Wednesday, December 31, 2008

 

Resisting the expansion urge


By Edward Copeland
Too often when filmmakers choose to turn a short story into a movie, they can't help but enlarge the tale, feeling more is needed to justify feature length. In the case of The Yellow Handkerchief, director Udayan Prasad and screenwriter Erin Dignam have let Pete Hamill's original story dictate their actions and the result is a simple, compact and sweet film.


William Hurt has been so good for so long but it seems as if it's been ages since we've seen him get to strut his stuff in a lead as he does here in The Yellow Handkerchief. Hurt stars as a recently freed ex-con seeking to reconnect with his past who stumbles into the lives of two teens with problems of their owns.

Kristen Stewart plays Martine, uncomfortable with her burgeoning sexuality and unhappy with her home situation. Eddie Redmayne plays Gordy, a teen who seems to have embraced his awkwardness but uses his car as a charm to keep people attracted to his orbit. Both performers are good but I was particularly impressed when I learned Redmayne is British. Why is it that when American actors try different regional dialects they so often stick out like a sore thumb but Brits are so skilled at slipping into American accents without detection?

Much of the film includes flashbacks as Hurt's character as he recalls life with his wife May (Maria Bello) and the events that led to his imprisonment. Hurt's performance is a quiet one, but a powerful one.

Dignam and Prasad have managed to make a movie of The Yellow Handkerchief that really is a poignant filmed essay on loneliness with a little bit of hope for good measure.


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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

 

Dancing with the stars


By Edward Copeland
When the waiters and the florists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced nominations for a film called Last Chance Harvey, I thought this was another instance of the HFPA somehow being talked into nominating a film no one had ever heard of in exchange for ... whatever. The only difference was that Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are bigger names than usual. Now though the film is gaining notoriety and I've seen it myself, so I do know it exists. I also know it's a charming, if slight, movie though I'm not sure it belongs in the comedy category.


Hoffman stars as Harvey Shine, a commercial jingle composer on a downward spiral in his career and his life who is heading to London for the wedding of his only daughter. His path briefly crosses with Thompson, a middle-age spinster who works at the airport in London trying to get passengers to take surveys while living with her constantly meddling mom (Eileen Atkins).

Harvey had been planning to return to New York immediately following the nuptials to personally oversee a commercial pitch, a decision cemented when he learns that his daughter wants her stepfather (James Brolin) to give her away instead of Harvey. Because he misses his flight, he gets stuck at the airport and again encounters Thompson and the two lonely souls strike up a tentative friendship.

Written and directed by Joel Hopkins, Last Chance Harvey isn't a particularly great film, but it's not a bad film either. It's really just a chance to watch two pros like Hoffman and Thompson bounce their bountiful skills off each other and there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half.


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Monday, December 29, 2008

 

Cut to the Zwick


By Edward Copeland
Director Edward Zwick has an incredible, little-known true story of World War II to tell in Defiance and that's why it's so frustrating that he seemed determined in draining all of the life out of the episode and turning it into a monotonous debate.


Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell star as three Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Poland who led a resistance against the Germans from within the Belorussian woods while sheltering an ever-growing number of Jewish refugees.

Craig continues to show his considerable range. He's not going to be locked into a James Bond stereotype when he simultaneously starring in films like this or playing gay murderers in the other Truman Capote biopic, the underrated Infamous.

The problem with Defiance is that it so quickly becomes a bore. The Bielski Partisans as they came to be known started out as a group robbing the homes of Jews collaborating with the Germans to survive. It also turns into a case of seeking vengeance on those who would help the Nazis, killing them at times prompting a seemingly endless argument between Craig and Schreiber about whether or not that makes them just as bad as the Nazis, a debate that later shifts between other characters as the movie drags on and on and Schreiber's character leaves the hideout in the woods to help fight with the Russian Army.

As a result, aside from Craig, no one seems to develop much in the way of characterization as they become mostly props or pawns. Not helping Zwick's film is its washed-out look, which just makes it even dull to look at. When it gets to fighting scenes, especially the climactic battle, it looks like Zwick merely restaged his melees from Glory and The Last Samurai with actors in costumes from a different era.

It's a shame, because Defiance definitely has a fascinating story to tell. It just seems as if Zwick was determined to keep the fascinating out of his film.


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Sunday, December 28, 2008

 

Limited choices


By Edward Copeland
If you turned off the soundtrack and removed the subtitles of many of the best modern films from foreign countries, you could almost tell that there is no way they came from an American eye. The sensibility and compositions are different, not in a showy way, but in a simple yet powerful way. Add the sounds and the word, especially in a film as profound as Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, you wonder why so few American films are as good.


Thanks to the bizarre way in which foreign films get treated in the United States, there is much confusion as to whether 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days counts as a 2007 or a 2008 release.

Last year, it received critics' awards and a Golden Globe nomination. It apparently was submitted by Romania for the Oscar for foreign language film, but it didn't make the cut. As is often the case, screeners are sent for the potential foreign language nominees whether or not they've had an actual public release. Two of the five films the National Board of Review listed among their best foreign films this year apparently meet this case as IMDb shows no evidence that they've been released in the U.S.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days though did get a 2008 release, opening in limited release in January 2008 and reviewed the same day by both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, even though the L.A. Film Critics gave it awards in 2007 and the N.Y. Film Critics named it best foreign film for 2008. Anyway, for my purposes, I'm calling it a 2008 release and no matter what year it should belong to, it is a very good film.

Set in 1987 Romania, when the iron fist of communism as implemented by Nicolae Ceausecu still reigned, 4 Months tells the story of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a university student who decides to help her dorm roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure an abortion, something both illegal and dangerous where they live.

Making the mission even more difficult is the fact that Gabita is a bit of a dim bulb who can't or won't follow instructions and tells lies about how far along her pregnancy is for fear she won't find an abortionist willing to terminate her pregnancy.

Marinca gives an excellent performance as a woman with the patience of a saint who will literally do anything for her friend, doing her best to avoid drawing the attention of authorities and keeping her boyfriend happy by making an appearance at his mother's awful birthday party with older, snobby friends.

Her biggest test comes with the faceoff with Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the abortionist for hire.

Writer-director Mungui isn't coming from a Western perspective, so 4 Months isn't there to debate the abortion issue and it really isn't that heavy on the communist angle. He's just telling a story of what things were like in Romania at a particular time and his cast, his script and his spot-on direction turns it into a riveting tale that resonates across all borders.


