Saturday, December 12, 2009

In Theaters: "Precious"

The most recent round of TV spots for Lee Daniels’ Precious seem designed primarily to counteract the only element of bad buzz in its considerable word-of-mouth success: that it is a downer, depressing, sad, etc. So Lionsgate put out an ad with upbeat music, smiling characters, and voice-over narration about how inspirational and uplifting the movie is. It is, perhaps, not the most honest television advertisement you’ve ever seen. Precious is, in fact, inspirational and uplifting, but it makes the viewer walk through fire to get there. It is a classical tragedy in the Greek sense, and runs its characters (and viewers) through a wringer of pity and terror on the way to its devastating catharsis.

Gabourey Sidibe plays the title character, a 16-year-old still stuck in junior high, pregnant with her second child. She shares an apartment with her mother (Mo’Nique), a chain-smoking bully; both her mother and (mostly off-screen) father subject Precious to a stream of physical and mental abuse. Precious creates elaborate fantasies to escape from her impossible reality, dreaming of a glamorous and happy life that she fears she will never know. In desperation, her school principal sends her to an alternative school, where she is taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic by Ms. Rain (Paula Patton); the interest and encouragement of a genuinely positive adult figure opens the young woman’s eyes to what her life could be.

Hearing a synopsis like that, you can imagine the clichés and pitfalls that it could fall into; in the hands of the wrong writer and director, that story’s got the makings of a Lifetime movie. Luckily, Precious has the right writer and director. Geoffrey Fletcher (adapting the novel Push by Sapphire, as awkwardly indicated by the film’s full title) isn’t afraid to make the centerpiece scenes of abuse and psychological terror (like Precious’ return home with her newborn son) truly harrowing—they gobsmack the audience like blunt instruments. But he (and director Lee Daniels) knows that an audience needs variation from this kind of grim tragedy; we need escape valves and distractions, which the picture (thankfully) provides.

Even when the writing is spotty or obvious, Daniels’ instincts are mostly good; Precious’ fantasy life is richly, entertainingly drawn (and slickly shot, indicating that the picture’s gritty, low-fi aesthetic is a stylistic choice rather than a necessity), though a couple of those sequences are goofily broad rather than poignant (I’m lookin’ at you, foreign film on Mama’s TV set), and somewhat out of place. Indeed, some of the tonal shifts are a bit too wild to play, though Daniels’ experimentation is welcome and certainly doesn’t derail the enterprise.

In many ways, the heart at the movie’s center are the scenes with Precious and her classmates (both in and out of school), which have a loose, offhand, improvisational vibe that goes a long way towards levity. Those scenes are anchored by the considerable warmth of Patton, an actor whose previous work (most notably as window dressing in films like Déjà Vu and Idlewild) gave no indication of the depths of her talent. For that matter, who knew Mariah Carey (more than holding her own in one of the movie’s toughest scenes) had a performance like this in her, to say nothing of Mo’Nique, who is simply electrifying.

All of them are in support of Sidibe, in (astonishingly) her film debut, turning in a beautifully modulated and stunningly controlled performance. She is completely shut off as the picture begins, in that particularly unforgiving way that hopeless teenagers are; her mouth is locked in frown, and it hardly seems that any light is making its way into her eyes. But as the film progresses, she slowly becomes comfortable in her own skin and develops, delicately, tentatively, into her own person; even her voice-overs become more confident and funny (“They talk like TV channels I don’t watch”). That kind of transformation is stunning, particularly in a first-time performer—we’re with her, all the way, and when she falls apart, it is shattering.

If the first half of Precious is tenuous, the second is unflinching and powerful, unrelenting in its sorrow yet simultaneously moving and forgiving. It is a bold, heartbreaking picture, and entirely worthy of the considerable praise it has received. It is, make no mistake, difficult viewing. But some films are worth the effort.

"Precious" is currently playing in wide release.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 12/11/09

Invictus: I'll have you know that I wrote my review several days before reading Ebert's, which comes to many of the same conclusions. Great minds, thinking alike, etc.

