Saturday, January 9, 2010

On DVD: "Passing Strange"

Spike Lee spent much of 2001 trying to get a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Rent off the ground; the project was at Miramax, and Lee—a New York filmmaker with both a personal interest and family history in music (his father was an acclaimed and respected musician and composer)—seemed like a perfect fit. But Lee and Miramax parted company over budgetary concerns, and the film was eventually made by Revolution and Columbia, with Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) inexplicably in the director’s chair. We’ll never know exactly what Lee’s Rent would have been like—it’s one of those things that only exists in the alternative movie universe, with Sam Peckinpah’s Superman and Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness—though we can pretty safely guess it would have been superior to Columbus’ flaccid take.

However, we can get something of an idea of what a Lee Rent might have looked like from his latest release, a thrilling, energetic performance film of the similarly vibrant Broadway musical Passing Strange. Unfortunately, Strange couldn’t match Rent’s killer box office; it only ran 165 performances (symptomatic of a Broadway environment where critical kudos are seemingly less important than big stars or recycling of material). Lee was taken by the show, however, so he and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, The Fountain), took their cameras to the Belasco Theatre to capture the show’s final performances in July 2008.

Singer/songwriter “Stew,” with the backing of a terrific on-stage rock band (including his collaborator Heidi Rodewald), narrates his story. It begins in South Central Los Angeles in 1976, where the his “Youth” alter ego (Daniel Breaker) decides to shake off his roots (and his loving mother, beautifully played by Eisa Davis) to pursue his dreams of musical stardom. He becomes obsessed with punk rock, and decides to broaden his horizons in Europe. First he visits Amsterdam, where he is intoxicated by the lax attitudes towards drugs and sex (of the latter, he sings: “I love that they’re so nonchalant/ About the only thing I want”). In the second act, he ventures to Berlin, where he is drawn into the underground political art scene; he amps up (and fibs about) his background for street cred, but is ultimately drawn to reassess his trajectory and sense of self.

Passing Strange gets considerable mileage out of its inventive, funny book and clever lyrics—early on, for example, Stew sings that he’s reached a good place for “a showtune/ an upbeat, gonna-leave-town kind of showtune/ but we don’t know how to write that kind of tune…” The use of the older musician and his younger counterpart is ingenious (he comments and interacts with his alter ego), while the staging is inventive and dynamic. And the music is just miraculous—memorable, soulful, wonderful.

Lee’s film is nicely shot, well-covered by his clever camera placement and movement; he’s an experienced and skilled performance shooter, with a résumé that includes not only the film versions of stage shows like Freak and A Huey P. Newton Story, but live performance pictures such as The Original Kings of Comedy and even Kobe Doin’ Work. While he fudges on the live aspect just a touch (it was filmed over three performances, not the single one indicated in the opening crawl, and he also shot it once without an audience present, for freer and closer camera movement), that’s in line with his shooting style, which mostly attempts to eliminate the physical (and psychic) distance to the events on-stage. He goes up close and personal, choreographing his camera like another member of the company, frequently ignoring (or barely acknowledging) the raucous, enraptured audience. He only takes one wrong step, by following the performance backstage during intermission for a brief but ill-advised interlude that breaks the spell of the show.

In its broad strokes, Passing Strange is a good old-fashioned coming of age story, the vivid account of one man’s journey to the “real”—which turns out, funny enough, to be adulthood. It’s a tad episodic, but there’s a purity and simplicity to the storytelling that truly casts a spell over the viewer, particularly by the time it arrives at its powerful closing scenes, in which the emotions are raw and the music is fierce, tenacious, and moving. It’s the kind of movie that you want to watch all over again, the moment it ends.

As the years pass, the movie musical becomes a tougher mountain for filmmakers to climb, though directors like Rob Marshall and Baz Luhrman have tried admirably to conquer it (with varying results). But no matter how stylized or well-mounted a movie musical is these days, it’s just plain tough to sell audiences on characters bursting into song and dance. With Passing Strange, which is easily the best movie musical I’ve seen in the last decade, Spike Lee may have found the best approach—to embrace and utilize a musical’s stage roots, rather than attempt to cover them up. The result, at least in this case, is an entertaining, invigorating, deeply touching theatrical and cinematic experience.

"Passing Strange" hits DVD on Tuesday, January 12th.

On DVD: "United States of Tara- Season 1"

Diablo Cody has (inexplicably) become such an acquired taste (I don’t know anyone who’s on the fence about her—everyone seems to either love or hate her stuff) that it will, I suppose, comfort her critics to hear how uncharacteristic the writing for her series United States of Tara is. She writes her screenplays with a distinctive style and voice, and her dialogue is quirkily hers, which seems to be the primary complaint of those who disliked her Oscar-winning script for Juno (and her strangely unsuccessful follow-up film, Jennifer’s Body). Those folks may be relieved that she’s dialed her style back a bit for Tara; though there are still Cody-esque touches in the dialogue (like the discussion of “gentlemen’s time”, or the daughter’s complaint that her mother makes her feel like she in “a Lifetime-lady-tampon movie”), it’s much more subtle than her previous work. The downside (for those of us who are fans, that is) is that it also somewhat flavorless, comparatively speaking. It’s a good show, but you keep waiting for it to become a great one.

What is not in dispute is that the series is a terrific showcase for its star, the talented Toni Collette. She plays Tara, a mural painter, wife, and mother with dissociative identity disorder; when she has moments of stress, aggravation, or other unexpected triggers, her personality switches to one of her “alters.” There’s “T,” the troublemaking teenage girl; “Alice,” the 1950s-style homemaker; and “Buck,” the beer-swilling Vietnam vet. As the series begins, Tara has recently gone off her meds, and her family is still adjusting to the visits from the “alters”; her husband Max (John Corbett) mostly keeps a level head, though her daughter Kate (Brie Larson) and son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) find mom’s little outbursts and acting-outs are loaded with potential for teenage embarrassment. Meanwhile, Tara’s sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) continues to resent her sibling, openly expressing her belief that Tara might be faking the whole thing.

