Sunday, December 30, 2007

Black Ops and Dark Arts

Strange that while I may have seen more movies than ever at the theater this year, I'm still catching up with all the summer blockbusters I made a wide right turn in avoiding. Last night's DVD double-feature began with The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the only American action-movie franchise still worth sticking with. This is largely due to the fact that the series has thus-far been adventurous with its choices of directors -- Doug Liman for the first film and Paul Greengrass for the last two. Greengrass's style is divisive, to say the least, but I'm in the David Denby/Owen Gleiberman camp of admiration. As both have pointed out, Greengrass's camera isn't jittery just for the sake of offering jitters, but to place you inside Bourne's rattled frame of mind, while simultaneously, in the action set-pieces, enabling you to see everything you need to see. It's always fun watching an innovative filmmaker find new ways to stage a cliche, and Greengrass pumps some adrenaline into a pair of golden oldies: the train-station rendezvous and the rooftop chase.

It's also high time I give Matt Damon props. For some reason I'm always inclined to dismiss him as a blank slate, and he turns in good, nuanced work in almost every film, whether the cagey mobster mole in The Departed, or the only cast member still trying to give a damn in the Ocean's smug-celebrity debacles. Damon continues to breathe some humanity into his increasingly preposterous character -- The Terminator with a pulse -- and for a storyline about amnesia the movie makes a point of remembering past characters and events. Damon conveys a palpable sense of loss for Franka Potente's character, killed in the previous film. And Greengrass finds a ingenious way of restaging the coda in Bourne Supremacy, a phone conversation between Damon and Joan Allen, so that it takes on a completely new meaning.

Other elements Greengrass can't quite transcend or doesn't seem to know what to do with. There are only so many ways to stage scenes of underlings staring at computer screens while their superior (David Strathairn, who does a nice slow burn but is capable of better things) barks orders and whips himself into an impotent rage. And for a moment Greengrass threatens to do something interesting with Julia Stiles (it hasn't happened yet), in a scene where she cuts her hair and dyes it black, resembling Potente, but nothing comes of her transformation. The payoff is also a letdown: following a rehash of Supremacy's big car pile-up, with Bourne emerging with only dust and bruises, he returns to the place that made him a killer and discovers....that it's the place that made him a killer. Most of The Bourne Ultimatum is so skillfully made it deserves a more compelling denouement. If you're going to cast Albert Finney, give him something to do besides serving as Exposition Man; he'd have made a better Dumbledore than the boilerplate CIA honcho he plays here.

With that smooth segue, let us turn to my thoughts as the last person to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Because none of the four previous films in the series worked for me (I include in that statement the overrated Prisoner of Azkaban, overauteured by Alfonso Cuaron), I may be damning the fifth with faint praise, but I think it's the best so far. Behind the camera this time is David Yates, a director I'd never heard of before, but the man whose credits include Sex Traffic and The Girl in the Cafe finds more subtle ways of depicting his teen protagonist's hormone-fueled frustrations than Rowling, who took up a hefty chunk of her novel with Harry SCREAMING AT PEOPLE IN BIG BLOCK LETTERS!

FORTUNATELY, THE MO -- er, fortunately, the movie focuses Harry's rage almost exclusively at Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, yet another Mike Leigh alum to join the cast), the pink-clad, smiley-faced fascist who attempts to take over Hogwarts on behalf of the Ministry. With Voldemort on the sidelines once again, she's an effective adversary (straight out of Rowling, of course, but well before that Roald Dahl). The rest of the cast makes the most of their usual two or three scenes apiece, though I'll add that Helena Bonham Carter -- between the plastic surgery and marriage to Tim Burton -- could not be better cast as Bellatrix Lestrange and try not to think too much of it.

With the familiar touchstones onscreen, Yates brought in a brand new crew to add some juice behind the scenes. Scaling down the Michener-sized text is a tight script by Michael Goldenberg (giving us a break from Mr. Connect-the-Dots Steve Kloves); the crisp editing, making particularly good use of newspaper montages, is by Mark Day; the alternately bright-and-foreboding atmosphere of Hogwarts has never been evoked better than by the new DP, Slawomir Idziak (who shot Black Hawk Down); the understated score comes from Nicholas Hooper (though, admittedly, I do like John Williams' main theme). Yet for all that, with only two more films to go, there's something still missing from the Harry Potter saga. Yates, who is slated to helm The Half-Blood Prince, has style to burn. (God only knows who will direct The Deathly Hallows: Chris Columbus? Paul Greengrass? Mike Leigh?) It's in scenes like the climax of this film, which makes sense of much chaos but still feels unsatisfying, where I'm not sure if he has enough passion for the story. Cuaron is so far the only director to bring the passion; but he also brought the Jamaican talking heads. So, you know, it's a tough trade-off.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Moments That Moved Me: The Year in Movies, 2007

(Warning: Spoilers herein)

Sure, I go to movies to be entertained; but more and more of what I remember at year's end are the films that move me. What I find touching is hard to predict and almost impossible to explain, except that overt tearjerkers almost never jerk my tears: comedies, thrillers and straightforward dramas actually have better odds of catching me with my guard down. That more than a few recent films slipped through my defenses suggests that this was a very good year for them indeed. For 2007, here are The Man from Porlock's Most Moving Movie Moments:

Wes Anderson's most dismissive critics take pains to avoid discussing his mastery of depicting physical and emotional wounds. Although The Darjeeling Limited ultimately didn't work for me, the scene where Owen Wilson removes his bandages and looks in the mirror at his ravaged face has an impact that the rest of the film doesn't quite reach. In contrast, Hotel Chevalier, the prologue to Darjeeling (initially cut from its theatrical release and released on iTunes), sustains this theme through its 13-minute chronicle of the fallout that results when a young man (Jason Schwartzman) is finally tracked down in his Paris hotel by his ex (Natalie Portman), climaxing with a slow-mo tracking shot, scored to Peter Starsedt's "Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)," where Schwartzman tenderly wraps Portman's naked, bruised body in a bathrobe and escorts her outside, past a flower on a dinner cart that functions as a visual motif on how love can sustain itself even as a relationship is crumbling. (I can understand why Portman may have been uncomfortable with the content of her scenes broadcast around the Internet, but she's never been more affectingly vulnerable than she is here.) While Hotel Chevalier is a short film, I see it as an extension of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums between Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow inside a tent, its final shot a vivid reminder of how deeply emotional scars can penetrate even the thickest architecture.

Against the grain, I thought Brad Bird's previous effort, The Incredibles, was visually ugly and extremely confused in its message. (Tell me again why exactly the speedster son should keep his footrace with the other school children close only to win it in the end?) His latest, Ratatouille, gets a bit mucked-up too with food critic Anton Ego's speech about how mediocre art is more enduring than the best criticism (sure, Brad!), but it sustains the considerable good will it achieves up to then, thanks particularly to the scene immediately beforehand, where Ego (wonderfully voiced by Peter O'Toole) gets served a dish by our intuitive rodent chef -- the kind mom used to make -- that reminds him how he came to love food in the first place.

At the end of a completely different kind of film, the quietly provocative documentary An Unreasonable Man, one of the interviewees postulates that "if your seat-belt had the word 'Nader' on it, or if the warning label on your meds said 'Nader,'" we might see Ralph Nader differently today. It is an epiphany directed at the audience, a way of reminding us that however one feels about the man, his accomplishments have changed our world for the better.

John Carney's Once, the best (and first?) movie about the meaning of music in Ireland since The Commitments, is even more affecting by using home-grown songs rather than transporting African-American soul music by way of Roddy Doyle's cultural metaphor. For me, the two most poignant moments forge the creative link between its protagonists (the likable and unassuming Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova): their early guitar-and-piano duet in a music store; and a long tracking shot that follows Irglova around a street corner, singing the lyrics she has written to one of Hansard's songs.

I'm Not There, Todd Haynes's arty exploration of the enigma of Bob Dylan, abandons its (albeit entertaining) avant-garde trappings in the Richard Gere sequence, where we see an older outlaw Dylan happen upon the funeral of a young girl. When another musician sings an elegy to her, the sadness in Gere's eyes has an emotional directness that lends gravity to the rest of the movie and brings its subject's elusive shapeshifting into focus.

