Monday, January 26, 2009

The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Movies Of 2008

Like last year, I held off making this post earlier because there were several contenders I hadn’t seen yet. It seems my area is the last to get certain movies in current circulation. Also, I still haven’t seen a number of movies I see making other ‘Top Ten’ lists including WALTZ FOR BASHIR, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and FROZEN RIVER among many others that are filling my NetFlix queue right now. Of course, nobody could see every movie in the running so now is as good a time as any to list my favorites. So here’s my Top Ten:


1. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Dir. Charlie Kaufman)


It got snubbed by the Academy and many critics dissed on Kaufman’s epic tragicomic (as Wikipedia calls it) but I loved every sad sordid symbolic second. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the literally crumbing playwright Cayden Cotard builds sets inside of sets inside a ginormous warehouse recreating New York with New Yorkers and the actors that play them – including him. Joining him is maybe the best female ensemble cast ever assembled for such a movie - Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, and the great Diane Wiest. Maybe it was just too cerebral and complex to catch on but I believe time will lay waste to much of the competition while this beyond meta-masterpiece will still stand strong. My original review is right here.


2. WALL-E (Dir. Andrew Stanton)


Such a dark dystopian premise for such a cute heartwarming movie that plays beautifully like sci-fi Chaplin. Wall-E (I’m sure you well know but I’ll tell you again anyway) is a garbage compacting robot left behind on Earth hundreds of years from now who falls in love with a search probe (who by design looks like a large iPod) sent by the Buy N Large Corporation. It doesn’t sound like the sort of stuff that would make one swoon but Pixar yet again proves they can do anything from making rats lovable (and here that extends to cockroaches) to making us believe robots can love. An animated instant classic as my original review proclaimed.


3. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Dir. Danny Boyle)


There’s been an odd mini comment war on my original review of this delightful yet edgy Mumbai success story, which goes to show that this was one of the most talked about and vital movies of the year. It’s an amazing spectacle from start to finish with protagonist taking us through his hard knock life by way of a glittery game show – the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. As the comments on my post suggest, some folks couldnt get past the violence or what they thought was an inaccurate cultural depiction but dammit, I thought it was a stone cold blast! I’ll bet (again literally) it’ll win Best Picture at the Oscars.


4. FROST/NIXON (Dir. Ron Howard) Nice to see Opie Cunningham take a break from the dumb DaVinci Codage and revisit his old 70’s stomping ground to take on everybody’s favorite nemesis – Nixon. These were definitely not Happy Days though for the impeached President (played magnificently by Frank Langella) making a $huge$ deal for a series of TV interviews with the slickly ambitious David Frost (Michael Sheen) while in self-imposed exile in California. As riveting as a round in the ring with “The Ram” (see next entry) this showdown scores on every front with ace casting (in addition to the leads – Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall,and Oliver Platt mull about entertainingly), a great screenplay by Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN), and Howard’s best direction in ages. My original review? Oh yeah, it’s here.


5. THE WRESTLER (Dir. Darren Aronofsky) Yeah, it’s true – Mickey Rourke is back and I’ll be surprised as Hell if he doesn’t take

home the gold come February because nobody else literally went to the mat like this! Call it a comeback for Randy “The Ram” Robinson who may be washed up and working at a supermarket estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) while pinning for a stripper (Marisa Tomei) but he’s overdue for redemption even if it means he’s going down for the count. This character is going down in cinema history for sure – read my original review for more gushing about this gritty gutsy grabber of a movie.


6. THE FALL (Dir. Tarsem Singh)


This fantastical visually splendorific film is all the more impressive because it contains no CGI. It’s a colorful joyful ride through fairy tale conventions which, crazily enough, orginates from a tale told in the 1930’s by a injured stuntman (Lee Pace) as a bargaining tool to get a young girl (Catinca Untaru) to break in to their hospital’s sanctuary to steal morphine for him. It’s vivid and emotional in all the right places with folks appearing WIZARD OF OZ style both in real life and the fantasy scenerios. Again you can read my praising review here.


