Monday, December 31, 2007


Games people play

By Edward Copeland
There have been great documentaries this year covering such important topics as the Iraq fiasco (No End in Sight) and health care in America (Sicko), but no documentary I've seen entertained me more than one about middle-age men obsessed with high scores on classic arcade video games from the 1980s.

If you don't already know, the documentary I'm talking about is Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and what a joy it is to watch as various people scheme and play to break or keep various records for top scores ever set on the arcade version of Donkey Kong.

The titleholder for the game since the early 1980s is one Billy Mitchell who finds his title in jeopardy when a 35-year-old Seattle school teacher named Steve Wiebe appears to have topped his score.

As the story unfolds, Wiebe at first appears to be the manipulator, having submitted his score on a videotape of him playing his own machine in his garage. When Twin Galaxies reps come to investigate, they spot a connection to an unsavory instigator, so they invalidate his score.

Mitchell, whose look appears to indicate that he still lives in the 1980s, thinks his score will stand, but when Wiebe agrees to travel across the country to play the game live, Mitchell chokes. He refuses to come play live, though gets updates by phones through his minions, and then secretly submits a videotape of him supposedly breaking the all-time record.

The tape obviously looks edited, but Walter Day, the head of Twin Galaxies, is inclined to give Mitchell the benefit of the doubt, even though he himself has questions.

The documentary is just so damn entertaining as you watch these grown men, both married with kids, obsessing over such a trivial thing. At one point, Mitchell even compares the "controversy" over whose score is best to people taking sides on the issue of abortion.

When the Guinness Book of World Records enters the picture, sanctioning Twin Galaxies to provide the high score records for them, it gets even sillier. Wiebe's young daughter at one point asks him what the point of the Guinness Book really is and asks if people lose a lot just to set a record.

Her dad doesn't really have an answer for that, but Gordon's film sure spins gold out of such silly material.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007


Marc Forster: international man of mystery

By Edward Copeland
Monster's Ball. Finding Neverland. Stranger Than Fiction. The Kite Runner. That's quite a wide range of movie types for one director, but they all belong to Marc Forster. He's not someone like Howard Hawks, whose imprint you feel on any genre he tackled. In fact, I couldn't point to anything that makes something stand out as a "Marc Forster film." The German-born director has never made an awful movie (that I know of, having not seen Stay or his first two films), but he's never made a truly great one either and I'm afraid to say that The Kite Runner may be his weakest effort.

Based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir, who spent his early years in Afghanistan until his father whisked him out of the country to safety in the U.S. following the Soviet invasion.

Before their departure, young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) and his friend Hassan (the remarkable Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) take joy in flying kites and Hassan often acts as protector to Amir, who longs to be a storyteller and is an easy target for bullies. When the time comes for Amir to help Hassan (in the much-talked about rape scene), Amir flees.

As the film opens, the grown Amir (Khalid Abdalla) gets a call in the year 2000, telling him he can make things right. Having not read the novel, it's hard to say whether some of the credibility-straining coincidences play better in the book than the movie, but they come off as forced and convenient.

It's not giving much away to say that the mission Amir is called upon to undertake is to return to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to rescue Hassan's son from the enslavement of the mullahs. It isn't really a spoiler either to say that he succeeds, but the film portrays the rescue as such an easy one that instead of being touched or held in suspense, you just stare in disbelief.

The two strongest things that The Kite Runner has going for it are the performances of Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as young Hassan and, most especially, Homayoun Ershadi as Amir's secularist, educated father who finds life in America isn't quite as successful as it was for him before the Soviets then the Taliban ruined his homeland.

The Kite Runner isn't a bad movie, it's just one that seems to skate across the surface of what could have been a truly compelling story.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Whatever It Is, Kill It.

By Josh R
I am writing this brief preamble after having already completed this piece, because the nature of following paragraphs requires something in the way of explanation. I started out with every intention of writing a review of La Vie en Rose. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and that’s not what I wound up doing. So for those expecting a critical discussion of the film, you’re not going to find it here — the film itself is not summarized or barely even discussed. Somewhere midway through the writing of this piece, my instincts pulled me in a different direction, and it became about something else entirely. Call it righteous indignation, bile or just plain whining — whatever it was, I was overtaken by the spirit (in the evangelical sense), and for whatever it’s worth, here is what the spirit had to say:

The hardest thing to place is the walk.

Most everything else about Marion Cotillard’s bizarre, fussy performance in La Vie en Rose — allegedly a biography of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf, but really more of an extended drag act with subtitles — strikes an instant chord of recognition. The exaggerated overbite makes her a doppelganger for Strangers with Candy's Jerri Blank, the kooky creation of demented satirist Amy Sedaris. In the Comedy Central series detailing the exploits of a reformed crack whore going back to high school, the character’s aggressively protruding chompers were intended as a sight gag; in La Vie en Rose, they’re meant to be taken seriously. The voice — a guttural hiss that shifts into an adenoidal, nails-on-a-chalkboard shriek when Edith loses her shit, which she frequently does — is pitched somewhere between The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum and the cartoon hag in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (when she laughs she goes “heh heh heh”). The stoop-shouldered, saucer-eyed look, accompanied by a strenuous sucking in of the cheeks, which Cotillard affects for her representation of Edith in her 20s, is pure Marty Feldman circa Young Frankenstein. Again, it should be mentioned that when Feldman played Igor, his faces were intended to draw laughs — here they’re done with such wormy sincerity that they suggest Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, trying to look as pathetically undernourished and bedraggled as possible, in order to maximize her profit margin soliciting change from guilt-ridden passers-by.

But it’s the walk — comprised of many different components, none of which appear to have been executed without a certain degree of intense physical pain — that had me stumped for the better part of the film’s interminable 140 minute running time. With the aforementioned posture, which can only be described as Quasimodoesque, Cotillard has added this spasmodic jerky little gait that resembles nothing to be found in the realm of human motion. She looks a bit like a bobblehead doll walking on eggshells, which seems at once mechanized (like an automaton on a theme-park ride) and strangely Muppet-like. After a while, I concluded that what it reminded of me most was Sesame Street's Grover, mainly owing to the swaying motion that accompanied the convulsiveness. My mother, who is completely ignorant on most matters relating to pop culture, surprised me about midway through the film by hitting the nail on the head. “Yoda,” she crisply ventured, and with a note of thinly veiled disgust, as we watched the older Edith clumping her way across the screen with the twitching laboriousness (or laborious twitchiness, if you like) of an overburdened pack horse on a bad acid trip.

In fairness, I need to say that I am not particularly familiar with Edith Piaf, beyond having listened to a selection of her recordings. Having no real sense of the physicality of the real-life woman, I am prepared to allow for the possibility that she did indeed look, sound and act like a troll. Performances in celebrity biopics are inevitably based in mimicry, and it is obvious that Cotillard is mimicking someone — or something. I must duly stipulate that never, in my 20-some years of moviegoing, have I ever witnessed a more heavily stylized piece of acting in a film that was clearly intended as an exercise in realism. In a fantasy-based film, such as a Lord of the Rings or that Tom Cruise turkey Legend (with that creepy little hissing blue-elf thing, which the actress also occasionally evokes), it would make a modicum of sense. La Vie en Rose does not fall into that category, and Cotillard’s approach does not suggest anything even remotely resembling that which might be drawn from the realm of recognizable human behavior. It’s as she’s on a mission to make Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford impersonation look like Liv Ullmann in earth mother mode.

If you detect a note of anger in my tone, it’s because I have been of late incredibly disturbed — and genuinely saddened — by the tendencies of many Oscar-obsessed bloggers to bash Julie Christie’s work in Away from Her as means of promoting what they perceive as the superiority of Ms. Cotillard’s achievement. As those who follow the awards season are doubtless aware, Ms. Christie has bested Cotillard in many key contests leading up to the big Oscar showdown. This has sent Gollum’s partisans careening into red alert mode; I’ve read an alarming number of posts, some penned by bloggers whom I admire and respect, that take the tack of disparaging Christie’s work as an offensive strike against the prospect of her winning. This is nothing new — I’ve been guilty of voicing my disdain for films and performances with more vehemence when it becomes clear that they’re on a collision course with golden glory — but I’m perplexed and troubled by the rationale that serves as the basis for the Christie attacks.

