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.  

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar turns 80 Again

The 81st Annual Academy Awards are over and the results are in: Slumdog Millionaire is just as big a winner as everyone had predicted (winning eight awards for picture, director, adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing, musical score, original song and sound mixing).  Equally predictable were awards for Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz and the late Heath Ledger.  Many including myself had presumed that in light of these shoe-in victories, this would be the most boring Oscar show in recent memory, so the end result was a welcome relief.

This year's show had many enjoyable elements.  Hugh Jackman was an affable host, conjuring up as much razzle-dazzle as he possible could with a pair of dancing shoes and some spirit fingers.  The humor was largely left to the presenters with Steve Martin and Tina Fey offering the show's wittiest repartee while presenting the awards for best original and adapted screenplay.  Fey: "It has been said that to write is to live forever.  Martin: "The man who wrote dead."  Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman also generated laughs when Stiller marched out in a fake Joaquin Phoenix-esque beard and feigned complete disinterest in his presenting duties.  Frequent cutaways to a shiny and somewhat manic Danny Boyle were almost as amusing.  Unfortunately, despite these bursts of inspiration the show still suffered from a saggy mid-section that was devoid of energy or momentum of any kind.   Ask any fan what they are willing to tolerate and they will most likely tell you: excess is welcome.  Tedium is not.  

So why is it that none of the show's producers seem capable of mustering up any creativity for the presentation of the so-called "smaller" awards?   It stands to reason that the award for best costume design should include a live presentation of the nominated costumes.  And if you buy that, imagine the comic possibilities of dressing the presenters in the garb of the nominated films.  Next, assemble the money shots created by the cinematography nominees.  Why we didn't see the nominated work onscreen is beyond me.  If ever there was a time for a montage -- this would be that time.   And finally, in the future please only appoint one group of presenters per category.  Any time that presenters are left onstage to introduce multiple awards, the show loses momentum.  Witness Jennifer Anniston and Jack Black or the usually incisive Bill Maher.  Even Will Smith was boring -- and ditto for the musical medley which was awkwardly patched together from a surplus of eras and genres with no overriding rhyme or reason

Other highlights included a heartfelt acceptance speech from Penelope Cruz, thanking her mentor and friend Pedro Almodovar and waxing philosophical about the arts as our "universal language."  Heath Ledger's family mounted an understated tribute that left everyone in the house teary-eyed and Sean Penn showed humor and restraint accepting the best actor award for his performance as Harvey Milk -- but don't get me started on Mickey Rourke losing what was rightfully his.  Bravo to retiring Academy President Sid Ganis for agreeing not to deliver a speech this year -- this was a stroke of genius.  And, bringing back past award winners to introduce this year's acting nominees was a touch of class, but next year the match-ups ought to be a little more coherent.    Best of all, Slumdog Millionaire, the feel good movie of the year, walked away with eight major awards, lifting indie spirits everywhere.  There may be no such thing as a perfect awards show but the 81st Annual Academy Awards demonstrated a marked potential for improvement.  It was almost as if instead of acting his age Oscar turned 80...again. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oscar Profile: Milk

In the eleventh hour, a mere two days before Oscar night, I finally got out to see Gus Van Sant's Milk.  I have now seen all the picture nominees and  I can safely say that Oscar got it right, sort of, with this one.  Milk is based on the true story of gay activist Harvey Milk's crusade for equal rights in San Francisco during the 1970's and deals with an important debate that is especially relevant today.  What Van Sant has made is a political film, but he is savvy enough as a filmmaker to sidestep the traps of more generic Hollywood biopics that would sermonize about their subject or pay tribute to their central character without grasping his/her flaws.  Thanks to a brilliant performance by Sean Penn, Milk is never maudlin or predictable.  We are given the full scope of his vision and ambition, but we are also provided with a context for his social failures and the bridges that he burns.  

Penn's performance is arguably the best of his career, because unlike so many of his other roles, Harvey Milk is a man of good humor even in difficult times.  Milk's sly double-entendres and ability to laugh at himself, gives Penn new room to play as an actor and I will admit that this is probably the first performance I have ever seen from him, that didn't keep me at a distance.  The other characters don't fare as well.  As the end credits roll, we are introduced to photos of the real people that the film is based on and I realized that I hadn't really gotten to know any of them.  There aren't a lot of characters to connect with in the film, because this isn't a picture about people.  This is a picture about a movement.  

