Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scrooge Returns

With A Christmas Carol, director Robert Zemeckis shakes off the stilted wonderment of his recent pictures, casts off his cold reverence for technology and brings us a holiday film that is also a giddy tribute to good old-fashioned storytelling.  There is scarcely a moment onscreen when we aren't aware that we are being manipulated, but the storytelling is so confident, disarming and ultimately satisfying that we gladly give ourselves to it.  Jim Carrey's Scrooge effectively bridges the gap between old and new audiences (if there are any audiences who are new to the story), but the real star is Zemeckis.  His agile camera twists and turns with a dizzying energy, counterbalanced nicely by a series of engrossing silences.  From the very first image of  Scrooge removing the pennies from the eyes of Jacob Marley's cadaverous face, it is clear that Zemeckis has found new inspiration in Dickens' over-produced perennial favorite.   Having said that, if memory serves, I'm quite certain Dickens never had a chase sequence, nor did he ever intend for his story to inspire a chase sequence in his original text, but this is a 3-D movie and as such can be forgiven for occasionally pandering to the mainstream.  Dickens was after all a showman in his day and prone to his own giddy indulgences.  Who could blame him?  He was paid by the word.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Tact, Diplomacy & Sex

No doubt Lubitsch would not have approved of the title I've chosen for my review of his greatest masterpiece, but one needs to grab attention somehow. Usually, when I tell people in this day and age that Trouble In Paradise (1932) is arguably the most sophisticated, mannered, comedy ever produced, I draw glassy stares. The truth is: it is that and more. The screenplay, written by Samson Raphaelson, is the gold standard for grace and style in comedy. Every line rolls crisply off the tongue, and yet virtually every statement uttered is a lie or misdirection, calculated to put the rosiest veneer on the most reprehensible con artistry.

The story concerns two crooks -- a man (Herbert Marshall) and a woman (Miriam Hopkins), who meet on the Italian Riviera picking each other's pockets, share a night of lust and fall in love. Seeing as it is the 1930's, all does not end happily ever after. Less than one year after the anniversary of their first date, they find themselves desperate for money and so they target a wealthy perfume heiress as their mark. What transpires is a classic french scandal, but we never once feel scandalized. Director Ernst Lubistch was an icon in his day, renowned for his "Lubitsch Touch" which was light as air and slyly suggestive. Under his guiding hand, the actors deliver their lines with near impossible poise and elegance.

This is a movie where the Great Depression is often discreetly referred to as " times like these," where crooks gain sympathy just by being smarter and classier than their law-abiding counterparts and a strange brand of mutual respect is cultivated between the burglar and the burgled. The movie is a marvel of restraint and subtext, that remains enchanting and provocative some 77 years later. It reminds us of the riches that tact can afford and the astonishing way in which sly repartee can make up for the most vindictive, behavior.

Trouble In Paradise is the ultimate comedy of manners. It makes art out of indirectness, finds humor in cruelty and knowingly reminds us that sex is most provocative when it is imaginatively suggested.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Basterds of a New Color

Attention all cinephiles: have no fear. The 2009 movie year has officially begun. If you're like me and you've been trying to "make do" or pretend to be satisfied with the summer's current offerings, Quentin Tarantino's audacious Inglourious Bastards will rescue you from your movie blues. The premise is essentially a fantasist's vision of the second world war.

A group of Jewish Yankee soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), land in German-occupied France and proceed to take the lives and scalps of as many Nazi soldiers as they can. Before long, word spreads throughout the Reich, earning the men mythic names such as "the Bear Jew" and "Aldo the Apache." This is only the beginning of Tarantino's labyrinthine story which also involves a German actress spying for the allies, a Jewish film projectionist who was orphaned by the SS, her ebony lover and a particular effete Joseph Goebbels. Rounding out the cast are an almost unrecognizable Mike Meyers and Rod Taylor as British General Ed Fenech and Winston Churchill respectively -- just two of Tarantino's many in-jokes. Special mention is also owed to Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-worthy turn as they oily, machiavellian Col. Hans Landa.

"Basterds" will no doubt have many detractors. It is easily the most reckless and irreverent war film I have ever seen. Some will find it crude, disrespectful and without redeeming virtue, but these are the very same traits that make it provocative, relevant and very fresh. Tarantino fans will not be surprised by the violence in the film, but they may be taken with how unglamorous it is. Although previous Tarantino films have aimed to titilate us with their criminality, I believe the writer/director is after a different game here. Inglourious Bastards is an anti-war film. Thankfully good old QT is just too sly to admit it.

The biggest challenge audiences will face is defining the moral objective behind the film. Unlike the countless scores of tributes we have seen to soldiers of the great wars and their sacrifice and struggle, the filmmakers dare to examine the issue from all sides. Both the allies and the Nazis are portrayed as complicated creatures, sometimes gallant, sometimes cruel. Tarantino understands that war is merely a collision of egos, ids and super-egos. It's often morbidly funny and without redemption for any side. That's what the ending is intended to signify (for those who leave the theatre scratching their chins in puzzlement). The picture is a mockery of war and the films that celebrate our battle-frought heritage and yet it also pays homage to our favorite war films. This is no small task and if it sounds contradictory it is.

Tarantino has created a war film for people who have become desensitized to the structure and meaning of conventional war films. He goes for broke and gleefully sidesteps the pratfalls of the genre. He doesn't try to inspire us with sweeping vistas and noble ideals. He doesn't try to make pacifists out of us with harrowing battles and cruel violence. Instead, he boldly lampoons everyone and everything onscreen, while simultaneously holding us in his grip.

There are so many flourishes and textures in a Tarantino picture that it may be easy to overlook his brilliance in creating (yet again) two strong, memorable, female roles in a genre that rarely honors our mothers and daughters. The female leads, Shoshana Drefyus (Melanie Lawrence) and Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) are nothing short of extraordinary. Bastards also features several trademark QT scenes, including a standoff at a tavern that ratchets up the tension as only he can. Some scenes run so long that they begin to overstay their welcome, until just as our eyes begin to glaze over the story takes a turns and surprises us.

In certain circles, I'm sure these heavily padded scenes will be dismissed as indulgent and unfocussed, but this is missing the point. Regardless of whether the film jives with your personal taste, Inglourious Bastards assures Tarantino's status as a master filmmaker in complete control of his story at all times. He plays with structure, style and rhythm to keep us gloriously off guard (no pun intended) and he packs his film with layers of meaning, ambiguity and bravura filmmaking -- not to mention in-jokes. This is Tarantino's most triumphant entertainment since Pulp Fiction. It's a movie for anyone who loves the movies. It is also a delirious, imaginative, masterpiece--provided that you're willing to accept that war is one big, fat, joke.

