Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New DVD releases December 18

At the end of The Commitments, we see a montage set to the band’s cover of “Try a Little Tenderness,” where we see what the members of the band have been doing since they split up. The very first shot in the montage is of Jimmy (Robert Arkins), the band’s manager, listening to Outspan (Glen Hansard), the guitarist, and Derek (Ken McClusky), the bassist, as they perform on a busy Dublin street corner. The opening of John Carney’s Once finds Hansard, 16 years older but still hale and hearty, performing by himself on a Dublin street corner, and while it’s two different movies, it’s easy to imagine Hansard’s character merely being Outspan later in life. Certainly, in addition to being musicals set in Ireland, both movies are about the depth of feeling music can produce in us, and they’re both small treasures because of that.
Hansard, whose character is simply known as “Guy” (as in not the name), is playing one night when he’s approached by a woman (Marketa Irglova), simply known as “Girl”, who likes what she hears (even though she only gives him ten pence). As it happens, she’s also a musician – she plays piano, and she practices at a music store (the owner lets her). The two play together enough to know they’ve got something connecting them on a musical level. But does that connection exist elsewhere? After all, he’s got an ex-girlfriend living in London whom he still pines for, and her husband is back in the Czech Republic (she went ahead to try and make enough money for him to move to Dublin), while she lives with her mother and child. Does it matter the two of them may have feelings for each other, as expressed through the music?
What makes this all magical is those feelings are expressed through the music, and thrillingly. I still recall the chill I felt – in a good way – when Hansard and Irglova first performed “Falling Slowly,” the first song they perform together, in the movie – it simply and beautifully captures those feelings. Carney sets all the songs up simply – except for “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” which Hansard performs on a bus in response to the question of why his girlfriend left him, everything is done with a naturalistic feel. The two main characters are similarly grounded – he works as a vacuum salesman, while she works a variety of jobs, including selling roses. Both of them, in other words, have a practical life, and let loose only in their songs.
You could argue this is a new Brief Encounter for the millennium (except the two never consummate their relationship, as they did in the earlier film), or that she’s merely his muse, but I think it’s a lot more than that, and that has to do with the music. Hansard (who, along with Carney, is in the band the Frames) and Irglova also do a good job acting out the non-music parts. But the songs are where the real emotion comes from (the opening line of “Falling Slowly” is “I don’t know you but I want you”), and Carney captures the emotion of the songs without sentimentalizing it, as do Hansard and Irglova. It’s the music that makes Once so special.
My senior year in college, I was without a TV, and was concentrating more on the girl I was in love with, and the history thesis I had to write. All of which is to say I missed being part of the audience for The Simpsons when they started their march to being the most popular cartoon, and sitcom, in TV history. I respect the writing, and have liked some of the eps I’ve seen, but it’s not part of my vocabulary the way, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was. All of which is to say I was able to enjoy David Silverman’s The Simpsons Movie for what it was, and not how it stacked up against the TV show. True, most of the supporting characters get little screen time (including my personal favorite, Mr. Burns). True, the movie feels like one half-hour ep stretched out to feature length (even at 87 minutes, this feels a tad long). And true, the environmental message, while undoubtedly sincere, does tend to blunt the satire the show is famous for. However, the movie in some ways sums up the basic appeal of the show – the family. The show’s fans have always seen Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa as representative of the American family, for better or worse, and that certainly comes out in this movie. The plot may involve things usually seen in an action or sci-fi movie – pollution in the lake causes the town of Springfield to be closed down, and EPA head Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks, who’s one of the few celebrity voices here – the others being Green Day and Tom Hanks, as themselves) convinces President Schwarzenegger to blow up the town – but it all comes out of the basic actions of the Simpson family. As in almost every episode, Homer does something stupid but eventually comes around, Marge is impatient but loving with him, Lisa has a crusade, and Bart wishes Homer wasn’t his dad (this part is, admittedly, over the top). The beginning of the movie has the family watching an Itchy and Scratchy movie, and Homer declaring they’ve been gypped by paying for a movie from a TV show when they could just watch the show for free. The Simpsons Movie never achieves greatness, but you won’t feel gypped either.
Ever since the Lord of the Rings franchise, studios have been turning out fantasy films of their own, hoping to reproduce some of that magic, box office and otherwise. Some have come close (the first Narnia movie), but most have fallen short. Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust, though it has some good parts, falls in the latter category. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, this starts out well – in 19th century England, Tristan (Charlie Cox), a goodhearted but clumsy lad, wants to win the love of Victoria (Sienna Miller), the callow beauty of the village. One night, they’re out together, and they spot a falling star going towards the kingdom of Stormhold, outside the village (which is protected by a huge wall). Tristan declares he’ll go and retrieve the star for Victoria, and this will prove his love. What he doesn’t count on is the star is actually a girl named Yvaine (Claire Danes). What Tristan also doesn’t count on is he’s not the only one after the star – Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), a witch, wants to cut out Yvaine’s heart because it will give her eternal youth, and the sons of the king (Peter O’Toole) want the stone Yvaine is carrying, because whoever gets it will be the next king. One more thing Tristan doesn’t count on is falling in love with Yvaine.
Until Tristan goes through the wall into Stormhold, this is actually pretty good – Vaughn sustains a fairy tale atmosphere that’s appealing. Once he crosses over, however, there are problems. For starters, the attempts at humor are hit and miss at best. Robert De Niro, for one, is way too cartoonish in his portrayal of Captain Shakespeare, a pirate who pretends to be tough but is really swishy (and that’s a tired conceit anyway). He does have one good moment, when he’s dancing along to a can-can number, but that’s about it. And the business about the sons of the king who appear as ghosts after they’ve died is another joke that gets tired. Ricky Gervais does brighten things up in his brief scene as a trader. Vaughn does better by the fairy tale side, especially with Pfeiffer playing another great villain character after Hairspray. He and his Layer Cake cinematographer Ben Davis also avoid the paint-by-numbers look of that film with some lyrical shots, especially when Yvaine is lighting up (her light burns brightest when she’s feeling good, as when she’s falling in love with Tristan). But the story is choppily told – I’ve never read the novel, but I wonder if scenes involving the unicorn and the dream where Tristan is warned about Yvaine being in trouble were better handled than they are in the movie. And then there’s Danes. She certainly looks aglow when she’s in love, but there’s something about her that seems too modern for a fairy tale like this, and at the beginning, when she and Cox (who’s adequate, nothing more) are squabbling, she comes off as pouty. One wonders if this would have soared if Miller had played the lead instead. Stardust could have used a little more.
When Blade Runner, the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, flopped upon its initial release in 1982, few could have predicted people would still be talking about it 25 years later. After all, most critics thought director Ridley Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (with an uncredited assist from Roland Kibbee) had made a muddled mess of Dick’s novel (Pauline Kael admitted the movie couldn’t be ignored, but complained it “gives you the feeling of not getting anywhere”). As for audiences, those who were hoping for another light-hearted Harrison Ford adventure like the first two Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark were bewildered by the storyline and turned off by Ford’s monotonous voiceover narration. However, it did gain a cult following, thanks to the stunning visuals and blending of science fiction and film noir. Then in 1989, a different version of the film was discovered, shown in some theaters, and was eventually released to theaters and video to great acclaim in 1992. This version eliminated the voiceover, shortened some scenes, and had a different ending and meaning, and was the so-called director’s cut. Now, Scott has redone the film once again for his final director’s cut.
For those who don’t know the story, a brief summary is in order. In 2019 L.A., man has the ability to create replicants, or androids that can pass for humans. However, after a bloody battle between replicants and humans, all replicants have been outlawed, and humans hunt them down to destroy them. Deckard (Ford), a former “blade runner” (detectives who hunt down replicants), is called out of retirement to hunt down a group of replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), who have stolen a ship and are looking for their creator. Meanwhile, Deckard finds himself falling for Rachael (Sean Young), who turns out to be a replicant. In the original cut, that’s as far as it went, but in the director’s cut, Scott changed it to imply Deckard maybe was a replicant as well.
Scott has never been really a director of ideas (after all, Kingdom of Heaven is about the Crusades yet eliminates almost all religious discussion from the war), but this film, in any version, is an interesting meditation on what it means to be human. True, Batty is certainly villainous, but Deckard’s superior (M. Emmet Walsh) and co-worker (Edward James Olmos) are just as ruthless, if not more so. And even in the original version, we saw Deckard being cut off from life, whereas the replicants, whose life span was only four years and whose memories were all imprints, seemed to embrace life, and acted out of self-defense. Making Deckard a replicant adds a further twist to that. And the noir-ish world Scott and production designer Lawrence G. Paull create further add to the sense that life for mankind is empty. Finally, all the performances are good; while this was never one of Ford’s favorites, he brings toughness and vulnerability to Deckard, Young is bewitching as Rachael, and Hauer is charismatic and ruthless as Batty while remaining sympathetic. There’s also good work from Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy as other replicants. The new special edition DVD contains both earlier versions, plus a new “director’s cut,” which is basically a tweaking of the 1992 version (which Scott claimed wasn’t his cut, even though it was closer to his vision). Whatever version you see, Blade Runner is still worth watching.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New DVD releases December 11

I haven’t, and won’t, see High School Musical 2 (five minutes of the first one was enough to turn me off), but the other two franchise pictures coming out on DVD are really good, as is the big indie film of the week.
One of the primary components of American action movies is the hero – or, in the rare case, heroine – always knows who they are, and more importantly, what they are. They may have doubts whether or not they’ll succeed, and may regret things they didn’t do, but that’s almost always momentary – they, and we, are sure of their eventual triumph. This is one of the many ways the Bourne movies have been different from most every other Hollywood action movie. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) knows he’s a killer, but he doesn’t know who he is – just that he doesn’t want to be a killer anymore. Also, his enemies aren’t the outside threats (except as hired guns), but the people who trained him, and made him, in the first place. And unlike most Hollywood action movies, this franchise has made every bullet and punch count. Hard to believe that films of this caliber could be made from novels (by Robert Ludlum) that were convoluted to the point of annoyance, but there you go. And Damon and writer Tony Gilroy, two of the constants of the series, are joined once again by Paul Greengrass, who directed The Bourne Supremacy, for the third chapter, The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s the best of the series.
