A Christmas Tale
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Imagine movie scenes and plot/character threads are all wrapped Christmas presents under a tree, and you eventually got to open up each one, but could only peek at their contents from the top. Rather appropriately, that’s what A Christmas Tale feels like. Arnaud Desplechin’s headfirst dive into the complex relationships within a middle class French family is a messy, captivating, and very much living affair, and in that regard it reminds me very much of 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, while its basic premise shares traits with so many dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays movies of the past (The Family Stone comes to mind, due to certain plot similarities). Although the idea of the arrival of another such movie would normally give one pause, Desplechin’s wild take — almost gimmicky from the variety of techniques and references thrown in — is quite engrossing, thanks in no small part to its seasoned cast which includes Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch; her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni playing her daughter-in-law; Jean-Paul Roussillon; Anne Consigny; and, as the lightning rod of the bunch, Mathieu Amalric as the family’s requisite black sheep. Getting to know this clan, which has its fair share of spite and humor, only becomes a slightly maddening affair because of how much personal backgrounds and emotional layers are crammed into this 2 hr. 30 min. fly-by of a movie — we get a sense of the family history, a lot of loose ends, and then are left thinking this might’ve made a good mini-series. In other words, it feels real — an accurate guage of the push-pull politics of family dynamics — and incomplete, which is a minus if we like a little more focus in our movies, and a plus because it’s just like life, where the footprint of a family will always be bigger than any of us will ever have time to fully explore. (added 2/9/2009)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Director: Andrew Adamson
I’m becoming convinced that The Chronicles of Narnia and I don’t really get along. My complaints about the first movie — namely, that the characters serve the plot and not vice-versa, and that Aslan the Lion’s role as a promoter of the powers of faith is carried out too transparently, such that he becomes an obvious lesson-doling deus ex machina — apply here as well, only this time it’s worse. The previous bad egg of the Pevensie siblings, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), having shamefully learned his lesson from the last outing, is now just a colorless supporter. Scene-stealing Lucy (Georgie Henley) only serves to illustrate the innoncence necessary for faith, while eldest Peter (William Moseley) has become rather spiteful, having been king and being forced to revert to a teenager, thus sapping his authority. Susan (Anna Popplewell) is rather cool as a Legolas impersonator (long haired archer? I kid), but otherwise what she does is indicative of the overall problem — that is, she does little but follow along, as the siblings and a new ally, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), are swept up in a big war between the Narnians and a race of humans who are all, for some reason, of Spanish/Mediterranean ethnicity. We’re treated to lots of battles and less magic this time around, but victory for the good guys might only come with a helping of divine admonishment. I won’t get into it any more than that, but suffice it to say that while I suspect the production is fine enough to work for a general audience, the creakiness of the plot mechanics and the light condescension I detect don’t have me looking forward to the third Narnia movie. (added 2/9/2009)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Dear Zachary derives its strengths from such personal territory that to criticize it for not being objective would be to aim not for the bullseye but for the wall the target hangs on. It’s easy to empathize with because it deals with a subject that may be too easily encountered by any of us — how to make sense out of senseless tragedy. The director, Kurt Kuenne, is filming a video letter to the infant son, Zachary, of a slain friend, one Dr. Andrew Bagby, so that one day he’ll be able to know who his father was and how he was beloved by many.
The wrinkle here is that Zachary’s mother, Shirley Turner, was the one who shot Bagby to death. The whole movie turns out to be an emotional roller coaster, no better way of putting it — after it’s through, a lot will have been said about friendship, injustice, and both faith in and letdown from the legal system, along with the intriguing thought that moral fortitude provides both its own punishments and rewards. Kuenne’s film is self-therapy, the reaching, groping, and lashing of a friend in search of meaning, hope, and redemption; it’s controlled passion that allows itself to give in to fits of pure rage on the way to a resolution of love. And on top of all that, the story it tells is just incredible. It reminds us that although we live in a world where, relatively speaking, any one life may not matter much in the scheme of things, the search for any one life’s value is not one that should ever be seen as vain or futile; that, in the end, all we have are each other and the ways we affect one another. (added 12/9/2008)
Director: Edward Zwick
Not much should be surprising in Defiance, a war movie about an inspirational leader and the hardships he and his followers endure to survive a hostile time, but it gets by with a solid traditional mounting and a healthy interest in the dynamics of a growing micro-community. Daniel Craig is real-life hero Tuvia Bielski, who led a group of Jewish escapees into the Belarussian forest during World War II to escape the Germans, setting up a resistance camp. He is at odds with his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) about how to resist — Tuvia wants to hide and survive, while Zus wishes to actively fight against the enemy.
