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The Lucky Ones (2008) ***1/2
Here's a fact: movies about the current war in Iraq have done about as well as... well, the current war in Iraq. To be fair, none of them have really been great. Even Tommy Lee Jones' In the Valley of Elah did not manage well financially, though it did manage to get half decent reception from critics. Understandably most of the films have been pretty heavy handed, and just as understandably, audiences have been satiating those taste buds with other, less controversial and subjects. But then comes along The Lucky Ones, starring Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, and Rachael McAdams. The film is about 3 soldiers returning home from Iraq; two on leave for 30 days, the other out for good. Instead of sticking to the usual downbeat tones of other Iraq films, it's more of a hopeful charmer and quite a funny one too. It's really more of a good old fashioned American road movie with soldiers than a war movie. But that didn't stop people from not going. The film got only limited release through 2008, despite gaining fans on the festival circuit.
Three soldiers return home from Iraq after meeting each other on the plane ride. When they arrive on American soil to catch their connecting flights, they discover that the airport is backed up solid due to a black out. Rather than wait around, Cheaver (Robbins) decides he's close enough to his home in St. Louis to rent a car and drive. TK and Colee (Pena and McAdams) decide they should join him. They're both heading to Las Vegas and figure they can probably make the drive and catch a flight out of St. Louis by the time they would here.
Colee is heading to Vegas to return her boyfriend's vintage guitar to his family. He died in the war. TK is heading to Vegas for some professional help before he meets up with his fiancé. Hookers and strippers? Colee inquires. Kind of - but not for the usual reasons. You see, they all have wounds, but some more sensitive than others. Cheaver injured his back in a not so heroic way, but he's more amused and relieved about it than embarrassed. Colee's been shot in the leg, and sports an unhealed wound and a limp. TK gets the best of both their worlds: he's been wounded by shrapnel in a not so public area. Now, as he says, it doesn't work right. He's going to Vegas to meet with some "professionals" to test his own little soldier out. "I can't go back to my fiancé without knowing it works, we'd have nothing to talk about!" A strange predicament for two people about to be married.
Cheaver, being the oldest in his 40s, is usually something of a father figure to the younger TK and Colee. On their trip those two first bicker before becoming closer. Colee openly talks about her late ex, and tells the tales he told her of robbing a Casino in Vegas to pay off his loan shark debts. TK responds with coldness and ridicules the dead man for his character. It results, inevitably in having to pull over and the keys inevitably being locked in the car.
The Lucky One's certainly doesn't go anywhere we really don't expect it to, but the paths it takes to get there aren't necessarily always the one's we expect. For example, given how quickly the trio arrive in St. Louis, it's obvious something will have to happen to keep it going. It's no big surprise to reveal that his wife wants a divorce, though she apparently is not cheating on him. Meanwhile their son breaks the big news that he got into Stanford, but needs 20 grand to secure his spot. So Cheaver decides he'll go to visit his brother or maybe even go to Vegas and win the money. That guitar Colee carries around is actually even worth 20 grand, though he doesn't want it, and she has to give it to her dead boyfriends family. She wants to give it to him but obviously knows she can't, although what she knows about her dead boyfriend seems to be less and less as time goes on.
The movie is populated with the usual oddball characters and chance encounters you find on cross country road trips, or in cross country road trip movies. There's a stop over at a church where they meet a very wealthy parishioner who invites them to a party, where among other things they encounter a young man against the war, another man who thinks after meeting the trio there's a good reason why they're losing the war, and a horny wife with the hots for the old Cheaver. Elsewhere they encounter the usual road side bars and motels, traveling sex workers and a rogue Tornado. And of course, along the way each confronts their own issues and demons.
The Lucky Ones is a funny and winning little movie. It's above all else a very human movie. The characters are what makes it succeed, not it's story. All three leads give wonderful and sincere performances, particularly McAdams as Colee. She's naive but not unintelligent, and tough but still vulnerable.
What could have been a downer filled with cheap shots and cheap tactics is instead smart and even handed, and above all respectful. That's not to say that it's necessarily a "safe" movie - but then again a movie that's best described as a road comedy about Iraq Veterans probably cannot be. It's above all else a very human movie. The characters are what makes it succeed, not it's story. All three leads give wonderful and sincere performances, particularly McAdams as Colee. She's naive but not unintelligent, and tough but still vulnerable. The movie ends as the soldiers' leave expires and they must return. At least for now they've been the lucky ones. Here's to hoping they stayed lucky.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Three Monkeys (2008) ****
How much would you sacrifice for the people around you? What can you ignore to keep your family together? If you pretend something didn't happen, does it matter that it ever happened in the first place? These are some of the questions that permeate the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film, Three Monkeys.
