Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: December 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

FIRST LOOK - Movie Review: Extraordinary Measures (2010)

by Tony Dayoub

It looks like after the typical onslaught of award-worthy films make their debut in December we can expect January to be the start of another cinematic lull in the year. Movies reserved for release in this period tend to be safe bets, and Extraordinary Measures, which launches the new CBS Films division, is just as predictable as you would guess.

Based on Geeta Anand's The Cure, the medical drama is a two-hander that follows John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) as he recruits Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford) in an effort to develop a cure for the rare genetic disorder that afflicts Crowley's children, Pompe disease. There are some interesting plot details in the early part of the film, as Crowley leaves his lucrative job with Bristol-Meyers Squibb to co-found a biotech start-up with the idiosyncratic Stonehill. And Measures is at its most fascinating when it explores how Fraser's Crowley deals with the intricacies of the business compromises necessary to fund a search for the cure.

Fraser (The Mummy) is a surprise. Pretty solid dramatically, he deftly switches gears between concerned parent and pragmatic businessman. The most intriguin section of the film depicts the ins and outs of acquiring funding for Stonehill's research. Gambling that his start-up will survive just long enough to develop something of interest to a larger corporation, Crowley's desperation for a cure soon overcomes him as time starts running out for his children. And Fraser modulates his emotional responses effectively, avoiding any histrionics one would expect from an actor who has never quite displayed such a range in previous performances.

However when director Tom Vaughan takes Measures ouside the realm of medical procedural for too long it gets bogged down in syrupy sentimentality. Keri Russell (Felicity) is completely wasted as wife Aileen Crowley. A scene in the film's first act showing the Crowleys trying to steal a moment for physical intimacy during their kids' nurses' shift-change window displays some promise that the day to day inconveniences of caring for a loved one full time would be explored through the character of Aileen. Instead, the script relegates Russell to being a mere sounding board for Fraser, a cipher who cries on cue whenever the chips are down, and just about the kind of heroine you'd see in any old Lifetime cable movie-of-the-week.

Ford executive produces the feature, a bit of shepherding you typically see when an actor wishes to save a notable character part for himself. But if there is anything distinctive in the stereotypically kooky character of Stonehill—a doctor who, big surprise, loves to ignore others as he focuses on his research while the rock music blasts loudly out of his office—it's exorcised by his one-note performance of crankiness. Perhaps a strange one-scene cameo by Dee Wallace (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) which hints at a flirtation indicates that some scenes between her and Ford were cut; as does a later scene, when a silhouette of a woman lying next to the (thus far sexually inactive) doctor distracts from the midnight phone call he receives. Ford and Wallace would have made for an interesting couple and a nice way of fleshing him out.

Extraordinary Measures ultimately falls short by residing within the limited scope of the traditional medical melodrama. The film's best moments places Fraser's character in quite the crucible, as he must weigh the practical considerations of marketing a viable treatment against the brutal odds of survival which his children face. It should have jettisoned more of the emotional baggage to explore the procedural aspects of funding medical research, fresh territory for movies of this type.

Extraordinary Measures is scheduled to open on January 22, 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Interestingly, last night (24 hours after seeing Avatar) I had a great time watching Guy Ritchie (Snatch) work Sherlock Holmes over with his particular brand of Britstosterone-fueled filmmaking. In what seems to be the emerging pattern among reboots these days, Ritchie drops in on Holmes (Robert Downey) somewhat early in his career, before he has met the shadowy figure in the fringes of the movie who will ultimately become his archenemy. And rather than modify Holmes and sidekick Watson (Jude Law) to fit into his style of protagonists, Ritchie is able to stay somewhat faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle's mythos, peppering the film with details from his novels while melding his sensibility into a London that is possibly one of the most historically accurate to ever serve as a backdrop for a cinematic Holmes adventure.

Yes, it's a grungier Holmes than we're used to seeing, one that could easily fit into the lineup with any of the other underworld characters from Ritchie's filmography yet still true to Doyle's depiction of the character. Downey has just the right flair for theatricality to embody the Holmes we're familiar with. The deductive reasoning, the dry wit, the lightning fast reflexes both mental and otherwise, are faithfully preserved. The one thing Downey brings to the mix which may shock some who only know the character from the movies is a physicality that has often been referred to in the novels. Holmes could have been a prize-fighter according to Doyle's novels, and Downey, looking leaner and sleeker than he ever has before (an allusion to Holmes' unspoken—at least in this movie—drug addiction?) brings the attitude of a bare-knuckle brawler and the grace and agility of a martial artist into the film's multitude of action scenes. This, in fact, is an action movie, but it will probably be one of the smartest and most historically accurate ones you'll see for a long time.

If there are any drawbacks they lie in the predictability of what is basically a traditional detective story/action-adventure tale. There's seldom any question that Holmes will save the day, that our heroes' lives are in danger, or that we won't figure out the villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), and his agenda. And Rachel McAdams is sorely miscast as the one woman Holmes has ever found formidable. She seems like a young schoolgirl next to these men. But Ritchie makes up for this by pumping some adrenaline into the story—the film moves like a juggernaut, quick, muscular and unstoppable—and giving the movie a real sense of place and time that make every scene worth exploring if only for the simple pleasure of soaking in the ambience. Ritchie also gets points for avoiding the expository origin story that often plagues reboots of this nature. Instead he introduces us to Holmes and Watson—virtual equals in the way their strengths complement each other—in what seems like mid-career.