Eventually, they split up and Tuvia runs an ever-expanding microcosm that experiences increasing needs, sickness, dissent, and a harsh winter. Although Edward Zwick doesn’t handle anything much differently than the way he handled his previous self-consciously prestigious epics (i.e., forward and pronounced), Defiance benefits from fierce leads in Craig and Schreiber, and a story that focuses on the way potential community success is directly inversely proportional to its growth in numbers, thereby spotlighting the indispensability of cooperation (communal and political) and the absolute, unique strength its leaders must possess in order to ensure survival. Eventually, it plays out too predictably (becoming an Exodus scenario) to be a case study, but it’s interesting to observe nonetheless, while its spotlighting of the existence of these resistance groups at least makes it an invigorating counter to the many more downbeat Holocaust movies out there.(added 1/13/2009)
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Two acting powerhouses do their best to bring about the thunder in the otherwise solemn and meticulous Doubt. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, a super strict old school nun at a Catholic school who suspects the hip and more liberal priest, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn, is abusing an altar boy. She has no real evidence against him except for circumstantial clues, but she is adamant in rooting out the “truth”; meanwhile, the priest becomes increasingly frustrated by her accusations. The movie’s story, based on director John Patrick Shanley’s own stage play, is very consciously constructed — it’s unambiguously trying to be ambiguous — and that conspicuousness of control is its main weakness. It’s countered by great performances which are compelling to watch in and of themselves — Amy Adams as a naive nun recruited by Sister Aloysius; Viola Davis as the altar boy’s mother; but especially Hoffman and Streep, who get at least a couple of chances to solidly duel. If the movie has a skeleton which betrays its artifice and deliberateness, its actors give it real human flesh and blood. The movie can also work as a metaphor for what it takes to maintain religious faith (the flipside of doubt, of course), serving as an illustration of how personal perseverance relates to alienation, and of the inner rewards and pitfalls inherent in following such a path. (added 12/31/2008)
Director: Saul Dibb
The Duchess is everything you’d expect it to be: a well-acted British period piece with lavish attention to period detail, about discontented characters in a royal family. And that’s about it. It does its job in telling its story — in this case, about the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley) — and doesn’t offer anything too much deeper beyond the surface. Its main thread about an otherwise popular woman trapped in a loveless marriage is delivered with what feels like a modern sensibility, though this was likely to make it appeal to modern audiences as opposed to being some kind of stylistic statement.
It’s as if we’re meant to be aghast at the power imbalance between women and men of over two centuries ago, but of course this isn’t news, so all that the movie can really wring from its audience is a straightforward sympathy. Otherwise, it’s a decent production, not boring nor groundbreaking, and perhaps the only other point worth mentioning is that Ralph Fiennes does a nice job here of almost stealing the show as the distant and insensitive husband, the Duke of Devonshire.(added 2/9/2009)
The Edge of Heaven (2007; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Fatih Akin
The Edge of Heaven is another movie about the interconnectedness of people — in this case, a group of six, or three pairs of parent and offspring, to be exact — who all shuttle between Germany and Turkey for different reasons. The film has already been compared (favorably, from what I can tell) to Babel, but they’re not quite the same — it isn’t enough for director and writer Fatih Akin to show that we’re all only a few degrees from each other across countries; rather, he’s also interested in the level of connectedness, how chance sometimes leads people to deep bonds while denying them to others who may be seeking each other out. The story is a rather clever, teasing work that shows how tenuous every relationship is, between father and son or mother and daughter, between lovers, between any two people in an encounter.
