The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, September 30, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Jarhead

Originally published 11/4/05
Full review behind the jump


: Sam Mendes
: William Broyles, Jr., based on the book by Anthony Swofford
: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher
: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysbert, Evan Jones, Brian Geraghty, Laz Alonso, Lucas Black

There’s a greater cost to war than just the body count and the bill for equipments used. To launch a war means to prepare for a war, which means to take thousands upon thousands of ordinary young men and condition them to, as Patton described it, not die for his country, but make the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

It is not ordinary for a man to stay focused on his job as bombs whistle through the air towards him, nor is it ordinary for him to not only accept an order to take someone’s life, but in doing so, hope dearly that he’ll score a perfect head shot and see the fabled “pink mist”. Which is why even a relatively “clean” geopolitical dust-up like 1991’s Desert Storm, where an overwhelming international force drove the Iraqi Army from Kuwait and ground operations lasted only four days, has a permanent impact because you had to ready all those soldiers for the worst, and they don’t just change back.

, based on Anthony Swofford’s memoir, is perhaps the first major American motion picture to focus on that cost – and as a result is a curious sort of war movie, one that deals with the frustrating simmer of training, the sense that life-or-death struggle is imminent, and then the conflicted emotions that result when you have to face how your anticipation of the violence had made you yearn for it.

There’s also something about the different wars of each American generation, and the nobility of each cause. The soldiers make the odd clumsy attempt to mouth different sides of the issue, and it doesn’t work because this isn’t really about whether or not the Gulf War came about for the “right” reasons. The point is – it’s a war, and it alters the soldiers equally whether it’s a “good” war or not. Although director Sam Mendes’ beautiful facility with the momentum of classic drama in pictures like
American Beauty and Road to Perdition doesn’t apply so well here, he does know what kind of movie he’s trying to make, and the audience is not immune to its own version of what the troops go through. Which makes the movie successful on its terms, but an unusual experience.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, or “Swoff”, and we catch up with him in Marine basic training. These scenes don’t escape the long shadow of Full Metal Jacket, from the apocalyptic temper of the drill instructor to the fetishizing of the Marine rifle (the same loving ode: “This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine.” makes an appearance.) Swoff seems not without intellect or soul – brief expository grace notes tell of a history of service with the men in his family, and battles with depression among the women. When the DI asks him what he’s doing here, his answer is concise and honest to a fault: “I got lost on the way to college.” For this, he gets his head slammed into a blackboard.

But he shows a degree of pluck and what you might call an incomplete sense of self – he is a vessel into which the most specialized of training can be poured. He is recruited by Marine lifer Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) to join an elite unit of snipers. Swoff’s partner is to be the enigmatic Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), whose hunger for some self-held ideal of the Marine experience just grows as the story unfolds.

The call to deploy in the Saudi desert comes – but this is not Desert Storm. This is Desert Shield. Within fifteen minutes of touching down Uncle Sam has 5,000 troops assembled, which is impressive, but their job is simply to train and wait in the miserable desert heat. Train and wait, for eight months.

They’re told that Saddam’s Republican Guard contains the fiercest warriors in the known world. They’re told that biological and chemical weapons are to be used indiscriminately, so they should practice putting on this suit and that mask, and please take these experimental pills and sign a waiver to the effect that you’re doing it voluntarily. On the eve of battle they’re massed by a great berm of sand, ordered to dig sleeping holes, and told that death awaits them on the other side. 30,000 casualties are predicted for the first day of combat.

And as the days drag on the anxiety, the lack of knowledge, the restlessness, the repetitiveness of even the most vulgar distractions, the crumbling of relationships back home, all wear on the troops. You’ll feel restless, too, wondering what the movie’s getting up to. It works more as a cinematic argument than an emotional journey, although there’s spots that hit you in the gut; like when Swoff finds himself sitting in a circle of burnt corpses, and it looks for all the world like the one sitting next to him is going to tilt his head up and speak any second now.

All the troops have to help them process experiences like this is The Corps, its code and all its rituals. They watch Apocalypse Now and interact rowdily with the screen like it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When Robert Duvall strafes the fishing village to the strains of Wagner, they cheer every kill. These are normal young men, they really are.

In fact, at times they look a little too good. Gyllenhaal and Foxx, however they might effectively embody their characters, lack that indefinable edge, they don’t look like they’ve really been kept up nights. They have unerring instincts for where their characters’ heads are at, watch how Swoff must negotiate a sniper mission co-opted by an arrogant officer (Dennis Haysbert) – how he must deal with his own feelings and the more dangerous disappointment of Troy. Sarsgaard’s performance – bottled up except for a few desperate moments like this – is crucial, as it contains the true emotional landscape of the picture. He knocks it out of the park.

This is Mendes’ first feature without the late brilliant cinematographer Conrad Hall. Now he is working with Roger Deakins, no slouch as a substitute (Kundun, all the Coen Bros’ films since Barton Fink). The blinding flat white of the desert is captured well but is not new – the night scenes are better. Once the conflict has begun, and they march through bare moonscapes lit by flaming oil wells, crossing the scorched “Highway of Death”, having petroleum rain from the sky on them, the point need not be spelled out any more – these men are walking through hell. They’ll be out soon alive and intact, thank goodness. But they’ll remember.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - North Country

Originally published 11/2/05
Full review behind the jump

North Country

: Niki Caro
: Screenplay by Michael Seitzman, bsed on the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harrassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy
: Nick Wechsler
: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Jeremy Renner, Thomas Curtis, Richard Jenkins

It’s an old story, but tragically not old enough that variations on it aren’t still cropping up by the thousands in this country in this century. A man attacks a woman, says she was asking for it and the herd brands her a slut. A man beats his wife, and even though she’s on the floor with a bruised eye and a bleeding lip she’s advised it’s her responsibility to make it right, because a marriage is sacred and if she walks out on it this makes the rending of it her fault.

It’s easy to get angry at the weak, their presence reminds us of our own shame and cowardice in not standing up with them against the strong. And so the herd becomes the accomplices of the abusers, and blames the victims for not accepting their lot quietly.
North Country is about strong women who are punished because they are expected to be weak, and have enough at stake in their lives that to fight back would be too dangerous. And you can see the hook now: until one woman…

And this is a story about one woman (Charlize Theron) who is pushed too far and overturns the status quo. She is not a revolutionary, or even a feminist by nature. She just has a simple choice – she can’t go back to the husband that beats her, and she can’t make enough to support her two children as a hairdresser. So she needs to work at the coal mine, because it has the best-paying jobs in town. She wants to do the American Dream right – work hard, play by the rules, and have a decent living as reward. It’s a classic Hollywood story and, in what is an increasing rarity for dramas of substance, it achieves genuine emotion and uplift.

Although “inspired” by the true story of the first class-action lawsuit for sexual harassment, this is a fictional account. The shape is familiar, as are many of the plotlines – a disillusioned lawyer (Woody Harrelson) takes on hopeless case, a father (Richard Jenkins) forgives his daughter for the sins he imagined and seeks his own forgiveness by finally standing up for her. Then there’s the son (Thomas Curtis) who finally finds a strong father figure (Sean Bean), and the spurned ex-boyfriend (Jeremy Renner) who abuses the power of his position in ways that are alternately infantile and ominous. There’s even a fatal disease for one of the major characters to suffer nobly with.

