November 26, 2008

Milk (11/26/08)

Lettergrade: B+


There's a lot of man-on-man action in Milk, but it's a really good movie with an important message. Worth seeing.

November 24, 2008

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (11/24/08)

Lettergrade: B

The main thing that surprised me about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, a very good movie, is how many parallels the film has to 1994's Forrest Gump. Eric Roth was responsible for writing the screenplays for both, so perhaps he gets some of the blame. Button isn't lathered with cloying nostalgia and truisms that way that Gump was, but the structure of both movies is very similar. Each film features an unusual man who lives through remarkable segments the 20th century as a benign observer. Button starts a bit earlier than Gump did with the added Big Fishy twist that Button himself was born as a geriatric baby who gradually appears "younger" as his life progresses.

The movie was directed by David Fincher, best known for Se7en and Fight Club, who again hired Brad Pitt as his leading man. In 1995, I remember that my friend and I both begrudingly admitted to each-other that we find Pitt to be an excellent actor, having recently seen both Se7en and 12 Monkeys. He's very good in this movie as well, although the performance is a little on the blank side, more in line with what he did in Meet Joe Black.

The chick-of-the-flick is Cate Blanchette, who rarely gets to play leading ladies with sex-appeal, it seems. In another similarity to Gump, theirs is a relationship which starts in their childhoods and has a long, winding path to becoming realized. In early scenes, he's an old man and she's a little girl (think Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones) while in the later scenes, he's a young man with a much older woman (think Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and then Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore).

I don't have many other thoughts regarding this movie, frankly. I suspect it's on track to pick up a number of Academy Awards this year, and has a good shot at winning Best Picture. I'm okay with that, but I must also admit that it's one of those movies that I can acknowledge is very good while simultaneously not having a lot of excitement for it.

I have some ambivalence over how Hurricane Katrina is used in the movie, for example. Oh, and I must admit that the computer generated head of the elderly Brad Pitt super-imposed onto Verne Troyer's body (or whoever the fuck that was) during the early scenes was pretty creepy. Other than that, I maybe feel that the movie could have used a little more juice from Button himself. As I said, he goes through life observing a lot, but doing very little. The story-line with his father who abandoned him is compelling, but ultimately uncomplicated. After he dies, Pitt's character happily inherits the wealth from his dad's factory (Button's Buttons) - allowing him, like Gump, the freedom to pretty much do as he pleases - but he does not lose sight of the fact that the African American couple who raised him are his actual parents. Apparently, he does take his father's name at some point too, but I'm only assuming that from the movie's title. It seems out of character for him to do so, but who am I to argue?

Minor gripes and bitchings aside, though, it is a fine movie with plenty of high points. I can't say it's the best movie I've seen lately, but it's certainly worth seeing sooner or later when you have three hours to kill.

November 17, 2008

Quantum Of Solace (11/17/08)

Lettergrade: C

To be honest with you, I can take or leave most Bond movies. They're usually enjoyable one-time through, but after that I don't think about them much unless I happen to catch part of one when Spike TV runs them on an endless loop around the holidays. A big exception to that, however, is 2006's Casino Royale. That film introduced a new actor as Bond, Daniel Craig, but more importantly a very different kind of Bond. While I admired the cool suave of Sean Connery, the Velveeta-laden schmaltz of Roger Moore, and Piece Brosnan's skillful blending of the two, I think Craig's approach is by far the most interesting of the bunch.

Quantum Of Solace isn't quite as good as Casino Royale, but I enjoyed it for several of the same reasons; chiefly, Craig's gritty portrayal of a thinking man's Bond, and his interesting relationship with M, played again by Judi Dench, who joined the franchise at the start of the Brosnan era. I should give the disclaimer, however, that many of my friends who are long-time Bond connoisseurs (and fellow fans of Casino Royale), have told me that they don't think much of this one.

A universal complaint is one that I whole-heartedly agree with: The action scenes are shit. They hired the 2nd Unit Director of the recent Jason Bourne movies to shoot the action for this film, and the result is the same incoherent train-wreck of shaky-cam images that kept me away from the Matt Damon series to begin with.

