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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford February 17, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 12 comments

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The American Old West has been mythologized to excess, especially the less-than-noble bandit criminals. Jesse James, then, would be the prince of these men, too often wrongly characterized as Robin Hood-like figures who were merely setting things “right.” James was popular enough to inspire numerous film versions in Hollywood’s classic period, including stabs by three of my very favorite directors - Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray. Of those trio of films, Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James most closely resembles Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford because it lets Ford share some of the action. Bob Ford would, no doubt, be delighted with the attention.

Growing up, I can vaguely remember rumors that Jesse James had at one time resided in my county. Though I’ve never seen any documentation of this, I suppose it’s not completely out of the question. James was almost nomadic in his paranoid compulsion to relocate for fear of being caught or, presumably, killed. Though he was largely lionized and celebrated as an enemy only to the wealthy, James was also a murderous thief who’d shoot anyone he had to. For decades, Hollywood has mostly preferred to focus on the Jesse James myth instead of reality, despite such misleading film titles like Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James. Unfortunately, the story there is whitewashed and it’s one of Ray’s most disappointing films from his highly fertile output of the 1950s. Robert Wagner is no one’s ideal of a notorious outlaw. There are flashes of a good movie in there, but it’s ridiculous to try and squeeze anything of substance about James into 92 minutes.

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The situation is similar with the earlier James films. Lang’s effort, The Return of Frank James, actually focused on Frank James following Jesse’s death and was a sequel to Henry King’s Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power. In many ways, they’re worse than the Ray film because they’re incredibly safe Hollywood fantasy. Slightly better is Fuller’s film, which places James as secondary to his killer Robert Ford and provides an interesting look at how shooting James affected Ford. Still, it was Fuller’s first directing job, and it’s mostly just a yarn, though not without merit. Since then, a few more Jesse James movies have popped up, though few with much of a profile. Walter Hill’s The Long Riders comes to mind, as does The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, directed by Philip Kaufman. The former had the neat trick of pairing real-life brothers with roles as outlaw siblings, casting Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the Fords, while the latter didn’t bother with Bob Ford at all.

Decades after Fuller and his less lofty ambitions scratched the surface, it took Dominik’s 2007 film to capture the essence of the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford. Here we have Brad Pitt giving a raw, but slightly reined-in performance as James, his fellow Missouri native and someone of equally ridiculous renown. Pitt has certainly been willing to peel away his movie star qualities before, in everything from 12 Monkeys and Snatch to Fight Club and Babel, but it’s exceedingly rare to see him as such a serpent like figure, and a boisterously arrogant one at that. His James is a coldblooded maniac who’s seemingly on the brink of losing his mind as a result of pent-up paranoia and godlike perception. Dime store books have described every detail of Jesse James, from eye color to height, and helped create a legion of acolytes.

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One of those admirers was Robert Ford, given a characterization for the ages by Casey Affleck here. Affleck has quietly become one of the most interesting actors of his generation, an observation confirmed by his equally good lead role in brother Ben’s Gone Baby Gone, also from last year. His casting here is absolutely perfect. Having Pitt the movie star as the larger than life James and putting an on-the-brink Affleck as a sycophant who lays in wait was a brilliant stroke of serendipity. Affleck makes some bold choices as Ford, turning him into a creepily off-center idolater who somehow ends up both sad and sympathetic. The real beauty in the performance is revealed over the film’s 160-minute running time, as Ford evolves from a bright-eyed wannabe, into an angry punk, and, finally, as a disappointed antihero who’s fulfilled his destiny of the title without attaining the glamour he wrongheadedly thought would go with it.

In the film’s last twenty minutes, it shows its stripes as being more concerned with the effects, before and after the fact, of celebrity worship than anything normally associated with traditional westerns. This isn’t a movie interested in gunfights and galloping horses. There are roots spread out across John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but the late 19th century time period is less a convenient excuse for comparison than an opportunity to portray the West as an early instance of false heroes built from ink on paper. We’ll defend our idols through every criticism and digest and collect each little piece of information we can find, but once the tides have turned, things can get extremely ugly.

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There’s plenty more to glean from Dominik’s film, though. It certainly looks beautiful, thanks to Roger Deakins’ usually brilliant cinematography (earning an Oscar nomination this year where’s he up against, among others, himself, for No Country for Old Men). Even if it doesn’t really feel like Days of Heaven, many of the scenes resemble Terrence Malick’s film on an aesthetic level. The pacing is incredibly languid, but dreamy enough to never drag and actually lends itself to an even longer version. This is absolutely not a film filled with overly long takes of nature. I think it’s fair to call it a little bloated, but not in the sense of too many artfully crafted scenes. The story unfolds deliberately, maybe even to a fault, with a narrative more in the style of a novel’s chapters than simply allowing events to occur naturally, one after the other. A voiceover narration further adds to this approach, and helps maintain the film’s desired elegiac tone.

It does feel a little like you’re turning the pages of a book while watching the film, but I wouldn’t say this particularly bothered me. The performances, the camera work, and the well-explored underlying themes of celebrity, paranoia, and betrayal are all reason enough to set aside any lingering concerns. I don’t particularly think this fits the normal definition of a Western, though enthusiasts of that genre will hopefully still take something of value away from the film. It’s more of a Mafia drama with horses, and Brad Pitt is the obvious don. He’s a man with all the power, surrounded by underlings he can’t trust, and willing to establish his dominance through violent force against those who betray him. The only thing I have difficulty buying is how the title act is presented. That aside, the remainder of the film is as strong or stronger as anything that comes before, and, using some of the best parts found in Fuller’s version, Dominik establishes a nearly perfect epilogue. The mythology of Jesse James’ death turns into the proverbial “be careful what you wish for,” and Robert Ford has to endure the fate he’s created for himself, assassinating Jesse James 800 times before facing the cruel destiny of history repeating itself.

Michael Clayton December 1, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 3 comments

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Admittedly, this is not a traditional review at all. I saw Michael Clayton a couple of weeks ago, in a small theater on an otherwise uninteresting day. I was anxious to watch it, based on positive reviews, George Clooney’s usual dramatic competence, and writer/director Tony Gilroy’s impressive screenwriting work on the Bourne films. It didn’t blow me away though. Far from flashy or calling attention to itself, Gilroy’s directorial debut plays like a highly competent legal thriller. Yet, it sneaks up on you. I’ve seen nearly every lawyer-related movie I know of, but this was a refreshingly different approach. No courtrooms, no cases really. Clooney’s Michael Clayton character is a lawyer in name and title only. He describes himself as a janitor, someone who fixes the problems of the rich.

This is apt, too. The character is incredibly weary, worn like a reliable pair of pants bought years ago. The story is told in a present-flashback-present mode that too often feels gimmicky, but completely works here. We don’t see what Clayton was or did before the events in the film, but Clooney’s performance and Gilroy’s contribution tell us absolutely everything. It’s stunning how accomplished and effortlessly the backstories stand out here. Anything we need to know about what Michael Clayton has done previously is completely contained within Clooney. The diversionary false lead we’re given, where Clayton visits a wealthy hit-and-run proponent in the middle of the night, works incredibly well the second time around. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another movie where the before-and-after device is used to better effect.

The most surprising thing here isn’t that the movie works, it’s that it really sticks as an affecting, memorable look at corporate malfeasance. I’ve been trying to catch up and voraciously watch the “big” fall movies and few, if any, have made an impact like Michael Clayton. It’s absolutely solid movie-making, on par with the best of the genre films Hollywood put out in the 1970s. Yet, because it is so enmeshed in conventional storytelling and limited ambition, I think it’s easy to overlook the film initially. There’s little that stands out while you’re watching the movie. Frequently, I’ll find myself completely enthralled in a film’s plot, dying to know what’s going to happen, only to end up shedding any lasting memory of it hours later. By total contrast, Gilroy’s film has burrowed its way inside my head while others have long since fallen by the wayside.

