Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Who would've thought it? The maverick eminence grise of independent cinema, Gus Van Sant, brings us a pretty conventional biopic in Milk. Long attached to a film biography, in one form or another, of the martyred San Francisco City supervisor Harvey Milk, Van Sant has finally been able to direct this ambitious project. Starring as Milk is Sean Penn (Mystic River), a perfect piece of casting, in my opinion. But with the stars finally aligned for the production to go forward, why did the usually unpredictable Van Sant decide to play it straight? The film covers Milk's rise to political office in 70's San Francisco, where he became the state's first openly gay elected public official. A mildly closeted New Yorker, he slowly makes the transition to out-and-proud as a result of the prevailing countercultural influence, and his involvement with Scott Smith (James Franco), the film posits. But his entry into the political arena, and the attendant public attention, alienates Smith. A subsequent depressive boyfriend, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), is so distraught at having to share Milk with the increasingly powerful LGBT political movement that he soon hangs himself. Yet, as messy as his personal life was, Milk's political life (save for an alarming amount of death threats) continued to unfold relatively successfully, with Milk spearheading a campaign against the Briggs Initiative or Proposition 6. Proposition 6 would have required the firing of any teacher known to be gay or support gay causes. Winning the campaign, and political allies such as Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), proved to be something Milk was a natural at. Fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a lone conservative on a board of liberals, became embroiled in controversy after resigning his post as supervisor, and then trying to regain his job back. Blaming Milk and Moscone for ostracizing him from the board, he shot and killed them in November, 1978. The performances are all over the map. Penn perfectly captures Milk's congenial spirit that endeared him to so many. This may be Penn's most likable role since Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Brolin (W.) is also excellent at conveying the paranoia, and perhaps repressed homosexuality, that drives White to commit his brutal crimes. Others like Luna (Y tu mamá también), and Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) as fellow activist Cleve Jones, are way over the top. Their flamboyance in their respective roles borders on offensive caricature. Franco (Pineapple Express), however, brings an earnest sensitivity to his role that should help display some of the versatility and range this underrated actor is capable of. Van Sant's film often plays like a gay Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. the director opts to use traditional narrative techniques like montages and pop music to advance his story in a relatively trite manner. Stock shots found in political films are rehashed here again, with Harvey's small frame often dwarfed even further in shots accentuating the grandiose halls of the surrounding city hall. This is no doubt to identify Milk as the Capraesque little man fighting against the entrenched establishment. It would not be exaggerating to propose that this may be Van Sant's most mainstream picture since Finding Forrester. Milk has now become a rallying point for the LGBT community with the passing of California's Proposition 8. The irony is that it has been rumored that Focus Features chose to hold the film's release back until after the elections to avoid polarizing audiences against it. So though it may be disappointing, it is not entirely surprising that the usually avant-garde Van Sant chose a rather orthodox biopic format to tell the story of the flamboyantly controversial Harvey Milk. The film is not bad. Watch it garner a number of nominations in the upcoming awards season. But it definitely lacks the distinctive impact that Milk has had even after his death.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Today sees the DVD release of "Nip/Tuck Season 5, Part 1". With the second half of the season premiering next week on FX, the important question is... what happened? I've defended this show often enough in the past. Of course it's trashy, but it's invigorating to see so many fascinating actors explore the notion of our society's obsession with vanity. Part of the charm of the series lies in how it hearkens back to the eighties glam-trash melodramas represented by shows like Dallas or Dynasty that one rarely gets a chance to relish anymore. But this season the show may have reached its nadir in the sleaze department, and so far, it sure hasn't offered the rewards it has in the past. This season's story arc starts promisingly, with Christian (Julian McMahon) and Sean (Dylan Walsh) moving out to L.A. to reopen their practice. Womanizing Christian is now saddled with a son that turned out to not even be his. And Sean, recently estranged from his family, is ready to throw himself into his work, with L.A.'s vain denizens presumably offering ample opportunity to do so. Business is slow at first, until they decide to consult on the show-within-a-show, Hearts and Scalpels. While Christian is the one expecting stardom, it is actually Sean who fares well after a brief appearance on the show. Plenty of the typical "Hollywood" plot points are generated by this turn of events, and all take the low road in getting one's attention. Start with the power player (Craig Bierko) who comes in for some surgery, and has to sneak his paid dominatrix (Tia Carrere) into Recovery to help him relieve stress. Or see Rosie O'Donnell return as last season's lottery winner, Dawn Budge, and hook up with unknowingly gay producer Freddy Prune (oliver Platt) long enough to kick him out of the closet. Contrivances abound, like the revelation that Sean's new agent, Colleen (Sharon Gless), is really a stalking fan. Gone are the days when one could at least revel in the show's distinctive brand of snarkiness, where at least the pettiness of egomaniacs like Christian was used to tell cautionary morality tales with at least a modicum of character exploration. But that's not the half of it. Colleen's day job? It's stuffing teddy bears at a mall, so when she snaps, guess how she styles her distinctive form of serial killing? Think that's the lowest point in the series? You'd be close, but nothing in the entire series hits as rock bottom as Sean's discovery that his new girlfriend, Hearts and Scalpels costar, Kate (Paula Marshall) has a sickening scatological compulsion. Whereas before the series once lured such intriguing guest stars as Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour), Larry Hagman (Dallas), Famke Janssen (X-Men), Vanessa Redgrave (Julia), Brooke Shields (Pretty Baby), and Kathleen Turner (The War of the Roses), this year we have Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie), Donna Mills (Knots Landing), and Portia de Rossi (Ally McBeal). Yes, Ellen's wife, playing what amounts to a sterotype of herself. See, one day, Sean's ex-wife Julia (Joely Richardson) simply decides to become a lesbian and set up house with de Rossi's Olivia Lord. Lord's petulant daughter Eden (AnnaLynne McCord), who has honed her skill at manipulating mom feels threatened by Julia. So she goes all "fatal attraction" on Sean, Julia, and their daughter Annie. Julia fares the worst, as usual, tortured by Eden's slow mercury poisoning of her food. After a while, it's easy to see the writer's gears turning as they try to top the last "C'mon!" moment with an even bigger "Holy s--t" one, and one becomes more than a little inured to it all. Think twice before subjecting yourself to this DVD set.
