Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New DVD releases February 5

According to the song by Rodgers and Hammerstein in Carousel, June is busting out all over, but this month seems to be the one busting out all over with big movies. Seven big named movies are being released this week, and the only one I haven’t seen is The Jane Austen Book Club. So let’s get right to it.
When he gave Backbeat a positive review, the late Gene Siskel mentioned he had given a positive review to every movie about the Beatles. I thought of him when I was watching Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, her attempt to tell a tale of the 60’s through use of 33 of the Beatles songs, ranging from “It Won’t Be Long” to “Let it Be.” I also thought of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first attempt at doing something like this, which turned out to be akin to watching a train wreck, and American Dreams, the TV show about a family going through the turmoil of the 60’s. Taymor’s movie is better than the former (which is damning it with faint praise, of course), but reminded me too much of the latter to be entirely successful. For all of Taymor’s visual audacity, and some inventive reworking of the classic Beatles oeuvre (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” reinterpreted as a song of longing), the film never really transcends the clichéd storytelling.
In a nutshell, the plot revolves around Jude (Jim Sturgess), a dockworker from Liverpool who comes to America to look for his father (Robert Clohessy), a janitor at Princeton. While there, he’s befriended by Max (Joe Anderson), a rebellious student, and his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who at first seems like the all-American girl. Max eventually drops out of Princeton and moves to New York City with Jude, and Lucy joins them when her boyfriend Daniel is killed in Vietnam. While there, they and a host of people, including Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a flower child singer, and JoJo (Martin Luther), a psychedelic guitarist, become swept up in the revolution sweeping the country. Also, Jude, a cartoonist, falls in love with Lucy, but becomes alienated from her as she becomes obsessed with the antiwar movement. Again, this sounds awfully familiar, and the stilted dialogue (“I’m sorry if I’m not the man with the megaphone, but this is what I do” Jude retorts to Lucy at one point). It could also be that Sturgess irritated me most of the time he was on screen, especially when he was singing. As for that singing, I alluded to how Taymor and her companion, composer Elliot Goldenthal, have some interesting interpretations of some of the Beatle classics, like Max singing “Happiness is a Warm Gun” at a VA hospital while a nurse (Salma Hayek) administers a morphine shot to him. But just as often, the songs are done too literally, as when Jude and the others living at the apartment try to get Prudence (T.V. Carpio) to come out of the room she’s locked herself into by singing “Dear Prudence.” Wood manages to transcend the clichéd material most of the time, and Hayek, Bono (as Dr. Robert, singing “I Am the Walrus”), and Eddie Izzard (as Mr. Kite) deliver sharp cameos. But the definitive movie using Beatles music as a backdrop (as opposed to being about the Beatles themselves) has yet to be made.
After sitting on the shelf for almost two years, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford inspired either love-it-or-hate-it reactions upon its release. I’m afraid I’m closer to the latter camp. It’s not like there’s nothing to recommend about this film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives this picture a dreamlike quality, and Brad Pitt is both charismatic and dangerous as the legendary outlaw Jesse James (although the film does shy away from some of his more unlikable qualities, like being a Confederate rebel). There’s also good supporting work from Sam Shepard as Jesse’s brother Frank (even though he’s only in the first half hour of the movie), and Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford. But the narration by Hugh Ross drowns the film in self-importance. Worse, while I normally like Casey Affleck (he’s much better in next week’s release Gone Baby Gone), he comes off mannered and forced here as Robert Ford, the aspiring gunslinger who wanted to be Jesse James but later agreed to kill him. And Dominik, who also wrote the film (adapting the novel by Robert Hansen), is highly uneven in the telling, as the narrative moves in fits and starts. When a co-worker asked my review of the film, I mentioned it was what would happen if Terrence Malick didn’t have the talent to match his ambition. It’s a smart-ass answer, but it unfortunately happens to be true here.
