Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)

One of the things I value most about the films of Arnaud Desplechin is that he understands the messiness that arises when people aren’t exactly on the same page. In Desplechin’s work, there’s a tension that comes out of people’s perspectives not lining up quite right, and it’s rare to find two lives that fit together completely in a way that is largely free of this tension. In this respect, it seems almost inevitable that Desplechin would eventually make a movie about a family gathering for Christmas, since few dramatic situations are so fraught with this tension. Even the best families have their squabbles and resentments, yet when they gather together for the holidays, in the interest of decorum and “holiday cheer” they fall back on politeness and long-standing traditions to keep the long-simmering emotions at bay.

What’s more, there’s a tendency among most families to assign unspoken labels to each member at a relatively early stage, then to hold tightly to those labels through the years, even past the point where they no longer apply. Little wonder that many adults see the old-fashioned family Christmas less as a pleasure than an obligation, something to be gotten over with so they can get to celebrating everything their own chosen way.

Even under ideal circumstances, Christmas with the Vuillards, the family at the center of A Christmas Tale, would be uneasy. But with matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) gravely ill, and middle child Henri (Matthieu Amalric) back at the party for the first time since being banished six years prior, it gets near-impossible to keep those old unpleasant feelings under wraps. Junon requires a bone marrow transplant, but given her rare blood type, only two family members are compatible- Henri and Paul, the teenage son of Henri’s older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who has long despised her little brother for reasons that are never fully explained.

In a more conventional film, Henri and Elizabeth would see this opportunity as a chance to reconcile, with the once-irresponsible brother stepping in to help their mother and save his young nephew the risk. But in A Christmas Tale, it doesn’t work out that way. Elizabeth- who spearheaded Henri’s banishment in the first place- has always been the good and responsible eldest child, and she resents that it’s her ne’er-do-well of a brother who will have the chance to help their mother. In addition, she sees the possibility of Paul helping her mom not merely as a chance to bring her closer to her son, but also to give him a renewed sense of purpose. Both of which are fairly good reasons from Elizabeth’s perspective, but (not that Elizabeth cares) this doesn’t leave much of a place for Henri. Does her antipathy for him spring solely from the incident in question, or is it indicative of something deeper- perhaps (this being a Desplechin film) an inability to deal with the messiness that Henri brings?

In this respect, Desplechin could be called a spiritual cousin of Jean Renoir, especially the Renoir who once penned the line- “the great tragedy of life is this: everyone has his reasons.” All too often in A Christmas Tale, the characters neglect or even hurt the feelings of those closest to them to satisfy their own interests, but in their eyes they’re just doing what they feel must be done. It can be as simple as Junon balking at the skin inflammations that could potentially result from the transplant, or as emotionally fraught as Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), wife of the youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), sleeping with her ex-lover as a means of bringing some closure to their aborted, long-ago relationship. And then there’s Henri, who despite any efforts he might make will always be “the bad kid” to his family. Is there any wonder that we rarely see him happy until he ducks out with his girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) to drop her off at the train station?

But I’ve made A Christmas Tale sound sort of dismal, when in fact it’s anything but. In spite of all the despair flying around, the Vuillard house is filled with life and even familial warmth, particularly from the kindly paterfamilias Abel (Jean-Pierre Rousillon- I love that in a Desplechin film a jolly, potato-faced guy like him can wind up with Catherine Deneuve), and no small amount of humor. And from the very beginning of the film, when the family history is recounted using shadow puppets- thus lending it a broad, archetypal quality- Desplechin’s stylistic decisions are bold, yet perfectly used. After my first viewing, A Christmas Tale doesn’t quite measure up to his masterful Kings and Queen, but it’s so full of life, with all its messiness and unpredictability, that I’m sure my esteem for it will only grow over time.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)

It’s not hard to see why Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York has sharply divided critics and audiences. It’s almost impossibly ambitious, yet at first glance it seems to strike many viewers as show-offy and self-indulgent, particularly given the way its sobering worldview undermines any of its potential entertainment value. Yet to dismiss the film as Kaufman getting stuck up his own ass (to quote Mike D’Angelo) is to deny just how wise and sneaky a piece of work it is.

As virtually all of its supporters have said, Synecdoche is about nothing less than Life and Death- or, more specifically, the paths our lives take as we grow older. From the outset, Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) body is betraying him- pustules break out on his face, his eyes don’t dilate properly, a seizure leaves him unable to generate tears or saliva. This pileup of health disasters, coupled with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive leaving him, makes Caden mindful of his mortality, so he seizes on the opportunity afforded him by a McArthur Grant to turn his life into a massive theatre project.

In many films, making the protagonist a director reeks of solipsism, as though the filmmaker didn’t know anything about any other lifestyle besides a life in the arts. But here, it’s a brilliant move on Kaufman’s part, as Caden’s job and the project he mounts mirrors the impulse we’ve all felt to take control of our lives in order to make sense of them. However, Caden’s life becomes consumed by this inward-looking project, and the constant self-regard leads the production to drag on for year after year, growing far beyond his ability to control it.

But then, isn’t this how life is for all of us? In our younger years we’ve convinced that we’re the masters of our lives, only to see our worlds growing ever larger in old age while our own rules in them become smaller, until we’re not even calling the shots for ourselves anymore. Along the way, everything Caden knows and lives is lost to him- his parents, Adele and Olive, and his great love Hazel (Samantha Morton) all die, while his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams) also leaves never to return. Even time itself gets away from Caden, from the opening scene in which two nearly imperceptible temporal shifts take place, to later in the film where entire years get passed by unnoticed.

Yet for all its starkness, punctuated occasionally by typically Kaufmanesque non sequiturs, the film’s tone morphs gradually into a kind of warm ruefulness once it becomes clear how much possible happiness Caden has lost due to his inability to stop thinking about himself all the blasted time. Yet by the time this happiness comes within reach it’s too late, and the tragedy is that Caden recognizes full well that he won’t have another chance like it again. By the end, all he can do is to look back at a life of intense self-regard, and to reflect on the idea that to truly know oneself can be a source of misery rather than pleasure, and that all his attempts to create something larger than himself have fallen flat.

This is why, even in her absence, Adele may still be Synecdoche’s key supporting character, even more than Hazel, Claire, Olive, or even Sammy (Tom Noonan), who has been tailing Caden for two decades for reasons unknown but to himself. Through her art- postage stamp-sized miniature oil paints- Adele embraces smallness rather than being unwittingly consumed by largesse the way Caden is. Perhaps that’s why she needs to escape him, since she knows innately what it takes Caden a lifetime to learn. And if Caden could only stop and think about it, perhaps he might realize that Adele’s success through modestly-scaled art is a rebuke to his own ultimately-failed grandiosity.

Early in Synecdoche, New York Adele tells Caden, “everyone’s disappointing, the more you know someone.” Yes, and doubly so when that someone is yourself.

Note: Looking over this review, I can’t help but noticed that I’ve completely neglected to mention such things as direction, performances, and technical elements, although they’re all top notch, all the more impressively so for being Kaufman’s directorial debut. All I can say in my defense is that, cosmetic differences aside, I was so consumed by my own identification with Caden’s plight that I found it difficult to think of the filmic aspects of it. At numerous points in the film, Caden sees himself in the world around him, and I felt much the way watching the film itself. Make of that what you will.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle)

The key to the enduring success of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? property is its format. To begin with, it boils down the game show to its essence- one questioner, one answerer- then injects heaping helpings of built-in drama into the proceedings- the double-or-nothing scoring system, the multiple-choice questions (which puts contestants, somewhat unwisely, at ease), the lifelines, and the multi-step processes required to answer the question, which draws out the suspense almost to the breaking point. Which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying that the show is compulsively watchable, and hardly needs any more drama injected into it. Yet somehow, the game-show sequences are probably the most Earthbound parts of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a film that’s been racking up accolades on the festival circuit and now seems primed to take home beaucoup arthouse bucks and Oscar nominations. I wish I could say the melodrama that pervades Slumdog to its very bones was a good thing- being a fan of melodrama as I am- but alas, the whole thing ends up coming off as contrived through and through. To begin with, there’s the premise of the movie- that the uneducated title character has somehow gleaned all the necessary answers through his life’s experiences. While this is true to a certain extent for most game-show contestants, it feels entirely too dramatically convenient here, especially when the film milks this for drama rather than absurdist comedy like the episode of Cheers where Cliff was a contestant on Jeopardy! To wit- nearly every answer isn’t simply from the protagonist’s life, but from a significant moment in his life. Of course, the film more or less comes out and says that his winning on the show (SPOILER!) was “destiny”, so we’re pretty squarely in fantasy territory here. Yet that hardly excuses the movie’s many spurious leaps in logic, not the least of which is some highly unprofessional behavior on the part of the host. Then there’s the final question on the show, which is not only jaw-droppingly predictable from about five minutes into the movie, but also far, FAR too easy to make the cut as a “million dollar” question. I hate to say it, but I get the impression that Slumdog Millionaire wouldn’t be getting nearly the buzz that it has so far had it been set in, say, New York City- it’s the exoticism of India that really seems to smooth over the film’s many rough spots in the minds of rapturous critics and audiences (sorry, Jason). As for me, I ain’t buying- no matter where it’s set, Slumdog Millionaire is diverting in the moment but pretty shameless on balance, hardly worthy of the love it’s getting. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008, Raja Gosnell)

Well… that happened. I knew that the Offspring was looking forward to this one, so when Angela fell ill again this past weekend, I bit the bullet and took him so he wouldn’t be cooped up all day. As expected, this is pretty shabby goods- I’m not a big fan of talking-animal movies anyway (the Babe franchise notwithstanding, natch), and since Chihuahuas are more or less my least favorite dogs, I knew I was going to be in for a long slog. But what really surprised me was how little effort the filmmakers put forth in making this thing. Lord knows I was no fan of the notorious teaser, but at least that tried to show some originality and pizzazz, however misguided. The movie itself, on the other hand, is pretty much the laziest possible movie that could have made from the premise- basically, a cut-rate canine Legally Blonde Goes to Mexico. It’s as though Disney figured that the once the trailer put asses in seats, their work was done, and they were henceforth under no obligation to actually entertain the audience. About an hour in, the Offspring turned to me and asked, “when are they gonna sing?”, and at that point I realized that I was actually wanting them to sing too- anything, really, to break the monotony and show me that someone involved in the movie actually gave a damn. The only things keeping this from getting a “1” rating were (a) the surprisingly world-weary voiceover performance from Andy Garcia as a dishonored police dog, and (b) the sparkling presence of Piper Perabo, who (as I’ve said before) really deserves better than the career she’s had since her “next big thing” hype all the way back in 2000. Yeesh, has it really been seven years since Lost and Delirious? Rating: 2 out of 10.