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Saturday, December 27, 2008

 

Lukewarm leftovers


By Edward Copeland
After returning to great form last year with both No Country for Old Men and their contribution "Tuileries" in the short film collection Paris, je t'aime, it would be mean to expect the Coen Brothers to immediately surpass their 2007 achievements. With Burn After Reading, they certainly don't. If "Tuileries" was an appetizer and No Country a baked ham dinner, Burn After Reading is the ham salad made from all the leftover ham. It's fine for a lunch, but it's really just there to make room in the refrigerator.


The Coens have assembled a cast of regulars and newcomers willing to give it their all in this loony farce and they all come off well, especially Frances McDormand as a fortysomething health club employee who feels she's taken her body as far as she can and is looking for ways to finance multiple surgeries to improve her form.

In addition to the A-listers, one performer who didn't get enough credit when the film originally came out was Richard Jenkins. While Jenkins has earned plenty of deserved praise this year for his fine lead role in The Visitor, he is equally good in his funny supporting role here as the concerned health club manager with a secret longing for McDormand's character.

As for the story itself, it's just an excuse for manic goings-on as the various characters played by McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and John Malkovich mainly cross paths regarding what is essentially a MacGuffin: a computer disc containing a manuscript for a book by ex-CIA agent Malkovich which Pitt and McDormand mistakenly believe contains classified information.

While everyone gives it the old college try and the story is abstract enough that you can force whatever meaning you want onto it, it's really just a slight farce.

There are laughs to be had, but Burn After Reading is infinitely forgettable and seems like something that got tossed off until the Coens could think of a more worthy project to make.


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To laugh or not to laugh


By Edward Copeland
When it was first being previewed, I have to admit that the idea of Hamlet 2 appealed to me greatly. I have a soft spot for bad taste if it's done smart and well and while the movie has a talented cast and a lot of laughs, it just doesn't quite get there.


Directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming who made the underrated comedy Dick (but also was responsible for the remake of The In-Laws), tells the story of an insanely committed high school drama teacher in Tucson, Ariz., who stages bad re-enactments of movies until he learns that budget cuts are going to mean the end of his department altogether.

He decides to write a bizarre, original show to save the department and purge some demons. What makes Hamlet 2 work as well as it does is it has an actor as insanely committed to the role of the teacher as the teacher is in Steve Coogan. He is a tornado of energy, a comic marvel as he spins from one situation to another from spoofing inspirational films such as Dangerous Minds while finding a worthy comic partner in Catherine Keener as his miserable wife.

Another great gag in the film is Elisabeth Shue as herself, who has supposedly quit acting to become a nurse.

There is a lot of politically incorrect humor in the film, mostly in the production they are staging itself, but unfortunately they don't show us a lot of it. I for one would like to see how Cheney figures in to the show and to watch the part where Satan and Dubya French kiss.

The big musical number, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," is funny and I would love to see it get an Oscar nomination, though it still won't be as cool a nomination as "Blame Canada."


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Friday, December 26, 2008

 

Careful what you wish for


By Edward Copeland
During the numerous interviews writer-director Rod Lurie has given promoting his movie Nothing But the Truth, he talks about how much he likes films (his own and others) that provoke thought and discussion once the movie is over. This proves deadly for his own film because the more you examine it in retrospect, the more it falls apart.


If Nothing But the Truth were an episode of Law & Order, it would inevitably carry the teaser "Ripped From the Headlines" in its previews. Based loosely on the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame as retaliation for her husband's column disputing part of the Bush Administration's case for the Iraq war, Lurie's film focuses on the idea of reporters defending their sources, in this case Kate Beckinsale who, like the real-life Judith Miller, goes to jail to protect her source.

Lurie changes his story so much for the purpose of twists and to preserve its status as fiction that he ends up undermining his mission: the need for a federal shield law for journalists. From this point on in the review, to really go into detail about how he botches the job so badly, I'm going to have reveal pretty much every twist in the film, so this is your:

SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING

OK, you can't say you haven't been warned so now I'm delving into the plot in detail.

First, a brief primer on the real life Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame case, for those who have forgotten and for those who never knew. Joe Wilson was a former ambassador dispatched to check out claims that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from the African country of Niger. Wilson came back and reported there was nothing to back up the claims. The Bush Administration ignored his report and perpetuated the myth for their own ends anyway.

Later, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times saying that he found no proof of the claim. Soon after, it was revealed in a Robert Novak column that Wilson's wife was Valerie Plame, a CIA operative. The CIA demanded that the Justice Department launch an investigation since the outing of a CIA operative's identity is a crime. Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed special counsel and pursued the leak, not only to Novak but to a subsequent story in Time magazine and to Judith Miller, who ironically never even wrote about Valerie Plame but went to jail to protect her source.

In the version in Nothing But the Truth, there is an assassination attempt made on the president. The attack is used as a pretense for the U.S. to launch a war against Venezuela. A noted administration critic later writes an op-ed revealing that the administration had been given an intelligence report finding no link between Venezuela and the assassination attempt.

Reporter Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale) learns that the writer's wife is Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), the CIA operative who filed the report on Venezuela. Rachel and her editors are excited when she nails down further confirmation and believe Rachel will win a Pulitzer Prize for her story.

Let's stop here to examine what's wrong with all of this to this point. Now, if Erica's buried report that her husband revealed in his article (without her permission, we learn) were the subject of Rachel's story, I see the scoop, but is it jaw-dropping journalism to write a story that a thorn in a president's side is married to a CIA agent? Further, since the CIA certainly was aware of who Erica was married to, wouldn't she have been in a shitload of trouble for letting her husband either accidentally or on purpose know the details of an intelligence report and publish it?

Soon, a special counsel (Matt Dillon) is appointed and the heat begins to be put on Rachel to cough up the name of her source. Her paper stands behind her, despite their weaselly counselor (Noah Wyle) and they secure a high-powered defense attorney (Alan Alda) for Rachel. Alda, in fact, pretty much plays the only sympathetic male character in the film.

Beckinsale and especially Farmiga are very good but part of that is because the deck is so unfairly stacked against everyone in the film with a y chromosome. Dillon is supposed to be part charmer, part barracuda, but he really only comes across as an asshole. Erica's husband, the Joe Wilson equivalent, barely has any lines and inexplicably leaves his wife and takes his daughter when the newspaper outs her.

