October 29, 2008

Changeling (10/29/08)

Lettergrade: B

I didn't know much about Changeling going in other than that Clint Eastwood made it, Angelina Jolie is in it, and it involved a missing child. Had it not been for a free screening at the DGA this week, I probably would have missed it altogether. Nevertheless, the film, despite the fact that the title falls in the 'somewhat uninspiring' to 'shitty' range, is very good, and will likely be a major player throughout Awards Season this spring.

Based on a true story which began in 1928, Jolie's young son is missing when she returns home from work one day. After an investigation that goes on for several months, the police bring her a child whom they say is her boy, height differences and other discrepancies aside. For the next several scenes, I was concerned that we were in for a dramatic retelling of the Dead Parrot Sketch of Monty Python fame - "This isn't my son!" "Yes, it is!" - but the film then side-steps into a searing expose of the LAPD of the era, and the great lengths that it went to in order to conceal its corruption and to avoid pubic embarrassment. You can argue that sections of movie feel a little superfluous and rambly, but the picture overall is solid enough for me to look past most of that, and still give it a strong recommendation.

I like the clean, direct storytelling of Eastwood's movies, and I will be sad when the now-78 year old is no longer making them. Like Woody Allen, Eastwood usually makes one a year (although Clint has a second movie, Gran Torino, in which he also stars, coming out in limited release in December). Both men have also found ways to make movies that are profitable enough that Hollywood studios want to back them, but economical to the point where they can pretty much make what they please, with minimal interference.

Changeling continues Eastwood's fascination both with crime stories and with the Los Angeles of yesterday. Although the influence of Eastwood mentor Don Siegel can be felt here and there, the film takes as much of a cue from Chinatown as from Siegel's crime dramas like Dirty Harry. During his films, I always find myself a little surprised by what a dark guy Eastwood must be to repeatedly make pictures about kidnappers, serial murderers, and other unsavory characters. Above all his other influences, his pictures often remind me of Flannery O'Connor short stories like "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" and "The Misfit" which, although set in the decaying South of the early 20th century, often are about people who commit similar horrifying acts.

Changeling is a movie that requires patience, and it's one where not all the pieces fit together smoothly at the end. Although I'll always be a sucker for pictures like Pineapple Express and Burn After Reading, it's wonderful every so often to be reminded what solid filmmaking for adults is all about.

October 26, 2008

Sex Drive (10/26/08)

Lettergrade: D-

Boredom combined with not wanting to drive to see a movie motivated us to walk to the theater across the street from our apartment and purchase tickets for Sex Drive. It wasn't quite bad enough for us to justify walking out, but had there been some pressing task we wanted to complete before Monday morning - such as laundry - I don't think we would have stuck around either.

Without last year's Superbad (a movie I liked), there would be no Sex Drive (a movie I don't). In this one, Josh Zuckerman plays Ian, the "only virgin" at his high school. I don't know what kind of high schools the writers of this, Porky's, and the American Pie trilogy attended, but when I was that age, "not getting laid" was a pretty common occurrence.

Anyway, Ian is so desperate that he decides to steal his brother's car and drive from Chicago to Knoxville, TN in order to slip the pork-sword to the mysterious "Ms. Tasty," with whom he has been corresponding. For reasons that are unclear, he takes along his philandering pal Lance (Clark Duke) and his long-time platonic neighbor Felicia (Amanda Crew), who is one of those very pretty actresses whom everyone thinks is hideous because she has dark hair. Will Ian and Felicia realize that they've been perfect for each other all along by the end of the movie? You'll have to sit through the 1 hour, 48 minute running time to find out.

There are some chuckles to be found here, but few solid laughs. Other major components of the movie simply shatter all credulity. What about the aforementioned, slightly chunky Lance, who somehow manages to bed female consorts "several times a week", despite the fact that he looks like the unseemly child of Rainn Wilson and the unfortunate grandkid of Charles Nelson Reilly? How about the Amish community they visit which is full of glamourous-looking, hard-rock lovin', sarcastic Mennonites, some of whom are extremely well-versed in auto-repair? And what of Ian's at-home older brother, played by the often-wonderful-but-not-here James Marsden, a guy who's clearly in his mid-30s?

I've told a select few people of how we spent our Sunday evening, and the reaction has been fairly universal: "Christ, you saw that?" For one reason or another, yes we did. And we'll have to live with that. You don't have to. See something else... anything else.

