Monday, April 5, 2010

March 2010

In Roman Polanski’s new film, the former prime minister of England is indicted for war crimes by the World Court, a liberal fantasy that could only happen in a movie. There’s more than one plot turn in this thriller that wouldn’t hold water in a real world narrative, but a witty, politically insightful script, entertaining performances and sure-handed direction combine to make everything that happens seem very believable.

Ewan McGregor plays a successful ghost writer of autobiographies who is asked to spice up the just completed tome of ex-PM Adam Lang, following the mysterious death of the political writer who had been working on the book. Once at Lang’s Martha’s Vineyard hideaway, the ghost writer (he’s never referred to by a name) finds a secretive compound run by a humorless, protective assistant in tight skirts (Kim Cattrall), an unhappy wife (Olivia Williams), a preoccupied Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and a long, boring book that needs plenty of work. But that project soon gets put on the backburner when the war crimes charges hit the news. Amid the chaos that ensues (Lang flies off to D.C. for photo ops with Bush Administration officials), the intrepid writer bonds with the neglected wife and starts investigating the circumstances of his predecessor’s death.

Polanski and co-writer Robert Harris (working from his novel) leave much of what’s going on below the surface, hinting at deeper, darker motivation and adding layers to the already complex characters. While McGregor and Brosnan are excellent, the film’s finest performance comes from Williams, best know as the love interest in “Rushmore” and Bruce Willis’ widow in “The Sixth Sense.” Ruth is a fascinating, mysterious character beautifully brought to life by Williams; she appears to be an emotional fragile woman who one minute seems on the verge of divorce and the next, her husband’s strongest ally.

Also memorable are Cattrall as the smug, sexy assistant; Tom Wilkerson as a former professor of Lang; and, in a short, lively scene, 94-year-old Eli Wallach as a local who guides the ghost writer toward the truth.

Of course, what passes for the truth in “The Ghost Writer” fluctuates from scene to scene, and, in many cases, is in the eye of the beholder. But one doesn’t have to buy into the film’s conspiracy theories as they reflect the Bush/Blair War on Terror to find the script’s events both plausible and thoroughly entertaining.


This film attacks another controversial aspect of the War on Terror---the questionable intelligence behind the belief in Iraqi WMDs---but, despite some exciting, intense action, I was never convinced the central plot was plausible. It looks and sounds like the real thing, but what goes on seems like a writer’s conceit.

The “Bourne” team of Matt Damon, director Paul Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (he won for “L.A. Confidential” and was nominated for “Mystic River”), move their fearless, in-your-face action to the desert battlefield while trying to maintain their one-man-against-the-world theme.

Damon plays U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, leader of a unit assigned to uncover those crucial weapons of mass destruction, who possesses the same impressive deduction abilities as Jason Bourne and seems to be equally indestructible.

Miller starts suspecting something’s wrong with the intel they’re following when he keeps putting his men in harm’s way and come up empty handed. Soon he’s butting heads with the administration boys entrenched in the Green Zone, the swanky HQ for military brass in Iraq and trading info with like-thinking civilians, including a CIA agent (the always superb Brendan Gleeson) and a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan).

Maybe the most telling scene in Greengrass’ film takes place in the pool area of the Green Zone. When Miller and a few of his men, just back from an urban shootout, show up to meet the CIA contact, these combat-ready soldiers look like aliens amidst the bikini babes and cocktail-sipping government types. And these are the guys calling the shots.

What didn’t work for me was the way Damon’s Miller was able to set his own agenda as he attempts to bring in an Iraqi general who may be the administration’s source for WMD intel. He seems to answer to no one and can get away with confronting a high ranking Pentagon official (Greg Kinnear doing his best in a one-note role). Despite the grit and cynicism, I never believed I was watching reality.

Also hard to believe was Miller’s trust in a reporter (somewhat modeled after administration flunky Judith Miller of the New York Times) who had clearly been promoting the Bush agenda for Iraq.

“Green Zone,” while exploring issues that deserve big screen treatment, is a bit too much “Bourne” and not enough “United 93,” Greengrass’ near perfect recreation of the events of September 11. In that 2006 picture, the director found a way to show extraordinary heroism from ordinary people. In “Green Zone,” he turns his character into a military Superman, fighting for truth, justice and the American way, but it just doesn’t fly.

SCANDAL (1950) and I LIVE IN FEAR (1955)

Akira Kurosawa, the towering figure of Japanese cinema, gained fame in the West for his samurai warrior epics, including his masterpieces “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “Ran” (1985). But he also made numerous first-rate contemporary dramas, most of which examined the angst of postwar Japan and the struggle to maintain cultural traditions.

These two dramas, shown on TCM as part of the channel’s tribute to Kurosawa on the 100th anniversary of his March 23, 1910 birth, display the same inventive direction and attention to detail that made his historical adventures so memorable.

