The Theory of Chaos

Friday, December 22, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond
: Edward Zwick
: story by Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell, screenplay by Charles Leavitt
: Paula Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Darrell Roodt, Graham King
: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Kagiso Kuypers, Arnold Vosloo, David Harewood, Jimi Mistry, Michael Sheen

Let’s hope they don’t find oil here” says a villager, “Then we’d have real problems.” Considering the context – a nightmarish civil war that’s causing the death, disfigurement or displacement of hundreds of thousands – under the direction of another filmmaker that line might come off as almost too pointedly precious. But that’s always been the talent of Edward Zwick, to use the tools of melodrama – and I use that word in its classical, not pejorative, definition – to enhance our understanding of a world and condition whose collected horrors might otherwise be beyond our imagination. And to paint an enormous canvas while never short-changing the dimensions of the featured human figures in it.

Blood Diamond, as in other Zwick features like The Last Samurai, The Siege and Glory, there is never doubt that you’re watching Hollywood stars enact a Hollywood scenario with Hollywood dialogue. But the studiousness of Zwick’s approach, and this is reflected not only in Charles Leavitt’s thorough screenplay but in Leonardo DiCaprio’s transformative lead performance, bears effective witness to a tragic reality. We never forget we’re watching A Story, but we accept it, appreciate its expert exercise of the dramatic form, and through it can access what is happening to Africa.

What is happening is the latest version of an old cycle, where the outside world finds something in Africa it prizes – ivory, gold, now diamonds – and realizes that the cheapest way to come by it is to exploit the desperate poverty of the African people, arm them against one another and encourage chaos. We meet a mercenary Colonel (Arnold Vosloo) who sells weaponry to rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds. The rebels then slaughter villagers, enslave them to mine more diamonds, and try to overthrow the government, which then turns for assistance to the same Colonel’s private army, which swoops in and kills the rebels in exchange for, naturally, exclusive diamond mining rights.

The Colonel’s most valued operative is Danny Archer (DiCaprio). “Drafted” and trained as a child soldier many years ago, he’s grown into a callous but capable smuggler to whom killing is inconvenient but sometimes necessary. He’s not so much a practicing cynic as he is cocooned from the very idea of a life away from death and greed. Maybe the best, most finally revealing moment in DiCaprio’s performance, which is exacting and captivating and never asks for sympathy, comes as he positions himself with a rifle on a hillside, sees soldiers approaching, and unconsciously mutters “Ya, ya…” as he drives them to cover with a few shots, checks his ammo, adjusts his position, and hears them coordinating to continue their approach. “Ya, ya…” The soldier-of-fortune in him never rests, is never surprised by violence, but goes to work as if his mentor the Colonel is still right over his shoulder, teaching him how to do it properly. In the heat of battle, he is practically his most dull self.

Archer is a dangerous man not only because of his skill and lack of restraint about murder and duplicity, but because he is in a unique position to understand the whole landscape of the diamond trade. How diamond companies can pass high-minded bans against “conflict diamonds” – diamonds used to finance civil wars like Sierra Leone’s – but are quite happy to buy them once they’ve been smuggled into a neighboring country that can give them plausible deniability. They can then hide them in vaults, keeping the price down for the Africans who have them to sell, but inflating their scarceness and value for the Americans who will pay absurd markups for that anniversary present.

That’s the big picture that reporter Maddy Bowen (an effectively understated Jennifer Connolly) has been trying to piece together, and when Danny decides to hit on her in a bar, she seizes the opportunity to turn him into a source – not through deceit, but persuasion. What’s interesting about Blood Diamond is that the characters rarely lie – they openly admit to using each other, it’s simply a question of how their interests are aligned for that moment.

And everyone is trying to align their interests with Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a loving father and fisherman who with selfless ferocity manages to help his family escape a raid on his village by a trigger-happy rebel militia. The leader of the “R.U.F.” (David Harewood), seems to honestly believe that if he shouts loudly and often enough that he is “fighting for the people”, the people will ignore that his men are gunning “the people” down, or hacking off their hands to prevent them from voting, or enslaving them.

Vandy’s fate is the latter, until he finds a clear, pink stone of extraordinary value, and buries it. Now his knowledge is worth millions of dollars, and many lives. He wants to find his family, everyone else wants the diamond. Danny forms an uneasy alliance with him, and Maddy tags along, and each has some skill or experience to help the other.

Their mission across a war zone, through all manner of devastations, becomes about more than the stone, it becomes about Vandy’s son Dia (Kagisa Kuypers) – who is captured by the R.U.F. We watch the horrifying process by which this boy – and hundreds of others like him – are drugged, manipulated, and brainwashed into becoming killers. In many ways this is a drama about how the boy Danny Archer became the man we see now, and what choices he has to make once he recognizes the same fate being laid out for Dia.

But Zwick is smart enough to know that the story’s heart is with Solomon Vandy, a character tailor-made for Hounsou’s fearlessly-focused passion. While everyone else is chasing ephemeral dreams of what the diamond might get them, what he wants is tangible and never-changing. He wants to protect his son, so he can grow up to be a doctor in a country at peace. That is the strength a character needs to drive a drama the size of Blood Diamond. We are able to care because he cares down to his last ounce of life.

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Archive Hiatus

So I've managed to port over all of my reviews for movies released in 2004. Thanks to everyone for reading and for those first few encouraging comments. Cross-posting on Blogger is an enjoyable experiment so far.

I have over 70 reviews of movies released in 2005, but I'm going to sit on them for the time being. Posting them here has given me the opportunity to do little nipping and tucking on them, not to change the critical thrust but just clean up their readability. Believe it or not I'll write sentences that will bother me years after I've typed them. I've put a few of those to bed and I'm grateful for it.

But because that takes time, and because there's other archive stuff I'd like to transfer (travel entries, pictures, etc.), not to mention some other projects I've got in the works, I'm going to put a hold on older movie reviews for the next couple of months. If you simply cannot contain yourself, you can see them in their orignally-published form

You'll still get the new reviews as soon as they're ready, along with the other Hollywood stuff I put up from time to time. I'll likely be completely blog-silent through the holidays, I'll be on a 10-day trip to Chicago that's got a lot of personal business to it.

So Happy New Year, Jimmy. Release the old, anticipate the new. Enjoy yourself.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Flags of Our Fathers

Full review behind the jump

Flags of Our Fathers

: Clint Eastwood
: screenplay by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley & Ron Powers
: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg
: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough

Not many filmmakers get
more interesting in their autumn years. Some flame out, others calcify their early brilliance or simply retreat into obtuse preoccupations. Clint Eastwood, by contrast, took until he was 62 with Unforgiven to convince Hollywood he was more than just a movie star with ambitions.

