Thursday, August 28, 2008

The plays the thing (Hamlet 2)

Hamlet 2 [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Joseph Julian Soria, Amy Poehler, David Arquette, Elisabeth Shue
Director: Andrew Fleming

As William Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing,” right?

So that’s where we’ll start, rating a Tucson high school’s performance of the musical sequel to the Bard’s masterpiece – Hamlet 2, anchored by the show-stopping and possibly damnation-inducing number “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.” (That title reminds me of an old dilemma – if I download “Jesus Christ Superstar,” am I at risk of spending an eternity in Hell?)

In terms of other recent cinematic play productions, I would place Hamlet 2 ahead of the puppet Dracula musical that closes Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which like the film itself is funnier in theory than execution.

Hamlet 2, the play, also outlaughs the history of Blaine, Missouri, found in Waiting for Guffman. Of course, that Guffman plays it unexpectedly straight is a small act of genius.

In fact, I might only prefer the school play that ends Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. I mean, they had real dynamite.

Of course the play is only the end of the movie. Before that, Hamlet 2 has enough of a split personality to walk the castle in mad, haunted indecision. The second half is to be. The first half is not to be. The story of a desperate high school drama teacher (Steve Coogan) and his attempt to save his program with a semi-pornographic extravaganza takes a while to warm its voice. When it gets there, though, it gets there.

Along with comics like Simon Pegg, Coogan is among a group of British performers trying to break into the American entertainment consciousness. Most recently, as the beleaguered director in Tropic Thunder, he met an abrupt end. I prefer him when he is dry and knowing, such as his wry turn as record producer Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, rather than camp and clueless, as here. As the flamboyant, pretentious teacher, he has early troubles finding a consistent tone. Yet he rips off some great lines, as a man committed to suffering for a vocation for which he has too little talent but too much love.

The film has a few good supporting turns, from the likes of Catherine Keener as his flaky wife and a fun Elisabeth Shue playing herself re-imagined as a Tucson nurse, gamely riffing on her slowed movie career. When asked her favorite part of acting by a student, her reply is priceless.

Unlike its namesake, Hamlet 2 is unlikely to last through the ages. But it should get you through a weekend night.

Pearce-ing interview

Who doesn't like Guy Pearce? I've always preferred him to Russell Crowe.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wire copy

Ray Pride at Movie City News has a great interview of James Marsh, the director of the year's best film, Man on Wire, the documentary about Philippe Petit's 1974 illegal wire walk between the two World Trade Center Towers. It's very detailed with a lot of great information. Here's a part that stands out for me. Petit and the people who helped him filmed a lot of their planning, preparation and practice. I loved the footage of the group horsing around in the fields, shooting bow and arrow, walking on the wire. Here's what Marsh had to say about it.

"I always felt when I saw that footage-the day I saw it, you can imagine I was jumping for joy-oh my god, look at this stuff. There's a lot of it, and quite a lot of it is totally boring! [laughs] But it's this sort of Truffaut mini-film. I always thought in the middle of the film it was great to have this sort of pastoral idyll. And that footage, it's great on one level, it shows you the mechanics of some of the plotting and the planning, but more importantly, it shows you the spirit of the whole thing. This sort of cavorting in the fields and this playfulness, the mischievousness, the youthful exuberance of all the characters… That was the best part of it for me, it sets a kind of tone and it's very beautiful. And also, the other thing is, they're all very good-looking people and that's not something you expect or have any right to presume. But they're all young and fit and lovely and it was a wonderful gift, that footage. Hopefully, in the middle of this film it creates this innocent, pastoral idyll. It suddenly snaps back into the suspense [then], a man's life is at stake here. This is serious business. "

I like the Truffaut mention because the first thing that came to mind was the opening credits of Jules and Jim, as well as the famous footrace across the bridge. There's something about that Man on Wire footage that you could not possibly hope to re-create in a fiction film. It captures something so elemental and lovely.

Wildest casting rumor ever?

So Cher as Catwoman? Who sold that to a reporter? I doubt it, more from the acting side and the celebrity-bigger-than-the-film side. Actually, the idea of an older Catwoman would be the sort of creative break Christopher Nolan might well employ. It would be the ultimate roll of the cinematic dice - either unconventional and brilliant, or an everlasting punch line in the making.

If you're going older, why not Michelle Pfeiffer? Or heck, Julie Newmar? Or Sean Young. I hear she makes her own costumes.

