Sunday, March 29, 2009
I only added the 1969 John Wayne film True Grit to my Netflix queue after I read that the Coen Brothers agreed to film a remake. Even without seeing the movie, I wondered at the decision: I mean, who could possibly play John Wayne?
In True Grit, Wayne is playing the John Wayne character, this time under the guise of one-eyed fat man U.S. Marshal Rooster J. Cogburn, a truly great character name. Cogburn is approaced by a young girl who wants him to go after the man who killed her father, but she insists on going on the dangerous journey with him. They are also joined by a quarrelsome Texas Ranger. The three travel through Indian territory until the climactic confrontation with the gang shielding the murderer.
The role of Rooster Cogburn garnered Wayne one of the most blatant "career achievement" Oscars in history, right up there with Paul Newman's For The Color of Money and Scorsese's Best Director for The Departed. This is not to denigrate Wayne's performance, and certainly not his career. Wayne is oddly and unfairly denigrated as an actor because of his penchant for playing similar characters, but he created and perfected this type in some great movies, which have entertained millions, and would likely impress even the biggest critics of the Western genre if they just gave him a chance. Here Wayne is appropriately ornery, compelling and likable despite his favoring violence and a shoot-first philosophy.
The supporting cast in True Grit is an odd assemblage of young actors and non-actors, some who demonstrated the talent which would make them famous, and some who showed why they weren't ever in movie roles before. Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper show up in supporting roles as outlaws, and Duvall especially shines as Lucky Ned Pepper, leader of a gang of thoughtlessly evil ruffians.
The other two-thirds of the posse are problematic. Kim Darby plays the girl, and she plays the part as written, stuffy, uncontrollable, and determined. This she does well. Her dialogue however, is painful at times, Runyonesque in its lack of contractions, overly cute in its pretensions, as the screenwriter was to bored to make her a realistic character. Country singer Glen Campbell plays the Texas Ranger, and as an actor, well, at least he had that singing thing to fall back on. Campbell is probably not as bad as many people on the imdb boards say he is, it's not like he is distracting, but the choice to cast him in the role is indefensible. Apparently it was a decision made purely out of synergy, the studio wanted Campbell to have a hit with the song "True Grit" and get Campbell fans into the theaters. Campbell's dialogue is also poorly written, but unlike Darby, his delivery does nothing to help it fit into the film better.
While the dialogue occasionally fails the story is taut and well-structured, imperiling out heroes enough to make the required happy ending feel less cliche than in many Westerns. Wayne shows abundant star quality and makes the case that even if this wasn't the role for it, he still deserved an Oscar. The movie gets 7.4 out of 10.
After watching True Grit, I still can not imagine how the Coens are going to do this. The only real possibility I can see is Eastwood as Cogburn, and I know that's not going to happen. Thinking of people who have been in other Coen films, I really hope they don't give it to Tommy Lee Jones or Josh Brolin. Robert Duvall could possibly pull it off, he seems grizzled enough, but on the whole I think I'd rather they just skip it and make the movie adaptation of Yiddish Policeman's Union like they were supposed to.
Next? Probably Patton, unless I get to the theaters to see I Love You, Man first.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
On the Waterfront, the Best Picture winner for 1954, is an astonishingly good film, mainly due to the remarkable strength of the acting. Each of the film's five top acting roles were nominated for Oscars, with Marlon Brando winning Best Actor and Eva Marie Saint winning Best Supporting Actress in her film debut. Brando is superb as simplistic former-pugilist Terry Molloy, consigned to a life working on the docks under the careful eye of mobbed-up union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his right-hand man, Terry's brother Charlie (Rod Steiger).
Friendly runs a tight ship on the docks and only the men who put up with his cruelty and capriciousness get to work. All the longshoremen are required to adhere to Friendly's "D and D" policy, meaning they must be Deaf and Dumb where the Waterfront Crime Commission is concerned. The film opens with the murder of Terry's friend Joey, who had decided to talk to the commission. Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) teams up with the local priest (Karl Malden) to investigate the crime. Malden tries to break through the dock-workers fear in order to get to the truth, but the film shows that the men have good reasons to fear Friendly. Eventually, Terry, conflicted by his own unwitting role in Joey's death and the treacherous turn that made him a bum, will attempt to take down Friendly and the corrupt union.
