Monday, September 29, 2008
REDACTED (2007) and RENDITION (2007)
Much was made of the box-office failure of these two war-on-terror films. While it may be too soon for audiences to deal with movies critical of the actions of the U.S. government and military (the best of the Vietnam War films didn’t hit theaters until the U.S. had withdrawn), the bottom line on these two films is that they aren’t very good.
Brian De Palma, who made one of the most powerful and memorable Vietnam War films, “Casualties of War,” released in 1989, 14 years after the war ended, directed “Redacted,” a faux documentary set in Baghdad that focuses on the much-publicized killing of a Iraqi family by American soldiers.
A video shot by a fictional solider that captures the intense and outrageous attitudes of the men in his unit, intercut with TV footage of a reporter talking to Iraqis, essentially make up this “film.” I’m not sure why De Palma didn’t just make a documentary or make a legitimate feature film; instead he’s created a confusing, off-putting experience that offers an anti-war sentiment about as subtle as a visit from Dick Cheney. De Palma unchecked bias would work if he was making a documentary, but in a feature film, shades of gray are much more effective if you have a point to make.
“Rendition” director Gavin Hood (who helmed the Oscar-winning foreign film “Tsotsi”) and screenwriter Kelley Sane clearly share De Palma’s revulsion at what America is doing in its fight against terror, but they make an effort to give the other side of the argument in this much more traditional drama.
When Reese Witherspoon’s engineer husband, an Egyptian national who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, fails to return from a trip from South Africa, every official denies he was even on the plane. It turns out that he had received a call from a cell phone that was traced to a Muslim suicide bomber, spurring Homeland Security to immediate whisk him off to a dark cell in North Africa for questioning (or as the rest of the world calls it, torture.)
His very pregnant, very determined wife heads to D.C. to seek the aid of an old boyfriend and now Congressional assistant (Peter Sarsgaard), who gets stonewalled when he inquires through his boss (Alan Arkin) and the CIA chief who ordered the rendition (a strident Meryl Streep).
Simultaneously, U.S. operative (Jake Gyllenhaal) is struggling with his conscience as he supervises the interrogation of the Egyptian-American suspect.
The setup isn’t bad and the cast is outstanding (Omar Metwally is very impressive as the tortured American with the wrong last name), but the film moves at a snails pace and the stories play out exactly as you’d expect.
Eventually, this era will have its own “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Full Metal Jacket,” but I’m guessing it will take a few years before they arrive at theaters.
THE HUNTING PARTY (2007)
Without anyone noticing, 59-year-old Richard Gere has as of late been doing some of the best work of his career. While he never was afraid of stretching----“The Honorary Consul” (1983), “Internal Affairs” (1990)----even at the height of his stardom, since his superb turn as egotistical lawyer Martin Vail in the courtroom thriller “Primal Fear” (1986) he has clearly focused on being an actor rather than a star.
Even his performances in recent high-profiled films (best picture winner “Chicago” and the Julia Roberts vehicle “Runaway Bride”) reveal an actor uninterested in his screen image or star status, just committed to the role.
It’s never been clearer than in his two performances in 2007: as the con man extraordinaire Clifford Irving in “Hoax” and as Simon Hunt, an impassioned American television reporter in “The Hunting Party.” The film opens with Hunter and his cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) reporting from the Bosnian war for a major U.S. network. But when they enter a town where a Serb warlord has killed women and children (including Hunt’s girlfriend), emotions get the best of Hunt and he goes ballistic during a live remote, resulting in his getting fired.
Flash forward to the five-year anniversary of the war and Duck is back in Sarajevo with the network’s veteran anchor (James Brolin) and a very green reporter (Jesse Eisenberg). After spending his first night drinking at the foreign correspondent’s hangout, Duck finds Hunt waiting for him in his room, with a lead on a story he wants Duck to help him with. He wants to interview the warlord, now a wanted war criminal living in hiding.