A huge part of this is due to the ending (I won’t spoil it, don’t worry). I don’t think there’s been a more fitting finale all year. I’m generally not great with endings. I don’t always remember them and, unless they pull the rug out from under the rest of the movie, I often fail to place any additional emphasis on the last few minutes than what I’d been watching the previous couple of hours. Michael Clayton is different somehow. So completely satisfying, so mysteriously uncertain, it’s nearly perfect. Not only does the film’s plot circle around to an entirely appropriate finish, but the final shots are likewise without flaw. As the credits roll, the images remain mesmerizing. Clooney is magnetic. I feel like Gilroy may have lifted this particular idea from something else, but I don’t know what it was and I’m not sure it would have worked as well anyway. If he didn’t, then I’m even more impressed.

The Clayton character is far from admirable and refreshingly without total redemption, but he’s the best we’ve got and that’ll have to do. I’m just so happy that a studio movie like this could be made today, where everything is murky and no one’s perfect. If my reactions are based on heart and gut more than other, more sophisticated senses then so be it. I think this is one of the best films in recent memory and it’s possibly the only movie this year where my opinion has elevated as time has passed instead of falling into the ether. Anyone watching the film should stay for the entirety of the main credits and fix their eyes on Clooney’s performance to see one of the best examples of nonverbal acting this year.  Up to this point in his career, it’s the actor’s signature role.

Through a Year Darkly November 13, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 6 comments

The paths taken by Hollywood films this year have caused even my half-charcoal heart to skip a few beats. I usually relish a trip to the seediest parts of tinseltown, but 2007 has been unrelenting in its explorations of evil. This isn’t about the foolish “torture porn” that’s swept in and out of theaters and teenage boys’ heads these past few years. I’m talking about the serious and acclaimed R-rated adult fare. You only need to have one eye opened halfway to see the mess and frustration in the United States so the starting point is a bit obvious. The depths, though, are unexpectedly dark and unforgiving. Week after week these past couple of months, a new, incredibly well-made and horrifically depressing movie seems to open.

Obviously, these types of films are far from new. Just last year, Martin Scorsese’s violent, even nihilistic, film The Departed cleaned up at the box office and won Best Picture at the Oscars. But it’s the frequency of the downbeat and deadened that has gotten my attention lately. I believe the first 2007 film I saw was David Fincher’s serial killer procedural Zodiac, a terrifically engrossing look at the depths of obsession and the unresolved strands it often leaves behind. Even for Fincher’s head-in-a-box reputation, Zodiac is decidedly upsetting and without comfort. A vicious murderer terrorizes a city without facing punishment while lives are ruined trying to pursue him. No resolution, no smiles leaving the theater. Fincher’s insistence on making the audience share the uncomfortable and frustrating process of trying to catch a serial killer who shouldn’t reasonably possess the intelligence to elude everyone involved resulted in a 158-minute exercise in endurance that most audiences declined.

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Cut to a few months and numerous blockbuster sequels later. Jodie Foster took justice into her own hands in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One. A crowd-pleasing vigilante justice/female empowerment picture or a hamfisted attempt to shed light on a nation’s post 9/11 fears towards a phantom enemy? Next, Jesse James was assassinated to great reviews, but, again, no one came (though Warner Bros. can partially blame themselves here). Released the same day, a young man of upper middle-class wealth and privilege abandons his charmed life for a quixotic (and doomed) life in the wild. More death. At least a trio of films critical of the current administration and the United States’ involvement in the middle east also foundered at the box office. I’ll hold judgment on their merits and their messages until I’ve seen them (if I do at all). I’m pretty confident that uplifting would not describe In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, or Lions for Lambs though.

For sheer unfiltered violence, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises probably takes the blood-stained cake. The much-ballyhooed bathhouse sequence left me literally nauseous, a combination of sustained struggle leaving us nowhere to escape and visceral stabbings that shatter the safety glass usually enjoyed by the audience. It has a semi-happy ending, but the ultimate message is far from consoling for the thoughtful viewer. Mouthbreathing Videodrome nerds struggle with the idea that a 64-year-old Cronenberg has forked off into studio-financed “mainstream” efforts back-to-back now, but Eastern Promises feels about as uncompromising in its ideas on the saturation of violence as anything I’ve seen this year, save for maybe a masterpiece of a film that I’ll get to in a bit.

There are three more “dark” films that I’m anxious to see, but haven’t made time for just yet. Michael Clayton, which might be downright saccharine compared to the other films I’ve discussed, We Own the Night and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead all appear to be decidedly black tales of greed, circumstance, and the perils of criminal behavior. A film I have seen and one I enjoyed a whole lot, Gone Baby Gone is another excellent peek behind a corner Hollywood has long avoided. Ben Affleck made a conscious decision to utilize the harsh faces and alcohol-bruised bodies of a tough Boston neighborhood for his directorial debut. His star and brother, Casey Affleck, is a green private investigator treading water in a kidnapping case. He refuses to sacrifice his ideals, but, as always, at a cost. There’s a scene of harrowing realism that deserves its own award, in some undetermined and likely undervalued category.

Darkly pretending to belong to my invented criteria is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Audiences are eating up the cop versus drug lord “true” story, but it’s an empty film with a gossamer-thin impact. There’s the deplorable glamorization of Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas character, given a child safety cap flipside by depicting a stray scene of heroin abuse here and there to, you know, show that the guy who’s built up as cool and rich is really hurting his community. It’s also a film that, despite running over 2 1/2 hours, manages to feel incomplete in characterization and plot. Incredibly messy, disingenuous, and damaging, American Gangster is only depressing if you look at its giant box office take.

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Deceptively darker is Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Though no one else in their right mind would probably throw Baumbach’s film in the cage with these other bloodthirsty beasts, it’s actually quite violent emotionally, only made less so by the realization that most viewers will find difficulty relating to any of the characters on screen despite their actions at least feeling plausible. Like his New Wave heroes, Baumbach makes films about upper-middle class white people with damaging problems and populates them with characters you want to wash off your skin immediately after the credits. Nicole Kidman’s Margot is a malignant disease of a woman, brought to life in a brave, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard performance that’s a career highlight. Despite the artificiality of Baumbach’s situations, his characters are brilliantly-sketched train wrecks and Margot is the queen.

And what was that masterpiece mentioned earlier? The Coen Brothers’ Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men. It’s far and away the most disheartening and pessimistic film I’ve seen this year, on par with anything else I can think of, and the best of this dark bunch. Javier Bardem’s dead eyes seem to represent evil personified. The film argues persuasively for the idea that darkness, evil, whatever you want to call it, is undeniable and a harrowing fact of life. Death is inevitable and, echoing themes explored repeatedly in film noir, fate can be cruel and unsparing. Whatever life has in store for us will happen, whether it involves a gesture of kindness or an act motivated by greed. One thing need not follow the next. I keep reading that this film will be looked upon favorably at awards time, and I hope that’s the case. I’m skeptical for now, though, because it’s highly unsettling and a crowd pleaser only in the sense that it’s a great film that keeps you riveted throughout. A minor spoiler, but the suddenness of the ending will leave many viewers cold as well, at least on a first viewing.