**Note: The B&W film clip denoting the flammable properties of nitrate film is from Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), from a screenplay by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay & Helen Simpson, and E.V.H. Emmett, based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.**

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Drama of Harry Potter

Steve Kloves' screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the most streamlined film in the series yet. So streamlined, that much of the spectacle has been exorcised to make room for the complicated interrelationships of the central characters. Director David Yates demonstrates a fine grasp of nuance and tension but eventually the film begins to wear thin, culminating in a limp climax that is too little too late. Still, it's fun to witness the shifting politics of Hogwarts on the big screen. Equally fun are the scenes in which Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ron's sister Ginny get their "snog" on, wizard-style, but the real pleasure of reading the book was the central relationship between Harry and Dumbledore and to this end, unfortunately, the newest film does not deliver. In the book, Dumbledore assumes the role of a father to Harry, but we don't know why and the mystery behind his actions fills the story with a sense urgency. In the movie, they don't have enough screen time together to generate the same tension. As a result, the would-be harrowing climax (which I will not disclose) feels rushed and does not leave us with any of the lingering impact of the book. In the end the latest Potter is efficient, subtle and well-detailed, but more memorable for its smaller moments than its big ones.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Sound of Gunfire: Michael Mann's Public Enemies

Michael Mann is fascinated with the mythic nature of society and the power struggles between men. His Public Enemies bristles with the excitement of these myths, which he celebrates through style, texture and explosions, and yet the film does little to reveal meaning behind our myths. Mann is a brilliant craftsman and stylist. Students of film will appreciate his dizzying camera and terse editing. There is life to almost every frame, especially when the cops and robbers are shooting it out, using big, loud, guns, but there is also a gaping hole at the center of the movie where there could have been so much more.

John Dillinger was a man of the people, a national folk hero during the Great Depression, known as much for his gregarious personality and charisma as his criminal efficiency. Unfortunately the three writers credited with the project (including Mann) couldn't figure out a way to work this out. Johnny Depp's Dillinger is cool, remote and sociopathic. We see nothing of the community support he worked so hard to earn. We never get a sense of the exhiliration behind his bank heists and as a result he is mainly joyless to watch.

This Dillinger takes pleasure in nothing except for his 'moll' Billie (Marion Cotillard), who is either drawn to his charisma or threatened by his ruthlessness. Either way, she's along for the ride. Their romance is the only beacon of humanity in the film but it has no weight or credibility. Most of the time Dillinger just floats through scenes like a badass automaton.

Fighting for the other side is Agent Purvis (Christian Bale), a stoic and meticulous lawman who leads the manhunt for Dillinger. Their cat and mouse interplay never really catches fire. Mann is too preoccupied with the manly bravado and macho posturing of his leads, to dig beneath the surface as he did so brilliantly in Heat. There isn't a single scene that shows us Purvis in his private life outside of the job, and if there had been his epigraph might have had impact.

What ultimately makes the film work is the crackling soundtrack and the ending. There's something profoundly unsettling about the way the manhunt for Dillinger comes to a close. Public Enemies may be the first gangster film in which the villain is gunned down and somehow the police come off as the guilty ones. If only the writers had worked a little harder to bring us to this point. Like so many recent and inscrutable movie protagonists (think Benjamin Button or Harvey Milk), this Dillinger drifts through history without actually impacting it.  As a consequence, you may leave Public Enemies remembering the sound of the gunfire more than anything else, but what dazzling gunfire it is.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

David & Allen: Tepid Bedfellows

Whatever Works doesn't work for all of it's momentary brilliance and good intentions. Woody Allen's latest film tells the diverting tale of Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) an agnostic, and self-proclaimed hater of people, who almost won a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics, but now spends his time either teaching chess to youngsters or hermiting in his rat-trap apartment. One night he's climbing his back fire escape, when he stumbles across Melodie St. Ann Celestine, a dewy-eyed Southern Belle (Evan Rachel Wood), camped outside his flat, begging for food and lodging. Against his judgment Boris invites her in and it doesn't take long before the two of them decide to get married. Matters only get stranger when Melodie's mother and father (Patricia Clarkson and John Gallagher Jr.) show up to bring her back home, but wind up discovering their own repressed layers of self-expression.

Boris is the kind of curmudgeonly New York Jewish character that Allen has made a career of writing. Getting Larry David to play the part could have been a marriage made in comedy heaven, but unfortunately the script keeps us at arm's length. David's comedic soliloquies in which he expounds on the meaning of existence have the stuff of vintage Woody, but they run on too long. Patricia Clarkson and Evan Rachel Wood play their southern parts admirably, but they feel like they belong in a different movie, as does Randy James (Henry Cavill), the Englishman who Wood has an affair with. Many of the gags fall flat and all of the competing cultural archetypes throw off the timing of the film, preventing it from gaining a consistent rhythm or momentum. Rabid Allen fans will find the movie amusing, but this is a bitter disappointment after Vicky Christina Barcelona.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mendes goes organic

Away We Go surprised me. It made me think twice about every snide comment I've ever made at the expense of director Sam Mendes. It's like the anti-Mendes film. Archetypes are replaced with real characters. Grand moral statements are traded for honest uncertainty. There is something unpredictable if not inevitable about the way the screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida unfolds. The movie has a breezy, melancholy, spirit of discovery -- we feel as though we are discovering the world all over again through the eyes of John Krasinsky and Maya Rudolph, as they prepare for the birth of their first child and contemplate what kind of parents they'll be. Touring North America from Albequerque to Montreal, they encounter various couples who have devised their own unique child-rearing strategies and are now facing the consequences of their decisions.

The story is episodic, but the episodes add up to a refreshingly inconclusive perspective on parenthood. It's like Mendes has gone organic and traded in the stagy artifice of his previous work (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) for something disarmingly raw and authentic. This little movie succeeds where many fail by showing us who we really are: erratic, complicated, confused creatures. At times the script meanders and there doesn't always seem to be a point, but the denouement ties everything together. Away We Go speaks to a generation of 30-somethings who are disillusioned with the state of the world, skittish about bringing children into it, and yet forced to go blindly forth without knowing whether or not they are up to the task. The performances are funny and at times achingly poignant. This is a fresh and relevant new indie film and history may be far kinder to it than some critics have been.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Clint Eastwood started as an actor on TV's Gunsmoke. Boyishly handsome, he stood out. He grew to manhood and stardom in Sergio Leone's "Dollars trilogy" with A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He was the man with no name and an international player, but he wasn't especially well-respected. There was little to suggest the things to come. Then, in the 70's, Clint Eastwood the icon arrived in the form of Dirty Harry Callahan. Dirty Harry was an uncommonly primal cop film. It inspired a legion of inferior spinoffs and provoked us with a brand of justice that wasn't simply black and white. Eastwood made four other Dirty Harry pictures, each based on hot-button, morally provocative, situations. They were slickly made and unabashedly exploitative. They worked...well, all but The Dead Pool.

Clint climbed into the director's chair for Sudden Impact, the most complex film in the series. Throughout the 70's and 80's he continued to top himself, delivering high-octane entertainment in various action and suspense thrillers. He toyed with audience perceptions by befriending a monkey in Every Which Way But Loose and putting the cowboy hat back on in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Just as he started to catch fire, he would reinvent himself -- restless for new creative challenges.

