Sunday, November 30, 2008

Women's pictures

This is a favorite topic of mine that has come up again with the box office success of Twilight - the new appeal of films generated for a female audience. Here's a London Times article on recent successes.

1) It's good timing, because right now, the number of talented young actresses outnumbers the young leading men significantly.

2) I like the fact that it potentially gives middle-aged actresses something to do. With the success of The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia!, this has been a big boon in Meryl Streep's career. She's gone from being thought of as the serious actress in serious roles to someone infinitely more relatable and likable. And in reverse, she gives these lighthearted films a stamp of merit that makes them harder to discount.

I would hope at some point that the Debra Wingers, Joan Allens, Barbara Hersheys etc. can get in on the action. And hopefully more of Toni Collette.

3) This article implies something that I felt at the time and have repeated ever since - The Devil Wears Prada ultimately is a more significant film from 2006 than about half of the consensus top ten movies. Not because it was a perfect. Because it was a trend-setter. It was the first true female-oriented box office success, and one with only female lead characters, at that. Not a rom-com, but a true woman's picture, in the old timey sense. Plus, it's a pretty good film. I thought long and hard about putting it in my top ten, because I thought this might happen, before going the conventional route. I wish that I had gone for it.

4) Film criticism is a male dominated field. Other than Prada, the films mentioned in the article received general thumbs down from critics. It's going to take adjustments for male critics to really "get" these films. But it shouldnt' be enough to simply push them aside.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spiderman, Spiderman

So last time I visited my family, I turned on the tube on Saturday night and found all sorts of good things - 2001, The Wild Bunch, etc. This time ..... not so much. So my dad and I sat down and watched Spiderman on TNT. A few thoughts.

1) At the climax, The Green Goblin is forcing Spidey to make a choice between saving Mary Jane or a trolley car filled with a boy scout troop. I'm sorry, but is this any sort of dilemma? The hot girl you are in love with or a trolley car of annoying children that you don't know and who are just going to go play video games later and forget about you? Easy choice, in my book.

2) You know those kids in movies who look up at the side of a falling building headed their way but freeze up and don't run so that the hero has to swing down and save them? I've decided it's best if we just let them go. They're obviously not going to be missed in the gene pool.

3) I know, we aren't supposed to care when a character can't figure out that the voices of the superhero and the alter ego sound exactly alike. But could they at least not make it so that Mary Jane hears Spidey and Peter's voices twenty seconds apart in the same scene and still doesn't have a clue?

4) In what world would a girl look at a rich James Franco and a relatively poor Tobey Maguire and choose Tobey Maguire?

5) Mary Jane goes from loving Franco to Spiderman to Peter Parker in the course of two hours. Slut.

No stale Milk headline pun available due to lack of inspiration [Milk]

Milk [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Allison Pill
Director: Gus Van Sant

If Gus Van Sant were French, someone would already have made a statue of him.

Starting with Drugstore Cowboy (or earlier) and moving through this year’s Paranoid Park, he arguably has created as many outstanding films as any American director of the indie generation (outside of that stretch from Good Will Hunting to Finding Forester when his films made money and every too-serious filmgoer considered him a sellout.) But he’s never really mentioned as an artist of that stature.

Van Sant's best film at balancing his mainstream voice and his avant garde tendencies is Milk, a powerful new biopic of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who in the seventies became the first openly homosexual public official in the United States.

Milk is a better gay film than Brokeback Mountain and a better political film than Sean Penn’s recent stabs like All the King’s Men. While it sometimes strays a little close to hagiography, Van Sant masters Milk's life and voice. Unlike many straightforward biopics, Milk captures its character in a melange of interesting cinema. The best moment has Milk discussing a murder with a police officer, shot as a reflection in the shine of a whistle. His effort is matched and then doubled by Penn, who gives us both his gentle and righteous soul and the hard-nosed politician at the core of this trailblazer.

The film has two weaknesses. The first half is in a rush to get somewhere. It glosses over events that looked like they would be interesting to explore. It's the rare film running more than two hours that should have taken a third. It also treats Milk’s love life as a matter of fact rather than an emotional reality. Consequently, when Milk's lovers depart, it doesn’t move as it should.

The film would like to portray his 1978 shooting death from the gun of fellow city supervisor Dan White as a martyr’s death. But the film sticks to the facts. Whatever White’s prejudices, it was more a case of White going postal than an assassination, the final product of political backstabbing. Perhaps that's a matter of debate. No matter. Josh Brolin’s tightly wound performance is wonderful, a marvel in a film with plenty of them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Dark Knight and Oscar ....