Three Monkey's is a grim affair. The film opens as a man drives his car, nodding off, and hits a pedestrian. He's a politician, and knowing what this would do to his career with an upcoming election, he phones his longtime driver in the middle of the night and offers him an proposition. Take his place, and the nine month jail sentence in return for a lump sum. He accepts for the sake of his boss. Never mind that his sacrifice is placed somewhat in vain, considering the politician loses the election anyway.
While in jail, the man's family deals on their own. His son, Ismail, wants to ask the politician for an advance so they can buy a car. He can do work with the car, but the work is for shady characters according to his mother. He takes the train to visit his father every so often in jail. The mother works in a kitchen and looks to get her son a job that he would never be interested in anyway. She does eventually go to the politician on her son's behalf, it appears, to get an advance. There's a strange tension between the two. He asks her if her husband knows about "this." Does he refer to getting the advance, which the father would never approve of, or is it something else? One day Ismail gets set to take the train to visit his father, and mother is preparing to attend training for work. At the station, Ismail gets sick, and vomits on himself. He returns home to get changed. After a moment he realizes the house is not empty. There's noise coming from the bedroom. He notices cigarettes, and looks through the keyhole in the door. He turns and leaves. His mother is having an affair with the politician we now know, as does he. He waits until he leaves then returns to the house. He confronts his mother, but never admits that he saw them together, just that he knows he was in the house. This is the first in a series of events which are purposely left unspoken. He does return to visit his father, and suspicious, he asks if they have someone new. After a pause, the son replies no. To admit the truth would mean the destruction of the family.
When the father gets out of jail, he returns home to an emotionally absent wife. We can't really know if she was this way before he left, but it doesn't really matter now. She meets him in a nighty laying on the bed, in a brilliant scene which sees the husband go from loving, to suspicious, to anger, and near misogyny, to desperation. The wife, too, goes through a range of emotions, and at one point seems genuine but for a moment, then falls back into a distant place. Everyone knows what is happening, but no one dares speak it.
Things spiral more and more into an abyss, until everything has to be at least acknowledged. There are ominous tones throughout Three Monkeys, and they climax in a crucial scene, edited in a particular manner. It involves a meeting between two people in a long take, shot from a distance, that finally cuts to another shot from a distance, but this time from a slightly different angle, and slightly obscured by objects in the foreground. What comes next will require a crucial decision be made by the Father to keep his family together, or maybe there is another way.
The family had another son who died. We're lead to believe that he drowned from the oft sounds of dripping water, and his appearance in a few surreal scenes involving the son and the father - the boy's body is soaked as he observes his family members lying in bed. These moments have a creepiness, but a sad tenderness. Particularly in one scene as the Father lies in bed, his wife moving in the background. All of a sudden a tiny arm comes up from behind and embraces him. This family must have been a bomb waiting to explode for a long time. They're bleeding pain, but each other is all they have.
Three Monkey's is about as well a film can be directed. Indeed, Ceylan won the best director prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The aforementioned scene is just one of many well constructed moments. Ceylan channels Tarkovsky in a few scenes, and his colour palette in particular is reminiscent of Tarkovsky. It's only suitable that a film of such dark subject matter be matched in it's look. Ceylan makes great use of locations, and particularly sounds. After the crucial event in the film, the mother wears a shirt that was certainly chosen for it's pattern, as perhaps a not so subtle accusation. Shots are brilliantly composed to represent the distance felt. That there seems to be only one tender embrace in the film - by the dead son to his father - is profound in retrospect.
I can't be sure, but I have a feeling that Ceylan drew from somewhere deep inside for this film. It's a film that seems as if it were made by someone who knows all to well how something feels. These kinds of movies are almost never a treat to watch. Luckily Ceylan is a such a good director that things never become unbearable, even when they're at the darkest. It's a dark and painful film, but nevertheless doesn't refuse hold out hope for a better day. They were a whole once. Maybe they can be again.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Some movies stick with you, for better or worse. I like it when it's for the better. Werner Herzog's 1979 version of the classic vampire tale, Nosferatu, is one of those films that has stuck with me. Thankfully it's been for the better. In fact, my appreciation has only continued to grow with time. It's one Herzog's more seen films, thanks to Kinski's reputation and the fact that most versions are in English, but in my opinion, it's one of his more overlooked and under-appreciated.
Bram Stoker's Dracula has been adapted countless times, but only a few are really noteworthy. Probably the most widely seen is Coppola's 1992 version. It is not without merits. Gary Oldman is a fine actor, and does a good job with his version of the vampire, and Coppola flared the film up with an interesting visual style. The most respected and also well known version though is the first, FW Murnau's silent Nosferatu: eine Syphonie des Grauens. It reserves itself a spot on any film aficionado's must see list for Murnau's expressionist artistry. It was an assuredly constructed film with brilliant imagery and an unforgettable turn by the preternaturally creepy Max Schreck. Many will tell you that while having the highest respect for Murnau's film and its stunning achievements, they found it something of a dull affair. And I include myself in that category. There was also Todd Browning and Bela Lugosi's 1931 version, though it's perhaps more of a cult classic than an artistic masterpiece.