In this installment, Bourne, still haunted by the death of his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente), is in hiding until Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), a crusading British journalist, gets a tip from an inside source that Bourne was the key to a CIA operation called Blackbriar. Bourne figures this is another key to finding out who he is, so he decides to track down Ross. What he doesn’t count on is CIA Deputy Director Noah Vossen (David Strathairn), who wants to keep a lid on Blackbriar. Vossen and his superior, CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), want to put Bourne into the ground, while Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) thinks that will just make Bourne angry with the CIA.
Once again, Greengrass shoots this film as if it was a documentary, with lots of handheld cameras, which has caused griping as well as praise. I think the hand-held cameras lend the movie an immediacy, putting you right into the action, and making it come off more realistic. Also, it adds to the mission of making every bullet and punch count. And while there are some spectacular action scenes, including a chase scene inside a railway station and a chase across rooftops, Greengrass doesn’t forget the human factor – the most heart-stopping moment of the movie is when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reappears (she works for the inside source) out of nowhere (it also does the movie credit there’s no flashback explaining how she knows Bourne). And as I mentioned before, the self-doubt Bourne feels adds a layer of emotional resonance not seen in most action movies. A lot of credit, of course, goes to Damon, who is not only realistic in the action scenes, but shows the turmoil of being Jason Bourne.
The reason why J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have resonated with so many people is not just the way she tells the stories (although she’s a great storyteller), or the minutiae she packs in (although both the Muggle and Wizard worlds that she’s created are nicely detailed), but the way each character, particularly the main ones, continues to grow as the series progresses. To me, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best of the books (though the final chapter, Deathly Hollows, runs a very close second) precisely because it does so well the emotional journey Harry and her friends take. While director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg (stepping in for Steven Kloves, who wrote the first four movies) have to trim the book (the longest of the series, if memory serves), they keep that emotional journey, and that’s why the movie is, next to Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the series to date.
In the previous installment, Goblet of Fire, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) returned to power, but the Ministry of Magic, led by Cornelius Fudge (Robert hardy), refuses to believe it, and won’t hear any talk of Voldemort. So Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), once considered the hero of Hogwarts, is now a pariah, especially since The Daily Prophet is running stories against him. He’s even brought up on charges for using magic outside the school (he was trying to protect himself and his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) from Dementors). Only a last-minute intervention by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) prevents Harry from being expelled. To keep Harry and Dumbledore in line, the Ministry appoints Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, and she appoints herself as watchdog of Hogwarts, coming off as a sadistic Mary Poppins. Among the many changes she brings to the school is banning any teaching of defense methods against the Dark Arts. So Harry, under the prodding of Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), starts his own class, which will prepare the other students against Voldemort. Among the others are Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and brothers Fred (James Phelps) and George (Oliver Phelps), new student Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and, of course, Cho Chang (Katie Leung), the girl Harry has a crush on, and the girlfriend of the student Voldemort killed in the previous story. At the same time, Harry is tortured by his own connection with Voldemort; he sees things through Voldemort’s eyes, and even sees harm coming to others through him, including, possibly, his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).
Yates, best known in this country for the made-for-HBO movie The Girl in the Café, doesn’t seem to have the background for the special effects called for in the movie, but he handles them fine, especially the climatic fight Harry and his friends have with Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters (including Sirius’ cousin Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter)). More importantly, he handles the relationships with aplomb, for the most part. The only relationship that comes off wrong is between Harry and Cho – they have no chemistry together. But Lynch is superb as Luna (she apparently wrote the producers she was born to play the part, and it shows), the slightly off-center girl who nevertheless is a staunch ally, and Staunton is simply terrifying as Umbridge (though I wish she had done more of the thought-clearing interruptions that made her so memorable in the book). Where the movie falters is with the supporting cast from the previous films – for the most part, they barely register here, except for Snape (Alan Rickman), who here tries, and fails, to teach Harry to close his mind against Voldemort, and Sirius, who feels left out. I understand the movie wanted to focus on the main people of the story, but the supporting cast adds detail to the story that seems missing here. Also, while the climax ends in tragedy, the movie still feels the need to tack on a somewhat happy ending, where a lesson is learned. Still, none of that is enough to negate the fact that I really enjoyed this film, and look forward to what Yates will do with the next installment, The Half-Blood Prince.
Before director Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004, he had been planning to shoot English-language remakes of this first three feature films. Upon his death, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci have stepped in to direct them. Buscemi’s effort, Interview, which he also co-wrote (with David Schechter, adapting the original screenplay by Theodor Holman) and stars in, is the first out of the gate. It’s the tale of a night-long interview between Katya (Sienna Miller), an actress best known for her tabloid antics than her talent, and Pierre (Buscemi), a political journalist who’s been assigned to this interview for reasons that only become clear later. I can already hear people groaning at this concept, and it’s true this comes off as little more than an acting exercise, with as much insight. However, it’s a very entertaining exercise, because Buscemi and Miller go at each other with ardor and skill. For Buscemi, of course, this is no surprise – he’s been one of our most reliable character actors for almost 20 years now. Miller, however, is a find here. I still haven’t seen Factory Girl, which left most people cold (although she, and the film, have a few defenders) – matter of fact, the only film of hers I’ve seen is Layer Cake, where she had such an inconsequential part that she made no impression on me whatsoever. I don’t know if having her own tabloid nightmares fueled her performance here, but she shows herself as both thick-skinned and vulnerable, with a level of intelligence that’s not apparent right away. Movie critics aren’t supposed to like remakes of foreign films, but on the basis of this, I look forward to Tucci and Turturro’s efforts.
This week’s major Criterion release is Monte Hellman’s cult road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, one of many road movies to come out in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It may be heresy to say this, but I don’t think it holds up very well. Minimalism is one thing, but either Hellman’s characters are completely one-note, the actors are directed poorly (except for Harry Dean Stanton in a small role as a hitchhiker, and Warren Oates as GTO, a race car driver), or they’re actually that wooden. James Taylor (as the Driver) and Dennis Wilson (as the Mechanic) are fine musicians, but they have zero screen presence, and the plot (about a cross-country race between them and GTO) is so burdened with metaphor it barely registers. The car racing scenes are fine, but as far as road movies of the early 70’s go, I still prefer Vanishing Point.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

New DVD releases December 4

Greg Mottola’s Superbad is about a subject we’ve seen thousands of times before – two teens trying to lose their virginity. What’s more, while Mottola and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Rogen also appears with Bill Hader as a pair of boorish cops) do capture the friendship between main characters Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), they just don’t make it funny enough. Or maybe I’m turning into a crank about humor as I get older (always possible). Still, I really didn’t laugh that often, not even at newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fogell, whose fake ID is “McLovin” (gettit?). I’ve never seen Mottola’s The Daytrippers, and I hope that was less obvious than this.
After I saw John Turturro’s directorial debut, Mac, I came across a quote from a critic who said it was “obviously a labor of love, but often a labor to sit through.” That’s a very smartass review, of course, but unfortunately, it rang true. I thought of that line when I watched Ethan Hawke’s The Hottest State, which he adapted from his own novel, directed, and also appears in. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale about William (Mark Webber), an aspiring actor who comes to New York City, and his relationship with Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an aspiring singer/guitarist. I’ve liked the two in other movies (Moreno especially in her Oscar-nominated turn in Maria Full of Grace). Hawke has also lined up some good performers in supporting roles, like Laura Linney as William’s mother, Sonia Braga as Sarah’s mother (the scene with William, Sarah and her mom is especially good), and Michelle Williams as an older woman William gets involved with. There’s just one problem – Hawke can’t write dialogue to save his life (except in scenes like the one mentioned above). Therefore, the two main characters, who ideally should be appealing, come off as whiny and self-absorbed. Plus, Moreno must join the list of foreign actors who are uncomfortable with English – or, at least, expressing any emotions in English that have to do with anger (even when she’s upset, she comes off as perky). And Webber is directed to do little but be insufferable – you wonder how two women, let alone one, could throw themselves at him. Hawke can be a talented actor (and he’s also sharp here as William’s father, seen in flashbacks), but as a writer and director, he makes this mostly a labor to sit through.
Two box set tributes to great directors arrive this week. One of them is merely a repackaged deal – four of Ingmar Bergman’s best-known films have been re-released in a Criterion set (The Seventh Seal, Smiles on a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, and Wild Strawberries), and while I’m not a big fan of Smiles, the other three are essential viewing for anyone who wants to know what Bergman was all about. The other box set is part repackaged, part discovery. One of John Ford’s most frequent studio collaborators – aside from Republic Pictures, where he made masterpieces like Stagecoach and The Quiet Man – was 20th Century Fox. It’s where he made some of his best-known and acclaimed movies like The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln (which no less than Eisenstein called his favorite John Ford film), and How Green was my Valley), as well as The Iron Horse, the silent film about the building of the Union Pacific Railroad that put Ford on the Map, and even a Shirley Temple movie, Wee Willie Winkie, considered by most to be one of Temple’s best. All of those and more are included in the giant box set Ford at Fox, along with a new documentary on Ford. For those who can’t shell out the $300 bucks for the set, Fox is also releasing some of the movies individually (like The Iron Horse, which includes both the U.S. and European versions of the film), and in smaller, six film sets divided up into the classics, silent films, comedies (including films he made with popular comedian Will Rogers), and the rarities. One of those rarities is Up the River, a 1930 prison comedy featuring the film debut of Spencer Tracy, and the one-time only teaming of Tracy and his lifelong friend Humphrey Bogart, in only his second film (having not developed his gangster persona yet, Bogart was playing a nice-guy role). I haven’t seen most of these, and I’m not a fan of some of the ones I have seen (like Valley or Drums Along the Mohawk, his Revolutionary War film), but it’s nice to see a studio committing itself like this to arguably the best American director of all time.