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There are at least a couple more defiantly bleak films still on the horizon, both ready to strike right around Christmas. Hopefully I’ll have recovered a bit from all this cinematic rot and ruin by the time Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd film hit theaters. The former stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a turn-of-the-century oil man who, judging from the brutal trailer, is far from a nice guy. Early reviews have been near-unanimous in praise and in mentioning how difficult and downbeat the film is. Burton’s movie stars Johnny Depp as a serial killer barber and it’s at least partially a musical. Most of Burton’s film have that macabre, but shallow flair that I still enjoy. They’re usually more shiny black than starkly so. Then again, Burton may deliver a depressing bloodbath to keep ahead of the curve.

I’m sure I’m leaving a few things out and this is not my way of making a statement against these films, nor am I claiming to be the only one noticing the trend. There’s just so much I can watch before slowly taking a step back and wondering what’s going on. When nearly every movie I walk out of the theater from has managed to suck the marrow from my bones and inspire a heightened sense of unease, it starts to take a toll. Without going too far, I have to wonder if this borderline apocalyptic view of the world repeatedly being reflected from the screen is a fitting interpretation of our times or just a wrinkle that will be ironed out with a new year and a new crop of films. Are we getting what we deserve, or have things gotten off-kilter? These days, these days.

The Darjeeling Limited September 30, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 1 comment so far

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Sometimes I can understand how films polarize movie fans (the work of Quentin Tarantino) and sometimes I can’t (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, for example). Right now, with his new film The Darjeeling Limited just opening the New York Film Festival, Wes Anderson seems to be an auteur under fire, though more of the brush variety than a raging inferno. I can’t be objective any more than I can understand most of the criticism I read (which is substantial, and I keep looking at every review I find in search of some true rationale for the sneering). Anderson’s films are far and above those of any other American filmmaker from the same indie/post-indie generation. He has an unparalleled ability to craft unlikeable characters you want to spend time with, not just once but over and over again. Their failure expresses a very certain, specific emotion that feels at once real and imaginary. By repeatedly going to similar places of frustration and regret, Anderson somehow accomplishes a great deal of truth in such a highly imaginary world. These families of broken potential he explores tend to give audiences hope by trying to make things right. It’s always, always the journey in these films, since the destination has, so far, been of the same nature each time.

It seems the common source of attack for many of Anderson’s detractors concerns the director’s repeated use of a particular style - one in which Anderson himself has created and honed through five films now. Aside from the absurdity of criticizing a director for tweaking similar themes through similar devices, my real problem with this argument is that I don’t think it’s fair to view the world Anderson has so completely brought to life as comparative of the outside reality we face once we step into the street or away from our television sets. His films are a universe unto themselves, on par with the classic Walt Disney animated films or Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thrillers. Asking why Anderson enjoys using similarly troubled characters or devices like slow motion and perfectly placed classic pop songs is akin to complaining about the recurring murders and male-female relationships in Hitchcock’s films or little girl lost themes found in the animation of Disney’s features or those of Hayao Miyazaki.

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But I digress. The Darjeeling Limited. It’s a beautiful film of maturing sadness, pain, and grief - with laughs. Of course, that describes all of his films. Wes Anderson may love Wes Anderson films, but so do I, and I have no problem with that. The Darjeeling Limited is closer in most every way to The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s 2001 film for which he was nominated with co-writer Owen Wilson for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, than The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, his 2004 film deemed a disappointment commercially and critically. It’s also better than the latter (still underrated) film, if not quite up to the heights of the former. What both Darjeeling and Tenenbaums share, and what Life Aquatic lacked in comparison, are the tender details necessary to humanize Anderson’s eccentricities. The new film tones down the previous one’s comic book quirks and crowded ensemble and instead leaves us with just three lead characters who spend much of their time on a train.

That train is named The Darjeeling Limited and the three stars are Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, as the brothers Whitman who haven’t seen each other since their father’s funeral a year ago. Francis (Wilson) has organized a journey through India in search of a spiritual healing. He’s recently been involved in a severe motorcycle crash, leaving his face and head noticeably bruised and bandaged. Peter (Brody) seems to have taken the unexpected loss of their father the hardest and picked up several of the old man’s items for his own, including large prescription sunglasses. He’s also six weeks away from becoming a new father and unsure if his wife was really the right woman to spend his life with. Jack (Schwartzman) is struggling to get over a relationship gone bad, something explored further in Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier, which is available for free online but not currently showing theatrically with the feature.

For anyone wondering whether they should first watch Hotel Chevalier before seeing the new film, the answer is of course you should. There are two significant references to the short in the feature that will fly over those who haven’t seen it, as well as diminishing the seriousness of Jack’s troubles. Just seeing the film makes Jack appear depressed and odd, but seeing the short beforehand adds an important depth and understanding to his problems. The teaser I saw before the film started doesn’t help matters, directing audiences to hotelchevalier.com (which, in turn, directs visitors to iTunes) instead of just showing the 13-minute prologue. Not surprisingly, Darjeeling also adds some meaning to Hotel Chevalier and I found the short more impressive on reflection after having seen the feature than I had originally. The emotionally abusive nature of the relationship gains meaning when the viewer learns of Jack’s hang-ups both preceding and subsequent to the events in the short.

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In both Darjeeling and Tenenbaums, it’s the emotional blow dealt to the Anderson faithful that really strikes me. If you’re not affected by what the director has done in his previous films, then why even waste money to see his subsequent works or time grousing about them. It’s not a difference of opinion that I find tiresome. It’s the reiterations of the same criticisms without understanding that many, many people see a completely different allure to Anderson’s films, something the complainers apparently can’t appreciate. The Darjeeling Limited playfully bows to Anderson’s admirers in the film’s opening, teasing Bill Murray, making his fourth appearance for the director, and passing the slow-motion Kinks-scored baton to Adrien Brody catching up to the eponymous locomotive. Far from being overly cute in its self-reference, the scene instead assures audiences that yes, this is a Wes Anderson film, and indeed, this is the kind of movie he enjoys making. There’s a welcome evolution of maturity in the film, but also a refusal to completely change the things many viewers hold near and dear in Anderson’s style.

Aside from the usual moments of hilarity found in Anderson’s films (the rotating prescription strength painkillers are used to frequent and funny effect), I think the part of Darjeeling most people will enjoy and be moved by is when the three brothers happen upon a trio of young Indian boys transporting goods across the water. As the raft and boys struggle, the Whitmans finally bond by trying to save the three children against the strength of the current. The ordeal leads to the spiritual journey Francis had superficially been trying to accomplish all along, helping the brothers to regain their lives and let go of their dead father. These scenes, coupled with a visit to their mother’s convent, showcase Anderson’s masterful ability to alternate moods and feelings via sound (not just music, but silence also) and his deceptively simple dialogue.

“I guess I still have some healing left to do,” Francis says as he removes the bandages and looks at his blood-stained facial gashes in the mirror. If that doesn’t get you at least a little, especially given the added depth from Wilson’s recent personal problems, you’re a cold soul unable to appreciate what Anderson’s doing here and elsewhere. To borrow from a forum discussion I recently read, this line and moment in Darjeeling is the cousin of Tenenbaums‘ “I’ve had a rough year, dad.” Is this problematic? No more so than Disney’s happy endings or Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. All of these little aspects of the worlds Anderson magically creates in his films exist solely in the films. They’re parallel universes to our realities. I’m not sure if those with a negative opinion of Anderson fail to understand this concept or simply dislike the idea that someone dares to create a near-mythology separate from what’s found in most movies. It’s nothing new, though, as movies have quite obviously always been different and not representative of most people’s actual lives. That’s why their movies and that’s why so many people devote hours and hours of their lives to watching them.