October 17, 2008

W. (10/17/08)

Lettergrade: C- (it's bad, but intriguing)

The first scene in Oliver Stone's W. that really works happens about a third of the way into the picture. In it, George W. Bush and his cabinet sit around the White House war room going over how to sell their plans for the forth-coming Iraq war to the American people. Stone stages it masterfully, working in subtle looks between Bush's advisors - Don Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell - all of which underline each guy's personal agenda and the chaffing that exists with the others around the table.

The star moment, however, goes to Vice-President Cheney, played with insidious relish by Richard Dreyfuss. When pressed by Powell on why it is a priority to invade Iraq in the first place, Cheney launches into a big Network style speech (complete with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation) about the world's energy resources versus the U.S.'s energy consumption. The master plan, Stone and his screenwriter suggest, is to establish dominance in the Persian Gulf, first by seizing Iraq and its vast oil resources and then by doing the same, more or less, in Iran.

It's one of the few moments in the film where it feels like the conspiracy-weildin', drug-abusin' Oliver Stone we know and love is behind the camera, but the momentum quickly grinds to a halt when Josh Brolin, as W., reenters the conversation and basically indicates through a clumsy aside that he doesn't really know or have much interest in whatever Cheney's talking about. Believe me, I'm no fan of the guy, but something about portraying him as that dim and clueless doesn't quite jibe with reality for me.

And that's the main problem with W. for me. As a whole, it is without question an interesting and well-made film, but as a portrayal of the actual man and his life, I am a little unsure if it's a terribly good one.

Like a lot of Americans, I feel that Bush's time in office has been highly disastrous. Nevertheless, I think the big mistakes his critics have consistently made center around the assumption that the guy is as much of a moron as his mangled rhetoric and the clumsy public appearances suggest. For better or worse, Bush - with a strong assist from his family name, of course - was able to use his folksy charm and personable nature to get elected Governor of Texas twice, and then President at least once. You can question the quality of how he has governed - and Stone certainly does - but to discount his intelligence completely is to gravely mis-underestimate a man who, if nothing else, is a skilled politician.

Whereas Stone's 1995 film Nixon was a nuanced, sympathetic look at a highly controversial figure who did great things along with terrible while in office, this picture implies that there isn't much more to its subject than meets the eye. That is to say, that he lived a highly irresponsible, carefree life until he was 40, when he found religion and decided to quit drinking.

W. recreates a number of these biographical moments and speculatively connects the dots in a way that attempts to explain his behavior. The movie postulates, as has much of the investigative reporting, that he largely sought office in 1994 in order to win the approval of his father and to avenge his re-election loss to Bill Clinton two years earlier. The indictment is personal and searing, repeatedly suggesting that he wanted to be President for the wrong reasons, and that he has largely slept-walked through the job, much like all the jobs he had prior. Or as my wife put it, the movie is sympathetic with a strong emphasis on "pathetic."

A technique Stone makes frequent use of is to pluck statements Bush made publicly and place them into private settings with aides and staffers. Something about this also lacks the the ring of truth. I always sort of felt that the President speaks to the public in a very deliberate "lowest common denominator" type way, and that he's probably not like that behind closed doors. George H.W. Bush, imbued with warmth and wisdom by James Cromwell, is given substantially more dignified treatment, as is Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who's almost treated a like a holy profit. On the other end of the spectrum, Thandie Newton is nothing short of horrible as Condoleeza Rice. I noticed that she rarely gets a close-up in film, and the few fleeting times she does she's twitchy and nasally in a way that makes my skin crawl. Of course, the real Condoleeza is pretty horrifying to look at as well, but that's besides the point.

I remember watching Nixon in high school, and finding the picture to be virtually incomprehensible. Now that I know a great deal about the guy, the film makes a bit more sense (or at least as much sense as an Oliver Stone film can make). Similarly, W. isn't much of a survey course on the last eight years. Absent are references to the questionable legitimacy of the 2000 election, 9/11 (except in passing), the administration's scandalous retribution against Joe Wilson for questioning 2003's yellow cake uranium claim (including the indictments that followed), and the botched reaction to 2005's New Orleans disaster, arguably the key incident in Bush's Presidency from which his approval rating never recovered. I suspect Stone knows that these things will be fresh in the minds of anyone who buys a ticket, and as such he decided he didn't need to reference them too directly. That's fine for now, but I have a feeling that much will be lost on future generations who will understand little of what Stone was getting at.