Definitions of Marriage
Lord knows the bond between Homer and Marge Simpson has had its share of tenuous moments, none more so than midway through the very funny Simpsons Movie when she discovers his role in threatening the very existence of Springfield. (Naturally, it involves pig feces.) When Homer returns to their abandoned Alaskan hideaway, he plays a videotape left by Marge where she explains in an eloquent speech why her loyalty has been tested. Julie Kavner's voicework has never been better.

In Sarah Polley's Away from Her, another long-term marriage undergoes a different set of challenges when Fiona (Julie Christie), diagnosed with Alzheimer's, enters herself into a nursing home, to the pain and consternation of her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent). Fiona grows attached to another patient (Michael Murphy), while Grant becomes involved with the same patient's wife (Olympia Dukakis); if we are never sure where these threads are going, they remain untied in the ambiguous final scene, when Fiona defines her loyalty to Grant in a moment of seeming lucidity, though its haunting quality comes from the fact that neither he nor we can know for sure.

Definitions of Family
For all the implausibilities surrounding its central relationship, a grating, in-your-face performance by The Next Julia Roberts Katherine Heigl, and what amounts to a traditional view of family, the climactic childbirth scene in Knocked Up remains ingrained in my memory. But the year's most original depiction of the family unit occurred in Bong Joon-ho's The Host. The movie has been praised as a first-rate creature feature, and Joon-ho has earned justifiable comparison to the young Spielberg for his nimble editing, skillful foreground/background Jaws-like framing, and visual gags. (A moment where the hero stumbles onto a barbecue outside of his military/medical confinement is especially witty.) Yet whereas Spielberg has often focused on the abandonment of children and the dissolution of the nuclear family, Joon-ho conveys his belief in the ability of families to reinvent themselves. Maybe it's because we live in a culture where people seem inclined to protect their familial interests with the whatever-the-cost zeal of mafiosos, but few scenes this year moved me more than the ending of The Host, where a father sees beyond his own child to value the life of another.

Confronting Evil
From one scene to the next, No Country for Old Men shows the varying reactions of characters forced to confront killer Anton Chigurh. (It's been quite a year for Evil Antons.) Some understandably cower while others barter, but the ones who linger in the mind are who, like the trailer park manager and Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald), stand their ground. For me, the defining moment of the film is the pause taken by Tommy Lee Jones's Sheriff Bell, mixed with trepidation and resolution, as he stares at the lock cylinder right before he enters Moss's motel room. Many have viewed No Country as a grim, pessimistic work, and maybe it is; but I see something ennobling in a reluctant character who opts to open a door, knowing there's a good chance he might not come back out alive.

Displays of Gratitude
In the novel Gorky Park and a succession of sequels (Red Square being arguably the best), author Martin Cruz Smith has cast a keen eye toward life in Late Cold War Russia and its currently uncertain postscript, which he views as a society fueled by paranoia and lies, yet with seeds of hope embedded within the cultural framework. No movie (certainly not Michael Apted's 1983 dud adaptation of Gorky Park) has successfully captured this distinctive behind-the-iron-curtain atmosphere until The Lives of Others. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a German-born filmmaker with a background steeped in Western culture, the movie features a deft blend of European and American cinematic themes and styles, and is impeccably cast from every potbellied apparatchik to radical artist. Its deceptively simple thesis -- the idea that people are capable of change -- is fleshed-out by Ulrich Muhe's performance as an East German Stasi agent who launches an investigation of a suspected subversive playwright (Sebastian Koch) only to gradually undermine it. Neither Muhe nor von Donnersmarck soft-pedal or overexplain the character, making his transformation all the more mysterious and affecting. What is finally so stirring about The Lives of Others isn't what the agent does but how the playwright chooses to respond to it, in a final scene that, with the emergence of hope from darkness, recalls Smith's concluding line in Red Square: "a matchhead in a well."

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Gem and the Dud

In the early 80s came a pair of Christmas-themed films. One was a big-budget epic starring then-box-office-draw Dudley Moore and Oscar-nominated character actor John Lithgow, with a screenplay by the writers of the initially successful Superman franchise and Bonnie and Clyde. The other was a modestly-scaled comedy featuring a cast of unknowns (with the semi-exceptions of Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon), directed by the creator of Porky's, and shot largely in Cleveland.

In retrospect, there were glaring red flags for Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), not least of which director Jeannot Szwarc's previous credits had included Jaws II, Somewhere in Time, and Supergirl. Under Szwarc's helm, Santa Claus was Superman III with a flying sleigh, and a misshapen, unfocused mess, largely forgotten until its recent would-be renaissance on AMC. (Good luck with that, guys.)

In contrast, A Christmas Story (1983) had an ace in the hole with Jean Shepherd, the radio personality who wrote the script and provided the narration. The director, Bob Clark, wisely made Shepherd's voice the literal and thematic center of the movie, and if Clark's own directing style is, shall-we-say, perfunctory at best, it dovetails beautifully with the overall feel of a childhood memory. Whimsy and satire are trickly enough to pull off separately and almost impossible to do in unison, but A Christmas Story is a textbook example of how specificity of time, place and character can become universal. It's a gift wrapped in nostalgia, delivered to audiences of Christmas futures to come.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

True Believer

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to stumble on An Unreasonable Man, the fascinating documentary about Ralph Nader currently making the rounds on PBS. Written and directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan (their joint debut behind the camera, though Mantel's previous credits include, bizarrely, an episode of Win Ben Stein's Money), An Unreasonable Man hits exactly the right tone for its topic -- an obvious affection combined with (at times) clear-eyed exasperation.

Mantel and Skrovan correctly reasoned that the key to understanding Nader's present motives lies in the past, and the first hour of their film raises salient biographical points without overly dwelling on them. The son of Arab immigrants, Nader grew up in Winsted, Connecticut, where the "town meeting" was a recurring event reflective of an open system of government. Like many who go into politics, Nader earned an Ivy League education (at Princeton) and became an attorney; but he then veered from the norm by challenging the automotive industry on car safety, or the lack thereof. In the most compelling section of the movie, Nader and other interviewees describe the increasingly desperate harassment attempts by General Motors, which included sending prostitutes to try and pick him up at the supermarket ("while I'm out buying cookies," Nader deadpans) in the hopes of catching him in a compromising position. Nader goes on to say that he and his "Raiders" (the nickname given to his supporters, mostly clean-cut college kids with a penchant for activism) benefited from the 60s because, compared to more radical organizations, theirs looked less threatening. But Nader was a threat, all the more so by working within the system rather than trying to overthrow it, and following his victory over the auto magnates he continued with a string of successes against pharmaceudical companies, the aviation industry, and other corporate entities.

Eager to get to the 2000 election, Mantel and Skrovan skimp somewhat on Nader's political estrangement in the 80s and 90s and devote nearly the entire second hour to the twists and turns of the Bush vs. Gore campaign. They do, however, manage to convey that the Clinton Administration's cold shoulder toward his interests angered Nader even more than the blatant corporate sympathies of the Reagan Era and may have propelled him to seek the presidency -- something that his supporters never imagined him doing. As the Bush-Gore battle is recounted, from denying Nader a place at the debates (Pat Buchanan, another independent candidate that year, chuckles ruefully at the mug-shot flyers of Nader, himself, and other third-party candidates distributed to security and law enforcement outside the debate hall) to the debacle in Florida, the question of whether Nader was to blame for Gore's defeat threatens to degenerate into a yes-he-was/no-he-wasn't argument. But the interviewees make compelling points on both sides, with Nader's critics given ample air time (especially a frothing-at-the-mouth Eric Alterman).

