Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hollywood and the war on terror

The Los Angeles Times ran a column Monday by thriller author Andrew Klavan entitled Is Hollywood too timid for the war on terror? Klavan, whose novels “True Crime” and “Don’t Say a Word” were adapted for the big screen, believes that FBI agents are getting a raw deal cinematically and that we should be portraying their current great conflict: the war on terror.

“In the history of our time as told by the movies, the war on terror largely does not exist,” wrote Klavan. “Which is passing strange, you know. Because the war on terror is the history of our time. The outcome of our battle against the demographic, political and military upsurge of a hateful theology and its oppressive political vision will determine the fate of freedom in this century.”

Historically speaking films that come out during wartime are typically propaganda. This is what happened during World War II. It was easy to churn out films in support of World War II because it was a war that was being supported. But now, as was the case during the Vietnam War, the war is not a popular one. At the end of the day, Hollywood wants to make money and to make a movie glorifying the war on terror is a hard sell.

During the Vietnam War, the only Hollywood film that came out about the war during the conflict was 1968’s “The Green Berets,” directed by and starring John Wayne. The film reeks of propaganda and the message was clear: we have to stop the communists in Vietnam or they will spread to other countries. The film was doing nothing more than regurgitating the then current administration’s domino theory.

Certainly, the Vietnam War was the history of that time, so why wasn’t it being documented by Hollywood? Because there is a danger of being too close to the issue and of being taken in by misinformation. To do the subject matter of war justice, you need perspective and distance from the conflict.

The majority of the films to come out about Vietnam weren’t released until four years after the war end. In 1978 “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Coming Home” were all released and took a hard look at the conflict in Vietnam. In the 1980s films like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” would continue this study of the war.

The first film to come out about Desert Storm was 1999’s “Three Kings,” several years after that conflict ended. It took five year before we could properly address the 9/11 attacks on the big screen. Events as big and as tumultuous as those need to be given space to breathe.

The war on terror is the new cold war. Terrorism is the new communism. The words are at times interchangeable. We are fighting an idea, not a country or person. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea doesn’t provide a genuine threat, but it does mean that things are a little bit more complex than black and white, good and evil.

During the cold war numerous espionage and thriller films came out showing the battle against communism. Characters like James Bond thrived in this atmosphere and now that we have the new buzzword of terrorism, perhaps it is why Bond had a new relevancy in “Casino Royale.”

But watching such films in retrospect, it is clear they are not documents of history. They are interesting as a reflection of a state of mind, but hardly a mirror of reality.

For Klavan the reason Hollywood isn’t portraying the war on terror is simple:

“In order to honestly dramatize the simple truth about this existential struggle, you have to depict right-minded Americans — some of whom may be white and male and Christian — hunting down and killing dark-skinned villains of a false and wicked creed. That’s what's happening, on a good day anyway, so that’s what you’d have to show. Moviemakers are reluctant to do that because, even though it’s the truth, on screen it might appear bigoted and jingoistic.”

There is some truth to that statement, but it is an oversimplification as well. The danger of that portrayal isn’t of seeming bigoted, but of spreading bigotry and hatred of an entire group of people instead of extremists. There are too many complex issues at hand for a view that simplistic. For a film to do this struggle justice it would have to show its many facets.

“Syriana,” which Klavan dismissed as “comfort fantasy,” was an important film, despite its flaws, because it legitimately attempt to show the many sides of the issue. It even went as far as trying to understand the mind of a suicide bomber instead of immediately dismissing them as Klavan’s “dark-skinned villains of a false and wicked creed.”

The war on terror is making its way to the big screen, albeit indirectly. Films like “Children of Men” and “Babel” are very much reflecting the political and social unrest that the war on terror is creating throughout of the world. Maybe these are the films that are documenting our current history.

Perhaps “The Kingdom,” due out in April, is the film Klavan is waiting for. The film stars Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as a team of U.S. government agents sent to investigate the bombing of an American facility in the Middle East.

It looks like the sort of big action movie Hollywood loves, but it also seems to have a balanced, intelligent look at the current events in the Middle East. I’m hardly against films about the war on terror, as along as they don’t make it a simple good versus bad scenario and at least try to capture the bigger picture.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

'Men' is hardly child's play

I was a mess by the end of “Children of Men.” Red, tear stained face. Blood shot eyes. Snotty nose. Short of breath. Drained.

To call it a tearjerker implies it is something it is not. The film is powerful, emotional, visceral filmmaking that becomes overwhelming. You’d be hard pressed not to have some sort of emotional reaction to the film.

“Children of Men” is science fiction deeply rooted in reality. It is a cautionary tale of weight and depth. It is a story of hope and sacrifice.

The year is 2027 and the world has gone to shit. In this world women have become infertile, but that sci-fi wrinkle aside this is a future that is not far from the present. The film is like a hypothesis of what may well happen if humanity and current events stay their present course. I’m not saying infertility, but rather social chaos.