Any one of these plot threads could have been the most numbing of clichés, but director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, a superb movie you must see at once if you haven’t yet) has a fresh eye and fire in her storytelling belly, and she assembles a superb cast to inject immediacy into every moment. She shows an outsider’s fascination for the landscape of the North and the otherworldly machines of the coal mine, and her sense for what to show and when makes it all come alive. A soundtrack built around Bob Dylan songs also sets the tone impeccably. This is the union the movie industry used to get right – the suits block out what story they’d like to see told in the broad strokes, and they trust the creatives to bring it into vibrant being.

This story centers around Josey Aimes (Theron), who has indeed made the final split from her drunk and unemployed husband and must find means to support herself. A Supreme Court ruling has forced the coal mine to accept female job applicants, and old friend Glory (Frances McDormand) tells her about the good money that can be made if she has thick skin. Glory is feisty, has a boyfriend (Bean) who loves her to the bone, and knows how to slap back when insulted. She thinks she’s developing arthritis but she’s not – and she remains feisty enough to take on a larger fight even as her body begins to disintegrate. McDormand wore this same regional accent to immortality in Fargo – here she overcomes the strong memory of that role with equal parts grace and grit.

At the mine, Josey has no idea how thick her skin will need to be. This isn’t just teasing and innuendos, this is ritual humiliation and degradation, advances made with underlying threats. This is waste smeared on the locker room wall. The perpetrators are few, but when a bully relies on his “brothers” to stick up for him, all it takes is a few to make every day at work hell.

Josey doesn’t want to make big trouble, in fact she wants to make it as little trouble as possible. She just wants to work. But when your supervisor threatens to rape you if you don’t “learn the rules”, his supervisor (Xander Berkeley) tells you that there wouldn’t be so many problems if you didn’t sleep around so much (Josey doesn’t have time for such attachments, but rumors have followed her ever since a high school pregnancy whose origin she concealed), and the boss of the company (James Cada) tells you that he’s happy to waive the two-week notice union requirement and let you quit today if you’re so unhappy, where do you turn?

Every version of pain, from daily indignity to the most brutal personal violations, is visited on Josey, and we suffer with her. At times it challenges belief how persistent and specific the abuse is, you wonder how some of these people manage to get any mining done, but the movie notices the good men also in the mine, and it notices their silence.

And though it comes near to hitting those false notes several times it does squarely strike many that feel urgently true; like a painful scene at an ice rink that takes us step by step to a moment where our hero realizes that she looks like white trash to everyone in town, and no one will ever hear her explanation. Sometimes no matter what you do you can’t shatter the false image of you constructed by long years of assumption and judgment.

Charlize Theron is an actress of stunning beauty who tampers down her looks here – she’s still attractive, but more of a Minnesota attractive than a Hollywood attractive. She fits in with the long-neck drinkers. She also gives a hell of a great performance, not the utter transformation of her Academy Award-winning role in the very-indie Monster, but something more like Jodie Foster in The Accused, a studio-sized drama featuring an unsparing portrait of a confused Everywoman in over her head. The result is heartbreak followed by inspiration, and a truly excellent film.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Shopgirl

Originally published 11/1/05
Full review behind the jump


: Anand Tucker
: Steve Martin, based on his novella
: Ashok Amritraj, Jon J. Jashni, Steve Martin
: Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras

It’s just right that Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) drives a used blue pickup with a couple of dents. That’s the hand-me-down vehicle your parents give you when you’re moving from Vermont to Los Angeles.
Shopgirl, adapted by Steve Martin from his novella of the same name, is charmingly, movingly just right in so many of its details – from the way money affects our interactions with people despite our best intentions, to the fine parsing of language that allows two people in a relationship to each see it in a way that pleases them, and both be wrong.

In this romantic drama the broad strokes might be familiar, but the willingness to paint each of its three leads in shades of gray and allow them to grow rejuvenates what’s familiar and makes the rest magical. Mirabelle is young, beautiful, hoping to establish herself as an artist. She gazes out at the world from the rarely-visited glove counter at Saks Fifth Ave. in Beverly Hills and has $40,000 in student loans she’s paying off at $45 a month. She longs for some kind of connection to close the distance she feels from everyone else – even her apartment is at the end of a peculiar series of stairways she must walk up, then down.

Not too promising at first is Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a stencil artist for a local amp dealer who finds a roundabout way to hit her up for change at the Laundromat. He’s one of those people who totally lacks a mental filter, and whose tragedy is to always find the worst possible moment to reveal he’s thinking about something inappropriate. But in his scattered, clumsy way he’s interested in her, so she’s willing to try him on for size and the awkwardness of their union earns as many cringes as laughs.

This is a clue to how the movie works – nothing happens right the first time, and it’s never the candlelit consummation followed by happily ever after. People screw up, hurt each other, humiliate themselves, and learn from it.

So exit Jeremy to travel cross-country with a rock band, where he listens to motivational CDs from his tour bus bunk. And enter Ray Porter (Steve Martin), who buys a pair of gloves from Mirabelle then tracks down her address and mails them to her. He’s wealthy enough to never really think about what things cost, and works as a “symbolic logician” in the computer field. He looks like he’s given up trying to tell people what that means, or maybe isn’t sure himself.

Ray showers her with gifts and attention, is unfailingly polite and sensitive and patient. He treats her with tenderness and she responds, but is it genuine love for her or the sort of fondness you have for a piece of furniture people are forbidden to put their feet on? Everything in Ray’s two houses seems spotless, and unused. He’s distant and cautious, and tells anyone who will listen that he is using her for sex and amusement when he’s in town and she understands the arrangement. This is caddish and in most movies it would be enough, but in Shopgirl, there’s significant evidence that Ray is lying to himself here. Some instinctive part of him is beginning to love in spite of his efforts to keep her as a prize.

Watch the way he swings into action when she answers the phone in tears. If you’ve ever known anyone who takes anti-depressants, you’ll recognize with apprehension the moment Mirabelle decides to stop taking them, the effervescence she shows in the next scenes (Danes is perfect in these moments, never forcing or spelling out what’s happening in her head), and this bedridden crash that follows. Again, just right. I think if Ray Porter were as awful as he’s trying to be, he would see her as defective merchandise after this episode and separate himself. That he sticks with her adds only more sadness to later mistreatments.

Suffice it to say that Jeremy eventually re-enters Mirabelle’s world and we reach some resolution about her future potential with Ray. This takes place all over the strange landscape of Los Angeles, which in most movies is the city where you get mugged or addicted to drugs or killed in an earthquake. But Martin and director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) shows us that L.A. has beauty, too – from the mansions in the hills to the colorful apartments that might as well have “struggling artists welcome” on banners, from eclectic restaurants to hoity-toity art openings in Beverly Hills, where everything seems to glow.