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The Bourne Allegory: Matt Damon as the American Public August 21, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 6 comments

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Note: This discussion will contain spoilers for the films featuring Matt Damon as amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne, specifically the most recent installment The Bourne Ultimatum.

With the release of The Bourne Ultimatum, it appears that the final chapter in the movie life of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne has been written. Outstanding box office grosses may prove otherwise, but the protagonist’s quest at least feels complete by the end of Paul Greengrass’s action thriller. The three movies, including The Bourne Identity and its follow-up The Bourne Supremacy, have had an enormous impact on the action genre (witness Casino Royale), the revitalization of Matt Damon’s acting career, and the emergence of Greengrass as a director to pay attention to after he picked up where Doug Liman left off following the first film. They’re all supremely entertaining pictures, as good as any of their ilk this decade, but this last one opened my eyes to a fascinating political undercurrent that may breeze by or simply not interest the popcorn junkies.

The first film, directed by Liman and based on (but not entirely faithful to) the 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, was released in June of 2002, less than a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. At this time, the American people and even the world community were wounded, confused, and angry. An uneasy confidence loomed within the United States. The lingering sense of shock provided constant reminders that we were vulnerable, but our history and perseverance were sources of great, prosperous hope. The persons responsible would pay for what they had done, this horrible, undeserved jolt to the American livelihood.

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Similarly, in The Bourne Identity, the character of Jason Bourne, played with stoic efficiency by Matt Damon, is found in Mediterranean waters with two gunshot wounds and unable to remember anything about his past. This is an action hero easy to sympathize with, and, maybe, relate to for the American public. He’s been viciously attacked by persons unknown, but remains resilient and determined to get some answers. It becomes apparent that he’s been trained as a lethal warrior-soldier, fully equipped with the tools necessary to accomplish this new, personal mission. To draw a parallel with the American military, Bourne was no longer fighting someone else’s battle. Just as U.S. troops spent decades intervening in conflicts not their own, Damon’s character had followed orders to kill strangers without asking questions. With these more intimate attacks, the tables had abruptly turned.

By the end of the first film, Bourne has seemingly found peace by moving to a remote area with Marie, a woman who helped him and with whom he’s fallen in love, played by Franka Potente. His temporary happiness distracts Bourne from the bigger picture of his prior life as an assassin for the CIA much the same way the American public were briefly distracted by a “war” with Afghanistan. I’m not intending this as foreign policy debate, but it’s undeniable that whatever the United States did in Afghanistan failed to eliminate our greatest threats. Likewise, Bourne’s attempts at remaining safe, by lying low and ignoring his enemies, proved ineffective in The Bourne Supremacy when Marie is killed by men targeting Bourne.

It’s important to note that The Bourne Supremacy was released in July 2004, roughly 16 months after the United States invaded Iraq and in the midst of a tense presidential election campaign. This was not yet a wholly unpopular war and the American public, despite a significant political divide, retained a faded, yet optimistic hope that the war in Iraq wasn’t completely for naught. The events of September 11 were still very much in people’s minds (as evidenced by much of the campaign rhetoric) and many people believed deposing Saddam Hussein was a step in the right direction for stopping future terrorist attacks. However, the public was increasingly starting to lose patience with the ordeal in Iraq and the slow failure to find Osama bin Laden.

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In comparison (and contrast), Bourne in the second entry is devastated and enraged by Marie’s death and begins to remember some of the assignments he had as an assassin. His determination is renewed after two years of peace, knowing the only way to make this end will be to find those responsible and do whatever must be done to stop them. Yet, he’s only so effective in this and barely scratches the surface of the bigger picture. Similar to the pronounced drip of information trickling out to the American public regarding the basis of the war in Iraq and who knew what when, Bourne has repeated flashbacks into his past that slowly give him a better idea of exactly what it was he did prior to his amnesia. In both instances, the revelations are not comforting and show cause for significant regret and governmental distrust.

By the end of The Bourne Supremacy, we’ve learned that our hero has done terrible things in the name of continued “freedom” and suffers guilt and frustration as a result. Parallels can easily be drawn here between what Bourne feels and the contrition experienced by many Americans over shameful incidents at military prison Abu Ghraib involving U.S. soldiers, and, in a broader sense, the utter disruption to the lives of the Iraqi people due to the American invasion. Though this is perhaps a little attenuated of a comparison and will obviously vary based on one’s own personal views, I think it’s still apt. Coincidental or not, Jason Bourne serves as an eerily accurate face of the American public regarding post-9/11 foreign policy, an idea cemented and fully realized in The Bourne Ultimatum.

The third film’s plot picks up where the previous one left off, as Bourne tries to figure out who trained him and for what purpose. His journey leads to London and, finally, back to New York, where he gets tangled up with maniacal CIA man David Straithairn and Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy, returning from the second film. Meanwhile, Bourne is being targeted by CIA-contracted assassins, men doing the same thing he once had done. Essentially, Bourne’s life is threatened by persons acting exactly as he had done prior to the amnesia, similar to how Americans’ safety has been at risk as a result of actions deemed terrorist when committed by our enemies, but acceptable when we’re the ones “protecting our freedoms.”

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It’s near the end of The Bourne Ultimatum when everything coalesced for me and I realized Bourne was intended, as opposed to a more coincidental nature in the others, to be seen as a stand-in for the experiences of the American public. He visits Albert Finney’s character Dr. Hirsch at the training facility where everything started for the man then known as David Webb, where he swore his allegiance to the United States of America under the auspices that it was for the greater good. He was a soldier, a patriot willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country by completely transforming himself into a robot waiting for his next mission. Though he was told part of what would be required, Webb was an innocent by virtue of the naive belief that he wouldn’t be misused. Like the American people, his ultimate fault was in placing his complete trust in his nation’s government and not asking questions in the process.

For the populace at large, that trust was betrayed by years of covert tactics handpicking leaders to overthrow unfriendly foreign governments, many of whom unsurprisingly turned on the United States and became our enemies. Just as Bourne comes to realize that his experimental training had been used to assassinate those inconvenient to U.S. foreign policy, the people of the United States have discovered for themselves that they were tricked into supporting a false war using rationales from 9/11 to WMD’s to rosy portraits of freeing little Arab children. The debate over what’s necessary in foreign policy isn’t what matters here, it’s the idea that both Bourne and the America he represents in these films have been trained to accept lies and false mandates and both must deal with the consequences.

The epiphany-rendering scene near the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, when Damon’s increasingly weary character struggles with flashbacks to assassination assignments, reminded me very much of the myriad opportunities my country has had to viciously kill despot after despot. This painful legacy is in full focus here, regardless of the box office grosses and franchise popularity. I’m not complaining one iota. It’s an extremely brave move for the Bourne principals to insert such a subversive, politically charged point in a film destined for millions of Americans to fork over ten bucks worth of admission on any given August night. Jason Bourne expresses his guilt like his fellow Americans: silently and ineffectively. The Bourne character and the American public negligently turned a blind eye to repeated foreign policy improprieties and our punishment is to experience the aftermath. Twin amnesiacs doomed to the nightmares of our sins.

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If the entire Bourne franchise is really about mistrust and betrayal at the hands of the presumed good guys, then what does the ending suggest when we’re made to believe justice is served and the malfeasance wasn’t widespread? It suggests a Hollywood movie, I think. That’s what happens in big-budget, studio-financed films. It always has. The fun is in looking between the lines for less obvious, but no less important, themes. I find it highly unlikely that director Paul Greengrass and the rest of the Bourne team didn’t intentionally position their film as a direct shot at the hearts and minds of American moviegoers. It’s subtle enough so that most people won’t leave the theater disturbed and angered at America’s foreign policy sins (which is good, I suppose, so as not to awaken the shiny happy public), but still manages to make its point loud and clear if you’re paying attention.