The period of the film is seamlessly recreated with vintage cars, costumes and hair design.  The film is shot on ultra-grainy stock to mirror the texture of so many 70's pictures and everything in the atmosphere of the film is completely authentic.  Van Sant's story is cleverly constructed using what looks like super 8 film, actual and simulated newsreel footage, photographic stills and variable camera speeds that -- while stylized -- only add to the authenticity of the film.  Milk never feels less than authentic as a portrait of a movement that galvanized Northern California at a specific point in time and yet, despite all of these considerable virtues, the film is overlong and sometimes difficult to access.  

It may seem a strange comparison, but as I was watching it I found myself thinking about Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas -- a film that also tells a story about a group of people who changed America during a specific period in history.  GoodFellas is 20 minutes longer than Milk, but it is full of propulsive energy and we really get to know the central characters.  That doesn't happen here, despite the canny chemistry between Penn and James Franco -- his primary love interest.  Josh Brolin also delivers a powerhouse performance as the mysterious and contradictory city councilman Dan White, who becomes Harvey Milk's sole political adversary, but there is something strangely aloof about the way their rivalry plays out.

Is Milk one of the best films of the year?  I would say yes, but it is not one of my favorites.  It is accomplished, clever and provocative, but it asks you to engage with the idea of the film rather than its characters.  I point this out, not as a statement of it's flaws but rather as a declaration of where my personal preference lies when I go to see a film.  Some people respond to movies with their heads and others with their hearts.  I think the truly great films force you to do both.  Milk is hard to connect with emotionally and you may find it doesn't stick with you for that reason.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Liam Neeson Wants Justice

Pierre Morel's Taken, based on a screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen is a slickly packaged, by-the-numbers, thriller that succeeds in generating major thrills thanks to a riveting performance by Liam Neeson.  If you take the time to think about it, questions start to creep in and you might ask yourself if it's even possible that Neeson could get as far as he does without so much as a scrape.  But, as Hitchcock would say: this is a question for "the plausibles" -- that segment of the audience who would rather dissect what they're watching than sit back and be entertained.  Taken  is not a movie for the plausibles.  Taken is a movie for people who like to believe that super-spies like Liam Neeson exist, to preserve the order of civilization and defend the innocent against insidious unseen evils.  If you get onboard with the concept, the movie will sweep you away and leave you breathless for 90 rapidly paced minutes. 

The story centers on Brian Mills (Neeson), a former-spy who has retired and moved to Los Angeles in order to be closer to his estranged daughter Kim (Maggie Grace).   When Kim asks him for permission to fly to Europe for the summer he reluctantly agrees, weighed down by apprehensions based on years in the field.  The early scenes between Mills, Kim and his ex (Famke Janssen) are overwrought, as the Mills family dynamic is mapped out in broad strokes, but it turns out Mills is right.  Within moments of stepping off the plane in Paris, Kim and her friend Amanda are seduced and ultimately kidnapped by an efficient female slave trafficking syndicate.  Mills is on the phone with Kim as she is taken and even under pressure he is resourceful enough to record the call as he promises her kidnappers: "I don't know who you are...but I will find you and I will kill you."

From this point on, the film kicks into overdrive as we follow Mills to Paris on a private jet and he proceeds to systematically attack and pursue every clue with ruthless determination and brute force.  All of this would be utterly ridiculous if not for Neeson's grounded performance.  He anchors the film and keeps us emotionally invested until the film's feverish final minutes.  Taken brings to mind relatively recent kidnapping yarns such as Roman Polanski's Frantic  and Ron Howard's Ransom, but this movie is significantly better thanks to a fresh and irresistible hook.  In Taken the kidnappers mess with the wrong family.  Even as the story probes dark material, we are exhilarated by the chase and by Neeson's determination.  The movie isn't just about the payoff, it's about watching bad people pay for their sins and there's a genuine catharsis in that.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oscar Profile: Frost/Nixon

I finally got around to seeing Frost/Nixon this week.  It often comes down to the week before Oscar night for me to make time to review those more esoteric, self-important, picture nominees that seem to have been created solely to win Oscars and Frost/Nixon is a perfect example, but I'm pleased to say that it actually exceeded my expectations.  The movie is about as solid a mainstream entertainment as Hollywood is making nowadays and the two central performances breathe new life into this vintage story.  Political corruption is not the big news that it was back in 1977 when the original interviews took place, but Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan do a nice job of building tension around the potent game of one-upsmanship that prompted Richard Nixon to confess his guilt over Watergate on national television.  