Hunter is a smart, resourceful reporter but also a broken, deceitful and obsessive loner who will trick you out of $100 one minute and save your life the next. Not unlike the Clifford Irving that Gere portrayed in “Hoax,” Hunt has a desperate need to be relevant and important and will take extreme measures to accomplish his goals. Howard, who was excellent at the musically inclined pimp in “Hustle & Flow” (2005), is a perfect foil for Gere; he cares for him like a brother but calls him on it when he sees him pulling a fast one.
The film, written and directed by Richard Shepard, best know for “The Matador” (2005), opened and closed without anyone noticing, but it’s a fast-paced, sharply written and complex look at a very complicated war and the very colorful characters that covered it. It rings authentic because it’s based on the true adventures of journalist Scott Anderson.
A better sociological study than motion picture, this pre-code curio stars underrated actress Ruth Chatterton as the CEO of an automobile manufacturer, who barks at her employees all day and then orders up one to dine with her at night.
In 1933, the idea of a woman being the smartest person in the room, running a major company and treating men like sex objects was beyond the imagination of most filmgoers. When she coldly transfers a male secretary halfway across the globe because he’s taken their liaisons too seriously, it works as both a commentary on the heartlessness of corporate America and the arrogance of a male-dominated world, made clear when it’s a she wearing the pants.
Despite all its trailblazing ambitions, the film reverts to conventional wisdom when Alison meets a very proper, handsome hot-shot car designer (George Brent) and realizes that even a woman CEO’s place is in the arms of a man. Even before there were official censors, the studios never slipped far from the status quo.
The superb script was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (from a story by Donald Henderson Clarke), a Warner Bros. writing team who were responsible for many excellent film of the era, including three others released in 1933, “Midnight Mary” with Loretta Young, “Baby Face” with Barbara Stanwyck and “Lilly Turner” with Chatterton.
Though Michael Curtiz is the film’s credited director, he was brought in to reshoot scenes when the studio decided to recast a role. Much of it was directed by William Wellman and it bears his signature: cynical, chirpy supporting characters surrounding a strong, confident female lead. It seems like the perfect role for Stanwyck, but Chatterton acquits herself well even as she’s more persuasive as the tough boss than a romantic figure.
Chatterton arrived in Hollywood as a star, having become a major Broadway performer at 18. She quickly earned Academy Award nominations for “Madame X” (1929) and “Sarah and Son” (1930), going on to make 32 films in a 10 years period. Her film career peaked with her brilliant performance as the philandering wife in “Dodsworth” (1936) opposite Walter Huston. She retired from films two years later, at age 45, returning to the stage.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)
In an interesting experiment that could easily become a trend, this musical concoction has built its story and characters around the music and lyrics of the Beatles. While no one’s catalog in the rock era compares to the Fab Four’s, I could see entertaining musicals created around the songs of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or even Madonna, all guaranteeing a built-in audience. The problem is getting the rights.
While the story of young adults arriving in New York City in the ‘60s to find themselves and getting swept up in the music, politics and romance of the time is a tad shop worn (if only this had been released in the 1970s), the fresh performances and first-rate vocals by the unknown cast keeps the film afloat. The musical highlights, though, are guest appearances by Joe Cocker as a homeless guy singing “Come Together” and Bono as a psychedelic guru ripping through “I Am the Walrus.”
Jim Sturgess (star of the new film “21”) plays Jude, a Brit who comes to America to find his father but ends up hanging out with a Harvard dropout (Joe Anderson) and his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), whose boyfriend, early in the film, dies in Vietnam. All three end up in Greenwich Village, living with a saucy blues singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs), her guitarist-lover JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), another lost soul from middle America. As you can see, the names are more important than the story.
The film, directed by Julie Taymor, who staged “The Lion King” on Broadway, is long on atmosphere and short on substantial plot, but, in truth, this is all about the Beatles. Fuchs’ versions of “Helter Skelter” and “Don’t Let Me Down” and McCoy’s version of “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” are all great covers, while Sturgess does a nice job with “Something” as does Wood on “If I Fell.”