The film has an aura of reality and believability that make it convincing. Apparently many of the extras were real longshoremen. Brando's performance is particularly good, indeed many have claimed it is the best male performance ever. Brando really inhabits his character's simplicity and his disgrace to be what he is. The scenes where Terry flirts with Edie are incredible. In one scene Edie drops her glove and Brando picks it up and instead of giving it back fiddles with it and then puts in on. It doesn't come across in writing, but on the screen it's so perfectly natural that you wonder how anyone ever thought to put that in the script. Then you read after that Brando improvised it after Saint dropped her glove in rehearsal and you realize the talent and genius of the man.
On the Waterfront has an interesting history behind it. Director Elia Kazan had controversially testified before the House Un-American Activites committee in 1952, where unlike many Hollywood players he had actually supplied the names of other Communists. Thus the drama here of whether to "rat" on people is presented in a such a way as to make Kazan himself seem like a heroic figure. The film was structured as a response to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which obviously took the opposite approach. (Interestingly, Miller worked with Kazan on a version of this movie, called "The Hook", before Kazan's testimony. The studio refused the film at the time, because Miller refused to turn the bad guys into Communists.)
It would be injudicious to regard the film any differently because of Kazan's testimony. Brando, who turned down the film at first because he didn't want to work with the director, was won over by the script's obvious quality. It is a great film, one of the greatest films, and I can't think of a single valid reason to give it anything other than a 10 out of 10.
Next? True Grit is arriving in my mailbox this afternoon.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The second of John Updike's four Rabbit novels is a marked departure from the first. Rabbit Run was a muted exploration of desperation, infidelity and personal tragedy. The novel's characters, especially its protagonist, ex-basketball star Harry Angstrom, were highly-flawed and starkly drawn, with none of their weak spots spared from Updike's incisive prose.
Rabbit Redux instead is nearly a thriller by comparison. The plot is packed with action and occurrences. There are more characters involved, including Rabbit's sister, only mentioned in the first novel. The novel begins with an incredibly likely event: Janice cheating on Rabbit after a decade of neglect, but from that starting point branches off into a series of misdeeds, both sexual and personal, that are, frankly, incredible in both senses of the word. However, where they strain your suspension of disbelief they do tickle that voyeuristic sense that we all bring into fiction, and the result is a page-turner that will have you saying "No way!" and "Oh my God, what happens now?" in equal measure.
The novel was published in 1971 and set two years earlier, against the backdrop of the moon landing, a fact which makes the novel's sense of nostalgia somewhat creepy. Updike continually mentions what movies are in theaters and what teams are in the World Series, as though he were writing the novel today and trying to prove he'd done the research. Many of the novels conversations are protracted arguments about the nature of the conflict in Vietnam, with Rabbit's own support challenged both by his wife's lover and by a black veteran named Skeeter who fits right into the proud tradition of ungrateful house-guests.
Rabbit's home life in the bulk of the novel is the main source of the novel's near-absurdity. Whether Updike is trying to shock his readers or accurately reflect contemporary sexual freedom through his depiction of the trysts between Rabbit and Jill, an 18-year old runaway who brings Skeeter into the house, I can't know. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that Updike is subtly trying to suggest a nervous breakdown, that is perhaps the only way to make sense of the novel's resolution, which in any case left me somewhat disappointed and angry at Rabbit.
Updike only briefly pauses to reflect on the effect Rabbit's free-swinging lifestyle has on his son Nelson, and at times both Skeeter and Jill seem shockingly unhuman, especially when they rattle off deep political and personal monologues which seem written out for them instead of naturally delivered.
Also, on a more nit-picky note, Updike's sex scenes are so horribly awkward and stilted that it really takes you out of the book.
Anyway, the book is a thrilling and mostly well-written look at a time and a place through the lens of a compelling character like Rabbit. However, it lacks the heartbreak and subtlety of Rabbit, Run and so it earns only a 6.6 out of 10.
Next? I don't possess the other two Rabbit novels, but I suppose I could run out and get them. I definitely want to read them at some point. Otherwise, I still have Midnight's Children, Bleak House, and a lot more here at home.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Imagine if you read Catcher in the Rye right after you got kicked out of your fancy prep-school? Or if you read Hamlet shortly after a combination assassination-usurpation on the part of your uncle? Both of those works would speak so clearly to your situation that they would be exalted, perhaps even beyond reason. They would go beyond your critical sensibilities and reach some plaque-covered under-utilized emotional core.