The movie is certain to have an added fascination for viewers who lived through the event.  For today's generation the hook will be watching both men as they desperately try to keep their feelings in check, under intense media scrutiny.  The Frost/Nixon interview was a prime early example of the media's increasing influence over the collective consciousness.  Is the movie truly relevant today?  Although uniquely timed to coincide with the end of Bush's tenure as President, it is not a particularly memorable or groundbreaking film.  Just solid, and I will take solid over a lot of the other movies out there.  

The performances -- particularly Frank Langella's, are stellar but one doesn't feel the director expending his heart and soul on this material.  The docudrama approach with cutaways to talking heads of name actors playing real people grows increasingly tiresome and artificial as the movie rolls on.  It is almost as if the filmmakers began to insert these arbitrarily in order to maintain their motif, but they undermine the power of the unfolding story.  

Curiously, the film's biggest virtue: the cinematography by veteran commercial DP Sal Totino has been overlooked.  The film is cleverly shot with a camera that slowly drifts in and out of focus, mirroring the inner states of the two leads as their own focus wavers during the exhausting interview proceedings.  Production design and lighting is all suitably understated.  Technical aspects earn top marks.  Worth a look, but there were better films this year.  

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Nick & Norah's Infinitely Indulgent Playlist

The problem with Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, the "hot" new release on DVD this week, is that many adults will go and see the film hoping for another Juno.  But Juno this isn't.  It also isn't Adventures In Babysitting, Ferris Bueller's Day Off or any of the other myriad of 80's teen comedies that center on adolescent rebellion and hold a place of nostalgia for the generation of 30-somethings who were weaned on Atari, Lite-Brite and Kool-Aid.  I say this because the movie is clearly intended to trigger this nostalgia, starting with the grainy, high contrast film stock on which it's shot and carrying over to its kitschy production design and eclectic underground-style soundtrack.  

Having grown up in the 80's, I really wanted to like this movie.  The story centers on Nick (Michael Cera), a goofy, endearingly low-rent teen musician who cannot get over a recent break-up with his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) and demonstrates this by sending her mix-CD after mix-CD of his favorite underground artists.  In one fateful night, he meets Norah (Kat Dennings), the daughter of a famous record producer who is suffering through an on-and-off relationship with a boy she knows is just using her to win favor with her father.  In one of the movie's few palatable contrivances, Nick learns that Tris has been pitching his mix CD's into the trash, but Norah has been rescuing and listening to them approvingly.  

Nick and Norah meet after Nick completes a set on stage with his all gay band "The Jerk Offs."  Neither of them really fit in with their friends and so they discover an offbeat symmetry together.  The rest of the movie is a tribute to those endless nights of excess and self-discovery that many of us would like to forget from our teenage years.  Nick and Norah set out to find "Fluffy" an underground rock band who are performing at a mystery location circa 2 am that night.  In the process, their drunken friend Caroline goes missing and drags them off course as they scour the city looking for her.  None of what ensues is as funny as the filmmakers think it is, as we the audience are subjected to a relentless onslaught of vomit sequences designed to make us guess whether or not lost, drunken, Caroline is going to lose her dinner in an awkward place.  

Interspersed with this is the love story -- if you can call it that.  The names Nick and Norah are an allusion to Dashiell Hammet's witty detective couple Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man.  They were known for their witty, urbane banter and elegant fashion sense -- something that will never be remembered about Cera or Dennings.  Still, the two of them have considerable pseudo-grunge charm together and there's something sweet and genuine about watching them find themselves in each other.  

The benchmark for this film is really the 80's gem The Sure Thing, starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga as two warring college sophomores who are stuck on a cross-country road trip to California at Christmas time.  That movie was endlessly inventive and a model example of teen romantic comedy.  This one doesn't come close and in the end, even the music lets us down.  Fluffy's climactic performance is not the revelation we've all been waiting for and in fact the entire soundtrack is disappointingly unmemorable.  I guess we'll have to wait a little longer for a teen comedy that lives up to its own hype.