The most interesting performance is Law's as Holmes' faithful aide, Dr. Watson. Often presented as somewhat of a bumbler in other movies (particularly when played by Nigel Bruce in the forties), Law imbues Watson with dignity and self-respect, reminding you always that this man's intellectual stature must be of some note in order to even keep up with the arrogant genius that is Holmes. Details about Watson usually reserved solely for Doyle's stories come to the forefront in Ritchie's film: his distinguished military service in Afghanistan; his medical acumen; and his self-deprecating habit of acknowledging his limitations in the presence of his intellectually superior friend. There's even a subplot that touches on the closeness of the two men, with Holmes experiencing a bit of jealousy at the thought of Watson's impending marriage to a governess (a wonderful excuse to pass some time with the underrated Kelly Reilly).

Sherlock Holmes is hardly as ambitious as Cameron's Avatar,a film that may overshadow its opening at the box office this weekend. But Holmes succeeds on its own merits in some ways Avatar fails to. It gives us a fresh take on a favorite literary character, which in years to come, may give this film some stronger footing than its box office rival.

Sherlock Holmes opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Okay. It's not that Avatar should be ranked on any end-of-the-year "best" lists, to be sure. But I had such a fun time falling into James Cameron's fantasy, I can't deny how enjoyable it is. Is it a landmark achievement in filmmaking? I think so. But the problem lies in whether it will feel like such twenty years from now, when this technology will feel commonplace, or worse yet, outdated.

A former visual effects cinematographer, Cameron has a natural inclination towards spectacle. What I also give him credit for is using his vast wealth to fund the R & D for not just his own pet projects, but projects that will help the medium itself move forward . Avatar, its fairly evident, is just such a project. In one scene, where hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has gotten lost in the woods of planet Pandora, he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), one of the warrior natives known as the Na'vi. The scene is one that immerses both the viewer and our proxy Jake in the engrossing environs of the Na'vi's planet. Its CGI world simultaneously feels artificial and alive. Everything from the flora to the fauna to the heroes that populate its world have an organic relation to each other, their sympathetic bioluminescence serving as the vehicle for this holistic harmony.

I saw the film in 3-D, and to see it any other way is to lose a crucial part of the story. The paraplegic Jake, a former marine, is tempted into taking part in an experimental exercise by the opportunity to experience the use of legs again after he transfers his persona into a human/Na'vi hybrid avatar. Cameron wisely uses restraint with the 3-D, generally avoiding the in-your-face shots of projectiles launched toward the screen, visuals that usually distract viewers from any reality the film is striving to achieve. Ironically, 3-D films have long felt like gimmicks in their attempt to reach a sort of visual realism. No, Cameron's use of the effect is nuanced, his camera skimming over and past and through the dense rainforest that envelops Pandora three-dimensionally. Cameron mitigates the artificiliaty of the effect by making Avatar's central characters blue-skinned aliens, creatures that look unnatural to begin with. He also transcend the gimmickry of the 3-D by making it essential to the story. As you experience the immersive quality of Cameron's 3-D artistry, you immediately identify with Jake who is experiencing his own sense of wonder with the new virtual world he finds himself in. Good thing, too, since Cameron's script isn't strong enough to get you to connect with the film's characters on that visceral level so necessary to make the film a true success.

Some have cited the problematic nature of the film's topicality, stating that their seems to be an obvious point Cameron is making with parallels to the Iraq War. While I do see several phrases like "shock and awe," or "fight terror with terror," designed to elicit some sort of reaction, I truly feel these phrases are there due to the Barnum-like Cameron's desire to drum up critical good will in the film—irresponsibly I may add—but nothing more. It is no secret that the American (?) military is given quite a black eye by their villainous depiction in this movie (particularly by the excellent Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch). But the film is so clearly derivative of a specific classic science-fiction novel which predates, and in fact somewhat predicts the War on Terror, that I'm surprised more hasn't been made of this elsewhere.

Frank Herbert's Dune, like Avatar, is an ecological science fiction novel. Published in 1965, it predicts much of the current Mid-East unrest and its ties to oil production (spice production in the novel) and the disregard for the sensitive ecology of the planet, themes that dominate the news today. Ignoring David Lynch's inferior adaptation of the film, Cameron uses the novel as a template for the story. From the outsider messianically sent to deliver an alien race from their human oppressors to the insurgent tactics of a clan-like people finally united against a common enemy; from the hero's acceptance into the alien community after he tames a powerful, mystically revered beast to the hero's introduction of an aural technology to help the resistance gain an advantage over their oppressors; even his schooling in the way of the natives by a beautiful female warrior that eventually becomes his wife; many of Avatar's story beats can be found in the original Herbert novel and with a higher level of complexity.

And it is for this reason that Avatar cannot reside in the pantheon of great films. Once technology catches up with the innovations presented here, just as it did with Lucas' Star Wars and Cameron's own Terminator 2 and The Abyss, what's left is a movie with a lot of flat dialogue and story points ripped off from superior sources. I would be lying to you if I said I didn't feel the same sense of exhiliration when I left the screening of Avatar as my 5-year-old self did when leaving the theater in 1977 after seeing Star Wars for the first time. But twenty years from now when I refer the next generation to Avatar as a landmark achievement in special effects, I expect to get much of the same reaction I do now when speaking of Star Wars, "What's the big deal?"

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Best Films of the 00s: 2002

by Tony Dayoub

Continuing my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, today I spotlight my favorite films of 2002. Some reminders: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it; also, if I already wrote a review for it, I'll simply refer back to the original review. I'm still on track to post my ten best for 2009 in January when I will have finished seeing this year's films. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the past decade. And that list won't necessarily feature one picture from each year.

