Friday, November 28, 2008

My New Home; House of Sand and Fog; Transsiberian; A Life Less Ordinary; Wag the Dog

Yes, I have bought a house here in chilly Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I am moving in this weekend. It's a huge move and a big commitment to this city and this weather, but it is also exhilarating. In Korea we owned a few apartments, but they were brand-new, cookie-cutter units in 29-story buildings in clusters of identical monoliths. There was no history or ambiance in the units, and no tactile involvement with the structures themselves in terms of being able to see and feel the lives of the people who had inhabited the homes before you or in terms of hands on maintenance and upkeep.

There is plenty of both in my new building, and I am sure that the latter will become a bane before too long!

No, the property is more than 90 years old and oozes ambiance and history from its creaking Douglas Fir flooring to the original trim that skirts its nine-foot ceilings. I have added a few photos to give you an idea of its character...

I will occupy the first-floor one-bedroom apartment, and am looking for a tenant for the second-floor two-bedroom unit. The third floor is rented to a young lady who seems comfortable and happy to stay on.

I am sure that this development will mean that my stream of movie reviews will be punctuated from time to time with updates on the trials and tribulations of landlord/home ownership, so stay tuned.

Which brings us to my latest movie reviews, which I plan to keep brief (as I always plan)...

House of Sand and Fog (Vadeem Perelman, 2003) (Home) I originally saw House of Sand and Fog when it was released in the theater in Seoul, and left the film amazed at its power and heavy import - and more in love with Jennifer Connelly than ever (I'd say yes if she were to propose).

On second viewing I have to confirm this initial impression. Like many of the films I have written about of late (Rachel Getting Married in particular), this is a character drama that chronicles the clash that occurs when strong personalities are placed in an emotional and confrontational situation.

This is also a film in which those characters are in most cases not terribly likable, but at the same time not entirely unsympathetic. Think the young recovered (or not so recovered) alcoholic who allows her life to crumble through apathy and then claws to get it back,; the police officer who uses her desperation as a channel for his own discontent; or the Iranian exile who is really just trying to look after his family and prevent their suffering, but in the process is blind to the suffering of others.

And this leads to unthinkable tragedy that is Shakespearean in its proportions, and hangs over the head of the viewer like a dark cloud in the hours that follow it. Yes, I will go so far as to say that this is a very depressing film - but will give it top marks in the same breathe and recommend it highly based on its accomplishment in film making.

Top marks also go to the cast, with Kingsley acting at his top calibre, which is awesome to behold (especially for an actor that wastes his talent in so many mediocre films), and Connelly showing the talent she displayed in Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. Props to the supporting cast also, with Ron Eldard playing the sympathetic/sleazy cop beautifully and Shohreh Aghdashloo embodying the confusion and fear of Kingsley's wife.

On second viewing I had only one criticism, which is of the score. This is a heavy and sombre film, but it rendered virtually elegiac by a funerary soundtrack that weighs on the viewer to the point of being emotionally draining. I don't mean to suggest that this is not in line with the film's intent, but that the acting is strong and the characters clearly convey this feeling/idea without the need for such an oppressive score.

Hopefully my home ownership will be filled with more sunshine and smiles :)

Transsiberian (Brad Anderson, 2008) (home) I want to talk about Transsiberian briefly because, as I alluded to above, this is one example of Ben Kingsley wasting his abundant talent on a mediocre film.

OK, maybe I am being too harsh. Young married couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are taking the Transsiberian to Europe as an adventurous way to return home from a church mission to China. They meet young, drug smuggling couple (50% of which is Kate Mara) and corrupt Moscow police investigator (Kingsley) and the adventure ratchets up a level, with steamy, adulterous affections, attempted sexual battery, kidnapping, torture (happily not shown) and murder most foul.

Only the movie doesn't really ratchet up a notch, which is a shame. Its a decent, more-or-less engaging (if completely conventional) plot taking place in exotic and beautiful climes. The acting is fine, with Kingley putting in a solid performance and Harrelson doing his usual adequate job - he is, after all, in many great films, its just that none of them are great because he is in them.

The film was lauded at Sundance, but it never got me excited or interested or involved. Not to say it was boring or bad, just that it was merely a mildly intriguing way to pass a few hours. With so many great films to chose between (such as House of Sand and Fog, off the top of my head) I'd say give this one a pass, but if your partner or friend already brought it home from the video store, don't castigate him or her too vociferously!