The plot is simple. Ex-activist Theo (Clive Owen, “The Inside Man,” “Closer”) is contacted by his former partner in activism and love (Julianne Moore, “Far From Heaven,” “The Hours”) to aid in getting Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, “Shooting Dogs”), the first pregnant woman in 18 years, to a safe haven where her baby will be protected from public scrutiny and use as a political tool.

The film is set in an England that is not dissimilar to the one in “V for Vendetta.” While that film was highly stylized and Gothic in its atmosphere and tone, “Children of Men” feels more like a reflection of reality. It is possible to view “V for Vendetta’s” as just a fun, if subversive, action film, but when “Children of Men” explodes into violence in its final third, the immediacy and authenticity of the action make it difficult to disconnect.

Characters come and go rather quickly in Theo’s quest to get Kee to safety. We meet Theo’s wealthy cousin, (Danny Huston, “The Aviator”), an anything-for-the-cause activist (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “The Inside Man”), a military drone, a former mid-wife (Pam Ferris, “Matilda”) and a gypsy.

Of these characters, Ejiofor stands out as a man trying to do what he thinks he is right, even if it takes extreme measures. Ferris also leaves an impression as a woman who remembers a better time and sees a way back to it with Kee. Known for playing meanies, Ferris adds surprising warmth to her character.

With the exception of Ferris and Ejiofor, these supporting character aren’t very developed, but they don’t need to be. They are all key to the film, not just as plot points, but at creating the atmosphere of a future that is bleak and with little hope.

Michael Caine as Theo’s friend Jasper, an aging hippie who lives hidden way in the woods listening to classic rock and dealing pot, is the most vivid characterization of the supporting cast. A loose, longhaired Caine provides the film with light comic relief. He’s a bit loopy, but Caine gives the character an underlining poignancy.

Theo is a classic tragic hero. He has lost his faith in humanity and the world. He chooses a slow death, poisoning himself with alcohol and cigarettes. When he takes up the call to activism again, it is more out of a sense of loyalty and old feelings that have yet to fade away. Owen’s scenes with Moore capture the essence of something once shared.

Theo hides his pain behind his vices and seeming indifference to the world, but Owen allows his hurt to come to the surface. A scene in which Theo eavesdrops on Caine relating to Kee how Theo lost his faith resonates. Owen is an actor with a wonderfully expressive face that can say more than pages of dialogue ever could.

Ashitey’s Kee is a woman who is pregnant in a world that has taught her nothing about birth or how to raise a child. Kee is a caustic, sassy teen, which Ashitey plays well, but the performance is memorable for the fear and confusion she infuses into the role.

The journey to get Kee to her destination is Theo’s redemption and renewal of his faith. It is a timeless arc, that if handled poorly can come off as trite and insincere, but director Alfonso Cuarón brings the right balance to the material.

Cuarón, who has made films as varied as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “The Little Princess” and “Y tu mamá también” is a filmmaker whose films are beautiful to look at and feature a sense of magic and awe. That holds true here, but there’s also grittiness present in “Children of Men.”

Cuarón builds emotional tension at a steady pace leading to a final half hour that grips in a way few movies do. He utilizes hand held shots in a rebellion sequence that are unsettlingly long and that place you very much in the action.

This is a device that has been used before, but rarely so effectively. Unlike some uses of hand held in battle scenes, there is fluidness to the camera movement. It is still fast, and a bit disorienting, as it should be, but never confusing.

As the film draws to its conclusion the tension can be overpowering. Cuarón has made it clear what is at stake. By first showing horror and despair and hinting at the way out, the films has a resolution that is affecting and full of a genuine sense of hope. It is an emotionally draining trip, but one worth taking.

Monday, January 22, 2007

'War' slipped under my radar

“Lord of War” opens with Nicolas Cage standing surrounded by bullets with a backdrop of a smoking village. He speaks directly into the camera with what appear to be tears in his eyes and tells us: “There are over 550 million firearms in world wide circulation. That is one firearm for every 12 people on the planet.” Cage then takes a puff from a cigarette and says the last thing you’d expect him to say: “The only question is how do we arm the other 11.”

The title sequence that follows shows the life of a bullet from production to firing. The journey’s conclusion makes a more powerful statement than some whole films. Suddenly you realize you’re watching a film that could and will take you to unexpected places.

“Lord of War” was a movie wanted to see it, but it slipped my mind. I think it slipped a lot of people’s minds. It is an important, relevant film that managed to fall through the cracks.

Upon its release in late 2005, “Lord of War” received mixed reviews. Some critics gave it high praise, others admired its ambitious, but dismissed as dull and un-involving. At the box office it never quite connected with audiences, bringing in about $24 million in the U.S. and $62 million worldwide. With its budget of $45 million it made its money, but certainly could’ve and should’ve performed better.

