Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog)

I recently read an interview with Elliott Gould in which he described himself as a “jazz actor,” and watching Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I realized that the same label could be applied to Nicolas Cage. In his signature roles, Cage doesn’t adopt a straightforward approach to characterization, but rather treats the script as the theme and proceeds to riff on the material he’s given. In many ways, Lt. Terence McDonagh is the ultimate Cage performance, full of unorthodox acting choices that work beautifully. Cage goes over the top all right, but it never feels like he’s simply hamming it up for the hell of it. Everything works in the context of the character, from his repeated dialogue quirks (dig his disbelieving chuckle whenever he mentions the henchman “G”) to the character’s outlandish behavior. It would be sort of unbearable if Cage appeared to be breaking a sweat, but he inhabits the character so fully that he seems completely in control even in the character's craziest moments.

Take the already legendary bit in which McDonagh turns up to interrogate an old woman, delivering a half-crazed monologue while shaving with an electric razor. On the one hand, it’s an almost surreal touch. But unlike, say, Marlon Brando offering George C. Scott a Milk Dud in The Formula, it makes a certain amount of sense- McDonagh’s been going nonstop for three days, and he’s become so blinkered by the case (and so strung-out on drugs) that he no longer has time to shave at home. And if it disorients the woman, so much the better.

Similarly, BL: PoCNO can be seen as a spiritual cousin to The Long Goodbye. Like Altman’s film (which- whaddya know- stars Gould), Herzog’s is a genre offering that’s not content to color inside the lines, inside using the framework to explore the confines of the formula. And if Herzog’s film isn’t the masterpiece that Altman’s is, it’s less because his material isn’t as good- although it’s hard to beat Chandler’s best novel for source material- but because the filmmakers’ approaches to genre exploration are difference. Altman exploded the detective mystery by transplanting a 1940s story to the alien world of 1970s Los Angeles, thereby exploring the contrasts of the genre conventions to the morality of the later period.

By contrast, Herzog couldn’t care less about the genre in which he works, treating the script as almost an excuse to chase after the things that really interest him- New Orleans post-Katrina, the implacability of nature (those iguanas!), and a hero so rotten that he poisons damn near everyone he encounters. Even psychoanalysis gets thrown out the window here- none of the Catholic guilt of the first film. Instead, Herzog and Cage make McDonagh a guy who has so much fun being bad that it becomes infectious. It’s this sense of fun that makes BL: PoCNO something of a tough nut to crack- it’s rare to find a movie that invites us to enjoy a character this irredeemable, after all. But in the hands of Herzog and Cage (two great surrealist tastes that taste great together), it’s more than a guilty pleasure- it’s one of the year’s most irresistible entertainments.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Me and Orson Welles (2008, Richard Linklater)

It’s become something of an awards-season cliché that actors are bound to get plenty of hype for playing famous people. Frankly, I’ve gotten a little tired of it- yeah, I suppose it’s neat to see, for example, Jaime Foxx playing Ray Charles, but once the initial charge wears off, the idea of one celebrity playing another feels like a thespian parlor trick designed to grab the attention of Oscar voters. However, Christian McKay’s justifiably feted turn as the late Mr. Welles is an exception- a full-blooded creation that transcends the requisite mimicry. McKay’s work is spellbinding, and his Welles is the rare interpretation of a historical figure that would be just as compelling a character had he not existed in real life.

Naturally, McKay has an advantage over bigger name stars in that he doesn’t carry the same amount of star baggage, which allows him to slip more easily into the role itself. But the brilliance of McKay’s performance is that he understands, deep down, that the image of Orson Welles that looms so imposingly over film and theatrical history was as much of a creation of Welles as it was the great man’s honest-to-goodness personality. His brash charm and titanic ego weren’t merely the results of his genius- they also allowed his genius to function in a society that can be brutal to those who stray too far afield from the safe and mediocre. Yes, Welles could be a bastard to those around him, even his closest collaborators. But who could possibly argue with the results?

Great man aside, Me & Orson Welles isn’t a great film about the theatre in the way that Topsy-Turvy is. Much of this is due to how blinkered its story is- young hero Richard (Zac Efron) is cast less than a week before opening night, and is sort of carried along by circumstance, with the assistance of plucky ambitious Sonja (Claire Danes) and the blessing of Welles himself. Welles casts a long shadow over this story, to the point where even his absence is defined by the fact that he’s not there. But while this isn’t particularly satisfying from a dramatic standpoint, it feels strangely right in light of the character of Welles. Throughout his career, the Welles mystique dominated practically everyone with whom he worked, although Joseph Cotten carved out a solid career on his own and John Houseman became an eminent figure in his own right after parting ways with his early associate. And needless to say, Richard and Sonja are hardly Cotten and Houseman, and they quickly find themselves swallowed up in Welles’ grand design.

But what I found particularly refreshing about Me & Orson Welles was that, for all his flaws, Welles is never made the villain. But then, Linklater has never been about bad guys. His potentially villainous characters are generally buffoons who need to be taken down a few pegs, such as Greg Kinnear in Bad News Bears, O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused. And if there’s one thing Welles isn’t, it’s a buffoon. He’s an egomaniac, a blowhard, a taskmaster, and a philanderer. But as Linklater’s forebear Renoir once put it, “everyone has his reasons.” Linklater is clearly on Welles’ side not just because of his genius and charm, but also because his shortcomings are part and parcel with his brilliance.

Also, I would be delinquent in my duties as a critic (albeit an unpaid non-pro version of one) were I not to mention the film’s other great supporting performance, courtesy of Zoe Kazan. Admittedly, the scenes involving Welles are the centerpiece of the film, and the primary reason for seeing it. However, Kazan is so good as Gretta, an aspiring writer with whom Richard has an ongoing flirtation throughout the film, that her scenes have a charge all their own. Gretta is the only major character in the film who exists independently of Welles, and in the hands of a lesser actress these scenes would feel like half-hearted stabs at a romantic subplot. But Gretta is no obligatory love interest, and Kazan’s presence transforms her scenes with Efron into a refreshing reprieve from the intrigues of the Mercury Theatre. Kazan is what is so often referred to as an “unconventional beauty,” but she’s warmer and more genuine than any number of cookie-cutter starlets, with a smile that’s absolutely glowing. In her own luminous way, Kazan gives just as much of a star-making performance as McKay does.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Antichrist (2009, Lars Von Trier)

One of the challenges of reviewing a movie as visceral as Antichrist is that it’s difficult to see past the initial impact to the headier stuff on display. I saw Antichrist for the first time on Friday night, and since then I’ve been turning it over in my head, trying to puzzle out what Von Trier is doing with the film. However, my more immediate reaction to it was closer to stunned silence at the sheer force of the filmmaking and the often-shocking imagery. Make no mistake- Antichrist hits, and hits hard.

