Friday, August 28, 2009

Wasted Opportunities


SURVEILLANCE (Jennifer Lynch, 2009)
* (Has redeeming facet)

A quick accounting of the how I arrived at the star rating for this film, starting at the baseline of zero stars:
  • +1 star for featuring Bill Pullman in a lead role
  • +1 star for fine supporting turns, most surprisingly from French Stewart
  • +1 star for the thrown-away bits of dark humor and the refreshing brevity of the script
  • -2 stars for being a fucking pointless movie about serial killers
Writer-director Lynch and writer-actor Kent Harper set up a potential prairie pulp RASHOMON but forgo an examination of anything relating to human beings instead aiming for cheap thrills about made up (and resolutely non-allegorical) monsters. Phoniness isn't scary or thrilling. The film's a marked improvement over BOXING HELENA but serves no real purpose itself.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE (Neil LaBute, 2008)
0 stars (No redeeming facet)

I'll defend LaBute, the writer, as an important moral dramatist but in the films he directs based on others' material he tends to embody many of the criticisms (misanthropy, misogyny, humorlessness) which are unfairly leveled against his masterpieces of stage (bash, the shape of things) and screen (IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS).

There's a good film somewhere in the raw material of LAKEVIEW TERRACE: a nightmarish satire about class, generational, racial, and neighborly conflict. That film, though, lurks beneath what exists: a tedious drama about a young couple who move in next door to an unreflective asshole. As the asshole, Samuel L. Jackson suggests he's lost or given up the qualities of charm and humility that make his performance the only worthy element of PULP FICTION.

WATCHMEN (Zack Snyder, 2009)
* (Has redeeming facet)

Adapting Watchmen was likely a fool's errand for anyone (Though I wouldn't mind seeing what Wong Kar-Wai or Joe Dante would do with it.) so it should stand as something of a credit to the modestly talented Zack Snyder that he succeeds through the end of the credit sequence. Unfortunately, at that point 150 minutes of ponderous faithfulness to the parts of the book which were not excised remain.

The most successful sequence in the body of the film, largely taken from the book's fourth chapter, "Watchmaker," demonstrates, in sharp counter-point to the film's action sequences which, cumulatively and individually, fail to produce any plot momentum, that it is the characters' contemplative moments and the meta-narrative story-telling rather than the central plot involving masked avengers that propels the book and creates its lasting impact*. Stripped of the meta-narratives, the adaptation leaves only the thin line onto which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons hung the interesting bits.

*Personally preferring crime to fantasy, I rate From Hell higher but Watchmen was the first comic book to unlock the possibilities of the form for me.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Michael Clayton

MICHAEL CLAYTON (Tony Gilroy, 2007)
* (Has redeeming facet)

It's not my intention to turn what remains of this enterprise into a catalogue of a specific type of failure*, perhaps the most obvious signifier of white elephant art in contemporary cinema, the achronologically-told melodrama.

*Though it's easier to repeat myself than to complete and cohere my thoughts regarding why Judd Apatow and his proteges are better television writers than screenwriters, the similar structures and sympathies of the Coens' BURN AFTER READING and Roth's Indignation, or my notes for a second viewing of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.

It serves no positive purpose that I can discern to write a melodrama only to structure it in such a way as to drain the scenario of its drama. I assume the assumption is that we're too clever for that these days but if we're too clever for that, aren't we also too clever for shallow sophistries on the corrupting nature of modern, Western, upper class life? I'd rather a thousand barely competent but honest iterations of the vacuousness of TITANIC than another fundamentally dishonest attempt to hide a thriller behind an ineffectual cloak of would-be dramatic irony.

The only way to make these self-gratifying films about alienation, hypocrisy, and guilt compelling is to make the characters recognizably human and empathetic**. The refusal to give the audience this basic, human pleasure undermines the entire (assumed) effort to say something about life in general and the lives of these characters in particular.

**This something Neil LaBute does in his best efforts (bash, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, the shape of things) at dealing with the understanding that, in our contemporary world, we are still subject to the old world's judgment that we are all sinners. Tony Gilroy, in MICHAEL CLAYTON, prefers a flattering omniscience and a light sprinkling of mysticism. (Even Tom Wilkinson can't redeem the fooferaw about madness revealing the truth those of us in the real, grounded worlds can't see, man.) The former is considered misanthropic yet the easy judgments of the latter classify as "adult." Who has made the perceptive film(s) about the contemporary world again?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wes Anderson: The Substance of Style

A five-part video essay written, narrated, and edited by the critic and filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz.

Part 1: Charles Schulz, Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut
Part 2: Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester, Mike Nichols
Part 3: Hal Ashby
Part 4: JD Salinger
Part 5: The prologue to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, annotated

This is essential both for those with an interest in Anderson and a possible way forward for film criticism. Hell, it's so good I'm willing to reconsider THE GRADUATE.


