Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Thank God for NetFlix

It's a grand service, giving us a way to catch up with movies we missed in the theatres over the last four or so years without having to pay the ten dollar ticket price; a good movie is a fantastic bargain, and the experience of seeing as less good one stings less for the price we paid to see it. A report:

A bore, a protracted, gutless, unpaced bore filled with indifferent performances and a rote Ali impersonation by Will Smith that pales next to the rhyme-popping accuracy of Billy Crystal's version. I'm a Michael Mann fan, and have been a defender of his maligned masterpiece Heat, but this project misfires on all cylinders. The swelling rhythm and blues tunes as scenes go into slow motion, the powder-puff confrontation of Ali's marital transgressions, the ceaselessly mobile camera work that attempts to create a cinema verite urgency but results in making you want to close your eyes and go to sleep.
Black Hawk Down is a bad film by a good director, Ridley Scott does his best work when there is something of compelling literary interest here, i.e., characters that are written, not merely depicted as they are in Black Hawk. The Duelist, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, among his best work, achieve a suspended disbelief credibility in as much as image comes to match idea, and directing hand seems to catch some of the musicality of conflict and buried desire that gives off a sense of some larger insanity of desire that is hidden. Black Hawk is a routine war-is-hell yawner that cannot rise above its status as movie-of-the-week fodder. Scott is a fine stylist if he has the literary substance to make his approach more than just gestures and window dressing, as it is here.

The moral drift of this thing is disturbing, and the feeble little declaration toward the end that the Marine's motivation in a rudderless, under-determined mission is being there for the other guys, your buddies, does not raise the level.
I suspect Scott would do stronger, more compelling work if he were adapting a war story that had an implicit argument within it , or at least a consistent point of view that would make the visual displays fire up more than mere weirdness. It's intriguing to think what he would have done with Heart of Darkness had Copolla not beat him to it. There remain Michael Herr's brilliant Dispatches, a vivid gonzo journalism read on the Viet Nam war. Viet Nam, though, is pretty much tapped out as a film subject matter.

The camera lingers too often in Black Hawk Down, lapsing into slow motion while presumably native music blasts over the speakers, the lens frozen as though dumbfounded, an acid head who discovers his face in the mirror. it's a bad film that lacks the guts of these idealized Marines convictions. Had Ridley Scott given us something that suits the military culture BHD (the film) pretends to celebrate, something even on the level of John Wayne, we'd have a film with a narrative reason to exist.

Scott, though, is a director of strange moods and articulate passion, and his diffidence here is betrayed by unmotivated characterizations --stereotypes , really, card board cut outs --and his frequent lapses’ into fluttering slow motion , accompanied by booming music, with piercing vocals. He loves exotica, and sometimes it works, but not here, when a straight up comprehension of military ethos and genre expectations would have worked much better than this distracted, protracted performance. Walter Hill or James Cameron would have served the material better.
Saw Hart's War on a free afternoon, and it seemed that the movie could be shown in film schools as a handy guide to POW film clichés. The storylines are all transparent and grating by their mere presence, and the obviousness of how this movie is being navigated makes you think you’re being played for a fool who'd never seen this kind of thing before.

The black aviator on trial, of course, demonstrates the fullest meaning of honor and duty, the untested junior officer , of course, stands on principle of fairness, the senior US officer, of course, is a hard bitten professional soldier for whom The Mission comes first, the German Commandant is, of course, so ironic, distant, melancholic in the dispatch of his duties.

You choke on these archetypes, you groan at sequences that might have been culled from a decent genre-filler released forty years previous: I'm thinking of the whole bread/football sequence, wherein the Willis character tosses the loaf over to the Russian side of the camp after one of his men had been wounded by a German guard. The intent is to demonstrate the solidarity between an officer and the enlisted men in the face of awful consequences, but it's rather pat, pretentious, and predictable.

The performances are mechanical as well. No one is especially good here, and Willis in particular fashions that trade marked inexplicable smirk so much that you wish some one would punch him and then demand what's so damned funny.
Saw Changing Lanes over the weekend, and thought it was a decent enough Hollywood "message" film, though it had the dopiest premise imaginable. It's not that I object to happy endings -- in this case, each of the characters played by Sam Jackson and Ben Affleck realize the exact nature of their wrongs and wind up doing the right thing by the world and themselves -- it's that I want the fictional solutions to seem fictionally plausible. The concentration of the events into one day snaps credulity, and while you're wondering whether this is an alternative universe where there are 76 hours to a day, the film drags way too much in key areas. Jackson and Affleck are both quite good here, but in the crush of the events that are eating our protagonists up, there is too much reflection, too much self examination, too much fortuitous circumstance for the characters to redeem themselves. Irony is fine, but Affleck's pragmatic do-gooding at the end is too much of stretch, theatrical without being dramatic. Like the film as a whole.
Insomnia is terrific. Chris Nolan, director, has a crucial knack for getting at the character at the margins of his wits, the fractured personality who is just barely able to keep his psychic equilibrium and move forward. He did this brilliantly in Memento, expertly telling the story through jagged shards of memory that constantly reformed a narrative structure and tortured our assumptions, until there was only a complexity that was a true and achieved irony, and he does the same here with Pacino's character Dormer, the insomniac detective who is wrestling with a hideous issue of professional ethics. Suffice to say, Dormer's ability to squelch the recent events of his life, his ability to keep them out of mind, decays as sleeplessness makes his hard-boiled demeanor sufficiently crack. Nolan, wisely, thankfully, does not tell the story in the same indie-video-film school fashion that he masterfully parlayed into the riveting Memento (even he must have sensed that it was a grand sleight of hand of a device that he could sell once to an audience). Rather, he luxuriates in the Alaskan scenery, capturing the sheer rugged and brutal beauty with a big lens, composing his shots as the characters seem like tawdry and desperate creatures scrambling across the terrain with their petty intrigues while the vastness of the North suggests something greater, more lasting.

