Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer based on characters created by Bob Kane.
Starring: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Tom Hardy (Bane), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Blake), Anne Hathaway (Selina), Marion Cotillard (Miranda), Morgan Freeman (Fox), Michael Caine (Alfred), Matthew Modine (Foley), Alon Moni Aboutboul (Dr. Pavel), Ben Mendelsohn (Daggett), Juno Temple (Jen).

Spoiler Warning: This film tells much more of the plot of The Dark Knight Rises than you probably want to hear if you are planning on seeing the movie. As I saw the film late, and am posting my review even later, I assume most people interested would have seen the film already. But if you haven’t, you’ve been warned.

Making a great movie is hard enough – but making a great trilogy is nearly impossible. Most series seem to run out of steam after their second film, with the third installment being a letdown – made merely as a cash grab or as an attempt to regain some past magic. But with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan has completed a great movie trilogy. The film itself is the longest of his three Batman series – and yes, it is a little bloated and a little messy in parts, and you could easily point out some logic flaws in the film. This is not a perfect film by any means. It is also the most ambitious of the three Batman films – the one that pushes the darkness of this series to its breaking point. As a concluding chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The Dark Knight Rises gets it mostly right.

It has been eight years since the events of The Dark Knight, and Gotham City is pretty much crime free because of the so called Harvey Dent laws that allowed Commissioner Gordon to lock up the mobsters. Batman has retreated from the public eye – as has Bruce Wayne, who never leaves Wayne Manor, and is stricken with guilt and loss at his failure to save Rachel Dawes – who he believes was waiting for him. Of course, both the heroism of Harvey Dent, and Rachel’s supposed devotion to Bruce Wayne are based on lies – and when the truth comes out, things are going to get ugly again.

Into Gotham struts a new super villain – Bane (Tom Hardy) who, like Bruce Wayne, was once an apostle of Ra’s Al Ghul, but was ex-communicated from his extreme methods. Bane is a muscle bound freak of nature – whose face is covered with a mask that prevents him from being in constant agonizing pain. But his appearance masks an intelligence that equals his brutality. He knows about Wayne Enterprises “Fusion Generator” that Bruce has kept secret because he knows that it could be turned into a weapon. But Bane has a plan – that will push Gotham to the brink of destruction.

There are a few other characters added to this movie. First there is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a rich woman who shares Wayne’s idealism – and steps up when his corporate enemies try to destroy him. There is also Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop who has idolized Batman since he was a child – and an orphan – and who figured out back then his true identity. His smarts and idealism make him stand out – and catches the attention of Gordon. And finally, the most famous addition, is Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman (although she is never referred to as such during the course of the movie), a skilled cat burglar, who catches Wayne’s eye when she steals his mother’s pearls. But Bruce believes there is more than just a thief in there.

The Nolan Batman films have always been about a conflict of ideals. While Bruce Wayne has always believed that Gotham City, and its citizens, deserve to be saved – to be given a chance to be good – the villains have always believed the opposite. In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul believed that Gotham City was a cesspool, and liked previous “once great cities” needed to be destroyed. In The Dark Knight, The Joker believed that “people were only as good as they were allowed to be” – that is, when everything is going fine, people will be good – when things go wrong, people will show who they truly are – violent and amoral. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane wants to expose Gotham’s hypocrisy – expose the lies that led to them to become “crime free”. Cutting Gotham off from the rest of America, he wants the city to destroy itself figuratively – to descend into its natural state of anarchy, before he destroys it literally – and more importantly, he wants Bruce Wayne to watch, to see how completely he has failed.

I loved how this series is constantly building on its previous entries – how it evolves from one film to the next. From the first film, one of the most prominent themes in the series has been the importance of symbols – hence Wayne’s speech to Alfred in Batman Begins about how as a man, he could be defeated, but how, he would last forever. The important part of Batman is not what he did – but what he stood for, and how he gave the city hope. It doesn’t matter “who” Batman really is – he could be anyone, and that was the whole point. The city needed a symbol to rally around – and so Bruce Wayne gave them Batman. In The Dark Knight, Wayne thought his time as Batman was over – that he was no longer needed, because they had a new symbol to rally around – Harvey Dent, and despite the truth of who Dent became, his symbolic value was more important – because unlike Batman, Dent worked within the system. At the end of The Dark Knight, the audience was lead to believe that Batman's sacrifice was noble – but The Dark Knight Rises immediately calls that into question. If the city’s virtue was based on a lie, were they really all that virtuous in the first place? If you cannot trust the people with the truth, what does that really say about how you feel about them? The masses are always something to be fought over in the Nolan Batman films – seen mainly in abstract. Their starring role happens outside the scope of these movies – and will really only happen after this movie ends.

Perhaps afraid that the film would be too heavy, Nolan made the smart decision to include Selina Kyle and Blake – who, for differing reasons, inject some lightness to the proceedings. Hathaway’s Selina is pretty much the only character in the trilogy that truly seems to be having fun (yes, The Joker was having fun, but it was psychotic, creepy, scary fun that was only fun for him). As someone who believes that Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Catwoman in Batman Returns was her greatest performance – and the second greatest performance as a Batman villain ever (next to Ledger’s Joker), I was worried that Hathaway would be saddled with expectations that were too much for her to bare – but she more than  lives up to that high standard. Yes, she is sexy, flirtatious, seductive and cunning – but Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is given more depth – allowed to be more than just her surface. Nolan and Hathaway allow her to return to her roots – really more of a thief than the super villain that other onscreen incarnations have made her out to be. And most surprisingly – she has a conscience. As for Blake, he is the most idealistic character in the entire trilogy – someone who believes in justice and truth. He is the personification of what Batman always wanted to inspire throughout this series. And Gordon-Levitt gives him a touchingly, human dimension – in many ways, he is the supporting character you remember most about this movie. And yes, Tom Hardy is great as Bane – no he is not as good as Ledger was as The Joker, but the role wasn’t meant to compete with that. Bane has always been the most animalistic of the Batman villains (not the subhuman freak that Joel Schumacher’s film made him out to be), and Hardy, behind that mask, with that strange, breathy voice truly is terrifying.

The ending of the film will be much debated – with some already questioning whether or not Nolan ended the series on the right note. I for one, think he did. Yes, I could have done with an action climax a little more believable – the ticking time bomb clock has been done to death, as has Batman’s response to it. But that was pretty much necessary for Batman/Bruce Wayne’s character arc. In a very real way, Christian Bale has had to play three characters in these films – two of which are merely masks for the third. There is of course the gravelly voiced Batman, defender of Gotham City and the billionaire, irresponsible, playboy image he cultivates so no one will guess his secret. The third is the real Bruce Wayne – seen only rarely throughout the series in his quiet, reflective moments. As Rachel writes him in The Dark Knight, the Bruce she loved never came back at all from his seven year hiatus at the beginning of Batman Begins. In that film, he had to sacrifice his true self so he could become Batman – and in The Dark Knight Rises, he has to sacrifice Batman so he can rediscover who he really is.

