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Too Cool to Notice It Isn't
Can you think of anything more satisfying than pulling a fast one on someone? It's even more delicious when that particular someone is someone you care about or who has gotten you more times than you would like to remember. The look on their faces when they realize they've been had is worth every painstaking effort you had to make to pull it off. You would think then that DUPLICITY, a film in which two very likable and sneaky folks, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, who have proved chemistry together from working previously in Mike Nichols' CLOSER, would be sticking it to each other so bad that you would delight in every jab they made at each other. Well, the ultimate joke would be on you then because, while writer/director, Tony Gilroy, positions DUPLICITY as a feisty heist movie by stepping up the cool factor any way he can, it is actually nothing more than a failed prank fallen flat on its pretty Hollywood face.
When we first meet Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval (Roberts and Owen), they are drinking it up in Dubai at the US consulate. She isn't the least bit interested in him and he is working her as hard as he can. I didn't hear it but he must have said the right thing at some point because they end up in bed together. Of course, she was only sleeping with him so that she could drug him and steal some super secret international spy stuff. And naturally, he put aside all of his super secret spy training and allowed himself to be taken in by her beauty. It is a fleeting moment with very little chemistry or connection but this is supposed to be the instance that binds the two in a lust that is supposed to span years and lead to what we're told is true love. They reconnect years later in some other exotic shooting location and concoct a plan to dupe two high profile rival corporations and make off with millions of dollars that will allow them to bask in exorbitantly rich bliss for the rest of their lives. It's a fine plan but I wasn't buying anything.
Gilroy's last directorial effort was his first. MICHAEL CLAYTON earned him respect from critics and contemporaries alike as the film went on to earn a number of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Gilroy himself. Gilroy enlisted some of the same players he worked with last time out, including composer, James Newton Howard, cinematographer, Robert Elswit and even cast member, Tom Wilkinson, rejoins the gang as the head of one of these soon-to-be-conned corporations. How is it then that when all these folks got together last time, they achieved such subtle perfection while this time, Howard sounds as though he were ripping off the OCEAN'S 11 through 13 scores and Elswit is practically washed out? (Wilkinson is still great as he can do very little wrong in my book.) Perhaps the blame can be placed on Gilroy's most tired screenplay in years. By keeping corporate espionage grounded in reality last time out, he made it fascinating and relatable. By infusing it with Hollywood convention, the whole game was played out before it even began.
DUPLICITY boils down to very little more than two pretty people running games on each other and anyone else they can. The trouble is that the games they're running are amusing only to them and entirely transparent to the rest of us. The truly duplicitous nature of DUPLICITY it would seem is just that everyone on that side of the screen thinks they are so much funnier, so much sneakier and so much more dubious than what we on this side of the screen actually see. Once again, the cool kids are too ignorant to notice that they are nowhere near as cool as they think they are.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Revolutionary Road hardly revelatory
The drive from the train station is not that far. Once you get past the first stretch, home to local folk like plumbers, seamstresses and the like, you turn on to a quaint, quiet road. The house that will hopefully soon be the home to you and your children, present and future, sits atop its tiny slope, understated but proud. As you drive past the other homes, you see the people that inhabit them. The children run under sprinklers; the parents sit on their porches and enjoy their afternoon cocktails. They all look so happy, so home. This is what you need. This is what will make you happy too. This is Revolutionary Road. Only, it isn't really that. What it is really, is Sam Mendes' REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and just like the pretty picture it paints, it isn't as revelatory as it inherently suggests nor does it bring the happiness you thought it might.
Mendes has been down this particular road before. In the Oscar winning, American BEAUTY, Mendes explored the trappings of suburban life. It was hardly revelatory when he did it then but screenwriter, Alan Ball's unique take on the subject made it feel fresh and relevant. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is based on Richard Yates' 1961 novel of the same name. It tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), the lovely, new couple who have bought the aforementioned house at the end of Revolutionary Road and who bring with them the promise of youth and vitality. You see, the Wheeler's are special. Everyone has always said as much. Then they moved to Revolutionary Road. They made their house into a home and filled that home with two wonderful children. It was at this point that they realized that they may not truly be as special as everyone has always said, that perhaps they are not destined for anything greater than what they already have.
Leo and Kate are perfectly cast as the Wheeler's. More than ten years after TITANIC, the pair are together again and now everyone gets to see exactly what might have happened if the couple had survived the boat going down. (I trust I gave nothing away there.) And while there is nothing romantic about their reunion, they are REVOTIONARY ROAD's one true revelation. Winslet is remarkable. She is subtly but always at odds with herself inside. She wants to love her life, her husband, and on some level, she does. But she is also yearning and desperate to feel alive. DiCaprio is a bit shaky but while April's hand is less than reassuring, Winslet's hand lifts him and elevates his performance to nearly the same level as hers. To watch the two of them go back and forth between being hopeful for their futures and dismally resigned to a lifetime of unhappiness is a ride well worth taking and one that will certainly leave you dizzy by the time it comes to its harrowing close.
The problem with REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is that Mendes seems more concerned in presenting the Wheeler's as a symbol for the greater point instead of allowing them to just be the relatable characters that they are. Frank and April are special. When we begin to buy into the idea that we are just like everyone else is when we become just like everyone else. When a film tries to make a point instead of just allowing the point to make itself is when a film takes on an importance it did not earn to start. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD could have been beautiful if it wasn't trying so hard to be the biggest house on the block.
The Reader (2008)
A Great Read
We don't know. We think we do but we don't. We make decisions or sometimes decisions are made for us but we think we've made them. Then suddenly, there we are. We can't be certain how we got there or where we will be when everything settles but we do know that we are alive. Some experiences are life altering and we can run from them or embrace them. Staying to see them through though can bring incredible bliss but also tormented turmoil. We just never know. One such experience was had by a young Michael Berg (David Kross) and is chronicled in Stephen Daldry's THE READER. How could he know that when he pulled into an alley to be sick that he would meet the woman who would shape his entire life? How could he know that getting close to her would pull him the furthest he's ever been from himself?
Of course, when you're a sixteen-year-old boy and a woman who looks like Kate Winslet disrobes in front of you in the privacy of her bathroom, how much thought really goes into the decision that has presented itself? However little it is, it is certainly less than is warranted. This is especially true in West Germany of 1958. This is a Germany that is uncertain how to proceed, how to be its new self in the eyes of the world and the eyes of its very own future generations. Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a compassionate woman but also abrasive and stern. Winslet strikes the perfect balance between directness and desire in Schmitz, making her complexities part of her appeal. She is a good fifteen years older than the young Berg and she knows much better than he of her country's history. What he knows, he has read in books, been taught in school. What she knows, she lived first hand. So when the two come together, naked in each other's arms, the meeting is as redemptive as it is passionate. Berg is just happy to be in love and having sex but Schmitz is washing herself clean with the youthful vigor of Germany's tomorrow.
The summer ends and so does the affair, as one would expect. Just when it would seem that the two would never meet again, life steps in to ensure that past decisions, perhaps made in haste, can come to see their consequences. Berg has grown some and is a college man, studying to be a lawyer, when he catches sight of Hanna Schmitz again. Their latest chance encounter is far less exciting though as he sees her on a class outing to a courthouse. Schmitz is on trial for crimes against humanity for her time as an officer in the Nazi party during the Second World War. Berg's memory of his first love would now become a question of his own morality. How could he love someone who was now accused of such atrocities? How could he be so intimate with someone he apparently never truly knew? And yet, now that he knows her past, does he really know how her past came to be? After all, what is the face of evil? Is it Hanna Schmitz or is it something incredibly bigger than her?
Ralph Fiennes is the future of Germany. He plays Berg as an adult. His life is orderly, very clean, crisp and cold. He made decisions that made him the man he is and he can never say whether they were the right ones or not. What he can see is that we all make decisions that either hurt or harm other people and that the atrocities committed by his past generations are not as far outside the realm of understanding as he might have originally thought. More importantly, redemption is not that far either.
The Wrestler (2008)
I was never a professional wrestling fan as a child. My brother was and so I occasionally caught the weekly shows because I was too lazy to get off the couch when he would watch them. I never understood the appeal. How could grown men rolling around on the floor together in an obviously choreographed battle appeal to the straight male? Is wrestling the straight man's ballet? And though I never understood why, my brother and legions of other men (and women) would watch religiously to see who would be smashed with a chair while the referee was lying unconscious on the floor. Amidst all of the spectacle though, it is easy to forget that the men in tights put on pants just like the rest of us when the show is done and go home to their lives. Darren Aronofsky is here to remind us of this and to show us the softer or more human side of THE WRESTLER.
From the moment is begins, with an opening credit montage highlighting the career accomplishments of former wrestling superstar, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) over a throwback hair-metal song, you know that you are in for a dirty ride. The Ram has got to be in his sixties at this point. It has been twenty years since he played Madison Square Garden and now he is the main attraction at local wrestling matches that are put up in high school gymnasiums and workout centers. He has no one of significance in his life; he can barely afford his trailer park home; and the steroids and numerous other drugs he has consumed and is still currently consuming have taken their toll on his weathered body. Yet still, he soldiers on. As long as he has his wrestling, he has purpose. Then one day, even that is taken away. Who does a man become when he can no longer be who he has always known himself to be?