Now at age 79, Clint has become one of the most talked about American directors. His last two films, Changeling and Gran Torino, both released last year, are among his very best and he shows no signs of slowing down. Since Unforgiven, his greatest film, Clint has assembled a remarkably diverse and consistent filmography. Several films have entered the cinematic pantheon (A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima). As a director, his work is sobering, honest and authentic. Some of his films suffer from sluggish pacing and an obvious didacticism, but even his misfires offer compelling themes and uncommonly intimate acting. Clint is a keen student of the human condition. He probes deeply into the fabric of society, without ever drifting into pretension or stylistic excess. Could he be one of our greatest living directors?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Remembering Holiday

George Cukor's Holiday is an enchanting, old fashioned, romantic comedy with a premise as irresistible today as it was when it premiered in 1938.  Cary Grant is a free-spirited dreamer, engaged to Doris Nolan, an upper crust socialite from one of Manhattan's wealthiest families.  When he makes a killing on the stock exchange and announces his intention to retire from law so he can sail around the world, he draws rancor from Nolan and her family.  The question then becomes whether he will compromise by taking the desk that his would-be father in law has offered him, or pursue the life he truly wants.  Enter Katherine Hepburn, Nolan's sister, a very modern woman hemmed in by her stuffy, elitist family.  Hepburn responds to Grant's youthful ideals and quickly makes it her mission to hold onto him -- on her sister's behalf.  

It's plain to see that she and Grant belong together, but Donald Ogden Stewart & Sydney Buchman's script is truly a crash course on how to write your characters out of a potentially unsavory triangle.  Somehow Hepburn manages to steal her sister's beau without betraying her trust and Grant wins our sympathies after quitting his fiancee in favor of her sister.  Cynics may dismiss this as romantic pablum, but fans of the genre will be hard-pressed to find a film that is as funny and genuinely romantic as this one.  Cukor keeps things moving, Grant somehow makes even the clumsiest acrobatic flips look dashing and gallant and Hepburn tugs at our heartstrings without resorting to maudlin theatrics.  Watch for peerless character actor Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as Grant's closest friends, who realize before anyone else that he and Hepburn are made for each other.  Sparkling and timeless.  

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Remembering Dead Again

Dead Again is a unique and indefinable little movie. based on a screenplay by Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report) and skillfully directed by Kenneth Branagh. The story involves a detective (Branagh) entrusted with the care of an amnesiac woman (Emma Thompson) who discovers through hypnosis that she may have been the victim of a famous murder in a past life. Thompson and Branagh are brilliant playing dual roles as the present day couple and their glamorous Hollywood predecessors. The vintage sequences are lit and photographed exactly like the high gloss black and white melodramas of the 40's. The present day sequences have a haunting, unreal quality. Never has a film succeeded in cohesively interweaving two different storylines from two different periods like this one. Past lives and reincarnation are usually the fodder of b-films or cheap exploitation films. Here the subject is given a class-A treatment.

Branagh's customarily baroque storytelling style is ideally matched to the material. The camera moves at just the right pace. The cuts have impact. The chills are doled out methodically, leading to a revelation that has to qualify as one of the most brilliant red-herrings in the history of cinema. Franks' snappy dialogue and macabre sense of humor punctuates the suspense and keep us on edge of our seats. Derek Jacobi and an unbilled Robin Williams only add to the fun.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Popcorn Trek

JJ Abrams' giddy new Star Trek reboot is an occasionally exhilarating, cleverer than usual, summer popcorn spectacular, which is a nice way of saying it is easily digested and ultimately forgotten.  The story re-imagines the "origins" of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the Starship Enterprise.  When this became an obsession of the mainstream is beyond me, but it seems the studios believe that we have a tireless desire to learn more about how our icons became icons.  

Inevitably, this line of inquiry results in the revelation that sweet Jiminy, these guys are just like us!  The only problem is, I don't want to know that Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) was a shameless horn-dog, or that Spock (Zachary Quinto) was teased as a boy because of his "mixed" parentage.  These things are fair enough as entertainment goes, but I would rather face the mystery of how these men became who they are than have the explanation spoon-fed to me.  

I have never been a Trekkie, so maybe this is new ground broken.  Maybe I should just shut up and enjoy the eye-candy, but when I go to the movies I don't want cleverer than usual, I want genuine undeniable wit and originality.  Delivering this with a movie as heavily branded as Star Trek, isn't strictly necessary because it already has such a huge built-in audience, but I hoped for more based on the movie's reviews and J.J. Abram's prodigious reputation.  

As for the film itself, the story concerns an angry Romulan (Eric Bana), whose native planet was destroyed in a supernova.  Now he has figured out a way to travel back through time and enact his revenge on the starfleet -- who he blames for failing to save his dying people.  Circumstances bring Kirk and Spock together with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scottie (Simon Pegg), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Bones (Karl Urban) to combat this evil foe and defend the galaxy. 

The casting of these archetypal roles is spot on, although Uhura is underwritten as is commonplace for women in this genre.  She's basically a post-feminist woman, content to kick butt in go-go boots and not beyond shedding a tear or two -- but she isn't hard on the eyes so all is fair.  Bana's villain lacks potency and fades into the background of the busy plot.  The real show is Kirk and Spock, butting heads and yet hurtling towards an inevitable reconciliation.  This is the most winning ingredient of the movie and Pine and Quinto perfectly inhabit their parts.  

The movie has a slick, colorful, eye-popping aesthetic.  The opening scene is so effectively thrilling and heart-wrenching all at once, that I was reminded of vintage Spielberg, but then the picture settles into a more complacent rhythm.  Complacent in following the same overstuffed, over-manufactured mantra that drives the current crop of summer movies.  Abrams works hard to dazzle us and he succeeds for the most part, but the picture is too busy.  

The special effects are too loud and too frenetic to follow at times.  Like most modern blockbusters the action lacks a tactile quality and therefore overcompensates by trying to elicit a visceral jolt.  The effect is kind of like a Bourne film married with one of the recent Star Wars films.  It stirs us up well enough.  We just can't seem to remember everything we've seen -- particularly during the climactic jumble that passes for a third act.  

I feel obliged to point out that in spite of these flaws, the film is a fun ride and fun is a precious commodity that seems to be lacking in many of the other more morose and ponderous summer offerings.  Perhaps all this-nitpicking is ungrateful of me.  The movie happily delivers all of the key ingredients we look for in summer movies.  I more or less got what I paid for.  I just wish it hadn't seemed quite so familiar.  

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Lost Art of Suspense

Topaz is a mineral that appears in prismatic crystal and changes colors depending on the angle from which it is perceived.  It is also the title of a complex, unusual, Hitchcock gem, that is arguably the highlight of his late career.  The movie was released in 1969, at the height of the critical debate over Hitchcock's validity as an 'artist.'  This was also  the era of Antonioni and Godard.  An era during which many avant-garde European filmmakers were taking cinema in an esoteric new direction.  It is this aesthetic that Hitchcock seems to adopt and make his own, and perhaps this can account for the outrage early test audiences felt when they discovered that their ever-reliable master of suspense had gone cerebral.  

