is Anderson newcomer Adrian Brody, who with the legs of a healthy young man hops aboard the moving train and thus sets off the film.

Despite Murray's subsequent absence from the film, The Darjeeling Limited doesn't exactly mark new territory for Anderson; it's more like Wes on holiday, his defining motifs relocated to the Indian countryside. There's the characteristically meticulous mise-en-scene, for example, though it's tough to tell whether it's a result of Anderson's design or if that's just what India is actually like, and perhaps what attracted Anderson there in the first place. The Darjeeling Limited is a train trip travelogue, making the occasional stop for a set-piece or set-up. But it's also, like his last two films, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, about family reconciliation, centered around three estranged, contentious, chain-smoking, analgesic-addict brothers, played by Brody, co-screenwriter Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) and Owen Wilson. (In Wilson's first film appearance since his attempted suicide, he is made-up, in a striking coincidence, as bruised and bandaged.)

"I wonder if the three of us could've been friends in real life," Schwartzman says, pointing out the compulsory nature of family ties. But Wilson isn't so cynical; "I want us to be brothers like we used to," he says, and so he takes them all out on a locomotive odyssey through India, a supposed-to-be spiritual journey, with the aid of his assistant, Wallace Wolodarsky, who in supplying the laminated itineraries and essentially planning their trip makes a neat little stand-in for the fastidiously controlling director. (At one point, he even vocalizes the symbolism of a scene to the brothers, as a director would likely do, though off-camera of course.) Wolodarksy and Anderson also have a bit more than a passing physical resemblance.

When the bickering brothers are inevitably booted from the train, they lose Wolodarsky and in tandem Anderson's characteristic whimsy dissipates, the film ultimately stumbling upon tragedy in a Day-Glo toned village. After the 86ing from the train, the cute but combative rapport between the brothers gives way to the root cause of their antagonism, a difficulty in dealing with the loss of their papa a year ago and the abandonment of their mother in the time they needed her the most. Aesthetically, The Darjeeling Limited is a film of ins and outs and backs and forths, underscoring the circular path of the brothers' emotional states as they refuse to deal with the death of their father. (It's also full of Kinks tracks off of Lola vs. Powerman and Money-Go-Round, Part One and helped make that album more accessible to me than it's ever been.)

The Darjeeling Limited has an undercurrent of emotional maturity beneath its hipster eccentricity; Wilson's copious bandages are in fact a manifestation of his deep psychological scars. "I've still got some more healing to do," he says, looking at his gruesome wounds in the mirror and speaking in double entendre. The Darjeeling Limited rightly recognizes that the problems of life are too complex to wrap-up neatly in a mere ninety minutes. Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central gets it right when he says that the film is, "about growing comfortable with being lost."

"We'll never get over it," Anjelica Huston, as the long-lost mother, says to her boys. "The past happened. But now it's over, isn't it?"

"Not for us," Wilson replies, speaking for his brothers. But The Darjeeling Limited is, thankfully, a movie about learning to stop feeling sorry for yourself, not about the satisfaction of wallowing in one's own misery (proving that Anderson is a hipster only deceptively); that is, it's not, necessarily, about learning to overcome one's problems—it's not about finding "closure"—but about learning to come to terms with those misfortunes. Appropriately, running to catch their train at the end the brothers are forced to abandon their bags, tellingly their father's trunks; they are literally leaving their baggage behind, but they're still a long ways from home.