In terms of cinema, 2005 was a highly political year, with films such as “The Constant Gardner,” “Munich,” “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” gobbling up attention and awards. It would seem “Lord of War,” a film in many respects just as good and as powerful as those films, got lost in the mix.

“Lord of War” was a victim of mis-marketing. The theatrical trailer for the film focused on explosions and gunfire to make the film appear to be a run-of-the-mill action movie. We are left with only hints at the more satirical aspects of the script.

The poor marketing only got worse as the film came to DVD. The clever theatrical poster, which featured a mosaic portrait of Cage made of bullets, was replaced with a rather ordinary cover that tried to force the film into a genre it didn't belong to. (See above photo).

The film’s Writer/director Andrew Niccol, whose other films as a writer and/or director include “Gattaca,” “The Truman Show” and “Simone” is a brilliant satirist and social commentator. Despite a moderately sized Hollywood budget, the film he has made is very un-Hollywood.

Niccol’s previous work has always been a shade darker than the average multiplex film, even if visually they appeared to be bright and sunny. He works within a genre, but subverts until it is unrecognizable. A film like “Gattaca” is science fiction, but it seems odd to place it next to “Independence Day” or “Alien.” The same holds true for the “Lord of War,” which has the gleaming surface of an action film, but the heart and mind of a biting satire and anti-war film.

Cage’s presence in the film was probably another factor that distanced some viewers. It is easy to forget that Cage is a talented actor since he often appears in dreck like the recent remake of “The Wicker Man.” Cage has been in his fair share of bad to mediocre action films, so you almost can’t blame audiences for believing that “Lord of War” would be more of the same.

Cage plays Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer who is very good at his job. He doesn’t pick sides. He sells to anyone and everyone. The film spans about 20 years, showing the rise of Yuri as he constantly dodges the pursuits of a diligent Interpol agent (a solid Hawke enriching a one-dimensional character).

Yuri starts out small with his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto, “Requiem for a Dream,” “Panic Room”) as his literal brother in arms. Yuri can turn a blind eye to the use of the weapons he sells with a simple, “it is not our fight,” but Vitaly doesn’t have the stomach for the work and succumbs to drugs to escape the pain.

That sounds cliché and perhaps it is, but Leto keeps it very human. The scripts has him doing all sorts of strung out antics, but Leto keeps it grounded by always letting the pain the drugs attempt to mask rise to the surface. He is the moral heart of the film.

As deplorable as Yuri’s actions are, Cage manages to create sympathy for him. You don’t support his actions and yet somehow you do like him. He’s a cog in the system. He is a man who knows what he does is wrong, but chooses to accept that if he is evil, that he is a necessary one. He knows that if he stops doing what he does, someone else would step into fill his place.

Cage gives a charismatic performance providing a voice over narration that guides us through the world of arms dealing. He delivers his lines with the perfect degree of caustic cynicism. The dialogue is often quite funny, but the film doesn’t make light of the issues it raises. The humor is always pointed and cutting, but never forgets the suffering that arms dealing inflicts.

The expectation of the trajectory of the film is an inevitable fall of Yuri. You expect Yuri to have a moral reawaking. Neither happens. The film is an unapologetically cynical with a message that is bleak and unhopeful. There is no sugarcoating. The film holds its line for its entire running time, which is rare and commendable, especially when it doesn’t yield a happy ending.

Friday, January 19, 2007

'Sunshine' shines brightly

On the surface “Little Miss Sunshine” seems like nothing special, but it is a film where mere plot description cannot do it justice. Recent DVD ads have made the film look like a madcap road movie and a parody of beauty contests, but while it features these elements, the film runs deeper.

In “Little Miss Sunshine” a family hits the road in a broken down VW bus to get their 7-year-old daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin, “Signs”) to a beauty competition. Olive is a rather plain looking girl, but has been trained by her grandpa (Alan Arkin) with a special routine.

The film mines its humor from reality and each escalating problem, even as they become increasingly absurd, is accepted because of that sense of reality. Take the bus itself, which when the clutch is blown has to be pushed to get going, a gag that never loses its laugh and eventually becomes a point of triumphant. Other things happen to the bus that get big laughs that shouldn’t be spoiled.

Although the film is at times laugh out loud funny, particularly when you get to see the dance routine Grandpa has taught Olive, often the laughs have a sting. The movie creates family dynamics that feel true, sometimes painfully so. This is the case in an extended dinner scene early in the film.

The scene captures the tensions of the family dinner, something that rarely brings people together as much as we’d like it to. There is awkwardness and fighting that cuts close to home. The scene is also funny and in essence captures the tone of the rest of the film.

Some cynics will want to dismiss the family’s quirks as unrealistic exaggerations, but everyone has family issues that when explained to others seem ridiculous. “Little Miss Sunshine” doesn’t pull back from that fact.