I understand that much of this review talks about the Nolan Batman films as a whole group, rather than The Dark Knight Rises as an individual film. That is because I find it impossible not to talk about the series as a whole when discussing this film. While you could watch Batman Begins or The Dark Knight as individually contained films (yes, they inform each other, but no you don’t have to see one to appreciate the other). The Dark Knight Rises is the type of film that couldn’t exist without the other two. Unlike most superhero series, where the only thing that changes from one movie to the next is the villains (this was certainly true of the Burton/Schumacher Batman films), the Nolan Batman films build as they go along – leading to this final chapter when everything comes together. As a film unto itself, The Dark Knight Rises is great entertainment – filled with great action sequences (perhaps the best of the series so far, as they seem a little less muddled than before). The cinematography by Wally Pfister is once again top notch – this time much more in the day than at night, which is when pretty much all of the previous films took place. The performances are across the board top notch (someone not getting nearly enough attention is Michael Caine, who all through this series has succeeded in making the ever faithful Alfred into a real character and not just the dry, witty fount of comic relief he is often used as). Yes, the film could probably have been cut down a little bit – at two hours and forty-five minutes is the longest superhero movie I can remember – but I was never once bored by the film. Yes, there are logic flaws at points – mostly in terms of some of Bane’s motivations, although I do believe that for the most part, those flaws were in the movie to develop the movie thematically and move the story along. As a film by itself, The Dark Knight Rises is far and away the best blockbuster this summer has to offer. And when taken as part of Nolan`s trilogy as a whole, The Dark Knight Rises becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin.
Written by: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin.
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy), Dwight Henry (Wink), Levy Easterly (Jean Battiste), Lowell Landes (Walrus), Pamela Harper (Little Jo), Gina Montana (Miss Bathsheeba), Amber Henry (LZA), Jonshel Alexander (Joy Strong).

Beasts of the Southern Wild has already become one of the most talked about films of the year since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s one of those rare Sundance films that proves the festival, which usually trades in the same old dysfunctional family comedy-dramas, can still produce some great films. Co-written and directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the type of film that sneaks up on you – gradually building its emotional impact until its devastating climax. It is a film about childhood, told from the point of view of a child and not seen through the lens of an adult looking backwards. As a film about what it’s like to be a child, Beasts of the Southern Wild is great.

A lot of the credit for the success of the film belongs to the wonderful Quvenzhane Wallis, who was five when the film was made, and delivers one of the best performances by a child actor ever – and one of the best performances of the year by anyone. She stars as Hushpuppy, a child living with her father in what they call the Bathtub – a place off the shore of New Orleans, cut off from the mainland by levees, and forgotten by pretty much everyone. The residents of the bathtub are all dirt poor – to say they live in shacks would be an insult to shacks. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), who is trying to raise Hushpuppy as well as he can, but it must be said he’s not a very good father. He loves Hushpuppy, but he’s also a drunk, may have some sort of mental illness, and has a tendency to disappear for days at a time – during these periods, Hushpuppy has to take care of herself. When Wink is around, he is prone to fits of anger and violence. And yet Hushpuppy loves him – and he loves her. They are all each other have. Wink has told Hushpuppy that when her mother first saw her, she was so beautiful that she couldn’t take it – and so she just “swam away”. Hushpuppy still thinks that one day she’ll just swim back.

One day a storm hits – it may be Katrina, it may not be – and leaves the entire Bathtub under water. The surviving residents pile into ramshackle “boats”, made up of old cars and other makeshift items. They try to hatch a plan to save the Bathtub – but soon the government, seemingly for the first time caring about these people, come and force them to leave, putting them in shelters they don’t want to be in.

The entire movie is told from the point of view of Hushpuppy. She often narrates the film in a hushed voice – leading some to compare the films to the work of Terrence Malick who also likes this type of voiceover. It’s clear from the beginning of the movie that what we are being told is not the objective truth – but the truth as seen by Hushpuppy – through her innocent eyes. She doesn’t see anything wrong with living in the Bathtub – to her it’s the most beautiful place in the world. After all, it’s all she has ever known, so why would she feel it’s at all strange? To her, it is the Bathtub that is normal, and the Shelter she is shipped off to that feels strange and alien to her. And Quvenzhané Wallis never hits a false note during the course of the film – she in fact carries the film. She has been described in several reviews as a “force of nature”, and that’s as good as a description as I can up with. She is natural in her every scene. Dwight Henry is equally good as her father – which is all the more amazing when you find out that he is a baker in real life, and has no real desire to act. Zeitlin is said to have taken an approach similar to Mike Leigh when making this film – working with the actor themselves to develop their characters. And the result is a movie full of interesting people, who feel fully lived in.

The film is also a great technical achievement. The cinematography has a strange beauty about it – even when much of it is handheld, which I often find distracting, but here quite simply works. The score is memorable, and although it perhaps is a little too heavy handed at times, for the most part it works beautifully. For a movie shot on such a small budget, the special effects are also quite good – Hushpuppy  imagines a group of mythical “aurocks” stalking them on their journey. Bu t the biggest technical achievement is the art direction – from the ramshackle sheds, to the weird boats, the film is full of memorable, one of a kind creations.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those films that seemingly comes from nowhere. It is by a first time filmmaker who has the confidence and skill of a veteran, stars a group of unknown, non-professional actors. And it is also one of the best films of the year so far.

DVD Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Directed by: Lasse Hallström.
Written by: Simon Beaufoy based on the novel by Paul Torday.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Dr. Alfred Jones), Emily Blunt (Harriet), Kristin Scott Thomas (Patricia Maxwell), Amr Waked (Sheikh Muhammed), Tom Mison (Capt. Robert Mayers), Rachael Stirling (Mary Jones), Conleth Hill (Bernard Sugden).

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen could have been made into a great political satire, or at the very least, a very funny, goofy comedy. After all, the idea behind the movie – a wealthy Sheikh in Yemen spends millions of dollars hiring a British fisheries expert, along with other “experts”, in an attempt to introduce salmon fishing into the Middle East. His plan is to replicate the conditions in which salmon thrives in Europe and North America. The idea is patently ridiculous, even though the movie spends a great deal of time convincing us that it is possible. While Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a pleasant movie – an enjoyable, if wholly forgettable way to spend a couple of hours, I really do wish the film had pushed itself to be an edgier, more pointed satire. There is great material here, and this was the least daring way to film it.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as Dr. Alfred Jones, the button down, boring fisheries expert referenced earlier. He is in a loveless marriage with a financial expert (Rachael Stirling), with whom he’s been with since they were young, and they are only staying together because it’s easier than separating. When he’s contacted by Harriet (Emily Blunt), who works at a British firm representing the wealthy Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) to try to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen, he thinks the idea is stupid, and not even worthy of his time. But the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas), hears about the proposal, and desperate for a feel good story out of the Middle East, orders Jones to take part. So Jones, reluctantly, goes along with it – and is gradually won over – first by the charming Harriet, who has her own relationship problems (her boyfriend has been listed as M.I.A. in Afghanistan), and then by the Sheikh himself, who is so pure, so optimistic, so calm, that he cannot help but want to try to please him. And as the movie goes along, and the money keeps flowing, it looks like they may just achieve what has become their mutual goal.