JCVD (2008, Mabrouk El-Mechri)

During my teenage years, B-grade action movies were one of the many staples of my moviewatching, and since this was the early nineties, the filmography of Jean-Claude Van Damme was intensely familiar to me. So while my Van Damme education stopped around the time I went to college (I never managed to watch the allegedly awesome/crazy Double Team), I was nonetheless heartened to see him turn up in this lacerating quasi-self-portrait. At its best, JCVD holds its star up to audience scorn in a way that few star vehicles do- instead of the gentle ribbing found in most movies of this kind, the blows in this one sting, and a few even draw blood. Alas, the self-inflicted Van Dammage only takes up roughly a third of the movie, and director El-Mechri fills most of the rest of his time with a hostage storyline that drags on for far too long, and which no amount of directorial flourishes or stylistic noodling can make liven up. And while Van Damme himself proves surprisingly game as an anti-action hero, he mostly whiffs his big climactic monologue, in which he’s literally pulled out of the movie to offer an apology for his life and work. Yet I would still recommend the film to Van Damme watchers both old and new, not least for the shit-hot incredible opening shot (even the logos are awesome), as well as the final ten minutes or so, when the story defies the audience’s expectations and hopes for how a Van Damme movie really should end. If Van Damme’s not your bag, adjust your rating accordingly. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia (2008, Baz Luhrmann)

Baz Luhrmann's films have been distinguished less by a consistent style or subject matter than a "let us entertain you!" sort of propulsiveness, in which the auteur practically bombards the audience with incident and imagery in an effort to make his mark. And while this tactic has yielded mixed results to date- Moulin Rouge! is the apex, with Romeo + Juliet the nadir- he actually puts a lid on this tendency for large portions of Australia. After a very Luhrmann-esque opening reel in which he crams exposition in like a starving kid loading up at Thanksgiving dinner, the director goes more old-school, as demanded by his genres of choice this time out, the Western and the romantic epic. There are still plenty of eye-popping visuals on display, but gone are the insistent cutting style and theatrical anachronisms of his previous work- if nothing else, Luhrmann has set out to make Australia a MOVIE through and through. But frankly, I'm not sure this is an improvement. For one thing, the few "Luhrmann-isms" that do find their way into the story stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, especially his repeated references to The Wizard of Oz (Get it? Australia? Oz? GET IT????), which go way beyond the numerous versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" throughout the film, something which might have been more forgivable had Luhrmann not made such a big damn deal over it. No, he feels the need to take the reference even further, as when Jack Thompson's character arrives for the cattle drive in a mini-twister. In addition, I wasn't especially taken with the movie's view of Aboriginal peoples. From the outset, Australia attacks the government's longtime policy toward half-caste children, previously laid down in Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. However, aside from the "creamy" child Nullah (Brandon Walters), all of the Aboriginal characters, whether half-caste or full-blooded, exist predominantly to aid the white heroes. What's more, the intergration of Aboriginal "magic" into the storyline is a half-hearted attempt on the filmmakers' part to show "respect" for their traditions, but it ends up backfiring by turning the characters- especially David Gulpilil's "King George"- into the "Other." But the most basic problem is that without the whip-smash editing and unflagging desire to wow the audience, the film seriously drags in spots. The film's other issues might have been easier to take if only Luhrmann had kept the movie going at a steady clip, but since the story gets really saggy at various points, it gives us (me, anyway) plenty of time to think about all the rest of the stuff that's going wrong. A few other random thoughts: (1) Nicole Kidman's brittle and chilly onscreen persona doesn't seem especially well-suited to Luhrmann's world, does it?; (2) perhaps it's partly due to the central character being a woman, but it's been a while since I saw a big-budget epic take such a distinctly female gaze toward its male lead- Jackman is easily the movie's most potent lust object, whether washing himself in view of Kidman or making the sort of attention-getting party arrival normally reserved for ingenues; (3) is it just me, or is David Wenham essentially playing the Duke from Moulin Rouge! here? That Luhrmann's style of villain is so easily recognizable is more interesting than almost anything else in this mildly diverting but ultimately disappointing movie. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008, Mike Leigh)

At first glimpse, Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is one of those unbearably chipper types who seem to take it as their mission in life to force their good cheer on the world. It certainly would appear that she’s that sort in the film’s opening scene, in which she visits a bookstore and tries to cheer up a clerk who clearly can’t be bothered. At this point, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Happy-Go-Lucky to turn into a story in which Poppy, sooner or later, gets that grin (metaphorically) slapped off her face. Thankfully, Leigh has other plans. Instead of making us anticipate his upbeat heroine get taken down a few notches, he actually lets us get to know her, and if there’s one thing we learn from our time alongside Poppy, it’s that her happiness comes from within. Rather than being one of those oblivious sorts who smiles because she’s too dense to comprehend the shit that surrounds her, Poppy’s happiness is born from a healthy sense of perspective- she knows her place in the world, and she doesn’t need anything more than that to be happy. This idea becomes clear during a scene in which she visits her little sister, who is married with a baby on the way and a new home, and who is as stressed out as Poppy is relaxed (this is also the most prototypically Leigh-esque scene in the film).

The trouble is that Leigh’s storytelling, such as it is, feels too neat, with the drama in the film centered almost entirely on Poppy’s interactions with Scott (Eddie Marsan), a bitter driving instructor prone to emotional outbursts. From their first scene together, Leigh positions Scott as Poppy’s polar opposite, and whatever tension can be found in Happy-Go-Lucky comes from the friction that builds between them. Which is fine, I suppose, except that (a) the difference in tension between the Scott scenes and the rest of the film makes the other scenes feel slight by comparison, and (b) by so neatly cordoning off the really dramatic stuff from the rest of the movie, much of the human messiness that can usually be found in Leigh’s work is lost. Aside from Scott, most of the other characters who surround Poppy tend to accept her as she is, even the ones who don’t really know her. And while it’s true that her kind of happiness is generally infectious, surely there are people who don’t always respond to it and aren’t complete psychos. By limiting the spectrum of human behavior this time around, Leigh has made the world he’s created with his performers far less varied, and consequently less interesting. None of this, however, is any fault of Hawkins, who manages the difficult feat of creating a character who’s genuinely warm and caring, and takes a role that might have been insufferable in other hands and makes her really lovable.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Role Models (2008, David Wain)

(originally written for a work newsletter)

When I first heard the premise for Role Models- a pair of slackers get ordered by the courts to become mentors to troubled youth- I didn’t have much hope for it being good. It seemed like something out of high-concept Hades, reminiscent of a cheesy 80s-era sitcom. Yet somehow, Role Models makes it work. With a game cast, it’s that rarity- a comedy that’s not just funny but legitimately likable.

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott star as Danny and Wheeler, a pair of thirtysomethings who pay the bills by hawking energy drinks in public schools. Depressed after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), Rudd crashes the company truck, landing them in court with two options- a month of jail, or community service. Naturally, they choose the second option, and wind up in the "Big Brothers/Big Sisters"-esque "Sturdy Wings" Program, where each is paired up with a "little". Wheeler’s young charge is straight out of the comedy playbook, a ten-year-old named Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson) with a mouth like a sailor. But Danny’s "little" is more surprising- a high school social leper named Augie, who devotes all of his free time to a medieval role-playing society that requires its members to dress up and do battle with makeshift swords and axes. Needless to say, the court-ordered mentors have their work cut out for them.

The film’s story is formulaic enough that the ending is more or less a foregone conclusion. However, there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way, provided you’ve got a taste for raunchy humor, including plenty of profanity from the young scene-stealer Thompson. Most of the movie coasts along on the strength of its jokes and gags, which hit more often than they miss. But it’s in the final reel or so that Role Models kicks into overdrive, as Augie enlists Danny, Wheeler and Ronnie for the "Battle Royale," in which all of the members of the role-playing society take the field to fight each other to the simulated "death." I’d go into more detail, but I’d hate to spoil the fun.

And in the end, Role Models is a lot of fun, courtesy of its talented stars and a handful of ringers in the supporting cast. After years of dependable supporting work, Rudd makes the most of the lead role here, and Scott is better than he’s been since the American Pie movies. Among the supporting players, Jane Lynch is memorable as the founder of "Sturdy Wings", who has an alarming tendency to bring up her old drug addiction at inappropriate moments. But best of all is Mintz-Plasse, who became a cult figure as Superbad’s "McLovin", here playing an even more awkward character this time around. Like Danny, we can’t help but look at him with dumbstruck awe when we first meet him, but as the story progresses, we grow to really like the kid and his unorthodox hobby. Role Models is a nice surprise, not least for all of you unreformed KISS fans out there. You know who you are.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Quantum of Solace (2008, Marc Forster)

(originally written for a work newsletter)

What makes a James Bond movie different from a regular action movie? Bond movies have always been famous for their stunts, their chases, their gadgets, their villains, and their women. But then, you can find these in just about every action movie. No, I think what really distinguishes 007 from the everyday high-octane thriller is its style. From the beginning, Bond has been about wish fulfillment, in which audience members who yearn for globetrotting, high-rolling adventure (all in the service of one’s country, of course) can feed their fantasies, safely, for the price of a movie ticket. No matter what actor plays the role, the style has always been the most important element of a Bond movie, and it’s what’s most lacking in the series’ latest installment, Quantum of Solace.