Since then he’s made both accomplished entertainments like
Space Cowboys and critical triumphs like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. He’s one of the few filmmakers working with an unswaying interest in drama as a vital genre, and grown-up moviegoers around the world should be grateful. Now at 76 he’s not only made Flags of Our Fathers, easily his most technically-sophisticated film to date, his coverage of the World War II battle for Iwo Jima has grown so thorough that it has spawned a second feature, the Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima, just released. That ambition leads to trouble here, the movie sometimes seems to be searching for its own subject, bouncing around in time and stopping its own momentum as it hunts for another more resonant layer below.

But that’s just part of the storyteller’s passion so strongly evident on screen in
Flags, because it sees past the battle to the people in it and an idea with more resonance than How the Island was Won. For all the work that goes into capturing the action he sticks to his principles and his classicist instincts. There’s a heartbreaking moment where a soldier walks into a cave, sees something we can’t that will haunt him for the rest of his days, and as he registers it, the light disappears from his face, leaving him in black. It’s the most overtly cinematic gesture I can recall from a movie that is almost journalistic in how it pierces the mythology to find the hard facts. Rather than trying to top a Saving Private Ryan he sidesteps it, crafting a story where the battlefield is just one stop along the journey.

When he re-stages the raising of the flag, the most iconic image of American war in the 20th century, he shows it as what it was, an afterthought. Because it was the second flag put up that day. Because it would take another 35 days to win the island. Because the photographer wasn’t even sure his camera was fully functional. But that photo had a galvanizing effect – changed the course of history in a way. And anything that can have that kind of effect on a country has the potential to have a devastating impact on a few small individuals, and that’s what this movie is eventually interested in.

It charts the men who were in that photograph, and how they found themselves branded as heroes for, in the photographer’s words, “putting up a pole”. America in 1944 was weary of war, loss and despair. Unlike today, when Congress can raise its debt ceiling in perpetuity and just keep printing money, the tanks then couldn’t be built unless Americans, already rationing their goods and sending their children overseas, dug further into their pockets to buy War Bonds.

The three surviving soldiers from the photograph, Naval Corpsman “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Marine Privates Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Gary Beach), got a free ticket home and starring roles in a cross-country bond drive. They are the keepers of uncomfortable secrets – that not everyone credited with being in the picture was, that the flag had nothing to do with the victory, and that when the actual battle was aflame, not all of them distinguished themselves. Principles about the truth are one thing, but can they stand against a weeping mother who needs to believe her son was a hero, much less an entire nation that needs something to believe in to carry on the fight against such an enemy?

The truth of war is that until the first bullet flies by your head you have no idea who you really are. And that the man who climbs out of the trench next to you might get thrown back a second later without anything left below the neck. And that the best soldier you know might die from the most ghastly and pointless mistake. That’s the Iwo Jima that Eastwood shows.

Francois Truffaut once said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because war action on-screen, while you watch it safely with your popcorn in hand, is inherently exciting. Flags of our Fathers is a serious attempt to disprove that maxim – showing the battlefield as mayhem between war machines so large the individual life becomes meaningless. As the ships steam towards the island a soldier accidentally falls overboard, and his comrades watch him bob away, knowing that their ships won’t slow or even break formation to rescue him, so important is the mission.

It is an achievement of scope, then, that Flags of Our Fathers can encompass both that and the intimate examination of those three survivors and how they cope with getting credit for practically taking the whole island themselves. Hayes, a Native American who faces prejudice everywhere at home and was violently opposed to leaving his platoon, loses himself in drink. Gagnon, who was made a gear runner because his commanding officer (Barry Pepper) suspected he lacked the stomach for a real fight, soaks up the attention a little too eagerly – casting the handsome, wide-eyed Bradford goes a long way.

And “Doc”, father of the author whose work inspired this movie (and who appearsplayed by Thomas McCarthey as an audience proxy interviewer in present-day segments a la Citizen Kane), is thoughtful and quiet – looking after the soldiers around him just as he was tasked to do in battle. You can see why he might be the type who could produce a writer among his offspring, and you can respect that what he did made it possible for his children to pick that kind of a career. The effort was heroic - the men in it were men, for better and for worse.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Rocky Balboa

Full review behind the jump

Rocky Balboa

: Sylvester Stallone
: Sylvester Stallone, based on characters created by Sylvester Stallone
: Kevin King, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler
: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, A.J. Benza, James Francis Kelly III, Pedro Lovell

I’ve long said what makes
Jaws great is that the dramatic question at its heart goes “Can a cop who left the big city behind for a chance to make a difference overcome his worst fear when the people he’s protecting need him the most?” And what makes Jaws 2 lame is that its dramatic question goes “Can he kill a bigger shark than last time?

The original
Rocky took away from us the question of whether or not this nobody from a nothing neighborhood could beat the heavyweight champion of the world. He knew he couldn’t and said as much. It asked whether he could carry all this stuff – his poverty, the loss of his prime years, his shy, angry and hopeless friends, his loathsome job breaking thumbs for a gangster, the unease with himself he couldn’t put words to – if he could carry all that weight into the ring, take the beating, and stand up anyway.

The sequels only bothered to ask “
can he beat this new actor who is scarier than the last?” They became about boxing, rather than using boxing as a means to embody a feeling, and a message about how to take life’s blows. That first one was sentimental, often obvious, even a bit clumsy, but it seemed to come from someplace personal and real.

Like the grizzled trainer Mickey said: “
Ya got heart, but you fight like a god-damn ape.” That Sylvester Stallone, who has written every episode of this series and directed four of them, is not a subtle dramatist, is not something you condemn him for in that first movie, because he said something that mattered to him. In Rocky Balboa, the sixth and final movie about Philadelphia’s favorite fictional underdog, it finally feels like he’s re-captured something we felt from that first one. That with the advance of age, the loss of his position atop the box office totem pole, the humbling of so many inferior movies, he finally has something urgent to convey to us again, and he’s remembered how his screen alter ego helped him do that before.

When we catch up with Rocky his beloved Adrian is dead, and his son (Milo Ventmiglia) has a hard time creating his own adulthood in a town where everyone feels first-name intimacy with his pop. He spends long hours by his wife’s grave, and touring the important places in her life. He owns a restaurant named after her, where every night he puts on a red blazer and goes from table to table, posing for cell phone camera pictures and telling old stories about his wars in the ring.

Something about his lumpy face, the cut of his jacket, made me think of those Hall of Fame ceremonies for pro sports, where you see the toll these men’s glories took on them, and a kind of shuffling unease that comes from never quite knowing what to do with themselves even now that it’s been over for decades. It’s the things Rocky can’t or won’t put words to that are most compelling about him.