Finally, while the release of the sixth season of 24 is, of course, big news to TV aficionados, even those who thought the season was lacking somewhat, I’d like to promote the release of the fourth season of The Wire. HBO’s cop drama doesn’t get the viewer or awards attention that other shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under received, but critics and a loyal fan based (myself included) consider it the best show on television right now. Creators David Simon (a former reporter) and Ed Burns (not the actor, but a cop turned teacher) are after nothing less but a portrayal of how America’s cities are being laid waste to by drugs, corrupt systems and indifference on every level of bureaucracy, and how a small group of people try to fight that system and indifference even though they may know the outcome. Season 4, which I haven’t seen yet, focuses on the school system, as four eighth graders struggle to make through a school system that doesn’t care about them (except for a few dedicated teachers like Prez (Jim True-Frost), formerly a detective) and a drug trade that beckons. Meanwhile, Marlo (Jamie Hector) continues to solidify his position as the leading drug dealer of the area, and Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) runs for mayor. Personally, after watching the first three seasons, I can’t wait to watch this one, and I'll be very sorry when it finally goes off the air next year.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New DVD releases November 27

At one point in Mark Fergus’ First Snow, one character tells another his future depends on which road he takes. One senses this is the line Fergus and co-writer Hawk Ostby (they both co-wrote the low-budget thriller Consequence, and were two of the writers of Children of Men) kept in mind when they were writing this movie. The plot sounds like it could come out of Bad Thrillers 101. Jimmy (Guy Pearce) is a flooring salesman who dreams of selling vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and has a good relationship with his girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo). One day on his route, his car breaks down. While waiting to get it fixed, he decides to kill time by going to see Vacaro (J.K. Simmons), a psychic. Of course, Jimmy doesn’t believe a word he says, but gets freaked out when Vacaro stops the session all of a sudden, tells him to leave, and even refunds the money. Then his predictions, innocuous as they seem (Vacaro tells Jimmy which way to bet on a game) come true, and Jimmy comes back demanding to know what else will happen. At this point, Vacaro reveals Jimmy’s life will be fine – until the first snow of the year, at which point he’ll die.
From the plot description, you might guess one of those overblown horror movies a la The Reaping, where everything is spelled out and special effects replace suspense. Instead, Fergus relies on old-fashioned suspense and character development. For starters, instead of being played as creepy (and as anyone who’s seen Oz knows, Simmons knows from creepy), Vacaro is reluctant to talk about his gift, and about what it means. For another, the film takes a different turn as Jimmy starts getting phone calls that hang up when he picks up, and even a shooting target in the mail. Is it Andy (Rick Gonzalez), the sales associate he fired? Or is it Vincent (Shea Whigham), who knows a guilty secret from Jimmy’s past? Fergus also deals with questions not pondered usually in American films, like whether or not man can control his own fate. At times, Fergus is almost too low key in his direction, and he and cinematographer Eric Allan Edwards sometimes overdo the dark photography. Still, they keep us hanging onto Jimmy’s fate. It helps, of course, that Pearce is quite good at playing the scoundrel in Jimmy while keeping us rooting for him. And after this and The Prestige, it looks like Perabo is growing out of bad family movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel.
At the beginning of Mira Nair’s The Namesake, a young Indian woman is about to enter the living room to see her parents and to meet the man she is soon to marry by arrangement. Before she does, she sees the man’s shoes, which are American sneakers. She pauses, and tries the sneakers on. She smiles a little, takes the sneakers off, and goes to join her family and her soon-to-be husband in the living room. That’s the type of detail that made Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel so readable, and Nair often has that quality in her best films (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). She shows it off in this film as well, one of the year’s best so far.
The woman, Ashima (Tabu, unknown here but a Bollywood star), and the man, Ashoke (Irfan Khan), do get married and head to America. The first third of the film shows the couple trying to adjust to life in New York. Ashoke gets a job as a professor, while Ashima tries to acclimate herself to the neighborhood. Ashima soon has a boy, and they give him the name of Gogol, because when Ashoke was on a train as a boy one time, a relative praised the Russian authors, Gogol in particular. As a young boy, Gogol prefers that name instead of his first name, Nikil, but when he becomes a teen (and is played by Kal Penn, of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle fame), he sees the name as an albatross. The rest of the movie shows Nikil learning not only what his name means to him, but also what his heritage means to him and others. Unlike a filmmaker like Gurinder Chadha, Nair doesn't lecture us or sentimentalize her characters, nor does she create caricatures. Even Max (Jacinda Barrett), the white woman Gogol briefly gets involved with, is treated well. Jean Renoir once said the tragedy of life is that everybody has their reasons, and while Nair isn't quite on Renoir's level yet, it's that spirit that informs her movie, especially in the performances. Penn and Tabu both step out of more glamorous roles to do fine work here, but it's the slow and steady Khan who holds it all together. He just received a well-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for the movie, and I hope it leads to bigger things here.
The tagline for Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, at least in this country, was “This is your brain on anime,” and while it’s somewhat reductive, it’s also a true statement about this brilliant (albeit sometimes baffling) film. Brad Bird (The Incredibles) has said it makes him upset when people refer to animation as a genre rather than a style (or art form), and I’m sure Kon would agree; in some senses, this is a film noir/corporate thriller that happens to be done in anime (of course, the freaky dream sequences could probably only happen in animation). The plot turns on an invention called the DC Mini, which allows scientists, led by Dr. Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), to enter their patients’ dreams and help them. Turns out a few of the minis have been stolen, and whoever has stolen them is using them to drive people mad through their dreams. Also in the mix is Toshimi Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka), a detective haunted by dreams of chasing a man through a variety of movie-like adventures, and being helped by a vivacious young woman named Paprika – who happens to be the avatar of Chiba (Hayashibara provides her voice as well). Although it’s pretty easy to figure out who the ultimate bad guy is, the plot turns aren’t always so apparent (what Konakawa ultimately has to do with the case, for example). But Kon, who adapted a graphic novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, captures us with eye-popping visuals that parody and celebrate old movie conventions (the detective claims he never watches movies). And although there are typical anime conventions like the electronic music, this is in no way a kids film (there’s some sexual scenes in this).
When Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress finally came to theaters, of course the subtext of every review was how sad Shelly was murdered before she could see it released. The movie itself is sweet without being cloying. Much of that has to do with the terrific cast Shelly assembled for the movie. Keri Russell finds the right kind balance as Jenna, a waitress at a restaurant who is pregnant by abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto), and whose only joy in life is the pies she makes (which she gives titles like “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” which contains oatmeal and fruitcake, “flambé of course”). And Nathan Fillion has great chemistry with her as Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s gynecologist and eventual lover, as well as his usual great comic timing (he describes his neighborhood as great “if you like trees…and who doesn’t like trees?”). There’s also fine supporting turns from Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Shelly herself as Jenna’s co-workers, and even Andy Griffith does nice work as Joe, the somewhat crotchety owner of the restaurant, whom Jenna serves every day. As a writer/director, Shelly sometimes struggles with the tone – although Jenna’s co-workers are her best friends, the dialogue there sometimes sounds like it could have been written on a greeting card. But mostly, Shelly manages to keep this from getting treacly, and there are some inspired scenes, like the montage scene of Jenna’s smile after she sleeps with Dr. Pomatter for the first time. It makes you sad once again about the talent of Shelly’s that will remain unfulfilled.
This week’s major Criterion release is Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. Like last week’s Criterion release of Sawdust and Tinsel, this is an early work by a legendary director that’s as important for what it foretold in his career as it is for the movie itself. This marked Kurosawa’s first film with Toshiro Mifune, one of the most enduring partnerships in film history (they made 16 films altogether, from Drunken Angel in 1948 to Red Beard in 1965). In his biography of the two of them, The Emperor and the Wolf, Stuart Galbraith called Mifune the instrument through which Kurosawa best told his films, and that’s readily apparent even here. Mifune plays a gangster who forces an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura, another frequent collaborator with Kurosawa, making 22 films with him) to treat him for TB. Although this is ostensibly a crime picture (Mifune is in conflict with his boss, who’s in prison), Kurosawa is also interested in how the postwar environment is affecting Japan, and, of course, in the nature of mankind. It’s a little too heavy-handed (Kurosawa and Mifune didn’t completely hit their stride together until Stray Dog, their follow-up), but it’s still quite effective, thanks to the performances of the two leads. Mifune, possibly the greatest physical actor of all time, is commanding as the gangster, while also unafraid to show his weak side, while Shimura underplays nicely as the doctor.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New DVD releases November 20

John Waters' original Hairspray was not only a tribute to the music of his youth, but also a sly satire of the teen exploitation movies of the time. Adam Shenkman's Hairspray, based not only on the movie but the Broadway musical version of it, falls short on both counts, even though it's done with bright energy and features a good performance. The plot is close to the original: Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) wants to get on the Corny Collins Show, and must battle the evil Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) to do not only that, but to also intergrate it. The problem on the first count is the same problem plaguing the movie version of Dreamgirls - namely, the music sounds more like generic show tunes than a pastiche of the popular music at the time (with the exception of the two numbers Queen Latifah rips through). It's not bad, just not memorable. As for the latter, Waters' film already walked a tight line between parody and playing it straight, and Shenkman is too earnest for parody (admittedly, Waters has caught up with the culture he once mocked). The performers certainly try, but like John Travolta, who tries to avoid camp by stepping in the role originally played by Divine as Tracy's mother, they come off as too gee-whiz for the material (even Christopher Walken). Only Pfeiffer seems in on the joke - though she's more obvious than Debbie Harry was in the original, she gives an actual performance, and certainly seems glad to be in a musical again. This bears the distinction of having the stars from Grease (Travolta) and Grease 2 (Pfeiffer), and unfortunately, it represents those films more than Waters' original.