Monday, December 29, 2008
As an auteurist, it is difficult for me to assign even a screenwriter the role of creative force behind a film. But when that screenwriter is Charlie Kaufman, it's hard not to. Now that Kaufman has made his confident directorial debut, it becomes academic. His newest film, Synecdoche, New York, is most assuredly of a piece with the rest of his oeuvre, solidifying the argument. Like in Adaptation (2002), the protagonist in Synecdoche is a writer, a playwright in this case. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is also depressed, pessimistic, and completely self-centered. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) absconds to Berlin with their young daughter, Olive, ostensibly to promote her art show (she paints tiny thumbnail-size portraits). But in reality, she is setting up house with her maybe-more-than-friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Just like Nicolas Cage was playing a version of Charlie Kaufman (literally, as that was the character's name) in the earlier film, Hoffman seems to be channeling the same spirit. His self-absorption manifests itself in the form of severe hypochondria; a lack of self-esteem that somehow makes him more charming to women, not less; and his greatest enemy seems to be a lack of confidence in his writing. While Cage's character felt a block at the idea of adapting another writer's work, here Cotard's impediment is mounting an autobiographical play that will have enough scope to rival the enormity of his life. Cotard may lack self-esteem, but he doesn't lack artistic hubris. This is where we start to realize that Cotard inhabits a surreal world not unlike that in another of Kaufman's films, Being John Malkovich (1999). You'll recall that as the film where John Cusack's Craig, a schlub puppeteer, ends up working as a filing clerk at a company whose offices are on the 7 1/2 floor of a Manhattan office building. In Synecdoche, Cotard purchases the largest warehouse one can ever imagine, and proceeds to mount a play with the largest cast ever assembled in what will eventually be a life-size version of New York City. Yeah, don't worry. Just like it made sense to find a portal into actor John Malkovich's consciousness on that 7 1/2 floor, it makes a weird kind of sense when you see Cotard's play being staged in this movie. Synecdoche's world is an odd one where it's not unusual to hear a former flame of Cotard's, Hazel (Samantha Morton), tell him that she's got to leave to meet her husband and the twins, and she proceeds to rattle off three children's names instead of two. When Hazel goes house-hunting, she buys a burning house because it's more affordable. The picture above is of Hazel entertaining Cotard in said house after she's moved in. Surrealism is not used simply for the sake of piling on non-sequiturs. There is a moral dilemma being explored here through the prism of surrealism, just like in Kaufman's most accessible work, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In that film, Joel (Jim Carrey) was dismayed to find out that his former lover, Clementine (Kate Winslet), was so over their relationship she decided to have the memories of it erased from her mind. Consenting to the same procedure as an act of revenge, he instead finds he does not want to lose the memories. Synechdoche's dilemma concerns introspection. It asks, at what point does self-examination become more than a way to improve oneself, and become instead, a way of exiling oneself from one's own life and its significant events? Cotard is so fearful of dying of some disease he ambitiously tries to capture the meaning of life in his grand play, ignoring every event or person that would give his life the importance he seeks. This is a theme that runs through all of Kaufman's work, the denial of elements in one's persona in the pursuit of answers to the mystery of same. Whether it's Joel discovering this trap a little too late into his memory-erasure of Clementine; or Craig's decision to hide behind John Malkovich's appearance in order to both advance his career as a puppeteer and win a woman's attention; or Charlie trying to gain personal redemption in adapting someone else's story; all have Kaufman's distinct imprimatur. Synecdoche, New York is our first opportunity to see Kaufman's unexpurgated vision of reality unfold before us, and it is a resounding success.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), the French language film by Arnaud Desplechin, is one of the most elegantly beautiful films I've seen in a long time. A portrait of the extremely dysfunctional Vuillard clan, a family at a crossroads of sorts, the movie is bolstered by the performances of Catherine Deneuve, her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and the fascinating Mathieu Amalric. Everything, from the music to the imagery to the performances, contribute to a sense of warmth and reality so rarely found in this usually American genre, the family reunion film, that the movie is simply one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I've had in the last couple of years. The Vuillards are a family that revel in their animosity towards each other, turning it into a gamesmanship of sorts between them. Eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is trying to extricate herself from the relentless negativity, but