The Theory of Chaos

Monday, September 14, 2009

Moving Day

I don't know if anyone is actually checking in here anymore, but since the e-spades and virtual shovels are about to show up and set to work, it seemed worth saying - I have built a new home on the web.

This means steering the maximum available eyeballs to that address; which means no more fresh posts over here (not that there have been any for over a year), and in the long term, it also means shifting my movie review archive (again).

Thanks for the clicks, the reads, and the thoughtful comments, Blogger-readers. It has been a fruitful step in the evolution.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

News You Can Use

I don't want to self-flatter that my writing has ever been powerful, but I used to feel power in the act of it. I used to see it accomplishing things - winning people over, showing my uniqueness, they were my hammer blows for shaping my future towards my desires.

At some point I just started wondering instead if it will ever make me money again. Everything else has sure felt futile lately. I call upon the words, and they might come out, but they just lay there, unable to make anything happen no matter how much I might want it.

I'm going to take a break from this, see what it does. I obviously need to re-orient myself in the world. Take some walks, take some pictures, be more flesh-and-blood social.

Also, even when I return to blogging, I'm going to stop being a movie critic. I'm going to just let myself be a movie fan for at least a little while. I gave it four years and I'm proud of my output in that time, but if I really intend to re-shape what I'm doing, it has to mean breaking a few old molds. For the record,
10,000 B.C. is air-headed spectacle, Braveheart sanitized for the crowd that likes its violence pretty. 21 has a charming new lead actor and hits all the necessary plot points, but fails to rise above its design. Doomsday is a consciously derivative pastiche that only occasionally achieves a delirious strangeness of its own. Run Fatboy Run is shallow but cruises on the charm and presence of its leads. And CJ7, in spite of the adorable creature at the heart of its plot, is a disappointingly square attempt at Chaplin-esque sentiment from a filmmaker who missed a chance to build on the reputation of his previous films.

Time to sleep, and eat, and face the sunshine. See you on the other side, friends.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

And how will I feel about today when I'm 33?

I looked back through some older movie reviews today, the ones I wrote in 2004/05 when I first started making a habit out of writing up whatever I saw. I'm reviewing 10,000 B.C. right now, and wanted to remember what I had to say about The Day After Tomorrow, and I carried on reminiscing from there. I don't know why this surprised me, since it happens with everything I write, but I feel embarrassed by those reviews now. It's not that they are bad, especially when compared with the ditzy half-assery I used to write in college, but I can see where I've improved, and now to have this available evidence of an earlier developmental stage makes me squirmy inside.

I'm glad it has happened, because I
want to keep growing as a writer and a critic, but I feel this irrational urge for whatever talent I have now to retroactively wash over my back catalog. And then when I check in and see that this hasn't happened, I get very disappointed in my past self.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Horton Hears a Who!

Full review behind the jump

Horton Hears a Who!
: Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino
: Screenplay by Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss
: Bob Gordon
Featuring the vocal talents of
: Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Isla Fisher, Jonah Hill, Amy Poehler, Jaime Pressly, Charles Osgood

Galileo was forced by the Catholic Church to
recant his finding that the Earth was not the center of the Universe. The legend goes that, after this, he muttered under his breath “And yet it moves”. There was no Horton around to hear him with giant elephant ears, though, so who knows if it ever actually happened?

Both science and religion eventually depend on our belief in things not everyone can see, hear, touch, or understand, even as they seek to explain things that can affect all of us. Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s book
Horton Hears a Who! always alluded to these truisms without resorting to one-sided allegory, it was about belief itself.

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, 100-percent!” So goes the famous line of Horton the pachyderm hero. I remember reading that line as a little boy. To call this adaptation by the hundreds of artists at Fox-based Blue Sky Digital (creators of the Ice Age movies) a “companion piece” to a book entirely written and illustrated by one imaginative man is an outrage against the ratio of involved labor; but it is, in essence, accurate, and a compliment from someone with fond memories of that book.

It is in many respects as bright, cheerful, and gentle as the Dr. Seuss artwork its artists have so lovingly rendered in digital animation, and it does what the best family entertainment does. It acknowledges in its design the thorny complexities of adulthood, the fears and worries and mistakes, and does not encourage children to ignore or deny them, but to surmount them by remembering what is simple, and true, and good. They get their laughs and delights, while adults should admire the loopy visuals and the personality of its voice cast.