I still haven’t seen Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, so I saw Rescue Dawn, Herzog’s fictional version of that story, with fresh eyes. As with the documentary, this tells the tale of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Army pilot shot down during the Vietnam War while flying over Laos. The rest of the movie details how Dieter planned to escape the North Vietnamese who had captured them, though, of course, the real prison was the jungle. This, of course, is old territory for Herzog - man's struggle against nature. And while Klaus Kinski, Herzog's frequent collaborator (and sparring partner), is no more, Herzog has found actors as equally obsessive (Bale) and odd (Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn are, respectively, odd and haunting as fellow POWs) for the movie. And while Herzog was criticized in some quarters for treating the Vietnamese as Stallone and Chuck Norris did in their Vietnam films, this isn't the rah-rah movie those were; Herzog keeps things grounded in the details. Maybe it's a little too grounded; I admired the movie while watching it, but it didn't grab me emotionally. Still, it's definitely the best of the brand new movies of the week.
Since the commercial failure of his last directorial effort, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Luc Besson has stuck to writing and/or producing such films as Transporter (and its sequel), Unleashed, and High Tension. Being a fan of Besson's earlier films, as well as one of the few who thought The Messenger was an honorable failure rather than a disgrace, I was looking forward to Angel-A, his latest. Unfortunately, it's only serves as proof whatever talent Besson once had seems to have slipped away. The story has possibilities - Andre (Jamel Debbouze), a hapless con artist pursued by the many bad guys he owes money to, helps a young woman he calls "Angela" (Rie Rasmussen), who in turn tries to help him, even as he wonders if she's real, or otherwordly. I don't mind the fact that it's sentimental, I mind the fact both characters are irritating as hell. I liked Debbouze in both Amelie and Days of Glory, but quite frankly, I was rooting for the mobsters to finish him off here; he comes off as grating and one-note. And while Rasmussen is pretty in a placid sort of way, she's hardly more endearing. Instead of her being a porcelain doll, Besson goes the other way, making her foul-mouthed (there is sort of a reason why, which we learn later), but again, it's too one-note. Besson once made entertaining films about distinctly odd couples, like La Femme Nikita and The Professional, but he seems to be stuck in retread mode.
After Sylvester Stallone revived Rocky Balboa for one more film, who could blame Bruce Willis for giving John McClane another go? From a financial point of view, anyway, I guess. From an artistic point of view, Live Free or Die Hard is, well, just another sequel. True, there's an attempt to bring the franchise up to date - the director (Len Wiseman) is best known for the Underworld movies, McClane's sidekick this time is a young computer hacker named Matt (Justin Long, best known for being in a series of Apple commercials), and the villain, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), is basically hacking into the computers that control things like our transport systems, money system, etc., to show how vulnerable we are after 9/11 (a name like Gabriel only shows the movie's lack of subtlety on this point). A few other things have changed - for one, unlike the first two movies, the main law enforcement officer (Cliff Curtis), after initial impatience, is only too happy to pair up with McClane, and also, McClane is older and less resilient, which the movie treats as both a badge of honor and a joke. It also is quick to do what many other sequels do, namely reference its predecessor (there's even an FBI agent named Johnson here). Unfortunately, while Wiseman tones down the CGI madness that made the Underworld movies unbearable, gets a good performance out of Long, and a servicable cameo from Kevin Smith as another computer geek, this still seems unnecessary and desperate, and the attempts to connect it to the real world are part of the problem. It also doesn't help that while Olyphant can be a good actor, he is not a good action villain (Maggie Q, who plays his sidekick/girlfriend, would have been a much better choice). Willis does tone down the wiseass attitude he used in the first three films, instead treating the whole thing as a sly joke that he allows us to get, but he also has foregone the vulnerability of the first film. It's not even worth it to hear him say "Yippekayay" one more time.
This week’s big Criterion film is Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel. Made before he made his international reputation with Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal, this story of a how a relationship between a ringmaster and his mistress, a horse rider, is tested when they visit a small town and partner up with an acting troupe plays like an interesting warm up to his more famous films. As John Simon points out in a perceptive essay included in the movie booklet, this was one of Bergman's first movies - and one of the first major European movies - to use humiliation in this way in a dramatic context. It also marked Bergman's first collaboration with the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and shows an early interest in experimenting with light (a flashback involving the tale of a circus clown and his wife is deliberately overexposed, and one wonders if Gordon Willis screened this film before working on the Godfather films). If the characters are a little too broad (especially the actor who has an affair with the mistress), they are also more full of life than Bergman detractors, who only see gloom, would have you expect. And while this may not have begun his lifelong attraction in movies for performers of all kinds, it plays as a good example of it. Criterion will be re-releasing four of Bergman's major films (included with the two I already mentioned are Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring), but this is worth a look as well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

New DVD releases November 13

When I first saw the trailer to Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, I groaned. People complain when Oliver Stone or Spike Lee present their own view of history, but they at least are alive to the contradictions of it (well, most of the time). Why isn’t there the same kind of outcry when movies wrap history up in a too-neat package, particularly when dealing with racial history, as if to say, “Yes, it was bad then, but don’t worry, it’s all better now” (and yes, Jerry Bruckheimer (Remember the Titans, Glory Road), I’m looking at you)? I thought this story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the British lord who, in the late 18th century, pushed to end slavery in Britain, would fall into the same trap. Well, it does and it doesn’t.
Part of what makes the movie push past the usual clichés, including Wilberforce’s romance with Barbara (Romola Garai), an activist who grew up idolizing Wilberforce, and the stilted dialogue, is how writer Steven Knight does capture how the slavery issue was wrapped up in other issues as well as bigotry. Not only did proponents argue slavery had a positive effect on the economy, they also saw it as a way to keep up with France. Also, the backhanded way Wilberforce and his supporters finally managed to pass an anti-slavery law (they banned any merchant ship from flying an American flag, which most slave-trading ships flew) is well handled. Finally, there are a group of actors who make the most of their roles (I’m afraid I found Gruffudd merely functional, along with singer Yossou N’Dour as a former slave). Rufus Sewell, who has mostly being going over the top in villain roles, and rather badly at that, is quite restrained as Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist who also sees slavery as just one of the ills plaguing British society. Benedict Cumberbatch is likewise restrained and quite good as William Pitt, who became Prime Minister and tried to help Wilberforce. But three old pros take the acting honors here: Bill Paterson as Lord Dundas, who opposed abolition for pragmatic reasons even though he was against slavery, Michael Gambon in his usual wily turn as Lord Charles Fox, who changed from anti-abolition to pro-abolition, and Albert Finney brings gravitas to his performance as John Newton, the former slave ship owner who repented and wrote the song that gives the movie its title. Still, as movies about slaves go, I still think Amistad does a more complex job in its story.
I know almost nothing about Edith Piaf, even though her music has been used in several movies that I like (two quick examples; Audrey Hepburn sings “La Vie en Rose” as Humphrey Bogart is driving her home in the original Sabrina, and Susan Sarandon uses her music in her first night in bed with Tim Robbins in Bull Durham), so I have no way of knowing if Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose, his biopic of Piaf, is accurate. What I can say, unfortunately, is it doesn’t linger in the memory. Certainly, Dahan doesn’t approach this like a traditional biopic; he shifts back and forth between when Piaf was getting sicker (too much alcohol and drug abuse catching up to her), and her early life on the streets until she was discovered and made a star. And he and cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata make this darker than the usual biopic (apparently, Piaf preferred being in the dark most of the time), and move the camera around a lot. But Dahan doesn’t really connect to the material to make it inspiring for us. There are some good moments here and there, as when Piaf (Marion Cotillard) meets Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Sihol), and it turns out Dietrich is a fan, and when Piaf finds out Marcel (Jean-Pierre Martins), the boxer who was the great love of her life, is dead, but they’re isolated from the rest of the movie. Mostly, for all the technique on display, it just feels like a standard biopic. Cotillard has been getting praise for her performance as Piaf, and she certainly captures the shyness, as well as Piaf’s often diva-like behavior. But no one else is allowed to make much of an impression. Even Gerard Depardieu, normally a strong presence in any film, doesn’t get much to do as the nightclub owner who gave Piaf her first big break. I still appreciate Piaf’s music after watching La Vie En Rose, but I don’t feel anything beyond that.
Steven Soderbergh apparently thought he was in a career rut in 1995 when he made The Underneath, which I always thought was his most underrated film. This so-called rut led him to break away from what he thought was his formula for making movies, first with the wildly experimental, and funny, Schizopolis, followed by his concert film Gray’s Anatomy (not to be confused with the TV show, of course, but rather a recording of Spalding Gray), and then his first major studio film, Out of Sight. Soderbergh has always been one of my favorite filmmakers, but in my opinion, he’s in a rut now. After the first Oceans film, which was a terrific entertainment, he’s directed six features (plus a segment from Eros, an anthology film featuring him, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Wong Kar-Wei, which I haven’t seen), two of them Oceans sequels, and only one of which I’ve liked (his underrated remake of Solaris). The fact that his experimental films (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Good German) haven’t quite worked is disappointing, but not dispiriting; at least he’s trying to stretch himself. The problem is those Oceans films. I understand he’s trying to make enough money so he and former producing partner George Clooney can make the films they want to make, but the problem is, both Oceans Twelve and Oceans Thirteen, the latest one, feel like they were made just for the money and nothing else.
The nominal plot of Thirteen is the gang gets together one more time when Willy Bank (Al Pacino), an oily casino owner, squeezes Reuben (Elliot Gould) out of ownership, which leads him to have a heart attack. The rest of the gang decide the best way to get even is to sabotage Bank’s opening of his casino, mainly by having the house lose on every game in the casino. Except for Ellen Barkin as Bank’s field boss, this is strictly a boys club (Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones are alluded to but don’t appear here), and it has the feel of boys not wanting to grow up. It’s not to say this film is irritating. Everyone here knows how to go through their paces, and Clooney, Pitt and Damon et al clearly enjoy each other’s company and the chance to play shady characters. But no one really gets a chance to do much with their roles, not even Pacino. As with most sequels, this clearly comes off as a cash register job. A lot of people hated Oceans Twelve for being too smug and having too many inside jokes, but this enervated, if harmless, movie, comes off as being more smug. Soderbergh is following up with two film biopics of controversial revolutionary Che Guevara. I hope those films allow him to get his groove back.