And then in the wings is Herzog's version. It too is respected by those who've seen it, and is itself something of a cult classic. It stars the volatile Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog made five films, including Aguirre:Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Friend, documentarian, and the man who infamously won a bet which resulted in Herzog literally eating his own shoe, Errol Morris once referred to Kinski as a bonified "crazy person." That opinion, by most psychological standards, was probably correct. So if there was ever anyone to offer up a performance worthy of comparison to Schreck's original, it's Kinski.
The story follows closely to Murnau's version. Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan Harker, who's called to deliver a real estate proposal to the Carpathian castle of Count Dracula. His wife Lucy is nervous of what may come and has strange dreams. His boss, Renfield is seemingly increasingly drifting further into excited insanity as Dracula's arrival draws nearer. Jonathan's trip to Count Dracula's castle is filled with tension and foreboding. He lodges for a night where he hears tales of a vampire and warnings, but continues on through the mountains. This act contains one of the film's most memorable sequences, set to Wagner's Prelude to Das Rheingold. It ends as a carriage mysteriously emerges from the fog to pick up Harker and carry him off to the castle.
Count Dracula's castle is the epitome of ominous. The colour palette is lifeless, and of course in tribute to Murnau, shadows seem to take on a life of their own. Harker is greeted by Kinski's terrifying Dracula with uncomfortable courtesy. He searches the castle one day to find Dracula sleeping... in a casket.
While Jonathan is incapacitated, Count Dracula makes his way to Wismar on a ship. Mysteriously to the crew, they're all dying off. The ship carries hoards of rats. Is it the plague the captain ponders? When the ship finally arrives, everyone on board is dead. Dracula emerges, with him the rats.
To continue to harp on about the story is at this point an exercise in redundancy. We all essentially know what follows - Renfield is Dracula's minion, and the vampire is in love with Harker's wife, Lucy. Herzog changes things up a bit for the end, but it's Herzog and Kinski's execution that sets the film off. It has a terrifying strangeness. The locations are unforgettable - something to be expected from a man who famously declared that he directs landscapes. Delft (in Holland) served as Wismar. Its canals throughout the town are haunting, especially as the death ship squeezes its way through. The castle scenes are filmed at Castle Pernstejn, which I'm told still looks much like it did during filming.
The film's opening sequence is of real life mummies in Mexico, which can still be visited. Another strange and surreal moment comes when Harker wakes up to a young boy playing violin above him. It's one of those great Herzog moments that seemingly serve no purpose other than as beautiful oddity. The film's creepiest sequence, and one of the most unforgettable and brilliant scenes I've ever seen, takes place as Lucy walks through the town square. Pigs and grey rats wander freely; the remaining townsfolk dance around the coffins; one group sits down for a nice meal in the wake of a plague. Lucy fights to escape those trying to dance with her, as the soundtrack plays a choral piece. The result is a purely visceral and delirious sequence that has never left my memory.
Herzog has said he prefers the German version of Nosferatu over the English. I'm inclined to agree. As the years pass, and the viewings increase, any problems I initially had with the film only seemed to add to Nosferatu's greatness. Some say that in order for a film to be a true masterpiece, it has to be flawed. Herzog's films are filled with little flaws, many due to working with next to no funding. They're deeply personal, and were understandably emotional. And working with Kinski was always a volatile affair. But that's what does make them so endearing. There are many technically "perfect" films. Yet many of them that don't have that endearing quality. It's films like these that seem to stick with you, for better or for worse. For their flaws, or for what they achieve in spite of them.
Gran Torino (2008) ***
When I saw the preview's for Clint Eastwood's new film Gran Torino, I kind of thought, 'What the hell is this?' Then I looked into it, and found that the film has so far received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Clearly, the advertising for Gran Torino wasn't doing it justice. The truth is that Gran Torino is simply out of sync with the current movie marketing paradigm. The film is a delicious throwback to old school hard boiled tough guy B movies of the 70s and 80s. Eastwood has his tongue planted firmly in cheek, and the end result is a film a helluva lot funnier than could ever be anticipated by the grim growly TV trailers.