A Life Less Ordinary (Danny Boyle, 1997) (home) I first saw this film at the Cineplus Theatre near exit 6 of Apkujong Station in Seoul, Korea. At that time Cineplus was a big deal, as it was the first really modern theater to open in Seoul, with comfy seats imported from America and Dolby surround sound. I can't count the number of films that I watched at Cineplus over my nine-year stint in Seoul...

This movie, like Wag the Dog (see below), has assumed epic comedy proportions in my mind. I recall my friend Julien and I laughing our asses off in the otherwise eerily quiet cinema - I don't think the Korean audience really got the humor.

But humorous it is, with Boyle teaming up once again with John Hodge, who also wrote the sublime black comedy Shallow Grave. In the character positions we have Ewan McGregor (also of Shallow Grave) when he was still channelling the naive joy in acting that I think he recovered in Moulin Rouge after having trampled it thoroughly in the lackluster Star Wars I, II and III. Across from McGregor we have Cameron Diaz, in a very early "precocious and slightly dangerous blond" role that fits her to a T - but before she was typecast into that particular T.

The two play star-crossed lovers who meet amid one of the most thoroughly botched kidnapping imaginable (in fact, the Korean title was "Hostage") and slowly and reluctantly fall in love - with a little help.

You see, God is pretty pissed off that divorce and infidelity seem to have eradicated true love, and he tasks the archangel Gabriel (Dan Hedaya, who none of you know by name but have all seen a million times and liked) with sending a few angels down to earth to nurture the spark (or lack thereof) between one young couple into a flame of love. The young couple he has in mind are, you guessed it, McGregor and Diaz, and the angels - well played by perennial favorite Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo - have their hands full.

This is one funny film, that I recommend wholeheartedly for belly laughs and general glee.

Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997) (Dad's place). Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche, Dennis Leary, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy, Jim Belushi, Jay Leno, Kirstin Dunst, Merle Haggard....need I say more?

I will, but am getting pretty blog fatigued, so this will be brief...I hope...

Wag the Dog was amazingly topical, presenting a situation in which a Presidential incumbant faces a sexual scandal in the last weeks before an election. A movie producer (Hoffman) is brought in to "produce" a war between the USA and Albania as a distraction from the scandal. In real life, the release coincided almost perfectly with Clinton's decision to bomb Kosovo while the Lewinsky scandal boiled in Washington. They say that art imitate life, but that life imitates TV....

Wag the Dog is interesting as a historical document in this regard, but is also intriguing as a comment on technology in our lives and the theater. The digital effects used to "create" the war with Albania were stunning and even slightly scary to audiences in the late 1990s, which had not yet abandoned their belief in the axiom "seeing is believing." Ten years later, however, the technology is in every home PC, and the movie suffers a bit from having had its magic rendered mundane.

This is another film that Julien and I watched at Cineplus, and was another occasion when our hilarity contrasted starkly with the generally dark silence of the theater. However, the bottom line is that Wag the Dog is the only film that I have ever watched that made me laugh so hard that I literally fell out of my seat - wait for the moment when Willie Nelson starts the voices soaring for a beautiful parody of the Band Aid/We Are the World/Voices that Care genre of song.

As I said, its a little dated now, but still very very entertaining...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Return to Quantum: No Tortured Soliloquies

Today I trudged through more than 12 inches of slushy snow to take in a second viewing of The Quantum of Solace at Park Lane cinemas. If you have not read my first review, I suggest that you peruse it first here. Warning, while the first review is relatively safe for those who have not seen the film, this installment contains numerous spoilers.

Sober Second Thought
I stand by my initial reaction to The Quantum of Solace in all regards, but one thing has been nagging at me since posting those thoughts earlier this week: how much of Bond's inner conflict/character do we really see?

In my former post I commented: "in Quantum, we see a James Bond that is trained to use his license to kill, but also has a heart and soul that can love, lose and suffer. We see uncertainty and torment in Craig's eyes as he seeks resolution after the loss of Vesper, in the process trying to reconcile his role as a spying and killing machine with his experience of vulnerability and trust."

On second viewing, I stand by these words, but feel duty bound to point out that this is, above and beyond all, and action movie. The explosions tend to be more realistic, but the film is, in its essence, one of action and adventure - not about exploring the tortured psyche of a hired gun. And that action, while we are on the theme, is fast-paced and often disjointed - on second viewing, the initial car chase was less heart-thumping and more plain disorienting.