One of the film’s shortcomings is that John Lennon and Paul McCartney rarely wrote about the Vietnam War or other raging storms of the era (“Revolution” is the exception); in fact, the timelessness of their music is one of the keys to their continued popularity. But for the filmmakers telling the story of the 1960s, it’s a stumbling block.
CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN (2006)
In what turns out to be the most pretentious part of this two-character film, Aaron Eckhart approaches Helena Bonham Carter as a wedding reception is coming to a close (I’m not clear on what too him so long) and they engage in coyish banter as if they’re strangers. Gradually, the film reveals that their relationship is slightly more complex and they have a shared history a decade ago.
The hide-and-seek aspect of the dialogue (written by Gabrielle Zevin) is somewhat amusing but not even close to being believable. Director Hans Canosa adds to the artificiality of the picture by dividing the screen in half, shooting the man and woman (they’re given no names) as separate shots even as they sit beside each other talking. It does allow flashbacks to their younger selves to be clearly connected to either the man or the woman’s memory, but that seems minor compared to the distracting aspect of the split screen.
There’s nothing new here: The man is still desperately in love even as the woman has moved on. It seems to me that only fans of Bonham Carter and Eckhart, both excellent in difficult roles, would find this mistitled film worth the time.
MY FIRST MISTER (2001)
Actress Christine Lahti, in her first feature as a director, brings out two fine performances in this thoughtful story of a troubled, anti-social, 17-year-old girl and the bond she forms with her 49-year-old stuck-in-a-rut boss.
Leelee Sobieski, who made a splash when she was 16 as the title character in a TV production of “Joan of Arc,” (1999) and then in Stanley Kubrick’s last film “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), plays Jennifer, a multi-pierced, death-obsessed teen who has no interest in her future or much of anything when she applies for a job at a clothing store. Albert Brooks, in a rare non-comedic role, plays store owner Randall Harris, a divorced, lonely and phobic man who bends his rules to give Jennifer a chance and then opens his heart as they begin to see themselves in each other.
Sobieski makes you care about this indulgent teen even as she exhibits the most ridiculous behavior, while Brooks is perfect as this gentle, middle-aged soul who keeps trying to push away this young girl falling in love with him.
A wonderful collection of supporting players adds to the story’s authenticity, including Carol Kane as the always happy mother Jennifer can’t stand; John Goodman as her slacker father she rarely sees and Mary Kay Place as Randall’s one friend.
This thoughtful character study reminded me of the kind of low-keyed, somewhat aimless films of the late 1960s and ‘70s, at least until the final, cliché-riddled 20 minutes. The film quickly sinks into the kind of television-movie sentimentality it had avoid through the first three-fourths of the story. Still, it’s an impressive first feature for screenwriter Jill Franklyn and for Lahti, who won the 1995 live action short subject Oscar for her first film “Lieberman in Love.” Her next directorial effort, “Any Way You Want Me,” a mother-daughter story, is due out later this year.
While Sobieski, now 25, hasn’t achieved the stardom many predicted for her (though she continues to bear an uncanny resemblance to Helen Hunt), she clearly has the acting skills to become one of the best of her generation.
BERNARD AND DORIS (2008, TV)
Doris Duke, who inherited her father’s tobacco fortune, was one of the 20th Century’s most famous heiresses, whose marriages, divorces, affairs and offbeat adventures made headlines right up until her death in 1993. A 1999 television movie, “Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke,” told her life story, with Lauren Bacall as the elderly Duke. This new HBO movie tells a small but fascinating part of her story: the relationship between Duke and her devoted, final butler, Bernard Lafferty, who cared for her until her death.
There isn’t much story here, but it’s an opportunity for two superb actors to dig into juicy roles. Susan Sarandon, as well as anyone, knows how to play an iconoclast who doesn’t let age stop her from continuing her rebellious ways. She also succeeds in portraying the arrogant, demanding side of the character. Her Duke can be both childish and motherly while remaining imperious.