“If nothing else, Antichrist is the best horror movie in years,” I told a friend the other day, and I stand by this statement. With all his aspirations to artistry, Antichrist is first and foremost a horror movie, and a highly effective one (read: scary) at that. Much like Kubrick’s take on The Shining, most of the horror in Antichrist comes not from the explosion of violence and gore that comes in the last couple of reels, but rather from the creeping dread in the build-up to that point. And I do mean “creeping”- Von Trier’s use of extreme slow-motion in a number of sequences in Antichrist is nothing short of stunning, giving already some already gorgeous images a hypnotic effect while burrowing themselves into your consciousness. If I had trouble sleeping the night after I saw Antichrist, it’s these shots that were to blame.

Thankfully, Antichrist gave me plenty to think about during my sleepless hours. The best horror films tend to smuggle in their ideas as subtext, but Von Trier foregrounds his here in a way few horror filmmakers have. Antichrist is a thicket of themes and theses, tackling topics ranging from the historical repression of female sexuality to the sinister qualities of the natural world. In addition, Von Trier the limits of psychology and psychotherapy, examines the grief process, and the dissolution of a loving marriage in its wake. All this set against the portrayal of a world seemingly ruled over by a deity who appears to be anything but benevolent. Pretty heady stuff, I’d say.

Even more than most of Von Trier’s films, Antichrist has been a target for plenty of criticism from those who believe the filmmaker to be an inveterate misogynist. But while the film eventually becomes the story of a woman who goes nuts and subjects her husband to unspeakable violence, I don’t think it’s as simple as it appears to be at first glance. After all, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, fierce and fearless) is still reeling from the accidental death of her son, which Von Trier shows in agonizing detail in the film’s opening scene. And rather than trusting her treatment to the medical establishment, her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) takes on the case himself. He then proceeds to fully embrace his therapist role, making himself emotionally unavailable at precisely the time she needs a loving husband most. What’s more, his therapy techniques are dubious at best, consisting of Freudian psychobabble and face-your-fears platitudes, the latter leading them to their cabin in the woods (called “Eden”), which she harbors fears for even under ideal circumstances.

So yeah, He probably isn’t helping her sanity much. But just as important is Von Trier’s acknowledgement of the longstanding male fear of female sexuality, which have manifested themselves in alarming ways throughout the centuries. Before her son’s death, She was working on a graduate theses that examined these historical practices, but in light of the circumstances surrounding the boy’s accident- She was making love to her husband when the boy escaped his crib, and indeed she is shown having an orgasm just as he plunges to his death- she would understandably connect her carnal urges to destruction. So considering her extreme guilt coupled with her overwhelming grief, and exacerbated by the forbidding surroundings of Eden, the violence She displays in the final reels of Antichrist isn’t much of a stretch for the story.

This is made explicit in what is perhaps the film’s most notorious shot, in which She takes a pair of scissors to herself and snips off her clitoris. In other hands- for example, Takashi Miike at his laziest- this might have come across as an empty shock tactic. However, in the context of Antichrist, it’s anything but. Having already supplied us with images of historical persecution of women- torture, executions, and the like- von Trier uses this shot to summon up an image of contemporary persecution, one practiced among cultures that are still suspicious of the female sex. That Antichrist shows a woman doing it to herself is especially horrifying, since She has become so afraid of the destructive power of her sex that she feels the need to remove it altogether.

Even setting aside the film’s rather politically-incorrect views on gender, Antichrist is a von Trier film through and through. He’s arrogance in dealing with his wife’s mental health is similar to that displayed by Tom Edison in Dogville and Grace in Manderlay. And the use of hypnosis as a key plot point hearkens back to von Trier’s earlier work, from the narration of both The Element of Crime and Europa to the harrowing final scene of Epidemic. And like many von Trier films, Antichrist is a portrait of a social institution- a marriage, in this case- that is sent into disarray by the addition (or subtraction) of a key ingredient. After little Nick falls from the balcony, nothing can be put back together again, until, yes, “chaos reigns.”

Alas, Antichrist isn’t one of von Trier’s best films. For one thing, von Trier doesn’t quite manage to make his multitude of ideas cohere in an interesting (what does She’s sexual psychosis have to do with her phobia of the outdoors, for example?). Likewise, while some of the film’s more infamous elements- such as the aforementioned self-mutilation- make sense thematically, others seem to be included primarily for shock value, lending credence to the naysayers who dismiss von Trier as a mere provocateur. All the same, Antichrist is an important film, one for critics and cinephiles to dismiss at their peril. Von Trier claims that he made the film while suffering through a bout of severe depression, and the frayed-nerve filmmaking on display here is clearly born out of a very dark and personal place. For all its flaws, Antichrist feels like a key work for its maker, and I suspect that its reputation will only grow once the shock has worn off.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, December 4, 2009

2009 Releases by Rating

10 ratings:
Up (Pete Docter)

9 ratings:
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

8 ratings:
Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)
Duplicity (Tony Gilroy)
Julia (Erick Zonca)
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola)
Two Lovers (James Gray)
You, the Living (Roy Andersson)

7 ratings:
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
Coraline (Henry Selick)
Crank 2: High Voltage (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor)
Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Robert Zemeckis)
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)
Fados (Carlos Saura)
Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
Observe and Report (Jody Hill)
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)
Revanche (Götz Spielmann)

6 ratings:
(500) Days of Summer (Mark Webb)
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)
Adoration (Atom Egoyan)
The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)
Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
Land of the Lost (Brad Silberling)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli)
Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Star Trek (JJ Abrams)
Sugar (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain)
Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Chris Weitz)
Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer)

5 ratings:
17 Again (Burr Steers)
Angels and Demons (Ron Howard)
Away We Go (Sam Mendes)
Brüno (Larry Charles)
Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore)
An Education (Lone Scherfig)
Funny People (Judd Apatow)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates)
Hotel for Dogs (Thor Freudenthal)
Inkheart (Iain Softley)
Monsters vs. Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Tyson (James Toback)
Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Whatever Works (Woody Allen)

4 ratings:
Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Extract (Mike Judge)
G-Force (Hoyt Yeatman)
Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)

0 through 3 ratings:
None… yet.

