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In Cold Blood (1967)
Perry Smith (Robert Black) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) murder the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959.
In Cold Blood is just about flawless. It dances the same delicate dance of the book, creating sympathy for Perry and then pulling back and showing his monstrosity, and then drawing in and creating sympathy again. It is this that is more disturbing than the murders themselves. Dick is less fleshed-out, in part, I suspect, because the movie avoided mention of the pedophilia, although mostly it's amazingly frank for its era. It also omits the fact that Dick's personality changed after a head injury, which was something I found fascinating in the book. Nonetheless, the movie works both as an adaptation of a "true novel" and as a film in its own right. It applies just the right amount of artistry to show Perry's distorted thoughts, and just the right amount of bareness to show a true story as it unfolds.
It is, perhaps, the bareness that is most shocking. Consider: The movie is rated R for violence, despite the fact that none of the violence appears on-screen. It feels that real.
What the movie cannot do, quite reasonably, is portray Truman Capoteyou'll have to see Capote, or perhaps Infamous, for that. The eyewitness journalist here is a fictional character named Jensen, of a neutral hard-boiled type that allows narration to happen without getting in the way.
An odd duck of a movie
Peter (Paul Bettany) is a mid-level tennis play about to retire. He meets Lizzie (Kirsten Dunst), a major tennis star, when both are at Wimbledon.
I only watched this because I somehow got the impression it was written by Richard Curtis. It was apparently written by someone who is a fan of Richard Curtis, and perhaps I read a review that mentioned a similarity.
Wimbledon is an odd duck of a movie, in that it seems not to understand romantic comedies. Which is really very odd because there are so many of them, and they're not actually that hard to understand. In a romantic comedy, boy meets girl (except in gay romantic comedies, in which either girl meets girl or boy meets boy but I digress), something keeps boy and girl apart, and after overcoming some comedic adversity, boy and girl get together.
This isn't rocket science, so screwing it up is sort of unforgivable.
In Wimbledon, boy meets girl, and nothing much keeps them apart. Thus they go through the motions of romantic comedy without anything all that interesting going on. Some of the romance is quite charming, and Paul Bettany is just tons of disarming, and there's some sexy, but that's about that.
It may be that the movie is going for more of a sports underdog story, which obviously it has going for it, but again, not that interesting. A little bit of fun there, a little bit of Go Peter! but nothing to write home about.
The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002)
Observing the small gestures of marriage
David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) are married dentists, working together and raising three daughters. When David begins to believe that Dana is having an affair, an angry patient (Denis Leary) seems to embody his own secret rage.
The Secret Lives of Dentists is an observant film. It notices the small gestures, the ordinariness, the holding back, the expressing, that make up a life.
I was struck in particular by a scene in which Dana wakes up with a cramp in her foot, and David massages it. In the midst of his profound distrust of her, in the midst of her pulling away from him and longing for more, this moment was more physically intimate than making love. Movies mostly miss this sort of thing, and indeed, some people found the movie dull, in large part because of its domesticity.
But domesticity is relentless. David seethes with fury, but holds back from saying anything to his wife. Their marriage is played out in glances over the heads of the children, in snatches of conversation while caring for a vomiting toddler, in drives to the country house. In the end, it is a uniquely nuanced and satisfying view of real life.
Spy Game (2001)
Espionage action with a soul
CIA espionage agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), on his last day before retirement, learns that his protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been taken prisoner by the Chinese government and is about to be executed for spying. While giving a report on Bishop to agents unwilling to help, Muir attempts behind the scenes manuevers to help.
This appears to be a casually slick and superficial genre movie with enjoyable twists and turns. In fact, though, it's a well-filmed (and slick) character piece. The relationship between Redford and Pitt is the core of the movie. Pitt is sometimes a marvelous actor, and sometimes a dreadful one, but the roll of the dice favored him in Spy Game and he is incredibly solid and watchable. Meanwhile it's also a spy movie about spying, and about spy movies, more than it is a particular espionage piece. This sounds thoughtful and introspective but it isn't. Spy Game is another "stupid action movie," but with a soul.
Auto Focus (2002)
Obsession and Emptiness
Actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), star of Hogan's Heroes, forms a friendship with a video enthusiast (Willem Dafoe) and together they become obsessed with sex, swinging, and photographing or filming the action.
