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.