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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

* (Has redeeming facet)

There's some good acting on display in certain scenes but that's all it is: on display. Lumet hasn't suddenly developed any technique in his ninth decade. His work functions as perhaps the exact inverse of Pauline Kael's compliment of the young Spielberg (I paraphrase, away from my library): "It's like he's never seen a play." The staginess of Lumet's direction is arguably even sub-theatrical never having progressed beyond his live television roots. Some theatricality would liven things up.

Lumet's limitations don't sink a script on the level of Chayefsky's for NETWORK but with a dull script such as Kelly Masterson's for BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, the viewer is left with lots of time to consider how little Lumet adds to the proceedings. Masterson's script suffers from the same fundamental flaw as Gulliermo Arriaga's script for Inarritu's 21 GRAMS: achronological storytelling and melodrama do not mix. In both films, gifted actors wear themselves out playing the emotion of moments that are jumbled up and studied by filmmakers and audience rather than felt. That BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD fails to use its achronological structure to reveal more about the characters rather than just jump around in time and perspective, the choice to release the tension every reel or so rather than let the would-be tragedy build baffles. The underlying melodramatic scenarios of both scripts might have been sufficient to propel a fairly successful film but the makers' hubris or lack of self-knowledge precluded either effort from achieving even a basic level of effectiveness.

Because their characters are denied an emotional arc, neither Philip Seymour Hoffman nor Ethan Hawke make a significant impression despite giving what are probably, in and of themselves, effective performances. Still they do better than the thoroughly overqualified Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Rosemary Harris who have little to play in the first place. The only actors who emerge unscathed are those in bit roles who aren't sabotaged by the screenplay's structure. Thus I'm primarily left with the memory of Brian F. O'Byrne and Michael Shannon's quickly sketched criminals.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

The Osterman Weekend

THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (Sam Peckinpah, 1983)
*** (A must-see)

Both a late entry in the '70s paranoia pantheon and an early-'80s greed-and-coke social satire , Peckinpah's final film is both about and indicative of madness and substance abuse. It would make a fine lower-half of the bill on a double feature with VIDEODROME. Though THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND is the lesser film I don't think it would suffer in comparison to VIDEODROME as the impulsive nature of Peckinpah's technique here would serve as an interesting counterpoint to Cronenberg's absolute control.

The film reveals its capacity for surprising sublimity in an early, sparsely motivated car chase sequence; one which likely serves as an action set-piece for convention's sake in both novel and screenplay but is transformed into something that transcends plot* contrivance to express Peckinpah's thoughts on montage. It's an effectively visceral rather than an intellectualized exercise.

No, it's not an exercise at all.

In this sequence, Peckinpah shows us a possibility of cinema because he has to. We're fortunate that he did so even as I suspect that the psychic toll, in whatever condition he was in and under whatever influence held sway over him when he cut that sequence together, to make that section of the film, at least, for himself in opposition to enemies real and imagined equally informed his direction of Helen Shaver in her chilling performance of an addict who breaks completely under serious stress.

*The volume of plot in this story is the equal of Peckinpah's disinterest in plot. The story just serves as an excuse to riff on the power relationships between people or between the individual and institutions.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Brian DePalma

I could (and at some point might) turn this blog into a prolonged examination of this body of work. In the interests of time, both my own and yours, I'm keeping it simple. For now. Even if I don't expand on these ratings in the short term, I will monitor the comments and make applicable explanations or clarifications as warranted. Longer reviews of the first and last film on this list are available by clicking on the links embedded in their respective titles.

**** (masterpiece)
HI, MOM! (1970) (buy)
THE FURY (1978) (buy)
BLOW OUT (1981) (buy)
CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989) (buy)
FEMME FATALE (2002) (buy)

*** (a must-see)
SISTERS (1973) (buy)
CARRIE (1976) (buy)
DRESSED TO KILL (1980) (buy)
CARLITO'S WAY (1993) (buy)
MISSION TO MARS (2000) (buy)

** (worth seeing)
GREETINGS (1968) (buy)
HOME MOVIES (1980) (buy)
RAISING CAIN (1992) (buy)
SNAKE EYES (1998) (buy)

* (has redeeming facet)
OBSESSION (1976) (buy)
SCARFACE (1983) (buy)
BODY DOUBLE (1984) (buy)
THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006) (buy)
REDACTED (2007) (buy)

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008


REDACTED (Brian DePalma, 2007)
* (Has redeeming facet)

With the possible exception of the poorly remembered (poor both in terms of the specificity of my recollections and my recollections of its quality) WISE GUYS, I can't think of another film wherein DePalma thoroughly denied his own talents. By choosing to tell this story through the media lenses of non-filmmakers and less-talented filmmakers, DePalma drains REDACTED of any of the cinematic virtues typical to even his most middling films, seems satisfied with a mise-en-scene cribbed from undergraduate acting classes, and replaces his typically all-encompassing wit with angry, simple ironies.