Still need to see:
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
Antichrist (Lars Von Trier) [opening 4 Dec]
Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi) [now on DVD]
Avatar (James Cameron)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
Big Fan (Robert Siegel)
Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)
Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn)
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (Frederick Wiseman) [coming in February]
An Education (Lone Scherfig) [now playing]
Home (Ursula Meier)
Humpday (Lynn Shelton) [now on DVD]
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam)
Import Export (Ulrich Seidl)
Invictus (Clint Eastwood)
Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke) [now on DVD]
The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson)
Mammoth (Lukas Moodysson)
Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater) [opening 18 Dec]
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo)
Passing Strange: The Movie (Spike Lee)
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (Lee Daniels) [now playing]
Red Cliff (John Woo)
Rembrandt’s J’Accuse! (Peter Greenaway) [now on DVD]
The Road (John Hillcoat)
A Single Man (Tom Ford)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Storm (Hans-Christian Schmid)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Thirst (Chan-wook Park) [now on DVD]
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman]
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)
World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait)

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Silence of Lorna (2008, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Sometimes, even the greatest of artists can become the victims of sky-high expectations. Take the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, whose latest film Lorna’s Silence, despite almost universally positive reviews, has been given a curiously muted reception. “Ho-hum,” many critics seem to be saying. “Another hardscrabble, socially-conscious bit of cinema vérité from the Dardennes.” That’s a shame, really- sure, it’s interesting to see when talented filmmakers tackle many different genres and styles (it’s why Soderbergh is fun to watch even when he’s spinning his wheels). But with the Dardennes working at such a consistently high level, it’s churlish to complain that they just keep on cranking out another great Dardenne brothers movie every three years or so instead. Truth be told, it sounds a little like bitching that Dickens never wrote a book about giant killer robots- pointless and borderline absurd.

The Dickens comparison isn’t an idle one. Like Dickens, the Dardennes specialize in stories about criminals and the lower classes (come to think, wouldn’t you love to see them tackle a non-Tradition-of-Quality Dickens adaptation?). And like Dickens, the ability to tell a good story has always been the backbone of their work, even more so than their aforementioned social consciousness and the dual undertones of Christian spirituality and Socialist politics that have always been central to their style. The Dardennes’ gifts for storytelling don’t manifest themselves in plot gimmickry, but a knack for immersing the audience in the world of their characters, and allowing their narratives to progress in interesting directions not through the grinding gears of the plot machinery but through the decisions and limitations of their characters. More than most filmmakers, the Dardenne brothers use their story premises as a starting point rather than the rail on which the film rides- perhaps this is why I find Rosetta to be the least of their post-La Promesse works, since it’s the one that feels most beholden to its premise. By contrast, Lorna’s Silence finds their gifts in full flower.

SPOILERS follow, naturally.

In their previous film The Child, the Dardennes told the story of a young man who viewed his newborn baby merely as a meal ticket, going so far as selling him to an adoption racket for quick cash. In Lorna’s Silence, nearly all of the characters operate on that same level of morality. In their eyes, no one has any worth aside from the many they can bring in. The title character, an Albanian immigrant played by Arta Dobroshi, is part of a marriage racket in which Eastern Europeans can receive Belgian citizenship. Lorna is married to a junkie named Claudy (Dardennes regular Jérémie Rénier), who has been paid to marry and will be paid to divorce. After the divorce, Lorna will in turn be paid to marry, then divorce, a Russian, before she’s free to marry her longtime boyfriend. Of course, as the racket’s ringleader Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione, another Dardennes favorite) states, if Claudy was to kill himself by overdosing, he wouldn’t have to be paid off, right?

You see how it goes. But let me just point out how deftly the Dardennes handle the theme of a person’s worth in the story. In lesser hands, this theme would be harped upon in dialogue throughout the film, until the good people learned a lesson in what really matters in life and the bad people were punished for their greed. In The Silence of Lorna, no one is let off the hook. Lorna is an opportunist whose primary concern is her own monetary gain, and her beloved boyfriend Sokol is happy to play along. All the while, everyone uses poor Claudy, who they simply refer to as “the junkie.” Of course, when Claudy decides to clean himself up- for real this time- that isn’t part of the plan.
It’s Claudy’s character arc and eventual fate that lead to my favorite moment in the film, as well as perhaps its best example of its makers’ storytelling gifts. After establishing the deep-seated need of this most pathetic of junkies (without a hypodermic in sight, might I add), the Dardennes and Rénier manage to find a way for him to pull himself out of his addiction. In turn, the sincerity of his efforts have managed to break through the defenses of his de facto wife, who at first decides to help him recover in exchange for a divorce, but who eventually begins to feel for her him. Unlike the other men in her life, Claudy doesn’t see Lorna as a meal ticket (he even trusts her to hold his money rather than clutching it greedily as the others do), and in turn she learns to respect enough to call him by name rather than simply as “the junkie.” If love doesn’t exactly blossom, a kind of need does, based on his desire to get better and her craving to be needed for more than just her money.

In Claudy’s final scene, he and Lorna visit a general store when he sees a used bike for sale. Figuring he needs something to occupy his days so he won’t fall off the wagon, he buys the bike and decides to ride around town. As he pedals away, Lorna briefly chases him as a smile brightens her face, sharing in one of her husband’s rare moments of triumph. Then there’s a cut, and we see Lorna alone, solemn, gathering some of Claudy’s clothes in a plastic bag. It isn’t until she arrives at the morgue that we discover that he is dead, and not until still later that we’re told that Fabio arranged for him to die in an overdose. At first glance, this decision by the Dardennes might sound callous, as if they thought Claudy wasn’t worthy of an onscreen death. But in practice, it’s both bold and incredibly merciful. Rather than having our last image of Claudy be as a screaming victim or a cold corpse on a table, they instead show him riding off into the sunset, for one at peace with himself.

Alas, Lorna doesn’t get this same kind of happy ending. The mercy she showed to Claudy doesn’t simply disappear with his death, and she begins to believe that she’s carrying Claudy’s child, despite all evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, none of her mercy is returned to her. After the deal with the Russian falls through (due to Lorna’s “hysterical” pregnancy) Fabio decides to have Lorna killed, a decision that’s not half as harrowing as the one where Fabio and Sokol divide up Lorna’s money while she watches, leaving her a measly 100 Euro. I guess that when all you’re worth to others can be counted in money, that money’s going to dry up sooner or later, and then what are you left with?