In Topaz we see the seeds of Hitchcock's unfinished serial-killer project Kaleidoscope, which was to be a gritty, verite style thriller, photographed on grainy 16 mm film with a cast of unknowns.  The story is based on a Leon Uris novel that presents a fictional account of the players who plotted and ultimately stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For the first time in the history of his career, we have a Hitchcock plot dealing with real nations and real politics.  The emphasis on reality is reflected in his choice not to cast any major stars.  Instead the master assembles an international cast of character actors, chosen  to represent the working-class pedigree of the real life spies who were mixed up in the cold war.  The cast lacks the charisma of the stars that Hitchcock traditionally worked with, but this is precisely the point. 

In Topaz, Hitchcock attempts to deglamorize the spy genre.  He rejects the very same James Bond ethos he helped to invent with North By Northwest and this is part of the movie's fascination.  Topaz is not designed to please an audience the way most of his other films are.    The story does not lead to a decisive, crowd-pleasing climax.  Instead, the movie leaves us with a troubling conclusion in which our 'hero' Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) allows his countryman to get away with murder and treason.  Why does he let him get away?  Because he learns the man is sleeping with his wife and he wants to expiate his own guilt over the affair he himself has had.  Our would-be protagonist, Devereaux, finds himself torn between the Americans and his own people in an effort to uncover the truth behind the Soviet presence in Cuba.  He is also moonlighting between two women: his wife (Dany Robin) and his mistress (Karin Dor), who is a leader of the underground Cuban resistance.  We never learn where his allegiance truly lies.

Considered in the context of Hitchcock's other work, Topaz is strangely analogous to Munich, Steven Spielberg's ambiguous and under-appreciated political film, which also alienated mainstream audiences.  Moral ambiguity is a trademark of Hitchcock's, but in Topaz every subplot leads us deeper into an abyss.  There is no single point of view.  We do not know which characters to trust or believe in and loyalties are constantly shifting.  Some viewers will lose patience with the film based on this lack of cohesion.  Others will find it seductively atonal.  The movie keeps us off balance by constantly shifting between colors and tones, like it's geological namesake.   This seeming lack of direction creates a different kind of suspense. But for those who seek vintage Hitchcock there are still many virtuoso moments to reflect upon. 

We know we are watching a Hitchcock film from the dazzling opening sequence in which a Russian family stages a harrowing defection to the United States with scarcely a sentence of dialogue uttered.  The torture of two Cuban resistance fighters is photographed as only Hitchcock can.  After their interrogator extracts their confession, we watch the man's hands slowly slide up his thighs in resignation.  In Cuba, Hitchcock intercuts staged footage with actual newsreel footage of a Castro rally by matching the film stocks seamlessly.  Most startling is the murder of a woman in a purple sun dress which pools beneath her like a gallon of blood as she slumps to the floor.  There is also a striking use of color to distinguish between locales and countries and the sets are effectively decorated with the highest attention to detail.   

 The master is after a different game here and although he got a bum rap, the film is worth a look.  His approach to the material is occasionally miscalculated.  The ambiguous characters and understated cast fail to emotionally engage us as in prior works.  The complicated mechanics of the plot sometimes grow tiresome and sluggish.  Still, although Topaz is not as iconic as many of his more popular hits, it ranks with Vertigo and The Birds as one of his few true 'art films.'  Watching it, we see a master filmmaker at the top of his craft, stretching to redefine himself and his work.    Even the tiniest gestures -- a tilt of the head, a casual handshake, are charged with sinister implications.  Topaz, as with any of Hitchcock's work, is instructive in the art of suspense.   We may as well call it a lost art for the time being.  

Monday, May 4, 2009

The State of Documentary

When it comes to documentaries, I can be a bit of a counter-snob.  Ever since my parents dragged me kicking and screaming from
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, I've been aware of the debate between the so-called "intellectuals" who profess a slavish devotion to non-fiction and those weak-willed dreamers, the "escapists," who blindly champion the art of make-believe.  Off the record, to be perfectly blunt, I am a fiction guy.  There is nothing I find more exhilarating than the human imagination.  The giddy rush I get from a triumphant piece of fiction has no analog.  Probably because great fiction always has a strong point of view.  My favorite documentaries have this same fidelity of vision -- which isn't to suggest that they can only be interpreted one way.  As far as I'm concerned, a movie's point of view can be completely ambiguous, so long as there is an organic cohesion between image and text, rhythm and tone.  Unfortunately, point of view is sorely lacking in the three films I've seen thus far at Toronto's Hot Docs International Film Festival. 

When We Were Boys, directed by Sarah Goodman, is an observational, verite-style documentary designed as an intimate portrait of pubescence, that purports to make us a fly on the wall at an all-boys private school.  Although the movie is entertaining, the rug is quickly ripped out from under its promise of daring expose.   Ultimately the film lacks shape and fails to enlighten us with any key revelations.

In contrast, Rembrandt's J'Accuse by Peter Greenaway, has too much shape and too revelatory a tone to qualify as entertainment or enlightenment.  The movie presumes to teach us about visual literacy, by uncovering the 31 "mysteries" behind the conception of Rembrandt's famous painting "The Night Watch," which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.   My party, who had eagerly awaited the screening beforehand, managed to sit through the solution of the first six before leaving the theater for greener pastures.  

Greenaway's cerebral history lesson is constructed using a combination of beautifully photographed art stills, strangely inert dramatizations and scrolling text which looks like a CNN newsfeed, rendered in Lucida Handwriting.  Worst of all is the ill-conceived narration.  Greenaway stacks his images so we can both hear and see his narrator, using a picture-in-picture conceit that would be more at home in a bar-mitzvah video.  There is a fine line between ambition and indulgence and Mr. Greenaway should have known better.   

Art & CopyDoug Pray's history of the advertising industry is the slickest product of the three and by far the most enjoyable, but it still suffers from overlength and a reverence for its subject matter that isn't entirely deserved.  Unfortunately for Mr. Pray, the same rules that apply to fiction film also apply to documentary.  Namely, not to overdress a simple tale with a lot of phony, razzle-dazzle, smoke and mirrors. Apart from a few hilarious vintage ads, the best parts are actually the talking heads.  The film's fascination belongs to the mavericks who re-invented advertising from the ground up.   

Do not construe any of this as a dire warning about the state of documentary in general.  For now, let's just agree that documentaries have to try harder than narrative films to overcome the limitations of reality and achieve that perfect symbiosis of form and content, enlightenment and entertainment.  When they succeed the results can be truly glorious.  Just not in this case...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lovers Triangle

Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ric Menello, is a haunting, subtle, film about thwarted dreams, broken hearts and the finite limits of redemption.  It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, the lonely neurotic character who brought him out of retirement.  Initially his story smacks of C.C. Baxter in The Apartment.  Leonard's in love with his damaged neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), but she's involved in a hopeless relationship with her married boss.  His parents (who he lives with) would prefer he date and ultimately marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), for the sake of their business merger with her parents.  But Leonard is a man on the edge.  