You have to say this for Neil Jordan – when he goes mad, he goes mad all the way. In 1999, he attempted to marry the serial killer genre with the fairy tale genre with In Dreams, and failed spectacularly. Now in his latest movie, The Brave One, he again tries to make a modern day fairy tale, this time within the vigilante drama. This time, I was going back and forth on the entire picture; every time I was about to dismiss it outright, something would come back to keep me interested. Usually, this was not the main storyline of Erica (Jodie Foster), the radio show talk host who, after surviving a vicious attack by thugs who killed her doctor fiancée (Naveen Andrews); while Foster internalizes everything to good effect, and is credible as a fighter, her story still falls back on some hoary clichés (like why would any sane person be in Central Park in that area that time of night?). No, the story that intrigued me was of Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), who, while trying to track a killer of his own, gets involved with the murders Erica commits, and even becomes friends with her. Howard isn’t exactly playing a new character here – like Morgan Freeman in Seven, he’s someone who’s seen too much but is trying to make sense of it anyway. Howard speaks in his slow drawl, when trying to draw out a witness, asking a favor from his ex-wife (Zoe Kravitz), or talking with Erica, as if he’s thinking about what he really wants to say, and doesn’t trust himself otherwise. He provides a moral center to this film. And whatever you might think of Jordan’s view of the city, he and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot do evoke both Erica and Mercer’s states of mind quite well. But the movie lost me in the last act with a climatic scene that totally goes off the rails. This being Neil Jordan, who rarely does anything half-ass, it’s not surprising that he’d aim high and miss, but without giving anything away, I find myself saying something unusual about a vigilante movie; I didn’t get pissed over moral failure, but plot failure.
Speaking of which, another honest to goodness failure, and a spectacular one at that, is Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur’s follow-up to his 1998 film Elizabeth. I generally don’t like sequels anyway, but rarely has a director fallen so far from his original movie to the sequel made from it. Kapur’s original followed Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) before she became “The Virgin Queen”, and the palace intrigue that threatened to remove her from the throne almost immediately after she took it. There, Kapur and writer Hossein Amini took what should have been just another costume drama and made a spy thriller out of it. This time, Kapur and writers Michael Hirst and William Nicholson try to keep the spy thriller part – outside forces, mostly Spain, are still trying to unseat the Protestant Elizabeth from the throne and put her sister Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) on it – while also adding costume soap opera, in the form of Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who comes to England from the colonies, and finds himself attracted to not only Elizabeth, but also her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). What could have been either a cogent drama or a fun romp becomes a ridiculous and incoherent mess. Kapur and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin abandon the dark look of the first film for the look of a typical colorful costume drama, and the result just makes everything look like a soap opera, and not a very entertaining one at that. Worse, the actors are forced to spew some particularly ripe dialogue (as when the Spanish king exclaims “England is ensnared in the devil!”), and good actors such as Blanchett, Owen, and Geoffrey Rush (reprising his turn as advisor Francis Walsingham) are left stranded. The only ones who make an impression are the ones who get to use silence, like Morton, who manages to be regal and fanatical, and Cornish, who made an impression on me for the first time, and manages to rise above the decidedly purple prose here. Shoot ‘Em Up was the worst movie I saw last year, but I walked out of that one; unfortunately, I stuck with this one all the way through, thinking it could only get better. It didn’t.
Sometimes, the most frustrating careers in Hollywood aren’t the hacks who are inexplicably allowed to keep directing, but the middling directors who hit excellence every once in a while and are fair to middling, or less than that, the rest of the time. Robert Benton falls into this latter category. The Late Show remains one of the better reworkings of the detective genre in the 1970’s, standing alongside such classics as Chinatown and Night Moves, and Nobody’s Fool is an incisive and richly detailed study of a small upstate New York town, and an overgrown boy of 60 who finally learns to take some responsibility. The rest of Benton’s career, at least as far as a director, is categorized by some okay films (Nadine, The Human Stain) and near misses (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart), with the occasional dud (Still of the Night). It’s hard to make even a bad film in Hollywood, let alone a good one, but you wonder what allowed Benton to strike lightning twice, and only twice. His latest middling effort is Feast of Love, taken from Charles Baxter’s novel. As with the novel, it’s meant to be somewhat of a romantic fantasia about several relationships at various ages (though presumably because romantic fantasy wouldn’t work as well in cold weather, the movie moves the novel’s Michigan setting to Portland, Oregon). The unluckiest in relationships by far is Bradley (Greg Kinnear), a coffee shop owner who is dumped by his first wife Kathryn (Selma Blair) for another woman, and then his second wife Diana (Radha Mitchell) for David (Billy Burke), the married man she’d been seeing. Somewhat luckier are Oscar (Toby Hemingway), who works at Bradley’s coffee shop, and Chloe (Alexa Davalos), with whom he meets cute at the shop (it’s the type of movie where she gets hired to work there right on the spot), but even they fall on tough times. Standing in observance of all of these couplings is Harry (Morgan Freeman), a retired college professor who lives with his wife Esther (Jane Alexander), and is lonely ever since the death of his son.