The poster adds mysterious fuel to the fire, placing Bourne right in the middle of the New York skyline once anchored in part by the World Trade Center towers. It’s an obvious reference to 9/11, but what exactly does it mean? I can only speculate like anyone else, but my interpretation is that Bourne symbolizes the innocence lost by the American public on that tragic day. We’re no longer able to carelessly follow our leaders’ foreign policy actions without realizing the possible long-term ramifications that could indeed be hazardous to our livelihoods. Granted that’s giving the designer a ton of credit possibly undeserved, but I like the idea that the poster would tie up the entire franchise so neatly, coincidence or not.

Flags of Our Fathers July 13, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 2 comments

Movies that depict the Hollywood version of war rarely interest me. When I learned Clint Eastwood was making a war film called Flags of Our Fathers, I expected the possibility of brutal violence packaged in an updated version of standard Hollywood fare. The trailer looked like more of the same - a rousing spectacle full of patriotism and modesty intended to pull at the explosion-loving male heartstrings . Mixed reviews came in, as several influential critics raved and others called it disappointing. Still nothing to really change my mind. I usually like Eastwood’s directorial efforts, but the much-lauded, Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby sorely disappointed me with its one-dimensional characters and failure to break free from stale convention. I didn’t want to be fooled twice.

As it turns out, I was fooled in a different way. I underestimated Eastwood and his conviction in destroying the mythmaking types of films he had himself popularized in his past life as a movie star. Unforgiven had brilliantly taken apart the western, leaving the genre with little room left to breathe and arguably placing it in creative retirement these last fifteen years. More recently, Mystic River seemed to present the devastating flip side to the vigilante justice made famous by Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry series. Now, it seems, the trilogy of repenting for earlier violence comes to a close with Eastwood’s twin war films focusing on the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters to Iwo Jima.

The latter received nearly unanimous critical praise when it was released last year, culminating in Oscar nominations for the film and its director and becoming the first Japanese language Best Picture nominee. All of this did little to make me anxious to see the former film, which still seemed like a misfire and maybe even a more standard war film plagued by Eastwood’s sloppy lack of perfectionism. It had all the makings of yet another tribute to the “Greatest Generation,” this time made by someone who was nearly their age. Then, with lowered expectations, I finally watched Flags of Our Fathers and was angered, moved, and frustrated by both the story and the film.

Eastwood and his screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr. cobbled together two conflicting threads for their film. Based on the book of the same name by James Bradley, son of the character Doc Bradley and portrayed here by Tom McCarthy (also the director of The Station Agent), Eastwood’s film tries to maintain its appeal to veterans and their families by reminding the audience a little too much of the misguided Saving Private Ryan bookends. Both films begin and end with contemporary scenes presumably intended to allow the viewer to recognize that the events in each film took place a “really long time ago.” Why else include the flashback structure, which of course proves maddeningly false in Spielberg’s film, other than as an attempt to avoid a full, difficult to relate to World War II setting.

In Flags of Our Fathers, the messy idea of James Bradley searching for insight into his father’s war trauma serves little purpose. Anyone paying attention to the remainder of the film will easily realize why and to what extent the older Bradley suffered with gruesome memories he didn’t want. The completely uninspired epilogue should have never made the finished film. If the actual James Bradley was seen talking with the real men instead of the emotion-deflating use of actors then maybe the modern-day scenes would have maintained the tone of the rest of the film. Instead, we’re left with McCarthy trying to look thoughtful while typing on a computer. For a film that works largely as a response to nearly every other portrayal of WWII, these final missteps, all returning to the reverence of war myth the rest of the film had been trying to shatter, are absolutely frustrating and inconsistent.

Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, most everything else about Flags of Our Fathers is a refreshingly uncompromising account of how three men used a photograph to escape the battlefield before ultimately having the United States government use them as disposable cheerleaders. In short, my expectations had been almost completely wrong. This is a war film with no blinders, one that is fearless in its total assault on the idea of soldiers as heroes. It disintegrates the World War II myth of simple right and wrong, good and evil, in the process correcting the often held assumption that war can somehow be heroic or justified. Instead of “war is hell,” Eastwood’s film implies that war is a business and as such it must be marketed and sold regardless of the truth.

The film reminds us that wars have always been built on lies, with innocents thrown into the machine and discarded at the government’s discretion. Some, like three of the men in the famous photograph at the center of Flags of Our Fathers, escape through horrific deaths. Then there are the others, the ones who survive as the three main characters of the film do, who end up doomed to recreate what they’ve seen and heard through the dreams of years to come. The surviving men in the photograph, Navy Corpsman John Bradley and Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, are depicted here as damaged by the celebrity status thrust upon them by a desperate United States government. They struggle with survivor’s guilt, false promises and unwanted fame, respectively, as the din of thanks from a grateful nation falls silent.

Though the stories of all three men are compelling, it’s Hayes, a Pima Indian thrust into the spotlight against his will, who is the film’s tragic figure. An habitual drunk, Ira Hayes was found dead, face down and buried in his own vomit, at the age of 32, less than a decade after the flag raising. While the movie only touches on his experiences, it still manages to paint a complex picture of a man who was cruelly refused service in a restaurant on the same night he was cheered before a football stadium full of people. As Hayes, Adam Beach is perfect, inspiring emotion and compassion for someone who must have been difficult to portray. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the best in the film.

Though Hayes and the other two men are reluctant to accept their status as heroes, Flags of Our Fathers seems to argue, firstly, that they deserve the designation as much as most any other soldier, and, conversely, that war doesn’t make heroes. This second statement is a fascinating proposition, not necessarily new, but mostly unmined by big budget Hollywood war movies. Eastwood and his screenwriters ultimately waver on the idea near the end, returning to the awkward contemporary scenes and using the iconic photograph of the flag raising as the last image after the credits, but the entirety of the main 1945 part of the film argues differently.

Innovative editing caroms between brutal combat scenes full of mistakes and lucky survival and the soldiers’ publicity roles as war bond promoters. This is the reward for “heroes,” misleading the public into thinking the second raising of a flag had any bearing on the outcome of a battle, much less a war, and constant reminders that three of the men in the photograph with them, including one not even receiving any credit, will never see their families again. The horror of war is enough to leave a foul taste in my mouth, but propaganda run amok makes me unsure if I should be sick or in tears. I’ve never been so emotionally invested in a war movie. This must be the least patriotic World War II film Hollywood has ever given us.

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The Bridesmaid May 11, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , add a comment

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Claude Chabrol’s The Bridesmaid (La Demoiselle d’honneur), from 2004, is a strong entry in the prolific French director’s filmography.  Dubbed his country’s master of suspense and compared to that other heavyset director by virtually every lazy writer in the English language, Chabrol has been carving out his own niche since the onset of the French New Wave.  Yet, many of his films remain unreleased on DVD in the English language, including his debut Le Beau Serge, from 1958.  Those that do have releases are frequently plagued by unsatisfactory image quality.  Curiously, the Criterion Collection seem to have passed on releasing any of Chabrol’s efforts on DVD, instead allowing their former sister company Home Vision Entertainment to put out lesser quality versions of some of his films, including the highly regarded La Cérémonie.  This general disrespect towards one of France’s most consistent and entertaining filmmakers unfortunately continues with First Run Features’ recent R1 release of The Bridesmaid.