In the film's dizzying opening, Leonard tries to commit suicide -- unsuccessfully.  Later we learn that the root of his malaise is a failed relationship.  We as an audience see early on that Leonard's fragile heart will be safer with Sandra, but as their relationship deepens Leonard can't keep his mind off Michelle.  Leonard shares a frank chemistry with both women, but only Sandra sees him through a lover's eyes.  Michelle in contrast refers to Leonard as her "new best friend."  With each passing moment, Leonard's infatuation pushes him deeper into a full-fledged obsession with Michelle. Even as pressures rise for him to propose to Sandra.  At varying times, it is impossible to know precisely what the characters are thinking.  The writing is wonderfully nuanced and the cast acts out the full spectrum of human emotions.  

These emotions are articulated in wonderfully authentic, often contradictory terms.  Leonard's obsession with Michelle teeters on the edge, precariously charged with the question of whether he'll eventually charm her or self-destruct trying.  Phoenix's simultaneous vulnerability and volatility is frightening to watch.  We never quite know what he'll do next.  His every action is infused with a repressed combination of violence and sweetness.   When he finally makes a choice between the women in his life, the end result is far more ambiguous and inscrutable than one might expect.  The movie's offbeat tone is nicely expressed in the music, which features a sparing combination of lyrical harp and opera.  Silence is also bravely used to great effect.  

The central relationships unfold messily.  As in life, everything is not spelled out and the things the characters don't say are more important than the things they do.  We never know what Leonard did to hurt himself.  We never know what truly binds Michelle to her married lover.  And we never know for certain if Sandra is aware that she's the consolation prize.  Two Lovers contemplates the imperfections of love in ways that few modern romantic dramas are willing to do.   This may all sound overly bleak and portentous but the movie sings with the same melancholic wit that jazzed up some of the best of Billy Wilder's work.  The end result is hypnotic, provocative and strangely reassuring.  We see ourselves in the characters and we accept that like them, it is never too late for us to make a change.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gomorrah: The Real Godfather

Gomorrah is to The Godfather what last year's American Teen was to The Breakfast Club.  It strips away all the style, flash and romance, of the genre to comment on a real world community that has become inextricably linked with the movies it inspired.  Early crime pictures were fashioned as a reaction to the pervasive growth of organized crime.  Now, the real life members of said "families" are well acquainted with their cinematic counterparts and their behavior can be seen as a reaction to the movies that are based on them.  The reflexive nature of gangland violence is a relatively new phenomenon and something that Gomorrah elucidates remarkably well.      

The title is derived from the word Camorra, which denotes the Neapolitan mafia.  This is the subject of the film, but it also inexplicably calls to mind the interpretive section of the Jewish talmud.  Even if this second allusion is not intended it fits in an odd way.  The serpentine mechanics of the plot and the convoluted ethical conundrums of the characters have confounding philosophical implications that could keep even the greatest Rabbinic scholars busy for many fortnights.  

The movie deftly juggles five different story-lines that highlight the pervasive violence and corruption in the region.  There are a pair of teenagers (pictured above) who dream of being players.  There is a young errand boy who delivers drugs for the mob.  There is a tailor who betrays his employer by soliciting his designs to a Chinese factory.  There is a businessman who oversees the disposal of toxic waste in the countryside and finally there is a middle-aged money carrier who winds up trapped between two rival gangs.  

What makes the movie work are the raw hypnotic performances and the script, which drifts in and out of the various stories and documents the mounting predicaments of the characters with startling authenticity.  Many writers attempt to capture the fly-on-the-wall spontaneity of everyday life unsuccessfully.  Gomorrah, in contrast, is a stunning achievement.  The movie bristles with uncertainty and suspense in every frame, without relying on the conventions of movie suspense to engage us.  

The only occasional false note is Matteo Garrone's direction.  In the context of hundreds, maybe thousands of modern verite-style films, his camerawork and mise en scene sometimes feels lazy and unfocussed.  Characters pass in and out of the frame but the camera is slow to catch up to them.  It would be easy to dismiss this as a deliberate conceit, if not for the very essence of verite -- a style that is supposed to render the camera invisible and immerse us in the events unfolding onscreen.  Mr. Garrone's camera often moves without motivation .  It has a mind of it's own and as a consequence it reminds us that we are watching a film.  

Still, there is no disputing the breathtaking impact of the picture as a whole.   In the end it leaves us no comfort.  No easy answers.  The movie is so disarming and relevant, that Martin Scorsese has attached himself as the North American distributor.  Sadly, in a season of generic movie-theatre filler, Gomorrah deserves attention that it probably won't get.  The small audience I saw it with was clearly unprepared for the experience.

The man directly ahead of me took a brief bathroom break and on his return he slid right off his chair and hit the floor with a loud thud.  Later, he continued to hemorrhage coins onto the floor at inopportune moments -- perhaps he had holes in his pockets.  In contrast, the genius who was sitting behind me was engaged enough to offer his own unique commentary, while the film was still rolling through the projector.  His recurring refrain: "this is a strange movie," helped me to appreciate it even more.  Maybe in retrospect I was the one who missed the point.  

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Lost Art of Adventure

What happened to the adventure films of yesteryear?  The Man Who Would Be King (1975), is a Rudyard Kipling short story engagingly stretched into a feature-length narrative by director John Huston. Watching the film, I grew nostalgic (as I often do) for movies that credit the audience with having the patience to be told a story.  It seems to me, the assumption has become that mass audiences will not fork over their 12 dollars unless they are assured a precise number of whizzes, bangs and ka-booms.  There are no modern day adventure films.  Like the Western, they have gone the way of the dodo and why?  Because adventure films, like Westerns, emphasize the journey over the final destination, they emphasize character over plot and they depend on our willingness to imagine there are places we haven't even heard of.  Our willingness to transport ourselves to a simpler time.  Nowadays, in Hollywood, the phrase "period film" carries about as much cache as a carton of milk that's past the expiry date.  

The problem is, we're so accustomed to the relentless tempos of the modern action movie that a picture like this almost feels too quaint.  Special effects have modernized movies so much, that now movies without them seem less special and movies with them rarely have any residual impact.  We as an audience have consumed so many stories that we're preconditioned to anticipate the rhythms, sound effects, music and pyrotechnics of even the most dazzling popcorn epics.  Big scenes are followed by small scenes which are followed by even bigger scenes and so on.  It takes a picture like The Man Who Would Be King to remind us that spectacle can be special -- to remind us that modern effects have the power to exhilarate so long as they are placed within the context of a story.  