Anyone who’s read my previous pieces on this blog knows where I stand on the prevailing wisdom about what constitutes great screen acting. There’s a school of thought which holds that the measure of greatness lies in the extent to which an actor can disappear into a role — not just by inhabiting it simply and naturally, but through techniques involving extreme physical or vocal transformation. In order to give a great performance, an actor needs to get as far away from themselves as humanly possible, to the point where their peers can say, with a note of awe in their voices, “I forgot I was watching Charlize Theron.” Above all, the effort needs to be visible — the unforced naturalism of previous generations of actors has become anathema. Champions of Cate Blanchett — a talented actress whose studied, controlled approach of late has won her widespread acclaim while leaving viewers such as myself mostly cold — would cite her chameleon-like ability to assume any physical or vocal characteristic under the sun as proof of her genius. The thought and care and intense preparation that have gone into each performance is always made explicit. Contrast that with Julie Christie, who breathes life into her role with such effortless simplicity that she hardly seems to be acting at all — she is that woman, gradually slipping away into the haze of Alzheimer’s, as opposed to giving a showy, strenuous representation of how the disease ravages the mind, body and soul.

I try to be tolerant and respectful of people whose opinions differ from my own — I actually served as the referee during a heated debate that occurred between friends two night ago over the merits of Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd — but these people need to shut the fuck up. Their attitudes represent everything that is glib, facile and wrong-headed about the popular standard by which acting is evaluated — which holds that style is substance — and their short-sightedness is slowly but surely contributing to the ruination of the cinematic art form. They’re breeding a generation of actors who will favor shtick and mimicry over honesty and feeling, and that’s a fucking shame. It’s acting as pyrotechnics, in which big, flashy special effects will have taken the place of subtlety and nuance. If one likes that sort of thing, then that is the sort of thing one likes; I'll take the other.

So now that I’ve gotten that rant out of my system, let’s dispense with the petty insults (the Muppet references, et. al.), and see what it all boils down to. There was not one moment of Ms. Cotillard’s performance, or the messy, slipshod film fashioned haphazardly around it, that rang even remotely true for me, in any way, shape or form. For all I know, the actress may have been drawing from a place of genuine feeling — but the performance is so mannered, so stylized, so forced in its execution, that the emotional truth that may or may not be fueling it never pierces through the thick, hard shell of artifice that contains it. I can’t imagine that the goal was to make Edith Piaf as repulsive and grotesquely un-humanlike as possible, but that’s the practical effect of the actress’s approach. You keep waiting for Sigourney Weaver to show up with a blowtorch gun and blast her to smithereens. The people who love this performance — and there are many of them out there — regard it with something verging on awe. As do I…albeit for entirely different reasons.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007


I Believe. It's Silly, but I Believe

By Odienator
Long before he directed Airport, George Seaton wrote and directed a more believable tale about a man who thought he was Santa Claus. 1947's Miracle on 34th Street may not be most people's idea of a favorite Christmas movie, but it is mine and I look forward to watching it every year. Like the Christmas film that occupies the hearts of most of my generation (It's a Wonderful Life), Miracle was nominated for best picture at the Oscars, and like Capra's film, it lost. However, Miracle was honored for its clever script by Seaton, its story by Valentine Davies, and for one of the best supporting performances ever to grace a movie, Edmund Gwenn.

Santa Claus has assumed many guises in the cinema. Last year, I wrote about some of his naughtier instances. This Christmas, in order to avoid another year of coal in my stocking, I thought I'd talk about one of his nicer incarnations. After all, the only thing good about coal in your socks is that it stops your feet from stinking. I'd rather let Dr. Scholls take care of that. So here's a nice story about how Jolly Old St. Nick came to the greatest city in the world and taught it, 22 years before the New York Mets, that "You Gotta Believe."

Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hotty, I mean O'Hara) is in charge of handling the holiday events at Macy's, starting with the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade. When the Santa she hired shows up for work in worse condition than Amy Winehouse, Doris panics. Santa Claus makes his first appearance in New York at the Macy's parade, and her actor can barely stand up. Before she can kiss her job goodbye, however, Doris meets Kris (Edmund Gwenn), a jovial old man with a real Claus-like beard. He takes over the reins at the parade and is such a success that Doris hires him to be the store's resident Santa Claus. But all is not perfect: When Doris asks Kris his full name so she can pay him for his services, he tells her it's Kris Kringle, the alias of Santa Claus. Doris thinks he's nuttier than a fruitcake, but he also seems harmless enough. Her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) likes Kris too, but when he tries to tell her he's really Santa Claus, she informs him that there is no such person. "My mother told me," she says. Doris explains that, since her divorce, she's been trying to raise Susan to "accept reality," and not have a vivid imagination. Kris sees this as detrimental, and plans to find some way to get Susan to dream like a kid again.

Once Kris starts taking requests from the kids who sit on his lap, things get troublesome. After one mother (the great Thelma Ritter, uncredited) chews Kris out for promising her kid a toy she can't find at Macy's, Kris tells her it's available at Macy's competitor store, Gimbel's. Mr. Macy, the owner of the eponymous store, hits the roof. How dare one of his employees send a customer to the Great Satan of department stores?! That Kris guy must be out of his damn mind! The shrink on Macy's payroll (a department store has a resident psychiatrist?!) thinks so too. When the customers return to Macy's, pledging their loyalty because the store puts customer satisfaction over profit, Mr. Macy backs down. His shrink does not, however. He thinks Kris Kringle is Krazy and wants him Kommitted.

Even more troublesome for Doris is that Kris is starting to give Susan some doubt about her prior notion that Santa doesn't exist. After hearing him sing a Dutch song to a little girl from Holland, Susan wonders if Kris is really on the level. "But when he spoke Dutch to that little girl," she begins. "Susan, I speak French," Doris says, "but that doesn't make me Joan of Arc." To cover her bases, Susan asks Kris to prove he's Santa by bringing her a special present on Christmas. "If you're really Santa Claus," she tells him, "you can get it for me. And if you can't, you're only a nice man with a white beard like mother says." Kris tells her he'll try.

Kris has an ally in the war for Susan's heart and mind: Doris' lawyer boyfriend, Fred Gailey (John Payne). He also believes that Doris' no-fantasy policy does Susan a disservice. His conversations with Susan play much like Kris'. He tries to inject an aspect of wonder, and Susan very politely shoots him down. "You must have forgotten your fairy tales," Fred says after she draws a blank on Jack and the Beanstalk. Susan replies "Oh ... one of those. I don't know any of those. My mother thinks they're silly."

Kris and Fred become fast friends and roommates, and then, thanks to that overzealous Macy's shrink, attorney and client. After Kris is committed by the shrink to Bellevue, Fred decides to defend his sanity in court. To prove Kris' sanity is to prove that which Kris believes. In other words, Fred has to prove that Kris is really Santa Claus.

This is when the movie really starts to shine, becoming a satire on parent-child relationships, attorney-client privilege, legal loopholes, consumerism, business, self-identity and whether the government has the definitive word on anything. Fred brings his case to court and, like any good lawyer, does anything and everything to get his client off the hook, including calling his opponent's son to the stand as a witness. "Hello, Daddy!" he says as he passes the prosecutor. "Goodbye, Daddy," he says after his damning testimony. Doris starts to soften her stance on Kris, and even tells Susan that perhaps she should believe in Kris.

So, is Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? I wouldn't dream of spoiling that, especially since the movie leaves the answer rather ambiguous. That's the biggest strength of the movie and why its screenplay deserved its Oscar. It's a smart, knowing piece of writing full of great lines and sentiment without being overly saccharine. The characters are allowed to develop and to change. Susan becomes more imaginative and optimistic (when she senses she won't get what she wanted for Christmas, she convinces herself to have faith: "I believe. It's silly but I believe."). Doris starts to trust again, and Fred's relationship with Doris warms up as she does. The other characters realize the Catch-22 of the situation of disproving the existence of Santa Claus, and the screenplay humorously deals with that as well.