All one is left with (beyond frustration) is the clarity that DePalma's anger is real (and not exploitative) but, in this neutered presentation, to no real effect. It's inexplicable that he appears to have mislaid the felicity with which he typically incorporates multiple points of view into his films without sublimating his gifts. It's as depressing to consider how much more of DePalma was in his work-for-hire on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or the immature and misguided OBSESSION than in this undeniably personal film as it is to consider how much more media attention attended the release of this, the worst film in 20+ years from America's greatest living filmmaker, than welcomed the release of his genuinely accomplished and moving diptych on life and art: MISSION TO MARS and FEMME FATALE. Skip REDACTED and watch one or both of those films again or for the first time.

Mentioned in this review...

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Monday, October 06, 2008

American Gangster

AMERICAN GANGSTER (Ridley Scott, 2007)
* (Has redeeming facet)

AMERICAN GANGSTER demonstrates the limits of competency. There's story enough to carry a film of this length (156 minutes) but Steven Zaillian's script pushes subtlety to the point of imprecision. Each member of the excellent cast is overqualified for their role. Neither Denzel Washington nor Russell Crowe gets to transform his character into a recognizable human being so the film's drama (such as it is) is neither procedural nor character-driven. I found myself ample time to consider the cost of securing period cars for the street scenes versus inserting the cars digitally in post-production.

Top supporting actors Josh Brolin (the dirty cop), Chiwetel Ejiofor (the kingpin's weak family member), Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Idris Elba (flashy pretenders to the throne) are especially stranded playing archetypes. The film would be incoherent without the tradition of American gangster films and after the stories of Michael Corleone, Ace Rothstein, and Avon Barksdale this film is exposed as an empty, lumbering vessel that leaves one trying to remember why Ridley Scott ever had a reputation for making visually interesting films.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Recent Links of Potential Interest

The first in a series of recurring posts drawing attention to things I found to be worth reading...

1. The House Next Door is reprinting articles from the late 24LiesASecond. The second paragraph of the first offering gives an example of how to make sure I read your essay in its entirety:
Through persistence and longevity De Palma has created a body of work that is as moody and recalcitrant as it is aesthetically unassailable. The intensity and perceptivity of his works insures that a discussion of De Palma's films is not merely a discussion of cinema but a discourse on the dynamics of human nature and our national psyche.
Though, really, the essay's title: Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian DePalma, was enough for me.

2. David Foster Wallace, RIP. Sad, sad news. Here's an example of why he will be missed by a person who never met him: David Lynch Keep His Head (Premiere Magazine, Septemeber 1996).

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008


SHORTBUS (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006)
not rated

Not rated as I didn't make it past the revelation that the film's (I'm assuming) central character (Sook-Yin Lee) was introduced as an acrobatic, enthusiastic sex partner, a couples counselor, and a sex therapist but had (gasp!) never, ever had an orgasm herself. It was a cheap reversal worthy of an Alan Ball script (I didn't make it through the True Blood pilot either, though I made less of an effort to do so in that case.) and killed what little interest I still had in the second film from the maker of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. (That film's unappealing amateurishness kept me from finishing it as well despite my fondness for the show's songs).

My sole reason for writing about this film is that I learned the following: When you cast actors on the basis of their willingness to perform sexually graphic scenes, all of their insecurity as performers gets channeled into the other scenes. They earn my sympathy as fairly inexperienced film actors--game, but stranded--working for a not-especially-talented writer/director.

I'm sure my reaction has much to do with how they expose themselves in the film's opening sequence. I thought it interesting how so quickly I felt for them something distinctly different than the sorrow and pity I project onto actors in pornographic films. I saw nothing that makes me think I missed out a good performance by turning the film off but I'd be happy to be mistaken or even to know that any or all of these actors develop their talent such that it matches their effort.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Pineapple Express

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (David Gordon Green, 2008)
** (Worth seeing)

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is funny but ultimately disappointing. And disappointing in what is ultimately a fairly unpleasant way: using anonymous, disposable Asians to choreograph an empty, violent third act shootout that undermines the better part of the film's effort to populate an action comedy with recognizable human beings. It's not that I think those involved lacked the courage of their convictions--the parts of the film that suceed do so quite consciously--rather that they failed to keep things weird through and through. Unable to work out the denouement for the plot thread on which they've strung many a delightful scene, they fall back on the inhumane source material they've thus far endeavored to transcend.

I think part of the problem lies in how producer Judd Apatow's particular gifts don't translate especially well from television to the movies. What was great about Freaks and Geeks and (perhaps, more importantly since we're specifically talking about commercial comedies) Undeclared revealed itself through both series' open-endedness and how story developed through incident and character rather than plot. THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP both succeed (to the degree that they do) as films in that their resepctive premises are strong enough to support a long film despite the makers' disinterest or lack of aptitude with regard to plot. As cinema, there's little one can say for either beyond that every shot appears to be in focus. Their truths are delivered via improvisation and ensemble performance rather than mise-en-scene or montage.*

*Which reminds me, I'd like to see an Apatow/LaBute collaboration. It could be the callow, young male equivalent of Spielberg and Kubrick's A.I. with Apatow providing emotional connection and LaBute the moral ideas.

