Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cate needs no support

As a critic, I often find that acting is the most difficult aspect of a film to analyze. There are simply too many variables and delicacies. Is the performance an embodiment or an imitation? What is acting and what is overacting? If a performance seems a little wooden, is that consistent with the style of the film?

That's one of the reasons I like Cate Blanchett's performance as the Swinging London version of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. She makes this performance easy to sum up. She goes up against a couple of the best young male actors of their generation (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, etc.) and lays waste to them while playing a man. It's ferocious.

The performance is easily worthy of an Oscar. However, in what capacity isn't known yet. In fact, it is rumored to be under debate whether to push her as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. That debate is generated by the simple fact that, as one of six actors playing Dylan, she spends, I would guess, 20 to 30 minutes onscreen, short for the traditional idea for a lead performance.

For my money, it's clearly a lead performance. Start with the obvious. She's playing Bob Dylan in a Bob Dylan biopic. Her character is the center of the film while she's onscreen. If she is a supporting actress, whose performance, exactly, is she supporting? The most obvious precedent is Geoffrey Rush's Oscar-winning performance in Shine in which he is one of three actors to play David Helfgoff. No one would suggest that he is anything less than the lead, even if Noah Taylor approaches him in both screen time and effectiveness.

The debate points to one of the lingering Academy Awards issues, one we're not going to solve here today. What is a supporting performance, and what is a lead performance? With the rise of split story structures and observer-narrators, that question is harder and harder to answer. At least one supporting actor winner in each of the last two years has been, in my opinion, a lead (George Clooney in Syriana and Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls). Last year, the possibility was there for three arguable mismatches, with two winning (Hudson and Forrest Whitaker, whose Idi Amin is arguably a supporting character to James McAvoy's globetrotting doctor).

Anyway, I wish Blanchett the best, no matter where she ends up. She deserves it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The seed remains the same

I'm Not There [R]
Grade: A

The first thing you need to keep in mind about Todd Haynes’ enigmatic I’m Not There: he once made a biopic of the Carpenters using Barbie dolls instead of actors.

Very few have ever seen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Due to court action, you can be sued or maybe drawn and quartered or perhaps dropped down a bottomless pit for screening it. I'm not sure which. I do know one person who has seen it. Once you get past the fact you’re watching plastic figurines, he says, it becomes a tremendously moving story.

From that perspective, hiring six different flesh-and-blood actors to play Bob Dylan – including the certifiably female Cate Blanchett and an African-American youngster (Marcus Carl Franklin) – looks like a relative step into the mainstream. At least before you realize this is a Bob Dylan biopic that never even mentions the folk singer’s name. Each actor assumes a Dylan identity, each at a different career stage, with a unique name that isn't "Bob Dylan." The idea is so whacked out that you’re free to think Haynes has returned to his two great loves – pop music history and overthinking.

Haynes has a radical sense of film language, and he sees the division between the meaning of a film and the elements that deliver it. Hence Barbie dolls are fine, maybe preferable, as long as the idea gets through. If you think of the idea … the message … the theme as a seed at a film’s core, then most directors would produce an apple, an easily digestible standby and a crowd favorite. Haynes would make a mango, a delicacy of far more exotic and less familiar flesh.

While one day that may (or may not) become known as the mango theory of filmmaking, Haynes doesn’t leave the theory behind the camera. He finds analogies in the creation (and re-creation) of Bob Dylan’s personality as he moves through life. The fruit takes on different flavors, but the seed remains the same.

And what is Dylan's seed? Anti-conformist defiance. And what does that do? It gives Dylan the appearance of a fluid personality, bordering on nihilism, when in fact he’s only holding true to his own impish, contrarian nature.

At one point, a late-sixties Dylan makes a sexist wisecrack in front of a feminist during that movement's trendy heyday. How, his guests wonder, could such an emblem of "The Movement" make such a remark? Obviously, to them, Dylan has changed.

In fact, that’s one in a line of moments when people accuse Dylan of changing (or betraying). That’s the danger of music's communal nature; it invites people into a union with the person they think you are. At one point, Dylan bemoans to the camera that smart people should never create anything; it can only end with you being misunderstood.