It’s a wonder it took the movie business this long to figure out how to approach Dr. Seuss. The psychic scars from manic carnivals like Ron Howard’s live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas are deep indeed; the filmmakers seemed to think their job was not to entertain children, but to terrify them like the bellowing Santa Claus that kicked Ralphie in the face in A Christmas Story.

That movie starred Jim Carrey covered in yak hair and glue, which is not something anyone really needed to see. He is involved in this piece too, invisible, as the voice of Horton. It’s rather shocking that, given what easy money it is for movie stars these days, he hasn’t voiced an animated character before – it suits his playful agility. This elephant is child-like, curious, distractible, fantasy-prone, but good-hearted and true to his principles. None of his friends in the jungle of Nool are really surprised when he starts claiming that the speck of dust on top of a flower he found actually contains a microscopic civilization. But as the children of the jungle are inspired to seek their own imaginary civilizations, undermining the authority of the imperious Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), her schemes and inquisitions against Horton and his speck become as violent and urgent as that of the Church against Galileo.

We get to see that what he heard is absolutely right; within that speck is the zany Whoville, populated by those bouncy imps, the Whos. They are dedicated to recreation and shun all worry, and while Horton takes on the mission to transport their speck past many hazards and enemies to a safe spot atop Mt. Nool, the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carrell) naturally has a hard time convincing the populace that their whole world is threatened with doom, because it is being carried around by a giant invisible elephant that speaks only to him.

There are some unnecessary tangents – like an extended sequence parodying imported martial arts cartoons, and a destined-for-anachronism gag referencing the Fox-owned website MySpace – but for the most part the filmmakers satisfy themselves with providing a bright, silly adventure along the lines of the book. Many of Seuss’s graceful curvy lines and whimsical Whoville contraptions are intact and expanded upon, and Whoville’s constantly-celebrating society is given a few deserved tweaks – the Mayor points out that putting the word “Who” in front of dental work does not make it fun.

And in spite of my perennial hobby horse about shunning voice professionals in favor of movie stars, Carrey and Carrell are each able to do fine, evocative work. I like the edge of uncertainty in Carrell’s voice as he tries to process the vulnerability of being a speck on a speck, and I like Isla Fisher’s lisping exuberance as Who scientist Dr. Mary Lou Larue. Arrested Development’s Will Arnett brings Gob-like misplaced confidence and a goofy faux-Russian accent to the role of a vulture whose aspirations to villainy outstrip his competence. And there’s even a strike of counter-intuitive gold, with Seth Rogen voicing Horton’s zippy blue mouse friend Morton. He doesn’t pretend to sound like anyone but Seth Rogen, yet married to the character’s worried visual design there’s a perfect incongruity to it that made me smile.

Ken Duario and Cinco Paul are the screenwriters who adapted this book, and they are to be commended for resisting the urge to work too hard. They neither pander to the children, nor delude themselves into thinking that kids are media-savvy attention-deficit cynics who need loud antics and pop culture gags every three seconds. They, and the rest of the filmmakers, succeed by creating a visually-delightful world, populating it with cute and zestful characters, and sticking to the mission. This is an utterly charming picture, and faithful to its source; maybe not 100-percent, but closer than you’d expect.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Sleuth

Originally published 10/17/07
Full review behind the jump


: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer
: Kenneth Branagh, Simon Halfon, Jude Law, Simon Moseley, Marion Pilowsky, Tom Sternberg
: Michael Caine, Jude Law, Walter Plinge, Harold Pinter, Eve Channing

It is often the case that the more complex and sophisticated we fancy ourselves, the more obvious our true simple appetites and savage nature are revealed to one another. At the end of the day, isn’t it possible that we’re just out for money and sex and dominance, and what are money and dominance but means to demonstrate our sex appeal? Call it cynical, but it’s undeniable that dramatizations of this irony, like
Sleuth, can be wicked good fun.

The original 1972 film adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play featured Lord Laurence Olivier squaring off against the young Michael Caine in a deadly battle of escalating wit and pranks; now, 35 years of savvy later, it is Sir Michael Caine playing the elder to Jude Law, who has already stepped into Caine’s shoes in the re-make of
Alfie. For both that reason and the nature of the plot they’re about to dive into, it is, naturally, cheekily, inevitable that someone ask “What’s it all about?

The film is a facelift, with a new screenplay by Harold Pinter and direction by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh's career as a filmmaker has been a sometimes dizzying, sometimes disastrous, sometimes brilliant dance between theatrical flourish and imposed Hitchcockian montage discipline. He seems to relish
not making up his mind what kind of director he wants to be, and that makes this material sort of ideal for him, because the key to putting it on screen is a playfulness that must match the childish malice of its characters. And for awhile the elements come together brilliantly, until they realize they don’t know where to end up now that they’re together.