This is a brilliantly disturbing movie. Kinnear carefully plays Crane as a blank-faced cypher who cannot see himself, and is comfortable with the surface of things. Thus photography is the perfect obsession for him; he can look without participating, even when he's looking at his own participation. Auto Focus is a clever title, referring to both the photography and the only person upon whom Crane can focus. He is lost in a world of obsessively meaningless behavior.
A look at IMDb's message board for the film shows that one of Crane's two sons is fighting the misinformation presented by director Paul Schrader and Crane's other son. It does seem that the movie distorts some biographical facts, but what biopic doesn't? This story of obsession and doom is worth much more than its attention to one man's biography.
Awkward and flawed, yet sweet and intimate
Randy (Laurel Holloman) is a lesbian teen living in a low-income lesbian household and working at a gas station. Evie is an overachiever living with her wealthy Ph.D. mom and driving an expensive car. They fall in love.
There's not much to this one. The low budget shows in some very awkward places. The director tries to make it look artistic, framing the young lovers together, as if isolated from the world, to make up for the lack of extrasthe crowded high school is always empty, for example. Unfortunately, this very naturalistic film is harmed by the lack of reality; they seem to be floating above the idea of a real town with real people in it. Filming is often awkward, with the camera hanging around just where you wish it wasn't, because the dialogue is directing your eye elsewhere.
The acting is uniformly mediocre. Holloman is actually better here than she was in her long run on Angel; whenever fan boards asked for worst villain or worst character I always voted for her. But most of the characters are stiff, the only ones I really liked were Randy's dyke household.
What symbolism we have is very heavy-handed. Randy is horny and Eve is a new beginning. Duh. But the romance is tender and the girls connect at a real level and there's a very pleasant intimacy.
Chuck Barris's twisted life as processed through Charlie Kauffman's twisted mind
Summary: Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) invents game shows while becoming a hit-man for the CIA.
Some people don't like Charlie Kauffman's screen writing, but I take infinite delight in the way his mind twists in and around an idea to arrive at a story with all twists intact. Not "plot twists," but the actual twisting of reality as depicted on-screen to replicate the inner workings of the people and situations being shown.
In real life, Chuck Barris created The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, created and hosted The Gong Show, and then went off by himself to write a book claiming to be a CIA hit-man. How can such a story be true? And why should such a story matter? Barris has a pretty interesting tale to tell without the insane window-dressing, and the window-dressing carries the danger of turning the whole thing into a freak show.
As in ADAPTATION, Kauffman gives us a story about writing a story. In that movie, the story is in progress, and the parallel twistsseeing the story being written as it unfolds, and as thoughts about it are depicted as realare a work in progress as well. ADAPTATION is disjointed because the story isn't done yet. In CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, we are seeing a story that has already been written, the narrative has been chosen, and the narrative is insane. Thus, the narrative unfolds in a fairly conventional way, taking its own twists in stride. The construction is such that we can see the movie as a standard, if strange, biopic, OR we can see it as parallel storiesBarris's life and his internal fantasies about being a hit-man, told side-by-side. The brilliance is that there's nothing in the hit-man side of the story that has to be believed; it is built exactly like a fantasy, but there is also nothing in it that has to be DISbelieved; it is simultaneously built like a depiction of reality.
The movie is very entertaining; Sam Rockwell carries the thing well. George Clooney is quite amusing as a deadpan CIA operative, and Julia Roberts is delightful as a really strange latter-day Mata Hari. It's plain IL' fun to watch. At the same time, there's all this behind-the-screen madness unfolding, and it completely tickles my fancy.
A Star Is Born (1954)
Magnificent entertainment, subtle filming
Alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) meets singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) and gets her the screen test she needs to become a big star (and change her name to Vicki Lesterhas any name ever so desperately needed changing?).
This was not my first viewing of A Star Is Born, but it was illuminating. I certainly already believed it was a great movie, but it is far more subtle and complex than I had previously known. The movie is working on several levels at once. In one way, it's a straight-ahead musical, with some wonderful songs and production numbers. At another level, it's an 'inside Hollywood' story, and that level works remarkably well. Some of the 'events' (the opening, the Academy Awards) look almost raw in their filming style, almost like news footage, creating a powerful impression of being behind the scenes. The production numbers support that impression, with numerous bits and visuals lifted from other musicals, so that we are clued into the idea that we are seeing what "really" happened, or might have happened, on any number of film sets (at one point, An American in Paris is referenced directly).