Those familiar with L.A. Story or Martin’s prose work will recognize the mix of precise verbiage and flights of graceful nonsense, and the laughs are plenty. If the movie has any flaw, it’s that sometimes Tucker hangs in too long for an extra laugh or two. The patient and delicate emotional progress of the story is nudged out of rhythm.

Danes is luminous, coming into the full-flower of screen adulthood but with perfectly-calibrated vulnerability. All three leads are excellently observed, and show us not only uncommon depth, but glimpses of real organic lives. What is conveyed when Mirabelle stares across a room at her mother (Frances Conroy) then makes the decision she makes? It’s not important for the movie to be concrete, but since the decision surprises us, we’re inspired to wonder.

And Martin’s generosity as a writer works further down the cast list, too: Bridgette Wilson-Sampras has a hilarious turn as a catty Saks perfume salesman. See how she indicates the emotional intent of what she’s about to say with the way she flips her hair. She can flip it in a lot of different ways. And see how she’s full of perfectly horrible advice for Mirabelle about how to land a man. Mirabelle listens politely and replies that she couldn’t do any of that. When pressed, she explains: “I’m from Vermont”. That’s just right, too.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Saw II

Originally published 10/31/05
Full review behind the jump

Saw II

: Darren Lynn Bousman
: Darren Lynn Bousman, Leigh Whannell
: Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules
: Donnie Wahlberg. Tobin Bell, Erik Knudsen, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Franky G

Saw II
carries on the ghoulish chronicling of the exploits of The Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), who claims he’s never killed anyone and if people would simply play the game he’s set up by the “rules”, they’d escape alive. Sure, they didn't ask to play these games, and at the end they may be missing a limb or an eyeball or some flesh they wouldn’t have normally wanted to part with, but they won’t be dead, so no harm no foul, right?

But, reflecting the sloppy thinking of his creators, Jigsaw cheats. His Torquemada-esque scenarios, which he calls bloody altruism designed to make people appreciate life again, are really about creating shocking horror movie plots. They depend on wild coincidence and psychic foreknowledge of how people will think, what they will do in every situation, and down to the exact second, when they will make certain logical leaps or discover important props. Those chilling twist endings he goes to such trouble to set up would never come to pass unless 100 such little things didn’t unfold just so. Really what Jigsaw is saying is:
follow your lines in the script, which I clearly have a copy of, and we’re guaranteed to reach that “gotcha” moment I’m herding the audience towards.

Jigsaw’s rather invasive form of
carpe diem stems from his own diagnosis with terminal cancer. He uses it as a bullying point – why arrest, why even try to beat information out of him, when he’s already at the outer threshold of pain? This is not the first movie to crassly make poetic hay out of a fatal disease, but there’s an unsettling cockiness to it here.

It does have the drawback, though, of creating diminishing returns in the sequel potential department. So part of the business here, besides another helping of histrionic acting, laughably juvenile police work, and elaborate snuff, is going to be settling how the producers intend to get
Saw III into theatres, as well as the inevitable IV, V and VI.

The previous movie centered around two men chained in a grimy industrial bathroom. One, Dr. Gordon, seemed to escape at the end, but if he did, it renders one of this movie’s surprises all-but impossible, and if he didn’t, that sort of scotches Jigsaw’s high-brow claim about not killing anyone by his own hand. But if I stop for every glaring plot hole I’d never find my way to the plot itself.

This time Jigsaw has broadened his ambitions, and constructed an elaborate “game” with eight potential victims locked in a booby-trapped house. A nerve gas is pumping in through the vents that will make them hemorrhage to death in two hours unless they can access one of the many “antidote” syringes hidden in ominous devices in the various rooms. One of the “players” is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who escaped from the gruesome “bear trap” device in the previous movie and is understandably annoyed that so few people care to rely on her previous experiences. Then again, if they listened to her advice they wouldn’t set off so many of the traps, which is what the fans pay to see anyway.

We open with a police snitch named Michael (Noam Jenkins) finding himself on the wrong side (the inside) of a “Venus Fly Trap Mask” meant to evoke that infamous “bear trap”. Jigsaw has sewn the key up inside Michael’s head, so to save his life he’ll have to cut one of his own eyes out.

Michael’s not so much the prey here – this “game” is designed to attract the attention of temperamental police detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), whose teenage son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is one of the prisoners in the house. His specialty as a cop seems to be planting evidence and, failing that, physical abuse. When he barges into Jigsaw’s hideout with a SWAT team and sees his son with the other kidnappees on a bank of monitors, he wants to enact every angry cop cliché written all over Jigsaw in the time allotted, even though this is pretty much guaranteed to fail and make him look like a fool.

That’s why this movie is more like Friday the 13th with gadgets added and the virginal heroine removed. All our “heroes” are morally-compromised idiots who roll down the assembly line towards their fate, and Jigsaw is the cool guy with the toys who probably memorized all of Kevin Spacey’s dialogue from Se7en. This is a franchise where the sociopath is going to win every time, and we’re told to enjoy it.

The victims in the house aren’t any more promising than Det. Matthews. There’s muscle-bound hothead Xavier (the empathically over-gesticulating Franky G), whose solemn duty is to do the most ignorant and dangerous thing possible in every situation and yell at or hit anyone who questions him. Then there’s Laura (Beverley Mitchell), whose contribution is to be cowering and helpless, and various other broad-brushed types determined to squabble away their last minutes rather than cooperate.

In a sense this central plot and its deadline offer a stronger sense of story cohesion than the hash of multiple flashbacks and side vignettes that made up the original Saw. The budget has also increased and it’s noticeable onscreen, if all-pervading scuzz can be said to have an extra layer of polish, this movie demonstrates it.

But if you get down to it this movie doesn’t really intend to scare you. Persistent cringing would be a more desired response. It is about one long scene after another where people slowly, excruciatingly author their own mutilation for the dubious hope of maybe not dying at the end. Success or failure depends on the ability of the director to stage these scenes – like a character thrown into a pit of syringes, or another trapped in an oven with a long row of burners lighting one by one towards him – with intensity. Co-writer/Director Darren Lynn Bousman, making his feature debut here, gets the squirming and the shrieking on film effectively, though he fares about as well as his predecessor with keeping moments of unintentional comedy to a minimum (not very well). And there’s still an over-reliance on rapid-fire montages of clips from earlier in the movie, which endeavor to make the explanation of the plot twists seem much more complex than they actually are.

If you’ve read enough of my reviews you’ll know I’m not opposed to pain, violence or gore in and of themselves. But even imaginative examples of those traits alone don’t constitute a movie. It’s barely even the “game” Jigsaw describes it as. It’s easy to win a game when you write all the rules and don’t let anyone else see the game board. People who enjoy Saw II must enjoy games like that, with them in charge, of course.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Weather Man

Originally published 10/28/05
Full review behind the jump

The Weather Man

: Gore Verbinski
: Steve Conrad
: Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Todd Black
: Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Hope Davis, Gemmenne de la Peña, Nicholas Hoult, Michael Rispoli

No one wears melancholy like Nicolas Cage. It’s in the eyes a bit, but also in the manic energy we’ve seen him bring to roles over the years. Nothing creates tension on-screen like a performer who we know has 1.21 gigawatts of life going on inside but only a little peephole to feed it through.

