Sunday, September 28, 2008

One Against Many

From Chan-wook Park's Oldboy. One of the most viscerally cool fight scenes in recent memory, and about the only reason you need to seek out the film if you haven't seen it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

Paul Newman has died at the age of 83. I'll leave the discussions of his life and career to the more eloquent writers out there, but I can say without a doubt that he's been my favorite actor for years, as well as one of my biggest influences as a film fan. When I was 15 or 16 I was a verifiable movie geek, but I wasn't very adventurous in what I watched, content to just see whatever was new. That was until I saw his movie Cool Hand Luke on cable one night. I hadn't ever seen such a great movie character, and soon I was seeking out all of Newman's films, astonished at how many great choices there were. Whether it was Hud, The Sting or The Hustler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or The Verdict, this was a guy that delivered in every film he was in. His movies were my introduction to the classics, and they undoubtedly changed the way I look at film as an art form. To this day, Cool Hand Luke is still my favorite movie.

I count Newman among the very best of the great actors from the 60s and 70s that made their craft look effortless. Guys like Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Burt Lancaster never tried to make their characters cool or larger than life, it just came naturally to them. But Newman just might have pulled it off with even more ease than all the rest. He had the gift of being completely at home and comfortable in the skin of whatever character he played. He was one of the very best of the kind of actor that seems to be forever disappearing from the screen: the guy that never has to tell a lie or put on an act to get a reaction from his audience.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"There is Always an Escape": Redbelt (2008)

David Mamet as a writer has always been hit or miss. When he’s on, you get great character pieces like Glengarry Glen Ross, one of my favorite scripts of the nineties, or tight action films like the underrated Spartan or The Edge (which, admittedly, I might be the only fan of). But when he’s off-- and he very often is-- you can get cheap sleight of hand like The Spanish Prisoner or nonsensical moral fables like the pathologically awful Edmond. 2008’s Redbelt, a modern-day samurai story which Mamet also directed, falls somewhere between these two plateaus. It’s an almost perfect exhibition of Mamet’s amazing strengths at constructing character and themes, but it’s also all too clear a portrait of his weak plotting.

The film stars the remarkably consistent Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, a jujitsu instructor whose desire to lead a pure life is constantly in conflict with his need to make a living. His wife (Alice Braga in an uneven performance) pressures him to compete in mixed martial arts fights to supplement his income, but Terry is unyielding, asserting that “competition is weakening.” The film is a character study, and Mamet’s plot is built around the ways in which Terry’s deep sense of honor and morality is tested, whether by a shady fight promoter (Mamet regular Ricky Jay), a neurotic but well-meaning lawyer (Emily Mortimer) or an aging movie star (Tim Allen in one of his better film roles). But all of this is irrelevant, because we know where a movie that owes so much to the Samurai/Western genre is going-- at some point, this guy is gonna have to fight.

Mamet’s plotting is typically haphazard-- characters are introduced and then forgotten, people change from friend to foe on a dime, and no plot point ever seems to happen quite the way that the audience feels it should. Even after over twenty years’ experience in the film business, it seems as though Mamet still tries to maintain a playwright’s aesthetic in his film scripts, letting the characters say outright what is happening rather than letting it be shown by action or camerawork. So when Terry runs out of cash, Braga’s character says quite simply, “you have no cash,” and later, another character tells him that he is “addicted to poverty.” This kind of on the nose dialogue is actually less annoying here than it has been in Mamet’s past work, but the sheer amount of coincidence, chance, and downright absurd plot points he uses to advance his story isn’t, and the audience isn’t likely to buy a number of late twists. To his credit, Mamet knows where his story should be taking these characters, but he can’t seem to figure out how to move them from one scene to another, and while he eventually works his way to a good ending, he makes a mess of his plot trying to get there.

Still, as Mike Terry is wont to tell his students, "there is always an escape," and in the same way that Mamet’s compact and talky theatrical style hurts his plotting, it’s a revelation for his characters. Mike Terry is the kind of smart, sympathetic, classically constructed hero that we get all too little of in the movies, and the fact that Mamet can drop an honorable warrior with a personal moral code into modern day L.A. and still have it feel believable is a testament to his writing. He effectively layers the film around his main character. Every plot point-- no matter how amateurishly it may be reached-- is the result of a motive or action that seems perfectly natural and at home in Terry’s character. The mistakes he makes and the triumphs he has are all the result of something unique to him. That’s enough of a rarity that it just might win you over to the film’s side, and it shows where a writer like Mamet can excel when he wants to.