There are many ways in which this material could be filmed. Personally, I would have liked to see a less one dimensional portrait of the Sheikh. I know that, like Maxwell, the film wants to be a feel good story about the Middle East, but still, his idea is so outlandish that I would have liked to see a little craziness in the Sheikh – a little bit of an ego. After all, the villagers around the purposed “fishing site” are poor – surely the Sheikh could think of a better way to spend millions upon millions of dollars to help them out rather than bringing salmon fishing there. But the movie insists on portraying him as a saint, and as a result, he becomes a rather uninteresting character.

I will say that I liked Kristen Scott Thomas’ performance, as broad as it may be, because she seems to be the only character who realizes how outlandish the idea is – and doesn’t care. Like all politicians, she is looking for a good story – a way to get votes, instead of a way to actually fix anything. This is an easy attack on politicians, but at least Scott Thomas goes for broke in the role, and is responsible for most of the films big laughs.

So, in the absence of any real insight on politics or any real biting satire of either the British system, or the Middle East, the movie takes the path of least resistance in the slow budding romance between McGregor and Blunt. The two leads are appealing, and well matched. They have an easy, unforced chemistry about them, and even though they both end up betraying the mates they did have at the start of the film, it’s hard to be mad at them. They are just so well suited to each other. McGregor and Blunt could probably star together in a much better romantic comedy than this one, but at least they’re pleasant together here.

I know that much of this review has talked about what is NOT in the movie rather than what is. I usually don’t like doing that, but in this case, I couldn’t help it. Watching the movie go through the motions, and ending up a fairly dull, predictable romantic comedy instead of what it could have been, I was disappointed, and my mind wandered to what this film could have been, if only it had not taken the path of least resistance.

DVD Review: The Three Stooges

The Three Stooges
Directed by: Peter & Bobby Farrelly.
Witten by: Mike Cerrone and Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly.
Starring: Sean Hayes (Larry), Will Sasso (Curly), Chris Diamantopoulos (Moe), Jane Lynch (Mother Superior), Sofía Vergara (Lydia), Jennifer Hudson (Sister Rosemary), Craig Bierko (Mac), Stephen Collins (Mr. Harter), Larry David (Sister Mary-Mengele), Kirby Heyborne (Teddy), Carly Craig (Mrs. Harter), Kate Upton (Sister Bernice), Marianne Leone (Sister Ricarda), Brian Doyle-Murray (Monsignor Ratliffe).

I have to admit that I am not a fan of The Three Stooges. Whenever I come across them on TV – and AMC plays them pretty much every morning I catch a few minutes quite often – they just seem like three morons hitting each other repeatedly. I know that is their charm – that is why people like them. But in my limited exposure to them, it seems like everything they did was interchangeable – the same thing over and over and over again. And yet, you have to kind of respect their legacy. After all, they started as a vaudeville act all the back in 1925 – and here we are 87 years later people still love the Stooges. I may not be a big fan, but you have to respect something that remains this popular for this long. The best thing I can say about the Farrelly Brothers movie version is that if you are a fan of the original Stooges, you will like this new version. If however you’re like me, you may find this movie a very long 92 minutes.

The movie, like many of the Stooges shorts, centers on the Stooges in the midst of a scheme. This time they need to raise $830,000 in order to save the beloved orphanage where they grew up. So they head off to the city to try to strike it rich – and quickly get involved in a complicated murder for hire scheme when they are approached by Lydia (Sofia Vergara) who wants them to kill their husband. It’s not really murder because her husband is dying, and doesn’t want to suffer. She even introduces them to Mac (Craig Bierko), the man she says is her husband. We know she’s lying, but the Stooges, of course, have no idea. What follows is impossible to believe – but that’s not really the point is it? The point is to string together a bunch of scenes where Larry, Curly and Moe screw things up and hit each other – and everyone else around them. In the real world, everyone in the movie would be dead 10 times over, but the Stooges aren’t about realism.

It must be said that Sean Hayes, who plays Larry, Will Sasso, who plays Curly and Chris Diamontopoulos, who plays Moe are all very good in their roles. Yes, it would have been fun to see the people who were supposedly originally cast – Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Jim Carrey – play the iconic roles, I doubt they could have done a better job than these three much lesser known actors. While the original cast may have brought a new spin on the Stooges, the three who ended up being cast do pretty much spot on impressions of the original trio. No, they don’t add any depth to the characters – but is there any real depth to be mined out of three idiots who hit each other in the head repeatedly. All three are gifted physical comedians, and they have good chemistry together. They may not have been the names the Farrelly's – or the studio who undoubtedly would have preferred bigger stars – wanted, but all things considered, what ends up on screen is about as good as could be expected.

As a modern version of The Three Stooges, the Farrelly’s undoubtedly made the movie they wanted to make, and it is as good as a tribute as there could possibly be. If you’re a fan of the Stooges, I truly do not think you’ll be disappointed by this movie. Not only are the three stars quite good, but there are gifted comedic actors all around them – Vergara is quite good as the scheming wife, Jane Lynch is in fine form as the Mother Superior in charge of the orphanage and best of all is Larry David as the ingeniously named nun Sister Mary Mengele, who takes the brunt of the abuse, all accidental, from the Stooges.

I cannot really say that The Three Stooges is a bad movie – it is precisely the movie that the Farrelly’s wanted to make. But I do have to say that the movie isn’t for me. I get bored watching a 15 minute of the original Three Stooges – so you can imagine how bored I was throughout the 92 minutes of this film. The Farrelly’s have made a film for fans of the Three Stooges – but not one that is going to convert non-believers.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thoughts on the Colorado Movie Theater Shooting

What happened in Colorado last night was horrible and senseless. My thoughts are with the families who have lost someone today and all the people who were wounded and hope they all make a full recovery. Shootings like this should never happen, but they do, and sadly, this will not be the last one. This one hits close to me because of how often I go to the movies – the over 100-200 hundred times a year I sit down in a movie theater to watch a movie. Never before have I ever thought of someone coming in and opening fire on a movie theater – but I will now. Already I have imagined it happening to in a theater I am in watching a movie, and wondering what I would do.
The same thing happened to me in the wake of Columbine. I was in high school at the time, and despite the number of school shootings that had taken place in the years leading up to Columbine, I never really thought about it happening at my school. I did after Columbine. And for those readers who have been reading this blog since the beginning, you may even remember some of my posts on school shootings – whether it was comparing two very good books about Columbine, to reviewing books and movies about school shootings. I have fascinated and horrified by these types of events for years now, and will continue to be.