What makes this especially disappointing is that the previous 007 adventure, Casino Royale was a high-water mark in the series, a fusion of the classic Bond style and the grittier, more hard-edged feel of the modern action movie. However, this time out the scales have tipped too far in the latter direction, with Daniel Craig’s lean, mean 007 reduced to an bullet-headed action figure. Making matters worse is the film’s over-reliance on the kind of frenzied, choppy action sequences that have been in vogue after the popularity of the Bourne movies. The fights and chases become little more than incoherent messes of motion and color, and more than one potentially exciting scene is squandered because it’s almost impossible to make out what the heck is happening onscreen.

As in any James Bond movie, there are a handful of worthy moments, including some lovely locations, and a few returning characters from previous adventures, most notably the invaluable Judi Dench as the long-suffering M. Yet for the most part, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I’d seen most of Quantum of Solace before, and done better. In the past, Bond movies have set the pace for the action genre, so it’s a little upsetting to see the series ripping off other hits. I’ve seen all of the Bond movies at least once, and although I’ve sat through a number of subpar ones (you can’t convince me that Moonraker wasn’t meant to be a comedy), I’ve never been bored with any of them until now. To my eyes, 007 movies are about entertainment, and by failing to be much fun, Quantum of Solace fails the first- and most important- test of the series. Disappointing all around.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008, Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell)

(originally written for a work newsletter)

2005’s animated hit Madagascar was a pleasant surprise, taking a relatively standard-issue fish-out-of-water storyline and jazzing it up with vibrant animation and a surprisingly heady nature-vs.-nurture theme. Now the original Madagascar gang is back with the sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, in which our heroes’ disastrous attempt to return to New York City causes them to crash-land in the African savanna. All of the major characters are back again this time, not just the central foursome (Ben Stiller as Alex the Lion, Chris Rock as Marty the zebra, Jada Pinkett Smith as Gloria the hippo, and David Schwimmer as Melman the giraffe) but also returning favorites like the lemur King Julian, voiced by Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen, and a quartet of resourceful no-nonsense penguins. Frankly, all this familiarity makes the movie feel somewhat stale, with many of the jokes coming off as retreads of the original movie. There’s even a fairly gratuitous and distracting subplot involving a group of American tourists who are forced to fend for themselves, with the group led by the same feisty granny who beat up Alex with her handbag in the first installment of the film.

In addition, once the gang reaches the savanna, each character gets its own storyline, with varying levels of interest. The lion’s share of the screen time (sorry) goes once again to Alex, who is not only spectacularly unsuited to life in the wild- another plot point from the original movie- but now finds himself reunited with his alpha-lion father, nicely voiced by the late Bernie Mac. However, I was much more entertained by the subplot involving Marty and the pack of zebras, who not only look exactly like him but act and talk like him as well, creating no small amount of confusion. That said, the animation is even more eye-catching this time around, with lots of vivid color and inventive (though hardly realistic) character design. And there are still plenty of funny moments, most memorably those involving the scene-stealing King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen is priceless as ever) and those crazy penguins. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa won’t win the franchise any new fans, but it should please most people who enjoyed the original film, especially kids.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rachel Getting Married (2008, Jonathan Demme)

I think the moment I realized exactly what a masterful achievement Rachel Getting Married is came during the rehearsal dinner. In this extended sequence- almost an entire reel long- director Jonathan Demme shows speech after speech, each one creative and sincere, and warmly received. Then we get to Kym, sister of the bride and maid of honor, played by Anne Hathaway. Up to this point in the film, Kym has been something of a fly in the ointment, getting released from rehab to come to Rachel’s wedding only to promptly run roughshod over the proceedings. But in her mind, her speech at the rehearsal dinner is her chance to make everything right. She gets up and throws out some tart one-liners, but nobody laughs. Then she takes a chance to make amends to the pain she’s caused her sister, but no one is really buying. It’s in this scene that we really begin to feel how deep the wounds are that separate Kym from the rest of her family, and even if her speech had been a success, it would’ve taken much more for her to heal them.

The trailer for Rachel Getting Married suggests a story in which Kym reconciles with her family, hugs are exchanged, and everyone parties till dawn backed by a samba band. But don’t let this fool you- it’s pretty strong meat. At various points in the story, it’s hard not to hate all of the characters at least a little bit- Kym for bringing her family such misery, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) for not trying to understand where Kym is coming from, their dad (Bill Irwin) for being ineffectual, their mom (Debra Winger) for running away when she’s needed. Hell, even the wedding itself seems too good to be true, like a liberal wet dream of a multi-culti secular wedding. It’s just so perfectly planned (by Rachel and her prissy best friend Emma, no less) that it feels like a rebuke to the messy, down-and-out life that Kym has been leading ever since she got involved with drugs. Watching Kym navigate her way around the wedding is a reminder of what it can be like when everyone seems to be enjoying themselves except for you.

Like Robert Altman before him, the Demme of Rachel Getting Married knows that sometimes, it’s better to let character establish themselves by the ways they interact with each other than to simply announce who they are to the audience. By plunging headlong into the story, the film completely immerses the audience in the dynamic of the Buckman family. Because of old wounds and tragedies, they just can’t connect as they should, so that even the most innocuous and oblivious gestures (like Kym handing dad a stack of plates) can be blown completely out of proportion. In lesser hands, the situation around which Rachel Getting Married is built might have come off as a comedy of discomfort in a Ricky Gervais vein, but here the laughs don’t come. Here, as Octave said in Rules of the Game, “the great tragedy of life is this- everyone has his reasons.” In a way, Rachel Getting Married plays like the humanist counterpart to the misanthropic Burn After Reading- in both films, the characters get so caught up in their own blinkered versions of the world that they can hardly be bothered with empathy.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Changeling (2008, Clint Eastwood)

A quick look at Eastwood’s filmography will reveal a tendency on his part to make- or even star in- movies that show a distrust of traditional institutions. Whether it’s Dirty Harry’s shunning of due process or Million Dollar Baby’s climactic scene which finds Eastwood stepping outside both the medical system and the teachings of his faith, Eastwood’s films tend to favor finding one’s own solutions to problems instead of leaving it in the hands of others. And with Changeling , Eastwood finds his most dramatically-fertile example to date- the real-life case of Christine Collins, who after her little boy was kidnapped was presented with another child by the LAPD and thrown into a mental hospital when she insisted he wasn’t hers. It’s such a corker of a story that it would be nearly impossible for a director of any skill to mess up, and while Eastwood’s deliberate style sometimes feels overly ponderous, it still works for the material. That’s not to say that more could’ve been made of this story with a somewhat pulpier treatment- imagine what a writer like James Ellroy could make of the Collins case- but Eastwood’s direction is unobtrusive enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the story. Trouble is, the focus is so limited to the story that Christine tends to get lost in it at times. And while I find it refreshing when a movie has no use for gratuitous subplots (love interests and the like), Collins never comes off as much of a character here. Part of it is no doubt due to Angelina Jolie’s limitations as an actress- she’s too modern, steely and self-conscious to work in a period context, for one thing. But while I understand that Christine Collins lived a fairly average life, the film appears to take her as little more than a blank slate, defined almost entirely by her son, first in his presence, then in his absence. If we’re supposed to get involved in Collins’ quest to find her son, we first have to care about her, and I just wasn’t feeling it here. That said, it is a pretty damn great story, and the movie doesn’t piss all over it, so I was interested throughout. I only wish I cared more.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

A Girl Cut in Two (2007, Claude Chabrol)

As a moviegoer, there’s something to be said for “the thrill of the new”- discovering a talented neophyte, becoming immersed in a unique style, and so on. But there’s also real pleasure to be found in the work of a longtime veteran who has nothing left to prove. When a filmmaker has a style that’s firmly established, a truly talented filmmaker who’s not simply coasting will begin to tweak that style in his later years because he’s confident enough in his filmmaking gifts that he knows how far he can venture from his comfort zone. I kept thinking of this while watching A Girl Cut in Two, which seems at a glance to be a textbook Chabrol film, but turns out to be one of his darkest and most perverse films in years, and his best in over a decade. Of course, all of the expected ingredients are there- upper-class decadence, the trappings of high culture, and an outsider character who’s fascinated with these things until she actually gets a taste of the diseased lifestyle they come with. On the surface, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) is simply faced with a choice between spoiled, erratic heir Paul (Benoit Magimel) and doting, married, older author Charles (Francois Berleand). But once this initial premise has more or less played out, that’s when it gets really interesting. A lesser film would take one side or the other re: Gabrielle’s future, but in Chabrol’s world, they’re both fairly rotten, mostly because they’re rich enough that they’re out of touch with the rest of the world. Each man in his own way dominates Gabrielle, Charles by only meeting her at his convenience and stringing her along by promising to leave his wife, and Paul by virtue of his, shall we say, unstable personality. Meanwhile, what’s going on with Gabrielle? In some ways, she’s manipulated, but she never really thinks of simply leaving them. Each man comes along when she needs him, and she’s too weak-willed to cast them to manipulate them back. And she lacks the knowledge or the wisdom to realize that, in either case, she’s doomed. As the plot becomes ever more convoluted, Chabrol only reveals what he really has to, and the plot points he keeps vague (does Charles’ wife ever know? An enigmatic bit of dialogue involving a set of keys would indicate that, but you never quite know) become endlessly tantalizing in retrospect. And all the while, there’s the pleasure to be gotten from the exquisite cast- this is almost certainly the best-acted film I’ve seen this year- and the director who knows exactly what to do with them. Magimel’s leading-man good looks are offset by his bizarre clothes and hairstyle, and the aesthetic clash helps him create a memorably unhinged character. Sagnier is much bubblier than the typical Chabrol heroine, but then, the character exists to have her effervescence robbed from her by the storyline. And what else can be said about Francois Berleand, who is becoming one of my favorite character actors? To be sure, he’s an unconventional choice for the role of a sexually-liberated older man, but he and Chabrol use his hangdog face and sadsack presence to give the character a strange serenity of a man who with age and success has gotten used to getting what he wants out of life. He can’t really be blamed for his eventual fate, I suppose. After all, he couldn’t have known that it was out of his hands.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, October 20, 2008

W. (2008, Oliver Stone)

Not the disaster many were apparently expecting, but in a strange way that makes it less interesting. If this had been one of Stone’s balls-to-the-wall fiascos, this might have had an insane train-wreck energy to it. Instead, it’s a solid biopic, with all the limitations that label implies. Most damaging is Stone’s tendency to apply reductive psychoanalysis to his antihero (Josh Brolin), especially regarding his strained relationship with "Poppy" George, played here by James Cromwell. Granted, I have little doubt that growing up in the shadow of such a high-profile figure as George Bush can be a decidedly mixed blessing. Yet to ascribe nearly all of W.’s actions to an inferiority complex- which even manifests itself in a handful of misguided fantasy sequences- is, to quote Orson Welles, "dollar-book Freud" (though to be fair to Welles, he took Rosebud much less seriously than Stone takes the father-son relationship here).