I’ll try to say as little about the plot as I can. It begins when Andrew Wyke (Caine) – a novelist who has heaps of money and has dined with Her Majesty, invites the young Milo Tindolini (Jude Law) to his mansion. The strapping and confident Milo has been having an affair with Andrew’s wife Marguerite (Eve Channing), so the invitation is something of a surprise to him. Andrew says that he wants to be rid of the unfaithful Marguerite, but the only way to make sure she won’t come back is to see that Milo has the financial means to keep her amused. He doesn’t, but if he were to steal Marguerite’s jewels from Andrew’s safe…

There is much more, of course, layer upon layer of deception and gamesmanship involving guns that may or may not have real bullets in them, a murder which may or may not have happened. Although this is essentially a two-man game, there is a third performance that commands attention, that of a common but sharp-eyed police detective who appears in the picture’s middle and, as British police are famous for doing, notices something funny’s goin’ on ‘round ‘ere. The policeman is played by Walter Plinge, a renowned name on the British stage who is a complete unknown to film audiences, though Broadway devotees may know his American cousin, the great George Spelvin. Plinge, with a grumbling voice and a set of hideous teeth he uses, we suspect, to undermine peoples’ composure, has big shoes to fill, given the unforgettable performance by Alec Cawthorne as Inspector Doppler in the original film, but he carries it off magnificently.

Branagh’s camera is a party to the movie's many deceptions – often peering through security cameras or reflections or eschewing the normal comforts of framing to zoom way in to the faces of Caine, Law, and Plinge, and linger there. One shot on Caine’s ambiguous face waits an agonizing length of time, you can sense Branagh reveling in our need to know what he’s thinking at this all-important moment.

The house is a character unto itself, one so grotesque as to astound. It’s like a cross between an Apple catalog and a modern gallery of horrible art, with sliding walls and a caged elevator and laser-activated gadgets on every surface. Backed by Patrick Doyle's score, which plays like chamber music for sociopaths, one can’t imagine ever being in a good mood in this house. But it is built to contain people who enjoy evil moods more, and is now playing host to two men discovering that being nasty to one another is more fun than anything they’ve done in years, including Marguerite.

And that ends up being the trouble; after each star gets their share of licks in, the movie stops cold, uncertain of where to go. The final “act”, to use theatrical terminology, amounts to a final raising of the stakes, as before, but instead of carrying on the ideas of murder and other criminal endeavors, it aims differently, inwardly, towards the nature of desire at its most mercurial. This is undoubtedly what most inspired Pinter, who has made a career out of constructing deft wordplays that act as a mosquito net barely holding back churning but symbiotic swarms of loathing and need. Is it a bluff? Who is the more vulnerable in this final exchange? While psychologically fascinating, this newly-conceived arc fails to cap off what came before, the movie feels like it’s been caught off the map and is now muddling its way back, albeit cleverly, to the inevitable destination.

This is a story steeped in lies and misdirections. I have even had to misdirect you in this review (comment and I’ll be happy to explain under a spoiler warning). But what is true is that with its gleeful bad intentions and brisk 86-minute running time, Sleuth is like a potent hammer-shot of whiskey. You get a good burn and your head spins, and it doesn’t finish smooth, but you relish having taken it, because sometimes that’s just the animal mood you’re in.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Full review behind the jump

In Bruges

: Martin McDonagh
: Martin McDonagh
: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin
: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Peter Dinklage, Eric Godon, Thekla Reuten

A woman standing in the crossfire suggests: “
Why don’t you both put your guns down and go home?” And a gunman replies: “Don’t be stupid, this is the shootout!” And In Bruges, an impressive feature debut from writer/director Martin McDonagh, a playwright who won an Academy Award for his short film Six Shooter, thus acknowledges that it knows its genre, the characters that populate it, and the fates outlined for them, and has decided to operate on a different level, one of rhythm and nuance, an almost manic enjoyment of its characters’ commitment to their position within the drama.

Such richness of theme, and language, and timing, is a rare and encouraging thing from a film debut, and I can’t help but think that the 37-year-old McDonagh is representing a generation that came of age with the wisecracking gangsters of
Goodfellas and Tarantino movies. They are not so much stock characters anymore as storytelling icons, and he’s not performing juvenile apery, but using them as standardized instruments to make beautiful music with. This is a ripened study of a fantasy world built by his forebears, and exploring it brings out his playful side.