Death also figures in here to further emphasize the value and fragility of human connections. Akin seems to be saying that no matter how much we think we can control, life is capricious when giving us the time and opportunities to forge a lasting connection. It’s a sad, lyrical work — smoothly, creatively, and confidently written — that sees worth in relationships we may take for granted. (added 2/9/2009)
Encounters at the End of the World
Director: Werner Herzog
Encounters at the End of the World is the latest entry in Werner Herzog’s line of investigative documentaries, wherein the filmmaker checks out people living unfamiliar and/or challenging ways of life and observes, documents, and comments upon his discoveries. These movies are often philosophical, investigating what drives people to go where they go and do what they do, especially if what they do wouldn’t be perceived as “sane” or “normal” to your typical city-dwelling civilian.
In this case, Herzog visits Antarctica and uncovers the special relationship the continent has to the men and women who live there. As usual, many fascinating observations can be made, such as a common thread that ties together the people who move to the icy south — most of them don’t fit well within the rules of civilization, and Antarctica becomes a kind of escape, a haven for them. For those who believe the continent has nothing but penguins, surprise comes from finding a “banal” settlement, as Herzog puts it, in the form of McMurdo Station, which has the amenities of a small town. This is contrasted with the natural wonders Herzog does indeed happen upon there; he once again makes image-gathering a priority, and here he adds to his collection of unique and alien sights and sounds. But mostly the film has a soft lament for this remote world, which is steadily losing its claim as one of the only locations on Earth that man has left little to no footprints on. While understanding what draws certain people to Antarctica, he shows how the population there, even as it consists mostly of scientists and explorers, adds to its natural evolving impermanence. Even the continent at the end of the world — cold, remote, dangerous, and forbidding — can not resist the erosion brought about by man’s time on this planet. Seeing the movie becomes a method of understanding, of putting into perspective, our place and limited privilege on Earth. (added 7/11/2008; edited versionfeatured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)
Flight of the Red Balloon
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
I have not seen Albert Lamorisse’s classic 1956 short film, The Red Balloon, and I am certain this has dulled my reaction to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s full-length tribute, Flight of the Red Balloon. And as a familiarity with Ozu’s work certainly helps in the appreciation of Hou’s Cafe Lumiere, which is mostly a response piece to Ozu’s themes, I can only assume I’m missing something in watching his first Western-language film, set in Paris. From what I’ve read, the original Red Balloon, a children’s short, was a whimsical piece, memorable through traditional cinematic storytelling devices; Hou’s film therefore can not be considered a “remake,” as it is shot completely in his style, with long takes observing naturalistic acting and filled with diegetic background sound. But this time the observing is much more literal — instead of simply the camera doing the observing, the audience has surrogate observers in the form of a Taiwanese nanny Song (Song Fang) and, occasionally, an ever-floating red balloon. Song steps in to help puppet-theater enthusiast (nods to Hou’s own The Puppetmaster) and voice artist Suzanne (Juliette Binoche in another great turn) care for her young son, Simon (Simon Iteanu) — she therefore becomes privy to a somewhat tumultuous yet very normal life of one Parisian family, where single mother works to keep her world turning and young son escapes to memories of pleasant summer days with his away-from-home sister.