David Schwimmer plays Rachel's novelist husband, who starts out as a good guy but turns adulterer soon after his wife goes to jail because he needs to get laid regularly, First Amendment be damned. What really requires a special counsel investigation is the disappearance and reappearance of Schwimmer's facial hair throughout the film.

Of course, the ultimate point of Lurie's film is that journalists should be able to protect their sources so they can keep government in check, etc. However, that is undermined by the final twist, when we learn who Rachel's first source was. See, Erica and Rachel's kids go to the same school, though their moms never knew each other. On a field trip, Erica's young daughter inadvertently reveals who her father is, that her parents argued over something to do with her work and that mom is a spy.

First, would a reporter go this far when her story was launched with the help of a grade school student? Second, the special prosecutor repeatedly says that any government official who outs a CIA agent has committed a crime. Wouldn't this all have been over quickly if Rachel had told him and the court her source was not a government official? Hell, why wouldn't she give up the kid? Was she afraid of being embarrassed? Did she hope to get more scoops out of the kid? (Perhaps give her the code name Deep SquarePants.) Did she think they'd try to send a kid to jail? How much taxpayer money was wasted on this silliness?

A really good movie should be made about the need for a federal shield law, but Lurie seemed more attracted to tricks than truth. Beckinsale is good and Farmiga is very good, buy they deserved a better vehicle.


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Thursday, December 25, 2008

 

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)


By Edward Copeland
It was announced this Christmas morning that Nobel Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter has succumbed to cancer after a long battle at age 78. Pinter always evoked mixed reactions from both critics and audiences with his often challenging works, where what wasn't said was often as important as what was.


Eleven of his plays were performed on Broadway, with several being revived, the most recent being The Homecoming last season, which our own Josh R hailed as sensational in his review.

The first Pinter play to ever hit the Great White Way was The Caretaker in 1961. He managed to win a Tony only once, for the original 1967 production of The Homecoming but he also was nominated for directing Robert Shaw's play The Man in the Glass Booth.

The only Pinter play I had the pleasure of seeing was a 1990s off-Broadway revival of The Hothouse, an oblique farce set in an institution that shows more of Pinter's wit than he's usually given credit for.

Pinter began writing screenplays about the same time as his plays began to hit Broadway, though some never played Broadway and were written exclusively for television. Among the notables: The Pumpkin Eater, which earned Anne Bancroft an Oscar nomination; Accident and The Go-Between, both directed by Joseph Losey; and The Comfort of Strangers.

He earned two Oscar nominations for adapted screenplay. One for adapting the novel The French Lieutenant's Woman and one for adapting his own brilliant play Betrayal. The story about a romance told in reverse chronological order starred Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley and remains one of my favorite films. It even inspired the great backward Seinfeld episode called "The Betrayal" where a character was named Pinter in further homage. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005.

RIP Sir Harold.

To read The New York Times obit, click here


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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

 

Freaks of Nature, Freakishly Good


By Josh R
When it comes to the men and women who make the movies, history insists that there is no such thing as a sure thing. Not even the most gifted and influential of the lot — be it Hitchcock, Truffaut, Hawks, Scorsese, Bergman, fill in the blanks as you may — can lay claim to an unblemished record. Only so much of this can be attributed to age and the law of diminishing returns; Hitchcock’s late-career films may not have been as good as his earlier ones, but then, he made The Paradine Case within a year of Notorious (it didn’t help). Perhaps there’s some truth to the notion that talent is a constant; be that as it may, its application is a hit-or-miss proposition, and quality is often difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.

All of this goes to suggest that Mike Leigh — the standard bearer in the world of British independent filmmaking for more than two decades now — might be something of a freak of nature. It is true that some of his films, most of which favor a style based heavily in improvisation, have been more kindly received than others (and only 2002’s All or Nothing, it should be noted, sank upon arrival on these shores without a trace). Speaking only for myself, I have never come away from one of his films feeling disappointed, short-changed, or simply wondering what in hell the nutty old bloke could have possibly been thinking when he embarked upon the enterprise.


It is entirely possible — nay, even probable — that the law of averages will catch up to Mr. Leigh sooner or later. As of this writing, it has not; his latest film more than ably demonstrates that he still knows exactly what he’s doing, and exactly how to get it done. Lighter-than-air in most respects, the aptly-titled Happy-Go-Lucky lacks the emotional punch of his best films — but even as a minor entry in the Leigh canon, it keeps the streak alive, and the laws of probability confounded.

Unlike some of his more recent films — most memorably 2004’s Vera Drake, a devastating account of a mid-20th century abortionist being crushed underfoot by a hypocritical establishment — Happy-Go-Lucky is a throwback to the small scale, character-driven films on which Leigh first made his reputation. As in Life is Sweet and High Hopes, the film is almost entirely character-driven, as opposed to taking shape around a cut-and-dried narrative structure. What we see is a series of vignettes fashioned around the character of Poppy (an effervescent Sally Hawkins), a resolutely cheerful young woman who teaches primary school in a working class neighborhood. The film observes her in her everyday life: chatting up strangers, hanging out with her mates, attempting to keep a straight face during physical therapy sessions and flamenco classes, dealing with a school bully, visiting her married sister in the suburbs, enjoying a flirtation with a charming social worker, and gamely taking lessons from an unctuous driving instructor. While it may be tempting to regard the approach as haphazard — and I suppose that with no plot to speak of, the film is lacking something in terms of shape — as in the more overtly schematic Vera Drake, everything in Happy-Go-Lucky is geared to a purpose. A kindred spirit to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Poppy is the kind of eternally optimistic, unostentatiously decent sort of “little” person who comes face to face with the evils and indignities of the world; while appraising them with an astonishingly clear eye, she refuses to succumb to bitterness, anger or despair. Some of the things that she confronts in her travels are horrible, indeed — an instance of brutal abuse wreaking havoc on the delicate psyche of a child, a disoriented derelict who talks in streams of gibberish, and some genuinely harrowing glimpses into the damaged soul of Scott (the excellent Eddie Marsan), the driving instructor whose smudgy outbursts of rage eventually fix upon Poppy as their object. The heroine registers her encounters with all of these people — lost, drifting figures in the sad, confused parade of human suffering — with a mix of compassion, sorrow, and occasional bewilderment, but without allowing it to dampen her naturally sanguine outlook or her essential faith in the existence of goodness. Even when bleak realities of life threaten to engulf and extinguish her tiny beam of light, she manages to keep aloft above the waves. She’s not just a glass-is-half-full person; against all odds, her cup runneth over.