The Weather Man we get to watch him do one of his best variances on the slow-motion freakout. He’s a man who sees everything in life as a source of his misery except for the fact that he’s a miserable human being by his own design. He makes a handsome living faking enthusiasm for a couple of hours a day, but nothing is worth his real passion except petty frustrations and misunderstandings. In this entertaining but not transcendent drama, directed with a bit too much slick and not enough quirk by Gore Verbinski, we see him struggle to become the hero of his own life but come to realize that not everyone can be a hero, and clowns are important, too.

People throw things at Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage). He’s accepted it as a fact of his life – sometimes it’s milkshakes, sometimes it’s a burrito. Always fast food – he senses there’s meaning there. He’s a recognized face all over Chicago, where he delivers the local weather reports with a pasted-on grin, and each week he advises residents which day will be the “Spritz Nipper” – the coldest day.

His name is fake, and his audience knows it’s fake, and that breeds resentment. In Los Angeles we have weathermen named “Johnny Mountain” and “Dallas Rains”, so I understand this. His real name is Spritzel, and he’s the son of Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), who is patient and polite and a bit of a genius. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has a way of looking at Dave which is not judgmental or unloving. It’s just that the father seems confused by the way his son’s life has unfolded. Caine’s performance has so much dignity and restraint to it you might miss all the just right moments he’s creating.

He used to play tennis with Jimmy Carter, and in the twilight of his life he’s dealing with a grandson (About a Boy’s Nicholas Hoult) whose drug counselor (Gil Bellows) spends too much out of the office time with him, and a sullen, overweight granddaughter (Gemmenne de la Peña) who gets called “Camel Toe” at school and has a misunderstanding about what that means. And his son gets Big Gulps chucked at him, and he doesn’t even know what a Big Gulp is.

There’s nothing wrong with him as a father except that things have generally worked out for him, and they haven’t worked out for his son, who toils away at night on a lousy spy novel and auditions for a job on the national morning program “Hello America”. Dave thinks working with Bryant Gumbel and making a seven-figure salary will help him undo his divorce. That his wife (Hope Davis) hates everything about him is something he hasn't factored in. He also has an unerring habit of picking the wrong way to try and help his kids, like when he tries to inspire his daughter to finish an ice skating event with him and she tears her MCL.

This is as much as the movie has to offer in the plot department. The script by Steve Conrad (Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) is a perceptive meditation on distinctly-American brands of mediocrity and fame, as well as our myths about what will give us satisfaction in our lives. The point is that life is hard and filled with indignities, but our culture teaches us too many ways to shun the hard work and outsource the blame for our unhappiness. On any given day you can end up feeling like Dave Spritz, it’s just that he feels like this every day.

There’s a lot I love about this movie. Cage and Caine are unpredictably well-suited on-screen, the vast difference in energies they deliver as performers helps underscore their gulf as characters. I love the minutiae about archery. I love how often Dave Spritz’s intimates ask him how he’s doing and how quickly and falsely he assures them he’s fine. He breaks this habit at a great moment.

And Chicago is the right town to set it in, the filmmakers do us a great service by genuinely using the city and all its rich parts, rather than just sneaking in a couple of skyline shots and filming in Canada. The snow-dusted breaking ice on the lake looks like bird feathers, and the bricks and towers and jammed one-way streets make the background a real, breathing character. Weather is a major factor of life in Chicago, and the difficulty of accurately predicting it begins to grip Dave Spritz with a panic, because it’s all about wind, and nobody really knows which way it’s going to go.

I don’t have any major complaint against Verbisnki’s handling of this material except that it seems a little too polished. It’s capable and handsome and knows where the jokes are. But his commercial streak (he also directed The Ring and Pirates of the Carribean) keeps his timing too conventional and it exposes the meandering shape of the script. It’s a story about misfits that’s not being observed by a misfit. You can imagine what extra grace notes a Spike Jonze or Alexander Payne might have found. I’ll take the movie that’s been given me, but think that it had bigger potential in it.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Capote

Originally published 10/25/05
Full review behind the jump


: Bennett Miller
: Dan Futterman, based on the book by Gerald Clarke
: Caroline Baron, Michael Ohoven, William Vince
: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino

Jack thinks I’m using Perry. He also thinks I fell in love with him in Kansas. How both those things could be true is beyond me.” Of course it is beyond Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to reconcile these motives, both of which happen to be true. The essence of tragedy is that we are blind to the flaws with which we author our own downfall.

How fitting, then, that a man known in all the best crowds for his ability to depict a foible in a pithy toss-off should spell out his own doom with such ease and flair and not even realize it. For the tragedy of
Capote, a drama about Capote’s most famous book, is that he, indeed, fell in love with Perry and used him. Without those two contradictory desires, the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, which so galvanized the world of literature and shocked Amercia, would never have existed.

Capote was recognized in his life as a titanic man of letters, though he knew it before anyone else did. When the movie opens, most people don’t yet, and he is simply the most entertaining author in New York’s society circle, creating laughs at the best soirees and dropping the right names in the process. His childhood friend and fellow author Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who will during this drama write a book of some note herself – catches him in the act of bribing a railroad porter to gush about his book in front of her. It’s a peculiar blend of talent with a childlike ego – “I have 94 percent recall of all conversations. I measured myself”, he emphasizes. He was a man who knew great work when he saw it, and he knew instinctively that writing about the murder of the Clutter family would be great work.

One night in November of 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas, two drifters and petty thieves named Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) invaded the Clutters’ farmhouse and killed them all, execution-style. Capote sees a newspaper article about it, just the thinnest of sidebars, but it touches something in him. He clips it out (the scissors in loud close-up, the book will be a violent act of its own,) and phones his editor at The New Yorker (Bob Balaban), announcing his intention to write an article about it.

Within a day he’s in Holcomb with Nelle – whose mixture of patience and stern, protective paternalism tells us much – and he canvasses the town, recording reactions, probing secrets. He’s at the Christmas table of Sheriff Allen Dewey (Chris Cooper) when a call comes in that the killers have been captured. The Sheriff is made uncomfortable by Capote’s mix of flamboyance and perceptiveness, but Capote has charmed his wife (Amy Ryan) with stories about Humphrey Bogart so he’s become a fixture in the household. And he’s also outside the station when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are brought in to be jailed pending trial. The moment he locks eyes with Perry Smith, he decides a simple article will never do.

He spends months with the killers, trying to capture them in verbal portrait, trying to pierce not only what they did that night, but why. Maybe that way the world won’t see them as freaks and outcasts but people who steered the wrong way and never turned back. Perry is a peculiar man, the orphaned son of an alcoholic Cherokee woman, yet he takes great care with his speech, uses big words in unusual places then stops to explain them. For Capote, Perry activates some memory of his own sad childhood circumstances. He hires lawyers, calls for appeals and stays of execution. He hopes to keep Perry (and Hickock, if he’s part of the package) alive because without their story, the book is incomplete. And Capote has a sense that this will be an amazing book which will bring him fame and fortune, and why not have that as well if you deserve it?