The Lovely Bones: I'm no fan of Peter Jackson (I made it through exactly one of the Lord of the Rings movies, because I don't see sequels to three-plus-hour slogs that put me to sleep, and King Kong was one of the most indulgent studio releases of recent years), but I really wanted to like The Lovely Bones, being all full of actors I like and all. But it's really terrible, a glacially-paced misfire on just about every level.

The Princess and the Frog: Hey, remember when Disney would make movies that people drew? You know, good ones like Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Brother Bear? Right. Exactly. Anyway, Rich liked it.

A Single Man: I'm intrigued by the mostly-positive reviews that Tom Ford's feature directorial debut has been getting on the festival circuit (and Orndorf's four-star notice); I should have a review of my own up on Tuesday, so stay tuned.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done: The AV Club's mostly positive review ends: "[V]iewers will have to decide for themselves whether My Son is a terrible, terrible movie or an uncompromising Herzog experiment in reality-bending. Here’s a suggestion: consider the track record." To that I reply: Coppola made some pretty good movies, and Jack still blows.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Theaters: "Invictus"

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is so skillfully done and has such honest intentions that it is easy to be overwhelmed by it, and consequently overlook its flaws. A full appreciation of it also requires a tamping down, or at least a readjustment, of one’s expectations; when a viewer hears that Morgan Freeman is playing Nelson Mandela for Eastwood, well, one doesn’t expect a sports movie, albeit a sports movie with more at stake than pride and glory. But taken on its own terms, as its own particular entity, it works.

It begins in 1990, with Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison, into a country that, we’re told, “appears to be on the verge of a civil war.” The opening scenes briskly and efficiently zip through his journey from freedom to the South African presidency, and the challenges that face him as he looks upon a country that is clearly split in two. Powerful elements in his own party propose to effectively dismantle the Springboks, the South African national rugby union team that they have spent their lives rooting against, feeling the team is representative of years of oppression. Mandela, however, sees this as a fatal political calculation that will further polarize the citizenry. “This is the time to rebuild our nation,” Mandela tells them, in an inspiring speech, “using every brick that comes to us.” Ingeniously, he seizes upon the Springboks as a potential unifying force for the country, enlisting the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to push the team to victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

I remain astonished by the prolificity of Eastwood, now 79 years old and still kicking out an average of a movie a year, to say nothing of the astonishingly high quality of his recent work; he is one of our most confident and reliable filmmakers. His style isn’t showy or fussy, and his work here is controlled and professional, though not without flavor or passion (the picture is also blessed with a better script than that of last year’s over-praised Gran Torino, and is thankfully free of that film’s narrative and tonal clumsiness). His camerawork and compositions are workmanlike but not drab, and his storytelling is clean.

He also clearly remains an actor’s director—Freeman’s is a simply wonderful performance (of course—it’s a perfect piece of casting), while Damon is quiet, understated, and subtle. Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (working from John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy) wisely resists the urge to make Pienaar some kind of racist monster who is completely transformed by his interactions with Mandela; instead, he is basically an indifferent figure who is flattered by the “great opportunity” he is given, and rises to it. That’s harder to write, and harder to play, but more rewarding to watch. He also gets one of the film’s best scenes, as the rugby team visits the jail where Mandela spent those 27 years; as he stands in the great man’s cell and reflects on that journey, his single, perfectly chosen line makes the scene deeply moving without being overly sentimental.

Not all of Eastwood and Peckham’s choices play quite as strongly. While I appreciated the brevity of the opening sequence, its compression of events wreaks havoc on our sense of time; it feels as though Mandela is elected within a few months rather than years, and his mention of attending the 1992 Olympics was my first indication of how much time had passed. The early business with the factions of Mandela’s security detail is a little heavy-handed (though it pays off handsomely, if somewhat manipulatively, in later scenes). The music, by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens, is stirring, but his mid-film use of the Undertone song “Colorblind” is a miscalculation; its lyrics are laughably on-the-nose, akin to that unfortunate closing song that Eastwood warbled in Gran Torino. And, at risk of sounding like an ignorant American, it must be noted that the accents render some of the dialogue difficult to decipher (mostly that of supporting players).