Having only a superficial knowledge of Nader-as-consumer-advocate, I came away from An Unreasonable Man with a qualified admiration for him; and if that's the intention of the filmmakers, their refusal to sink to hagiography -- something Nader himself would have bristled at, one senses -- makes their objective feel earned. Mantel and Skrovan sprinkle some humorous touches, such as Nader getting stopped on the street after his appearance on a 70s-era episode of Saturday Night Live (a passer-by reportedly shouted, "I know you! You're that comedian!") and without resorting to Michael Mooreian shenanigans, they build a biting critique of the ostracizing of Nader in the 2004 campaign by big-name lefties like Moore and Susan Sarandon (who come across as unctuous tools). An Unreasonable Man is about how -- Obama or no -- the abandonment of Nader may spell the end of American political idealism. Whether or not his actions over the last decade have betrayed the Democratic Party or even the country, the film leaves us with the suggestion, somewhere between hope and lunacy, that the only one who still has an unshakable faith in the system is Nader himself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Born Identity

It used to be that movies suffered when they veered too far away from the books on which they were based; now, if anything, the problem seems to be an excess of fidelity. Case in point is The Namesake, Mira Nair's adaptation of the popular novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. I avoided the film on its theatrical release last summer -- mainly because I was scheduled to teach the novel as part of a freshman orientation-week class and didn't want the movie version to influence someone as highly susceptible as me -- and I probably wouldn't have caught up with it on DVD had the movie not been the recipient of surprisingly kind reviews from normally cutthroat critics who must have switched their meds.

For those who haven't read Lahiri's novel, The Namesake follows two generations of Bengali immigrants: the first, a married couple newly arrived from India who struggle to maintain their traditions; and the second, their American-born son, who bridles against them. Nair's film depicts this clash of cultures faithfully, as well as the central storyline involving the son's unconventional name of Gogol (i.e., the 19th-century Russian author of The Overcoat, a book that figures mightily in The Namesake.) As played by Kal Penn, the Gogol of the movie is every inch the character of the novel: alienated from his origins; patronizing toward his family; ambitious yet indecisive; open to new experiences (especially romantic ones, such as his relationship with a Caucasian girl from a wealthy liberal family) yet ultimately afraid of change.

The movie errs not with the conception of the character or Penn's performance, but that too much time is spent bringing Gogol to the center of the story. By following Lahiri's linear timeline, Nair gets bogged down in too much early exposition and loses a great deal of narrative momentum. Which is a shame, because there are some intriguing ideas in The Namesake, particularly with how all the common denominators in Gogol's eventual marriage to a fellow Bengali named Moushimi (a vivid turn by Zuleikha Robinson), fail to resolve his problems. Parallel plotting between Gogol's story and his parents' might have brought his character to the forefront and underscored the themes of the story without making it feel as though they'd been crammed in with an ice-cream scoop.

I'm a fan of Nair's previous work, especially the joyous Monsoon Wedding, which addressed similar themes in a more freeflowing, almost ramshackle manner and was all the better for it. The Namesake is a more ambitious movie, and while it feels strange to say this, it needed a director with more technique. How ironic when a fine humanist filmmaker gets all the facts down but misses the poetry.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Spiked Eggnog

I love 30 Rock and hate Christmas episodes, so it was a kick to see the lump of coal Tina Fey dumped in our stockings with last night's episode. The depiction of the Lemon family (amusingly played by Buck Henry, Anita Gillette and Andy Richter) nailed a certain type of middle American persona -- when the cheeriness of your demeanor is in direct proportion to the pain and anger roiling beneath the surface. It was funny when Jack's ghastly mother (Elaine Stritch) called them on this, and fascinating to compare how Jack and Liz's respective upbringings led to who they are now: Did familial dysfunction and constant criticism pave the way for Jack's rise to the top, or did he succeed despite it? And while Liz is certainly successful in her own right, how much of her household's repression-denial caused her to rebel against it, and how much of it has created a woman who forgets her own birthday and tapes her bra?

This is apparently the last completed episode of 30 Rock of the season, meaning we'll have to find the funny elsewhere while Tina Fey's comic genius is confined to the picket lines. I'll be curious to see how the strike plays out, and whether reality-shows will become more real in the coming season or if all those Machiavellian theatrics write themselves?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Age of Enlightenment

Courtesy of the Internet Movie Database's esteemed message boards, the fifteen most frequently posted comment subject headings:

15. How is this movie in the top #250?

14. I liked this movie, BUT...

13. OMG! (Insert title of film) grossed only $ (insert humiliatingly low opening weekend box office, then laugh maniacally) HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

12. I hated this movie, BUT...

11. this movie was totley gay

10. To Everyone Who Didn't Like This Movie!!!


8. Why is this movie ranked #65?

7. A QUESTION for all the haters...

6. A QUESTION for all the atheists...

5. A QUESTION for all the Christians...

4. A QUESTION for all the Druids...

3. #21?????


And the top comment at the IMDb:

1. Message deleted by board administrator.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Real Deals

To paraphrase a joke by Robin Williams, I know music the way Gandhi knew catering. The first album I can recall ever buying was Billy Joel's Glass Houses, setting my tone-deafness for quality for years to come. Shortly after that, a few friends in junior high introduced me to what in my mind passed for edgier fare -- the J. Giles Band. There we were on the playground, listening to "Centerfold" on somebody's boom box, when down the sidewalk came another group of guys with a bigger, louder boombox blasting Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll," and our entourage ditched us to join theirs. If I didn't know I wasn't cool before then, this moment sealed the deal.

It took me much longer to learn that they weren't cool either; they were just flavor-of-the-month fans who had no loyalty to any musical artist, certainly not the steadfast devotion that Bruce Springsteen's legions have showed him. I arrived to The Boss late, beginning with Born in the U.S.A., then played catch-up in my mid-teens with his multi-tape live album. Into my tin ear his songs submerged themselves like depth charges: I loved equally the twangy energy of "Working on the Highway" and "Darlington County" and the quiet slowdown of "Fire" and the piano solo of "Thunder Road" that opens the album. (Though an older friend splashed cold water on my reverie by saying, "Idiot, the faster version's better.")

I lost touch with Springsteen's later work, and reportedly didn't miss much, until a couple of cuts off his latest, Magic, persuaded me to give the whole thing a listen. "Radio Nowhere" kicks things off with an infectious, hard-driving rhythm ("I was spinnin' round a dead dial/Just another lost number in a file/Dancin' down a dark hole/Just searchin' for a world with some soul") that could serve as a comment on the lame state of current pop music. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," about a young man's uncomfortable awareness of the women around him, is a lovely small-town fable. It can come across as transparently unconvincing when an artist as successful as Springsteen returns to the kind of "just-folks" songs that propelled him to stardom, and if he's a little overly affected with dropping the g's off of words to achieve street cred (dancin', searchin', comin', livin'), he still shows a knack for detail and local color, and his vocals seem clearer and stronger than ever.

The rest of Magic is uneven. I liked "You'll Be Comin' Down," a standard breakup-comeuppance tune given a jolt that the naval-gazing emo bands regularly lack, and "Livin' in the Future," which is the one track clearly reminiscent of his earlier, funkier work. But many of the other songs, especially his Iraq War polemic "Last to Die," are forgettable. Springsteen is also overly fond of cliches like "cuts like a knife" and "you broke the mold" that betray an occasional lack of creativity. He's almost never funny, he's not an ironist; but nor is he whiny or pathetic. Indeed, his unwavering conviction in his music remains Springsteen's greatest strength; in songs like "I'll Work for Your Love," the religious symbolism is clunky ("Your tears, they fill the rosary/At your feet, my temple of bones/Here in this perdition we go on and on"), but as arguably the best known Catholic artist this side of Mel Gibson -- only less scary -- he pulls off the feeling anyway. As Peter Rainer once wrote about Johnny Cash, Springsteen is a poseur who is also the genuine article. As Magic demonstrates, you can't have one without the other.

Another person who appears to have fit that definition was Petey Greene, the late deejay who is given the biopic treatment in Kasi Lemmons' new movie Talk to Me, now on DVD. Whereas Springsteen wrote the hits, Greene played them, though they came from radically different backgrounds -- The Boss a white Jersey boy, Greene an African-American from the D.C. ghetto, and their musical tastes corresponded to their experiences. Greene battled alcohol and drug addiction, and had done time for armed robbery; yet it was in prison that he had found his voice as a deejay, playing music and providing withering social commentary that he carried over to a local station following his release. Bellowing "Wake up!" as his signature intro shtick (until seeing this movie I had no idea Greene was the basis for Samuel L. Jackson's character in Do the Right Thing), Greene threw down the gauntlet and simultaneously challenged and pandered to his listeners, calling Motown record producer Berry Gordy a "pimp" only one of numerous examples of how he used words as weapons, and how those words frequently got him into trouble. Greene's mantra was "Keepin' it real," and the great thing about Don Cheadle's performance is the way he lets you see how this is both an authentic persona and a carefully crafted pose.