At least one critic I’ve read has labeled Lorna’s Silence misogynistic in part because of Lorna’s mistaken belief that she’s pregnant. However, I don’t share this opinion. For one thing, false pregnancy (also known as pseudocyesis) is hardly uncommon. But in the context of the film, I believe that this plot development makes perfect sense. Caring for Claudy satisfied Lorna’s latent need to be needed, and this need gives her something to live for other than just money. At the end of the film, Lorna has to flee Fabio and hide out in a cabin in the woods, with almost no money, no friends, and no prospects. If she’s found, she’ll certainly be arrested or killed. But she clings to her hope, misguided though it may be. As a result, the final scene is unbearably sad- not only because we know the truth, but also because she doesn’t. It’s a heartbreaking ending, and a perfect one. I wouldn’t expect any less from the Dardenne brothers, and while that might come back to bite me in the ass later, I certainly won’t whine about it now.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Funny People (2009, Judd Apatow)

Judd Apatow has worked in comedy since he was a teenager, and his knowledge of the business comes through in the details of his latest film, Funny People. The movie is full of small touches that are completely convincing, and were no doubt inspired by the experiences of Apatow and his cast of comic ringers. For example, look at the scene in which Seth Rogen, playing a struggling stand-up who gets hired as a writer by superstar Adam Sandler, is pitching his new jokes to the boss- instead of laughing at the material, Sandler simply nods and says, “yeah, that’s funny,” thinking less about his personal thoughts on the joke than about how he can get a laugh out of it. Funny People is best in moments like these, and the movie is full of them- like the beatific smugness of a young comic who has landed the lead in a crap sitcom, or an up-and-comer who posts videos of himself frolicking with cute kittens to generate traffic for his blog.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole doesn’t live up to these details. Funny People has enough storylines and ideas for three or four movies, but Apatow can’t find a way to bring them together into one. Apatow’s directing style has always been loose, but when you’re trying to cover as much ground as he does here, some discipline is required, but Apatow just can’t bring himself to impose a structure on his material. Instead, he lets his cast riff, sometimes to hilarious ends, but more often leading to scenes that flail around on the screen in search of a purpose or a payoff. This is especially damaging to the film’s less overtly funny scenes, in which the lack of discipline dulls the impact they might otherwise have had. The result is a 2 ½ hour movie that seems to drag on endlessly, especially in its second half.

Not helping matters is Sandler’s presence in one of the film’s two central roles (Rogen plays the other). Sandler equips himself fairly well in the first hour of so of the movie, in which he plays George Simmons, an emotionally stunted big-screen superstar who is singularly unequipped to deal with the news that he’s contracted a terminal disease. In interviews, Apatow has said that he wanted to make a movie about someone who learns all the wrong lessons from his brush with death, and in the first half of the movie Sandler holds up his end of the bargain, playing the sort of blinkered asshole whose first impulse when faced with his own mortality is to do stand-up comedy routines about how much his fans will miss him when he’s gone. His private life consists primarily of torturing his new assistant/joke writer/flunky Ira (Rogen), who is the closest thing to a friend that he has.

These early scenes work fairly well since Sandler can do the selfish prick thing fairly well, since his lack of expressiveness dovetails perfectly with a comedian’s need to distance himself from sincere emotion. However, he’s not up to the later scenes in the film, in which he pays a visit to Laura, “the one that got away,” played by Leslie Mann. In these scenes, George and Laura are revealed to still harbor feelings for each other, but I wasn’t buying it. For one thing, I didn’t believe that Laura would be willing to leave a comfortable life (albeit with a loutish and allegedly unfaithful husband played by Eric Bana) for a guy who by all accounts treated her pretty shabbily. But just as unfathomable is the idea that George would consider- even briefly- the possibility of settling down. Sandler is just too much of an emotional blank to hint at the reserves of emotion behind a guy who spends his time telling dick jokes and sleeping with fans who want him to do silly voices in mid-hump. It’s not as big of a stretch as, say, his performance as the world-class chef and all-around snuggly-bear who inflames Paz Vega’s passions in Spanglish, but still- the colors Sandler needs for his scenes with Laura just aren’t to be found in his box of acting Crayolas.

But even without Sandler, the Laura scenes feel fairly problematic. Compared to the scenes of George’s lonely life and the rivalry between Ira and his friends, life with Laura is depicted to be an almost over-the-top take on domestic bliss. This would be fine, except for the fact that Laura is played by Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann and her children are played by their real-life daughters Maude and Iris, who get ample opportunity to tell jokes and act cute for the camera. I don’t begrudge Apatow his happy family life, but in depicting the transcendent awesomeness of his wife and kids it does feel like he’s showing off. I mean, the “peanut butter game?” Really? Really?

Taken as a whole, Funny People is just too messy and problematic to be considered successful. However, there are enough little bits of goodness in it that it can’t be ignored. Chief among these is Rogen, who once again reveals unexpected chops as an actor. Playing a character far removed from his slow-burn psycho in Observe and Report, Rogen makes Ira an essentially good guy who is trying to make it in Hollywood but doesn’t quite have the stomach for it. At one point, Ira has to screw over his friend to further his career, but while it’s the kind of fairly small thing that surely happens all the time in the business, it’s apparent that Ira is conflicted about it, and Rogen suggests this without going over the top. Apatow clearly has affection for Ira, but he also knows that the comedy scene is full of guys like him, who haunt open-mic nights and grasp for any chance they can find to make a name for themselves. We can’t all be George Simmons, Apatow seems to be saying, but that’s probably a good thing. Of course, that’s not much comfort to Ira.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Up (2009, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

Much has been written about how Pixar has become the surest thing in Hollywood. But with this level of consistency- even Cars, which was a low point only by Pixar’s lofty standards- has come a certain level of shrugging from the critical establishment. “Ho-hum,” we joke. “Another awesome Pixar release. What a shocker.” This is, to say the least, unfair, not least because although the element of surprise has long given way to an almost ironclad reliability, the movies have actually become more diverse in the past few years. The early Pixar releases stuck to a dependable formula- two buddies save the day, usually backed by a ragtag group of wacky misfits- ever since The Incredibles, Pixar’s features have grown increasingly unique. Incredibles’ colorful animation covered for the fact that it was a superior superhero movie, Ratatouille was a French-inflected foodie drama about an unlikely genius, and WALL*E was a cross between a silent film about a single-minded robot and the outer-space epic Jacques Tati never got around to making. And Pixar’s growth continues unabated with their latest, Up, which to these eyes may be their best film yet.