That means we have father Richard (Greg Kinnear, “As Good as it Gets,” “The Matador”) forever selling his motivational success program to whoever will listen, son Dwayne (Paul Dano), taking a vow of silence until he can go to flight school, Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who attempted suicide after being dumped by one of his male students and Grandpa is a foul mouthed, horny heroin addict. The only relatively normal family member is the mother Sheryl (Toni Collette, “The Sixth Sense,” “About a Boy”).

Even if the characters are a bit idiosyncratic they feel authentic. There have been plenty of films about families with quirky family members, but the difference is “Little Miss Sunshine” doesn’t laugh at its characters and instead creates empathy for them.

Everyone in the cast is excellent, but for most people Carell, an alum of “The Daily Show” and the star of the U.S. version of “The Office” is going to be the big surprise.

Known for silly antics in movies like “Anchorman” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Carell gives a quiet, nuanced performance in which the hurt is always buried just below the surface. Even though the character is gay, Carell never plays the stereotype or goes for camp.

Carell’s Frank and Dano’s Dwayne form a quick bond and their dynamic is one that doesn’t feel like a mere plot device. Towards the end of the film they share a conversation about life that has a lot of truth. It is a scene, like most of the movie, which walks the fine line of comedy and tragedy.

Profane grandparents have been getting laughs for a long time, but Arkin instills his with a weariness. He isn’t mean, in fact he’s quite sweet, he’s just also very crass. Grandpa gives a sex pep talk to Dwayne that is hilariously vulgar. He’s old and therefore believes he is entitled to say and do what he wants. The character never seems like a cheap laugh and is oddly lovable.

Kinnear has perhaps the most difficult role as Richard, who is constantly giving speeches about winners and losers. Richard is overbearing and at times so infuriating you want to smack him especially when he tells Olive that if she eats ice cream she’ll get fat and fat girls aren’t winners.

Yet, Kinnear allows the character more dimensions than just that of an asshole. He needs to believe in his motivational system because he’s just as flawed and insecure as the rest of his family and the system is his crutch.

Richard redeems himself in the end and there is a sense that he’s changed, but Kinnear does it through facial expressions and gestures not words. Michael Arndt script thankfully doesn’t give any big speeches where we are told Richard has changed. The film trusts us to see it on our own.

Collette has the least showy role as a mother just trying to be there for her family, but it isn’t a performance that should be ignored. Collette’s Sheryl is attempting to be the stable one that holds together a fractured family. Sheryl has a few moments of emotional snaps, but for the most part keeps herself in check. Collette subtly shows the weight of staying strong for her family on her face and in her body.

“Little Miss Sunshine” looks at what the true meaning of winning, success and normal is and concludes that what is most important is to stay true to yourself. That makes the movie sound trite, where it is genuine and heartfelt. Writer Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris never slip into over sentimentality or preachiness.

The story’s arch may not be fresh, but how it is told, without pretense, irony and with honesty and compassion is what lifts the film above formula into something special.

This is a movie where all the elements come together perfectly. The score, which heavily features the music of the band Devotcka is as beautiful and offbeat as the film itself and a perfect compliment to it. The editing and cinematography isn't flashy and allows for shots that are well composed and dynamic. It is the sort of movie that will make you laugh and cry, maybe even at the same time.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A 'holiday' enjoyed even by a male

I like romantic comedies. I am actually quite fond of them. Perhaps I’ve forgotten my place in society. I should be going to the latest action movie not loving it up at “The Holiday.” I am reminded of my gender confusion quite regularly. Most recently it was by the Chicago Sun Times' Richard Roeper in his review of “The Holiday.”

“Not to engage in gender stereotyping -- check that, to engage in gender stereotyping -- I can't imagine any man choosing to see this movie on his own, though millions of men will see it on date night. They won't hate it, but they won't miss it when it's over.”

At this point I meekly raise my hand and cough, “I saw it on my own.” Well, all right, I did see it with my mother and sister, but it was my pick and I enjoyed it the most. I even have the poster hanging on my wall.

Yet, most reviews insist that “The Holiday” is only for women. The romantic comedy is meant to be a kryptonite to the average male and an affront to their masculinity. It is true the target audience of “The Holiday” is female, but it isn’t without joys that transcend gender.

Thanks to a gimmicky premise, you get a two for one deal with “The Holiday.” Two heartbroken women meet online and decide two swap homes for two weeks. Our two heroines are Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a Hollywood editor of movie trailers and Iris (Kate Winslet), a London journalist.

In the trade, Iris gets a massive mansion, a sweet golden era of Hollywood screenwriter as a neighbor (Eli Wallach) and Jack Black’s Miles, a film composer as a love interest. Amanda receives a small English cottage and Iris’ brother Graham (Jude Law) as her holiday fling.

Although both plots have their charms, Winslet’s is the one that feels the most complete with characters that have life and color. A whole film should’ve been dedicated to these characters.