THE WRESTLER is Aronofsky's finest work. It marks the first time in his major film-making career where he did not direct a script that he himself wrote. That credit goes to novice writer, Robert D. Siegel. Siegel's script is bare, honest and frank. It follows The Ram during this hard transitional period of his life and Aronofsky follows behind as though he were filming some trashy reality TV show. After all, this is a dirty story that goes back and forth between wrestling rings, strip clubs and trailer parks. Aronofsky does not sensationalize though. Instead, his newfound simplicity allows the humanity of all on screen to flow freely and freely is exactly how it flows from this immensely talented cast. Marisa Tomei plays The Ram's love interest, a stripper named Cassidy. Not only does she look incredible working the stage but her off stage persona is a great mix of tender and tired. It is a welcome reminder that Tomei is one of today's most underrated actresses. And then of course there is the wrestler himself. Rourke is revelatory. He is lonely and broken but still picking himself up and doing whatever needs doing. To watch a man of his age endure what he does in the ring makes you root hard for him but the horrifying violence also inspires intense sympathy.
THE WRESTLER is about purpose. After Aronofsky's last film, THE FOUNTAIN, failed and fell apart quite publicly, it would stand to reason that he may have been questioning his own purpose. Just like The Ram knows only how to be a wrestler though, Aronofsky has to be a filmmaker. Whatever confidence he may have lost has been forgotten as THE WRESTLER is a brave move away from the visual trickery and style he had become accustomed to. It is the natural simplicity of his new direction that makes THE WRESTLER so relatable, inspires great caring for its characters and solidifies it as Aronofsky's best work.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON certainly has no trouble living up to its name. It is very curious indeed, for instance, how a man can be born to this world the size of an infant but with the physical affliction of a man at death's door. It is remarkable that a two and a half hour epic can be so consistently beautiful to behold and breathtaking until its final moments. While it isn't the least bit unusual to catch Cate Blanchett on top of her game, it is certainly impressive to see Brad Pitt exhibit such restraint and internalized inquisitiveness. It is definitely intriguing to witness a director as dark as David Fincher (ZODIAC, SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB) abandon the genre that made him who he is and side step into such a grand, romantic piece with such apparent ease and enthusiasm. But it is perhaps most curious how this film, where every element is so delicately placed and nurtured to a point where it borders on technical perfection, can be so cold and empty an experience despite itself.
Of course, within the context of the film, the curious thing about Benjamin Button is that he is aging backwards while all of humanity is progressing naturally. Benjamin must suffer through his childhood in the body of an old man who has already lived his life when he is really just discovering it. Too frail to participate, he must watch life happen from the front porch of the old age home that has taken him in. Here, he bears witness to life in its final stages and grows accustomed to the constant presence of death. His perspective is undeniably unique as he is always moving forward despite the reversed nature of his physical growth. Yet, this view and the wisdom it could bring are not shared with Benjamin's most ardent observers, the audience. We are here for his story and the meaning it could bring to our relatively uncomplicated existences but instead, all we are given is the story itself. This amounts to little more than the long life of Benjamin Button, which would not be particularly different if it weren't for the whole aging backwards thing.
It is one thing certainly to have all of the characters who encounter Benjamin accept him for who he is but that expectation is mildly unrealistic to ask of an audience. Still, this film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years for a number of reasons, not the least of which was figuring out how to make it look realistic. Fincher finally settled on having graphs of Pitt's face drafted onto actors of different sizes and stature playing him at various stages of his aged infancy. The results are entirely believable and the makeup work, which so often detracts in such extreme cases such as these, is quite complimentary. And so visually, we buy into it. The performances also guide us to do the same as they are natural and heartfelt. And as if this weren't enough to transport us to this historic, fantasyland, Claudio Miranda's rich, contrasting cinematography does everything needed to fill in whatever gaps were left. With all this effort spent to make sure we believe what we are seeing, it is an awful shame that equal time wasn't spent on giving us something to believe in.
I blame Eric Roth. With so many things going for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, I have to lay the blame somewhere and Roth is the easiest person to point at. Roth's script is epic in proportion but minute in terms of purpose and meaning. Having proved his ability to carry people on long life journeys, such as that of FORREST GUMP, it is clear why he would be chosen to expand F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story into such a long film. In the process though, he took an unconventional concept and told it as conventionally as he could (did I mention that Benjamin's entire story is read from a diary at Blanchett's hospital deathbed). He created a character that is not so unlike the naïve Forrest. Benjamin is an observer of life; he watches it move forward from a perspective that none of us can truly comprehend and one that sadly, Roth and Fincher never allow us to see.
Seven Pounds (2008)
As a film critic, writer, enthusiast, what have you, I always find it somewhat tricky to write about a film that goes through such painstaking measures in its marketing campaign to keep its plot ambiguous. I can never figure out how to talk about the film while somehow not really talking about the film at all. This is because I hate giving things away and apparently, so does director, Gabriele Muccino. For the first half of the Italian director's latest Hollywood offering, SEVEN POUNDS, he drags his heels in the dirt, desperately concealing the plot in some failed attempt at being unconventional. For audiences who have been teased long enough with the trailer, being taunted once they've already paid for the answers will not go over well. There is a difference between natural intrigue and playing dramatic mind games with the viewer, intentional or not. When it comes to secrets, the important ones are kept without anyone knowing they even exist. Muccino almost seems to be having too much twisted fun dangling this seven pound carrot in my face. And by the time he gives you a bite, you're not hungry anymore.
After successfully pairing with star, Will Smith, two years ago with THE PURSUIT OF Happiness, Muccino goes for a second round. Muccino works very well with Smith, pulling hard, internal emotions out of one of the most accessible stars in Hollywood history. Smith knows this and it was no surprise to hear they were reteaming. It would seem that Smith makes most of his film decisions these days by choosing characters that are challenging and complicated. I commend him for this and think that, for the most part, he is successful in his evndeavors. However, Smith cannot completely control how his performance ends up shaping the films he is in. In SEVEN POUNDS, Smith gives a range of emotions from angry and bitter to gracious and generous. He is always convincing but Muccino takes Smith's performance and breaks it into so many non-sequential pieces that the energy needed to piece them all together leaves no energy left over to appreciate the whole.
SEVEN POUNDS does have one saving grace though and her name is Rosario Dawson. Dawson plays Emily Posa, a young woman with a heart condition and very little time left to live. She also owes an obscene amount of money to the American government. In steps Smith as Ben Thomas, an I.R.S. representative who seems more concerned with Emily's health issues than her back taxes. Inexplicably, they begin to spend significant time with each other. By the time this happens in the film, you can pretty much figure out what all the fuss is about but their interaction is so intriguing that it becomes a very welcome distraction. Their time together is oddly intriguing. They are drawn to each other and have a surprisingly simple ability to make each other laugh but you can tell that they are both dealing with very heavy struggles that limit their possibilities, both individually and together. It is a testament to healing capacity of the ever elusive emotion known as love.
The fragile love shared between Smith and Dawson proves ultimately to be another disappointing element of SEVEN POUNDS. It is so endearing that you wish the film had spent more of its focus there. Instead, it tries to play with you right up until the very end. If I am to be toyed with for such an extended period of time, I expect a pretty big payoff when I get what I'm due. Only the big reveal in SEVEN POUNDS serves solely to expose how conventional it truly is and how it wants to be heavy but is essentially as light as its namesake.
I couldn't sit still, let alone stand.
I don't know about the earth standing still but I certainly had a hard time moving after this one finished. I think I may have been in shock. I didn't know they still made movies as bad as this. That's me, I guess; the eternal optimist, thinking one day Hollywood will see the error of their ways. I'm starting to think there's a greater chance of aliens landing in Manhattan though. You don't take a highly regarded classic like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and update it for no reason other than to make a few bucks. Sure, you can pretend there is purpose; you can cash in on the current environmental crisis fears by insinuating that aliens have come to earth to save the planet from the horrifically unappreciative human race. When you make a film with such disregard for quality though, you can't do anything to convince me that you actually care about what you're trying to say.
I will give Hollywood this though; they have finally found the perfect vehicle for the now- veteran Hollywood actor, Keanu Reeves. Reeves plays Klaatu, an alien in human form who has no capacity of expressing human emotion or understanding the intricacies of human nature and interaction. It might as well say that at the top of Reeves's resume so this is Reeves in his element. Honestly though, this is the first time I can say that Reeves's presence in a film has absolutely nothing to do with why it is unwatchable. You know you have a problem when dialogue is so bad that it even drags Reeves's acting down. In fact, having the familiar Reeves on board for this uneventful journey, alongside the strikingly beautiful, Jennifer Connelly, at least gives us something pretty to distract us from the banality of the entire affair. Klaatu certainly rocks that three-piece suit though.