For whatever reason, Paris has always held a certain romance for storytellers, be it novelists, playwrights, or filmmakers. In Paris, Je T’Aime, twenty-one filmmakers were asked to make a short film set in Paris and about Paris in some way (Emmanuel Benbihy directed the transitions between some of them). Being this is an anthology film, the stories in each of the short films necessarily become less important than the mood they set. Fortunately, most of the segments, aside from being quick, are quite diverting. Of the films, I was most taken with the Coen Brothers’ segment, where Steve Buscemi plays a tourist who learns only too well what not to do in a Parisian subway, Vincenzo Natali’s segment about a young man (Elijah Wood) attacked by a vampire, which is surprisingly romantic, Walter Salles’ wrenching segment about a nanny (Catalina Sandino Moreno) traveling from taking care of her boss’ baby to taking care of her baby, Gerard Depardieu’s bittersweet segment about a couple (frequent co-stars Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands) meeting for the last time to finalize their divorce, and Alexander Payne’s segment (Payne also appears as Oscar Wilde in Wes Craven’s segment about a quarreling couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell)), about an American tourist (Margo Martindale) visiting Paris. It starts off as if Payne is making a smug declaration about American tourists, but it turns into something much deeper. On the whole, this collection is light on its feet, but if like me, you’ve never been there, it still communicates the romance of the city.
Although Shane Meadows’ This is England starts and ends with news footage of what England was like under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, and clearly is meant to show how her government helped create a culture that enabled skinhead groups to flourish, this isn’t a tract. Rather, it’s Meadows’ semi-autobiographical look at how a young boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who is perpetually picked on and who has a chip on his shoulder about his short stature and his father (who died in the Falklands War), falls under the influence of a group of skinheads. I’ve never seen Meadows’ previous movies (which include Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and A Room for Romeo Brass), but he has a reputation for making films that are sharp in detail and character but rambling and sentimental when it comes to plot. That certainly applies to this film (although the sentiment is toned down), and as far as skinhead films go, it’s certainly no patch on Romper Stomper (the best film about that particular cycle of hate), but it avoids the self-importance of American History X and the like. Turgoose, a non-actor, has the raw defiance of someone forced to grow up too soon, but he also shows a surprising vulnerability, especially in scenes with his mother (Jo Hartley) and his girlfriend Smell (Rosamund Hanson). And as Combo, the charismatic and dangerous leader of the skinheads, Stephen Graham (best known as Jason Statham’s partner in Snatch) is both charismatic and dangerous, as well as being more complicated than he first appears.
This week’s top reissue is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, his rarely screened debut film that finally garnered a modest theatrical release this year after mostly being seen at festivals and underground screenings. Burnett is one of the few filmmakers today, let alone African-American filmmakers, who can’t be put inside any sort of box, and this film, which basically follows the lives of one family in Watts as they struggle day to day, is a good example of his method. Rather than being a plotted film, this is more a mosaic of how lower-class people struggle to live their lives, yet still maintain a certain dignity. Burnett photographed the movie as well, and while this was a student film, he gets lyrical images that would shame veteran filmmakers, and his score (the main reason the film went underground for so long was his difficulty obtaining music rights), ranging from Dinah Washington to Earth, Wind and Fire, is a perfect complement to the film. The DVD comes with a collection of some of Burnett’s short films as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

New DVD Releases November 6

Michael Moore and Pixar are both in the spotlight of this week’s DVD releases, along with one of the most underrated movies of the 1980’s, and yet another example of a director passing on his talent to his offspring.
As everyone else has mentioned, Moore’s Sicko goes after a system almost everyone agrees is broken, and that’s our healthcare system. It’s not just the 50 million who don't have insurance who are screwed, Moore argues, but also most of the 250 million who do. As someone who has had many unwanted bills because of my health problems (ulcer, shoulder pain), I certainly feel the sadness and outrage Moore wants us to feel when he shows stories of people who have run aground of health care in this country (although he does allow for some gallows humor in the tale of a man who was only able to get treatment for his deaf daughter by dropping Moore’s name). It’s not just the big sob stories, like the woman whose baby died because her insurance policy wouldn’t cover her at the closest hospital to her, or the former health care worker who remorsefully tells of the claims she had to deny simply because it was better business. It’s also the simple tales of the couple who had to move into their daughter’s house because they couldn’t afford their medical bills anymore, or the janitor well past the retirement age who must work just to get insurance. And though his approach is somewhat simplistic (HMO’s may have started under Nixon, but our fear of “socialized” medicine came long before that, as did big business controlling government), he does a good job outlining what’s wrong here and why.
The problem, as always, is when Moore looks to other countries as an example of what the U.S. should be doing. It’s certainly true Britain, Canada and France, three of the leading Western nations, have universal health care and, for the most part, are better off for it. And Moore includes parts of an interview with Tony Benn, a retired British MP, of how universal health care is essential to a democracy. But Moore’s utopian view of health care in these countries doesn’t entirely wash. Again, having lived in Canada for 11 years, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) without being examined. At least when the doctors here said I had an ulcer, they had examined me thoroughly. Also, he fails to mention in Britain how the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher actually tried to roll back universal health care, until Tony Blair partially restored it. And then there’ his notorious Cuba trip, where he takes injured 9/11 rescue workers (not insured because they were volunteers) to Guantanamo Bay to get the same treatment as political prisoners. Moore finds the Cuban doctors are more than happy to treat them, and it never seems to occur to him how they might be staging this for his benefit (and while Moore is right to say the U.S. has overblown Cuba as a menace, he fails to mention how many people they’ve jailed for being gay or for speaking out against the government). Once again, Moore’s message is perfectly sound, but his methods often aren’t.
Those methods are the subject of Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk’s documentary Manufacturing Dissent. Unlike such hateful works as Fahrenhype 9/11 and Michael Moore Hates America, which come from the “Love it or leave it” school of political debate, this comes from filmmakers who agree with much of what Moore says (Melnyk especially is moved by Moore’s denouncing of the media’s behavior towards the administration after 9/11) but not how he says it. As the film follows Moore on his tour promoting his film Fahrenheit 9/11, the filmmakers cover his career before his breakout hit Roger & Me, such as his brief turn as an editor at Mother Jones (he said he was dismissed because of a dispute over a story, while his colleagues insist he wasn’t that good), and examine his career, mainly that movie and Bowling for Columbine, questioning not only the veracity of his information (including the oft-repeated charge that Moore actually did interview Roger Smith for his film, but chose not to include it), but also, again, his methods (John Pierson, who produced Roger & Me, talks about how appalled he was at Moore’s interview with an obviously senile Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine). They also include debate, on both sides, on how much good Moore’s films have actually done (for every one who thinks Moore has been a much-needed shot in the arm for the left, there are those like Errol Morris, who think Moore merely preaches to the choir). Finally, they examine what Moore has done with his celebrity, and his stands outside of his films (going from being an enthusiastic Nader supporter in 2000 to being totally against him in 2004. As Nader pointed out, what hurt is not that Moore campaigned for Kerry – as many people did, he thought Kerry had a legitimate chance of being Bush and voted accordingly – but that he repudiated Nader so thoroughly).
Like its subject, Manufacturing Dissent has both its good and bad points. On the good side, Caine and Melnyk give room to those who also praise Moore as well as damn him (or, in the case of Pierson, do both), and while they show those who think Moore is a traitor for speaking his mind, they clearly don’t have sympathy for that point of view. And much of what they target Moore for is troubling (although I’m surprised at one thing they don’t target; they bring up the cartoon Moore showed in Bowling for Columbine, but not that he implied it was done by South Park cartoonists Trey Parker and Matt Stone, since it came right after interviewing Stone. The pair retaliated by making him a villain in their movie Team America: World Police). On the other hand, often they get bogged down in nitpicking, and seem to forget every documentary film edits out something that doesn’t fit their story, even cinema verite. And often, the film seems scattershot, as if it needed Moore to come in and tighten it up a bit.
Although I do not consider Pixar the masterpiece factory many critics do, it’s undeniable their films are normally head and shoulders above most of the stuff that passes for movies made for kids (except for the merely okay Monsters Inc.). I even liked Cars more than most people did. And while Brad Bird’s Ratatouille didn’t knock me out of the park like it did many critics, it’s still an impressive piece of work. Of course, I’m one of those people who think Bird’s first film, Iron Giant, is his best film, so any film he does after that has a tough act to follow. Also, while the idea of a rat being a gourmet, let alone advising a garbage boy how to be one, is novel, a movie set in the kitchen of a restaurant isn’t really (especially when the garbage boy falls for the cook who supervises him). And the plot turns do become a bit predictable towards the end. But all of that seems like niggling next to the animation, which becomes better and more vivid with each Pixar film. Also, as in his last film, The Incredibles, Bird is celebrating talent over mediocrity, and backs it up with talent of is own, which we should all appreciate (and not-so-slyly bites the hand feeding him; it’s said one of the points of contention between Pixar and Disney is how Disney made direct-to-DVD sequels to their classic animated films, thus cheapening the originals. So in this movie, a chef wants to make fast food ripoffs of a classic restaurant.). Finally, the voice cast does terrific work here. I don’t know Patton Oswalt’s work (except as the voice of Captain Dementor on the animated show Kim Possible), but he’s quite good as Remy, that gourmet rat, even if he does sound a lot like Richard Dreyfus. I spent the entire film trying to figure out who voiced Remy’s father, not realizing it was a relatively restrained Brian Dennehy. Ian Holm as a terrific time as the Skinner, the sinister chef (though he, Janeane Garofalo (as Colette, the supervisor and love interest to garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), and Brad Garrett as Gusteau (the chef who inspired Remy) strain at times with their French accents), and best of all, Peter O’Toole is all oily condescension as Anton Ego, the restaurant critic. At the end of the film, Ego says that while a critic’s position is mostly negative, he must sometimes realize great talent can come from anywhere, and defend it as such. Ratatouille doesn’t quite inspire that passion from me, but like Ego and others, it did leave me hungry for more.
