Thursday, January 29, 2009


This Beautiful Mess

By Jonathan Pacheco
In my book, an imperfect ambitious film far outweighs a perfectly executed “safer” film. Even if it stumbles along its way, I appreciate and admire the aspirations of a movie that tests me. That reasoning has me favoring films like I’m Not There over No Country For Old Men, or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence over almost everything else from that year. Synecdoche, New York has ambitions that, unlike many other 2008 films, go way beyond Oscar. An enigma of a film, it requires multiple viewings if you hope to grasp its meaning. The funny thing about the movie is its ability to mess with you on a different level without you realizing what it’s messed with. A friend and I both felt the same way after watching Synecdoche for the first time: something very deep in us was moved and disturbed by this film, but we had no idea what or how. That sounds like my kind of movie.

To take this trip into the world of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is to grab your literature, philosophy and psychology books and toss them all into a blender. The film starts as a fairly normal piece (by Charlie Kaufman’s standards) about a small-scale playwright and director seeking acceptance and confirmation from everyone. But watching the film, you’ll soon realize that Kaufman threw you down the rabbit hole before it even began. What ensues is an odyssey through time full of microcosms, doppelgängers, and much confusion.

Synecdoche, New York is not the same kind of puzzle as a film like Mulholland Drive. With Lynch’s film, once you discover the cypher, everything else in the film unlocks neatly. If anything, Synecdoche is a little more like INLAND EMPIRE: you get the feeling that the “key” could explain a lot, but probably not everything. It’s just not that neat. I’m tempted to use this space to discuss interpretations of the film’s events, but I’ll leave that for another time and place; the film’s merits and challenges go way beyond its literal explanation (if it has one, that is).

Some people see Kaufman as a nauseatingly self-indulgent writer whose bag of tricks is empty, and I imagine those people look at Synecdoche as his way of throwing everything at the wall, seeing what sticks. But isn’t that how he wants it all to seem? The very concept of Adaptation plays with this notion of his self-indulgence (which makes him even more self-indulgent, right?), and Synecdoche does the same. Caden is a hack, a director and writer who feels the need to create a work of genius but can do nothing more than rehash the events of his own mind and try to outsmart his audience in the process. During a stage production, he directs his lead to play the role of Willy Loman as an actor who’s aware that the audience has caught onto the irony of said actor playing a role meant for a much older performer. Could this be Kaufman winking at us? Some have pointed out that Synecdoche seems to be Kaufman’s way of finally revealing himself, jokingly or not, as that hack writer throwing everything at the wall. I would theorize that in a very deliberate move, he wants us to think that he’s self-deprecatingly confessing to that with Synecdoche, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The film I saw is a work of calculated chaos.

Yet it’s so much more than tricks, gimmicks, mind games, and self-indulgence. When the film begins, you get the feeling that Caden is already atoning for something, but for what? The heartbreak in it all is that we’ve only seen him as a desperate man trying to make right and we wonder why he always comes up short. He begs and cries for forgiveness, even admitting to wrongs he never committed, only to be denied any relief. Can this process get depressing? Absolutely. The same friend I mentioned earlier said that when the film ended, he was almost afraid to move; he had this unshakable feeling of impending doom. And I can see how some find Kaufman’s tactics heavy-handed, but the key is that he’s never abusive. This is not a cold film. There’s a lot of heartbreak, but that’s because there’s a lot lost that was once loved.

Synecdoche is a crazy, beautiful mess of the literal, the metaphorical, and the allegorical, with moments so painful, I don’t know if I want to laugh, cry, or do both. Walking out of my second viewing of the film, I heard many f-bombs from the audience. Sometimes coupled with words like “masterpiece” and “cinematic experience,” sometimes on the other end of the spectrum with a “what the” before it. I wonder, with what words are your f-bombs coupled?

Labels: , ,


Tuesday, January 27, 2009


John Updike (1932-2009)

"At the moment when Mary Pickford fainted, the Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct — a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward."
From In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

By Edward Copeland
For a long time, a friend and I had an agreement: When the unfortunate day arrived that the great Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Updike died, we would drop whatever we were doing and make a pilgrimage to his funeral to honor him. Sadly, my condition, a severed friendship and the evil practices of the trucking industry prevent that, but I can still at least pay tribute to the late, great man here.

I purchased my first John Updike novels when I was in the seventh grade. He'd just won his first Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Is Rich so I bought the entire trilogy at once. Alas, even though I was slightly advanced for my age, I wasn't ready for the brilliant, deep prose of Rabbit, Run yet, and I put the books aside. When I was a junior in high school and my English teacher told us to select a novel for a five paragraph essay, I wanted to do a John Irving, but she said no, calling him "a cheap knockoff of Kurt Vonnegut." I substituted The Witches of Eastwick, which I had purchased knowing a Jack Nicholson movie version was forthcoming (The movie and the book have very little to do with one another). It was a revelation as I was then ready for Updike. Every sentence, every paragraph was a wonder to behold. That summer, I had my wisdom teeth pulled, and as I recovered, read the Rabbit trilogy back to back. In a way, I think that's the best way to do it, because you can see Updike's gifts actually growing since they were written 10 years apart dating back to around 1960. The novels and the artist get better. Hungry for more, my friend Jennifer loaned me her copy of his short novel Of the Farm, a lovely little chamber piece and I was hooked and Updike held a permanent place as my favorite author that he still holds, though he eventually shared the title with Philip Roth.

This isn't to say that Updike was perfect. He was a much better writer than he was a novelist and I have to admit that there were some that I just didn't finish. However, they were few and the glorious ones way outnumbered them: A Month of Sundays, Couples, Marry Me and one of my very favorites, the undervalued In the Beauty of the Lilies. Of course, I can't forget that there was a great fourth Rabbit book, Rabbit at Rest, which won him a second Pulitzer Prize and many fine short stories, essays and works of criticism.

I even listened to him read some of his own novels on tape and after that I couldn't read anything by him without hearing his voice in my head. Because of frequent headaches, I can't read books as fast as I used to, so lying on my nightstand happens to be his final novel, The Widows of Eastwick. Somehow, it seems appropriate that my life with Updike starts and ends in Eastwick and there is a little comfort knowing that I have one novel left.

