Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New DVD releases February 19

Once again, here’s a week in DVD releases where there’s an abundance of movies to choose from. I already praised Michael Clayton when it came out in theaters. The rest of this week’s offerings don’t quite measure up, unfortunately, except for a new documentary about one of the creepiest subjects you’re ever to meet in a movie.
Before Ridley Scott’s American Gangster was set to be released, the drums were beating this would be the next great gangster film. It certainly boasted a handsome pedigree – directed by an Oscar nominee (Scott), written by an Oscar winner (Steven Zaillian), and starring two Oscar winners (Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe). And it tells a somewhat epic story – the rise of Frank Lucas (Washington), a former driver for gangster Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) who, after Johnson’s death, rose to become the leading drug dealer in Harlem and the rest of New York City, until he was brought down by Richie Roberts (Crowe), a cop who worked with an FBI task force. But nearly two hours and 40 minutes later (the new DVD is longer by 20 minutes), I found myself wondering, “What was the point of all this?” There’s nothing really wrong with the movie – Zaillian does capture the intricacies of how Lucas’s rise and fall - except most of the time, it lacks a pulse. Scott may be aspiring to the level of The Godfather or Goodfellas, except Coppola and Scorsese were interested enough in their characters to explore what made them tic. Scott is a whiz at the technical aspects of the story – he gets the look of the 60’s and 70’s down without resorting to kitsch – but he hasn’t really cared about character development since maybe G.I. Jane. Lucas may have played it close to the vest to keep attention off himself, but while Washington certainly has the presence of a gangster, he doesn’t let us inside Lucas to find out what made him tic. Roberts’ character, meanwhile, doesn’t seem like anything more than Serpico lite, and Crowe likewise, while he looks the part of a cop, seems to be on autopilot (even the rage that drove him in, say, L.A. Confidential would be welcome here). The only people who make any impression here are those in small parts, like Williams, Ruby Dee as Lucas’ mother, particularly when she finally reveals she’s known how her son has made his money, and Josh Brolin as a corrupt cop who butts heads with both Lucas and Roberts. And the one scene Washington and Crowe get at the end shows what American Gangster might have been had Scott just been willing to dig deeper.
If you were a cynic, the fall of 2007 was when Hollywood discovered the Iraq War. Not being that flip, I tell people who feel that way it’s proves enough people in Hollywood were sick of not only the administration lying to get us into a false war, but the failure of the media to call them on it. And so, on the theory that doing something was better than nothing, the studios decided to make films that at least touched on the mess we’re in. The problem is, while the intentions were good, the end result is none of them, or at least the three movies up for discussion this week – Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, Brian DePalma’s Redacted, and Gavin Hood’s Rendition – really succeed either as drama or at illustrating what’s wrong with the war.
Haggis’ film is the only one claiming not to take an outward stance on the war, even though you certainly know how it stands when it ends. It also puts it in the context of a mystery, specifically a missing persons case. The missing person here is Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) the son of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired military man. Mike went off the fight in Iraq, but has been AWOL ever since, so Hank heads to New Mexico, where Mike’s army base here. Armed with little more than unclear footage Mike e-mailed him, Hank butts heads with the Army, led by Lieutenant Kirklander (Jason Patric), and the local police, led by Chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin), both of whom want him to stay out of it. Only Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), herself an outsider on the force because she’s a woman, agrees to help Hank find out what happened to his son, especially when it turns out he’s been murdered. And as Hank digs deeper into the mystery of what happened to his son when he got home, he gets a glimpse into what may have happened to him – and the rest of our soldiers – in Iraq.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, however, Haggis does the same thing that he did in Crash, which is to provide pat answers to complex questions. The scenes with the police, for example, feel less like how they would talk, and more like Haggis imposing a civics lesson, and Sanders feels more like a feminist mouthpiece rather than a real character. And while it’s understandable that the military would want to keep quiet how soldiers might be reacting after they returned from war, it doesn’t seem believable the police would go along with this. Finally, while it’s admirable Haggis would want Hank to have some less than admirable characteristics, they seemed shoehorned in (particularly his racist side, which is spoken out loud, when it would have been more believable if it was more subtle).
