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.