Based on a novel by British writer Ruth Rendell (whose book A Judgment in Stone was turned into La Cérémonie), Chabrol’s film is a thriller much more concerned with atmosphere and uneasiness than the things that go bump in the night.  The thriller or suspense genre might be my favorite kind of film, but too often these types of movies are terrible, manipulative trash.  At best, they’re usually formulaic and, at worst, they’re almost unwatchable.  Cursed by the hovering spectre of Hitchcock, most elite directors don’t even try to make films within the thriller/suspense parameters.  Sixteen years after its release, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs remains perhaps the only completely successful example of the genre in the past two decades of English language attempts.  Though the thrills are much more subtle in The Bridesmaid than many of the psychosexual entries in recent years, its impact is more significant than the stale cliches usually forced upon us. 

The film’s title is almost unfortunate because the titular character doesn’t appear onscreen until nearly half an hour has passed.  This early portion sets up the main character, Philippe (Benoît Magimel, from The Piano Teacher), and his family dynamic living with two younger sisters and their mother (Aurore Clément).  The oldest sister is set to marry and the younger one has entered a phase of teenage rebellion.  Meanwhile, the mother is dating an older man and Philippe is skeptical and protective of her.  In fact, there are hints that he’s possibly a little too attached to his mother.  It’s clear that he disagrees with his mother’s decision to give away a garden sculpture, named Flora, to this new suitor.  The man had apparently told Philippe’s mother that the female face resembled her, though he carelessly leaves it at his old house when he moves (without telling her).  Philippe discovers the abandoned bust and takes it home, concealing it in a closet in his bedroom.

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Soon afterwards, Philippe spots an attractive bridesmaid (played by Laura Smet) at his sister’s wedding.  It’s the groom’s cousin Senta, whom Philippe had previously been warned about as an eccentric whose given name was Stephanie.  Passion and loneliness ignite into a male fantasy when Senta, soaking wet from a rainstorm, knocks on Philippe’s door after the wedding and aggressively pursues the man she’d just seen for the first time.  Like other too good to be true sexual cautionary tales we’ve seen in movies, the film quickly lets us know Senta has some quirks, not the least of which are her ways of determining true love.  The film spirals in and out of predictability with Senta, nicely tying up loose ends from the very beginning, and still manages to end with both question marks and exclamation points.       

That ending, as well as Philippe’s slide to meet Senta past the halfway point of her dementia, must be handled ever so delicately to retain the audience’s confidence and believability.  By establishing Philippe as a likeable and ordinary main character, the film smartly plays on the viewer’s normal attempt to relate to a film’s protagonist before stretching the boundaries of what we’re prepared to go along with or accept from Philippe.  To get away with such leaps of logic, the casting should be effectively brilliant, as it is here.  Having the agreeable Magimel play the lead smartly allows the actor to use his natural charm and the enchanting Laura Smet is a perfect choice to make us believe someone like Philippe would act as he does throughout the film.  It’s essential that Magimel make us identify with Philippe and eagerly be on his side, just as Senta must come across as a mysterious, complicated young woman worthy of Philippe’s sacrifices and desires.  Anything less, or in the hands of the wrong actors, and the movie is easily ruined.

It’s a testament, then, to Chabrol’s film that nothing ever feels distractingly off about the whole thing.  The director mentions in a text interview included on the DVD that he is more concerned with the characters than the requisite murder and plot.  This may seem antithetical to a murder mystery, but it’s also probably the reason The Bridesmaid succeeds both within and outside its genre.  The young female victim whose plight is revealed on a newscast at the film’s beginning is hardly even a secondary character so there’s no particular sympathetic feelings an audience has for her.  Her fate is essentially meaningless, and we instead turn our attention to Philippe and Senta, not knowing what roles they may play in the girl’s disappearance.  Otherwise, there’s little mystery involved and the film becomes a character study delving into the consequences of obsession.

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The obsession Senta strangely has with Philippe directly leads to his obsession with her.  Coming out of a failed relationship, Philippe understandably enjoys the attention of the highly sexual Senta.  Her seemingly exaggerated stories appear to be innocent fibs, easy enough to tolerate from someone who’s fawning over him.  When she suggests less healthy escalations in the affair to prove their love, Philippe tries to break free of Senta.  After only a short time apart, he realizes the obsession has become mutual and that he must have her back.  The bust of Flora, transformed from his mother into Senta, becomes an inadequate substitute.  He now needs her as much as she needs him and will do whatever it takes, even if it’s appeasing her perverse need of proof, to be with her.

It’s certainly a thin line Chabrol walks between keeping the audience from being disgusted with the characters and empathizing with Philippe.  Viewers who can’t cross over, even briefly, with the protagonist’s choices may be left disappointed or unfulfilled.  I don’t think the film requires its audience to agree with everything that takes place, but it is necessary to understand why Philippe acts as he does.  As the film progresses, we pick up bits and pieces about his character and his actions ultimately remain consistent with what we learn.  It’s a fascinating and engrossing dive into the nature of compulsion, vulnerability and sexual attraction told by a master filmmaker confident in his abilities to stir an audience without cheap stunts.  

I wish that First Run Features, the company responsible for the R1 DVD, had the same abilities in presenting their release of The Bridesmaid.  It’s obviously nice to have the film on DVD regardless of presentation, but First Run really should have done a more thorough job here.  They’ve committed the egregious error of improper PAL to NTSC conversion, leaving behind significant combing and digital artifacts.  Much of the film is incredibly dark, seemingly more so than intended.  The R2 CineFile UK release apparently shares the darkness factor (reviewed by DVD Beaver here), but I’d be curious as to whether it’s as extremely dark as the R1.  There’s also a French two-disc release that one would think might be the best of the lot.  Additionally, the First Run has burned-in subtitles that are not removable and which seem rather large.  Extra features are highlighted by a 12-minute making-of featurette and the aforementioned text interview with Chabrol.  The lackluster effort from First Run, especially retailing for $30, is a disappointment.  It’s a very good film that would have been better served by an improved release. 

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Half Nelson February 18, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 3 comments

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For all the pageantry and ridiculous choices that seem to run rampant, the Academy Awards still provide an important, necessary opportunity to bring attention to underseen films worthy of larger audiences.  A perfect example of this is Half Nelson, a movie that has made less money at the U.S. box office than any other nominated in a major category save for the understandably low grossing Peter O’Toole film Venus, which will probably also overtake it in the next few weeks.  Where the awards change things will surely be the countless people who will hear about Half Nelson due to Ryan Gosling’s richly deserved Best Actor nomination and thereafter give the new DVD release a rental.  In my opinion, this is the Academy’s greatest gift to quality cinema - free publicity and, as a result, an added viewership.

Director and co-writer Ryan Fleck’s feature film debut was adapted from a short film he made with editor and co-writer Anna Boden entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn.  Both the short and Half Nelson concern inner-city teacher and girls basketball coach Dan Dunne, who successfully struggles to make a difference in the lives of his students but has a much more difficult time balancing his own drug addiction.  I can understand anyone’s skepticism in thinking they’ve seen this type of movie before - young, urban white male battles dependence on drugs and, after hitting rock bottom, must somehow kick the habit before it destroys him.  The great thing is that Half Nelson feels like none of those seemingly similar films.  It’s surprisingly refreshing and unpredictable, with Gosling giving arguably the superior male performance of the year as Dunne.