Eastwood, directing and starring, plays Walt Kowalski, a widowed and grumpy Korean war Veteran. The film begins with Walt's beloved wife's funeral. He grimaces with embarrassment as his materialistic sons arrive with their greedy and inappropriately dressed children. The sons seem to think that their father will get in trouble all alone in his neighborhood, but neither is willing to take him in. He wouldn't leave anyway. When one son later brings him pamphlets for a retirement villa - along with some other comically old-people themed gifts - he has a long scowly growl before throwing him out of the house - on the old man's birthday no less.
Walt's neighborhood is now inhabited by immigrant Hmong families. "Why'd they have to move here?" Walt growls then spits; "Why is that old white man still living in this neighborhood?" the elderly Hmong lady next door grumbles, then out spittles the old man. The young boy next door, Tau, is something of a push over, and is harassed by his older cousin and his gang banger friends. They persuade him to steal Walt's prized possession - his '72 Grand Torino. Walt catches the boy and he runs off. Tau's cousin and gang return the next night to tell him they'll give him another shot, but a fracas ensues. When it spills onto Walt's grass, that's when he gets angry and pulls his rifle. He stops the fight and scares the gang off. The next day, to his surprise, he's greeted as a hero by his Hmong neighbors. They give him gifts and food he does not want.
Walt later stops a group of thugs from harassing Tau's sister, Sue. The girl takes to Walt, and pesters him with invites and friendly conversation. One day Walt finally agrees to go next door to a party. He begins learning about his neighbors and their people, and is shocked by their kindness to find that he has more in common with them than his own two greedy sons. Walt takes Thao under his wing after his family says he must allow the boy to make amends for trying to steal the car. He, of course, becomes fond of the boy. He teaches him how to talk like a man, and gets him a job at a construction firm to toughen him up. After Thao is stopped one day coming home from work by his cousin and the gang, they break some of his tools, leading Walt to react. From there, the violence only escalates.
Gran Torino finds lots of little tongue in cheek moments of humor, from Walt's near perpetual grumpiness to his bigotry. He's like Archie Bunker with a hangover. His racial insults are comical in their obvious bigotry. For some reason most of his insults do not seem malicious, but rather almost innocently ignorant. His Hmong neighbors greet his ignorance with amusement. Of course by the end of the film Walt has come to respect those who are different from him, and even comes to terms with himself and his own dark past. He's pestered by the young Parish Priest, who was asked by Walt's wife to keep an eye on her husband, and see that he confesses. Walt refers to him as an overeducated 27 year old virgin, but sees that even though the Priest is young, he's also wise. When Walt tells the priest he knows nothing of death, the priest responds in turn that Walt knows nothing but death.
Gran Torino has a lot to say about respecting and understanding each other, while also sticking it to the attitudes of young punks. It's a film that could clearly and probably will be taken the wrong way by many people, just as All in the Family was in its day, even with its ultimate end message. But Gran Torino is cheerfully tongue in cheek.
Walt Kowalski is something of a loving parody of Eastwood's bad ass characters of the 70s. He's a geriatric Dirty Harry. It's not an explicit comedy, but it is quite funny - and on purpose. Gran Torino is a genuinely sincere effort from Eastwood to channel his past, and has a little bit of everything, just like a good B movie should.
Encounters at the End of the World (2008) ****
"There is no point that is south of the south pole." That's a no brainer, but have you ever thought about that before reading that statement? Such a simple and obvious saying, yet there's something quite poignant buried within it. It's pointed out by one of Werner Herzog's dreamers - a philosopher and part time forklift driver - that he found on his encounters at the end of the world.
Herzog begins his new documentary warning us that this will not be another film about fluffy penguins; his questions about nature are far different. For example, why does a sophisticated creature like a chimp not make use of inferior creatures - they could saddle goats and ride off into the sunset. Herzog delivers with a pondering and quizzical film. Encounters at the End of the World is about the intricacies - and insanities - of life on Antarctica. His visit was spurred on by the footage taken by one of the under-ice divers, a friend of his. He opens the film with the images of what appears to be hauntingly blue skies and bubbly white clouds, but its not skies nor clouds, but the clear waters and hulking ice. Herzog, always fascinated with the oddity and great beauty of the natural world, fills his documentary with stunning images and sequences. Underwater divers film strange creatures under the ice, and massive ice formations while navigating their way back to the single hole in the ice, without tether lines to guide them. Volcanologists traverse dormant lava tubes, only having to be weary of poison gases that can be found in some.
Herzog's base of operations is McMurdo, the largest settlement on the continent. He describes it as an ugly mining town. And it is ugly. It's filled with scientists, wanderers, adventurers and dreamers, all looking to 'jump off the margins of the map,' as one observer puts it. It also has "abominations" such as aerobics and yoga studios, even an ATM. Before he go in the field, he, like everyone else, must attend survival school, where among other things students learn to build shelter, and then must spend the night in it. They also partake in a white out simulation, achieved by wearing white buckets on their heads. They wander out to find the instructor, playing a lost peer. As they get disorientated, the scene becomes comical, but also points out our inferiority when up against nature.