7. THE DARK KNIGHT (Dir. Chris Nolan)


The more you think about it, the more flawed this film is. Batman’s (Christian Bale) exaggerated gravelly voice, ersatz plot elements like ‘hey, what happened to the folks at the skyscraper party after Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhall) was rescued by the caped crusader?’, and the unnecessary Hong Kong subplot (ThePlaylist jabbed some of these complaints funnily enough here). All may rub movie logical minds wrong but what did work here is arguably as good as movies can get. Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the demented Joker was precision defined while the Gotham grandeur frighteningly filled every frame. Read me clumsily reach for more operatic poetry here.


8. IRON MAN (Dir. Jon Favreau)


Another superhero movie sure, but with Robert Downey Jr. in the metallic title role, Gwyneth Paltrow as the love interest, and Jeff Bridges as his adversary, it’s one Hell of a superhero movie! Downey Jr. is both intense and funny as Tony Stark and the streamlined shiny production surrounding him is perfectly provided by Favreau. Yep, a class action movie as I reported last summer here.


9. THE VISITOR (Dir. Thomas McCarthy) I was elated that Richard Jenkins was nominated for a best actor award for this fine understated Indie movie that many ignored late last Spring (Mind you - I dont think hell win). As a displaced professor who finds 2 illegal immigrants (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira) living in his New York apartment and forms an unfortunately brief friendship, Jenkins finds a graceful ingratiating tone and a note that will resonate long after a single viewing. Yep, more here.


10. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (Dir. Woody Allen)


More than just a fine return to form, the Woodman gives us a lush and lavish look at the loony intertwined coupling that the ladies of the title encounter on their trip abroad. Javier Bardem woos Scarlet Johansen, Rebecca Hall, and what Allen has before called a “Kamikaze woman” - wife Penélope Cruz (she may yet woo the Academy). Were all woo-ed in the end - well, at least I was. Read all about it here.


Spillover:


Again, the ones that didn't quite make the Top Ten grade but were still good, sometimes great flicks - click on the title for my original review.


PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (Dir. David Gordon Green) A great Apatow-appoved comedy that like the next few titles got the Spillover shaft by my silly blog.


FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (Dir. Nicholas Stoller)


TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller)


MAN ON WIRE (Dir. James Marsh) Great intense doc in which even the re-creations make for great cinema.


4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS


GRAN TORINO (Dir. Clint Eastwood) It got strangely shut out come award season (which is strange because the Academy loves Clint) but its a strong addition to the Eastwood canon.


SHINE A LIGHT (Dir. Martin Scorsese)


One of the worlds greatest directors filming one of the world’s greatest bands - maybe Im just biased because I was blown away by the movie at an IMAX theater last Spring but I still think itll hold up as one of the best concert films ever in years to come.


W. (Dir. Oliver Stone)


BURN AFTER READING (Dirs. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2008) Trivial throw-away Coen Brothers fare still makes for great movie-time in my book - or on my blog that is.


MILK (Dir. Gus Vant Sant) Biopicalicious!


More later...


Friday, January 23, 2009

THE WRESTLER: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE WRESTLER (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

For weeks I’ve been dying to “Witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke” as David Ansen’s (Newsweek) quote declares blaring from commercials, posters, and every possible promotional avenue. As I’ve been waiting for the film to come to my area Rourke picked up a Golden Globe Award and a Best Actor Oscar nomination as well as many rave reviews so it has been hard as Hell to heed Chuck D’s immortal advice: “Don’t believe the hype.” Well having finally seen it last night, I can say that the hype is very well founded with the accolades and the awards nods much deserved. This is a perfectly un-pretentious piece of vital film making – as ragged and sentimental as it is. Speaking of ragged, Rourke has aged into an odd leathery pumped up creature – almost completely unrecognizable from the scrappy unctuous wiseacre of his 80’s incarnation. His presence and approach here is dead on – there was no point in this movie did I not believe he was this character – the over the hill formerly famous professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

The story is simple and the premise is predictable but the urgency and gritty gravitas given to this “old broken down piece of meat”, as Rourke calls himself, is one of the most powerful portraits of a fighter I’ve ever witnessed, resurrection or not. The camera follows Rourke shot from behind as he enters every scene, facing every situation like he’s entering the ring again. Hoping for a new high-profile match, much like, one would imagine, Rourke himself over the dark periods of the last 20 years, The Ram works in a supermarket where he’s berated daily by his boss – played beautifully by comedian Todd Barry. He’s in love with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), pretty past her prime herself, but she’s reluctant to date a customer, or maybe just scared of the man. At her suggestion he tries to re-establish contact with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) but that too is as difficult as staging his comeback. After a particularly horrific match in which broken glass, staples, and barbed wire are used, our punchy protagonist has a heart attack and, of course, he has to face his mortality.