While the film suggests that such escapes and longing for companionship might be metaphorically translated into plots such as the one in the original Red Balloon, where a boy essentially is befriended by a seemingly sentient balloon (it’s referencing even goes so far as to have Song be a budding filmmaker making her own tribute to The Red Balloon), it also illustrates the family’s situation as mundane. It also doesn’t feel particularly unique to Paris, either. Therefore, I have difficulty gaining any insight into what Hou may be commenting on — modern Paris, the place of Lamorisse’s film, or perhaps the universality of family dysfunction. Flight of the Red Balloonhas the feel of an outsider’s venture, of wading into unfamiliarity, and while Hou’s cinematic techniques are as sound as ever, this time it feels as if they’re being used to peer into nothing of particular, specific significance. It’s an interesting slice of life, but by this point I expect to get more than that from a Hou work. (added 11/14/2008)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Director: Nicholas Stoller
No one can seem to talk about Forgetting Sarah Marshall without mentioning that it’s part of the Judd Apatow line of “bro-mantic” comedies, and so far it’s one of the better-received ones as well. And any credit for its success actually belongs to its writer and main star, Jason Segel, who hides nothing in his comedy about a sensitive jilted ex-boyfriend. But for all the laughs it tries to wring from the modern formula of combining bawdiness with sweetness, and of allowing a lot of room for improv and wacky peripheral characters, the movie contains its fair share of disappointing conventions, particularly because it’s not really so much about a break-up’s aftermath as it is about the protagonist finding a lucky rebound and hanging on to her. Mila Kunis is that rebound and another example of what The Onion’s AV Club has dubbed the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”
Boy, do I bristle increasingly at this particular story device, especially when it feels more like wishful fantasy than anything else. To be fair, Kunis’s character isn’t that manic — she’s mostly levelheaded — but come on, any brokenhearted guy’s troubles would leave quickly if she dropped so receptively into his lap. Still, I suppose watching Segel and Kunis’s relationship develop along predictable lines isn’t a terrible crime, and the movie overall is easy to get along with — the comedy works well enough, and the lovely Hawaii setting helps. But for a film that’s been lauded for its daring display of full-frontal male nudity, I got the nagging feeling that it actually played things pretty safe. (added 11/21/2008)
Director: Courtney Hunt
A straghtforward drama covering topics from racial divides to economic stress, Frozen Rivermarks an auspicious debut for writer-director Courtney Hunt. Her no-frills movie shows the lengths two mothers will go to in order to provide for their children (even as one of them doesn’t actually have the child in her custody), but it also realistically depicts the relationship between the allure of criminal activity and times of desperation. Melissa Leo, shedding all vanity, plays Ray, a mother of two trying to raise the money to buy a mobile home that will allow them to escape their icy living space in northern New York, at the border of a Mohawk reservation and Canada.
After a young Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) tries to steal Ray’s car, she introduces Ray to the lucrative prospect of helping her smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada to the U.S. by crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River. Although these two main characters engage in this ill-advised business, with Ray steadily becoming more stubborn about continuing the more she gets used to the idea and the closer she gets to reaching her goal of obtaining enough cash, they’re illustrated well enough that we sympathize with where they’re coming from, and the film perhaps asks the viewers what they might do in similar situations. It may be enough to say that Frozen River is a solid combination of acting and writing, a mature work with no easy answers, about tough citizens just trying to survive, with more nuanced methods of addressing modern social issues and concerns than a great many of its louder and/or more obvious contemporaries. (added 2/18/2009)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
The Happening has a lot of problems, most of them basic to fundamental moviemaking — the acting approaches hammy, the score tries too hard to dictate mood, the suspense sequences are self-consciously set up, the tone uncomfortably tries to marry dead serious with out-of-place weirdo goofiness, and so on. But, more than anything, what bothers me about it is a sense of cheapness that, although compounded by those other elements, centrally comes from a concept mainly built for shock value.
So here’s the premise — some kind of aerial toxin induces people to stop in their tracks and then look for the most immediate way to commit suicide. Sounds scary, but unlike, say, The Birds where the lack of an explanation adds to the freakiness, The Happening all but whacks you over the head with its theories towards the end of the movie — and once you find out what the most likely explanation is, the methodology of compelling people to kill themselves makes no sense. This is because the source would gain nothing from the dramatic effect of people killing themselves — they’d have been better off just straight poisoning them. So why go this route? Because it’s just a scary idea for a movie. And once you realize this, the dread-laden scenes of suicides start feeling really tasteless. People cavalierly stab or shoot themselves, jump off of buildings, etc.