Of course, Mamet can’t be given all the credit here for making Mike Terry such a fine character-- a great deal of that is thanks to a superb performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who once again proves that he is one of the very best actors around. In a relatively brief career, he’s managed to cover a lot of ground, from playing a drag queen (Kinky Boots) to a New York City detective (Inside Man) to a futuristic, sword-wielding government operative (Serenity). He’s playing an archetype here--the skilled fighter who considers violence an affront to the purity of the code of the warrior--and he pulls it off rather impressively. He has a gift for being able to evoke the sympathy of the audience whenever he wants it, and even when he’s playing a character that’s more virtuous than most of us could ever hope to be, he manages to make him feel real and flawed. Ejiofor has proven himself adept at carrying the moral weight in his films-- just watch his turn as an immigrant doctor in Dirty Pretty Things-- and it’s probably only a matter of time before he gets cast as the lead of a sweeping epic about a great historical hero. Redbelt is just more proof that he is up to the task. His Mike Terry is the best kind of film hero-- the kind of person that you hope exists somewhere out there in the real world.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

Find the nearest Batman fanboy you know, the kind of guy that has voted The Dark Knight the third best movie of all time on IMDB, and ask him what this film is really about, plot-wise. Not who the characters are, or what the theme is, but just a basic A-to-B rundown of where the story goes. I would bet he won’t be able to tell you much. In fact, beyond rattling off a litany of action scenes, explosions, and a few lines about how scary the joker is, he probably won’t tell you anything at all.

This is because The Dark Knight, the most praised American film of the year, doesn’t ever get around to telling much of a story, at least not coherently (see Michael Atkinson's review for a better discussion of this). And it’s too bad, because this film had the possibility of being one of the all time great B-movies, or at least the most watchable superhero movie in many years. With its moody atmosphere, high body count, and wonderfully over-the-top villain (Heath Ledger is undeniably great and a lot of fun to watch), it’s vintage cult film material. Granted, Director Christopher Nolan would’ve had to hack off close to an hour of the running time (easily doable--and necessary) and take out most of the faux-intellectual moralizing that has gotten so much attention from overzealous film critics, but had he done it he would’ve been left with a tight little action movie that would’ve been remembered as the best Batman of the series. But Noland decided to tack on a 45-minute short film to the end of his feature that introduces a much less compelling villain and takes the story off the deep end of believability (which it surprisingly manages to cling to for most of its length). So after what feels like three hours of action set pieces and philosophy 101 discussions, you lose track of any semblance of plot and the whole movie becomes a jumbled mess of explosions and one-liners.

And all this is fine, considering that The Dark Knight is a Summer blockbuster. Except that it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t think it is. See, Nolan and company are trying to deal with the more complicated aspects of politics and terrorism here-- yes, there are plenty of shots and bits of dialogue that make it seem eerily like some kind of post-9/11 treatise-- but most of it is unspectacular and never manages to rise above the B-movie hokum that fills the whole of the film. What is spectacular is how radical and downright wrongheaded the film’s politics-- or the sermonizing that tries to stand in for them-- really are. The unenlightened masses, this movie seems to say, are nothing more than ignorant pawns to be lied to, spied on, and generally manipulated under the solemn auspices that it’s all for their own good. Batman/Bruce Wayne, the all-powerful and noble oligarch, is just the man to swoop in and take care of everyone’s problems-- a kind of benevolent dictator for the 21st century. Of course, The Dark Knight isn't the only film to ever flirt with these ideas. Lots of action movies-- especially those of the superhero variety-- betray a general disregard for ethics and the rule of law. The protagonist has gotta save the day, after all, and he can’t have civil rights standing in his way. But The Dark Knight is unusual-- some would say more credible-- for the way that it so shamelessly draws attention to its own fallacious message, all in an attempt to pass itself off as a “thinking person’s superhero movie”.