The earth is supposed to stand still on this particular day because aliens have descended upon Central Park in a giant weather sphere of sorts. It is a momentous occasion, one that could be the sign of the end of days. Yet, in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, panic hardly seems to be in the air. Panic comes from a fear of the unknown and an inability to see a solution to your problems but David Scarpa's script is so painstakingly obvious and formulaic that you can see right through to the end at all times. I hope I'm not giving anything away here but as if this film would finish with humanity's extinction. And when the devices used to create the melodrama are so laughably contrived (who knew that a white step mom and a black step son could have such hard times getting along?), at least you have the special effects to revel in. Mind you, when the special effects are even more ridiculous than the ensuing melodrama in a big sci-fi pic like this, what is there to keep you sitting still, let along standing?
You'll never believe this but humanity, or at least the American government run portion of humanity, take immediate military action against the alien invaders before giving them the chance to make their case. This next bit is even more shocking. Apparently, violence is not the answer to solving our problems. I swear, I learned so many hard life lessons watching this movie. Perhaps the most important lesson though is that humanity will never learn. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL represents the same disposable and commercial interests that are the root of our environmental problems. Yet, here is it preaching against the very values that justify its existence. For that reason alone, I would consider this film to be one of the most hopeless (and hapless) films of the year. We're essentially doomed so I say you can take it, Klaatu. Earth is all yours. We clearly don't deserve it.
The world does not always see the American people is a flattering light. They may be too distracted at times, allowing for their governments to do whatever they want while they aren't looking but one thing is for certain, they don't like being lied to. Be forewarned all future American presidents, if you're going to lie, don't get caught doing so. Former President, Richard Nixon, will forever be remembered for his lies but will always be despised for his inability to admit his guilt in the Watergate scandals or apologize for his betrayal of the people's trust. Ron Howard's film adaptation of the Tony winning stage play, FROST/NIXON does nothing to exonerate Nixon but rather puts forth the importance and necessity for remorse and forgiveness. In doing so, he has crafted his most cerebral film without overcomplicating the issues and more importantly, his film will serve as a challenge to the American people to demand the respect they deserve from their elected officials.
FROST/NIXON is not just about the bigger issues but also the people directly involved. David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a struggling, British television personality. He has tried his hand at American success and failed but sees securing the first television interview with Richard Nixon after he shamefully left office as his ticket. Anyone, of course, would but Nixon (Frank Langella) wasn't making anything easy. He wanted an exorbitant amount of money for the interview and Frost was having extreme difficulty finding financing backers and advertisers because people did not believe he could pull off what was necessary in order for the interview to be considered a success. Nixon, on the other hand, needed Frost to serve as a bridge to the people, to remind them of his humanity and regain their trust through simply being himself. They each had much at stake and they each had teams of people in their corners making sure their best interest were being served at all times. Somewhere beneath all smoke and mirrors was the truth of it all, just hoping to make itself known.
Langella and Sheen are the perfect team. They play off each other with great respect, both in their character and as actors who originated these roles on Broadway when the play first began. In fact, Howard refused to adapt the film if it meant doing it with other actors in the parts. Langella won the Tony for his stage performance and his Nixon is bold, determined, naïve while still commanding and at the most vulnerable of moments, he is frightened that he can never go back. His part is naturally more showy but that does not mean there is nothing left for Sheen to work with. His Frost is nervous, ambitious and also just as naïve and frightened as his counterpart. Watching the two of them face off in interview is engaging and suspenseful as you wait impatiently for one to make a mistake. Documenting an interview runs the risk of being fairly static but Howard's direction ensures that there is movement and momentum even when the two are just sitting across from each other. In fact, despite the palpable tension he creates on screen, Howard seems more relaxed than I'm accustomed to him being.
While Howard helms with a comfortable control, it is Peter Morgan's adaptation of his own stage play that serves as the film's true substance. He succeeds again, as he did with THE QUEEN, in bridging the gap between the public and the intensely private, only this time the castle gates that separated the people from their Queen have been replaced by another barrier, television. FROST/NIXON takes the notion of spin and slows it down until it becomes perspective, allowing for the distance between a president and the people to be narrowed as much as is possible.. And while the close-up can be terribly unforgiving, it is also the one shot we're all waiting for in order to attain the understanding needed in order to heal.
Milk is a masterpiece!
It was difficult for me to stand up after seeing Gus Van Sant's masterful MILK. The lights had already come on so my puffy eyes could be hid no longer but I had forgotten how to move. I was too engulfed with sadness and dismay. All I could think about was how far we think we've come as a supposed progressive people. Harvey Milk, the man whose story Van Sant is telling, was elected into public office in the late '70's in San Francisco. He was the first openly gay man to be elected to any significant level of government in American history. He was also shot and killed after being in office for less than a year. His last major political accomplishment was successfully campaigning to defeat a bill called Proposition 6. This bill would call for the dismissal of all openly gay school teachers and any persons who supported them. The bill had already passed in a number of other states and fear was mounting that even the country's most gay-friendly city might follow suit. Harvey wouldn't have it and ultimately, neither would San Francisco, or all of California for that matter. Why then are gay men and women still struggling to be treated like human beings to this day?
MILK picks up Harvey Milk's life in the eight years preceeding his assassination. In that time, he meets a man who would become his lover for many years; he moves from New York to San Francisco to find new challenges; and he runs a number of times for public office as an out and proud gay man. He also loses a number of times but Milk was not a man who could easily be deterred from his very important goal. It was Milk's mission to represent his people; to show the city he loved that the gay population was one of the reasons that the city itself was so well loved by all who visited and that they too had a powerful and reasonable voice. Milk was committed to making sure that voice was heard. Van Sant, an openly gay man himself, is just as committed to the cause but his part is very different. Even today, the image of the gay man is still being sold to mainstream, or straight if you will, audiences in a delicate way. Van Sant's Milk is an ambitious entrepreneur. He has a strong character, funny and flighty one moment, romantic and intimate the next and always dedicated to the bigger picture outside of himself. Apparently, painting the gay man as human is still necessary because many still haven't figured it out for themselves.
Of course, Van Sant can't get all the credit as he is only as strong as his parts. In this case, his parts are all perfect. "Big Love" staff writer, Dustin Lance Black's sensitive screenplay is heartbreaking and genuine. Director of photography, Harris Savides, who has brought a dreamlike lucidity to Van Sant twice before on GERRY and ELEPHANT, goes back and forth between archival and new footage seamlessly planting the viewer in both the historical context and the surrounding human drama. Danny Elfman fills the soft space with a score so layered, it can easily be described as his most original work in recent memory. And then of course, there are the men. I will never describe a straight man playing a gay role as an act of bravery. I will, however, always applaud an actor's ability to shed their entire ego and transform into another being so fearlessly. The caliber of the mostly male ensemble cast of MILK seems raised by a desire to do justice to this important man and the difference he made. James Franco as Milk's longtime lover continues to show versatility that I never expected by embodying support and strength. Josh Brolin, as the fellow city supervisor who ultimately kills Milk, gives a ferociously internal performance that is in constant turmoil. And though I have never been as huge a Sean Penn fan as most would appear to be, I am a devout admirer now. Penn's performance is a rarely achieved transformation one so believable and so gripping that it lifts the entire film to new levels of excellence and inspiration.
MILK is not only a Gus Van Sant career high but also an instant American film classic and a contemporary gay film masterpiece that, like the revelatory BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, transcends the gay experience and steps firmly into the human experience. If only for that reason alone, MILK has the potential to be more than a film and be part of a movement. After all, if there is one thing that Harvey Milk fought so hard for for so long, it was to be seen as a man who deserves the same human rights as his neighbours. Thirty years after his death, the fight he fought is still ongoing and thanks to Van Sant, Harvey Milk is back to help make sure it finally gets won.
As vague as the land is vast
Australia, the land down under. A land grand in size and rich in scenery. A land where kangaroos jump spryly alongside cars and aboriginal children go on walkabout without warning. Yes, this is Australia or at the very least, this is the clichéd representation of the country as per Baz Luhrmann's Australia, a film that is part epic romance and part homage to the country he calls home. Luhrmann shot to fame in the early 90's with his first feature, STRICTLY BALLROOM, a film that took place down under and for a tiny fraction of what Australia cost, was a more genuine insight into the people who reside there. Nearly twenty years later, his magic seems to have turned into madness as I can think of no other justification for Luhrmann reducing his home and its history into stereotypical schlock ready to serve to unintentionally naïve American audiences.
Australia takes place in 1939, just before the Japanese attacked the country during the Second World War. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a British aristocrat, has traveled far from home to find her husband, who is in the country on business, and bring him back. Her husband's business got the best of him though and he has passed away. It is now up to this displaced diva to finish the job. She must put aside her dainty nature to rough it in the outback, herding cattle with a group of misfits, in order to take down corruption and monopolistic authorities running the cattle show. Throw in a steamy romance between Ashley and her main cattle handler (Hugh Jackman, easily earning his recent "Sexiest Man Alive" title), and you got yourself a movie. Well, you would have yourself a regular sized movie but this is Luhrmann's opus, one which he seems conscious of the entire time. To fill the 2 hour and 45 minute run time, Luhrmann definitely throws in the romance but also adds racial issues, family drama, gender prejudice and a great war. It is boiling over with potential but missing the great deal of passion necessary to sustain itself.