Eventually, certain suicides get more showy, and there are even a couple of tasteless homicides thrown in. If the tone of the movie suggested irony, maybe humor could be used as a defense; but it’s a Shyamalan movie, ponderous and, in this case, somewhat condescending. Thematically and constructionally, it parallels Signs, with an outer threat as experienced from a family unit which has problems of its own to solve, and when the two movies are side-by-side, The Happening suffers next to its sibling’s tight set pieces. Shyamalan remains a unique director who plays to his own tune, but his moralistic tales continue to become undone by making it too obvious that he’s using overly fantastic set ups to force challenges of fortitude upon his characters; that he lets the set up dictate the shape of his stories; and that such a strategy runs counter to effective moralizing, which requires strong identification with the characters, who need a reasonable amount of narrative freedom to dictate their own journeys. (added 11/14/2008)
Director: Mike Leigh
What’s it like to be around someone so relentlessly cheery? Sally Hawkins is Poppy, a working class 30-year-old who doesn’t seem to take anything seriously — she’s an indefatigable bundle of giggles and silly conversational ripostes, someone who’d irritate anyone who isn’t tuned to her merry wavelength. As it turns out, there are those who can hang with her, and those who think she’s really some kind of sad sack inside who’s putting on an act to avoid reality. Happy-Go-Lucky is a direct character study, so much so that, for me, watching it was almost like viewing a nature documentary. I could imagine David Attenborough’s voice: “See here this woman whose way of positively viewing life can grate on those around her; we can observe how her attitude strongly, dynamically affects her environment, acting as a driving force.” In that sense, it’s quite fascinating (and watching it this way helped because if I knew Poppy in real life, I’d run away from her); the social experiment even has her facing off with her polar opposite, an uptight driving instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan). I find the movie largely successful, but hampered by an ambiguity that leaves up for debate whether or not Poppy’s behavior is a compulsion, or really is a conscientious act. I prefer to see it as a compulsion; I find that more sympathetic and believable, more insightful, and Hawkins plays it much of the time like a compulsion. But I find it’s also too easy to interpret her personality as a honed mechanism, and I’m not fully convinced that an undaunted positive outlook really can be honed to that degree without seeing more chinks in the armor. Or maybe I’m just the kind of person that a character like Poppy is supposed to flummox. It ends on something of a false note as Marsan’s character loses a bit of credibility in his arc (no fault of the actor, though, who does a great job), and Poppy has a moment afterwards that really opens up that compulsion/mechanism debate. In any case, this might be the closest we get to a pure soul reversal of There Will Be Blood.(added 12/31/2008)
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writing and directing a crime movie always seems like a great way to get started in the business, and in the case of In Bruges, Martin McDonagh gets to start off with a bang. Savvy vets Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a couple of hit men — Ray and Ken, respectively — who are ordered to hide out in the Belgian town of Bruges after their last job. The nervous, jabbery Ray is bored to pieces while the more thoughtful Ken takes the opportunity to see the sights. The movie’s mainly a black comedy, quite British, with witty dialogue whizzing to and fro, and it has more than a few twists and turns lying ahead, especially when their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes in a very refreshing comedic turn) sends out his next orders and eventually gets directly involved. It’s also an intriguing mix of situational humor and existential dread, a balancing act of light and dark, memorably executed. In Bruges undoubtedly gets mileage from being clever, though I felt it didn’t quite know how to end once it got past its best scene (approximately in the middle of the movie). Otherwise, there’s much to recommend about this look into how criminals’ convoluted personal codes of ethics and honor get in the way of their jobs, though I think it would stand out more if this particular genre weren’t already so populated with other good examples of funny, ironic storytelling. (added 1/13/2009)
Director: Neil LaBute
Lakeview Terrace starts out with a great deal of potential, with Samuel L. Jackson playing a strict policeman and father who harbors racial grudges that are tested when his new next-door neighbors, an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), move in. It’s a look at an ugly side of racism — the kind that comes from someone who is normally the victim of racism, who becomes righteously prejudiced against the usual oppressors — that is rarely touched upon. Make this guy a cop who seems used to the idea of abusing his power and authority, and place this in the hands of Neil LaBute, who’s directed his share of misanthropic films, and Lakeview Terrace should have been a powerhouse.
