Friday, September 07, 2007
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remake offers a twist on the paranoid thriller. It's a hippie paranoid thriller. Unfortunately, the hippie element so intrudes on the paranoid element that I had difficulty discerning whether the film wanted me to gnaw my fingernails, laugh out loud, or just peace out, man.
While the film hits many of the beats of the original, it also takes time to tap on pretty much every board of the Democratic Party's then-current platfom. From the Prescription Drug Benefit to Halliburton to G.W . Bush himself, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE sets 'em and knocks 'em down, one after another, to such an extent that it actually becomes a distraction. I mean, c'mon, Al Franken as a nightly news reporter?
That's not to say that THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE doesn't have anything going for it. Jeffrey Wright is, as usual, phenomenal; Denzel Washington is, as usual, so good that we don't notice how good he is; and Liev Schrieber makes me wonder why the hell that Mr. Clark movie never happened. None of them, however, are a match for Meryl Streep. Not only does she blow every one of them off the screen, but I bet that when this thing was running in the multiplexes, she blew everyone in all the other movies off their screens, too. She's evil, she's creepy, she's smothering, and she is 31 different flavors of awesome.
While THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is a bit slight and more than a bit hamhanded, it's worth watching for Streep's performance alone. And who knows? Maybe the hippies are right.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
I hated L'ECLISSE.
The film begins in the drawing room of Monica Vitti and Francisco Rabal. They're exhausted, both emotionally and physically. She's leaving him, things could get ugly, but they never do. That would be too dramatic. Instead, they end up simply going their separate ways, and the film follows Vitti over the next several days.
Unfortunately, Vitti is neither particularly interesting nor particularly pleasant to look at. She feels disaffected, she walks here and there, she falls into an unengaging relationship with Alain Delon; none of which happen with much passion (I know a film romance is in trouble when a doorbell rings and I think, "Maybe somebody will come in and shoot them. That'd add some drama."). Finally, the film ends with something I interpreted as a big "f you" to the audience: minutes and minutes of dull, empty cityscape. No drama. No story. Just images. F you, Antonioni. If I want images, I'll go to an art museum. Tell me a story.
I do respect that Antonioni is trying to do something here. Mine is not ire at poor craftsmanship or lazy filmmaking. L'ECLISSE certainly does not aspire to the mediocrity of, say, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remake, which I'm having trouble mustering the energy to write about. My problem is that Antonioni disregards the first law of narrative film: engage and entertain your audience. L'ECLISSE is two hours of people I don't care about doing things I don't care about for reasons I don't care about. I'm glad it's over.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Ray Winstone. Guy Pearce. Danny Huston. John Hurt. That spooky Aborigine tracker from RABBIT-PROOF FENCE. These guys are serious guys in a serious movie, THE PROPOSITION, written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat with brutal pitilessness. Winstone's the law in an arid Outback town that may as well be called Tombstone, and he's out to capture or kill Huston. Others will die, some by intention and some by accident, but it matters not: Huston's the rabbit, Pearce is the hound, and the rest, well, perhaps they'll survive.
But then things change. I won't say how or why, but I will say that they do so in ways I did not expect. That's the trick of this film, and its unique allure, though I'm not sure if it's enough to recommend a viewing. THE PROPOSITION is difficult to watch not because it's brutal, but because it's brutal to people about whom we come to care. Further, it's slow, reflecting a time during which patience wasn't a virtue so much as a requirement. The two combine to create a sense of dread that, while powerful, is far from pleasant. One can imagine that this is how people lived, and this is how they made the decisions they made, and this is how they came to regret them.
So, THE PROPOSITION. It's a well-made film, but I did not enjoy viewing it. Your mileage may vary.
Here's a nugget of hard-won wisdom: never believe a wrestler who recommends a wrestling movie.
I learned this lesson in the '80s, when some friends on my high school's wrestling team told me that VISION QUEST was one of the greatest movies ever made. The lesson was reaffirmed as recently as the release of WE ARE MARSHALL, which some Marshall alumni friends declared was one of the greatest movies ever made.