RIP Mr. Updike. I can't possibly add up the hours of joy you've given me over the years.
"Maybe the dead are gods, there's certainly something kind about them, the way they give you room. What you lose as you age is witnesses, the ones who watched from early on and cared, like your own little grandstand."
From Rabbit Is Rich

  • In the Beauty of the Lilies
  • Memories of the Ford Administration
  • Philip and John: My two favorite writers
  • Terrorist
  • U&I by Nicholson Baker

  • Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


    False identities, true feelings

    By Edward Copeland
    The Independent Spirit Award nominees have proved two for three as I search for films on DVD to write about. In Search of a Midnight Kiss turned out to be a delightful low-budget feature, even if Blockbuster had an exclusive rental deal that showed the b&w film in color. On the other hand, Towelhead was so repugnant, I couldn't finish it. Sangre de Mi Sangre, which received Spirit nominations for best first feature and best screenplay, is another lesser-known gem.

    Sangre de Mi Sangre follows 17-year-old Diego (Jesus Ochoa) as he smuggles himself from Puebla, Mexico, to New York following his mother's death to try to find the man he's been told is his father, his only evidence being a long letter written by his mother, an old photo and a locket.

    While on the road, he's befriended by another Mexican being sneaked into the U.S., only Juan (Armando Hernandez) is a hustler of the highest order and not only robs Diego of most of his possessions, but assumes his identity in New York, hoping to take the fortune he believes Diego's presumed father Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola) holds.

    Much to Juan's dismay, he learns that Pedro isn't the rich restaurant owner the letter implied but merely a dishwasher at an eatery and he isn't much interested in becoming a father now, if he believed the teen's story anyway. Meanwhile, the destitute Diego finds himself involved with a cynical streetwalker named Magda (Paola Mendoza), who rips him off at first but later decides to help him.

    Written and directed by first-time helmer Christopher Zalla, the Spanish-language Sangre de Mi Sangre essentially revolves around this quartet, though there are other characters. It's by turns funny, sad and touching and all the performers are excellent, especially Espindola who perfectly embodies a bitter, tired man who slowly takes this young man into his heart, so much so that even the viewer forgets that he is an impostor.

    It's also a very human tale of the plight of the illegal immigrant seeking a better life.



    Friday, January 23, 2009


    Mrs. Himmler, are you trying to seduce me?

    By Edward Copeland
    It's always a frequent refrain about how lousy most new movies are, but not enough people are talking about how bad most of the ads for all movies, good and bad, are. Fortunately, I didn't see any TV ads for The Reader before I saw the film itself. This was a good thing, since I saw the annoying TV ad today touting "a twist you'll never see coming" which really can only be true if you are a 16-year-old boy who gets to boink Kate Winslet a lot or if you didn't notice that George W. Bush was a particularly bad president.

    While I still prefer Winslet's role in Revolutionary Road, she's good here as well (Honestly, has she ever given a bad performance?) and I'm grateful to the Academy for saving me the trouble of whining about how there's no way to call her supporting in The Reader. The team of director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (whom I usually like as a playwright) gave me pause given what they produced with the death-affirming The Hours before I ever saw The Reader, but at least it turned out to be several notches above that even if it still feels as if several different movies have been tossed into a blender.

    The first portion quite literally consists of endless scenes of Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) and young Michael Berg (David Kross) behaving as if they are re-enacting Last Tango in Paris minus the butter. Then, Berg ages enough to go to law school (though he's still played by Kross) and attends a German war crimes trial of six death camp guards and is shocked to find that Hanna is one of the defendants.

    Ten years later, Michael is suddenly Ralph Fiennes, has a daughter and is getting divorced. While The Reader aims to examine many aspects of guilt and culpability (and not all pertaining to World War II), it is often way too obvious in its approach, especially in the scenes with the law students who spell out the themes in BIG BOLD LETTERS just in case you miss them.

    The actors keep the film afloat. Fiennes (in his third solid 2008 supporting role), Kross, Bruno Ganz as the law professor (and he was a magnificent Hitler in Downfall just a few years ago) and, of course, Winslet. She is good, even with handicaps placed on her.

    Early on, Hanna is prone to sudden fits of anger and shows a tough exterior at times. When she's on trial, she seems frail and helpless and doesn't seem to be the same woman we saw before, but somehow Winslet makes the sale. In the later scenes, Winslet gets saddled with old-age makeup that's nearly as bad as that put on Jennifer Connelly at the end of A Beautiful Mind, a bit of overkill since her character should only be in her early 60s then.

    Then again bad makeup didn't stop Connelly from winning an Oscar and Winslet actually deserves the one she should win next month, even if it's for the wrong role.

    Labels: , , ,


    Wednesday, January 21, 2009


    Spending time in purgatory

    By Edward Copeland
    The Edge of Heaven tells its story in three parts and two countries. Writer-director Fatih Akin is a German-born Turk and his tale spreads across both countries and several characters. While the audience knows how they connect, the characters don't always discover the links in this superb meditation on estrangement, reconciliation and humanity.

    Each section bears a title, two of them revealing that they will involve characters' deaths, building a bit of suspense about when and how it will happen and, in some cases, which character they are referring to if you are uncertain about their name.

    There are many cultural issues that I'm sure citizens of that part of the world would pick up on more than an American such as myself, but what gives the film its power are its character studies and its excellence performances, especially from its women.

    Nursel Kose is touching and tough as an aging prostitute who takes a chance on a new life and longs for a daughter that has gone incommunicado. Nurgul Yesilcay is even better as Ayten, a Turkisk political activist on the lam in Germany who finds something worth committing to that's better than a cause in Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a college student who becomes her lover.

    Then there is the veteran actress Hanna Schygulla as Lotte's mother, suspicious of Ayten and protective of her daughter though ultimately bonded to the activist. Schygulla's range and shadings are a wonder to behold and cheers to the National Society of Film Critics for selecting her as their best supporting actress.