There are plenty of fifty-something and sixty-something actresses who would be more interesting in the role. Heaven knows Hollywood grants them plenty of time on their hands.

Judi Dench. Helen Mirren. Holly Hunter. Joan Allen. Sissy Spacek. Sigourney Weaver, to name a few. Add the forties and you have Laura Linney, Diane Lane, and others that I'm not thinking of.
Interesting rumor.

EDIT: A couple more .... Catherine Deneuve. She might still be able to wear the tight leather. Oh, I thought of someone else but now it's gone.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Back up, back running

Well, it's been awhile. I took a few days off. I need to get this thing back up and going, don't I? I'm kinda surprised nobody has commented on the Zhang Yimou post.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Zhang Yimou - Fascist

I've been meaning to talk about this for a day or two. This story is about the human toil involved in creating the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. The director was the filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, etc.). Hero has been seen by some (like me) as a fascist film and an apologia for Tiananmen Square, and this story gives plenty of fuel for that fire. It makes Zhang seem like a filmmaking Yasser Arafat - saying one thing to the international audience and another thing domestically. Keep in mind Hero took a long while before it was seen outside of China, IIRC. I'm not exactly sure how the director of Raise the Red Lantern reached this point.

I pulled some excerpts. Take the time to read the whole thing. I especially like the parts where he's praising the North Koreans for their obedience and coordination. Very easy to work with, I'm sure. So much easier than those liberated Westerners.

BEIJING (AP) — Martial arts student Cheng Jianghua only saw the army barracks he stayed in and the stadium where he performed at the spectacular Olympics opening ceremony. But his sacrifices were minor — other performers were injured, fainted from heatstroke or forced to wear adult diapers so the show could go on.
Filmmaker Zhang Yimou, the ceremony's director, insisted in an interview with local media that suffering and sacrifice were required to pull off the Aug. 8 opening, which involved wrangling nearly 15,000 cast and crew. Only North Korea could have done it better, he said.
But some news reports have raised questions about the lengths to which Beijing went in trying to create a perfect start to the Summer Games.
He told the popular Guangzhou weekly newspaper Southern Weekend that only communist North Korea could have done a better job getting thousands of performers to move in perfect unison.
"North Korea is No. 1 in the world when it comes to uniformity. They are uniform beyond belief! These kind of traditional synchronized movements result in a sense of beauty. We Chinese are able to achieve this as well. Through hard training and strict discipline," he said. Pyongyang's annual mass games feature 100,000 people moving in lockstep.
Performers in the West by contrast need frequent breaks and cannot withstand criticism, Zhang said, citing his experience working on an opera performance abroad.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rocks off [The Rocker]

The Rocker [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate, Josh Gad, Emma Stone, Teddy Geiger
Director: Peter Cattaneo

Is The Office becoming to today’s movie culture what Friends was to the 1990s?

Is Steve Carell transforming into the new Jennifer Aniston, appearing in mass-appeal star vehicles of varying quality, with the occasional indie effort thrown in for credibility? Possibly.

Jenna Fischer has played supporting roles in comedies such as Judd Apatow’s Walk Hard. A Lisa Kudrow starter kit? Mmmmm, sort of.

So far, John Krasinski has spent his big screen time in headier fare – Jarhead and Leatherheads. He is co-writing/directing/starring in an adaptation of a David Foster Wallace book. Now, which Friend would have the mental wherewithal to read a David Foster Wallace book, much less adapt and direct one? I don’t know. But we’re guessing not Matt LeBlanc. (Actually, Kudrow is a brainiac.)

In terms of Friends films, Rainn Wilson’s The Rocker probably fits in the harmless fluff category of the David Schwimmer-Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle The Pallbearer. At least it doesn’t stand out in the annals of What-The-Hell? Cinema, like LeBlanc’s infamous me-and-my-monkey baseball comedy, Ed.

The Rocker has a pretty workable premise but a different drummer it never finds. In the eighties, Wilson’s Robert “Fish” Fishman manned the skins for soon-to-be rock legends Vesuvius. Then they ditched him and got huge. He played Pete Best to somebody else’s Ringo.