in doing so she takes the game to a new level. After dealing with the habitual irresponsibility of middle brother Henri (Amalric), she bails him out of a business deal that went bad, with the condition that he is never to be present, or even talked about, in front of her for as long as they live. This extreme measure may be a way of coping with her son Paul (Emile Berling) and his schizophrenic breakdown. Add the stress of the discovery by Junon (Deneuve), the family matriarch, that she suffers from a rare form of cancer and needs a bone marrow transfusion. The upcoming family reunion this Christmas is one that most of them are not looking forward to. Desplechin adopts a variety of techniques to communicate a great amount of backstory in what seems like a breezy 2 and 1/2 hours. At the outset of the film he uses shadow puppets to describe how the childhood death of brother Joseph may have been the inciting incident in the family's complex history of mutual loathing. This short prologue casts a mythic quality on what is a essentially a family of traditional archetypes, a fact Henri makes note of early in the film when he says (and I paraphrase) that if his life is a myth he does not know what part he is supposed to play. The director also often has his characters break the fourth wall, and discuss their inner thoughts, or read personal letters directly to the camera. Another curious device, that may not be as successful, is one in which the viewer enters a scene being shot as if through a peephole, with the lens aperture slowly opening onto the scene proper, a form of eavesdropping that literally reminds us that though we are privy to the Vuillards' secrets, this is just cinema. All of the technical aspects of the film seem to be on point. Grégoire Hetzel's music is lush and comforting, enveloping us in the familial warmth that this family deceptively seems to lack. The imagery also plays counterpoint to the events of the film. Eric Gautier's golden-toned cinematography, and the use of what looks like actual childhood photos of the actors, create a nostalgic sense of history and the indomitable spirit that this family has developed in dealing with their fair share of tragedies. The performances are uniformly excellent. Deneuve gives what could easily be her valedictory performance in film, despite still being too young to leave the screen. It is because she imbues Junon with an unspoken regret for the way she's alienated herself from her family. Still, Junon would rather let the cancer take her than deal with the family issues head-on. Mastroianni is charming as Sylvia, wife of Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), the youngest brother. A mother of two, the fading beauty wonders what course her life would have taken had she chosen to marry cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), a painter, instead. Amalric's ugly Henri is a man at odds with himself, both seeking to reconnect with his loved ones, while constantly stirring things up when their dust-ups have settled. For instance, he turns out to be one of only two family members (the other is a youngster) whose bone marrow is compatible with Junon. He is happy to oblige, but still can't bring himself to call his mother by anything but her first name. The detestable little Henri is a physical embodiment of the family and their animus. A memorable image comes midway in Un conte de Noël when Elizabeth opens a present from a neighbor, a gold necklace with a heart-shaped charm. As she admires it, there is a cut to the charm spinning in the center of the film frame as the surrounding space dissolves into a snowy exterior of the family home. This central image somehow captures the ineffable feelings that arise when viewing this exquisite film, of a family that may not actually like each other much, but manage to hold deep love for each other nonetheless.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Strong performances continue to clutter up American cinema in 2008. Three strong contenders emerge from Ron Howard's latest film, Frost/Nixon. Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), the movie is based on his play which debuted in London's West End. The original London cast returns, with Frank Langella (Superman Returns) in his Tony award-winning role as disgraced former president Richard Nixon, and Michael Sheen (The Queen) as famed TV host David Frost. The film depicts the behind-the-scenes events surrounding Nixon's 1977 television interview with Frost. In obtaining an interview with the former president, talk show host Frost saw an opportunity for fame and glory. The embattled Frost was losing ground in his fight to keep himself on the air in Australia and Britain after already having lost a broadcast in New York. This would be a chance to regain relevance in his industry. For Nixon, it would be an opportunity to rehabilitate his reputation after the Watergate debacle, submitting himself to an interviewer that in all likelihood would refrain from hard-hitting questions. Langella and Sheen prove to be evenly matched onscreen, even if their characters don't seem to be at first glance. Langella's Nixon is crafty, hiding a keen intellect underneath a deceptive mask of age and lumbering physical non-agility. Before one interview session, he innocently makes small talk with Frost. Just as the floor director