You can see the thought quietly build on itself, as he starts to think maybe there’s something left he could take back into the ring – little, local exhibition fights, he’s thinking. It just so happens that at the time, the reigning heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is struggling to prove his bona fides. He’s undefeated and holds four of those shiny belts, but he’s loathed by boxing fans because, with the dearth of modern competition, he’s never faced a real challenge.

I wanted to get more inside the skin of Dixon, who has his own interesting story about how he was peeled away from the trainer who really mentored him, and now is practically a prisoner of the handlers and hangers-on that always spawn around successes like him. But his story is handled as pure brisk stereotype, his “friends” indistinguishable from background actors in rap videos, his managers the same old slick conmen.

A computer simulation is making its way around ESPN, showing that, were they able to meet in their prime, Rocky Balboa would have knocked out Mason Dixon. He’s smaller and less technically-skilled, but knew how to take a beating, and the power in his fist always gave him the “puncher’s chance” to take out a seemingly superior opponent. Dixon doesn’t understand how this could be so – it eats at him, and suddenly what should happen seems obvious.

Tarver is a real-life boxer, and what authenticity he brings to the ring action is hampered by his lack of screen charisma. But in a way that’s the point – he’s no Apollo Creed, simply an excellent ring athlete who’s never learned that competition is not about beating others, but about testing yourself. Stallone, who clearly put painful hours into muscling up his sixty-year-old body, by now can wear Rocky’s slouch, his “how you doin’?” and his porkpie hat like skin. You can sense the relief that he doesn’t have to be an icon anymore or battle communism, he can just be the guy from Philly again.

The movie’s still a little too clean and nice, Paulie (Burt Young) no longer has enough of the self-pitying monster in him to throw the Thanksgiving turkey into the alley. Only once in awhile does his front as the loveable grump who Doesn’t Really Mean It crack, and we see the rage still inside. And Rocky is a little too full of punchy wisdom and platitudes. He had a charmingly peculiar way of speaking that flattened the more Hollywood he went, the nibbles we get of it here are welcome, because they remember that he said more when he was less sure of what he was saying.

Much of the movie has a retirement tour feel to it – characters from the original popping up in new configurations, letting us see what’s become of them. It’s a recognition by Stallone that he really created a world when he drew on his own memories, the people he’d grown up with, to dash off that rough first script; and we invested in that world. The end credits show men, women, children of all ages re-enacting his signature moment, dashing up the Museum of Art steps, shadowboxing, and throwing hands in the air in triumph. Much has passed between that run and the run he makes in Rocky Balboa; and for all its rough simplicity, it still has the power to charm because it remembers that this movie is about how much has happened since that first run.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Breaking and Entering

Full review behind the jump

Breaking and Entering

: Anthony Minghella
: Anthony Minghella
: Tim Bricknell, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack
: Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, Robin Wright Penn, Martin Freeman, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Rafi Gavron, Poppy Rogers

The more movies I see Jude Law starring in, the more I’m convinced he’s not a movie star. When in a supporting role, like as the sun-kissed object of desire in The Talented Mr. Ripley (his first collaboration with writer/producer/director Anthony Minghella), or as a heroic figure in a canvas, like the spectacle-driven Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, he has magnetism. But when it comes time to grab the center of a movie and fill it with life, he has a curiously opposite effect, the movie’s energy tends to just sink into him.

I don’t think it’s as simple as his choice of starring roles – such as in the misconceived screen adaptation of Closer or Minghella’s morose epic Cold Mountain – some essence of his person, whatever you call it that the camera captures, flickers out when viewed straight on.

This compounds the problem of
Breaking and Entering, a multicultural character study set in an area where Wealthy London and Poor London are making for uncomfortable neighbors. Already the movie has a curious relationship with its own dramatic possibilities, running up to them before stopping short, moving in other directions, bailing the characters out before they go beyond the point of no return. And Will, the character at the center of it, seems the most disconnected from all the various passions in play, the threat of loss is most distant from him. I tried to picture this movie in the 60’s starring Richard Burton, or in the 70’s with Jack Nicholson, and the result hums a little more to life but still fails to achieve liftoff. Law’s credibility gap as the heart of the proceedings just exposes the movie's shortcomings all the more.

It’s not that it’s incompetently made, quite the opposite. Minghella is an exceptional dramatist, and can inject passion and agony into domesticity as well as anyone. He’s lovely with the details, how people can invest objects with unfathomable meaning, how they can talk their way into statements they instantly regret, how the familiarity of years alters conversations. When you share your life with someone, this movie knows, there is no starting and finishing, everything is ongoing, old arguments are one bad mood around the dinner table away from jarring back to full-speed.

He’s meticulous with performance and dialogue, with his characters you never have the common problem where everyone’s voice eventually sounds like the writer’s. Listen to the bemused patois of the police detective played by Ray Winstone.

And he’s assembled a classy group of technicians behind the camera to give it as much spit-shine as possible, if they gave an Academy Award for tastefulness this movie would run away with the statuette. It’s a pity such bright and able craft should be put to the service of something that eventually amounts to so little.

The story revolves around Will – co-owner of a landscape design firm that’s working on an enormous project in the heart of The City of Cities – his family, and the family of the boy (Rafi Gavron) that breaks into his office and steals all his company’s computers and televisions the day they arrive. His own life hasn’t been cloistered from trouble, his wife (Robin Wright Penn) is almost impenetrably depressed, and her teenage daughter from a previous marriage (Poppy Rogers) has mild autistic tendencies that cause her to steal all the batteries in the house, stay up nights practicing gymnastic flips, or lose control of herself when her routines are upset.

But this burglary stirs up something in Will – an awareness of the immigrants and petty criminals surrounding him as more than just a problem to be designed around. When he’s robbed a second time he takes to spying on his own building at night, which leads to some funny but perhaps too precious conversations with an area prostitute. Movie prostitutes are always full of cage-shattering profundities and keen psychological insight and usually have suspiciously-excellent skin, it becomes a challenge for the actress to overcome the weary fantasy cliché. But this one’s played with cynical doggedness and abandon by Vera Farmiga, also on screen this year as the woman who must make an impression amongst all the heaving testosterone in The Departed. Her dexterity in that picture, and her ability to shift gears into so completely different a role here, raises hopes that she’ll soon have a central role of her own to sink her teeth into.

And eventually he captures the teenage cat burglar, Miro, in the act. What happens next is fascinating, because he does not directly confront the boy or report him, but circles around his life in a kind of daze, as if getting to know his story, getting to know the inconceivable struggles and sacrifices his mother (Juliette Binoche) lived through to get them to their poor little apartment, will provide him something he’s been missing. Unable to penetrate the bond of mutual suffering between the mother and child under his own roof, he’s seeking another.