If nothing else, Up would be notable as the first animated film to get me choked up in a decade, when I was similarly affected by The Iron Giant, directed by future Pixar favorite Brad Bird. Even more impressive is that this happened within the first ten minutes of the film, before the story proper has barely begun- we meet the young Carl Fredricksen as a child and see him befriend future wife Ellie through their mutual love for rip-roaring adventure. Then the film cuts to a montage of their lives together- the idealistic early years (marriage, buying the old home that once served as their clubhouse, saving for their dream vacation to South America) followed by the onset of harsher realities (digging into the vacation fund for mundane reasons, going to work, growing old), set to Michael Giacchino’s lovely musical theme. By the time Ellie passes away- leaving Carl sitting alone on the altar of the church where they were first married- Up had worked its magic on me. In retrospect, I liked that directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson weren’t sticking to the traditional rules of family movies, which normally dictate that only the bad guys are allowed to die. But in the moment, all I could do was sit back and let the movie work on me, and marveled that, for once, a montage actually worked the way it should.

When I say that Up is old fashioned, I mean that as a compliment. Make no mistake, Pixar’s wizards have spared no expense to provide cutting-edge animation, even going to far as to cave into the the market’s (and Disney’s) demands to release the film in 3D in select venues. But its most notable virtues are of the old-school variety. As with WALL*E last year, Up tells its story primarily through its visuals and sound effects rather than relying on copious spoken exposition. Of course, it should go without saying that Up is gorgeous to look at- the South American jungle is rendered in a vivid color palette, and even the interiors of the film are filled with wonders great (the cavernous dirigible Carl encounters on his journeys) and small. But the visual style of the film goes beyond simple aesthetic beauty. This is most evident in the film’s use of circles and squares, which can be seen first in the respective character designs of Carl and Ellie. Carl, with his blocky head and lantern jaw, contrasts with the more casual and easygoing Ellie, whose face is rounder and softer. And this pattern continues throughout the film- in Russell (Jordan Nagai), the pudgy Wilderness Survival Scout who becomes Carl’s inadvertent traveling buddy, in the contrast between the friendly dog Dug (the movie’s breakout supporting character) and his more ferocious canine cohorts, even in touches as small as the picture frames in Carl’s home.

Of course, none of this would matter if Up failed in the narrative sense. Thankfully, the film never lapses into the familiar formulas beloved of so many big-budget animated films. As Ebert likes to say, it doesn’t have a plot, but a story- more specifically, a fantastical adventure yarn. One of the advantages of the animation medium is that the filmmakers can apply the long-established laws of “cartoon physics,” in which the rules don’t have to be equivalent to real life just as long as they remain consistent in the film’s world. Up creates a delightful world in which houses can take flight if one uses enough helium balloons, and a young boy can be jostled and whipped around with no lasting damage done (following a particularly perilous adventure, Russell giddily proclaims, “that was cool!”). Naturally, certain rules still apply, but they’re for comic effect as much as anything else, as when Carl faces off against his childhood hero, the adventurer-gone-to-seed Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and the fight is interrupted by both characters’ back problems. There’s plenty of action in Up, but lots of comedy too, both in between the action scenes and during them as well. The film’s priceless comedy bits are a reminder that Docter also helmed Pixar’s best comedy to date, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. But the humor is never simply silly for silly's sake, but is grounded in the film's world. For example, Dug and friends aren't furry people, but dogs who have been given the gift of human speech, and they're funny not because they talk but because of what they say.

Seeing the movie a second time recently, I realized that many of Up’s effects are achieved through means which usually come off as cheap and manipulative- not only montages and the death of an elderly character, but also such tropes as daddy issues and a child put in danger. The difference here is that they actually work. Perhaps it’s because Docter and Peterson don’t linger on them too long, or maybe it’s because they’re able to tweak them in interesting ways. Either way, the movie works like a charm. Up isn’t a pandering kids’ movie but an honest-to-goodness “family movie” in the classic sense, the kind of full-blooded entertainment that appeals to parents and children alike, similar to such sentimental favorites as Back to the Future. But Up is its own animal, and like ever-loyal Dug, it’s an animal that one looks forward to keeping around for years to come.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Nearly every discussion of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom begins with its content. On the one hand, this is only natural. After all, when a movie is as notorious as Salo is, you don’t bury the lead. Yet on the other hand, doing so creates something of a mistaken impression among those who read reviews of the film. When the first thing someone hears about a movie is how “extreme” and “controversial” it is, too often one jumps to the conclusion that it’s some sort of geek show, something to be avoided by all but the most thrill-seeking of moviegoers. I know that the impression of Salo that I’d harbored for years was that it was some kind of high-toned exploitation classic. But now that I’ve seen the film, I realize how far off base my impression was. Make no mistake- Salo’s characters engage in some of the most terrible acts of brutality and degradation I’ve ever seen onscreen. But exploitation this isn’t.

One of the most surprising thing about Salo is how little Pasolini depends on visceral shock- no mean feat for a film that subjects its characters to rape, torture, coprophagy, and many other sorts of humiliation. But then, “characters” doesn’t seem to be the right word for Salo’s young victims. For the most part, Pasolini has no desire to make us care about, let alone identify with, the teenagers who are kidnapped and enslaved by the quartet of bluebloods known as the President, the Duke, the Bishop, and the Magistrate. Occasionally, some humanity will shine through- for example Eve, the girl whose mother was murdered- but these tiny glimpses of personality merely tease the audience to feel for the people onscreen before being stomped out of them.

The preceding paragraph might sound like I’m criticizing the film, but I’m not. Pasolini’s lack of character investment doesn’t make Salo a bad film, but rather a fascinating one. By not rubbing our faces in the brutality onscreen, Pasolini instead asks us to ponder the ideas behind the story. Many of these ideas deal with Pasolini’s depiction of social class. Pasolini was an avowed Marxist who throughout his career demonstrated contempt for Italy’s bourgeoisie, and Salo isn’t remotely subtle in the way it shows its upper-crust characters exploiting their social to their own ends. Pasolini has no love for this outmoded system which places a few above all others and more or less grants the privileged carte blanche to trample the others as they please. In a strange way, Salo feels like a Marxist corrective to films that depict the noble aristocracy with warmth and nostalgia.