Winslet’s Iris has a full character arc. She’s left heartbroken and insecure at the beginning of film and through her interactions with Wallach and Black regains her confidence and sense of self. It is transformation developed slowly and it is a testament to Winslet’s talent that she creates such a complete character in a film that is being dismissed as mere fluff.

Wallach, a veteran actor who appeared as the villain in westerns like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” is a delight as a sort of elder statesmen of Hollywood.

At 90, Wallach gives a performance with more warmth and genuine sweetness than someone a third of his age. His scenes with Winslet where he coaches her a film history and she prepares him for a special presentation of his work are some of the best of the movie.

At first glance Black may seem like an unlikely romantic lead, but he does a nice job dialing down the maniac energy he provided such films as “High Fidelity” and “School of Rock.” Since Miles composes film scores, it allows Black to have tangents of musical whimsy that should satisfy his fan, but even so it is a performance of surprising restraint and charm.

Black’s performance paired with his underrated work in “King Kong” proves that while he may go over-the-top in his own films, when called upon to actually act he can rise to the occasion.

Winslet and Black develop a relationship that is based in friendship first and grows into something more. There’s a real sense of Winslet emotionally connecting with both Black and Wallach.

The same doesn’t hold true for Diaz, who is left with a plot that is less dynamic. Her relationship with Law is based in sex and then grows into something more, but the shallowness of their first encounter permeates through the rest of the film. Despite Law professing his love towards the end of the film, there’s little sense of these two characters truly connecting on a deep level.

Diaz’s Amanda has less of a character growth than Iris. We are told that ever even since her parents divorced she has been unable to cry. We know Amanda has changed and grown when she does cry and runs back into the arms of Law. It feels superficial, where the Iris plot felt authentic. It doesn’t help matters that Diaz has an irritating Joker-esque smile across her face for the majority of her scenes.

Law, with his appeal turned on high, is ultimately what holds together the Amanda plotline. Meyers gives him a character that goes against the typical archetypes, and Law plays it with just the right balance of light charisma, intellect and wit.

Most reviews claim the film is without surprises, but there is one twist involving Law that subverts expectations in an unpredictably pleasant way. To give it away would be unfair, but it yields some sweet, heartstring-tugging scenes.

The Amanda plot does have moments of humor and poignancy and utilizes an amusing device that has Diaz’ inner thoughts come across as the voiceover for a trailer, but the story feels only sketched out. Perhaps it wasn’t inevitable that one plot would suffer because as is the film is already well over two hours.

“The Holiday” is written, produced and directed by Nancy Meyers who has written and/or directed such films as “Private Benjamin,” the remake of “Father of the Bride,” the remake of “The Parent Trap,” “What Women Want” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”

Meyers is well versed in the formulas and clichés of the romantic comedy and tweaks them. This isn’t to say she doesn’t eventually embrace the formula; in fact the film wraps up exactly how you’d expect it to.

Critics of the genre complain that it is predictable, but that is sort of the point. Audiences have certain expectations when they see a romantic comedy. Viewers go because they know the outcome. Although the road is familiar it is the scenery that is meant to change.

Monday, January 08, 2007

DeNiro's take on CIA is long and dull

“The Good Shepherd,” Robert DeNiro’s film about the early days of the CIA is the latest in a trend of political films that took root in 2005 with “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana” and “Munich” and continued on into 2006 with films such as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Bobby” and “Blood Diamond.” If it is merely a passing fad, it is one that is an interesting reflection of the times we live in.

Political thrillers have been a staple of Hollywood for decades, but usually take the form of a popcorn movie. This new crop of films seems more rooted in reality using historical events to mirror the present or taking the stories of the present and giving them a context.

That actors are directing many of these films is in itself a statement of the political environment of the United States. Actors are moving behind the camera because they feel they need to say something about the world today.

The 1970s were perhaps the last time such rash of political films came out. Films like “All the President Men” were an indication of the distrust of the government. Today’s films are in that same vein. They ask viewers to question and hold the government accountable.

Based upon the trailers attached with “The Good Shepherd” it looks like the trend will continue on into 2007, but if this is a review of “The Good Shepherd” why I have begun with a lengthy digression? Because the trend the film is a part of is far more interesting than the film itself.

“The Good Shepherd” is over long, and slower than a snail. A film focused on volatile historical periods like World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis shouldn’t be dull. Sadly, at times it is hard to stay wake.

Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson is the film’s lead character. Wilson is recruited in his 20s from Yale to be an agent for the government. From his perspective we see the early missions of what would later become the CIA.

Damon is surrounded be great actors in roles not much larger than a cameo. DeNiro pops up as well as Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, William Hurt and Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous,” “Big Fish.”) DeNiro even manages to pull Joe Pesci out of an eight-year retirement for a five-minute scene that feels like it belongs in “Goodfellas 2.”