Twenty years later, after losing his lame tech support job, he moves in with his sister’s family. And hey, what do you know? His pokey teen-age nephew’s band needs a drummer. With the help of Fish’s epic drumming, greasy mullet and naked ass, the band erupts into an overnight YouTube sensation. So Fish hits the road again, this time with a band too young to drink, too into video games to party, and with a mother/chaperone/stock domesticated love interest (Christina Applegate) tagging along to keep everyone out of trouble. And jail.

The characters aren’t three-dimensional, but at least they are likably two. Fish might be all wet in many ways, annoying at times. But he knows music, and he knows people. The band members are too milquetoast to be believable instant stars in today’s music climate. But I like the fact that the film has a positive female teen-ager – the moody bassist played by Emma Stone of Superbad – rather than the muppets we’ve grown accustomed to seeing lately. And the kids have a nice vibe. The music is actually fairly hummable.

The Rocker has wild mood swings, the type that leads to trashed hotel rooms. When the film forces Spinal Tap hair-band slapstick debauchery, it becomes unamusing and abusive. Yet when it plays to its innocence, it can be witty and occasionally a bit moving. It is too much a goofy teen-age fantasy to be a good film, but with a certain naïve sweetness, it resists the looming temptation to be a disaster.

I typed that out last night. Now that incorrect address is the first thing that comes up when I try to punch in Google. I have to spell the whole thing out now. ERrrrrrrrr.

There is no H in

Christina! It's just Cristina. My bad.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ole [Vicky Christina Barcelona]

Vicky Christina Barcelona [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson
Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona runs from promising to intriguing to agreeably incoherent to disagreeably incoherent to utter anarchy. A little frustrating as film, yes, but one might say it successfully mirrors the pathway of romance. It certainly mirrors the pathway of the volcanic marriage of artists Maria and Juan Antonio (Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem), a disturbed, bickering couple for whom “shooting from the hip” can have uncomfortable meanings.

The film traces the sensuous adventures of two American college grads Vicky and Christina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) as they summer in Spain and become romantically entangled with the couple. The Christina story works well, with Scarlett Johansson delivering a free-spirited performance as the sexually adventurous one. True, “slutty American tourist” isn’t the most novel concept, but credit where it’s due for execution. One of the nice things about VCB, and previously The Other Boleyn Girl, is that they suggest Johansson’s career is still recoverable.

That said, I didn’t buy the Vicky storyline much at all. The idea that a sharp young lady with a corporate personality would mentally dump her fiancé all for a fine wine, some Spanish guitar, and a hunky older artist strikes me as a very …. How should I put this nicely? ….. a very Woody Allen notion.

Woody’s notions are often French, and VCB seems like a bit of a feminized ode to one of his favorites, Francois Truffaut and Jules et Jim. The ideas here are simple, illustrating some not-exactly-head-scratching thoughts about relationships (Each relationship has its own peculiar sense of balance? Go on!). But it has a pleasant way of saying it. It’s certainly one of the more enjoyable recent Allen outings.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Never go full retard [Tropic Thunder]

Tropic Thunder [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Brandon T. Jackson, Danny MacBride, Nick Nolte
Director: Ben Stiller

The Hollywood career of Robert Downey Jr. has been something of a Biblical experience.

Looked at in a certain way, you rarely see so much begatting in one lifetime. Young stardom begat an early Oscar nom. Success begat addiction. Addiction begat arrests. Which begat an indie film resurrection. Which begat critical appreciation. Which has now begat a return to stardom. This summer, his career finally walked completely out of its tomb.

So in this summer of his resurrection, can the dead-and-risen Downey save another film? He’s already saved one, breathing life into the otherwise rusted lungs of Iron Man (The intensity of The Dark Knight makes Iron Man seem like The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.). Can he do the same trick twice? His cool, delicious patter nearly lifts Tropic Thunder from the dead. But close doesn’t count in rising from the grave.

It’s a strange irony that Downey’s character is the one named (Keith) Lazarus. It’s the rest of the film that seems leprous. It feels like limbs are missing. Nipped of its intended comical punch, Tropic Thunder is a disappointingly flat take on Hollywood excess.

Lazarus is one of a set of actors working on a doomed Vietnam War production, a film gone spectacularly awry called Tropic Thunder. He plays opposite Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), an action star in desperate need of a hit. Speedman’s career is in rehab after his recent role as Simple Jack, an idiot farmboy with a Howdy Doody overbite. (This role will inspire Downey’s hilariously offensive “Never go full retard” riff.)