But Salo is actually more complicated than that. On one level, Pasolini is depicting the perversity of the aristocracy, as when The Duke says, “the only true anarchy is that of power.” Yet the film also invites us to consider the pathology behind the powerful. Consider two central scenes of the film’s infamous “Circle of Shit” set piece. The first comes when The Duke berates the aforementioned Eve for crying for her murdered mother then forces her to eat his feces. It’s clear in this scene that The Duke relishes the power he has over his victim, especially when he says, “that whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.”

But what to make of a later scene in which the entire group- both captors and captives- sits down in the dining room to eat the shit they’ve collected especially for the occasion, with the captors clearly enjoying the meal? And how about the ecstasy on the Duke’s face when another girl pisses on his face, or the storytelling sessions in which aging prostitutes regale the group with tales of their own youthful humiliations? From the time The Bishop states his philosophy that “all’s good if it’s excessive,” there’s more going on in with these characters than a straightforward power trip. It’s as if by sexually abusing the teenagers, the bourgeois are saying not “you’ll take your punishment and enjoy it,” but rather, “you’ll take your punishment and enjoy it as we do.”

In researching this review, I discovered that Salo is a town in Italy that served as a puppet republic for the Nazis near the end of World War II. Because of this, it’s not hard to read Salo as a condemnation of Italy’s collaboration with the Hitler, even if the events we see on the film were inspired not by real life but a novel by the Marquis de Sade. In the first few minutes of the film, we see young men being taken away by the aristocrats not to be prisoners but guards, and from that point they much of their retainers’ more menial tasks. One of the men even calmly explains, “we’re only following orders,” just before he leads four of the captors’ daughters to be married to their fathers. In the film’s final scene, while one of the captors watches his colleagues torture the teenagers through opera glasses, we see two of the soldiers sitting off to the side, bored. They strike up a conversation about on of the soldiers’ girlfriends before getting up and lazily dancing to a tune on the radio.

It’s not the subtlest depiction of the way people become desensitized to brutality that isn’t happening to them, but then, Salo isn’t a subtle film, nor does it mean to be. Nonetheless, it’s typical of Pasolini’s strategy throughout the film- to provoke the audience in a way that incites them to think once they get past the so-called “gag reflex.” Is it any wonder the film is a favorite of both Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat? Far from the gross-out cult object its reputation would suggest, Salo a movie that demands to be taken seriously, full of ideas so potent that it remains as controversial and shocking now as it was three decades ago.

Incidentally, I wasn’t able to find a good place to mention this in the review, but this is my first exposure to Pasolini. As always, I’d be happy to hear any recommendations of which of his other films are especially worth seeing.

Also, for another take on the film, check out my bud Andrew Bemis’ review.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009, JJ Abrams)

Superficially speaking, Star Trek seems to have everything one could ask for from a summer blockbuster: likable stars, snazzy effects, and lots of explosions, all given a high-gloss sheen. And in this respect, the movie delivers what it promises- the response so far has been almost totally positive (its current Metacritic score is 84), and it should prove to be a big hit. Yet despite all this, Star Trek left me strangely cold. As a fan of the original series and the majority of the movies it spawned, I’m no doubt biased toward the first incarnation of Trek, and judging by the enthusiasm that many non-fans have for the film, my response is hardly typical. But I suppose that this is part of my problem with the movie- that Paramount and director JJ Abrams have made such an effort to appeal to non-Trek fans that they’ve lost some of what made the original series really feel like Star Trek to me.

One thing that really stood out for me (and not in a good way) was Abrams’ restless camera, which contrasts pretty decisively from the stationary setups of old-school Trek. Abrams hails from the world of television, and indeed this style of camerawork has become a TV staple ever since shows like Homicide and ER began using it extensively in the nineties. But while Abrams uses this device as a means to liven up the action, particularly in the scenes on the Enterprise bridge, it was mostly a distraction for me. What’s more, by trying to heighten the tension of every scene on the ship, the movie’s actual action and suspense scenes make less of an impact, since almost everything is pitched at the same momentum. Maybe it’s just that old-fashioned stately squareness is one of the things I find most endearing about old-school Trek- it was never about high-octane action or “cool,” and while the market may demand a Star Trek that’s half Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli, I don’t have to like it.

That said, I enjoyed the movie more than I thought I would, and it’s certainly not the “Star Trek Babies”-esque spinoff I’d originally feared. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Abrams is less interested in a traditional prequel than a full-scale reboot- less Phantom Menace, more Batman Begins. And while some scenes seemed wrong to me (particularly the stuff between Spock and Uhura), I didn’t have much trouble accepted most of what happened in the movie. Similarly, the new cast isn’t Shatner and company, but nor do they try to be, and most of them find their own takes on the characters while remaining true to their original natures. Chris Pine’s Kirk has his own kind of devil-may-care approach, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is more hard-nosed than Nimoy’s (of course, he’s younger too), and Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy is a blast- who knew this guy had it in him? If only Abrams can settle down a little prior to the inevitable sequel (but what will it be called?), this new Trek franchise could very well have its own Wrath of Khan-caliber installment. Of course, that’s a pretty big “if,” and judging by the applause after my screening last weekend, newly-converted fans will be craving more of the same. Oh well… Rating: 5 out of 10.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chicago 10 (2007, Brett Morgen)

First off, all those critics complaining that Morgen doesn’t adequately lay down historical context in this movie are high. I’m part of a generation that was born after the titular trial had been consigned to history (to wit: the last time I heard anyone mention Bill Kunstler was my most recent viewing of The Big Lebowski), yet I had no problem following what was going on in Chicago 10. Does it honestly matter that (as A.O. Scott gripes) the film barely touches on the candidates at the Democratic National Convention that occasioned the mass convergence of demonstrators on Chicago in summer ’68? I’d say it doesn’t. Great documentaries aren’t about information, but illumination, and while some might argue that the film is lacking in the former, it’s overflowing with the latter, and that’s what really counts.