A bit of research on IMDB quickly revealed the reason for this: the film editing was done by Richard Pearson, who also worked on The Bourne Supremacy, another film that is typified by fast cuts between squealing tires, firing guns, fast gear shifting and bone-crunching collisions.

That being said, the torment that Bond is experiencing in the wake of Vesper's death does hang heavily over this film, and trust is a key theme: the trust that Bond put in Vesper herself, his trust of Rene Mathis, the trust (or lack thereof) between James and his CIA counterparts, and, most importantly, the level of trust between Bond and M.

It is three key relationships - aside from Vesper, of course - that underpin the plot of Quantum and really struck me in this viewing:

M. In the past M has largely been a throwaway character, exasperated with Bond's flippant disrespect for his authority and the rules and regulations of MI6 - not to mention the "no sex please, we're British" decorum. That all began to change when M shifted from a throwaway he to a stern and central she

Judi Dench began to breathe life into this character during Pierce Brosnan's tenure, and in this film we see a relationship develop between her and Bond based on implicit trust in a world where there are no certainties. Indeed, near the film's opening we see Bond bring Le Chifre into a safe house for questioning, only to have him executed by a henchman who has served as a sleeper in M's own office for eight years. As she comments after this near-death experience: "when someone says "we have people everywhere" you tend to think it's hyperbole, you don't expect them to actually have someone in the room."

By the end of the film, however, we are aware that an unbreakable bond of trust has been forged between 007 an M. A bond that bodes well for the series to come, as it foreshadows a more active role for M and a continued prominent position for Judi Dench, who is a pleasure to watch.

Rene Mathis. One could be forgiven for thinking of Mathis as a throwaway character in Quantum, a crewmen Jones of a sort. However, going to Mathis for help is an important step for James, who has not trusted anyone implicitly since Vesper's betrayal - and this act of faith also leads to a death.

The scene of Bond cradling Mathis' bloodied, dying body as he whispers "don't leave me" is a powerful moment. We see compassion in Bond that is so strongly contrasted moments later as Mathis' dead body is thrown in a dumpster and plundered of ready cash. Here is the conflict I mentioned earlier this week between the compassion and the machine-like efficiency - an efficiency that Bond is praised for explicitly in Quantum.

Felix Leiter. Felix does not play a large role in Quantum, but, as we know from the long history of Bond's character - which Casino Royale and Quantum reset to a blank slate - Felix is destined to play a large role in the films to come.

In this film Felix is an underling to a typically morally bankrupt agent of America's military-industrial machine, but by the end he has: a) earned Bond's trust; and b) been promoted to replace his corrupt boss - as Bond comments on hearing the news "At least the right people kept their jobs." Hopefully Felix will not end up quite as dead as most of the other people Bond has trusted, and hopefully he will return to play an important role in future outings.

Final Thoughts
As I said earlier, Quantum is an action movie above and beyond all else, and is not meant to be taken too seriously - let go and enjoy the gun fights, car chases and explosions. However, it also does an amazing job serving as essentially Casino Royale part two, and leaves a solid structure of characters and relationships on which to build future films that meet or exceed the bar set by this film.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Quantum of Solace: Exactly as Good as You Would Expect

The Quantum of Solace (Marc Foster, 2008) (Park Lane) Bond. James Bond. The Quantum of Solace opens with one of the most gut-wrenching, adrenaline pumping car chases ever choreographed and captured for film. Bond is back in his signature Astin Martin, where he is meant to be. I was gripping the edge of my seat within 45 seconds, and the pace of Quantum rarely relented.

When Timothy Dalton first assumed the Bond persona in 1985 for A View to a Kill we were told that this was a return to James Bond as Ian Flemming created him: a lean, mean, spying machine who was a world removed from the parody that the character had become. The Dalton Bond was not using fantastic sci-fi gadgets at every turn and had dropped the goofy puns that Roger Moore had leaned so heavily upon.

And it might have worked, save for the fact that Dalton (besides being a mediocre actor at the best of times) was cast in Bond films that were 1980s to the core - favorably comparable to Schwartzenegger's Commando or Norris' Delta Force, but little else. These movies stunk.

Quantum, on the other hand, is most definitely a new James Bond, and I like it! Gadgets are virtually non-existent (as is their traditional purveyor, Q) and even lines that could have been puns coming from Moore take on a earnest tone when uttered by the steely-eyed Daniel Craig.