In its closing scenes, Eastwood allows the sports drama to overwhelm the human one, which is unfortunate; though the rugby action is sprinkled through the film, it doesn’t feel like we’re leading up to the conventional “big game” climax of countless sports pictures before it. We’re also left to wonder whether the film is using the rugby team as a kind of metaphor for the unification of South Africa, or believes that that’s all it took. To be sure, we get no real overall sense of what Mandela did for the country during his presidency; his policy initiatives are glimpsed only as discussions in meetings that he ducks out of to see how the Springboks are doing. Is the story-telling simple-minded? Perhaps; a scene or two of Mandela doing some actual governing (instead of, say, the easy subplot about Damon’s family’s maid) wouldn’t have hurt. Then again, that might be for a more straight-forward Mandela biopic. Eastwood clearly seized upon the World Cup championship as a singularly cinematic way to tell this story, and there is no doubt that, whatever its flaws, Invictus is compelling, emotional viewing and absolutely worth seeing. But I can’t help but wonder about the film he chose not to make with these materials.

"Invictus" opens in wide release on Friday, December 11th.

In Theaters: "The Lovely Bones"

The Lovely Bones is a technically proficient picture, filled with interesting actors, telling a compelling story from a beloved best-seller. It’s remarkable, really, how spectacularly director Peter Jackson screws it up. It is a difficult story of family heartbreak told by a director who has clearly lost his grip on how human beings talk and interact; he’s too busy playing with green-screens and CGI to bother with the performances of his ensemble. And the film is all but undone by Jackson’s now-deadly sense of pace—just about every scene in it runs on for about twice as long as it should, which shouldn’t come as a surprise after his endless Lord of the Rings movies and his ridiculously bloated King Kong remake. This is a director who never met a scene that he didn’t try to add five minutes to.

The story, from Alice Sebold’s novel, is of the murder of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement), as told by the victim from beyond the grave. She is brutally murdered by creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), shattering her family; her mother (Rachel Weisz) grieves but attempts to move on, while her father (Mark Wahlberg) obsesses over the details and clues of the disappearance, conducting something of a shadow investigation when he is unhappy with the lack of progress by police. Susie’s younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) comes to share her father’s suspicions of Harvey. Susie, meanwhile, watches all of this from beyond, frolicking and emoting in Jackson’s vast, computer-generated afterlife.

Those fantasy sequences try the viewer’s patience; the effects are impressive, yes, but rarely organic. They feel like the filmmaker showing off—“Hey, look how much money they gave me to make this movie!” Long stretches of her heavenly adventures go nowhere (the worst is a film-stopping faux music video, set to the Cocteau Twins’ “Alice,” of Susie cavorting with a dead friend and imagining herself on magazine covers), leaving us without much to think about, except how the picture’s visions of the afterlife seem borrowed from Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. That’s not Jackson’s only moment of visual lifting; when Susie wanders into the blinding white bathroom where Harvey is cleaning up after his crime, it looks like an unimaginative YouTube filmmaker ripping of Kubrick.

There’s something forced and bloodless about the stilted narration and the overdesigned photography (both in its too-choreographed movements and its blown-out, sundrenched, self-consciously nostalgic look); both give the picture a cold, empty feel that can’t sustain the inherent emotion of the story. And while there’s no denying the power of some of the set pieces, Jackson keeps finding ways to fall all over them. The way he plays out Susie’s abduction while crosscutting to her oblivious family chattering away at dinner is unquestionably wrenching, but he can’t leave it be—he drags the sequence past the point of effectiveness, leaving his poor actors in the lurch. There’s real tension in the film’s key encounter between Wahlberg and Tucci, but it goes on and on and on, with the pair exchanging the same awkward looks as Jackson replays the same flashback images infinitum. There is exactly one great scene (Lindsey’s snooping through the killer’s house is a crackerjack suspense sequence), but it’s spoiled by the trailers.