Herzog does make a stop to visit some penguins briefly, and the man who studies them - reportedly no longer much of a conversationist with humans since he spends so much time isolated with penguins. Herzog's questions are amusing, but thoughtful. "Are there gay penguins?" "Is there such thing as madness among penguins?" The answer to that last question leads to one of the films most memorable and profound sequences.
The film at once is an admiration of those who find themselves working at the end of the world, and an admonition of the manipulation of adventure. Herzog wastes no time on the uninteresting people there. He talks with a scientist who describes a horrifying world that would tear us apart - if it were not too small to be seen by the human eye. He also shows old science fiction movies and warns of our fate. Some of them gather during the night, still day lit, for a jam session on top of their hut.Another woman discusses how she rode through South America in a sewer pipe, then zips herself into a travel bag. Another man, a plumber, says his hands prove that he is descended from Aztec and Inca royalty. On the other hand, he admonishes the notion of adventure for conquer. Shackleton came not for the sake of adventure, but to claim the South Pole. He almost lampoons some of his subjects, but is never disrespectful and clearly admires all of them.
The name of the film is something of a double entendre. Herzog frequently ponders another life after humans are gone. What would they think of us when they come see what we're doing in Antarctica? There are references to global warming and threats to our planet, but Herzog is no issue of the day crusader. So many other documentaries would condescend to us, and have. Green has become the fad of the day, annoying many instead of enlightening. Herzog is too much of an enigma to pander or preach to us, and that's part of the reason why Encounters at the End of the World is so special.
Werner Herzog is a man incapable of making a dull film. What is entirely true in this documentary is questionable as it is in his others. His pursuit of ecstatic truth - semi-fictions to capture the essence of what is more truthful than truth - gives him license to embellish. But no matter, if he has some of his interviewees script some details, I do no care to know which. I'm happy being mesmerized by the stories they tell as is.
For me, a Werner Herzog film is like pulling on a warm pair of slippers on a cold winter day, and pulling up by the fire to read a favorite book. Herzog was one of the first filmmakers to draw me into the world of great film-making, and for that I forever owe him a great debt of gratitude. And it was Roger Ebert who lead me to him, so how fitting that this beautiful film was dedicated to him.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Balls Out: The Gary Houseman Story (2009) **
From Dodgeball to ping pong to basketball and even ice skating, sports have been the basis for wacky oddball comedies as of late, some better and funnier than others. This one doesn't star Will Ferrel or Vince Vaughan. Instead, it's Sean William Scott. He's been been funny before, so O.K., not a bad start.
The film's script apparently also won an award, I'm told. I'm not really sure how. There's nothing new or unexpected. It's the usual routine: a group of misfits gets an unruly new coach who turns them around and leads them to glory.
Sean William Scott plays tennis hasbeen/never-was Gary. He went on the Mexican semi-pro tour after a few incidents in college, before settling down in Nebraska, because it's as good as anywhere really. Plus the real estate is cheap (referring to a banged up motor home). He became an engineer - the custodial branch. One day he gets the itch an runs out on the tennis court while the high school team is practicing. The coach (Randy Quaid) recruits him as his assistant. Gary, for some reason, is enamored with the coach, but then he dies. Because he's not a teacher, the school can't make him the head coach, at least officially. The new head coach (or co-assistant coach) has no experience with tennis, or any other sport he says. In order to honor the late coach, Gary is determined to coach the tennis team to a state championship.
The cast includes lots of the usual oddballs: the gifted tennis player who reminds Gary of himself; wimpy kids afraid of getting hit with the ball; the sexy foreign language teacher as the subject of the protagonist's desires. There's also the late coach's teenage daughter, who interestingly, but oddly, has the hots for Gary before becoming the love interest of the teams star player. Gary even recruits the weird foreign kid - a pro ping pong player from the Philippines. He's never played tennis before, but his hand/eye coordination must be amazing, as Gary points out.
Balls Out actually does manage to be occasionally endearing with its goofy characters. And Sean William Scott really can play a dirty greaser very well - thanks most probably to his ability to grow a mean fumanchu. He seems so greasy it's almost offputting at times, but funny at others. When the late coach's daughter plants one on him, for a minute it seems plausible that he'll actually go through with it. That scene does lead to the film's mandatory act of turmoil and challenge. Of course, it's overcome though.
I had a fair share of laughs, but only a few roarers. The exchange student is comical in how quickly he himself becomes almost Gary's partner in crime after moving into the motor home with him. In the end, Balls Out just isn't consistently funny enough, and too many of the big jokes fall flat. The film will likely be released amid the January slew of films that studios would rather forget they made. I can't see the movie making a big box office splash, but it might do alright depending on what weekend it lands.