What made the novel work was Baxter’s nicely detailed portraits of each character, and his ability to ground his fantasia in reality. Benton, unfortunately, is a literalist, and he and writer Allison Burnett keep the skeleton of the plot without having any heft to it. Worse, the dialogue they come up with sounds stilted on screen. Benton is to be applauded for how matter of fact he is about the nudity (only Freeman and Alexander remain fully clothed of the main characters), but it’s the only magical element of the movie. Hemingway and Davalos may be pleasing to the eye, but their characters and performances have little depth. Likewise, Freeman and Alexander are always enjoyable to watch, but they are basically playing the same roles they always play, and it’s getting a bit tiresome. And while Kinnear and Blair are talents, they have nothing to work with here. Only Mitchell manages to triumph over the material. She always retains an air of mystery about her, and you always want to know what she’s thinking or feeling. That’s a quality Feast of Love could have used a lot more of.
The best new release coming out on DVD this week is Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris. Delpy wrote, directed and co-stars in the movie, and also cast her former boyfriend Adam Goldberg as her screen boyfriend, and her real life parents as her on-screen parents. And the film is very Woody Allen-esque – Marion (Delpy), a photographer, and Jack (Goldberg), an interior designer, are spending two days in Paris with Marion’s parents before they go back to New York, and while there, they keep running into all of Marion’s ex-boyfriends, most of whom remain on good terms with her – too good, according to Jack. As a director and writer, Delpy does have a tendency to let things run on too long – the scene where she berates the one ex she hates is a good example – but mostly, she runs things on an even keel, and never lets the jokes overplay the characters. It also helps that, unlike Allen nowadays, she knows how to make these characters talk believably. She’s also generous with her co-stars, and Goldberg, who can get stuck in shtick, responds well; though he’s basically “the ugly American,” he actually underplays here, and his double takes are as funny as his one-liners. And the abrasive nature of the film may be off-putting to some, but to me, it kept things from getting dull and staid. Most romantic comedies deal with the beginning of a relationship; rarely do we get one that starts at a comfortable (or complacent) middle. That alone lifts Delpy’s movie, despite the somewhat pat ending, above most of what passes for comedy these days.The two best re-releases this week both work the comedy/drama side of the street. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment may not be his best film – I reserve that honor for Some Like it Hot – but it’s his best melding of cynicism and sweetness. Wilder and collaborator I.A.L. Diamond deftly combine the twin tales of insurance agent C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who lends his apartment out to co-workers for their sexual trysts, and his crush on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Lemmon, of course, is an old pro at combining comedy/drama. The real stars here are MacLaine, who gives an edge to her lovable pixie that she normally didn’t, and Fred McMurray as C.C.’s boss and Fran’s married boyfriend, who once again plays against type for Wilder as a snake in the grass. Also, the final line stands up with Wilder’s own “Well, nobody’s perfect” as the best ending line in movie history. Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie owes a big debt to Wilder not only in, like Some Like it Hot, in being a cross-dressing comedy – although here, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) dresses up as a woman (Dorothy Michaels) not to save his life, but because he’s been out of work as an actor and needs a job desperately – but also in blending comedy and drama. Some carped then, and today, how Hoffman getting in touch with his inner woman grates today (Dennis Lim did just that in a recent article in the L.A. Times), but the film’s message, for the most part, is subservient to the comedy, and the comedy today remains as funny as ever. Pollack doesn’t miss the farcical elements of the picture – the scene where Michael finally reveals to everybody who Dorothy is remains one of the funniest scenes ever – but grounds them in reality, making them all the more funny. Having Hoffman, a troublemaking Method actor, playing a troublemaking Method actor doesn’t hurt either, but there’s also great support from Pollack himself (as Michael’s exasperated agent), Bill Murray (as his roommate), Teri Garr (as his girlfriend), and Jessica Lange (as Dorothy’s co-star).

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