Most of the cast barely registers. It isn’t bad acting it just rarely lingers in the mind. Turturro, at least in one scene, is the exception. He leaves an impression during a tense, shocking interrogation of a potential Russian spy. It is the best scene of the film. Most of the film is waiting for something to happen and never getting a pay off. The interrogation scene is one of the few to deliver an emotional punch.

Angelina Jolie as Wilson’s neglected wife is the only other actor to have a substantial amount of screen time, but she’s given a thankless role. Her character is nothing more than an archetype.

Jolie goes through the motions of a wife in a loveless marriage. She smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol and starts out young and vibrant before quickly becoming worn and weary. Jolie gets all the surface elements across, but isn’t given anything deeper to play. Without the emotions behind the actions it comes across flat.

This leaves it to Damon to carry the film on his own. To his credit Damon gives a strong performance. He is one of the best actors working today and brings a quiet intensity to the role.

Wilson starts out a creative, poetic soul, who sacrifices his true identity to become a government agent. Damon makes that sacrifice believable and even painful. The coldness he reveals as he watches the aforementioned interrogation is chilling and saddening.

While Damon gives a strong performance he too can only do so much with material that never goes much below the surface. Damon’s character isn’t given any real emotional conflict until the last half hour of a two hour and 40 minute film. Too bad because it is a good conflict: what comes first your country or your family?

The film’s overarching theme is that you can’t trust anyone and when this is explored in the latter parts of the film it yields some moments of interesting drama. The problem is that you wait for nearly two hours before anything that holds attention occurs and by then any interest is fading fast.

There is nothing wrong with a slow-boiler that creates tension at a deliberate pace, but DeNiro as a director takes too long and it is unclear what we are building towards. The film jumps back and forth in time between 1939 and 1961 in a fashion that is confusing and unnecessary.

The script by Eric Roth (“Munich,” “Ali,” “The Insider”) doesn’t give a sense of what Wilson and his various colleagues are doing. It would seem even in a film about the CIA we aren’t allowed to know what they are doing.

It doesn’t help that settings, whether they be in Germany, London or Washington, are often non-descript and blend together. Aging make up is done poorly, so there is little help there in giving the audience a point of reference. Only the titles give a proper indication of when and where the scenes take place.

Visually, DeNiro’s direction is strong. He utilizes shadows and focus effectively to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. The look of the film is right and had editing been tighter, the taut, intelligent, thriller buried in the hulk of a film that exists now may have emerged. As is we’re left with a film with lots of potential that is seldom met.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

'Apocalypto': Look past Mel and watch the movie

One of the great philosophical debates through the ages is whether a person can and should be separated from their art.

Can you watch the greatness of “Annie Hall” and forget Woody Allen’s marriage to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi? Can you watch the brilliance of “Chinatown” and ignore the fact that Roman Polanski was a pedophile? Can you watch “Apocalypto” and not think of Mel Gibson anti-semantic statements? Or must we ignore the body of work of the flawed, even the terribly so, no matter how brilliant their work might be?

Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is not a work of brilliance, it has numerous shortcomings, but it is still a film of merit if only for depicting a subject matter rarely seen on film: the Mayan civilization.

You have to give Gibson credit for being different, after all, this is his second film in a row following “The Passion of the Christ” to have dialogue in a dead language. Given most of America’s aversion to subtitles, it is fairly remarkable that both films became big money makers.

Much has been written about the supposedly sensationalistic, gratuitous and sadistic violence of “Apocalypto.” Indeed the film is violent and gory, but the graphic nature of the film is at least based in reality, which can’t be said for the truly gratuitous violence of horror movies like “Saw” or “Hostel.”

The Mayans were a violent people that performed human sacrifices and Gibson shows that. You could say this is in poor taste and judgment, but they aren’t being shown without purpose.

The sacrifices are presented as a means for those in power to manipulate and keep the masses in check. In that light, these sequences can be viewed as social commentary.

“Apocalypto” is advertised as a film about the fall of the Mayan civilization, but this isn’t a film of epic battles. Gibson’s message is simple; all civilizations rot from the inside. Just so you don’t miss it he puts it on a title card before the beginning of the film.

A large portion of the film centers on Mayan warriors pillaging hunter villages to take potential human sacrifices, but before the violence breaks out Gibson tries to show the daily life of the Mayan hunters. It is a feeble attempt to show that despite being more primitive that they really weren’t that different from us.

We see the Mayan equivalent of “Fear Factor” when a group of hunters convinces one of their own to eat a boar’s penis. Later the same hunter becomes the brunt of a “Jackass”-like prank once again involving a penis. This same hunter even has a nagging mother-in-law who is tried of waiting for her grandchild.

At this point you’re thinking, “Mel, you make a film about the Mayan civilization and this is what you come up with?” Luckily, the eye-rollingly awful moments are mostly contained in the first third of the film. Although, be forewarned, there is a laughably bad birth scene towards the end of the film.