Which, in my mind, points to the secret of the success enjoyed by both Quantum and the preceding Casino Royale: neither film is tongue in cheek and neither is going for cheap laughs or mere explosion-fueled adrenaline rides. In fact, while there is plenty of adrenaline flowing as Quantum unrelentingly drives towards its conclusion, one thing that I noticed in particular was how small the explosions actually were - cars go over cliffs and fall to the rocks below with nary a nuclear device-like combustion to show for it. These are realistic explosions, which is a novel pyrotechnical choice if I have ever seen one (we will discuss the Hindenburgesque conflagration that closes the action later).

But the root of the change in tone evidenced by Quantum and Casino is more fundamental than the trappings of the action: it is the character itself and Craig, the actor that inhabits his skin. James Bond, in all of his glory, has never been more than a two-dimensional character, and we have rarely seen any of the inner thoughts and emotions that motivate his actions beyond the stirring declaration "For England" or the next Bond girl to fall his way. Notable exceptions to this rule include the ironic play on loyalties that surrounds the "For England" declaration in GoldenEye and the less-than-noteworthy George Lazenby's turn as Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where we first saw the secret agent's soft side as he suffered the death of his wife, Contessa Vicenzo in this incarnation rather than Vesper.

In Casino, on the other hand, and even more so in Quantum, we see a James Bond that is trained to use his licence to kill, but also has a heart and soul that can love, lose and suffer. We see uncertainty and torment in Craig's eyes as he seeks resolution after the loss of Vesper, in the process trying to reconcile his role as a spying and killing machine with his experience of vulnerability and trust - a theme that is echoed in his relationship with Rene Mathis.

This shift does not entail tortured soliloquies or primal cries of bereavement on mountain tops, but is clearly evidenced in Craig's subtle protrayal of a thoughtful but disciplined Bond. For me, this shift in tone makes Quantum and Casino more real, and allows me to identify with the character and feel his motivations rather than just going along for the ride.

The Gadgets: Noted by Absence
As a technology-junkie (partially reformed), another aspect of Quantum that I must comment on is the gadgets, or, more appropriately, the lack of them. Now I always loved the Bond gadgets as a kid, and still enjoy them greatly, from the rocket pack in Thunderball to the Lotus Esprit E1 "aqua car" of The Spy Who Loved Me.

However, I agree strongly with the director's decision to essentially cut the gadgets out of Quantum - or at least to make them less prominent and less unrealistic, the latter trend having been evident since Die Another Day, and, as mentioned above, typical of the Dalton films.

The Gadgets in Quantum are all realistic or commercially available technologies: the high-tech ear piece used to hold a conference in a crowded opera house, the Microsoft "Touch" table top used to manipulate multimedia (still just a concept when showcased in Minority Report), and the Sony-Ericsson cell phone that tracks a business card homing device. The key "gadget" in Quantum, however, is the perennially "just around the corner" Hydrogen fuel cell.

In addition to arriving at the hotel in the desert in a hydrogen-powered Ford SUV (score one for product placement), the hotel itself turns out to be entirely powered by prominent and volatile fuel cells set into the wall of each unit. I find it interesting that Ford chose to highlight its hydrogen fuel cell concept car in this film, since the technology does not enjoy the glamour enjoyed by the Touch. Quite the opposite, the rousing "kick out the jams" explosion mentioned above is caused by a chain-reaction of hydrogen fuel cells exploding with fantastic ferocity.

If you were trying to develop and market a hydrogen-powered vehicle, would you do so in a film that makes you think more of the Hindenburg crashing in flames and killing 37 souls than of the clean, green fuel of the future? Seems like an odd choice to me.

That being said, please do leave me comments about your favorite James Bond gadget from movies past

Final Thoughts
My bottom line - if it is not evident from the preceding - is that Quantum of Solace is a very good film. The action is fast-paced and exciting, the story is clear and supports the action well (indeed, at 106 minutes this is one of the few bond films not to suffer from the all-too-common curse of being 20 minutes longer than it should be) and the characters, or at least the title character, are (is) nuanced and compelling.

If I were to nitpick on one topic it would be that I did not leave the theater as bowled over as: a) the opening car chase led me to expect; or b) the overall quality of the film deserved. I think that this is because Quantum, unlike Casino, was exactly as good as I expected. No more and no less. Casino was a game changer, revolutionizing the James Bond franchise, and I left with my jaw dropped open, wondering "what was that"? Quantum continues this trajectory, and does so well - but does not present anything particularly new.