The story concerns itself with two hitmen, the young and fidgety Ray (Colin Farrell) and the older Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who in spite of his profession is somehow gentle and paternal; pious, even. They have been sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in the Belgian town of Bruges (pronounced “broozh”) after a botched job. They do not know why this twee tourist spot, full of the best-preserved medieval architecture in Europe, has been selected as their purgatory, but Ken is determined to make the best of it. He wants to sightsee and, per instructions, stay near to the phone at their hotel.

Ray has different ideas – he wants to find drink, drugs, and girls, in as much quantity as he can find. At first it’s pitiably comic, his absolute discomfort with the pace of Bruges, his unerring ability to find the deepest hole of trouble in the vicinity, and dive into it with a shovel. But there’s something deeper at work in the tortured boredom on his face; he is suffering because nothing in this town – not the svelte young drug dealer who sort of likes him (Clémence Poésy), not the film shoot featuring a dwarf actor with a sour temper (Peter Dinklage), not even the violent scrapes he lucks into wherever he goes – is drowning out the memory of why he had to come here.

So many movies of this type go no further than to establish – once a character’s gag is understood there’s nothing further to do but pull the trigger. But in spite of its gunplay this is a story that turns not on action, but on the development of a relationship between two people. Such light touches of sympathy in the screenplay, coaxed out by performance, are like a tower built of matchsticks, taking us to a single choice made by a character who is told to do one thing, but instead finds that he cannot, even though he knows what it will cost him to refuse. The movie will succeed or fail based on our belief in that choice, the rest is just machinery.

Propelled by that machinery, each of our three leads becomes a kind of elemental force. Ray’s is rudderless, hedonistic despair, and Farrell immediately becomes many times more interesting, and funny, as an actor when speaking in his natural Irish lilt. Gleeson, the burliest chameleon in the character actor ranks, plays Ken as firm patience, the calming influence. And Fiennes, with a gutter accent and a rat-like cast to his head, gives an unforgettable turn as Harry, whose jagged-toothed smiles barely cover a volcanic temper. He’s given to outbursts of absolute vulgarity and violence, and yet he still has a kind of private moral code; he will shoot people in some circumstances but not others, even if he really wants to, and he even demonstrates a twisted beneficence as he sorts out his criminal business.

In Bruges comes together like fine clockwork, each character acting determinedly according to their nature and damn the consequences. Even minor characters, like a hapless stick-up artist, and a proud hotel manager, are carried into the most appalling circumstances simply by asserting their own identity and principles. It is what makes McDonagh’s picture a comedy in its design, albeit a black and doom-laden one.

It is a complex tone he is weaving – quirk mixed with pathos, tragedy with the absurd. It sees genuine sadness in death, genuine power in thoughts of damnation, and yet shows a virtuoso flair for the ridiculous in its riffs and tangents. They eventually coalesce into a climax which works like a horrific cosmic punchline – the last judgment of the criminal profession descending as squarely and unforgivingly as the giant foot from the credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; absurd yet still poignant.

Somehow, McDonagh conveys all this utterly to his performers, and films them with a confidence that he is going to find the little bit of magic in them that he is seeking. This is a picture with more than a plot – it has personality.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Darjeeling Limited

Originally posted 10/17/07
Full review behind the jump

The Darjeeling Limited

: Wes Anderson
: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman
: Wes Anderon, Scott Rudin, Roman Coppola, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Stars: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Irfan Khan, Barbet Schroeder

After seeing Wes Anderson’s previous film,
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I wrote: “I don’t think I saw a great movie, but I saw a great filmmaker figuring out, after facing distractions and temptations and the pitfalls of his rebellious and quirky approach, just how he wanted to proceed with his art.” And I still remember the odd sensation of not-quite loving the film in front of me, but knowing that another movie would come after this one, and I anticipated greatness from it.

I’m joyed to have that anticipation rewarded.
The Darjeeling Limited, the latest from one of the most distinctive filmmakers working in Hollywood today, is a movie of great warmth and feeling and life. It casts the artistry and alienation that are Anderson’s trademarks into a journey of almost agonizing heart. The persistent tragedy of Anderson’s characters is that they have extraordinary willpower and imagination, and can stride forth adventurously into the unknown, bring beautiful things into being; can, in fact, do anything they set their minds to, except make people love one another.