Some critics have praised Haggis’ movie for raising the question of what the war is doing to our soldiers there and when they come home. While this certainly his true, the movie doesn’t really go far enough in that, like mentioning how the same soldiers are being forced to fight again and again, and are mostly poor and minority kids being exploited. The one thing Haggis does cover is how the children of military people feel the need to live up to their fathers, which we get in one scene where Hank’s wife (Susan Sarandon) angrily tells him over the phone Mike would never had gone to Iraq in the first place if he didn’t feel the need to live up to his father. But that isn’t enough.
Despite all of these flaws, however, there is one reason to see Elah, and that’s Jones. During that scene with Sarandon, he says so much with his face, particularly the anguish of a man who is finally beginning to doubt not only what he is, but also what he stands for. His character is mostly painted in broad strokes (he has a routine he sticks to, no matter where he is), but he articulates through his face and manner better than through the dialogue what his character is feeling. He even sells the metaphor of the title, which comes from the David and Goliath story (he tells the story to Sanders’ son, who complains her son now wants a slingshot. It’s Theron’s only believable moment). It was because of him, and some powerful scenes here and there, that I was ready to recommend the film despite its flaws. Then came the final scene, with an Annie Lennox song playing over a scene that would have been powerful without it. Once again, Haggis doesn’t trust us to come to our own conclusions, and that’s what makes Elah, for all of its honorable intentions, fall short.
Redacted is nominally about a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq who, when one of their buddies is killed, takes revenge by kidnapping an Iraqi girl, raping her, and then killing her, while a horrified soldier is unable to stop it. Even though it’s inspired by a true story, this will sound familiar to anyone who saw Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War, which had a similar storyline. Redacted also shares many of Casualties’ flaws, namely, overwrought dialogue and one-note acting (though in this case, the actors are all unknowns, so it’s a little more forgivable than having gifted thespians like John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo be one-note), though unlike Casualties, it at least doesn’t have an egregiously bad ending. What makes Redacted worth watching, however, is DePalma using the storyline as an excuse to explore how the war is covered. This isn’t shot in a “traditional” way – the only time DePalma and cinematographer Jonathan Cliff make this look like a traditional movie is with scenes that are shot by a documentary crew covering the platoon. The rest of it is handheld camera shot by the soldiers themselves, security cameras, or postings on the Internet. DePalma has criticized how the media is covering the Iraq war, or rather, how the media is not allowed to cover the war because their reporting, both visually and verbally, is being censored (DePalma also criticized Magnolia Pictures, the company releasing the movie, for censoring his film), and his film certainly addresses that. In his Godard-like way, DePalma is also exploring if it’s even possible to cover a war in a realistic way. And unlike the other two films under discussion here, which take incendiary subjects (how the war has affected our soldiers, how our government is sanctioning torture) only to back away from them, you can feel the full thrust of DePalma’s anger here, which is good. I just wish he had let someone else write the script so he could be showing how flesh-and-blood humans were acting in the midst of this chaos, instead of just stick figures. DePalma’s film is an interesting one, to be sure, and better than the traditional DePalma naysayers make it out to be (I am neither a naysayers nor an apologist when it comes to DePalma; I’m in the middle), but it’s still a frustrating film.
Rendition is another Iraq film set in the context of genre, in this case a thriller. Certainly the opening scene, where a suicide bomber blows up a marketplace in an unnamed city in North Africa, is as unsettling as any scene in an action/thriller this year. Director Gavin Hood doesn’t use music to set up foreboding, and characters seem to just be going about their business when the violence happens. Unfortunately, that’s the last bit of subtlety of the movie before it resorts to anvil dropping. It seems Anwar (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer, is suspected of being in cahoots with the terrorists who planned the bombing, and while on his way home, he’s whisked out of the airport, and taken first to a U.S. holding area, and then flown to that same unnamed African country where he can be tortured until he gives up the information needed. While Anwar’s pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) tries in vain to get her husband back, by using her ex-boyfriend Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), aide to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin), to make inquiries, a CIA analyst named Douglas (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is observing Anwar’s interrogation, becomes disgusted by what he sees.