counts down to camera rolling, Nixon slips in a question to Frost in order to unsettle him, "You have a pleasant evening last night? You do any fornicating?" But Sheen's Frost is not as overmatched as everybody thinks. After agreeing to avoid any questions on Watergate until their fourth session, he leads into their first conversation with the question, "Why didn't you burn the tapes?" Though only slightly ruffling Nixon's feathers with his impatience, the incident seems to encapsulate Frost's showmanship. This quality is later demonstrated to be invaluable in preserving the attention focused on the interviews, as he deals with criticism from the journalistic establishment for his lack of credibility, and wrestles with raising financing for the endeavor. Yet despite the larger than life characters that front the film, its emotional heart is Sam Rockwell's interpretation of James Reston. One of Frost's researchers, it is Reston who seems to inspire Frost to reach beyond just the banal anecdotes that, as Reston puts it, would fascinate a "talk show host." Reston believes it is their job to give Nixon the "trial he never had." Rockwell (Choke) is explosive in this small role which essentially serves as Frost's conscience, and I predict an Oscar nomination in his near future. The most surprising achievement director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) accomplishes is staying out of the way of his actors. Instead, he focuses on broadening the play to cinematic scale. Some of it doesn't work, like an annoying framing device where some of the peripheral players in the drama relate the story from the future. In this case, I'm unaware if this was a device used in the play, but it seems to be a pretentious attempt to inject a false historical grandeur to the proceedings. Some of it does, like shooting at expansive locations in California and curiously, tightening the frame with frequent closeups, revealing nuance that would be difficult to see onstage. Perhaps it is Howard's own experience as an actor that serves him best in this film, trusting his cast to act the heck out of their parts. Frost/Nixon is easy to recommend. It transcends its stage roots to become a quite gripping example of the power of performance, and how filmmaking can hone it to an even sharper degree than the theater can. Frost/Nixon is in limited release.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
There is an interesting debate brewing in my mind after a visit to two little corners of the blogosphere. Should a movie's substantive value be deemed nonexistent simply because style takes precedence in that particular film? Or does the artifice sometimes disguise the substance beneath the style, and perhaps entertainment value also? Admittedly, this is not a new debate. Formalists and realists have been arguing this for a while in some form or another. The germ of this began at Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter where people are arguing about the value of the film Sin City (2005) under a post he entitled Images From The Greatest Films of the Decade: Sin City (A Film Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller) . After I complimented Jeremy on his selection of Sin City as one of the films he honored with his beautiful frame captures, Samuel Wilson commented:
I respectfully disagree. The exact faithfulness of Rodriguez' [sic] adaptation is the movie's great flaw. Comic book dialogue works according to a different narrative logic from movie dialogue. Transcribing Miller's dialogue directly on film ended up sounding stilted to me. I admit also that I liked the Sin City comics initially, but grew tired of Miller's obsessions by the end of the third series -- which does leave possibly the best story, "A Dame to Kill For," to be adapted in a second movie. I can admire the movie visually (those are nice captures) and I suppose it can be appreciated as a formal experiment...This elicited a comment from J.D.:
Well, the stilted sounding dialogue seemed, to me at least, to be kinda the point, drawing attention to the artificiality of the whole thing - this is, after all, a hyper-stylized world right out of a Mickey Spillane novel. I think that some actors did a better job with the dialogue than others. Clive Owen and Mickey Rourke, for example, fared very well, while Michael Madsen, not so much, but I think that it is more to do with the strengths and limitations of various actors in the cast.Put me squarely in J.D.'s camp, seeing as how I agree that Sin City is an ambitious attempt to pay simultaneous homage to both the film noir genre and the graphic novel medium. Some of the noir elements are diluted by the time the story reaches the screen, in part because this is a filmed adaptation of a medium that was already adapting a film genre. Post-modernism at its best, no? And J.D. makes a good point. However I feel about the film, he is correct in saying that some actors, Jessica Alba and Michael Madsen in particular, did not serve the material well under the constraints of the screenplay. But does the artifice of the film undermine its value? Film is an inherently artificial medium, and isn't anything put before the lens already influenced unnaturally by the very presence of the camera? So you can see why the argument that a film lacks substance or reality, holds little water with me.