How this relationship turns and what it costs Capote in the end I’ll leave you to discover. The fates of Perry and Hickock are known and unsurprising, the movie is not so much about the justice meted out to them but how the creation of Capote’s most famous work became a means to exorcise and destroy his hated past, but ended up destroying him in the present. For the last nineteen years of his life following this greatest career triumph he drank, and appeared on talk shows, and started books without finishing them.

The script by actor Dan Futterman and the direction by former commercial helmer Bennett Miller are the essence of great biopic filmmaking – they tell a great story and find a way to telescope the character of this man’s life into these choices he made. Their longtime friend Hoffman is astounding in the role. Astounding is perhaps the wrong word, because what’s most impressive is how quickly you disregard the mimicry. “Capote” was a persona, a carefully-crafted mask. Hoffman offers his technically-perfect replica then also sneaks in so delicately those moments of loneliness and anguish behind that mask. Despite that the movie is about him, his best work is often all-but-invisible.

The supporting cast is equally appropriate to their parts. Keener creates a whole life for Lee without ever overshadowing Hoffman – just compare her sexy single mother in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to this work and ask how many actresses could play both roles in the same year. Then add in her unadorned and unheralded but nevertheless flawless performance as Sean Penn’s partner in The Interpreter, this is an actress of such touch and grace that you never catch her showing you what good acting she’s doing. Collins is excellent, too, as Perry – enigmatic, afraid of himself, yearning to be seen as a man of intellect even as the hangman prepares his noose.

There’s even room in the story for Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), Truman’s “longtime companion” in a time when such slang was deemed necessary. They act as any couple of some years would where one has a habit of losing himself in work like Capote, and their relationship is tenderly, comfortably one of the most honest you’ll see depicted in any movie. Their love expresses itself not in any clichéd way but in the tiniest of signals and interactions.

The contrast between the towers of Manhattan and the stark horizons of Kansas (actually the equally flat Manitoba) is used to full effect, and makes without forcing the point about In Cold Blood’s impact – it revealed the unfathomable brutality that could explode anywhere, even in this most red-white-and-blue heartland. That title was a winner – but though he bragged about it elsewhere, Capote couldn’t bear to admit to Perry that he came up with it himself. That’s the heart of Capote, one of the year’s best films.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Originally published 10/20/05
Full review behind the jump

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

: Nick Park and Steve Box
: Nick Park, Steve Box, Bob Baker and Mark Burton, based on the characters created by Nick Park
: Nick Park, Peter Lord, Claire Jennings, Carla Shelley, David Sproxton
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Kay, Nicholas Smith

The charms of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit are quite literally handmade – if you look closely you can sometimes see the odd thumbprint on their clay heads where they’ve been sculpted and posed. From their troika of riotous and inventive shorts they now make the leap to feature-length product with all their sublime whimsy and veddy British quirks intact.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a consistently hilarious and almost indecently adorable outing from Aardman Animation, also the makers of Chicken Run. When you fill the screen with little bunnies that thump their furry chests and howl at the moon, you’re just not playing fair.

The relationship between our two heroes is intact in transition. Wallace (Peter Sallis) is a boundlessly-optimistic idiot savant – he loves cheese, is naïve and woolly-headed in his dealings with the outside world, but in his workshop cooks up gadgets that reveal a bottomless supply of imagination, joy, and enthusiasm for gears and levers and big buttons. This time around he’s not only founded a successful pest-control service (called “Anti-Pesto”) that uses the humane, non-lethal BunVac 6000 to suck rabbits out of your vegetable patch, he’s also tinkering with a glass helmet which will suck bad thoughts out of your head.

Gromit is his devoted dog, certainly the more domesticated and self-reliant of the pair; he must work long hours protecting Wallace from his own genius. It brings a consistent smile to my face that the mute Gromit is the most emotionally-expressive creature in these adventures. Dialogue would be superfluous – his worried brow and his ping-pong ball eyes, often rolling skyward in exasperation, tell all.

Their humble little village is abuzz with the approaching Giant Vegetable competition, hosted every year by Lady Campanula Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter), who has thick, bright lipstick around the Aardman trademark wide elliptical mouth, and dresses in uncannily vegetable-like ways. She’s being wooed by the pale and irritable Vincent Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), who believes that every problem eventually boils down to finding something to shoot.

So Anti-Pesto is working overtime to protect everyone’s over-sized carrots and cabbages from the hordes of burrowing bunnies. And things only get worse when a mysterious creature begins to stalk the town at night, eating everything in sight and leaving devastation in its wake. Reverend Hedges (Nicholas Smith) fulfills the clerical role in fog-shrouded monster stories like this and whips up hysteria about a mythical beast known as the Were-Rabbit.

Naturally he has a thick and ancient book all about Monsters like the Were-Rabbit and how to do away with them. The book’s author, glimpsed in a flash on the cover, is “Claude Savagely”. You can always appreciate a movie that takes the extra time to stick little gags and puns in the corner of the frame for you to discover and treasure, like the sticker on the back of Wallace’s van that reads: “Eat Cheese Now. Ask me how.” It’s a sign you’re in the hands of entertainers who want to share how much fun they’re having with you. Once they’ve won you over like that, you forgive the familiar jokes because they’re done with such zest and timing.

There’s a true balance to inspiration, you can’t choke the audience with delights, but must roll them out at a varied but steadily increasing pace. Wallace and Gromit, true to their shorter adventures, are masters at sustaining this pace right up to an action-packed climax whose many pleasures I dearly wish to talk about, but won’t.

The contrast between our heroes, and the way they can always depend on each other, is key. The Buster Keaton antics of Gromit never wear thin because we can always jump to some daffy wordplay and slapstick from Wallace, or more painfully-cute bunny antics. And in the expansion of their formerly-hermetic world to include a whole town full of eccentrics – Fiennes’ relish-filled reading of Quartermaine deserves both praise and laughter – these two have never had so large a playpen.

On the technical level there’s a definite increase in smoothness and detail, along with a sparing few touches of computer effects. But part of what I like about Wallace and Gromit is that they’re still just a little herky-jerky. What might become crudity due to the limitations of their construction becomes a kind of style, and I live to see Gromit’s peculiar four-footed shuffle and the endearing quality of Wallace’s wide, blank eyes. At first that expression could seem vacant, but its incomprehension of the world is not for lack of ability. It’s just that the playground of his inner fancy is too distracting to take in much else. Except the cheese.

Lady Tottington’s eyes are similar. Maybe that’s why there’s such a spark between the two of them. But they’d never end up together, oh no. Wallace has his partner for life, and as long as they’re together, all’s right with the world.