Frost/Nixon (2008) ***1/2
His most lasting legacy, as a character in the film suggests, is the the use of 'gate' as a suffix for every political blunder since his own. Richard Nixon was not a delusional man - he likely recognized this as well. We all make mistakes, but his was broadcast widely and cost him the American Presidency. We all know how affecting our greatest blunders are to us - imagine the effect it must Nixon's must have had on him. Given the comparably larger scale, I suspect it must have been devastating.
The new film adaptation of Peter Morgan's much admired play, Frost/Nixon, is rooted firmly in its performances and screenplay. Michael Sheen plays David Frost, the British television host who coaxed Richard Nixon into exercising his guilt in a series of interviews. Frost was at the time living in almost a form of entertainment exile, banished to Australia, though still successful. He was something of a playboy, something of a joker. When he proposed interviewing the disgraced former president, he was balked at. He was a variety brand host, not a serious journalist or seasoned interviewer. Nixon would eat him alive. But he persisted, and put it all together, largely out of his own pocket. Nixon, played with shocking embodiment by Frank Langella, and his people accepted, due in part to the $600 thousand payday, and in even larger part because they agreed with the general consensus - Nixon would eat this joker alive.
And so he did for most of their sessions. Nixon routinely circumvented questions with anecdotes and hyperbole, with Frost allowing him to ramble without response. But Frost, though disheartened, never gave up, and kept doing his homework. To help him was his friend and producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). While David spends much of his time away promoting films he's produced, or courting potential advertisers, his three wise men cram and plan their attack. Reston Jr has already written four books about Nixon, and has a hunch about a key date and meeting early in the film which turns out to be the key to breaking Nixon down. On the other side, Nixon is almost never without his right hand man, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). He believes in Nixon to the end, in his righteousness, and wants to protect him from further attacks.
The film, directed by Ron Howard, uses an interesting technique. It's structured as a documentary, right down to the retrospective interviews with those involved. In a way, it's sort of a mockumentary, but sincere and without the satire or slapstick. I was slightly off put at first, wondering perhaps if this would have been better as a documentary, but it works out pretty quickly thereafter. After a while I was actually looking forward to these moments. And although the subject would make a fascinating documentary, Frost/Nixon has something that a documentary would not be able to attain - Nixon himself. Nixon was reviled at the time, hated by nearly all. Frost/Nixon and Frank Langella do not make Nixon an evil man, but a stubborn man, dedicated to his predilections. What he considered moral and just were misguided, but he was not evil. He was simply a man who made many mistakes, not least of which the abuse of his power. Most films would have taken the easy road and turned the interviews into some sort of revenge themed tale - the horrible Nixon defeated and embarrassed by a television fluff host.
Frost/Nixon does not. Instead, thanks especially to Langella's powerhouse performance, we're made to empathize with the man. We don't have to sympathize with someone to criticize them, bu we ought at least empathize. How else could we even begin to comprehend what we ourselves would have done if placed in the same situation?
What makes Frost/Nixon work is the two lead performances by Sheen and Langella. Both actors played their roles in Peter Morgan's play, and seem to wear their characters like an old pair of pants. Frank Langella is the great highlight of the film. His Nixon is startlingly transcending - not necessarily because he looks like or sounds just like the real Nixon, but because he so profoundly embodies the man's soul. When he elaborates on his misdeeds, it seems almost more because that soul is so tortured, the weight of guilt burdened too heavily on his shoulders, than because he has been outwitted.
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
It is my contention that Robert Bresson's films are not so much films as they are philosophical essays stroked out on celluloid. They are often contemplations on the soul, usually of its destruction. His films are highly stylised in that they are without any style at all. Many of the actors he used acted in the film in which he cast them. He left out what would usually be considered key moments in a plot, making them difficult, but always fascinating. He never failed in what he tried to achieve, though that doesn't mean they were all always really that enjoyable, especially If you approach them as you would any other movie anyway. They are an acquired taste, and frankly require a certain degree of intelligence. I don't say that to sound pretentious, but to merely point out the observation that to have to think about something requires a certain amount of intelligence.
In 1974 Bresson applied his philosophic sensibilities to a legendary tale. He took the famous Arthurian story of Lancelot's affair with Arthur's Queen, Guinevere. Of course, everyone knows the story, so I will not bother describing the plot so much as examine how it's executed. Bresson stripped all the lustre and romanticism from the story. Instead, he chose to emphasize the grime and cold-bloodedness. In the opening shot, he has Knights battle each other, hammering their swords against their armour until they strike flesh. Blood pours out like water from a faucet. It is a poignant gesture that Bresson begins (and ends) his film with inexplicable and horrific violence.