Aside from this half-baked philosophy, all the film really has to offer is a few moments of superior acting sandwiched between one explosion after another. Beyond that it becomes hard to recall. What I find fascinating is not the film itself so much as the enthusiastic response to it from critics and writers. There’s been a whole lot of discussion about what a brooding, tortured hero Batman has become, but nothing about how downright misguided his actions may be (The film’s only attempt at self critique is found in Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox character), or how condescending the film's politics are. The whole conversation about this film seems to highlight some severely reduced expectations in film culture: people are so delighted to find a superhero movie with a message, that they forgot to consider what the message really is.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hamlet 2 (2008)

Steve Coogan continues to prove that he’s one of the best and oddest comedic actors around with his matchless performance in Hamlet 2, the only problem is that the film is only half as clever as his other starring vehicles 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Coogan pulls out all the stops trying to carry the film, from his sly parody of the “inspirational teacher” character to broader gags like repeatedly injuring himself and showing his ass (twice), but even he can’t overshadow the script problems on display here. Catherine Keener is uncharacteristically bad as Coogan’s long suffering wife, and the conflict with her character seems terribly unformed, as does the lame opposition of the town and the school’s principle to Coogan’s titular play. Director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady (of South Park fame) came up with a really great premise here, and it’s a shame that they ended up falling back on old standby jokes for so much of the humor. That being said, the performance of the actual play in the film’s final act is spot on, and has to be seen to be believed (something about Steve Coogan as Jesus just feels so right). Likewise, the late introductions of Amy Poehler as a shit-talking ACLU attorney and Elisabeth Shue in a cameo as herself are unexpected and make for some of the best laughs. But I still wanted more. Coogan is great, and scenes like the one where he tries to cross a busy intersection on roller skates are hilarious, but on the whole he deserved better, especially from such an original idea. Here’s looking forward to his next collaboration with Michael Winterbottom.

The Anti-Bourne: 3 Days of the Condor (1975)

Watching a scene in 3 Days of the Condor where Robert Redford fights an assassin in a cramped apartment is like watching the antithesis of the much-lauded style employed by Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. For one, you can actually tell what’s going on. And guess what? It’s as exciting as hell. It’s not constructed tension via shaky, handheld camera and quick edits. The tension is just there, it’s present in the scene, and all director Sydney Pollack does (wisely) is let his camera watch it. I wish more Hollywood directors would go back and watch sequences like this. They might learn that filmmaking is about pacing and emotion, not how many shots you can fit into a single scene. Look, I could make a horror film and show it in theaters with seats that deliver an electric shock every time something scary happens, and my audience would certainly jump when I wanted them to. But it wouldn’t be because my film would was scary or suspenseful, it would be because I used a gimmick. Simply put, there’s a difference between building tension and manufacturing it.

As for 3 Days of the Condor on the whole, it’s a smart and well made spy film, and I’ll bet it had some influence on Robert Ludlum when he was writing those Bourne novels in the early eighties. It was nice to see that they portray most of the CIA employees as bookish geeks rather than suave secret agents with a license to kill. (That role falls to Max von Sydow in one of the coolest performances of his career as a calculating “freelance contractor”). Very little of the film seems dated, which is a minor miracle in this genre, and the conspiracy at the film’s center seems just at home in today’s political climate as it must have in the 1970s.

My only criticism of the film is the oft-expressed complaint that the relationship between Redford and Faye Dunaway (who is top-notch as always) seems rushed and tacked on. (It’s such an obvious criticism that it’s even mentioned in Out Of Sight when the two main characters discuss 3 Days of the Condor while locked in the trunk of a car). Try as they might, Pollack and company just don’t manage to sell the outrageous notion that a woman could fall in love with her kidnapper in less than a day. Even with a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, you'd think it would at least take a weekend. Still, to the filmmaker’s and Faye Dunaway’s credit, her character is not a caricature, nor do they give her some sort of easy backstory to make her seem vulnerable. But artful as it is, the way Pollack plays out the relationship is subtle to a fault, and we eventually just have to settle for it feeling right at the same time that it’s completely implausible.

This complaint aside, the movie works on just about every level, combining the tried and true excitement of one of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” movies with the plot complexity and political implications of an Alan J. Pakula film. That’s a sophistication that you don’t see often, especially in a popular Hollywood thriller, and it’s certainly a testament to the skill of the late Mr. Pollack.