You either like the new James Bond or you do not - and I do :)

(As a closing note, I realize that I have committed a crime of exception in this review, having discussed James Bond at great length without mentioning Sean Connery. Sean Connery - nuff said.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Rachel Getting Married, Masked (live theater)

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008) (Oxford) Not really an inspiring title, is it? I mean, what are we talking about here? My Best Friend's Wedding? Runaway Bride? The Wedding Planner?

Now I don't mean to suggest that there are no good wedding movies out there, as a situation so rife with emotion and potential conflicts/resolutions is surely prime fodder for film making - think Muriel's Wedding or even Four Weddings and a Funeral - but all the same, the prospect of a wedding movie does not generally whet my appetite...

The Critics Speak
But Rachel Getting Married..well, I don't even know where to start. Metacritic, a site that compiles Internet movie reviews and assigns an aggregate score based on those critiques is not a bad place. Besides the professional critics referenced for RGM, which gave the movie an average score of 82%, there are 49 "user opinions" listed with an average score of 5.1/10.

What I mean to suggest by this is that while the critics have pretty universally praised RGM, the film has polarized viewers - at least five rated the movie a "0" and at least two rated it a "10." Let's look at a few samples:

"0" : "One of the most boring movies I have ever seen. The characters were all unlikable. Too much talk and not enough action. Awful!"

"0" : "I was about to throw up at the bridal dinner when guest after guest made stupid toasts. This movie meandered along at a snails pace. After an hour I had had enough and walked out. I could care less about any of the characters."

"9" : "If you like your films realistic, this is the one for you. It doesn't serve the lowest common denominator by explaining everyone's history and intentions. Instead it respects the viewer (or observer as the case seems to be). And the pacing and subtlety are perfect."

"10" : "It speaks beautifully to how life-changing tragic events are never fully processed or "moved past" by those immediately affected or possibly causal toward same. The film tackles this subject matter relentlessly, and successfully. A masterpiece of compassion."

The Blogger Speaks
Well I think that this polarization is a good thing - and I was immensely impressed with RGM.

No, there are no explosions or car chases or sex scenes to distract you from the often unpleasant emotions and ideas that are being raised. You are forced to squirm in your seat through Kim's brutally uncomfortable wedding toast, you are supposed to notice the repetitive nature of the complaints aired - because these characters have been making these complaints for years, and we are meant to be as sick of hearing them as everyone in the movie is.

And no, these are no particularly likable characters, but they are strong characters that do not pull their punches (literally at times) or try to placate each other. They are so unvarnished and blunt that I can understand that it is uncomfortable for viewers more accustomed to post-processed cookie-cutter film making (a la Runaway Bride or The Wedding Planner) - it feels almost indecent to be a voyeur in some of these scenes.

After all is said and done, this is a character movie with no princess to save, no jealous rival to thwart, no potty humor to elicit guffaws, and no triumph just in time for a tearfully joyful conclusion at 110 minutes or so. The characters elicit emotions in the viewer that are not pleasant to experience - love, compassion, loneliness, fear, helplessness - but are testaments to the power of film making. Demme reaches into your heart and mind and prods and pushes at your most secret fears and doubts and hopes and dreams and demands that you pay them heed.

And I applaud him for this - because this is what I feel that all great filmmakers are striving for, and I don't believe that they should limit this effort only to sweetness and light. The comparison that popped into my head during the movie was the level of insecurity and anxiety elicited by Ang Lee's 1997 masterpiece of modern cinema, The Ice Storm, or even Deepa Mehta's Heaven on Earth (reviewed earlier on this site).

Sometimes movies are escapism and distraction, and that is great, as I love to disappear into another world and forget my troubles. But sometimes films can edify us on a deeply personal level, uncovering and allowing us to examine pieces of ourselves that we've never seen - or never admitted to. Rachel Getting Married is such a film.

Patience Running Thin
More than a week ago CTV ran a review of movies currently at, or soon to play in, local theaters, implying in the process that Kristin Scott Thomas' French-language film I Have Loved You for So Long was waiting in the wings. However, it has yet to appear in Halifax, and I am beginning to fear that it will pass us by...I'll keep you updated!

Masked (Neptune Theater)
I also wanted to comment briefly on a play that I saw last night at Halifax's Neptune Theater. My friend Theo did a fantastic job portraying one of three Palestinian brothers who are watching their childhood bond deteriorate even as society crumbles around them under the weight of the occupation.

The play deals with heavy themes, focusing on the inevitable reality of collaboration with an occupying authority, and how this degrades and demoralizes all that are affected by it.