What’s more, I believe that Morgen’s tendency to sketch over stuff like the candidates’ names was a deliberate and wise move on his part. While knowing the names of the people who ran back in ’68 is important for those who are studying the convention itself, Chicago 10 isn’t about that. Instead, Morgen re-creates the circus that sprung up around it due to the tension between the establishment powers and the counterculture forces of the day. It’s somewhat horrifying to see the two sides push each other, back and forth, until the situation comes to a bloody, fiery head on the streets of Chicago. Whether your sympathies lie with the demonstrators or the establishment (and the film is less biased towards the kids than you might think), it’s clear that it got out of hand not merely because of the massive scale of the demonstrations, but also because of both sides’ unwillingness to really talk it through instead of trying to shout over each other.

This is what makes the structure of the film so ingenious. Instead of beginning with the riots then moving into the trial, Morgen cuts between the two. It helps to reflect that the trial, as re-created in vivid animation by the film, is basically the demonstration in miniature- the establishment (in the form of Judge Julius Hoffman) views the kids with contempt, the defendants attempt to subvert his authority, the voices of reason (e.g. Bill Kunstler) are roundly ignored, and the conflict escalates resulting in the violent censuring and repression of Bobby Seale. No wonder Abbie Hoffman called it a circus- not only was it a strange spectacle (thanks to both sides) but it just keeps going around and around, in the British sense of the word.

Even if Morgen isn’t obviously biased in favor of the demonstrators, he seems nonetheless fascinated by the wave of dissent that crested in the sixties. Chicago 10 presents the events of 1968 as a double-edged sword, paying equal attention to the hope that arose in the youth that they might be able to affect change (or at least be part of something that did), and the sobering fallout that came out of the youth movement being crushed by those in power. By refusing to turn the story into an ossified period piece, Morgen asks us to consider what place dissent might have in our current situation. Much has been made of the recent winds of change, but they’ve all come from within the system, and for decades there’s been a palpable fear in our society to risk anything on the same scale as the political movements of the sixties. No longer does it seem worth the risk for people to put everything on the line for an ideal in order to take on the government. I wonder what Abbie would’ve thought of that.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes)

One of the painful truths that most people have to deal with once adulthood hits is the idea that we aren’t nearly as special or as unique as we’d like to think we are. Life exerts a tidal pull on most of us, and swim though we might, we just aren’t strong enough to avoid getting swept up in it. It’s this idea more than any other that wrecks the marriage of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), a pair of twentysomething dreamers who yearn for a life in Paris until reality hits them smack in the face in the form of a pair of kids and the demands that pile up as a result. This germ of a premise forms the basis of Revolutionary Road, a movie which, alas, takes that germ as the foundation for yet another handsomely-mounted portrait of suburban ennui. Like its protagonists, the film seems to pin the blame for the couple’s discontents on soul-sucking suburban life. Based on the evidence in the story, the Wheelers’ problems spring from something deeper than their locale- a lack of shared interests and some skewed priorities, to name two examples- that would doubtless follow them no matter their surroundings. But as in Mendes’ severely overrated Oscar-winner American Beauty, Revolutionary Road takes the easy way out in its portrayal of dead-end suburbia. Mendes has never been the subtlest of filmmakers, and this comes through most clearly here in the performances by his lead actors- DiCaprio and Winslet are fine but nothing more, giving performances that are heavy on actorly stylings but light on nuance, particularly down the final stretch. Did the stylized fifties setting get the better of them? On the other hand, the ever-reliable Michael Shannon is dynamite in the film’s key supporting role. Portraying the dramatically convenient character of the truth-telling mental patient, Shannon is quickly becoming one of my favorite character actors, and here he commands his handful of scenes with his frayed-nerve intensity (his final line is devastating). Revolutionary Road is gorgeous to look at, and there are enough well-made scenes to lead me to believe that Mendes might knock a straight-up thriller out of the park. I just wish they added up to more. Rating: 5 out of 10.

The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

(Apologies in advance for the language, but in this case no better word comes to mind. Sorry mom.)

The title on the poster is The Wrestler, and that’s a pretty accurate representation of how Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) sees himself. Yet just as accurate, if not as ad-friendly, would be The Fuckup. After all, here’s a guy with very few prospects and almost no self-preservation instinct, who can’t seem to catch a break in life not because he’s unlucky, but because he basically screws himself out of bettering himself. Perhaps the main thing that keeps The Wrestler from being a Rocky clone is that he’s not just a lovable lug, but is a legitimate fuckup, whether it’s in his “day job” or in his relationship with his estranged daughter. Worst of all, he knows his nature only too well. Inside the ring, he’s a hero- albeit an aging, downmarket version of one- who’s not only good at what he does but has a rapport with the fans. But outside the squared circle, he can’t make the payments on his trailer, spends all his money on steroids and tanning beds, and tries to put the moves on an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). Hell, the guy’s real first name is “Robin.” In addition, he’s stuck in the past, not just the glory days of his career, but also in a youthful lifestyle, with hard-partying nights (one of which torpedoes his attempts to reconcile with his daughter) and a centerfold plastered to the wall of his bathroom.

Of course, most reviews of The Wrestler have singled out the parallels between “The Ram” and Rourke himself, a former acting golden boy whose career slide was largely of his own doing. But to say Rourke is playing himself is to deny what a startling piece of acting this is. The physical aspects of the role are most apparent, not merely the buffed-out (no doubt steroid-enhanced) physique, but also his commitment to verisimilitude in the wrestling scenes- that’s his actual blood we see on more than one occasion, folks. But while Rourke’s undeniable physicality was also at the forefront of his wonderful turn in Sin City, that role was an outsized caricature, and “The Ram” is completely human-sized. His lack of invincibility makes his fuckup nature that much more poignant, since the time is clearly limited for him to pull himself together. My favorite example of this in the film comes in his brief stint behind a supermarket deli counter- not the most glamorous of jobs, but one he begins to settle into during the film. If anything, I wish Aronofsky had included some more scenes of Rourke flirting, joking, and shooting the bull with customers (“what can I get ya, spring chicken?”), which might have made his eventual fate in the job all the more effective in my mind- my dream cut of the film would run at least half an hour longer, the difference all comprised of deli scenes. Nonetheless, The Wrestler is a rarity in American cinema- a simple, straightforward character study that doesn’t sugarcoat its protagonist but makes us feel for him all the same. It’s pretty magical, all the way through its perfect final shot.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Hotel for Dogs (2009, Thor Freudenthal)