P.S.: Hopefully it is the same at all theatres, the showing I saw was proceeded by an animated short featuring the penguins from the CGI feature Madagascar. Not having seen the movie that spawned them, I probably didn’t get all the jokes, but it’s a peppy and silly little adventure that not only features the most vicious fluffy dog rendered in digital, but the first instance I’ve ever seen of a penguin regurgitating a stick of dynamite.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Where the Truth Lies

Originally published 10/16/05
Full review behind the jump

Where the Truth Lies

: Atom Egoyan
: Atom Egoyan, based on the novel by Rupert Holmes
: Robert Lantos
: Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, Alison Lohman, Rachel Blanchard, Sonja Bennett, Kathryn Winslow, Kristin Adams, Maury Chaykin

I can’t give you any details about the scene where Kevin Bacon does his best acting in
Where the Truth Lies. What intrigue the movie offers comes in the form of its central mystery, and the scene in question is the key to understanding it. It’s also the scene that caused the MPAA – which calls its ratings code “voluntary” but serves as more effective censors than any society in the civilized world – to threaten the financial deathblow of an “NC-17” rating. Many newspapers refuse to carry ads for “NC-17” movies and chains like Wal-Mart and Blockbuster refuse to stock them, kowtowing to the nattering boycott threats of a religious minority (both Egoyan and producer Robert Lantos attest to the presence of two clergymen participating “unofficially” in the ratings board’s discussion). The film’s distributors, ThinkFilm, have opted to release it without a rating, which has the same effective result but at least allows them to make some statement.

In any case, cutting the scene would be impossible – writer/director Atom Egoyan filmed it the most effective way possible, in a single wide take. And without seeing it, the power of what is revealed is lost.

But back to Bacon’s acting. He’s survived being the center of the “Six Degrees” movie game and even survived
Hollow Man, and has been steadily building and expanding his body of work. He is at this point a reliable professional with range and daring, and awaits only the right alignment of role and visibility to start finally collecting critical kudos. And he does some of his best work in this picture, an adaptation of the novel by Rupert Holmes – he of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” fame. I just wish that this performance, and this principled stand against economic censorship, had come together in a better movie.

When the scene comes you’ll know it. Listen to Bacon’s tone, the way he’s almost scolding. A line has been crossed, one which was never spoken of but in his voice you sense that he was aware of it and its inviolability should have been understood. It’s not pure rage, there’s disappointment involved, too. It says more about this movie’s most compelling aspect than any of the clunky voice-over or flat sleuth work by writer Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman).

She’s a young journalist, it’s 1972 and young journalists are trying out all sorts of things, like inserting themselves into their stories. Hunter Thompson certainly made it look cool. Of course, Hunter Thompson could write, and from every example provided by the movie, Karen O’Connor can’t. If it weren’t for a hidden connection she has with her subjects, it’s unfathomable that a major publisher would hand her this assignment – to co-author the tell-all autobiography of Vince Collins (Colin Firth), the dapper half of the long-split music and comedy duo Collins and Morris (Bacon).

Alison Lohman is a supremely capable and confident young actress, so I can’t answer why she seems so adrift in what needs to be the plot-driving role of the story. Her publishers hope she will finally coax the truth out about a) why Collins and Morris separated 18 years before, and b) what really happened the day the body of Maureen O’Flaherty (Rachel Blanchard) was discovered in their hotel’s bathtub after the completion of their marathon charity show.

Collins was the straight man, Morris the rude goon. On-stage Collins had to save Morris from his own antics, off-stage we learn that when Collins stepped in, it was with scripted lines Morris wrote. Their relationship is one co-dependency built atop another: Morris needed that debonair reserve Collins provided – in his own words, Collins’ affection for him on-stage gave the audience permission to like him, too.

See, Morris is writing his own tell-all, and O’Connor keeps getting sample chapters slipped to her by various means. And then she bumps into Morris on an airplane, and from there I should only say that to be compromised by one of your investigative targets is one thing, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to do so with two seems like carelessness.

There is a great deal of sex in the movie, which is important because it is important to the characters. When Firth and Bacon are together on-screen, the ritzy grandeur of the nightclub 50’s all around them, the complex possibilities of the movie are briefly visible. Their act is convincing enough to take on the road. But we keep returning to O’Connor, behaving in one inexplicable way after another, and then Egoyan (so masterfully delicate with The Sweet Hereafter, almost all thumbs here) ladles on more overwrought music and dull narration like so much gravy.

There’s moments, beautiful moments. A mother (Kathryn Winslow) making a speech about a tree. The way a mobster (Maury Chaykin) wheezes “You like lobster?” Maureen O’Flaherty resting her head on a pillow and, eyes half-closed with sleep, stating her terms. They keep sliding out of view, just another shuffled angle in a movie that never decides how best to approach its subject but treats every attempt with equal pomp. In the end it’s closer to laughable than devastating, and a real shame for the talent assembled. I left thinking that Collins & Morris, and the mysterious Maureen, had the makings of a crackerjack movie, and that the perfect actors were already in place to play them. Too bad you tend to get only one shot at these things.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Flightplan

Originally published 10/8/05
Full review behind the jump


: Robert Schwentke
: Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray
: Brian Grazer
: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Erika Christensen

A movie like
Flightplan should come with a label which reads: “Be Kind, Don’t Rewind.” The cruelest thing you can do to a movie like this is to consider its plot in reverse once you’ve seen it through to the end. At the least it is ludicrously implausible, dependent on rampant coincidence and psychic foreknowledge of how people will behave. At worst it is plainly impossible.

What dignity the film can muster comes from Jodie Foster, always so fiercely alive and immediate on camera, and Sean Bean, who sees the clear down-the-middle path his role must play and sticks to it even as the story flies apart. The rest of the actors flounder in a talky script which keeps head-faking in promising directions, while German director Robert Schwentke (making his English-language debut) keeps the contraption running as smoothly as you could hope but can’t overcome the story’s fatal flaws.

Foster plays Kyle Pratt, an engineer making a sad trip home to America on a next-generation jumbo jet she helped design. Her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) is with her, quiet and preoccupied. In the cargo hold is a coffin which holds husband and father David (John Benjamin Hickey), who fell to his death from the roof of their Berlin apartment last week. At least, Kyle insists he fell.

But as the plane crosses the Atlantic in the dark Kyle wakes from a nap to find Julia missing. She’s not entirely stable to begin with but does her best to hold panic in and methodically search the airplane. When that turns up nothing, she enlists the aid of the flight attendants, and while they’re helpful at first, when a check of the flight manifest shows no Julia Pratt ever boarded the plane, their attitude towards Kyle shifts noticeably.

Bean plays the pilot – who takes Kyle’s plight seriously and tries to keep things calm and according to protocol, putting her in the charge of abrasive Air Marshall Carson (Peter Sarsgaard). But Julia remains unfound. And Kyle’s increasing hysteria sends tension throughout the plane until a new bombshell forces her to face the possible reasons why none of the passengers or crew can remember seeing her daughter.

When we’re stuck on the plane and can watch passengers react in their own way to the evolving situation, Flightplan has some intrigue. It plugs into Kyle’s paranoia – are those two Arab men (Michael Irby, Assaf Cohen) the ones who seemed to be staring into her window last night? Some passengers seem willing to think so and the threat of violence hangs in the air. It also plugs into Kyle’s awareness of her surroundings – this is not a lost mother waiting to be helped but a capable, rational woman suffering a great trauma who knows that she must fight the growing perception that she’s insane, even if it might be true. Foster is playing in much the same range as she did in Panic Room and again shows an uncanny ability to find the hidden dynamics within a genre piece like this.