Kicking and Screaming (the 1995 movie, not the Will Ferrell youth soccer one) is such a movie. The movie was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the man behind the great The Squid and the Whale (and therefore the man responsible for introducing me to Loudon Wainwright III). I am incapable of objectively reviewing this movie, so I am just going to tell you to see it, as soon as you can.
The movie tells the story of a group of friends who graduate college together and struggle to take the next step. As someone who is currently in his ninth month of unemployment, I felt like everyone of these characters was living one of my own anxieties, even though my own story is obviously much different. Grover is dealing with his girlfriend's decision to study in Prague, and foolishly deciding to distance himself from her. Max is prematurely pessimistic about his future, convinced the world isn't going to give him a chance to live the life he wants. Skippy is trying to live an extra year as a student through his girlfriend, and Otis doesn't want to go to grad school until he realizes working at the Video Planet and living with his mother isn't a better option. While trying to avoid resorting to their old campus bar, the boys hang out at a local pub where Chet, a perpetual grad student played by Eric Stoltz, tends the bar.
The movie just feels right, from the stupid debates the guys have at the bar, the trivia they obsess over, the inherent obsession with themselves, and the nostalgia for a time that isn't as far in the past as it's beginning to seem. The only thing that felt off was the cigarettes, but that's just a factor of time. I don't want to give it a number out of 10, but I will say that you should definitely check it out.
I always get pretty excited about the NCAA tournament, and I love filling out multiple brackets, even though, as far as I can remember, I have never won one.
Usually my problem is that I get a little too crazy for my own good. I pick multiple 12-seeds when only one is advisable, and I always throw in a 13 and a 14 seed for good measure. My Final Four typically consists of only one top seed and three surprises. (Even when I hit these, as in 2004 when I correctly predicted Georgia Tech to reach the final, my first-round zaniness kills my chance at winning the pool.)
So I was shocked when I finished my bracket this year. My Final Four is the same favorite-heavy quintet as the one selected by our President: UNC, Louisville, Memphis and Pitt. My first round picks feature only two real upsets, the Northern Iowa Panthers defeating Purdue, and the Utah State Aggies beating Marquette.
I must admit I was tempted by other games, especially NDSU over Kansas and Cleveland State over Wake Forest. I chickened out in both cases, and several others. I think part of the problem is the structure of this year's tournament. The committee eschewed for the large part the mid-major at-large bids, which means that instead of St. Mary's or Creighton scaring a large conference team we get Wisconsin and Arizona as 12-seeds. The committee seems to forget that people watch the first round for Cinderellas, the idea that a team filled of people they've never heard of can beat Kansas or Duke.
There is also an overwhelming mediocrity in college basketball this season. Throw in the fact that a bunch of seventh-best-in-their-conference teams are filling out the tourney and you get the formula for the few teams that are really good to reach the Final Four.
Anyway, I wanted to get my Final Four on public record, so you can all laugh at me when Michigan State beats Duke in the final and I'm last in my pools.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Alfred Hitchcock's Rope comes across as the kind of movie the great director may have agreed to make while drunkenly boasting about his ability. "Oh yeah, well I can make a movie about homosexual murderers, in real time, using as few cuts as possible, and without mentioning homosexuality at all."
Okay, so that probably wasn't the way it went down. But Hitchcock does curiously confine himself in the making of this film, testing his mettle as a filmmaker capable of building suspense in any setting.
Rope begins with two prep-school alums strangling a former classmate in an attempt to prove their philosophy that superior men should be allowed to step outside the moral conventions that inferior beings need to live in a civilized world. To top it all off the two are throwing a party to celebrate their accomplishment, where there unwitting guests (which include the deceased's father, aunt and fiance) will dine off the chest in which the body is stashed.
Brandon (John Dall) is urbane, witty, obnoxious and unlikable. His "roommate" Phillip (Farley Granger) is clearly under his control, but begins to crack under the pressure of having to deal with society so shortly after the murder. There is mordant humor in the double meaning lent to some of Brandon's remarks about why one of the expected guests is running late.