As in the wake of all of these tragedies, we have already been swamped with people trying to place blame on this tragedy on things other than the shooter himself. We will hear it is about a lack of gun control, and then we’ll hear the pro-gun lobby trot out the old saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. We’ve already had one crackpot Congressman from Texas saying that it was “another attack on Judeo-Christian values” and wondering why, even in Colorado where you can get a concealed weapon permit, no one in the audience either had a gun, or at least tried to take down the shooter. Yeah, because what was needed last night in that packed, smoke filled theater was more than one person firing a gun into the crowd.

But none of that really interests me. This debate happens after every one of these shootings, and the end result is almost always nothing. The sad reality is in a few weeks, this story will be all but forgotten, and all the rhetoric being thrown around by both the pro and anti- gun lobbies will result in a whole lot of nothing.

I do want to address what is means for the movies, however, as this is a movie blog. We still don’t know why the shooter did what he did, although as I sit here, Wolf Blitzer is reporting on TV that the murderer colored his hair “red” and told the police he was the Joker. We’ll have to see if that turns out to be true or not, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Even if, in his warped mind, he was inspired by the previous Christopher Nolan Batman films to do what he did, that doesn’t mean the movies themselves have any responsibility for what happened. One of my favorite films of all time is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a film we know John Hinkley was obsessed with before he tried to assassinate then President Ronald Reagan. We know that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, referred to their rampage in their writings as “NBK”, standing for Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone’s film about two mass murderers, and the media’s obsession with it. And they were not the only ones apparently inspired by Stone’s film that has faced several lawsuits over the years (none of which were successful). Hinkley also apparently was obsessed with J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece novel The Catcher in the Rye, as was Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon. That book is actually a favorite of angry, young white men everywhere, none of whom apparently understand it.

These movies and books (and countless others, like The Basketball Diaries, which was much debated in the wake of Columbine because of a fantasy sequence in which a high school student opens fire in his classroom while wearing a trench coat, or Oldboy, which was talked about in the wake of Virginia Tech, because some of the photos the killer sent to the media seemed to resemble that movie) were not responsible for the actions of those sad, pathetic men who wanted to garner fame for themselves, and thought that murder was the best way to go about that. The truth, as I see it anyway, is that if you are the type of person who is violent enough to shoot up a school or a movie theater or murder a famous person you have never met, your mind comes into those movies or books pre-warped. The may have grasped onto these things, and used them for “inspiration”, but if they didn’t exist, something else would have. A movie or a book doesn’t make you into a killer – you do that.

This senseless tragedy will remain senseless, no matter what we find out in the next few days and weeks about the killer’s motivations. Placing the blame on any outside factors other than the killer himself is silly and wrongheaded. We naturally look for some larger reason why these things happen – and ways we can prevent them in the future. But there really isn’t any. The bottom line is that in a society where sad, pathetic, violent people have access to guns, incidents like this will continue to happen no matter what we do.

For me this has been a sad day – a day where I cannot help to think about what would happen if I was in a movie theater where this happened, and even scarier, what would happen if my 10 month old daughter were in one (she hasn’t gone yet, but with me as her dad, she will go see many movies during her childhood).  This incident, as horrifying and tragic as it is, will not affect my movie going habits. As my wife is away this week, I am not going to have a chance to see The Dark Knight Rises until Tuesday – which is when I was able to get a babysitter. And you know what? I’m still going to go on Tuesday. I’m not going to let some pathetic loser with a gun scare me away from doing one of things I love the most – going to the movies. Movie theaters are places where magic can – and sometimes does – happen. Places where we can see our hopes, dreams and yes, our fears, projected in front you in larger than life size– where you can go and share a communal experience with people you don’t know. The great movies give us this – and that experience cannot be replicated sitting on your couch, no matter how great your system is. This pathetic little man is not going to take that away from me.

The Dirty Harry Movies and Vigilantes, Misogyny and Race

Between 1971 and 1988 Clint Eastwood starred as San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan aka Dirty Harry in five different movies. Watching all five films over the span of a few days recently, I was fascinated by how each movie has different degrees of morality – sometimes even contradicting previous movies in the series. There is no doubt that the original film, 1971’s Dirty Harry, is far and away the best film in the series – a masterpiece in its own right. The film, along with William Friedkin’s The French Connection released the same year, pretty much started the renegade cop genre. And while Friedkin’s film went onto Oscar glory (winning Best Picture, Director and Actor for Gene Hackman among others), Dirty Harry is quite clearly the more watched film today.
All five films follow the same basic formula – Harry Callahan usually runs afoul of his superiors early in the film – who complain about his “methods” and the damages they cause, and Harry takes no shit from them. He is transformed out of homicide to some other department – personal, surveillance, etc. – and gets a new partner – who will always either be killed or at least seriously hurt by the end of the movie. There are always several unrelated shootouts during the course of the movie – where Harry just happens to stumble upon a robbery, and ends it – with his .44 Magnum.  Harry gets assigned a case, and does anything necessary to close it – he never seems to make any arrests, because the killers are all dead, again by Harry’s .44 Magnum, by the end of the film. All the movies follow a similar plot – but the details change each time.

Dirty Harry is the best movie in the series for a few reasons – one of them being that it was directed by Don Siegel, far and away the best director the series had (yes, Eastwood himself directed the fourth film, Sudden Impact, and Eastwood is overall a better filmmaker than Siegel – but the Clint who directed Sudden Impact wasn’t quite the filmmaker he would become, while as in 1971, Siegel was at the height of his powers). The other reason is because Dirty Harry was inspired by society at the time the film was made – and the rest of the films seem inspired by the previous films in the series – and more accurately, the reaction to those films.

Dirty Harry was a commercial success back in 1971, but critics were divided on it – Pauline Kael said it flew in the fact of liberal values, and while Roger Ebert praised the craft of the film, and Eastwood’s performance, he also said the film was “fascist”. Others felt the film was racist because all of the films black characters were criminals – and in the film’s most famous sequence, when Harry breaks up a bank robbery, the one black character who talks to him does so in a stereotypical, none too intelligent way. Feminists were also outraged by the film – saying the women in the film were treated as mere sex objects, including one girl who is kidnapped, beaten, raped, buried, and left for dead (although we don’t see any of that).