And now, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2002...

25th Hour, director Spike Lee - Lee nails the post-9/11 malaise perfectly in this picture about a Manhattan dealer, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), spending his final hours with his friends before reporting for a seven-year stint in prison. A truly fantastic supporting cast (Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, and Barry Pepper) is upstaged by the wonderful Brian Cox as Brogan's dad in a touching climactic monologue that takes a glimpse at his son's future should he allow his father to help him flee. Terence Blanchard's music (which I often find a bit overbearing) is almost like another character in the mix, an ever-present and smothering aural reminder of the prison to which Brogan is headed. It also provides a touching moment of catharsis when Brogan is reunited with Dawson's Naturelle (is that a wonderfully evocative name or what?) in the future-vision sequence.

Adaptation, dir. Spike Jonze - Another significant film featuring Brian Cox, here as legendary screenwriting seminar guru, Robert McKee (who I've had the pleasure of spending some time with). Anyone thinking he exaggerates McKee's personal qualities has obviously never met him. But McKee is just a minor character in Charlie Kaufman's meta-biographical adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. On the mark in its depiction of writer's block—a problem screenwriter Kaufman ran into when adapting Orlean's book—Jonze and Kaufman decide to turn the film into a self-referential depiction of the struggle to adapt the bestseller. Chris Cooper's charismatic Laroche just about hijacks the movie, despite playing opposite Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage in two of his finest performances as Kaufman and his fictional twin brother.

Auto Focus, dir. Paul Schrader - Sharp, impressionistic look at the rise and fall of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear). The movie sympathizes with the initially repressed Crane (raised as a strict Calvinist, Schrader knows about repression), implying the womanizing actor later fell prey to impulses which would later be classified under sex addiction. Willem Dafoe's subversive performance as alleged murderer John Carpenter is a bit problematic for the film. His turn as Crane's swinger buddy, an opportunistic—but loyal—video nerd, emphasizes Carpenter's gullibility and Crane's selfish need to use his "friend" to feed his fading star's ego. In the end, your heart really breaks for Dafoe's Carpenter.

Femme Fatale, dir. Brian De Palma - De Palma sets this thriller—a return to form—in France.  Taking full advantage of the locale—and given De Palma's familiarity with the festival circuit—he sets the opening setpiece at the Cannes Film Festival, giving him the opportunity to poke some fun by casting director Régis Wargnier and actress Sandrine Bonnaire as themselves.  Composer Ryûichi Sakamoto does his best Bernard Herrman impression later in the film, but his scoring of the opening heist at Cannes to an approximation of Ravel's Bolero elevates the sequence (and maybe the film) to that of a classic.

Frida, dir. Julie Taymor - Rarely has an actor's vanity project ever turned out so well, even when the actor, Salma Hayek, indulges in casting her friends in supporting roles. But then again, those friends include Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd, and Edward Norton (who also—go figure—contributed to the script), each burying their ego to support a visionary director's take on the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. Taymor's penchant for magical realism is the perfect fit for the surrealist, and she directed Hayek to an Oscar nomination. Alfred Molina's performance as Kahlo's husband—famous artist in his own right—Diego Rivera, is so charming, it begs the question, why wasn't the movie called Frida and Diego?

Hable con ella (Talk to Her), dir. Pedro Almodóvar - Only Spanish director Almodóvar can juxtapose the hauntingly beautiful performance of "Cucurrucucú Paloma" by Caetano Veloso with a amusingly crass dream sequence in which a tiny man runs all over the nude body of Paz Vega. Possibly the zenith in Almodóvar's long career and, dare I say it, maybe Spanish cinema?

Hero, dir. Zhang Yimou - A formalist's dream, this Chinese historical epic uses color to differentiate its shifting narrative viewpoints. Enjoy the lushly photographed Wuxia choreography, and try to ignore the film's celebration of tyranny. Stars Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Jet Li, and Zhang Ziyi... when else will you have a chance to see them all together?

Minority Report, dir. Steven Spielberg - Not only is this a hell of a science fiction movie, it is one fantastic neo-noir. All the elements are there, from the wrongly accused pre-crime cop played by Tom Cruise to the innocent femme fatale at the heart of the conspiracy (Samantha Morton); from the underworld doctor (Peter Stormare) to the expressionistic desaturated (it could almost pass for black and white) photography by Janusz Kaminski. Spielberg revels in the chance to contribute to the noir tradition. The film would be perfect were it not for the weak confrontation between Cruise and the film's villain at the climax, a scene directly lifted from The Fugitive (1993), where it didn't work either.

Punch-Drunk Love, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson - A maddeningly oddball romantic comedy thick with non-sequiturs passing for symbolism, it marks a departure for director Anderson.  Lead actor Adam Sandler proves he's got the chops for drama, playing a repressed lunatic who explodes with rage whenever he's embarrassed, a result of years of emotional abuse by his seven sisters. The use of  the sweet "He Needs Me"—sung by Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman's Popeye (1980)—closes the deal. This is a startlingly endearing movie in spite of it pretensions.

Road to Perdition, dir. Sam Mendes - Review here.

For more of this ongoing series, click here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Movie Review: La nana (The Maid)

by Tony Dayoub

One of the hidden advantages of watching a foreign film is its ability to subvert your expectations. The new Chilean picture, La nana (The Maid), methodically reveals the persona of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), the titular servant. Its pace is no surprise to anyone well versed in world cinema. Only in the U.S. are audiences conditioned to be immediately gratified by even the most artful of films.