Included on the DVD for Ratatouille are two short films – one featuring Remy and his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) narrating an animated history of rats, and Lifted, one of the funniest bits of animated film ever made, lasting only five minutes. The latter is also available on Pixar Short Films Collection, along with 12 other shorts, including the one that started it all, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. This set may be for completists only (most of them are available separately on other Pixar feature releases), but it’s a reminder that their short films are just as good in some ways as their features. Along with Lifted, the best of these is Jack-Jack Attack, the spin-off from The Incredibles, which explains why the babysitter was so harried when the Incredibles returned from saving the world.
This week’s big DVD collection, besides the Pixar shorts, is something called the “Leading Ladies Collection, Volume 2.” If you don’t want to pony up the $55 for the whole collection (which includes I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Rich and Famous, and Up the Down Staircase), you can just get the best film in the collection, Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon. To say Parker has had a checkered career is a gross understatement to say the least; he’s gone from very good (The Commitments) to very bad (The Life of David Gale) and back again. Shoot the Moon, however, remains his finest achievement. Bo Goldman may be best known for his Oscar-winning scripts for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard, but this is his best work as well. This examination of George (Albert Finney), a writer, and his wife Faith (Diane Keaton) is the truest, most painful examination of divorce ever put to film. What makes it all the more wrenching is neither George nor Faith is entirely good or bad; both of them can be petty and selfish, yet also amazingly sympathetic. And it also pays attention to how divorce affects the children without ever getting sappy, particularly George’s relationship with his oldest daughter Sherry (Dana Hill). In an interview with American Film, Parker called this his most personal film, even though he didn’t write it, because he had four children and could relate (Goldman had six). Yet it’s never completely a downer. It’s alive to the idiosyncrasies of family life (as when Sherry and her three sisters help Faith get ready for a big evening out), and the relationships George and Faith have with others – George with Sandy (Karen Allen), and Faith with her contractor Frank (Peter Weller) – are also well drawn. Finney and Keaton are both actors who can coast on mannerisms, but they’re both terrific here, as is Hill (whose career was tragically cut short by her death at 32 of a stroke). Pauline Kael, who was usually hard to impress, wrote how afraid she was that she couldn’t do the film justice, and after watching, it’s easy to see why.
All political thrillers in this country owe a debt to Costa-Gavras’ Z, about the assassination of a prime minister in Greece, and the attempted cover-up of the investigation. Gavras’ daughter Julie is interested in politics as well, but goes for a more comic look in her feature film debut Blame it on Fidel. The film concerns Anna (Nina Kervel-Bay), a 9-year-old girl in early 1970’s Paris. Anna is generally happy with her life – her parents Marie and Fernando (Julie Depardieu and Stefano Accorsi) live in a nice house, she has friends, she goes to a Catholic school which she likes, she gets to see her grandparents all the time, and they have a Cuban nanny whom she adores. But her parents start to change when Fernando’s sister and her daughter escape from Spain. The husband has been arrested under Franco’s regime, and Fernando feels guilty enough that he and Marie turn from liberals to radicals. Before long, Anna has been taken from her house, she’s no longer allowed to attend religious classes, the nanny has been let go (having fled Cuba when Castro came to power, she’s disdainful of Communists, hence the movie’s title), to be replaced by whoever Fernando and Marie thinks needs a job the most, and Fernando has become a more activist lawyer, while Marie goes from writing about cooking to writing about women who have abortions. Anna, of course, is happy with none of this, since her life has been disrupted, and she doesn’t understand.
All of this could have been a tract, but Gavras is after something subtler. Anna decides to test out the solidarity theory her parents always talk about by joining the class in guessing the wrong answer to a question, even though she knows the right one. The new nannies she get give her different creation myths depending on their background, and she tries them on in class, with mixed results. She’s astonished when her friend from class is shocked by Fernando being naked, and that she doesn’t know where babies come from. These and other incidents show the wry humor Gavras sees this world through (although the movie is based on a popular French novel, it obviously resonates with Gavras’ own life). And while she tells her tale exclusively through Anna’s eyes, Gavras is obviously alive to what Anna herself can’t quite understand, and treats every character with kindness (even Fernando and Marie’s radical friends, who start off quite pompous, become likable). At the end, Anna is able to adjust to her new life, and we see that in small gestures, much like Gavras does with the rest of the movie.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New DVD Releases October 30

Although he hasn’t always been popular with critics or audiences, I’m still a fan of Lawrence Kasdan. Sure, he’s made some duds (Wyatt Earp, Dreamcatcher), but mostly, his films go outside the cookie-cutter formula of most films to try and say something about us (as with his best film, The Accidental Tourist). And he even may have passed on his talent to his sons. Jake Kasdan has already done some fine work in offbeat comedies like the underrated Zero Effect and The TV Set, and the uneven but still worthwhile Orange County. Jon Kasdan may someday reach the heights of his brother and father, but on the evidence of In the Land of Women, his directorial debut, he’s still got a way to go. Admittedly, how much is his fault and how much is the studio’s (this has been sitting on the shelf for a while, and there are some rather abrupt transitions in the movie) is up for debate, but this still plays like a rough cut rather than the real thing.
Part of the problem is also Adam Brody, who plays the main character, Carter, a writer of soft-core porn who wants to write a serious novel about his life. Down in the dumps when his girlfriend Sofia (Elena Anaya), a model/actress, dumps him, he leaves L.A. to be with his dying grandmother (Olympia Dukakis, doing shtick, as opposed to her honest performance in Away From Her). This storyline has potential, but Brody (essentially playing Kasdan) doesn’t find it. I’ve never watched The O.C., the show that made Brody a star, so I don’t have any preconceived notions of his persona, but instead of playing the emotion of his character, he merely indicates it. Brody’s okay when he’s supposed to be funny (his reaction when his grandmother answers the door wearing just pajamas), but not when he’s supposed to be serious.
Kasdan does better with the women of the title, the family next door that befriends Carter. Meg Ryan is always good when a director strips her mannerisms away, and she’s good here as Sarah, the lonely mother whose husband (Clark Gregg) is having an affair (it’s too bad Kasdan sticks her with a cancer subplot, though). Kristen Stewart, who was terrific in a small part in Into the Wild, is also very good here as Sarah’s oldest daughter Lucy, who resents her mother and is drawn in her own way to Carter. Where there’s always something affected about Ryan, Stewart seems completely natural. And Mackenzie Vega rounds out the trio as youngest sister Paige, being charming, especially in the scene when she asks Carter to marry her. Clearly, Kasdan can direct actors, and he has some talent in writing. Hopefully, he’ll be able to move on to better things.
After the many documentaries dealing with the Iraq War, it’s understandable Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight seemed no different, which is probably why it didn’t do too well at the box office. But this isn’t the usual perspective of someone from the outside, as with documentaries by Robert Greenwald and Michael Moore, nor does it spend time questioning our rationale for going to war. Rather, Ferguson interviews people who were involved in implementing policy in Iraq after the invasion was complete and Saddam Hussein had been deposed. And while what they’re saying isn’t new (books such as “The Assassins Gate” have documented this crisis), it’s all the more powerful here, not just because it’s done on such a visual and visceral level. It’s also powerful because those being interviewed – among them Barbara Bodine, the ambassador to Iraq, retired Colonel Jay Garner, in charge of the Office of Recovery & Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), and Colonel Paul Hughes, who was in charge of working with the armed forces – don’t come off as self-righteous know-it-alls. Rather, they are haunted by their failure to make the administration listen to their reasons, and the research and experience that backed up those reasons, for not carrying out the policy the administration insisted on carrying out. Ferguson, through narrator Campbell Scott, tells all of this in a sober, analytical manner, which makes it all the more devastating to watch. I certainly hope No End in Sight is the type of movie people will catch up to when they say they’re waiting for the DVD to come out.
On its most basic level, Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me is a biopic about Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), the ex-con who became a controversial shock jock in 1960’s Washington D.C., and later a community activist and standup comedian. But it’s also a study of the African-American experience. When we first meet Greene, he’s in prison for armed robbery, but also doing a radio show. As it happens, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) happens to be in prison one day visiting his brother, and he dutifully tells Greene to look him up when he gets out. Dewey is the program director at an urban radio station (it plays soul and R&B), and he wants to take the station in a bolder direction. What he doesn’t count on is Greene showing up at the station (he wins early release from prison for talking a prisoner down from the roof – a prisoner he had to convince to go up to the roof in the first place) wanting a job as a DJ. The rest of the film is mostly a look at the relationship between Greene and Hughes, each of whom initially mistrusts the other – Greene thinks Hughes is an Uncle Tom (derisively comparing him to Sidney Poitier, who was also considered by many blacks at the time as being an Uncle Tom), while Hughes thinks of Greene as little more than a con man reveling in his ignorance. But in subtle ways, Lemmons reveals how each man is more complicated than that. Hughes wants to shake things up at the station in his own way, while Hughes, in a tragic turning point – the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – expresses his anger and sorrow in a broadcast one night, while also calling on his fellow African-Americans not to forget King’s message of non-violence. Lemmons’ film does falter in the last third after Greene walks off The Tonight Show – which Hughes saw as a betrayal of himself and Greene’s talent (Hughes had become Greene’s manager) – but this is still funny and thought-provoking. Cheadle, of course, captures both Greene’s bravado and the insecurity behind it, and Ejiofor matches him well as Hughes (and again, does a persuasive American accent). There’s also good work from Taraji Henson as Greene’s girlfriend and Cedric the Entertainer as a fellow DJ.
As with many sequels, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 3 feels like a list more than a movie. Returning hero Spiderman/Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire)? Check. Returning girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)? Check. Returning nemeses in the form of former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) and employer J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons)? Check. New potential love interest (Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard))? Check. New villains both resentful (Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who becomes the Sandman, who just wants to help his daughter, and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who wants Peter Parker’s job, and becomes Venom) and alien (the symbiote, which comes from a meteor, and attaches itself first to Peter, exposing his dark side, and then Eddie, turning him into Venom)? Check. Oh, and soap opera-like plot twists (Flint is really the one who killed Uncle Ben, Harry bumps his head and forgets he hates Peter)? Check. Some of this has potential (Peter exploring his dark side, for one), and there are, of course, thrilling special effects (the fight scene between Spiderman and the new Green Goblin), but it all feels overstuffed and incoherent. Also, some of the echoes with the first two movies feel forced (Spiderman recreating the kiss scene of the first movie with Gwen Stacy). More than that, however, is the numbing feeling you get when the film, once again, trumpets Spiderman as a all-American character (he’s even seen flying in front of an American flag), and pounding us in the head with this, rather than letting it develop.