    Now, I don't want to slight the two men central to the film, since they are good as well. Ali Aksu paints a sad portrait as an aging Turkisk widower who tries to stem his loneliness with visits to prostitutes and Baki Davrak is good as his son, a German professor who always feels compelled to try to do the right thing.

    Fatih Akin tries to do the right thing with every writing and directing move he makes in The Edge of Heaven and more often than not, he succeeds. He's a filmmaker to watch.

    Labels: ,


    Tell don't show

    By Edward Copeland
    Films relating to the Holocaust seem to have been more plentiful than usual in 2008. However, Claude Miller's French film A Secret doesn't go the usual route of depicting the horrors. In fact, it goes out of its way to strip the story of its drama and while the acting is good and individual set pieces are nice, the overall film is a puzzlement.

    Told mostly in flashback, A Secret focuses on a Jewish family in Paris trying to survive and make a plan as the Nazis move in. The father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) is pretty much a nonpracticing Jew anyway and he'd like to keep it that way, but his wife Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier) is more devout and feels it's wrong to deny her heritage.

    Much of this past is unknown to Maxime's youngest son Francois, who was born after the war and similarly rejects Judaism until he faces ugly anti-Semitism and the family's maid starts filling him in.

    For a film with a title such as A Secret, you'd expect it to be a bigger one, but the strange thing about the movie is that it shows what happened in the past but then fails to depict a followup. We never see Francois' reaction to his family history or even a meeting of new understanding between the adult Francois (Mathieu Almaric) and the aged Maxime.

    As a result, A Secret plays like a gun whose trigger has been pulled but whose chamber never empties.

    Labels: , ,


    Monday, January 19, 2009


    Not another film about penguins

    By Edward Copeland
    The title of this post is what Werner Herzog told the scientist who invited him to make an expedition to Antarctica to make a documentary. Despite his initial protest, there is a brief section involving penguins in Encounters at the End of the World, but mostly it's about the least well-known continent.

    While Herzog seems to be turning more and more toward documentary filmmaking in his later years, Encounters, while beautiful and fascinating at times, doesn't quite reach the levels he achieved with Grizzly Man or Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

    The film boils down to anecdotes, which is fine, but sometimes the anecdotes aren't fleshed out enough for the viewer to maintain interest. There are many sequences with various scientists and researchers that don't really explain what it is they are specifically researching.

    There are fleeting references to climate change and undersea life, but when scientists grab samples, we don't really know what the samples are from or what they do with them.

    The most interesting part of the film turns out to be a portrait of a small town that has sprouted in Antarctica which even has, much to Herzog's dismay, a bowling alley and an ATM machine. No Starbucks was mentioned.

    In the town, he meets all sorts of people who have just sort of found themselves in Antarctica, including a linguist who came there to try to record and save a dying language only to fail in his effort but stayed anyway.

    Since Herzog called his film Encounters, maybe this is what he was after, but somehow it just doesn't really hang together well as a documentary. It has the same problem as fiction films that are a collection of unrelated short films: some segments are inevitably better than others.

    Labels: , ,


    Friday, January 16, 2009


    How Blue Can You Get?

    By Jonathan Pacheco
    Apparently, if you listen to the blues and snap your fingers exaggeratedly in order to “feel the music,” it means you’re living in the ’30s. Or so the actors of Dark Streets would have you believe. Nearly everything in this “noir musical fantasy” is reduced to cliches and generalizations, from the overacting to the colorless plot, making my on-a-whim decision to see this over Let the Right One In all the more painful.

    While Dark Streets tries to push its tagline — “Music. Passion. Betrayal. Welcome to the Blues” — you wonder if anyone involved knows what those words mean (with the exception of B.B. King, who contributes to the score). Performances are more hammy than passionate, and each twist and betrayal is met with stupefied looks and crocodile tears. Every character utters dialogue filled with flowery, rambling, hollow words; I guess this is what they mean by “the blues.” “Darkness has no face,” “once it’s in you, it’s got you,” and “that new little pony of yours... she’s the one riding you...” are just a few examples of the endless stream of faux-philosophical lines that aren’t even spoken with any conviction.

    The world of Dark Streets is about as paper-thin as the characters that inhabit it. It’s funny, because with all the attention that seems to be paid to the sets, costumes, and music, it all feels false. It’s a production in a vacuum. No atmosphere, no reality, and no imagination renders an interesting culture soulless. I think a lot of this may be due to a lack of understanding. While I won’t pretend to be an expert on the blues or the culture of the ‘30s, I can tell when someone else doesn’t get it (but is trying very had to pretend that she does). That’s what I see with director Rachel Samuels. When the concept of your entire film is based on the emotional thrust of a specific genre and movement, you’re going to need more than period clothing.

    Dark Streets only realized its potential during a single, early scene. Madelaine, a mysterious new girl, auditions to be a singer at the night club inherited by Chaz, our young playboy protagonist. The moody musical sequence slows down the movie, finally allowing us to become engrossed and entranced in this world. All of a sudden, there’s some life to Dark Streets. The camera, often too concerned with filming the elaborate choreography, is allowed to linger on the faces of characters; it gets closer to their faces in that one scene than any other I can think of in the film. We’re now able to read their emotions and see some subtleties. Gabriel Mann, playing Chaz, stops trying to act like he’s in the ‘30s and lives in the scene and in the music. Madelaine’s performance is intoxicating for Chaz and for ourselves, all of us wondering what’s behind the lyrics.

    As this scene played out, I sat up straighter in my chair. Now things were getting interesting. I saw this as a turning point for Dark Streets. This film could become intriguing if it was willing to put its rough start behind it. Sadly, the film did not move forward, but rather reverted to those old ways. The rest of the movie is a boring mesh of plots, mysteries and characters that I could care less about. Save for that one remarkable scene, Dark Streets is unintentionally misanthropic; even the coldest of noir shouldn’t be this distant.

    Labels: ,


    Thursday, January 15, 2009


    Doc From Galveston

    By Edward Copeland
    When you hear about a documentary titled Surfwise, you'd be right to guess that its subject is surfing and while surfing is certainly central to the story it tells, this is more an exploration of the unusual Paskowitz family.

    Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, who became a doctor after attending Stanford Medical School in the 1940s, is an unusual character to say the least. We first see him nude, 85 and performing calisthenics. Obsessed with his Jewish heritage and sex (he says that a woman who taught him how to "eat pussy" changed his life), his third marriage was the charm and he began a nomadic life with wife No. 3 with whom he raised nine children in the cramped quarters of a series of mobile homes as they became known as the first family of surfing.

    He didn't send his children to school, insisting that there was a difference between knowledge and education. I have to wonder if David Milch didn't get some of his inspiration for his HBO series John From Cincinnati from the Paskowitz family, though no one levitates here.

    Needless to say, things aren't as hunky dory as they seem as first in Doug Pray's documentary as you soon realize that Doc is as unstable as the dad in The Mosquito Coast who finds it a betrayal each time a child grows up and decides to leave the fold for a life of his or her own.

    Pray builds his film well, saving his suckerpunches for the second half, though the film's ending reunion seems slightly forced.

    Labels: , , ,


    Wednesday, January 14, 2009


    Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009)
    and Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009)

    I usually don't combine obits, but I'm still recovering from today's surgery and anesthesia, so this will probably be short, plus there is a link between these two late actors: both played Columbo villains.

    RICARDO MONTALBAN (1920-2009)

    Montalban's lengthy career ran the gamut from screen stardom to Broadway to television, from Westerns to sci-fi to broad comedy. The Mexican-born actor's first English language film of note was the 1949 World War II drama Battleground. The same year, he co-starred in Neptune's Daughter with Esther Williams. 1951 brought him opposite Clark Gable in Bill Wellman's Across the Wide Missouri.

    Despite his Mexican heritage, he was often plugged into any ethnicity in his roles, including playing a Japanese man in 1957's Sayonara along with his many turns as Native Americans. The next year, his turn in the Broadway musical Jamaica earned him a Tony nomination as best actor.

    He appeared in a lot of episodic television from Bonanza to Wild, Wild West to the aforementioned Columbo: A Matter of Honor where he played a rich Mexican baron who rigged a bullfight to takeout an enemy. Of course, then there was Star Trek and Khan. The TV series' episode "Space Seed" begat the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which really rebooted the Trek film franchise following the hyperdull Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

    Prior to that, he'd created the iconic role of Mr. Roarke, your host for Fantasy Island. He also was a regular on the Dynasty spinoff The Colbys, played the bad guy in the original Naked Gun and played the grandfather in Spy Kids 2 and 3-D, after severe back troubles limited Montalban's work to wheelchairs and always being seated.

    RIP Ricardo. I hope you lie on rich Corinthian leather for eternity.

    PATRICK MCGOOHAN (1928-2009)

    I was just discussing the other day how I'm ashamed to admit that I've never seen McGoohan's crowning achievement, The Prisoner.

    I know McGoohan best from Columbo, where he was so good he appeared four different times. His best appearances were in the original series, especially the one where he was the commandant of a military academy, though he had a lot of fun as a secret agent who thinks he's toying with Columbo as well.

    He did some fine big screen as well, particularly as the warden in Escape from Alcatraz and the evil art forgerer in Silver Streak.

    He not only acted, but frequently produced and directed on Columbo and produced The Prisoner.

    RIP Patrick.

    Labels: , , , , ,


    Tuesday, January 13, 2009


    Grade: Incomplete

    By Edward Copeland
    Usually, if I give up on a film without watching it all the way through, I won't bother to write anything about it. However, the 35 minutes I spent with Alan Ball's Towelhead were so excruciating, that I decided to make an exception.

    The only reason I knew of it in the first place was that its young lead, Summer Bishil, had been nominated for an Independent Spirit award for female lead. I didn't even realize Ball wrote and directed it until after I gave up (the dopey fantasy sequences, way too reminiscent of the ones Six Feet Under had to have two or three of an episode after a while, should have been a clue).

    I learned of Ball's involvement when I read that it had ranked in the Village Voice/LA Weekly critics poll as the second worst film of 2008, bested only by Mike Myers' The Love Guru.

    Bishil plays a 13-year-old half-Lebanese American girl sent from her boozy, blonde mom who goes apeshit when she catches her shaving her legs and turning on her new boyfriend to live with her strict Lebanese father whose fairly modern as far as it goes for him but forbids his daughter from doing things such as using tampons for periods (those are for married women) or wearing makeup (that his new girlfriend puts on her).

    Hell, dad locks her out of the house when he discovers the tampon. Towelhead is the medicine for anyone who thinks Revolutionary Road is depressing. Hell, it makes The Hours play like a laugh riot. Wait. It gets worse.

    Did I mention that Aaron Eckhart plays the friendly pedophile next door? He has a son that Bishil babysits and hangs out with and constantly harangues her with racial epithets. Then again, every student in her school does the same thing. Now, it's not like she's dressed like a Muslim in a burqa. Except for her darker skin, how would they even know her ethnicity unless they'd read the script?

    Thankfully, there's a young African-American teen who befriends her. I left before I saw what horrible ending awaited him. The only glimmer of hope in the part I saw was when Toni Collette appeared as a kind neighbor, but I knew she wouldn't drag the girl into a good movie, so it wasn't worth watching the teen shimmy on her seat as she discovers her sexuality.

    I don't know how the film ends, but I know from what I watched the way it should. The girl calls a suicide hotline, tells her story and the sympathetic listener tells her that in this case, perhaps it's best if she calls it a life.

    Labels: ,


    Friday, January 09, 2009


    You never forget the truth; it just gets easier to lie

    By Edward Copeland
    No matter how well manicured the lawn, how well dressed and behaved the couple, you can never be certain what's going on once the front door is closed, especially in the 1950s suburbia of Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, a film some are finding depressing beyond words but which I found riveting and remarkable.

    Kate Winslet has compiled an impressive body of work in nearly a decade and a half and she's only 33 and in my opinion Revolutionary Road may be the topper. As April Wheeler, the young '50s housewife whose life hasn't gone in any direction that she'd hoped for or enjoyed, Winslet is magnificent. When I mentioned on Facebook that Winslet has the Oscar in the bag, no matter what degree you like or dislike Revolutionary Road, someone wrote to the effect "unless the viewer had slit their throat first."