It’s this aching desire to create love between people through conscious and grandiose effort, and the underlying truth that love ultimately forges itself where it pleases, and is only felt when surrendered to, that propels the three brothers at the center of
Darjeeling. Eventually one of them must shout “I love you too, but I’m going to mace you in the face!” Which sums things up about as well as can be done.

The brothers are Francis (Owen Wilson), who in the wake of their father dying and their mother abandoning them to study at a monastery is working hard to embrace the role of parental figure; Peter (Adrien Brody), who is a kleptomaniac, about to become a father himself, and is suffering ambivalence about all of it; and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who is trying to funnel all his strong feelings into stories that he insists are not autobiographical, even though their transcription is so accurate that the people he reads his stories to remember being there.

They haven’t seen each other since the day of Dad’s funeral, and Francis has decided that a “spiritual journey” by train across India, with a schedule calibrated by his assistant Brendan (long-time Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky) to provide maximum enlightenment-per-mile, is just the thing for them. And it leads to the sort of rolling catastrophe of surprise, wonder, indignity, and optimism that you see Wes Anderson movies for. I do not know how it is that with every movie he seems to capture color combinations that have never been captured on film before, or scrounge up music of such heartbreaking power that you’ll never have heard before, but I must admire it.

I must also admire producer Scott Rudin, who has in many ways taken in Anderson and protected him from any poachers who might try to chip away at his non-conformity. Rudin has an extraordinary producing resume, putting forth unapologetically commercial fare like The Firm and Ransom, quirky big-budget convention-busters like The Truman Show and Sleepy Hollow, literate independents like The Hours and The Queen, and Team America: World Police, which is a category all its own. He was lampooned by Kevin Spacey in the darkly comic boss-from-hell movie Swimming With Sharks, but the truth is Anderson probably needs someone who is as passionate a movie-lover and as aggressively insane as Rudin is to stand guard on behalf of his fragile, lovely aesthetic.

What makes The Darjeeling Limited arguably my favorite Anderson work is that while there are the familiar brushstrokes – those elegant, almost chivalrous camera movements, the pregnant pauses, a sudden and violent tragedy involving water – the emotion of the piece is never inert. In other pictures he hoards all the naked sincerity inside, winding it up into one brief and potent explosion. Here he keeps the heart beating throughout, and the peaks lose none of their power – this is a story about people driven to near self-destructive madness by their yearnings, but they keep it all cloaked in cool wistfulness, in their deadpan faces and unchanging wardrobes and drastic impulses.

Each of the brothers lugs around several bulky pieces of their father’s monogrammed luggage collection – why do they carry it when they always wear the same thing? Francis has bandages all over his face from a motorcycle accident that left him briefly dead, and, also, might not have been an accident. A train attendant (Amara Karan) asks Jack: “What’s wrong with you?” Jack replies carefully: “Let me think about that. I’ll tell you the next time I see you.” Both know that they will probably never see each other again, and Jack will never be able to think his way out of his problems, but he says it anyway. Anderson recognizes the poignancy of being smart enough to know all this, and still be unable to stop yourself from doing these things.

The vistas of India are still exotic to Western audiences, and are a reminder that the real world creates wonders of a richness and complexity that computers can’t match. And all along the journey are magnificent little performances, like the one by Waris Ahluwalia as a train conductor who cows the brothers like a stern headmaster, or Irfan Khan as a grieving father in a performance with no English words, because none are necessary. Even Anderson stalwarts Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston put in brief turns, where they make themselves affectionately comfortable within the lunacy.

I don’t think I’ve expressed enough just how funny The Darjeeling Limited is, but I think that its humor is not an expression of comedy so much as humanity. Its sense for surprise, its curiosity, and the brotherly love its own brothers seem to be the last to grasp, these prod laughs out of each audience member as if it’s a fireside story told to only them. The wonder of mass intimacy – that’s the essence of cinema, and Wes Anderson has proven his mastery of it.

P.S. The film is rather uniquely preceded by a tie-in short, The Hotel Chevalier, an impeccably-designed 13-minute vignette featuring Jack, an old flame played by Natalie Portman, and a song called "Where Do You Go To My Lovely" by Peter Sarstedt that will stay in your head almost as long as the sense of deep anger and heartbreak that lives in their halting conversation and lust. While it’s not necessary to see to understand the feature, it gives you a context for Jack’s angst and sets-up a rewarding payoff. It was released for free download at the iTunes movie store, but seeing it on the big screen will allow you to notice and appreciate fine detail, like the toothpick that explains so much history.