It was with that frame of mind that I must have carried some of this debate over to another site I frequent, Ed Howard's Only the Cinema, where we discussed a better example. When Ed posted his 50 Best films of the 1980s, I was taken aback by the absence of a few films, but when I brought some of them up, amongst them, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Blade Runner (1982), Ed responded:
Tony, some of those I do like but don't consider list material (like Raiders, which is fun but hardly any great masterpiece)... and others I respect but don't have much personal love for them, like Blade Runner... an effects showcase...Blade Runner has always been and continues to be a flawed film, no doubt. But it did move the cinematic medium forward visually, and has proven to be highly influential. Besides that, it clearly falls into the larger context of film history as a new iteration of film noir (see an earlier post on Blade Runner) much like Sin City does. So it is working on more levels than an ordinary film. And, in my mind, Raiders is a tougher case to argue. As I said in response to Ed at his site:
Sure, it is a Hollywood blockbuster, but it is hardly a trifle in film history. It is a significant homage to an often neglected genre, the Saturday morning serial. It is near flawless in its execution as an action-adventure film. As a suspense thriller, though it may be forgotten after repeated viewings, it rivals the work of Hitchcock (especially in the how-did-he-film-that department). And it doesn't fall prey to the trite dialogue, or wooden characterizations routinely found even in the original Star Wars trilogy.Ed's response:
Tony, Raiders is undoubtedly a great action-adventure flick. To me, though, the Hitchcock comparison is more revelatory for the differences than the similarities. Hitch was a sublime craftsman with an unrivaled technical mastery, but this formal acumen was rarely used only in service to the suspense or the action. There is invariably something deeper, something of substance, going on in Hitch's best films, whether it's the depth of the characterization, the thematic and psychological subtexts, or, as in Psycho and North By Northwest, a certain playfulness with the formal conventions of genres. As good as Hitchcock was at entertaining, I think he was always conscious of making his films interesting beneath the surface as well. Raiders is all surface. I enjoy it, and I'm certainly not judging it negatively for its popularity, but there's just nothing there beyond a fun adventure. To the extent that the Indiana Jones films have any substance at all, it's in the form of a regressive Orientalism that shows through much more clearly in Temple of Doom but is present in the first film as well.Let's remember that before Cahiers du Cinema first crowned Hitchcock as an auteur he was often dismissed as a genre director in much the same way that Spielberg has been. Thematically, Spielberg has matured in a way that make his particular concerns much more evident in his recent films, concerns such as his fascination with World War II and Nazi Germany. This theme is treated in a much more adolescent way in his earlier films, 1941 (1979) and Raiders in particular, which were fed by his childhood "education" through movies. His exploration of the effect of the war, and more specifically the Nazis, on his father's generation matures during the course of his career so that by the time he directs Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), he cannot trivialize Nazi Germany nor America's involvement in the war as he does in his earlier films. Seeing as he could not simply get from there to here without an evolution in his art, there is then a value to Raiders of the Lost Ark that deepens once its place in the broader context of Spielberg's filmography is examined, if only to serve as a contrast to his later films. The fact that the film seems to be "all surface", as Ed puts it, is not necessarily so because of the foundation it initially establishes in his progressively conscious thoughts on WWII. So I'd like to hear from my readers on this. Are entertaining films to be dismissed as lacking any substantive value, or might a viewer glean something deeper from them the same way one can in "pop art"? Tell me about some of the movies that you were surprised to find went deeper than you once might have thought. Or tell me why such movies should correctly be viewed as simplistic or superficial.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
In the seventies, it was Woody Allen (Annie Hall). In the eighties, it was the Abraham and Zucker Brothers (Airplane!) crew. In the nineties, it was the Farrelly Brothers (There's Something About Mary). So far, 21st century American comedic cinema has been the domain of Judd Apatow and his repertory. While Apatow's other 2008 releases (Drillbit Taylor, Pineapple Express, and Step Brothers) suggest that he and his company may be starting to spread themselves a little thin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall helps bolster his claim to the comedy throne. Like two of his earlier successes, The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005), and Knocked Up (2007), this film mixes the romantically relatable (Jason Segel's ill-advised decision to stay in Hawaii even after discovering ex-girlfriend Kristen Bell is also there) with the hilariously profane (just about anything concerning scene-stealer Russell Brand). The results are that it comes off feeling a lot kinder to its characters than either film, and even a little funnier than Knocked Up, if not the home run that Virgin ended up with when it was at bat. Segel not only stars in it, but wrote the sweet-hearted screenplay that makes this one an instant classic definitely worth adding to the DVD collection. Another famous director lending his name to film productions, Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), might want to think again before lending it to movies such as Hell Ride. Written and directed by Larry Bishop, whose biggest claim to fame is the fact that he is the son of the late Rat Pack-er Joey Bishop, the film tries to hit the clever Tarantino tone with its pseudo-hard-boiled dialogue. Only Bishop ain't no Tarantino as the following lines poor Leonor Varela (Blade II) is saddled with demonstrate:
Wanna f--k? Trust me, after I give you the bad news, you ain't gonna wanna f--k. Ever. Again. F--k me good one more time before you never wanna f--k again. I'm the messenger of misery, baby. Let's f--k first, then I'll deliver my miserable message.And how did Bishop get Varela to appear in this film? How did he get David Carradine, Dennis Hopper, Vinnie Jones, and Michael Madsen to appear in this overwrought and underwritten tale of "bikers, brotherhood, and bulls--t"? Maybe it's the Tarantino connection, or the Rat Pack one. Either way, Hell Ride is definitely trading on someone's name and it isn't Larry Bishop's. For true biker fans, forget this DVD, and catch the cult hit Sons of Anarchy on FX. You'll thank me for it. A recent classic film finally made its debut on DVD this year. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) is about the development of a touching relationship between two cellmates in a fictional South American country. Political prisoner Valentin Arregui is played by the late Raul Julia, a signature role that he is probably best remembered for. Flamboyantly gay Luis Molina is played by William Hurt, a role which he won the Oscar for. As Arregui is tortured through the course of the film, he grows accustomed to listening Molina tell the story of a romantic movie he once saw. The fact that it takes place in a fascistic idea of the perfect society becomes secondary to the safe harbor it proves to be to Julia's revolutionary idealist through his painful stay in prison. Hurt is mesmerizing as Molina, presenting a well-rounded gay man at a time when homosexual characters were rare in mainstream cinema, and certainly absent among Oscar-winning roles for actors. Molina is kind, funny, intelligent, charismatic, deceptive, and most importantly, all too human. The film is worth a second look considering its relevancy to current events.
