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.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

New DVD releases October 9

A friend of mine once wrote how, when she had a regular arts critic column (arts covering movies and TV), she could never quite reconcile whether she was a critic, fan, or both, and how the film version The Color Purple exposed that conflict. As a critic, she loathed it, but as a fan, she wept through it copiously. After seeing Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me, I can definitely relate. As a critic, I must say Reign Over Me is manipulative, heavy-handed, and misogynistic (after his brief turn towards writing good women characters in The Upside of Anger, Binder is back to his old ways). As a fan, however, I must say Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle moved me more than I thought possible. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review for The New Yorker, it’s strange to recommend any Adam Sandler movie, let alone one dealing with 9/11, but there you go.
Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, whose wife and kids were on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Since then, of course, he’s been anything but fine. He plays video games, listens to music from the 70’s and 80’s on his iPod, travels around lower Manhattan on his scooter, and in general shields himself from anything reminding him of the tragedy he suffered, including his in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon). It’s while on the scooter that he runs into Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), his former college roommate. Alan has a successful dentistry practice, though his marriage to Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) feels stuck in neutral. At first merely bemused by Charlie’s state of mind, Alan tries to help him, which isn’t helped by Charlie’s violent outbursts whenever confronted by his past.
Binder (who also appears as Charlie’s accountant) wants to talk about how we, as New Yorkers, and as people in general, prefer not to confront out grief, and result not only eats away at us, but affects the people who may care about us as well (Charlie’s in-laws are concerned enough to want to put Charlie away). That’s certainly a laudable goal, but he doesn’t always dramatize it well. Too often, shouting matches substitute for drama, especially in a courtroom scene (though as the judge, Donald Sutherland does redeem himself in a later scene). Worse, as I said before, almost every woman here (with the possible exception of Alan’s receptionist Melanie (Paula Newsome)) is badly drawn. Janeane is one-note (yes, it’s a loveless marriage, but there must have been something there), Angela Oakhurst (Liv Tyler), a psychiatrist Alan recruits to help Charlie, has some nice comic moments when she initially thinks Alan is fishing for treatment for himself, but is otherwise merely earnest, and there’s a painful subplot involving Saffron Burrows as a patient name Donna who is obsessed with Alan (though she later becomes attracted to Charlie).
And yet, Binder doesn’t suggest that Alan magically heals Charlie, but that it’s a long, slow, and often painful process for both of them. I’ve liked Sandler best when he deepens his man-child persona to show the desperation fueling that persona (as in Punch-Drunk Love and his performance in the otherwise appalling Spanglish), and he delivers another great performance here. And anyone who doesn’t at least mist up when Charlie finally reveals what happened to his family that day should check their pulse. Cheadle once again is, in theory, playing an African-American who helps a white guy find himself, but Binder does make it a little more complicated than that here, and Cheadle underplays the part very well. I may not like myself for saying this, but I sort of liked Reign Over Me.
28 Days Later started out with a particularly scary scene, had the creepiest cut to credits sequence ever (of course, after the events of the credits, the screen went to black and the title card came up briefly), had an eerie sequence of empty London, had the novelty of being the first zombie movie where they were speedy rather than slow, and made its social statements obliquely. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, has some pretty creepy sequences (particularly the opening, where Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormack (playing a couple), along with others, try to fight off zombies), but as befitting most sequels, it’s falls short in everything else (the title card, for example, gives updated progress – “2 weeks later” and all that). In addition, it suffers from plot holes – how, for example, when a city is supposedly under martial law, do two kids manage to escape into the “forbidden zone” (where zombies may still be a threat) with the military watching them, and yet nothing is done until the last minute? When a European filmmaker makes his first English-speaking film and it turns out badly, the temptation is always there to blame Hollywood for messing with the style of the filmmaker, and while that is often true, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s previous film, Intacto, had some creepy and stylish scenes but also suffered from plot incoherency, so one wonders who was at fault here.