I don't understand the reported Hollywood resistance to the idea of The Dark Knight as a Best Picture candidate.

I'm not sure Joe and Gertrude Blow are sitting around the house barely containing their enthusiasm about an Oscar race with Doubt, Milk, Frost/Nixon, Button, and Slumdog Millionaire. These films aren't even generating that much consistent enthusiasm among Oscar followers. Stick The Dark Knight in there and everyone is talking about the race.

And it's not like it's just a ploy to get viewers. The Dark Knight is the best major studio release of the year so far (with a few to see). It's made a zillion dollars. It's filled with ideas and ambition. It would give the public a rooting interest and generate buzz for the show. It would grab viewers who otherwise wouldn't watch the Oscar telecast. What's not to like?

I was at a dollar theater last night catching up on Burn After Reading (good film), and for whatever reason, Apocalypse Now crossed my mind while waiting for the show. Some love that film. Some think it's bombastic overkill. But I was thinking, what director would even try one of those crazy set pieces, much less all of them? Think about the opening. You sit there looking at a village in the jungle in the distance. Suddenly you hear choppers coming from behind you. But you don't see them at first. Then The Doors "The End" starts. Then you start seeing the choppers floating around dreamlike. Then the explosions. And Martin Sheen's face. Upside down. then you have the bunnies scene, the two battle scenes with Kilgore, the Do Long Bridge, the French Plantation, etc. Who makes films like that anymore?

Then I watched the trailer for The Dark Knight, which just got to that second-run theater. And I watched just that one assassination scene with the hundreds of police officers lined up in the street. And I thought, well, at least one.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Twilight and film writing

One of the things that bothers me slightly in the reaction to Twilight is how many film bloggers who run in the same circles don't want to go see it. Many of them, I suspect, would like to be film critics one day beyond their own blog site. Having done that and continuing to do it, one of the important things is learning to write about films that are not up your alley. I understand the temptation to want to stick to films that give you intellectual red meat. At the same time, though, critics have to learn how to deal with all sorts of films. You have to be able to write an intelligent and/or witty pan just as effectively as a deeply intellectual rave about an art film.

Whether you like it or not, Twilight is a cultural phenomenon that says something about where we are. If it's not your thing, it's perfectly snicker-able material, so that it's entertaining either way. It's also tremendously fertile ground for writing a fun review. It also has some things that I honestly like about it. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if I liked, or at least respected, the next outing. The ability to write about such a film is essential to the profession.

On the Button

So is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as good as the Oscar bloggers seem to think?

Allez-y Le France

It's a popular sign of alleged sophistication to find the film work of remote, exotic nations as hail it as the next big thing. Israel. Or Romania. Or Malaysia. Or wherever. It's not as hip to point out the more obvious point - that the majority of great films in history have emerged from two nations - the United States and France.

While each film industry goes through high and low periods. France, this Guardian article argues, is going through a revival at the moment, shaking itself out a relatively dry period over the past 10-15 years. The high point, Jason Solomons argues, was last May's crowning of Entre Les Murs (The Class) with the Palm d'Or at Cannes. It was the first win for a French film in 21 years. I've seen it, and it's terrific.

Entre Les Murs also inspired me to reach the same conclusion as I was pulling into a CVS a few days after seeing it. Then this article appeared arguing the same thing. It's always amazing when your thoughts in a drug store parking lot appear in print a couple days later.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cormac everywhere

After the Oscar success of No Country for Old Men, it's suddenly full speed ahead on Cormac McCarthy adaptations. I was tooling around IMDb, and found that Blood Meridian, long rumored to be in the Ridley Scott fold, is currently being credited as the next project of Todd Field (Little Children, In the Bedroom). If he brings that puppy home successfully, a classic American novel that doesn't lend itself easily to filming, Field's stock will go way, way up.

While reading through a Blood Meridian thread, I thought, Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) would probably be a natural for the material. That inspired a "What's he up to?" moment. It turns out Dominik is making Cities of the Plain. At least according to IMDb.

Add to this the upcoming version of The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and directed by John Hillcoat ( of the McCarthy-inspired The Proposition), and you have the unusual occurrence of three books by the same author. Not a moment too soon. McCarthy is in his mid-seventies.

Friday, November 21, 2008

There Won’t Be Blood [Twilight]

Twilight [PG-13]
Grade: D
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Peter Facinelli

There Won’t Be Blood in Twilight. Nor will there be sex, either.