In that way, Haynes identifies a split between Dylan’s private life and his public persona. As a result, the film makes a number of out-there references, pointing out entertainers’ weird relationships with their personas. Dylan played a role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. At one point, Dylan takes the name Billy the Kid, living in a surrealistic town on a Western set, governed by an authority figure named Pat Garrett. (How weird is that?) There’s also a funny reference to Beatles’ movies, the grandaddy of movies with musical stars playing their personas onscreen.

But remember, the process of creating identity isn't a one-way street. It isn't just seed to fruit. It needs a good sprinkle from the outside world. During our first encounter with Dylan, he is a black teen-ager going by the name Woody Guthrie. For instance, his persona is a nod to one inspiration, like the way the real Robert Zimmermann snatched his stage name from the poet Dylan Thomas. During Blanchett’s stoned-out visit to London, s/he evokes the fifth Beatle (his name - Jude Quinn might be taken from popular songs "Hey Jude" and "The Mighty Quinn." )

Throughout the film, Dylan is pestered by a journalist named Mr. Jones, a name taken from the unhip character in a famous Dylan song. Jones is mystified by Dylan’s personality, miffed that he doesn't define himself by consistency in his beliefs. The difference is stark. When Jones makes a point about everyone in the room agreeing on the definition of a man, Dylan retorts, "Do we?"

The issues brought up by I’m Not There are interesting because we live in the Golden Age of the Musical Biopic. As I said in my review of Control, Walk the Line is the film that defines the genre. One of that movie's hang-ups is that it settles with the public version of those performers, the ones we want rather than the ones they were. I think this film is a criticism of that style, and that's the ultimate meaning. If Dylan isn't there, the "there" is the place where other people expect him to be.

Gobble, Gobble, Bang, Bang

Hitman [R]
Grade: D

There could not be a better possible release date for Hitman than Thanksgiving weekend.

After spending all day with the family eating turkey and reliving warm memories of old times, who doesn't want to watch an emotionless assassin with a shaved head whack other people with no remorse? Nothing says "Season's Greetings" like a high body count.

If you need to know the first thing about Hitman, it's that Vin Diesel is the executive producer. Which probably explains why the film feels like a new sequel to XXX, and why with his shaved skull, star Timothy Olyphant (last seen pestering Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard) seems to be channeling the guy handling the money.

Olyphant's character, who has no name beyond an identification number, is a stone-cold globetrotting political killer-for-hire, taken away and trained as a child by the requisite secret organization known as, conveniently and descriptively, The Organization. Now why does a group so begging for anonymity that it doesn't even have a PR-friendly name - might I suggest Geek Death Squad or Assassination Station? - go around stitching bar codes onto the back of its operatives' chrome domes? Perhaps in Russia, where the film is set, everyone has a bar code implanted there. But I'm thinking not.

There's a killing gone weird, a double-cross, a dame in distress, and a rote plot about a Russian politician looking to seize more power through deception. There's a pair of Interpol agents on the killer's tail. And there's rounds and rounds of occasionally exciting but hollow deaths. Perfect for a family gathering.

Hitman is inspired by a video game. That of course carries all sorts of baggage. The best thing about the film is the way it moves. The editing is splendidly crisp, and it was rare that I ever felt bored by it.

So if relief of boredom, beying at the Temple of Distraction, is your reason for attending a movie, I really can't tell you not to go. That's the point of a video game, and you're a grown boy, in all the possible meanings of the phrase. If you have any higher ambitions for the films that you watch ... well, i think you have your answer.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Country note

I admire (although not worship) the Coen Brothers-Cormac McCarthy collaboration No Country for Old Men (which I reviewed here). While watching the movie, something unusual struck me. A weird coincidence. Or perhaps a non-coincidence. In fact, that is what's interesting about it.

You must understand that I share one big thing in common with the great American author Cormac McCarthy. We both have spent considerable portions of our lives living in El Paso, Texas. I grew up there. He spent most of his adult life there. Which explains why No Country for Old Men revolves around a drug deal gone bad in the arid desert of West Texas about 1980. The hit man sent to recover the drug money, played by Javier Bardem, is named Anton Chigurh. To an El Pasoan, that name can’t help but ring a bell.