    While it's certainly true that the film is not a laugh riot, I had nowhere near that reaction and I still think even the film's biggest detractors have to recognize Winslet's brilliance here (plus if she's a double nominee this year bringing her career total to seven, will they want to make her the losingest actress of all time?).

    Revolutionary Road is not a film like The Hours, where after a screening a journalist asked, "Cyanide capsules for everyone?" Now, that was a film that made a viewer contemplate ending one's life. Unlike The Hours, Revolutionary Road is well acted, well written and well directed on every level.

    As much as I love Winslet, I don't want to leave the impression that she's the whole show because Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as well as her husband Frank, similarly given to uncertainty about where he's going and where he wants to be. He's not a faithful husband, but the film doesn't make him guilty for the marital fissure. Alice is equally responsible, yet neither is to blame.

    In addition to the great work by the leads, there is solid support from Dylan Baker, Kathy Bates, David Barbour and Kathryn Hahn, among others. The prize among the supporting players though goes to Michael Shannon as Bates' unstable son. If Viola Davis deserves Oscar consideration for her single lengthy scene in Doubt, then Shannon is equally worthy for his two electric appearances in Revolutionary Road.

    Sam Mendes beautifully tells the tale through Justin Haythe's adaptation of Richard Yates' novel in his best film since his Oscar-winning debut with American Beauty. While Mendes is again dealing with suburbia, albeit period suburbia, it's not a satiric take and the time period almost is irrelevant because the sadness and truths are universal and heartbreaking.

    While I can see why the film would be a depressing time for some, for me Revolutionary Road is one of 2008's best films.

    Labels: , , , , ,


    Thursday, January 08, 2009


    Where's Regis when you need him?

    By Edward Copeland
    It's not exactly writer's block, but sometimes there are films, films that I think are fine, even good, that I just can't think of much to say about. However, they are important in the current award universe so I feel compelled to comment upon them. So please, bear with me, as I struggle to find things to say about Slumdog Millionaire.

    Now, this inability to come up with much insightful to say about Danny Boyle's film should not be a reflection upon the film itself. I liked Slumdog Millionaire. Do I think it is a great film? No. Do I think it is a good film? Yes. Part of this block may be sheer exhaustion on my part as I try to get back into the film blogging swing of things and my desire to cover all the majors may have finally overwhelmed my ability to accomplish such a task.

    Frankly, looking back at my output over the past couple of weeks, even I'm impressed given the amount of pain I'm in and the fatigue from which I suffer. It was such a relief to watch Doubt knowing that Josh R had already covered that review for me. So, while this is hardly the most cohesive of reviews, I'm just going to list some thoughts about Slumdog I did have.

    Is Danny Boyle the go-to director for scenes involving diving into shit-filled toilets? Did the owners of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire franchise sign off on the depiction of the Indian version of their show as being corrupt? While I admire Boyle's attempt to try something different with subtitles, some still blend into the background and, more importantly, most are on screen too fleetingly to be read.

    Finally, I get so tired of trying to sell young actors into supporting categories when they are so clearly leads. Dev Patel, despite the fact that other actors play his character at younger ages in flashbacks, dominates the movie from beginning to end and is most certainly the lead in the film. I wish I had more to say. Did I mention that I liked it?

    Labels: ,


    Wednesday, January 07, 2009


    You gotta give 'em hope

    By Edward Copeland
    Critics don't like to admit it, but sometimes they go into a film with preconceived notions. The ads for Milk put me off, making it look as if Sean Penn were giving another mannered performance (I've never forgiven him for I Am Sam) and though I avoid reviews of films before I see them, I got the sinking suspicion that the positive ones came from a place of political correctness and the negative ones, some by people I respect, hued closer to the truth. That's why it was such a surprise that when I finally gave in and watched Gus Van Sant's film I found myself riveted and impressed.

    Granted, Dustin Lance Black's script does what many a biopic does: Turn its subject matter into a pseudosaint, but it hardly matters because so many of the issues seem surprisingly timely even though they happened 30 years ago. Harvey Milk leads the fight to defeat a right-wing California state senator's state ballot initiative to ban homosexuals from being school teachers as well as any heterosexual teachers who would dare to support gay educators.

    Called Proposition 6, it's uncannily reminiscent of California's recent Proposition 8 on banning gay marriage. The big difference: Proposition 6 went down to defeat. Even Ronald Reagan publicly opposed it. If he were alive today, would he oppose all the gay marriage ban nonsense? Hell, to be honest, Reagan would probably be too liberal for today's Republican Party.

    The Proposition 6 fight is just one part of Milk, which not only benefits from one of Sean Penn's best and least-mannered performances in a long time, but an amazingly talented ensemble.

    Josh Brolin is appropriately frightening as San Francisco city supervisor Dan White, Milk's eventual assassin, coiffed with a hairdo that seems stolen directly from Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's head. To me, the actor who hasn't been getting the amount of credit he deserves is Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, who begins as a young man picking up tricks on the street before becoming one of the most successful gay political activists.

    Van Sant keeps the film flowing, seamlessly moving between the re-created scenes, actual footage and flights of fancy. Sometimes, as wrong as it is, a critic will come to a film he or she is dreading loaded for bear. That's why it is all the more satisfying when the movie's excellence punctures your balloon.

    Labels: , , ,


    Tuesday, January 06, 2009


    The reductive power of television

    By Edward Copeland
    I was not a normal child. In addition to being a movie buff from an early age, I also was a political junkie. It wasn't an inherited trait, but it was part of my existence. In fact, many of my fellow grade schoolers were up on current events (Makes you wonder what the hell happened when now people two or three times that age in the U.S. don't know or care what's going on.) Needless to say, since I was at this age in the 1970s, Watergate was like crack to me and it still is so even a film directed by Ron Howard such as Frost/Nixon is going to have a riveted viewer in me.

    Lest you think I'm exaggerating my Nixon/Watergate obsession in elementary school (which included a Nixon impression), in 5th grade I tried to convince my teacher to let me do a book report on a collection of Art Buchwald Watergate humor columns called I Am Not a Crook. I digress.

