Sunday, October 21, 2007

Traveling Reservations

Reservation Road [R]
Grade: F

Do you remember all those bland, earnest, inertly sensitive short stories you suffered in college lit class while waiting for the Nabokov, Pynchon, or DeLillo? Reservation Road is the film version of all those stories.

Set in a Connecticut town where the police are better stocked with common decency than common sense, the film, based on a John Burnham Schwartz novel, borrows that staple of such stories, the aftermath of a child’s death, in this case killed in a hit-and-run accident alongside the titular road. So you know we’ll soon be “examining the family’s inner lives” as they “find a way to cope with the tragedy.”

The boy’s mother and father (Jennifer Connelly and Joaquin Phoenix) will be on the verge of throwing things, or smacking things, or spilling things (Someone should hide the good dishes.). The perpetrator (Mark Ruffalo) and his sweat glands will be on the verge of taking out the nearby dam. The deceased’s darling, piano-playing kid sister will be on the verge of asking heart-tugging questions like “Do the angels hear music in Heaven?” Everyone will be on the verge of shouting and/or crying. And you should be on the verge of ritual suicide.

For the record, Connelly and her ethereal peepers look perpetually confused and concerned. Mark Ruffalo raises the bar on looking shabby. Phoenix mistakes growing a beard for emotional intensity. Director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) runs a tidy store while adding nothing emotionally or imaginatively. The whole thing reeks of well-meaning professionalism, but it’s a stale professionalism that leaves no skidmarks of ambition along the roadside.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A long night

30 Days of Night [R]
Grade: D

A monthlong vampire attack can be hell on community spirit but work wonders for a troubled marriage.

That’s one message that you can take from 30 Days of Night, this week’s high-end horror entry set in America’s northernmost city – Barrow, Alaska. It’s a place so remote that it apparently hasn’t seen a shipment of crosses or wooden stakes in years. What it does have is an Arctic night that lasts a month and an increasing population of mutilating vampires walking the streets.

You can see how those two kinda work together. So when the lights go down on this sleepy little town, there will be blood. Plenty of it - from gunpoint, fang-point, axe-point, or whatver you want to name.

Fighting, running, and holing up with other townsfolk are a heroic sheriff's deputy (Josh Hartnett) with two situations on his hands – the vampire attack and his estrangement from his fire marshal wife (Melissa George), who has flown in for some frostbitten reason or another. She misses the last plane out on a flight that really is the last plane out. That sets the stage for marriage therapy on the run.

The vampires arrive with sharp teeth, murderous intent, and bad Slavic, looking for easy pickings and a monthlong feast. Residents take to whatever hidden shelters they find. Although it doesn't appear to affect their diet. They look remarkably chipper and well nourished for spending a month in an attic.

Theoretically the movie comes from a series of graphic novels by Steve Niles, but it seems like a pretty by-the-numbers rendition. My bet is that it hits the high points of the stories and rolls them into a two-hour slot. Necessary. but not exactly creating something that's going to wake the dead.

30 Days is a siege-horror film clone of 28 Days/Weeks Later, only with vampires and snow. But the movie’s sensibility goes for adolescent gore rather than mature dread. While the film gets the premise right, it’s the tone that never sinks its teeth in.

Not quite torture

Rendition [R]
Grade: C

After just two films, it’s safe to say Gavin Hood can be called a bleeding-heart director.

He probably wouldn’t mind the title. After watching Tsotsi and Rendition, this latest Middle East entry, you get the impression that he would wear that description next to his heart on his sleeve. This South African would like nothing more, I suspect, than to become the go-to liberal conscious of Hollywood, and you should expect more projects of this nature.

Sporadically effective but thickly melodramatic, Rendition is a political spotlight film intended to attract the attention of the public to a controversial political issue. The one under this microscope is the “Extraordinary Rendition” program, which allows the government to transport some terrorism suspects captured by American authorities to secret detention facilities in other countries, thereby circumventing American law. To grab said attention, it assembles a cast of clean-cut stars (Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin) to seduce a mainstream audience to a movie with punishing images of torture. Good luck with that.

A too-light Witherspoon plays the Chicago wife of an Egyptian-born engineer (Omar Metwally), who is snagged at an airport after a bombing in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The CIA has found phone calls from the suspected bombing mastermind to his cell phone number. She spends the rest of the film pressing against a stone wall to find the location of her husband.
Under the Rendition program, a humorless CIA officer (Meryl Streep) sends him to an overseas torture chamber. There, a young CIA analyst (Gyllenhaal) witnesses the violent interrogation of the suspect, a task he finds harder and harder to stomach.