One of the big drug kingpins in the Southwest in the 1970s was allegedly an El Pasoan, Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra. He was (and presumably still is) a colorful character. Raised in a Lebanese family who moved up from Mexico, he spent much of his riches gambling in Las Vegas. He was once presented with a trophy by a Vegas hotel staff recognizing him as their most generous tipper. Ever. His brother Lee, until his murder in 1978, was a flamboyant El Paso defense attorney, noted for representing drug suspects, often successfully. As an El Pasoan, it’s hard not to notice that the two names – Chagra and Chigurh – share the same consonants.

Now, I can't say for sure that this is the case, and you would not have seen any member of the Chagra family stalking through West Texas on a killing spree. Whatever was done or not done, it was white-collar. However, if I were a novelist writing a book about drug trafficking in and around El Paso circa 1980, I might be tempted to play around with the name Chagra.

Now this is where it starts getting really interesting. The most infamous event involving the Chagra family took place in 1979. While walking in a San Antonio parking lot, Federal Judge John Wood was shot and killed by a hidden gunman. Wood’s nickname was “Maximum John.” When it came to drug sentencing, he threw the book, the galleys, the sequel and the original manuscript. His shooting was the first assassination of a federal judge in nearly a century. And it happened on the eve of the trial of Jimmy Chagra on drug trafficking charges in Wood’s courtroom.

In the coming years, several members of the Chagra family would serve time related to the purported murder conspiracy. Curiously, one who served zero was Jimmy Chagra himself. He would be acquitted of a murder conspiracy charge, but found guilty on a drug trafficking charge and sent to prison until early this decade. (Naturally, someone is writing a film script.)

Now here’s the big twist that brings it back to the film ….. the man convicted of accepting $250,000 to do the shooting? The late Charles Harrelson. The father of Woody Harrelson. Who appears in this movie. Not only does he appear in the movie. He’s the only person in the movie who is said to be able to recognize the killer.

So is that coincidence, or casting? I don’t know. Certainly Harrelson has worked for the Coens before. Maybe no one thought about this. But I have my sneaking suspicion.

The Great White Norse

Beowulf [PG-13]
Grade: B+
Perhaps if you knew Beowulf could be this cool, you wouldn’t have hated reading it so much in seventh grade. Robert Zemeckis turns the middle school standby into a computer animated cornucopia, never lacking for blood or excitement. Like 300 before it, live actors and thousands of megabytes merge into a visually expressive world. Ray Winstone plays the muscularly mythic Norse epic hero, riding the waves to Denmark to slay the monster Grendel, who has one Eliudnir of a demon mother (Angelina Jolie). Although a little short on memorable story (Viking mythology tends to be more spear-tipped than poetic), the overwhelming visual experience (particularly in 3-D IMAX) is enough to make you want to run out and raid a Celtic village.

Wonders never cease

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Grade: B

You are about to watch an ancient tradition of the film critic brotherhood.

Please keep your children from sticking in their fingers. Keep in mind that we are trained, certified professionals.

But come and marvel at the ancient art of … giving a movie a pass.

If there’s any film that should be grateful, it would be Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Let’s face it, the movie comes glowing with a fluorescent bull’s eye. Start with the name, which sounds like a rejected Troy McClure movie title from an episode of The Simpsons. Then take even the briefest glance at Dustin Hoffman, playing a 200-year-old toy inventor who’s a cross between Willy Wonka, Bill Nigh, the Science Guy and Yahoo Serious.

My reasons for granting a pass are pretty simple. The movie – centering on the electric-maned inventor’s magical toy store, his musically-gifted store manager, a sensitive little boy, and a pet zebra – never slips into the lurking temptation to fetishize the toys. You walk into the film expecting to be dragged by the kids to Toys’R’Us afterward. Instead, Magorium spends most of its time on half-decently developed relationships forged among its characters.