Director Sebastián Silva takes viewers almost invasively into Raquel's daily life. This level of intimacy makes one painfully aware of the complete lack of privacy that this housekeeper contends with daily. Whatever mood she's in, whatever personal feelings she has for individual members of the family (her feelings for the oldest daughter are... complicated), Raquel has nowhere to hide. She is still obliged to serve the family. When Raquel's sympathetic boss, Pilar (Claudia Celedón) realizes she is overworked and exhausted, she resolves to get her some help.

Saavedra's performance as Raquel is a perfect study in minimalism. The repressed maid is twitchy, and at times a bit frightening, in her repression. Unable to physically express her fear of losing the job she is so dependent on and unwilling to believe that Pilar truly appreciates her as a person, Saavedra allows her buggy eyes to reveal the maid's nervous terror of becoming obsolete. As a succession of assistants comes into the household, the maid's passive aggression comes to the fore. She drives each of them out by either disinfecting their shared bathroom every time they take a shower or by locking them out of the house when they step outside or a combination of both. She only bonds with another assistant she locked out, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), after discovering her hilarious response: sunbathing topless in the front yard.

It is astonishing how skillfully Silva deliberately plays on cinematic tropes that are de rigueur in the U.S. to create suspense. Anyone used to the contrivances of American films can feel La nana's rhythms building to some revelation that she is insane. Her irrational aggression to even the kindest assistant; her donning of a gorilla mask heavy with metaphorical conclusions; her decision to hide a new kitty cat in a drawer, then finally throw her over a garden wall; all of these could be viewed in the context of a horror movie with a paranoid obsessive protagonist. But Silva repeatedly upends such assumptions in favor of verisimilitude. Silva elevates the film by striving for the realism of a black comedy rather than a contrived scary movie.

La nana is an engrossing example of the virtues of smaller scale foreign films, and a welcome respite from the mainstream Oscar-bait currently showing in theatres.

La nana (The Maid) is in limited release, and opens tomorrow in Atlanta at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive North East, Atlanta, GA 30308.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Road (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

The clocks stopped at 1:17 one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it's October, but I can't be sure. I haven't kept a calender for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker—beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food...always food; food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice—difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.
- The Man in The Road

A film that haunts long after it ends, The Road marries disparate genres such as the father-son and post-apocalyptic movies with the road picture. However, it does so a little too gently. The film delineates the grotesqueries that follow the apocalypse a little too artfully, allowing what should be a visceral story to slip into a cerebral one.

Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel has the advantage of allowing to connect to the central character's interior life, to feel the horror of an apocalyptic aftermath. Viggo Mortensen does the best that he can to put the viewer in the Man's head space as he faces inevitable death in a world where no one is left to take over the role of parent to a young Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Time and again, the Man and the Boy face situations where they can only trust each other: running into a gang of cannibals; discovering a basement dungeon in an old house, its prisoners maimed to supply their limbs as food to the house's residents; encountering a twitchy thief (Michael K. Williams) who steals their dwindling supplies. With each succeeding event, the Man loses a bit of his humanity, intent on surviving even if it means he gives into savagery. More than any of the grisly sights this film offers, its most frightening aspect is the Man's fear that the Boy will end up alone an defenseless when he dies.

But the boy has only ever known this life. Born in the aftermath of whatever destroyed the world, he is an innocent believer in the stories of justice his father has recounted. And it is his optimism that keeps his father on the path of benevolence. Young Smit-McPhee is as fierce as Mortensen, holding his own with the veteran actor in scenes where the Boy defends humanity's virtues just as his father's cynicism starts to prevail over his innate decency.

Unfortunately, the drawback is director John Hillcoat's detached perspective on the story. Hillcoat (The Proposition) endows the film with the appropriate bleakness called for. But the wide-angle point of view taken—no doubt to preserve the metaphorical and mythical stature of the tale—always keeps the viewer at a safe distance. The result is that one is never allowed to fully identify with the Man's moral dilemma and how it impacts his approach to the survival of his son.

Ironically, The Road's strongest moments are the ones that deviate in the book, flashbacks where the viewer learns what became of the Man's wife (Charlize Theron). In one memorable scene, a pregnant Theron conveys the horror of their post-apocalyptic existence when she begins to go into labor. She realizes this is no world to bring her son into, and one can actually see the moment in which her character's last spark of hope is completely extinguished. Theron's defeated Wife is a presence that hangs over the film long after her last scene, a constant reminder of the humanity and optimism that the Man has lost.

If the reader senses conflicted feelings from this writer, he or she is correct. The Road touched the father in this writer, spurring thoughts of its inherent metaphorical message. This father has thought of how his sons' lives might change every time he gets on a flight and frets about the chances it might not land safely. But The Road never transcends its "what if?" quality, never gets the viewer involved enough to feel the true terror of living in a dying world, and how it would fuel any parent's apprehension about abandoning their children to a dark fate.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

by Tony Dayoub

Not necessarily destined to be a Disney classic, The Princess and the Frog goes one better by effortlessly capturing the regional and temporal flavor of New Orleans in the Jazz Age. That means lots of French Quarter Architecture, Dixieland-style musical numbers (by Randy Newman, on loan from Pixar), creole-spiced food, and even a welcome touch of Cajun-style Zydeco in the form of "Gonna Take You There," sung during a short side trip into the swampland.

To some extent, credit for this minor gem—a return to Disney's traditional two-dimensional animation—should go to John Lasseter (Toy Story) who became Chief Creative Officer for Disney Animation after the company acquired Pixar. While Disney cartoons became grander and grander over the previous decade—reaching for Oscars after their unexpected Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast (1991)— Lasseter's influence over Pixar drove that animation factory into doing narrower-scoped stories which grew increasingly more resonant with audiences than the out-scaled fantasies by the more established animation house.