Downey, in contrast, plays the ultimate method actor. He’s the type of performer whose roles get underneath his skin. This time that means literally. In order to play a black American soldier, Lazarus has his skin darkened for the role. He continues to pretend that he is black even when the camera isn’t rolling. That doesn’t sit well with the cast’s true-to-life African-American (Brandon T. Jackson).

The film’s in-over-his-head director (Steve Coogan) decides to make things more authentic by flying the cast deep into the jungle. There, they stumble upon a real-life, well-armed drug cartel, who mistake them for DEA agents. Soon, the actors are forced to play Platoon for real.

The biggest disappointment is the film’s unappealingly jokey tone. Think what you will about The Pineapple Express; its satire is fanatically dug in, betraying little sense of self-consciousness. Conversely, Tropic Thunder doesn’t feel like it has worn in its shoes. It plays much too much like sketch comedy. That starts with its lead, co-writer, and director – Stiller – whose clowning always feels like it takes place independent of the millieu.

So I have one question about the performance of Jack Black. Who decided that Jack Black is funny? He isn’t funny. Not directly. He’s most funny when he isn’t funny but thinks he is. Jack Black without the irony of being Jack Black isn’t Jack Black. This, of course, sounds exactly like the sort of rant that Lazarus would go on in the film.

An unrecognizable Tom Cruise has a tasty little turn as a film producer in need of anger management, the best thing he’s done in years. Beyond that, the film mainly chronicles Downey’s talent and versatility. When Lazarus finally removes the make-up and fake hair, it’s not Robert Downey underneath; it’s just another mask, another tone, another film, and another layer of character. It’s a chameleon’s performance of the most stealthy kind.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Tropic Thunder. Am I the only person who didn't find it very funny? Gulp.


Tropic Thunder. Am I the only person who didn't find it very funny? Gulp.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why the seventies?

While watching Man on Wire again this week, a question popped into my head .... why do the seventies make such interesting films? This, Once in a Lifetime, Dazed and Confused, One Day in September, The Ice Storm, The Last King of Scotland, a significant chunk of Zodiac, etc.

VCB credits

Vicky Christina Barcelona has the most poorly paced opening credits sequences I've ever seen. Be prepared to speed-read.

The Garner-Juno Rule

This is my new rule of thumb: The Garner-Juno Rule is named, obviously, for Jennifer Garner's performance in Juno. It's the point at which an actor can deliver a solid performance and I still can think that there are 100 actors out there who could do the job as well or better.

Lied again

I'll quit linking to interesting takes on The X-Files: I Want to Believe when they quit writing them.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Batman and generational theory

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but I think it is an interesting premise. Some of you might be familiar with Strauss-Howe generational theory. The theory potentially holds some explanatory power for The Dark Knight.

It's a big, elaborate theory, but I'll try to give a short summary. The theory holds that Anglo-American history runs in a repeating cycle that lasts between 75 and 90 years. Each cycle lasts through four generations. There is an established order of generations in each cycle. The result is that the first generation of this cycle has a similar outlook on life as the first generation of the previous cycle, and of the previous cycle, and so on.

From wiki, here are the generational archtypes that operate:

Prophets are values-driven, moralistic, focused on self, and willing to (see other people) fight to the death for what they believe in. They grow up as the increasingly indulged children of a High, come of age as the young crusaders of an Awakening, enter midlife as moralistic leaders during an Unraveling and are the wise, elder leaders of the next Crisis. The Boomers are an example of a Prophet generation.[1]
Nomads are ratty, tough, unwanted, diverse, adventurous, and cynical about institutions. They grow up as the underprotected children of an Awakening, come of age as the alienated young adults of an Unraveling, become the pragmatic, midlife leaders of a Crisis and age into tough, post-crisis elders during a High. Generation X and the Lost Generation are examples of Nomad generations.
Heroes are conventional, powerful, and institutionally driven, with a profound trust in authority. They grow up as the increasingly protected children of an Unraveling, come of age as the Heroic, team-working youth of a Crisis, become energetic and hubristic mid-lifers during a High and become the powerful elders who are attacked in the next Awakening. The G.I. Generation that fought World War II is an example of a Hero generation.
Millennials are expected to emerge as the next generation of this example.[1]
Artists are subtle, indecisive, emotional and compromising, often having to deal with feelings of repression and inner conflict. They grow up as the over-protected children of a Crisis, come of age as the sensitive young adults of a High, rebel as indecisive midlife leaders during an Awakening, and become the empathic elders of an Unraveling. The Silent Generation is an example of an Artist generation.