Performances are uneven at best. Wahlberg is all wrong for the role (especially when we learn that Ryan Gosling made it all the way through pre-production before dropping out due to, all together now, “creative differences”), and doesn’t get much help from his director—a scene where the overheated actor goes out into the night, pop-eyed and clutching a baseball bat, is laughably overdone. Rachel Weisz is pretty much incapable of being bad in a movie (even those Mummy movies), but she’s begging for scraps of a character to play, and the screenplay all but forgets about her in the second half. Ronan’s breathy line readings grate on the nerves, and Tucci’s skills are wasted on such a thin character as this garden-variety monster (who is this guy? What happened to his wife? Does he have a job? How does he finance his elaborate kills if he’s home all day on a Wednesday?). Susan Sarandon, as jazzy Granma Lynn, is a relief; her re-appearance just past the hour mark energizes the drab proceedings, and while her performance may belong in a different movie, at least it’s a more entertaining one.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that my opinion of Peter Jackson, and of his films to date, is a minority one; his work simply doesn’t speak to me, and nothing about The Lovely Bones has changed my mind (as much as I would have liked it to). And I could very well be wrong about this, but I have a feeling that once his legions of fanboys get a look at it, they’ll see that while he may be their guy for telling stories about wizards and hobbits and giant apes, he comes up short when dealing with real people and real emotions.

(Postscript: Whenever you write a bad review of a movie based on a book you haven’t read, someone always assures you that you’d have liked it better if you’d read the book. I dislike the underlying hypothesis—you should be able to judge a movie based on what’s on the screen, without doing outside “homework”—but just to lay it to rest, my wife read the book and thought the movie was lousy too.)

"The Lovely Bones" opens Friday, December 11th in limited release.

In Theaters: "Broken Embraces"

Pedro Almodóvar seems like a nice guy in interviews and personal appearances, jovial and likable, but he doesn’t seem like someone you’d want to ask for directions. As a filmmaker, he’s not terribly interested in getting from point A to point B in anything resembling a straight line; for some filmmakers, that would be a disadvantage, but with Almodóvar, it’s part of his charm. True to form, his new film Broken Embraces gives us an almost comically convoluted storyline, introducing a deliberately disparate group of characters and then hopping around a decade and a half, slowly drawing them together into a surprisingly cogent narrative. It’s a puzzle movie, and I don’t mind admitting to long stretches where I wasn’t sure where the hell he was going. But he always seems pretty confident, and with a director who’s as much a force of nature as he, that can be good enough.

We’re first introduced to blind writer Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), who explains that he was once a sighted director named Mateo Blanco, and Caine was a pseudonym, but then the second identity took over, and… yeah. When he is told about the death of wealthy businessman Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), the film flashes back to 1992, when Martel seduces his secretary Lena (Penélope Cruz) by getting medical help for her dying father and then taking Lena on as his mistress. Back in 2008, Caine is visited by “Ray X” (Rubén Ochandiano), a young filmmaker who seems to know something about Harry’s past and his other identity, and…

Ah, to hell with it. A film like Broken Embraces laughs in the face of a one-paragraph summary, and frankly, that’s one of its best qualities; there is an “anything goes” quality to the storytelling, inherent in much of Almodóvar’s work. He stakes out his own territory, tonally speaking, with a bizarre but somehow effective mix of soapy melodrama and real, honest-to-goodness pathos and heartbreak.

This time (though there were hints of it in his previous picture, Volver), the filmmaker shows another influence, with several deliberate (and good-humored) homages to Alfred Hitchcock, from Alberto Iglesias’ occasionally Hermann-esque music cues and the Vertigo-inspired sequence of Cruz being dressed and molded (even trying on a platinum blonde wig) to the extended riffs on Hitch’s favorite theme of voyeurism. In a sly and inspired touch, Martel has his son spy on Lena as she stars in a film he finances, having him tape her every move in the guise of a behind-the-scenes documentary; he then hires a lip reader to decipher far-off conversations. The theme comes to a head with a mind-bending scene in which Lena, from the back of his screening room, watches and speaks along with her counterpart on screen.