Of course, the origins of this production stem from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, "The Frog Prince," so Disney hasn't completely abandoned their traditional template. But by concentrating the story in a specific time and place there is a transportive quality to this story that beckons the viewer in a different way than say, Sleeping Beauty ever did. That is because the French Quarter is somewhere one can actually visit. Sure, it may be a lot rougher around the edges (especially post-Katrina) than the magical New Orleans depicted in The Princess and the Frog, but if you squint you can kind of see it.

One inspired sequence in the film is complete fantasy, though. Taking a cue from the yellow dress Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) wears before the setpiece begins, it is a monochromatic dream in which she imagines opening her own Cotton Club-style restaurant in a flat, art moderne-influenced style. Broadway star Rose performs her solo, "Almost There," with verve, bringing some independence and moxie rarely seen in even the pluckiest Disney princesses.

Another welcome bit of casting is the deep, rich, sonorous voice of Keith David (The Thing) as the evil voodoo priest, Doctor Facilier. His mellow tones show surprising elasticity in his solo, "Friends on the Other Side," a showstopper where he rallies the spirits of the underworld in his effort to magically manipulate the prince (Bruno Campos) for his own needs.

Zeroing in on a landmark era in African-American cultural history, The Princess and The Frog fuses the smaller scale sensibilities of Pixar with the classic fables of traditional Disney to create a charming little return to two dimensional animation. It should have audiences anticipating Disney's inevitable followup.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Movie Review: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

By Lissette Decos

Fortunately, Fantastic Mr. Fox is not just for children. In fact, the showing I went to had all of one child under the age of 10. Don't be fooled by the fact that it's based on a children's book or by the stop-motion animation. It's Wes Anderson. And he's found a way to make it more for adults, more like Rushmore meets The Royal Tenenbaums with a splash of Life Aquatic... heck, it's like all of his movies (which are, in effect, like all of his movies), a very funny, excellently scored series of beautiful and meticulously crafted images.

Roald Dahl's original story—about a fox that is hunted down by three evil farmers—has been tweaked to fit neatly into le petite lexicon of Wes Anderson themes. These recurring themes being of course: sons coming to terms with their flawed fathers; sons coming to terms with their own quirkiness; and fathers and/or sons that just don't want to grow up.

I was surprised at first, but after seeing the film I realized that stop-motion is actually a perfect fit for Wes. He's the kind of director/artist that likes to control it all, designing everything down to the suits that his main characters wear (which, incidentally, look an awful lot like the ones the director wears himself). The scenes in his films have always had that dollhouse feel, like we're peeking into an adorable scene taking place inside a shoebox. I bet he loved making this film because he could manipulate every single shoebox moment frame by frame. No doubt a stuffed fox is easier to manage than say, Bill Murray. Not that any director would want to manage Bill Murray... Speaking of which, George Clooney and Meryl Streep as Mr. and Mrs. Fox make for an unexpectedly appropriate addition to Anderson's recurring posse of misfits—Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson.

Recurring elements or not, I'm a huge fan and I have found that other fans of "All Things Wes" do the exact same thing. After the film is over, we go back to our list (which we keep safe in a shoe box in our hearts of course) and carefully place this film where it belongs among the rest. Each person has his or her own list. In fact, you can tell a lot about a person by how they rate Wes Anderson's films.

Here's my list, and where Mr. Fox now lives in it:

1. The Darjeeling Limited
2. Rushmore
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
4. (tie) Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums
6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

How does Fantastic Mr. Fox rate on your list?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: Farber on Film Part 1: "The Gimp" and Its Implications on Contemporary Cinema

by Tony Dayoub

Every film writer today should pay particularly close attention to Farber's essay, "The Gimp" (written for Commentary in 1952), one of four landmark essays editor Robert Polito singles out in his introduction to Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (824 pp. Library of America $40.00) as "B-movie-steeped, careering slams of the 1950s and '60s" that gave Farber some measure of "notoriety as a film critic." In it, he warns the reader of the "Gimp," derived from a string lady golfers used in the Victorian era to raise their hem ever so slightly when preparing to hit the ball. He proceeds to apply this concept to fifties cinema:
Something like this device has now been developed in Hollywood. Whenever the modern film-maker feels that his movie has taken too conventional a direction and is neglecting "art," he need only jerk the Gimp-string, and—behold!—curious and exotic but "psychic" images are flashed before the audience, peppering things up at the crucial moment...
His subsequent takedown of such now-venerated films as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951) can be quite shocking to today's film aficionados. But it also reminds one that it is the victors that write the history books. Twenty, thirty years from now, won't it be Slumdog Millionaire—last year's flash-in-the-trash winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture—which will be remembered over the far superior Synecdoche, New York, which received nary a nomination? One doesn't even need to go back that far to see a good example of this. Go back to 2007 and scratch your head when you wonder why David Fincher's Zodiac continues to be ignored by all but the most informed movie-lovers. But I digress...