With this film David Gordon Green joins Jake Kasdan and Greg Mottola as one who has failed to make a film under Apatow's auspices that has much in common with their great debut films. I've enjoyed each of Apatow's productions but I would trade them all for any one of GEORGE WASHINGTON, ZERO EFFECT, or THE DAYTRIPPERS. Still, none of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, WALK HARD, or SUPERBAD represents a personal filmmaker going so far off the rails as Linklater's dreadful FAST FOOD NATION.

The script's failings aren't far removed from its successes. One wishes Green would have invested himself to make this film as weird an action comedy as ALL THE REAL GIRLS (another watchable and not bad film one wishes were as good as its best moments) was a romantic comedy. Though one has sympathy for young men succumbing to temptation given the opportunity to blow stuff up real good.

Had someone encouraged Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to keep the Asian rivals to Gary Cole's drug enterprise off-screen and kept Rogen and James Franco's characters at the center of this film but on the fringes of the plot elements that precipitate their exodus the film could have done what it does best for its entire running time. Similarly, Rogen's girlfriend is used fairly well even if only to fill in his character** and Ed Begley Jr.'s cameo is quite amusing. However, once she's isolated from Rogen, her character falls away to no real consequence.

**These are young men's films to be sure. The limitations implicit in that are not simply the faults of the young men making these films. Though I'd like to see Apatow use his current influence to produce films made by women, he's far from the only man failing in this regard and many of those who are similarly failing don't make films as engaing as Apatow's.

Certainly PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is a cut above SUPERBAD (which quite clearly betrayed its adolescent beginnings) both in terms of craft and emotional maturity. Both Rogen/Goldberg scripts are very identifiably written by young men and, though charming, more about movie fantasies than life. If experience and confidence encourage them to develop their craft, I could envision them writing something equal to CALIFORNIA SPLIT. They're very good wtih character and dialogue. As mixed as my feelings are about SUPERBAD and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, Michael Cera's performance in the former and Franco and Danny McBride's work in the latter is to be cherished.

I still think the best film Apatow has produced in the wake of THE 40-YEAR-OLD-VIRGIN's success is the one most tangential to his gifted repetory company: Kasdan's THE TV SET. That film, portrait of both Kasdan and his TV mentor Apatow, is still a minor film compared to ZERO EFFECT. (Though one can't overvalue the joy of a (sadly) rarely glimpsed these days good performance from Duchovny.) Bear in mind I still haven't seen FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL.

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Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

* (Has redeeming facet)

Park Chan-Wook musters vengeance but he can't manage to create tragedy. Thus, we're left with a juvenile film that contains some breathtaking compositions (mostly in the first half) and some tediously graphic but undisturbing violence (most of the second half). Still, the film's conclusion lingers with me.

SPOILER ALERT: The following will deal almost entirely with the absolute end of the film.

Briefly summarizing...the film's aggressively unlikable female lead is assumed to be a poseur of a revolutionary. Her seemingly delusional promise to the film's second Mr. Vengeance that her death at his hands will be avenged by her fellow revolutionaries brings something approaching poignancy to a scene of torture. Turns out, at film's end that she was telling him the truth and her heretofore off-camera comrades show up out of nowhere to avenge her death. Their arrival is staged after the Coens. It is obvious they are who she said they'd be. Park still replays her promise of vengeance in voiceover.

I do not think this is because he thinks it's unclear who is committing the film's final act of violence. I think it's extremely important to Park that Yeong-mi was being honest when she told her torturer that he would killed in retribution for killing her. I believe Park thinks he is making a moral point--either that violence underpinned by honesty contains a germ of fairness or that we rationalize our destructive actions from a germ of honest, straight-forward interpersonal exchanges. I can't decide if Park is horribly misguided or plain horrible, and, despite concluding an intermittently interesting but essentially marginal film, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the import I imagine that voiceover has for him.

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The Driver

THE DRIVER (Walter Hill, 1978)
* (Has redeeming facet)

The car chases are magnificent but the rest of the film is so flat as to make you unduly aware that the car chases are the reason for the film's existence. If the demonstrated proficiency in filming action made Walter Hill's subsequent career possible the film possesses extratextual value. Even then, I can only recommend watching this to Hill completists and car chase aficionados.

Ryan O'Neal's (as The Driver) willingness to completely surrender to the circumstances allows him to hold the screen during the interminable, static non-driving scenes. Bruce Dern (as The Detective) fights the script's gutter nihilism. The script wins as his obvious effort makes no meaningful impact.