Of course, the U.S. allowing, performing, and outsourcing torture is a real life issue that shames us all, and I have no problem with a movie wanting to draw attention to it. The problem is the movie hedges its bets. All of the characters are one-note, and that’s especially irritating in the case of Douglas, who seems impossibly naïve for a CIA agent, even an analyst. And while it makes sense that the government figures who are outsourcing the torture, represented here by Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), the government official overseeing the policy, would want to make the appearance of having their hands clean, but the actual interrogators are one-note thugs, as if to say, “See, the U.S. isn’t the problem, it’s Arabs torturing Arabs!” Worse, there’s a Romeo-and-Juliet storyline that not only distracts from the story, but also pays off by making you rethink the value of that opening scene. There are three Oscar winners (Arkin, Streep, Witherspoon) and one nominee (Gyllenhaal) in the cast, but they all have nothing to do except glower (Arkin and Streep) or pout (Witherspoon, Gyllenhaal). The only one who makes any mark on the movie is Sarsgaard, who at least looks like he knows how his character is supposed to be, not just a symbol but also a person. Would that the rest of Rendition had followed his lead.
Ang Lee followed up his transcendent 2005 film Brokeback Mountain with Lust, Caution, another period piece dealing with a forbidden love affair. This time, the love story is told against the backdrop of a WWII spy drama. Chi Chia Wong (Wei Tang) is a student at university in China during the Japanese occupation. While there, she gets recruited by Min Yu Kuang (Leehorn Wang) into a theater group that is also planning tactics against the Japanese. Specifically, they decide to target Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Chinese government official who’s collaborating with the Japanese. So Wong poses as the wife of an industrialist who is no longer in the country, befriends Yee’s wife (Joan Chen), and waits for Yee to seduce her so she can set him up to be killed.
That’s a pretty potent setup for a movie, even if it is familiar. The problem is, the film starts in 1942, when Wong has already situated herself into Mrs. Yee’s inner circle (she and her friends go shopping and play mah-jongg together), and the middle of the film is a flashback to how she got there, which includes one mistake where she had to flee, until she could situate herself there again. All of that is gorgeously shot by Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who also shot Brokeback Mountain), but it goes on for far too long. Lee is known for inserting you inside the details of every world he explores, be it the 1970’s middle class (The Ice Storm) or ancient Chinese warriors (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but in this case, he needed someone to tell him not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Lust, Caution was rated NC-17, and released as such, for the sex scenes between Leung and Tang. According to Anthony Lane (who did not like the film), they take place ninety-five minutes into this two hour and forty minutes film, and they certainly justify the rating – this feels like two people clawing at each other as much for lust as for love. And while it's easy to expect a good performance from Leung, the surprise here is Tang, an untested actress who not only holds her own against Leung, but also is able convincingly portray the untested young woman as well as the spy who keeps everything close to the vest. I just wish Lee had done a better job balancing the sex scenes with everything else going on. It's easy to say this, but Lee is too cautious in this tale for his own good.
Noah Baumbach has become one of the better writer-directors to feature hyper-articulate characters who nevertheless can’t connect well with others. Although he started out with what seemed to be just another generational chronicle of slackers – Kicking & Screaming – he moved beyond that into more personal fare. In The Squid and the Whale, he told the tale of how a teenage boy (and his younger brother) was affected by the split of his parents, and especially how he sees them. Much was made of how the parents in that movie were inspired by Baumbach’s real-life parents, but the real kick was seeing Baumbach having the maturity to see both the point of view of his stand-in and his parents. Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach’s latest, continues in his more personal vein (it’s also the first film he’s done with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Margot (Nicole Kidman), a writer, has come to visit her estranged sister Pauline (Leigh) in time for Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed musician. Margot, who’s there with her son Claude (Zane Pais), is the type of person who sees the bad in every person around, especially if they’re family (she’s also estranged from her husband (John Turturro)), and she’s got a field to choose from here: Malcolm (“He’s like the guys we rejected when we were 16,” she says about him to Pauline), Pauline, and even Claude, who’s making his small steps towards adulthood. And while Malcolm and Pauline are trying to keep things on an even keel (when Malcolm gets mad about something, he exclaims, “In proportion to what’s going on, this is right!”), there are buried secrets that will eventually bring everything to a head.