Pacino gives a splendid performance, nuanced, not chewing up the scenery nor raising his voice arbitrarily as can be his habit; he has the saddest eyes of any American screen actor, and the lines of his face are a road map of every hard and compromised choice his character has had to make. Robin Williams is fine as well, a credible foil to Pacino as the smug, smarty pants mystery writer who relishes the chance to hoist Dormer by his own slack ethical petard.

Smart script, with a number of reversals that are credible and smartly played. The pacing is remindful of Clint Eastwood in his best moments as a director. The story is allowed to develop over days, weeks. The build in the tension comes as a relief.
The Sum of All Fears was glacial, painfully slow. The film, like the novel, is a traffic jam of details and simultaneous storylines that really have no demonstrated emphasis: what they build up to, the nuclear blast that takes out a major chunk of Baltimore, comes neither as shocking nor as relief against the previous tedium. It just makes the film noisier, longer, more self-important in its post 9/11 message that the US and Russia need to become policing partners to guard against lurking terrorists. This snail paced techno thriller removes two hours plus from your life for which no refund is possible.Ben Affleck, as usual, is annoying, and for me it came while watching this wretched drama: he looks like Adam Sandler's brother.

Saw Road to Perdition and witnessed what turned out to be a significant disappointment. Director Sam Mendes seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources mounting the film and not enough time directing it. It has a an interesting look, particularly with its' near monochromatic hues and lighting that suggests the eye of a Dutch master, but this wears thin quickly as the plot and characterization fails to develop at either a credible pace or with interesting results. There is nothing especially awful here, just stuff that is predictable, an offense made worse by sheer lethargy. Hanks does little more than grimace, Paul Newman, performing well in the first part of the film, has little to do afterwards except sit and stare into his lap with an old man's regret. Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh may as well be furniture here. Not the best crime drama since "Godfather".

Missing, of course, is the script that made the difference with Mendes’s' previous effort, "American Beauty". The plot here is adequate, I suppose, for the purposes of the graphic novel it's adapted from, but on screen, as is, the storyline is little more than a thin, cracking mortar between the cut stones of a huge mansion, ornate and impressive at first view, but revealing a crumbling structure the closer one gets into it.
The Quiet American is very good, nearly perfect so far as a film that tries to communicate and convey a sense of intellectually subtle points; it achieves an elegant efficiency the Green novel had. What is pleasing is the proportion of the elements-- the "love triangle" (for want of a better phrase), the early stages of the Viet Nam war, the Vietnamese point of view-- all these are a graceful weave. It is sufficiently anti-imperialist in its base message, yet hangs on the ambivalence that nearly crucifies the lead character. Philip Noyes shows a steady, unhurried hand directing this work, a nice recovery from the previously noisy projects he busied himself with, and Michael Caine is believably perplexed by the fact of his crumbling comfort. Brendan Fraser does a surprisingly good job.

Daredevil, as it's been remarked earlier, is simply awful, and reveals in live action why the comic book never clicked for me; it's a weaker, thinner, more desperately edgy version of Batman. Relentlessly cruel, down turned, ugly in all its emotions. The problem is that this slice of costumed fantasy lacks conviction. This is simply a template that's been fleshed out until a better idea comes along.

Lord of War

I saw the film last night and found it to be pretentious and shallow, preachy in very obvious ways, with a "surprise" ending that was telegraphed from several city blocks away. The bits of dialogue between Orloff and his pursuer (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) about the relative merits of each other's chosen roles in life was half-baked and unfelt, lacking any real conviction in or twist upon middle brow clichés. The movie attempts in several ways to be a morality play, oozing with irony, but the pitch here is so determinedly at the bottom end of apprehensible emotional range that it's nearly flat lined. No one seemed to know how to direct the actors with a cheaply sanctimonious script, and the actors themselves appear to lack interest to do any free lance scene chewing.

Paddy Chayefsky, prolix screenwriter behind Network and Hospital, set an as yet unsurpassed standard on making socially-conscious movies that want to force the audience to dwell a little on the invisible undertakings involved in keeping them safe and secure. It comes down to a frank exchange of clichés and alarmist platitudes, but Chayefsky had a genius for infusing them with new phrases, coinages, and could contrive a flaming morass of cynicism that was particularly compelling despite what depth he failed to achieve. The movies were quoted, the issues made the op- ed pages and the chat around the coffee maker.

Lord of War lacks all that, and depends on a slick video-game surface while Nicolas Cage's sad puppy dog eyes gaze upon his gunning character's fatal transactions with a detachment that is supposed to make us think of a man straddling both heaven and hell, pondering which is worse. It doesn't work, though, and it's really another excuse for another movie gallery of Cage's set-mannerisms. At least he wasn't pretending to be Elvis this time out.

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