After completing his Red Curtain Trilogy (including his first feature as well as WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO + JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE!), Luhrmann wanted to tackle historical accounts in his next films. The first was to be a biography of Alexander the Great but Oliver Stone beat him to that a few years back. Luhrmann then turned to his origins for inspiration instead and Australia was born. The Red Curtain Trilogy was defined by style and theme. While Luhrmann hasn't abandoned his dedication to love in Australia, Luhrmann did set aside the signature schizophrenic style that made distinct lovers and haters of all who watched his works. Baz Luhrmann without everything that made him who he was is almost unrecognizable or unidentifiable even. You can almost feel him fighting with himself to tone down the extremities of the scenarios or slowing the speed of the story. The camera will move quickly all of a sudden but is reeled back in just as quickly. Australia becomes a lesson in shame, one that I never expected from a man who so vehemently campaigned for truth and self in the past. By trying to be something he isn't, Luhrmann only succeeded in losing his voice.
Australia is a solid effort, sturdy on its feet but a slow and steady stride instead of the adventure it so clearly wants to be. It can be touching; it can be somewhat moving even; but it feels mostly as vague and meandering as the outback is vast. It is too theatrical and forced to be firmly historical and too unsure of itself to be genuinely effective. It is the most misguided mediocrity I've even seen go on for nearly three hours. I felt very little, learned even less; It was like being on an adventure where barely anything seemed to happen but you still appreciate the potential afforded by being there.. I just wish that the Baz I grew to know and love felt like he had come along for the ride because I feel like we didn't spend any time together at all.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Quantum of Silence
When we last left James Bond (Daniel Craig), he had just found out that the first woman he ever gave his heart to had betrayed him. You do not get James Bond to feel something and then walk all over that newfound vulnerability. You just don't do that and, if you knew how hard it was for this particular brand of man to get there to begin with, you couldn't do it with any good conscious. When we last left James Bond, he also reinvigorated a franchise that wasn't in any actual serious danger of disappearing. Impressive, yes, but that is what James Bond does after all; he impresses with every fiber of his perfectly sculpted being. The trouble is there is only so high you can get and Craig's first outing as Bond, CASINO ROYALE, was not just impressive, it made me a believer in a character that has meant very little to me over the decades. So where does the first Bond sequel, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, go from there? Not very much further it seems. Apparently, the best hands were played in the last game.
I don't mean to make it sound horrible; it's just disappointing. QUANTUM OF SOLACE lacks the boundless, unexpected energy of CASINO ROYALE. This isn't for lack of trying. The action starts to move before you even have a chance to get comfortable with a high-speed car chase through the scenic Italian seaside. Then the action continues through underground tunnels, massive crowds, across rooftops, down scaffolding and through panes of glass while fighting in mid air and hanging from ropes. I didn't say it lacked in actual action. It's just that this particular action isn't as exciting or original as what we've already seen. Sure a boat chase that plays out like bumper cars in the water with guns! is exhilarating but it isn't as bracing as a two-man chase through a construction site, leading up to a fist fight 200 feet in the air on a narrow crane. Instead, every scenario Bond finds himself in seems facile and there is never any real question as to how it will play out. The caliber of stunt is much more Jason Bourne than James Bond. At one point, I half expected Matt Damon to show up running alongside him on the rooftops of Port au Prince.
While the action is still gripping, if somewhat less original, it is the story that is most thin in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Oscar winner, Paul Haggis, had to turn his script in before the writer's strike began last year to make sure that production would not be delayed. The result is rushed, expectedly. Themes like trust, truth and vengeance are tossed around as concepts but never solidified as concrete dilemmas in the characters' lives. And while one doesn't necessarily go to a James Bond film for depth, one does expect a certain complexity to the plot. In what is the shortest Bond film ever made, Bond's motivation is restricted to tracking down a mysterious terrorist group called Quantum. He must find out who and where they are and their eco-terrorist plot seems secondary to that. Bond must also contend with another vengeful force, Camille (a gorgeous and commanding, Olga Kurylenko), who is out to avenge her family. Could it be that she has come in to Bond's life to show him the reality of holding on to a need for revenge for so many years? Probably but it doesn't seem to have any effect on him at the end of the day.
I have a love/hate relationship with director, Marc Forster (love FINDING NEVERLAND and STRANGER THAN FICTION, hate STAY and THE KITE RUNNER) and was certainly skeptical when I heard he was coming on to direct this 22nd Bond film. He had never done any film this size and this explosive in his career but there are teams of people around on big budget pics like this to make sure that all the action comes off as it should. Forster was brought on for his storytelling abilities. This is fine logic but there is barely any story to tell here and he can't be faulted for having little to work with any more than the screenwriters can be faulted for having to get something in before going on strike. QUANTUM OF SOLACE certainly falls closer to the love side of my relationship with Forster than the hate side but more time needs to be taken with the next Bond give Craig the time to do what he did first time out and show us the man behind the wheel of the Aston Martin. You can't just grab whatever you have behind the bar and slap a martini together in no time, expecting Bond to drink it. He would simply send it back and demand you make it again.
Boys will be boys, even when they're men who haven't been boys for a very long time. They like to get their guns out and smack 'em around in the other boys' faces, all in an effort to prove who the baddest boy on the playground is. It doesn't matter to them that the playground has progressed into the entire city or that the guns have gone from plastic toys to the real deal. The game may have gotten heavier and plenty more serious, and the boys may have grown into the more rugged bodies of men, but they're still bumbling little boys at heart, too scared to do right and even more so to be a failure. This particular London playground that embodies all this manliness plays home to the modern gangster movie, ROCKNROLLA, and the boy at the top of the mountain is none other than Guy Ritchie.
Ritchie has had a rough go at establishing himself as one of today's big boys as of late. He burst on to the scene in 1998 with LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. The fast moving action and even faster dialogue grabbed a lot of men by their own sensitive boys, squeezed hard and made them feel like bigger men. (Personally, I couldn't make out a single word being said and lost track about 20 minutes in so I never made it that far.) Ritchie's momentum grew into a Hollywood step with his follow-up, SNATCH, but his favour quickly faded after his critical disaster, SWEPT AWAY. I mean, it wasn't great but critics went in with their own guns blazing. You simply don't make a vanity project outside of your genre with your superstar wife, especially when that wife (or soon to be ex-wife) is Madonna, one of the most critically panned actresses of all time. No one even noticed his last release, REVOLVER, but now Ritchie is back. The problem is he isn't really better than ever; he's just back where he left off before everything was, well, swept away.
Lucky for Ritchie, he's got a great group of mates along for this ride. ROCKNROLLA's cast is top notch no matter what Ritchie's expansive script calls for. Whether you're watching Gerard Butler dance entirely out of step with Thandie Newton at a party while exchanging brief quips about a heist job or Tom Wilkinson being a right bastard (which he does so well) as the man who runs the streets or Butler dancing yet again, this time in a close embrace with good pal, Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy), before he is shipped off to prison, there is always a sense of playfulness that never loses sight of purpose. The purpose on the other hand is a little too far out of reach. There are bad guys and good guys who are essentially bad guys themselves and they are all involved in some sort of construction zoning law shakedown that touches the junkies of the world as well as the Russian mafia and pivots around this one missing lucky painting, which, with a quick nod to the mysterious contents of a certain briefcase in the modern gangster classic, PULP FICTION, is never seen on screen.
Complicated? Yes. Overly so? Maybe, only time will tell there. A good, fun time? For sure. Ritchie is sharp and has a keen eye for style. He hasn't quite mastered the balance between sleek and simple yet, as his simpler bits are rendered somewhat puny in comparison with his flare. Still, you can tell he's having a great time piecing it all together. There are the dirty, dark sets, the driving pulse of the often-obscure soundtrack choices (no more cheeky early Madonna pop tracks to be found here) and the sexy voice-over (a clearly spoken narration that was my personal saviour at times) to provide constant entertainment. My hopes for Ritchie though are that ROCKNROLLA does not amount to he himself being a "Rock n Rolla" a boy pretending to be living large instead of actually living it. Next time out, I want to see Ritchie one step closer to being a real man.
An Unconvincing Clint
The truth is a tricky construct. Words are uttered and, depending on who says them, they are afforded a certain level of belief. Sometimes the truth is so entirely outlandish that believing it is a struggle. And sometimes that struggle is worth it because the truth has the potential to enlighten and call for change. The truth in a movie is almost inherently a falsehood. The intention of telling the truth may be genuine but film requires reconstruction and subjectivity in order for its message to be told. So when Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, CHANGELING, announces at its very start that what we are about to bear witness to is a true story, a certain weight is lent while a certain caution is exercised. The truth here is that a boy by the name of Walter Collins was abducted in 1928 and the boy that was returned to his mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), five months later was not her son, but rather a boy claiming to be her son. The thought that no one believed her truthful claims is a wide stretch to begin with and Eastwood, despite setting a complete scene, did not ultimately convince me that any of this actually happened.