As if not to disturb the chaste sensitivities of its girly audience, Catherine Hardwicke’s mostly bloodless adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s popular vampire series plays on the swoony side, passing on vein-piercing horror in favor of a teen-age romantic vibe. Whether or not that has the planet’s undead population spinning in their non-graves is hard to say.

The story is so prim that its good-guy vampires, the Cullens, favor sucking animal blood over human blood. All the better to fit into society with, my dear, a necessity when the father vampire is a respected doctor. Yet for a vampire, not only is that like being forced to eat bran flakes when you’re coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs; it’s also kind of wimpy. I guess we can toss that whole Dracula sexual metaphor out the castle window.

That has got to suck in high school. So to speak. Of course, that doesn’t prevent the school’s undercover bloodsucker, Edward Cullen (played by your daughter’s new teen sensation Robert Pattinson), from drawing flies. All James Dean glances and sexy eyebrows, this is one vampire who definitely can see himself in the mirror. Yet he keeps to himself to hide his dark, dark, dark secret – he belongs to a vampire clan that, judging by its moussed-up hairstyles and liberal use of white makeup and lip gloss, must have been bitten on the way to a Duran Duran concert sometime around Rio. (Even better, the dreadlocked leader of a rival clan looks like Eddy Grant as he rocks down to Electric Avenue. Perhaps he made it for the opening act.) If Twilight offers useful makeup tips for its young female fans, it’s how the Cullens keep it from smearing in neverending rain.

Edward quickly catches the eye and imagination of Bella Swan (Into the Wild’s Kristen Stewart), the new girl in town. Awkward and quiet despite her beauty (a name like Bella Swan is a lot to live up to), she quickly develops a thing for her dark, dark, dark dreamboat of a lab partner. Who ever thought microscope slides could be …. huuuuusssssssssh …. so romantic! Soon, he’s saving her from those everday dangers of hydroplaning minivans and horny loggers. You see, he reveals his superhuman side … only to her! All of this despite the fact, we soon find out, that Edward’s instincts are telling him to eat beautiful Bella (Ohhhhh, but not in that way. Not in this story. Nuh-uuuuuh.). It says sooooo much. When the boy of your dreams. Resists his overwhelming urge. To turn you into his granola bar.

Is it just destiny, then, an act of fate, the gods of love smiling ever down, that led young Bella to leave her Phoenix home to live in this small, cozy spot in the woods, Forks, Wash., with her stoic, distant father? As police chief, he spends most of his time enforcing the city’s ban on sentences longer than six words. He’s also looking into a mysterious chain of suspicious animal maulings. Judging by the peculiar use of fangs as a murder weapon, a serial killing critter appears to be on the loose around town. Not to mention dodging the authorities far more mastermindedly than you would expect from a rabid dog. Or a pissed-off wolf. Or a razorback hog hopped up on meth. Who’s to say, really, when we don’t have a description of the suspect?

Badly shot and cheaply made, Twilight labors painfully under its low-budget origins. Hopefully blockbuster status will rectify this situation in future chapters. At least it could improve the special effects to presentable. For instance, when Edward climbs into sunlight to reveal his glittering skin, we can barely see a difference. Meanwhile, like many first books going to the screen, Twilight gets bogged down in explanations. The dramatic structure comes unbalanced. It spends too long postponing the plot to work repetitively on the relationship.

I can live with the fact that, from a male adult perspective, the verbal declarations of love seem flat. Yet the limits placed upon the carnal impulses are stifling. In a book, younger readers are tricked into thinking of heated wording as passion, while older readers with greater sexual experience can read between the lines. Film forces choices. The result is too many sterile romantic scenes – two young lovers chatting and staring intensely, while the camera circles, desperately looking for a way to make the scene interesting. Hardwicke tries to use the lush environment to suggest deeper sexual rhythms– as Joe Wright did magnificently in Pride and Prejudice three years ago– but it isn’t strong enough. The swampy moodiness of the Pacific Northwest – mastered for various purposes in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files– too often seems impotent here.

I do like certain things about Twilight. The Coen Brothers’ man Carter Burwell delivers a nice score. The leads are friendly, if not scintillating. Maybe next time. Enough of the story remains intact that I could see why its fans have fallen in love with it. It does have one inspired scene, in which we learn that the only bats that interest these vampires have to do with baseball. The freaky family plays the sport with superhuman speed and spirit. Frankly, I wish the film would spend more time with the vampires and less with the humans.