I think there's a great movie or two that can be made about George W. Bush's life and time in office, but I really don't believe that now is the time to make it. Was Bush's Presidency a horrible, catastrophic failure internationally, domestically, and just in the last few weeks, on a global-financial level? Probably, but it's impossible at this point to gauge what ramifications his decisions and policies will have on world for the long term. History may not be much more kind to Bush than political analysts are being now, but at least they'll have some comprehensive perspective, which is something, strangely, that W., the film, does not.

October 5, 2008

Religulous (10/05/08)

Lettergrade: C

I never miss an episode of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, but I tune-in knowing full-well that Maher's show is to political debate as the World Wrestling Federation is to professional sports. That is to say, the show is blustery and fun, but basically for entertainment purposes only. Maher's guests are either there to agree with what he and the audience already think or to serve as feeble ambassadors for the conservative right who are basically there to get punched in the face.

I have pretty similar feelings about Maher's new documentary, Religulous, as well. It's sorta Maher's attempt to make a Michael Moore style discussion piece about the broad, broad topic of faith and organized worship, only with a little less objectivity, if you can believe it. Maher's key point is that it's stupid. He feels that way when the first frame appears, and hasn't changed by the time the credits roll. And apart from underlining some of the well-known hypocrisies within Judeo-Christian religion and its many subsets, he doesn't really find a way to approach the material in a way that's enlightening, comprehensive, or persuasive. It's an entertaining picture, mind you, but I'm not convinced that a single bit of it will change anyone's mind about anything.

Although I'm not terribly religious myself, I - like a lot of people I know - have no problem with religion in general provided it is not used as an excuse to make life difficult for another group of people, particularly if you're gay, or if you worship another god, etc. Although he never addresses this in the film, I suspect Maher's key issues with religion center around the guilt it can produce (doubly so if you're Catholic, which Maher's father was), and with the 13% of the country who tend to vote primarily with religious issues and against their self-interests.

Part of what struck me about this film is how big of an asshole Maher is to the people he interviews. I have no problem with Maher picking on Televangelists, politicians, and people who preach intolerance, but I found myself squirming more than once when he assaulted seemingly benign people on the street. What about the guy who runs a second-hand store for Jews For Jesus who says he's convinced there's something better for him in the afterlife? "Well if that's true," Maher counters, "why don't you just kill yourself right now?" I don't know much about that organization, but if the guy deserves to be treated with that kind of cruelty, the film sure doesn't help you understand that before Maher goes on the attack.

Maher also visits a small church at a North Carolina truck stop, presumably with the idea that he can get some laughs out of the truckers who merely want to attend some kind of service while on their way from one spot to the next. He similarly drops in on Orlando, Florida's Holyland And Gospel Tour theme park, at which actors recreate the Crucifixion thrice daily. I've gotta admit that this last one is pretty fucking crazy, but again I bristle at Maher picking on the actors in the show and assaulting tourists who just happened to be visiting that day. Maher comes out ahead in the verbal sparring, of course, but that may not be surprising as he's hosted late-night chat shows since 1994 and has been a professional comedian for much longer.

While he's doing all this, other topics go woefully under-explored. I was really interested, for example, when Maher told one of his victims about Mithra, a Persian deity who lived some time before Jesus was thought to, and who shares virtually the same life story, right up to his crucification and resurrection a few days later. Mithra's not alone: There are many Messiah figures throughout the history of religion who all have similar biographies, not the least of whom is King David from the Bible's own Old Testament, who has many of Jesus's admirable qualities, but many many flaws on top of that. If there's a case to be made for looking at the Bible as a series of complex metaphors on how one's life ought to be lived, rather than as a literal truth, I suspect it lies first in educating people about what Christianity has in common with religions that predate it. That aside, though, what about the fact that the Bible's key themes are about tolerance, love, acceptance, and forgiveness... key tenants that certain practitioners of it seem to forget when pushing certain agendas.

Again, the flick has plenty of laughs and occasionally some good food-for-thought, but by the time Maher gets to his big apocalyptic rant at the end of the movie, he acts like something important has been achieved, and I frankly have no idea of what he thinks that something might be. Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe any one movie can single-handedly unsort these issues anyway, but by playing picture more to a broad audience rather than to people who probably already shared Maher's opinion going in, it might have at least done a little more than preach to the converted.