The performances aren't bad, keeping in mind the limits that naturally stick to this style. Surprisingly, this is the most that I've enjoyed watching Natalie Portman since Closer and Garden State. She plays to her pixie-ish-est as Magorium’s store manager, a former teen-age music prodigy who hasn’t lived up to her promise (Read into that what you will.). It’s certainly not a demanding role, but it’s the first time in a long time where she doesn’t seem overburdened by the expectations of her youth.

As for Magorium the man, Dustin Hoffman must wonder how it came to filling this role. But like a birthday clown, he has the class not to show it in front of the kids. Sure, the lisp gets annoying. But he balances it with mirth. When he and Portman do a tap-dance on a sheet of bubble wrap in a public park, it’s done with a carefree touch.

The film has human warmth. Unlike its obvious inspiration, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it doesn’t power up on pint-sized schadenfreude. There's no bully or snob getting their comeuppance, thus avoiding the easiest kids movie plot conflict available. Instead, the movie sweetly turns on friendship and what it means, at the simplest level, to be in one.

Not everything works. Maybe not even the majority. But I would have enjoyed it as a kid. It didn’t make me cringe as an adult. So there’s no reason to tell you not to see it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Quite the Country

No Country for Old Men [R]
Grade: B

Once upon a time over coffee, my companion described a trick police use to identify a psychopath.

I don’t want to reveal too many details. Suffice to say, it presents a hypothetical murder premise and asks the lunatic to explain the motive. A psychopath sees the motive immediately, understands it perfectly. The normally-wired could never picture the shocking logic.

It’s with every bit of confidence that I say Anton Chigurh, the chilling killer of No Country for Old Men played by Javier Bardem, would fail the test. Nor do I think he would mind. Whereas our culture prefers to attach humanistic explanations to killers – abused child or the like – Chigurh offers no such comfort in our common humanity. When he smiles, you can see the muscles move like gears under the skin. When shot, he would laugh it off as a scratch. If he laughed. Which he doesn’t.

It’s true that Chigurh kills without mercy. But as importantly, he kills without ego. Without vanity. Without reason. Without fairness or thought to a morally justified outcome. This ultimate hit man acts with no rationale beyond his own lethal inevitability. Chigurh is the purest cinematic specter of death since the chess game in The Seventh Seal. Bardem might as well wear a black cloak and carry a scythe.

Thus in the Coen Brothers’ screen adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, Chigurh rises out of perhaps the only appropriate setting, the untamed desert of West Texas, where dreams and agonies are swallowed by the endless sand, wind and indifference. Rain teases the horizon, but never wanders closer than a thankless distance. If a gun were fired in the middle of this wasteland, one could wonder philosophically if it would make a sound. Or would it disappear, in a haystack of deaf air and dust?

It’s the aftermath of an unheard gunfight upon which Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles while hunting – a mashed-up, flamed-out corral of pick-ups, drugs, and dead men. Even the dogs aren’t left as witnesses. Only the flies seem to know it's there.

Walking around with his rifle, Moss isn’t interested in the human toll. He’s after the money. He pries a briefcase of it from a dying man’s hand. What he doesn’t know is that he’s buying himself a world of trouble. It won’t be long before Chigurh, sent by some unseen force, picks up his scent.

Sending his wife to her mother’s home for safety, Moss bolts from the couple’s double-wide, trying to outrun the perfect killer. So begins a bloody cat-and-mouse chase across the desolate region, with Chigurh leaving a countless trail of dead in pursuit of the lost money.

Observing the folly from a safe distance is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the folksy old-timers of the title. He has seen violence become more barbaric as he ages and wants nothing more of it. He no longer has much stomach for investigating; he’d rather sit around the cafĂ© wondering what the world is coming to. Most cinematic sheriffs act like they’ve seen everything. Bell knows he hasn’t, and that’s exactly what he’s afraid of.

The echoes of earlier Coen Brothers’ films are apparent. A couple of examples: Chigurh violently rises out of the desert like Raising Arizona’s shoot-first minion from Hell, Leonard Smalls, the Lone Bike Rider of the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, the decency of the grandfatherly sheriff recalls Frances McDormand's pregnant crime fighter in Fargo.