Will Twilight satisfy its fans? Yes. No. Some. Not others. As always. Does Twilight work? As a man, I feel genetically insufficient to say. What I can do is compare it to similarly swoony romances. It’s certainly preferable to George Lucas’ goofy vocabulary in the Star Wars prequels or the waffles-and-bad-teenage-poetry of Spiderman 3. But I would rather re-watch Titanic or, even better, re-visit Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice. That film’s joy stayed with my secret girly side for several weeks. I don’t think Twilight is of the same caliber.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Twilight: Star hunch

So, a few years ago, when I first started reviewing films professionally, I found that me and my arthouse-loving cinephilia had a weird, completely contrary, completely unexpected talent for picking future stars out of movies. The most amazing story in this regard, is when, with less than two months of reviewing experience, I made a mental note of a young actor who had four or five minutes of screen time at the beginning of the Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine. I thought, "There's a guy who's going to be a star." When I checked the credits, it was polite of the young man to have an easily remembered exotic name. I'll never forget it. Shia LeBeouf. Don't ask me how I did that, because I still don't have a clue. :)

I had several more experiences like this. As I'm far too fond of mentioning, unaware of her Disney status, I had Anne Hathaway pegged as a future star from the moment she rode the horse into Brokeback Mountain. In this regard, I found The Devil Wears Prada doubly intriguing; one of the other future stars that I picked out was Emily Blunt, while watching her terrific work in My Summer of Love. That one was easier to see, since it was a co-lead role, rather than some five-minute supporting job. (By the way, whatever happened to Nathalie Press?)

So that's three. I've had two other such predictions. One was Alexandra Maria Lara from the Hitler-in-the-bunker film Der Untergang/Downfall. She's still a work in progress, although The Reader promises to introduce her to a wider American audience. And then .... where have you gone, Columbus Short? The world could use a charismatic black leading man. Especially one that can dance. Eh, four out of five wouldn't be bad.

Anyway, I haven't had that light flick on in a long while now. Then I watched Twilight, and it happened again. The name (hopefully) to remember:

Ashley Greene

Don't ask, but she has that "it" factor. That inner spunk. Watch for her. She plays Alice Cullen, the psychic vampire sister of our bloodsucking heartthrob Edward Cullen. Anyone could pick Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson for future stardom. But I'm sticking my neck out for Ashley Greene.

Looking at her IMDb page, her previous work consists of sparse television project appearances. Five episodes here, seven episodes there. The occasional "McDonald's customer" film role. But she's only 21 and does have a full list of apparently small films in the offing.

It's just a hunch, but it's always a fun adventure to make this sort of prediction.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Best Actress free-for-all

Unlike last year, when for Best Actress the Academy was fishing for warm bodies, this year's full crop offers tantalizing possibilities. Will Streep square off against Blanchett? Will Winslet finally win? Most gossiply delicious, which significant star is going to get left out of the party? Usually, it's the actor categories that are loaded. Not this year. Observe, the main contenders:

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road or The Reader
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Kate Beckinsale, Nothing but the Truth

That's seven significant stars. On top of that, there are at least a few more that have a chance, whose inclusion wouldn't surprise anyone, beyond the fact that they overcame such stiff competition.

Two are obscure critic's favorites:

Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

One is a previous nominee:

Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

And two more who are stars:

Keira Knightley, The Duchess
Nicole Kidman, Australia

Keep in mind, that I've only see Hathaway, Knightley, Hawkins, and Jolie. I need to catch up to Leo and Thomas, whose films have been released. The rest have yet to screen here. Those others mentioned are named on buzz from early screenings, or reputation, or on the theory that that actress will star in the year's most nominated film.

But the most likely scenario, at least in theory, according to "those who know," or rather "those who think they know," would go toward Hathaway, Thomas, Streep, Winslet, and either Blanchett or Jolie. I personally figure at least one of those performances won't be as good as hoped, and therefore might fall by the wayside. But anyway you slice it, except for maybe Thomas, those are big names. Between this and The Dark Knight, the Academy must love it. Imagine the buzz generated by, say, a competition involving Streep, Blanchett, Jolie, Winslet, and Hathaway or Beckinsale. Add to that a nomination for The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger. Stick in Tina Fey as the host. Suddenly you might hope that last year's Oscar ratings collapse can recover.

Personally, I would be disappointed if Hathaway's youth costs her a nod, and she's forced to wait her turn. You just never know about those things, do you, Gillian Anderson? If Jolie gets a nomination for I Want My Son Back: The Christine Collins Story .... Oops, I mean Changeling ... I don't know if I would actually barf. But I would definitely try. But she does have her promoters. And some think she deserved a nomination last year. So it remains a possibility.