And I single out Bean because as the truly harebrained nature of the plot begins to reveal itself he doesn’t bend to it. While other characters behave in deliberately odd or suspicious ways, he consistently depicts a professional man who is not without concern but has a whole plane full of people he is responsible for besides Kyle. So no matter where his character ends up in the final analysis, his conviction is the most quietly compelling along the way.

The plane is a mammoth, two-level piece of work, and since the action spreads throughout the lounge, the flight deck, the cargo hold, the restrooms, the avionics chamber and all sorts of other nooks and crannies, director Schwentke has a lot of space to keep the movie from becoming visually stagnant. That Foster’s character has such detailed knowledge of the plane comes in handy in several ways. By comparison with this year’s other woman-in-jeopardy-on-a-plane thriller Red Eye, Schwentke has fewer limitations than Wes Craven had with that piece’s plane sections.

This movie suffers more, then, since Craven’s filmmaking abilities elevated that preposterous story into an effective thrill ride, while Schwentke can only keep things interesting moment by moment. All his clever photographic angles aside – and there are many that don’t call too much attention to themselves – inevitably, you stop to think about what you’re seeing, what the movie is proposing to you. And then the jig’s up.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - In Her Shoes

Originally published 10/7/05
Full review behind the jump

In Her Shoes

: Curtis Hanson
: Susannah Grant, based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner
: Ridley Scott, Lisa Ellzey, Curtis Hanson, Carol Fenelson
: Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, Shirley MacLaine, Mark Feuerstein, Anson Mount, Jerry Adler, Francine Beers, Norman Lloyd, Candice Azzara, Ken Howard

It wouldn’t be effective marketing to say that
In Her Shoes, the adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s novel, is from the director that brought you 8 Mile. But it’s true. Equally true is that you wouldn’t have advertised 8 Mile as being from the director of Wonder Boys. And you might not have predicted the director of all three also made L.A. Confidential.

If I could think of a highest compliment for Curtis Hanson, it’s that he is our most professional filmmaker working, a serious movie-lover who creates movies we in turn love by treating familiar genres with care and attention. We’ve seen many movies where lonely women lament their condition, or talk about their feelings and old family secrets over tea by day and cosmos by night. But you haven’t seen one this good in awhile. By giving his characters the space to become their flawed and full selves, Hanson (working from a tart script by Erin Brockovich scribe Susannah Grant) delivers a movie which is not perhaps as compelling as those other films, but more charming than you might have predicted.

You must dispel the notion that this is a movie about shoes, although they play a role. They line the walls of Rose Feller’s closet, stylish designer shoes for every mood and situation. Rose (Toni Collette) is an attorney in Philadelphia, successful but ground under. When she looks in the mirror she sees only a woman with plain features and a few extra pounds on, so whatever spurs her to buy those shoes, the passion for them dissipates before the occasion arises to actually wear them. That Collette the actress is capable of looking perfectly stunning in films like The Hours, or perfectly blue-collar in The Sixth Sense, or perfectly manic-depressive in About a Boy (with different accents for each) just underlines how her vanity-free, seamless transformations from role to role make her something like the Australian Meryl Streep.

Two guests will join her in her tasteful apartment one night – one wanted and unexpected, one expected but unwanted. First is Jim (Richard Burgi), a handsome partner at her firm who has finally noticed her. Then, as he sleeps and Rose stares at him like he’ll turn into a pumpkin if she takes her eyes away, she gets a phone call and resignedly bundles up to go fetch guest number two.

Maggie (Cameron Diaz) is Rose’s younger sister, an aimless stunner who likes drinking and men and stealing as many of Rose’s shoes as she can. She’s 28 now, has never held a steady job, and her stepmother (Candace Azzara) has just thrown her out of the family home. Rose isn’t eager to offer her couch, but we find out that looking out for her prettier little sister is a habit and burden of long standing.

In the shallow version of this story that would be enough backstory but In Her Shoes delves deeper, and shows what Maggie’s bad habits are fearfully masking. The Cameron Diaz of Charlie’s Angels can handle seductiveness, sprightly energy and booty-shaking on auto-pilot – the role of Maggie calls on something more vulnerable from her, not in the big moments where tears flow or voices rise, but in those moments where she tries to conceal and you can see the flash of desperation and need.

Having the smooth but led-by-his-genitals Jim and the wayward Maggie under one roof doesn’t end well, and the two sisters are driven apart. In their separation they’re finally going to learn things about each other. Rose leaves the firm, accidentally starts a dog-walking career, and navigates a startling new relationship with an ex-colleague (Mark Feuerstein). And Maggie discovers a grandmother who was not unknown but gone so long she’s been forgotten. Ella Hirsch (Shirley Maclaine) lives in a “retirement community for active seniors” in Florida, and when Maggie shows up on her doorstep Ella perceives what’s going on with more clarity than even Maggie; because Ella raised Maggie’s mother, and sees familiar traits that bring up bad memories.

This is the raw material of the movie, and it is not the best means of communicating the movie’s charm. The charm comes in expressions, and gestures – like a sweet battle-of-wills played out over a lamp cord – and in the way Curtis Hanson treats the obsessions with shoes and out-of-the-way restaurants with genuine affection. He lets the characters be who they are and, not without difficulty, find their new happiness. Key to Maggie’s is a friendship she strikes up with a blind man known only as The Professor, played with crisp authority by the 91-year-old Norman Lloyd. Lloyd’s resume is worth a second’s expansion – in his twenties he joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre stage company, he played the villain Frank Fry in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, where he fell from the Statue of Liberty’s torch, and was one of the main directors of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

I bring it up because the relaxed polish of Lloyd is the hallmark of the old Hollywood for which he serves as an effective ambassador. Hanson is unabashedly enthusiastic about the products of the classic studio system, where a working director had to move from genre to genre with ease. For that you needed a pure approach, one that understood the fundamentals of pacing and storytelling, how to get that extra level from your actors, and how to treat your material with dignity no matter what label might be stuck on it. It’s that talent which helps him elevate In Her Shoes into more than just a “chick flick”. Maybe it’s too saccharine in the final analysis to stand with the likes of Terms of Endearment, but when good things happen to the characters, you smile without effort. That’s a success.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - A History of Violence

Originally published 9/30/05
Full review behind the jump

A History of Violence

: David Cronenberg
: Screenplay by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
: Chris Bender, J.C. Spink, David Cronenberg
: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill

Of all the great performances I’ve seen William Hurt give, I’ve never seen him give one so mesmerizing and bizarre as he gives in
A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the graphic novel. And that is all I will say on the matter, as it would be criminal to give any detail on who he plays and how he fits into the current events of Tom Stall’s life.

The question of who Tom Stall is and if he will survive these events forms the backbone of this movie, and rather unusually I left the movie not entirely sure I had the complete answer, or whether I even thought the movie was as great as it seemed to be from the confidence of its design and the brilliance of its players. My response is still coalescing, so let’s get on with the review and see if we can’t come to some conclusion.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs Stall’s Diner, the main hangout on the main drag of Millbrook, Indiana. It’s comfortable, easy-going and quiet, a reflection of the owner, who’s married to a beautiful, smart lawyer named Edie (Maria Bello). They have two kids, one (Ashton Holmes) in high school and the other (Heidi Hayes) still in elementary, and the kind of lasting playfulness in their love that requires the kids be sent to spend the night elsewhere every so often. It’s about as ideal a small town life as you could ask for.