In this regard, The Man Who Would Be King is exemplary.  Sean Connery and Michael Caine play Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, two former British soldiers and grade-A con artists who run out of people to swindle in India and set out on a journey to Kafiristan, in the hopes that they can dupe the natives out of a fortune in gold.  When they arrive, a string of chance coincidences convince the natives that Dravot (Connery) is actually a god descended from none other than Alexander The Great.  Dravot is only too happy to entertain this fallacy, until the power begins to go to his head and he and Peachy are faced with the dangerous consequences of overplaying their hand.  To say any more would be unconscionable, but this is the real deal.  For fans of old-fashioned adventure, the settings are spectacular and Connery and Caine's comedic chemistry is tough to beat.  The Man Who Would Be King is one of the last of the great adventure films.  It retains its ability to delight, nearly 35 years after its initial release.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The New Bond : Spotlight on Quantum of Solace

An interesting thing happened last year when Quantum Of Solace arrived in theaters: it was critically trashed.  Popular opinion, on the other hand, was favorable and now that it's available on DVD I would encourage you to take a second look.  Those of you who know me are well aware that I do not take Bond lightly.  It's hard work being entertaining and nobody knows this more than the Producers of the James Bond franchise.    This Bond, the 22nd, represents Bond's 47th year in cinemas -- making 007 the longest running series in film history by a long shot.

For many,  the previous entry (Casino Royale) represented the freshest take on the character since Connery made it his own in From Russia With Love and Goldfinger -- and deservedly so.  Daniel Craig redefined the role by going back to the roots of the character in Ian Fleming's novel and connecting with the idea that Bond's suave exterior is a front to disguise the brute animal, the "blunt instrument" as M calls him.  Bond's uncanny grace under pressure and his knowledge of the finer things have always been at the core of his appeal, but Craig is the first actor to make us understand that 007's stylish exterior is a carefully constructed mask to hide behind.  His feelings for the women he beds and the enemies he kills are more complicated than his suave persona would let on.  

Quantum Of Solace picks up minutes after Casino Royale leaves off and instantly hurtles us into a visceral, high-speed car chase.  Bond is on a mission to avenge the death of Vesper Lynd, his lover who tragically betrayed him at the end of the last film.  His mission finds him pursuing a mysterious organization called Quantum that takes him from Sienna, Italy to London, to Port Au Prince, Haiti and ultimately Bolivia.  Quantum, like the SPECTRE of the Connery era, is a secret organization with powerful, high-ranking, operatives working in various government agencies around the world.  So clever are they at covering their tracks, that initially Bond finds himself going undercover to infiltrate their ranks, without even knowing who he's supposed to be impersonating.  

On his journey, Bond meets Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who is more than just a pretty face.  Like Vesper, she is a canny heroine who we learn is out for some vengeance of her own.  She introduces Bond to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), the sinister tycoon who is also the slippery mastermind behind Quantum's latest scheme.  A scheme that implicates the U.S. government, providing ample opportunity for fireworks between Bond and series regular Felix Leiter (played to perfection by Geoffrey Wright).  

Compared to the exhaustive character development of the previous film it is easy to overlook how much character this new film actually has.  But, for true aficionados of the series there are many engaging touches, including an especially prominent role for Judi Dench's M, a surprise twist in which the Americans actually turn against Bond and a wrenching death scene where Bond loses someone very close to him.  The key to appreciating the film is in the close-ups. 

Mark Forster's frenetic direction has invited unfavorable comparison to the Bourne trilogy -- the critical assumption being that the wildly imaginative action sequences somehow diminish the subtler innovations of Casino Royale.  But, writers Paul Haggis, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, continue to push 007 in a new direction.  The only difference here is that they do it organically, revealing new layers of his psyche through action rather than exposition and Forster is the right director to bring it off.  His close-ups never let us lose sight of the characters amidst the carnage -- an innovation few modern directors have the patience to cultivate.  Quantum of Solace is the best action movie of last year and one of the best of the franchise.  It delivers more than a quantum of satisfaction.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Coraline: The Third Dimension of Animation

Henry Selick's Coraline, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is a powerhouse of visual invention, filled with the wonder, freshness and singularity of vision that distinguishes only our most beloved fairy tales.  Seeing it in 3-D, in particular, will be one of the great cinematic experiences of your life, provided that you remember the following things:

1) It is not for young children.  The film is fraught with Freudian imagery disturbing enough to rival Un Chien Andalou.  
2) The humor is corrosive enough to bore a hole through a block of steel.
3) This is a movie of subtle wonderments.

This last point is what shocked me the most and instantly made Coraline one of my all-time favorite animated films.  Every other 3-D animated film I have seen (The Polar Express, Beowulf, etc.) has sent me from the theater with a mallet in one hand and a pack of advils in the other -- whichever could do the job of satiating my headache quicker.  In contrast, I went into Coraline already nursing a headache and emerged feeling refreshed.  

The director Henry Selick is famous for creating eye-popping stop motion features like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and The Giant Peach.  The visual design of Coraline is a perfect cross and arguably his best.  It is as macabre as Nightmare but it isn't as grotesque.  It is as fanciful as James and The Giant Peach, but it is also more sophisticated.  There is something wonderfully tactile about the characters and the production design.  

The story concerns a little girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who is unhappy at home and one day opens a portal that transports her to an alternate universe where she meets her "other" mother and father.  Unlike her real parents, Coraline's other mother and father pay attention to her and basically live to satisfy her every whim.  Everything else in this other universe seems to follow suit, until Coraline learns that in order to stay there permanently, she will have to let her other Mother sew buttons over her eyes and this is where (as they say) the plot thickens.  

I wouldn't dream of giving anything else away.  The movie needs to be seen to be believed and probably even to be understood.  Let's just say there are many provocative symbols and meanings hidden beneath the imagery in Coraline.  Enough to get even the most jaded adult reflecting thoughtfully.  Ultimately the movie is a revelation not because of its dazzling visuals or it's taut pacing, but rather because of its subtlety.  

I can't remember the last time I saw an animated film that was this understated yet effective at the same time.  This is the real, untapped, third dimension of animation.  Selick is a director who intuitively understands the dynamics of storytelling and his gifts are instructive in showing us the importance of building to big moments.  Not every moment is a climax.  Instead there is a pace and a structure to the plot and this makes his set-pieces all the more thrilling.  Selick values silence and anticipation as well as he does old-fashioned razzle-dazzle.  As a result Coraline is more enchanting than any other 3-D film you may have seen prior.  It dangles the carrot of imagination in front of us, instead of smacking us over the head with it.  

Friday, March 6, 2009

Costumed Loneliness

If you're reading this you probably already know that Zack Snyder's Watchmen is based on the so-called greatest graphic novel of all time, written by Allan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Like the book, the movie is dense, ponderous, fascinating and ultimately frustrating. It posits an alternate reality in which America "wins" the war in Vietnam thanks to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), their ace in the hole, a physicist who accidentally blows himself up but is miraculously reborn with the power to teleport through time and space. The story is set in 1985 with Nixon as President for his fifth consecutive term. America teeters on the brink of nuclear war and the only thing preventing a Russian attack is the existence of Dr. Manhattan, the shiny blue man with the power to obliterate whole countries. At least, that is until he cracks and exiles himself to Mars.

Anyone familiar with the book will be aware that this is a superhero story for adults. In early press for the film, Snyder promised a very R-rated picture and he makes good on his promise. This is not a movie for children--which makes it all the more baffling why the couple in front of me smuggled in their two toddlers, who looked to be no more than eight years old combined. Once the film gets going, there are severed limbs, split heads, broken bones and splattered blood galore. I especially enjoyed watching the Mother ahead of me try to explain all of this to her infant son, during the graphic sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre.