I will confess that for the few minutes or so, I couldn’t help wondering if that indefatigable buoyancy of spirit would become grating in the extreme. The opening sequence of the film shows our clean-scrubbed heroine chirpily trying to engage an unresponsive bookstore clerk in conversation — as she forges breezily ahead in her attempts, completely undaunted by his silence, you think “Oh God, not one of these.” (Unflagging perkiness is fine for morning talk-show hostesses, but nobody wants to encounter anyone who can approximate that quality in real life.) Any misgivings were swept aside fairly quickly, due in no small part to the warmth and originality Hawkins brings to the role; all toothy grins and jangly bracelets, she’s as endearingly quirky a presence as Diane Keaton was in her Annie Hall days, and her disarmingly self-deprecating charm and all-around averageness (that's meant as a compliment) gives the film an emotional honesty it couldn’t possibly have had with some airbrushed movie star dressing down and playing against type. As always, the strength of the film owes much to the director’s talent for casting. Leigh very astutely chooses unconventional performers who interpret their roles in highly individualized ways. The performances he draws from them are often heightened and exaggerated, but always in ways that feel completely authentic. More than any other director I can think of — save, perhaps, for Rossellini and De Sica — Leigh has always exhibited a genuine empathy for the working classes, and a natural affinity for the world in which they live. There is nothing condescending or romanticized about his attitudes; the slice-of-life he is serving up in Happy-Go-Lucky may cast a rosy glow, but it always feels true to life. A cynic might feel that people like Poppy are too good to be true; the actress and director are so keyed in to what makes her tick that the audience never questions the plausibility of her behavior and motives. Like Mike Leigh, Poppy is something of a freak of nature — just be glad that in a world of darkness, such freaks are still in evidence to provide rare glimpses of light.


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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

 

Not down for the count


By Edward Copeland
On one episode of TV's M*A*S*H, Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester remarks that he does one thing at a time, he does it well and then he moves on. In a way, that applies to Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler as well, only he can't move on because wrestling is the only thing he's ever done well, even though he's far past his prime.


Recent evidence would make you think that might be the case with Mickey Rourke, who plays Randy, as well. With the exception of being the best part of Sin City, he's toiled for decades in mediocre films, small parts or odd appearances that made moviegoers ask, "Is this the same guy who was so great in Diner? Angel Heart? Barfly? The Pope of Greenwich Village? What the hell happened?"

The scars show on his face in The Wrestler, but Darren Aranofsky's film also uncovers that a great actor still breathes beneath the bruises. It's 20 years since The Ram's heyday and while he still draws fans at smaller wrestling circuits, he has to make ends meet by working at a supermarket.

The closest thing he has to a friend is a pole dancer (Marisa Tomei) he occasionally pays for a lap dance. When some bad health news changes the outlook for Randy's future, he looks to make amends by reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and charting a new course for himself.

Aranofsky tells a tough yet tender slice of life in The Wrestler, with nothing that resembles the man who made Pi and Requiem for a Dream. In perhaps the most brilliant shot of the film, Aranofsky pays homage to Scorsese's tracking shot in Raging Bull as Randy hears the growing sound of the crowd in his head only to come out not to the arena and the ring but the grocery's meat department.

Tomei and Wood both are good, but this is Rourke's show from beginning to end. Comebacks happen often, but few seem as deserved or as worthy of adoration as Rourke's. Let's just hope it continues beyond The Wrestler. We missed you, Mickey.


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Monday, December 22, 2008

 

Robert Mulligan (1925-2008)


By Edward Copeland
Robert Mulligan, who died Saturday at 83, was a solid workman-like director. Not all of his films were good or memorable by any means but the ones that were more than merit his inclusion among the best, if for To Kill a Mockingbird alone.


That movie version of Harper Lee's great novel remains one of the most faithful adaptations of a wonderful book ever brought to the big screen in Horton Foote's screenplay. Beyond that achievement was his astonishing work with the cast, bringing great performances out of the children, including an Oscar nomination for Mary Badham as Scout. He also elicited Gregory Peck's best work ever as the noble Atticus Finch and got Peck a deserved Oscar for the performance.

Mulligan, whose brother was the late actor Richard Mulligan of Soap and Empty Nest fame, got his directing start in 1950s live television before moving into film with such efforts as Fear Strikes Out starring Anthony Perkins and two Natalie Wood vehicles: Love with the Proper Stranger and Inside Daisy Clover.

In 1978, he directed a guilty pleasure of mine: Alan Alda and the great Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year, which even now, decades after I first saw it, if I catch it on TV, I have to watch it until the end. I can hear Johnny Mathis singing right now.

Fittingly, one of his best films was his last one and also featured another great performance by a youngster when he made The Man in the Moon starring a then-14-year-old Reese Witherspoon.

RIP Mr. Mulligan.


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A song without the lyrics


By Edward Copeland
Documentaries can take many forms, but essentially they face the same task as a fiction film: to tell a story or expand on one already known. That's what so puzzling about Young@Heart, which is great fodder for a documentary. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't bother to include much in the way or research or reporting.


The film chronicles a chorus of senior citizens that tours the world singing rock and pop classics, drawing huge crowds and delighting audiences. The performances are fun (such as "I Wannna Be Sedated") and touching ("Forever Young," sung after a chorus member's death), but aside from getting to know a bit about some of the chorus members, we learn nothing about when or how the chorus was formed.

Chorus director Bob Cilman is a big focus, but we know next to nothing about him by the time the film is over.

Directed by Stephen Walker (who might be the narrator, I can't even say that with certainty), we know that the chorus has toured Europe, but with the frail health of so many of the singers no mention is made of what if any precautions are made.

You have to assume that the chorus has achieved a certain degree of success and been around awhile, but the documentary never tells you when the chorus began or how the seniors were even chosen for membership. Were there auditions? As members die, do they audition for replacements? Where and how? If Stephen Walker has an idea, he's not sharing it with us.

In fact, he doesn't even bother to introduce us by name to all of the principal chorus members who play crucial parts in the film. It's all really sort of a shame because I'm sure there is a great story to be told about the Young@Heart chorus and unfortunately this film doesn't tell it.

The enthusiasm and show-must-go-on spirit of the singers is the only reason Young@Heart works as a film at all since as a documentary, it is nearly a complete failure.