“Scandal,” released the same year the director’s “Rashômon” made him internationally famous, attacks the irresponsible journalism of the paparazzi (before that term was coined in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”), starting when a photo is snapped of a famous singer on a hotel balcony talking with a struggling artist, both in their robes.
The low-keyed painter (Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune) and the shy, humiliated singer (Shirley Yamaguchi) file suit when a celebrity magazine uses the photo to fabricate a story of romance. While it seems like an open and shut case, things go awry when the painter hires an irresponsible attorney with a gambling problem.

Takashi Shimura, who starred in “Ikiru,” the director’s heartbreaking film of a dying bureaucrat and made appearances in 19 films for Kurosawa, is really the centerpiece of “Scandal” as the lawyer who falls prey to the unethical behavior of the magazine’s editor. Mifune remains loyal to him only because he has an engaging young daughter suffering from tuberculosis.

The film’s most memorable scene takes place in a tavern where the lawyer goes to drown his guilt with drink. His drinking partner stands up and addresses the entire bar about his optimism for the coming new year and then leads the drinkers in the Japanese version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Kurosawa captures the despair and stress in the faces of the bar patrons as they sing this universal song of hopefulness. It’s the kind of cinematic moment one expects from a great filmmaker.

Despite the horror film title, “I Live in Fear” addresses the deep dread of the hydrogen bomb, a harsh reality of the Cold War era, especially in Japan where they had experienced the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The movie focuses on an elderly man (an almost unrecognizable 35-year-old Mifune), who wants to sell his very successful foundry and move his entire family to a farm in Brazil. No one in this man’s large family, including his wife and his two mistresses and their children, is interested in leaving Japan, so they attempt to have the patriarch declared mentally unstable.

Not only does this film speak to the general postwar anxieties, but it delves into the changing structure of the family and the differing attitude of the younger generation in the 1950s. Despite having been provided a comfortable life and good jobs by their father, the children are more concerned about their inheritance than keeping the family together.

Kurosawa offers an outside perspective on the case through a civilian mediator assigned to the court hearing the case. This thoughtful dentist (Shimura in another great role) brings a balanced viewpoint, sympathizing with both sides of the situation.

While these aren’t the best Kurosawa contemporary dramas---that would be “Ikiru” (1952) and the police thriller “Stray Dog” (1949)----they represent the kind of superbly acted, thoughtful movies this masterful director regularly produced during his 52-year career.

Kurosawa, who died at age 88 in 1998, was a fearless director, whose films never ducked the harsh realities of life, be it in the 13th or the 20th Century. In his autobiography, he writes of his brother taking him to the site of a massacre of Korean residents of Tokyo in 1923 (they were blamed for a devastating earthquake). He wanted to close his eyes but his brother told him to look at the horror, telling the young Akira, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” He clearly followed this advice throughout his unparalleled career, exploring violence and death as few other filmmakers ever have.

German filmmaker Michael Haneke doesn’t have much faith in the human race, but let’s face it, the history of the 20th Century offers a continuum of support for that pessimistic view.

In “Caché,” his acclaimed 2005 film about an upper class French family harassed by a mysterious videographer, examined white guilt about the treatment of minority class and the devastating effect the all-seeing eyes of the media has on a society. “The Piano Teacher” (2001), a hard-to-watch study of a disturbed, sexually confused classical pianist, the writer-director seems to view intimate relations as self-obsessed cruelty.

His latest, and probably his finest, picture is set in pre-World War I Germany, where lives are lived under the constant watch of unforgiving, judgmental neighbors. In this small town, class order, religious devotion and strict moral guidelines guide a repressed citizenry on how to conduct their lives.

The story is narrated as a gentle fable from the past by the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), whose romance with a shy nanny (Leonie Benesch) provides a glimpse at the rigid morals that stifle any semblance of emotional expression.

The perfectly ordered world begins to show its seams when the town’s doctor is seriously injured while riding his horse when someone strings a trip wire across his property. Then, one after another, all sorts of tragedies befall the town folks, from humble farmers to the area’s land baron.

But at the center of the film are the children of the village, who travel in packs and keep showing up unexpectedly at various spots around town. These children, who live under the harsh, militaristic rule of their parents, will provide the foundation, as young adults, for Hitler’s Third Reich.

Shot in cold, timeless black and white by Oscar nominee Christian Berger with the minimum of camera movement and an emphasis on the painfully stoic faces of the characters, the film could easily pass as a production released in the 1930s. “The White Ribbon” has the stark look and quiet intensity of the films made by the great Dutch moralist Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose works include “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) and “Day of Wrath” (1943).