I do feel for Leo, Hawkins, and maybe Williams, all of whom have generated strong reviews in small films. Last year, in a field with an unknown Frenchwoman (Cotillard), an aging ex-star (Christie), a teen-ish sensation (Page), an old reliable awards bridesmaid (Linney), and a filler nom for a great actress (Blanchett), they would have stood a very good chance. This year, they're facing stars in strong roles. While I wouldn't be shocked if one of the smaller names earned a surprise nomination, it's still an uphill climb.

Second thoughts on Synecdoche

Some have wondered about my feelings toward Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a film that seems to have hit a good spot with a number of critics for its intricate intellectualism. Since I respect the film, but find it failing in certain important regards, I thought I would write a follow-up of explanation.

Synecdoche is clearly an act of high intelligence and erudition. But that’s different from being brilliant. And that’s different still from being relevant. In my review, in consideration of its extremely inward world view and its interest in aesthetics, I compared Synecdoche to the works of James Joyce; I continue to think that is an apt comparison. Take Ulysses. There’s no question it is the product of high intelligence and erudition. It certainly is a landmark of literature. It’s also the moment that literature jumped the shark. Ten years prior, you could read a Joseph Conrad novel on multiple levels, as a sailing yarn or an intellectual masterpiece. After Ulysses, literature became increasingly academic. I mean that both ways – literally and in terms of real-life cultural relevance. Literature became the province of monastic intellectuals, huddling in academies, writing essays to each other that the non-believers in the outside world would never hear. Now, many novels are written with only that community in mind. Of all the people to stand against this trend has been Oprah Winfrey. If she has contributed one good thing for society, it's been pushing literature, sometimes very good literature, back into the public realm. the initial upturned noses that greeted her efforts were symptomatic of the problem.

A retreat into academia is a risk in a medium that works best as a public art form. The best Westerns, for example, can be combed for intellectual energy but ultimately can be - perhaps need to be - enjoyed as entertainment. We see a wonderful example of this in last year's Best Picture No Country for Old Men, itself based on what is considered one of Cormac McCarthy's pop-iest novels. I would argue that Kaufman’s previous work has been on the right side of the line, perhaps a little too much so, even. It has tended to play around with ideas rather than explore them. But this 100 percent dose of Kaufman crosses it definitively.

Second, Synecdoche is too solipsistic for my taste, and part of this distaste derives from my own experience as a minimally published writer. As a young writer, I wrote intellectualized surrealist crap. It was smart and uniquely creative. But I didn’t possess the life experience to make it relevant outside of my own head. Only when I started writing about my own outside experience, injecting my own personal creative take but maintaining a recognizable world, did I start getting published. When I watch Kaufman, while I respect the brains, I don’t think he has figured out how to do this yet. As a result, his work, and Synecdoche in particular, feels too smug and stuck in his own head. For that reason, I find its ultimate points, while intelligent, to be precious and lack a certain relevance. He sees the world as I saw it as a young man. But I’ve grown out of it, and I would like to see him do that, as well.

Keep in mind that I say this as an art film guy. As a lover of Tarkovsky. As someone who has read Gravity's Rainbow cover to cover. But I also recognize the risk of the medium becoming too academic. And being relevant to the public that pays for the films is an important part of keeping the medium healthy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Love at First Bite [Let the Right One In]

Let the Right One In [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Kare Hedebrant, Lena Leandersson
Director: Tomas Alfredson

Searching along the skin for a new vein in the vampire film, Let the Right One In finds it in the blood of a virgin.

Combining the arty European coming-of-age film and the schlocky American vampire tradition, this Swedish film tenderly examines those inevitable twin horrors of adolescence – puberty and parasitic bloodsucking. (Hey, I have my childhood. You have yours.) Amid a frozen Scandinavian winter, it slowly chills in a methodical intensity not seen since Carrie was trying on prom dresses.

From neck bites to snow drifts, the film possesses a strong tactile sense. The film’s subzero climate could form icicles on the cup holders in the theater. The snow banks in a small Swedish town are thick and permanent. Street lamps reflect palely for miles along the streets. Children play and pester in the snow.

For the awkward Oskar, most play consists of taking a beating. Things change one night while practicing that favorite childhood pastime – stabbing a tree and pretending it’s your enemy. The new girl next door drops by (I mean, like, drops by). From there, they create the best hesitant childhood romance ever formed over a Rubik’s cube. Be still my beating nerd heart.

Of course the new girl in town wouldn’t be the new girl in town if she didn’t hold a giant secret. She tends to an unusual diet. An unusual diet … OF BLOOD! No Tootsie Rolls here. Unless the Tootsie Rolls have BLOOD IN THEM! Funny the way she and her father cover their windows to blot out the sun. It’s Sweden. It’s winter. Don’t they get cold?