Instead of building up to a meltdown or paint-by-numbers scenario to initiate sobriety, we’re given a more realistic journey into the difficulty of living with addiction while also trying to maintain a normal existence.  We spend time with the character and he’s humanized, both by the impressive script and Gosling’s mesmerizing portrayal, as a flawed young man unable to eliminate his drug problem.  He’s self-destructive, but unapologetic.  His ruinous existence, highlighted by a mattress without a bed in an altogether decaying apartment, is as much by choice as it is addiction.  Any hint of a desire to straighten up his life is masked by the overwhelming urge to use, regardless of how inappropriate the timing might be. 

The most careless example we see is when, following a basketball game, Dunne decides to smoke crack in the girls restroom and is caught by one of his students, Drey.  Unfazed, the young girl helps her teacher and coach as he comes down and then gets a ride home from him.  Bound together by this secret, the two grow attached and we see the parallel story of Drey, whose brother is serving jail time for dealing.  Dunne is concerned for Drey when she starts spending time with neighbor and drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie, star of Spike Lee’s She Hate Me), who owes a debt to her brother for not giving him up to the police.

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As the thirteen-year-old Drey, Shareeka Epps (who also played the character in the original short film) is Gosling’s equal, turning in the finest performance of the year from a child actor and making you scratch your head at how such a slight film like Little Miss Sunshine could have its young star nominated while Epps was snubbed.  The teenage actress wrings a wounded knowingness out of her character, displaying a maturity beyond her years.  It feels like natural acting, and for all I know Epps could be just like Drey in real life, but it absolutely works perfectly in this film.  Like Gosling but to a greater extent, Epps has a virtual blank palette to work with in audiences’ minds since we’re not familiar with her on screen.

Gosling also uses this to his advantage in creating his performance, one of the finest from a young male actor in a decade or more.  He was well-received but mostly unseen in the role of a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer back in 2001 and won the hearts of teenage girls in The Notebook, but he’s still basically unknown to the majority of moviegoers.  While reminding me that there’s been a dearth of serious young male actors lately, Gosling’s break-out here brings to mind Edward Norton’s one-two punch of Oscar-nominated roles in Primal Fear and American History X a few years back.  Like Norton, Gosling mostly came out of nowhere (not counting his stint on the new Mickey Mouse Club) to burst into cinemas or, more likely, living rooms with a performance that demands audiences take notice.

Unlike most, if not all, the other nominated performances in the lead actor category, Gosling is actually in an outstanding film as well.  There’s a lot going on here, exploring the dynamic between a teacher who seems to come from a completely different background than his Brooklyn minority students while also dealing with Dunne’s personal conflict involving his debilitating crack habit and a protective interest in Drey.  In addition, the film skillfully touches on the concept of dialectics, a push-pull philosophy into the contradictory nature of life and somewhat of an overarching theme for the entire film, as well as educational lessons in injustice via occasional monologues from the students that are intercut into the film.  Almost improbably, things never get messy or too complicated and the viewer is left with a good amount to chew on afterwards.

Now having praised the film and performances, I want to make sure not to oversell it.  While it’s certainly one of the best American films of last year, it would have suffered from the kind of extreme hype that tends to cripple first time viewings of so many other films.  It’s a small, independent film that can be emotionally gripping and intensely engrossing, but it’s best to discover it on your own without the endless publicity from media reporting what the filmmakers ate for dinner each night, etc., and thus demystifying its impact.  The Academy have done their part by giving Half Nelson a small boost in attention and now it’s for the discerning viewers out there to do the same.

(The film is scheduled for theatrical release in the UK on March 2nd April 20th, with a DVD tentatively due in September)

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Pan’s Labyrinth January 12, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 1 comment so far

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I’ll never understand American movie studios.  Not only do their choices as to what to make puzzle me, but also when to release certain films.  Case in point is the film that currently shares the title of best reviewed non-documentary of 2006, according to Rotten Tomatoes, with a 98% positive consensus - Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno).  The Spanish language adult fairy tale premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May to standing ovations and then had its U.S. debut as the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival in October.  Common sense would lead one to believe that such prestigious honors might translate into end of the year awards recognition and the strong box office that can result from such accolades. So why would Picturehouse, the releasing studio and a subsidiary of Time Warner that formed as a joint venture between New Line and HBO, hold off on releasing del Toro’s film until December 29th and then only in four major cities?  Whatever the rationale, awards’ watchers seem to agree that the late release has hindered the film’s chances for Academy Award nominations aside from an expected slot as Mexico’s entry in the Foreign Language category.  

That’s a shame too, because Pan’s Labyrinth is the kind of movie sorely missed from the multiplexes nowadays.  It’s not quite at the masterpiece level as some critics are portraying, but I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the sheer imagination and artistry that bursts through the screen.  Movies have always thrived from their unique quality to present us with things we’ve never seen before.  With the increasing use of digital effects, much of what’s been fed to us has become boringly expected in its fake carnage and slick explosions.  There’s a clinical aspect that’s emerged through the over-reliance on expensive special effects more akin to video games than the cinema.  Yet, without a compelling story, most of these effects-laden blockbuster hopefuls become utterly forgettable or not even worthwhile and punish their audience with a fatiguing use of superficial green-screen moviemaking.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, which del Toro also wrote, we are introduced to Ofelia and her pregnant mother just as they are to arrive at the temporary military home of Captain Vidal, who’s been assigned to eliminate opponents of the fascist Franco regime following the end of the Spanish Civil War.  Ofelia’s father has been dead a few years and her mother has married the Captain, who wants to be near his new child when it’s born.  Ofelia is unhappy about the move and cannot understand why her mother now asks her to call the Captain “father.”  Mercedes (played by Maribel Verdú in a role so different from Y tu mamá también that I didn’t realize it was the same actress) helps take care of Ofelia and her mother while the latter is confined to bed from the pregnancy.  As Ofelia is wandering around the wooded area of the military base, she discovers a labyrinth that unlocks a dark world and provides an escape from the horrific Captain.  Guided by buzzing insects that turn into glowing fairies, the young girl meets the Faun and is told of her place in the history of the labyrinth.  She soon courageously sets out on a number of tasks assigned by the Faun.

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There’s no denying del Toro’s dazzling visuals here, powerful enough to transport the audience into the dark, uncertain world the director has impressively created.  It’s easy to get caught up in a movie when it’s being projected onto a huge screen in a darkened room, but Pan’s Labyrinth goes a few steps further by placing the viewer in a completely foreign and fictional setting with creatures never before seen and startling images you don’t always want to see.  Del Toro deftly balances horrific violence with uncute and unfurry fantasy elements successfully enough to more than earn the film’s ‘R’ rating.  It’s far from child-friendly viewing and I almost wish the poster used a still of the first time we see Ofelia instead of the more ominously inviting picture of a little girl at the threshold of the labyrinth.

While Pan’s Labyrinth does suffer a bit from a somewhat simplistic story running parallel to the more fascinating visits to the titular labyrinth, del Toro has imbued his film with enough heartfelt sincerity to make the viewer forgive his use of a cliched evil stepfather.  In most films, such a venal and mostly one-dimensional character might seem distractingly vicious, especially given how little insight we’re given into the cause of his actions apart from a broken pocketwatch.  Here, however, his fascist for fascism’s sake, despite being the weakest part of the film, is made believable enough by Ofelia’s youthful innocence.  If the little girl, as well as the audience, can believe in the goodness of the creatures from the labyrinth, not to mention their existence at all, then why could she not also intuit the sheer evil present in the Captain without looking for his redeeming or complicating qualities.  

pale-man.jpgEven so, given the comparatively less interesting post-Spanish Civil War storyline, I would have liked to spend more time in the darkly alluring labyrinth.  From the advertising campaign and the film’s title (which will surely have many moviegoers wondering about “Pan” since the English subtitles retain the Spanish-spoken name of Faun), audiences are lead to believe that the ancient labyrinth is the focus of the movie.  In reality, that’s not exactly true and I found myself frequently itching to return to that magical and hypnotic world when we were instead shown the Captain’s compound.  The Pale Man character was particularly interesting, with the detachable eyeballs fitting into his palms.  Visually, that was my favorite scene, as we see Ofelia enter his cave through a chalk-drawn door and then realize she’s unable to recognize the forbidden feast too tempting for the young girl to resist.  I was also surprised to learn that the same actor (Doug Jones) was behind the make-up of both the Faun and the Pale Man, memorizing his lines phonetically since he doesn’t speak Spanish.