Jimmy Stewart plays the boys' former teacher, and a philosopher on crime who has influenced Brandon especially to commit his murder. There are some tense scenes in the movie where Stewart lightheartedly expounds on his repugnant philosophy, leading to a heated argument between Brandon and the dead man's father. We are treated to Phillip very quickly losing his cool and resorting to alcohol in a failed attempt to collect himself.
Hitchcock wanted to replicate the process of seeing a live play on film, but due to technical restrictions he had to instead film the action in ten takes, as ten minutes was the most he could capture on a reel of film. This leads to some awkwardness at the times when the reel must be switched, usually the camera pans in on the back of a suit jacket until the screen is blacked out. These are unnecessary within the world of the film and are therefore very distracting.
The real-time element is handled nicely in other ways, however. You don't really notice it while it's happening, but the skyline outside the boys' apartment windows is darkening in real time, and the neon sign next door begins to light up late in the movie. The movie actually feels like a party taking place, as we are shown people eating, drinks being served, and in one tense scene, the chest holding the body is cleared off by a maid until just before she is about to open the chest.
Jimmy Stewart's character eventually becomes suspicious, and the film ends rather predictably. There is an odd speech delivered by Stewart near the end where his character tries to exonerate himself of blame. Stewart doesn't really pull off the character's sliminess. He seems too charming even when talking about his Nietzschean philosophy.
Rope is a curiosity, but a strongly executed one. It gets a 6.8 out of 10.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The critical reaction to "Revolutionary Road" (a movie I have not seen) seemed to indicate a sense of general tiredness toward the themes of suburban angst and unhappiness in marriage. So I thought it was somewhat curious that John Updike's recent death seemed to be marked with a renewed interest (and outpouring of critical admiration) in his novel Rabbit, Run, which as far as I knew, centered on the themes of suburban angst and unhappiness and marriage.
And, if you look at in a narrow sort of way, it is. But it is much more universal and grand than that.
In Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Updike has created perhaps the archetype for a frail and morally uncertain protagonist. Rabbit is a former high-school basketball star who thinks his job is beneath him and his wife is too stupid and drunk to love. One night, he just runs away. He tries to drive as far away as possible but somehow winds up only on the other side of Mt. Judge in Brewer. There he takes up with a part-time prostitute ("hooer" in Rabbit's spelling) and thinks he's found a way to be happy.
Rabbit is selfish, and unbelievably unconcerned about the thoughts of others. He is preoccupied with his former greatness, and can not adjust to the fact that he seems unable to match it in any other endeavor. Eventually his selfishness will put off even the hooer. His attempt to reconstruct his former life, and his foolish idea that he knows how to improve it, lead up to a tragedy. Updike's prose, though distancing in parts due to over-written descriptiveness and run-on sentences, is near perfect as he traces the events of the tragic day through the lens of someone Rabbit has hurt deeply.
Rabbit's failure to appreciate that he is hurting people and bears responsibility for the tragic events he inspires is heartbreaking to read. Updike lays bear human ugliness in this story, managing to keep you hoping for a redemption you don't expect. The back-up characters are a spare set, drawn well if only in outline. Rabbit is counseled by both his former coach (a lecher who preaches fidelity) and his wife's minister (a sympathetic reverend with a less than perfect marriage of his own.) Rabbit's dealings with his own parents, as well as his wife's make for interesting reading, as Updike expertly weaves the unlikely psychology of forgiveness, acceptance, and blame.
Updike doesn't excuse, doesn't explain, and doesn't ennoble Rabbit's failings. Rabbit, Run presents a flawed person doing bad things and attempting feebly to convince himself he is doing the best he can. The novel is set in the suburbs of the late fifties, but that is a factor of the time and world in which it was written. Updike isn't writing with a vendetta against small-towns, he is dealing more broadly with humanity, especially with our ability to hurt one another beyond all reason. It is a brilliantly handled dramatization of simple but unanswerable human questions. For all that, it gets a 9.2 out of 10.
Next? I have the second Rabbit novel, Rabbit Redux, but I think I may take a break, since the next novel takes place a decade later. If I don't continue on with Rabbit, I have Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I am a big fan of mystery novels, but even I am aware of their inherent ridiculousness. Whether you are talking about the English Golden Age mysteries of Agatha Christie, or the hard-boiled American crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the familiar tropes of each are ripe for satire.