Bresson turns ups the sounds of metal scraping on metal as the knights move around. He makes them look almost silly in their shuffling motions. Their pride is a foolish one. Instead of noblemen, Bresson shows them as petty and manipulative. They conspire to kill Lancelot, not by challenging him to a duel, but by waiting for him to exit the Queen's room where, armed or not, they declare he'll be too caught off guard to put up a fight before he is run through. Even Lancelot is ashamed, for he has returned from his quest to find the Holy Grail a failure. His trespasses with the Queen, even if it is true love, are doomed to tragedy because of foolhardy nobility.
Though parts of the film take place in a castle, Bresson wastes no time with an establishing or grandiose shots. Even in battle, most scenes are reactionary. He makes it a point to show the knights lifting and closing their face masks as they speak with one another or prepare for war. The repetition somehow acts almost as satire. I think Bresson recognized the asinine behind the legendry.
Lancelot du Lac was one of Bresson's most abstract films. It was in many ways an exercise in deconstruction that would have done Derrida proud. It obviously must has been quite influential. When I first saw Terrence Malick's The New World, I instantly thought that it must have been influenced in some way by Lancelot du Lac. That film stripped the story of Pocahontas and John Smith to its bare essentials - albeit not to the extent that Bresson goes, but still. There is one scene in The New World which reminded me very much of Lancelot du Lac, the one in which Smith wades through a swampy forest in his clunky armour only to be bested by the nearly nude naturals. He looks foolish trying to navigate and murky forest in such clunky attire. Now whether or not the film was an inspiration or if Malick has even seen it, I cannot confirm (though I suspect he has - his knowledge of cinema is extensive) Bresson often shows his knights gallivanting in the forest, wearing armour as a formal attire in situations that do not require it, other than to shout, "look at me, I am a Knight of King Arthur's Court!." Sure they offer some added protection, but they are still no match for death - as Bresson points out by showing us at the beginning and at the end (purposefully placed no doubt) how blood finds ways to spray from the openings and holes in plates of armour. Their armour is simply a token of their supremacy over the common man.
Lancelot du Lac is Bresson's way of showing us the grandiose self-importance the Knights of King Arthur's Court presented upon themselves, and continues to be placed upon them by fairytale romanticism. When Lancelot asks for help to overcome his temptations from God, it is not for holiness or piety, but his own mortal self-preservation. Their quest for the Grail and their military victories have granted them fame and reputation. They squander what gifts they have been given to defeat one another. On one side, for the sake of Arthur against Lancelot; on the other for the sake of the Queen and Lancelot against everyone else. In the end when Lancelot concedes and returns the Queen to Arthur in exchange for her pardon, a group of Knights turn against the King at his moment of weakness. Now then Lancelot and his men return to fight for Arthur against the usurpers. It is a cycle of battle, or to be more to the point, competition. Throughout the film the Knights are preoccupied with competition in some form - jousting, declaring duels, chess, the love of the queen. They feast on an appetite of destruction.
All is done in the name of Christianity in Arthur's court, but Bresson leaves much of that to subtlety. One shot of Lancelot is framed in the foreground by a crucifix, out of focus on purpose. Guinevere responds that the Knights were looking for God as a trophy - yet God is not a trophy. The Knights have simply taken Christianity as their flag in a battle for self-supremacy, not any theological quest.
The Searchers (1956)
Politically Incorrect? Yes. Hammy, sometimes bad acting? Yes. Silly? Yes. Melodramatic? Yes. One of the greats? Absolutely. John Ford's films are something of a mystery to me. Nearly all of them suffer from overly dramatic acting and cheesy period writing. Nearly all of them seem to bounce from tense dramas to slap stick comedies at a moments notice without necessity or merit. Yet despite what should be complete casualties of time the many of them are some of the great American movies, and those apparent casualties have become endearing. The Searchers, Ford's greatest western, is a prime example.
John Wayne, the patron saint of American toughness, gives one of his greatest performances as Ethan Edwards, a man who spends years searching for his niece, captured by Comanches after they raid the family ranch and kill of the other family members. He's returned after a long absence following the civil war, perhaps fighting in Mexico.
Apparently Wayne also thought this was his best work - he named a son Ethan after this character. Jeffrey Hunter plays Martin Pawley, the 1/8 Cherokee adopted nephew of Ethan, who comes along for the years long journey. Together they search and search. After a while, Martin confides that he continues on not so much to find his adopted sister alive, but to make sure that when Ethan finds her alive, she stays that way. Edwards is a man so consumed with hate for the Comanches that he shoots them as they carry their dead, and kills buffalo in fields just so they can't eat them. After all these years, it's likely that Debbie has been totally adopted into the Comanche way of life - something that to Ethan means she may as well be dead.