The point is that "The Gimp" is quite a relevant essay at this particular point in 2009, when film writers start determining their best of 2009 lists, or for that matter their best of the 00s; when Hollywood starts getting its "For Your Consideration" ad campaigns together; when theaters start exhibiting its Oscar-bait films that seem to have something important to say (some try to say it before you even sit your ass in the theater—Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire anyone?) but don't know how to do it without hitting you on the head. "The Gimp" speaks to this, and film writers should heed its warning:
The Gimp is the technique, in effect, of enhancing the ordinary with a different dimension, sensational and yet seemingly credible. Camera set-ups, bits of business, lines... are contrived into saying too much. Every moment of a movie is provided with comment about American society. "Original" characters are sought, the amount of illogical and implausible material is increased, to such a point that movies which try to be semidocumentary actually seem stranger than the Tarzan-Dracula-King Kong fantasy.

Farber so convincingly breaks down the contrivances set up by filmmakers, he even manages to zing this writer with one of his favorite films 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire by pointing out the manipulation behind one of this writer's favorite performances, that of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski:
...the hero, a sharp-witted Polish mechanic, conveys heavy passion by stuttering the first syllables of his sentences and mumbling the rest as though through a mouthful of mashed potatoes, a device that naturally forces the spectator to sociological speculation; disgusted with the fact that the hero has apparently been raised in a pigpen, the spectator is impelled to think about the relation of environment to individual development. Tennessee Williams's hero is getting ahead in his work, is a loving husband, makes "those colored lights" with his sexual genius, and is possessed of a delicate moral sensitivity. But all these bourgeois attributes have to be matched with their opposites for the sake of excitement, and so [director Elia] Kazan pulls his [Gimp-]string and you see the Polack slobbering, licking his paws, howling like a troglodyte, hitting his wife so hard that he sends her to the maternity hospital, playing poker like an ape-man, exuding an atmosphere of wild screams, rape, crashing china and drunkenness. And to make sure every two-year-old will understand how bad life is in this Grimm's fairy-tale hovel, Kazan hammers his point home with continual sinister lights, dancing shadows, gaseous oozings.
Farber's cranky expressiveness is so persuasive in its description of Brando's performance (as directed by Kazan, he keeps reminding you), by the time one gets to the final line of the paragraph and he says "every two-year-old," one realizes he is the two-year-old to which Farber is directing his diatribe. See? Farber is not above pulling his own Gimp-string when necessary.

To contemporary audiences, more so than his 1952 readers, the most astonishing aspect of the essay is how Farber utilizes Citizen Kane (1941), of all films, to drive his point home. This essay is surely one of the earliest ones to praise Welles' film, even with a backhanded compliment like this one:
Citizen Kane and its Gimp-effects were generally laughed off by high-brows in Hollywood and elsewhere...But one had the feeling, during the war years, that, as Hollywood turned out dozens of progressively more realistic action films... it was more than a little concerned with what Welles had done in the symbolic enriching of a movie through florid mannerisms.
And what are these "florid mannerisms?" Why some of the techniques that have become standard in today's cinema: dark cinematography, unusual camera angles, deep-focus photography, worm's eye views, flashbacks, fragmented storytelling...
...mismated shock effects that had never been seen before in Hollywood... The spectator had trouble arranging these disparate items into a convincing visual whole, but his brain was mobilized into all sorts of ruminations about avarice, monomania, and other compulsions. Even the devices for moving the story along were complicating and interrupting...

Farber's conclusion?
There were certain dramatic high points like the rough-cut in the "March of Time" projection room, the kid outside the window in the legacy scene, and the lurid presentation of an electioneering stage. But in between these was a great deal of talk, much less action, and almost no story.
One could easily mistake such words about the Welles' landmark film as damning, but Farber is really just saying, sure, it worked great in Kane, and the film was innovative, but the cult of Hollywood filmmakers that sprung up around the film has learned the wrong lessons from it. He goes on to lament the virtual extinction of the naturalistic film, wondering if Hollywood will ever "be able to go home again."

Are there any Hollywood filmmakers currently out there, eschewing the use of the Gimp in their films? Maybe because I just reviewed Public Enemies, the type of B-movie Farber might have championed, Michael Mann, with his attempts at verisimilitude through his use of the digital camera and emphasizing action over expository dialogue, strikes me as a rather obvious example. What filmmakers can you think of that aspire to stay clear of Farber's Gimp?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Blu-ray Review: Public Enemies (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Sometimes I wonder if Michael Mann is onto something that has eluded other directors of his generation. Take Public Enemies, out on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. As I've said before, there is an immediacy that its digital cinematography brings for the first time to the venerated gangster genre. The film's naysayers gripe about the motion blur and countless other issues they cannot get past when watching the film in theaters this past summer. But a quick pop of the new Blu-ray into my home theater system confirms what I've been saying all along. This movie grows immeasurably when watched digitally, something that many couldn't do depending on the movie theater where they caught it playing.

I was first on to this phenomenon after I experienced a vastly different reaction watching Collateral (2004) at home from the reaction I had seeing it theatrically. A similar experience occurred when I first saw Mann's followup, Miami Vice (2006) at home. It makes me want to throttle theater owners until they make all of their screens digital-ready, an admitted near-impossibility economically (as even the threat of their inability to run Lucas' Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith or Cameron's Avatar has had no effect) for many of them. Seeing the Public Enemies Blu-ray on even just an okay home theater system like mine really puts you there in the midst of Mann's voyeuristic look at the conflict between gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).

Mann's explorations into the codes of masculinity, so representative of his entire body of work, has become increasingly transcendent over the course of his last three films. Whereas Collateral was initially criticized for being too on the nose in its depiction of the ying and the yang symbolized by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx's two main characters, Miami Vice was attacked by folks who thought it wasn't expressing these themes explicitly enough. Those that were ignorant of the tone poetry that characterized Miami Vice launched into similar attacks on the sleek, stripped down abstractions of these themes as presented in Public Enemies. They fail to recognize Mann's aspirations to achieve a sense of verisimilitude through his digital photography, minimalist dialogue, and heightened preoccupation with the rest of the viewer's sensory perceptions focusing on sound and visual design (especially in the climactic shootout involving Pretty Boy Floyd) rather than dialogue to illustrate his concerns.