Of course, to some extent, much of the story did happen. In the late 1920's and early 1930's, Los Angeles played home to an atrocious set of serial murders known then as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. Walter Collins was said to be a victim of these horrible crimes, in which a man by the name of Gordon Northcott (played in the film by Jason Butler Harner), would lure young boys back to his run down ranch, lock them up in chicken coops and torture them before ultimately killing them like helpless animals and burying their bodies in his backyard. At the same time, a boy by the name of Arthur Hutchens Jr. claimed to be the missing Collins boy in order to get a free ride from Iowa to California. When Christine Collins told the police that this was not her son something Jolie says repeatedly in the film like a beautiful but busted record they tried to convince her that she was mistaken and confused. She pushed and was eventually incarcerated in the psychiatric ward of the L.A. county hospital for her supposed delusions. She was released ten days later when Hutchens finally admitted he was not Walter Collins.
The facts are what they are but yet somehow, when Eastwood tells the story, it seems ridiculous and CHANGELING becomes a disappointing experience because you want for it to be better than it is. Cinematographer, Tom Stern, shoots Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.'s delicate and detailed art direction with a soft sensitivity that births an encompassing sense of nostalgia for a time I never knew. And it always surprises me just how breathtaking Jolie is. As the single mother at the center of this controversy, she is composed and determined one moment and fragile and frightened the next. Sometimes, she is all of these things and more at the same time. Unfortunately for Jolie, she seems to keep picking prestige projects where she outshines the material itself. J. Michael Straczynski's script is overly facile as it chalks up all of Collins' difficulties to her being a woman, that ever-emotional creature that cannot possibly function with reason. And Eastwood has all of her male aggressors adopt that same mentality. So when a doctor tells Christine Collins that of course it is possible that her boy shrunk three inches after this ordeal and that she cannot see this because she is a woman and has no objectivity, we chuckle at how ludicrous this is instead of recoil at the horror.
Throughout CHANGELING, you can feel Eastwood's sense of accomplishment. There he is behind the lens, standing up straight and proud. He is the champion of women's rights, exposing injustices and not afraid be the man that does so. What he doesn't see on the other side of his smug sense of accomplishment is that he is actually detracting from Christine Collins' plight by oversimplifying the whole affair. The specific details can never truly be exposed but this truly happened and by trying to tell his limited take on the truth, Eastwood has turned the truth into a bad joke.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Kevin Smith Makes Another Mediocre Movie
Just in time for Halloween, one of the original independent filmmakers, Kevin Smith, gives us something truly frightening
Seth Rogen in a porno. No offense to Seth; I think he's cuddly and all but porn material, I think not. Or maybe I've just been out of the straight porn- watching world for so long that this is what porn has come to. That said, I doubt I'll be making a trip to my local video shop later to catch up on everything I've missed. What's that? I don't have to leave my home for this sort of fare anymore? It is all readily available online at the click of my mouse? And what? I'm supposed to be talking about Smith's latest mild chuckle fest, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO? I thought we were discussing film worth leaving the house for. ZACK AND MIRI is not that film. Maybe you could download it, I guess.
Zack and Miri may be making a porno but it is Kevin Smith making another lazy film that we should be focusing on. See, Smith is hoping that his sensational premise is enough to get you laughing ecstatically. He is primarily hoping for this because this way he can pass off his tired characters and simple jokes as something brand new, something no one has ever tackled in film before. Actually, that is giving him too much credit. The truth of the matter is that Kevin Smith is one of the most overrated filmmakers making movies today. He'd probably be the first to agree with me. This is because Smith doesn't really care about his work and you can feel it in every cliché his characters exist and every joke he sets up. How else can you explain married couple characters who yell at each other incessantly and complain even more so about how horrific and sexless marriage is? Or a party sequence where the camera doesn't move while we jump cut from one dancing fool to the next in full frame? And how can anyone these days justify using the word "faggot" as a meaningless insult, tossed around irresponsibly? Limited is the first word that comes to my mind.
Getting back to Zack and Miri (Rogen and the luminous Elizabeth Banks), they are the most enjoyable and charismatic things about this film. Zack and Miri have been friends forever and never have they crossed that scary line and stepped into the realm of sex between friends. They live together, if you want to call their situation living. They're months behind on their rent; their electricity and water have been shut off; and neither one has a job that can actually get them out of this mess they've found themselves in. Naturally, they turn to the world of pornography for salvation. After all, they just found out that they have access to hundreds of contacts on their high school alumni mailing list that will no doubt jump at the chance to see this infamously platonic twosome finally get it on. I don't know about you but if I was so down on my luck that I needed to make porn to bail myself, I'm pretty positive that the high school acquaintances that teased and taunted me at my most fragile moments would not be the first people I would be peddling my wares to. In fact, they would be right up there with my mom.
The irony of ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO is that Kevin Smith should feel right at home with the kinds of lower production values pornography calls for. In fact, I think I may have seen amateur porn that is subtler and more original than this film. It is not without its charm or its laughs but ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO is as forgettable as most of Smith's work and not nearly as intriguing as actual porn.
Considering that at the time that I am writing this and while W. is hitting theatres, George W. Bush is still the president of the United States, is it unreasonable to ask if it is just too soon for a film biography of his life? Do we not need a little space in order to, first of all, get over the trauma of the eight-year long Bush administration, or more importantly, in order to gain some perspective on one of the most unlikely controversial figures in modern history? Lucky for us, the man behind the lens is Oliver Stone a man who has never seemed to concern himself with objectivity to begin with. And I say lucky for another reason as well. We are lucky this movie has been made now because it actually allows for us to see a side of George W. that we've never really seen before a sympathetic side. Sure the film is an entirely fictional imagining of the man but that doesn't mean it doesn't make for good entertainment.
Stone's W. is not a documentary thankfully because I can't usually stomach watching the man on television for more than five minutes. Stone is under no obligation to be fair or well balanced. Besides, even documentary filmmakers these days seem to use the truth and objectivity as loose guidelines. Still, when W. opens with a conversation amongst the upper echelons of the Bush administrative staff as to what buzz words and catch phrases would best sell the Iraq war to the American public, you can't help but wonder whether Stone has zero intention of being fair or whether he intends to lambast the man. In fact, up until the moment the film began, the most intriguing thing for me about this film was trying to understand why Stone was making it in the first place. What was he going to say about him? How was he going to say it? It is right after this opening, which introduces us to most of the key players in this fantastic cast, that Stone, under the structure of Stanley Weiser's script, takes us back to meet a younger George a much less presidential George, if you will.
We get to see George as a college boy getting hazed. We get to see George quitting job after job after job with no direction in sight. We get to see George promising ladies the world but giving them nothing but heartache. But then we get to see another side of George. We get to see him face his alcoholism. We get to see him come to find his faith again. And we get to see him fall in love with a young lady named Laura. The manner in which it all unfolds is rather conventional but still also believable, thanks to a fiery Josh Brolin as the big guy himself. Brolin got me to root for a guy I would ordinarily hiss at (not that I hiss at that many people) and he did so by personifying the man as a regular guy with regular guy hang- ups. Weiser's script does oversimplify Bush's psychology by implying that all of his decisions in life have been motivated by the need to prove to daddy what a good boy he can be. Still, Brolin brings more to it than that; he brings both passion and compassion to man who is generally considered to be a monster.
Was it Stone's intention for W. to be a George W. Bush puff piece? Not at all. Without forcing Stone's hand, the plot does follow through Bush's election into office and right up until the point where his administration realizes that the Iraq war was going to be a lot harder than they had anticipated. It is in the war room that Stone sneaks in his now signature controversial touch. Suddenly, it makes sense why he made this movie now and why it is being released just a few weeks before the American elections that will see Bush leave office. Once you understand why you're watching it, you realize that it was actually a lot more enjoyable than you thought it would be and that Stone has crafted a good ol' American movie as he sticks it to American government.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
A Blessed Event
I'm sure there are a number of people out there who actually get excited when they check the mail to find the next in a seemingly never ending string of wedding invitations. I am not that person. Unless the invitation is to attend the nuptials of a dear friend or a close family member, all I see is an invitation to what will inevitably be a long day of small talk and potentially awkward speeches that will cost me a lot more than the day at the movies I would much rather be having. You are about to get an invitation to an entirely different kind of wedding though and not only must you RSVP as soon as possible, you must get yourself looking your best because this is a wedding I can guarantee you will enjoy. You will laugh and cry, be horrified and be moved all within the span of one intimate weekend despite not knowing a single other person there. This invitation comes from veteran filmmaker, Jonathan Demme, and this uniquely grounding catharsis is what happens when you attend RACHEL GETTING MARRIED.