Binoche has the meatiest role to play, at least in the sense that she’s got to sit at her kitchen table, speak in a studied accent, and help us feel the agony of a Serbian woman who married a Muslim man, and what happened to them when the Balkans disintegrated. Her work is up to its usual standard – you never doubt her strength, nor the lengths to which she’s willing to go to protect her son. This is why it’s so troubling to me that, when the movie really presents opportunities for her to do that, it pulls its punch.

Breaking and Entering
is, in many ways, a story about liberal guilt. Every plotline eventually wraps snugly around something the well-off white Englishman just Can’t Understand, and it determines to never get too ugly lest it cloud those sensibilities beyond their capacity to absorb the lesson. But that’s a poor recipe for drama – inherent in its design is the idea that Awareness does not equal Catharsis. I didn’t leave the movie thinking that Will was much wiser than he was at the beginning, if at all. And I think, Law’s performance didn’t help, but there’s only so much he can do when the movie shouldn’t have been about him to begin with.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Good German

Full review behind the jump

The Good German

: Steven Soderbergh
: Paul Attanasio, based on the novel by Joseph Kanon
: Ben Cosgrove, Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh
: Cate Blanchett, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire, Beau Bridges, Leland Orser, Dave Power, Don Pugsley, Christian Oliver, Robin Weigert, Jack Thompson, Tony Curran

When the story plunges us into the sewers in a post-WWII free zone where scoundrels thrive and everything has its price, I thought of
The Third Man, one of the best from Hollywood’s Golden Age. When someone is urged to abandon his inquiries, because the search for truth and justice is fruitless in this place, I thought of Chinatown, a 70’s movie, but one that paid proud tribute to that same age. And when a scene at the end brings us to a lonely airport tarmac where two people approach a plane that only one will board, I chuckled and thought of Casablanca.

The Good German
, the new film directed by prodigy Steven Soderbergh, is in its trappings a love letter to the bleak studio dramas of that postwar period. Presented in crisp black-and-white (Soderbergh, as is his custom, acting as his own cinematographer under an alias), shot entirely in Los Angeles using vintage studio tools and tricks, scored with soaring romance and ache by Thomas Newman, and filled out around its glamorous leads by a roster of sharp supporting players, it may have the frankness of language, violence and sex that we expect in a modern film, but its construction is entirely classical.

That would make it merely an impressive novelty if it didn’t also have a crackerjack story to tell. It asks in many ways an unanswerable question – what is to be done with Germany and the Germans? This is a country that came terrifyingly near to conquering the world and exterminating a whole race of people. The average citizen of such a large nation cannot pretend to have been ignorant of the Nazi ambitions, and yet how much guilt is theirs? How wide must it be spread in the name of justice?

An American attorney (Leland Orser) seems to spend day and night in a long room filled floor-to-ceiling with thick binders, all of them stuffed with dossiers on average citizens who participated in mass murder not with active cruelty, but as if it was a necessary chore. That the whole populace just went mad or fell under some evil spell is too simplistic, and yet the implications of the more complex explanation – that any nation’s people are capable of becoming Nazis, are more troubling than anyone wants to linger on. So what is to be done?

The city of Berlin is in splinters, portions of it “administered” (or looted, as you like) by different Allied Powers, and people do whatever they must to secure German currency that is worth less by the day. Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), once wife to an SS official, now turns tricks with cold acquiescence, and saves her favored attentions for Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), an American soldier whose job in the motor pool lets him go anywhere and get his hands on everything. She hopes he can get her out of Germany, but behind his boyish smile and chipper Yankee attitude he’s an animal who’s finally found his jungle, and is in no hurry to change his arrangement with her. His rosy-cheeked savagery is a thrill from a Maguire, an actor who’s had to largely abandon interesting assignments for Spiderman.

Dignitaries from around the world are converging on the nearby town of Potsdam to draw the new map of Europe. The powers-that-be seem less interested in prosecution and rebuilding in Germany than they do in positioning themselves strategically for the conflict no one will officially admit is inevitable – the US versus the USSR. The people starving and lost right in front of them are already all but forgotten. The Americans and the British seem to be ceding a lot of countries to the influence of the Soviets, so another crucial question is, what are they getting that makes the deal worth it?

That’s the question Captain Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a reporter in uniform, finds himself investigating when a body washes up on the riverbank near the conference. He carries around a private pain, because he remembers how Berlin was before, and he remembers a beautiful woman who helped him find stories; a woman who, in his words, “could get people to do things for her…without them realizing it.

So what is he to do with Lena, who stands before him, the woman he once loved, but now transformed along with her country? And why is everyone suddenly interested in her dead husband?

The movie presents a sort of narrative relay, each portion dominated by a different character’s journey, but it is Blanchett who emerges with the central role in the film, and yet it must also be the most enigmatic, and she does extraordinary work. Berlin has stripped her to her steel core, and yet she can still position herself to inspire the right man at the necessary time. But to what end?

Clooney is dashingly right in monochrome, he knows how to give snap to the witty screenplay by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) without coming across too arch. It was a great day in modern cinema when Clooney and Soderbergh arrived to collaborate on 1998’s Out of Sight, their frequent partnerships since then have provided treasure.

There are times, particularly in a crowd at a parade near the end, where the breadth and depth of hopelessness does achieve an asphyxiating immediacy. The Good German will not enthrall everyone, because it cannot shake that its method is a posture. Its nihilism is dusted off from the archives, its despair is a special effect. But it’s an honest attempt by Soderbergh to match a story with the time and place in Hollywood he thinks would have told it best. I accept his argument, and I like his film.

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MOVIE REVIEW - The Prestige

Full review behind the jump

The Prestige

: Christopher Nolan
: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest
: Emma Thomas, Aaron Ryder, Christopher Nolan
: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Samantha Mahurin, David Bowie, Andy Serkis

It’s easy to understand why so many magicians use playing cards. A card played is a statement – a distraction, a dare, a lie, a promise, the winner is the one who can spin those statements into the best story.
The Prestige, an exceptionally clever film from the talented Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins), is an epic story about a duel between two magicians exhausting their deck – each card played leaving them more exposed, while raising the stakes to the very limits. It dramatizes a haunting question: is it a greater cruelty to take a man’s life away, or through careful manipulation, drive him to annihilate his own humanity?

It is a film with many secrets – some simple to spot, others so beyond ordinary conceit as to be terrifying. If David Mamet had written the classiest ever episode of
Tales From the Crypt, it might have resembled this, although its fascination is not with gore, but the damage inflicted on the soul by fate and our own drives. It is difficult to engross oneself in a narrative when it is so clear you are being toyed with – that a character you sympathize with now may transform, that a mystery you’d invested in to illuminate the plot for you vaporized like flash paper.

And in the end I’d say the movie fails at a subtle but crucial task – to prepare you for the sense that you are in a world where what happens at the end is actually possible. But it does deliver a hell of a show along the way, one that demonstrates the filmmakers’ dexterity with story and thorough understanding of audience psychology.