Much like Rachel Getting Married, this is a character study where extreme personalities are clashing in circumstances that bring powerful emotions into play. Also like RGM, there is no slow build-up - in this case the play is unrelenting from its opening moment, with scenes cut in a choppy fashion that is accentuated by loud, hard music and the theater being plunged into sudden darkness.

Another interesting facet of Masked is that it is an exercise in limited location, which film buffs will be familiar with from classics such as Hitchcock's Lifeboat. In this case I think that the use of limited location is a powerful way of evoking the situation of the Palestinian people in the play's physical set. The entire play occurs in one room in the back of a butcher shop, where the brothers blow off their anger and fear and frustration as if they were in a high-pressure canister - much as the Palestinian people are every day locked into the crowded occupied territories and inevitably end up clashing with each other.

My main reason for bringing this play up, however, is to share the pure joy of watching live theater and to urge readers to patronize a local show. It is beautiful to watch the actors: at the beginning of the stage they are naturally slightly stiff and a little self-conscious, but in a matter of minutes we see them begin to soften, settle in and feel comfortable in their character's skin.

This transformation is something we lose in films, and is the essence of the actor's craft. While loving the perfect finish of a well-made movie at the multiplex, let's not forget the opportunity to see the basic genius of the actor's craft at the local playhouse :)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Changeling, Pride and Glory: Two Sides of a Coin

I got to wondering today whether my movie critique posts to date actually qualify as "critical" in the strict sense of the word. I watch a lot of films, and find things to like about almost all of them - shouldn't the "reviewer" be a little more discriminating? Well never fear, today's posting was inspired by one fantastic film, and another that gives occasion to pull out all manner of metaphors evoking the noxious stench of spoiled eggs.

Shall we begin? There are movies to be considered!

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008) (Park Lane) When Christine Collins (an emaciated Angelina Jolie, wasted away to Lara Flynn Boyle-esque skin and bones) waves goodbye to her son Walter one Saturday morning in 1928, she has no idea that she will never lay eyes on him again - and no inkling of the hell that her life is about to become. Walter ultimately became one of about 20 young boys brutally murdered as part of the "Wineville chicken coop murders" - but his mother's torment went far beyond losing her only son.

Enter the corrupt and scheming LAPD, which, desperate for good press, finds a random young boy and returns him to Christine despite her protests that he is not her son - who, among other things, was three inches taller and uncircumcised. With the help of Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovitch), a contemporary crusader against the LAPD, Christine begins a fight for justice that sees her publicly humiliated, slandered as a negligent mother and ultimately committed to an insane asylum on the authority of one police officer's signature.

Changeling is a very good film that interested and engaged me completely for 141 minutes, which is no small feat in his era of overly long epic-wannabes.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Changeling is its lead actress, Angelina Jolie, who is usually cast in racier affairs by virtue of her "I could hurt you and you would enjoy it" sex appeal - we won't even talk about those lips. I must admit that although I greatly enjoyed Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the throw-away shoot-em-up vein and consumed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow gleefully, like a kid with a full cookie jar and a good hiding place, I have generally been pretty ambivalent about Jolie.

However, with Changeling I believe that I am reaching the same tipping point that I reached with Brad Pitt and even Leonardo DiCaprio some years ago - recognizing her as a great actress that does an unfortunate amount of Hollywood crap due to the misfortune (?!?!) of her good looks.

Jolie phones this one in. I think in particular of her first interview with the head doctor of the asylum. She has been forewarned by a fellow inmate that she will be diagnosed as: purely insane if she smiles too much; clinically depressed if she is quiet and passive; and catatonic if she remains neutral. As the doctor interrogates her about how she feels, we watch as Jolie tries desperately to decide how to act and react - and watch as terror builds in her eyes when the full degree of her helplessness becomes apparent. Chilling.

And this takes us to one of the prevalent themes in this film: the heartless dismissal of women in general by patronizing male authority figures. At one point in the film the chief of police is actually heard to mutter "women" in a frustrated tone as Christine (Jolie) responds in an understandably emotional manner to the situation she is in. Over and over we see how police officers, doctors and scientists dismiss her opinions and ideas solely because she is an "emotional woman incapable of logic." Frightening.

That being said, there is one other character that bears mentioning, as he is the only male figure who extends any sympathy to our protagonist: Rev. Gustav Briegleb. Played by Malkovitch as a sanctimonious but sympathetic champion of the damsel in distress, Rev. Briegleb occupies a purely utilitarian role in the story - we do not feel his passion or learn enough about the man to feel invested in his campaign against the LAPD. While Malkovitch is a reliably good actor, reliably good is all that he is in this role. A wasted opportunity.