I’m not sure I would describe Dirty Harry as “fascist”, but it certainly is right wing. The film is clearly a response to the 1960s, when the rights of the accused and civil liberties were a cause taken up by the left. The film thinks this has gone too far – placing the rights of criminals over that of society and the victims. Harry does in fact torture a confession out of the villain, Scorpio (clearly based on the Zodiac killer, making headlines in Northern California at the time) – by standing on the killers wounded leg – that Callahan had previously both stabbed and shot – even after he’s asked for a lawyer. He does this to find out the location of the girl he has buried – and demanded a ransom for, which the Mayor has agreed to pay. To Harry, getting the girl back alive – which they still fail to do – is more important than the suspects civil liberties. Because of this, and the fact that Harry searched the suspect apartment without a warrant – meaning the rifle he finds there, that can be tied to previous murders – is inadmissible, meaning the killer walks. When he gets out, Callahan tails him, and confronts him when he kidnaps a bus load of kids, again demanding a ransom, which again the mayor agrees to pay, and eventually killing him – pretty much in cold blood. The message of the film is clear – there is too much red tape in law enforcement – and all the concern for the criminals rights puts the lives of innocent people in jeopardy.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with Dirty Harry’s politics, but yes, I do believe the film is a masterpiece. Siegel does an excellent job at portraying the seedy, sleazy underbelly of San Francisco, which in this movie is essentially a crime ridden cesspool. Eastwood is excellent in the film as well – a no nonsense, take no prisoners, action oriented, man of few words who gets results. The film is gritty, intense, exciting and while I don’t agree with its message when I think back to the film, when you’re watching it, it’s impossible NOT to agree with it. Of movies of its ilk, Dirty Harry is pretty much impossible to beat – and not only that, it remains one of the most influential films of all time. It is a great film.

If the film is racist or misogynistic, it is more by omission than anything else. Yes, all the bank robbers that Harry guns down are black – but the movie doesn’t suggest all black people are criminals – at least not any more than anyone else. There is hardly a character in the movie – aside from Harry, and his superiors, who IS NOT a criminal. The only  overtly racist character is Scorpio himself – who uses the “n” word when a black man he has paid to beat him up, so he can pin it on Harry,  is actually beating him up. As for misogynistic, I think the film is saying the seedy underworld it is portraying hates women – true, the women in the film are all sex objects, but not to Harry – he just sees what is going on.

While Eastwood dismissed the criticisms of Dirty Harry, they certainly had an impact on the film’s follow-up – 1973’s Magnum Force, directed by Ted Post (who went onto a long career with Law & Order) and written by John Milius and Michael Cimino – who went onto direct some interesting films themselves. While the film still has black criminals – especially a brutal pimp who murders one his prostitutes, also black, with drain cleaner in the film’s most savage sequence, Harry also finds himself with a black partner – who he respects. This is mainly lip service though – the partner is an underwritten character, but at least you couldn’t accuse of all the black characters being portrayed as bad – they are both good and bad, which would seemingly be fair. As well, the women in the movie are more than just sex objects – again, it’s mainly lip service, but effective. Aside from the one scene with the aforementioned prostitute, there are two other female characters – the ex-wife of Harry’s former partner, and Harry’s neighbour = both of whom responded sexually to Harry. This time, Harry is the sex object, which is a clever way to handle things. Neither of these characters are major, but they are there.

 But the major change in Magnum Force is the main case that Harry is investigating. There is someone going around murdering criminals – and all the signs point to four rookie cops that Harry meets, and initially thinks highly of. But then he figures out what is going on, and tries to put a stop to it – eventually resulting in the films climax, where Harry has to take them out one at a time – and realizes it goes much higher than just them. This is a direct response to the people who accused the original film of glamorizing a cop who was “judge, jury and executioner” all rolled into one. The film is in essence defending Harry, by showing us people who are much worse – the exact kind of person critics thought Harry was, and having Harry coming down against them. The films signature line is “Man’s gotta know his limitations”, which Harry utters twice, and essentially means that everyone has to know where to draw the line – and while Harry will bend, or even break, the rules sometimes, he is not for all out anarchy. As he says late in the film “I hate the system, but until someone shows me something better, I’ll stick to it”.

This makes Magnum Force a fascinating movie – and it too, deserves praise for Eastwood’s performance and Ted Post’s direction. It adds a layer to complexity to Harry – showing him as a man with a rigid moral code which he will not violate. Harry does not want the country to return to the ways of the Old West, he just wants justice – to do the right thing, and cold blooded murder isn’t the right thing.

Magnum Force is not as good as Dirty Harry, but it is quite good – entertaining, fast paced and well-acted – by Eastwood as well Hal Holbrook, as Harry’s superior who Harry constantly pisses off. It does go off on too many tangents and side trips – and takes too long to solve the case, especially when the audience knows, well before Harry, who the real killers are. But to flip Dirty Harry the way it does makes this an interesting movie – and the type of sequel I like most – not just trying to repeat the successes of the first films (although to a certain degree, it does), but responds to it. Like The Godfather Part II, which sought to de-romanticize the Mafia after the first film romanticized it, Magnum Force seeks to de-romanticize the idea of the vigilante, after Dirty Harry made it seem heroic.

The third film in the series, 1976’s The Enforcer, leaves the question of vigilantes and taking the law into your own hands, out of the film. Yes, Harry still kills a whole lot of people with his .44 Magnum, but no one in their right mind would question his actions – it is always kill or be killed in this film. The case itself, about an underground terrorist group holding the city in fear in the hopes of collecting a ransom – which one again, Harry’s cowardly superiors want to give in to (like they did in the original) much to Harry’s chagrin, is not overly interesting, even if it does allow for some good, tense action sequences.

Instead, The Enforcer addresses the other criticisms of Dirty Harry – that Magnum Force merely paid lip service to – that is that the film was racist and misogynistic. First of all, the film gives Harry a new partner – of course – this time a woman played by Tyne Daly. Harry resents being saddled with her, not really because she’s a woman, but because she’s never been on the street over the course of her police career – spending it all before a desk. But Daly gradually earns Harry’s respect – proving herself to smart, resourceful, and willing to do what it takes to get results. The film is certainly against affirmative action – women getting promoted simply because they’re women – but does believe it’s possible for women to be smart and skilled as police officers.

As for the racism charge, The Enforcer also responds to this. When the first member of the underground terrorist group is killed – by Harry of course – everyone jumps to the conclusion that a black militant group is responsible – everyone except Harry. Instead of jumping to conclusion, he goes to see the leader of the black militant in question – and finds a man who wants nothing to do with violence, but is rather waiting for the “honkeys to kill each other off” before gaining power. He even makes an agreement with him to help out on the case. And the group responsible is multi-racial, but led by a white former pimp.

The Enforcer is one of the weakest films in the Dirty Harry series. Yes it is entertaining, and decently made by director James Fargo. It also doesn’t overstay its welcome, running a swift 90 minutes. Eastwood is great as always as Harry Callahan, and Tyne Daly is well matched to him, making a convincing partner for Harry. It isn’t nearly as serious as either of the first two films or as challenging, but it is still a decent film.