We get the picture. (Of course, if we got the picture, would she appear in it?) But a little slow on the ol’ Polaroid is Oskar. He’s just happy to have a friend, and a "girl"friend, at that. The strength of the film lies in the keenly observed friendship between our snowcapped Romeo and his well-fanged Juliet.

Could the film’s bite use braces? Only if you’re stuck in traditional vampire-ese. The coffins and stakes are left out in the snow. The father works with knockout gas and knives, stalking teen-agers dispassionately. When he drains his victim’s blood, you feel a drained soul.

But director Tomas Alfredson’s slow bleed of a film effectively nibbles the horror with comic glee. Our teeth sink in as terror, but the blood spurts out as dark humor. My favorite moment is a bleeding in the woods interrupted by a sweetly oblivious poodle.

While the film has a strangeness all its own, it does follow some of the horror playbook. Eli’s blood-hunting speaks to sexual awakening. The carnage-heavy swimming-pool ending feels like Oskar’s Carrie-esque dream of revenge. I left wondering if Eli is less a vampire than a specter, Oskar’s act of imaginary wish-fulfillment. Yes or no, the film itself adds up to a filmgoer’s darkest wishes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Minding our Qs [Quantum of Solace]

Quantum of Solace [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Almaric, Jeffrey Wright, Gemma Arterton
Director: Marc Forster

Yes, I know, there is no Q in the re-booted James Bond series. But we mind nothing but our Qs (not even our Ps) in this review of the new flick Quantum of Solace.

Quandary - Having so effectively re-booted its franchise with its last entry, Casino Royale, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson find themselves wondering where to go with Quantum of Solace. Royale mixed the perfect vodka martini of action-film zest and tough-guy noir. With an electrifying Daniel Craig, it looked like the series found the right balance between its traditional fantasy and the grittier modern style. So it’s kind of disappointing to see Bond going the New Coke route, a product of thinking too much about the competitor’s virtues( Jason Bourne) and not enough about its own.

Quick – Among the shortest James Bond films, Quantum banks on its light, quick editing. Action sequences are punchy and relatively short. The opening car chase really is intoxicating, but characteristically abbreviated.

Quirky – describes the direction of Marc Forster (Finding Neverland). The film looks artier than any other Bond film, as well as most action films. I appreciate the way he varies the action style from scene to scene. Some action sequences are designed for a traditional vicarious response. But a memorable opera house chase – with Bond fleeing and firing, intercut with a performance of Tosca – feels more like a dream sequence. It’s lovely, and unexpected.

Questionable – is the script partly from Paul Haggis. His script for Casino Royale played to his strengths – giving juice to the dialogue, working on character, and developing some solid themes. Yet Quantum has some unfortunate “Haggis moments.” Storylines are obvious. Motivations aren’t clear. And if you want to know the plot, Haggis will stuff it straight into the bad guy’s mouth. So much for spying, seducing, or having Goldfinger proudly blab over a diorama of Fort Knox.

Still, the plot itself is novel and intriguing. The new Bond enemy Quantum, led by a shady, bulgy-eyed businessman (Mathieu Almaric), tries to seize control of Bolivia’s water supply by staging a coup to insert their favorite general. Try selling a water domination plot to a Hollywood executive under other circumstances.
The film also treats Bond as an interesting enigma. Is he looking for revenge for the death of his beloved Vesper, or is he doing his duty? It also has its share of witty lines, with shades of dark humor, and Craig confidently delivers them.

Quietly – The film develops themes, but does so quietly. It plays Royale in reverse, walking Bond back toward humanity. Images echo those in the first film. In Royale, Bond ditched a bloody shirt out of guilt, rinsing his sin down with a drink. Here, he wears blood without a second thought. In Royale, he comforted his love Vesper by holding her in a shower. Here, he comforts a dying man, then tosses the corpse into a dumpster. Royale opens with Bond waiting in the dark for a kill. This film closes with Bond in the same place, but with a different outcome. The legendary Bond gunbarrel sequence even appears at the end, rather than the beginning.

There also is more character development here than it will get credit for. If Casino Royale is about the process of Bond closing emotionally, Quantum is a story of his return to some semblance of moral responsibility. At the end, Bond will be forced between to choose between taking life and preserving it.

Quality – Nowadays, the quality of the Bond series lies in its actors. Compare them to Bourne – Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Jeffrey Wright versus Matt Damon, Laura Linney and Julia Stiles. This is, by far, Bond’s greatest advantage. Some of the most sizzling scenes in Quantum involve their chemistry. The key is to take full advantage of this advantage.