That said, the movie still mostly works, at least enough to make it Stone’s most watchable movie in more than a decade, which I’ll grant you isn’t saying much. I liked the bifurcated structure of the story, which allows Stone to juxtapose the almost inspiring story of Bush’s rise from alcoholic rich kid to national politician, with the more sobering behind-the-scenes re-creation of the planning of the Iraq War. Truth be told, I could have gone for at least another hour worth of the latter, especially the dialogue-heavy intrigue of the various Cabinet meetings. For me, there was a voyeuristic kick to seeing the ways in which W. was manipulated by some ("Vice" Cheney, "Rummy" Rumsfeld, "Genius" Rove) and enabled by others ("Guru" Rice), while others still (particularly Colin Powell) got more or less left out in the cold. Part of me wishes that Stone could’ve gotten the financial backing to make this Che-style, perhaps with the early years called "Junior", the later called "W.: The President” or something along those lines.

If nothing else, this structure would strengthen Stone’s central thesis, which states that George W. Bush might have been an archetypal American success story, had he never been elected President. In the film’s view, Bush was a spoiled rich ne’er-do-well who spent much of his younger years rebelling against his family’s legacy, only to give up alcohol and find religion, and eventually becoming successful in his own right. Compared to most men, he achieved success in life. Unfortunately for him, history will compare him not to the balance of Americans, but to American Presidents, who by and large are considerably tougher competition. In the film’s view, it was his bad luck that he had to rely on an inner circle of advisors more than most men in his position, thereby making it easier for the aforementioned manipulators and enablers to spin reality for their own political gain.

But really, if the film works at all, it’s because of Josh Brolin, who plays the title character from his drunken Yale years through the Presidency. Naturally, Stone gives Brolin the W. "highlight reel" moments- was there any doubt he’d say "misunderestimate" or "won’t get fooled again"?- and Brolin handles them nicely. Yet this isn’t simple mimickry- he’s made to look and sound the part, yes, but he also does a startling job of getting to the heart of a man who some might consider to be history’s greatest monster (excepting Jimmy Carter, of course). In many people’s eyes, Bush was a dope and a dupe, a son of privilege who coasted on his family connections and good ol’boy charm. Yet damn if Brolin doesn’t almost make him sympathetic in a way even Stone’s tired Freudianism can’t manage. If last year’s trio of breakout performances weren’t enough of an indication, W. should remove all doubt- Brolin is the real deal, folks. Time to recognize.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson)

Settle down, horror nerds. Yes, Alfredson’s fusing of the vampire movie with a coming-of-age story is a pretty good idea, especially in the character of Eli, a vampiress who can never grow up. It’s a shame, then, that he never manages to settle on a style. In the movie’s more dramatic moments, Alfredson’s camera accentuates the frosty greyness of his settings, a directorial decision that helps to underline the tentativeness of the film’s central relationship between the eager Oskar, who’s trying to deal with his newly-acquired hormones, and Eli, who’s (understandably) reluctant to get close to him. Trouble is, the vampire story also requires some scenes of violence, and this is where Alfredson stumbles, by shooting in a hacky style that emphasizes special effects with little regard to character. The film never manages to navigate the difficult balance between its two sides, so instead the tonal transitions make the movie feel schizophrenic, like it’s vascillating between Tsai Ming-liang and Paul "Not Thomas" Anderson. Seeing it at the Horror Marathon really drove this home. The horror buffs naturally ate up scenes in which SPOILER a room full of house cats attacked a woman END SPOILER, but I was more interested in the dynamic between Eli and Oskar than the relatively uninspired action scenes. Which, of course, made it all the more disappointing when Alfredson attempts to resolve their complex and fascinating relationship by SPOILER having Eli swoop in to exact revenge on the bullies who’ve been menacing Oskar throughout the film END SPOILER. Even if the scene in question wasn’t cheesy looking, it still would’ve felt like an easy copout. Still, it’ll have to be better than the upcoming remake, no?

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Miracle at St. Anna (2008, Spike Lee)

Spike Lee is one of the most fascinating filmmakers currently working in Hollywood, not least because his bold, seat-of-the-pants filmmaking style can just as easily result in transcendent masterpieces as jaw-dropping fiascos. Yet somehow, Lee’s take on an old-fashioned combat film, while closer quality-wise to the negative end of the spectrum, is actually far less interesting than such outright disasters as Girl 6 and She Hate Me. Some of the blame for this can no doubt be laid at the feet of the novel (by James McBride) on which the film is based. While Lee’s big-studio backers no doubt were relieved that the novel might serve as insurance against Lee’s more inflammatory impulses, the film has a bloated, digressive story that distracts from the power of the movie’s central idea- the harsh realities faced by African-American fighting men in WWII. It’s a powerful germ for a story, and the film’s most effective scenes focus on this idea, especially a flashback scene set in a Deep South ice cream parlor in which German POWs are permitted to eat but not black soldiers. It’s a shame about the other, say, two hours of movie that focuses on other matters. It would be bad enough if these scenes were serviceable but semi-extraneous, but that they’re almost entirely lame makes them all the more disappointing since they distract from what should be the good stuff. The biggest offender is the framing device, which wastes almost half an hour of the movie by setting up a contrived happy ending through a series of nigh-impossible coincidences. But there are numerous other plot strands- a romantic triangle involving a white-appeasing staff sergeant (Derek Luke), his militant second in command (Michael Ealy, a talented actor who’s wasted here), and a pretty local woman; the friendship between the gigantic simpleton of the bunch and a young Italian boy; the subplot involving the local partisans- that are nearly as bad. And not helping matters is Terence Blanchard’s score, which Lee cranks up so loud it’s almost oppressive. In the end, it’s pretty much Spike Lee on autopilot, which is just about the last thing I want from the guy.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Choke (2008, Clark Gregg)

You know, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a movie in which a guy who ducks out of weekly Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings to nail other group members, makes extra money on the side by pretending to choke on food in restaurants in the hope that the Good Samaritans who save his life will be compelled to help him financially, and is briefly convinced that he’s the half-clone of Jesus Christ due to a genetic experiment involving his mother and the 2000-year-old Holy Foreskin to be so, I dunno, bland. But there it is, probably the least edgy adaptation of a Chuck Palahniuk novel that would have been possible. It could have worked with a ballsier filmmaker at the helm, but while neophyte Gregg is reportedly a big fan of the book, he just doesn’t have a handle on the tone of the film. Because of this, the best he can do is to sustain an Alexander Payne-lite feel of broad yet ironic comedy, largely sketching over the more unpleasant facets of Victor Mancini’s (Sam Rockwell) personality and difficult history with his mother in favor of lampooning easy targets like people who work in colonial re-creation exhibits. Consequently, the movie has the vibe of a failed Alan Ball-scripted pilot for a cable series, rather than a full-fledged movie. The rating below is largely due to Rockwell, who is the perfect Victor for all seasons, not only for this version of the story but also for the inevitably better telling that will play only in the minds of those who read the book.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

I Served the King of England (2006, Jiri Menzel)

Menzel’s first feature in over a decade is definitely an old man’s film, containing the rueful regret of a man who has been through a lot and made it out alive. The key to the film echoes what Citizen Kane’s pal Thatcher famously said- that anybody can make a lot of money, if all you do is to make a lot of money. So it is with the film’s protagonist Jean Dite (played by Ivan Barnev in his younger days, Oldrich Kaiser in later years), who by luck and sheer force of will works his way up the chain of luxury until he lucks into his own hotel. His eyes on the prize, he relies on others for education and inspiration when he needs them, only to bring them low once he’s lost any use for them. Of course, this story would seem to lend itself to a moralistic reading, in which we’re made to hate the money-grubbing louse. But instead, Menzel tells the story as a sharp-edged comedy, in which Dite is a childlike little fool who has little going for him BUT his ambition, which carries him through some difficult times. To this end, the film is aided immeasurably by Barnev, a fine loose-limbed physical comedian who so good at being comically pathetic that he’s impossible to hate. Lucky for him too, since Dite engages in some seriously shady behavior when the chips are down- for example, look at the way he eventually comes to raise the funds for his own hotel. Menzel’s light touch suits the story surprisingly well, but in the end it’s a bit too featherweight to really register much, although it’s entertaining enough while you’re watching that you won’t care. Also, there’s plenty of female nudity, which is almost always nice.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Transsiberian (2008, Brad Anderson)