After Grosse Pointe Blank, The Sopranos, and the like, you’d think it’d be pretty hard to wring laughs out of the premise of a hitman who’s suffering a mid-life crisis, but John Dahl’s You Kill Me does pretty well on that score. The premise, of course, is faintly ridiculous. Frank (Ben Kingsley) is an alcoholic hitman working for the Polish mob in upstate New York who botches a hit on an Irish gangster named O’Leary (Dennis Farina) and, as a result, is sent to San Francisco by his boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to dry up. Frank, of course, doesn’t think he has a drinking problem, but he goes, gets a job in a mortuary (Bill Pullman, who starred in Dahl’s The Last Seduction, plays his contact here), goes to AA meetings (Luke Wilson plays his sponsor), and falls in love with a woman named Laurel (Tea Leoni), a corporate sales exec (they meet cute when he’s the attendant for her stepfather). While he struggles with his alcoholism, and what to tell Laurel, his family has to deal with O’Leary muscling in on their business. What makes this work is the telling – Dahl and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (this was their first script, which they followed with, improbably, the first Chronicles of Narnia movie) show there are still laughs to be had out of this shopworn premise. Most of them come thanks to Kingsley, who plays off of his Sexy Beast performance rather nicely, and from Leoni, which is especially good news since those of us who worshipped her performance in Flirting with Disaster have been waiting in vain for a good showcase for her ever since (as her roles in Deep Impact, The Family Man and Spanglish hardly qualify). Her deadpan line readings and undeniable chemistry with Kingsley make this comedy, if you’ll pardon the expression, kill.
Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan will see a guy (usually; occasionally a woman), often an immigrant, working a food cart, be it a hot dog stand, peanut stand, coffee stand, or even something more exotic. Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart explores the life of one of these men, in this case, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani and former rock star who now runs a coffee cart and, as a sideline, sells porn movies under the table (so to speak). He meets a couple of people who want to help him, like Mohammed (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a Pakistani businessman whose fully assimilated and remembers Ahmad’s career as a rock star, and Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a Spanish woman who works at a newsstand. Bahrani apparently took inspiration from Camus’ essay on the myth of Sisyphus (whose punishment, courtesy of the gods, was to roll a rock up and down the hill), except while, according to Camus, Sisyphus did this in triumphant defiance, Ahmad does it because he has no choice in the matter. This is a weighty subject for an American film, even an indie film, and Bahrani doesn’t quite pull it off; he and Razvi can’t quite make Ahmad interesting even as he isn’t master of his own fate. Still, this is certainly a side of America rarely seen, and Bahrani doesn’t make the mistake of marking everyone with the same brush (at worst, Ahmad gets indifference from his customers, and some of them even are friendly towards him).
In the 1960’s, Motown acts grabbed most of the headlines and rose higher in the charts, but for my money, when it came to soul music, Stax Records, founded in Memphis in 1957, had the better musicians and made the better music. Motown, or its house band, was the subject a few years ago in the great documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Now Stax gets an even better doc with Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this doc shows how Stax was more than just a great music label (which it was, of course – any label with the Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, and Booker T and the Mg’s, not to mention Otis Redding, deserves that description and then some). It also was a positive force in the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s. Of course, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the tragic death of Redding helped deal a body blow to Stax; it recovered in the 70’s with artists like Isaac Hayes and Johnny Taylor, but soon after their big concert Wattstax in L.A. (a concert film which is also highly recommended), Stax’s financial troubles forced it to close. There’s nothing new here, but the story is well told by the participants (all of the ones still alive are here to tell about it), and all remember the joy, as well as the sadness, of being part of arguably America’s best record label of the 1960’s, if not of all time.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Michael Clayton and The Darjeeling Limited

As Michael Clayton opens, we hear a man, who turns out to be a lawyer, ranting almost incomprehensibly, while we see activity late at night at a law firm. In one of the offices of said firm, while many lawyers work feverishly, a partner at said firm is assuring a reporter on the phone that any talk of a settlement in a major case is completely groundless. Meanwhile, another lawyer sits on a toilet in the bathroom, sweating through the armpits in their shirt. Finally, we see a man playing cards late at night. Later, that man takes a drive to a house to try and solve a problem, after which he starts to drive back. However, he stops his car near a forest, and gets out to look at three horses just standing there. Seconds later, his car blows up.