Typical of Haneke, nothing is thoroughly explained and who is or isn’t a villain is left up to the viewer. It can be frustrating, but the film’s moral ambiguity, as it explores the roots of the twisted abyss that German became in the 1930s, is what makes it unforgettable.

SHADE (2004)
While watching this half-baked movie about card sharks and con men on cable, I assumed it went directly from the distributor to the $2.99 bin at Big Lots. But, in fact, this Merv Griffin production (he could have used a rewrite by the “Jeopardy” writers), was in limited release in Los Angeles in 2004. Merv must have pulled a lot of strings to make that happen. I pity the suckers who shelled out $9 for this disaster, allured by the name cast----Gabriel Byrne, Jamie Foxx, Thandie Newton, Melanie Griffith and Sylvester Stallone----because it is easily the worse film any of those actors have ever appeared in.

Among all these future and former Oscar winners/nominees, the star of this joyless romp through the world of dishonest poker players, is one Stuart Townsend, an Irish actor best known as Charlize Theron’s longtime (now former) boyfriend. He’s seems like a decent enough actor, but he mostly stands around and waits for one of his more famous co-stars to say something idiotic.

I’m baffled as to how first-time writer-director Damian Nieman (who hasn’t been hired in either of those capacities since) attracted this collection of names; maybe the dialogue read better than it sounds, and certainly the idea of an intricately plotted con in which you never know who is being deceived has its appeal.

However promising it might have seemed, the end result looks and sounds as if it were made by someone who had not only never wrote or directed a motion picture, but by someone who had never even seen a movie before. I’m serious. I can’t remember if I have ever watched a film so ineptly constructed. Scenes are abruptly cut off or start inappropriately, the story jumps from one character to another without explanation and the positioning of the camera in most scenes look to have been decided by the caterer. In fact, let me take that back; the caterer on this picture could have improved the direction.

And then there’s the acting. The main players---Byrne, Newton and Townsend---have zero chemistry and never come close to making you believe they are a team. Newton has always been an icy presence (and thin beyond reason), but here she seems to be half asleep. Foxx, on the other hand, goes full tilt, but only has a small role at the beginning of the film.

And then in walks Stallone. The beloved actor looks like he just stepped out of the ring with one of those brutalizing punchers he faced in the “Rocky” films. I can’t say if it’s badly done surgery or just the aging process, but Sly’s mug now resembles a celebrity cartoon likeness of himself (remember those Warner Bros. shorts with caricatures of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante?). Words fail me as I try to explain how diverting his scenes are; each of his stiff, monotone line readings are unintentionally hilarious, his Hell’s Kitchen accent thicker than when he was romancing Adrian.

At the big showdown, Stallone’s legendary card shark, known as “The Dean,” takes on Townsend in a high-stakes poke challenge held in a room at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. At this side for the game is an ex-girlfriend he just reunited with, played like a piece of furniture by Griffith. Somehow (no one’s asking), the then 47-year-old actress looks exactly the same as she did at 30. She has nothing to do in “Shade” other than stand beside Stallone; I can only assume she had scenes that were trimmed out of the film. It’s still hard to fathom how far her star has fallen since the late 1980s.

Along the way, 80-year-old Dina Merrill, Hal Holbrook and Bo Hopkins make appearances. You can’t make this stuff up. I was half expecting to see Al Pacino or Larry Hagman show up.

I guess that’s what kept me watching, along with the old car-crash mentality: it’s difficult to look away from something this bad.

DISTRICT 9 (2009)
This fast-paced, chaotic sci-fi film isn’t the worst best picture nominee I’ve ever seen (in fact, I’d rate it slightly higher than its 2009 competitor “The Blind Side”), but it may be the most unlikely selection in recent years.

A dozen other 2009 films fit the profile of what Academy voters typically nominate for best picture, including “Invitus,” “Star Trek,” “Bright Star,” even “It’s Complicated”; so they certainly had plenty of options to fill out the expanded category. But these industry insiders saw something in this screwy B movie that I missed.

The premise has possibilities---an enormous spaceship from another galaxy breaks down over Johannesburg, South Africa and the country has to take in hundreds of alien beings----but writer-director Neill Blomcamp, whose background is in visual effects, does nothing very interesting with the setup. Instead, he and co-writer Terri Tatchell fall back on an over-used plot device of having a member of the oppressing race turn into a champion for the oppressed (not unlike “Avatar”).

In this case, it’s a nerdy, weak-willed bureaucrat, Wikus van de Merwe (South African actor Sharlto Copley), who is selected by his father-in-law to shepherd the relocation of the aliens (known as prawns because they look like giant ones). But when Wikus becomes “infected” and his arm begins to transform, the government wants to use the DNA from the limb to create laboratory aliens. Far-fetch as it sounds, only an “alien” hand can fire the powerfully lethal weapons they brought from their planet and the South Africans have been attempting to find a way to use them for years.