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Full review behind the jump

The Bank Job

: Roger Donaldson
: Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
: Charles Roven, Steve Chasman
: Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, James Faulkner, Alki David, Michael Jibson, Georgia Taylor, Richard Lintern, Peter Bowles, Alistair Petrie, Hattie Morahan, Keeley Hawes, Gerard Horan, David Suchet, Peter De Jersey

There’s the kind of cool that flaunts itself, and is transitory. Then there’s the authentic cool, the kind you might miss on first glance but is both self-aware and self-assured, and survives the fickle season to make a lasting impression.
The Bank Job is the authentic kind of cool, because while it adopts the slang and dress of working-class England in the 70’s, it knows that what it is actually doing from within that costume is making a true film noir.

It’s about a robbery, and the fate of the robbers. Okay. But fate in a true film noir is about more than who gets caught, who gets shot, and who gets the loot. It’s about doom, an ominous sense that you are headed towards disaster, hypnotized as in a waking nightmare, but cannot stop yourself.
The Bank Job stars Jason Statham, normally an action star of crackerjack talents, who relies very little on his fists here, and thus broadens his range. He’s playing a soulful sinner, a man who at some point stops digging his own grave, only to realize that he has passed some dread threshold where it appears to be finishing the digging of its own accord. As in all the best noirs, there’s a woman involved, one who takes no joy from destroying men, but seems to do it everywhere she goes anyway.

The film is intriguingly inspired by true events, although they are events of such an outrageous nature that government intervention has assured no confirmation is possible of what is or isn’t true about the robbery which took place on September 11, 1971. But director Roger Donaldson, who after helming lucrative mediocrities like
The Recruit and Dante’s Peak has made an invigorating latter-day break from the Hollywood studio system, knows how to tease the unlikely together with solid storytelling, how to bring out all the flavor in the screenplay by veterans Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Still Crazy, The Commitments), so that the whole feels wickedly plausible.

Statham plays Terry Leather, who has never robbed a bank before and is trying to lead a less-spotty life than he used to for the sake of his wife (Keeley Hawes) and children. But the daily grind of small lies and shortcuts at his car dealership, the indignity of owing money to petty thugs who like to smash his cars before he can sell them, hardly feels like upright living. He is sorely tempted by that mirage of the big score, one last large sin that would allow him to leave the others behind. That this time the offer comes from Martine (Saffron Burrows) just seals the deal.

Martine is a former model, who briefly dated one of Terry’s mates, but has always sensed something hungry and unrequited between the two of them. She has been presented inside information about a weakness in the safe deposit box vault at the tony Lloyd’s Bank of London, and is offering Terry the chance to assemble a crew of upwardly-mobile semi-professional villains to act on this tidbit. What he doesn’t know is how she came by this information, and what it is in that vault that she needs to access, an item that becomes the hot potato in an exploding carnival of cross-scheming spies, pornographers, black radicals, and Members of Parliament. One of the greatest film noirs, 1947’s Out of the Past, was based on a novel called Build My Gallows High; Statham plays Terry Leather as a man agog at how high he has just realized the gallows are, and how they seem to be growing still by the hour.

But this is a fatalistic movie without being a pessimistic one – those who recognize this distinction will be best positioned to appreciate its quietly-blossoming excellence. There’s verve to its rush towards disaster; I think this is part of its essential Britishness, finding cheek and wit even in mounting grim circumstances. It enjoys the details of the heist: the tunneling, the accidents, the close scrapes with the police. It doles out little morsels of profanity, violence, and coincidence, a trail of sweets that leads us inexorably into a divine muddle where it seems impossible for our underdog thieves to avoid being killed several times over.

This is a movie with quite a gallery of characters, but you think back and realize how expertly it accounts for all their motives and histories. In part this is thanks to casting; Burrows in her sinewy maturity seems sexier than ever, and each supporting actor, whether they are playing crook, cop, psychopath, or stooge, feels precisely matched by face, voice, and posture to their position on the food chain. Grounded in the ancient British tradition of class warfare, and its accompanying slang, a movie like The Bank Job wins us over by taking the form of a chess game, in which the pawns of both sides have staged a trickle-up revolt, tired of being manipulated and sacrificed with no reward for aims they don’t understand. Pawns working together can be dangerous – they have a lot less to lose.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Last Winter

Originally published September 30, 2007
Full review behind the jump

The Last Winter

: Larry Fessenden
: Larry Fessenden & Robert Leaver
: Larry Fessenden, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zach Gilford, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, Pato Hoffman, Joanne Shenandoah

The old saying goes that a frog leaping into hot water will leap right back out again; but if you set him in a pan of water and slowly heat it, he’ll sit there and passively, ignorantly, boil to death. I think that’s too-insulting an analogy for the human race and global climate change, since quite a few frogs are hopping and trying to stir their fellow frogs to action, but I do consider it an accurate description of what’s going on in
The Last Winter, an unusual horror film for which man’s impact on nature serves as a giant narrative pan in which to slowly raise the temperature on an isolated and very unstable mix of personalities.