I’m no homeland security expert or Amnesty International activist, but I find this specific scenario hard to believe. Not because of blind trust in government. Rather, if the average moviegoer can foresee the impending blowback, as most will, I have a hard time believing hardened, risk-averse Washington operators wouldn’t. Likewise, the emotional landscape is too dumbed down and shriek-laden to fully succeed. And though he seems good at grasping issues, Hood has yet to show the capacity or willingness to completely think them through.

On the other end, Gyllenhaal is better than expected, the film has a well-played twist toward the end, and its torture scenes, taking place in a dank basement, are appropriately grueling and effectively communicate the point. It certainly isn’t a crowd-pleaser, but it has its moments.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Nothing Golden

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Grade: D

What did Sir Francis Drake ever do to Shekhar Kapur?

The English hero explored the New World, circumnavigated the globe, and put his tail on the line for queen and country during the Spanish Armada Crisis of 1588. And when Hollywood gets around to depicting that world-changing event, in Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, what happens? They write him out of the script. And not only that. They take his heroics and credit them to the lusty presence of Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen).

So why this slight against one of the giants of English history? The easy answer is brevity, not wanting to confuse the audience with another character, those sorts of things. The longer answer is revealing of the unbridgeable fault in this sequel, with Cate Blanchett reprising the 1998 role that made her a star.

There are two strands to this story of England’s most fascinating monarch – the soapy internal struggles of the unmarried, childless queen, as seen through her flirtation with Owen’s New World explorer; and the Spanish Armada Crisis of 1588, in which her throne, not to mention her neck, were on the line.

The problem is that the queen has a lot to do with the former and not much to do with the latter, aside from consulting astrologers and waking up from sweaty nightmares. Leaders rarely have as much influence on history as cinema or history would like us to think. So you get a Raleigh character, who we’ll call Super Walter Raleigh, to provide a flimsy link between the two stories and give Elizabeth a hand in each.

It doesn’t work. What you have is a lavish biopic that ultimately fails to unite the queen’s sadly enclosed personal life with the historical import of her public duties. You end up with an involving first two-thirds of the film leading to a comical, bombastic battle with the Spanish Armada, filmed with the aesthetics of an NFL commercial under a distracting faux-operatic score. The Golden Age’s attempt to bridge these events ends in abdication.

Unless you count Lord of the Rings, it’s rare to see a sequel to a prestige film. Needless to say, The Golden Age experiences at least one problem of summer fare, namely the “more of the same thing” phenomenon.

Elizabeth is still a randy, somewhat haunted ruler see-sawing between playful and ruthless sides. She’s still facing the threat of Scottish Catholicism, now in the form of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, held in captivity because of her claim to Elizabeth’s throne. English Catholics continue to plot her assassination. Lord Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) still connives and tortures enemies in the name of her majesty’s blessed virginity. And of course there’s the deeply Catholic Spanish king, devastating the forests of Iberia to build a giant fleet to rip Elizabeth from her throne.

With the arrival of Raleigh to the court, Elizabeth becomes intrigued with his stories of exploration, things that she can only dream of behind the walls of her palace. She later becomes royally jealous as Raleigh moves closer to her lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton (Abby Cornish), through whom she lives the fantasies of a normal life.

More of the same isn’t a problem when it means Blanchett. Her focus and intensity captures the Virgin Queen – the nostalgia for youth, her need to live through others, her clash between personal desire and duty. These are interesting elements, but the film is far too eager to glorify her character. It too easily grants her pardon for her sins, which are viewed as obstacles to her triumph rather than significant questions of character. If you were Cousin Mary’s neck, you might have a different opinion, and it’s not one that finds much expression here.

Director Shekhar Kapur has a vivid visual imagination, too vivid at times. Sometimes it means we get a beautifully fluid camera movement, such as a circular shot of Raleigh and Throckmorton dancing in front of the queen. Too often, it means Kapur has never found a partially obstructed view that he didn’t like. There’s also a crispness and cleanliness to the fabrics and opulent designs that make it seem like the product of a 21th Century mind. It makes you wonder if the dry cleaner was an Elizabethan invention.

Will there be a third Elizabeth? I’ve seen it discussed. There’s a hint near the end that it will not. I’m not sure the world needs it. Blanchett would certainly be given a queen’s welcome. The rest of it? We’ll wait and see.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Exceeding the limits

The Darjeeling Limited
Grade: C

“I’ve got to get off this train.”