    The subject at hand is the movie Frost/Nixon. I didn't get to see Peter Morgan's stage play, so I can't attest to any major differences between the play and the movie but Howard's film more or less takes the form of a documentary, with the peripheral characters speaking directly to the camera about their thoughts and involvement in David Frost's landmark interviews with Nixon.

    Whereas Howard's usual style tends to neither add nor subtract from a film, that actually serves the film well because when it's not a talking-head pseudodocumentary or a look behind the scenes, it is essentially a verbal duel.

    Frank Langella doesn't really look or sound like Nixon but just like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's Nixon, his embodiment of the man finds the ex-president's essence that's more truthful than mere imitation.

    Michael Sheen, who got overshadowed for his spot-on Tony Blair in The Queen, is similarly being downplayed for how good he is as David Frost in his younger, playboy days.

    One other small role reveals an acting chameleon: Toby Jones who might as well have been Truman Capote in Infamous is just as convincing as the late superagent Irving "Swifty" Lazar" here.

    I enjoyed Frost/Nixon a lot, but if you aren't a Watergate buff such as I am, you might not get the same charge. If you watched the original interviews and remember when Frost broke Nixon, you remember why the ex-president is a tragic figure. He did awful things. He broke the law. He betrayed the country and the Constitution, but he realized he did it and it haunted him. Nixon had demons and a soul, unlike our soon-to-be-ex-president who is so clueless he will never realize the damage he's left in his wake.

    Labels: , , ,


    Monday, January 05, 2009


    A curious case of a movie adaptation

    By Edward Copeland
    It doesn't happen often, but it happens. I see a film and when it's over, no opinion has formed. No form of positive adulation. No form of negative nitpicking. Not even a mood of middling indifference or having wasted time. This is how I felt after seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for the first time, but I believed that the film deserved a second look and further deliberation before I wrote anything about it.

    So I watched it a second time and nearly the same thing happened. The imagery, especially the wondrous cinematography of Claudio Miranda, kept me enthralled and once again I thought director David Fincher managed to get a performance out of Brad Pitt at a level of excellence that other directors fail to achieve. As for the film itself, it still left me cold. I turned to that handy-dandy Internet and found the original F. Scott Fitzgerald short story to see if that would offer me any guidance and the answers began to become clearer.

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald is nearly devoid of sentiment and falls closer to satire. Since Fincher made one of the best satires of recent times with Pitt in Fight Club, I wondered why the softer approach was taken. Reading the story also made clear a flaw in the film's own logic. In the story, Benjamin is born as a full-grown old man, complete with beard and the ability to speak. In the film version, he's born as an old baby and as he grows younger, he shrinks back to an infant. That made sense in the story, but in the movie's logic, Benjamin should have ended up as an adult-size baby. I don't know why they chose not to do it the other way, they still could have ended up with the touching ending. Dropping some of the other aspects of the short story were wise choices as his father (who didn't abandon him in Fitzgerald's version) attempted to raise him as age specific despite his appearance, sending the old man to grade school, etc., and that could have tread dangerously close to material similar to that mawkish Robin Williams vehicle Jack. The adaptation was by Eric Roth and I feel somewhat bad leveling any criticism his way since the screenwriter has lost all his money in the Bernie Madoff scam, but I wonder if they tried to force Benjamin Button on to the Forrest Gump template.

    Now, I was not one of the Gump haters, who mocked its sentimentality and felt it was some subversive conservative agitprop. I enjoyed it, particularly its satire, but when I read Winston Groom's original novel after seeing the film, I was surprised to see the differences in the Forrest of the page and the Forrest of the screen much in the way I was by the two Benjamins.

    In print, both were more prickly and in Gump's case, a bit profane. Neither were wide-eyed innocents that you couldn't help but love. Fitzgerald's Benjamin was born a full-size rascal but Roth's version has had his edges smoothed away. At least in the case of Forrest Gump the movie, there were plenty of interesting supporting characters to help give the film life. (Even the casual viewer has to spot the Lt. Dan/Captain Mike similarities.) Aside from the depth Taraji P. Henson brings to Queenie, no one else gets much to do in Benjamin Button, including Cate Blanchett. I don't know why so much surprise has been expressed at her absence from the year end awards derby because as talented as Blanchett is, her role here tilts dangerously close to merely being a plot point. I never felt the romance between her character and Pitt's. Still, I found a lot to admire within the film. As I mentioned before, it is a beautiful looking film and Fincher not only gets one of Pitt's best performances out of him, he also keeps the momentum moving, even if the temperature is below freezing. What's saddest about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is what I know is going to inevitably happen (and has already started). It is destined to be overpraised and overattacked with very few standing in the middle, where my opinion at least ended up landing.

    Labels: , , , , , , ,


    Unholy Suspicions

    By Josh R
    The 18th century poet and essayist Samuel Johnson declared that “He is no wise man who will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.” There would seem to be little room for questioning the soundness of that logic — that is, until one considers just what a dangerous thing absolute certainty can be. In a world where most people will never allow themselves to question that which they believe to be true (a condition hardly limited to religious fundamentalists), the very lack of uncertainty can become an impediment to progress and understanding. With all due respect to Mr. Johnson, he is no wise man who will quit uncertainty for rigid inflexibility on all matters he is certain of.

    Now that we’ve taken Mr. Johnson to task, it may be time to cut him some slack — after all, he didn’t have to swallow the rationalizations of the Bush administration (even at this late date, Fearless Leader still believes with all his heart and soul that takin’ out Saddam was best for America — and, to be fair, the hundreds of American kids who got shot down or blown up in Iraq might just as easily have died in domestic hunting accidents.) Modern political blunders aside, Johnson might also have amended or qualified his panegyric to the state of unblinking certitude had he lived long enough to cross paths with Sister Aloysius, the central character of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and the sort of ironclad dogmatist no 18th century philosopher ever stood a hope in hell of matching swords with.