I’ll try to provide only the information that is necessary, and overload you with caveats so you can appreciate this piece’s nature. Like Memento, the picture shatters conventional chronology, not to flout convention, but because the forward flow of time is inconvenient to our journey towards the story’s emotional heart.

In turn-of-the-century London, popular magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) vanishes during a flashy illusion, dropping through a trap door in the stage. He lands in a water tank below, which locks him in, and he apparently drowns. The magician performing across the street, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) watches it happen, and he is arrested for Angier’s murder, a crime for which he is apparently doomed for the noose.

This is but the climax in a rivalry that dates back years, to when both were eager apprentices. Borden had innate vision and imagination, Jackman skill and a flair for showmanship – each convinced that their virtues were the key to performing great magic.

And then Borden was seemingly responsible for a devastating accident; and as they went their separate ways each would invade the others’ career with increasingly dangerous sabotage and subterfuge, and building more spectacular illusions along the way. In particular they would compete with variations on a trick called “The Transported Man”, in which the magician walks through a doorway on one end of the stage and seemingly appears instantaneously out of a doorway on the other end.

The mechanism that makes this extraordinary illusion possible may have been built by pioneering physicist Nikolas Tesla, and when Angier seeks him out he’s in a mysterious laboratory high in the Rocky Mountains in a town where lightning is nearly constant, and he may be performing experiments that could be a monstrous affront to nature.

You see how difficult it is to feel on solid ground when your story is being driven by such deceivers. The film has abundantly more “mights” and “maybes” I can’t even cover, and more threads of history and tragedy binding its obsessed characters to one another. An adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel, it provides a novel’s worth of sustenance in a never-slackening pace.

What you can feel solid about is the strength of its cast and the beauty of its design. Jackman and Bale are gripping in that each can hold the center of the stage while simultaneously hiding volumes – the essence of the magician’s skill. Michael Caine lends authority playing a magician’s engineer, a man who works with his hands and understands the intimate relationship between technique and audience emotion. His attitude about his mystical profession is not cynical, but more like the moderately-tempered appreciation of a long marriage.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley, each long-time Nolan collaborators, work to revive a world where Heaven and Hell could be in the same city, where everything seemed possible but nothing came without price. They turn the ordinary into the provocative, asking us to consider what’s behind a field full of top hats, and the provocative into the supernatural, daring us to believe that the power to shatter our belief in the way of things could be contained in a tall wooden cabinet no one can open without hesitation.

That’s a long way of saying they put the magic into The Prestige, a picture that will linger with you long after it has ended. It is a film whose reach does not so much exceed its grasp as force it to cling to its goal by the fingertips, quivering. I don’t know that there’s an answer to its minor flaws that wouldn’t have damaged the piece in some other way, so I’ll conclude that The Prestige attempts to astonish you, and may do as well can be done with its assets, which is very well indeed. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Magic excites you about the possible, but you never really know.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

It's true what they say - Stallone really is short in person

I know I've learned a few things about this town, because I spent half a day in Beverly Hills and Westwood, saw two free movies, and only spent 25 cents on parking.

I splurged on dinner - I felt entitled.

One of my former students came to the second screening tonight - the movie was
Rocky Balboa and Stallone showed up to do a Q&A. It sounded like he'd been doing them all day, but he was friendly. Said his primary motivation was to make up for Rocky V, which showed some grace. I'll post a review when the movie's released.

The original plan was for my former student and I to stick around and talk a little LA talk at a coffeehouse or similar, but when the Q&A was finished he generously asked if I'd had enough for one day, and I accepted with apologies. I'm realizing that, no matter the person, I have only so much social energy at the moment. As I've said before, it helps to take a dip into other peoples' lives or even just to talk about the little things, but it's also tiring in a way. I think there will be a mix of friend time and Me Time in Chicago.

I think that's as it should be - it's a city you can enjoy both alone and with company. LA too, if you know your way around.

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Full review behind the jump


: Darren Lynn Bousman
: story by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, screenplay by Leigh Whannell
: Mark Burg, Oren Koules, Gregg Hoffman
: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh, Dina Meyer

When Steven Spielberg and George Lucas wanted to dream up gags and set pieces for an
Indiana Jones movie, they’d go build sand castles on a beach in Hawaii together. The story would then be built around the set pieces, and they hired the best writers available for the task, because story matters.

I don’t really want to know what kind of powwows the makers of the
Saw movie franchise, now on its third installment in as many years, go on to brainstorm. At this point they’ve been amply rewarded for what they come back with, and it’s clear they don’t intend to stray far from the path, and here deliver another film canister full of self-justifying torture porn.

Someone smarter than I am should be writing about the success of these pictures and Eli Roth’s
Hostel – about why today’s teenagers are so urgently seeking torture on the big screen, and whether or not it has anything to do with their sense that there’s something the grown-ups of the world aren’t telling them. I, for better or for worse, will stick to reviewing what’s in front of me.

There’s always been the sense that the creative braintrust – original director James Wan, writer/actor Leigh Whannell, and Darren Lynn Bousman (writer/director of part II and director again here) – has been winging it, not even from movie to movie, but scene to scene. The Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), who kidnaps people he judges don’t appreciate the gift of life and then forces them to choose between death and the most hideous mutilations, is dependent for his continued success on an absurd alignment of coincidences.

In this episode, in order to reach the “shocker” ending, he must know within a very narrow range of tolerance exactly where someone is going to stand in a room, or how quickly stuffed animals will burn, or when he himself, to the second, will be able to regain consciousness following a medical procedure. There’s a scene where a character frees himself from a crate by knocking it from a great height so it breaks open. At that point he has two hours to complete the tasks set before him. What if he had been knocked unconscious by the fall, and never even heard any of Jigsaw’s self-satisfied little motivational tapes? It’s not long before I throw up my hands, start wondering what stationer he ordered all those prim little cards from, and ask why the police, if they want to actually catch him, don’t just ask real estate agents who’s been buying up all the grimy warehouses in town.

This willful laziness about even the most rudimentary story logic catches up to the filmmakers and mires much of this episode in retread. We spend long periods in flashback, watching scenes from the first two episodes but from new angles – this fills us in more on Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the only girl to ever survive one of his contraptions, and who, we discovered in the second movie, has become his willing accomplice. This helps us understand how a senior citizen with a brain tumor (Jigsaw’s morbid shield against retaliation – he’s essentially already dead) demonstrated such agility and resourcefulness in capturing his victims and setting up their little haunted house punishments.

