Thursday, December 25, 2008


A strange choice for director David Fincher. There’s no denying the visual impact of his best work, but there’s also no denying the emotional coldness either. SEVEN and FIGHT CLUB are two of the most famous examples of Bleak Chic, films that revel in their own status as Hip Cynical Bummers. ZODIAC upped the ante a good deal, combining Fincher’s trademark visual finesse with a group of characters that seemed to have some connection to reality. BENJAMIN BUTTON seems to offer Fincher the chance to join the Major Director Club, to move from Chilly Technician to Soulful Visionary. Alas, it doesn’t work. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON has all the heart and soul and passion and warmth of Dick Cheney.

BENJAMIN BUTTON is the story of a man who ages in reverse. Born as a miniature version of an old man, an infant with gray hair and arthritis, he gradually gets younger as he gets older. He gets more limber, his hair gains color, and he basically becomes Brad Pitt (a mixed blessing, as it turns out). Benjamin’s journey from Youthful Old Age to Aged Youthfulness spans about 80 years from WWI to Hurricane Katrina, he witnesses assorted Big Events of the Century, and occasionally meets up with his One True Love Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett.

Comparisons with FORREST GUMP can’t be avoided, and BUTTON has GUMP’s screenwriter, one Eric Roth. GUMP and BUTTON are both set in a Louisiana where things like race and money are never issues. Benjamin’s youthful use of crutches to walk echoes Forrest’s “magic legs,” and the on-again off-again decade-hopping romance between Benjamin and Daisy is a replay of Forrest’s affair with the doomed Jenny. BUTTON has a strange symbolic hummingbird that implausibly shows up at strategic times, a la GUMP’s famous feather. Roth also tosses in elements of THE ENGLISH PATIENT, in a framing device showing Daisy on her deathbed having her daughter read Benjamin’s diary to her as Hurricane Katrina prepares to rage outside.

Think about it. A combination of FORREST GUMP and THE ENGLISH PATIENT.

Still with me? The movie aims hard at being a fantastic-type meditation on time, love and loss. All the signifiers of Hollywood’s version of Serious Cinema are there: luscious production values, cutting edge technology, Oscar-winning actors from abroad, distinguished literary pedigree, nearly three hour length and all that. The movie is a big fat piece of Oscar bait, perhaps the most blatant since the atrocious COLD MOUNTAIN. Fincher seems to have studied Anthony Minghella closely, as it happens: no film since Minghella’s passing shows his influence so thoroughly. There’s a total lack of passion and energy that the director of THE ENGLISH PATIENT and COLD MOUNTAIN would instantly recognize as his own, combined with that Mingellian Delusion Of Relevance that makes his films such agony to sit through. The film goes through its carefully orchestrated and arranged and computer generated paces, each narrative and technological cog clicking into place like the creation of the blind clockmaker in the film’s opening anecdote. Fincher, alas, is no visionary. He’s a mechanic, more interested in showing off his techno-toolbox than anything else.

The cutting edge technology is most particularly in evidence in the depiction of Benjamin’s reverse aging. They seem to have used a variety of actors of assorted sizes and added an aged version of Brad Pitt’s face to them where necessary. The results don’t really work terribly well, I don’t think, especially in the first half of the film where Pitt looks more like 70s singer/songwriter Paul Williams than anything else. Pitt doesn’t suffer alone. The process by which Cate Blanchett is made to look about 20 years younger than she is comes off like some hideous page out of Airbrushing For Beginners. These effects keep calling attention to themselves, at the expense of the characters and ultimately the film. It eventually settles down a bit, by the time that Pitt and Blanchett are supposed to be near the same age and can play their roles without techno-cosmetic assistance, when Fincher starts to load on the lingering closeups of Pitt’s astonishing beauty, but it is too little too late.

I’ll say it clearly, because nobody else will. At heart, the film’s biggest problem is right there on the poster and above the title. Brad Pitt’s alleged performance is a colossal bore, a great black hole that sucks the energy out of all that surrounds it. There’s a certain possible justification for some of it, I guess. Benjamin Button is after all a freak of nature. He is fully aware of his difference, and aware of how it might be seen by others, and a certain emotional reserve might be an interesting starting point for an actor to build a performance on. For Pitt, this reserve is the final destination, the beginning middle and end of his attempt at a performance. It isn’t just a matter of the digital tweaking to make him look older or younger. There’s just nothing there. His voice is a flat uninflected monotone. His eyes are unlit with any sign of life. Tens of millions of dollars worth of CGI aging technology and a battery of technicians can’t add life where Pitt doesn’t. Just watch what happens when the sublime Tilda Swinton appears onscreen with Pitt. She lights up the screen in a way that poor old Brad just can’t come near, and quite simply obliterates him. It could be argued that Swinton’s performance is also the one in the film least affected by CGI and latex, but it is more than that. She steals the film by sheer acting ability alone, showing more humanity in one single smile than the rest of the film is able to summon in its entirely indefensible three hour running time.

Life’s too short. Avoid this one. You’re not missing a thing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


is a strange name for the latest Bond film: they should probably have just called it CASINO ROYALE II. The story picks up pretty much where CASINO left off (a certain amount of time does seem to have elapsed, but it falls into the Things You're Not Supposed To Notice category). There seems to be a good deal of disappointment in QUANTUM as a movie, and I can see why. Ultimately I don't think it is as good as CASINO ROYALE; it seems to have completely jettisoned the polish of CASINO in favor of a supposedly grittier feel, I guess in a bid for something like relevance. And it makes a degree of sense, if you take the reboot of the franchise as a kind of Bond's Progress from journeyman spy to cold-hearted killer: the progression from stylish blacktie casinos to desert wasteland can be seen to reflect Bond's own devolution from man to heartless killing machine.

I wish the plot had been a bit easier to follow, there were times when I felt like the parade of heavily-accented actors weren't exactly making things clear. And the film-making itself didn't help much. The film is made in that Hand-Held Camera/Weed Whacker Editing style that can work when done properly as in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM but doesn't really come together here. The opening car chase confuses rather than excites because it takes too long to figure out what the hell is going on. I wasn't even sure who was chasing whom until way too late in the sequence. It gets really bad during a speedboat chase that simply makes no sense at all, a flurry of swish pans fast cuts and bad framing. A marvellously conceived sequence at an opera performance falls apart due to some frankly idiotic Artsy Fartsy Editing. It does settle down enough for the Big Finish to come off handsomely, but by then it is almost too late.

I'm being rather hard on the movie, I guess out of a sense of disappointment that so many bad decisions were made in its production. On the whole though it was an amusing entertainment, and it features a memorable Bond villain: Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Greene. The man leaves a trail, let's just leave it at that. And the sublime Jeffrey Wright gets a little more to do, but it still isn't enough. In one scene he regards Amalric's character the way he'd regard a shit smear on a new carpet. Little things like that make the movie bearable when the bad filmmaking threaten to undermine it all. More Jeffrey Wright, less editing, please.

If nothing else, QUANTUM OF SOLACE gave me the opportunity to look at Daniel Craig for a couple of hours my oh my oh bloody my. I do love to watch Daniel Craig, and not just because he's the sexiest man in current movies. There's something oddly amusing about him in action scenes, I find. Watch him casually but seriously unseat someone from their motorcycle or run straight through drywall and you'll see what I mean. That odd casual gravity he brings to the increasingly outlandish situations reminds me of Buster Keaton, there's an absolute conviction to what he does that is somehow comic. I remember thinking, in CASINO ROYALE, that when Daniel Craig runs, Daniel Craig bloody RUNS, there's just no doubt that he's going to catch whatever he's chasing.