Alas, all of its story elements begin to feel more and more like devices, and as the movie rolls into its third act, events become more and more ridiculous in their attempts to incite genre thrills (the bachelor party scene felt particularly amateurish). By the end, Jackson has become the usual kind of monster one finds in movies like this, draining any thoughtfulness from a late scene where his character reveals what was possibly a deep-rooted frustration with himself and his prejudices, and an inability to come to terms with them. So sadly, the movie prefers to get its jollies from depicting escalating neighbor wars, which rise to the point where the subtext need not apply. It’s ironic when the tactics it uses to ratchet up the suspense actually reduces the very real tension that gets communicated in its first half. (added 2/12/2009)
Director: George Clooney
Three movies in, one can see George Clooney’s strengths/traits as a director. He has a very good eye for visual detail and he’s interested in romanticizing media’s past, mythologizing it. Good Night, and Good Luck.was given a beautiful, nostalgic look, and so now Leatherheads gets much of the same treatment, filmed in sepia-tinged colors and given a warm gloss, all to pay tribute to the lost Hollywood genre of the screwball comedy. The look turns out to be the best thing about a movie that may otherwise feel disposable — it’s meant to be a lark, with witty repartee between its two leads, Clooney himself and Renee Zellweger, playing characters playfully named Dodge Connelly and Lexie Littleton.
But chemistry is as chemistry does, and the two don’t exhibit quite enough. They exchange zingers with relative ease, but when it comes time for us to learn that they should fall for each other, frankly, it’s just not quite believable. The story combines investigative journalism (Lexie is the reporter) with football at a time long ago, when college ball was big and pro ball was, as the opening scene indicates, a joke. Dodge, a pro player, figures the best way to draw crowds to the pro games would be to recruit a popular college star (John Krasinski), but it’s that same star that Lexie wants to discredit as a recent war hero.
These elements don’t exactly jell together seamlessly, and where a screwball comedy should feel breakneck, Leatherheads bobs up and down with its pace. In terms of its attitudes, it’s definitely a tribute to boys being boys and boys realizing when to be men (another Clooney trait); using football as its canvas, it pines for a time with no rules while acknowledging that following rules are an inevitable trade-in for being able to trade up. The movie’s a handsome production through and through; in presentation and story, it advocates a place for mythology, but it mostly simply tries for fun, and for a good part of it, it delivers. But with it’s jumble of elements, it doesn’t allow a central one to take hold and truly fly. (added 10/15/2008)
Let the Right One In
Director: Tomas Alfredson
The best aspect of Let the Right One In, a Swedish pre-teen love/vampire movie, is how it gradually cultivates our allegiance to the two main characters — middle-schooler Oskar and his neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), who only appears to be about the same age — even as they go down a path that none of us would admit is moral. It taps the primal responses to some of our most basic fears while growing up — no, not of being attacked by a creature of the night, but of loneliness and of being bullied or harassed. Oskar is pushed around by some really mean kids at school, so that when he befriends Eli, whose kind attention to him empowers him, we lean towards seeing things her way, and we might even start excusing her slaughtering innocent civilians for their blood and her survival.
Tomas Alfredson milks the alluring mystique of vampires this way, putting a twist on the fantasy of the beleaguered youth who finds a form of magical assistance to help him fend, all the while heightening the sense of isolated misanthropy one may easily develop in those precarious teen years. The story is set in a realistic snowy settlement, feeling like a horror romance Kieslowski might have made, as it explores both a tender, tentative relationship — a connection in an otherwise dark world — and relative morality, making its audience complicit with murder and vengeance.
But oh, what beautiful, horrific vengeance. This is a great example of amazing screenwriting. They took an overdone genre (vampires and teens) and added a unique twist. Great example of a movie. This was fun to review.(added 1/13/2009)
Man on Wire
Director: James Marsh
A feat like the one Philippe Petit pulled off deserves to be documented — in 1974, the Frenchman and a small band infiltrated New York’s World Trade Center and set up a tightrope between the recently built twin towers. And, yes, Petit walks the rope. I’m pretty acrophobic, so the very idea of someone even trying to pull this stunt makes me dizzy, but Man on Wireshows there are indeed people crazy enough to do this. The movie is mostly an interview documentary with certain parts re-enacted (though not the feat itself — photographs take care of that part), but it has fun in presenting the whole deed as a caper movie.