That's what is so disappointing about Neil Simon's Murder by Death. It takes a killer premise, backs it up with a fantastic cast, and does so little with it all that it is offensive.
The set-up is your classic country house murder plot. A mysterious and eccentric millionaire named Lionel Twain has invited the five greatest living detectives to his manor for dinner and a murder. Twain is played by the author Truman Capote, in an odd bit of stunt casting that works fairly well. The detectives are send-ups of Christie's Poirot and Miss Marple, Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan, and Hammett's Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles.
The cast is comprised of great comedic and dramatic actors, David Niven and Maggie Smith are the Nick and Nora couple, Alec Guinness is Twain's blind butler (relegated to idiotic blind guy jokes) and Peter Sellers (no stranger to makeup and foreign accents) plays Charlie Chan. This last bit might seem offensive but is likely meant to make fun of the popular Charlie Chan movies, in which white actors were used to play the Chinese detective. (One of the movie's funnier gags involves Capote's Twain angrily correcting Chan's grammar, as the Chinese detective leaves out his articles and pronouns.)
The movie's laughs are few and far between, and this is troubling enough in a comedy. What is more troubling is the movie's nonsensical plot, which though it may be meant to poke fun at mystery novels really just seems lazy and poorly thought out. The murder mystery at the heart of the plot is inexplicable and the movie's revelation of the secret is only partially complete but fully dumb.
It may be an unfair comparison because this movie pre-dates Clue, but Clue treads much the same ground (albeit without the detective bit) and does everything better. The jokes are funnier and more frequent, and even the mystery makes more sense (despite that film's multiple conclusions, a gambit this movie also used to much worse result.)
For all this, it gets a 2.8 out of 10.
Next? Well, I've got Vertigo and Rope coming in, as part of my effort to see more Hitchcock movies.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Burn After Reading is a smart comedy about stupid people. The Coen Brothers mirthfully subvert the Hitchcock-ian plot where normal everyday people become embroiled in international intrigue. Have you ever watched North by Northwest and wondered how far you would get if you were the mistaken identity in question? Burn After Reading takes it one step further, what if the people involved were complete morons? And what if there was no intrigue?
The hare-brained plot is set in motion when Chad and Linda, a personal trainer and assistant manager at a Washington D.C. gym (played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand), find a CD which seems to contain intellignce data. It turns out to be part of the memoirs written by low-level analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) whose wife is cheating on him wit a U.S. marshal played by George Clooney (his character is also sleeping with Linda.)
Pitt and McDormand are both fun to watch playing silly people with no idea what to do in such a sensitive situation. Indeed, their actions are informed by the very movies Joel and Ethan Coen are tweaking. After a poorly planned blackmail attempt the ditsy duo take the intel to the Russian embassy (apparently they stopped going to the movies in 1985.)
George Clooney is very good as a bumbling smooth-talker and exercise nut, who demonstrates a tendency toward violence and also cowardice and neediness and manages to make the whole thing believable. Tilda Swinton as his lover and Malkovich's wife capably plays a restrained, super-serious woman. And Malkovich himself is wonderful as an insupportable egomaniac who doesn't believe he has a problem with either alcohol or anger.
The best scenes in the movie take place in the offices of the CIA. J.K. Simmons plays the head of the agency, and his frustration with the wacky scenario unfolding between these unremarkable people is very humorous. The detachment with which he watches their lives collapse for a bunch of unimportant information is darkly funny.
Burn After Reading works well in its subversive mission, but starts slowly and lags at times. Overall, though, a very enjoyable effort, worthy of a 7.2 out of 10.
Being a critic, even in this highly unpaid capacity, has proven to be a dangerous thing. When you decide to write reviews you feel the burden to review everything that comes under your purview. This leads to the stress of needing to find something to say, preferably something new and different and heaven-help-me thought provoking, which makes it all too easy to fall into the trap of extremity. Too many times a book or movie that inspired no real passionate feeling is over-analyzed and scrutinized in an attempt to get to a point where it can be seen as a 1 or a 10. After all, who wants to write (or read) mediocre reviews? It's far easier, and a lot more fun, to think of new ways to trash something, or rarely, to praise.