Yes, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married but that is far from the only big event happening on this particular weekend. Her sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), is also coming home for the wedding after nine months in rehab for drug addiction. Kym has been in and out of facilities for a number of years and her disease has taken a hard toll on her family. This time is different though as she has now gone nine months sober, just enough time to be reborn as a new person. Only, no one knows whether they can trust this, including Kym herself, and subsequently, no one knows exactly how to resolve the past and the present. Despite all this potential drama brewing, Demme shows up at the Connecticut house with an extensive crew of cameramen and is allowed full access. This is no ordinary wedding story though. What Demme strings together is a seamless documentary style expose of one family at a pivotal point in their history. The shots and cuts are as jagged as Hathaway's choppy bob, creating a constant edginess throughout that is soothed only by the numerous musically inclined wedding guests casually playing in adjoining rooms.
In order for Demme's brave, raw approach to elevate past gimmick and achieve the harrowing beauty that it does, the players need to come off as natural and as familial as possible. Obviously, any actor in any film needs to give a strong performance in order for the film to be better but it is imperative here in order for the viewer to feel that they are actually a guest at this wedding. The cast is superb. As Rachel, DeWitt is a woman filled with both love and fear. She is surrounded by love from her immediate family and new extended family but she is also worried that all this love will be taken away from her as it has in the past. Her father, played by Bill Irwin, is as giddy as a young boy to be giving away his oldest daughter and to have his youngest back at home. The girls' estranged mother, played very subtly by Debra Winger, is noticeably absent even when she's in the room. It is naturally Hathaway though that shines brightest. Yes, she does have the showiest part, but it is how well she owns this role that is most impressive, in that it is altogether surprising given her previous work. Hathaway is a force that demands attention whenever she is on screen, which only further lends weight to the fragile, unintentional neediness of her character. She inspires both disdain and sympathy but never seems to care which we feel more.
When I first saw RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, I felt disoriented leaving the theatre. Once I had finished drying my eyes, I had to sit down because I didn't feel ready to walk. This is Jonathan Demme's masterpiece. It is filled with such candid moments from random friends singing at the rehearsal dinner to intense family eruptions that make you feel as though you should leave the room. It is all so real, all so warm and all so deeply personal. There is an abundance of love at this wedding but like any great love, it comes with great potential for pain and sorrow. And while it may be a horrible struggle at times, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED always strives to focus on the love and the future that love will make possible.
On one particular night in New York City, an elusive band by the name of Where's Fluffy? have announced a secret concert. The word spreads through the city's underground punk scene faster than it can go out of style and before long, it reaches Nick and Norah. Nick and Norah don't know each other when this news reaches their ears but before the end of the night, they will each find something infinitely more important than Fluffy. NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST is a contemporary romantic comedy that sets itself in an entirely unconventional place and time (can you think of another way to describe a straight romance in the queer punk underground?), but presents itself in a sometimes far too conventional fashion. While it can at times be too cool for school, it is the roughness around its edges that give it an unexpected and genuine warmth. Like any finely balanced playlist, it works its way into your head and your soul.
Nick (Michael Cera) has been down as of late. It seems his fragile heart has been trampled by Tris (Alexis Dziena), a girl so clearly wrong for him but whose physical beauty is apparently capable of diverting people from noticing her lack of a soul. Norah (Kat Dennings) has some trust issues as she naturally assumes that any man interested in her is likely more interested in her connections (her dad is an enormously successful record executive). As a result, both Nick and Norah have withdrawn not externally as they both still function amongst the other humans but they do so at arm's length. Like sleeping beauties though, they are both awoken from their waking comas by a shared impromptu kiss. Suddenly, worlds they never knew existed have become possibilities and an ordinary evening becomes an adventure. While the twists the evening takes are at times unrealistic, they do give the night and the film a sense of spontaneity that makes the viewer believe that anything can happen.
Peter Sollett is a delicate director. His first feature, RAISING VISTOR VARGAS, in which a group of Hispanic youths in New York's lower east side figure out how to stop playing and how to be themselves instead, was a singular revelation. He created a strong sense of hesitation in face of the unknown and a desire to be something more. He has an ease with creating simple, real spaces that foster intimacy and humble his characters and Nick and Norah are no exception to his treatment. Outside of these two though, the remaining ensemble are little more than comic relief and functional plot progression pieces. They can come across as occasionally transparent and one-dimensional but thankfully never enough to distract from the delightful romance budding at the center of all the chaos. Cera proves his versatility once again by showing that there are hundreds of facets to being an awkward teenager, that awkwardness does not define you but is rather just how who you are can come across. Dennings is his perfect counterpoint; she is sharp and strong, a worthy adversary, but frightened underneath it all, an ideal match. The two are so strongly suited that they transform the sometimes too facile script into something much more mature and meaningful.
NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST made me want to fall in love. It also made me laugh and swoon, delight in the magic of music and believe in the transformative properties of one crazy night. It made me long to be in New York City. It made me wish that I was that young again and that believing in possibilities was that easy to do. It may not be perfect but it is almost better that way, more real. There is something so genuine at the heart of this film that makes it almost impossible not to want for Nick and Norah to realize their potential a potential that is just as infinite as the playlist they are about to create together.
The Duchess (2008)
What it feels like for a girl
It seems that with each passing year, there comes a point in time when we will inevitably find the young and beautiful, Keira Knightly, in yet another period drama. It also seems like every period drama these days, whether it features Knightly or not, feels the need to disassociate itself from the conventions of the past and assert itself as fresh, with a unique twist on the genre. This is particularly challenging when the story is one we've seen a number of times prior. The true story of Georgina Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, as told by director, Saul Dibb, in THE DUCHESS, is one where a young girl of "modest" heritage is married off to an esteemed Duke for a price. Her duty is to serve his grace and provide to him a male heir. As a woman, she is nothing more than a decorative commodity and should she not be able to fulfill her wifely promises, then she is essentially useless. Dibb is smart about it though. With the point already made before the film even begins, he chooses to focus instead on the reality of this kind of imprisonment what it feels like for a girl beneath her binding bodice.
Knightly carries the weight of this film on her shoulders while carrying the weight of the wigs on her head with poise and prominence. Her big brown eyes go from playful to shy to distraught and defeated. When we first meet her, she is free and seemingly unaware of the heavier world outside of her backyard games. Before long though, she is face to face with adulthood. This particular face belongs to Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire. It is here that Dibb steps in to add another layer to the played out trajectory. With an age difference that is only matched in vastness by the distance between them, the Duke undresses his Duchess and asks why women's clothing must be so complicated. There is no better occasion for small talk than before two practical strangers go to bed for the first time. Knightly, trying desperately to hide her nervousness, replies to the obviously rhetorical question though, claiming that this is the only way for women to express themselves in the times they live in. It is clear she is not sure that a reply is necessary or even allowed but it is also clear that she speaks to ensure that she is seen, that her person is present. Her clothing falls to the floor and the imprints of her corset can still be seen on the smooth of her back.
Dibb follows this form of unexpected intimacy and insight with commentary about celebrity and how little the adoring public truly knows about their icons. The Duchess of Devonshire, or at least the one in THE DUCHESS, was an immense influence on her people. Her presence at events guaranteed crowds while her fashion determined the trends. Even her association with particular people could sway public and political opinion. She embodied grace and extravagance while remaining humble and the public ate it up. In their eyes, her life was perfect but those who traveled in closer circles knew better. They knew that there was little love between the Duke and Duchess and increased strain as she was not able to provide a male heir. Even they didn't know just how bad it was though. The wait staff on the other hand could have made millions on a tell-all. Like Stephen Frears' THE QUEEN, Dibb shows us what goes on on both sides of the castle gates, highlighting the drastic disconnect between the two close worlds. The Duchess was made to make many horrific choices and concessions that would have broken many a lesser person. What makes them so harrowing in the context of the film is the plainness with which they are expected by the Duke and subsequently accepted by all involved.
THE DUCHESS is shocking on many levels. It is shocking how harsh it is underneath its polished finish and how new this old tale feels. It is shocking how well Knightly can hold her pain and her own. And it is shocking how little value and worth was once afforded the women of the world. But it is perhaps most shocking that the manner in which women were once seen as a male possession, with purpose and function that only serves the male agenda, still exists today, no matter how you dress it up.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Miracles can be bad too
2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps: I know, I'm the only one left who knows.
I know this is too easy even for me but the true miracle at the center of Spike Lee's latest joint, MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, is that I was able to sit through it without screaming out of sheer frustration over how hollow the whole affair was. I don't feel so bad about taking that oversimplified stance, seeing as how Lee himself didn't seem to have any concerns about dumbing down this important history lesson. Lee is an accomplished filmmaker and MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA is an ambitious project, even for him. He prides himself, as well he should, on telling stories from an African-American perspective that is rarely taken in mainstream film. In this case, he chose to shed some much needed light on the soldiers known as the Buffalo Soldiers, all black regiments in the U.S. army. He wanted to give the world a fresh take on the World War II epic by using an unfamiliar voice but all he accomplished was minimizing their plight by weighing down his film in tired convention and never committing to any one point of view.