Fine work is turned in by all the actors. O'Hara is quite credible as the hardened single Mom trying to shield her daughter from having her illusions shattered by life. Payne plays his lawyer with the right mix of practicality and optimism. His easy-going nature is a nice contrast to O'Hara's pessimism. Gene Lockhart is amusing as the judge presiding over the case, and this remains the best thing Natalie Wood ever did. The entire cast is funny and believable, but Gwenn is the glue that holds the film together. There is something magical about his presence that forces you to at least acknowledge he might be the real deal. The filmmakers leave it up to you to decide, though the way Gwenn plays him, he doesn't leave much doubt to the answer.

"Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to," Fred tells Doris. The real miracle is that this film works as well as it does, even today. (Note: Avoid the horrendous Richard Attenborough remake. The 1973 David Hartman remake is so-so, but nothing bests the original.)

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Into the trenches

NOTE: Ranked No. 67 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
Seven years before movie fans met Gen. Jack D. Ripper and Gen. Buck Turgidson, Stanley Kubrick brought us another off-his-rocker military man, this time a French general named Paul Mireau who was introduced 50 years ago today in Paths of Glory, one of Kubrick's greatest films.

Paths of Glory takes place in 1916 France, not that any of the actors, especially lead Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, sound particularly French, but that hardly matters because this tale about the absurdity of war could have been set in any time in any country in any war. Kubrick's film is unusually short, at least for a war film, running less than 90 minutes. For those who haven't seen it (and shame on you who haven't), Paths of Glory centers on one particular battle between the French and the German, where the poor French troops are outmanned and outgunned, but that's no excuse for disobeying orders in the eyes of Gen. Mireau. Mireau believes anything is possible and some things aren't. When he asks a soldier if he's ready to kill more Germans and the catatonic man can't respond, he refuses to accept the explanation that the man suffers from shellshock because he doesn't believe there is such a thing as shellshock.

When the soldiers are forced to retreat, Mireau even orders his artillery men to unleash their barrage on his own troops. With most of his troops unable to take the hill he seeks and others under his command refusing to carry out his lunacy, Mireau smells mutiny in the air and demands satisfaction. "If those little sweethearts won't face German bullets, they'll face French ones," Mireau declares before meeting with his superior, Gen. Broulard (the great Adolphe Menjou) and Dax, who oversees the men, to start court-martial and execution proceedings. Dax clearly sees Mireau's derangement, as the general first asks to execute 100 of the surviving soldiers. Dax even volunteers to stand in for his men, before Menjou brokers a compromise, first getting the numbers down to 12 before settling on 3 (1 from each company). Mireau unhappily accepts, though he'd prefer to see more bloodshed instead of less. "Few things stimulate morale like seeing a man die," he insists. Dax, clearly the voice of reason and principle in the film, agrees to represent his men in the court-martial, a farce of a trial reminiscent of other court proceedings where the defense might as well not show up.

The focus of the movie, whose script was written by Kubrick, Jim Thompson (the famed cult crime novelist) and Calder Willingham (who would 10 years later co-write The Graduate), doesn't focus solely on the ranking officers involved, but also uses the fate of three soldiers: Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey), Pvt. Arnaud (Joseph Turkel) and Capt. Paris (Ralph Meeker) as an occasion to discuss a multitude of issues. The three were picked almost at random, with the brass passing on the decision of choosing "examples" to the leaders of their divisions. Ferol says he was picked because he was "undesirable." Paris was picked to cover the ass of his lieutenant (Wayne Morris), who he'd caught drunk on duty at the cost of several lives. Arnaud really doesn't know why he's facing a firing squad.

Once the men have been found guilty and spend their final night of life together in a cell, a priest comes to comfort them, but Paris turns justifiably angry when the clergyman tries to comfort him with the idea that, "We're all gonna die." His confrontation over the futility of religion finally gets to be too much for the other condemned men, one of whom attacks him, leading to an eventually fatal skull fracture. However, Mireau want his "examples" conscious for their executions, so they work to keep Paris alive with a plan of pinching his cheeks at the crucial moment so he'll be able to see the bullets coming. The message: Don't ask questions about religion or warfare. It's not really a plot spoiler to say that the three are executed. (Mireau thinks "the men died wonderfully.")

Prior to the firing squad, Dax learns of Mireau's order to fire on his own troops and brings it to the attention of Broulard, but he's reluctant to interfere. After the executions, Broulard meets again with Mireau and Dax and confronts Mireau about his order and of his intention that Mireau will face a court-martial, albeit too little, too late for the three soldiers. Mireau remains defiant, insisting he's "the only completely innocent man in this affair." While Dax is glad to see that Mireau won't get off scot-free, he's appalled when Broulard suggests that Dax reported Mireau's actions as a political move so he could get promoted to general. Broulard, in the end, might be even sicker than Mireau.

The final scene often seems out of place, but it really underscores the whole message. The tired soldiers gather in a dance hall where a captured German girl is forced to dance for them. Kubrick may well have been the master of making anti-war war films, be it Paths of Glory, the hilarious Dr. Strangelove or the underrated Full Metal Jacket. Paths of Glory is a great place to see Kubrick's talents really begin to emerge.

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Monday, December 24, 2007


Those above will get served down below

By Edward Copeland
It was with the greatest of trepidation that I faced the prospect of Tim Burton filming Stephen Sondheim's greatest musical, especially with the casting of actors who admitted their lack of vocal skills. It's with some relief that I can report that the film of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is neither as bad as I feared nor as good as it could have been.

Burton's direction moves the action along nicely and the sets and atmospherics are beyond reproach, making the musical even more intimate for film and resisting the urge to "open" it up for the movies. The musical cuts didn't bother me that much: I fully understand why the great "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" wouldn't quite transfer to a film version.

However, the most pleasant surprise for me is Johnny Depp. Is he the strongest of singers? Hardly. Still, he manages to pull Sweeney off, even if his look appears to be a cross between Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. His somewhat soft voice belies the intensity he delivers in the nonmusical parts, but Depp pulls the part off and deserves to be commended.

The same cannot be said for his Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Supposedly, Sondheim had final casting approval so he's got some explaining to do in regards to how he let this disastrous casting of the director's girlfriend go through. I hope Sondheim got a check big enough to make him forget his betrayal of his own material.

When Mrs. Lovett sings of herself as a woman of "limited wind," she ain't kidding when Bonham Carter is inhabiting her role. I found myself in the surprising position of wishing they'd cut more of the music, because when Bonham Carter sings Lovett's wistful fantasy "By the Sea," it brings the film to a dead halt, saved only by the fact that Depp keeps Sweeney's intensity in silence throughout Lovett's colorful dream sequence. If only Depp had a partner who could really deliver.

Unfortunately, a lot of the laughs of the great "A Little Priest" get lost in Bonham Carter's delivery. Burton in general has chosen to emphasize the bleak and the bloody over the dark humored throughout the adaptation, but this Sweeney Todd still could have worked and, in fact, mostly does.

It's just Helena Bonham Carter who sticks out like a sore thumb. The other casting choices are quite good. Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall as Judge Turpin and his faithful Beadle Bamford are more sinister than in any stage version I've seen. Bamford usually comes off as more oaf than bad guy on stage, but he's a true villain here.

Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisner as the thwarted lovers Anthony and Johanna perform quite well and don't interfere much with the action. The real find and the best decision made for the movie is by casting the role of Toby with a boy (Edward Sanders) instead of as a slow-witted young adult, so it makes his eventual actions all the more horrifying.

Even better, this kid who I've never seen before saves "Nothing's Gonna Harm You," his duet with Lovett, and shows once again what a poor choice Bonham Carter is.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007


Let the birds nest in your hair

NOTE: Ranked No. 79 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
In an introduction made for the Criterion edition of Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman remarks how this is the film that changed everything for him. At the time, he was broke and living off the actress Bibi Andersson (who has a tiny role in the film) when his studio entered the film at Cannes and it won a prize (best poetic humor) and became an international success. Bergman says it was a turning point for both him and his studio, earning him free rein to go on and make even more of the greatest films of all time, very few of which resemble the frothy fun of Smiles of a Summer Night, which opened on American shores on this date 50 years ago.