Petit, a veritable ball of life and enthusiasm, and his various cohorts describe the careful planning, rigorous training, and dedicated personnel required to complete the operation. Think of it as Ocean’s Eleven where the goal is not to rob casinos but instead, as the film puts it, to commit an “artistic crime.” Man on Wire is charming and entertaining, a real-life heist, and as an added bonus it’s a loving tribute to the twin towers, for they perform every bit alongside Petit, and now the whole show can only ever be witnessed through the lens of history. (added 12/24/2008)
Miracle at St. Anna
Director: Spike Lee
I do love how Spike Lee attacks his take on a World War II movie with gusto, throwing in all the things he does well and not so well, but undeniably maintaining his personality. Miracle at St. Anna can be easily seen as Lee’s riposte to Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, about which he complained there was nary a black soldier to be found in it. Thus, his film pushes the point home, without subtlety, that black fighters were not only there (in this case in all-black infantry units) but were also fighting for a country that didn’t even appreciate them. The agenda is obvious, but the rage feels justified, and meanwhile Lee gives us a few virtuoso touches, from the surreal early scene of the infantry crossing the river while propoganda voiced by Axis Sally is amplified to them, to the sickening carnage of the depiction of the real-life St. Anna massacre.
Lee has a lot to say and a whole group of people to speak for, and if Miracle at St. Anna has a major weakness it’s that its story doesn’t easily lend itself to Lee’s politics. A group of four black soldiers get stuck behind enemy lines in Tuscany, Italy, and they fall in with a few anti-Nazi natives while caring for an injured little kid, but throughout their minglings one can tell Lee’s heart is more in expressing more personal concerns. They come through in scattered scenes, like a conversation among a few white military higher-ups at home and a flashback to an ice cream shop incident, yet they somewhat awkwardly work their ways through this larger, multi-threaded narrative construct which has, perhaps, a few too many similarities to Saving Private Ryan. I honestly feel that if Lee had a stronger story within which to frame his anger, he would’ve had a slam dunk on his hands. As it is, Miracle at St. Anna works well enough as an emotional piece and has within it enough human moments to make it a worthwhile viewing.(added 2/18/2009)
My Blueberry Nights (2007; released in U.S. in 2008)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Wong Kar Wai puts Norah Jones on a trip across America in My Blueberry Nights, his first English-language film. The resulting movie is rather endearing, but also pretty corny. Much of the reason for this comes from the character concepts, starting with Elizabeth (Jones), who’s simply a green soul who needs a little life experience under her belt. That’s all right, but she runs into a former romantic (Jude Law) now settled with running a cafe; a jilted man (David Strathairn) who drinks his nights away while hoping that his wife (Rachel Weisz) will see him with loving eyes again; and a poker player (Natalie Portman) who’s primary self-touted strength is in being able to read people.
These are little life stories, but they feel quaint, almost dusty. Wong brings as much of his trademark to the table as he can, starting with his shot selections (e.g., characters off-center looking off to the side of the screen that they’re in; shots through windows; use of clocks) and a rich, saturated color-palette (surprisingly all photographed by a new cinematographer, Darius Khondji, in place of Wong’s usual partner-in-crime Christopher Doyle). The visuals are luscious but also labored, especially in the overuse of stuttered slo-mo, grasping for wispiness or profundity, one or the other. Maybe it feels less smooth because this technique is being applied to an actual linear story; usually, Wong’s rich imagery is enhanced by his wandering narratives, and vice-versa. A straight script loses the director’s elliptical appeal. Just the same, My Blueberry Nights offers enough of Wong’s signature, particularly his preoccupation with the importance of timing and chance to form weight in temporal relationships, to make it a soft, sweet viewing — consider it Wong lite. (added 8/1/2008)