Guillermo del Toro has made a beautiful movie out of grotesque ugliness.  It’s certainly not for everyone, but, in transcending the typical fantasy film, it manages to appeal to a larger audience in search of darkly visual entertainment with more substance than the weekly summer blockbuster.  I also found it reminiscent of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, both in the theme of a young girl seeking to escape the harsh realities of life through strange, otherworldly characters and as a film that goes beyond the limits of its genre to captivate new viewers normally uninterested in such movies.  It’s a bravura accomplishment and one best seen on the biggest screen possible with a sound system capable of making you feel like dragonfly fairies are buzzing around your head.

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The Black Dahlia December 30, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , 1 comment so far

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Uninspiringly dull, The Black Dahlia is sure to disappoint most everyone.  Director Brian De Palma’s cult of fans will miss the suspenseful excitement found in his best films, such as Blow Out and Carlito’s Way.  Readers of James Ellroy’s novel, which the film is adapted from, may scratch their heads as to how the engrossing, well-plotted book could be turned into such a mess.  Intrigued followers of the real-life Elizabeth Short murder case, the inspiration for the novel and film, will likely feel let down by the lack of attention paid to the case and the subsequent revelation of the raven-haired victim’s fictional killer.  The film noir enthusiasts, anxious for an homage to sink their teeth into, will see through the voiceovers and 1940s duds to realize that The Black Dahlia is a mere pretender, unworthy of their attention.

These criticisms are particularly disappointing on a personal level, as this was a film I’d been looking forward to since David Fincher was originally attached to direct (allegedly in black and white) with Mark Wahlberg and Josh Hartnett starring.  Wahlberg also dropped out and was replaced by Aaron Eckhart while Hartnett, unfortunately, still had nothing better to do when the cameras finally began rolling with De Palma at the helm.  The two actors play police officers Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhart), both of whom also used to box from time to time.  Much of the film’s first half is promising, as we see the two boxing cops face off in the ring for a fund raiser in support of a police-friendly ballot proposition.  The successful passing of the initiative leads to promotions for each, and the two men become partners serving warrants.

This partnership translates to their personal lives as Bleichart becomes a frequent guest at the home of Blanchard and his live-in female companion Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).  While the detectives are on a stakeout, a young woman’s heavily mutilated body is found in a field nearby.  The victim is Elizabeth Short, a wannabe starlet from Boston, who’s dubbed the Black Dahlia by the press.  Along with the murder case, there are other stories interwoven from Ellroy’s book involving a man Blanchard had arrested in a bank heist who’s now about to be released from prison and Bleichert’s investigation of a wealthy Dahlia lookalike (Hilary Swank).  Eventually, everything meshes into a connected, mildly coherent storyline but not until the underwhelming end of the movie.

For this film to really work, the performances need to be top-notch and they just aren’t.  Hartnett is simply not a good actor.  He’s not equipped with the emotional range required to effectively play Bleichert.  Eckhart is merely okay and, through no fault of his own, isn’t given the opportunity to show much of what makes Blanchard tick.  He’s clearly a secondary character in the film, whose motivations are never really explored.  While I’ve always found Scarlett Johansson an alluring screen presence, she should avoid taking roles like this one as she probably doesn’t do it justice.  Her performance comes across as acting more than feeling.  Both Hartnett and her seem too young or inexperienced to fully inhabit their roles. 

On the bright side, it was good to see Hilary Swank in a more feminine part for a change, albeit as a bisexual.  She comes out mostly unscathed, as does Mia Kirshner, who gives the most interesting and best performance in the film, playing the ill-fated Elizabeth Short in black and white (and Academy ratio) screen test clips from before the murder.  The Betty Short we see in this footage is a bright-eyed, if somewhat delusional, innocent slowly shattered by her failed dreams of becoming a movie star.  However, simply seeing Hartnett, given his limited range, as he watches the clips falls far short of showing what it is about this woman that’s compelled so many people for nearly fifty years.  Then there’s Fiona Shaw, who manages to nearly ruin the movie with her mere two scenes by launching into hysterics that seem to belong in another film entirely.

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My main source of disappointment lies in the great potential lurking in Ellroy’s novel.  It’s one thing to make a humdrum movie out of nothing, but it’s entirely different when the starting point is such an impressive book.  For example, the triangle between the two cops and Kay Lake should have been an intense, psychological web of lies and revelations.  Instead, we have a few loose ends quickly tied up long after anyone cares.  The Dahlia murder, despite not being the focus of most of the movie before, dominates the unsatisfying ending.  De Palma pays as little attention as possible to the crime throughout, until the very end when the director suddenly jumps out with a dispassionate crib sheet containing the details of the killing.  This leaves the viewer, who will not understand most anything at the end unless close attention is paid, wondering why the Bleichert-Lake-Blanchard arc was teased so much if the finale is just going to descend into a bland whodunit with a killer we barely know or care about.

Overall, I just wanted De Palma to make up his mind with which story he was telling - the Dahlia murder or the detectives working it.  Trying to merge the two was an unfortunate choice that ends up muddying the whole thing.  Even though it would have strayed from the source material, I would have preferred the murder to have remained unsolved in the movie to allow for more of an exploration into the mindsets of the detectives and their shared paramour.  Blanchard disappeared way too early, before his personality was fully established and his story had been better explored by Ellroy.  I’m the last person who’d fault a film simply for straying from its source material, but such an obvious step down artistically can be maddening when a much better option exists in the original version.

Lest a recommendation seem curious, I should point out that I did find a lot to like in The Black Dahlia.  Working as both a blessing and a curse, L.A. Confidential, one of the finest films of the last ten years, probably boosted interest in another adaptation of an Ellroy book while also burdening it with an incredibly high standard of comparison.  I think The Black Dahlia wilts under such comparisons, but it’s still an above-average effort regardless of its failures.  If you can make out the story, it’s fairly compelling (though still far inferior to Ellroy’s novel) and the look and feel of the movie, despite being a little undistinguished, is a welcome attempt at re-creating 1940s Los Angeles via Bulgaria, where it was actually filmed.  While something seems off visually (too drab, maybe), I don’t want to fault the filmmakers too much for the look, given the limitations of the shoot, when it’s not nearly as problematic as the miscasting of Hartnett and some of the decisions in the storytelling.

Ultimately, The Black Dahlia is a highly frustrating film that is unlikely to please those most interested in what it has to offer, let alone the average moviegoer.  The Universal DVD at least has a nice variation of the theatrical poster on its cover (though not as striking as the French one-sheet that I’ve included here) and featurettes that provide more information on the actual murder case, as well as some making-of footage and a corporate sponsored fluff piece about the “De Palma touch,” amid the usual self-congratulatory backslapping.  Despite its shortcomings, I’d still recommend the film to those with an interest in the subject matter.  It’s a watchable failure that should be seen before being dismissed.  Overall, however, it adds up to a forgettable effort that should have been better. 

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