After making three Dirty Harry movies in six years, it took seven years for Eastwood to return for a fourth time to the role – he even directed 1983s Sudden Impact, the first and only time he directed a Dirty Harry movie. The film returned to the theme of vigilantes this time – but not a cop, but a victim. The film opens with Sondra Locke shooting a man in the testicles, before shooting him in the head. Harry, of course, is assigned the case – but once again runs afoul of his superiors – first, for violating a suspects rights, leading to his dismissal, and second for confronting a mobster at his granddaughters wedding, causing him to have a heart attack. With the mob after him, as well as that murderer now free, the department decides to send Harry to San Paolo, a small town to run background on the ball-less murder victim. And wouldn’t you know it, but Locke has gone there as well. She wants to kill the rest of the people who raped her and her little sister – who has essentially been in a vegetative state for 10 years since the attack. Harry meets Locke without knowing that she is the murderer he’s looking for, and they have a flirtatious relationship. But the bodies keep turning up, and eventually, Harry pieces it all together – and has to save her from the final psycho she wants to kill. But when it comes time for Harry to arrest her – he instead lets her go and places all the blame on that final, now dead, psycho.

Sudden Impact is more in line with the original Dirty Harry, which embraced the idea of the vigilante, than it is with Magnum Force, which rejected it. Locke has more in common with Dirty Harry in the original, who broke the rules only because he felt it necessary, than she does with the cops in Magnum Force, who do not even let the system try and work. The rape of Locke and her sister was covered up by the local Sheriff, because his son was one of the rapists – albeit, the only one who felt any guilt about it, and actually destroyed his own life because of it. Like in the case of Scorpio in the first film, the system had its chance to punish the perpetrators, but didn’t. It is only then, and years later at that, that Locke finally takes the law into her own hands. And Harry feels sympathy for that – and hence lets him go. There is a line he will not cross - as he showed in Magnum Force, but for whatever reason, he does not believe that Locke has crossed that line.

Sudden Impact could have been the equal of at least Magnum Force, if not the original, except for two flaws. The first is that there are too many side trips –the mobsters, the other kid killer, even the robbery that Harry spoils to begin the film, which gives Eastwood his most famous line as Dirty Harry "Go ahead, make my day". This simply serves to make the film run a little too long, but it’s a minor flaw.

The other flaw is much more serious – and that’s the fact that Locke is simply horrible in what should have been one of the most interesting roles in any Dirty Harry movie. She simply stares wide eyed off into space for much of her role, and she’s not convincing either flirting with Eastwood or when she is killing people.

But Sudden Impact is still a very good film – perhaps the most morally complex of any of the Dirty Harry films. Eastwood, yet again, is great as Harry Callahan and as a director, he also does a great job. This really is where the Dirty Harry series should have ended.

Five years after Sudden Impact, Eastwood returned for his final go-ahead as Harry Callahan in The Dead Pool – easily the weakest of the five movies, yet still an entertaining cop thriller in its own right. Having explored vigilantes in every possible way, and having addressed the criticisms of racism and misogyny, there really wasn’t anything left for the series to address – and The Dead Pool really doesn’t address anything.

The film does play a little bit on the well-worn formula of the series – this time with Harry not being seen as a liability to the image of the SFPD, but as one of their shining stars – after his work put a mobster in jail. He is still transferred, albeit briefly, to the PR department, and yes, he gets a new partner – this one a Chinese American, I guess so the series can diversify a little bit – but considering his partner has Chinese characters tattoo all over his body, and is, obviously, an expert at karate, the attempt to expand really doesn’t work as much as it just confirms a stereotype. The only message The Dead Pool really has is a rather obvious one about the media selling violence – and the effects that the media obsession with violence can have on a damaged mind.

By the time of The Dead Pool any complexity in Harry Callahan was gone – like in The Enforcer, Harry is more of a hero than as the morally complex character he usually was – someone whose actions you could question. It would have been better to let Harry rest at the end of Sudden Impact – with his most controversial action, letting Locke walk, as his final onscreen act – and keep that complexity intact.

While The Dead Pool isn’t complex in any way, it is an entertaining cop film – even with Eastwood on cruise control, it’s still fun to see him play him Harry again. The film has some good action sequences – especially a car chase through the streets of San Fran with a remote control car chasing down Harry. It is also fun to see three future stars in supporting roles – Jim Carrey in a one scene role as an over the top, drugged out movie star, Liam Neeson as a sleazy horror film director and Patricia Clarkson as a reporter, and Harrys love interest. But when the film ends with Harry dispatching the bad guy, but not with his .44 Magnum but with a giant spear gun, it’s time to put the series to rest.

Overall, the Dirty Harry movies are all well-made, well-acted and entertaining. While only one of the films, the original, is a truly great movie, Magnum Force and Sudden Impact come close as well, and at the very least are fascinating, morally complex movies. The series is one of the most influential in history, and while we still get a lot of renegade cop movies to this day, hardly any can approach the level of Dirty Harry – and give us a character as fascinating, as complex, as Harry – someone whose actions you always understand, even if you don’t always agree with them. Most movies today would either define him as an outright hero, and justify everything he does, or paint him as much more one dimensionally bad – where Harry isn’t the hero, but the villain. It is precisely this fact – that Harry Callahan is neither one dimensionally good or bad – that makes this series interesting, and rewarding even now, 24 years after the series came to an end – and over 40 years since it started. Clint Eastwood has gone onto become one the best, most celebrated filmmakers in the world since Dirty Harry ended – including films such as Unforgiven and Mystic River which look at violence in much more thoughtful way than most films -  but to many, he will always be renegade cop Dirty Harry. And if Dirty Harry defines Eastwood, he could do a hell of a lot worse.

DVD Review: Being Flynn

Being Flynn
Directed by: Paul Weitz.
Written by: Paul Weitz based on the book by Nick Flynn.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Jonathan Flynn), Paul Dano (Nick Flynn), Julianne Moore (Jody Flynn), Olivia Thirlby (Denise), Eddie Rouse (Carlos), Steve Cirbus (Jeff), Lili Taylor (Joy), Victor Rasuk (Gabriel), Liam Broggy (Young Nick), Chris Chalk (Ivan), Wes Studi (Captain), Dale Dickey (Marie), William Sadler (Ray).

When Being Flynn begins, I thought I knew precisely where it was going. It is a film about a depressed, would-be younger writer, Nick (Paul Dano), whose mother (Julianne Moore, seen in flashback) has killed herself, and who hasn’t heard from father, Jonathan (Robert DeNiro) who views himself as the only great American writer other than Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger, in 18 years. But then Jonathan calls Nick one day out of the blue – and acts like no time has passed. He has been evicted from his apartment and needs some help moving his stuff into storage. Out of curiosity, Nick helps – and then he doesn’t hear from his father again for a little while. Needing money, Nick takes a job at a homeless shelter – and low and behold, Jonathan shows up at the shelter as a client. You probably already have an idea about what is going to happen in the film – that father and son will heal their relationship, and will eventually tearfully confess their love for each other and their mistakes – and eventually save each other. Yet, Being Flynn is based on a real story, and life doesn’t quite turn out like it does in the movies.