Some of the supporting actors: Ronee Blakley (as The Connection), Joseph Walsh (as Glasses), and Rudy Ramos (as Teeth) are able to make something more of their bit parts.

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John Dahl

Capsule reviews of John Dahl's films after the jump...

** (Worth seeing)

Dahl co-scripted this genre debut and directed without an ounce of pretension. The last time Val Kilmer engendered empathy. After TOP SECRET!, REAL GENIUS, and this film (Dahl's debut) who would have thought that he would, in the future, only make an impression in stunt-performances (THE DOORS, ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, THE SALTON SEA) or embodying the withdrawn and perversely professional (TOMBSTONE, HEAT, SPARTAN). Kilmer shares the screen with an excellent Michael Madsen.

*** (A must-see)

A paragon of genre filmmaking that has aged well. The previous may be a thoroughly redundant sentence. The only things that make one nostalgic watching this film are Nicolas Cage's effective performance and the presence of the late JT Walsh.

** (Worth seeing)

Linda Fiorentino's performance is justly praised but for too much of the film she runs roughshod over poor Peter Berg. The lasting impression is of Fiorentino matched against Bill Pullman's desperate, resourceful, and crooked doctor. Pullman's overmatched, too, but the deck's not so stacked against his character as it is against Berg's.

** (Worth seeing)

Time has further helped recognize that the relative response to THE LAST SEDUCTION and this film were completely out of whack. The former wasn't nearly as good as common consensus would have you believe and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this film if you're willing to give Dahl the freedom to inject a little science-fiction into his genre sketchbook. Ray Liotta is excellent and Dahl continues to give myriad supporting actors room to breathe.

* (Has redeeming facet)

Edwards Norton and Matt Damon do good work but to no real purpose for a film that started the slow burn of the poker fad, and, much more briefly made a vogue of screenwriters David Levein and Brian Koppleman's shallow, hand-me-down contemporary crime scenarios. In no way is this recognizably a film by John Dahl. Miramax produced so perhaps it truly is not.

JOY RIDE (2001)
*** (A must-see)

This is a genuinely excellent film. It works as a thriller, a car chase film, and a rare example of effective satire of middle-class entitlement. Pranksters Steve Zahn and Paul Walker discover that their actions have consequences. Not that those consequences are proportionate to the gravity of the mugging they engineer. The terribly damaging assumption that consequences should not be expected (or how they manifest themselves can be predicted) resonates more powerfully as this decade ends than it did at its dawn.

The DVD is especially recommended as it thoroughly and engagingly documents how the film was made.


YOU KILL ME (2007)
** (Worth seeing)

Referred to in this post:

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You Kill Me

YOU KILL ME (John Dahl, 20007)
** (Worth seeing)

It could well be an auterist/apologist projecting his own reservations about the picture but Dahl seems completely uninterested in the genre components of this film. Dennis Farina and Philip Baker Hall gain no traction in the Buffalo-set gangster scenes. I assume Dahl couldn't resist the premise: alcoholic hit man forced into rehab because his drinking affects his ability to kill professionally.

This vein of recovery for immoral purposes remains more suggestive than fully realized--a testament to the actors populating the San Francisco-set recovery scenes transcending the modest script. One watches this film for Ben Kingsley essaying a criminal that can stand alongside his Don Logan in SEXY BEAST, for Tea Leoni having some room to flail expertly, for what Bill Pullman can spin, and for the increasingly rare chance to see Luke Wilson display his capability for manifesting decency.

That Kinglsey and Leoni repeatedly walk backward down San Francisco's steep hills in the belief that it's good for you aptly analogizes Dahl's relationship to the material.

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Welcome/Welcome Back

After a 33-month hiatus, Film Is A Battleground returns.

Issues #1-#20 are still indexed here.

New posts will appear irregularly as befits the presumably idiosyncratic content. My film watching is mostly catch as catch can these days. I do not expect to be either current or timely and whether my notes are thorough or superficial should not, in and of itself, be mistaken for my regard for the quality of the film(s) considered.

If you have any interest in keeping tabs on what will appear in this space, I suggest subscribing to one of the RSS feeds on the sidebar.


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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Film Is a Battleground #20 (Capote, Broken Flowers, Kings and Queen)

CAPOTE (in theaters)

CAPOTE (Bennett Miller, 2005)
* (Has redeeming facet)

There is no apparent reason for this film to exist other than the opportunity for Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Truman Capote. Hoffman’s excellent performance makes the film watchable but it’s not enough to make the film compelling.

The film, which focuses on the creation of Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, doesn’t lack for incident as it features four murders, two executions, several hearings, a trial, much bad behavior by Capote, the usurpation of his fame by his former assistant Harper Lee, and excerpts from the text of the resultant non-fiction novel itself.