The other big complaint is that the film returns to somewhat familiar spy-movie territory in a way that isn't particularly inspiring. If we're talking about plot, I must admit that I rarely understand what happens in these movies anyway. I know the genre well enough to know that they're not doing plot-lines involving micro-film anymore, and that these days Bond must thwart attempts to fund terrorism and reshape world governments, etc. As long as it looks like he's doing something that kinda sorta relates to that, and it doesn't get too stupid, I'm fine, really.

A key thing worth mentioning is that this is the first Bond movie which picks up directly from story-line of the previous movie. It's both a blessing and a curse: I'm glad that they've serialized the Bond movies a little (and I assume the next picture will pick up from where this one left off in some way as well) but at the same time, unless you've seen Casino recently, you might find yourself wondering who the hell some of these people are and what they're doing in the movie. The film also introduces a new insidious organization called QUANTUM (sort of a revival of SPECTER from the earlier Bond movies). I don't think we learn much about them in this movie, other than the fact that much like Mastercard, they have people everywhere, and much like Dick Cheney, they are able to operate covertly and completely outside of the constraints of national, international and maritime law.

The producers brought back Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) to co-write the script, and they picked an unusual director to make it: Marc Forster who has also made Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, and last year's The Kite Runner. The most noticeable result is that the photography is a little more abstract and artful than previous Bond flicks have been. Again, I don't think Forster and his 2nd Unit Director handled the action all that well, but the dynamic between Bond and M is stellar, and their interactions are the heart of the picture. There's no Q character yet again, although we get a closer look at the techy side of how MI-6 conducts its business than we have in a while.

One last thought, and its about the Alicia Keys / Jack White song from opening credits. People who complained that it couldn't get worse than the Madonna tune from Die Another Day should be eating their words after listening to the shit-burger that plays over the opening of this movie. Goddamn, there just aren't words for how horrible it is. I challenge you to compare it with the cheesier Bond songs of eld... The Man With The Golden Gun, Moonraker, even the semi-classic but still obnoxious Goldfinger.... none of them are in the same league as this awful, awful musical abortion.

Anyway, that's it. Espionage, hot chicks, exotic locales and stuff blowin' up real good. What else can I say?

November 16, 2008

Frost / Nixon (11/16/08)

Lettergrade: B-

I think I liked Frost / Nixon... Is it weird that I'm not entirely sure? The movie's subject material certainly plays directly to a number of my interests -- I'm infinitely fascinated by politicians, their relationship to the media, and with Richard Nixon in particular -- but whenever we talk about historical dramatizations, I'm always unsure if I like movie because of the events that are represented or if the movie is good in and of itself.

I seem to wonder that especially often during Ron Howard movies, many of which fall into this docudrama category. They're always very well-shot and professionally made and everything, but there's usually something intangible missing too that somehow keeps them away from excellence. He's also a bit inconsistent: I really enjoyed Parenthood, Apollo 13, and Cinderella Man, for example, but if you compare that with other pictures on his resumé like the strangely inert Far And Away, the lukewarm A Beautiful Mind, and the abominable, unforgivable live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas shitbomb, it's hard to tell if he was merely stumbling on the bad ones or if he happened to get lucky on the good ones. Before we went into this movie, I told my wife about my theory that Ron Howard seems to alternate good movies with sorta-sucky ones. "What was his last movie?" she asked. "The Di Vinci Code," I answered. "Wow, this one should be great then!"

And regardless of my misgivings about Howard and his handling of screen material, the Frost / Nixon story is a great one. Michael Sheen (who has played Tony Blair in a couple movies now, including 2006's The Queen), plays the Austin Powersish David Frost, who hosts a number of variety shows and other TV fluff around the globe. After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigns the Presidency in August of 1974 amidst the Watergate scandal, Frost is inspired to seek him out for his first post-Presidency interview. Of course, he's not the only journalist to do so, but Nixon, desperately wanting to repair his public image, agrees after his staff sizes Frost up as a light-weight and guesses the interview will consist of soft-ball questions that can be easily outmaneuvered.