The reason to see the movie is the performances by Paul Dano and Robert DeNiro, both of whom are quite good in their roles. Dano has a difficult role that requires him to hit many notes – too many if the truth be told. He starts the movie as a lost young man, trying to figure out what he should be doing. With his mother now gone, and his father never a part of his life, he lacks guidance and quite simply doesn’t know what to do. He moves into a new place, and meets a girl Denise (Olivia Thirlby) who works at a homeless shelter, and suggests he work there too. He does, because he has nothing else to do, but while he likes helping people, he still cannot help himself. He spirals down in drug and alcohol addiction – all fueled by his increasing complex relationship with his father, Jonathan. Dano is asked to do a lot in the movie – essentially spiral out of control, and then find himself and get himself out of it, and because he is asked to do so much, the film at times feel rushed. His downward spiral seems to happen too quickly – and his recovery almost immediate. But Dano convinces us of his character as much as possible.

As the father, Jonathan, DeNiro has a showcase role – and an easier one – than Dano does. He essentially starts the movie at least slightly crazy – ranting and raving either behind the wheel of his taxi, or in his low rent apartment he gets thrown out of. When he loses his job, and his apartment, his spiral is deeper and more immediate than Dano’s – becoming a major problem at the shelter because of his violent behavior. DeNiro, who too often has coasted on his talent in the past 15 years or so, seems to really get into his role here. It’s one of his best performances in recent years, and although he goes a little too far over the top at times, he mainly sticks to the character here – and delivers a very good performance as a mentally ill man.

The movie itself, however, isn’t as good as Dano and DeNiro are in it. The film feels rushed in many ways – that the movie tries to cram in too much into its rather scant 100 minute running time. As mentioned before, Dano has to go through so much in such a short period of time that it doesn’t seem quite believable. And it also should be noted that while the film, written and directed by Paul Weitz, doesn’t end up quite how we expect it too – it isn’t a redemption story where eventually father and son will have a tearful hug and become best friends. And yet, the film does seem to be a little too lightweight. The movie is based on the memoir by Nick Flynn (the Dano character), with the inventive title of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, was said to be darker and more harrowing. The movie doesn’t get as dark as it should. The issues it addresses – homeless, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, suicide – deserve a harder hitting movie, and too often Being Flynn pulls it punches.

It’s not Being Flynn is a bad movie – it isn’t. It’s just that the movie isn’t quite what it could have been. The subject matter was there, as were the performances. It just needed the treatment it deserves, and Being Flynn is not that movie.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Movie Review: To Rome with Love

To Rome with Love
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Woody Allen (Jerry), Judy Davis (Phyllis), Alison Pill (Hayley), Flavio Parenti (Michelangelo), Fabio Armiliato (Giancarlo), Jesse Eisenberg (Jack), Ellen Page (Monica), Alec Baldwin (John), Greta Gerwig (Sally), Alessandro Tiberi (Antonio), Alessandra Mastronardi (Milly), Penélope Cruz (Anna), Antonio Albanese (Luca Salta), Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo), Monica Nappo (Sofia), Sergio Solli (Leopoldo's Chauffeur).

Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love feels like four half formed movie ideas that Allen throws at the screen to see what will stick – and unfortunately nothing really does. There are isolated moments – lines, scenes – that work and are delightful, but for too much of the films running time the film feel strained. I can see how two of the four stories – ironically, the ones featuring mostly American character – could have been made into a decent movie, even intertwining the two stories together, had Allen put more care and thought into them. Unfortunately the two story strands featuring almost entirely Italian characters fall completely and totally flat. It`s almost like Allen had two half formed ideas for American characters (which it should be said, could have been set anywhere) when the funding came through to shoot a film in Italy, so he threw something together at the last moment. Coming on the heels on Allen`s best film is year with Midnight in Paris, this makes To Rome with Love one of the year`s biggest disappointments.

The four story strands are as follows – neurotic Jerry (Allen himself) and his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) arrive in Rome so that they can meet up with their daughter (Allison Pill) and her fiancé (Flavio Parenti). When Jerry, a retired Avant garde opera producer, hears the fiancé`s father (Fabio Armiliato) sing in the shower, he thinks he can turn him into a great opera star – and won’t be discouraged even when it turns out he can only sing in the shower. In another story, neurotic Jack (Jessie Eisenberg), as aspiring architect, meets one of his idols (Alec Baldwin), who mysteriously hangs around and gives Jack advice as he risks throwing over his lovely girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) for her pretentious friend (Ellen Page). Another story has neurotic Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and his innocent young wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome from the Italian countryside so he can start a new job for his uncles. The problem, the uncles want to meet Milly, who has got lost looking for a hair salon and gets swept up by a famous actor, while through a series of misunderstandings, Antonio winds up with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz), who agrees to pretend to be his wife for the day. And finally, there is neurotic office drone Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one morning to discover he`s the most famous man in Italy. What for? No one can tell him, but they don’t care, and eventually neither does he. After all, beautiful women are throwing themselves at him, and he can have whatever he wants.

I think I enjoyed the segment with Allen himself in it the most, but perhaps it was just because it was nice to see him on the big screen for the first time since 2006`s Scoop. Even though in nearly every one of Allen`s films he has a `Woody surrogate`, no one is better at playing the classic Allen character better than Allen himself. The problem here is that this segment is a one joke comedy – and doesn’t really go anywhere you don’t seem coming from the setup. But it is a joy to see Allen work – especially with a screen partner as great as Judy Davis, and Allison Pill as their daughter is a delight, so while the segment doesn’t really work, it’s at least kind of fun. The same can be said about the other segment involving the Americans. Jessie Eisenberg makes a good Woody surrogate in this segment – perhaps a little too good, as his nervous stammering, and comic delivery is too close to Allen`s for comfort. Yet, Eisenberg is still the best part of this segment – the usually radiant Greta Gerwig is completely wasted as his girlfriend, and Alec Baldwin and Ellen Page are miscast. Since Baldwin is supposed to be a mentor of sorts to Eisenberg – or perhaps even just as an older version of him – wouldn’t it have made more sense to cast Allen himself in the role? And since Page`s Monica is supposed to be some sexpot that men are instantly drawn to, I couldn’t help but think this would have been a perfect role for Allen favorite Scarlett Johansson. Page tries valiantly, but she does cute, funny and spunky way better than she does irresistibly sexy. So again, the segment doesn’t really work, but it’s not painful to sit through.