Yet, it comes with a more serious tone. At one point the sheriff reads aloud an article describing a comically grisly crime. It's the type that might occupy a previous Coen film. But when the deputy laughs, he asks disapprovingly why he’s laughing. Bell wouldn’t find, you suspect, much humor in sticking a body in a woodchipper. You’re left to wonder if the Coens are reflecting on the cinematic violence of their earlier films.

The only lingering issue that I feel toward No Country – and it’s not a small one – is the difference in tone among the characters. Chigurh is almost completely figurative, at times even black comic, while Jones’ sheriff occupies a space of stone-sober realism and resignation. As the two men move closer to the same orb, it becomes a more noticeable problem, one that never quite resolves.

Aside from that, No Country for Old Men is a compelling beating-sun, open-space crime noir. It strays admirably from predictability, and its departures have meaning and bite. It’s a contemplation on the loss of decency in a violent society, and the vanity that we lose in the face of death.

The Gang ain't here

American Gangster [R]
Grade: D

American Gangster is about the type of slick, powerful criminal lord against whom police have trouble making an indictment. So I’ll write one for them.

The charges:

Count 1: American Gangster is an interesting two-segment Dateline NBC feature that Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zallian mistakenly stretch into an urban crime epic. It has about 45 minutes of interesting story and two-and-a-half hours of celluloid. The story of Russell Crowe’s incorruptible drug unit detective is particularly layered in uninteresting, unnecessary subplots (the divorce drama, the cop-criminal friendship, etc.) with little payoff. You feel as if they made it that long because, dammit, that’s how long this type of film runs.

Count 2: It takes two well-established genres – the gangster film (Think The Godfather or Scarface.) and the police corruption drama (Think Serpico or The Departed.) – and finds nothing new in either. Nor is it a particularly stirring or original example of said genres.

Count 3: It’s hard to say this about a filmmaker with an honorable track record, but Ridley Scott has become a shadow of himself. American Gangster is a painfully flabby movie. Scott repeatedly manages to do in four or five shots what should take one or two. Meanwhile, missing is the unique visual splendor that usually is Scott’s saving grace. In fact, when one such moment finally comes – the sound of a suicide hidden in the hum of a vacuum cleaner – it makes you wonder where the rest of it was.

Count 4: Denzel Washington delivers a terrifically efficient performance as Frank Lucas, a small player who strikes it rich by importing pure heroin to New York in the late 60s and early 70s. The problem is that the performance must be efficient. The twin-story structure robs him of the time needed to complete the character. As a result, Frank Lucas might have the same moral torpitude as a Michael Corleone, on whom he’s clearly based, but we don’t have the same deep understanding of what makes him tick.

Count 5: The production design and period detail are good, if occasionally overdone. But it always feels like a dressed-up set. I never really felt like I was looking at 1971, no matter how many songs from the era they might play. I prefer the period consciousness for the same era in either Zodiac or Talk to Me.

I know this film will compete for Best Picture honors. Now I know which film I plan to root against.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Vitality and Fatality

Control [R]
Grade: A

To the degree that they do so, music snobs remember Ian Curtis for two things.

For being near the top of the list of punk-poets, summoning with morose lyrics and strains the grim destitution of late 1970s Manchester, England.

And for being one of the most notable rock music suicides, leaving behind his band Joy Division, two bleakly ambient albums, a cult legend as a musical prophet, and a very real widow and infant daughter.

If he wrote unusually knowingly for a 23-year-old man, the superb musical biopic Control makes clear that his short life supplied plenty of material. An unwise early marriage to a childhood crush. The torpor of depression. Bouts of epilepsy that occasionally broke out onstage. The strain of being between an exciting mistress and bland devotion to his wife and child.

All well and good, you might interject. But nothing new, in life or onscreen. So what sets this film apart?

1) The eruption of Sam Riley. Drenched in stage sweat or silent emotional suffering, the newcomer lead uses every ounce of his slim frame to capture Curtis’ haunting intensity. He imbues both activity and silence with noticeable electricity. He also conveys Curtis’ self-indulgence and dramatization, the type that sometimes attends a voracious mind.