Apparently, the reputation of In Cold Blood has diminished over the years. Capote’s reputation certainly has, in general, as he never completed another major work. (The film dutifully informs us of this in a closing title. I think the fact is intended to be revelatory, but as we’ve seen nothing of Capote’s writing process outside of the creation of In Cold Blood, the information has no particular emotional impact. Was it the difficulty of writing this book that finished him as a writer? His guilt over his exploitation of his subjects? Alcoholism?) We prefer having our major works come from major artists. Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee has, in her reticence, avoided some of the condescension the author of one great success receives, but still, there are those who argue that Capote actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, presumably in an attempt to conflate two major books into a single major career.

In Cold Blood scared the hell out of my when I read it years ago. I never feared monsters or spirits, the ineffably unseen. I feared random violence by human hands. The aimless sociopaths Dick Hickock and Perry Smith provided a concrete example of my imagined danger. In Cold Blood derives its power from the author’s empathy for the unhappy children who became the men who murdered the Clutter family. Capote demonstrates his empathy not by diminishing the senseless horror of the murders through explanation or excuse, but by unrelentingly documenting the empty aimlessness of Dick and Perry in their adult lives both before and after the murders.

CAPOTE needn’t have risen to the level of In Cold Blood to succeed. With In Cold Blood, Capote achieved his intention to write a new kind of book. I rather suspect the last context in which someone will make a new kind of film is in the dignified, Oscar-worthy branch of American cinema. The film falls apart because it attempts to focus on Capote’s exploitative treatment of Dick and Perry, especially his actions toward the latter. I don’t think it’s an indefensible choice to present the murders through the perspective of Capote acquiring the information via Perry’s self-serving description of the events. I do think that the film lacks the complexity to dramatize both Capote and Perry as unhappy children turned selfish, manipulative adults. The filmmakers may understand this failure of theirs, having inserted an otherwise superfluous scene of Capote visiting Perry’s sister wherein she warns Capote about Perry. In the very next seen, however, the filmmakers choose to represent Perry Smith simply as a patsy, a victim of Capote’s ambition.

BROKEN FLOWERS (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
** (Worth seeing)

Unlike INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, wherein the Coen brothers made a film that managed to be simultaneously impersonal and derivative of their own body of work, BROKEN FLOWERS is an honest, personal disappointment. It is unlikely that any film promising Bill Murray and Julie Delpy as lovers and Jeffrey Wright as Murray’s next door neighbor and best friend could live up to my fevered anticipation.

Jim Jarmusch’s body of work attempts to reveal the sublime through the companionship of particular people trying to connect while conversing elliptically and at cross-purposes. Unfortunately, the conversations between Murray’s character and the former lovers (Sharon Stone, Francis Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton) he seeks out fail to match the felicitous interplay established between John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni in DOWN BY LAW, the denizens of and visitors to Memphis in MYSTERY TRAIN, Benigni and Paolo Bonacelli in NIGHT ON EARTH, or the best episodes of COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. It’s only in the film’s final two-handed scene between Murray and Mark Webber that things begin to spark, teasing multiple, elastic meanings from the dialogue.

The film seems especially minor by insisting, far less successfully than Jarmusch’s masterpiece DEAD MAN and its thematic coda, GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI, that attempting to unravel or attempting to ignore the interconnectedness (explicitly categorized as clues by Wright’s character in this film) that produces both tragedy and serendipity in life is a fool’s errand which precludes enlightenment.

KINGS & QUEEN (Arnaud Desplechin, 2005)
** (Worth seeing)

Half a version of a 1950s Hollywood melodrama and half a highly-verbal male comedy in the manner of WC Fields or early Bill Murray, KINGS & QUEEN only occasionally overcomes its meta-cinematic inspiration. Partially Sirk-inspired rather than slavishly derivative of Sirk in the manner of Todd Haynes’s dreadful FAR FROM HEAVEN, this film manages to engage its characters as people rather than archetypes (an achievement greatly aided by the fine cast lead by Desplechin regulars Emanuelle Devos and Matheiu Amalric as well as the brilliant cinematographer Eric Gautier). When Desplechin succeeds, his characters’ emotional experiences gain weight from the film’s intellectual and artistic preoccupations.

Nowhere near the achievement of his masterpiece MY SEX LIFE (OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT) (the original French title quite accurately reversed the parenthetical clauses), Desplechin remains capable of achieving a rare, personal sublimity best exemplified in this film by its epilogue where Amalric takes his ex-wife’s son to a natural history museum in order to give the boy a rambling lesson on the meaning of life.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Film Is a Battleground #19 (Good Night, and Good Luck, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind)


GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (George Clooney, 2005)
*** (A must-see)

Despite being a docudrama in the full, compound sense of the word, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK demonstrates the same ability to transcend a dutiful representation of the facts as well as a love of filmmaking as Clooney’s fantasy-driven, Charlie Kaufman scripted debut, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND. In addition to continuing to demonstrate a fondness for in-camera effects, Clooney makes frequent use of overlapping dialogue, in the manner pioneered by Altman in the ‘70s, to ground the film’s action in the camaraderie of work. Unlike M*A*S*H, however, the tossed-off, dark humor of the comrades in this film is neither anachronistic nor strenuously anarchic. The wit of the chatter always serves to underline the pleasure and reward of working hard with people one enjoys and respects at a task that has value and import. The outstanding ensemble of actors gathered for the film (that the cast members are largely over-qualified for their roles, coupled with their obvious pleasure in their work, provides a meta-textual example of one of the film’s theses): Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, Ray Wise, Reed Diamond, Matt Ross, Alex Borstein, Rose Abdoo, and Tate Donovan all ably support David Strathairn’s commanding performance as Edward R. Murrow.