As I've noted before, Smiles of a Summer Night reminds me in many ways of my favorite film of all time, The Rules of the Game, though Bergman's film is by no means a copycat. Smiles more than stands on its own with its tale of love and adultery, male vanity and female cunning, aging and youth. It inspired one of Stephen Sondheim's greatest scores in A Little Night Music, though I've never seen a production of the musical. (At this point in the post, Odienator will begin to write his commentary blasting the song "Send in the Clowns.") The main thrust of the story concerns attorney Fredrik Edgerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), who has taken a beautiful young bride Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), though he still hasn't consummated the marriage. Fredrik longs for an old lover, the famed actress Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), who would love to get Fredrik back.

Desiree also is carrying on with a proper military man named Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), who has a wife of his own (Margit Carlquist) who longs to get her husband back for herself. Rounding out the complications is Fredrik's son Henrik, an aspiring clergyman (Björn Bjelvenstam) and the Edgermans' social-climbing maid Petra (Harriet Andersson). Henrik is conflicted because of his lustful yearnings, toward both Petra and his father's wife. His father reminds him of a quote from Martin Luther at one point: "You can't stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair." Throughout the rest of the film, the birds are flying and landing all over the place. Determined to woo Fredrik back and get the crazy count out of her life for good, Desiree and the countess plot to bring all the various players to Desiree's mother's estate for a weekend in the country.

Desiree's mother (the great Naima Wifstrand) has quite a romantic history of her own and warns her daughter about her plans, which Desiree sees as for the common good. "Beware of good deeds. They cost too much and have a nasty smell," Mrs. Armfeldt tells her daughter. Lessons on love abound in this film, some sound, some not. There are warnings about not offending a man's dignity, as when Count Malcolm visits Desiree to find Fredrik wearing his robe and nightshirt after falling into a puddle and soaking his clothes. Malcolm is ready for a duel right then, even though Fredrik and Desiree hadn't done anything. Malcolm later proclaims to his wife, "My wife may cheat on me, but if anyone touches my mistress, I'm a tiger." Ironically, once the countess and Desiree start spinning their plans, Malcolm switches entirely, saying no one can touch his wife, but they are free to dally with his mistress. For all the players, love is either a military battle of a gymnastics exhibition. Bergman's screenplay manages to be both witty and touching and his use of lights and shadows foretell the greater cinematic things to come in his career. As for the smiles of a summer night, Frid the groom (Åke Fridell) explains to Petra that they come in threes: one for young lovers, one for the jesters and the fools and one for the sad and dejected, lost lonely souls. There really should be a fourth: the smile Smiles of a Summer Night undoubtedly leaves on anyone who sees it.

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Friday, December 21, 2007


A spoonful of sugar helps the history go down

By Edward Copeland
When I revisited Smiles of a Summer Night recently, I was reminded of the line by Desiree's mother that says to beware of good deeds, because they come with a high cost and leave a nasty smell. The phrase seems even more apt when considering the true story of Charlie Wilson's War, Mike Nichols' best feature film in decades. It manages to present history as entertainment and succeeds glowingly on both counts.

Tom Hanks stars as the former Texas representative and once again Hanks gives a performance much better than either of the two for which he won Oscars.

Charlie Wilson was a true product of the 1980s, a hard-drinking, hard-partying member of Congress with a penchant for the ladies, a staff full of big-haired beauties and a slim legislative track record. As he tells one character, he's fortunate enough to represent the one congressional district in the United States that doesn't want anything, so he's free to vote yes a lot and collect a lot of IOUs from other House members.

During a weekend of debauchery in Las Vegas, a 60 Minutes report on the struggles of Afghans in their fight against Soviet invaders catches Wilson's eye. As a member of an important subcommittee, Wilson, almost on a whim, doubles the amount of U.S. dollars being spent on covert activities in Afghanistan.

Wilson's action attracts the attention of a wealthy Houston socialite Joanna Herring (Julia Roberts), who is as right-wing and Republican as Wilson is not but has made the Afghan situation a cause aimed at winning the Cold War. She encourages Wilson to add a trip to Pakistan on to a planned junket to the Mideast so he can meet with Pakistani President Zia (Om Puri), the man who hanged the late Benazir Bhutto's father in a previous takeover in Pakistan.

After an awkward meeting with Zia and his advisers, who were under the false impression that Wilson was an official U.S. envoy, Zia asks Wilson to pay a visit to one of the Afghan refugee camps that have sprouted in his country. The visit is a true eye-opener for Wilson when he sees the plight of the Afghan refugees and meets with the CIA official in charge of the region, who makes it clear that his job is not to draw attention to any U.S. activities or risk making the Cold War into a hot one.

Angered by the station chief's attitude, Wilson flies back to D.C. on a mission, telling his faithful aide (Amy Adams) to get the deputy director of the CIA or higher in his office that morning. The man who arrives instead is a lower-level CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a blustery man with a history of making enemies within the agency.

It seems like a cliche to say that Hoffman gives a great performance since he does it so often, but Gust is another one and he and Hanks bring out the best in one another.

Despite Wilson's anger over not getting the CIA official he wants, he soon learns that he did get the right man and the two set out to increase the budget for covert ops in Afghanistan to help the mujahedeen. Their travels include making unlikely allies in their mission out of Israel and Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Further complicating religious matters, is the boisterous Christian sermonizing of Joanna.

As Gust warns Wilson when trying to downplay Joanna's religiosity, sooner or later, God will end up on both sides of the fight. Roberts' accent as Joanna is a little iffy, but her role is so small that it hardly matters.

The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin is sharp, smooth and never strays from its efficiently told story. Sorkin, whose dialogue grew so generic and predictable on The West Wing, seems to have rediscovered his voice and the ability to distinguish characters from one another.

Nichols, who has concentrated of late on directing on Broadway and in two great play adaptations for HBO (Angels in America and Wit), still has some great moves in his arsenal of tricks.

In addition to keeping the pace perfect, he also has some particularly nice shots, including a stunning pullback view of the refugee camp that's reminiscent of the scene of wounded Confederate troops in Gone With the Wind.

Of course, most people know that the rout of the Soviets that led to the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. had unintended consequences for the U.S., but Nichols and Sorkin still manage to land this denouement like a suckerpunch at the end. As Wilson notes when his pleas to help Afghanistan after the Soviets leave fall on deaf ears, the U.S. always seems to go in places with the highest ideals, but then leaves before the job is finished.

Charlie Wilson's War doesn't make that mistake. It teaches while making you laugh consistently and heartily, then sends you out of the theater to reflect on what was yet to come.

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A helluva good age to be

NOTE: Ranked No. 35 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
Of all the films on my various best lists over the years, The Graduate seems to be the one that moves the most. Sometimes, I don't like it as much as others, but on my most recent viewing, everything I loved was present and accounted for on this, the 40th anniversary of its release.

It's worth noting that The Graduate, which won Mike Nichols the Oscar for best director of 1967, marks its anniversary on the same day as Nichols' latest film, Charlie Wilson's War, opens. Watching The Graduate again, you remember the techniques Nichols employed that now seem old hat, but were quite unusual in its day. (In a bit of completely extraneous Oscar trivia, with the recent passing of director Delbert Mann, Nichols now holds the title of the earliest Oscar-winning director still living.)

Nichols' use of various closeups and points-of-view were quite remarkable for their time. Right from the film's opening, close on the face of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he sits on the plane, beginning his descent not only to the airport, but to the uncertainty of what will happen with the rest of his life. He's helpless, riding along the moving sidewalk, just the way his suitcase travels down the baggage chute. On my latest viewing, I'd forgotten one of my favorite shots when Benjamin attempts to beat Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) to the punch of telling her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) about their affair by telling Elaine herself. Elaine erupts, as expected, and as Mrs. Robinson says, "Goodbye Benjamin," the camera pulls back from a closeup of Bancroft to show her literally in a corner.