Friday, December 12, 2008
It is 1964, the Bronx. The nation is still reeling from the assassination of a beloved president who represented vitality, courage and change. At St. Nicholas, a young charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) strives to make the Church more approachable to its schoolkids and parishioners. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), trained a generation earlier under more rigid guidelines, is convinced that his methods promote a permissiveness that will ultimately undermine the Church. And caught in the middle is Sister James (Amy Adams), who must reconcile her own beliefs - much closer to the Father's - with that of her superior's. Sister James sees Father Flynn as a welcome ray of light in the doom-and-gloom atmosphere perpetuated by the strict Sister Aloysius. Flynn agrees, pointing out to the young nun, "The dragon is hungry," when Aloysius yells for a student to come see her. But after a black student, Donald Miller returns uncomfortably from a meeting with the priest, Sister James starts suspecting Father Flynn of something unspeakable. Sister Aloysius is only too eager to confront the priest regarding the matter, stopping just short of an outright accusation of moral impropriety. And she is only too happy to push the matter to its limits in order to get Flynn out of "her" school. John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Ostensibly the story is about the question of whether or not Father Flynn committed the crime he is accused of by Sister Aloysius, pursuing her line of questioning without any evidence save for her moral certainty. However, it is easy to see the metaphor for some of the personal sacrifices we've made in the pursuit of the faceless fear that currently grips our nation. Are we right to attack someone or some thing without any hard evidence of their involvement in criminal activities? What happens to us when the possibility that we were wrong in our assumptions grows until it cannot be ignored? Can we hide behind morality when prejudice is the impetus for our actions? Shanley's film asks all of these questions, and doesn't always answer them successfully. Shanley is astute enough to complicate this thin allegory by casting doubts on each side of the question. Yes, Father Flynn offers hope instead of fear. But can we judge a more insidious purpose in his lecture to the schoolboys about keeping their fingernails clean? And why does he indulge in moments of gluttony and vice, such as smoking, or the extra lumps of sugar in his tea? Sister Aloysius is not exactly the paragon of virtue herself, enjoying the occasional news reports on a transistor radio she confiscated from a student who was listening to it in class. But she is honest enough to acknowledge her momentary weakness. And she hides a streak of kindness, evident in the way she protects an older nun who is going blind from being discovered so she won't get released from her duties. The cast unanimously give excellent performances. Hoffman plays Flynn with the right amounts of big brother, chummy pal, and understanding confidant, recasting the popular representative stereotype of the Church - the mean, old, Catholic nun as depicted by Sister Aloysius - with the fresher notion of the hip priest you wish you had grown up listening to at Mass. As the naive Sister James, Adams convincingly plays the role of student, an empty vessel seeking knowledge and experience, yet unable to decide if her mentor should be Aloysius or Flynn. Viola Davis is significantly memorable as Mrs. Miller, the student's mother. In just two scenes, she is able to hold her own, emotionally sparring with the legendary Streep, as she wonders whether the pursuit of the truth about Father Flynn is worth all the turmoil this would ultimately bring her son. But amid stellar performances Streep's is a cut above the rest. Streep is always the character you are with as the story unfolds. And she steals every scene she is in, even when in the company of the other illustrious actors. She can be disarmingly funny, such as when Sister James argues on Father Flynn's behalf, and a bulb in the room blows out. Sister Aloysius declares to the innocent young nun, "Look at that. You blew out my light." But she can also be devastating, using God as an inadvertent co-conspirator, witheringly declaring the same statement to Father Flynn when the bulb blows out again, as he defends himself. Surprisingly, it is her interpretation of the character which also undermines the central point of Doubt. She makes Sister Aloysius so convincing in her argument, that it is hard to believe she might have it all wrong. Streep's multilayered performance is probably the best I've seen all year. In the end, Shanley's themes seem to fade into the gray areas he is working to conjure up. But its relevance to current events, and the performances, led by Streep's, are powerful enough to warrant viewing Doubt immediately. Doubt is in limited release. Still provided courtesy of Miramax Films.