In a class with RAGING BULL and the first ROCKY (go ahead, scoff), THE WRESTLER has a big heart and more importantly, ginormous cahones. I believe Rourke should win the Oscar, not just because we all thought he no longer had anything like this in him, but because it truly is a major first class performance of a lower class louse in severe need of salvation. The movie has a lot of funny moments – I love the scenes with Rourke working the deli counter and his conversation with Tomei about 80’s being the best music ever: “Bet’chr ass man, Guns N’ Roses! Rules.” The screenplay, surprisingly by former Onion satirical scribe Robert D. Seigel, is full of nice natural exchanges like that and coupled with Aronofsky’s command of tone it never grows tedious even as it toils in all too familiar territory – I.E. the underdog redemption scenario. I don’t know if it was the shape of the print my theater got, but the film looked was so grainy and often I felt like I was watching a film that was 20 years old. That’s apt I think; it already looks like a classic and Rourke already seems like he’s never gone away. For some crazy reason right now, that all feels incredibly right.

Post note: I failed to mention Bruce Springsteen’s excellent title song that got horribly snubbed by the Academy yesterday. Hard to believe it got overlooked.

So will THE WRESTLER make The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Best Movies Of 2008 list? Stay tuned to find out.

More later...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

10 Movie Characters Revived Via SNL By Their Original Actors

For no other reason than to take a break from reviews of the all the prestige Oscar bait out there I decided it was time for another patented Film Babble Blog list. Enjoy!


It’s interesting that some actors stay away from reprising their best known roles when Saturday Night Live comes a-calling. In the 2 times Robert De Niro hosted there were no appearances by Travis Bickle (TAXI DRIVER), Jake La Motta (RAGING BULL), Max Cady (CAPE FEAR) or even deluded comedian Rupert Pupkin (THE KING OF COMEDY) who actually would lend himself nicely to a follow-up sketch. Sally Field even stressed in her monologue on her one time hosting gig that she would not be playing any past parts to the comical disappointment of Flying Nun, Gidget, and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT fans (actually just one – Burt Reynolds as played by Phil Hartman). Many movie stars though have fearlessly stepped back into old shoes and reclaimed their iconic characters even if it’s just for the sake of satire. Here’s some of the best:


1. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates from PSYCHO (March 13th, 1976) Perkins was the first actor to take on the role that made his name for a SNL sketch. It was a gutsy move because the part had him typecasted him for years but he slips back beautifully into Bates in a commercial parody entitled “The Norman Bates School Of Motel Management.” In his direct to the camera address he stutters, imitates (or channels) the voice of his mother, and gives us a quiz to see if we’re motel material: “Question One – A guest loses the key to her room. Would you: A: Give her a duplicate key. B: Let her in with your passkey. C: Hack her to death with a kitchen knife.” Silly, yes but Perkins playing Bates again later in 2 80’s sequels and a 90’s TV movie (yep, 3 more times) is much sillier.


2. Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia from STAR WARS * (Nov. 18th , 1978) Fisher, who also did the opening monologue in Leia garb, joined the cast as her most famous character in a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movie parody entitled “Beach Blanket Bingo from Outer Space.” Frankie (Bill Murray) hits on the visiting Princess to Annette’s (Gilda Radner) chagrin while celebs such as Vincent Price (Dan Aykroyd) and Chubby Checker (Garrett Morris) make obligatory cameos. Her appearance is actually light years less embarrassing than on “The Star Wars Holiday Special” (broadcast just one day earlier by the way) in which she also insisted on singing a song for us. Most notable however is the sight of Leia in a gold bikini a full 5 years before RETURN OF THE JEDI.


* Still not calling it A NEW HOPE, damnit!


3. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison from THE DOORS (Dec. 9th, 2000) Donning a wig, 60’s threads, and a perpetually stoned expression, Kilmer embodied the Lizard King one more time in a Behind The Music satire that centered on “Rock And Roll Heaven.” Morrison forms a band with other dead musical icons such as Jimi Hendrix (Jimmy Minor), Janis Joplin (Molly Shannon), Keith Moon (Horatio Sanz), Billy Holly (Jimmy Fallon), and as the announcer (real Behind The Music narrator Jim Forbes) reveals: “a Wild Card - Louis Armstrong (Tracy Morgan) on trumpet.” Morrison’s afterlife band called The Great Frog Society is soon the talk of Heaven, but offstage things were falling apart (Forbes stresses: “‘offstage things were falling apart”, is a registered trademark of VH1 and Behind the Music’”).


4. Glenn Close as Alex Forrest from FATAL ATTRACTION (Feb. 25th, 1989) This support group sketch actually takes place during the events of the 1987 infidelity suspense thriller. Close’s murderous stalker character shares her stories with her group members (Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Victoria Jackson, and Jon Lovitz) and therapist (Kevin Nealon) who of course are supremely disturbed by them. Portraying Alex as merely the victum of a one-night stand is an especially nice funny touch here considering, well, you know.


5. Elijah Wood as Frodo from THE LORD OF THE RINGS series (Dec. 13th, 2003)
Gollum (Chris Kattan) interrupts Wood’s monologue to plug their new sitcom pilot featuring an Odd Couple (or more like Perfect Strangers) premise. As Wood describes it: “Basically, the idea is that, before they make it to Mordor, Frodo and Gollum decide to move to Denver and share an apartment together.” Of course, wackiness ensues.


6. Dennis Hopper as Billy from EASY RIDER * (May 23rd, 1987) Using actual footage of the ending to the New Hollywood classic, we see Billy and Wyatt’s (Peter Fonda) ultimate demise (that can’t possibly be a Spolier! at this point, can it?). Not so fast, with a “later that day” caption this sketch shows that Billy and Wyatt (now played by Dana Carvey) survived to get treated by a local Doc (Jon Lovitz) and even run into their lawyer friend George Hanson (Phil Hartman doing his best Jack Nicholson). Billy: “George, man, I thought you were dead, man!” George: Nah… just a bad hangover. I felt like I'd been whopped on the head with an ax handle. [ holds up bottle ] This stuff'll ruin ya!” Billy: Yeah, man. I'll take that [grabs and opens bottle].


* Incidentally on the same episode Hopper also played Frank Booth from BLUE VELVET in a game show parody called “What’s That Smell?”


7. Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink from RESERVOIR DOGS (Oct. 15th 1994) In definitely one of the best sketches of a dreary season, John Travolta revisited his Sweathog roots in “Quentin Tarantino’s Welcome Back Kotter”. The sketch was overpopulated as an SNL sketch can be with all of the cast (including Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Chris Elliot, Mike Myers, Janeane Garafolo, you get the picture) hamming it up but the finale involving a cameo from David Lander (Squiggy!) joining old Laverne And Shirley partner Michael McKean was greatly upstaged by Buscemi bursting in the doorway, gun raised and fitting sophomoric put-down ready: “Up your hole with a mellow roll!”


8. Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (May 13th, 1978) One of the first to mock his own character and film while it still played in theaters, Dreyfuss again put on the worn bathrobe of the alien obsessed Neary who now comes to believe the Coneheads are the source of his implanted visions. The sketch (“Clone Encounters Of The Third Kind”) ends, like the film did, with Neary leaving earth with his new intergalactic friends.


9. Tim Robbins as Bob Roberts from BOB ROBERTS (Oct. 3rd, 1992) Another appearance that occurred when the character in question was still on the big screen, Robbins’ conservative folk singing candidate was on hand for a sketch entitled: “Bob Roberts Book Burning.” It was a funny premise – Roberts burning books while singing about free expression but its place on the program was incredibly overshadowed by that week’s musical guest Sinead O’Connor who had free expression thoughts of her own * that night.


* For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to – O’Connor, after an acapella version of Bob Marley’s “War”, tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II and yelled: “Fight the real power!” Audience silence and the prospect of the segment never being re-run was the result.


10. Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe from THE BIG SLEEP (1978) and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) (Nov. 14th, 1987) This film noir satire called “Death Be Not Deadly” appropriately filmed in black and white gave the great Mitchum the chance to spoof his Private eye character and one of the conventions of the genre. Seemingly mistaken that his comments/narration is in voice-over when actually it’s Marlowe speaking aloud, he confuses and annoys his clients (Kevin Nealon, Jan Hooks). As funny as it is a fond tribute.