To accuse Mann of failing to put any substance into Public Enemies is ignorant. As the dense Blu-ray proves, the film was as meticulously researched as any of his previous ones. There are 4 documentaries that cover Dillinger and Purvis, the other outlaws of the period, the locations depicted in the film, and the making of the film. Here's a clip from one:

Mann's own commentary is particularly enlightening into his process for getting to the heart of a story, which seems to involve research, direct interviews with any survivors of the period, more research, and then a sort of zen letting go of all of his findings to focus on the film on an intuitive level. An interactive picture-in-picture historical timeline that one can watch while seeing the film is also rewarding as far as filling in the blanks for those who aren't completely satisfied by the historical accuracy of the film.

Is this the future of cinema; a future in which one really doesn't get the entire picture until one views the film in multiple platforms? I certainly hope not, since I believe the text of a film is ultimately more important than its subtext (even though this can yield its own rewards). Public Enemies certainly struck me as one of the best films of the year when I saw it theatrically. But what Mann seems to be on to is that films are becoming interactive to a previously unimaginable degree. The Blu-ray for Public Enemies makes me wonder if he is now approaching his work with some of that aforethought.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Movie Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

by Tony Dayoub

Forget what you've read so far about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Those that insist the only way to truly appreciate this movie is to view it as a comedy have it all wrong—unless they are referring to Nicolas Cage's only-guy-who-gets-the-joke approach to playing the coke-addled cop, Terence McDonagh. No, Werner Herzog's post-Katrina policier is less comedy and more opera. From its ripped-from-the-headlines setting to the often stagey mise en scène (as seen in the picture above) to the electrifying heightened performance by Cage, Bad Lieutenant derives its quirky style from the verismo-style operas of composers like Puccini—melodramas which tended to focus on the often sleazy stories of the lower classes. And it has less of a relationship with the original Bad Lieutenant (1992) than it does with another quirky detective film by, of all people, Robert Altman.

Abel Ferrara's original Bad Lieutenant is a gritty classic about a nameless cop (Harvey Keitel) who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the film hoping to pay off his gambling debts before he's killed. Once his impending death is almost assured he becomes obsessed with finding redemption by solving a rape case in which the victim was a pious nun. Herzog's film is a spiritual descendant to some extent. Cage's McDonagh is a dirty cop on the corrupt New Orleans police force who often shakes down young couples leaving nightclubs for any drugs they might be carrying to satisfy his own addiction. He isn't quite caught in mid-downward spiral as Keitel's cop was. Instead, Herzog shows us the entire arc of how the decorated McDonagh acquires his habit, the depths of depravity he sinks to, and the surrounding bad influences that contribute to perpetuating his cycle of addiction.

Much of these influences stem from a cast of disgraceful characters stuck in their own personal hells. Tom Bower plays his alcoholic ex-cop father; Eva Mendes plays McDonagh's girlfriend Frankie, a high-priced call girl; and Xhibit plays his new business associate, local drug dealer Big Fate. With Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Brad Dourif, Shawn Hatosy, Val Kilmer, and Michael Shannon all cast in supporting parts, the cast is large and interesting enough to rival one of Robert Altman's ensembles. But the similarities don't end there. As in your typical Altman film, one gets a keen sense of place. Post-hurricane New Orleans, is even slimier and more dangerous than it was before, a place where it's not uncommon to find a fatal car accident caused by an alligator crossing a road or an heinous crime such as the execution of an African immigrant family—the result of the father turning to dealing to support his family in the severely economically depressed city. In Altman's The Long Goodbye, Elliot Gould's Marlowe is not so strange to viewers as much as his hippie-era L.A. and its oddball characters are. Similarly, Cage's compromised police detective is not so different from his film noir ancestors as much as the contemporary decaying New Orleans and its dubious citizens are. One scene in the new film—involving a trio of thugs threatening to cut Frankie if McDonagh doesn't pay his debts—is as charged and nerve-wracking as a scene in The Long Goodbye that predates it, where gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) mutilates his own girlfriend's face by crushing a coke bottle against it.

But unlike Gould, who plays it low-key through most of The Long Goodbye, Cage is on another wavelength. As he should be. Unlike Gould's cool, detached Marlowe, who simply desires to be left alone, McDonagh is a debased man still haunted by his inclinations to be a savior. One interesting choice by Cage is to emphasize McDonagh's twisted psyche through his back injury, an injury that spurs his later addiction to coke and Vicodin. Cage walks zombie-like through the film with one shoulder hunched in a rather obvious callback to Klaus Kinski, another lunatic actor who usually performed as Herzog's alter ego in films like Nosferatu (1979) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). The effect is endearing as the increasingly manic Cage, dark circles highlighting his pale blue eyes, comes across as a fascinating throwback to the silent actors—heightened emotions and all—in much the same way Kinski did as the vampire Nosferatu in Herzog's own remake of the classic silent film.