I'll keep going to the films as long as he's associated with them. And I'm looking forward to the next one.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Watch this. Just watch it. And feel very culturally superior to the poor pathetic Mormons who don't quite realize yet what they're in for in the coming years.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Props must go to Marc Shaiman etc. for this little stroke of nastiness.

Friday, October 31, 2008


"Could we have started the atomic age with clean hands?"

John Adams' opera DOCTOR ATOMIC asks the above question in its very first scene. It is a question that the play's protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, ducks at first, but gradually finds himself having to confront. Most of DOCTOR ATOMIC centers on the roughly 12 hours leading up to the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and specifically on Oppenheimer's crisis of conscience as the zero hour nears.

Alas, the production currently occupying the Metropolitan Opera in New York City manages to lose its way pretty thoroughly in a needlessly prolonged and almost entirely tension-free second act. I'm going to have to blame the director, one Penny Woolcock, a filmmaker who is making her theatrical debut with this production, for not ratcheting up the tension and making the characters live onstage as they should. Granted, the libretto doesn't do her any favors. Assembled by Peter Sellars from a variety of sources, the libretto is a patchwork taken from interviews, histories, and poetry. Some of the sources can be rather oblique: if I hadn't read the synopsis before the opera began, I would not have known that an extended love scene between Oppenheimer and his wife is made up almost entirely of poems by Muriel Rukeyser and Baudelaire. Other scenes involve a discussion on calorie counting between Oppenheimer and the general in charge of the operation.

Clearly, LA BOHEME this ain't. The first act progresses well enough, culminating in a marvelous aria from Oppenheimer, sung powerfully by Gerald Finley, taken from a sonnet by John Donne. Sung while standing quite literally in the shadow of the bomb, it lays out Oppenheimer's conflicts very clearly and movingly. Then Act Two begins, and the momentum simply evaporates. The test is delayed due to rain, and characters start dealing with what their development of the bomb might really mean. What might have been an opportunity for increased tension and soulful examination of motives turns out to be, quite simply, a bore. Ms. Woolcock has no idea how to move people around onstage, there are just too many scenes of people simply standing around onstage while the music plays. I started to wonder if someone had missed a cue or something. It definitely ruins the otherwise impressive final countdown sequence, played as the entire cast cowers together onstage, staring out at the audience.

It is worth noting that this is in fact the second full-blown production that DOCTOR ATOMIC has had. The first productions were directed by Peter Sellars himself, and I have a feeling he has a better handle on the material than Ms. Woolcock. The original production has been released on a DVD which I am going to have to check out shortly, just to see if Sellars' production solves the problems the opera presents. I've seen a few clips online that don't make me particularly optimistic. Maybe DOCTOR ATOMIC shouldn't be given a full production at all. I have a feeling that it might be more successfully mounted as an oratorio of some kind.

An oratorio presentation would put the attention where it belongs: on John Adams' music. I don't have the musical vocabulary to do it anything like justice, I'll just say that the score for DOCTOR ATOMIC seems to me on a first encounter to be one of Adams' finest accomplishments, along with his recent opera A FLOWERING TREE. I have no doubt that it will live a long life on my Ipod. Mr. Finley makes a very real physical impression as Oppenheimer, his cool certainty in the opening morphing gradually into anguished fear by the final moments. I have a memory of him leaning forward during the countdown, at an almost impossible angle.

I'll get the CD. If you aren't going to be able to see the production, don't lose too much sleep over it.

Here's a link to the Met Website, where you can see a trailer that makes the production look a lot better than it is:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Sympathy for the Dubya

Oliver Stone's film W settles, in many ways, for a pretty easy depiction of W the man as Misunderstood Black Sheep who Just Wants Daddy To Love Him. This choice on Stone's part lets both W the film and W the man off the hook pretty thoroughly, and I simply don't understand the reasoning behind it. Stone's NIXON numbered Nixon's every nerve, sparing no one and nothing, showing me the shivering guilty little boy behind the permanent five o'clock shadow, and on some level it worked because it was apparently pretty well true. NIXON the movie managed to explain Nixon the man without excusing him, which can't be said of W the movie.

It has to be said, though, that NIXON the movie had a richer subject than W. the movie. Nixon's insane drive for power at all costs made for some fine drama, which W's bumbling fratboy who smirks his way to the top can't come close to approaching. There's nothing in W, for instance, to match the great shouting match between Joan Allen's Pat Nixon and Anthony Hopkins' frantic Dick. I'm tempted to say something about lesser actors for lesser Presidents, but there's more to it than that.

The most consistent attitude Stone takes toward W the man is bemused tolerant sympathy for Poor Lil' Ol' W. We also get W the Cunning Politician, sitting on a park bench rehearsing talking points with Karl Rove, and W the Zealous Convert declaring his politically convenient Christianity, and W the Clueless Boob refusing pecan pie because he's given up sweets in solidarity with the troops. There's some nice mean stuff in there, to be sure, but the edge is continually dulled by the constant return to W the Unloved Manchild. And Stone doesn't even bring up W's controversial and probably non-existent army career, the stolen 2000 election, or the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, issues that might more seriously lessen the sympathy Stone keeps whipping up.

Stone does manage a couple of odd moments. There's a dream sequence toward the end, set in the Oval Office. Bush Sr. is taunting W, they eventually come to blows, and W screams "Get out of my head!" and wakes up in a sweat. At first glance the scene is an embarassment, a film-student cliché, but on second thought it seems kind of appropriate for W to have such a pathetically obvious dream, one that any reasonably sentient being would be able to decode. I don't think Stone meant it as a satiric comment on W the man, but there's something oddly telling about it. The cry to "get out of my head" sticks out, because the film has never really gotten inside W's head in any meaningful way. Stone seems content to recycle the old stories without doing much with them, settling for some easy pop-psych cliches, of which this dream is the best and clearest example.

There's a second set of dreams or fantasies running through the film, more ambiguous and troubling. Every so often Stone cuts to W in an empty sports stadium, listening to cheers coming from absent crowds. There's something genuinely eerie about it, as opposed to the blatant obviousness of the Oval Office dream, a hint of the solitude that will in all likelihood envelope our man W when he's out of office and the crowds have moved on. In the final moments of the film, there's a loud crack from a ball hitting a bat. W. goes out to catch the ball, which never comes. The film's final shot is a closeup of W waiting for the ball, and waiting, and waiting…

I was reminded of the final moments of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the last shot of Lawrence behind a dirty windshield, inscrutable as the film fades to black. Stone might have been trying for something similar here, but it doesn't really work with the film as it stands. With W the man, there can be no ambiguity. To paraphrase W himself, you're either with him, or against him. The fact that there has been no significant outcry from the Bush Administration should tell you how they feel about it.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


I've been listening to Radiohead a lot lately. I like this video. The song is entitled RECKONER, and it is from their album IN RAINBOWS.

Find more videos like this on w.a.s.t.e. central

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I saw two early films by David Lean last night. A neglected masterpiece in HOBSON’S CHOICE, and a justly neglected disasterpiece in THE SOUND BARRIER.