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Friday, December 19, 2008

 

The loser has to fall


By Edward Copeland
I love musicals. I'll even admit that I find several ABBA songs catchy. So please, someone, explain to me how a film as awful as Mamma Mia! was such a big friggin' hit.


There are so many things to criticize about director Phyllida Lloyd's screen version of the Broadway smash that it seems strange to me that one of my biggest problems with the film comes down to math.

The skimpy plot on which the medley of ABBA songs is hung is very similar to a sunny version of the awful 1980s TV movie Lace II, with Amanda Seyfried inheriting the Phoebe Cates role only without the chance to ask the three possible sperm donors, "Which one of you bastards is my father?"

Anyway, back to the math problems. Seyfried has perused the diary of her mom (Meryl Streep) and realizes that three men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) could be her father. Since Seyfried is about to wed on the Greek isle where her mother runs a villa, she invites all three men hoping she can determine her paternity and have dear new dad walk her down the aisle.

During one number by the men, they remember their glorious past with Streep during the "flower power" days. Now, there is no indication that Mamma Mia! is a period piece, so I have to assume it takes place in the present.

At first I thought perhaps they made the strange casting decision of having the 23-year-old Seyfried playing someone in her late 30s or older, but that idea went out the window when her character later says she's 20.

Then I had to assume that this Greek isle had some strange rip in space and time that allowed hippiedom to last until the late '80s. They never say how old Streep's character is, but since the actress is 59, does that mean she was still going through her wild child phase at 39?

Tossing all that mathematical nonsense aside, there is another puzzler. Brosnan's character left Streep's character because he was engaged, but he says he broke off the engagement and returned to her only to find she was with someone else. As a result, he wed someone else and says he's been divorced for 21 years and has grown children. Yet he's a suspect in the paternity of a 20-year-old girl. Huh?

Enough math. Let's discuss other suspensions of belief it's hard to get past. Granted, anytime large groups of people burst out in song, it's a little fake, but it seems particularly odd at times here. When Streep is sneaking around a rooftop to spy on the men hiding in a room, suddenly other people living on the island join her up on the roof for the sing-a-long for no apparent reason.

That one isn't as bad though as when the young couple are singing their love on the beach to each other and suddenly a chorus of backup dancing men outfitted with flippers emerge from the sea.

Mamma Mia! surprised me. I expected it to be harmless, but it was dull, wasted the talents of many talented performers and made me long for a real ABBA album so I could hear the songs the way they were meant to be heard instead of the piss-poor productions they get here.


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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

 

To Errol is human


By Edward Copeland
Twenty years ago, Errol Morris made one of the greatest documentaries of all time, The Thin Blue Line. I'd planned to write an appreciation of the film on the exact anniversary of the film that helped get an innocent man released from Texas' death row until circumstances took me down. Thirty years ago, Morris made a less-slick, but really sweet and odd nonfiction film called Gates of Heaven about pet cemeteries and the people who bury their lost companions there. Morris has continued to make documentaries but it seems as if the more polished his technique as a filmmaker has become, the more his skills as a documentarian have faltered. This is certainly the case with his Abu Ghraib documentary this year, Standard Operating Procedure, which seems more interested in re-creations and showy scenes than simple reporting.


Since the subject matter of Standard Operating Procedure concerns the Iraq war, Morris is at a bit of a handicap since documentaries about Bush's boondoggle and the war on terror have practically become a genre of their own.

Morris' film does have some pluses going for it though: interviews with many of the key players involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, including Lynndie England, a presence in many of the most infamous scenes of torture. The straight-on interviews with the principals are powerful enough, but Morris feels the need to dress it up with ghostly images and actors portraying the people involved, even tossing in the explosion of a military helicopter at one point for no apparent reason.

When one soldier is reading a letter she wrote home, describing how she had to stamp out swarms of ants, Morris feels it necessary to create sepia-toned images of shoes coming down on insects. (He even gets an original score from Danny Elfman and some cinematography from Robert Richardson to spruce things up.)

Standard Operating Procedure seems particularly weak coming on the heels of last year's Oscar winner for documentary feature, Taxi to the Dark Side, which focused on abuses at prisons in Afghanistan which later migrated to Abu Ghraib. That film played like an investigation and was all the more powerful for it.

Standard Operating Procedure never really builds to anything and goes off on strange tangents, such as a lengthy section explaining the difference in time stamps on different versions of the same photos and how one man fixed the cameras to have the same time.

I was so puzzled by Morris' approach that though I didn't much care for the film, I started to listen to the DVD commentary in search of my own answers. Soon into Morris' commentary he explains that what he wanted the documentary to be about was photographs, if what's in the frame is the truth or if it's hiding the reality outside the frame.

That's certainly a noble idea, but Abu Ghraib alone was the wrong vehicle to get this point across, because that doesn't come through. You know how a joke isn't funny if you have to explain why it's funny? That's how I feel about movies, fiction and nonfiction. They shouldn't need supplements to explain them. They should succeed or fail on their own.

Maybe if Morris had told multiple stories, such as he did with Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, his idea about photos would have been clear, but expecting viewers to glean that from as combustible a subject matter as Abu Ghraib and Iraq is not the right vehicle for that pursuit.


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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

 

Can We Skip the Reception?


By Josh R
There are moments when I get why people — specifically, the sort of people who exult the virtues of “the heartland” — can’t stand all us crackpot, bleeding heart, hippy-dippy liberals. I had one of those moments watching Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, ostensibly a film about dysfunctional family relationships but really more of a patchwork paean to multiculturalism and progressive left-wing attitudes, and a rather self-congratulatory one at that.


As the title suggests, the film takes place at a wedding — not just any wedding, mind you, but the kind that would send an over-the-hill ACLU lawyer still pining for the glory days of Ann Arbor into fits of ecstasy. The bride is white, the groom is black, the guests represent every color and creed under the sun, the theme is Indian (as in: the bridesmaids wear saris and the wedding cake is adorned with the figure of a large spangled elephant), and the guitars and tambourines are out in full force. Seemingly every musician and performance artist from within a 12 mile radius of Columbia County has been recruited to participate in the nuptial festivities — this means we hear everything from reggae music performed on kettle drums to modern indie folk rock to wailing Yoko Ono types. Basically, it’s Woodstock with place settings and a good champagne. Now, all of this might make sense in a film that was sending up the pretensions of liberalism as a cultural attitude, but Rachel is enacted with an entirely straight face and without a trace of irony. The kids who are too cool for school (but took tons of critical theory courses) are showing us how hip and evolved they are, and patting themselves on the back for it. As someone who’s been to a few Williamsburg coffee houses in my time, I can tell you that a little of this particular brand of self-absorption goes a long way — and is fairly intolerable in large quantities. By the time the Brazilian Carnivale dancers in feather headdresses arrive to form a conga line, I would have welcomed a canned recording of Karen Carpenter singing “Close to You” as if someone had tossed me a life ring.