Not all of the director’s contrivances work; several scenes don’t go much of anywhere (like a too-long brainstorming session about a vampire screenplay, which fits in about as well as it sounds like it would) and we just can’t take some of it seriously, even when we’re supposed to (Martel’s son’s bowl-cut wig and glasses are a reverse-aging costume that would get laughed out of an SNL dress rehearsal). But most of his risks play, and his teaming with the brilliant cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (21 Grams, Frida, 25th Hour) is inspired; the picture’s look is lush and luminous. Likewise, the director’s partnership with Cruz continues to be one of the most fruitful and fascinating filmmaker-actor collaborations of the current cinema. Following her Oscar-winning triumph in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and her show-stopping turn in Nine, it seems that she is only getting sexier, more confident, and more surprising with age.

Shockingly, Broken Embraces does all come together by its conclusion, and in a way that (mostly) makes sense, thanks to a series of completely unexpected and effective plot turns (there’s only one third-act revelation that’s anticipated, and it’s as obvious as the rest of the film is unpredictable). But the sheer emotion of Almodóvar’s narrative keeps it grounded; he may never find a more heartbreaking image than the destroyed man’s hands on a TV screen, asking one favor: “Play it frame by frame, so that it lasts longer.”

"Broken Embraces" is currently playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "That Evening Sun"

In the opening moments of Scott Teems’ That Evening Sun, Albert Meecham stares out of his nursing home window, his face a hard shell of bitterness and resentment. He then gathers up his pocket watch, his suitcase, and his cane, and walks right out the door. He’s about had it with that place. He’s got some things to take care of.

Albert is played by Hal Holbrook, who gives the kind of performance that it feels like he’s been waiting an entire lifetime to deliver. Meecham is an angry old cuss who travels back to the farm he spent a lifetime working, only to discover that his good-for-nothing son Paul (Walton Goggins) has sold it off to Alonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), the son of Albert’s lifelong enemy. He is greeted by Alonzo’s wife (Carrie Preston), who tells him to wait for Alonzo, “he’ll be here directly.” Albert replies, “I’m an old man, I may die directly.”

He does not take the news of the farm’s sale lightly; he moves into the sharecropper’s house on the property and decides to wait the Choats out. “You’re supposed to be at the home,” his son tells him. “I’m supposed to be where I damn well please!” he snaps back. When Alonzo’s good-heared daughter (Mia Wasikowska) lets it slip that her father hates dogs, Albert can’t find a yapping canine companion fast enough. When Albert overhears the drunken lout wailing on his wife and his daughter in the yard, the old man comes out with a pistol and gives him a piece of his mind.

The battle of wills between the 80-year-old coot and the worthless son of his adversary could have easily been played for overheated Southern melodrama, or for black hillbilly comedy. Teems’ picture (adapted from a short story by William Gay) doesn’t go in either of those directions; it is a low-key back roads drama, tuned in to the specific manner in which these people would interact. Seems’ screenplay is the first in over a decade to remind me of Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-winning script for Sling Blade . The dialogue, as in that film, is simple and direct, colorful without condescending or trafficking in lazy caricatures. Every member of the tight ensemble (save for Paul, who is mostly a functional character) is fully drawn and three-dimensional, and Albert isn’t the only one who gets good lines; when Albert asks his buddy Thurl (the great Barry Corbin) why he lost his driver’s license, he shrugs and chuckles, “Oh, I hit some folks.”