I don't mind long movies when the story warrants the time spent. MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA opens in 1983. A postal worker (Derek Luke) has just shot and murdered a man who bought a stamp off of him for no apparent reason. A statue head, one with incredible value both financially and historically, has been found tucked away at the bottom of his closet. News of the statue's recovery spreads across the globe and an investigative journalist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to understand why a seemingly law-abiding citizen would commit such a random act of brutality. This goes on for about thirty or forty minutes until the postal worker finally agrees to tell his story. It all started in Italy during the second world war. My question is, if it all started then, why did Lee waste so much time with a pointless excuse to get to the actual story when the story in question needed no excuse to be told? This all too tired Hollywood convention needs to cease. People need to start getting to the point.
The story, adapted from James McBride's novel of the same name by McBride himself, follows a foursome of Buffalo soldiers who survive a German attack, find a young Italian boy in need of medical attention and eventually set up camp in a small village while they wait for reinforcement. During their stay, the soldiers make friends and enemies with the townspeople, which challenges the inherent racism of all involved. It isn't a bad story; it is just written in such a false and incredible fashion that undermines the film's credibility. There is no time for one liners when you are being attacked on all sides by the German army but yet somehow McBride felt that quips between gunfire would alleviate the intensity, as if that were necessary. There is also apparently no time for real character development. Bringing an untold story to light means putting faces to characters that had none before. Without development, these soldiers are nothing but black soldiers instead of real people. Somehow, by forcing us to face the colour of their skin, Lee made it so that is all we end up seeing.
Spike Lee makes important movies but sometimes, he makes them with the knowledge of just how important they truly are. MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA is at times horrifying and at others, beautiful. Mostly though, it is tedious and disappointing. It is not so much disappointing that Lee wasn't able to pull off such a huge endeavor but more so that if anyone could have done it the justice it deserved, it would have been him. Now, the story has been told but the point was never made.
Burn After Reading (2008)
Burnt After Having Read
The now infamous Coen brothers make a lot of movies and they know that people out there see a whole lot of movies too. A population distracted by constant film watching is a population led to see the world in a truly dramatic fashion. Finding a computer disc in the ladies locker room of a fitness club would ordinarily be just another occasion to throw something left behind in a lost and found box, likely never to be reclaimed. If you've seen one too many movies though, and you don't have a whole lot going on in your own little life, you might see finding this disc as an opportunity to blackmail the owner of said disc for contents you believe to be top secret C.I.A. intelligence. There's just one thing the movies don't tell you about capers such as these though, and that is that none of it is real. In BURN AFTER READING, the Coens decide it's time for a little fun and serve up a hearty dose of signature comedy that both highlights the influence of film and perpetuates it further at the same time.
BURN AFTER READING begins with a thunderous, percussion heavy score and an all too familiar opening shot of the planet we call home. Slowly but persistently, the worldview becomes more focused and as we descend, we zero in on the city of Washington. The titles appear on the screen, digitally processed as though you were reading them off a computer. Have the Coens made a super spy movie, I wondered, and with that, they had me exactly where they wanted me. Though you wouldn't know it from the way they speak in public, the Coens are big jokers; they like to play with their audiences. They get you thinking one way and then take you in a whole other direction. It's almost like they're laughing at you sometimes but really, they just want you to have as much fun as they seem to be having. And fun is to be had in BURN AFTER READING. After perfecting the art of suspenseful drama with last year's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the brothers have returned to more familiar waters for zaniness that is entirely offbeat while still sharp and biting.
The premise itself is certainly amusing, if not a little scattered, but it is the top-notch ensemble that solidifies this work as quintessentially Coen-esquire. Regulars like George Clooney and Frances McDormand return as two particularly kooky people who find each other online while pretending to be different versions of themselves. Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich are a married couple on the way to divorce. Both are, to a fault, cold and crazed respectively, as well as formidable performers. Richard Jenkins turns in another self- effacing, understated performance (after this year's THE VISITOR) that should nab him more work with high profile directors. And while all of these performances are top notch and so delightfully exaggerated, it is Brad Pitt that shines brightest for the simple reason that he is entirely ridiculous. Pitt plays Chad Feldheimer, a fitness trainer who has perhaps been running on endorphins for one too many laps, and the only character in this film who isn't pretending to be anything he isn't. This could have a lot to do with his character not being smart enough to pull off disguise but Pitt himself is more than capable. We never quite forget that we're watching Pitt but that's what makes his unbridled exuberance as he bounces around to the music in his headphones so darn funny.
Despite the title, nothing actually gets burnt after being read at any point in the film. The act itself though is so dramatic that to name your movie this essentially announces the intended tone. BURN AFTER READING definitely makes good on its promise and has a blast doing it. The Coen Brothers are sitting pretty atop their throne as two of Hollywood's most celebrated filmmakers and their latest plays out almost effortlessly. Even switching over to a new cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (rather than long time collaborator, Richard Deakins), happens without a beat missed. It's as though they could do all of this in their sleep. Now, that would be one hell of a dream that would make one heck of a good movie. We just have to make sure we can spot the difference between that and the real thing.
More Desired than Wanted
When most people think of Roman Polanski, they immediately remember his legal troubles over a sexual encounter with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, when he was 44. To counterbalance this common instant reaction, Marina Zenovich's new HBO documentary, ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED, does as much as it can to remind you about the other great hardships of Polanski's life. There have been plenty, that's for sure. He lost his mother and father during the Second World War, his mother losing her life in Auschwitz. He survived somehow and eventually made his way to London, where he pursued a career in film-making, something he always knew he wanted to do. It was there that he met his future wife, actress, Sharon Tate. They made a life for themselves in Los Angeles and for a while, they were happy. Then Tate, eight months pregnant at the time with Polanski's child, was murdered in her home along with four others in a horrific fashion at the hands of Charles Manson and his "family". Still Polanski soldiered on and he did so by producing some of Hollywood's greatest classics, like ROSEMARY'S BABY and CHINATOWN. Polanski has had incredible highs and horrendous lows and while he should be both commended and consoled, he still slept with a minor and that can't be forgotten.
With so many dramatic experiences to choose from, it isn't difficult for Zenovich to string her piece together. Despite its straightforward approach, it is never quite clear where she stands on Polanski's behaviour. She does focus her documentary to show how no matter how many other things have happened in Polanski's life that this one particular mistake is the event that defines it all. However, she never questions his judgment and leaves the opinion forming to her audience. This would ordinarily be a respectable decision but Zenovich's intentions may not be as noble as they appear. She presents us with a very well balanced argument regarding whether Polanski received a fair trial or not. Lead legal counsel for both the defense and the prosecution are interviewed and, lending volumes of weight to the film, they both present relatively similar accounts of the trial and what went on behind the scenes. It is the behind the scenes material that puts the issue of fairness into question. The proceedings were overseen by Judge Lawrence Rittenband, a judge notorious for his attraction toward celebrity and the idea of being one himself. Rittenband essentially orchestrated the proceedings of his court as though he were directing a film and the intended audience was the press. Zenovich has shown us the charade and while this is all horribly unjust, it still does not negate what Polanski did.
The next question is whether what Polanski did thirty years ago even matters now. Samantha Geimer, the plaintiff in the case, who also appears in the film, has forgiven Polanski publicly. The judge now responsible for the case has stated for the record that Polanski would not serve any jail time if he were to reenter the United States. The man even won an Oscar for directing THE PIANIST in 2002. Clearly the world has moved on but Zenovich has brought us back. Her approach is well-rounded; her style is formulaic but solid. The only thing missing is a genuine satisfaction that her efforts have been fully realized. ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED alludes to Polanski being wanted in one country and desired in others but does nothing to suggest what the wants and desires mean about those feeling them. So all we're truly left with is another reminder of what he did.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Woody in khakis and sandals
What could be more romantic than a summer vacationing is Barcelona? You're surrounded by art, history and breathtaking scenery. You meet people you've probably never met before and will most likely never see again. You can immerse yourself in an entirely different culture, learning something new about life and yourself with every passing day. Or, you can leave your every woe from your difficult life behind you and let it all fall away into the ocean. In Woody Allen's latest, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johannson) do just that. Vicky is going to learn while Cristina follows in hope of escape and before the summer is out both will learn that that which is inherently romantic is also inescapably complicated.
Vicky and Cristina are the kinds of friends that would likely not become friends if they met at this present moment but are good friends regardless because of a long and cherished history. Vicky is practical to a fault. Everything she does has purpose and function, including her fiancé, Doug (Chris Messina, who played the same "I am everything that is wrong with America today" character at the end of "Six Feet Under"). Cristina cannot stomach settling into herself, as she can't stand that self, so she recklessly pursues paths of abandon in hopes of finding solace. They are opposite in everything they do, right down to their hair colors, but they find one common interest while abroad, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter with a dramatic reputation. Juan Antonio is a player but he isn't playing. He's unassumingly smooth and sexy in shirts and pants that are dressed down by playful sneakers. He is a passionate man and his provocative proposal to have both ladies join him for a weekend of food, music and lovemaking brings out the American prude in both Vicky and Cristina.