The text is justifiably famous for freshly re-imagining the entire context of comic book heroism. The masked avengers known as the "Watchmen" are heroes borne out of pain and ultimately shunned by the world they vowed to protect. In their heyday they were relevant, but they have all hung up their capes now to embrace a mandatory retirement imposed by the government. All except for the demented Rorshach (Jackie Earle Hayley), the victim of a particularly cruel childhood who now enacts his rage on the guilty. Watchmen is the first comic book story to ever explicitly address the loneliness of the costumed hero. Their power is so great that there is nobody to share it with and nobody to trust. At least no one except each other. This is why the "Comedian" reaches out to his arch-nemesis Moloch, hours before his death. It is also why Dr. Manhattan, touched with the power of the gods, finds it increasingly difficult to relate to anyone on earth.

Our heroes receive a sexual charge from the costumes and personae they adopt that masks repressed depths of despair. Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), finds himself unable to "perform" in the heat of the moment with the radiant Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), until they agree to re-adopt their superhero alter-egos. The heroes in the film get off on their powers. They get off on the violence they inflict on the criminal element. But, when the fighting stops and they have served their larger purpose, they are painfully remote -- incapable of connecting on a meaningful human level, which in turn makes it hard for us to connect with them.

For the most part the book is artfully rendered for the screen. Snyder is a director with a uniquely fetishistic visual style that alienated me in both his Dawn of the Dead remake and the insanely popular 300. Here his overwrought visuals are largely justified by the text. His action scenes are slowed down, lingering on the spectacle of movement and carnage. His keen eye for color and composition evokes the graphics of a comic book frame, but Watchmen like his other films suffers from over-length. His hyper-stylized visuals grow repetitive and over time begin to wear thin. The movie is visually spectacular to be sure and it is consistently exciting to watch, but eventually it starts to feel like a plodding exercise in aesthetic gimmickry.

Despite being original and refreshingly contrary to genre conventions, the movie is rarely ever fun. Provocative? Yes. Eye-popping? Indeed, but the spectacle lacks focus or emphasis and the end result leaves us with a particularly unsavory aftertaste. Admittedly, the source material is equally grim and Snyder deserves credit for achieving such a credible and coherent adaptation with his writers David Hayter and Alex Tse. But, whereas the graphic novel toted a strong message of anti-violence, the big screen Watchmen uses brutality to titillate.

The action scenes offer us thrills that don't feel thrilling, because of the ugliness behind them. If I'm going to watch a cleaver driven into a criminal's head, once is my limit. Three times or more is overkill. This is the dark side of the super-hero genre. Watchmen is a movie to appreciate, but not a movie that is easy to like. It wrenches our most fearless icons from us and replaces them with fearsome, damaged, souls. I can only wonder what those poor kids thought as they were leaving the theatre asking Mom and Dad what it all meant. At least their parents got their money's worth.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Best of 2008

It may seem a little late, but a top 10 list, like fine African cacao, takes time to grow.  It needs to be cultivated, nurtured and ultimately proffered without regrets.  Besides, if Roger Ebert -- the only film critic to have ever won a Pulitzer prize -- couldn't even narrow his list down to ten films this past year, I still feel like I'm ahead of the curve.  The ten best films I saw last year are:

10. The Wackness
Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck generate fireworks as a psychiatrist and teenager trading therapy for marijuana.  Writer/Director Jonathan Levine keeps us constantly off-balance, lacing every moment of his odd-couple story with the humor and pathos of the unexpected.  

9. White Night Wedding
Chekhov's Ivanov becomes the inspiration for the biggest local box-office hit in the history of Iceland.  Straddling a fine line between comedy and tragedy, the story follows a professor who leaves his wife to marry his student on a strange island where the sun never fully goes down. Watching the various townsfolk react to their new visitor makes for some of the funniest moments of any movie this year.  The climax is shattering yet buoyant.  

8. American Teen
Nanette Burstein's knockout documentary American Teen transports us to a small Indiana town in the Midwestern United States and grants us unprecedented access to a group of teens dealing with uniquely contemporary problems.  The teens share their innermost feelings with disarming candor.  Marketed as "the real Breakfast Club," this one packs a punch.

7. Tell No One
Gritty, authentic and stylish.  This unlikely French adaptation of the Harlan Coban novel by the same name is a roller-coaster ride of twists and turns anchored in the suspense of the human heart.  Dr. Alexandre Beck believes his wife to be dead, until he receives an email with evidence that she is still alive.  Whether or not she is actually alive forms the basis for one of the best post-Hitchcock thrillers ever.  

6. The Visitor
Richard Jenkins stars as an emotionally remote College Professor who arrives in New York City for a conference and finds two strangers living in his apartment.  He also finds redemption in the unlikely friendship he forges with them -- learning to play the drums and relearning how to let others into his heart.  It may sound maudlin, but it is the most subtle and understated drama of the year.  

5. Wall-E
This artful, endlessly imaginative meditation on ecology and society's future is visually arresting and narratively elegant.  For 80 percent of the movie we are held spellbound without a single line of dialogue, as the last robot on earth searches for his electronic soul mate.  

4. Changeling
Angelina Jolie is just one standout in a triumphant ensemble cast, as Christine Collins the real life mother whose son was kidnapped in 1928 Los Angeles.  When the police "found" her boy, she insisted he wasn't hers -- instigating a relentless chain of events that are all the more harrowing because they are true.  Director Clint Eastwood's characteristic mixture of bluntness and restraint are put to fine use in this, one of his most accomplished pictures.  

3. Slumdog Millionaire
The feel-good movie of the year is also a stylistically daring, high-adrenaline juggernaut that has the audacity to sell us a fairy tale message laced with unflinching brutality and stark social critique.  The movie has become a phenomenon and deservedly so.  It will be remembered for many years to come.  

2.  The Wrestler
Bracing honesty, raw emotion and the poetry of suffering, fuel this complex and unforgettable character study.  The actors are the show here.  Mickey Rourke inhabits and owns the screen as Randy "the Ram" Robinson.  Marissa Tomei continues to reveal new layers of vulnerability and depth as an actress.  Evan Rachel Wood embodies the Ram's tragic past effortlessly.  Ranks with the very best of American Independent cinema.

1. The Dark Knight
The biggest hit of the year is also one of the greatest popcorn epics of all time.  I don't use the word "masterpiece" lightly, but TDK inspires such praise.  No other film since The Godfather has found such profundity in a mass entertainment.  

Honorable Mention  
At any given moment, there are thousands of little Joe Frankels in my head, making last minute insertions and substitutions to the above list.  Each of these fierce iconoclasts might make a case for the following films:

Quantum of Solace: the best action film of the year.  Critics complained that Bond was trying to imitate Jason Bourne.  Ludicrous.  This film builds on the legacy of Casino Royale with an equal reverence for Ian Fleming's original conception of the character -- and better stunts.  