During their initial meeting at Nixon's California home, the ex-President treats Frost to his trademark intimidation head-games, and describes their forth-coming series of interviews as a "duel." This scares Frost into bringing in expert advisors Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and Jim Reston (Sam Rockwell) to help with the preparation. Reston in particular holds fierce animosity toward Nixon and only agrees to participate if Frost intends to give Nixon "the trial he never had." The movie proceeds as a battle of wits between the two men, staged primarily on the interview set, with Frost desperately trying to outsmart the seasoned political master. Frost put up considerable money in order to lure Nixon out in the first place, most of it from his own fortune, and the tension is enhanced by the fact that no major network seems especially interested in buying the show, meaning there's a good chance the interview won't even air anyway and Frost will be financially ruined.

The script was written by Peter Morgan and is based on his stage-play of the same name. Historical dramas about recent world leaders seem to be his speciality as he has also written 2006's The Queen and The Last King Of Scotland in addition to The Other Boylen Girl earlier this year. I have no idea how much of the stage version was directly translated for this film incarnation, but it feels like a good percentage probably was. One clear addition is the slightly awkward pseudo-documentary vignettes toward the beginning where the actors talk directly to the camera in the interest of setting the movie up. Most of the film, however, is confined to a few key sets, allowing Sheen and Langella, reprising their roles from the stage version, to really show their stuff.

I believe the filmmakers misjudged the audience's interest in Frost to a certain degree, focusing much more on him than on Nixon, the movie's 500 lb gorilla. Langella's performance doesn't attempt a direct impersonation of Nixon, really, and it honestly took me some time to get used to him. Nevertheless, he does manage to carry the gravitas of the inimitable ex-President, much like Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone's Nixon, and perhaps when we're talking about a figure who runs the risk of falling into silly caricature, that's the best we can ask for.

Another problem is that in spite of those faux-documentary segments, the movie fails to give a clear sense of the national mood toward Nixon at the time. In the promotional materials for the picture, Howard talks about the anger everyone felt toward Nixon post-Watergate, and how the Frost interviews were really cathartic for him on a personal level as well as for the country. Strangely, the film fails to convey this emotion almost completely, under the assumption, I guess, that the audience would largely supply it themselves.

Context is everything here, and downplaying it is a problem. I understand why the film would want to avoid rehashing the case against Nixon, but a better understanding of why guys like Zelnick and Reston - our only stand-ins for the general public - wanted a confession so badly in the first place might have resulted in Nixon's final interview with Frost having more of an impact. The picture is more in "David v. Goliath" territory without this key component. You have a stake in what the outcome means for the people in the movie, but the way the story is staged fails to address even the promise made by tag-line on the movie's poster: "400 Million People Were Waiting For The Truth." The movie is about the forensics of what happened rather than what those 400 million got from the interviews and how they felt about it.

The picture has clearly been timed to coincide with the last few months of the George Bush Presidency, and Howard knows that the audience will likely see some parallels in that W. is on-track to leave office with a large and angry public hungry for explanations and answers too. The movie certainly gains some power from its timing, but I don't believe a direct comparison is what the filmmakers had in mind. Instead, Frost / Nixon, in a very muddled way, seems to be about the public thirst for accountability. Nixon never had to face any legal charges for what he did in office - and W. may not either - but the call for Nixon to sit in a chair and be asked some tough questions about what happened and why never faded with time, and Nixon, despite his dark, brooding secrecy and well-known resistance to talking about the subject, ultimately could not keep from answering them. The movie isn't quite a grand-slam, but then I can't imagine that Nixon's quasi-apology was entirely satisfying for the public at the time either.

November 15, 2008

Revolutionary Road (11/15/08)

Lettergrade: D+

During an early scene in Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio takes a morning train from the Connecticut suburb he shares with screen-wife Kate Winslet into New York City for work. The sequence is staged wordlessly, with bittersweet Thomas Newman music soaring over picturesque images of seas of 1960's era business men, all carrying brief-cases and wearing similar Joe Friday hats as they trudge toward their jobs.