After the eerie but scattershot Session 9 and the somewhat listless The Machinist, Anderson finally shows some real aptitude with the thriller genre with his latest film, set largely onboard the titular railroad. Much of this is due to the fact that he finally decided to pay attention to the quirky little details that previously distinguished his lighter films, Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents. This is especially true in the first half of the film, in which the central couple (nicely played by Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson) begins making their way across Russia on the train. At the beginning, very little about their journey goes wrong, but small things contribute to a sense of unease- a disagreeable stewardess, the awful music (The Captain and Tennille) that plays constantly in their cabin due to a broken on/off switch, and so on. Naturally, by the time a friendly English-speaking couple (Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega) boards the train, Harrelson and Mortimer are quick to make friends, despite Mara’s seeming reluctance and Noriega’s overly-insistent manner. From here on out, the inconveniences begin to worsen, but Anderson’s filmmaking is so assured here that they never feel over-the-top, even after one of the characters commits a serious crime. Everything felt more or less plausible to me, and this wouldn’t have been possible had Anderson not taken the time to really establish his central characters. Another element I liked was that it was Mortimer, not Harrelson, who really drove the story. Harrelson is fine here, cast against type as a nerdy train enthusiast. But while most thrillers would no doubt turn him into an action hero in the final reel (I chuckled when he remarked, “I dropped my glasses!,” anticipating this turn of events), his utility is limited largely to finding a means of escape and a fairly exhaustive knowledge of trains. But it’s Mortimer who carries the story. This isn’t a story where she gets them into trouble and he has to get them out- she ends up doing both, and in the process keeps her husband somewhat in the dark for large portions of the story. Much of the movie deals with the idea of owning up to one’s actions and being truthful to one’s spouse, which makes the climactic scene of the film somewhat disappointing, since it’s never clear that she really fesses up to what she’s done to Harrelson. Still, despite the slight letdown in the final reel, Transsiberian is nonetheless a highly effective old-school thriller, with plenty of atmosphere, a handful of really good surprise scenes, and absolutely no twist ending, which given all the bad thriller twists of late came as a great relief. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Trouble the Water (2008, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)

The intimate mirror image of Spike Lee’s expansive Katrina saga, Trouble the Water is best at putting what journalists would call “a human face” on the disaster. Of course, it was Lessin and Deal’s good luck that they hooked up with Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts early on. To begin with, there’s the matter of the video footage Kimberly shot herself. The famously grumpy Jeff Wells has complained on numerous occasions that her footage was “amateurish at best” and that she “should never be permitted to pick up a camera again.” Yet I think it’s this clumsy quality that makes her footage so wrenching. With a more assured hand on the camera, the footage would have felt professional, with shots properly framed for maximum impact. By contrast, the amateurishness not only “keeps it real,” but also gives her video footage a serendipitous feel- rather than a seasoned camera operator who plunged into the storm, Kimberly was in the right (wrong) place at the right time, and recorded the disaster because she thought someone should be there to tell the story. But the filmmakers’ good fortune also extends to the subjects themselves, a pair of “ordinary” 9th Ward citizens who prove to be compelling on-camera subjects. Kimberly and Scott may lack formal education and have less-than-savory pasts, but they’re intelligent and intensely verbal, and give voice to their discontents in colorful and expressive ways. They’re not “articulate” in that patronizing way that’s usually attributed to African-Americans, but they’re very good at making their points in conversation, with a no-nonsense manner of speaking that cuts right through the niceties. Moreover, choosing a pair of poor ex-criminals allows the filmmakers to show the pair rising out of the rubble of Katrina to better themselves. The film never makes it explicit that the tragedy has jolted them out of their lives, but it’s pretty clear that what happens to them both during and in the weeks after the storm works to sharpen their foci in life. Kimberly uses her fledgling music career to help bring to light the injustices she believes her people were subjected to by the government in the wake of Katrina. Less obvious but perhaps even more poignant is Scott’s path- an ex-criminal (we see old video of him brandishing a machine gun at one point), Scott eventually finds a job in construction, helping to fix up houses that were damaged by the flood, and he positively beams at the camera at having found a purpose and center for his life (oh, and fuck this guy in my opinion). On balance, I think I prefer Lee’s film- that’s a whole lotta movie, after all, and he handles it beautifully- but in its way, Trouble the Water is no less indispensible in its approach to one of the defining American events so far this century, one that definitively demonstrated (to quote Haven Hamilton) “how far we’ve come along ‘til now/ how far we’ve got to go.” Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, September 19, 2008

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007, Alex Holdridge)

Holdridge pretty clearly had Before Sunrise on the brain when writing this, and while it’s not up to the standard of Linklater’s classic romance, it’s pretty compelling on its own. One big difference between the two films is the differences between the setups- whereas Jesse and Celine were able to cut through the getting-to-know-you crap because they were on a very tangible deadline, there’s the possibility of a future for Wilson (Scoot McNairy) and Vivian (Sara Simmonds). Consequently, there’s that idea that they might be testing each other- explicitly in the case of Vivian, more implied with Wilson. And this is why Vivian’s final actions throw Wilson for such a loop, as it turns out her goals aren’t nearly as similar as he’d hoped. With this, Midnight Kiss transforms a simple story of youthful romance into a study in the different reasons we seek it out. In addition, I liked the way that, unlike most romantic stories, the protagonists of this film were struggling financially- much of the date consists of the two walking and talking, Wilson takes his final $100 out of the bank to treat Vivian to a nice dinner, and Vivian ponders giving up on her non-starting acting career and moving back in with her mother. And amidst it all, McNairy and Simmonds make their characters specific and interesting. Wilson is clearly having trouble coping with the fact that his intelligence and creativity hasn’t gotten him as far as he’d hoped, while Vivian is one of those women we all know who steep themselves in style and irony to cover for their pain. The stuff between the two of them is effective enough that it’s dismaying enough when the film cuts to something else entirely. But occasionally, Holdridge will insert something so misguided into the story- Wilson’s flighty mom, Vivian’s violent-redneck ex-boyfriend- that the movie got downright frustrating (Linklater was wise enough to avoid this). Yet In Search of a Midnight Kiss is certainly worth seeing. One final note: I’ve slagged on DV and HD in the past, but I’ve got to say that I’m much more forgiving to black-and-white digital than I am to color. The unique textural qualities of the medium are much easier to appreciate without the smeary colors getting in the way. But whatever it is, it works perfectly here, which makes it all the more disheartening to hear that In Search of a Midnight Kiss has been showing in color on IFC on Demand and could very well be released on DVD the same way. So, word to the wise: if you rent this and it's not in b/w, turn the color off. You’ll thank me. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Chris & Don: A Love Story (2007, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi)

The key to the film is right there in the title- it’s “a love story”, not “a gay love story,” or even “a different kind of love story.” That’s because the film essentially takes the idea that Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy were gay as its jumping-off point rather than its destination, to its credit. Since it gets the partners’ mutual sexual orientation out of the way at the beginning, it’s free to move on to other subjects, especially the age difference between the two, the experience gap that came from this, and the love that endured between them regardless of this. Of course, Isherwood was a literary celebrity, hobnobbing with movie stars and world-famous artists, and naturally Bachardy (thirty years his junior) would seem a bit out of sorts in this company. But whereas most people criticize such May-December romances by insisting that each is using the other (or worse, that the older party is "predatory"), Chris & Don shows us otherwise, at least in this particular instance. Part of this viewpoint comes from the fact that the film is Don’s story, and his gratitude for his 36 years with Chris plays a big part in his telling of it. Yet this was a truly loving couple, and as with any good relationship, there was real growth, at least on Don’s part. Instead of turning him into his “boy toy”, Chris encouraged Don to come into his own as an artist and a man, and eventually, while the Isherwood name opened doors for him, his talent could stand alone. And through the years, their love went through its various seasons, just like any other loving, lifelong relationship. In a way, Chris & Don may be the closest I’ve seen yet to a cinematic rebuke to the “defense of marriage” brigade- after all, wasn’t the complex but ultimately fulfilling love between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy basically a marriage in every sense but legally? Chris & Don may be no great shakes as cinema (it passes D’Angelo’s test for movie-worthiness largely on the basis of Bachardy’s presence), but it’s a moving story because Chris and Don, for all their uniqueness, are much like any other couple you’d meet, gay or straight. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008, Joel and Ethan Coen)

One of the trademarks of practically all great comedies is that they hold up a funhouse mirror to human folly. And while I wouldn’t call Burn After Reading a masterpiece, it definitely fits in this tradition. To really appreciate the movie, one must recognize how self-absorbed nearly every single major character in the film is, and realize how well the Coens use the heightened drama required by an espionage plot to explode this all-around self-absorption. These people are so blinkered by their own egos that they can’t look around and see the shit storm they’ve stirred up.

Most obviously, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is such a puffed-up prick he doesn’t realize how off-putting he is, and he’s so consumed with taking offense to others calling him a drunk that he can’t acknowledge his problem. But even a relatively benign character like Linda (Frances McDormand) isn’t immune- she’s obsessed with getting cosmetic surgery (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me”) in order to attract the caliber of man she desires. This colors almost all of her decisions throughout the film.

And what’s going on with Harry, played by George Clooney? He cheats on his wife (who for reasons of her own doesn’t seem all that broken up about it) with Osbourne’s wife (Tilda Swinton), each of whom refers to the other as “a cold, stuck-up bitch” until we start to wonder if that’s Harry’s type. In turn, he cheats on them by hooking up with women he meets through the personal ads, including - you guessed it- Linda. Yet I don’t think he means any harm- he’s simply addicted to sex as an end in itself (look at the gift he makes for his wife) with little regard for the personal entanglements that can result. But then, he’s pretty oblivious all around, as evidenced by the severity of his reaction to an untimely surprise.