The plot of Rachel Getting Married is virtually beside the point; it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the movie Demme really wanted to make was a concert film, until some savvy producer badgered him into padding it out with an actual storyline. Kym, played by Anne Hathaway (with badly cropped hair and raccoon-eye makeup to let us know she’s edgy, misunderstood and has tons of emotional baggage), is a recovering druggie just sprung from rehab to participate in her sister’s wedding. Old wounds are reopened and administered with heaping spoonfuls of salt en route to the big day, as Kym must confront the sins of her past and her unresolved feelings toward her nearest and dearest. Hathaway is fine in what seems like a foolproof role for an actress aiming to show that she can stretch. It’s one that’s been played so many times that it contains very little surprise at this point, and to be honest, the performance doesn’t have a fraction of the depth or originality that, say, Jennifer Jason Leigh brought to Georgia. Whenever a squeaky-clean good girl takes on an edgy bad girl role, critical hosannahs are never far behind; Hathaway is not a bad actress, but Rachel Getting Married doesn’t reveal any new wrinkles to her talent — and really, given what an attention-grabing role it is, it doesn’t really represent much of a risk for her. Better is Rosemarie De Witt as the titular bride, although the character is outlined in such vague terms that there really isn’t very much she can do with it. Lagging far behind the women is Bill Irwin, a very fine stage actor whose performance as the father is a bit too ingratiating to be entirely convincing; Anna Deveare Smith is thoroughly wasted in the role of the sympathetic stepmother.

The most interesting performance in the film is given by Debra Winger as Abby, the curiously detached mother who has withdrawn from her family to such an extent that her appearance at her own daughter’s wedding has an uncomfortable air of formality. Abby is hardly the emotionally barren, tightly wound bitch from Ordinary People — it is clear that she still loves her daughters, and still feels the tug of the parent-child bond; she has simply compartmentalized her feelings to such an extent that she can no longer comfortably acknowledge them. Winger could do wonders with this role — frankly, she does small wonders with what little she has — but is both criminally underused and badly betrayed by the film’s editing. The most loaded scene in Rachel Getting Married is the inevitable confrontation between Kym and Abby; Demme abruptly cuts away from it before it’s reached a natural conclusion, leaving both the actresses and the audiences high and dry. Ultimately, I’m not sure drama has very much place in Rachel Getting Married — it would detract too much focus from the kettle drums, the Bollywood decor and the conga line.


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Monday, December 15, 2008

 

Running with the Bulls…and Getting Nowhere


By Josh R
There are certain pursuits that only a crazy person — or an inveterate thrill seeker — would ever be gutsy and/or stupid enough to engage in. The annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, is a custom that engenders shock and outrage in some quarters and a sense of vicarious fear and excitement in others. No matter how much one dreads the potential consequences, the notion of flirting with disaster — if not the prospect of being gored and maimed by a hard-charging beast — will always be a turn-on.

Woody Allen is not the first name that comes to mind when the discussion turns to risk-taking.


For much of the '90s and early aughts, his films were characterized by the kind of cheap, prurient humor that all but screamed creative exhaustion; the approach smacked of desperation, while the attitudes smacked of misanthropy (if there are any two films in the Allen canon which convey more contempt for humanity than Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity, please — discourage from Santa from depositing those DVDs in my Christmas stocking). Critics have hailed his most recent strategy — specifically, making films that seem wildly out-of-character for him — as a return to form. Based on how impersonal in style most of the “new” Woody Allen films have been (and even Match Point, while not without merit, felt dry and academic even when it was trying for heat and danger), I remain unconvinced. Sometimes inspiration has to be borrowed rather than self-generated, which is not only forgivable but inevitable for anyone who can boast nearly half of the cinematic output of a Woody Allen. The writer-director has famously paid homage to other directors whose work he admires — most notably Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini — and the results have occasionally been very good indeed. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona he’s taking on Almodóvar without the freak factor, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it isn’t an assignment he feels particularly comfortable with or well disposed to handle. Tackling the unfamiliar can represent a risk; it’s only a good risk if it has a chance in hell of working. There are things to like — and at least one thing to love — about this awkwardly conceived and frequently exasperating romantic-quadrangle story set in a sunny Spain where the wine runs as freely as those crazy bulls stampeding through the Pamplona streets. On the balance, however, it ultimately seems like a half-baked attempt at the kind of film Woody Allen doesn’t know how to make — or at least, shouldn’t be trying to make in the absence of a concept that's been clearly thought out from beginning to end.

Fittingly, Vicky Cristina is an ode to the perils of grappling with irresolute feelings, and the emotional gap between doing what feels right and what seems best. Two young American women have come to spend the summer in Barcelona, one to finish her dissertation and the other to soak in the rays, take a few snapshots and generally play tagalong. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a confirmed dilettante, is the more intrepid of the two. She has no idea what she wants out of life beyond a vague need for excitement and a departure from the norm. Cautious, pragmatic Vicky (Rebecca Hall), engaged to be married at the end of the summer, is a little too firmly resolved on the future for her own good. Both women become romantically entangled with a seductive Spanish painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who offers each one very different glimpses of what the future might hold should they be brave and/or impulsive enough to act on their desires. Each of the women wind up running with the bulls, and while no one gets gored, no one escapes completely intact either. Ultimately, both women’s inability to reconcile their own conflicted feelings makes the fulfillment of the fantasy somewhat less than satisfying.