As with most of Ford's films, there's a myriad of other characters and their own little story lines. As usual, there is the stock Swedish family. Their daughter Laurie is madly in love with Marty, despite him leaving her side to search along side Ethan for years. After a time, and after Martin reveals he accidentally got married to a young 'squaw,' he gets competition in the form of Charlie McQuarie, the regions letter carrier. This plot point leads to some of the film's most memorable moments of comedy. There's also old Mose Harper, the crazy old rocking chair loving friend of the family. He's got the brunt of the film's slap stick pay off.
Pointing out just how great John Ford's direction is is analogous to beating a dead horse. Each shot is perfectly composed, simple but elegant. Of course, shooting in Monument Valley is difficult to make look poor. It's one of those great film-making environments. It's a stunning location, beautiful in its rugged stacks and jutting rock formations.
Without a doubt, some of the acting in The Searchers is silly by today's standards. Jeffrey Hunter is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. John Qualen, doing his trademarked Swedish shtick as Lars Jorgensen is at times endearing but at other times annoying and cringe-worthy. But that hardly matters, the thespian stage belongs entirely to John Wayne as Ethan Edwards. It's easy to write off Wayne in memory as an over-the-top tough guy, but seeing performances like this one reminds us that he really was a very good actor. His performance is outstanding, embodying all that a man like Ethan Edwards must. He plays Edwards as a spiteful and bitter man, who's joys seem to only rise to the level of bittersweet. His hatred of the Comanches seems to be straightforward racism, unless you're one of the few to notice a split second prop early on in the film that explains his bitterness. That Wayne was 20 years too old to play the part is entirely inconsequential.
Although The Searchers is not exactly a politically correct film, that does little to really harm the film's reputation. Ford was aware of the nature of the film he was making, and maintained that the intent was never malicious. It's certainly nowhere near the level of bigotry shown in Griffith's Birth of a Nation. It's a product of its time, which means that it's all that more of a success considering how great it is today over 50 years later.
A Wednesday (2008) *
Maybe I just don't get Bollywood. I can see why some people find such films endearing, though I myself do not relate to such affections. Maybe it's a cultural thing, though lots of foreigners like this movies, and I have no problem relating or getting into other movies from around the globe. There are also lots of other great Indian films - one of the world's greatest filmmakers was Satyajit Ray, for example. I guess I just do not like the bollywood style. That's a personal taste, so let me explain myself in my reasoning.
But first, the movie. A Wednesday is actually quite an interesting story. A soon to be retired police chief in Mumbai recollects his most difficult case. A man calls police informing them that he has placed bombs around the city, and will detonate them if his demands are not met. Those demands: release four terrorists and take them to a destination of his choosing. From here on in, the film is a cat and mouse game, with the mouse firmly positioned on a perch above the city, while the cats try to find out who the mouse is, and where he is. We're told in the opening narration that this case cannot be found in any history books or government records. Why that is is divulged in time. The truth is quite unexpected, and in many ways quite profound and interesting. The problem is how it gets to that point, and therein lies the disconnect for me. I'm sure that most of these films realize they have their tongues planted firmly in cheek, but sometimes that's not the best path to tread upon.
I almost feel bad as I'm about to enter into my personal critique, because I know that the primary aim of Bollywood movies is to give the audience what it wants, but what it wants is not what I want out of the movies. But I digress, and let me begin.
1. Horrible acting from nearly everyone but the police chief and bomber, who are actually very good.
2. The most brazen abuse of slow motion I've ever seen.
3. Inane moments of audience friendly cliché, that don't just border on kitsch - they bathe in it.
4. Manages to make itself feel like a parody of a thriller with the slightest of ease.
5. Corny, asinine sequences of dialogue. I'll expand: hard as coffin nail cops are quizzed by their chief - "Are you afraid?" "No!" "But what if you die?"; "I don't care!" Is that meant to be funny? Probably, maybe. But I don't get the humor, nor do I find it appropriate.
6. So what it if its different than a Hollywood action movie? It's equally as ridiculous throughout, just in a different way.
Bollywood may take pleasure indulging in being the bastard step-child of Hollywood clichés, employing them to giddy extremes, and that's all well and good fun in something that aims to take its message a little less serious, but not here. Hollywood movies can't get away with schlock like this, so why should A Wednesday? This is a long way from Satyajit Ray.
Again, maybe I just don't get this kind of movie. Maybe I'm even missing the point entirely. Do I think that would change my mind though? I doubt it. If I hated the roller coaster the first time because it went too fast, so you told me speed was the point, I'm sure I'd still be uncomfortable the second time around. I did not like this ride. Frankly, I kind of hated it. But hey, that's just me.
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