But before Wikus becomes a human guinea pig, he escapes, holds up with an alien he believes can help him return to human form and plots the return of the spaceship to its native planet.

The filmmakers attempt to raise the stakes by having part of the film’s story told by people interviewed in a TV news report on the situation. The device gives the film some immediacy, but mostly makes it feel like a jumble of styles and viewpoints. But I’m being kind in using the word style; the film is as coherent as a video game. It remains third person for so long that by the time the story focuses on Wikus’ plight, I had no sympathy for the fate of this offensively stupid man.

I guess I was supposed to equate the treatment of the aliens with the way blacks were persecuted for years in South Africa, but since nearly every character in the film is white, the point seems way too obvious. If the filmmaker really wanted to make a statement, Wikus and his supervisors should have been black. But looking for a thoughtful message in “District 9” is like seeking out spiritual guidance from “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”

and UP (2009)
One of the most baffling critical trends in the past decade has been the love affair between movie reviewers and animated films. In the 1990s, critics raved over “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “The Lion King” (1994) and “Toy Story” (1995), but with the perspective that these were cartoons for children. In the past decade, it has become a critical requirement that at least one animated picture make one’s year-end Top 10, usually near the top. At least once a year, there’s been an over-praised, new “classic”: “Shrek” (2001), “Spirited Away” (2001), “The Incredibles” (2004), “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2005), “Ratatouille” (2007) and “Wall-E” (2008).

Maybe it because more critics are middle-aged with school-age children but when Time magazine’s first three films on its 2009 Top 10 are animated, “The Princess and the Frog,” “Up” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and both the Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips and Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan include “Up” in their Top 10s----Phillips named it No. 1----I just scratch my head and wonder what I’m missing. On top of all the animated raves, New York Times critic A.O. Scott selected a kid’s picture, “Where the Wild Things Are,” as the best film of 2009.

If these critics want to rhapsodize about what wondrous films these are for children, I won’t argue. But don’t pretend that these are pictures worth comparing to “The Hurt Locker” or “Up in the Air” or three dozen other films released last year. At best, it’s a compromise of one’s critical standards to ignore a clichéd script that’d be laughable in a live-action film; at worst, it’s a lame attempt to be hip to technical trends.

Am I saying that movies aimed at juvenile audiences should be valued less than those targeting adult moviegoers? Absolutely. You might think Dr. Seuss or A.A. Milne are exceptional writers, but please don’t compare their art to Hemingway or Dickens or Austen. The “children’s” movies that rise above the typical fodder are the one’s that address issues that can be appreciated by both adults and children. “The Wizard of Oz,” “Pinocchio” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” are among the greatest films ever produced because they are much more than children’s films.

“Where the Wild Things Are,” based on a picture book with 10 sentences by Maurice Sendak, sends an angry nine-year-old boy into an imaginary world populated by large fuzzy stuffed animals (For a second, I thought I had returned to the land of “The Banana Splits”!). He is immediately made king by these insecure, aimless creatures and then attempts to inject some order into their life in what seems to be an abandoned forest. Young Max finds out the people (even when they look like cuddly toys) are self-centered, jealous and don’t appreciate being told what to do.

This isn’t even a good kid’s movie. Vague and humorless, the picture looks cheap and unorganized. I kept waiting to see some sign of the quirky, innovative direction we’ve come to expect from Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), but it’s nowhere to be found. This plays like an odd, early Saturday morning TV oddity that somehow scored a big-screen treatment. I’m still waiting for the movie version of the “Banana Splits.”

“Up,” the latest animated blockbuster from Pixar, shows early promise, with an inventive, near silent preface, telling the story of a pair of adventure-loving children who end up married and then living a happy but bittersweet life until the wife passes away.

The elderly man lives in his beloved home amid urban renewal, refusing to sell as office buildings rise around him. When fate looks like it has finally caught up with him and he’s about to lose his house, he concocts a scheme to turn his house into a hot air balloon and heads off into the clouds for the great adventure he had promised his wife, but never took. Instead, he’s stuck with a chubby, nerdy Boy Scout, who mistakenly gets swept up into the trip.

It’s a great setup and Ed Asner has the curmudgeonly Carl down pat. But once the house lands (ridiculously just a few miles from where Carl and his wife always wanted to live), the story becomes yet another animated tale of cute animals that talk, irrational bad guys and amazing feats by the heroes. The old man and his Boy Scout sidekick defy even cartoon logic; the damn Roadrunner was more believable.

Maybe if I had kids I’d have a greater appreciation of these films, but I hope not. Some values shouldn’t change or go out of style. No matter what extraordinary technology is used to make a film or how spectacular it looks, a quality motion picture still needs an interesting plot and believable characters.