I didn't particularly like Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. However, I think it is one of those books that others might enjoy very much. (I know my father did.) Who's to say that I haven't been in the wrong frame of mind over the last week for such a novel? Whereas I saw some of the plot of the novel as cartoonish and incredulous (even granting its Jews in Alaska premise) others will, through no diminished capacity for understanding, find them astonishingly inventive and clever. Perhaps I myself would like it were I to revisit it in some other hour.
So no, I didn't particularly like the book, but I think Michael Chabon is a brilliant writer, and I respect the challenge he set forth for himself with this project. Writing this book must have required learning a new language, intricate research of the mythology of two cultures, and years of honing draft after draft. I could never write like Chabon does, very few people could, and though this book did not stir anything deep within me I don't feel that that alone is enough to waste time trying to point out reasons for my own disapproval.
I'm not going to give this book a ranking, I don't honestly know where to put it. This is a grand attempt that I am not sure succeeds, but I in no way want to discourage such endeavors.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a curious film, and not just in the sexual meaning of the term. The movie is simultaneously earnest and yet satirical of the very feelings it achingly confronts. It is uneven and unnerving, alienating and still engaging, boring in parts but marked by fits of overwhelming passion and excitement. The movie makes you feel sympathy for people who do unforgivably bad things and never flinches from the fact that they are being bad and yet leaves you rooting for them all the way to the end. In short, it is a film about life and the folly of love.
The movie tells the story of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina's (Scarlett Johansson) summer in Spain (guess what town they stay in?). A clumsy voice-over narration begins the movie by informing us that Vicky, a Masters student in Catalan Identity, is someone "who knows what she wants" and has found it in her fiance Doug. Cristina, according to the narrator, is a struggling short-film maker who just knows what she doesn't want. This narration persists throughout the film in a mostly annoying fashion. Even the sound of the narrator's voice is off-putting, never quite comical, not overly serious. It is uninteresting but distinctive enough not to be bland. It is disconcerting, possibly on purpose.
While sightseeing the two friends are approached by a painter named Jose Antonio (Javier Bardem) who bluntly propositions them, inviting them to join him for a weekend in his hometown, during which he hopes to sleep with them both. Close-buttoned Vicky is offended by the idea, but dragged along by the flirtatious Cristina. Ironically, it is Vicky who first sleeps with the painter. She eventually backs away from an affair, and Cristina instead becomes involved with Jose Antonio.
From here the movie threatens to fall into the terribly cliche idea of American girls broadening themselves in Europe, learning so much about life in the process. I confess I didn't trust Woody Allen enough to thwart this trope, and so I found the first half of this movie rather boring. But then Penelope Cruz bursts onto the screen.
Cruz's performance, for which she was recently presented an Academy Award, is frenetic, insane, frightening, and outrageously sexy. Cruz is hamming it up, but she's supposed to be, and she's doing it incredibly well. Watching her, you perfectly understand how a man would both want to be with her and be as far away from her as possible. Her presence shakes things up so thoroughly, and in unexpected ways, that by itself it saves the movie from tediousness.
Cruz is playing Jose Antonio's ex-wife, a brilliant but deeply troubled artist who has just attempted suicide by an overdose of pills. Jose Antonio allows her to stay with him and Cristina, and the three of them share an uneasy acquaintance which blossoms into a surprisingly successful sexual triangle.
Meanwhile, Vicky's fiance travels to Spain so he and Vicky can be married in Barcelona. Vicky goes through with the wedding but is obviously having second thoughts, and in a scene where Cristina describes her trysts her awe and longing are palpable. Hall does a remarkable job in this movie in establishing a skeptical, withdrawn woman and then showing her defenses slowly come tumbling down while insecurity puts up a last desperate struggle in the name of fidelity. Hall's performance is extraordinary, second only to Cruz's.
Unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson is nowhere near as gifted an actress as Cruz and Hall. Her attempts to seem reflective and thoughtful are unconvincing. Her character is written to be slightly neurotic in spite of her beauty and appeal to men, and it's just awkward seeing her try to play the Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow part. She's just not there in terms of skill. Incredibly, she even has a hard time playing sexy. The much-ballyhooed scene where she and Cruz kiss is surprisingly sterile and lifeless.