But this is Holbrook’s show. It’s not a flashy performance—he seldom has to raise his voice, and never has to push or reach for effects—but he digs about as deep as you can go, shaking off years of thankless supporting roles and TV work and relishing the opportunity to do some real work again. Though Albert Meecham is a rougher-edged character, Holbrook’s work here is reminiscent of Richard Farnsworth’s terrific turn in David Lynch’s The Straight Story; that film got Farnsworth an Oscar nomination, and if there’s any justice in the world, Holbrook’s deeply felt and marvelously intuitive turn will be similarly rewarded. He gets to the gnarled, stubborn soul of this guy, whether spitting out threats or strolling on his broken-down porch, looking over his land and singing quietly to himself. There isn’t a moment here that feels false, and the way that he pulls off the movie’s tricky, perfectly realized climax is what good acting is all about.

It’s such a marvelous piece of work, in fact, that the film only steps wrong when it steps away from Holbrook; he’s front and center in so much of the picture that the two or three scene that he’s not in feel strangely out of place (even when they’re good scenes, in and of themselves). There are other little flaws here and there—Teems overplays his hand when the story takes a dark turn with music that gives too much away, and the film depends too much on that old warhorse, the gradually-revealing flashback. And the final scenes are just a little too clean, even if they are emotionally effective. No matter; That Evening Sun is a quiet, lovely film, and the performance at its center is one for the ages.

"That Evening Sun" is currently playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done"

"So, this is odd," reads one of my early notes from my viewing of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, though I’m not sure what the hell I was expecting—it’s directed by Werner Herzog and executive-produced by David Lynch, after all, so the fact that their collaboration bore a peculiar offspring certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is shocking about the enterprise is how borderline-unwatchable the whole thing is. It doesn’t play like the work of the men who made Fitzcarraldo and Stroszek, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.; it feels instead like a poorly-executed copycat film by an untalented film school student. It’s strange, but in a self-conscious and frankly self-indulgent way.

The opening titles proclaim the picture to be “inspired by a true story,” and I guess I’ll take their word for it. We’re first introduced to a pair of San Diego homicide detectives (played by Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) out for a drive and a chat; they engage in dull pleasantries before getting a radio call to an 1144. “What’s an 1144?” Peña asks, which certainly seems like something a police detective would, ya know, be aware of. They arrive to find Mrs. McCullum (Grace Zabriskie) on her neighbor’s floor, dead from a sword-stab wound. The neighbors tell them that her son Brad (Michael Shannon) did the deed; he’s across the street in their home, and he’s taken two hostages. Brad’s fiancée Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) arrives, and tells Detective Havenhurst (Dafoe) about Brad; her flashbacks are intercut with the not-terribly-suspenseful standoff.

In many ways, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done manages to combine and highlight the worst elements of both Lynch and Herzog’s styles. Herzog’s direction is full of deliberately odd choices, stunt moments and sequences that feel like he forgot to turn the camera off. Multiple scenes end with strangely tableauxed compositions, held in thick silences that seem to last an eternity. Individual shots seem at odds at each other within scenes; the cuts are jarring, and the film lurches unsteadily from one peculiar moment to the next.

It’s hard to tell if the actors got much help. Shannon, a reliably good actor (he was fantastic in Friedkin’s Bug and Oscar-nominated for his strange but memorable turn in last year’s Reservation Road) turns in a prickly, odd performance that’s bewildering but entirely appropriate to the material (for whatever that’s worth). Dafoe is oddly presentational and not terribly convincing—his line readings are mannered and he handles his gun and his note pad as if he’s never used them before. Zabriskie, that terrifying woman at the beginning of Inland Empire, basically gives the same mannered, tic-filled performance here, but for an entire film (and less is more with that kind of thing). Poor Sevigny is stuck playing the only person who seems remotely connected to the human race (most of these scenes play like they’re being acted out by aliens), so, in playing her character as a real person, she’s either giving the best performance in the movie, or the worst one.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is not incompetently made, which is part of what’s so frustrating about it; it hits theaters around the same time as Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (indeed, it shares many members of that film’s supporting cast), which confirms that the director can make a film that’s simultaneously batshit crazy and narratively compelling, when he puts his mind to it. I’m sure that arguments can be made about what he’s trying to accomplish here, how he’s replicating the theatrical style of the Greek tragedies that it broadly alludes to, etc. Well, you can intellectualize the damned thing all you like—it doesn’t play. It’s weird solely for the sake of being weird, without engaging or entertaining its presumptive audience. There are talented people involved, but it couldn’t matter less; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is just impossible.