At first it seemed like the passing of the villain torch would help extend the franchise, since here in Part III his terminal condition has him confined to a gurney. Amanda even dutifully kidnaps a doctor (Bahar Soomekh) and fits an exploding collar around her neck that’s connected to Jigsaw’s heart monitor. He hopes to live long enough to see his latest “game” to fruition.

But Amanda is a poor substitute – whiny and unstable (hysterical overacting is a franchise trademark at this point), whereas Jigsaw is hypnotically self-assured. And compared to his corpse-like features, she’s remarkably easy on the eyes, and the film is not up to the task of figuring out how to make that frightening. She’s just a brat who got an “A” in metal shop.

The game itself, a grieving father (Angus Mcfadyen) given the opportunity to take downright medieval revenge on the drunk driver who killed his son and the people who enabled him to escape punishment, is so casually-regarded that we simply stop checking in on it for long stretches, focusing instead on Amanda freaking out again and Jigsaw soothing her and telling her he believes in her.

I’ll give the movie enough credit to say there’s a larger purpose behind all this (Jigsaw always has an impossible twist up his sleeve to tie disparate plots together), but consider the premise of this scene – a mentor figure in a hospital bed gives encouragement to his frightened protégé, who fears losing him. The fact that it’s one dismemberment-happy fruit loop to another is so surpassingly diseased that you could beg for the scene to take advantage of this subtext and become the truly disturbing piece it could be. But the writers simply can’t be bothered to think that long about it, they’re too busy slapping perfunctory dialogue in so they can dash off to the next contraption for pulling your ribcage apart or drowning you in pig renderings.

And that’s the point this third episode runs smack into but has no idea how to overcome – that no one survives Jigsaw’s games, no one learns any lesson, and the whole forward momentum of the movie would be interrupted if people didn’t act in determinedly thick ways. Jigsaw’s philosophy is fatally-flawed at its base – when confronted with death, of course people will struggle mightily to live. But the movies would not exist without the traps getting set off, so people don’t make the choice in time, or some accident of physics does them in, which he seems to uncannily anticipate, or else his master plan would always fail. He intends for them to fail, and then arrogantly claims to be helping.

Any of these shallow characters, dressed in miseries like designer clothing labels, would be better off simply committing suicide as soon as they realized they were in a Saw movie. I don’t know why they bother. I don’t know why anyone bothers to pretend there’s another reason they watch Saw III, except that they want to see the torture.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

It's better than a seven-year itch

I had an e-mail exchange with my agent today – bringing her up to speed on my professional and personal lives, and how they were affecting one another, and what any of it has to do with why I don’t yet have for her the re-write on my treatment for a new sexy teen comedy.

Her response was more directly encouraging than I’m used to from her – I think I touched a sympathetic nerve. She told me that everything I was going through would feed into my work, and that when it comes down to it, Hollywood is filled with what she calls “seven-year overnight sensations”. Now you might see that as stereotypical agent nonsense, but I understand what she was getting at.

By way of illustration she referred me to a recent Variety article about Jason Reitman. Reitman, for those of you who haven’t made the connection yet, adapted and directed
Thank You For Smoking, a movie which I thought turned out pretty well, and was produced by the same people who purchased my script.

Reitman and I are only six weeks apart in age, and that’s worth noticing. I’ve always been of a mind that, if you’re going to compare your career track with someone, aim high so you can feel
really bad. If I’ve got a surge of confidence in me there’s nothing for deflating it like telling myself where Spielberg was by this age.

Jaws checks and prepping Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that’s where he was.

But what’s useful about looking at Reitman, besides the smaller ego bruises it leaves, is that, yes, he got his first feature released this year and it was an excellent first time out. He may see award nominations for writing. But it took
six years for him to get that project made. And he had:

A) Personal wealth
B) Training and experience from school and multiple short films
C) A father who was one of the most commercially successful directors of the last generation.

Sure young Jason had the talent to not need to trade on his father’s name, I’m the first to admit it. But when Michael Eisner and Arnold Schwarzenegger are guests at your wedding, it’s easier to get your calls returned, and movies don’t get made unless calls are returned.

I come from a family that has, from my father’s long labors, scraped its way from lower-middle-class to middle class, and my bank account has never been too fat. I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t know one damn person when I got to Hollywood. Any beachhead I make in this business will be my own and I intend to be damned proud of that.

Now my agent couldn’t have known this, but today is just a week off from the seven-year anniversary of the first day of my first movie business internship. And since then I’ve had a script sold and a story optioned, and made fans at a few production companies who will read any new script that bears my name.

I haven’t made a splash, but I’m here, and achieved enough that staying here doesn’t yet seem ridiculous or futile. And I haven’t given up. If the moment ever comes that I “arrive”, that the town finally knows my name, they’ll ask “where did HE come from”? They always ask that. I’ll be an overnight sensation. But it won’t be because I arrived yesterday.

A writer can always find the gloomy side of things – in the e-mail I sent her I laid out two new story ideas and she had not a word to say about them. I could speculate that she didn’t even get to that point in the e-mail, or if responding to everything I said was just too exhausting and she wanted to immediately address the cumulative effect 2006 has had on my already-bipolar self-confidence.

I found myself hoping that by “seven-year overnight success”, she’s starting the clock from when she took me on as a client. That would give me a little more time before
she stops returning my calls.

But overall I see optimism in this. I always tell my screenwriting students that the only sure path to success is to become too talented to ignore. Time for me to apply my own lessons again.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - For Your Consideration

Full review behind the jump

For Your Consideration

: Christopher Guest
: Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy
: Karen Murphy
: Catherine O’Hara, Ed Begley Jr., Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Christopher Moynihan, Christopher Guest, John Michael Higgins, Carrie Aizley, Jim Piddock, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Rachel Harris, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Ricky Gervais, Larry Miller

The reason I don’t believe it is that I know they hate Hollywood. The company of comic actors who have achieved joint cult fame in Christopher Guest’s improvisation-driven mockumentaries (
Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind), shine in his framework because they are inventive, fearlessly eccentric, and in love with the characters they play. They reject the mainstream movies business’ frantic obsession with youth, beauty, obvious punchlines and giant wheezing plots, and the people they create are dreamers focused on such narrow goals that the extremity of their passion when compared to the importance of what they do becomes ridiculous.

Which is why
For Your Consideration, Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy’s attempt to turn their cracked mirror back on the town that keeps them in the cult ghetto, is so hobbled from the beginning. I cannot look at them and believe they are the movers and shakers of Hollywood – they’re too inherently interesting, articulate and alive, and…well, old. And they cannot summon the same warped affection they have for dog groomers or folk singers and apply it to people they clearly view as morbidly idiotic.