I think that gives you the basic idea. If not, flip on over and read more.

My point is that at this site, proponents of the theory went gaga over Batman Begins, because they thought it adhered pretty closely to the formula. The important part, I think, is their understanding of Batman/Bruce Wayne as a "Nomad" hero, essentially a Generation X hero. For the most basic example, Wayne starts the film as a nomad. My guess is that they're going gaga again over The Dark Knight.

If you look at the description of the nomad archetype, it's a fitting description of Wayne/Batman. Unmentioned in that description are some of the other elements that are typical of the Nomad generation. They are individualistic and entrepreneurial, and tend to take problem solving in their own hands rather than wait for institutions to do it. Nomads would rather get the job done using a personal code of honor than fail due to the wider society's sense of morality. They have a talent for resourcefully making tough, real-world decisions that often times are the lesser of two evils. The best example of this was that most of the generals of World War II were Lost Generation. They found it necessary to kill hundreds of thousands to save millions. The dropping of the atomic bomb, a decision made by Lost Generation President Harry Truman, is maybe the ultimate example of Nomad thinking.

You see a lot of that thinking reflected in Batman/Bruce Wayne's thinking. The ultimate example is the cell phone surveillance scene. Morgan Freeman is shocked by it. Wayne just sees it as the only practical way to get things done. And in the end, he'll destroy the system when it's no longer necessary. That's partly why some older critics (i.e. the preceding morallistic Prophet generation) seem so outraged by his actions.

Anyway, I don't think this post went quite as well as I'd like. But I'm glad to bring it up for discussion.

Bernie Mac, rest in peace

So what is with this pneumonia resurgence? It took the life of Christian Brando. Heath Ledger was allegedly suffering from it in the weeks before his death, and now it has taken the life of Bernie Mac. As a film actor, like many comedians, the 50-year-old Mac was very dependent on the material that surrounded him, but he certainly had the capacity to make a scene. Rest in peace.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Man on Wire expands

and you should see it. Like now. What are you doing reading this? You should be there already.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Weed hit [The Pineapple Express]

The Pineapple Express [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole
Director: David Gordon Green

At first, it seems like such an odd pairing.

Judd Apatow, the king of the American raunch-com, and David Gordon Green, the lyrical indie filmmaker, whose ethereal work has been among the best American filmmaking of the past decade.

In truth, it’s not as odd as it seems. As far back as his earliest films, Green would express his interest in doing commercial projects in order to support his artistic ones. And his films have been known to reference The Dukes of Hazzard hidden in among his Terrence Malick wistfulness. Green also has been known to praise Tango and Cash. In print, no less. Where it can’t be denied.

With said commercially minded zeal, Green approaches the ganja-infused buddy picture The Pineapple Express, starring co-writer Seth Rogen and James Franco as a pair of potheads on the run from hit men after one witnesses a drug-world murder. Franco, especially, is terrific as a sweet-natured drug dealer in over his foggy head in a delirious weed hit of a movie. Not that I personally know what that's like.

One thing that I appreciate about Pineapple is its head-on enthusiastic commitment to its task. The film might remind you a little of Hot Fuzz in its appreciation of eighties buddy-action cinema. But Hot Fuzz approaches its inspirations with self-conscious satire. Not The Pineapple Express. It doesn’t want to be an ode to those films. It wants to be one of those films.

Pineapple is filled with overkill, but it’s delicious overkill. The final extended shootout is a monument of giddy priapic filmmaking, the work of a director and stars who are thrilled to be doing this and want to drink every single last drop. It doesn’t amount to much. It isn’t going to replace Green’s Snow Angels on my end of the year list. But it’s a fun ride that hopefully will bring a terrific filmmaker to a wider audience. And maybe let him pay for a house.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Rachel Getting Married trailer

Readers of this blog will know that I have a daffy affection for Anne Hathaway. Of course, I share that with a lot of men in this world. But even I'm surprised that her performance in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (nee: Dancing with Shiva) is generating some Oscar buzz. But looking at the trailer you can kinda see why.