Of course, it goes without saying that Burn After Reading is impeccably acted- few filmmakers rival the Coens for their ability to get the most out of their actors. I’m thinking in particular of Malkovich, whose reptilian pomposity has rarely been effectively utilized, and Brad Pitt, who continues to demonstrate his knack for kidding his himbo looks by playing a gym rat whose general befuddlement quickly leads him to get in over his head.

Many of the film’s detractors have taken the Coens to task (yet again) for showing contempt toward their characters. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In many ways, this is a kind of comedy corrective to the self-righteous posturing of movies like Crash and Babel, with the Coens handling their characters’ travails with biting wit, rather than wailing and gnashing their teeth about human frailty and the impossibility of connecting with those outside our personal bubble. They’re cranky and misanthropic, but they’re also right, and the film makes its points in a way that’s both more entertaining and less pious than either of these bits of Oscar-bait.

Look at the film’s final scene, in which (after all the shit goes down) a pair of CIA agents, played by J.K. Simmons and David Rasche, tries to suss everything out only to throw up their hands in frustration. Like us, they can’t help but marvel at the huge mess that’s resulted from a relatively insignificant matter- blackmail, possible treason, bodies piling up- that has poisoned everyone it’s touched, even those rare people who’ve acted in a relatively selfless manner. I was reminded a bit of the faeries and spirits of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who despite their role in the human characters’ misadventures are also detached enough to try to make sense of human messiness. “What fools these mortals be,” indeed.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Frozen River (2008, Courtney Hunt)

Most of the great suspense movies are founded upon necessity. When a character finds himself in a tense situation, it’s because he has to be there, not just because he’s looking for a little thrill. It’s only when the stakes are high for the people onscreen that the suspense really takes hold. Consider Ray Eddy, the protagonist of Frozen River, played by Melissa Leo. There’s almost no wiggle room in Ray’s life- her husband’s disappeared with the money that was earmarked for the family’s new double-wide trailer, her creditors are sniffing around, there’s barely any money left in the coffers (at one point she feeds her children popcorn and Tang for dinner), and Christmas is just around the corner. So the sudden appearance of the young Mohawk woman Lila (Misty Upham) who ropes Ray into an illegal-alien transporting racket looks like just the opportunity she needs to pull herself out of the rut into which she’s fallen. Naturally, much of the suspense of Frozen River stems from whether Ray and Lila will get caught, but I dare say that the film wouldn’t work nearly as well if the various parties who were closing in on Ray’s life weren’t illustrated so vividly. It’s certainly true that trouble can come to us all, but many of these troubles can be staved off with money, and Ray just doesn’t have it. So even when the family’s faced with something as simple as a frozen water pipe, the results can be disastrous. And that’s the true center of Frozen River- that for all its effectiveness as suspense, it’s really a movie about how poverty can back a person into a corner. Especially in a small town like Ray’s, a poor single woman has almost no options open to her, so when trouble comes knocking, everything can spiral out of control. Leo’s performance is pivotal, not a deglammed Oscar-grubbing star turn but nothing short of an act of empathy, inhabiting Ray without soft-pedaling how difficult she can sometimes be, especially when cornered. With a less convincing lead performance, we wouldn’t buy Frozen River for a second. But Leo never steps wrong, and that’s why the movie works as well as it does. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)

“It scares you when you don’t know / whichever way the wind might blow.”

One of the tricks to making a successful documentary isn’t simply finding a story that’s worth telling, but telling that story in a way that’s both cinematic and narratively involving. In that respect, Man on Wire is one of the best documentaries to come along in years. Of course, it helps to have a good story, and Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center is a doozy. But if Marsh had simply taken a talking-heads and photo-montage approach, the result would be better-suited to a stylistically inert program on the History Channel. Instead, Marsh intersperses the usual documentary stuff with dramatic re-creations of the day’s events, structuring the story as a kind of caper film (the film’s tagline calls the incident “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”). It’s a daunting task, trying to wring suspense from a story to which we already know the outcome- Petit is interviewed for the film, after all- but ultimately the gambit pays off. That it does is in large part a triumph of filmmaking technique, as Marsh and his interview subjects do such a good job of getting us caught up in the procedural details and snags of the day that one almost forgets that the ending is a foregone conclusion. This makes it all the more effective when Petit finally gets out on that wire for his historic crossing. I think it’s also key that Marsh refuses to invoke the specter of 9/11 for this film- when Petit (an extremely engaging subject, it should be said) speaks of “conquering the towers,” his aims are edifying rather than destructive, and in the end, what makes Man on Wire such a vital film is that it reclaims, albeit briefly, the World Trade Center from the hateful ideologies that tore it down. Even if the incident was little more than a extreme stunt, it matters little in light of the quixotic genius of it, and Man on Wire stands as a testament to the lengths a man will go in order to pursue a mad, brilliant dream. Rating: 9 out of 10.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Last Mistress (2007, Catherine Breillat)

After specializing in on-the-nose feminist screeds for years, Breillat brings her trademark sexual politics to the period piece with fairly positive results. One of the most notable aspects of The Last Mistress is the clash between the morality of the film's period and a more contemporary view of sexual obsession. This is most explicit in the character of Ryno de Marigny (played by newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou), an upwardly-mobile young man on the eve of his wedding to a young woman of noble birth. But as Woody Allen once said, "the heart wants what it wants," but so does the libido, and the great tragedy of Ryno's life is that the two don't go hand in hand. So even though he legitimately loves Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), he can't help but be drawn to the titular mistress, played by Asia Argento. It's telling that Breillat doesn't even attempt to make Argento fit in with those around her, using her for her sexy-punk presence more than for her acting talent. This being a Breillat film, sexual desires win out over loftier goals of love. The Last Mistress isn't the change of pace for the director that some have made it out to be, but it's interesting seeing her pet themes translated to a new context.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Boy A (2007, John Crowley)

Boy A has a lot to recommend it- an affecting premise, a feel for Manchester working-class life, and above all fine performances from Andrew Garfield and Peter Mullan. Yet I’m conflicted about the movie as a whole, in large part because of its treatment of the protagonist’s past. As a story of a young man who wants to distance himself from the murder he committed as a child, I suppose it’s understandable that the movie would want to soft-pedal this aspect of his life in order to make Eric more sympathetic. Yet this also feels dishonest to me. If the movie was really serious about examining the contrast between Eric then and now, it wouldn’t shy away from the horror of his misdeeds. It wouldn’t give him a sob-story background- distant dad, sick mum- or paint him as an easily swayed kid who fell in with the worst friend possible (it strikes me as too easy to paint Philip as a bad seed while Eric was mostly just along for the ride). And it certainly wouldn’t cut away before the duo committed their heinous crime, but instead show us exactly what he did, the violence of which he was once capable. By failing to do this, Crowley and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe fail to really look at the gulf that separates the past version of Eric from the present version, now called Jack. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Boy A wants Jack/Eric to come across as a put-upon victim of people’s conceptions of his past, but making him a murderer without really facing the reality his crime is timid at best and irresponsible at worst. It’s too easy to demonize those who victimize him for his past. A braver film would force us to examine our own feelings about the character, to ask whether we can hate the sin but not the sinner.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

As a once-rabid Woody Allen fan, I still feel compelled to watch all of his new films in the theatre. On the other hand, having been burned by a number of his late-period works (Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda, Scoop) I know better than to expect a great deal from those new releases. On that basis, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a nice surprise, with plenty of gorgeous location work to match one of Allen’s more interesting screenplays of recent years. The movie’s central premise- the freewheeling (read: European) lifestyle pitted against the upper-middle-class American marriage- feels overly programmatic in spots, with the European way coming strongly out of the gate. After all, the combo of studly Javier Bardem and crazy-sexy Penelope Cruz is hard to top, especially compared to Rebecca Hall’s cheesedick businessman fiancĂ©, played by Chris Messina. But if the match seems uneven at first, it begins to make sense near the end, when Hall’s marital malaise coincides with the emotional explosion of Cruz’s rekindled relationship with Bardem, which leaves Hall conflicted, and sort of floating between the two worlds, now dissatisfied with both (the story ends on a perfect tentative note). And if you notice I haven’t mentioned Scarlett Johansson yet, that’s not an accident- Vicky Cristina Barcelona is her third film with Allen, but the first in which she seems somewhat tangential to the story, which of course is a good thing. Here she has little to do besides provide an outsider viewpoint into the relationship between Bardem and Cruz, so that we know what Hall’s getting into before she does. In addition, Johansson’s essential blankness only serves to underline the tumultuous emotional current generated by her Spanish bedmates (it’s only when the scene is really about Johansson that she founders). As for the other principals, Bardem is reliably sweet and Cruz is a firecracker, but it’s really Hall’s film, and she’s more than up to the task (click here for more effusive praise). Vicky Cristina Barcelona is hardly top-tier Woody, but it’s his best film this century, and definitely worth a look. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Winnipeg (2007, Guy Maddin)

While I've enjoyed a number of Guy Maddin films and flat-out loved a few of them, I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a Maddin fan outright, largely because in many of his works, his style tends to wear thin by a certain point, around the time it begins degenerating into a schtick. However, just the thought of his 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee makes me absolutely giddy, and My Winnipeg is damn near as good, which leads me to believe that Maddin's movies work best for me when they spring from somewhere in his subconscious, buried though the personal stuff might be under layers of cinema-drunkenness. So it is in My Winnipeg, which is just as quirky as anything Maddin has directed, but also feels semi-confessional, as though Maddin is giving us a good long look into the memories and fever dreams that were inspired by the city he has always called home. Of course, as tends to be the case with any vision as singular as this one, there are bound to be some literalist wags who question the veracity of this so-called documentary. Surely, they'll say, Maddin is taking severe liberties with history, fabricating wholesale a legendary Winnipeg that has never existed, comprised of "ever-opiating nuns" and ice-choked horses and "man pageants." To which all I can say- aside from "have you ever SEEN a Guy Maddin film?"- is this: look at that title again. Just like Fellini gave the world his Roma, so Maddin gives the world HIS Winnipeg, and all the fantastical wonderments it summons in his mind. It's key that Maddin describes the two dueling taxicab companies, one servicing the marked roads, the other the alleyways. Maddin's interest has always been in the alleyways- of cinema, of civic history, of his own mind. Yes, the Winnipeg history that has been committed to paper might not include half the legends that Maddin has formulated for it, but that doesn't matter one damn bit. His Winnipeg- where the Black Tuesdays patrol the ice long after the Jets have left town, where sleepwalkers steal into their old homes protected by city law, and where Guy's mother (who despite the director/narrator's claims of veracity is played- pricelessly- by Detour's Ann Savage) looms as large in the city's soap opera as she does in Guy's life- might not exist anywhere but his own mind. But damn if it isn't a great place to visit, even if you wouldn't necessarily want to live there. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008, Dave Filoni)