The same cannot be said about the two segments in Italian however. As if having Allen himself in the cast, along with a pretty solid Allen surrogate in Eisenberg wasn’t enough, Allen insists on turning Alessandro Tiberi`s Antonio into an Italian Allen surrogate as well – and this time the results aren’t anywhere close to being good. His fumbling and stumbling through the segment are a pain to sit through – with almost no laughs as a payoff. Yes, I liked seeing the fiery side of Penelope Cruz come out again as the prostitute, but surely there was something more she could have done. And yes, Alessandra Mastronardi, as the seemingly innocent Milly, carries her half of this segment well, but it never leads anywhere except around in circles. And finally, there is the segment with Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, who I suspect most North American audiences haven`t seen since his success with Life is Beautiful (1998), as he kind of screwed up the follow-up. No matter what you can say about Benigni as a filmmaker, he can be hilarious, and is a great physical comedian, which at least livens up his segment quite a bit. But it seems like once Allen had his idea of someone `being famous for being famous`, he couldn’t think of anywhere to go with it except to have him chased around by paparazzi.

To Rome with Love is Allen`s 44th feature film – he has essentially made one film per year since the late 1960s. His status as a master filmmaker has long since been established. And yet, often in recent years it feels like he`s simply going through the motions – making films out of force of habit more than anything else. He`s got far too much talent not to hit one out of the park every once in a while – like Midnight in Paris last year. But To Rome with Love, like other recent clunkers like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Scoop, just feels like Allen really isn’t trying. He`s now 77, and I hope he has another great film or two left in him. Sadly, To Rome with Love is nowhere close.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

DVD Review: Margaret

Margaret Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan.
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring: Anna Paquin (Lisa Cohen), J. Smith-Cameron (Joan), Mark Ruffalo (Maretti), Jeannie Berlin (Emily), Jean Reno (Ramon), Sarah Steele (Becky), John Gallagher Jr. (Darren), Cyrus Hernstadt (Curtis), Allison Janney (Monica Patterson), Kieran Culkin (Paul), Matt Damon (Mr. Aaron), Stephen Adly Guirgis (Mitchell), Betsy Aidem (Abigail), Adam Rose (Anthony), Nicholas Theodore Grodin (Matthew), Rosemarie DeWitt (Mrs. Maretti), Matthew Broderick (John), Hina Abdullah (Angie), Olivia Thirlby (Monica), Kenneth Lonergan (Karl), Michael Ealy (Dave the Lawyer).

Kenneth Lonergan’s long delayed, barely released Margaret became a critical cause celebre late last year when critics rallied beyond the troubled production to try to get the studio behind it, Fox Searchlight, it give it a chance in the awards season and at the box office. Despite all the headlines the so-called “Team Margaret” generated, it really had no discernible impact. Now, for those of us who don’t live in one of the few markets that Margaret was released in, we can finally see the film on DVD to see what all the fuss was about. But unlike many overhyped movies, Margaret was worth the wait. This really is one of the best films of 2011 – and will hopefully finally get the audience it deserves.

Margaret opens with a horrific, and graphic, bus accident that leaves a woman (Allison Janney) bleeding to death on the streets. Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), holds the dying woman in her arms, and gets blood on her hands – both literally and figuratively. She feels that she is responsible for what happened, but she was running alongside the bus, trying to get the drivers (Mark Ruffalo) attention, causing him to run a red light and hitting the innocent woman in the intersection. Yet when she`s interviewed on the scene, and then later, she lies – telling the investigators that the light was green when the bus entered the intersection. It is this decision that will haunt her for the rest of the film.

Margaret tries to do a lot of things during its running time – which has led some to argue the movie is disjointed or flawed, and probably explains why the studio had doubts about the film in the first place. To me though, Margaret is a great movie because it is not narrowly focused on any one subject, but rather is a complex examination of Lisa, and the world around her. But it is the fact that Margaret tries – and to me succeeds – in doing so much that makes it one of the best films of the year.

On one level, the movie is a moral puzzle, as Lisa tries to figure out what the right thing to do is – should she tell the truth, and let the consequences be what they are, or should she just let it go, and let the bus driver return to his normal life? When she finally decides, after much consultation, to tell the truth, she first visits the bus driver in person – the only scene in the movie where Mark Ruffalo gets to speak. The movie wisely leaves it to the audience to try and figure out how he feels about it. Does he really believe, as he states, that it was simply and accident and he’s blameless? Or is he simply trying to protect himself and his family? The scene, which comes almost exactly half way through the movie, becomes a turning point for the film. Right around that time, Lisa meets Emily (the brilliant Jeannie Berlin), who was the best friend (perhaps more?) of the dead woman, who encourages Lisa to tell the truth, and who Lisa begins to trust more than anyone. This underlines another part of the movie, which is the story of the strained relationship between teenage girls and their mothers. Lisa’s mother Joan (J. Cameron Smith) is trying her best to help Lisa – but finds herself rebuffed at every turn. True, Joan is busy with a new play she’s starring in, and a new boyfriend (Jean Reno), but Lisa barely gives her a chance. In Emily, Lisa sees an alternate mother – one who seems to care and understand her more. Yet, the best scene in the movie may just be when Emily finally calls Lisa on her “self-mythologizing” – and rips into her something fierce. This serves to confuse Lisa even more.

The moral puzzle of the bus accident and the mother-daughter relationships – both real and surrogate – are the two main story threads, but there are others. A number of fascinating classroom conversations about the post 9/11 world that get heated, another classroom conversation about Shakespeare is just as fascinating. A too close teacher-student relationship between Lisa and Mr. Aaron, a painfully realistic and awkward portrait of losing one’s virginity. Lisa trying desperately to connect with her distant – both emotionally and geographically – father (played by Lonergan himself). Margaret develops all of these story threads to certain degrees, and they all make the movie a more complex – more complete portrait of this teenage girl trying to figure things out.

It must be said that Anna Paquin delivers an amazing performance as Lisa – she deserved to at least be nominated for an Oscar last year for it. This is a difficult performance because it forces her to hit so many different notes, and she handles it all remarkably. Like many teenage girls, her actions often seem to wildly impulsive – but they make sense in the moment, which for teenagers, is really all you can ask. She is supported by an amazing cast – particularly Jeannie Berlin, whose pain is real, and J. Cameron Smith, as a mother trying so hard to juggle so many balls, and failing at times. But even the smallest roles are filled with great performances, in what is one of the best ensembles in recent memory.

Kenneth Lonergan made his directorial debut in 2000 with the great You Can Count on Me, which was a much simpler, more straight forward film than Margaret. He is a playwright, turned script doctor, turned filmmaker. With Margaret, he establishes that You Can Count on Me was no fluke – he is the real deal – one of the most interesting filmmakers with only two films on his resume working right now. It took a long time for Margaret to hit theaters – but it was worth the wait. Let’s hope that all the crap that surrounded this masterpiece does not derail his filmmaking career. Few filmmakers would attempt a film as complex as Margaret – even fewer would pull it off so brilliantly.

Note: This review was of the the theatrical version - which was the only one available to me when it was released on Tuesday. There is a Blu-Ray edition that includes both this version, and the "extended version", which is over three hours long, or about a half hour longer than the theatrical version. It is my understanding however that this version is available "exclusively" through Amazon for the time being. When it becomes more widely available, I will be definitely be checking it out.