Though much has been made of the clear parallels Clooney and co-writer and producer Grant Heslov draw between the mainstream media’s passivity in the face of McCarthyism and the recent willingness to leave unexamined the various reasons articulated for first invading then occupying Iraq, the unabashed celebration of work is decidedly old-fashioned. Clooney and Heslov manage both to explicate lessons from the past which may be of value today and undermine any self-deluding notions of the exceptionalism of contemporary perfidy. Furthermore, Clooney and Heslov suggest that what we currently lack is not only a journalist of Murrow’s import and celebrity to question authority but also a demagogue as self-destructive as Senator McCarthy. It is not only those on the side of truth who draw lessons from the past.

** (Worth seeing)

Tim Burton is the most personal studio-financed, genre filmmaker to come along since DePalma. Though he lacks DePalma’s genius, Burton never fails to make the design and conception of his films compelling and emotionally immediate through a similar focus on artist surrogates alienated from establishment society.

DePalma places his surrogates in opposition to the corporate, political establishment whereas Burton (even in the weakly allegorical PLANET OF THE APES, the gently satirical MARS ATTACKS!, or when considering Christopher Walken’s evil magnate in BATMAN RETURNS) examines the limiting power of social and cultural pressures toward propriety.

At his best (in BATMAN RETURNS, SLEEPY HOLLOW, ED WOOD, and BIG FISH), a Burton hero, through experience, discovers a moral and intellectually satisfying synthesis between imagination and reason. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’s second-handedness (both from the book and the not very good 1971 film adaptation) keeps it from generating the power of Burton’s best films even though it demonstrates his talent for designing films felicitous to both the eye and the mind.

Most interestingly in the context of Burton’s body of work, is the addition of a backstory for Willie Wonka featuring a strict father who denies pleasure (candy) for rational reasons (healthy teeth and gums). This addition confirms Wonka rather than Charlie (whose nascent creativity and fascination with the older Wonka develops into a mentor-student relationship would fit with previous eponymous Burton heroes like Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood) as Burton’s artist surrogate. The backstory also excuses/encourages a highly mannered performance from Johnny Depp.

Depp’s performance has drawn criticism, especially in comparison to Gene Wilder’s performance in the 1971 film, but the criticism primarily derives from considering Depp’s performance in terms of extratextual preconceptions rather than in the context of the film. It’s odd that Burton, who cast the fantastic Freddie Highmore who more than holds his own alongside Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Noah Taylor, and David Kelly, restores the original title while maintaining the earlier adaptation’s focus on Wonka (which made perfect sense considering the talent gulf between Wilder and that film’s Charlie).

Burton’s greatest achievement in this film is to maintain Dahl’s focus on the importance of adult authority figures (usually parents, sometimes parent surrogates) on a child’s development. Many of Dahl’s child protagonists must escape from the limitations adults wish to place on them. Charlie, in contrast, draws strength from a family that remains supportive and loving despite their poverty. Wonka, in the film, runs away from home, rejecting his childhood. He then reinvents himself to erase his past. In Burton, Depp, and screenwriter John August’s conception Wonka is as artificial a creation as his candies and it’s only after he reconciles with his own father that he transforms from a stultifying adult authority figure for Charlie into a mentor and collaborator.

Unfortunately, the film as a whole is a more mixed bag. As impressively staged as each child’s (and by proxy each parent’s) comeuppance and the resultant Oompa Loompa production numbers are, they fail to engage to the degree that Depp and Highmore do.

*** (A must-see)

Like Julie Taymor’s FRIDA, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND fuels its narrative by dramatizing its subject’s creative imagination. Unlike, Frida Kahlo, Chuck Barros didn’t use his imagination to create great art but it’s because Barris created TV game shows and wrote the bizarre “unauthorized biography” on which Charlie Kaufman bases his screenplay that we don’t hold him or his life in awe as we do Frida Kahlo’s. By chronicling a life far less significant than Frida Kahlo’s, Clooney and Kaufman create a far superior film.