Ever since the days of Walt Disney, animated films have appealed largely to family audiences, and most movies that have appealed to adults have done so for a limited audience of fans, generally of Japanese anime. But there's always been some degree of hope that a movie might emerge that transcends the usual kids/nerds audience to pull in a mainstream, grown-up audience. I suppose one couldn't blame me for thinking The Clone Wars might be that movie, seeing as how the Star Wars imprimatur has always guaranteed box office, even with the shabby prequels of the past decade. However, I underestimated how much the franchise has been pitched to children in recent years, something that has long left Star Wars curiously bloodless and sanitized. So while there's a certain thrill in seeing the Star Wars universe freed from the corporeal realm into the freer format of animation, The Clone Wars is still very much a product, slavishly engineered to sell video games and toys. Worse yet, it turns the saga that has captivated three generations into the space-opera equivalent of a Disney Channel sitcom, giving Anakin a sassy female apprentice name Ahsoka who refers to her new master as "Sky Guy." Blech in my opinion. In addition, much like the "prequel trilogy", the story gets entirely too bogged down in intergalactic politics, as if the negotiation over trade routes through the Outer Rims was what drew millions of people to Star Wars in the first place. I suppose the best thing I could say about The Clone Wars is that it's better than Attack of the Clones, but I mean jesus, it'd pretty much have to be. But if you're looking for a true breakthrough in non-kiddie animation, you'll have to content yourself with Ratatouille, a movie I'm still not convinced was actually made for children. And bless it for that...

Edited 8/18 to add: The more I think about this, the more I hate it. It's not simply that the filmmakers take the Star Wars mythology as the springboard for a bit of third-rate fan-fiction, then sell it to a crowd who's clearly clamoring for more Star Wars-y goodness. It's also that it's numbing (the action sequences go on forEVER), cut-rate (the backgrounds are OK, but the characters are stiff and un-pleasing aesthetically), and worse yet, soulless. The biggest problem with the prequels- worse even than the shitty dialogue and overly glossy effects- is that the human element that made people fall in love with the original movies just isn't there. The major characters in the prequels are almost all Jedi, which gives them cool powers that can be exploited to full effect with modern CGI, but also places them on a different level than normal everyday humans. One major reason the original films worked is because the human audience had non-Jedi characters to serve as surrogate characters. It's the reason Han Solo was such a fan favorite- not only was he super-cool, but he was savvy enough to fight alongside the Jedi, even if he didn't share their powers. But there's none of that here, merely a boring Jedi and his annoying apprentice, who keeps saying stupid shit like calling R2D2 "R-twoey." Gag me. Honestly, when the laws of physics don't apply to your characters, you'd better make them really damn interesting if I'm supposed to care. And man oh man does this movie ever fail. Rating: 3 out of 10.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller)

There are few more masturbatory genres than the showbiz satire. It's not unlike the semi-inexplicably popular blog Stuff White People Like, in that the group that's ostensibly being ribbed is actually getting congratulated on how cool they are. This goes double for Hollywood satires, since they're invariably made by those with power within the moviemaking system, which affords them a comfortable enough position to get away with playfully gumming the hand that feeds. Short of honest-to-goodness blood-drawing satires like Sunset Blvd. or The Player, most movies about moviemaking succeed or fail on the basis of entertainment value, and in that respect, Tropic Thunder works pretty damn well. Which basically means that I laughed a lot. You won't gain much new insight into the ins and outs of the studio system or the nuts and bolts of big-budget filmmaking, but it's funny stuff. Much of this can be credited to Stiller the director's willingness to go as far as it takes to get laughs. Years of safe, family-friendly twaddle have no doubt given him an itch to push the envelope of good taste, and thank goodness for that. But while racially-dicey plot points or newly-controversial scenes involving Stiller as "Simple Jack" might seem politically incorrect to a fault, it's all in the service of a story that time and again sticks it to those whose lives have kept them at a distance from the mores and standards of the outside world. Likewise, Stiller thankfully distributes the good stuff to his (highly talented) cast- a heroin-addicted low-comedy star played by Jack Black, a John Milius-esque screenwriter played by Nick Nolte, a trigger-happy explosives guy played by the suddenly ubiquitous Danny McBride, and the cheerfully vulgar (in every way) studio exec played by SPOILER Tom Cruise END SPOILER. But best of all is Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, the obsessive Method actor who comes off as a cross between Russell Crowe's mannerisms and Daniel Day-Lewis' acting style. Kirk's pigmentation operation might have come off as a shameless schtick in less capable hands, but Downey makes Lazarus into a fully-functioning character- which of course makes him even funnier. Not all of Tropic Thunder works- after a while the plot doesn't matter as much as the movie thinks it does- but it's mostly a blast, containing at least one bit of shocking laughter as memorable as the gas-station fight in Zoolander. The movie's no classic, but I won't lie to you- I damn near laughed until my eyes started raining. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pineapple Express (2008, David Gordon Green)

One thing that bugs me about most "pot movies" is how cartoonish the main characters tend to be. It's strange- despite these movies' appeal to a pot-friendly crowd, most of the protagonists come off as wacky stereotypes who get bug-eyed and nuts whenever they toke up, not unlike the players in Reefer Madness and its ilk. One of the most refreshing aspects of Pineapple Express was that, for all the craziness that happens, Dale (Seth Rogen) and Saul (James Franco) mostly come off as a couple of regular guys who enjoy smoking marijuana. This helps the movie avoid many of the standard pitfalls of the genre, in particular the semi-obligatory "hallucination" scene in which the imagery gets psychedelic and the music blares, just so you know how spaced-out the pot-smokers are feeling. Instead of visualizing the experience of being perpetually stoned, Green and his stars give the movie a laid-back vibe befitting the protagonists' chemically-facilitated shared mental state. They still get carried along by the plot, but at their pace, rather than the tricked-up pace of a movie that aches to get them from one misadventure to the next. The misadventures that do befall them are sort of uneven, but when the movie is on, it's ON. I'm thinking in particular of an uproarious fight scene involving Rogen, Franco, and perpetual scene stealer Danny McBride, in which none of the participants looks like they've thrown (or taken) too many blows in their lifetimes. Naturally, this makes for some priceless comedy, especially when the fighters begin looking for random objects to hurl at each other. I also liked the fact that the movie actually took time to explore the dynamic between the two hit men (Kevin Corrigan and a hilarious Craig Robinson) who are tailing the heroes. I'm sort of conflicted about the movie's final action sequence, which for all intensive purposes places the heroic trio in the middle of a low-rent 80s-style action movie. It's funny to watch the clearly overmatched characters try to fight off the more experienced villains, but it gets sort of numbing after a while. Still, in spite of its flaws (which are many), there's plenty of fun to be had at Pineapple Express, and the laughs that come courtesy of Rogen, Franco, Robinson, and especially McBride make this well worth your time. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008, Rob Cohen)

I know I’ll take some flak for this, but I enjoyed the hell out of the 1999 Mummy remake. Great cinema it’s not, but it’s got a Velveeta charm that goes down easy, and no goals other than showing the audience a good time (any movie that begins with its leading lady knocking over a library full of book shelves clearly isn’t aching to be taken seriously). However, the sequel The Mummy Returns is a bloated mess that doesn’t have nearly enough fun with itself, and unfortunately the latest installment in the series, The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor, is closer to the spirit of the second film than the first. It’s an OK time-waster, but not much more than that.

Part of the problem here is that it actually expects the audience to care about the domestic difficulties in the O’Connell family- Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evie (Maria Bello) have seen the excitement drain from their marriage ever since they’ve retired from mummy-hunting, while college-aged son Alex (Luke Ford) doesn’t get along with his dad. Are we meant to see these storylines as anything more than perfunctory excuses to give the characters something to talk about when they’re not fighting off undead baddies?

Fraser, to his credit, maintains the right spirit- he’s never been a great actor, but he’s always been at ease working with special effects, and he’s good at winking at the story when need be. But Bello’s incarnation of Evie feels out of place here. As an actress, I prefer Bello to her predecessor Rachel Weisz, but whereas Weisz demonstrated a comic verve that turned the character from a standard-issue damsel into sort of an eccentric, Bello instead makes Evie a tough babe who can fight alongside the boys. More politically correct, certainly, but not especially entertaining either. And if Bello’s character feels out of place, Ford’s just doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t help that Ford is under the impression he’s meant to be a straight-up action hero here, which sort of throws a wet blanket over the proceedings.