The opening airport sequence also illustrates how vital the now legendary songs of Simon & Garfunkel were to the whole movie. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences' list of travesties is a long and illustrious one, but the failure to nominate ANY of the songs from The Graduate still boggles the mind. I suppose the music branch was hearing without listening. (To make the outrage even worse, the Oscar for best song in 1967 went to "Talk to the Animals" from Doctor Doolittle, perhaps the worst film ever nominated for best picture.)

Try to imagine the sequence where Ben is racing to find the church where Elaine is going to get married without hearing "Mrs. Robinson" in your mind, sputtering out just as his engine does. Just as pivotal to the film's success as the songs and Nichols' direction are the performances. Hoffman burst on to the scene with this film for a good reason, even if he is playing 10 years younger than he really was (The great William Daniels who plays Ben's father was only 10 years older than Hoffman.) Hoffman is hysterical as the recent college grad (who for some reason, hasn't turned 21 yet though he was away for four years) who feels alienated by everyone and everything at the same time he just acquiesces to any adult's wishes. His entire affair with Mrs. Robinson seems to start out of boredom more than anything else, even though Ben insists that of all his parents' friends, he always thought Mrs. Robinson was the most attractive.

When he's forced to take Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine out on a date, he purposely tries to be aloof, taking her to a strip club (unlike Travis Bickle who dragged Cybill Shepherd to a porno in Taxi Driver, Ben knows what he's doing is mean). Ross' face as the stripper twirls her tassles over her head is heartbreaking and it breaks Ben as well, who tries to explain that he just has this compulsion that he needs to be rude to everyone. Of course, Ben falls for Elaine, telling her that she's the only person he can stand to be around (after one forced date mind you) and that he feels as if his whole life is a waste and the rules are being made by the wrong people. When he suddenly decides after Elaine has turned on him over the affair (made worse by her mother's lies), that he's going to marry Elaine, his parents are initially excited until they realize he hasn't let Elaine in on the plan. His father rightfully thinks his plan sounds half-baked, but Ben insists, "It's completely baked."

In addition to the aforementioned Daniels, The Graduate is chock full of great character actors in role large and small such as Buck Henry (who co-wrote the screenplay with Calder Willingham) as a hotel clerk, Murray Hamilton as the cuckolded Mr. Robinson and Elizabeth Wilson as Ben's mother. Look quick for early work by Mike Farrell (as a hotel bellhop) and Richard Dreyfuss (as a tenant in Ben's boarding house in Berkeley). For TV fans, you can see Norman Fell tests the waters as a landlord in his pre-Mr. Roper days and for Bewitched fans, a priceless chance to see Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne) and Esmeralda (Alice Ghostley) share the same frame. Then there is Mrs. Robinson, what may well be Bancroft's most famous role. I go back and forth on whether she should really have been considered a lead here (after the first hour, she only has three scenes, albeit great ones), but whether she is lead or supporting, she is great. Even in her first appearance, nearly hidden in the crowd at Ben's graduation party, she leans in and makes her presence known. Bancroft's timing of just about everything is exquisite. I particularly love Ben's rushed kiss before she has a chance to exhale her cigarette smoke. The Graduate, while definitely a product of its time period, also proved to be a template for many films, both good and bad. Even though Ben is in his 20s, you could say this created the blueprint for most teen sex comedies, with the clueless parents and thwarted love. As time went on, the age of the protagonists got younger, but many of the ideas remained the same, even if most of the later descendants didn't have the guts to ends their films with as uncertain ending as the one here.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007


Turning the Page on lesser films

By Edward Copeland
For the second year in a row, Ellen Page gives a startlingly good performance much better than the film that contains it. Last year, it was Hard Candy. This year, it's Juno, which is by no means as wretched as Hard Candy, but has been flowered with more praise than it deserves.

This isn't to say I disliked Juno, just that much of the time, the dialogue in Diablo Cody's screenplay is a bit too hip, cute and trite for its own good. Luckily, Page delivers a performance so good, that she makes words that would ring false coming from other actors' mouths sound true.

In fact, Page isn't alone in this. The entire cast seems to develop characters richer than they should be, from J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno's dad and stepmom to Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as the potential parents for Juno's unexpected child.

The script itself finally catches up with the performances in its third act, delivering depth and emotion to a film that's dominated by snark up to that point. One other problem with Juno is that it's one of those films where the vast majority of its best moments have been given away in its trailer (including most of Rainn Wilson's cameo as the drug store clerk).

While Juno deserves points for painting a more realistic but still funny look at a situation similar to that in Knocked Up, especially concerning abortion, Juno's quick dismissal of that choice rings hollow. Then again, if either Page's character here or Katherine Heigl's character in Knocked Up had opted for abortions, there wouldn't be a story for either film.

Following his work in the Apatow factory's Superbad, Michael Cera once again makes a good case for staking a claim as the best straight man in comic films today. His look of stricken fear when he learns of Juno's pregnancy is priceless, as are most of his scenes.

Still, as a devoted Arrested Development fan, I do feel cheated that the story doesn't allow for an onscreen reunion of Bateman and Cera. Overall, I did like Juno, especially for Page's singular creation. I just wish the screenplay took a more daring and less wiseass path than it does.

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No wizard left behind

By Edward Copeland
I've never read a Harry Potter book and I've never seen one in a theater, but the quality control of the film series has amazed me. I caught up with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and, while I think it slips a little from previous films, it's still good and it may contain the best performance in the entire series from Imelda Staunton.

Staunton is a true hoot as Dolores Umbridge, the new professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts and the teacher from hell, inflicting strict discipline with a smile and a giggle, as she tries to change Hogwarts in the name of "educational reform."

This film continues the series' trend of growing darker with each new installment, but it doesn't quite connect emotionally the way it should, especially when a beloved friend of Harry's bites the dust. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was much better at interspersing the dark dealings with burgeoning adolescence than Order of the Phoenix does.

The rest of the cast is solid as always and Daniel Radcliffe seems to grow in talent with each new appearance as Harry. His cohorts Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) don't get as much to do in this outing, but the rest of the cast of British adults shine as always, especially Michael Gambon as Dumbledore.

If Order of the Phoenix didn't quite wow me as much the earlier films, especially the last two, it may be that they've condensed what is a large novel so much that something is lost in the translation.

Director David Yates' pacing is fine, but he doesn't bring the flair to the series that Mike Newell or Alfonso Cuaron did, though he certainly betters Chris Columbus' start. We should all be grateful Columbus didn't keep directing the films, because I fear the quality would have suffered in his hands.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Where the Truth Lies


By Odienator
After finishing the novel Atonement, Grace Slick invaded my brain: "When the truth is found to be lies," she sang. She was followed by Nelson from The Simpsons, whose "Haaaaaa-hah!" might not have been what Ian McEwan had in mind when he wrote his "big middle finger to happily ever after" novel, but it felt appropriate. I had just been played by the author and the tool of his betrayal, Briony Tallis.
Briony exists in the novel as a precocious 13-year-old girl with wrong-headed ideas about sex and romance, a nurse drowning her sins in the blood of the World War II wounded, and an old lady dying of vascular dementia pulling the rug out from under the reader. I was reminded of my aunt's retelling of The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid. After Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy how she can get home, Dorothy replied "you mean I went through all this shit for nothing?! I could have gone home three hours ago?!!"

Unlike Glinda, McEwan does tip his hand to the outcome of his novel, so that when it arrives, it's less of a shock than a confirmation of the old Carleton Young line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. McEwan gives us both legend and fact as a means of attrition for Briony, but my sneaky suspicion is he did so to ensure we would hate her forever.

Atonement, as written, is quite unfilmable. Its construction is contingent on literary bearings, not cinematic ones. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton take a very good, successful crack at reproducing the novel's cadences in the film version of Atonement, though he treats large portions of his film in a more theatrical manner than one might expect if one hasn't read the book. There were moments when the camera and the dialogue evoked the need for Dennis Potter; some shots and sequences cry out for a lip-synching number by the miserable characters who populate the frame.