That last part is, of course, a conventional scene in any thriller these days. But what Tony Gilroy, who wrote the film and also makes his directorial debut here, does in telling the story isn’t as conventional as you’d think. I remember seeing Alec Baldwin give an interview promoting Malice where he said the thing about thrillers was character always played a secondary role to story. What that often means in Hollywood thrillers, however, is the storyline feels mechanical and robotic, each scene feels like someone held a stopwatch on the set to make sure everything is exactly the same, and the characters feel like stick figures, leaving no room for the actors to work. Gilroy obviously wanted to direct this film because he wanted to make sure you understood each of these characters, and he does. As the film goes on, you obviously understand how the characters introduced in the beginning relate to each other, but more importantly, you understand them for themselves.
After the explosion, we cut back to four days earlier. The man who babbled at the beginning of the movie is Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a lawyer for Kenner, Bach & Ledeen who has been representing a conglomerate called U North in a class action suit alleging they produced a weed killer responsible for several deaths. This suit has been dragging on for six years (the firm doesn’t care, as they like to jack up the billable hours), and at one meeting, Edens strips his clothes off and starts making an appeal to Anna (Merritt Wever), one of the plaintiffs. Is this merely a psychotic episode (Edens is on medication because he’s bipolar), or is he, like Howard Beale, mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore? Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer for the law firm (or, as he’s called at various points, a janitor) who cleans up whatever mess needs cleaning. Of course, he has trouble cleaning up his own life – he’s a gambling addict (that card game at the beginning), he barely has enough money to pay for a restaurant he wants to open up with his alcoholic brother, and he barely has enough time for his four year old son Henry (Austin Williams). Nevertheless, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the partner on the phone, dispatches him to calm down Edens (the firm is also in the middle of a merger) and assure Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the lawyer in the bathroom and the in-house counsel for U North, that Edens is in fact okay.
Except Edens (whom Michael considers his mentor), of course, isn’t okay. He insists to Michael that U North is in fact guilty, and when he’s not babbling, he’s lucid enough to know he can’t be put away (when Michael reminds him he’s not the enemy, Edens retorts, “Then what are you?”). Edens happens to have a document he thinks will make the case for the plaintiffs. When Crowder hears about this, she panics and hires a couple of heavies (Robert Prescott and Terry Serpico) to, as she puts it, contain the situation. How it’s contained eventually leads Michael to wonder, in fact, who he really is and what he stands for.
Again, none of this is new, except in the telling. For starters, normally in a corporate thriller when the corporation is evil, the members of the corporation are meant to either be faceless or wearing neon signs on their heads saying, “Evil!” Crowder is the furthest thing from that. After that scene in the bathroom, which could be interpreted as a panic attack of her own, we see her giving a TV interview about U North. Intercut with the actually interview are scenes where she’s getting dressed and ready while rehearsing the speech she gives, stumbling over key phrases that she eventually gets correct in the actual interview. And in the scene where she meets one of the heavies is instructive – she asks what the usual procedure is (he, in turn, isn’t exactly sure what she wants them to do), and insists she’s doing this while keeping her own mentor, Don Jeffries (Ken Howard), out of any wrongdoing. And her final scene with Michael has her trying to be smooth while actually panicking. This reminds us that in every corporation, someone has to answer to somebody, and fear guides decisions as much as avarice. Even Bach has that note when he tells Michael what will happen if U North pulls their fees from them.