The film’s biggest positive is Craig’s complete occupation of the role. While the new Bond formula seems uncertain, the new Bond is perfectly formed, a dead-eyed, ferocious killer with the glimmer of an inner life. Yet we do not get enough that lets Craig push his portrait, no scene like the-torture scene of Casino Royale, which tested the resolve of the character and the limits of the actor. To reduce Craig to Matt Damon-level stiffness is Her Majesty’s disservice.

Qualified – is my approval for Quantum of Solace. As an action film, it shouldn’t disappoint viewers. Yet Royale proved there’s more to this series than it is willing to give here. It’s a sufficient placeholder while the Bond powers-that-be hunch over their storyboards and work on the future.

Synedoche, New York

Synedoche, New York [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Dianne Wiest.
Director: Charlie Kaufman

Does Charlie Kaufman have anything to offer the planet except post-modern rope tricks and fashionable misery?

In looking at his newest mindbender Synedoche, New York, has there ever been a more imaginative, provocative, surrealistic way to ultimately say, “Life sucks and then you die?” How can such a sharp, observant, vibrant mind find so much to say about the creative process and so little to say about life? So much in the intellectual playpen of his head and so little orbiting about the eyes and ears?

Having expressed displeasure with the directors who have brought his scripts to the screen in the past, Kaufman commits the ultimate act of filmmaking solipsism. He located the best director he could think of – himself. Freed of collaboration, Kaufman turns in a fascinating, irritating trip through the screenwriter’s mind. Yet missing are Spike Jonze’s accessible weirdness, Michel Gondry’s lovable insanity, George Clooney’s great eye, and anybody to tell Kaufman that he already has made his point. Kaufman is in pure, brilliant form but also in a rambling mess.

To describe the shapes and sizes of Synecdoche is impossible. Playwright Kaden (an unstoppable Phillip Seymour Hoffman) thinks he has cancer. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. He does have an unhappy artist wife (a sleepwalking Catherine Keener), who runs off to Germany with her best friend and their daughter. He also has a potential mistress in his community theater’s secretary, if he could bring himself to do it.

That’s where recognizable normality stops. Things get stranger and stranger. Kaden receives an artistic grant, which he uses to move his actors into a giant warehouse and create his magnum opus. But the opus keeps getting more and more magnum. They remain there for 20 years, as the stages multiply like rabbits, as Kaden tries to re-create billions of scenes from his past. For inspiration and catharsis, he piles through his relationships with other women (Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams stand out of a strong hen party). As his life continues, his play expands neverendingly. Soon, there’s an actor playing him on and off set, revealing his innermost feelings to others. And if you think that’s out there, that’s hardly the half of it.

But don’t worry that much. What something is is one thing. What something means is something else. The film is highly symbolic. Kaufman’s surrealistic memories of past loves recall Fellini’s 8 1/2. Most interestingly, Kaufman posits the writing process as the creative outlet for assessing and distorting a life – a mixture of past and fantasy, conjecture and myth, put forth as much for the author as the audience.

My greatest past criticism of Kaufman has been that he never completes his thoughts, that he uses them as a platform for metafictional horseplay rather than the full expression of ideas. That isn’t a problem for Synedoche. It completes his ideas. Then it completes them again. And again.

But I must ask you, do you like James Joyce? Do you know those long, dizzying passages in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man dedicated to incredibly intricate discussions of artistic ideals? Because the most worthwhile things here are Kaufman’s thoughts on the relationship among memory, drama, and life, about the way we create stories our past to wrestle and understand it. It’s interesting as long as it stays in his head.

Yet Synedoche wanders into the impenetrable mental jigsaw land that makes Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake so hated by undergraduates. While Kaufman does drop his pet masturbation scene for this film, his mental masturbation remains intact.

Hoberman on Tarkovsky

J. Hoberman's take on the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Andrei Rublev and Mirror are among my favorite films. The Bell portion of Rublev is simply amazing, as is most of the rest of it. IF I had to name my five favorite directors, he is easily among them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rebecca Hall

Has anyone come as far as fast as Rebecca Hall? Previously, I only recall her in The Prestige. This year, praise in both Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Frost/Nixon.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

In the jungle [Madagascar 2]

Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa [PG]
Grade: D
Cast: Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Chris Rock, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Bernie Mac, Alec Baldwin
Director: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath

Sitting down to watch Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa, I quickly realized that I remembered almost nothing about the original Madagascar.