Charles Laughton shows off his comic chops in David Lean’s film of HOBSON’S CHOICE. He overplays, he underplays, he smiles frowns grimaces and walks into walls. It is a delicious performance in a delicious movie, one that I love almost every moment of.

Laughton’s Hobson, like a comic Lear, is having a rough time of it. His three daughters do most of the work in the bootmaker’s shop he owns, and there are mutinous rumblings. The two youngest daughters are entertaining thoughts of marrying local young men, and the eldest daughter Maggie (who is really the brains of the enterprise) is thinking that she needs some kind of life of her own. In a fit of pique, Hobson refuses to bestow dowries on the two marriage minded daughters. Maggie, bristling at Hobson’s characterization of her as an old maid, embarks on a briskly businesslike sort-of romance with the shop’s bootmaker, one Willy Mossop. And the fun begins.

The comedy is well-played for the most part, with a couple of alcoholic visions for Laughton and an extended Chaplinesque bit for John Mills’ Mossop being the only drags on the film. Maggie’s taking up of Mossop moves from being a mostly business proposition into one of the loveliest depictions of a loving relationship I can think of. These two are nuts about each other, and it is all done with great taste and no sentimentality at all. A particular shout out has to go to Brenda de Banzie, who is able to show both the strength to stand up to Charles Laughton’s thunderstorms and the tenderness to get Mills’ confidence going.

I’d been looking forward to THE SPEED BARRIER, and was deeply disappointed in it. The screenplay by Terrence Rattigan is a batch of cliches, and it would take better actors than Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick make it live onscreen. Ralph Richardson seems frankly lost as an apparently heartless industrialist who seems to have no problem sending young pilots to what might be their deaths in his quest to Break The Sound Barrier. Only Denholm Elliott, an impossibly young and attractive Denholm Elliott, manages to transcend his character’s blatantly cliched role as a Doomed Mis-Understood Youth.

The filmmaking is good enough, I guess. There are some well done aerial sequences, and a couple of really tense sequences. Lean’s camera and editing make the airplanes soar, but the actors are resolutely earthbound. There's nowhere the delight in filmmaking that characterizes Lean's best work, way too much of it is simply by the numbers. It is no shame to say that it isn't in the standard of Lean’s earlier GREAT EXPECTATIONS and BRIEF ENCOUNTER, to say nothing of HOBSON’S CHOICE which followed two years later. Nobody makes a masterpiece every time out, that's only fair. But in THE SOUND BARRIER Lean seems to be coasting, and it is not a pretty sight. It could have been made by any studio director for hire, which is about the worst thing I can think of to say about a film by David Lean.

Let it stay in the vaults where it belongs. Only the devout Lean completists need see it. And even they might want to reconsider.

Monday, September 15, 2008


David Foster Wallace, the author of the novels INFINITE JEST and THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, as well as assorted story and essay collections, committed suicide over the weekend. I am just plain devastated. I’m not one to get too bummed out by the passing of people I’ve never met, but this one is really hitting me bad.

I can’t claim to be a total Wallace groupie. I’ve found several of his short stories to be nearly impenetrable, and one of his essays, entitled HOST about the talk-radio industry is, to me at least, simply unreadable: way too many typographic gimmicks and text boxes and footnotes that are supposed to mimic the tortured thought processes of a listener in a world full of media input but only get too much in the way. Another full-length work about the mathematician Georg Cantor is simply beyond my sphere of interest, and his first novel THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM really doesn’t hold up well at all on a second reading.

At his best though, in INFINITE JEST and assorted stories and essays like the immortal A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN, Wallace is a joy to read, smart and complex without being forbidding. His work made me glad I took the time to learn to read. His most accessible stuff, like A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING, shows a terribly intelligent and educated man, definitely more educated and brilliant than you or me or anyone we know, who is engagingly self-conscious about it to the point of embarassment. As brilliant as he is, he never seems very comfortable in his skin (I doubt this was affectation: he didn’t seem comfortable in his skin on the occasions I saw him read from his work) and this lack of snobbery can lighten what would otherwise be tiresomely high-minded: his description of his activities on 9/11 in a piece entitled THE VIEW FROM MRS. THOMPSON’S never condescends to the midwestern housewives etc. he is surrounded by. He’s not above the occasional grudge, though, see his annoyance with “poor pathetic Duane” in the same piece.

But there’s that INFINITE JEST behemoth, which I’ve plowed through 4 times and which was already on my radar for another reading later this year. I remember when it was first published, I found a display on a table at Barnes & Noble. The blurb was interesting, the book was attractive, I was thinking well should I or shouldn’t I, the last thing I ever really need is more books, especially big new books by authors I hadn’t really heard of, my home was and is a vast pile of books purchased that all too often sit there unread. As I stood there debating whether or not to get it, three separate people walked in off the street, came right up to the display of JEST, picked up copies and went straight to the cash register. Well okay, universe, I thought, I can take a hint, and I went ahead and bought the thing, making a mental note that I’d start it immediately and give it a serious shot, that it wouldn’t sit gathering dust until I’d really read a big enough chunk of it.

And within a few pages I was hooked, there was that tingling feeling that I’d really found something amazing. The book’s difficulties are well known by now, and I don’t just mean the footnotes and over-complex sentences. Wallace plays a lot of games with the chronology, it can often be too difficult to keep your bearings. I finished the book without a real idea of what the hell had been going on, but I knew that I had enjoyed almost all of it. I felt sure that there was a key somewhere, some little bit of information that I’d missed that would make it all come together, and I couldn’t wait to read it again, which I did the minute it came out in paperback about a year later.

And I found that I hadn’t really missed as much as I’d thought. There’s a lot of information that Wallace simply withholds, about a year’s worth of information about the lives of the characters in general and the main character in particular. I think Wallace plays fair, though. You shouldn’t turn the last page of INFINITE JEST feeling surprised that he doesn’t really tie up the assorted plot-threads into a neat and tidily Dickensian package. That particular penny should drop well before the final third of the novel starts. What matters is the ride itself, and it is an amazing ride, vastly entertaining and often hilariously funny. Yeah, there are some head-scratching questions remaining at the end of the book, but they are what Douglas Adams calls “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.”

And that’s probably what we’re going to be left with, as far as answers to questions about his death are concerned. What more can I say? I’ll miss the hell out of a guy I never met.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Uh, yeah, sorry about the lack of postings, for you three or four who still bother to check this page out. There hasn't been a lot going on, the summer has been dry as dust movie-wise and theatre-wise.

Things will be picking up soon. I just got a ticket to see John Adams' new opera, DOCTOR ATOMIC, at the Metropolitan Opera. I've been a fan of Adams' work for years and years, and try not to let a new work go by unseen/heard.

We'll also be seeing a revival of David Mamet's SPEED-THE-PLOW, starring the delectable little sexmonkey Jeremy Piven and the dreamy Raul Esparza, and a revival of a play by my favorite playwright Martin Mcdonagh, THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, to say nothing of Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard in THE SEAGULL and John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest and the really just appallingly beautiful Patrick Wilson in ALL MY SONS. Add to that a David Lean retrospective and brand spanking new restored prints of THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II, playing at Film Forum, and it is looking like a busy September/October.

I'll keep you posted.

MmmmmmJeremy Pivenmmmmmmmmmmm.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


“Do I look like a man with a plan?”