And so we have a movie that is frequently funny, as the cast’s ability to dredge the most peculiar ideas out of the corners of their brains has not failed them. It’s practically worth your time just for the way Jane Lynch
walks as the co-host of an airhead entertainment gossip show. But the whole construction of the piece makes it more difficult to feel good about in the end. In truth the story it has to tell is very sad, about people who eagerly pitch whatever morsel of self-respect they may have had left into a meat grinder on the slimmest hope of finally receiving approbation. Oscar Wilde subtitled The Importance of Being Earnest “a trivial comedy for serious people”. This movie is a trivial tragedy about unserious people.

It does have an authoritative understanding of how movie sets operate. The actors are beyond second-guessing and into thirds and fourths, no one knows what the director (Guest) is getting on about, the writers (Bob Balaban, Michael McKean) are upset and there’s always somebody eating. It’s the movie itself that beggars belief – a turgid melodrama called Home for Purim about a family matriarch succumbing to a fatal illness right around a Jewish holiday, while her daughter returns home after a decade to reveal she’s a lesbian. The style of the picture is circa-1953, all languorous yearnings and anguished arguments with full orchestral accompaniment, and is built on the premise that Hebrew words pronounced in a Southern accent are funny. They are, but are we to buy that this movie is being produced in modern Hollywood? Satire usually bears a stronger resemblance to reality than this.

The matriarch is played by Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), who has given three decades of her life to the movie business in exchange for a modest house, no family, and people confusing her for someone who was in a prison movie with Sharon Stone. O’Hara deserves real praise for giving a sincere, unguarded performance as someone who presses on through deep insecurity day after day. When a crew member tells her that the anonymous writer of a movie gossip website made it onto the set and has opined for the record that she should be nominated for an Oscar, you can sense the devastating effect it has on her.

Because you wonder why they all do it. At this point she’s never going to make Cameron Diaz money. The actor playing her husband, Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer), is a distinguished stage actor with Shakespeare on his resume, but he’s most famous for playing “Irv the Footlong Weiner” and still musters up the dignity to audition for buffalo wing commercials. Callie Webb (Parker Posey) is on the downside of her ingénue years and obviously hasn’t broken through. Why do they do it?

The thought of an Oscar galvanizes. Whether logical or not it is accepted as the pinnacle – the single, indisputable evidence in the movie business that something you’ve done after all this time actually mattered. The story goes Humphrey Bogart would slam his onto the table to end arguments. What happens on Catherine O’Hara’s face, in more ways than one, as she processes this idea is absolutely heartbreaking.

It’s not an Oscar. It’s not even a nomination. It’s “buzz” – and what is that except a thing that everyone else pretends is real because they don’t want to be the one caught not seeing it? Word of the “buzz” around Marilyn Hack spreads, and soon fantasy nominations are being bestowed on Victor and Callie as well. Watching how each of them reacts to Hollywood finally noticing them is fascinating. And there are some worthy scenes that result, like a lethal skewer job of the local morning chat show, and the way the studio heads (Ricky Gervais, Larry Miller), on realizing that they have a movie people might actually want to see, are explaining how its “Jewishness” might be made a little less “in your face”.

I spent a lot of time laughing in For Your Consideration, yet I don’t think it was actually a very good movie. Characters that bad things happened to asked for all of it. Characters that good things happened to are too peripheral for us to care. Some of the supporting cast’s routines have become too familiar, like Fred Willard’s half-baked tactlessness or Ed Begley Jr’s yawningly “flamboyant” makeup artist. There are simply less gems to be found here than in this crew’s other work – and if they thought this would be their ultimate punishment of the town that has never adequately appreciated their gifts, they’ve failed to get the last laugh.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Stranger Than Fiction

Full review behind the jump

Stranger Than Fiction

: Marc Forster
: Zach Helm
: Lindsay Doran
: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Tony Hale

Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) writes brilliant novels about ordinary people with rich inner lives who die horribly unfair deaths. It is the sort of thing that makes the literary set adore you but makes you a malfunctioning human being, and Eiffel is now deeply malfunctioning over Harold Crick (Will Ferrell).

Harold Crick is the main character of her long-delayed novel
Death and Taxes.


Harold Crick is an auditor for the IRS who wakes up one morning to find the voice of Kay Eiffel in his head, belittling his life of solitude and numbers and doling out capricious humiliations and judgments. And he resents it. He particularly resents it when the voice tells him the cold hand of Death awaits, but won’t reveal how or when, because it doesn’t know yet.

These two worlds are equally real to the moviegoer in
Stranger Than Fiction, a sublime human comedy that poses big questions about the power and purpose of storytelling, and our ability to smash the confines of our own lives if we’re willing to gamble something better awaits, and then answers them with downright adorable wit and sense of the possible. It blurs the worlds of Karen Eiffel and Harold Crick and sits back to enjoy the results, even as the world blurs in her own head while she tries to beat one more novel out of the rocks. The point is that we stop trying to sort out what’s “really” happening and what isn’t, and soak in the whole experience.

It’s easy to despise an auditor for the IRS – the rabble-rousing bakery owner (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who pays some, but not all of her taxes as a form of protest certainly derives satisfaction from punishing him. But for us it’s easy to like Crick, not just because of Ferrell’s soft and troubled face, but the way the movie puts us into his heart. Prim little graphics unfold themselves from his skull, shuffling and sorting as he calculates his way through the day. Zeus put forth Athena fully-formed from his head, Harold Crick puts forth sums and balance sheets – they are what he has in life to give, or so he thinks.

When Eiffel’s voice invades his thoughts, it sets off a chain reaction. Or maybe the chain reaction started when his watch stopped – that’s how Eiffel would have it. But she can hardly be considered reliable – she’s hanging out by rainy overpasses and in hospitals, forcing herself towards human misery as she feebly clutches at her sweater and an assistant from her publisher (Queen Latifah) waits patiently at her side. There’s divine agony on her face. Why, after all the creations she’s snuffed over the years, is it so hard for her to kill Harold Crick?

It’s just as unknowable why it has been so hard for Harold Crick to live up until now. But when faced with the prospect of imminent mortality, Crick starts to make choices. Some embarrassing, some peculiar, some of them downright lovely. And the little graphics appear less and less, and he looks at the world around him more and more. Can his will to live actually save his life? In a world of treacle and clichés, it is a cleansing experience to see a movie that believes its own message with every breath.

Director Marc Forster has also made the wrenching Monster’s Ball and the heartwarming Finding Neverland – despite the vast differences in tone and setting, in all these stories you can feel him looking for the love and the hope and the joy. This seems like a small thing, but when you consider how many modern filmmakers settle for pop sugar rush, or some idiotic posture of cool, or a kind of mechanical perfection of plot elements, this unashamed warmth is a tonic.