For our TV watch this week, before Felicity Porter, before Buffy Summers, before Sydney Bristow, before Lindsay Weir, and before Veronica Mars, there was Angela Chase. Just as Velvet Underground’s low sales belie the fact that hundreds of bands came out in its wake, so My So-Called Life, despite not even reaching a full season because of low ratings, still remains the touchstone by which every teen-oriented show with a heroine at its center measures itself (Sydney and Felicity were both in college, but their emotional struggles resonated with teens because they shared similar concerns). The story of Angela (Claire Danes), a 15 year old trying to navigate high school, her family, her relationships with her friends, and her crush on classmate Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), still resonates because creator Winnie Holzman and executive producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz never condescend to Angela or to the rest of the characters.
Many stories have been written about that, as well as the emotional issues Angela and her friends confront, the way it handled the character of Ricky (Wilson Cruz), who struggled with revealing the fact he was gay, the way the failure of the show meant shows wanting to portray teens in a non-soap opera way had to do it in heightened circumstances (hence shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Veronica Mars), and of course, whether the show would still have been good had it gone on to a second season or more. What few people talk about is how funny the show was. One of the grace notes was how the show either used humor to make a point or to leaven the seriousness of the show. Even a relationship as fraught with drama as the one Angela had with her mother Patty (Bess Armstrong) had its humorous moments. In the episode “The Zit,” Patty has found out Angela won’t be in a mother/daughter fashion show with her because Angela thinks she’s ugly, and Patty wonders if anyone is secure about their looks, to which her husband Graham (Tom Irwin) replies, “RuPaul.” Most people remember the Christmas episode for its heartwarming and tearjerking finale, but what I remember is the scene where Brian (Devon Gummersall) calls the teen help line because he feels lonely, and Rayanne (A.J. Langer) tries to cheer him up by pretending he’s called a phone sex line instead. And “Betrayal,” the ep where Jordan and Rayanne sleep together, is full of passionate drama, but also the scene where Angela’s friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) agonizes over whether to tell Angela about it, and won’t let her other friend get a word in edgewise. It’s the little things like that, as well as the big moments, which make me miss the show, but be glad that its influence has yet to wane.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New DVD releases October 23

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I certainly think there’s room for a Best Years of our Lives type movie for the Iraq War. Unfortunately, Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave doesn’t quite cut it. As with all of the movies Winkler has directed (with the exception of the mostly entertaining The Net), his intentions are good, but the execution is always heavy-handed.
As with the original Best Years of our Lives (which is one of the all-time greats, btw), Winkler’s movie, which he co-wrote with Mark Friedman, focuses on three soldiers who belong to a National Guard unit: Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson), an Army doctor, Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel), a driver, and Tommy Yates (Brian Presley), another soldier. They’re set to go home, until they’re assigned for one last humanitarian mission in the town of Al Hay. Of course, they get ambushed, and in the ensuing battle, Price loses her right forearm, and Yates loses his best friend Jordan (Chad Michael Murray, of TV’s One Tree Hill). These scenes are actually the strongest of the movie; though Winkler isn’t really an action director, he does stage these scenes well and with restraint, and captures the camaraderie of the soldiers. Unfortunately, his restraint deserts him once the movie returns stateside and the soldiers have to struggle with being home.
Of course, there’s all kinds of legitimate issues raised here – soldiers feeling no one understands what they went through except other soldiers, the inadequate medical care they get stateside (Price goes to Walter Reed for her arm and passes a line of other wounded soldiers waiting for care, which is actually a pretty good shot), the struggle to have a “normal” life of family and a career, and so on. Unfortunately, except for moments here and there (as when Marsh defends his son’s right to wear a “Buck Fush” T-Shirt to school, then berates him for wearing it), Winkler and Friedman pick the most clichéd ways to deal with these issues. One flashback to that battle scene would be overkill (pardon the expression), but every character flashes back to it, as if we couldn’t figure out they were still dealing with those issues. And Curtis Jackson (a.k.a. rapper 50 Cent) plays a completely clichéd character, the Vet Who Goes Crazy From The War, and only plays it at one pitch. To be fair, he’s not the only one. Samuel L. Jackson at least tries to add some nuance to his character, but Biel and Presley are pretty much blank slates. Frankly, the best performance in the movie comes from Christina Ricci in a small role as Jordan’s girlfriend. It’s also a clichéd role, but she brings some anger and realism to it. That realism, unfortunately, is sorely lacking in Home of the Brave.
This week sees the release of, among other things, one of the funniest movies of the year. I’m speaking, of course, of Bruce A. Evans’ Mr. Brooks. Evans and co-writer Raynold Gideon can be credited for not taking the usual route of fetishizing serial killers, but what they do with it is completely bonkers. Mr. Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner), a straight-arrow businessman (he accepts a Man of the Year prize at the beginning of the film), also kills because, no matter how hard he tries, he’s addicted to it (William Hurt is Marshall, the voice inside his head urging him to kill). He even goes to AA meetings about it. Brooks is known as the Thumbprint Killer, and is finally caught – sort of – when Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), a photographer, gets a picture of Mr. Brooks in the act. Except Mr. Smith just thinks Mr. Brooks is cool, and blackmails him into committing another murder. Meanwhile, Brooks is being pursued by Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore), a detective with troubles of her own – her current ex-husband is suing her for divorce, and another serial killer she helped catch has recently escaped prison. But wait, there’s more – Brooks’ daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker) has dropped out of school, and Brooks begins to suspect it’s maybe because his daughter is following in his footsteps.
By rights, all of this should be tiresome and offensive, especially since Evans shoots this in the style of most thrillers – as if a machine made it (except for a gun battle Moore has near the end of the film, though, he does avoid overly stylish camerawork). However, it’s so ludicrously done it’s hard to take offense. It reminded me of Gossip, the 2000 movie about date rape that, despite its subject matter, ended up being entertainingly ridiculous. From the beginning, when Brooks goes from reciting the serenity prayer (which is the standard prayer at AA meetings) to staking out his future victims, it’s clear this movie isn’t to be taken seriously (especially when we see one of Brooks’ disguises later in the film). It helps, of course, that both Costner and Hurt seem in on the joke – they’re obviously having a lot of fun. Cook neither entranced nor repulsed me, but then again, while he was obviously meant to stand in for those who are fascinated by what they should be repulsed by, his character is pretty one-note. Moore is believable as a cop, but she’s also her pretty one-note self as well. But Panabaker, whom I last saw in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls, also acts like she knows the movie’s a joke, and is willing to work with it nonetheless. The now-defunct magazine Movieline used to have a monthly column called “Bad Movies we Love”; I’d like to think if they were still in business, Mr. Brooks would be the subject of one of those columns.
Three new movies come out on Criterion this week – two of them classics, one an interesting failure. The classics, of course, are Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, while the interesting failure is John Huston’s Under the Volcano. Godard’s film may not have technically been the first film of the so-called “French New Wave,” but it definitely made the most noise worldwide. And long before Quentin Tarantino, Godard, in this film, was paying homage to low-budget genre films – in this case, gangster films (the film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, which made many B-gangster movies). Perhaps it’s because of the so-called “post-modern” era of movies we’re in right now that Godard’s film looks as fresh today as it was then. Of course, it also helps Godard hadn’t discovered his didactic side yet. This version, which runs two discs, includes vintage interviews with Godard and the cast, new interviews with the surviving crew members, documentaries, and a documentary about the making of the film.
More so than even Godard, Malick has had as many detractors as defenders. I fall in the latter category – normally, I’m impatient with movies that want to chew on the scenery at the expense of story, but no one comes close to Malick in making the natural world around him contribute to the mood of the story. To me, Days of Heaven is the best example of this. The plot may lift itself from Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove – a dying farmer (Sam Shepard) falls in love with a girl working on the farm (Brooke Adams), and her boyfriend (Richard Gere), who’s posing as her brother, allows it so that when the farmer dies, they can inherit his money – but the way Malick tells it makes it unfold like a dream. A lot, of course, can be made of the gorgeous cinematography (shot by Nestor Alemondros and Haskell Wexler), but credit should also go to the performers (this is one of the few movies I like Gere and Shepard in, Adams is radiant, and as Gere’s little sister and the narrator, Linda Manz is also terrific). This version includes a new transfer, commentary by crew members including Wexler, and an interview with Wexler.
John Huston was not only a maverick for most of his film career, but he could never resist a challenge. The challenge of filming Malcolm Lowry’s novel, long considered unfilmable, must have appealed to him enormously. Unfortunately, while Huston of course captures the atmosphere of Mexico (where the story is set), and Albert Finney does his usual fine work as the British Consul who drinks himself to death, the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and Jacqueline Bisset (as the Consul’s ex-wife) and Anthony Andrews (as Bisset’s new boyfriend) are rather flat. This version does include quite a few extras, including documentaries about the film and Lowry, new interviews with Bisset and Andrews, and an old interview with Huston by French critic Michel Clement.
Two TV shows that took their final bows last season also come out on DVD this week. Both of them were critically acclaimed, but only the former made a significant dent in the viewing public. That show, of course, was The Sopranos, which has, if nothing else, had more written about it than any other TV show. The final half of the sixth season saw Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) still trying to recover from his shooting at the hands of Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), while Christopher (Michael Imperioli) finally gets his movie made, Tony’s war with Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), who has taken over for the dying Johnny Sack, escalates, and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) continues to have problems finding direction in his life. All of this, as with the first part of the season, seems unwieldy at times, and it isn’t until the war between Tony and Phil really escalates that the series took off. Still, it’s still fascinating how creator David Chase dared to play on our identification with Tony and make him, if anything, darker and more volatile.