Unfortunately, the film lacks the courage to focus exclusively on Greene. The main character is actually Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ambitious young African-American producer at the radio station where Greene is ultimately employed, and whom Greene initially calls a "sell-out." Hughes is meant to be a more accessible character and a counterpoint to the demon-haunted, loose-cannon Greene as we follow their trajectories from enemies to friends to a personal and professional falling-out and back to friends again before Greene's death in 1985, but he's a fuzzy concept who gets in the way of the person who primarily interests us. (Ejiofor, an actor of considerable screen presence, needs to stop co-starring with the likes of Cheadle and Denzel Washington -- their respective charismas keeps canceling each other out.)

Eve's Bayou, Lemmons' debut as a director, was as elegant and controlled as a Flannery O'Connor short story. Here she's trying for something rougher and looser to reflect her subject, but the result is a shambles. I don't know the exact story of how Greene established himself on the air, but I doubt it happened with the contrived hijinks (a lot of scurrying around the station and locking people inside their offices) that are depicted here. And the soundtrack (Sly and the Family Stone, Otis Redding) is pretty familiar stuff for a film that aims to be edgy. Most of what works is due to Cheadle: he's funny early on (especially when he cackles over being labelled a "mis-cree-int") and deeply moving in a later sequence, when Greene calms the city following the assassination of Martin Luther King. I also laughed at Cedric the Entertainer's bassoon-voiced late-night deejay and whenever Martin Sheen's square liberal do-gooder executive is dubbed "Blue Blazes." But as a portrait of the black experience -- or any experience -- Talk to Me is disappointingly superficial.

I'm Not There, the new movie about "the lives" of Bob Dylan, isn't particularly deep either, but Todd Haynes, the director, makes up for that by going wide. Unlike Talk to Me, Haynes's film is no connect-the-dots biopic but an impressionistic Portrait Of The Artist as a young prodigy (played by Marcus Carl Franklin), cryptic poet (Ben Whishaw), folk singer (Christian Bale), actor in an estranged mariage (Heath Ledger), media icon (Cate Blanchett), and reclusive outlaw (Richard Gere). The six Dylans on display offer a rich plurality on a man who, unlike Bruce Springsteen, has always been maddeningly elusive. "I accept chaos," Whishaw's Dylan says at one point. "I don't know whether it accepts me."

Also unlike Springsteen, who has had only one relatively major film role to date (dispensing romantic advice to John Cusack in High Fidelity), Dylan has appeared more than a few times onscreen, notably in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (alluded to in the Gere sequence here) and has been the subject of a handful of documentaries, most recently Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home. Rather than take on its subject squarely and earnestly -- a lost cause if ever there was one -- I'm Not There blends into its palette a variety of cinematic styles, from A Mighty Wind-like satire in the Bale passages (featuring Julianne Moore as a thinly veiled Joan Baez) to the textured Depression-Era magical realism (though it's obviously set later) in the scenes with the wonderful Franklin playing Dylan as a young African-American hopping trains with guitar case in hand. (There's a great image of him falling into a river and being swallowed by a whale.) As for Blanchett, it's taken me a long time to warm to her as an actress. In her early films I found her annoyingly mannered, but she adds a layer of mischievousness in playing Dylan alienating his fan base and dodging the pointed questions of a smug British television host. Whether antagonizing Michelle Williams's party-hopper or cavorting with Allen Ginsberg, there's a joy in Blanchett's acting that anchors the movie without weighing it down.

No Dylanite, I haven't seen most of his movies and wasn't introduced to his music until by my roommate my freshman year in college, but from the perspective of an outsider I'm Not There is an entertaining experiment, a playful change of pace. I may not be the core audience for this film, but I accept its chaos, whether or not it accepts me.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Swagger is Gone

You can tell how far the Paulettes have fallen when the phrase "sensitive and insightful" is intended as praise. To be fair, Zacharek doesn't actually use those words, but nobody would have come within 50 kilometers of a Kael review bearing those descriptors. It's almost enough to make one long for the strenuous rantings of Charles Taylor. Fortunately, we still have Armond White for that.

I have no plans to see Atonement, though from a marketing standpoint it may be the shrewdest piece of Oscar Bait I've seen dangled so far this year. It's got a rising young actress on the cusp of her Star Moment, a bland auteur behind the camera, the pedigree of an acclaimed novel, and British accents. Shit, what's not to love?

Most importantly, Atonement -- aside from what I understand is the jarring appearance of the "c-word" -- isn't going to scare anybody. Unlike Paul Thomas Anderson, who truth be told scares me a little too. Yet There Will Be Blood, his adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel, is the one film I'm looking forward to the most this season. I thought Boogie Nights was a bad movie with greatness in it, Magnolia a great movie with badness in it, and Punch-Drunk Love an exhausting try of patience in its first act with a climactically magical, cathartic release. Who knows what this madman hath wrought this time out, but I can't wait to see it.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Lukewarm Puppy

(Note: Much of the following is from an email I wrote a few weeks ago to Matt Zoller Seitz, critic and publisher of The House Next Door. Originally our plan was to collaborate on a discussion about the book and what Peanuts has meant to us, but as this is the busy season for film critics I have decided to post my thoughts here, with the hope that we can continue at a more opportune time.)

If you want to get a conversation going with strangers (or if you don't, in which case consider this fair warning), you needn't go any further than to your nearest coffee shop with a copy of the new Charles Schulz biography setting on your table. The first day I read it, the weekend before Halloween (or the rise of the Great Pumpkin, whatever your beliefs), an affable, prematurely balding gentleman appropriately dressed in an iconic yellow shirt with black zigzag matching the eyecatching dust-jacket on my book, stopped in his tracks where I was sitting and we did a mutual doubletake--me staring at his costume, him gaping at the book. ("I'm going to have to read this," he laughed.) Later that same day, at a different coffee hangout, the fellow at the table in front of me turned and asked if the bio was any good. "I have mixed feelings about Peanuts," he said anxiously, as though revealing a heretical thought. "It always left me" -- he paused -- "depressed."

These exchanges are a telling indication of just how deeply ingrained Peanuts remains within our culture. Having grown up in the 70s, I don't remember the first time I read the strip. Like water and air, it always seemed to be there, not only in the daily paper but in anthologies and knicknacks and advertisements and songs and stage productions and televised Christmas specials. As a child, I enjoyed Schulz's work, most certainly took it for granted, then let it submerge into my subconscious for a number of years. Only now, having read David Michaelis's biography, have I realized that as a child it probably wasn't meant for me in the first place.

The central thesis of Schulz and Peanuts is so simplistic it's automatically suspect: Schulz channeled his life into his art. This is a seductive "Schulz in Love" approach to his work that I was primed to reject from the start, when Michaelis trots out Citizen Kane, Schulz's favorite movie, for a specious comparison: "Like Welles's hero, Charles Foster Kane, who got everything he wanted, and then lost it,' Charles Monroe Schulz would succeed on a scale beyond the grandest of his childhood dreams, and yet he would struggle to love and be loved." Playing a variation of William Alland's reporter from the movie, Michaelis uncovers not one "Rosebud" but several: Schulz's headstrong first wife, who became the prototype for Lucy; his colleagues at Art Instruction, Inc., who included one named Linus and another named Charlie Brown; a cousin who was the template for Peppermint Patty; his experiences as a squad leader in World War II, reimagined in Charlie Brown's camp misadventures and Snoopy's flights of fancy; his religious convictions, which provided the stirring climax for "A Charlie Brown Christmas"; his unrequited love for a "little redhaired girl" while growing up in St. Paul; and most of all his mother, who on her deathbed left "Sparky" (as Schulz was known to family and friends) with a gut-punch of an epitaph: "We'll probably never see each other again."

And yet, by the end of the book, a funny thing happened: I thought Michaelis made a pretty convincing case. Indisputably aiding his agenda are the multitudinous excerpts from the strips he weaves throughout the narrative (and which the family reportedly sold to him for five cents each -- the same fee Lucy charged Charlie Brown for his therapy sessions). If as a kid I found storylines like Snoopy''s crush on a girl beagle with "the softest paws" nothing more than amusing and a tad odd, rereading it now in my late 30s, with the background info that it may have been based on Schulz's affair with a young telephone company executive (whom he met at the Warm Puppy, a coffee shop in his family-owned ice arena), is a surreal experience, like stumbling on a family secret while watching Dr. Phil.