This film very definitely has a plan. A big plan. It wants to be taken Very Very Seriously Indeed. THE DARK KNIGHT is a follow up to BATMAN BEGINS, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the franchise that had previously been destroyed by Joel Shumacher’s appalling entries, BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN, the films that became notorious for adding nipples to the batsuit. Nolan’s chief contribution to the series is a labored High Moral Importance, as Batman/Bruce Wayne struggles, oh so mightily, to live up to his father’s memory and banish crime from Gotham City. BATMAN BEGINS had a lot of nonsense about an assassin squad known as the League Of Shadows and some nattering about history and the decline of the west, but mostly the film was an excuse for bludgeoning an audience senseless, delivering brutal violence while shaking a finger in your face for enjoying it. It set a bold standard for sheer self-righteousness, even muscling in a reference to one of Bruce Wayne’s ancestors having been involved in the Underground Railroad. It didn’t even deliver an interesting villain, just Liam Neeson spouting mutilated Lucasisms about how you must become fear to overcome fear. All in all, there’s more fun in Auschwitz footage.

THE DARK KNIGHT doesn’t exactly lighten the tone, the occasional daylight scene notwithstanding. The story is terribly busy, too busy. Batman has been cleaning up the organized crime in Gotham City, and the Mob is getting unhappy. The Joker offers to lend the mob a hand. Okay, but there’s a lot of other stuff involving District Attorney Harvey Dent, some Mafia High Finance and a wicked accountant who knows where the money is buried and it clunks and thuds along, never more pointlessly than during a completely expendable sidetrip to Hong Kong. There’s a girl in there too, Maggie Gyllenaal taking over for the chick from the previous one, but basically, you just sit there waiting for more of the Joker.

I loved Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s very funny and very shocking, going for an unbridled sadism that is unique in this kind of film, where villains are all too often too coy to scare, much less perform lethal sleight of hand with pencils. This Joker is the real thing straight out of nightmareland. It’s an oversize performance, one that manages somehow to match the oversize pretensions of the rest of the film. He's the driving life force of the movie, the pulse and energy of the film much more so than all the stunts and CGI. All the explosions and gimmicks never once impress as much as the sight of the Joker standing in the middle of a Gotham City street daring Batman to run him down, knowing he won't. He's even got a wonderful moment leaning out of a car window in the early light, enjoying the wind in his green greasy hair, a la Fredric March's Mr. Hyde ecstatically drinking falling raindrops. Ledger is also, by the way, the only actor who manages to put over the overt speechifying that mars so much of the rest of the film. When the Joker monologues on his ideas of chaos, he speaks with a demented conviction that poor Michael Caine’s ceaseless pathetic prattling about What Batman Means can’t come near. Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart manage to make something of their roles, which is more than can be said for Morgan Freeman and Caine, neither of whom have broken a sweat in years: their performances are strictly by the numbers and for the paycheck.

Someone should alert the authorities about the block of wood passing itself off as Christian Bale, getting roles and collecting paychecks. Yeah, I know, Batman/Bruce is almost inevitably played as a stiff. Sometimes for laughs, as Adam West’s hilariously pompous goodytwoshoes, or as Psychologically Damaged Goods by Michael Keaton. But no one approaches Christian Bale’s performance for sheer inertness. He just sits there and broods, or stands there and broods, or broods there and broods. Boy does he brood. Brood brood brood. Brood Bruce, brood. I found it impossible to do anything other than root for the Joker, who at least shows some signs of life. This lack of energy on Bale's part, and the nailing home of each and every Serious Point, are the least welcome holdovers from the first film.

THE DARK KNIGHT does go to some lengths to try to show us that there is after all something in Gotham worth saving. BATMAN BEGINS’ Gotham was a charnel house, a vision of urban hell akin to those in BLADE RUNNER and SEVEN, and it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to save it from the Joker’s chaotic demolition performance pieces much less actually live there. This at least partially explains the glimmers of hope that are shoe-horned into the plot, some bits of faith in simple human decency that were completely missing from DARK KNIGHT’s Bleak Chic prequel.

I can’t say I liked the film very much, except as a vehicle for Ledger’s Joker. I think I’ve finally outgrown this Batman stuff, except for Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS, to me still the only Batman film worth seeing, to watch Michelle Pfeiffer deliver probably the greatest performance by an actress in 90s Hollywood Cinema. It never gets stale, unlike the strained seriousness of Nolan’s movies, which fade from the memory almost immediately. They can do the inevitable follow up to THE DARK KNIGHT without me. Unless of course, they find something really interesting to do with Catwoman. Ha. Yeah, right. Not with this joyless batch of filmmakers.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


A Supposedly Fun Film I'll Never See Again

MAMMA MIA is a musical play that takes the songs of ABBA and plugs them into a story line. Simple enough, right? The story isn't much: a Girl lives on a Greek Island with her Mother. The Girl wants to marry her Shirtless Boyfriend, but wants her Father to attend the wedding. She doesn't know who her Father is, because her Mother isn't entirely sure who the Father was. So the Girl, unbeknownst to her Mother, sends invitations to the three most likely candidates, and FUN ensues. That's the plan, anyway. On Broadway, a certain degree of FUN did ensue. The show was mostly charming, it didn't take itself too terribly seriously (one poor actor had to sing ABBA's song SOS as if it was a serious relationship song and came off looking rather foolish) but hey it was over mostly painlessly. I didn't want to hunt down and kill everyone associated with it. And compared with others that have come since, like GOOD VIBRATIONS, MAMMA MIA comes off like PRIVATE LIVES.
So now there's a movie, with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard. A really good cast, by any standard. So what goes wrong?

The material is so incredibly feather light that everybody seems to work harder than they've ever worked before to keep it light. The vastly over-qualified cast seems so afraid of coming off as too good for the movie that they all over compensate: they play the FUN with a seriousness that quashes the fun entirely, and the SERIOUS moments are played with a level of honesty that the material just can't bear. The fun-induced panic that hovers around Meryl Streep is particularly oppressive: America's Dowager Actress Goddess lays it on like a CEO at an office picnic glad-handing the janitors. She hasn't worked this hard since SOPHIE'S CHOICE. And nobody else fares any better: the usually magnificent Julie Walters at one point steps into a small dinghy, and of course falls off into the water, but the process by which she loses her balance and falls in is so blatant and overdone that any slight amusement I might feel is quickly stifled. It becomes kind of a metaphor for the entire film: what should be effortless as falling off a boat becomes labored and obvious, too much damn work.

I could go on about the disparity between the obvious location shooting and the obviously studio-shot scenes, and Pierce Brosnan's really appalling attempts at singing (a male Marni Nixon was direly needed here). But I won't bother. I feel like I'm kicking a puppy here. An obnoxiously overcute puppy.

Monday, July 14, 2008


"If I was retarded and grew up on a farm, it would impress me. But I wasn't, and it doesn't."

I saw a movie many years ago a first film that I thought showed great promise, about a group of criminals preparing to execute a heist. It was a fascinating movie, filled with very fine acting, a great twisty story, and a fine bitter aftertaste: it really felt like it was on to something about the real darkness lurking in the crime film genre. The movie was called RESERVOIR DOGS, and I couldn't wait to see what the director/writer would do next. Since then, of course, Quentin Tarantino hasn't really progressed: the genuine darkness of DOGS was replaced with the smirking hipness of PULP FICTION and the flat-out silliness of the KILL BILL diptych. Crime films in general have taken a decided turn for the worse post-PULP FICTION, all hip slick attitude and narrative gamesmanship: it took Steven Soderbergh to restore humanity to the mix with OUT OF SIGHT, a movie that seems to have slipped from the general radar.