The difficulty in making film about people who don’t know what they want comes in creating clear definition of character, or in finding a sense of purpose in their behavior. This is something that Allen (with one glorious exception) never really figures out how to do, and as a result, Vicky Cristina often feels like a film in search of an author. None of the people we observe, save for one, really ever come into sharp focus, saddled as they are with behaviors and attitudes that are too inconsistent, or just plain hard to make sense of, to be entirely convincing. Bardem is such a marvelously predatory presence in the first half of the film, that the passivity he displays in the second undermines all the goodwill and he’s built up as an enjoyably shady schmoozer of tourists. As the hedonist who’s too flaky to stay fixed on a single sensation long enough to find any lasting gratification in it, Johansson does her usual trick of underplaying every scene that she’s in – the fact that she does it to good effect here doesn’t dispel the lingering sense that, as an actress, she may be a one-trick pony. Rebecca Hall, a newcomer who sometimes manages to make a striking impression, has an intuitive grasp of the nuances of Allen’s dialogue and speech patterns. She has a presence and substance that Johansson lacks, but the character’s hostility toward Bardem in the early scenes is alienating, while her staunch determination not to give over to her feelings exhausts the audience’s patience later on (her powers of forbearance are so commendable she’s like Elizabeth II refusing to break down and give Prince Charles a hug). None are helped by dialogue that often seems as stilted as the bald, perfunctory-seeming narration that flattens out the action like a steamroller. Allen’s dialogue used to flow so naturally, to the point where it often seemed improvised — perhaps because he’s no longer making the kind of films that he feels comfortable making, or that feel distinctively his, the words now come out sounding as if they were translated into English from another language.

Things being what they are, Vicky Cristina Barcelona stumbles along for its first 45 minutes or so like a Cook’s tour without a guide, without conveying much in the way of excitement or energy — stumbling, that is, until the arrival of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena, the kind of volatile and erratic presence for whom creating chaos comes as naturally as getting out of bed. Maria Elena is played by Penélope Cruz, an actress who’s been easy to dismiss as little more than a pretty face for the bulk of her career. She needn’t have to worry about that from here on out. As a walking cyclone of emotions who is passionate, provocative, paranoid and more than slightly unhinged, Cruz's impact on the film is something akin to a bomb going off in a glass factory; the character may not be any more fully realized by the author than any of the others, but the performance has such an electric intensity that it cuts right through the bullshit and becomes a genuine force of nature — dangerous, unpredictable, and as sexy-scary as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Unfortunately for the actress, and the audience, neither the film nor the filmmaker know exactly what to do with her. We keep waiting for Allen to give Cruz the opportunity to take Vicky Cristina Barcelona to another level — a big juicy scene, a monologue, anything… she gets so much kick and charge out of the material she has that it whets our appetite for more (in short, she's terrific). The bull is waiting at the gates, kicking back the dirt with steam issuing from her nostrils. Sad to say, Mr. Allen can’t quite muster the courage to run with her.


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Friday, December 12, 2008

 

Van Johnson (1916-2008)


"Batman and Robin/
rotate and revolve"

Those words may seem an odd way to begin a tribute to the long and distinguished career of Van Johnson, but that was my first exposure to him as a child, playing the special guest villain The Minstrel on the 1960s Batman while the Caped Crusaders cooked on a rotisserie. It was only later that I discovered Mr. Johnson's other works. He has passed away at 92.


Often he got leads, other times, Johnson was relegated to the role of sidekick or second banana, where he excelled even better.

He was the World War II pilot a ghostly Spencer Tracy tried to turn in to a new mate for his widow Irene Dunne in A Guy Named Joe, which Spielberg later remade as Always. He had his other fill of war films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Battleground.

In 1948, Frank Capra thrust him in the middle of the Tracy and Hepburn political dramedy State of the Union. 1954 brought him roles as one of the "mutineers" in The Caine Mutiny, as Gene Kelly's cynical buddy in the musical Brigadoon and gave him a chance to romance Elizabeth Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris.

He worked steadily through the 1970s on both the big screen and especially the small, landing where many early movie stars did, on both The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.

His last notable appearance was as one of the cast of the movie within the movie in Woody Allen's masterpiece The Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985. Appropriately, Allen's film allowed him to appear in black and white one last time.

RIP Mr. Johnson.


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A serious loss


By Edward Copeland
Something strange happens to me when I see a new film featuring a contemporary performer who has died. When I saw the ads for Soul Men with Bernie Mac, it was jarring and this happens to me a lot. However, when seeing The Dark Knight for the first time, I didn't get this feeling because Heath Ledger's work as the Joker is brazenly, brilliantly alive.


I think the fact that Ledger is unrecognizable beneath his makeup and with his voice that I didn't have my usual reaction to watching a recently deceased actor and was able to concentrate on the phenomenal performance instead.

As for The Dark Knight itself, it is even better than Batman Begins and Christopher Nolan continues his streak of proving himself to be a true cinematic find.

It's not that the film is flawless; it's overlong and Harvey Dent's transformation into Two-Face seemed tacked on and rushed in a way that short-changes Aaron Eckhart's chances to do anything with the character.

The Nolan Batman films are much darker, almost humorless, when compared to the series of films that Tim Burton started and Joel Schumacher destroyed, but the funnyman in me still wanted to see when Eckhart's face gets disfigured, an African-American actor take over the role to make up for Billy Dee Williams somehow turning into Tommy Lee Jones in the other series of films.

Despite all the good things The Dark Knight has going for it, Heath Ledger really makes the movie work. When all the initial Oscar buzz began about him, I suspected it might have been people caught up in grief over the talented young actor's untimely death. Now that I've seen it, I'm a believer. I loved Jack Nicholson's Joker in Tim Burton's Batman, with his ability to be both funny and scary but I always knew it was Jack. I never knew it was Ledger: His Joker is as enigmatic at the end of the film as he is at the beginning. No explanation. No back story. Just a uniquely insane criminal force.

Ledger's creation and the way Christopher and Jonathan Nolan wrote the Joker in the screenplay is brilliant. The best bad guys almost always are the ones that we don't get an explanation for why they are the way they are. What we do know about Ledger though was he had great potential and wide range and his loss feels even deeper now than when the news first broke.


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Thursday, December 11, 2008

 

Robert Prosky (1930-2008)


By Edward Copeland
"Let's do it to them before they do it to us." That was how Sgt. Stan Jablonski sent his cops out to the mean streets on Hill Street Blues. Jablonski and Robert Prosky had a hard act to follow after the death of Sgt. Phil "Let's be careful out there" Esterhaus (Michael Conrad), but Prosky's career extended well beyond his time on the Hill, doing distinguished work on stage and screen as well.