Okay! Of course there are others – both Mel Gibson and Danny Glover did their cop buddy characters in “Lethal Weapon 6” in 1987 (before there was even a LETHAL WEAPON 2) and Margot Kidder reprised Lois Lane while SUPERMAN was still flying high in 1979 so I’m sure there are many I’ve neglected but that’s what the comments below is for.


More later…

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: The Film Babble Blog Review

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2008)

The set-up is surefire and swift - boy (Leoanardo DiCaprio) meets girl (Kate Winslet) at an hip apartment party in the late 40’s with the backdrop of bright lights, big city. Before you know it they are married and living in Connecticut with 2 kids and the cookie cutter conformity of the mid ‘50’s is in full bloom. Winslet as April Wheeler, dreams of being an actress but after a particularly bad off-off-off-Broadway performance her husband Frank has discouraging words. “I guess it wasnt exactly a triumph or anything, was it?” he says in a severely misguided attempt to comfort her. A vicious verbal fight results on the way home, one of many that make up this film, with raging resentments busting out into the cold open air.

DiCaprio as a bored cog working the same job (salesman at a computer company) his father did for life draining decades longs for much more as well, and a afternoon quickie with a young secretary (Zoe Kazan) does little to remedy his situation. Winslet upon his return home that guilty day, though is seemingly rejuvenated. She has come to what she sees as a revelation – they should pack up and move to Paris, while they’re still young, and that will surely rekindle the fading spark in their relationship.

At first, DiCaprio is skeptical but he slowly takes to the idea. His co-workers (including Dylan Baker and Max Casella) and their close friend neighbors (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn) think the idea is immature but our determined protagonists stick to their guns, that is, until a possible job advancement and an unplanned pregnancy come knockin’.


Though it’s exquisitely made and acted, REVOULTIONARY ROAD suffers from being well trodden ground. Many times before have we seen a “little boy lost in a big man’s shirt” (as Elvis Costello would say) having to blend in with the other suits and ties on a train platform on their way to work in the city.

The oppressive endless clusters of cubicles surrounding DiCaprio in his workplace contrasted with the lined up trash cans in the bland ‘burbs that are crushing Winslet’s spirit unfortunately come off as overdone clichés. The same thematic elements are handled infinitely better on any given episode of Mad Men – the AMC produced show about advertising executives in the early 60’s that IMHO is one of the best shows of the last decade. Surprisingly Creator Matthew Wiener revealed to an interviewer that he hadn’t read the 1961 Richard Yates book “Revolutionary Road” the movie was obviously based on before embarking on Mad Men but tellingly he stated: “If I had read this book
before I wrote the show, I never would have written the show.”

Despite the undeniable chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet, the scenes that really ignite the screen involve Michael Shannon as the son of real estate agent (an uncharacteristically subdued Kathy Bates who was also in TITANIC with Dicaprio and Winslet, by the way). Bates wants her son to meet the young seemingly stable couple as means to inspire him when he’s on a pass from mental institution. He sums them up immediately: “You want to play house, you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don’t like. Anyone comes along and asks “Whaddya do it for?’ he’s probably on a four-hour pass from the State funny farm.”

Shannon, though bereft of charm and equipped with an exceedingly sharp creepy edge, is the character who is the most free and the most bluntly honest - therefore a solid spot of comic relief. He has no need for politeness or disposable small talk, so when DiCaprio speaks of running away from the “hopeless emptiness” of their life there, Shannon is the only one who understands and even encourages them. Sadly, too much of the films pace plods and the energy of Shannon’s scenes is swamped aside by too many painful argument set pieces.
Wasn’t exactly a triumph, indeed.