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, December 11th.

Monday, December 7, 2009

On DVD: "Virtual JFK- Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived"

There are few things as genuinely thrilling as a truly well-made documentary. Koji Masutani’s Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived is that, a masterfully assembled and strenuously researched “what-if” scenario in film form. Those “what if” questions have haunted Americans of all stripes, from historians to vets to grieving families, for decades; they formed the backbone of Oliver Stone’s JFK. What were Kennedy’s intentions in Vietnam? Were we on a path to withdrawal when those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963? What would have happened in Southeast Asia if Kennedy had finished out his presidency?

Director Masutani, and on-screen counterpart James G. Blight (who co-authored the book that the film is based on), attempt to answer those questions by examining how Kennedy handled military crises throughout his brief Presidency. “Six times, when he was put to the test,” Blight tells us, “John F. Kennedy avoided war.”

In an attempt to craft what is called, alternately, a “virtual history” or “counterfactual history” (this is where the awkward title, which conjures images of a Camelot-era Sims, comes from), each of those six moments are examined, one by one: the Bay of Pigs, the Laos crisis, the Berlin crises, the Cuban missile crisis, and the discussions of withdrawal immediately before his assassination. Within that structure, the resulting film is a thorough and complex examination of the Kennedy presidency, of his decisions, and what we can infer from them.

The film is a triumph of montage; Masutani (who also edited) uses little in the way of recreations or created illustration, and Blight himself is barely glimpsed. Most of what we see is a wealth of smartly compiled archival footage, which places JFK front and center in his own story. Excepting Blight’s occasional interpretations, the late president mostly speaks for himself, via extensive use of his speeches, private recordings of phone calls and meetings with his inner circle, and remarkable clips from his famous afternoon press conferences. That footage is particularly interesting; we see a President who is candid, funny, and quick on his feet. (Some of the questions also remarkably parallel current inter-party squabbling; the more things change, the more they stay the same.) Perhaps the most shocking piece of tape is a clip from less than four hours before his assassination, as commentators wait for Kennedy to arrive at an appearance, mentioning a slight security breach earlier in the day and casually discussing the assassination of William McKinley.

The death of the president is handled tastefully and rather heartbreakingly, while the picture nimbly moves through the Johnson years, summing up the escalation of the Vietnam conflict with a simple sequence of dates, casualties, and snippets from speeches. The film’s only real flaw is that it doesn’t quite seem to pull everything together at its conclusion—it seems to fall short of a final analysis, one that really answers its titular question. If Kennedy had lived, the film argues, we would have gotten out of Vietnam. But what then?

Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived may come up a bit short in its final passages, but it is a fascinating and well-crafted documentary nonetheless, diligently researched and carefully constructed.

(Note: Kennedy enthusiasts would also be wise to check out last year’s re-release of ”The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection”, as well as the recently re-released ”Kennedy” miniseries, starring Martin Sheen as the late president.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

On DVD: "Public Enemies"

I’ve seldom seen a modern film subjected to the kind of visual deconstruction that greeted Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, at least upon its initial release; it was hard to find anyone remotely film-savvy who didn’t have an opinion on the way in which Mann chose to shoot his biographical portrait of the final months of famed Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. There’s nothing surprising about the look of the film within the Mann canon—it falls directly within the style he’s been steadily developing throughout the decade (particularly in his last two pictures, Collateral and Miami Vice). He shoots in tight and up close, artfully arranges the compositions within his wide 2.35:1 frames (few filmmakers play as impressively with foreground and background), and shoots much of his action on loose, handheld, high-def digital video.