Tarantino only comes to my mind these days when I see the work of Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright and now filmmaker whose work I am becoming helplessly addicted to. McDonagh's play THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE is shocking and hilarious and vastly entertaining on the subject of the sheer stupidity of violence and the violent, exactly the kind of work I was expecting from the Tarantino of RESERVOIR DOGS. I saw LIEUTENANT twice on Broadway and started kicking myself for having missed his earlier work like THE PILLOWMAN. When I heard McDonagh was making a feature film, I started counting the days.

And it was worth the wait. Martin McDonagh's IN BRUGES is a fascinating little movie that managed to slip through the cracks when it was released earlier this year. It tells the story of two hitmen played by Brendan Gleason and Colin Farrell who are on holiday in Bruges. Gleason wants to sightsee, and Farrell wants to do anything but. There's a good deal of very entertaining bickering, Gleason and Farrell playing beatifully off of each other. It gradually surfaces that Farrell is dealing with a significant burden of guilt over a hit that went hideously wrong. It isn't long before a phone call comes from their boss (played by Ralph Fiennes with all the vicious madness that is so sorely lacking in his Voldemort) with some instructions. There's some fun involving a film being shot on location, too.

A reasonably alert audience member could probably forecast a good deal of what comes after, but McDonagh keeps the story lively and the talk livelier. There's a certain leisure to the storytelling that might keep folks wondering what the hell is going on, but this isn't a tightly constructed heist flick. These guys are on vacation, they're taking stock of their lives and aren't exactly happy with what they find. The action might slow down a bit here and there, but it does so in the interest of good old fashioned character development, in showing me who these people are and why they are doing what they are doing. I found it irresistible and even moving.

A cool little movie. I can't wait for McDonagh's next work. I'm counting, starting now.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Carrie Bradshaw's opening narration in SEX AND THE CITY tells us that women come to New York in search of two things: labels (as in designer) and love. In that order. When I heard that narration, I knew pretty much what I was in for. Evidently the rampant psychotic greed that typified Carrie's adventures was going to be very much front and center. And I wasn't wrong: the labels came fast and furious and faster and furiouser.

What love there is in the film is largely distributed among the four women and their intimate relationships with each other, their bank accounts, their closets, their favorite department stores, their favorite designers, and their dogs, not necessarily in that order. There are some men in there too, but they are completely beside the point. Big and Carrie finally decide to get married, almost as an afterthought after a scene of apartment hunting that nets Carrie her dream apartment (paid for, of course, by Big). The impending nuptials prompts a Nero-esque orgy of wedding dress fittings and preparations that would have shamed Malcolm Forbes. Big feels rather understandably left out of the whole deal, and winds up bolting. Carrie must, with her friends' help, put the pieces of her life back together.

That's the main set up for the film, and it is Carrie's story, after all. As far as the supporting characters go, more questions are raised than are answered, and it gets very frustrating. There's nothing like equal time spent on the lives of the other three characters, and nothing like equal time given to their men, who don't register at all. Samantha's partner Smith has gone from being a hunk with a soul in the series to a mysteriously chilly cipher in the film. Charlotte's husband Harry is only shown so that we can all marvel at how wonderful he is. Miranda's husband Steve fares a bit better, but the only one of the men to get anywhere near the screen time that the ladies get is Carrie's partner Big, evidently named for the really astonishingly huge size of his financial portfolio.

Ultimately, Steve and Miranda's relationship is the only relationship in the film that seems to have any resemblance to life as it is lived by more than one percent of the human population since the beginning of time. It is also the most frustrating, because I kept wanting to know more about what had gone wrong with them, and the motives behind their behavior. But no, this isn't that kind of a movie. The movie sacrifices character development for fashion shows. On at least three occasions, the movie screeches to a halt for a display of some of the ugliest clothing ever, outfits that would only make sense worn by Divine in some abandoned Fellini film. But not as tasteful.

I can't help feeling that way too many of the problems faced by these characters could have been headed off at the pass simply if the people involved ACTED LIKE ADULTS. Yeah, yeah, the show is a sitcom/fairytale, and the movie follows that tradition, but both show and film keep pretending to be more than that, raising some fairly serious issues about relationships while resolutely ignoring others, and it never seems to be aware of the paradox. It wants to be a fabulous frothy cocktail of shopping and sexy punny talk AND a serious comic examination of the lives of women in the Big City. The balance between the triviality of a lot of their pursuits (cosmos and bars and $550 shoes, oh my) and the seriousness of their relationship issues is a precarious one. And occasionally the magic in the series worked. Miranda's often confused feelings for Steve, Samantha's growing attachment to Smith, and Charlotte's attempts to get pregnant were generally very interestingly and movingly handled. But it wasn't long before the scales would tilt back to the trivial: another dress, more shoes, another shopping spree...

My reaction clearly isn't typical. I just have a hard time relating significantly to the lives of people who spend $300 on a single throw pillow. A pillow, I might add, that winds up as a sex partner for a dog that doesn't realize she's been neutered, which seems like something of a metaphor for at least one of the female lead characters. At least Jennifer Saunders' ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS made a point of the thick-headedness of its heroine who steadfastly refuses to learn anything at all, while SATC, in general, wants us to applaud and admire these women who so often behave so badly while dressing so fabulously.

To be fair, the film seems to address some of the uglier issues of the series. Carrie's pathological self-centeredness, for example: it is to her credit that she finally does recognize her own selfishness regarding the whole outlandish wedding fiasco. But like all of the lessons learned by these characters, it vanishes in a shrieking orgy of self-congratulation and a dinner at a surprisingly unfabulous restaurant near City Hall, the only time I can think of where all of the characters appear onscreen together. The narration even tells us that we have to look past the labels to find the love, in what we're supposed to see as a reversal of the opening line. That little message is flatly contradicted by the film's final moments: the ladies are shown, without their men, disappearing into a fabulous nightclub, velvet rope lifted to accommodate their fabulousness, all attired in clothes so resolutely hideous that they can only be designer originals.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


"Let's be honest, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing."

Tony Stark, played with a hip insouciance by Robert Downey Jr., is a multibillionaire playboy weapons manufacturer industrialist. When he is captured by the very renegades his weapons are being used against, he gets some first hand realization of the reality of what his empire is built upon (i.e., violence death horror). He manages to escape his captors using a handbuilt suit of armor, and upon his return to CA decides to make some amends by streamlining the suit and becoming IRON MAN, defender and all that.

IRON MAN the movie manages the unique feat of being an entertaining comic book movie that doesn't suffer from Tortured Hero Syndrome. Yeah, IRON MAN's Tony Stark goes through some ugly times and all, but he isn't burdened with the Survivor Guilt and High Moral Quandaries of BATMAN's Brooding Bruce Wayne or SPIDERMAN Self-Pitying Peter Parker. Director Jon Favreau brings a light touch to the proceedings that is sorely missing from franchise films in general and the current incarnation of BATMAN in particular. We're not talking Lubitsch here, by any means, but the assorted mishaps attending Stark's development and use of the Iron Man outfit, and Jude Law's cool voice issuing from the improbably advanced computer aiding him in the process are genuinely amusing in a way that nothing in recent action franchise movies have been.