Similarly, the set of the film should have been rich and lush, with a luster of the optimistic pre-crash flapper era shining from every surface (think the highly stylized presentation of New York in the Coen brothers' brilliant Miller's Crossing). Somehow this film makes 1920s LA look a little drab - which is admittedly in keeping with the somber tone of the story, but is a missed opportunity nonetheless.

No, this movie is Jolie's from the very beginning, and she brings enough to the performance to compensate for any deficiencies the production as a whole may suffer. I sense an Oscar nomination in the offing - and am eager to watch A Mighty Heart this weekend to get another dose of the Angelina Jolie that I never knew.

Pride and Glory (Gavin O'Connor, 2008) (Park Lane) While exiting the theater after watching Changeling, I caught the name Edward Norton on the poster advertising Pride and Glory. Throwing caution to the wind, I slipped into the theater and hunkered down in a prime seat with little idea of what to expect.

Sometimes you should quit while you are ahead.

Here we go: Respected elder "always played by the book" New York cop (Jon Voight) has two sons who are cops (Norton and Noah Emmerich) and a daughter married to a cop (Colin Farrell). I believe that they, to fulfill one of the checklist requirements for a New York cop film, are all supposed to be Irish - but the accents come and go willy-nilly, so it is hard to tell from one scene to the next.

Farrel is dirty, Emmerich tolerates his indiscretions because it makes him look good as station head, and Norton is tortured by a lie he told on the stand two years earlier to help cover up Farrell's earlier misdeeds.

When four random cops are killed in a vicious shootout, and Norton is assigned to the task force investigating the deaths. The investigation leads Norton to Farrell and Emmerich - didn't see that coming did you? - and necessitates a lot of soul searching (I can only assume from the wounded puppy look in Norton's eyes) before he ultimately turns them all in. Sounds simple enough, right?

Wrong, before this this bloated drama says die we are subjected to 130 minutes of gun fights, heads exploding over car windshields, mano-a-mano fist fights, heart-to-hearts with father, and out-of-left-field sub-plots involving Emmerich's wife's losing battle with cancer and Norton's pretty but pointless soon-to-be ex-wife. I actually believe that this film could have been made on a budget of about $35 if they had just patched together pomp-and-circumstance cop funeral scenes and gun battles from the numerous other really bad cop films that Hollywood foists upon us.

It is painful to watch an actor as capable as Edward Norton sink to this level - not that he hasn't done it before, but why is he doing it again? Does he choose his own films? Colin Farrell is acting at about the level he is capable of (I mean, he really has an Irish accent, so that alone explains his presence), but Norton is wasted.

And so are 130 minutes of my life. I considered walking out of this one.

Two Sides of a Coin
So those are the two sides of the coin: one film that achieves great things on the strength of one great actress' performance, and one drags a great actor shamelessly through the mud.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

W., 25th Hour, The Illusionist, The Prestige

Well I can't let the opportunity to personally congratulate Barak Obama on his victory last night pass - the time has come for a change. And I hope that this really does mean change, but fear on some level that one man with a vision is no match for the complex web of oil money, interest groups and back-scratching that is Washington.

But I want to believe, and perhaps all that is needed is a reason to believe. A reason for hope in a land with no moral center or common ideology to serve as motivation for making each day better in even the smallest ways.

Yes we can...

And, as the inspiration for art is so often real life, this segues nicely into my first film of the past week or so.

W. Politics on Screen and Stage
There is a long tradition of portraying the glorious ascendancy and ignominious fall of the politically powerful on stage and cinema. Off the cuff I think of Shakespeare's Richard III, Elizabeth, Blaze and All the King's Men - and I am sure that Google could extend this list manifold.

Oliver Stone, of course, features prominently in this tradition with biopics such as JFK and Nixon and, more recently, W., which opened to decidedly mixed reviews.

It was brave of Stone to attempt the story of such a controversial figure as George W. Bush before the bumbling fool s even tripped off left (just to make my opinion clear right from the start), and the film left me with mixed feelings.

One the one hand, disappointment that I had been cheated of the embarrassingly hackneyed leftist diatribe that a filmmaker such as Michael Moore would surely have delivered. On the other hand, however, pleasure at the fact that Stone had avoided this pitfall and delivered a more sympathetic portrayal of the 43rd president of the United States of America - a sympathy that dooms the film in the public consciousness in much the same way as Menno Meyjes Max was pilloried for even hinting that Hitler was in any way essentially a deeply-flawed human being underneath it all.