When it comes to Ms. Hathaway, I have the presumable advantage of having never seen a Princess Diaries movie. The first time that I watched her onscreen was Brokeback Mountain, without recognizing who she was, and she just seemed like a star in the making to me. I saw a stunning beauty, one who could hold your attention in her scenes, who did a good job conveying the aging and development of a minor character being checked in on over the course of twenty years, and who nailed her one big payoff scene - a tense phone conversation with Heath Ledger late in the film. I became convinced that she would one day be the biggest female star in the world. If she hadn't bailed out on Knocked Up, I probably would have been right already.

The box office of her filmography is pretty amazing, considering that, other than last year's Becoming Jane, her films routinely cross the $100m mark. However, to really become a star, I think an actor has to do something completely unexpected. a role that makes people see you differently. For an actress still trying to outrun her image as a Disney teen queen, this is particularly vital. Watching this trailer, it looks like Demme has given Hathaway a lot of room to be something that nobody would expect, and it looks like he's being rewarded. Anne could really use a buzz film, and it looks like this might be it.

I'm just a little surprised that Hathaway might actually beat her The Devil Wears Prada co-star Emily Blunt to an Oscar nomination (although it's too early to be talking about these things too seriously). Blunt is enormously talented, and I would have expected her to get there first.


I watched a couple things .... Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale. I also watched the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days ... as good as its reputation suggests. I'm not always a fan of versimilitude, but it is so natural here, and it completely sucks you in.

Okay, I lied again

An interesting article in The Guardian supporting The X-Files: I Want to Believe. I know. Induldge me.

I still have mixed feelings about the film. But doesn't so much interesting writing stongly suggest that it is a quality film? And yet I still find myself wrestling with it.

Morgan Freeman, get well

There's not much to say about Morgan Freeman's car accident except "Get Well." But expect chatter of a Batman Curse to pick up. Aaron Eckhart has gotta be sweatin' bullets right about now.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

High Wire [Man on Wire]

Man on Wire [PG-13]
Grade: A
Cast: Philippe Petit
Director: James Marsh

When on Aug. 7, 1974, Philippe Petit stepped out onto a narrow wire lashed between the World Trade Center towers, he remained a black speck in an endless morning sky. The clouds pressed low. More wind passed than desirable. The wire, one tells, was the worst they ever hung. He was 1,350 feet and the width of a cable away from a harrowing death. And he was 200 treacherous feet from his dream.

I first became aware of Petit’s dance above the clouds during a PBS documentary on the World Trade Center towers. Among the history of deal-cutting and construction woes, the story provided a fascinating five-minute human reprieve. I didn’t know I would run into it again. Seared onto the big screen and spread to ninety minutes, Man on Wire enlarges the freewheeling tale into a mesmerizing ode to the human imagination. It’s such a great film that it seems destined to be overlooked by the notoriously stingy Oscar documentary selection committee, which will probably nominate a run-of-the-mill civil rights era documentary in its place.

When writing about Man on Wire, you quickly find yourself on a wire of your own. It’s hard to find the right words to do this simple story justice. A Parisian street performer and amateur high-wire walker named Philippe Petit comes across a magazine article on the still-building Towers in a dentist’s office. With a pencil, he draws a line from the top of one to the other. A high-wire walk between the towers becomes his obsession. From that moment forward, he eats, drinks, and dreams the towers, until the day he set foot above the abyss. But that description fails to generate the human elation on display.

Early reviews correctly diagnose Man on Wire as a heist film wrapped inside a documentary, as Petit and his friends execute a plan, dodge security and commit the "artistic crime of the century." Director James Marsh enlivens the tale with shadowy re-creations and testimony from the insanely colorful cast of conspirators. They look like they’ve walked out of the cast of Bob Le Flambeur, or some other French heist movie from the fifties. In this case, real life is so eager to mirror film convention that it gives a shady financier with a handlebar mustache. Watching him squirm to find a euphemism for criminal dealings is one the film’s priceless little moments.

But at the heart of the film are the bouncy recollections from the ants-in-the-pants Petit himself. His vivid, antic, and engrossing storytelling makes you understand why we choose to use a French word for raconteur. Through his words and those of his comrades, the film deliciously captures his desire and will – “If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion,” he announces – while also gathering the doubts felt by his girlfriend and pals, doubts that were ultimately powerless in the face of his obsession.