Good fun, for the most part.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008



Yes. I saw it.

MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION is one in a series of films by Tyler Perry. Perry made his name on the so-called chitlin circuit, producing and directing and starring in touring plays targeted at African American audiences. If you live in a big city you've probably seen TV ads for some of them, things like BEAUTY PARLOR, stuff like that. Perry's films have been wildly successful with African American audiences, while getting a good deal of contempt from just about everybody else. When I mentioned that I had seen the film, nobody could quite believe that I had actually bothered with it. (Full disclosure: it was a beautiful Saturday, I was in a shitty mood at not being able to think of anything to do but stay at home and watch TV, and lo and behold MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION appeared on cable.)

And yeah, it is a pretty lousy movie. The best that can be said is that Perry has surrounded himself with competent staff. The movie is slickly produced, certainly better than a lot of other films I can think of, and Perry has at least mastered the apparently difficult art of putting the camera where it needs to be so that we can see what needs to be seen. But his sheer competence (or probably more accurately, the sheer competence of his production crew) can't disguise the fact that the film is a predictable batch of dramatic family drama moments, easy enlightenment cliches, snappy one-liners, hand-on-hip payback moments, and racial empowerment platitudes.

For all the huffing and puffing and laughing and weeping and fighting and payback and abuse and one-liners, there isn't a single moment of recognizable messy humanity in the entire film. Everybody's got perfect teeth, everybody dresses perfectly and is always gorgeously made up, the eligible males are all dazzlingly handsome and conspicuously muscular, the elegible women are ravishing and slim. The characters are just barely one-dimensional, but with some rather devastating backstories that hint that something interesting could have been made of the people and film in the right hands.

The story, such as it is, involves two sisters. One is a Single Mother who is being pursued by Mr. Right and the other a Beauty being pushed by her Monstrous Social-Climbing Mother into a clearly ill-advised marriage to Mr. Wrong, a really abusive but fabulously wealthy and very handsome control freak. The Monstrous Mother is really monstrous, more than just a social climber. It is revealed that, years before the film begins, she was so desperate for comfort and security for herself and her daughters that she actually allowed a specific ex-Man In Her Life to have sexual relations with one of her daughters.

Oy, the drama. The relationship between the two sisters and their mother could have been elevated into something really powerful and interesting, in the hands of a talented writer/director. Unfortunately, Perry goes for the quick and easy Big Scenes For Actors kind of thing. Will Single Mom put aside her past emotional injuries and recognize Mr. Right for the Embodiment of Black Masculine Perfection that he all too clearly is? Will Beauty come to her senses and dump the Control Freak and tell off Monstrous Mom? Will Monstrous Mom reveal exactly why she is so Monstrous? Will everybody throw off the shackles of past oppression and be EMPOWERED? Will there be payback for all?

What the hell do you think?

Perry plays Madea, who is apparently related to the sisters and their mother somehow. She's a larger than life creation, a no-nonsense Gramma who dispenses Folksy Wisdom. When that doesn't work, when someone foolishly answers back or doesn't heed her, she quickly resorts to Ass Whupping. She's every elderly woman from your childhood who seemed to hold you to unhuman standards of behavior while threatening you with medieval torture if you disobeyed She's like Oprah crossed with Mike Tyson. When she isn't intimidating her singularly unimpressed Brother Man (also played by Perry) or having heart to hearts with the two sisters in her kitchen, Madea is helping a poor foster child she finds herself stuck with as punishment for breaking house arrest. No, really, that's what happens.

Yes, there's actually a Family Reunion, where more pro-family platitudes are served up, most emphatically by Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson (God in heaven, Cicely Tyson!!) as matriarchs who twinkle for all they are worth as they Approve of the Good Chirren (the ones getting married and who are a credit to their families and their race) and frown and shake their heads and go "mmm mmm mmm!" as they Disapprove of the Bad Chirren (the ones who gamble and disobey and talk on the phone even after having been instructed not to). It gets really choking when Ms. Angelou even gets to deliver one of her poems at the film's climax. It goes something like this:

I tell you things you know already.
I tell them to you repeatedly.
I tell them to you in exagerratedly clear dic-tion.
I will repeat myself.
I will vary my emphasis to make sure my message gets across.
I will do it like this:
I will repeat myself.
I WILL repeat myself.
I will REPEAT myself.
I will repeat MYSELF.
Now that I have repeated myself:
Live happily ever after.
Live HAPPILY ever after.

And so on. My diabetic friends are warned to leave the room when she's onscreen.

There are plenty of other howlers. Mr. Right takes Single Mom to what seems to be some sort of open mike jazz/poetry/painting nightclub. He signs them up to perform, and she recites a poem entitled The Courage To Love. No, really, she does, with full jazz trio accompaniment, before an appreciative audience, while Mr. Right creates a spontaneous painting of her. I'm not making this up.

The actors generally do their very considerable best to put the cliches over. But they're mostly defeated by the sheer vapidity of the script. The big showdown between the sisters and their mother is particularly annoying, lots of tear-brimming eyes and tremblingly intense voices, the cliched acting matching the cliched writing. Here's one memorable bit of dialogue:

Single Mom (thinking that Mr. Right just wants her for sex): Every man comes around for something.
Mr. Right (exhibiting pure Christian manly virtue and decency): Some men come to restore.

Sometimes they're defeated by the apparent lack of a script: Madea's monologue advising Beauty to whup Mr. Wrong's abusive ass with a pot of grits comes off as improvised, and not well improvised. Tyler Perry is no Richard Pryor.

There are also some icky moments. One scene begins with Madea's Brother Man deeply moved while watching a scene from GOOD TIMES showing an abused young girl (played by pre-nosejob Janet Jackson) begging her mother not to burn her with an iron. His eyes fill with tears and he wonders aloud why anyone would treat chirren like dat. Shortly thereafter Brother Man is watching Madea putting down her own iron and whupping the foster daugher's ass for cutting school. The scene feels like an answer to possible criticism about Madea's gleeful readiness to resort to violence (she corrects rather than abuses, get it?) but what am I to make of Brother Man's getting all excited at the punishment, muttering strangely sexual things about something shaking like jello?

I guess this is in keeping with the air of cluelessness about the whole enterprise, including that title. MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION. Even spelled as it is, the name Madea carries some mythic associations about which Tyler Perry seems utterly ignorant. Maybe a second draft of the script was in order, one that addressed the discrepancy between the ceaseless platitudes about the Importance of FAMILY versus the fact that everyone's problems come from that same FAMILY that we're continually supposed to be running to.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


"Do you fear me, Rochefort?"
"Yes, Eminence. I fear you. I also...hate you."
"I love you, my son, even when you fail."

Charlton Heston died over the weekend. I have surprisingly mixed feelings about him. Yeah, his politics were generally repulsive, we know this. Yeah, he could suck big time. But we seem to owe him big time for Orson Welles' being allowed to direct the masterful TOUCH OF EVIL.

There is one Heston performance I like. I think he's splendid as Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester's films based on Dumas' THE THREE MUSKETEERS. His Cardinal is smart and wicked, running an entire nation at war while organizing plots to discredit the Queen of France. There is even one single instance, all the way at the very end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, where Heston displays something like a sense of humor. His recognition that he has been out-maneuvered, and a final little "go away, boy" dismissal gesture he makes towards D'Artagnan, are the most human moments I ever saw him deliver as an actor. Richard Lester did what no other director, not even Orson Welles or William Wyler, could do: he got Heston to deliver a sustained performance of intelligence and humor that lives onscreen.