As in the novel, Briony appears to us in three guises, first as the 13-year old (Saoirse Ronan), whose immature ideas about love spawn a play she hopes to put on for her much older brother Leon's visit. While looking out the window, she sees her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) in a sinister-looking altercation with the housekeeper's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). He seems to force her to strip to her skivvies and jump into the fountain. Cecelia storms away angry, her undergarments stuck to her body. Robbie looks at her the way one would look at Keira Knightley in the 1935 equivalent of a wet t-shirt contest. Briony notices Robbie's look and comes to her own conclusion. Wright rewinds this scene, and a few others, so that we can see where the truth lies, toying with the notion of perception in as best a fashion as he can without McEwan's written words funneling through his readers' brains.

Later, Robbie asks Briony to deliver a raunchy letter to Cecelia, which Briony reads before concluding that Robbie is a "sex maniac." Barely understanding the term, Briony is convinced that her sister is in danger and confides in her 15-year old cousin Lola. Lola has her own problems: her parents are divorcing and her younger twin brothers are a bunch of brats. She's also just realizing her name is probably short for Lolita, and her flirtation with the much older Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch) is telegraphed as a disaster waiting to happen.

Cecelia receives the letter and is intrigued by Robbie's use of "see-you-next-Tuesday." Meanwhile, brother Leon invites Robbie to dinner, much to both his sisters' and Robbie's chagrin. Through the kindness of her dad, Robbie joined Cecilia at Cambridge for his degree. They kept away from each other (the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing), but upon their reuniting at the house, the sparks flew, leading to the raunchy letter Robbie accidentally gives to Briony to deliver. The PG-13 rated version intended for Cecelia remained in his room, which is where Robbie would rather be than embarrassed in Cecelia's company.

Robbie keeps his appointment with his benefactor's family, which leads to a charged erotic encounter with Cecelia against a bookcase. Briony is, as usual, in the wrong place at the wrong time and, to paraphrase Cold Comfort Farm, she sees something nahsty in the library. Robbie's sex maniac status is confirmed by Briony's own eyes, the same eyes she will use to condemn Robbie a little later, when she finds Lola being sexually assaulted in the woods.

As in the novel, Robbie is sent away to prison, and then to Dunkirk during World War II. Here we meet the second of our three Briony's (Romola Garai). Feeling guilty for her sin against the innocent Robbie, and currently estranged from Cecelia, Briony tends to wounded Allied soldiers. She washes the blood from her hands, scrubbing violently like Lady MacBeth, and immersing herself in the worst of the carnage as a means of baptism by fire.

It is in this section that Wright tips his hand, seemingly as homage to McEwan doing the same (though with a different device) in the novel. Wright presents an astonishingly long unbroken shot of Robbie Turner on the beach at Dunkirk, a sequence that is as brilliant as it is out of place. Some have complained that it took them out of the movie, but by film's end, I'm surprised they don't realize it was intentionally done. McEwan's writing in this section of the novel is equally ostentatious, and I wondered if he were doing this to draw my attention to the difference in style. He gives a much bigger clue later in the novel, which Hampton's script conveniently leaves out.

Also in this section of the film are several passages that sound a little too Harlequin Romance Novel to belong in this movie. Robbie and Cecelia reunite for a night and confront Briony when she comes to visit her sister. Again, by film's end, the stilted dialogue makes sense.

The last act of the book is the controversial revelation, which, as aforementioned, would be impossible to translate properly to the screen. Wright and Hampton attempt it, and here I must tread lightly, by casting Vanessa Redgrave as our third Briony. Wearing the same hairstyle she has had for 60 years — it looks like a straight man did her hair — the established author she has become appears on TV to discuss her new book. "It's my last book," she says, "because I'm dying." She then launches into a speech that reminded me why I love it so much more when Redgrave appears onscreen for an extended cameo than any time she's been the star of a film. She nails the complexity of her words, asking for a forgiveness neither the film nor the audience wants to give her.

In his piece over at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz disagrees with my assessment of this section of the film, and he is not alone. I am in the minority on my opinion, but I can't think of anything more despicable for Briony to do besides go on TV and use someone else's tragedy as an avenue to a forgiveness she can never attain. How you interpret this scene is, like the novel's version of it, based on your perception of Briony and the means by which she sacrifices your goodwill to save her soul. Is her definition of happiness an acceptable one, or has she not learned anything since she was 13? I find it telling that she has the same hairstyle in the first scene as in the last; it's as if she's learned nothing about herself or her misdeeds.

Keira Knightley fans will have much to rejoice about, though they may be surprised at how little she is in this film. She gives a fine performance and does for that green dress what Monroe did for the MTA, but she is at best a supporting performance. McAvoy, who is top billed, is onscreen longer, cementing his heartthrob status and showing he can do more than be intimidated by Forest Whitaker or molested by CGI in Narnia.

As the three Brionys, Ronan, Garai and Redgrave give performances that flow into each other. I bought into the notion they were the same character. Ronan is onscreen the longest, and has the most to do. She manages to make Briony hateful but at some points an object to be pitied. Redgrave makes her pathetic, and Garai makes her penitent, though we see things differently by the end.

Jimmy Ruffin once sang that "Happiness is just an illusion." A good love story doesn't always end with the happily ever after, though it's human nature to want one. I wouldn't be giving too much away by saying that Robbie and Cecelia do live happily ever after, but there's a reason this paragraph begins with the quote it does.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Digging for ideas within a genre

By Edward Copeland
Some films have so much going for them, are so close to hitting the mark, that it's frustrating as you watch the missed opportunities. This is certainly the case with Ridley Scott's American Gangster which, despite having a top-notch cast and interesting themes, just doesn't quite finish with a win.

Written by Steven Zaillian, American Gangster tells the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who went from a driver for the kingpin of the Harlem mob to an enterprising player who dominated the heroin trade in New York in the 1970s.

It also tells the parallel story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an honest N.Y. detective attending night school to become a lawyer who ends up heading a federally sanctioned task force to make inroads in the war on drugs.

The plot sounds like numerous fictional and nonfictional accounts of crooks and the cops who chase them, but American Gangster has a more interesting take on the genre buried within its surface. Unfortunately, the plodding pace of the overlong film holds the movie back from being truly great.

The movie sets up its theme in the opening, when Lucas, still a driver for the Harlem kingpin Bumpy Johnson (played in an uncredited cameo by Clarence E. Williams III), hears Bumpy lament the disappearance of the middle man as chain stores started replacing mom-and-pop operations in the late 1960s. When Bumpy passes on, Frank decides to pursue that entrepreneurial spirit his boss decried, setting up direct dealings with opium merchants in Southeast Asia, an operation enabled by the Vietnam War.

The script's almost anthropological approach neatly sets up the parallels between Lucas and Roberts, as both are upsetting "the natural order of things" on both sides of the law.

Crowe gives one of his most subdued performances as Roberts, but Washington's work as the ultracool and slick Lucas dominates the proceedings.

Living in the flashy, Superfly-like world of gaudy gangsters, Lucas realizes that "the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room" and does his best to operate below the radar, without the flash that would attract attention. In an interesting way, Lucas is really the better family man, taking care of his aging mother (the great Ruby Dee) and assorted kin, while Roberts neglects his son and pursues several brief flings.

In another respect, Lucas really isn't the most villainous character in American Gangster. That goes to Josh Brolin as a particularly corrupt and vile detective. 2007 has really been a breakout year for Brolin, with his great work here and in No Country for Old Men.

The fantastic ensemble also includes solid turns by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Armand Assante, Idris Elba, John Hawkes, Ted Levine, Jon Polito and the best role Cuba Gooding Jr. has had in more than a decade.

Scott does well creating the atmospherics of the film's '70s milieu, but he takes so long getting the story going that by the time it gets to its payoffs, it feel rushed. It's a shame, because there is a great story within American Gangster that wants to raise questions such as whether it's really in anyone's business interests to stop the drug trade, but much of that gets lost in the film's flab.

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Friday, December 14, 2007


Picking your own body's lock

By Edward Copeland
At first, the images are quite jarring, the out-of-focus pictures dizzying. For those who don't know the story of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it tells the true tale of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor of Elle magazine who suffered an incapacitating stroke at the age of 42. Before the health crisis, Bauby had planned to write a modern version of The Count of Monte Cristo, though he later decides that you shouldn't mess with a masterpiece. That's the way I feel about Julian Schnabel's film about Bauby.