So you go through the quirky characters, the wild stories, the fascinating planning, the amazing ingenuity of the logistics, and eventually you think the actual wire walk will be anticlimactic. And then you get there and it’s anything but. The still photographs of Petit are mesmerizing, conveying the foolish spiritual courage of a modern quest hero. At one point, Petit – who crossed the void eight times – laid on his back and had a conversation with a baffled seagull. Then in one harrowing still photo, Marsh makes you nauseously aware of exactly how far he might have plunged to his death. Chilling and amazing.

Yet for all of the attention paid to the event itself, some of the casual joy might be found in the fresh footage – fresh both in look and in spirit – shot at the time by Petit and his band of merry men. The group often filmed their practices and planning sessions. Marsh puts a significant amount of screen time into these home movies, observing the young men and women learn the bow-and-arrow, work on the wires, and generally horse around. These sequences capture an invincible youthfulness scorched to a moment of time - an accidental slice of that-which-can-only-be-filmed. I loved every minute.

Some might complain that Man on Wire doesn't mention the events of September 11, beyond some obscure items. Yet, at a time when we are left with only a painful, humbling memory, this film restores a beautiful moment from the beginning of its Manhattan reign - a stirring, immutable counter-memory of a day when the towers were majestic and spiritually alive. I’ve seen it said that Wong Kar-Wai's work contemplates memory as a victory over time. That is exactly how this film treats its subject - crowning its memory as a victory over time.

Catwoman catnip

A report saying that Catwoman will be Maggie Gyllenhaal. Interesting. Could be better. Could be far worse. Being entirely honest, I'm not sure men will find her sexy enough. Shes' a good actress, though.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Don't vote [Swing Vote]

Swing Vote [PG-13]
Grade: F
Cast: Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Dennis Hopper, Kelsey Grammer, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Judge Reinhold
Director: Joshua Michael Stern

Unlike some films, Swing Vote wastes no time whatsoever in announcing exactly how wretched it expects to be. Within the first ten minutes, it finds ways to insult everyone from Hispanics to hayseeds, as Uncle Walt’s studio once again teaches us how to mix juvenility and condescension.

Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson, possibly the laziest slouch with the largest house in the world. It’s in New Mexico, where someone has left him in charge of one of those preternaturally cute Disney kids named Molly. You know the type. The ones that look like they come from nowhere. Not New Mexico.

Molly, little brain that she is, registers her dad to vote, against his will, his ignorance, and the welfare of society. When Dad gets fired and drunk or Election Day, Molly decides to do the voting for him.

She doesn’t get the chance. The machine goes loony, the vote doesn’t register, and when the election ends in a tie, Bud gets the chance to re-cast his vote and decide the presidential election. Soon news types huddle on his lawn, the candidates work him like a senator, and the world’s eyes turn to a buffoon.

How bad is Swing Vote’s luck? In one scene, President Kelsey Grammer offers the numbskull a beer. That would be Kelsey Grammer. Frasier Crane. An admitted former alcohol abuser. Who reportedly is recovering from a heart attack from a couple weeks ago (for the record,relationship to alcohol: unknown. But still uncomfortable.). When he serves Bud lemonade later on, it comes as a relief.

Then someone throws the nuclear football onto the buzzed hayseed’s lap. By that time, I was hoping that he would figure out a way to accidentally launch a nuclear war and put me out of my misery. Or at least set off enough mega-tonnage to finally wipe that smirk off Nathan Lane’s face.

Never mind the fact that we find out Bud has a felony history, thus disqualifying him from voting in any world outside of Disney World. I used to cover courts. It would have taken me the length of a phone call from my editor and a trip downstairs to the clerk’s office to figure this out. However, the entire nation’s media is too busy camped out on the lawn to notice.

Two notes on cameos -- Legendary stock car driver Richard Petty shows up for the obligatory Disney-NASCAR product placement (see: the entirety of Lindsay Lohan’s Herbie: Fully Loaded).This may be the most bizarre cameo I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, the political analyst James Carville appears on a television screen in this film. He now has the strange distinction of appearing in one of the best films of the decade (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and one of the worst, all within the space of about 10 months. And he’s not even an actor.

It’s painful to watch Kevin Costner in this. Say what you will about his range; he was the biggest star in the world at one time, turning in memorable lead roles in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and A Perfect World. Even three years ago, he warmed The Upside of Anger, and it looked like his career might be in recovery. Now this. Speaking of Hollywood and politics, this is his Bedtime for Bonzo. Swing Vote is like the retirement party for the guy who really doesn’t want to leave.