Still, the vacation does everybody good, including Allen himself. Stepping out of New York and into London for his (brief) return to form, MATCH POINT, rejuvenated a vision that was once great but had recently become monotonously unwieldy. Going to the Barcelona countrysides for his 40th feature has a similar effect, in that his vision is refreshingly alive. Still, it is different than the London Allen of late. In Barcelona, it feels as if Allen were on his own vacation. This is Woody in sandals, a loose fitting tee and khakis. Sure, he's still neurotically smothered in sun block but his grip on the film is relaxed, more organic. In fact, the film's underlying criticism of American materialism and structure suggest that Allen is happy to be away for a while. Besides, if he weren't overseas, he might not have had the chance to work with Penelope Cruz. Cruz plays Marie Elena, Juan Antonio's ex-wife who tried to kill him before ultimately leaving him. Her insanity and is eluded to so often before she actually graces the screen that by the time she does, one shakes with anticipation for her arrival. Cruz's presence is overwhelming, a tumultuous force that commands attention and can either destroy or nurture from one moment to the next. She elevates the overall quality of the film to exciting heights and it was already pretty great before she got there.
After years of troubled relationships both on and off screen, Allen is still going back for more despite it all. Having been around a few blocks though has given the man a fair amount of insight. He may not know what makes the perfect recipe but he's still in the kitchen cooking because he knows that when you do get all the ingredients just right, you're in for one hell of a good meal. He throws all of his characters into the fire knowing full well they will all get burned but that they will also all be better people for it. For all its complications, love or sex or however you choose to define your interaction with another human being (or with two or three for that matter) will ultimately transform you. The same can be said for VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, a flame well worth getting close to.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Make laughs, not war
Hollywood is hilarious. They've got agents ready to cover up dead hookers upon demand and actors with mandatory Tivo in their contracts. They've even got heads on the ends of rifles and people biting into live bats. Wait. That isn't funny. It's just plain dumb. There's a fine line between crazy funny and scalping a panda you just killed to wear on your head. TROPIC THUNDER never figures out how to walk that line, falling on either side of it for some pretty uneven results.
In his first directing gig since the, and I can't believe I'm writing this, infinitely more cohesive, ZOOLANDER, Ben Stiller takes a bunch of pampered actors and drop them in the middle of Vietnam so that they can shoot the greatest war movie ever (as if APOCAPLYPSE NOW would just crawl into a ditch with a live grenade or something). It's funny in theory, sure, but even Stiller drops the concept early in. With the plot left behind, the men are left to trip over each other in the jungle, which is occasionally cool given that Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black are fine company to keep but mostly it's just meandering. I think they're trying to make it home but who cares really when we keep cutting back to a bald headed, furry- chested, Tom Cruise as a Hollywood executive who just loves telling people to (bleep) themselves whenever he feels like. (Seriously though, he's pretty funny.)
Thank you, Ben Stiller, for showing me just how hilarious Hollywood likes to think it is and for reminding me just how far out of step it is with the rest of the world. One minute, you're laughing hysterically at them. The next, they're the only ones in on the joke and they're laughing all by themselves. Lucky for them, most of their laughing happens all the way to the bank.
American Teen (2008)
They're not so bad after all
I always just assume, as I'm dragging my tired ass out of bed, into the shower, out the door, into the subway and up the 22 flights of stairs to my tiny box my boss calls a cubicle that any teenager I pass has no clue about anything at all. I know I'm selling them short but I always see them just standing there, talking about nothing at all and making sure everyone around them can hear what they have to say. They're texting each other and shoving each other and making out obnoxiously up against me on the bus. They annoy me but this is primarily because I wish I had it as easy as they do. The irony is that they do have it so easy but they think they're going through the hardest part of their lives, that once they get out of high school, everything will work out in their favour. There's a reason people are always urging young people not to grow up too soon, y'know.
I expected terror. I expected anxiety. I didn't expect these things from the kids in Nanette Burstein's documentary, American TEEN, but rather from myself while having to sit through an in-depth exploration of what it means to be a teenager in middle America these days. I got neither. Instead, I felt sympathy, connection and nostalgia. The promotional material for this Sundance winner for Best Direction in a Documentary suggests that the five teenagers who make up the main subjects follow in the stereotypical footsteps of THE BREAKFAST CLUB. There's Hannah, the rebel (who is really more of an artist than a rebel), Colin, the jock (who defies all preconceived notions of what it means to be a jock), Megan, the princess (who delights in drama and the suffering of others), Jake, the geek (who naturally plays video games and is in the school band) and Mitch, the heartthrob (who barely leaves an impression on the viewer like the others). The reality is that American TEEN is actually a much more tender and understanding exploration of the insecurities that lie behind the images. All five of these kids turned into characters grow more into themselves before our eyes.
Burstein followed these five kids and a good number of their friends for the entire 2006 scholastic year at Warsaw Community High School. They had troubles with their parents, with their friends, with where they would go to college and with what the prom theme would be, to name but a few of the daily dramas in their lives. As one would expect from a teenager, they believe the world revolves around them and that their problems are monumental in comparison with anyone else's. What struck me most though is that their problems are not really that different than my problems or those of my friends. Now I haven't been a teenager for many a year but I still struggle with finding a partner, with finding myself. I still wonder where my life will lead, where I fit in. With responsibilities like bills, rent, a job, staying fit and keeping up with Jones', I don't have time to let the drama consume me. These five and the millions of others just like them define themselves by their dramas as they don't know the fragility of life yet. Still, their subtle self-questioning, their longing to belong and their hope for their futures gives me a whole other kind of hope for the future of humanity.
American TEEN is an enjoyable, refreshing documentary that will inevitably play differently to all who see it, as everyone had a different adolescent experience. Some have moved on while others still hear the echoes of torment or thrill in their minds. I know I was just as lost as they were at their age but I'm pretty sure I wasn't as loud or vindictive - and, yes, I am aware of how simply making this statement ages me more than is necessary. Thanks to Burstein's finely balanced exposition though, when I see a bunch of kids loitering outside my local corner store, I won't focus solely on the loudness with which they ponder which Jonas brother is the hottest but rather remember the confusion that lives inside them and still lives somewhere within me.
Pineapple Express (2008)
Funny high or dry
I'm pretty sure my mother always told me that smoking pot was bad for you. She's my mother so, naturally, I always believed her. Now, I'm not so sure though. She couldn't possibly have seen PINEAPPLE EXPRESS before making this assertion. If she had, then she would know that smoking only leads to hilarity and kinship. At least that is one of the many valuable life lessons I learned while watching the latest Seth Rogen vehicle to come off the Judd Apatow assembly line. I also learned that paranoia can be a very good thing, that friends who smoke together stay together and that James Franco actually has a drastically different side to his usual stoic, dry presence. I think most importantly though, I learned that stoner movies, when they're done right like this one, don't require the audience to smoke up heavily beforehand in order to have a good time. Albeit, I'm sure a whole other kind of good time would be had if you did.
You could see this movie as an opportunity for Rogen to push his pot smoking agenda onto unsuspecting youths that think of his as some sort of demi-God after last year's one-two punch, KNOCKED UP and SUPERBAD, or you could just drop the act and enjoy the trip. Besides, smoking is hardly over glorified in this film. Every time Rogen, as Dale Denton, a crafty process server, lights up, he finds himself in a whole heap of trouble. He makes stupid mistakes that lead to his deeper and deeper into despair. And while watching Rogen alone is certainly entertaining, watching him get goofy with a buddy is even better. The buddy here is the unexpected Franco. Franco plays Saul Silver, the drug dealer to Dale's drug doer. Get these two in a forest and give them a little herbal amusement and there is no telling how stupid they will get and how far out in space their minds will go. There is one sure thing though, weed brings these two together and their lives are better for it.
Thank goodness these two have each other because they could never endure what they need to go through all alone. Saul sells Dale some of his highest-grade bud, called pineapple express. It's so rare, so exclusive, that after Dale witness a homicide and dumps his roach at the scene, he believes that it can be tracked back to him. Saul must then get involved as he is the sole distributor of pineapple express and therefore the whole thing can be traced back to him. In order to get out of their unfortunate bind, the two must go to the source and get the bad guys, including a feisty Rosie Perez as a crooked cop, before the bad guys, and gals, get them. Many a stoner has inhaled and embarked on zany adventures before these two but how many find themselves in high speed car chases or live-or-die bang-up's or even fleeing scenes of explosive proportions? Well, I can't say actually but I can say that none have been this funny in what feels like a very long time (what feels even longer if you actually are stoned).
Dale and Saul are the new stoner buddies, the new Harold & Kumar, if you will. They are accidental action heroes whose pot smoking both gets them in and out of trouble. Unlike the punks responsible for the most recent Harold & Kumar disaster, the people behind PINEAPPLE EXPRESS are actually interested in making a solid film, one with an engaging story and consistent character development. Director David Gordon Green (SNOW ANGELS) knows that just because his characters are stoned out of their heads 99% of the time does not mean his audience will be necessarily. The audience might want to shut off and have a great time, either naturally or enhanced naturally, and that does not mean that you don't actually have to try. When I want to shut off, I like to be around good people and let the laughs roll. Watching PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is like hanging out with the guys and I already want to hang out with these guys again next weekend.