We also get that attention being paid to the nominal heroes of the story. Edens is seen having a long telephone conversation with Anna, and then later Henry (he’s calling for Michael), where he’s both manic and lucid at the same time. With Henry, he spends the whole time talking about the book Henry’s currently obsessed with (why will be important later). We also see Michael’s attitude towards his situation; he’s impatient with Arthur rather than listening to him, he’s concentrating on his job more than his son even when he’s with him (when Henry tries telling him about the book, he just grunts noncommittally), and he’ll do anything to avoid his alcoholic brother Timmy (David Lansbury) while just using his other brother Gene Clayton (Sean Cullen), a cop, for his own means.
Clooney has often talked about his love for movies of the 1970’s, and Gilroy said he and Clooney (who also exec-produced the film, and originally wanted to direct) talked especially about the films of Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All the President's Men) and Sidney Lumet (Network) before making this film. Although that aesthetic is certainly there, I was also reminded of two non-70’s films, Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Border (1982). Both involve people who step in shit for a living and seemed resigned to it, but eventually find a line they can’t cross (the difference with the former is Michael’s J.J. Hunsecker isn’t one man, but the corporation). But certainly, one thing the 70’s films Gilroy tries to emulate here have in common with his film is how they take their time with the story. Scenes that would either be dropped completely or cut down are allowed to run full length, because Gilroy wants his characters and story, not just his words, to be allowed to breathe. And the strategy works yet keeps us involved when the thriller part of the story kicks in, particularly when one of the characters is killed – it’s done in a fresh way, yet still familiar and suspenseful enough it leaves a kick.
The performances are all spot on as well. Clooney of course played a similar role in Syriana, and while he’s more glamorous looking here (as he’s have to be – his character in the other film wouldn’t have even been able to approach U North looking like he did), he’s still got the same world-weariness and barely-hidden anger. Wilkinson does manic without overdoing it. And Pollack has become expert at playing shady corporate types. But the revelation here is Swinton. Gilroy admitted in a story on Swinton for Entertainment Weekly that he cast her mostly to give the film indie cred, but was completely unprepared for what she’d bring to the film. Although the accent wavers somewhat, she gets completely inside Karen Crowder, so we can see what motivates her every step of the way, and without ever relying on mannerisms or tics, she shows the panic, and steeliness, from inside. Michael Clayton doesn’t reinvent the wheel cinematically, but by taking its time and telling a good story, it’s a true movie for adults in the best sense of the word.

I know there are people who get angry at the very mention of Wes Anderson (a critic friend of mine thinks he’s dangerous to movies), but I’m still a fan. I think, far from being unfeeling, he has a streak of melancholy running through his movies, but has the ability to combine humor with it. And while I’m usually not one who champions production and costume design over story, character and dialogue, I don’t think he is either – I think his visual worlds complement the characters and story. Finally, I think Anderson is really good at using music in his films. I even liked The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (though I definitely acknowledge it’s flawed), and I really liked The Darjeeling Limited, his latest.
Two Anderson regulars – Owen Wilson (who has appeared in all of Anderson’s films, and co-wrote three of them) and Jason Schwartzman (who appeared in Anderson’s breakout hit Rushmore, as well as his short film Hotel Chevalier) – join with newcomer Adrien Brody, playing the brothers Whitman. Francis (Wilson) has just recovered from a motorcycle accident, and his head is still covered in bandages. Peter (Brody) is about to be a father, much to his dismay, since he’s not sure he loves the mother, whom he’s married to. And Jack (Schwartzman) is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend (the subject of Hotel Chevalier – Natalie Portman, who stars in that movie, cameos in this one).
Francis has gathered them all together, a year after their father died, to go on a train trip through India, where he hopes they will all be able to go on a spiritual journey together (complete with drugs they get in India). However, the issues they have between each other surface. Jack may be hung up on his ex, but that doesn’t stop him from getting involved with a waitress on the train named Rita (Amara Karan). Peter has stolen things from his deceased father, including a pair of subscription sunglasses he wears all the time. And Francis orders the two of them around (ordering food for them) as if they were still little. More importantly, he hasn’t told them the real reason for the trip – he wants the three of them to visit their mother Patricia (Anjelica Huston), who stood them up at their father’s funeral (we flashback to when the three of them were trying to get his car for the funeral), and has been living on a mission in India.