Yeah, he could be as bad as everyone says he is. He seems to have been very willing to settle for the easiest, simplest solutions. When he plays noble, he plays NOBLE. When he plays angry, he plays ANGRY. When he plays happy, he plays HAPPY. And that's about it. He's the King Of One-Note Sincerity.

This can be seen most clearly in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the great mad camp classic from Cecil B. DeMille. Surrounded by actors like Yul Brynner and Edward G. Robinson having a wonderful time chewing the scenery, camping up a storm, and apparently competing to see who can best get away with the outrageous overheated dialogue, Heston alone plays it not just straight but STRAIGHT. Robinson's Slimy Little Traitor and Brynner's Hunky Pagan Pharoah Ramses, for example, manage to hit something real and recognizably human for all their cartoonishness. Heston's Moses just can't compete: there's no joy or even basic humanity in him, either as a character or as a performance. Moses' reaction to Ramses' final capitulation, a loud solemn prayer of thanksgiving to the Eternal God, is written and played in such a way as to make you want an 11th Commandment about winning gracefully.

I almost forgive all the solemnity and High Authority when Heston parts the Red Sea. Not God, not the John P. Fulton's special effects men. Heston does it. The Red Sea parts because he damn well tells it to. I can't imagine it doing otherwise.

And I'll say it: Heston doesn't entirely suck in BEN HUR, a movie I seem to be alone in finding to be more than an excuse for a chariot race. While Heston is all too often acted off the screen by the likes of Jack Hawkins or the sublime Hugh Griffith, there are occasional arresting little moments of humanity that surprise. His amusement at Hugh Griffith's perfectly delivered joke about monogamy being "ungenerous" seems genuine and unplanned, a rarity for Heston. This may have been the result of working with William Wyler instead of De Mille, of course. There's a lot of gossip about the alleged "gay subtext" that uncredited script doctor Gore Vidal claims to have added to the relationship between Heston's Ben Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala, which apparently was kept secret from Heston because he wouldn't have been able to handle it. It certainly seems that Boyd is playing that thwarted romantic vibe for all it is worth, while Heston settles for basic tears-in-the-blue-eyes joy at seeing a dear childhood friend. And there it is: no one would ever accuse Heston of adding an extra level or playing a subtext. He just couldn't handle it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


So he’s gone. The director of some of the worst crap ever to soil the big screen: I understand his stage work was well-received, but then a monumental turd like THE ENGLISH PATIENT won 9 Oscars. I will never forget or forgive the time I wasted writhing through PATIENT and the unspeakable COLD MOUNTAIN. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY at least has some moments largely involving the glories of Jude Law. But I cannot and will not forget that RIPLEY serves to reinforce more negative gayness-as-misery stereotypes than any film in my experience, transforming Patricia Highsmith’s darkly witty novel into a bloated two and a half hour Guilt Trip about a Fag Who Kills The Boys He Loves. It makes BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN look like THE BIRDCAGE. Although I can’t complain too loudly about a movie where Philip Seymour Hoffman gets his head bashed in.

Bye bye Tony. In purgatory you’ll be watching some good films (NOTORIOUS, THE GENERAL, SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, THE GODFATHER I and II) and realizing what crap your film work really is.

R.I.P. and all that. Better luck next life.

"Do I look like I'm negotiating?"

Watched it on DVD last night. Hadn’t had any interest in seeing it. At least now I can say that I saw all five films nominated for Best Picture Oscars this year, and Tilda Swinton’s winning performance. Otherwise it was pretty much a waste of my two hours.

The film centers on Michael Clayton, a bummed-out guy who works for a Big Old Law Firm, running around cleaning up messes, helping big clients get local representation when they’re involved in hit and runs, etc. Michael has some problems of his own: he’s a divorced dad, he has gambling problems and a bozo brother who has ruined a business that Clayton set up for him leaving Clayton holding the financial bag, and so on.

Clayton’s Big Old Law Firm is handling a Gigantic Multi-Billion Dollar lawsuit, representing a bunch of people who are suing a Big Old Chemical Company for damages having to do with a toxic pesticide. The Partner handling the Gigantic Lawsuit loses his mind, and Michael has to clean up the mess, which he soon realizes is a lot messier than he had imagined.

I’m breathing a lot more life into the film’s cliched storylines than the filmmakers manage to. It takes very nearly an hour for the two paragraphs worth of plot above to get established onscreen, believe it or not. There’s also a flashback device that feels rather like it was added post-production in an attempt to get some kind of energy into the proceedings, but winds up being counter-effective.

There’s no denying that the film overall is well-intentioned. It seems to want to transcend the legal thriller genre, to be more than just a bunch of courtroom/legalistic shenanigans, but it just doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to transcend the genre with. This is a Serious Movie, make no mistake. We get lots of sad character information about Michael Clayton, all of it grim grim grim, and nobody else seems any happier. There’s a lot of mood lighting and overcast skies and involved corporate legal jargon stuff. Even the obligatory Big Finish is muted, as Michael’s Triumph Over Corporate Evil nets him only a cab ride into an uncertain future. There’s just none of the life and energy (the entertainment value, in short) of even the most exhausted Grisham knockoff. I’m not saying I wanted shoot-outs and bizarro Tarantino dialogue, but I would have given a lot for the film to have been directed by a Sidney Lumet or a pre-OUT OF AFRICA Sidney Pollack.

The actors try their best to make all this work, with Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson being only the most recognized of the generally good cast. Even Denis O’Hare gets some good fun going as a pissed-off client, who inspires one of Clooney’s best slow burns. But without a director able to consistently keep the pacing lively and get some (metaphorical) blood flowing, MICHAEL CLAYTON is DOA.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


“I see nothing worth liking.”

Right, whatever. I can’t be surprised that this year’s Oscar telecast was the lowest rated ever. It had been so clear for so long that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was going to win the Big Prize that there was just no reason to watch. It certainly did continue the current Oscar tradition of honoring the Safest Picture rather than the Best Picture.

For my money, THERE WILL BE BLOOD was the best and most interesting and effective and memorable of the nominated films that I’ve seen. MICHAEL CLAYTON is the only one I haven’t seen, due largely to a long-standing allergy I have to George Clooney, way too much of whose performances seem to depend on him peering out from under those admittedly gorgeous eyebrows while he sets somebody straight about something. For the rest of my money, SWEENEY TODD was the film of the year. Tim Burton’s non-nomination as Best Director, and consequent non-win, is yet another in an apparently endless series of Irrefutable Proofs that these Oscar things are just a waste.

Worse movies than NO COUNTRY have won more awards. Of course, better movies than NO COUNTRY have won fewer. The whole fuss over the film continues to amaze me: what was the big deal? Don't get me wrong, a perfectly fine movie, easily the Coens' best film since RAISING ARIZONA, well made and acted, and with only glimmers of the stylish smartass nonsense that has made so much of the Coen Brothers work so chokingly awful over the years. I remember enjoying watching Tommy Lee Jones’ sherriff putting all the pieces together, and Javier Bardem’s performance as an apparently unstoppable hit man has really stayed with me. His final scene with Kelly McDonald as a potential victim who turns the tables on him is easily the film’s high point. Stylish but not too stylish, you could feel the Coens backing off from their usual excess in what was apparently intended as a return to the cooler style of their first film BLOOD SIMPLE but which, as with the surrealistically over-rated FARGO, ultimately comes off more as Bleak Chic.