More later...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Growling Against The Dying Of The Light: GRAN TORINO - The Film Babble Blog Review

GRAN TORINO (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008)

78 year old Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is recently widowed and just wants to be left alone. He growls, grunts, and snarls at everyone around him - especially wet behind the ears Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who had promised Walt’s wife he would look after him. As one of the only white residents in his working class Detroit neighborhood he sits on his front porch drinking PBRs and growling at everybody in his sight, and life itself it seems. Against his will he falls in with a Hmong family next door when teenage son Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino as a gang initiation. Walt easily scares him off with a rifle, one of many guns in the Korean War vet’s collection. When the gang appears and causes a late night ruckus in the yards in front of Walt ’s and his neighbors house. Again Walt’s rifle appears and he emits his greatest growl yet: “Get off of my lawn! ”

Though it’s hardly an unfamiliar character for Eastwood, GRAN TORINO proves there’s a lot of fight left in the iconic actor. Walt uses a lot of racist expressions - “Dragon lady”, “gooks”, and even tells off color jokes like: “A Mexican, a Jew, and a colored guy go into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “ ‘Get the fuck out of here!’” Yet, you just know he’s got a heart of gold hiding behind a shield of sneers. He becomes a gravely hesitant hero on his street and forms an unlikely friendship with Thao and his sister Sue Lor (Ahney Her) as the threat of gang violence looms large. Walt slowly begins to feel more of a sense of family with his neighbors than with his own offspring - his 2 glib sons played in perfectly passive manner by Brian Howe and Brian Haley.


This is one Helluva movie; it does for Clint Eastwood what THE APOSTLE (1997) did for actor/director Robert Duvall, that is provide a powerful platform for a mighty myth maker late in the game. It plays to every strength that Eastwood possesses while it consistently shines like the bodywork on his crusty character’s classic car. DIRTY HARRY (1970), my personal favorite of Eastwood’s films, has come up quite a bit in the hype and reaction to this film but I believe Walt Kowalski would probably not get along very well with Inspector Harry Callahan. Sure they’re both crusty uncompromising hard asses who growl gruffly and carry big guns but Callahan was a signpost of a different era (despite that the series went well into the 80’s), it’s doubtful he would age into the curmudgeon that Kowalski embodies. Both a well crafted character study and a witty window into communal relations (albeit a surface one), GRAN TORINO is a movie with a fire in its belly. As the #1 movie in the country right now It is already taking its place among the spaghetti westerns and gritty cop dramas that made Eastwood famous. It won’t be at all surprising if it takes its place among his many award wins * soon as well.


* It is surprising that Eastwood has won 5 Oscars but none of them were for acting - maybe this year will be different.


So will GRAN TORINO make The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Movies Of 2008 list? Stay tuned to find out.

More later...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Prestiege Period Piece Pontifications: DOUBT, VALKYRIE, and THE READER

Awards season is officially upon us so I’ve been trying to catch up with all the heavy hitters. Its difficult because a few films haven’t even come to my area yet (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, THE WRESTLER). Thats why a best of 2008 list will have to wait for those whove emailed me asking where it is. In the meantime though, here’s 3 much talked about movies that I have caught up with:


DOUBT (Dir. John Patrick Shanley, 2008)


“Where’s your compassion?” an exasperated Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bellows at Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). “Nowhere you can get at it” she sternly and coldly responds. The unflinching Principal at St. Nicholas in the Bronx is dead certain that the Priest, new to the Parrish, is guilty of an inappropriate relationship with an alter boy (Joseph Foster) who is the school’s only African American. Hoffman’s Father Flynn is accessible, easy-going, and feels the church should be “friendlier” which is all in direct opposition to Streep’s ball busting Beauvier who states: “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow.” Hoffman exhaustingly maintains that he is innocent and refuses to go into detail claiming it was a private matter he discussed with the boy in the rectory, but Streep, based on the snooping reports of Sister James (Amy Adams), will not back down.


Set in 1964, DOUBT is a fairly small scale film. It has a small cast and spare locations with most scenes featuring one-on-one confrontations. What’s big here is the performances. A showdown between great actors is center stage which is fitting because it is based on Shanley’s Tony Award winning off-Broadway play. Though it’s mostly Streep and Hoffman’s show, Viola Davis as the boy in question’s mother has a heartbreaking scene with Streep that undoubtedly should get her nominated for an Oscar. That she appears for only a few minutes should not disqualify – Beatrice Straight took home the award for an equally short amount of valuable screen-time in NETWORK (1976). The amicable Adams has third billing but she does not emotionally stir up the proceedings like Davis does.