Prosky cut a wide swath in the type of roles he played, from the sublime to the ridiculous. He won a Tony nomination for originating the role of Shelly Levene in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway. He also played Grandpa Fred, a TV horror movie host in Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

Other notable turns included the pushed-out news producer in Broadcast News as well as memorable appearances as Rebecca's dad on Cheers and in Last Action Hero, Rudy and Michael Mann's Thief.

RIP Mr. Prosky.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

 

Robot love


By Edward Copeland
Given my new circumstance of seeing films for the first time only on DVD, I wondered if something indeed was being lost. My favorite film that I'd seen in 2008 remained The Counterfeiters, the last film I saw in a theater. Even though I liked many films I saw on DVD, nothing wowed me. Nothing wowed me that is until I experienced the wonders of the glorious WALL-E.


I watched Andrew Stanton's Pixar production with awe almost from beginning to end (and I'd been planning to run this review today before the Los Angeles Film Critics crowned WALL-E the year's best Tuesday).

While I've enjoyed Pixar films, especially the early ones, it seemed to me that they slipped into formula as quickly as Disney's resurgence did following The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

WALL-E from its very beginning seems as if it's a film from another time and another world, not a money-making Hollywood factory. If it weren't for the sound effects and score, it could almost be an animated silent film and the robot title character could be Buster Keaton.

With WALL-E and a cockroach seemingly the only moving inhabitants of a depopulated, trash-covered metropolitan city resembling New York, their world changes with the arrival of EVE, a high-tech probe. EVE is at first suspicious of the enthusiastic WALL-E but a sweet friendship/pseudoromance develops between the two machines.

When the film switches its setting to the ultimate vision of corporate consumerism: an interstellar cruise ship where the remainders of humanity never leave their lounge chairs and don't even try to walk, the movie becomes more dependent on story turns. Parts of the plot in this part of the film with an evil HAL 9000-like computer, complete with red eye and Wagner music cue, are easy to see coming, but director Stanton has infused WALL-E with so much magic and ballet-like grace by this time, that it hardly matters.

WALL-E did something that no other film has done for me this year: Make me want to watch it again as soon as I finished seeing it the first time.


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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

 

TV movie


By Edward Copeland
Perhaps if I'd seen The X-Files: I Want to Believe this summer in a theater, I'd have been harsher or had my usual reaction to a TV show leaping to the big screen: Why? However, since my life stands now as DVD only, the second Mulder and Scully feature just played as an above average episode of the series to me.


Now, this didn't work this way when I got around to seeing the Sex and the City movie, but that was a problem of a series that hadn't been gone that long and the attempt to make an overlong film out of half-hour comedy. The X-Files ended its run in 2002 (and for me, really 2001, since I didn't watch any of the final season except for the last episode).

While some fans preferred the mythology episodes, others liked the standalones best. Myself, I thought the show was best when it allowed David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson (and its various supporting cast) to be funny. I Want to Believe is a standalone and lacks much in the way of humor, but I still liked it and Chris Carter keeps the story moving as director.

Billy Connolly is very good as a defrocked pedophile priest who may be having visions of kidnapped women. In terms of story, it more or less picks up where the series left off: with Mulder in hiding from the FBI, but not too hard since he lives with Scully who is now a practicing doctor at a Catholic hospital. (One of the things I loved Chris Carter for doing in the series was having had Scully and Mulder be a romantic item and not bothering to let the audience know for awhile. There's no question here.)

I Want to Believe is a solid film to watch at home and certainly better than the series' previous big screen effort.


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Saturday, December 06, 2008

 

From the Vault: Reversal of Fortune



By Edward Copeland
One can only speculate what goes on behind a closed door, one character says in Reversal of Fortune.

The legal process that tries to determine what did happen behind one closed door lies at the heart of this darkly humorous telling of the Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) story.


Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close) narrates the film from the "persistent vegetative state" she's lived in since the disputed events of the early 1980s that resulted in Claus' trial and his eventual acquittal for her attempted murder.

The film focuses on celebrated attorney Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), the man who took on von Bulow's appeal despite his own reservations about the man. As the unconscious Sunny asks, "Is he (Claus) the devil? If so, can the devil get justice?"

At one point in the film, one of Dershowitz's legal team describes a good lawyer as part logician, part psychiatrist and part detective and these aspects all play into making Reversal of Fortune of the year's most enjoyable and compelling films.

Directed by Barbet Schroeder, who made 1987's excellent Barfly, the film marvelously contrasts the glitz of the von Bulows' Newport mansion with the working class background in which Dershowitz was raised but has long since out-earned.

The performances — as well as Nicholas Kazan's adaptation of Dershowitz's book — make this film work. "What does someone have who's afraid of insulin?" Claus asks at one point. "Claus-trophobia."

Much of the film takes that tone, teasing the audience's voyeuristic impulses with assaults on its sense of right and wrong. The other half of the film deals not so much with questions of right and wrong as it does with what's legal and ethical.

Dershowitz's legal investigation fascinates as he attempts to break down the case against Claus piece by piece. What's most compelling about Reversal of Fortune is its refusal to judge von Bulow. By the end, the audience doesn't know whether or not von Bulow is "guilty of something," all they know is that he's innocent in the eyes of the law.

Irons' perfect mimicry of the Danish aristocrat is but a small portion of his outstanding performance that infuses Claus with a jet-black sense of humor about his plight. While Close's role is limited, it still registers strongly as one of her best. Silver — who seems to alternate between good and bad performances — lands a good one here.

"Being human is so literal," Sunny says. "Time only moves in one direction — forward. It's stupid and boring."

Reversal of Fortune is neither stupid nor boring and with its Rashomon-like nuances, one shouldn't take its events literally. Instead, they should just enjoy the tale it spins.


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Thursday, December 04, 2008

 

Paul Benedict (1938-2008)


Paul Benedict, the British (EDITOR'S NOTE: This was my mistake, a rather common one, corrected in the comments) actor who has died at the age of 70, probably always will be best known as Harry Bentley, the U.N. diplomat who became neighbor to the Jeffersons once they moved on up.

However, Benedict's long career spanned TV, stage and screen. I was fortunate enough to see him play the hotel night clerk opposite Al Pacino in the 1996 Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's one-act play Hughie.

Still, for me at least, I think my favorite performance of Benedict's was that Professor Fleeber, Matthew Broderick's pompous NYU film professor starstruck by Marlon Brando's Don Corleone doppleganger in The Freshman.

RIP Mr. Benedict.


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