It wasn’t long before I started to find the film's ongoing parade of carefully convoluted but not too convoluted events rather tiresome, and was ready for the end long before Tommy Lee Jones’ final Salute To His Father’s Memory. Was I really supposed to give a damn about that Llewelyn guy? And are the Coens really so shocked, shocked! to find that there is evil in the world? I think I might have shared their assumed horror if I’d seen a little more actual evil in the proceedings. I got more out of Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue about the casual murderer he sent to the chair; there seemed to be more of the abyss in that little bit of voice-over narration than in the plots that tie up the film’s running time. The fact that the evil in the film is consistently presented as being the actions of non-white non-Americans seems to have been overlooked in the rush to acclaim this movie a masterpiece, which reminds of the wild acclaim that seems to follow the films of Clint Eastwood. I have to say that I just don’t get it. I enjoyed the film well enough, I guess, but a masterpiece it just plain ain't. I don't think it has anywhere near the weight of Tim Burton's SWEENEY TODD, or the brainsmashing impact of THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

As for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Basically, you get to sit and watch Daniel Day-Lewis hit bold new lows of human awfulness for nearly three hours, and impossibly it never gets boring. The action is lively and focused, as opposed to the Altmanathons of crisscrossing storylines and characters that director Paul Thomas Anderson has churned out before. Day-Lewis' performance as the impossibly driven Daniel Plainview is one for the ages, a harrowing picture of a man who has no loves lusts or appetites apart from the ruthless acquisition of oil properties, but who finds himself frantically trying to paper up certain emotional cracks when things don't quite go his way. There's a lot more to this performance than an extended John Huston impression. All in all, the film is a hugely ambitious, wildly exhilarating film that at first glance feels like a major statement about Greed and the costs thereof, sort of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE without the bandits, and with Charles Foster Kane instead of Fred C. Dobbs.

But what exactly is it a major statement about? It doesn't necessarily have to be a Major Statement, I guess; it is certainly enough for it to be a beautifully executed portrait of a man so incredibly driven that he manages to destroy pretty much everything in his life, a la RAGING BULL. But there's none of the redemption that Scorsese manages to suggest in his film. BLOOD ends with a now-notorious sequence that feels somehow inevitable and tacked-on at the same time.

I can’t quite banish a certain distrust of the film. I’m concerned that I’m so dazzled by the very very high quality of the acting (not just Daniel Day-Lewis’, there isn’t a weak performance in the film) and the brilliance of the production itself that I’m missing out on larger problems that I’ll catch on to later. After all, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, the Altman protégé/wannabe whose earlier films include the vile BOOGIE NIGHTS (a film that only gets more repellent with each passing year) and the epic self-indulgent compendium of Big Scenes for Actors-in-search-of-a-subject MAGNOLIA. If THERE WILL BE BLOOD is as good as I think it may be, it will be the biggest turn-around in a previously dreadful director’s work I’ve experienced since Fincher’s ZODIAC.

As for the show: I thought it was as close to ideal as we're going to get. Swifter, with none of the nonsense of irrelevant self-congratulatory montages and Chris Connelly leading in to each commercial break by telling us what we've just seen. I like seeing Robert Boyle get an honorary Oscar, and hope they keep going with honoring people behind the scenes with Lifetime Achievement awards.

And John Stewart can come back as permanent host, as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


"No life."

At one point in the chilly current British revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, a pair of grossly conceived and tastelessly performed Stock Caricature American Tourists (complete with big fluffy creamy pastries) wonder aloud "Where's all the passion? This is supposed to be Paris." I was brought up short by the remark, as I had been wondering much the same thing myself. Whatever else there was on that stage, there was nothing in the way of passion, or even very much in the way of emotion at all.

The play is basically a pair of connected one acts. Act One centers on the painter Georges Seurat and his struggles to complete his painting SUNDAY AFTERNOON ON THE GRAND JATTE, while juggling a relationship with his model Dot. It takes place on a series of Sundays, as Georges sketches assorted people who wind up occupying places in his great work. Georges' relationship with Dot deteriorates because he can only concentrate on his work, she leaves him, and all that. Act Two centers on Georges' great grandson George, who is an artist himself and is having something of a meltdown of his own: his artworks are becoming sterile and repetitive.

As I remembered, the big problems with this show are pretty straightforward. In Act One it is perfectly plain that Georges and Dot do not belong together. The point is made over and over again that Dot will never come first with Georges, and that Georges is struggling with his feelings for Dot versus his need to work on his painting. I need to find something interesting and maybe even likable about these people if the first act is going to be anything other than a bunch of Dysfunctional Relationship Cliches. Also, the other little storylines of the assorted people in the park need to be played with some kind of energy, or they are just needless distractions. Act Two can just seem completely irrelevant except as a meditation on the difficulties facing artists today, trying to find funding, keeping work fresh and alive; you know, all those things that you just can't wait to see a Broadway musical about.

For this to work at all, you need to have really exciting people in the cast, and this revival simply does not have them. British actor Daniel Evans plays Georges Seurat like a particularly strident schoolmaster from the Harry Potter films, brisk and efficient with Teddibly Precise Enunciation; I kept expecting him to take ten points from Dot. His George in Act Two is just plain bizarre, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, like some giant over-eager chipmunk. Jenna Russell seems to have been directed to play Dot like one of the maids in MARY POPPINS: cutesy British sitcom "ooo-er guv" energy and not the barest whisper of anything even remotely resembling the slightest possible whiff of sexuality. There was not a single moment of chemistry between these two actors, and Dot's Act One pregnancy had me awaiting the arrival of Three Wise Men. And the rest of the cast, unforgivably in a supposedly major revival, fade into a blur of costumes, with only Michael Cumpsty standing out for the really first-rate Jim Broadbent impression he uses to walk through Act One.

All of this is terribly disappointing, especially to one who saw the original production which featured the sublime Bernadette Peters and such splendid actors as Dana Ivey, Nancy Opel, Charles Kimbrough, and Barbara Bryne. Even Danielle Ferland made an impression as the little girl. No one but no one in this production comes within several hundred miles of approaching the original cast. This is appalling but it must be said: I never ever thought I would compare anyone unfavorably with Mandy Patinkin.

And to make matters even worse: the orchestra for this revival has been reduced to a mere 5 musicians. What should be gorgeous is now merely tinny. And the vocals are no help, generally flat and uninspired. For my money there are few things in this world as beautiful as the great Act One closer "Sunday," but it simply didn't come together here. The singing was muddy, the lyrics were too often unintelligible, and what should have been a tear-inducing marvel was a flat combo of tableaux vivante and fancy digital projections.

As for the digital projections: they're pretty cool, yeah. The stage is basically a white box with some vaguely period French-looking design details, and through the magic of computer technology and the wonders of animation we can see Seurat's painting gradually come to life on the walls. Seurat-style rowers go by on the river, little animated dogs frolic on strategically placed canvases, things like that. It works quite well, for the most part, but it can start to get arch: at one point the real George pours a digital projection of himself a glass of champagne.

A shame, overall.