While The Sopranos ended on its own accord (though there may yet be a movie), Veronica Mars, the teen detective drama, was cancelled after three seasons because of low ratings, despite critical acclaim and a loyal fan base. The third season, admittedly, had its share of problems. For starters, it was yet another high school show that had a rough transition going to college. Also, supporting characters like Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Weevil (Francis Capra) had little or nothing to do, and the relationship between Veronica (Kristen Bell) and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) seemed stagnant. Finally, there were individual episodes that were poor, due to either the network wanting the show to be more of a soap opera, or creator Rob Thomas losing his creative nerve, depending on who you talked to (and vocal debate about the show reached its peak during the third season). Still, the two mini mystery arcs – the first one had Veronica trying to find a serial rapist on campus, while the second had Veronica and her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) trying to solve the murder of the college dean – were both compelling and well written. And with Veronica and Keith, the show still had the best father/daughter relationship on TV.
Speaking of TV, arguably the biggest disappointment of the year was the TNT miniseries The Company, adapted from the best-selling novel by Robert Littell. As someone who liked the novel, who loves spy stories in general, and being one of the few, it seems, who loved The Good Shepherd, I was really looking forward to this, but it stiffed on so many levels. First of all, I understand adapting a 800+ page novel for a 6 hour miniseries means some stuff has to go (one major character was dropped), but there was no flow to the story. It seemed like director Mikael Salomon and writer Ken Nolan merely filmed the novel’s greatest hits (and also gave Jack McCauliffe (Chris O’Donnell) all the major plot points). Secondly, the story is supposed to span 50 years or so, yet the only one’s who act like that are Rory Cochrane (as Yevgeny, the Soviet spy living in America) and Michael Keaton (as James Angleton, the increasingly paranoid CIA Director of Intelligence). O’Donnell in particular merely acts like he’s just wearing a gray wig. Also, while the series does deserve credit for trying to deglamorize spying, it doesn’t go as far in that respect as The Good Shepherd and previous series like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy did. Finally, the performances are a mixed bag. Keaton and Cochrane are good, and Alfred Molina comes off well as Harvey, Jack’s mentor. But Alessandro Nivola has little to do as Jack’s friend and colleague Leo, and O’Donnell simply is too much of a cream puff to carry a so-called serious miniseries like this.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New DVD Releases October 16

This week’s new releases include two movies based on true stories, the first half of a double-bill movie, which was released on DVD a month after the second half, a movie from one of France’s leading directors, and an HBO film new to DVD. So let’s get to it!
In 1970, Clifford Irving, a novelist and biographer of celebrated art forger Elmyr de Hory, decided to have a go at a bit of fakery of his own. He and his writer friend Richard Suskind decided to write an autobiography on Howard Hughes, the half-mad multi-millionaire tycoon who had cut himself off from the world. On the theory that the ever-reclusive Hughes wouldn’t dare to challenge any claims of authenticity on his part, Irving went to his publishers, McGraw Hill, with three forged letters from Hughes that he claimed granted him permission to tell Hughes’ life story. McGraw Hill, of course, accepted Irving’s word, and the rest is history. Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax attempts to tell this tale, but it may have been too big for him.
For starters, Irving is played here by Richard Gere. Gere has proven to be best when he plays someone with either evil thoughts (Internal Affairs) or amoral ones (Primal Fear) in his head, and Irving would seem a lock. He certainly has the wig for it, and gives the impression of going for broke, especially when he enthuses to Suskind (Alfred Molina) that the more outrageous he sounds, the more gullible everyone is. The problem is, there’s something too calculated about Gere’s approach. Granted, a con artist also has to be calculating, but the approach needs to seem effortless, and Gere can’t pull that off (while it’s refreshing Gere has allowed himself to age, it hasn’t made him more expressive). And as in Primal Fear, his character softens up, this time through love (he’s married to Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), who at first eagerly participates in Irving’s scheme, but still lusts after Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy), the actress best known for her role in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye), which makes him feel guilty and conflicted. It’s a heaviness the film hasn’t earned. It doesn’t help that Delpy has nothing to do, and while Harden starts off well, she soon plays Edith as one-note.
More importantly, while the first half hour or so zips along, thanks to the comic tone (sustained by other actors, particularly Molina and Hope Davis as Irving’s editor), the film runs aground when Irving gets delusions of paranoia, specifically of Nixon. While Nixon and Hughes had little to do with each other by this time, Hughes, while initially a booster of Nixon, was apparently disenchanted enough with Nixon he sent Irving files which he hoped would ruin Nixon. And apparently, one of the causes of the Watergate break-in was Nixon’s concern about the Irving book, which apparently would have enough to ruin Nixon. This may all have been true, but it comes off as far-fetched, and Hallstrom plays it as if he isn’t sure whether to play it straight or satirically. And again, this change in tone doesn’t feel earned in any way. Irving himself was one of the subjects of Orson Welles’ documentary F for Fake; maybe this project needed a Welles to completely capture this mad story.
The other docudrama coming out on DVD this week is Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, about Marianne Pearl’s effort to find her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by an extremist group in Pakistan in January of 2002. It also focuses on the police who tried to help Marianne, mostly a Pakistan detective known simply as Captain (Irfan Khan), and Randall Bennett (Will Patton), an American government agent who’s along to help. Although the film was justly praised by critics for Winterbottom’s direction (he and writer John Orloff make this more like a procedural thriller rather than a political film), most of the attention was on Jolie’s performance – specifically, whether she was right for the part at all.
I haven’t always been a fan of Jolie, but there’s something inscrutable about her at times, and I think that works with this performance. After all, in the book this movie is based on, Marianne Pearl didn’t try to elicit any cheap sympathy for her story (in the movie, we see her TV interviews, and a technician marveling – or speaking disdainfully? – that you’d never know her husband had been kidnapped), and the movie respects that point of view. The only time Marianne becomes unglued is when she’s told of her husband’s death, and the camera stays behind her at a respectful distance, instead of wallowing in her grief. It’s this dignity Jolie brings to her performance. She also brings out Marianne’s innate curiosity about people, particularly the Captain (Khan, an actor best known for Bollywood films, is similarly dignified). Jolie isn’t the only reason to see A Mighty Heart, which is one of my favorite films of the year so far, but she’s every bit as good as the movie needs her to be.
One month after Death Proof was released on DVD, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the first half of the Grindhouse double feature, follows suit. Most of the critics I read seemed to prefer Death Proof (directed by Quentin Tarantino), while most of my friends preferred Rodriguez’s film. I have to side with the critics on this one. Admittedly, aside from the original Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead, I’m not a big zombie film fan, and I’m not a fan of Rodriguez, but I really don’t understand the appeal of this film.
I will say this; for the first time since his debut film El Mariachi, Rodriguez has given us characters to care about, and while Rose McGowan is hardly my favorite actress, she’s actually pretty good here as the heroine (and, of course, there’s the whole thing with having a machine gun leg, which admittedly is pretty cool), as is Freddy Rodriguez as The Ex-Boyfriend Who Still Cares. And it’s always nice to see actors like Michael Biehn (who plays the sheriff). And whatever faults Rodriguez has, you can’t accuse him of being a cynical filmmaker; he clearly is in love with what he’s doing. But his efforts at humor here are decidedly mixed (the machine gun thing, of course, is funny, but the Crazy Babysitting Twins – played by the Crazy Babysitting Twins – are one-joke characters that weren’t that funny to begin with), the political subtext (Bruce Willis plays an Army lieutenant whose platoon was infected while trying to get Bin Laden) seems tacked on, and while some found the excessive gore either fun or artful, I found it wearying.
Four years ago, Patrice Leconte directed Man on the Train, a terrific crime dramedy about two middle-aged men, one a retired schoolteacher, the other a criminal in town to pull a bank robbery. Leconte returns to the subject of friendship with My Best Friend. In this one, Daniel Auteuil plays Francois, an antiques dealer who seems cut off from everyone. At a dinner he was with colleagues, his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) challenges him to name at least one friend he has. Instead, Francois bets he can reproduce a friend in 10 days, and the bet is a vase he bid on at an auction (of course, the vase has a painting on it symbolizing friendship).
At this point, my heart sank, because it seemed like Leconte was making a sitcom out of the very subject he treated so seriously, yet comically, in his previous, much better film. Things don’t get any better with the character he eventually hires to teach him friendship skills, Bruno (Danny Boon). Bruno is a cab driver (natch) who loves to spout arcane trivia on all kinds of subjects (when they first meet cute, Bruno is giving Francois a cab ride, and tells him what famous people live, or lived, on the street they’re on), but also seems to be able to get along with people. Yet he lives with his parents still. This eventually turns into the kind of lighthearted farce the French theoretically are still good at, but it becomes wearisome here. Admittedly, were it from a director other than Leconte, I might not care so much. But in addition to Man on the Train, Leconte has made other great movies about lonely people, like his terrific Hitchcock-esque film Monsieur Hire, and even his misfires (The Hairdresser’s Husband) show obvious talent behind them. This movie shows an enervated talent. What’s worse, Leconte apparently no longer wants to do the serious-minded movies he’s known for, and for his last few movies before he calls it quits, he just wants to enjoy himself. I hope he did, cause I sure didn’t.
In 1995, HBO asked New Yorkers – as well as tourists – to submit their favorite true story about riding in the subway. The network then picked the ten best stories they got out of thousands, and the result is Subway Stories. As the movie came out in 1997, some of the segments may seem a little dated, even quaint, but the themes (people on the subway are crazy, white people don’t trust minorities, and vice versa, subway cars sure do smell) are still relevant today. Rosie Perez exec-produced the show, and she also appears in one of the best segments, “Love on the A Train,” directed by Abel Ferrara, about a businessman (Mike McGlone) who ends up giving satisfaction – in more ways than one – to a mysterious woman (Perez) every morning on the train. As you might expect, some segments are better than others, but at 80 minutes, the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome, and the best segments (my personal favorite is Bob Balaban’s “The 5:24,” about a young businessman (Steve Zahn) who wonders if the old man (Jerry Stiller) giving him stock tips is for real, or a con artist) are a lot of fun.