In Search Of A Midnight Kiss: epitomizes the reckless, youthful, spirit of no-budget Independent filmmaking, with sharp dialogue, evocative on-the-fly visuals and offbeat casting. Current without being trendy.  This one is a gem.  

Vicky Christina Barcelona: Woody's favorite themes are put to fine use in the most entertaining picture of his late career.  Sly, witty and unexpectedly exotic.  

Gran Torino: Clint's second movie of '08 is also one of the year's best, offering a complex meditation on old age, gang violence and racial discord.  Juggling a variety of disparate tones with surprising grace, Gran Torino is a jazzy, elegiac, reflection on a lifetime of playing Dirty Harry.  

Rachel Getting Married: Jonathan Demme's best movie in years, unfolds like a series of home movies and invites us to be a fly on the wall during a tension filled weekend in the life of a dysfunctional family.   Anne Hathaway delivers the best lead performance by an actress this year and the movie lingers in the memory long after the end credits have rolled.    

JCVD: Arguably the most memorable movie of the year for those who saw it.  Jean Claude Van Damme reinvents himself by playing...himself.  Nobody saw it coming, but the man can actually act!  The movie plays like Jean-Luc Goddard crossed with Luc Besson and it's delightful from start to finish.  

Monday, March 2, 2009

24 Day 7 - 6:00 - 8:00

After six and a half seasons of harrowing twists and countless surprises I can say with absolute certainty that episodes 10 and 11 of this seventh and latest season of 24 are the best two hours of 24 ever.  When I started this blog I had one rule and one rule only: to write about movies exclusively.  Nobody can therefore be more surprised than me that a program on the "boob tube" has inspired me -- like Jack Bauer -- to break my rule.  Sorry dear reader.  If you're disappointed, all I can say in my defense is that the show has always looked more like a movie than anything else on TV and I have been vehemently trying to recruit viewers ever since it started.   

To bring you up to speed on this season: America has been under attack from African militants who hope to prevent US intervention in their civil war.  CTU (for all you newbies this means Counter-Terrorist Unit) has been disbanded and super spy Jack Bauer is stuck in the Senate's crosshairs after years of breaking protocol and employing inhumane tactics to interrogate prisoners in the war on terror.  But Bauer is pardoned by the President herself -- yes her, Tony-winner Cherry Jones -- and asked to lead a covert task force to root out a fleet of traitors who are working within the highest government agencies. Last week, Jack succeeded in unearthing a list of all the government conspirators.  

This is where the spoiler thickens...

Tonight's double-header centered on a mind-blowing incident: an invasion of the white house.  Is this strictly plausible?  No, and that's precisely why I felt compelled to say a few words.  Sometimes the most improbable situations give rise to the most entertaining results.  24 has never been a show that can be categorized as strictly "plausible," but this was an hour for those of us who are willing to indulge in the question: "what if?"  What would happen if a militant group were actually able to infiltrate the White House?  Those viewers like me who are able to suspend their disbelief to get onboard with an occasionally ludicrous premise will witness the unimaginable efficiently imagined.  

Sometimes cleverness and daring are more rewarding than safe adherence to the facts and this week's back-to-back episodes succeeded on the basis of this principle.  They succeeded because the writers have carefully drawn us into the life of a female President who is confronted with an attack on her country her husband and ultimately her estranged daughter, all on the same day.  The writers have drawn us into the life of Jack Bauer, the most doggedly determined hero in the history of television, who persists in ignoring the orders of his superiors and the maxims of his government in order to do what is necessary.

Here Jack is sanctioned by the President herself, while torturing a terror suspect within the very walls of the White House.  Moments later, the terrorist attack takes place and the show asks us to consider the shortcomings of a system that would value human rights over homeland security.  All of this is wrapped up in a package of exhilarating gun fights and white knuckle, sweaty-palm, suspense as the terrorists close in on the President and her daughter.  It works for a variety of reasons.  Subliminally we find ourselves responding to a shift in story structure.  Whereas every episode up to this point has engaged us with multiple alternating plotlines, this week's final hour from 7:00 - 8:00 pm traps us inside the siege without any reprieve.   For the first time I can ever remember seeing on this show, time stands still.  The White House is the show and the intensity is non-stop.  

In the final breathless moments, the President and Jack Bauer are trapped inside a panic room together, as the terrorists capture her daughter and try to leverage her out.  Despite Jack's protests, the President surrenders and Jack becomes a hostage along with many others.  TV was invented so we could occasionally enjoy writing like this.  There's a word for it in every culture.  For now, let's just call it compelling.  

Friday, February 27, 2009

Circle of Doubt

Suspicions whether founded or not can have a profound impact.   This is the idea behind John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, adapted from his Tony winning play by the same name.  The story deals with an aging nun's crusade to expose a priest in her parish as a child molester.  The question of the priest's guilt is planted in her head by a naive young nun who witnesses a series of circumstantial encounters between the father and the boy and -- driven by feelings of inadequacy, voices her suspicions to the elder sister.   

As the story unfolds, we learn that the boy Father Flynn is accused of corrupting is the only black student at the school -- a child whose real father beats him in response to his confessions of homosexuality. We are also told that the boy's race might put him in serious jeopardy, if not for the special interest Father Flynn takes in protecting him.  The evidence that points to their illicit relationship is inconclusive and when the net begins to tighten, we watch as Sister Beauvier foregoes due process and her sacred vows in order to weed out the truth.  Although she insists she is certain of his guilt, she later admits to having doubts about her own accusations and yet she continues to push, pry and bully -- even when it isn't rational.

The three central performances by Meryl Streep as Sister Beauvier, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn and Amy Adams as the naive Sister James are brilliant, but the screenplay lets them down.  The problem with the movie is it asks you to engage with a debate rather than a story.  On a thematic level, the insightful Mr. Shanley could not find a better milieu to explore. He uses the catholic church, circa 1960's New York as a perfect junction point to address the growing debate between tradition and change, religious duty and social progress.  The movie and the play challenge us to consider which of these values is more important.  On top of this, we have a mystery.  Is the father guilty and if so what does this mean?  

These are provocative moral dilemmas but the characters are schematic.  They are merely envoys to articulate Mr. Shanley's debate.  When a play is adapted to the screen, there is a presumption that it must be 'opened up,' to accommodate the story's movement through a greater variety of locales, on a bigger canvas.  This is the approach that Mr. Shanley has taken and ironically it undoes everything he has so carefully conceived.  Material like this demands greater introspection from the characters and greater layers of intimacy between them as their beliefs and barriers are stripped away.  

The most powerful scene in the movie is a conversation between Sister Beauvier and Mrs. Miller, the boy's mother (played to perfection by Viola Davis).  In this scene, Mrs. Miller connects with the issues surrounding her son and makes an unexpected emotional plea.  The movie needs more moments like it.  Moments where the characters grasp the enormity of their choices.  We as an audience need to see the impact that the issues have on each of the characters outside of their confrontations, when they are alone.  Instead Doubt just circles the debate.  It never fully brings us inside it.