2) The film is as interested in cinema, in visual storytelling, as it is in music. The film is the debut directorial effort of legendary rock photographer Anton Corbijn (shot by cinematographer Martin Ruhe), whose original austere photos of Joy Division are partly responsible for their cult cache. Naturally, he pays laborious attention to composition, and the lacquerous black-and-white richly simulates the bleakness of the era.

3) Its wider sense of film history. Control doesn’t skimp on the music, basking in the rawness and intensity of the punk and post-punk eras. Yet it surpasses the musical biopic’s roots in musicals by finding inspiration in the tough, working-class English dramas of the sixties and seventies.

4) The central belief of the standard musical biopic is redemption, through music and love. So dedicated is Walk the Line, for instance, to this formula that it twists the title song from one of fidelity to a later abandoned wife into a love song for the other woman (partly the reason that the Johnny Cash biopic is the foot-stomping fraud that it is).

Control is the anti-Walk the Line. Curtis feels lingering attachment to his wife (well played by Samantha Morton), even if he is, as stated in his own lyrics, “mistaking devotion and love.” Curtis’ dalliance doesn’t liberate him but sends him deeper into the hole. Part of the reason this film works so splendidly is that, given its ending, it doesn’t have the luxury of pretend redemption.

This might be the second time you’ve seen the story onscreen. Curtis’ life and death is part of the polka-dotted tall tale of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s madcap 24-Hour Party People. It’s a film that Corbijn is rumored to detest, due to its less than reverent treatment of Curtis’ death. Thus he approaches Control with the generosity of a onlooker and the ferocity of a man dying to tell his side. The final result is an ode to vitality and fatality.

Red Planet, Dead Planet

Martian Child [PG]
Grade: D

If the abandoned little boy in Martian Child really does come from Mars, then John Cusack might be from a solitary planet orbiting the North Star. They have a lot in common.

That’s not to imply that all other stars in Hollywood revolve around Cusack. Certainly not. Do we think of him as a polarizing figure? Quite the opposite.

It falls in the other stellar qualities that apply to each. Steady. Dependable. Bright but not glaring. Present seemingly since you were born. Whether Cusack or Polaris will last longer in time might draw a line in Vegas.

Above all, Cusack has been a Hollywood survivor, perhaps because he has never burned his gases too quickly. While he’s made recognizable films (Say Anything, High Fidelity), he’s never been considered the Hollywood It Boy. Nonetheless, he’s watched one teen star after the next fall from the sky, while carving out a recognizable career as solid, funny when necessary, and able to carry a film when the material is right. As a result, he stands here at 41 glancing back at the Judd Nelsons and Emilio Estevezes, likely with a grin.

Martian Child is typical Cusack fare – offbeat, interesting, but somehow still a bit limited in ambition. It’s an attempted family movie, both for the audience and for the star. He even brings along sister Joan to play – what else? – his sister.

David is a successful sci-fi fantasy writer whose wife recently passed away. After much handwringing, he decides to follow through on the couple’s plans to adopt. The social worker hopes that an imaginative writer can connect with one particular boy. However, the adoption board chairman worries he’s too flaky to provide discipline and guidance.

That’s because, whether physically or just mentally, young Dennis (Bobby Coleman) comes from Mars (an explanation self-concocted to rationalize his absence of parents). Hence, he does all the little things that you would expect from a Martian boy living on Earth. Like wearing a belt crammed with batteries to adjust to Earth’s gravity. And how better to shield Martian skin from Earth’s scalding sunrays than only leaving the house in a cardboard box?

That cardboard box, by the way, could be the one that carried the movie’s warehoused sappy ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves a convenient relapse of Martian-hood and makes you wonder why no one locks the doors of an observatory at night. Perhaps they figure the telescope is too heavy to stuff in the back of a van.

Until then, Martian Child is likely middling for most movies of its type, although slightly less than that for films overall. The actors take a bit more care than usual to build the characters and relationships. The creative premise manages some decent moments even if its strict obedience to formula wears them out. Overall, it’s hardly a movie that will change the world – either this one or Mars.