Director Sam Mendes did a scene similar to this in his second movie, 2002's Road To Perdition, where Tom Hanks deposits his son in a Chicago train station while he goes to talk with a prominent mob-boss. Like that scene, the one in Revolutionary Road feels utterly inauthentic... like we're looking at a stylized post-card version of a time period, the likes of which Norman Rockwell might have painted for The Saturday Evening Post. That's fine for a certain kind of movie, but Revolutionary Road seems to depend on a sense of realism and credibility in order to work. Did the past ever look like that? It's possible, I guess, but the glossiness somehow makes it all seem like an impressionistic caricature as opposed to something that ever really existed.

I think that's my key issue with how Mendes makes his movies, and how he made this one in particular. I've got a number of problems, actually; It feels very theatrical, as if adapted from a stage play (although it isn't)... It has an unnecessarily lengthy running time that includes a number of subplots and side-stories that don't seem to amount to much... And the anti-materialistic, anti-establishment tone, similar in ways to that of Fight Club as well as Mendes's first film, American Beauty -- the idea being that the stuff you acquire somewhat holds you captive, and you'd be better off without it -- is starting to feel awfully clichéd and hollow to me by now. All that aside, though, it is the unnatural way in which people interact and that overly-designed fakeness which really trumps it all for me. It's one of those movies where if there were not top-notch actors like Leo and Kate in front of the camera and talent like ace cinematographer Roger Deakins behind it, I'm not sure there'd be a lot worth talking about. Which is to say that it's a shame for all these skilled people to get together to make something that cannot hold up under the weight of its own design and which doesn't really connect.

Closely adapted from a Richard Yates novel, the picture is a domestic drama about a 30ish couple who are in a serious rut. There's plenty of money, but he hates his job, and she feels restrained by raising the kids and living out in the 'burbs, which seems to have had the side-effect of killing her ambitions toward being a full-time actress (as indicated briefly in one early scene, and never referred to again). One day, Winslet gets the idea that they can sell all their things and go to another country, where they could enjoy life and live off their savings while figuring out whatever it is they really want to do with themselves. The idea energizes the couple for a time, but soon reality comes crashing in and they conclude that such a move isn't really doable.

Based only on his films, it seems that Mendes has a fairly a condescending view of the lives of most common folk - that is to say, people who did not choose to be painters or musicians or theater directors (Mendes' occupation when he's not making Oscar bait). Every day existence is a dull and painful thing in his movies. People who live in the suburbs, be it Lester and Carolyn Burnham of American Beauty or Frank and April Wheeler of Revolutionary Road, are embittered, feel trapped, and hide all sorts of dark secrets. At one point, Kate asks Leo how long they have to live lives they don't like before realizing that opportunity has passed them by and they're "second rate."

American Beauty - the quality of which I increasingly credit to screenwriter Alan Ball, who would go on to create HBO's Six Feet Under - poised itself as an exposé of the dark and twisted shit that's going on in the suburbs that you don't even know about. But the older I get, I understand that while it's powerful filmmaking, the sentiment and Medes's point of view feels less and less true. Misfortunate, apathy, and the feeling that perhaps you could have made more of yourself affect pretty much everyone at one time or another, I'd imagine, but it seems rare that people use it as an excuse to violently self-destruct, as Mendes' characters regularly have over several movies now.

A good number of people I've met seem to find ways to appreciate what they have rather than dwelling on the things they don't, and a few have even come to the wise conclusion that happiness is largely a do-it-yourself job (and doesn't have much to do with your income or where you're living). Frank and April hate their existence, but they are also wealthy to the point where the option of moving to France and living off their savings is a feasible possibility. When that prospect goes away for multiple reasons, things start to get ugly, War Of The Roses style. Really? Just those two choices, huh? Move away or have a complete melt-down at home?

We attended a guild screening of the picture at the Paramount lot on Saturday, after which Mendes and some of the actors and key creative personnel spoke. I only bring this up because the question and answer session didn't really enlighten me about the making of the film as much as it confirmed something I'd been suspecting for years anyway: That Sam Mendes is sort of a douche-bag.