The knocks against Anderson are several: he’s too literary (all three Whitman brothers are carrying baggage belonging to their father, which represents the emotional baggage they all carry), too much a triumph of production design over reality (the train looks especially exotic, and most importantly, that all of that and his “quirkiness” are his substitutes for genuine emotion and feeling. The first two charges can be true at times, though I think most of the time, he’s telling sort of heightened adult fairy tales, where those literary and visual touches don’t feel out of place (The Royal Tenenbaums, which is still my favorite Anderson film, is especially strong in those areas). And I still think there’s genuine feeling in Anderson’s films. That especially comes true in The Darjeeling Limited, when the three of them are thrown off the train and, while trying to find an alternate means of transportation, come across something that changes them. Although it’s been revealed in other reviews, I won’t spoil it here, for it comes as quite a shock. All I’ll say is actor Irfan Khan has been in three of my favorite movies this year (in addition to this, he’s also in The Namesake and A Mighty Heart). Oh, and Anderson doesn’t bring his so-called “quirkiness” to bear on the Indians in the movie. All of them are treated normally instead of with the “otherness” that often happens when English filmmakers deal with a foreign culture (Anderson said he was inspired by Jean Renoir’s great film The River, as well as Satyajit Ray’s films, and it shows).
All the performances are spot-on as well. It’s hard, of course, to look at Wilson and not think of his recent suicide attempt (particularly since his character’s motorcycle accident may not have been entirely accidental), but he doesn’t overdo the pathos, and makes both Francis’ bossiness and conversion believable. Brody keeps his resentments hidden well, but his scene of grief also comes through without being overly maudlin. And Schwartzman, who has been one-note in almost every other movie he’s done outside of Rushmore (the only exception being CQ, by Roman Coppola, who also co-wrote this movie with Anderson and Schwartzman), is restrained and believable here. And the three of them are convincing together as brothers. I, for one, was glad to take the trip along with The Darjeeling Limited.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

New DVD Releases October 2

I have a co-worker who, almost every chance he gets, will recommend Lantana, a drama/thriller from Australia that came out in 2001. It’s easy to see why; it’s a film made for and about adults without being sanctimonious about it, and without a heavy-handed touch, it explores betrayal, marriage, and what can hold us together and/or tear us apart. There’s a particularly poignant scene where one of the characters insists her husband wasn’t involved in the death of a woman, because “he told me he didn’t do it,” and you realize she and her husband are the only ones in the film who have the kind of relationship to make that line ring true. The dead body, a woman, is shown in the opening sequence of Lantana, and it hangs over the entire film. Another dead woman is show early on in director Ray Lawrence’s follow-up film, Jindabyne, and it also hangs over the entire film, though in a markedly different way.
For starters, whereas Lantana was set in the suburbs and city, this film is set in more isolated and rural areas. This is no accident, for two reasons. One, the body is eventually discovered during a fishing trip. Those on the trip include Stewart Kane (Gabriel Byrne), a former racecar champion who now runs a garage, and his friends Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy (Simon Stone). When they find the body, instead of immediately going for help, they tie the dead girl to the rocks ostensibly to keep it from floating away, and only after going fishing for a full day afterwards do they cut their trip off and go to the police. The second reason is the young dead girl (Tatea Reilly) is Maori, and the Aboriginal community is naturally furious, wondering if Stewart and his friends would have acted this way if the girl was white. For that reason, and for reasons even she can’t fully explain, Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is shaken by the event, and wonders if she can ever fully trust or relate to Stewart again.
If the first part sounds familiar, then you’ve either read the Raymond Carver short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” or seen the Robert Altman movie Short Cuts, a filmed version of many Carver stories, including that one (in the Altman movie, Fred Ward plays the fisherman, and Anne Archer is his wife). Similarly, the second part, as well as the visuals Lawrence and cinematographer David Williamson give us of the rural area, may remind you of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, or Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. Unfortunately, while there’s a lot to like in Lawrence’s film, neither part measures up to its predecessors.