There’s no question that the doc-style camerawork lends a you-are-there immediacy to the action on screen—it’s just that it is, at first, somewhat disorienting to see a period story shot in such a distinctly contemporary style, and this appears to be the hang-up of the film’s critics. But must every period film shoot exclusively in the style of the films from that time? And if so, why was I the only one singing Soderbergh’s praises when he shot The Good German like a 1940s movie?

Mann’s story begins in 1933 with a daring jailbreak that puts folk hero bank man John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) back out on the streets. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (the terrific Billy Crudup), attempting to up the agency’s profile, makes Dillinger “public enemy number one” and taps agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who tracked and killed Pretty Boy Floyd, to head up the search for Dillinger. Meanwhile, Dillinger takes up with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), an exotic beauty who he seems to pick up on a whim before pledging himself to her for life.

The screenplay (by Ronan Bennett, Mann, and Ann Biderman) has its pluses and minuses. The dialogue is terse and tough as nails; I like how Dillinger tells a bank manager, “You can be a dead hero or a live coward—get it open,” or tells an associate, “I’m asking you once, and I just did.” The film is also admirably short on bullshit psychology—we don’t see Dillinger as a child or a younger man, are given no clues as to why he is the way that he is. That refusal to engage in Freudian shorthand, to play by the rules that seem to govern our idea of what biographical film is and how it works, may be part of the reason that Public Enemies had trouble connecting with some audiences—just as Mann’s Ali did back in 2001.

Neither of these films have the epic scope, slick polish, and narrative discipline we’ve come to expect from biographical drama. But he’s doing something that’s perhaps more interesting. He’s using this particular kind of filmmaking—handheld camera, limited timeframe, non-expositional (and non-presentational) dialogue and scene structure—to create a fly-on-the-wall historical pictures, faux-vérité snapshots instead of all-encompassing portraits (which are basically impossible to do in two hours anyway).

Of course, this kind of elliptical storytelling has its drawbacks. Dillinger’s accomplices never really emerge as particularly memorable or compelling characters (and, for that matter, neither do Purvis’s). In spite of a real narrative thrust, the film drags more than you’d think; it runs a too-slack 140 minutes and meanders from scene to scene, especially in the second act. And in general, for whatever reason, it never quite clicks together the way Mann’s best films do; ultimately, when all’s said and done, it’s a collection of very good scenes.

But they are, in fact, very good scenes. There’s a bit early on where Dillinger comes to Billie’s coat check job and sweeps her away, sweet-talking her while giving the business to a priggish customer, and it’s just plain dynamite. A jailbreak scene around the midway mark is messy, jittery, unpolished, and ruthlessly effective (given an uncompromising tightness by Mann’s decision to eschew the use of score there), and it is followed immediately by a giddily well-executed beat that wrings suspense from a leisurely stoplight. The marvelous sequence in which Dillinger takes a leisurely stroll around the Chicago Police Department (taking care to check out their “Dillinger Bureau”) would stretch the film’s credibility, if it weren’t based in fact. A shoot-out between federal agents and Dillinger’s accomplices at a remote lodge has a stark, frenzied urgency, amplified by the unforgiving darkness and hot muzzle flashes (the pulpy digital photography has an almost sensuous quality here), to say nothing of the sharp, tinny gunshots—the entire sequence feels captured, not choreographed, and it’s electrifying. And the climax at the Biograph Theater is just about perfect, bringing this unconventional biopic to an arrestingly satisfying conclusion.

Mann ultimately doesn’t quite bring the whole thing off, and that’s a shame; with a tighter script and a bit more self-control, he might have approached the perfection of Heat (which it structurally resembles) or The Insider. But there’s a part of me that’s not quite sure he’s even shooting for that kind of “well-made film” anymore; he seems less interested in making a perfect film than in making a spontaneous, interesting picture that lives and breathes. If that’s the case, Public Enemies may be one of his greatest achievements: an experimental French New Wave riff cleverly disguised as a summer blockbuster. Kudos, Mr. Mann.

"Public Enemies" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, December 8th.