It seems like a forgettable line, uttered flatly by a stewardess, over a cigarette and a nervous silence aboard The Darjeeling Limited. But that fleeting line, at risk of being abandoned along the rails, makes up the essence of the new Wes Anderson movie.

Sure, the film boasts an ironclad iron horse that can serve as the target for the reference. But in the figurative sense, the train is the “Wes Anderson movie” itself – all of the trademark quirkiness, deadpan comedy, and fractured families for which the prominent director has become known. The person needing to get off is Anderson, a writer-director of such distinctive success that he has become trapped in his own formula. The Darjeeling Limited represents the first tentative steps away from himself.

And so you have the movie’s first half, the story of a reunion of three semi-estranged brothers on the titular train running through India. Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) has arranged this “spiritual journey” after a near-death motorcycle wreck leaves his head in bandages. His goal is to strengthen the frail bond with his two brothers – a writer (Jason Schwartzman) who swears his autobiographical work is fictional, even to the people who were standing there at the event; and a brooder (Adrien Brody) not so excited about his soon-to-be child.

Throw these three men onto the ramshackle train with a crowd of eccentric passengers, and as fast as you can say The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, you have Anderson’s latest trip into PrestonSturgesville. Except that’s not what happens. The movie is in fact a drag until the brothers get kicked off the train and must wander the Indian countryside. That’s when it becomes a gentle, life-changing, life-affirming departure.

One of the risks of originality and early success is painting yourself into a corner. It’s generally agreed that even if you find the movie amusing, 2004‘s The Life Aquatic demonstrated that Anderson’s tricks had begun to show. There has always been sincere feelings in Anderson’s films, but usually they are veiled in the careful layers of quirk that protect them. Appreciating his movies often came down to unwrapping those layers.

That’s not the case in The Darjeeling Limited, which is, for better or worse, his most plain-stated film. It is very upfront with its human touch. Also, this is the first time since at least Bottle Rocket, and probably ever, that Anderson’s lead characters feel like they originate in real space and time, rather than in the fertile recesses of his mind. I suspect that’s a conscious decision, and points the way to his future.

And where does that future lie? I think Anderson’s desire is to close the gap between comedy and drama, with humor so deadpan that it becomes embedded in dialogue and circumstance. It won’t be free of oddball laughs, but there will be few cues for laughter. You will simply observe the comedy the way you might find something funny in a piece of Altman’s overlapping dialogue. Your sense of humor will float through and take its pick.

Of course, if that’s the future, what do we think of the present? That it’s a movie on training wheels for an artist in transition. That makes it very complicated to judge the material. For instance, what do we make of the dire comic lethargy aboard the train? Is it a case of bad writing with new partners (Schwartzman and Roman Coppola)? Or is it Anderson’s way of saying that the formula is spent?

It’s that question I cannot yet resolve that makes me reluctant to fully recommend the film. However, I also do not feel entirely comfortable giving it the mediocre grade that I intend. Simply put, I don’t think any grade could accurately reflect the material. This film might look brilliant in several years, when we better know how this transition pays off. So if it seems like I’m saying ask me then … ask me then.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sympathy for the Weasel

The Assassination of Jesse James
By the Coward Robert Ford [R]
Grade: A

As a film critic, you have a small arsenal of tools at your disposal – praise, scorn, mockery, irony, hyperbole, wit, wordplay, worship, and the occasional plea for clemency.

Sometimes, the only appropriate tool is blunt honesty. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a first-class masterpiece. It’s also slow, arty, ethereal, meditative and various other flavors of American box office poison. But those with strong cinematic livers will feast on director Andrew Dominik’s visionary epic of America’s most famous outlaw and the footnote that gunned him down.

From its instantaneously classic, lantern-lit depiction of the 1881 Blue Cut train robbery, the James Gang’s final hurrah, to the infamous April 1882 killing of the title, and then more after that (and what a splendid more after that), Assassination depicts the intertwining tragedies of two men whose cups run over with iniquity.

James (Brad Pitt) here isn’t the flamboyant villain of childhood stories. He’s a criminal careerist, perched on middle age with his best days behind him, with little to do but play out the string. While still powerful, violent and “gregarious,” the end is closing in, and he slowly comes to the realization that criminality doesn ‘t offer much of a retirement plan beyond paranoia, guilt and regret.

These lessons are not known yet to Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), a wiry youngster with a soft way, an idiot grin and surprisingly cold veins when the shooting starts. Yet there’s a lot about James that Ford doesn’t know, despite being a self-appointed expert. Ford grew up reading nickel-novels about the exploits of the American Robin Hood, coming to idolize in a bizarre stalker sort of way. “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” James asks his young admirer.