Ralph Fiennes, who’s at his best playing tightly wound characters (his German guard in “Schindler’s List;” Charles Van Doren in “Quiz Show”), gives another spot-on performance as Bernard, an expert in handling divas, having previous worked for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee. He starts out as just an employee, but eventually becomes Duke’s traveling and party companion, even as he battles a drinking problem. Though the relationship never becomes sexual (Bernard is openly gay) they slowly become as inseparable as an old married couple.
Director Bob Balaban, the actor who has directed on many TV series, and screenwriter Hugh Costello smartly keep the focus on the title characters and, outside of a few scenes, never try to give a full picture of Doris’ life. This movie is all about two fascinating characters portrayed by two thoroughly entertaining actors.
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007)
For the second film in a row, writer-director Noah Baumbach casts top-notch actors in interesting roles and then pushes their collective dysfunctionality beyond the realm of believability. He paints his adults, all highly educated and self aware, as emotional children who are petty, inconsistent and hurtful to one another. The children in his films are obsessed with sex and their parents’ weaknesses. Movie characters, at least interesting ones, tend to be a bit smarter and a bit more screwed up than their real life counterparts, but like so many indie filmmakers, Baumbach overloads his films with truly messed up folks.
I enjoyed “Margot at the Wedding” a bit more than “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), but it was still was one of the year’s biggest disappointments. Teaming Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s wife) and Nicole Kidman, two of the finest actresses of our time, as estranged sisters reunited on the occasion of Pauline’s (Leigh) wedding to aging slacker Malcolm (the always affable Jack Black) was a master stroke by the director.
Leigh, who shined in superb role after superb role in the 1990s, seems to be a forgotten actress this decade. Just 46, she should be in her prime acting years, but, apparently, in the eyes of Hollywood this great actress is just an “old” actress. Kidman is a star, but a star who continues challenging herself with difficult and different roles. Her Margot is an arrogant, but emotionally unsteady writer who likes to think she speaks her mind when in fact she’s just hurtful. The interaction between the sisters is beautifully realized, more in the subtle, naturalistic acting of Leigh and Kidman, than in the lines they’re provided.
Everyone behaves badly, again and again, until everyone hates one another, which, for these characters, is inevitable, and for the audience, not very enlightening.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
While you can’t hold a musical to the same logic standards of a drama or even a comedy, I had some problems with the story line, at least as presented in this film version, of Steven Sondheim’s Tony Award winning “Sweeney Todd.”
(If there’s anyone out there who isn’t aware of the plot details of the musical---the story has been around since the mid-19th Century and the Broadway hit opened in 1979----and doesn’t want the film experience “spoiled,” skip the rest of this review.)
There is something darkly humorous about a restaurant becoming a smashing success after it starts selling (unbeknownst to the customers) meat pies filled with the ground-up remains of innocent customers of a murdering barber. Yet it’s all played with the seriousness of a Shakespearean tragedy as Sweeney Todd, returning to his hometown after being falsely imprisoned, slits the throats of his enemies and then starts in on anyone just looking for a shave and a trim. I guess in the context of the musical, it’s believable that no one notices all these deaths. Why not: Right off the bat, we’re asked to buy that Todd (when he was known as Benjamin Barker) was sent to prison because a corrupt judge wanted to put the moves on his wife.
In addition to making these ridiculous leaps of faith, the film also wants us to believe that Todd makes no real effort to find out the details of his beloved wife’s reported demise and seems only occasionally interested in rescuing his now grown daughter from the clutches of the evil judge.
All this could be excused if the songs and the singing were memorable, but both are forgettable. Johnny Depp, looking like a creation of Dr. Frankenstein, not only can’t sing a lick, but does nothing interesting with this victim-turned-monster character. It’s utterly ridiculous that he earned a best actor Oscar nomination for this performance. Equally uninspiring vocals are offered by Helena Bonham Carter (as Mrs. Lovett, the unethical baker), but at least she brings some theatrical enthusiasm to the production.
Typical of a Tim Burton film, the look of the film is impressive; the sets, costumes, cinematography and extras all contribute to the dank, gloomy, depressed mood the director creates. He’s created a wonderful atmosphere, but has nothing worth putting into it.