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Some people find memes to be a bit of a chore, a kind of chain letter they don't really welcome because it usually hits just when they are busiest with their own planned postings. It feels like homework, they usually say. For me, it proves to be a necessary jolt when I'm lazy and don't feel like writing something I may have on my docket (like obligatory reviews for DVDs I've been sent that are way over due). So I'd like to thank Jeremy Richey at the wonderful Moon in the Gutter for tagging me with this (incredibly reductive) meme on twenty all-time favorite actresses that originated at Nathaniel R.'s Film Experience. As for who I'm tagging, I'm very interested in seeing lists from: James Hansen at Out 1 Lissette Decos at her eponymous blog MovieMan0283 at The Dancing Image T.S. at Screen Savour Dean Treadway at filmicability And since you guys tend to be on my list of you-kinda-don't-like-to-be-tagged-for-these-sorts-of-things, but I think you secretly like them: Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running And now, on with the show. These actresses are my favorite for simply one reason. In their own way, they are all, no matter the caliber of the film they are in, compulsively watchable. Victoria Abril in ¡Átame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) (1990) Jenny Agutter in Logan's Run (1976) Claudia Cardinale in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963) Julie Christie in Shampoo (1975) Barbara Crampton in From Beyond (1986) Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown (1997) Pam Grier in Coffy (1973) Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967) Claudia Jennings in 'Gator Bait (1974) Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) Nastassja Kinski in Cat People (1982) Diane Lane in Streets of Fire (1984) Janet Leigh in Houdini (1953) Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze (1956) Valerie Perrine in Lenny (1974) Charlotte Rampling in Il Portiere di notte (The Night Porter) (1974) Theresa Russell in Bad Timing (1980) Monica Vitti in Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) (1964) Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979) UPDATE: As I start getting responses to my tags I'll post links to their lists here: Self-Styled Siren's list Screen Savour's list filmicability's list Lissette Decos' list The Dancing Image's list
Labels: Film Review
Saturday, December 6, 2008
There is a tendency to pile on someone when they are down, and in the case of Tom Cruise it seems he may have abetted some of that with his freakishly self-righteous behavior in front of the public eye. His capital with his audience has been severely diminished, then, due to his public persona taking such precedence over his screen one. Add to that the incredibly risky and failing enterprise of his purchase of a stake in United Artists after his unceremonious release from his longtime production partner, Paramount. His first film for UA, Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs (2007) was a flop. His newest one, the troubled Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men), has had its release delayed a few times, now. So what a pleasant surprise it is to report that Singer and Cruise deliver one solid thriller that could help launch Cruise back into critical favor if not necessarily commercial success. The timing for this dark World War II-era drama's Christmas release is commercially ill conceived. Certainly, they have a film that I'm sure they believed had potential for some Oscars in the technical and story realm, which may explain trying to squeeze it out before the end of the year. Frequent Singer collaborator Christopher McQuarrie and cowriter Nathan Alexander have come up with an exciting script based on the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, on July 20th, 1944, hatched by some of his closest officers. The problem is that, as we all know, they failed. It is hard to see how such a downer will succeed during the joyous holiday season. It's a shame really, because Tom Cruise is great in the role of the plot's ringleader, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Frequently dismissed as a celebrity personality more than a true actor, Cruise is excellent in the part. Just like other larger than life movie stars like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Cruise is remarkably adept at using his public persona to inform and enhance his performances. In this case, the embattled Stauffenberg, carrying the full and sole responsibility for the execution of the plot, and then contending with the ramifications of its failure is not unlike the present Cruise, the embattled actor carrying the full and sole responsibility for the success of this film and United Artists. Stauffenberg's self-righteous arrogance contributes to the implementation of his plan before his confirmation of Hitler's death, a significant blunder as it turns out. Unlike a Sean Penn or Robert De Niro, Cruise is no chameleon in this one, although he can be (see Tropic Thunder). For instance, there is no trace of a German accent in his performance. But Singer effectively dismisses the need for one in the opening of the film using an artistic effect reminiscent of a similar one that occurred near the beginning of The Hunt for Red October (1990). Perhaps Singer is the best director to effectively interpret this story. Singer is an expert at servicing the entire cast in an ensemble drama, as is evident in The Usual Suspects (1995), and his two X-Men films, so that no one seems underutilized. Here he accomplishes that nicely, giving all the actors, such as Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, and Tom Wilkinson, their moments in the film. And the director brings some nice surreal touches to the film, often using the one-eyed Stauffenberg's glass prosthesis to induce a small touch of paranoia at inopportune moments. Recalling some of the best conspiracy thrillers of the seventies, Valkyrie is a suspenseful film that should satisfy even Cruise's detractors. Hopefully, it will succeed commercially as well, saving the perpetually endangered United Artists and Cruise's career. Valkyrie opens nationwide on Christmas Day. This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 12/6/2008.