That peace and happiness is not so much shattered as unraveled by violence, episodes of terrifying violence that descend on the town of Millbrook like demons coming to collect a debt from Stall for the life he has. Part of the movie’s power is the way that it’s not just one incident which changes everything, it’s how it changes a lot, then triggers another event which changes even more, and time and space is given to track how the members of the Stall family are being affected by each new spilling of blood.

It starts when two very bad men (Stephen McHattie, Greg Berk) come into Tom’s diner. They’re traveling the back roads of America doing horrible deeds, and are only holding back from killing everyone in the joint because first they want the money in the cash register. Something snaps in the non-confrontational Tom and he takes lethal charge of the situation. Cronenberg shoots this action cleanly, showing cause-and-effect without sensation and stopping to note with almost clinical curiosity the various ways a human body can be rendered inoperative. These are some of those chilling makeup effects that don’t look like effects at all.

Tom is hailed as a hero for his efforts, but they also attract the attention of a sinister man named Mr. Fogarty (Ed Harris). He has scar tissue around one blinded eye and his henchmen keep calling him “Mr. Fogarty” with a stylized casualness that suggests you should be very afraid to be hearing that name. And Mr. Fogarty is quite convinced that Tom, all his protestations aside, is actually a guy named Joey from Philadelphia.

Cronenberg’s interest in savage emotions and dreadful possibilities takes command of the screen. What’s most brutal and strange ironically comes across with the most authority, while scenes familiar to us from other movies, like Tom’s son being picked on by a bully (Kyle Schmid) or Tom being harassed on his front lawn by a TV reporter, ring so artificial as to be nearly absurd. It’s jarring enough I have to think there’s something intentional about it, maybe a greater contrast drawn between the clichéd ideal Tom’s living and the macabre spiral of killing he’s being sucked into. I don’t think the choice works.

I thought of great films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, how one act of violence begat another and another and another with unstoppable logic. How by the end so many bodies litter the stage and the survivors look at what they have left and wonder if they can ever again have even a taste of what they had before.

Tom Stall is a great character in a film with many great characters; Mortensen does delicate work. And Maria Bello plays so many notes with such ease – you get to see her as a concerned mother, a sharp and clear-thinking lawyer who stays on top of what’s unfolding, and a wife who still loves and lusts for her husband and demonstrates that lust in two brilliantly contrasting scenes. Harris is delightfully malignant and, as said above, William Hurt – who waits so long to appear you might forget he’s in the movie – may give the best performance of them all.

And it all fits together in the end, and so I’ll say that I think A History of Violence is a great film. Once one domino drops in its plot, the end is inevitable. What comes after the ending is a haunting mystery, because as well as you might think you know Tom Stall and his family, they’ve been through a lot, and that can change a person, you know…

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Monday, September 17, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Separate Lies

Originally published 9/21/05
Full review behind the jump

Separate Lies

: Julian Fellows
: Julian Fellows, based on the novel A Way Through the Woods by Nigel Balchin
: Steve Clark-Hall, Christian Colson
: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett, Linda Bassett, John Neville, David Harewood

An extraordinary scene begins when James Manning (Tom Wilkson) walks into his kitchen, sees his wife Anne (Emily Watson) chopping vegetables, and mentions with feigned casualness “
I had lunch with Bill Bule today”. Halfway through the conversation, after James has learned something life-altering, he will ask: “Are you going to use that dish?”, which is the wrong question for that moment. Then he learns another life-altering fact, and the scene ends with him vomiting in the garden.

Separate Lies
, the directing debut of Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellows, is built on these knotty intersections of crushing moral quandary and the keeping up of appearances. It is a movie where a genteel bike ride through the English countryside is jarringly interrupted by speeding car, and where a man wants to accuse someone he hates of murder, but doesn’t want to do it over the phone so he invites him to a posh lunch. It is also the story about how the Mannings can only find some love for each other again when their marriage starts to disintegrate.

Not much is said about how James and Anne first came together but it’s almost beside the point, the life they have now is the one James has made for them. He’s a powerful solicitor, which he always regrets keeps him at the office late, and they have a weekend home in the country where he complains about having to consort with the kind of people who have homes in the country. His is an uneasy satisfaction, where he’s proud of his talent for playing the game of achieving success and status and displaying good taste and virtue, but he thought there was going to be more to it after all that.

Anne can see the importance he’s placed on this and does her best to contribute, but she doesn’t have the knack for it and we can see how it’s gradually unwinding her. It’s almost painful how clumsily transparent her curiosity is in Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a handsome lout who dresses a bit like Hugh Grant in About A Boy and gives even less of a damn about anything or anyone than Hugh did. After living with impossible expectations for 15 years, someone with no expectations at all would seem fairly exotic.

And then there’s that business with the car crashing into the man on the bike, killing him. He’s the husband of the Mannings’ cleaner/housewoman Maggie (Linda Bassett), and the movie tracks her grief and the unique way she achieves peace with almost no direct indication but perfect confidence.

A police inspector (David Harewood) pokes around asking about Range Rovers with dents in their sides. He’s professional and intelligent, but we can see he’s dealt with wealthy country folks before and is always watchful for the way they can close ranks around the idea that if someone is already dead, why create even more embarrassment by arresting someone for the crime?

Plots about both infidelity and this murder – which ceases to be a mystery and becomes a conspiracy with unlikely participants – unfold during high-powered meetings, garden parties, jaunts to the seaside in Wales, and stays in expensive Paris hotels. It’s almost as if the characters are helpless participants in the exercise of enjoying all this wealth and privilege in the correct way; except for Bule, who does and says whatever he likes and is well past bored with people getting shocked about it. It’s interesting to wonder if anything else in the story would have unfolded the way it did had Bill Bule not insulted the painting hanging above James’ mantel.

As a first-time director Fellows does himself every possible service with a tight screenplay and a reliable cast. Wilkinson is the modern master of tortured domesticity, there’s something about the way he can let out his buttoned-up rage and sound like he’s not used to raising his voice. And Watson is an ideal match for him, scattered and fearful but fierce, under her genteel manners, about being the wife he has cast her to play. Time should also be spared to mention the great John Neville, who plays Bule’s father and gets a remarkable scene where he reveals what he has learned is really important to him through the various ordeals of a long life.

It would be dry to say Separate Lies is a movie about getting your priorities straight, but it is expert in the way it plunges flawed and complicated characters into the kinds of situations where you do discover what really matters to you, and must face what that says about you. Every one of the major characters in this movie does something which is at least criminally dishonest, and in some cases much worse. But they also do things that are human, and further still they all do things which are, in the final analysis, decent, though they may not conform to social contracts. Maybe what’s most impressive (or troubling?) about the film is that, in the end, having seen the worst these people are capable of, we like them more than we did at the beginning.

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