No, a sympathetic portrayal of Dubya was never going to be a crowd pleaser, but I think that - on this note anyway - this is a better film than it has been given credit for.

Following his unsuccessful first bid for the Texas statehouse Bush, in frustration, tells a comely Laura Bush that he will never be: "out-christianed or out-Texaned again." The film goes on to prove that this is essentially the essence of the George W. Bush presidency - a befuddled young man in way over his head and clinging for dear life to fundamentalist "black and white, good and evil" dogma guide him through a complex and nuanced political and personal world.

Ministers and missionaries guide him (Richard Dreyfus brilliantly portraying Dick Cheney), missionaries follow (Toby Jones as Karl Rove) and brilliant men of character find themselves increasingly marginalized as reality is subsumed to Bush belief in cut-and-dried right and wrong (Jeffrey Wright as Gen. Colin Powell).

W., despite what you may had read, is an interesting portrait of George W. Bush that seems overly sympathetic only insofar as it avoids the temptation to revel in the abject stupidity of the man and insidious implications of the evils he has visited on our world. That being said, it is no JFK, it is no Richard III - it has not the things that great, enduring portraits of powerful men and women are made of.

In the end, its a renter :)

25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2003). This is not the Spike Lee of Do the Right Thing or Jungle Fever. It is closer to the Spike Lee of Inside Man, but makes that film look like a cookie cutter Jason Stratham heist movie. No, this movie is art - it is what Spike Lee is reputed to be, but somehow never is when I actually watch one of his films.

A jacked up muscle car is cruising the dark side of New York city late at night carrying the slick gangster Monty Brogan (Norton) and slimy gangster Kostya Novotny. They stop at an alltogether unsafe looking intersection, and in the piles of debris and litter illuminated by pale yellow light find a mortally wounded pit bull that obviously lost one fight too many. Monty takes the dog under his care, showing a glimmer of the tenderness the life he has chosen forces him to hide under a tough, scaly shell.

But now Monty has 24 hours left before he has to report to prison to serve seven years on drug charges. In these 24 hours, - spent with his best friends (a timid Philip Seymour Hoffman as a schoolteacher who is all tenderness and a flinty Barry Pepper who seems to have nothing but his hard shell), his beautiful girlfriend (who may or may not have ratted him out), and one of Hoffman's student's (Anna Paquin as temptation personified) - we see Monty confront who and what he has become and what he must do in the morning to begin his act of atonement.

It is a night of drinking, dancing, fighting, embracing, crying, screaming and wondering what if ... a passion play counting the stations of the cross for one who is no innocent lamb. And it is a beautifully moving film.

The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006). I have been tempted to revisit The Illusionist for months now, and, after 25th Hour, I was in need of another dose of Edward Norton. This is a sublime film, lovingly crafted of compelling characters and opulent set pieces that engage you thoroughly in a fairytale world - complete with a prince in disguise and a princess courted by a malevolent heir to the throne. I mourn that I did not have the chance to see this story in the theater.

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006). I remember seeing this film on the marquee for a brief moment and never knowing what it was - I opted to see Babel instead on that particular evening, and have no regrets. Nolan does not have an extensive repertoire as a director, but done some good work: think Insomnia, Memento, Batman Begins and its lesser cousin The Dark Knight, .

Prestige is worthy of this impressive pedigree for the delicious simplicity of the twist that underlies its seemingly complex story alone - but a sliver of doubt has always haunted me, and on second viewing the fatal flaw revealed itself: poor set work. This is a movie that could and should be the equal of The Illusionist, but its internal world is compromised by cheap, unconvincing sets that do not allow the viewer to step through the screen, so to speak - very worth watching as a clever tale with an always compelling Christian Bale at the helm, but not a masterpiece. (A cheesy poster reminiscent of Face/Off does not help.)

Anticipation of Things to Come
It's a good week to be a movie lover, with Clint Eastwood's Changeling newly opened in theaters and Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married soon to follow. The former promises to be a return to the hard-nosed sentimentality of Million Dollar Baby after Eastwood's disappointing Flags of Our Fathers. I am particularly interested in the latter, as interviews with Demme have prepared me for a cast of strong, well-rounded characters that avoid the Hollywood cliches that wedding movies are made of (shudder).

I will let you know...