Which brings me back to the initial pair of encounters I mentioned at the start of this post--the first comical, the second melancholy. If I think more deeply about it, I recall often having both reactions at once to Peanuts, laughing at Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown because their contractual agreement wasn't notarized while simultaneously hating her guts for it. And, if I'm honest with myself, hating Charlie Brown too for his gullibility, his refusal to learn from past experience. As I grew older the characters remained inertly unchanged, but looking back I wonder how much of Schulz's attitudes (toward women, sports, religion, war, life in general) stuck with me, whether I agreed with them or not. Taking a broader perspective, I wonder what it means when a country disparaged for being buoyantly optimistic, shallow and naive (I'm talking culturally, not politically, in this context) would have for its Cartoonist Laureate a home-grown depressive with extravagant artistic gifts, contradictions and complexities.

'No Country' Controversy Erupts

The Daily Renko

DECEMBER 1, 2007--Fisticuffs, fires, property damage and demands for refunds broke out in select movie theaters across the United States following the wider release of the new Joel and Ethan Coen existential thriller, No Country for Old Men. The level of violence on a national scale was unprecedented since the premiere of Stuart Little.

Immediately following the 7:25 Friday evening showing of the film at the Regal MegaMetaMultiPlex in Darrow, IN, an enraged audience of approximately 35 individuals ripped out their seat cushions, beat up an usher, then charged the screen and shredded it to bits. The mob was eventually subdued by National Guardsmen armed with batons, tear gas and complementary boxes of Dots.

Despite such efforts to placate them, many moviegoers remain vocal with displeasure over several points of confusion in the film, including the deaths of certain key characters, a motel room scene involving the sheriff and the villain, and most of all the abrupt climax that ends the film.

"One minute the movie is going along fine, then the next--boom! it's over," said audience member Douglas Fidrych, describing the final scene of Tommy Lee Jones recounting a dream. "I haven't been this bummed since the conclusion of The Village."

With reports of incidents similar to the one in Indiana spreading across the country, military leaders have expressed the need for a "call to arms" involving the most powerful coalition at this country's disposal--film critics.

"We are doing all we can, but advanced weaponry just isn't enough," said Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen. "History teaches us that if anything can vanquish the masses, it's sarcasm and rhetoric."

Leading the surge has been Gen. James "Yojimbo" Emerson, veteran of the infamous Barton Fink Fracases of 1991 and long-time defender of the Brothers Coen, and Lt. Col. "Glengarry" Glenn Kenny, recently pulled from his command of the interminable Wes Anderson Wars. Together, Emerson and Kenny have formed what has been dubbed a formidable "Alliance of Intolerance."

"We are not saying that individual critics and laypersons are unentitled to their own opinions," said Emerson, who recently toured the front in full battle fatigue while chomping on a cigar. "All we want is universal confirmation that, in a purely objective sense, No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece."

To attain this goal, the classically-trained Kenny initially targeted those confused by the film with the well-worn battle tactic of condescension. Meanwhile, the more visionary Emerson has gone beyond the standard critical arsenal with the controversial deployment of a deadly new weapon called "screen grabs."

While Emerson's degree of success is as yet unclear, Kenny's recent offensive against the skilled field commander Fernando Croce, one of only a handful of critics who has crossed over to the resistance, was violently repelled. Indeed, following Kenny's public mea culpa, rumors have surfaced that Emerson has privately questioned his colleague's stomach for combat. Despite lack of official confirmation of these reports, Capt. Ryland Walker "Texas Ranger" Knight has dismissed questions regarding his youth and inexperience and offered to fill Kenny's shoes.

"The Coen brothers are talented, if foul, filmmakers who make provocative, if foul, films" said the erudite Knight. "The vituperative reaction against their unmitigated genius is actually exceedingly complimentary....if foul."

While opponents of the surge point to high ratings at both Metacritic and the Internet Movie Database as indications that No Country for Old Men already enjoys a strong majority of support, that it would be better to address questions concerning a complex and challenging film as healthy to the interest of critical discourse, and that continuing the war as it is presently being waged is tediously unnecessary, Emerson remains undaunted by the task ahead.

"This war isn't just about our current moviegoing experience," said Emerson. "This is about the experience of our children's--and our children's children's--moviegoing future." Emerson added that the Coens' next movie "is an even more amazing masterpiece, filled with bravura performances and innovative technique. I can't wait to see it."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lemon Aid

Okay, so that wasn't the greatest episode of 30 Rock either. But if forced to choose between a pair of well-worn sitcom cliches -- the Liz-suspects-her-neighbor-is-a-terrorist plot or the Liz-dates-a-younger-guy plot -- I'll take the latter, because it's by far the better showcase for Tina Fey. Unconvincing as an idiot in the former episode, Fey this time addressed one of the show's central premises in Liz's low self-esteem, in how we see her is completely antithetical to how she sees herself. The twentysomething coffee guy's name already escapes me, but it doesn't matter, since he's a really a stand-in for us. His attraction to her was treated as perfectly natural (however Oedipal), and his calling her a "sexy librarian" couldn't have been a more perfect validation.

Of the two subplots, the little league team/Iraq War metaphor, while obvious, was funnier--though it was rather weird seeing baseball in late November. (On second thought, Bud Selig's still in charge, so never mind.) And I'm not sure what they were trying with Judah Freilander's character, other than a desperate stab at giving him something to do. But this was a Liz Lemon episode all the way, and for a few joyous minutes she almost tasted happiness. The poor girl needs all the help she can get.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Welles vs. Olivier

Reading Claudia Roth Pierpont's recent New Yorker essay (abstract available here) on the career trajectories of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles reminded me of how embarrassingly short-changed I am on the works of both men. I am familiar mainly with a handful of films of Later Laurence (Sleuth, Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil, and, ahem, Clash of the Titans); and I'm up to speed with Essential Orson (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai, even Mr. Arkadin). But Shakespeare? I've never seen Welles's Macbeth or Olivier's Hamlet or any of their other Bard-related roles that Pierpont covers in her piece, but now I desperately want to, if for no other reason but to get the hammy Kenneth Branaugh taste out of my mouth.

Of Shakespeare on-stage (where both Olivier and Welles cut their teeth) I'm even less informed, though I heard great things about Kevin Kline's King Lear from earlier this year. Near the top of my wish list is to see any theater performance by Kline. I'm delighted and envious about the current production of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, which starring only Kline would have been enough for me. They could have cast a coat rack (or Julia Roberts, same dif) as Roxane and their core audience would have gone along with it, but adding Jennifer Garner sounds like an inspired choice. She reminds me of a girl in our softball league last summer who had the physicality to slide hard into third base, then batted her eyelashes at the ump and got the call. A cutie-pie with spikes in her heels -- that's Garner. That's Roxane.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Links and De-Links

When David Edelstein, one of my favorite film critics, announced that he had started a new blog, I was excited, but regrettably I've decided to remove it from my links on the left side of this page. (David's deeply wounded, I'm sure.) One reason is that his last post occurred way back over Halloween; another is that the blog has been a disappointing bummer, the nadir being Edelstein's foolish post on Richard Corliss and Rush Limbaugh a month or so back. Edelstein's gossipy side has always been his least attractive quality, and it got him into hot water on this one. If he ever starts things up again and the quality improves, I will bring it back. Stay tuned.

For now, if it's thought-provoking reviews you want, you can't do any better than Fernando Croce. I don't really agree with his take on No Country for Old Men -- the film is too exhilarating to feel dead to me -- but I respect the hell out of him for taking a contrarian stance. Furthermore, dip into his archives and you'll uncover all sorts of surprises (nobody gets Tarantino more) and hilarious chestnuts, like a summation of Soderbergh's Ocean's Thirteen as "The Steven & George & Brad I Could Give a Fuck Special." That's a pithiness I envy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chasing Shadows

Jake Gyllenhaal plays obsessed about as well as Muqtada al-Sadr plays droll. In Zodiac, David Fincher's true crime thriller about the notorious Bay Area serial killer, Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who went on to write a book about the subject on which the movie is based, and I didn't buy his performance for a minute--not as an amateur sleuth on the case, not as Chloe Sevigny's love interest, not as a family man concerned for the welfare of his son, and certainly not in the film's carefully rationed moments of terror, when Gyllenhaal goes all skittish and bug-eyed as though he were auditioning for the role of Victim #3 in Halloween.