It is sometimes too pedantic, and viewers may be frustrated by the lack of clear explanation. But it is quite watchable in how it comes together, co-writer/director Larry Fessenden (
Wendigo) does an impressive job of inexorably stoking dread through the smallest gestures, relying largely on our own imaginations to guess anxiously about what he refuses to confirm or define for us. Much like the British fright picture The Descent, this is another movie that adopts the two-fisted approach of dropping characters into an unbearably-pressurized environment and then toying with our perceptions within it. It’s a potent technique.

The setting is Northern Alaska, in the pristine expanse known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil companies have been staring at this region with drool on their collective lips for decades; and as this picture begins, one company has finally established a small base from which to explore potential drilling sites. In order to win approval from the government, they agree to go about this exploration in an “environmentally-responsible” manner, which in practice means they have hired Hoffman (James LeGros), a respected ecological researcher, to record and report alarming things, which the company ignores. Then they lean on him to sign papers attesting that whatever they’re doing is environmentally-responsible.

He is immediately at odds with Pollack (Ron Perlman), the head of the exploration group, since Pollack needs to start bringing in equipment, and Hoffman keeps pointing out that he can’t. Further antagonism stems from the fact that Hoffman has replaced Pollack in the bed of the feisty Abby Sellers (Connie Britton). As if it wasn’t difficult enough already to endure the isolation and the cold, and the sheer ominous size of Mother Nature’s presence out here where we have yet to tinker. Fessenden does his best work when he trusts he gravity of his location, beautifully photographed in Iceland, and prowls down the hallways of this pitiful little outpost, showing how small and vulnerable we really are in this place. When we peek in the bedroom window of one of the crew, he’s spending his evenings staring at a poster of a bikini girl sitting on a beach; it acts less like an erotic object than it does a sunlamp.

Perlman’s character has too few notes to play considering his centrality to the narrative. He is either aggressive; or, once in awhile, passive-aggressive. But otherwise Fessenden has an eye for indirect behavior, when not dealing with Pollack he has a solid handle on how to get characters to talk past one another, and reveal their buried worries while trying to fake small talk.

Until the weather cools enough for ice road trucks to safely reach them, there is little for this group of hard-noses to do except drink and get angrier at each other. And the weather is not cooling down, in fact it’s getting warmer. You do not need to be an expert to feel that, when conspicuously non-frozen rain starts pouring down on the North Slope of Alaska in February, something is unsettlingly wrong.

But what is wrong, exactly? Is carbon dioxide long-trapped beneath permafrost escaping into the atmosphere, creating a feedback loop of cataclysmic warming? Is so-called “sour gas” leaking from the ground, affecting peoples’ temperament and rationality? Is it true what the boss’s son Maxwell (Zach Gilford) thinks when he says that the area is haunted by what has been trapped below the ice for tens of thousands of years, now being unleashed by our careless stewardship? And when the crew watches a videotape of one of their own dying a very unpleasant death, do they all see the same thing on that tape?

As arguments, strange behavior, noises and tricks of the light on the horizon, and oddities in the weather, give way to real and indisputable death, we begin to sense that there’s no single logical antagonist at work here. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, everything that could possibly be wrong, is wrong. Journals are decaying from scrupulous observations to apocalyptic scribbles. Equipment is malfunctioning. Someone’s nose won’t stop bleeding. Maxwell won’t eat, and keeps wandering miles away to stare at a lonely white cube that covers an old pipe, dug decades before then sealed without any report on what it found. He stares with a mix of compulsion and awe, as if he has found Pandora’s Box and finally understands why every version of that myth ends the same way.