So you've been forewarned. I'm a former Navy search and rescue (SAR) pilot who flew the helicopter flown in THE GUARDIAN. I'm now a C-130 pilot in the Navy Reserve, and THE GUARDIAN gives that mighty aircraft plenty of screen time. I once led my helo squadron's aircrew division, which was comprised of rescue swimmers (Motto: So Others May Live). I used to hold a Water Safety Instructor certificate, and one of my favorite classes to teach was advanced lifesaving. One of my helo squadron-mates transferred to the Coast Guard (Sitka Station) because he wanted to save lives. I have fond memories of standing outside my hangar, coffee cup in hand, looking up at the low, low clouds and commisserating with my buddies, "You flying today?" "Nope. I'm not flying today." Then, wop-wop-wop, there went the Coast Guard, flying out to sea to save another life. I love those guys.
That said, THE GUARDIAN is a deeply flawed movie. Its romantic subplot neither adds value to the story nor bothers to give us characters with a modicum of chemistry. For every great detail such as accurate squadron patches on the back of a pilot's flight jacket, it sports a knee-slapper such as a tough-guy Navy bar where Coasties can expect a fight (This just in: nobody hates Coasties. Hating Coasties is like hating paramedics.). Its denoument is so hamhanded and ill-considered that it's like a pop in the nose, and even the songs playing over the closing credits feel insultingly bad. Nevertheless, I really, really liked it. I liked the reasonably accurate (within the bounds of dramatic necessity) depiction of helicopter SAR operations. I liked the interactions between senior enlisted aircrew and the pilots who know and trust them. I liked the training sequences, which felt real, and I like Kevin Costner's Senior Chief character (Costner's been getting some rough breaks over the last few years, but this is another solid performance from the man.). Furthermore, the movie looks great. The cinematographer and special effects crew work together to create eye-popping, exciting environments, and they know how to give nighttime SAR operations the drama they deserve.
As a "movie guy," I'm here to tell you that THE GUARDIAN's flaws outweigh its positives, and that you should probably give it a wide berth. As a "SAR guy," I'm here to tell you that THE GUARDIAN is one of the greatest movies ever made, and that you should see it tomorrow. Let your wisdom be your guide.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
My kid has been on a SpongeBob kick lately. I can take the cartoon in small doses, but I burn out after an episode or two. That's why I put my foot down the other night: "No SpongeBob. There's gotta be something better on the TiVo."
And there it was on the list, a Buster Keaton picture by the name of COPS which had aired on the station that has become the only reason I continue to pay for TV: TCM. COPS begins with a rejection: a wealthy young lady tells the hopeful Buster that she won't marry him until he makes it in business. Well, Keaton's no slouch. Before he knows it, he's the proud owner of a cart full of household goods that may or may not technically be his, but that's not really a problem until he, well, the title does imply that cops get involved, so I'm not giving away too much, am I?
This is a terrific chase movie, loaded with stunts both funny and dazzling. We rewound bits and pieces several times over, both for guffaws and wows, and the aforementioned kid chuckled, giggled, and outright laughed far more than I've ever seen him do while watching SpongeBob. Thanks, TCM, for providing a home for so many wonderful silents. You make my satellite subscription worth every penny.
Monday, September 03, 2007
I fired up ALPHAVILLE feeling neutral. I'm not a Godard fetishist, but neither do I repudiate the man. I was ready to take what this movie had to give and give it, in return, a fair shot. ALPHAVILLE began by puzzling me. Who was this supposed reporter from "LeMonde / Pravda"? Who were these people he was interested in? Why did some guy burst into his hotel room and try to kill him, and why did our supposed hero proceed to unwind by playing a little William Tell with his handgun and a hotel prostitute?
After a while, ALPHAVILLE went from puzzler to fascinator, as it rolled into a water ballet from Busby Berkeley's most depraved fantasies. In the process, it evoked the constant, all-pervasive fear that comes of living under a totalitarian regime and drew me into its world and its hero, one Ivan Johnson (or, as we would later come to call him, Lemmy Caution). As Lemmy came to understand Alphaville, its government, and its people, so I came to understand what was going on, who was targeting whom, and what the heck Anna Karina had to do with anything. As Lemmy took action, the scenario grew simpler still, 'til I was cheering him on and hoping he'd find both what he'd been sent for and what he needed.
I may have come into ALPHAVILLE feeling neutral, but I came out of it feeling energized and excited. Here's a movie that's willing to take risks with the conventions of filmed narrative, and here' s a movie that wraps its thoughtfulness in pulp and never takes its eye off the ball of any sound film's first priority: entertaining its audience.
ALPHAVILLE is a winner.