It marries up to Zach Helm’s script perfectly. In a way the path has been blazed for this work by Charlie Kaufman, and the funny and fractured universes he created in life-bending pictures like Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Helm’s writing has the same appreciation for the minute, the same affection for how all of us blunder through our lives – but there’s something more pure, almost child-like, at the heart. He does not paint as rich a portrait, it suits a simpler mood, but on that level provides ample satisfaction.

One of the most delicious twists the movie has to offer is the character of Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a teacher of literature who provides therapeutic assistance for Harold Crick. Unlike the film critic character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, whose job it was to infantilize storytelling tropes and sneer at them, Hilbert revels in the form. His gift is to accept Crick’s claims at face value, and attack them with all his savvy. He analyzes, he probes, he studiously eliminates possibilities about the nature of Crick’s story: (“On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances that you’ll be assassinated?”)

What he’s saying without saying is that we all know that there’s fate and free will, each attempting to assert their voice in the story of our lives. And if we do tell many of the same stories over and over again, it’s only because we have so many of the same fears and desires. But the telling still matters. If you boiled away enough of Stranger Than Fiction you’d find it’s not an unusual story. But why reduce it? Taste as much as your appetite can take – that’s the best way.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Casino Royale

Full review behind the jump

Casino Royale

: Martin Campbell
: screenplay by Neil Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Dame Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini

Sergio Leone’s
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly showed Clint Eastwood, in his iconic role as “The Man With No Name”, acquiring the poncho and cigarillos that audiences already identified him with from his earlier Spaghetti Westerns. Leone claimed this was an unintended connection but it leant an extra layer of fascination to the epic. In Casino Royale, which not so much reinvents as reinstates the essential qualities of the venerable James Bond franchise, we get to watch Bond (Daniel Craig) ascend to his 00- rating in the British Secret Service, discover his favorite drink, realize what a good tux can do for a man’s appearance, and through painful experience construct the cold, near sadistically clinical attitude he wears on the job.

I therefore can’t
necessarily criticize the movie by saying that, at first glance, Daniel Craig does not convincingly look like Bond, at least in the way that his predecessor Pierce Brosnan seemed born to the role from frame one. The point of this movie, and the secret to its construction, is that by the end of the movie, Craig is Bond now. And hopefully for several movies to come.

was the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, and apart from a little-seen television adaptation in the 50’s it has never received a straight treatment, just an anarchic drug-loony 60’s spoof. A half-century’s distance leaves much to update – Cold War geopolitical brinksmanship has given way to terrorism and Holy War, and instead of the gentleman’s game baccarat, the swells at the Casino now play Texas Hold’Em.

But if the 21st Century threat map inevitably tugs Fleming’s novel forward, its more grounded story pulls the movie franchise’s worst habits backwards. The damnable mix of CGI and sci-fi that marred Brosnan’s final round in the tux, Die Another Day, is nowhere to be found here – replaced by a rougher, more physical breed of conflict. Even the famous gadgets of Q branch seem more realistic and practical, instead of the ludicrous “invisible car” we get a car that has a portable defibrillator in the glove box.

And I think that this is the first time I’ve ever seen spymaster M (Dame Judi Dench) actually afraid of Bond. To show an understanding of his abilities and his character, and doubt that they can be reliably directed. Director Martin Campbell – who also ushered in Brosnan’s sly arc with the character in Goldeneye – has again allowed the film to take on the character of the man holding the Walther pistol. Daniel Craig, who is not only a superb actor from films like Road to Perdition and The Jacket, but a former semi-professional rugby player, creates a tough, almost thuggish 007, but one who does sweat, bleed and suffer. The benefit of this prequel story with this layered performance is to make Bond more human than ever.

After a welcome twist on the traditional pre-credit action sequence, we take a literal leap in with both feet, as Bond is pursuing a free-lance bomb-maker (Sebastien Foucan) that may be involved in an upcoming terrorist operation. Foucan is one of the originators of the urban-based martial arts discipline known as parkour, or free-running, which also got a showcase this year in the French action programmer District B13. Bond films have always functioned as a cultural snapshot, a time capsule into which the most luxurious locales, expensive fashions and shiny gizmos of the moment can be collated – it’s like a Skymall catalog where nothing costs less than $10,000 plus shipping. And so this extended, almost ludicrously-strenuous cat-and-mouse chase in, around, and up a dizzying construction site serves not only to give this appealing form of street aerobics its prime-time debut; but to show us, through actions speaking louder than words, just how this version of 007’s mind works.

It’s all prelude to him causing major trouble in the organization of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a reptilian math prodigy who works as the ultimate off-shore bank for terrorist groups. Bond’s stubborn relentlessness (he bulls ahead as much from wounded pride as from operational imperative here) eventually causes Le Chiffre to lose the money of a very dangerous man who wants it back – so he sets up a poker game with a $10 Million entry fee at a swank casino in Montenegro. The money he holds could finance the death of untold innocents, but his hard drive brain could make him the most valuable informant imaginable, if he had nowhere else to turn to save his life. If he lost the poker game.

Bond is staked to enter the game, and the luscious Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) comes over from Treasury to pose as arm candy while judging whether he’s taking appropriate risks with Her Majesty’s Millions. I want to stop summarizing there, because the story does us the courtesy of taking twists and turns, of presenting surprise reversals-of-fortune and forcing characters to confront devastating choices between the things they want and cannot have.

I will say that it is a blessing to have a James Bond movie that has something like a long poker game, an opportunity for characters to sit, and take each others’ measure, and enrich our understanding of them through behavior, rather than just careening around the globe like gun-wielding ping pong balls. This is the first Bond movie in modern times where the villain, exotic eye-scar aside, super-sized megalomania acknowledged, has a motivation anyone can empathize with – self-preservation.

Director Campbell works in some vigorous, imaginative action, sensual pleasures for those who appreciate such things, and some sharp humor. He also takes the opportunity to revel in a bit of genuine espionage, the sort of nigh-invisible manipulations people in this world undertake to advance their position. Local MI-6 contact Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) embodies this facet, long missing from the franchise, with corruptible relish.

It threatens to be wearyingly long, since it’s serving three functions – prequel, episode, and primer for things to come. Hardcore Bond fans, though, realizing the implications of the ending, ought to take delight even if it’s a long time getting there.

When multiple writers work on a script it’s always a dangerous business to predict who contributed what, but since Neil Purvis & Robert Wade have written several episodes now, and Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) is the new face in the room, I think some of the deft characterization, the honest pathos and unusually-sophisticated tone of Casino Royale can be deservedly credited to him. This is a Bond movie where a character can be subjected to torture – not the fetish-y designer tortures of past episodes, but something cringingly direct and visceral. And then it can find a way to put a laugh in, and have that laugh illuminate the depths of a character’s obsession. When you see that depth married to such a keen, whole-hearted commitment to just what makes James Bond James Bond, it puts this franchise back on the right path, and makes for marvelous entertainment.

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