There are no shocking revelations or twists in DOUBT and no formulaic liberties are taken. It is simply the no-frills straight telling of a disturbing dilemma with a spotlight on oppressive Mother Superiority. Hoffman, having made no sketchy career choices of late (following the superb BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD with the wondrous SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and then this), confirms he’s one of the top actors working today while Streep adds another notable notch to her distinguished filmography. Shanley’s screenplay serves them well although the brisk summing-up ending left me more than a little dry. Small quibble though, DOUBT delivers a sharp showcase of ace acting chops and while I doubt (sorry) it’ll take home much gold in the current competition it’ll still win over many fans of powerful performances.


VALKYRIE (Dir. Bryan Singer, 2008)

Recalling THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in its opening translation transition, VALKRIE begins in German but the titles and Tom Cruise’s voice-over reciting of a letter he’s writing slowly but fluidly morph into English. In this mini-epic (that is compared to the scale of Singer’s X-MEN or SUPERMAN RETURNS) based on true events from 1945, Cruise portrays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who joins a group of Generals and Counselors in a plot to assassinate Hitler (played by British stage actor David Bramber) and restore Germany’s world standing. Among the plotters are such talented thespians as Kenneth Branaugh, Kevin McNally, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, and oddly enough quirky comedian Eddie Izzard. As a possible roadblock to their resistance is the always reliable Tom Wilkinson as Officer Fredrich Fromm.


The film takes its name from Operation Valkyrie, a plan that uses the Reserve Army to keep amongst the Germany country should Hitler’s communication be disrupted, or should Hitler be killed. Cruise as Stauffenberg, wears an eye patch and is missing his right hand from an Allied attack in Tunisia that opens the film, is fiercely focused and he exhibits none of his trademark glibness - at no point does he flash his blinding grin. I know those who despise the man for his couch jumping, Scientology spouting, and cringe-inducing cocky demeanor but only a stoic dedication to the role is on display here. He holds his own with the mostly male ensemble and shares a few nice moments with Carice von Hauten (who stared in another World War II drama – BLACK BOOK) as his wife.


It says a lot when a film can trigger tense suspense in a scene that involves getting the Fürer’s signature on a rewritten order and in several other key set-pieces just a step away from minutiae mundanity. It’s also noteworthy that the actors, instructed to talk in neutral accents by Singer, all work well together. The most precise performance I’ve witnessed yet from Nighy, while workhorse vets like Brannaugh and Wilkinson both make uneasiness an acting art form. Reportedly this is faithful to the historic record and that should come as a surprise to those who have a generalized overview of the era. While by no means a masterpiece, VALKYRIE is extremely engaging entertainment that highlights its humanity without using broad strokes. I only hope anti-Cruise folks will lose their bias and give it a chance. It would be a shame for such a solid story and production to be gratuitously overlooked.


THE READER (Dir. Stephen Daldry, 2008)


A few days ago Kate Winslet won Golden Globes for both this film and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The second time up to the podium she was shocked in a Sally Fieldian way as she blubbered through a unprepared acceptance speech. As a presenter afterwards, Ricky Gervais called out to her: “I told you – do a Holocaust movie, the awards come, didn’t I?” Referring to her self satirical appearance on his show Extras. Of course that’s just a joke and it’s too cynical for this movie’s material but it still stings because I didn’t feel for this film and its characters like I wanted too. Winslet, bereft of the bouncy charm she brought to her roles in films like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE HOLIDAY, plays Hanna Schmitz – a former guard at Auschwitz who has an affair (David Kross) with a boy half her age. The story is told from the point of view of the boy as he grows up into a weary troubled Ralph Fiennes.


The film proper begins in 1995, flashbacks to 1958 when the relationship began, then to 1966 with Kross finding Winslet on trial and onward to the late 80’s. Winslet, who had Kross read many classic books (“The Odyssey”, “Huckleberry Finn”, etc) in bed, bath but not beyond to her, is illiterate and conceals this even though it jeopardizes her freedom. This is an intriguing premise but unfortunately there is too little chemistry between Winslet and Kross and later Fiennes for the strong emotional pull the film severely needs. The narrative craft and chops are there but the urgency and sense of purpose seems, at best, muted. The context of the horrors of World War II do not need to be re-stated but here the trappings and effect on millions are absent leaving only the concerns of these 2 fairly dull people. And that, like the man once said in a far more worthy effort, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.


More later...