    The imperious headmistress of a Bronx parochial school in the mid-1960s, Sister Aloysius is guided in equal measures by an unshakable faith, unswerving adherence to tradition and an unwavering certainty in her own convictions. Ambiguity has no place in her universe, just as there is no likelihood of her budging one fraction of an inch on any firmly held position — and as played by Meryl Streep, it would seem that she is about as open to persuasion as a rhinoceros in full-on charge mode. Come hell or high water, she will trample everything in her path, only later looking back to survey the damage. You can only proceed with such lack of caution — to say nothing of lack of guilt — when you know that you’re right.

    Adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, writer-director Shanley has opened up what essentially existed on the stage as an insular chamber piece to a broader consideration of the national mood at a specific moment in America’s turbulent socio-political history. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination and on the brink of Vietnam, postwar confidence had been eroded to the point that nearly every established truth seemed up for grabs; then, as in now, it was often hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Viewed from a certain perspective, Doubt has no heroes or villains to speak of — or, to be accurate, either of the two main characters could exist as both, or as neither. At surface value, the adversarial relationship between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the young parish priest whose progressive attitudes diverge sharply from Aloysius’ traditionalist views on faith and education, represents generational conflict. On the other, it is also a de facto battle between good and evil, righteousness and hypocrisy, truth and folly — as to which person best represents which values, the playwright isn’t about to say.

    The guessing game begins with a suspicion — or rather, an uneasy feeling that paves the way for suspicion, and with minimal provocation develops into an accusation. Sister Aloysius’ gut tells her that the popular and charismatic Father Flynn — who relates to the students in a much more informal and personal way than she deems necessary — may be guilty of improper conduct with one or more of the boys in his charge. Without specifying the exact nature of her fears, she instructs her subordinates to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior. When the naïve and impressionable Sister James (Amy Adams) reports an incident of somewhat questionable behavior — perhaps innocent, perhaps not — involving the priest and the school’s only African-American pupil, the grim reaction of Sister Aloysius confirms that she is set on a course from which she will not falter. From this point on, she will broach no contradiction of what she believes to be the truth, and elicit a confession of guilt regardless of what, or who, must be sacrificed in the process.

    While Shanley has widened his scope to encompass a broader range of themes, Doubt still functions primarily as an actors’ showcase. Long before casting for the film was announced, it was a given that Meryl Streep would be playing the role of Aloysius; I said as much to my theater companion after the curtain had gone down at Manhattan Theater Club, where Doubt began before moving on to an extended engagement on Broadway. Unless she’s dancing across rooftops lip-synching ABBA standards, Streep may be incapable of giving a bad performance; she certainly creates a forceful impression as the implacable Aloysius, and brings the requisite dramatic fire to scenes that couldn’t work in the absence of theatricality. It must be said, however, that she lacks some of the shading and nuance that Cherry Jones, the role’s originator, brought to the part. This Aloysius verges on the monochromatic, with motives that are much more transparent and easier to place — consequently, there’s a bit of an imbalance at work in the Flynn-Aloysius conflict, which in this context can’t avoid feeling a bit one-sided. Jones tempered her austerity with some welcome flashes of humor and spirit — it makes sense, from a dramatic standpoint, for Aloysius to be tightly wound and joyless, but it doesn’t leave as much room for ambiguity, something Doubt requires by its very definition in order to be compelling. This Aloysius seems to be willing to believe the worst about the priest — who becomes a much more sympathetic character than he perhaps ought to be in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s interpretation — because she just flat-out doesn’t like him; that’s what guides her impulses, and makes it difficult for the audience to trust the validity of her positions. Streep is still something to see, though. Even if, to a certain extent, she misses the boat in terms of what the film is actually about, it is nonetheless a smoothly executed, and eminently entertaining performance.

    Better still is Hoffman, who is in every way superior to Brian F. O’Byrne, the Irish-born actor who played the role on Broadway and couldn’t avoid seeming stiff and oratorical while wrestling with a thick Bronx accent that unleashed itself upon Shanley’s dialogue like a team of attack dogs. If Hoffman makes the character a bit more likable than perhaps he should be — again, it’s easy to know which side to pick in this interpretation — it is a beautifully calibrated, deeply felt performance which makes it very clear why people would be naturally drawn to Father Flynn, and allow him a bit more latitude than is his honest due. Less successful is the very pale, frail-looking Amy Adams, who is all tremulous delicacy as the put-upon Sister James. While it is true that the character becomes something of a pawn in the Aloysius-Flynn power struggle, James needs to come across as something more than a deer caught in the headlights. We never really believe that she has it in her to summon the spirit to stand up to Aloysius; for the most part, she looks as she ought to be shivering on street corners with her big saucer eyes selling matches. Standing up to Aloysius — and Meryl Streep, for that matter — is not a problem for Viola Davis, who brings a vivid combination of toughness and emotionalism to the small but pivotal role of the student’s mother.

    Perhaps the most marked difference between the stage and film versions of Doubt — and again, part of this can be attributed to Streep’s more dour take on the central role — is that some of the energy and suspense (even, I daresay, the fun) of the original incarnation seems to have been lost in translation. The tone is much darker here than it seemed in the previous context — not in the least because the story takes place under a perpetually gray, drizzling Bronx sky with stern-faced stone angels looking ominously on. Within the confines of a single, contained space — in which the focus seemed limited to the battle-of-the-wills between two shrewd, engaged combatants — there was a crackling energy that the film version doesn’t even really begin to replicate. The impact is further diluted by an opening-up that draws the focus away from the central conflict. Shanley has, perhaps unwisely, added an autobiographical character (introduced to us as the film’s beginning, before any of the other characters have appeared) who was not featured in the play — the story is based on events that actually occurred within the playwright’s childhood, although he’s never said whether or not the real Father Flynn was, in fact, guilty of the crimes with which he was charged. As a director, Shanley doesn’t really have much of a sense of visual style — it’s possible that a more seasoned helmer might have found ways to bring a more varied look to the proceedings, thus avoiding a sense of lugubriousness. That said, the writer’s impulse to protect his vision, without the interference of another party who might try to make Doubt into something a bit more audience-friendly, is understandable. Ultimately, this Doubt is true to its origins, and delivers when it adheres closely to the original script. It is a worthy and interesting cinematic adaptation, even if not quite as successful as it might have been.