Finally, it is a remarkably honest and true portrayal of alcoholism and marriage to an alcoholic. Esther's co-dependence is seen for what it is, her pain is real, her self-flagellation is real. If anything, the movie is overly sympathetic with Norman Maine, portraying the publicist (Jack Carson) who is disgusted with him as a villain. When I saw A Star Is Born for the first time, I was in *my* one and only relationship with an alcoholic. I wept with Judy Garland and I knew firsthand how accurately her agony was depicted. All these years later, quite recovered from any desire to go THERE again, I sympathize almost as much with the publicist. Kick the bum out! A few weeks ago I saw the train wreck that is New York, New York. It seemed like Scorcese's intention was to deconstruct, while at the same time celebrating, the 40s Hollywood musical. He wanted to show the ugliness behind those magical romances, the meanness behind those amusingly bossy men, and he still wanted to enjoy the glamour. Upon re-viewing A Star Is Born, I wondered why he bothered. It's already been done, as well as could possibly be done.
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Exactly and approximately superb!
In Delhi, the wealthy father of the bride (Lalit, played by N. Shah) prepares an elaborate wedding. We meet his extended family, arriving from as far as America for the wedding, beginning with a formal engagement party 4 days before. Several subplots are followed: Additi, the bride, has chosen an arranged marriage instead of waiting for her married lover to leave his wife. Ria, her cousin, has never married and is being pestered by all concerned. We learn that Ria's father, Lalit's big brother, has passed away and so Lalit is her father-figure as well. Dubey, the wedding organizer, becomes smitten with Alice, Lalit's maid. As the days pass, family joys and family secrets are revealed.
I cannot praise this movie enough. First of all, kudos to N. Shah for a sensitive, complex portrayal that never, for a moment, feels like acting. Without hand-held camera pretensions, Monsoon Wedding nonetheless feels more like meeting a family at a big affair than watching a movie. It is real and intimate, yet magical. All the performances are good; Rajat Kapoor as an uncle with a secret is particularly powerful, and bears a striking resemblance to a younger Donald Sutherland.
We see Indian society as India sees it. My coworker, Sreeman, tells me that everyone attends neighborhood weddings; that an average wedding has 800900 guests, and his had 1200. Traditionalism matters, but modernity matters as well. At one point, Lalit and Dubey argue over the wedding tent; should it be white, the modern (Western) way, or should it be colorful? Lalit demands color and Dubey orders "the old kind." The struggle between modern and traditional ways is one of the primary undercurrents of the film, embodied by Additi's choice, in fact, we meet her married lover as the host of a TV talk show discussing traditional versus modern ways.
Another undercurrent is finding love, impediments to love, and choices about love. Additi, Dubey, Ria, and another cousin, Rahul, all have barriers to overcome before they have a chance at happiness.
But the main theme is family, and this huge, chaotic family is a wonder to behold. You can't always tell who's related to whom, but you get the sense that they can't either, and coming from a large, extended family myself, I know that's how it is. Family is everything to Lalit, yet he communicates harshly with a son he doesn't understand, and calls nephew Rahul "idiot." Yet his love and devotion are clear, and he is the real hero of this film, coming through for everyone and stretching himself to the limit.
Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
Challenges your idea of "viewing"
A reality TV series (The Contenders) randomly selects people to attempt to kill each other; only one will survive. Each series shows 5 new contenders plus the survivor from the previous series. We follow Series 7, in which the current champion is 8 months pregnant.
The conceit of the movie is that we are actually watching the series; it never steps outside itself, and by and large, this works remarkably well. It forces the viewer to observe himself and his own act of viewing; as I watched, I became caught up in the television series, and had to stop myself and say 'waitaminnit, this is a movie.' The parody of reality TV is vicious, and actually much more complicated than at first it appears. The initial reaction is that it's a one-note parody, no different from The Running Man in its dark vision of where reality TV will lead. But it is more than that, showing us how we are manipulated by the images we see, how we become desirous of seeing more, how easy it is to overcome revulsion...no, for revulsion to become part of the pleasure. In the course of it, it also shows the effects of distorting random violence into heroism while still pretending that the rest of our values about violence and justice remain untouched. None of this is heavy-handed or preachy because we are participants; we are "tv viewers" watching the series, and things are unfolding. No one is talking at the viewer, and when they are, watch out; it's part of the manipulation.
The movie didn't try to explain how such a thing became legal, how a television show got the right to randomly select any American citizen and force them to participate. This was a problematic omission, the movie bespeaks a dark future but doesn't have the wit to tell us how we got there. This could easily have been done without breaking the bounds of "it's all the show" that the movie sets for itself by having it be part of the opening credits.