It’s Kahlo’s greatness as an artist and the vitality and importance of her life that limit the audience’s response to Taymor’s film which functions as a celebration of its subject. Despite the obvious technical triumphs through which Taymor celebrates her subject’s life there’s little room for interpretation. Kahlo’s art (and Taymor’s) engages the viewer immediately, but Taymor’s celebration of the art strands the audience in a state of passive admiration.

It’s impossible to admire Barris. The best feeling he could hope to engender from an audience is empathy. Thus, the audience remains alienated from Barris, both the man and the character. Rather than celebrate what he did (which would be groundless), Clooney and Kaufman examine why the adult Barris, the multi-millionaire celebrity he’d always dreamed of becoming, wrote a fantastical mea culpa. Clooney and Kaufman demonstrate the maturity both to treat Barris’s cartoonish fantasies as cartoonish fantasies and to treat his need to create these fantasies seriously. In doing so, they are able to present both the absurd humor of the fantasies and the sorrow from which the fantasies spring. Their greatest triumph is in doing the latter. It’s in Rutger Hauer’s melancholy rumination on why assassins do what they do and the film’s final shot of the real Chuck Barris’s face breaking into a smile that the film fully elevates itself above its source material.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Film Is a Battleground #18 (A History of Violence, Corpse Bride, Friday Night Lights, When Will I Be Loved)

CORPSE BRIDE (in theaters)

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (David Cronenberg, 2005)
* (Has redeeming facet)

October 2nd, 2005: For the first time in the near twenty-nine years of my life, I saw a bad David Cronenberg film. One might argue I should have seen it coming, that the widespread, mainstream support for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (especially when compared to the muted and/or hostile reaction that greeted his three previous masterpieces:
SPIDER, eXistenZ, and CRASH) might signal a lesser film rather than a greater enlightenment.

I think the relevant precedent is De Palma and
SCARFACE. Following the hostility which greeted the excellent DRESSED TO KILL and the relative disinterest which greeted his second masterpiece BLOW OUT, De Palma made SCARFACE. He received better-than-usual notices. Critics didn’t seem to mind the violence as long as it stayed segregated from sex and occurred within a terrifically dull film, or as Pauline Kael described it, “a De Palma film for people who don’t like De Palma films.”

So it is with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. One sits and watches the film, waiting for the sense of unease Cronenberg creates to transform into an epiphany. Unfortunately, scene after scene hints at the artificiality of the reality witnessed (as in eXistenZ and
VIDEODROME) or the depth of experience that exists within (as in THE DEAD ZONE and SPIDER) without ever developing the particular, peculiar, and meaningful dissociations which make Cronenberg’s body of work so substantial.

The film ends with no hidden layers revealed and one is left with the odd desire to see more of a film you didn’t like. After watching A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, I was ready for the Cronenberg film to start.

Postscript: It made me sad to talk walk out of a Cronenberg film so shallow and uninvolving. Waking up the next morning and learning that August Wilson had passed put that disappointment in perspective. There remains the hope that Cronenberg will go on to make another, better film. There will be no more August Wilson plays. The moral and intellectual rigor of his sublime and powerful art will remain both an example and an unattainable benchmark for many of us. Wilson was great and he was good. We are blessed to know his work.

CORPSE BRIDE (Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, 2005)
0 stars (No redeeming facet)

Watching CORPSE BRIDE, I failed to discern a reason for its existence. The film is not funny (those with a weakness for obvious, telegraphed puns might disagree). It lacks the manic anarchy that carried
MARS ATTACKS! The film is not scary (the villain’s identity is revealed in the first act). That there even is a stock villain makes this an atypically simple tale for a Tim Burton film. Even his less successful films create both tension and emotional empathy through external conflictions between and internal conflictions of misfits. Furthermore, Danny Elfman’s songs are every bit as middling as those he wrote for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY but the production numbers in this film don’t take up the slack.

WHEN WILL I BE LOVED (James Toback, 2004)
** (Worth seeing)

Half-fascinating and almost entirely absurd, Toback does well both by himself (though one wishes the sublime character he plays here, Professor of African-American Culture Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz, had appeared in the more successfull cultural satire
BLACK AND WHITE) and his latest young surrogate played by the fundamentally weird and compelling Fred Weller.

The film’s other half strands Neve Campbell and Dominic Chianese in a convoluted exploration of money, gender, age, sex, power, morality, and mortality that fails to engage with any of the issues it strenuously introduces.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (Peter Berg, 2004)
* (Has redeeming facet)

I’d rate the film above the
book, though I apparently liked the book less than everyone else. To me, it was the Moneyball of the late-‘80s, a well-written book driven by the author’s passion about a new-to-him idea. In both cases it appears that the relevant ideas (some communities take high school football too seriously, statistical analysis has a role in major league baseball) were new to a lot of people. Unfortunately for those of us who were not shocked by either premise, both Buzz Bissinger and Michael Lewis did a better job of inciting and expressing their passion than advancing any original ideas. I prefer Lewis’s book, but that’s just because I’m more interested in general managers than high school football teams.

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