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, this year's indie favorite, came out with quite the buzz from the festival circuit. In fact, as I write this, the National Board of Review has picked it as its Best Picture for 2008. So why was I so utterly underwhelmed when I saw it? Millionaire, the "rags to raja" story (as one film character puts it) of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), and his rise from poverty to the hot seat on India's version of the game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, is not without its charm. But where it all ends up is predictably hokey. It starts promising enough, with a primer on the slums of Mumbai and its persecuted Muslims as seen through the eyes of a young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail). Their mother's murder leads them into forced panhandling for a Fagin-like captor named Maman (Ankur Vikal), and a fateful encounter with Latika (Rubiana Ali), a girl who Jamal falls for. The most thrilling parts of the movie take place in this, at once, familiar and exotic world where children are forced to hustle for adults' livelihood, and blinded as a reward since blind beggars bring in the most cash. But the conceit of the film lies in its framing device, an interrogation of the adult Jamal by the local police to determine if he got as far as he did on the game show by cheating. As the young man recounts how he knew the answers to each question, it first presents the moment on the game show when he is queried, followed up by a short vignette demonstrating one of Jamal's life lessons, and how it imparted knowledge of said answer. While the gimmick works initially, the plot device ultimately wears thin. Even great performances by Patel, and Freida Pinto as the adult Latika (indeed all the actors who portray the three principals at various ages), aren't enough to salvage the sense that this film is heading into the territory where contrivances rule. Out of character behavior, in the person of older brother Salim (now a thug for the local gangster), contributes to an all too predictable ending where we exonerate Jamal from his petty crimes because he did it all for love. Slumdog Millionaire is not a complete misfire. Why would it be, coming from Boyle, director of minor classics like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later? But it is a bit disappointing in its lack of originality. I was left longing for more of the local flavor prevalent in the flashback sequences, wishing I could skip the third act where its flaws became all too obvious. Slumdog Millionaire is in limited release. Still provided courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Blu-ray Review: Chungking Express - Criterion's First Blu-ray Cements Their Reputation as the Premier Collection for Cinephiles
Want yet another reason to justify upgrading to Blu-ray sooner rather than later? Consider this: Criterion, that haven for cinephiles and loyal devotees of world cinema, has finally ventured into the high definition market. Their first release, Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express (1994) is a great example of how an emphatically cinematic work of art should be transferred for viewing in the high-definition digital home video realm. There is the beautiful, newly restored picture to best illustrate the care with which they've approached Chungking. While Wong (In the Mood for Love) and cinematographer Christopher Doyle always provide arresting images full of saturated color and painterly composition, this film was shot under hurried circumstances, stolen shots necessitated by their inability to obtain permits for most of the film locations. Understandably then, they resorted to natural light for much of the shoot, and film grain has always been evident in the movie. Obviously then, it only heightens the gritty style of what is one of Wong's most spontaneous exercises, a diptych concerning two cops and their respective travails with love in Hong Kong, with the upcoming transfer to mainland China looming over the city. Happily, I can report that Criterion has preserved the telltale grain to such an extent, it almost looks like you're watching film, not video, in your living room. This is a pernicious bugaboo to many film buffs and I'm not surprised at Criterion's response. The soundtrack has also been remastered in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Little flashiness here with most of the audio coming from the center speaker, but wonderful ambient noise from the rear speakers when the locale changes to the marketplace at Chungking Mansions. Of course, Criterion enlisted director Wong's aid in supervising the transfer according to the slim and elegant cardboard Digipak that holds the disc. What the box doesn't say, but Curtis Tsui communicates in Criterion's blog, On Five, is how they managed to rework some changes suggested by Doyle at the eleventh hour, after a rare opportunity to catch the cinematographer in New York where he was shooting a film for Jim Jarmusch. Asian cinema expert, Tony Rayns of Sight and Sound magazine, provides an excellent commentary that is very informative. Especially enlightening is a discussion of the, at times, fractious relationship between Doyle and Wong, more credible because of his close personal friendship with Doyle, and his expertise with Wong's filmography. Best of all, Criterion plans on keeping the price point the same for their Blu-rays as it is for the standard DVDs, making it a virtual given that one should purchase the high-definition version. So give yourself two presents for Christmas, a great Blu-ray player (I viewed it on a Sony BDP-S350), and Criterion's Chungking Express on Blu-ray. Chungking Express will be available, on Blu-ray and standard DVD, on December 16th. Stills provided courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment and The Criterion Collection.