On one level, this is a pretty innocuous and standard-issue family movie- squeaky-clean and predictable, but with enough “scary parts” to throw kids off the scent of the obvious happy ending. In addition, the dogs are remarkably well trained, responding perfectly to everything the kids can throw at them, and even getting along nicely (they even sit patiently at the dinner table) until such time as the plot demands they do otherwise. That said, I have a hard time objecting much to a movie that exposes children to the idea that dogs need to be properly cared for. The dogs that are rescued by Andi (Emma “niece of Julia” Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) have been abandoned or forgotten by uncaring owners somewhere along the line, and there’s even some talk by the folks at the pound of having to put them down for population-control reasons (spaying and neutering isn’t mentioned, but what the heck- it’s a kid’s movie). If nothing else, I found this a welcome corrective to movies like 101 Dalmatians and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which accentuate the cute’n’cuddly aspects of their furry protagonists without paying much attention to the care they require. Just as surprisingly, the movie doesn’t lean too heavily on its message-y aspects, instead integrating them into the storyline fairly seamlessly. As a result, the sillier aspects of the movie- the bumbling animal control workers, the dumbass foster parents (Kevin Dillon and Lisa Kudrow), the endless pratfalls and obsession with the bodily substances of dogs- become easier to swallow. And Don Cheadle takes what’s more or less the paycheck role of the kids’ case worker and gives the movie a surprising amount of gravitas, even transforming the hackneyed final speech into a fairly affecting moment, no mean feat when he’s in danger of being upstaged by dozens of dogs. I can’t in good conscience recommend this for anyone who doesn’t have kids, but if you do, you could do a whole lot worse. Finally, I feel bound to say that this movie needed more pugs. Is it that they’re not conventionally cute enough, or that they’re difficult to train? Either way, a few brief glimpses weren’t enough. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Doubt (2008, John Patrick Shanley)

The popular line on Doubt is that it’s overly theatrical, more a filmed play than an out-and-out movie. Yet I’d have to disagree- while it’s true that Shanley does little to “open up” the action in a traditional sense- I’d say the theatricality of the film isn’t rigorous enough. Doubt is first and foremost a movie about ideas, about differing worldviews that clash at the time when their conflict would create the most fallout. From the beginning, it’s clear that Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) represents the more hard-line dogmatic Catholicism that one found pre-Vatican II, while Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) embodies the more progressive, humanistic sort that came later. Naturally, the two don’t exactly get along- he thinks she needs to change with the times, while she distrusts his motives in reaching out to his parishioners and students, particularly the school’s one African-American student, Donald. Once Sister Aloysius seizes upon some circumstantial evidence to determine in her mind that Father Flynn has abused the boy, it’s pretty much over for him, as she knows that even the breath of scandal could end his life in the priesthood. It’s in this plot strand that the casting of Hoffman really pays off- putting a more conventional movie star in the role would have made the character too trustworthy, but Hoffman, who has never shied from playing oddballs and perverts, has an ambiguous enough presence to create in the viewers’ minds a suspicion that he might be hiding something, even if it’s not the misdeed Sister Aloysius has pinned on him. And Hoffman responds with one of his best performances, a fascinating portrait of a man driven by his faith and his desire to do good, while being torn by demons that were just as unspeakable then as his alleged abuse. Streep, for her part, is also fine, especially when she lets her humanity and limitations shine through, and the film’s showstopper scene, which pits Sister Aloysius’ absolute morality against the more situational kind espoused by Donald’s mother (Viola Davis, excellent), is obviously a master class in this kind of thing. The biggest drawback of the film is Shanley’s direction, which might have been effective had he been content to accentuate the theatricality of the text, thereby casting into sharp relief his ideas and the characters who espouse them. Unfortunately, Shanley relies far too heavily on loaded close-ups, dramatic weather changes, and above all severe tilts to underline his points. It’s sad, seeing a writer in such command of his ideas turn into a filmmaker who is so unsure these ideas will hit home that he needs to point them out to the audience every chance he gets. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Frost/Nixon (2008, Ron Howard)

Diverting enough, I suppose, in an underdog sports-flick sort of way, and the lead performances are both rock solid- Langella’s getting the plaudits for his Nixon, wherein he captures Tricky’s nature despite the fact that he looks next to nothing like the guy, but Sheen’s just as good at finding a center in the professional smarm-machine David Frost. Yet the movie never really satisfies, for reasons that go beyond the typically nondescript Ron Howard direction and gratuitous faux-documentary stuff. Watching Frost/Nixon, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie really doesn’t have a filmsy reason to exist. While I’m all for enjoying a movie on its own merits, there are certain types of films that one must view through the prism of relevance to today’s world, and Frost/Nixon, a dramatization about a real-life political incident, is one of those movies. In other words, if one is going to tell the story of David Frost’s interview of Richard Nixon, one must successfully answer the question, “why tell this story now?” Alas, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan never do this. Aside from a few attempts to parallel Nixon to Bush II- attempts that backfire, I might add, considering Nixon’s misdeeds would hardly raise an eyebrow thirty years down the line, which really says it all- there’s no real contemporary “in” to the Frost/Nixon story. The best the movie can manage is to provide the liberals in the audience a kind of secondhand catharsis, the vicarious thrill of seeing one of their primary boogeymen brought down on a national stage. But even this falls flat on two fronts, primarily because Howard and Morgan buy so completely into the revisionist post-Oliver Stone view of Nixon as a lonely, misunderstood outsider in a company town, a view that comes through most clearly in the awful, pandering phone call scene between Nixon and Frost. So what does that leave us with? Some fairly shallow entertainment, but considering what time of the year it is, entertaining movies ain’t exactly hard to come by. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, Eric Roth)

Yeah, yeah, it’s the Gump storyline all over again- same life-spanning narrative, same episodic structure, same bifurcated character arcs that occasionally intersect. But I thought it worked better here, since it’s doesn’t lean so hard on the irony, nor does it traffic in the cornpone Americana that made Zemeckis’ film a hit. There’s no way Benjamin’s story can end well, and the film acknowledges this, and shifting the primary perspective to Daisy pays off in the home stretch much more effectively than planting us squarely in Benjamin’s shoes throughout. That said, I really wish the filmmakers had thought to get rid of the lame-ass framing device, not simply because of the semi-gratuitous use of Katrina as a plot point, but also because it adds nothing to the story, since it’s pretty clear who the old lady is from the beginning. Still, it’s handsome as hell (I mean, Fincher, duh), and a perfectly serviceable piece of Oscar-bait. Sure beats the hell out of Slumdog, anyway. Sorry I don’t have more to say- saw this a week ago, and lots has happened since. Rating: 6 out of 10.