After sitting down and watching Madagascar 2, I find that I already remember very little of it. If you’ve seen one group of animated animals, ultimately you’ve seen them all. This is a pedestrian sequel to a pedestrian original.

So a lion, a hippo, a giraffe, and a zebra hop into a plane …. If you’re expecting a punch line, I guess it’s fair to say that there are a few. But when this group of animals on vacation from the Central Park Zoo crash-land into the African savannah, it never quite finds enough good punch lines to earn its pride. Or its herd?
The greatest attention falls on the antics of Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), whose showmanship has given him the nickname The King of New York. His accidental trip to Africa plops him right in the middle of a power struggle in his old pride, between his father and his enemy.

While watching Alex, I kept thinking that he was the least interesting character. His showmanship, dancing, and diva act gets repetitive. But then we turn to the other animals – the hippo and her romance with the beefy hippo. The hypochondriac giraffe and his … what was he doing exactly, again? Fortunately, there are some definite chuckles with Chris Rock’s zebra, suffering an identity crisis in an endless herd of identical black and white stripes. The best thing about the films continues to be the musical sequences, which often are loopy fun.

The film does smooth out the look of the animation when compared to the first film. The original Madagascar was plagued by the uncomfortably angular nature of its figures. That problem fades.

If there’s one group of animals that have been consistently funny in the two films, it is the foursome of jaded, resourceful penguins. In this one, they steal a jeep, fix a plane, and conduct labor negotiations with monkeys. It’s like they‘ve flown in (well not flown - they're penguins) from a different film – the consistently funny animated adventure next door. Which raises a troubling question. Should a comedy need comic relief?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Does anyone know about ....

a new film version of Jesus Christ Superstar set for 2010? I came across this on imdb while downloading music last night, but the information is scant.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Are there going to be any good films this fall?

OK, it's not quite that bad. But this fall, so far, has been one onscreen disappointment for me after another. I saw one of the season's most hyped films this afternoon, and it did nothing for me. I actually disliked it. (Dude, just .... get another girlfriend. Please. She's not that special.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My weekly "What the hell is the deal with Rachel Getting Married's distribution" post

This week, Rachel Getting Married is on 135 screens. For comparison, the unhyped Canadian Great War film Passchendaele, doing nice box office, is in 187.

Need a lift?

Yes, in America we call them elevators.

Top of the world, ma

Man on Wire reaches the top of the Rotten Tomatoes list of best-reviewed films ever - a 100 percent "tomatometer" with 129 reviews. Great news.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Quantum of dollas

I take it they don't have Halloween in England (Do they?). The new Bond film Quantum of Solace opens with the highest Friday box office ever there. Rumor is that it is slated for a zillion dollar opening in two weeks on these shores, as well.

My review is up in the usual non-Anti-D places. It'll be here at the US opening.

critics are a little mixed. But the fans seem to like it.

Rocked, rolled [RocknRolla]

RocknRolla [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Gerard Butler, Toby Kebbell, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong
Director: Guy Ritchie

With Keira Knightley and The Duchess having already knocked out the annual British costume drama quota for this fall, it is time for Guy Ritchie to show up with RocknRolla and fill the British gangster picture slot. Now the world of British filmmaking can feel complete.


A sweet-natured criminal in debt for a cool couple million.
A crooked businessman who runs London.
A druggie rock star who, by all accounts is dead. Or should be.
A vamp accountant with a taste for theft.
A Russian billionaire with a fondness for poisoned cocktails.
A reflective henchman.
Two hopeless record producers.
A lucky painting,
A stash of hot cash.
And a bad London land deal going badder every minute.

Drop them into a blender and see what kind of story comes out. These are the things that RocknRolla has going for it. And also the things that go against it.

Being overwhelmed with so much stuff, it’s just the law of averages. Some storylines and characters in Guy Ritchie’s hip, twisty new release are more exhilarating than others. And some are duller than others.

When it’s creative … like a car robbery thwarted by a stick shift …. a fresh, funny sex scene …. a fight to the death won by distance running …. It’s oh so good. When it’s not, it drifts so much, and there’s nothing that Ritchie;’s endless style and visual flair can do to enliven it.

The film features roughly every semi-famous British actor Ritchie could get his hands on (Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong, Toby Kebbell). Very strong is the maliciously great Tom Wilkinson as Lenny Cole, a wheelchair-bound wheeler dealer greasing his own palm. Among the virtues of this film, one should not overlook the reminder that Wilkinson is actually English.

The words that have long attended Ritchie’s films still apply. Hip. Stylish. Flashy. Empty. Nothing really changes, does it?