The film picks up a bit when a warrior attack occurs and the survivors are marched to a sacrificial temple. The film focuses on Jaguar Paw (the dynamic Rudy Youngblood), who hides his pregnant wife and child in a pit they can’t escape before being taken away. Jaguar Paw and his fellow tribesmen are dragged and tormented through the jungle until they reach their grim destination.

Gibson’s recreation of the Mayan temples and city is amazing to behold and other details such as dress and piercings feel authentic. Even so, up to this point the film is lacking any real dramatic thrust. There’s an odd fascination to the events unfolding, especially the human sacrifices, if you have the stomach for them, but it is interesting only for the novelty that this is something different.

The film truly comes a life when Jaguar Paw makes his escape and runs back to his family while being pursued by his captors. The final third of the film is this pursuit and it is exciting, visceral filmmaking as Jaguar Paw uses his surrounding to thwart his enemies.

This is familiar territory, but it is done so well, that for the first time in the film you are truly involved in the proceeding. This is the sort of filmmaking Gibson is best at and is on par with the similarly themed chase at the end of Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans.”

While the film raises issues about the collapse of societies and corruption of the powerful, the film’s core theme is of the importance of family.

Gibson, as both a director and an actor, seems drawn to stories where a man will do anything for his family. From “Mad Max” on through to “Braveheart,” “Ransom” and “The Patriot” it is a theme that keeps cropping up. So, it isn’t surprising that this is the dramatic drive he chose for “Apocalypto.”

“Apocalypto” isn’t a great film, but it is a good one. Flawed for sure, but daring in its subject matter. And that final chase alone is worth seeing.

'Bobby' gets the essence of the 60s

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone named “Bobby” the worst movie of 2006 for exploiting instead of honoring the late Robert Kennedy’s life and death. There were far worse movies last year.

It is true that writer/director Emilio Estevez isn’t one of the best filmmakers working today. He isn’t even a George Clooney. Even so, he has made a movie that has moments that are moving, humorous and truthful.

Very little of “Bobby” is specifically about Robert Kennedy. We see footage of his speeches and his campaign tour, but we don’t really get a sense of the man or his politics. This isn’t a movie showing the behind scenes workings of the politician. Instead the film tries to capture the essence of the era and that, for a generation, Bobby Kennedy was a last hope.

Former Brat Packer Estevez takes the mosaic approach of films like “Magnolia,” “Short Cuts” and “Crash” of having series of parallel plotlines and characters that converge. In this case that convergence point is Kennedy’s assignation at the Ambassador Hotel.

The film’s cast is a who’s who of veteran and up and coming actors that includes Anthony Hopkins, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Harry Belafonte, William H. Macy, Christian Slater, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt, Lindsey Lohan, Elijah Wood, Shia LaBeouf, Ashton Kutcher, Freddy Rodriguez and others.

With a cast so large the film is often in danger of collapsing in on itself from its own weight. Some plotlines feel like extraneous filler. For example, Macy’s hotel manager having an affair with switchboard operator Heather Graham is underdeveloped and a waste of time.

The film’s oddest plot focuses on a married couple played by Sheen and Hunt. Their characters are only faintly sketched. All you know about them is that they are going to Kennedy’s speech and that Hunt has brought the wrong shoes for her dress so they need to go buy a new pair. One can’t fault Sheen and Hunt’s acting, which is fine, they make a cute couple, but their scenes add little to the proceedings.

Many of the other plots do stick. The strongest shows the politics of the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen, the hierarchy of which goes from white to black to Hispanic. These scenes do a fine job encapsulating the racial tension of the era, in an effective, if somewhat overly simplistic fashion.

Many critics complain that Estevez’ dialogue is tin-eared, but Fishburne, as the head chef, delivers a a powerful and truthful monologue about the angry young man. Fishburne is an actor who is brilliant at giving speeches, but Estevez, as a writer, deserves credit for it is more than just Fishburne’s performance that makes the scene memorable.

Lohan and Wood have an interest plot in which Lohan agrees to marry Wood to keep him out of the Vietnam War. Lohan, who has been getting more attention as a darling of the tabloids than for acting, gives a sweet and sincere performance that shows she more than just a Paris Hilton-esque bimbo. Wood, who will probably spend the rest of his career trying to get out from underneath “Lord of the Rings,” also gives a realistic and believable performance.

The film’s most entertaining plotline centers on Kennedy volunteers LaBeouf (“Holes”) and Brian Geraghty (“The Guardian”) skipping out on signing up voters to take acid for the first time. Their drug induced exploits provide the film with some much needed, and quite amusing comic relief.

Some might find it inappropriate that a film trying to depict such a tumultuous time would digress into drug humor, instead of showing the dangers of drugs, but these scenes don’t feel out of place or forced and help to create the atmosphere of the time.

Moore as a fading star and Stone as the hotel hairdresser share a scene that is surprisingly effective. Moore has never been the greatest actress and Stone is a good actress (see “Casino” as prove) with poor judgment (“Basic Instinct 2”), but their scene is full of pain and honesty as they talk about what it is like to get older.