In many ways, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the most ambitious entry in the series, beginning with establishing the film’s Chinese setting (Egypt is an obvious fit with mummies, but history-deficient audiences need a little more convincing when you move them elsewhere). But while Cohen goes to great lengths to situate his story in a Chinese context, it’s rarely convincing, thanks in no small part to subpar special effects. The Mummy impressed me with its CGI back in the day, but here the effects look shoddy and cartoonish. The problem with this is that the movie clearly wants us to be awestruck by the magnitude of the undead armies or the scope of its far-flung locations. Unfortunately, there’s a high-gloss sheen on practically everything that was computer-generated, and it’s difficult to be enraptured by something that’s obviously made out of 1s and 0s. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a step above The Mummy Returns, but it’s still pretty shabby goods, and I’m hoping the film’s abrupt ending means that the series has finally drawn to a close.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Batman, more than most comic-book heroes, has always been about dichotomies- Batman vs. Bruce, good vs. evil, law vs. order, and so on. But all too often, the series has either expressed these themes in the broadest of terms or smoothed them out to the point of becoming negligible. Thankfully, Nolan plays a different game than his predecessors, exploding the existing dichotomies and throwing in some others for good measure. Nolan’s Batman (Christian Bale) is still a hero, but it’s questionable how much of a good guy he is. Raymond Chandler once wrote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” but Batman can be awfully mean at times, and get his hands dirty. More than once in The Dark Knight, he makes morally questionable decisions (such as monitoring every cellular phone in the city) in the name of doing good. The Dark Knight poses the fascinating question of whether we’re able to deal with that.

Most superhero movies square their protagonist off against a nefarious counterpart, but The Dark Knight has more on its mind than a hero/villain showdown. For much of the film’s running time, Nolan contrasts Batman/Bruce with district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), newly elected with the goal of bringing Gotham City’s criminals to justice. The two men have similar goals, but while Batman lacks faith in the system to accomplish his desired end, Dent is the face of that very system. Even though he admires the swift justice administered by the Dark Knight, Dent positions himself as “the white knight,” seeking to eliminate crime through due process. If Bruce Wayne is a pragmatist, Dent is a seemingly incorruptible idealist, a point driven home by his Obama-esque campaign slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”

For a while, Dent’s brand of justice works, cutting a large swath through Gotham’s criminal underworld. But all this changes once The Joker (Heath Ledger) enters the picture. We first see The Joker in the film’s opening scene, staging a robbery on a mob-owned bank only to kill all of his cohorts and escape, alone, with the cash. The Joker isn’t like the other villains prowling the streets of the city. Whereas the established crime syndicates live by their own codes and rules (and have made arrangements with the police in order to survive), The Joker’s sole purpose in life is to stir up anarchy- to leave the populace of Gotham teetering on the edge and let them push themselves over.

Heath Ledger’s Joker has gotten a lot of attention from the press since his death, but I think the character would be one of the great villains even if were still with us. To begin with, Ledger is a far cry from the statelier style of Jack Nicholson. Whereas Nicholson’s Joker was too similar to the Jack persona to be truly scary- more kooky uncle than stone-cold psycho- Ledger immerses himself fully in the character, making him a knife-wielding punk-rock criminal mastermind.

Like Shakespeare’s Iago, this Joker is evil, pure and simple, and every mocking attempt on his part to provide a context or rationalization for his actions only underlines how reductive such rationalizations are when they’re presented seriously in other films. It’s a genuinely disturbing performance, not least to my Knight’s Tale-loving girlfriend. But at the same time, there’s something fiendishly pleasurable about the way Ledger operates in the role, from his delivery of the line, “no, I kill the bus driver” (and its priceless aftermath) to his final fade out. Ledger is in rarefied territory here, joining a murderer’s row- ranging from Alex DeLarge to Daniel Plainview- of irredeemable heavies we can’t help but love.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Nolan’s screenplay is the way he integrates probability problems and game theory into the storyline. Time and again characters are forced to play the odds in order to make a difficult decision. Many of the Joker’s threats carry a heavy price- to name one example, Batman can turn himself in, or the Joker will kill one person every day until he unmasks himself. Or the film’s climactic sequence, in which Nolan employs a variation of the classic game theory problem The Prisoner’s Dilemma to pit two ferries full of people against each other.

But again, Nolan isn’t just showing off here, but setting up perhaps his most important dichotomy- choice versus chance. For all his love of justice, Harvey Dent believes in luck, jokingly flipping a two-headed coin whenever he has to make a tough decision. But when he’s horribly disfigured by an accident (causing him to become “Two-Face”), this belief in chance takes on a deadly undercurrent, as the lives of those who’ve wronged him rests on a coin flip, Anton Chigurh-style.

By contrast, Bruce- who of course is a “two-face” himself- represents choice. As long as he continues fighting crime by night, a happy life with his true love Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) will be out of the question (can it be a coincidence that Rachel is not only Dent’s current girlfriend but also a prosecuter herself?). Eventually, he must turn his back on the police department and the populace itself in order the catch the Joker. And in the end, Batman takes the rap for Two-Face’s crimes in order to protect the good name of Harvey Dent. In other words, he inverts the prisoner’s dilemma- rather than letting Dent take the fall in order to free himself, he chooses to become a fugitive and face the maximum punishment. This decision affirms not only Bruce’s sense of morality, but his humanity as well. It’s a bold choice, but a necessary one, allowing the city to keep its white knight even while it turns on the dark one.

The Dark Knight isn’t quite a perfect comic book movie- the action sequences are too haphazardly-directed for that- but it lingers in the mind far more than more conventionally exciting superhero movies can hope to do. Unlike most movies of its kind, the film carries a real feeling of danger, as Nolan isn’t afraid of exploring some terrifying areas most movies wouldn’t touch, even killing off more than one significant character in the interest of thematic resonance. Most blockbusters feel like fairy tales- there’s some tension, some suspense, but in the end the bad guys are punished and everyone lives happily ever after. But the events of The Dark Knight will change- even scar- the characters forever. The Dark Knight isn’t just a classic comic book movie, but a pretty great movie in general, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Guillermo Del Toro)

One of the reason so many self-professed "geeks" feel a degree of affection toward Guillermo Del Toro is because he's always been something of a geek's geek, in that his work is clearly fueled by fanboy favorites like fantasy fiction, comic books, and classic fantasy movies. As much as anything by Peter Jackson or the genre films of Sam Raimi, Del Toro's films appropriate the highlights of his pop-culture-steeped youth (a touch of George Lucas here, a pinch of Ray Harryhausen there) while doing so in a way that makes the work feel inimitably his, rather than simply the sum total of his influences. Hellboy II is in keeping with this tradition, and while the film is a big-budget summer blockbuster, Del Toro hasn't had his creativity hemmed in, but rather has used his greater resources to create as many magnificent beasties and visual splendor as any film he's made to date. Some critics have complained that Del Toro's primary talent lies in creature design, but with so much creative richness on display it seems churlish to complain. Yet these detractors aren't exactly wrong either. While Hellboy II is awash in visual splendor, the human elements of the movie aren't up to that standard. Many of the more potentially dramatic elements in the narrative- the rivalry between Red and Agent Manning, the romantic subplot involving Abe and Princess Nuala, Red's conflicted relationship with the human race- are ignored for large chunks of time rather than exploited as they might have been by a more assured storyteller. The biggest casualty is the love story between Red and Liz, which should have been poignant but just kind of lays there for a while when Liz takes some time away and Red promptly gets drunk and sings Barry Manilow songs with Abe. It doesn't help matters that Selma Blair is too blank-faced and stilted to make the character work, and when Liz is supposed to be upset she mostly just comes off as a pouty high schooler, whether she's on fire or not. I was also disappointed by the new character of Dr. Johan Krauss, who is an intriguing idea (a sentient, super-intelligent gas being) but doesn't really work onscreen, partly due to the Sig Rumann-esque vocal stylings of Seth MacFarlane, creator of the godawful animated sitcom Family Guy. For his part, Ron Perlman is as perfect for the title role as ever, although it takes a while for Del Toro to really give him much to do here. Still, I enjoyed Hellboy II as a whole, and frankly I loved it in parts, especially when Del Toro really allows the audience to drink in the inventive visuals (the puppet-based prologue, the aftermath of the fight with the Elemental, the Star Wars cantina-inspired Troll Market). I anticipate the possibility of Hellboy III with a certain amount of pleasure, although if it does happen, I hope Del Toro has the good sense to find another co-writer to really keep the screenplay focused. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

WALL*E (2008, Andrew Stanton)

(Originally written for a work newsletter)

Disney and Pixar Animation Studios have made another winner with the new computer-animated film WALL*E. Set in the distant future, the movie tells the story of a little robot, the Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class (or WALL*E). WALL*E spends his days roaming the abandoned landscape, cleaning up the trash left by the people who’ve abandoned the Earth. Centuries of sifting through human garbage have made WALL*E intensely curious about the planet’s former residents, and he keeps a collection of “treasures” in order to study them. Then one day, a ship descends from space bringing another robot, the sleek, ultra-modern EVE, whose mission is as mysterious as her origins, and who eventually becomes WALL*E’s friend. But when the ship returns to take EVE away, WALL*E sneaks aboard as well, and goes on a journey beyond anything he could have possibly imagined.

As you might guess from the plot synopsis above, WALL*E is not your standard-issue kids’ movie. Since their founding in the 1980s, Pixar has always been committed to expanding the possibilities of animation, and WALL*E continues their almost unprecedented winning streak. In many ways, WALL*E may be their boldest and most experimental movie to date. To begin with, the story doesn’t rely on a comfortable plot so much as it tells a story, seeing its hero’s experiences almost entirely through his eyes as we follow him on his travels. The effect is disorienting at first- the movie doesn’t give us any more information to work with than WALL*E himself would get. Likewise, the story features surprisingly little dialogue, especially from WALL*E and EVE, who have few words at their disposal. But if you’re willing to pay attention and give the movie a chance, your patience will be richly rewarded.

Like all of Pixar’s movies, WALL*E is a feast for the eyes. The early scenes on Earth are wonderful- I could have watched another half-hour or so of WALL*E going about his daily routine- and the animators pack them with all sorts of perfect little sight gags. But the movie’s cleverest visual surprises occur once WALL*E travels into space. I won’t spoil any of them here, except to say that the world WALL*E encounters is a far cry than most movies’ speculations on the future. WALL*E is above all a work of true vision and imagination, one that’s sure to captivate children and adults alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10.