The result is Cage's strongest performance in years in a cop film directed by a European—a European that gets it more right than any of his American counterparts have since Joe Carnahan's Narc (2002). Herzog goes for broke in the bizarre Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, fusing his skewed vision of America's degradation onto the hunched back of his well-meaning but depraved cop. Take Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), move it to New Orleans and give it enough hallucinogenic drugs until it suffers a psychotic break, and you might start to imagine what this Bad Lieutenant is like.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Movie Review: Everybody's Fine (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Robert De Niro is back. One could be forgiven for thinking his new film, Everybody's Fine, would be your standard issue Oscar-bait weeper from those Academy marketing mavens over at Miramax. And in many ways, the film is just that. But director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) surrounds Mr. De Niro with an interesting cast of younger actors: Drew Barrymore (Whip It), Kate Beckinsale (Underworld), and Sam Rockwell (Moon). The three (who usually headline their own movies) bring their A-game to what must have been a tempting proposition—the chance to work with a legend like De Niro. Except recently, De Niro has been trading on his reputation to star in some pretty ugly dreck in order to finance his business ventures, stuff like the career-killing Righteous Kill, in which he starred alongside another fading legend in even worse shape, Al Pacino. The good news is that Jones elicits a superb and subtle performance from De Niro (around which the whole film revolves), the likes of which we haven't seen since at least 1995 when he starred in Heat.

The story is a bit predictable, with De Niro's Frank Goode embarking on a journey to visit each of his four grown children after they all cancel their visit to see him for their first reunion since his wife died. Unable to find his son David in New York, he continues on to visit his three other children who live all over the country. Meanwhile, the siblings are all conspiring to keep him out of the loop concerning David, who reportedly suffered an overdose somewhere in Mexico. As they try to figure out what is going on with their youngest brother, they each obfuscate the issue by prodding Frank to go back home. Each of them lies about their personal life for fear that they won't measure up to the demanding Frank's expectations, high expectations which may have driven David to his careless lifestyle.

While their is plenty of opportunity for moments both lighthearted and sad as De Niro plays the cranky set-in-his-ways Frank, this is the first time in a while he stays a good distance away from the now all too predictable mugging that has marred his comedic work in movies like Meet the Parents. Instead, the actor plays Frank amazingly straight as a widower whose loneliness inspires him to reconnect with the children he never suspected had grown so far apart from him to begin with. While none of the young actors resemble each other in appearance or temperament (a typical problem in films of this variety), De Niro makes sure they all resemble him, complementing their performances so that he somehow manages to endow Frank with a distinct behavioral quality from each of his children. His Frank is driven like Beckinsale's Amy; befuddled and humble like Rockwell's Robert; and acerbically humorous like Barrymore's Rosie. He even manages to create an impression of David despite the character's absence, informing it with Frank's own ambitions which he projected onto his son.

Sometimes there are whimsical touches that enliven Everybody's Fine, like the way Jones has child actors stand in for each sibling whenever Frank first lays eyes on them. Other times those touches go a bit too far, as in a third-act dream sequence—where all of the inner turmoil is worked out between Frank and his kids—that is just a touch too on the nose in its frustratingly expository execution. But Jones never descends into maudlin sentimentality, always keeping the film moving briskly past its more melodramatic moments.

He has De Niro to thank for that also. Or maybe De Niro should be thanking Jones, since his performance is Oscar worthy. By directing the actor to internalize much of Frank's misgivings about his relationship with his kids, Jones encourages De Niro to modulate his later more overt emotional expressions like the actor one had always expected in earlier films. A disturbing encounter with a vagrant midway through Everybody's Fine and the inevitable physical toll it has on Frank even later in the movie are sequences which both triumph because De Niro has managed to withhold vital emotions from the viewer prior to the scenes, making their eventual release all the more touching and resonant. If for nothing else, De Niro's poignant performance is enough to recommend the movie.

Everybody's Fine opens in theaters tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

DVD Review: A Christmas Tale (2008)

by Tony Dayoub

When I reviewed Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) almost one year ago, I ended my post with this observation:
A memorable image comes midway in Un conte de Noël when [a central character] 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.

This ethereal image of the twirling bauble still lingers. It is the essential image of the film, distilling the warmth and fragility of the almost archetypal family story of the Vuillards.

But director Arnaud Desplechin elevates the familiar genre of the Christmas family reunion beyond its cliche saccharine elements, complicating the tale by introducing long-held resentments, rivalries, and recriminations between the siblings and their parents. The two characters who are often at the crux of most of these complications are the cancer-stricken Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and her least favorite son, Henri (Mathieu Amalric). So it is with no small tragicomic irony that it is only Henri's bone marrow that is deemed compatible with Junon's need. And it is a credit to Desplechin's profundity in fashioning this small fable that these two characters who dislike each other so immensely still love each other greatly, and in fact, identify with each other to the exclusion of the rest of their family. Thus does the gyrating trinket in the image come to literally depict the otherwise unknowable heart of gold buried deep within the spiteful characters.

It is because of Desplechin's ease at pictorially depicting such lush, passionate emotions in counterpoint to the quiet expressions of love and regret at the center of the family's interactions that this film made my top ten list for last year's films (and is seriously vying for top ten of the decade).

Criterion has wisely timed this week's release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray to the holiday season, when the movie's magic can most effectively touch the viewer. And what an astounding trio of supplements it includes: an essay by esteemed critic Phillip Lopate; a 35-minute documentary featuring interviews with Amalric, Deneuve, and Desplechin—all eloquently expressing their fascination with each other and the film (in English, surprisingly); and L'aimée, Desplechin's 2007 documentary about his paternal grandmother, her death when his father was only two, and how it impacted the development of his family. It is this last one hour doc that proves to be most insightful, illustrating how Desplechin's interactions with his own family in Roubaix, France may have served as the inspiration for A Christmas Tale—also set in Roubaix—released one year later.