    But of that I can’t be certain.

    Labels: , , , , ,


    Sunday, January 04, 2009


    Keira dons period garb again

    By Edward Copeland
    I wonder: At this point in her career is Keira Knightley capable of playing a role set in the 21st century? Then again, if it keeps her making films as passable as The Duchess and out of junk such as Bend It Like Beckham, who am I to offer her career advice?

    I didn't expect a lot from The Duchess and was watching it mainly because the waiters and the florists nominated Ralph Fiennes for supporting actor for it. So it was with a great deal of surprise that I found The Duchess as watchable and enjoyable as I did.

    Knightley, aka "Ben Lyons' future bride," is quite good as the title character, an 18th century woman who at the urging of her mother (the always good Charlotte Rampling) enters into a marriage (more like a deal) with the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes) to provide him a male heir, only he's a cold, uncommunicative sort, made worse by the fact that her womb keeps producing females.

    Fiennes is quite good. It would have been easy to make the duke into a standard villain given the way the duke treats his wife but Fiennes manages to make him a three-dimensional character that you even have some sympathy for when he's at his worst, keeping the duchess from her true love, the non-nobleman and rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).

    While Fiennes is great and deserving of his Golden Globe nomination, I'm surprised that with the three nominations the HFPA gave the great In Bruges, they didn't pick him for his great supporting work as the eccentric crime boss in that one.

    Period dramas can often end up being as stiff as the corsets the women wear, but The Duchess is livelier than most.

    Labels: , , ,


    Saturday, January 03, 2009


    Hold on to that thread until it breaks

    By Edward Copeland
    It's good to know that the National Board of Review is good for something. If not for them, I might not have heard of the film In Search of a Midnight Kiss. The NBR included the film on their list of the Top 10 independent films of 2008. It also is nominated for the Independent Spirit's John Cassavetes Award for best feature made for less than $500,000. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the film the way it was meant to be seen.

    As I searched the Web for art to go with this review, I was puzzled because there were no color shots and the film I'd just watched was in color. Then I started to get nervous. I recalled the brief black-and-white opening and how the scenes on the DVD menu were in black-and-white. I began sleuthing.

    Most of the reviews at the time of the film's release mentioned its "glorious black-and-white cinematography." DAMN YOU WEINSTEIN! *edward shakes his fist at the sky* Further investigation indicated this might not be exclusively the fault of The Weinstein Company. I mean, Harvey and company have never been afraid of black-and-white before. So I had to suspect another member of this devil's bargain: Blockbuster, whom I unfortunately find to be the best for DVD-by-mail service.

    I found a DVD review of the movie which mentioned the black-and-white photography as well as a commentary track and other extras, none of which were on the DVD that arrived at my house. I went to Amazon to see if two versions were available for sale but as of Jan. 2, NO VERSION was available for sale, not even for pre-order.

    I went back to the Blockbuster site and looked up their listing of the film and what do you know — it was listed as a "Blockbuster exclusive." So the evil deal between The Weinstein Company and Blockbuster keeps this great little film out of people's hands, at least for a while, except in this stripped down, colorized version. What a travesty.

    Fortunately, the charms of Alex Holdridge's sweet and funny In Search of a Midnight Kiss more than survives this corporate meddling. Writer-director Holdridge isn't breaking new ground with his film, but with writing this sharp and a cast this likable, it makes familiar ground seem like fresh terrain.

    Scoot McNairy (who also produced) is Wilson, a 30-year-old depressed would-be screenwriter barely surviving in L.A. "where love goes to die," unable to move on after a long-ago breakup, a romantic drought that prompts his roommate (Brian McGuire) to encourage Wilson to use the power of the Internet, specifically something such as craigslist, to jump-start his dating life as New Year's Eve approaches.

    The first to answer his ad for a misanthrope seeking another misanthrope is Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a chain-smoking tough-talking blonde with an exterior that exudes edge, even though the sunglasses she wears may be there more to keep up that appearance than to block the sun.

    The rest of the film is pretty much the hours that Wilson and Vivian spend together with many laughs, insights and unexpected moments of seriousness. The film's denouement is easy to see coming and Vivian's possessive ex-boyfriend's redneckishness is overplayed a bit, but those are minor quibbles.

    McNairy and Simmonds have great chemistry and Simmonds is especially good. Even though it does contain its moments of pathos, In Search of a Midnight Kiss gave me two things I don't find often in movies of late: universal truths and joy. If only I'd been able to see it in black and white.

    Labels: , ,


    Friday, January 02, 2009


    Suspense souffle

    By Edward Copeland
    Why does it seem that American films of late seem to equate suspense with gore and shock and you have to travel across the ocean, at least cinematically, to get a good dose of psychological thrills such as Guillaume Canet's Tell No One.

    The French seem particularly adept at this genre and though Tell No One becomes too complicated for its own good once the resolution arrives, it's still a helluva ride getting there.

    Francois Cluzet stars as pediatrician Alexandre Beck, completely in love with his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) until they are attacked on a getaway and Margot is murdered, or was she? Eight years later, Beck begins to have doubts when he receives a mysterious e-mail that appears to show Margot alive and urges him not to tell anyone because they are being watched. The mystery deepens from there.

    Beck was originally suspected in his wife's murder until a serial killer was convicted for the crime. When the strange happenings begin to occur again eight years later, Beck once again finds himself the innocent man wrongly accused.

    It's hard to write in much detail about Tell No One since so much is dependent on the plot. Canet keeps the pacing taut, though he has take some of the blame for the ending muddle since he's also the screenwriter. It is based on a very popular novel in France, though I can't vouch for how faithful it is, but something really needed to be done to find some clarity in the final act.

    The performers are all good including Kristin Scott Thomas as a wealthy and powerful lesbian who is the lover to Beck's sister. Thomas seems to be finding more of a career in French language films of late than in English language ones.

    Tell No One is a pleasant surprise, especially for those looking for a couple hours of suspense without buckets of blood.

    Labels: , ,


    This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

    Follow edcopeland on Twitter

     Subscribe in a reader