Ford enters the James circle during the Blue Cut robbery it handles its tale of violence, fame and celebrity worship with a novel’s depth and delicacy. Aside from its two outstanding lead performances, it also boasts enough outstanding supporting performances (Paul Schneider as charismatic outlaw Dick Liddell, Sam Rockwell as dim brother Charlie Ford, Jeremy Renner as frustrated James cousin Wood Hite) to fill several films of unusual length.

Admirers have already labeled Assassination “the last great film of the seventies,” a reminder of a time when films felt liberating and challenging, and when Westerns took a turn to the elegiac. It refers to enough movies of the era to be a museum exhibit – Badlands, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, among them. Its biggest debt visually and musically (in the form of its hypnotic soundtrack) is owed to Terrence Malick’s wheatland pastoral Days of Heaven. Yet a film not mentioned is Lawrence of Arabia – in its novelistic richness, in its haywire destinies, and trading the boundless desert landscapes for the snowbound winter of the Plains. The film is as much an epic as a Western.

I’ve been accused by friends of preferring virtuosity to solidness, more interested in the flawed masterpiece than the superbly craftmanlike standard issue. Guilty, I suppose. Assassination certainly has an unbelievable store of virtuosity. Watching it for a second time, I found myself wondering about all of its brief brilliances you notice. (For instance, during a deadly midnight ride, how did Dominik get the light to glance gently off the butt of a shotgun?)

Yet while certainly different, this film is not as experimental and complex as its reputation suggests. The story is straightforward, the themes well trodden. What distinguishes it is not the concept but the execution. And while misguided critics have called for “chopping it down,” there’s nothing that would justify such madness beyond established run-time orthodoxy. Some people would have us watch movies with stopwatches.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Cautious criticism

Lust, Caution [NC-17]
Grade: C

About half-way through my press screening of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, the assembled film critics stumbled into a reel missing its English subtitles.

I wish I could paint for you a shameful picture of critics pelting the screen with popcorn. But somehow civilization prevailed without the need for police intervention.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. Surely critics are used to being left in the dark, both physically and mentally, judging by the things they like and say. But linguistically is something new. Yet when the subtitles resumed, I don’t think anyone felt lost or deprived by their departure. No one loudly demanded that they dig up the right reel and run it again.

Sometimes the most important observations visit you by accident, and I think this one quietly defines a great deal about Lee, the filmmaker – his incredible composure as a visual storyteller, the passionate emotional radiance that underlies his manicured images, and the invariably predictable storylines that he chooses to pursue.

It’ s that last one that usually keeps me from giving wholly to an Ang Lee film, the nagging feeling that all of the summoned cinematic genius will eventually end with a queasy “That’s it?” feeling. The quality of his filmmaking raises promises that the films never quite fulfill. So it is with this film. Lust, Caution may be a brilliantly executed piece of cinema, but rarely have so many fireworks been fired in pursuit of so little pop.

Set amid the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, Tang Wei plays a university student involved in a theatre company that, in a fit of patriotic zeal, decides to stalk and assassinate a wealthy businessman advocating peace with the Japanese (Tony Leung). A couple funny things happen on the way to the ambush. She hits it off well with the target’s wife, and she catches the lustful, cautious attention of the dignitary.

A few years later while living in war-deprived Shanghai, she’s approached to finish the plot. As she returns and moves further into the circle of her prey, now a collaborationist leader, she finds herself drawn to the man she plans to help kill.

From there, the story takes the predictable turns of divided loyalties, of the personal versus the political. From that description, you probably can surmise where things are going and the choices that she will be forced to make. The film proceeds along this course with some lengthy, raucous sex scenes (part of the reason why no rewind was needed – not that much dialogue).
I’ve either just warned you or titillated you. I don’t really want to know which.

It also delivers some of the richest, most detailed filmmaking we’ve seen this year. In films like The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility and even the relatively recent Brokeback Mountain, Lee has demonstrated an astonishing exactness of period detail. It’s no different here, a handsome and convincing trip through time, aided by startling lighting and cinematography. Likewise the script, by Brokeback Mountain contributor James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling, admirably never does more than what’s needed – sparse in word, reserved in deed, and unbridled in passion.

Yet even with those positives, maybe even because of those positives, I wonder more than ever, will I ever find a Lee film that fully satisfies me? Or are his films so stuck in Bronze-medal mode that it just won’t happen? I don’t know now, and I won’t know for some time, but finding out is certainly never an entirely unworthy venture.