Mathieu Almaric stars as Bauby, and while the film itself has been garnering deserved praise, I think his contribution has been undervalued. Except for a few flashbacks, Almaric's performance nearly is all voiceover, commenting on his situation to people who can't hear his voice.

Physically, Almaric is as restricted as Bauby was, spending most of the film essentially immobile except for the blink of an eye (and often looking foolish beneath an Elmer Fudd-type rabbit-fur hunting cap that a friend places on his head. The real-life Bauby feels as anyone in his situation could be expected to feel when he finds he's a victim of "locked-in syndrome," still there but unable to converse with the outside world about matters as important as children or as mundane as annoying flies.

Schnabel's filmmaking approach perfectly mirrors what the view from inside Bauby might have been like. It takes some getting used to, but once Bauby decides to abandon self-pity, the film tosses away its initial gimmick as well.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly sounds as if it could be a very depressing film, but nothing could be further from the proof. It entertains as you join the cynical Bauby within his virtual cocoon and it's inspiring when he decides to write a book when the only way he can is by blinking, one letter at a time, to devoted nurses and friends who translate for him. Bauby realized that no matter what the state of your physical body is, your memories and your imagination cannot be paralyzed.

The performers are good across the board, especially in a great and awkward scene where Bauby's common-law wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his children, is forced to translate a phone call for the woman whom the pre-stroke Bauby had left her for. Max von Sydow also has a couple of nice scenes as Bauby's decrepit father, trapped in a prison of a different kind.

The screenplay itself is a bit of a translation, Ronald Harwood having written an English-language adaptation of Bauby's book which was then translated back into French.

I had not been a fan of either of Schnabel's previous films, Basquiat or Before Night Falls, but with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel has made one outstanding film, even if he never makes another one. This film should not be missed.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007


First the facts, then the fiction

By Edward Copeland
When I heard that Werner Herzog had made Rescue Dawn, a fictional telling of the story he told in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, I decided to wait until I caught up with the acclaimed documentary before seeing the feature. While I thought both were good, I can see why Herzog chose to flesh out Dieter Dengler's tale on a larger canvas, because Rescue Dawn is better.

In Herzog's feature take on Dengler's story, Christian Bale takes on the role of the German emigre to the United States whose desire to fly planes leads him into the U.S. Navy and the early part of the military escalation of Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

Both the documentary and the feature focus on the harrowing tale of what happens when Dengler's plane is downed over Laos on a secret mission to North Vietnam and he becomes one of a handful of American prisoners held there in the jungle.

One of the most compelling moments of the documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, is the account of the friendship Dengler formed with a fellow prisoner (played in Rescue Dawn by Steve Zahn). While Zahn is good in the role, this may be the one area where the documentary beats the fiction, as the real Dengler presented a more vivid portrait of his friend than the fictional depiction can deliver. It also eliminates the suspense of what will happen to Zahn, but still that scene comes as a surprise anyway.

Bale though is the one who really carries the bulk of Rescue Dawn on his shoulders and it's amazing, especially in the early parts of the film, how little dialogue there is: just the uncertain sounds of the wild world which has enveloped Dengler.

The other major role of the film is a bit of a disappointment. Jeremy Davies plays another American prisoner, determined not to escape because of his belief that a release will be imminent. The twitchy, nervous prisoner is not a new character, but I swear that Davies looks and sounds as if they lifted him directly from the set of his starring role as Charles Manson in the TV remake of Helter Skelter.

Still, Herzog's direction and especially Bale keeps the momentum going nearly from start to finish. The reason I ended up preferring the fiction to the fact is that the documentary, told exclusively from the real, older Dengler's point-of-view seems silly at times, especially when they are re-creating scenes of Dieter's imprisonment and mistreatment with real-life Laotians of the 1990s filling in as his captors.

Still, both films are worth a look, though the two together don't exactly add up to a compelling whole.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Going Gently (if not very Happily) into That Good Night

By Josh R
When it comes to aging parents and the grown children who have to care for them, whose position is the less enviable? When failing health enters into the equation, there are no easy choices — and even fewer prospects for a happy ending. This would be the case in even the most loving, well-adjusted of families. When the people in question are of the dysfunctional variety — both individually and collectively — it’s not exactly conducive to heroics. Even if the brother-and-sister pair memorably delineated by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages weren’t faced with the challenges of dealing with a dying father, they wouldn’t be rolling in clover; since misery loves company, Dad’s infirmities only add to the weight of their already troubled existences. Entering the home stretch is no picnic — and as Tamara Jenkins’ darkly comic film suggests, groping one’s way through middle age isn’t that much better.

The family is, in fact, called the Savages. Even though its junior members belong to the rarefied world of academia and high culture — conversations are peppered with references to Bertholt Brecht and Josef von Sternberg — they’re living up to their name in other ways. The trouble begins — or rather, intensifies — when Wendy, a self-professed playwright who supports herself by doing temp work, gets the distressing news that her estranged father (Philip Bosco) has been acting out by smearing his feces on the walls of his Arizona home. Although her brother John — a sad sack college professor who cries when his girlfriend, a Polish scholar who will be leaving him as soon as her visa expires, fixes him eggs — dryly advises his distraught sibling that they’re “not in a Sam Shepard play,” matters quickly progress from bad to worse; they’re not exactly bound for Shepard country, but for someplace just as difficult to negotiate. Figuring out what to do with Dad — an ornery old cuss rapidly sinking into dementia due to the onslaught of Parkinson’s disease — is a tricky proposition, offering no comfortable solutions. It doesn’t help that as a father, Lenny Savage was neglectful at best and abusive at worst; in addition to the guilt his children feel about being unable and unwilling to care for him properly, neither is insensible to the bitter irony of taking on responsibility for someone who never really took care of them.

If the film sounds lugubrious to an extreme, writer-director Jenkins provides enough flashes of sharp gallows humor to keep the proceedings from becoming unrelentingly bleak. Not that the approach is always entirely successful. There are times when The Savages’ systemic morbidity makes for a rather plodding affair — even though Jenkins is able to bring out the humor in pathos in unexpected ways (and vice versa), the film as a whole could have used more in the way of variety. It also smacks of some of the pretensions that are particular to the world of independent filmmaking; while a fine example of the genre, there is a sense of ennui that comes with witnessing the trials and tribulations of yet another batch of quirky dysfunctionals muddling their way through life in dysfunctionally quirky fashion. The plonkety-plonking score, which suggests both a sad brand of whimsy and a crestfallen synthesizer comparing notes with a clinically depressed xylophone, seems to have been a feature of every indie-family-drama of the past ten years; it’s practically a prerequisite. Those reservations aside, the film is well-written and ultimately very moving — it grows on one as the action progresses, handling its sensitive subject matter in a way that is never less than believable. Whatever minor flaws the film has are compensated for by the performances of the principals, who are uniformly excellent. With his rumpled, hangdog look and bone-dry delivery, Hoffman subtly suggests the deep-seated anger and inability to forgive that informs his character’s seeming passivity; while I sometimes find his whiny monotone and consistent underplaying a bit too method-actorish for my taste, in this, as in Owning Mahowny, the approach pays off. Laura Linney’s triumphs usually come in twos — in 2004 she scored twin knockouts with Kinsey and P.S., and in 2007, she repeats the feat. Jindabyne, a little-seen film which can (and should) be seen in its recent DVD release, cast her in a more darkly dramatic mode, while The Savages allows her to display a brittle, defensive humor that makes her character’s neuroticism all the more compelling. In both films, the bracing intelligence which has distinguished her best work is present and accounted for (and when you factor in her well-received supporting turns in Breach and The Nanny Diaries, she’s probably broken some record of Julianne Moore’s). Bosco, a veteran stage actor, is pitch-perfect as the regressed tyrant who, through the fog of his hazy confusion, can glean just enough of his offspring’s unspoken recrimination to understand just how friendless his predicament is. When Dylan Thomas famously urged his ailing father “Do not go gentle into that good night; Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” he wasn’t speaking of a parent who was made acutely aware of the extent to which he’d failed in respect to those duties. Sometimes, the light provides the only comfort that there is — in The Savages, the departure from the world of the living is ultimately a gentle one, if inescapably colored by bitter shades of regret.