Not that Fincher doesn't share some of the blame. He obviously saw Zodiac as an opportunity to return to the genre where he established himself (with Seven) while simultaneously stretching as an artist by making a social statement about the effect of terror on American culture. The best sequences in Zodiac work as a nifty crime procedural, a multi-pronged effort to nab the killer that involve an investigative reporter at the Chronicle (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a pair of 'Frisco homicide detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards). The leads and false-leads, myriadic interpretations of evidence, petty jealousies and professional rivalries are all tautly conveyed. Less of a fit are the scenes with the killer himself, where Fincher can't resist cheap shock effects, like firecrackers going off as a prelude to gun shots for no reason but to make the audience jump. Fincher does these scenes well, and he humanizes the victims as well as a technocrat can; but in an ambitious movie like this one they're the equivalent of a cat leaping out from the dark.

Nevertheless, Fincher's sense of atmosphere is almost without peer. It's probably unfair to compare the night visuals of Zodiac with the Coens' No Country for Old Men, but even on DVD the former film is enveloping to watch (particularly in a long overhead shot of a taxi cab). And other than the lead role, Fincher's knack for casting is terrific: Downey fits his dissolute journalist like a glove; and Ruffalo gives his bow-tied, animal-cracker munching detective the proper gravitas. He's a publicity hound who cares.

Both actors, in fact, are so good that they have the odd effect of picking up the slack from Gyllenhaal while also underscoring his ineptitude. I don't mean to imply that he's always a terrible actor: Gyllenhaal was effective in Donnie Darko, I think, because the demons he faced in that film were internal. When he takes a more active, externalized role --like in Brokeback Mountain (where he was outclassed by Heath Ledger) and now here -- he lacks drive and falls flat. I don't think I would have bought Zodiac's endorsement of Graysmith's thesis with a different actor any more than I swallowed Jim Garrison's theories in JFK. But however one feels about it, Oliver Stone's film was a self-proclaimed "countermyth" that used Kevin Costner as the iconic center for an entire arsenal of multimedia at the director's disposal, whereas Fincher lacks a leading man to convincingly sell his tale. The end result is a film where we can't tell the conscious ambiguities from the moments of unintended fuzziness. With Zodiac, Fincher wants to have his myth and debunk it too.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Mortal Coils, Part II (Or: The Movie So Nice, I Had to See It Twice)

Warning: Spoilers herein

On Thanksgiving Day, in the spirit of the holiday, I took my parents to see No Country for Old Men. It was my second viewing of the film, their first, and it had been exceedingly difficult to persuade them to go. Based on the previews, they had been under the impression that the movie was about a serial killer who traveled the country selecting his victims based on flipping a coin. ("Call it, friend-o," is his witty catchphrase.) Excitedly I envisioned the Hollywood thriller that could have come of this, including a montage of the killer's crime spree: ordering waffles at a diner ("Call it!"); nailing a job interview ("Call it!"); getting a physical from his proctologist ("Call it!); offering a toast a wedding reception ("Call it!"). Ultimately, though, my folks saw the movie they had hoped to see otherwise, which appears to be an odd reaction: judging by the tempest in a teapot over on the comments board at the Internet Movie Database, a considerable portion of the audience isn't even sure of what the hell exactly it saw.

Much as I would like to be smug, the truth is that I wanted to see No Country again because I myself was uncertain about key plot points (and unsatisfied with my initial review). One reason for this, I'm sure, is because I haven't read the book. Another is that the Coens make movies for themselves. One critic complained about The Big Lebowski that the Coen brothers speak in a hidden language. That grievance is not inaccurate, and it could be applied to their entire body of work. Like many viewers, I've found that you need to spend considerable time in the world they inhabit, to pick up the language and learn the customs.

In recent years, the Coens have gone from filming strictly their own screenplays to adapting secondary source material: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? loosely updated The Odyssey to Depression-Era America; Intolerable Cruelty was based on an original script by the guys who went on to write the limp family comedy Man of the House (amusingly also starring Tommy Lee Jones); The Ladykillers was a remake of the Alec Guinness/Ealing Studios black comedy classic of the same name. Beyond Oh Brother's music, none of these films worked for me; but in retrospect they served as an important transitional phase to getting out of their own heads and living in other people's worlds. (Wes Anderson, take note.) By adapting McCarthy's novel, they appear to have found the perfect fit for their interests and gifts. The result is the most ferociously focused film I've seen since L. A. Confidential--though unlike Curtis Hanson's classic, which stirs its pot to a full boil, the final 20 minutes of this film's meticulously constructed plot quite deliberately falls apart.

After my first viewing, I had no trouble following that Moss had been killed, that the Mexicans were following his wife and her mother to track down the money, and that the mother had died of cancer after an unspecified amount of time had elapsed. It took two viewings for me to realize that Moss had been killed by the Mexicans and not Chigurh, as I'd initially thought (for some reason, I feel comforted by this), and that Chigurh had in fact gotten away with the money by the time he sees Moss's wife.

The scene that has arguably stirred the most debate--possibly even more than the ending--is one that I'd initially felt certain about: When Sheriff Bell returns to the hotel room after Moss has been killed. We see a reluctant Bell standing outside the door, which he sees has had its lock popped by Chigurh's air gun. Bell appears to see a reflection in the lock hole, and then there is a cut to Chigurh, who seems to be directly behind the door looking at Bell's reflection in the same hole. Bell takes a deep breath, draws his gun, and kicks the door open to an empty room. He inspects the window, then notices an air vent--which we already know must have been where Moss hid the money--and then screws and a dime on the floor, to imply that Chigurh had been there. But when was he there? The two shots of the window suggested to me that Chigurh had been in the room right before Bell entered, and that in the few seconds' pause he had made his getaway. But my mom speculated that perhaps Chigurh's presence had been entirely in Bell's imagination. (Validation of either of these theories or other suggestions welcome.)

Some of No Country's confusion may be the result of an audience's general inability to infer communication visually, but I think most of it is derives from two elements: the choice to kill the movie's protagonist offscreen; and the featuring of a villain who doesn't abide by the rules of nature. Regarding the former, a valid argument could be made--and David Edelstein has made one--on an obligation to give an audience closure, as Carl Franklin did with the climax of his masterful thriller One False Move. In terms of the latter, Chigurh is described at least once (by Bell) as "a ghost," and there is an air of unreality to him that disengages him somewhat from the rules of the narrative. (I still don't get how or why he was arrested in the first place, considering how easily he could have dispatched of the deputy before getting cuffed and taken to the police staton.) Yet Chigurh is just human enough (missing his aim at a pigeon on a bridge, getting shot in the leg by Moss) that the audience understandably applies the same laws of physics to him as everyone else: he didn't have enough time to open the window and escape, right? On the other hand, I didn't see how he could have escaped so quickly from Moss during their shootout on the street, so I can't help but wonder: did he elude Bell too?

The Coens can be charged for using the character to suit their means and justify their ends, but I don't think they're being smartasses and deliberately pissing people off. There's too much affection onscreen for Moss and his wife (their relationship beautifully subverts white-trash cliches) and in the gallery of supporting characters in sporting goods stores, at trailerparks, along roadsides and on border patrols who by turns help and hinder Moss and Chigurh's respective quests (some live, some don't) to indicate that the filmmakers are being condescending or just playing mindgames. Moreover, it is in their nature to build a film organically, even a story that originally wasn't theirs; and as a result there is a lot for viewers to process. By the end, when Sheriff Bell reveals his dream, the imagery of his father riding on horseback, lighting the way ahead, is so ambiguous it could be interpreted as hopeful or dark, I've heard convincing arguments both ways. I've no doubt the Coens have their own ideas, but it's a measure of their generosity with this film that they leave the door open for alternate interpretations. Heads or tails, is what I think they are saying in the end. Call it, friend-o.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mortal Coils

Whatever one thinks of the Coen Brothers -- and I've been on-again, off-again throughout their joint careers -- in any one of their movies you can count on at least a couple of memorable scenes involving interactions with the local townsfolk. Several of these scenes occur, one right after the other, in No Country for Old Men: some are amusing, as when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unemployed Vietnam veteran who makes off with a case filled with two million dollars from a botched drug deal, encounters a droll boot salesman along the Texas-Mexico border; others chill to the bone, like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the murderous bounty hunter hot on Moss's trail, deciding the fate of a harmless gas station owner on the literal turn of a coin. The Coens are frequently accused of condescension in their depiction of middle America (usually by East Coast critics who have never lived there, as Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in an interesting discussion of his excellent review) but I don't see the charges sticking this time. In No Country for Old Men, the people and their relationship with the landscape they inhabit are evoked more seriously, more pensively, than the contraptionist Coens have attempted before.

