Saturday, November 21, 2009

Twilight: New Moon

Twilight [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Ashley Greene, Billy Burke
Director: Chris Weitz
Free Admission Granted

How you feel about Twilight: New Moon seems to be dividing along the lines of how you feel about the first film, last year’s Twilight, and its director, Catherine Hardwicke.

In the first film of this female-oriented vampire franchise, Hardwicke evoked an impassioned teen-age swooniness among its damply metaphorical forest setting. The problem – that’s all Hardwicke brought to the severely budget-crunched debut. And even that was double-edged. Each viewer had a choice of heartily succumbing or rolling their eyes.

Directed by Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy), Twilight: New Moon definitely cuts down the eye-rolling. But that also means that New Moon is shorter on the high-school Gothic romanticism that has sparked such devotion from the franchise fans. The word you keep hearing with New Moon is “polished.” That means the look, pace, effects, and all things technical are vastly improved. But even someone who liked the film – and ultimately I did – can see that it has lost a chunk of its heart.

New Moon revives the tale of Bella Swan (a moody Kristen Stewart), the girl with the fairy tale name and the most complicated love life ever to be persistently interrupted by an all-seeing telephone. She continues to date her way through the James Whale/Val Lewton MGM horror film catalog, circa 1940. New Moon finds her torn, (but not really torn) between a sweet werewolf trainee who looks like Fabio and a vampire who looks like James Dean and dresses like Leonard Cohen. This isn’t just a rivalry for affections, but one with blood, teeth, and ancient animosities.

Edward Cullen, the vampire who can definitely see himself in the mirror, quickly makes like a bat and flies off. That drives a wooden stake through parts of the film. Unfortunately it is star Robert Pattinson who provides the wood – the cool sense of removal that made him such an elusive attraction last time here makes him seem cold and distant.

Bella dries her tears on the newly buff shoulders of the affably irrelevant teen wolf Jacob. A romance that might have looked plausible when the ink was still drying on the paper is now clearly only a prelude to the next chapter. While Taylor Lautner is game in trying to keep up the ruse, we know where Bella’s heart really lies. Poor Jacob never really had a chance.

While Weitz is being criticized for various indecencies, the film looks and moves much better. There’s a few nifty visual sequences (an impressive vampire werewolf chase set to Radiohead; a circling time elapse shot revealing the passing of the seasons is damn near brilliant.) He also brings a touch of the Grimm. New Moon is less a romance and more a fairy tale. Included is a macabre sense of humor about how we are all ultimately a potential dinner.

For all its issues, I enjoyed New Moon, and thought it, on first blush, a far better film than the first. Yet like its central vampire, I know it is designed to appeal straight to me. Therefore, I’m naturally suspicious of my assessment. It doesn’t matter. You’re going, anyway. You can write and tell me.

An Education

An Education
Grade: C
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper
Director: Lone Scherfig

[Note: I try to avoid spoilers at all costs, but there’s no way for me to discuss this film substantively without them. You are warned.]

I once wrote Steven Spielberg never creates an interesting moral dilemma that a boy in a helicopter can’t fly his way out of.

I feel the same way about Lone Scherfig’s An Education, a film that repeatedly Medivacs its teenage heroine out of real complication and back to the Army Field Hospital for Conventional Wisdom. The film is the American Beauty of 2009, teasing us with a little leg of originality before pandering to its audience’s most common beliefs.

Based on the Lynn Barber memoir with a script by the English novelist Nick Hornby, An Education has breakout girl Carey Mulligan playing Jenny, a straight-A 16-year old with a future at Oxford. It’s 1961 England. A suave but shady businessman (Peter Sarsgaard) in a sports car picks her up one day from orchestra practice. Soon they’re having an affair. He takes her on adventures away from her drab life in Twickenshire to the high life of London and Paris. She hangs out in fashionable circles with his fellow well-to-do bon vivants (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). Soon, she wonders whether she should complete her education or join the high life.

The film cruises along as an amiable fantasy for about two-thirds of the way. Then it sets up its dilemma dealing with the nature of education. Is education worth it? What is the point of one generation reading The Iliad for a degree only to teach it to the next generation, if in the end it makes nobody happy? If you have the golden ticket to the high life, to an enjoyable life, why invest in the time and effort of study?

This is a worthy personal dilemma, although not a weighty issue compared to those in, say, A Serious Man. However by turning its suitor into a villain, the film stacks the deck. To put it bluntly, Scherfig might as well have outfitted Sarsgaard in fangs. But that would have risked making it more subtle.

By wiggling out of a real choice, the film devalues the education that Jenny eventually chooses. We know if she simply found a nice rich guy, she justifiably would make a different choice. And so she doesn’t choose an education based on its virtues. She does it because there’s nothing else to do. Rather than be a brave step into brainy exploration, an education becomes the choice of brainless conformity.

Harrison Ford tells a story of meeting a Hollywood executive who said he knew Tony Curtis would be a star when he first saw him as a bellhop. Ford’s tart response was that he thought he was supposed to be a bellhop. I somewhat feel that way about Mulligan. I understand the wild praise thrown at her for this performance. Yet I never really bought the 23-year-old as a teenager, not even a precocious one. And as far as the film’s other source of praise, Scherfig does a very solid job of evoking that pre-sixties James Bond high-life, but she’s not the first one to do so.