Except the problem is, in The Squid and the Whale, the story was building to something; the oldest son realizing his father wasn’t the heroic character he thought he was, and there’s no such build to the story here. Baumbach’s role models here are Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer (it’s no accident Leigh’s character is named Pauline), and he shares their propensity, as I said before, to write about hyper-articulate characters that can’t quite connect to each other. What he seems to forget here is they also had a tendency to get self-indulgent with their characters and writing, and he falls into that trap here. There are scenes that play well in of themselves (as when Margot tries to climb a tree she used to climb as a child), but many scenes end up going nowhere. Also, I could predict some of the plot turns, which might not have mattered if the movie was building to anything. It’s too bad, because for the most part, the performances are all spot on. Kidman has made, to be sure, some questionable choices this decade (The Stepford Wives, Bewitched), but she’s also taken some interesting chances, and Margot certainly represents that. If we never really understand her bitterness, it’s not her fault. Leigh, who would normally play the Margot character, as Pauline gives her warmest performance since maybe the hooker character she played in Miami Blues. And Pais isn’t a movie teen, but a very realistic teen. Black is the one bum note here; he’s not terrible, and is perfectly willing to tamp down his mannerisms, but he also seems somewhat lost at times. And that goes for the movie: “It’s meant to be funny,” Malcolm says at one point, but it isn’t enough to make this story ultimately work.
In Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune, Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), who helped Klaus Von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) successfully overturn his murder conviction, discusses Bulow’s initial phone call to him with his son, telling him it reminds him of his dream where Hitler calls asking Dershowitz to be his lawyer. Dershowitz claims instead of just killing him outright, he would take Hitler’s case, and then kill him. I thought of that scene when I watched Schroeder’s latest film, Terror’s Advocate, a documentary about Jacques Verges, a lawyer who seems like just the type who would have directed Hitler.
Verges cut a contradictory figure. The son of a Vietnamese mother and a French father, he saw himself in life as an oppressed figure, and therefore put his lot with those who he thought were oppressed. This meant identifying himself with many revolutionaries, including those from Algeria and Palestine, and identifying with their causes, which ranged from left wing to communist. Yet he wasn’t someone to live the proletarian life, since he had a taste for the finer things in life. Although he fiercely defended his positions, and admitted using plenty of lawyer’s tricks in defending his clients (he boasts not one of his clients was ever executed), he was able to negotiate with his adversaries without antagonizing them (apparently, since no one who hates Verges is really interviewed here). His attraction to two of his clients – Djamila Bourhired, one of the leaders for Algerian independence, and Magdalena Kopp, a German terrorist and wife to notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal – was apparently as much romantic as it was political, as he married Bourhired and pursued Kopp (which eventually fractured his relationship with Carlos).While Schroeder includes Verges’ somewhat disingenuous defense of Pol Pot, the eventual dictator of Cambodia and a client, as a way of showing Verges’ darker side (Verges downplayed the genocide that occurred under Pot’s regime), he basically takes no outward position on Verges, preferring to let us make up our mind about him. So we get to see, for example Verges’ justification for defending former Nazi Klaus Barbie (he decided to put what he saw as France’s totalitarian methods on trial), without exploring what may have been his anti-Semitism. And most of the figures interviewed are sympathetic to Verges’ point of view, and Schroeder might have included one or two more who might not have liked him (though we get the feeling Carlos, who is interviewed by phone, no longer has much use for Verges). Still, Schroeder confronts us with the justification for terrorist acts throughout history, and it’s not an easy movie to shake off.

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