Although containing familiar elements from their body of work--the comic interplay of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and his dimwitted deputy (Deadwood's Garret Dillahunt) is particularly reminiscent of similar exchanges in Fargo--No Country for Old Men comes closest to reminding me of A Simple Plan, the 1998 Sam Raimi thriller starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as a pair of brothers who also stumble on a pile of cash. Both films depict the tragic consequences of decent people who go for the easy score and find themselves in over their heads with forces they are ill-prepared to contend with. A Simple Plan employed a wintry backdrop as a mise-en-scene that was used figuratively as cover for the lifelong resentments that can fester within families; No Country for Old Men uses its desert habitat to underscore the harsh, pitiless pursuit of Moss and the two-mil by Chigurh. (As photographed by Roger Deakins, night has never looked more beautifully ominous.)

As Moss, Josh Brolin, finally establishing himself as an actor, pulls off the difficult feat of appearing hardboiled and easygoing at once. As Chigurh (pronounced like "shih-gore," not, as I guessed, "chigger"), Javier Bardem is as terrifying as you've heard. Methodical and relentless, brandishing an unusual weapon of choice -- a pressurized gun with oxygen tank -- Chigurh joins Hannibal Lecter and DeNiro's Max Cady from Cape Fear on the pantheon of memorable modern villains. Though less flamboyant than the former and less tedious than the latter, he remains generally unrecognizable as a human being; but the individuals he encounters and usually destroys are all too human and real.

In outline, the movie is essentially an extended chase involving not only the two principals, but also a group of Mexicans, a second, more refined bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson, making the most of his three or four scenes) hired when Chigurh's sanity is called into question by his handler (a terrific Stephen Root, reminding us that he can play more than nebbishy parts), and finally Sheriff Bell himself, whose leisurely approach to the investigation is a mark of his fear. (It's a shock to see the normally cocksure Jones in a role that calls for him to be frail and tentative.) Along the way are a couple of scenes -- one involving a chase down river involving a pit bull, the other a shootout that starts in a motel room and spills into the street -- that rank with the most thrilling sequences in movie history. Yet true to their nature, the Coens confound expectations in the final act, refusing to tie up loose ends and killing off key characters offscreen, instead aiming for....something else, I guess. (Special thanks to the loud old lady who masterfully interpreted the ending to a grateful group of us standing in the aisle after it was over.)

Originally I had intended to write that the climax of No Country for Old Men is another example of the Coen Brothers denying audiences the closure they deserve, until I realized that a typical ending would have been an even greater letdown. There are other flaws: the Mexicans are, of course, never distinguished as individuals like the other characters; and I never understood how Chigurh is initially captured by a young cop clearly out of his depth. But this is still a great movie, a return to form following a run of crap work, an elegantly-devised contraption filled with real feeling. As is ironically often the case when auteur filmmakers finally get out of their own heads and start living in the worlds of others (in this case, adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel), their achievement here is a movie that feels entirely their own, rather than a facsimile laminated on classic films past.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


While certainly not the funniest year of The Office, this season has at least shaped into something odd and intriguing: a comedy about the pain of confronting the truth (which of course, with the writers' strike, we may not see pay off for a good long while). Last week, as I think somebody at Sepinwall's pointed out, Jim learned that having a love in your life doesn't automatically make you a better, wiser or more motivated person. This week's episode confirmed what I've suspected for a long time--that it's more compelling to push Michael's back against the wall than it is to unleash him on his environs. Confronted by a whole slew of secrets (the unexpected revelation of the journal was ingenious) while immobile in his chair and unable to flit around, he was forced out of his longterm denial and made much more sympathetic as a result. And with Jan's lawsuit, it also gave a shred of plausibility to Ryan/Dunder Mifflin's refusal to fire him, with the hint that perhaps they're just stringing him along. The trajectories of Michael and Jim will be interesting to see if and when this storyline continues. After all, Jan's evaluation of Michael--that he's an inept manager who would be better suited back in sales--was harsh, but it certainly wasn't wrong.

After the last hilarious episode of 30 Rock and a buoyant season so far, I'm not going to be too hard on tonight's dud--but really, Tina Fey should know better than to trot out a plot (Liz suspects her immigrant neighbor is a terrorist!) with only one yawningly obvious conclusion (oops, he wasn't). All three storylines dragged, in fact, with the main thread downright nonsensical: If the Middle Eastern gentleman knows that Liz is in the media and wants her to help him, then why does he act rudely toward her in the first place? I can't think of any other reason for this lapse in quality other than Fey's desire to score political points, for which I commend her as long as her teeth are sharp, but not at the expense of comedy. We've already had one Murphy Brown.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dangerous Minds

With Oscar Bait season upon us (best of luck to Sean, Jack, Meryl, Julia and all the other charter members), I finally caught up with a pair of films to befit the occasion--one that successfully copped the Best Actor prize last year, and another released earlier this year that may snag its female lead Best Actress. The fact that I couldn't care less about awardage doesn't alter the fact that I like both performances and admire both movies. I love one of them, in fact.

One wouldn't think of Idi Amin as an Oscar-winning role, but that's exactly who Forest Whitaker had to play (brilliantly, of course) to finally garner the attention he has long deserved. I remember first seeing Whitaker in The Color of Money, in a nifty scene where he hustled Paul Newman and established the persona--seemingly slow-witted yet actually devious--that he has kept fresh and varied in everything from The Crying Game to The Shield and now finally this film. The Last King of Scotland is riveting for much of the way. The director, Kevin Macdonald, uses hand-held cameras to keep the action intimate without overdoing the jitteriness; and James McAvoy plays his callow young doctor effectively: it's easy to see why being a dictator's personal physician appeals to him more than tending to the impoverished, and he generates sexual chemistry with actresses as diverse as Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson. The movie started wearing on me a bit in the second half, beginning with a failed assassination attempt that's oversold as an explanation for Amin's growing paranoia. (Whitaker's performance had already suggested plenty of demons inside the man's head.) I think I'm also tired of the recent spate of whitey-abroad films in general. I dunno if the same story would be any more compelling from an African perspective (or if it would be budgeted), but I would like to see a creative filmmaker someday try.

I'm sorry I missed Away from Her when it appeared in theaters at the start of last summer. Having just caught up with it on DVD, I feel compelled to note a couple of things, hopefully without spoiling the film's surprises or unexpected bursts of humor: that Julie Christie, while in some ways miscast, brings so much genuine life to her role as a woman in the early stages of Alzehimer's Disease that she is immeasurably more moving than a cyborg like, say, Meryl Streep, would have offered the role; and that as a director Sarah Polley, at twenty-eight already one of my favorite actresses (The Claim, Guinevere, The Sweet Hereafter, etc.), proves that she is as authentic a presence behind the camera as she is in front of it. One scene, where the effects of Alzheimer's are conveyed metaphorically by the lights in a house going off one by one, is one of the most lyrical passages I've seen onscreen all year. Yet while Christie has received the spotlight, it is Gordon Pinsent, a veteran Canadian actor I don't recall ever seeing before, who anchors the film as Christie's husband, a retired professor who wonders if his wife is truly degenerating or if she's punishing him for his past transgressions. (The answer is, perhaps, both.) Polley is particularly lucky to have Pinsent to guide us through the early scenes, where she decides to juggle the timeframe (unnecessarily, I think) in the manner of her mentor, Atom Egoyan. And I can't decide if Polley's inability to resist an allusion to the Iraq War is out of place or not, but what the hell. This is a beautiful film.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Last Day for Laffs

Just a note that newcritics is wrapping up its comedy blogathon today, so if you're in need of a chuckle, a chortle, a titter or a snort, head on over and choose from a wide palette of offerings. I've particularly enjoyed Noel Vera's reminder of the wry pleasures of George Burns in Oh, God!. (Vera's site in general is excellent, with a unique slant toward Philippine cinema.) And I grinned all the way through a Lance Mannion piece that deftly combines Barnes & Noble, a shy sketch artist, a hot blonde, and Chekhovian dramatic structure, right up to a tragicomic denuouement I found discomfitingly familiar. Where were you when I've needed you, buddy?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Big Reveal

Never work with an Oscar winner shorter than the statue.--Larry Gelbart

Ah, but thank goodness Larry did, or he wouldn't have given me my purest comedy moment.