The film starts out well, with Lawrence and writer Beatrix Christian setting up Stewart, his friends and job, and his relationship with Claire and his family, which has problems (she apparently left him early on in their marriage), but still seems to be going well. And the actual event of when Stewart finds the body is gut-wrenching. Lawrence and Christian also make it easy to understand, from Stewart’s point of view, why he was actually doing the police a favor by tying the girl’s body to the rocks (he didn’t want the current to carry her away, or ruin the body by having it on the ground where the flies or vultures could get to it). And without a word of dialogue, we see the unspoken agreement between Stewart and his friends to keep on going with their fishing trip, at least for another day. But while it’s easy to understand why the men, particularly Stewart, would feel compelled to defend their actions, Lawrence and Christian throw the film out of whack by suggesting Claire is the only person close to them to question it. You get a vague sense the film is trying to question how a community could hush up a crime, but it isn’t well dramatized. There’s also subplots thrown in – Carl and his wife Jude (Deborra Lee-Furness) have been taking care of their granddaughter since her mother die, and she struggles with her feelings – that seem shoehorned in, rather than being melded together like all the plots in Lantana did. As for the aborigines, it’s obvious Lawrence and Christian are trying to show the underbelly of racism that still exists in Australia towards Aborigines, and of course, that’s a commendable and ambitious goal. The problem is, while the dead girl gets to show some dimension before she gets killed (we see her singing along to a song in the car), the rest of the Maoris shown in the film are all one-dimensional. I realize they’re supporting characters in the story, but it’s as if Lawrence and Christian were afraid moviegoers wouldn’t care as much about the Aborigines if they had any unlikable characteristics, so they’re made noble in their suffering. This also pitches the film towards just being about white liberal guilt (and I say that as a white liberal).
I did say there was much to like. In addition to show the love in Claire and Stewart’s family, as well as the simmering tensions underneath (especially when Stewart’s mother comes to visit), Lawrence and Christian also do a good job when those tensions explode. A lot of that, of course, is due to the acting by Linney and Byrne. Linney has spent most of her film career playing brittle, intelligent women, so this role isn’t exactly a stretch for her. But she also shows warmth during her scenes with her son, and with her friends, and we can see how much it pains her no one else seems to be on her side. And she also shows us how, again, she doesn’t even know why this affects her so. Byrne likewise has played this part before, but he makes a believable match with Linney, and is able to communicate a lot with very little. And those visuals are striking without merely being picturesque. Jindabyne deserves credit for that, and its ambitions; I just wish it had been better.
Over 20 years ago, John Cusack had a small role in one of the better Stephen King adaptations, Stand by Me. Now, he takes the lead role in another King adaptation, 1408, based on one of King’s short stories. He plays Mike Enslin, a former novelist who now writes books that disprove supernatural phenomena. He gets an unsigned postcard one day telling him to stay out of room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan. Naturally, this is like hanging out a welcome mat, and no matter what hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Enslin about the room (in the history of the hotel, 56 people have died in the room, and no one lasts more than an hour there), Enslin insists on taking the room. Naturally, once he gets settled into the room, the shit hits the fan.
The first hour of 1408 is genuinely creepy without overdoing it. Director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) sets up tension nicely, and even throws in some humor (the room announces its intentions with authority with the clock radio blaring out the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”). Although he is now over 40 years old, Cusack retains his boyish charm and wiseass personality, as well as his quiet vulnerability, and all of that serves him well here. And Jackson matches him in his few scenes, being intelligent and foreboding at the same time. But Hafstrom eventually drags down the story by throwing in not only too many obvious special effects scenes, but also too many plot reversals (to be fair, I never read the short story by King, so it may be his fault). It’s too bad to say this about a horror movie that tries to avoid the usual slasher pic route, but 1408 simply ends up being boring rather than scary and compelling.