Perhaps the film’s heart is Hopkins as the former manager of the hotel, who still lingers around because the hotel feels more like home than his actual home. He sits around waiting for someone to play chess with, usually settling for Belafonte. Hopkins and Belafonte’s scenes together are charming and genuine and are some of the best moments of the film.

There are more plots and characters, but to get into all of them would take far too long. The better plots attempt to recreate the time period and for the most part are successful in doing this.

Estevez doesn’t quite capture the importance of Kennedy, but he certainly honors him well enough. His film is a good starting pointing for younger viewers, but further examination is necessary. For some, this film may encourage that exploration.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An intelligent, funny piece of 'fiction'

“Stranger Than Fiction” has been marketed as the latest goofball Will Ferrell comedy, but those expecting the outrageous antics of “Anchorman” or “Old School” will be sorely disappointed.

Ferrell is one of those comedic performers that can rub people the wrong way, but this is the film that could win skeptics over. He joins the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey as a comedian who can repress his comedic urges and deliver a dynamic dramatic performance.

The film represents the latest addition to what could be called the high concept, fantasy comedy genre. Think “Bruce Almighty” or “Click.” But “Stranger Than Fiction” is closer in tone to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” than either of those films. This is a Hollywood film with an indie spirit.

Perhaps the best comparison though is “Groundhog Day.” Like “Groundhog Day,” “Stranger Than Fiction” takes a seemingly one-note concept (a man being followed by a voice narrating his life) and finds fresh and interesting ways to sustain the concept for the length of a film.

The movie starts out as clever satire of film narration, a device that if used improperly, and often is, can be disastrous for a film. A lesser movie would stop with Ferrell simply shouting at his unknown narrator, but screenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster decide to explore the very meaning of literature and art.

Ferrell’s Harold Crick is a lonely, numbers obsessed IRS agent, who suddenly hears the narration of his life. Initially, just an annoyance he tries to ignore, Harold becomes rightfully concerned when the narration tells him things have been set in motion that will lead to his death.

Harold is unknowingly the character of a book being written by Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, “Love Actually,” “Nanny McPhee”) an author known for killing off her lead characters. Luckily for Harold, she has a bad case of writer’s block that not even her assistant (the underused Queen Latifah) can help.

In one of the films most unexpected and oddly logically turns, Harold seeks the assistance of literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Hoffman, in a role that easily could have fallen into overblown caricature, impeccably captures the essence of a slightly eccentric academic.

This is one of Hoffman’s best recent performances. The way he inhabits his office, moves and speaks feels authentic. Anyone who has been to college has had some form of this professor.

Hoffman’s Hilbert is unsure of Harold sanity, but like most academics, is fascinated by a new challenge. He approaches Harold’s life like the unfinished book it is and tells Harold to look at the events of his life to discover if he is living a comedy or tragedy.

The comedy/tragedy pendulum swings on the interactions with one of Harold’s audits, bakery owner Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Secretary”). What starts out as a hostile relationship develops into a quirky and surprisingly sweet romance.

Gyllenhaal is absolutely charming as Ana. She brings equal measures of sass and compassion to the character. The chemistry between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal is one of the joys of the film. Scenes like Ana teaching Harold how to eat milk and cookies and Harold timidly serenading Ana with the only song he knows how to play on guitar are nearly flawless.

While this may not be the heaviest drama and is certainly full of light comedy, Ferrell proves that he can dial down and give an appealing, human performance. Ferrell’s Harold, is a meek, withdrawn loner, who as a result of the narration begins to change his life. Ferrell creates a character you care about.

Helm has written a sharp, intelligent script that if given the wrong tone could’ve fallen into pretense or over sentmentality. Fortunately, Forster, whose previous films include “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” is perhaps one of the most versatile directors working today.

Forester finds the perfect balance between laughs, tears and intellect. He provides the film with a fun visual style, using animated graphs, charts and scales to visualize Harold’s world of number.

That leaves us with Thompson’s Kay, a writer obsessed with death, who often fantasizes about her own to find inspiration for her work. She is a chain smoking, recluse. Thompson has the film’s most challenging role. She is the tortured soul of the film that hides her sorrow behind caustic wit. Her depression is played straight and is at times painfully close to reality. It is a subtle performance of vacant stares and subdued gestures.

Kay is in many respects Harold’s mirror, but unlike Harold, she is well aware of her despair and channels it into her writing. Does this mean Harold truly is Kay’s creation? The film doesn’t explore the how or the why of its plot device, but simply allows it to quietly present questions about life and art. When Kay knows Harold is real can she knowingly kill him? What is more important a masterpiece or a human life?

How the film answers these questions is just about perfect. In a film that never does quite what you expect the ending is extremely satisfying and makes the whole all the better.