Indie film used to be about edginess and challenging established beliefs. That should be obvious to Scherfig in particular, as she has a history in Dogme films (Italian for Beginners). An Education might value its pedigree. But in the end its extremely conservative lessons (fear older men, don’t smoke, don’t get pregnant, stay in school) wouldn’t seem out of place in the Twilight series. It’s a lovely film that is deeply dishonest with its audience.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Road

The Road [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce
Director: John Hillcoat
Free Admission Granted

The nature of the disaster that ends civilization in The Road is never explained. Not in the Cormac McCarthy novel. Not in the fantastic John Hillcoat screen version. Yet you would be kidding yourself to bet against a nuclear war.

It could be a comet strike, or an asteroid, or super-volcanic activity, as has been proposed. If it were any other author, those choices might make sense. But would a writer like McCarthy, who has so assiduously held forth on violence, leave the end of the world up to random astronomical chance? I’m deeply skeptical.

So it needs to be appreciated that the father and son of The Road are not only wandering across a slowly dying earth. They are wandering through the apocalyptic aftermath of the ultimate act of nihilism. And in this we connect The Road to the dream the Sheriff reveals at the end of No Country for Old Men, of his father leading him with a torch safely through an intimidating darkness. Here, the father and son speak of their mission of survival as “carrying a fire.”

The Road is already gaining a reputation for being “bleak” and “pessimistic.” Yet for all its cannibalism, dead forests and ashy winter sky, I think this is wrong – I find it enormously optimistic. Because what it says to us is that a world abandoned by hope does not need to be abandoned by our humanity. And what you find at the end of the road might not be sun, or shelter, or deep blue sea, but rather those Faulknerian virtues – love, and honor, and the willingness to endure.

Hillcoat earned this chance with his terrific Outback Western The Proposition, compared by Roger Ebert to McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian (The lead is one of Ebert’s all-time great lines, “The Proposition relocates the Western from Colorado to Hell.”).In The Road, he abandons that film’s violent, sun-drenched spectacle in favor of futuristic anti-spectacle – all ash, and gray, and grit. Every abandoned house echoes with the deadest of dreams.

The performances have the flavor of red meat, barely cooked, desperate. Both Viggo Mortensen and the remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee give performances of scrawny vulnerability, with only love to shield them. As the resigned wife of memory, Charlize Theron gives us five minutes that deeply sting. Her mysterious walk into the dark forest will remind film lovers of the dame’s disappearance into the jungle in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

And what is Herzog’s dictum – that extreme conditions reveal the human essence? There is no better description of the events of The Road. Yet it remains a movie of fathers teaching sons and sons teaching fathers, as manfully tender as anything in Field of Dreams. This strange confluence of love and desperation will sear itself into your mind and stay there.

Bright Star

Bright Star
Grade: A
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox
Director: Jane Campion

In Bright Star, the poet John Keats explains poetry as going into a lake only with a mind to luxuriate there, not to think about how to swim to shore.

This could be known as the Jane Campion dilemma, after the film’s talented, maddening director, who always gets caught thinking about how to swim to shore. Sometimes she swims to shore even when she’s not in the lake. At her best she is the absolute master of ritual, passion and restraint. At her worst, she is an over- decorator of temporarily fashionable received wisdom that doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the camera.

The referendum for this dilemma is the moment in The Piano when Holly Hunter takes the plunge overboard strapped to the sinking ivories. Even the film’s admirers must admit this is an overly poetic gesture that nearly takes the film down to Davy Jones’ Locker with it, redeemed only by the shockingly sudden revelation of her first words. And if you’ve seen the last half hour of Holy Smoke!, then you know … Holy Smoke!

With the immaculate Bright Star, Campion allows us for once to swim to the middle of the lake and not worry about the shore, to simply luxuriate in her story of passion and her quiet directorial ferocity. Bright Star finds her at her most relaxed, most charming, most intellectually subtle and most passionate.

The story of the three-year 19th Century love affair between Keats and his neighbor Fannie Brawne, Bright Star is foremost about wildly passionate love. But given Keats’ early death, it is not an easy story of love. If things don’t work, there’s no going back to the architect Mom likes. It’s love as mystical investment, as frightening as it can be joyous. It also relates what it is like to be loved so thoroughly as to inspire some of the English language’s greatest words.

But this is not Keats’ film but that of Brawne, and Bright Star is a tribute to seduction and the mystique of feminine beauty. I say tribute quite deliberately. While American films associate seduction with feminine threat, here it is viewed as the greatest inspiration. Keats’ obnoxious best friend Charles Brown might dismiss Fannie’s talent for lovely and colorful dressmaking as flirtation and frippery. But we are invited to see it as the maximization of feminine adornment and her natural power. She cannot match her lover’s words with a pen, so she does so with a needle. As she is the muse for Keats’ poetry, he becomes – first exuberantly and then poignantly – the muse for her own form of expression.

Ben Whishaw never once lets you doubt his Keats-ness, and when was the last time that Paul Schneider didn’t steal his scene? Fanny’s quest for substantive acceptance is particularly telling for Cornish, whose roles until this moment have consisted of lovely adornment. I’m still not sure this signals a great talent, as the necessary characterization is so restrained that it is hard to say. But she fits it like a long elegant violet glove.

The real stars are the astounding art direction, set design, and composition. It’s a melody of mise-en-scene, with all things in the picture working to one harmonious end, under the stunning control of Campion. What interests her most is the ritualization of passion, and the way that human beings tapdance about the edges of propriety to satisfy their desire. In this she shares concerns with Stanley Kubrick’s great Barry Lyndon (I’ve called The Piano “the female Barry Lyndon.”). But whereas Kubrick shapes his story in part into an anti-authoritarian polemic that reflects upon modernity, Campion invests deeply in the personal feeling, and simply makes you feel what it was like to be that person living in that place at that time.