I have heard complaints about the lack of a resolution to the movie, but I think those are short-sighted. I was pleasantly surprised at the eventfulness of the movie's last few moments. There is a lot there to think about, and the movie's closing shot of Vicky and Cristina is a classic, especially for the look on Hall's face.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a winning film, which is perhaps mislabeled as a comedy. There is little to laugh at, but it is indeed a tale of the human folly. For all that, and two great female performances, it gets 8.4 out of 10.
Next? I think I've got Burn After Reading coming in the mail. I decided not to see Watchmen tonight and I don't know if I'll get to it anytime soon.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
The most important thing for a movie to do is to pick a story and tell it well. The people behind Changeling picked a great story, but the telling leaves much to be desired.
Part of the appeal is that the story is largely unknown. Indeed, the screenwriter plucked the case of Christine Collins from the archives just before they were scheduled to be destroyed. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is best when it is just relating to us this incredible story. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) loses her son Walter in 1928 Los Angeles. When the police claim to have found Walter five months later, Christine is overjoyed. But the boy doesn't look much like Walter; he's shorter by three inches and is circumcised.
The scenes where Christine suffers from maltreatment at the hands of the police, who eventually wind up locking her up in a mental hospital to keep her story from embarrassing the department, are shocking and compelling because of their historical accuracy. The story can't, however, make up for some pretty terrible acting. Jeffrey Donovan (the Burn Notice guy) puts on a bad Irish accent to play a ho-hum evil cop and John Malkovich is surprisingly flat as a hero radio pastor. Malkovich is so good at playing dark characters that I thought I detected a darker side to the pastor, but that never developed.
And the worst of them all is Angelina Jolie. I am retroactively shocked at her nomination for Best Actress. Jolie is fine in the scenes where she is mistreated and abused, her face wears silent pain (and tons of whitening makeup) well. But whenever Jolie is given something to do, she falters. When she tries to confront her suppressors, when she has to reach down and give release to her primal pain and anguish, the result is off-putting because of its silliness. Her attempt to look unhinged is formulaic and unbelievable.
The movie is over two hours long. The film doesn't seem overlong until the conclusion, which is drawn out and needlessly confusing. The film keeps making you think there is some hopeful message in Christine's continuing search for her son, but at the end it just makes you think that maybe she isn't all that sane, really.
The movie is well-shot, and captures the feel of it's time-period. But the acting really lets this amazing true story down. For that it gets a 5.2 out of 10.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (the Best Picture of 1957) is a wonderful film which meaningfully analyzes humanity's various attitudes toward war. That sounds high and inaccessible, but the movie dramatizes the situation in an appealing and entertaining fashion. The result is a truly extraordinary film, an enjoyable masterpiece.
William Holden is Commander Shears, an American in a Japanese POW camp in World War II-era Burma. Shears is the last man standing from the original group of prisoners, and the experience of burying his fellow men has made him weary and anxious to leave the war behind him. His last nerve is struck when an entire battalion (not sure if that's the right term) of British soldiers is bought to the camp.
The British are under the command of Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness in a role which won him an Academy Award. Nicholson's men are ordered by Colonel Saito, the Japanese officer in charge, to help build a bridge for use by the Japanese army. The catch is that the officers are ordered to work alongside their subordinates. Nicholson protests, citing the Geneva convention, and is subjected to spend several days in a punishment known as "The Oven."
This is our first glimpse into the resolve of Nicholson, his victory over Saito is cheered by his men, but the audience has to wonder, what is so bad about working alongside the men? Nicholson's fight is less about accomplishing something good than it is about maintaining the cherished British order in the camp.
Once Nicholson makes it out of the oven victorious he decides that the men have fallen into disarray while disinterestedly working on the bridge. As he sees it, the solution is to build the best bridge they can. He believes that the bridge will stand as a monument to the resolve of the British soldier.
Meanwhile, Commander Shears has escaped to a British outpost in Ceylon, awaiting his cherished discharge, when he is shanghaied into a dangerous mission to blow up the very bridge his former fellow prisoners are constructing.