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Monday, December 10, 2007


Dragging down the party

By Edward Copeland
As Odienator expressed so well a while back, John Waters' original Hairspray in 1988 was quite fun. I never got to see its stage incarnation, though I've listened to the original cast album numerous times and seen several clips of production numbers. Now, I've seen the film version of the musical version of the original movie and it's mostly a charming affair, though it's sunk frequently by the grotesque miscasting better known as John Travolta as Edna Turnblad.

Every detail of the Travolta Edna is wrong. Why does it always seem that when film makeup goes bad, it goes horribly bad, as it does here. The latex and body suit harnessed to Travolta creates something that not only looks fake and rips you violently from the 1962 Baltimore that the film is trying to create, sometimes it repulses you.

Unfortunately, all the blame for why Travolta just does not work doesn't lie with what he's wearing, it's with the performance itself. Not only did Divine and, in what I've seen of Harvey Fierstein, make Edna a real woman with minimal makeup tricks, they also created actual characters. Travolta for some reason has chosen to adopt a fake Southernish accent that seems like a bad parody of Dustin Hoffman's voice as his Dorothy Michaels character in Tootsie, another case where a man in drag created a plausible female character.

Fortunately though, Travolta's screen time is limited to some extent and when he is off, it truly allows the others in the cast to shine, especially newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy. The rest of the ensemble also is mostly fine across the board, including Christopher Walken (though imagine how good he could have been doing his number with someone other than Travolta as his partner), Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley and and Taylor Parks, to name but a few.

Michelle Pfeiffer does get to have more fun than she's had in a long time as the film's villainous Velma von Tussle, though the story change of making her the station manager and trying to seduce Walken, dowsn't really work. (Also, I have to admit, that I regret not giving her a husband as co-conspirator and a climax involving a time bomb hidden in a bouffant hairdo.)

With all the digital wizardry out there at talented people's fingers these days, maybe someone can alter the film and somehow insert Divine back into the role and let Fierstein do a Marni Nixon for the late actor.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007


A little late to the party

By Edward Copeland
With its tale of an alcoholic hit man trying to overcome the personal demons interfering with his job, You Kill Me seems to be a late entry in what in a little less than a decade has become a crowded genre within a genre. It's a shame, because there are good things in John Dahl's film, especially Ben Kingsley's lead performance, but the movie tastes like leftovers.

Kingsley plays Frank, the main triggerman for a group of Polish mobsters in Buffalo, N.Y., who find themselves being squeezed out by other criminal gangs, most notably the Irish ones.

Frank's boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall) wants him to take out the Irish gang's leader O'Leary (Dennis Farina) before he gets on the train to an important out-of-town meeting. Unfortunately, the toasted Frank passes out in his car at the train station and misses the chance to kill O'Leary.

As a result, Roman stages an intervention of sorts, dispatching Frank to San Francisco to dry out. While in the city on the bay, he meets up with a sympathetic toll booth attendant (Luke Wilson) at an AA meeting and a cynical would-be mourner (Tea Leoni), whose stepfather is being laid to rest by the funeral home in which Frank has found temporary employment.

Thanks to the performers, much of this material plays well, even if we've seen it played better elsewhere (most notably The Sopranos).

One of the film's problems is it keeps shifting back to the action in Buffalo, which is integral to the story but ends up sapping the San Francisco side of the story of any momentum.

It's not that the genre of the depressed/alcoholic mob guy or hit man can't be done well in the post-Sopranos age (think the underrated The Matador with Pierce Brosnan or the almost-forgotten gem Panic with William H. Macy), it's just that the bar has been set so much higher that anyone who wades into this territory really needs to bring something fresh to it.

You Kill Me is also a reminder of how Dahl, who showed so much promise back in the early 1990s with Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, still hasn't found a project worthy of his gifts since.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Why Rudolph is simply the best

By Edward Copeland
There are numerous examples I could cite as the reason the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer produced for TV in 1964 is the greatest Christmas special ever, but for me, it boils down to one simple thing: It contains an elf who wants to be a dentist.

Of course, the plight of poor Hermey really just symbolizes the timeless message of the tale: Siding with misfits against the conformists. You could layer on just about any metaphor of your choosing and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will satisfy it. As I do every year, I watched Rudolph again last night and it held me in its grasp as it has ever since the first time I saw it as a child. Sure, there have been questions I've had that have popped up over the years. (I still don't think they explain why the doll is on the Island of Misfit Toys. She doesn't appear to have any noticeable defect.)

However, it doesn't matter. You have the great Burl Ives as a snowman, leading us through this morality tale which also deserves points just for depicting Santa Claus as an asshole, even though he comes around in the end (Though I still love him complaining to Mrs. Claus about the elves annoying him with their silly song). There are other things I've noticed over the years, though I'm sure I'm the only one who has thought this: Is it me or is their a bit of a resemblance between Charlie in the Box and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch? The songs are mostly good, the characters are charming and its message is timeless. Contrast Rudolph with that other "holiday classic" Frosty the Snowman, which I've never liked.

Even as a child, I questioned the logic of that silly show. This magic hat brings a snowman to life, yet somehow he knows how to lead the kids through town, only to play dumb when a cop asks him what he's doing. On top of that, the kids develop an unhealthy attachment to Frosty, when they've known him a very short period of time. Most importantly, if the hat combined with Christmas snow provides the magic that brings him to life, why when he melts doesn't he become Frosty the Magic Puddle?

I digress, because this post is about my love for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It is pretty remarkable how cruel it portrays the other characters' treatment of Rudolph and Hermey, but that portrayal makes its message all the more powerful. At the same time, it somehow avoids being preachy in its simple message of tolerance, a message that deserves to be remembered no what season it is.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


A story of industry

NOTE: Ranked No. 20 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
It's a misnomer really to called 1936's Modern Times the last silent film that Charlie Chaplin made since the movie itself is really a hybrid. It has a score, sound effects galore, a song and even dialogue. What can't be mistaken though is that whatever you classify Modern Times as, it's one of the greats.

Set during the Great Depression, Modern Times offers one of the clearest glimpses at Chaplin's more political side, equating those slaving away on factory assembly lines as sheep. Of course, the Little Tramp (in his last screen appearance) is one of those sheep, pushed so hard at his job that his body literally has work spasms when he's on break, looking to continue tightening anything with his wrenches that would appear to need tightening (even a woman's nipples in one implied sequence). The factory is run by a man who would seem to foretell Orwell's Big Brother, even though the movie came out 12 years before 1984 was published. The unfeeling man even uses Chaplin as a guinea pig for an idea designed to eliminate the lunch break so more work can be done (and giving us a twist on the old pie-in-the-face gag as well).

While there are lots of laughs to be found in Modern Times, it's hard to escape the grim underpinnings as the Little Tramp ricochets through the system of the Great Depression, finding himself in jail, becoming an unwitting protest leader and facing unemployment when the factory shuts down. He also encounters another down on her luck, the luminous Paulette Goddard on the run from a planned life in the orphanage after her father dies. The two become a pair, with the Little Tramp even taking the blame for a crime Goddard commits so he can return to the "comfort" of jail. One of the film's comic highlights comes as Chaplin and Goddard are hired on by a restaurant as singing and dancing waitpersons. It provides the great sequence of Chaplin trying to deliver a tray of food to a customer through a sea of dancers.

Of course the crown jewel of this sequence is when the Little Tramp can't remember the words to the song he's supposed to sing and improvises one in pure gibberish, with exaggerated motions that let the audience create their own dirty jokes out of his nonsensical words. Many Chaplin fans prefer City Lights and while I love that film as well (and that's really a true silent offer), my heart always has belonged to Modern Times, with its hysterical sound effects (as when a minister's wife drinks tea) as well as its more pointed commentary. It also gives us the perfect, iconic image for a sendoff of the Little Tramp, one of the most important characters and figures in film history.

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