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...


DreamQueen said...

Have you read the book The Prestige is based on? Although the ending is a bit of a let down, it's otherwise a quite engaging read.

Yuri... said...

No, I actually was not aware that the film was based on a book. I guess I will add it to my ever lengthening "to read" list ... thanks :)