The film is a perfectly constructed vehicle to demonstrate the heartbreaking absurdities of war. Shears is the audience's stand-in, decrying the British attitude toward dying with honor and playing by the rules. By the end of the movie the audience isn't sure if any of the characters are truly sane, or even if it is possible to remain sane in a time of war. The film's dramatic conclusion, during which the attempt to destroy the bridge meets with unexpected resistance, is powerful and ambiguous and will stick with the viewer for a long time.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a perfectly constructed film which fills it's 162 minutes with enough drama to make the time fly by. For this it gets a 9.2 out of 10.
Next? Well, Netflix just sent me Changeling and I may see Watchmen this weekend.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Alan Moore's Watchmen is my first foray into the world of graphic novels, a foray I took only because I was impressed that Moore's dystopian look at superheroes made Time magazine's list of 100 greatest novels written since 1923. This may sound overly bitchy and self-congratulatory, but I don't think it's even one of the 100 best novels I've ever read.
Obviously the movie has heightened interest in the story, so I don't think I need to go into more detail than to say that someone or something is threatening ex-superheroes (the government outlawed the profession a decade before the story commences) and some of the remaining costume wearers set out to figure out what's going on.
The novel is densely layered with backstory, partially provided with faux historical documents, including the autobiography of a former superhero and academic papers discussing the impact of the presence of a real-life superman. We also get stories of the earlier superheroes, the ones who inspired the current gang.
And, for some reason, we get pirates. Moore cuts away from the primary story to show us repeated scenes of a newsstand operator discussing world affairs while a bored customer reads a pirate comic book. These scenes are repetitive, boring, and seemingly interminable. They also fail at their only discernible purpose, which is to heighten the emotional impact of the novel's preposterous close.
The heroes themselves, despite being outfitted with expansive backgrounds, are largely uninteresting. There are simply too many of them, and too little space, to really characterize them in the way a true novel would. Instead of actual personalities they are for the most part given philosophical perspectives. This is dehumanizing and distancing, and to be completely honest, boring. (There's a reason I wasn't a philosophy major.)
I could go on a bit about each major character and criticize the plot elements I found most objectionable, but I know that many people are planning to see the movie so I won't spoil anything for them, although I imagine the movie will be drastically different from the book. Hopefully the movie scores better than a 3.8 out of 10.
"Laura" tells the story of the investigation into the murder of Laura Hunt, a lovely young advertising executive with a long list of suitors, played by Gene Tierney. Dana Andrews is the police detective assigned to the case. Through interviews with Laura's loves (coincidentally, the main suspects) Andrews' character begins to fall in love with Laura himself, for reasons which are unclear (Tierney's beauty notwithstanding.) Andrews' transition from tough-talking hard-boiled cop to hopeless romantic is handled poorly, rushed and only introduced through another character's observation. Nothing Andrews does lets us see him falling in love with a dead woman.
SPOILERS: Except, she's not really dead, which is supposed to be shocking, but really isn't when you consider that the film couldn't really go anywhere with the love angle if she remained dead. Laura shows up to catch Detective Macpherson asleep in her apartment, and explains that she's been in the country without a radio. Turns out it's her model friend and look-alike that got shot, and now Macpherson must figure out whether Laura was the intended target or whether Laura herself is the murderer.
Unfortunately, this isn't one of those tightly written movies where everything is explained by the ending and the loose ends tie together. The story falls apart during the remainder of Macpherson's investigation, and it feels like the writers and director pulled the solution to the mystery out of a hat.
The best part of Laura is the two suspects in Laura's murder, ne'er do well Shelby Carpenter, played by Vincent Price in a very atypical role, and radio personality Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb. Webb was nominated for an Oscar for the performance, which is truly wonderful. Webb's Lydecker is an arrogant snob with a caustic wit and a keen sense of style. He's also clearly in love with Laura, whereas Price's Carpenter is inherently suspicious and unlikeable. The hatred between these two rivals feels authentic, and makes up for some of the story's flaws.
Laura, like it's title character, is deeply flawed buy lovable all the same. The films features strong acting in some parts but weak acting in others, the script features wonderful dialogue and yet inexplicable plot-holes and curious gaps in logic, and the film's much-ballyhooed surprise is both utterly predictable and occurs very close to half-way through the picture. I must admit to being surprised by the ending, but only because I had been expecting the end of the movie to make sense. Silly me. However, it kept my interest throughout and was fairly entertaining, so it gets 6.5 out of 10.