This microcosm-with-a-moral stuff used to be the province of The Twilight Zone, something this movie knows and graciously acknowledges. The moral is tiresomely thick at times, even giving way to stock footage of our polluting ways. This is unnecessary. One of the most primal feelings we carry is that fight-or-flight radar, that sense that something is very wrong, we don’t know what it is, and it could get us killed. The Last Winter is at its best when it’s pinging the audience's radar from every direction.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Vantage Point

Full review behind the jump

Vantage Point

: Pete Travis
: Barry L. Levy
: Neal H. Moritz
: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Edgar Ramirez, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Eduardo Noriega, Bruce McGill, Zoe Saldana

So many movies written by eager screenwriters hoist the banner of
Rashômon while consistently failing to understand Rashômon. I sometimes wonder if they’ve even seen it. What made Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 breakthrough film memorable was that it exposed our self-deceiving nature. Revisiting a violent confrontation in the woods from the points-of-view of the three participants (one of which is a ghost), each recalls the events differently. But the fourth and final recitation, by an uninterested passer-by, reveals them all to be cowardly, self-flattering liars, even the ghost.

That haunting notion is what you might label the Kurosawa Uncertainty Principle – that in any event that involves our selves, our memories are irrevocably made unreliable. We are doomed, even after this life, to sinful false witness by our own prideful egos.

Vantage Point
is not about any of that distressing chimerical truth stuff; it is a conspiracy thriller with a gimmick. It shuttles back and forth in time over the same rough half-hour period, each trip centering in on a different participant in the key events. Its revelations are not soulful but procedural – the liars are the filmmakers, steering us, not very artfully, around the truth until it’s time for the big chase. It is mounted with resourcefulness and polish, and populated with excellent actors, but substantively it amounts to little more than a carnival ride; one that swiftly deposits you back where you began, scarcely enriched for the experience.

The central incident is an anti-terrorism address that was supposed to be delivered by American President Ashton (William Hurt) at a summit of world leaders in Salamanca, Spain. But a shot is fired, commotion erupts, there is an explosion, and the story fragments, each major character there for one piece of the puzzle.

There’s Brooks, the news director (Sigourney Weaver), trying to manage a live broadcast that’s become much more deadly and chaotic than imagined, real news suddenly igniting in front of a team accustomed to broadcasting puffery friendly to the powers-that-be. There’s the genial tourist Howard (Forest Whitaker), wandering the historic city with his camcorder, who befriends a little girl, and thinks he sees a shooter in a window. And there’s Barnes, the veteran Secret Service Agent (Dennis Quaid) who has already taken one bullet for this President, who spots something on a videotape that haunts him.

Naturally the attempted assassination is more than meets the eye, and involves one of those typically convoluted cinematic alliances of dupes and turncoats and good people forced into bad deeds, presided over by a serenely confident evil mastermind who has never learned that simple plans are less likely to go awry. It presents a sturdy opportunity to play one of my oldest movie-going games, wherein I derive the likelihood of a character’s “surprise” involvement in a conspiracy by considering the ratio of their star power to their seemingly incongruous lack of screen time.

Many people are imperiled and/or killed, and many things explode, and there’s an invigorating car chase. There are two quite involving sequences. In one our sympathies are scrambled as we watch a decent-hearted person supremely successful at a horrible mission. That’s an old trick in this genre, but it got that way by being an effective trick.

The other is a nimble stretch where Howard tries to keep up with a police foot pursuit, camcorder in hand as he balances his concern over that little girl with this obsessive sense that, by recording these events, he has become an intrinsic part of them, and cannot miss out on the ending. There’s an opportunity here for the dispassion of videotape and the shaken psychology of an ordinary man suddenly enmeshed in world-shattering drama to produce some conflict around truth, something almost Rashômon-like, say. It doesn’t, but at least it’s energetic as we watch it.

Vantage Point has recycled the lingo of our contemporary circumstances but not the complexity. Pro forma arguments erupt about the consequences of violently overreacting in a world that does not boil down into easy good-and-evil clichés, but that’s a fine dialogue to try and have in a movie where the bad guy might as well dispense with ideology and put on a black hat. Appropriating the War on Terror for such a fundamentally non-serious shoot-‘em-up is arguably a greater insult to the intelligence than claiming lineage to Rashomon, but it’s hardly a new crime for Hollywood – this movie would have and could have been made in the 50’s through the 80’s with scheming Cold Warriors, and all you’d need to change would be the accents.

Perhaps I’m condemning a legitimately competent piece of action programming on the basis of its trappings and its marketing claims. After all, it is successfully fast and slick, and Weaver, Quaid, and especially Whitaker demonstrate excellence within what room they have to maneuver in Barry L. Levy’s script. But the critic must adopt the role of that final witness in Rashômon – the one who, having observed all but participated directly in none, can render final judgment on all pretensions: I know Rashômon, Rashômon is a favorite movie of mine. And this, sir, is no Rashômon.

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