It wasn't just him, of course. Half the WGA is rumored to have worked on Tootsie--Gelbart, Elaine May and Barry Levinson among them. And Sydney Pollack, a director with a previously undetected sense of humor (the laughs of Random Hearts and Harrison Ford's stud earring came later), kept the pacing crisp and the camera jumping for the gag, as Pauline Kael put it. Add to that a phenomenal supporting ensemble--Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Doris Belack, Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Pollack himself--each actor at the top of his or her game. And last but not least, Dustin Hoffman himself, in one of the most astonishing magic acts of his career, playing essentially three characters: Michael Dorsey, boorish unemployed actor; Dorothy Michaels, charismatic soap-opera star; and Emily Kimberly, popular character on the soap whom Michael-as-Dorothy portrays.

Nothing against Judd Apatow's freewheeling, semi-improvised, eye-of-the-hurricane style, but Tootsie is the greatest modern showcase of the strengths of classical comedy structure. The transformation of Michael Dorsey into Dorothy Michaels, laboriously set-up and overexplained if had been made today, is streamlined through a funny, no-frills jumpcut early on. (The more implausible the scenario, the better it is to get through it quickly.) Jokes are set up in the first half of the film that pay off in the second. And the tension that tightens inexorably around Michael's keeping his secret identity as Dorothy comes to a catharisis in an ingenious moment of revelation.

The moment comes when the soap that Michael is on (and by this point, desperate to leave) is forced to shoot a major scene on live television--a dinner party in Emily Kimberly's honor--and he seizes the opportunity to break from his scripted lines and improvise his way to revealing Dorothy's true identity.

EMILY KIMBERLY: Well, I cannot tell you all how deeply moved I am. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be the object of so much genuine affection. It makes it all the more difficult for me to say what I'm now going to say. Yes. I do feel it's time to set the record straight. You see, I didn't come here just as an administrator, Dr. Brewster; I came to this hospital to settle an old score.

The beauty of Michael's solution is that he reveals himself in character, by giving Emily a secret which, however absurd, works within the tradition of soap opera conventions. What makes it even funnier is that he hasn't thought it through in advance and so has to fumble his way forward, to the horror of cast and crew.

EMILY KIMBERLY: Now you all know that my father was a brilliant man; he built this hospital. What you don't know is that to his family, he was an unmerciful tyrant - a absolute dodo bird.

RON CARLISLE: (the show's director, played by Dabney Coleman, in the booth) Oh, no. Not live!

"Emily" continues with her tale, which develops into a convoluted backstory: how her father drove her mother to drink before she died in a tragic drunken horseback riding accident; how her parents had two children, a reclusive son named Edward and a daughter who got pregnant at fifteen, fled into exile, and raised the girl as her sister before dying of a hideous disease; how the girl's daughter came to work at the hospital, where she was despised for being a do-gooder.

EMILY KIMBERLY: But she was deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply loved by her brother. It was this brother who, on the day of her death, swore to the good Lord above that he would follow in her footsteps, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, just, just, just, just, just--

RITA MARSHALL: (the show's producer, played by Doris Belack, also in the booth) Now don't don't don't don't panic....

EMILY KIMBERLY: --just, just, just, just, just owe it all up to her. But on her terms!

RON CARLISLE: Oh, God, here come the terms.

By now the audience with which I first saw Tootsie on its initial release was laughing so hard you couldn't hear half the lines. And, the fact that I was only twelve years old, I didn't really understand everything that was happening either. But no matter: I laughed my ass off anyway. I crack up every time I see it. It's my favorite comic moment in a movie.

At this point I will stop transcribing the scene and let you enjoy the rest of it yourself. Only note how each character has a distinct reaction to Dorothy's big reveal, how all of them are given their moment. Finally, I should add that the scene below cuts off before Julie's (Jessica Lange's) moment. I always hated William Goldman's dismissal in one of his books of Lange's performance. Far from a "little cameo," she creates the most genuine human being in the movie. She gives Tootsie its sweet embrace--but not before a slug to the stomach.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

To the Last Drop

Pity that Stanley Kubrick didn't live long enough to adapt Urinetown for the screen--the Master of the Bathroom Scene would have had a field day with the subject matter and its ultimately pessimistic, satirical edge. Such is life, I did catch my local university's stage version, and it holds up to a high standard of quality. Other recent productions--Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (helmed by guest director Vincent Dowling) and Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead--were wonderfully performed and imaginatively staged in our small interior theater-in-the-round, but both clocked in at just under three hours, a long time to be sitting in a squeaky chair. Urinetown, is, at approximately two hours, a swiftly paced account of a power struggle between the pees and the pee-nots in a town facing a twenty-year drought. (The former force the latter to pay to use regulated toilets.) While not particularly memorable, the musical numbers are lively and funny; and while not particularly deep, the characterization of the "revolutionaries" who attempt to overthrow the Draconian rule of the proprietors of the town's water supply is pretty biting. I'm a sucker for the kind of vaudeville humor in the scenes within archvillain Caldwell B. Cladwell's office. And I choked out a laugh during the final scene, when a dying-of-thirst old lady begs for a glass of water and the delusionally idealistic female protagonist smiles sweetly and replies, "There's a glass of water in your heart."

Delayed Gratification

I decided not to see American Gangster even before the tepid reviews, when I read that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe wouldn't be sharing any scenes together until the end, thereby continuing a trend in current cinema that annoys the hell out of me. If the Golden Age often paired movie stars together and affording us the pleasure of watching them butt heads for a couple hours (Bette & Joan! Bela and Boris!), many of today's movies keep their actors apart as long as possible, following the Sleepless in Seattle formula even when they're not Ephronian crap.

Excluding the Ocean's movies--which dilute the star pool by mashing a bunch of them together--the last time I can recall a film featuring two actors performing at the level of Washington and Crowe's game was Michael Mann's Heat (1995) starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro right before both started coasting on their estimable career laurels. There was a great deal of anticipation leading up to the movie's release followed by something of a letdown, with much carping aimed toward the fact that Pacino's homicide detective and DeNiro's bank robber shared only one major scene together. (More on that momentarily.) Watching Heat again the other night, I think the film holds up better now than it did then, its longuers fleshing out a whole panorama of characters and linking the two principals for the considerable amount of screen time that they're apart. I'm mixed about Mann's body of work, his style at times seeming to overcompensate for a lack of substance. But while Heat is in some ways his ultimate exploration of machismo, this is levened by the best ensemble of women he's ever had. Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd make vivid impressions as, respectively, the love interests of DeNiro and Val Kilmer's criminals, both showing the level of denial needed to stay with them (or the loyalty to let them go). And playing what could have been a stereotypical suffering wife of a cop, Diane Venona holds her own against Pacino (who gives one of his over-the-top performances, though I think mostly in character). Refusing to fade into the background, she may be the strongest onscreen partner he's ever had.

As for The Scene itself, it is no small measure of Mann's perversity that when he finally gets the legendary Godfather alumns together, about halfway into the film, it is over a cup of coffee. What's more, he shoots it over the shoulders of his actors, so that Pacino and DeNiro never actually share the same frame. (This has prompted rumors that they weren't even together on the day of the shooting, but the DVD's Special Features prove otherwise.) I would have been irked too if the sequence weren't so fascinating, with the pair subtly mimicking each other's body language, discussing bad dreams, and quietly vowing to take the other down. I'm not quite sure how, but Mann gets away with it. It's a great scene in a fine movie, weaving together the parallel paths of these two men and setting up the tragic grandeur of the climax that is to come.