United States of Tara airs on Showtime, and is more than a little reminiscent of that network’s Weeds—another half-hour comedy/drama about a mother on the edge (some of the similarities are more obvious than others; through much of the season, for example, Marshall basically comes off like a gay Shane Botwin). Thankfully, as with that show, we are spared too much set-up; the pilot episode begins with Tara already off her meds and the “alters” already a part of her family life. Some of the early exposition is pretty clunky, but the series progresses surely; the writing gets stronger and more confident, and the supporting characters get more interesting.

Cody is credited as series creator and writer of five of the first season’s twelve episodes; other members of the talented writing staff include This American Life contributor Alexa Junge and Six Feet Under alum Jill Soloway. Brett Baer and Dave Finkel pen one of the season’s best episodes, “Transition,” in which Tara and Charmaine’s parents pay a visit for Charmaine’s birthday; it is a beautifully realized portrayal of family tension and awkwardness. Other episodes feel incomplete, though. On the Cody-written “Alterations,” the idea of having Charmaine bond with Buck is a good one, but it’s not really fleshed out; we understand what’s supposed to happen, but the end result doesn’t match what’s on screen, and the episode plays more like an outline. (It does have one exquisitely Cody-infused line: when Charmaine awakens from getting a boob job, the nurse tells her, “Dr. Pete is updating his video blog, but he wanted me to tell you, your girls look gorgeous!”)

Perhaps the nicest quality of the writing is the low-key, matter-of-fact family dynamic—lesser writers might amp up the family drama to a point of screeching soap opera melodrama, but Max and the kids love and accept their mom, and understand that ultimately, these little episodes are part of the package. This is where Corbett’s contribution is particularly valuable; he delicately underplays his gee-whiz likability, wisely interpreting his character as the straight man and resisting the urge to wink at the audience. Larson and Gilchrist are similarly sympathetic, each of them getting some interesting beats to play in the back half of the season. DeWitt, so good in Rachel Getting Married and the first season of Mad Men, is somewhat underused.

The cast is nicely fleshed out with terrific comic actors in small supporting roles—Tony Hale (Arrested Development) and Ken Marino (The State) each do an episode, while Nate Corddry (The Daily Show, Studio 60) does an extended turn as a skeezy restaurant manager who is a bit of a ticking bomb. Stand-up extraordinaire Patton Oswalt also pops up in several episodes as Max’s business partner; while he is expectedly funny (his conversation with Max about truck nutz is priceless), he also gets a killer scene in the penultimate episode, hinting at the dramatic chops showcased in last year’s Big Fan.

But it is, without a doubt, Collette’s show. The show’s construct sounds like a reach, and in their conception, her alter egos sound like the kind of broad stereotypes that would encourage shameless overacting. But her energetic, grounded performance brings the series together. The characterizations are distinctive and memorable, finely tuned and entertaining without going for easy laughs. Some of her finest moments, in fact, come in the transitions—the subtle changes to her body language and facial expressions that signify the changes brewing in the bubbling cauldron of her brain. It’s a dazzling piece of work, strong enough to cover the occasional flaws and shortcuts in the scripts.

In the final first season episode of United States of Tara, Charmaine tells Marshall, “I can’t believe how normal you are.” He replies, “I can’t believe you’re so damaged, you think I’m normal.” It’s a nice moment that sums up this well-intentioned if uneven series. The performances are the main reason to seek it out—Collette is a revelation, and the supporting cast is sterling. The writing, while often high-caliber, is also spotty and somewhat colorless; hopefully Cody will take more risks and have some more fun in seasons to come.

"United States of Tara- Season 1" is now available on DVD.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Today's New In Theaters- 1/8/10

Welcome to the Dead Zone. January is traditionally the cinematic dumping ground, the place where studios toss their least-promising, lowest-quality releases, with the understanding that big moneymakers were released in time for lucrative holiday business, and prestige pictures were out in time to qualify for Oscars and other year-end awards. Mostly, we're just seeing runoff movies this week, ones that we never got around to, or that are just hitting smaller markets after small-scale releases over the last several weeks. But there are some new titles. Beare of them.

Daybreakers: If there was ever a movie that was meant to be released on January 8th, this is it. It's a slick, stupid vampire movie (can't get enough of those!), terrible in just about every imagineable way--and yet, somehow, it's at 65% on the Tomatometer. That's a mere three points higher than Sherlock Holmes. I have absolutely no explanation for this.

Leap Year: I sure do like Amy Adams (and Matthew Goode, for that matter), but A.O. Scott's review confirms all of my worst suspicions: this looks terrible. She she goes to Ireland to propose to her boyfriend, but the charming local who is going to help her is handsome, and they hate each other at first but OMG WHAT IF THEY FELL IN LOVE INSTEAD??!?!?!1!1!!

Youth In Revolt: This is one I'm actually interested in; it's getting mostly good reviews (Ebert and Movieline both like it) and the trailers are intriguing, even if it feels like Zach Galifianakis' participation is being oversold in the wake of The Hangover. So why the crap release date? Well, it's being handled by the Weinsteins. 'Nuff said.

Sweetgrass: And yes, my Montana sheep herder documentary is playing in New York. It's rich and fascinating! It's about the last American cowboys! Okay, I'm not gonna sell you on it, fine.

On DVD: "Brick City"

The electrifying 2005 documentary Street Fight introduced filmgoers to Cory Booker, the young underdog mounting an uphill battle for the Newark mayor’s post against 16-year officeholder Sharpe James (a corrupt member of the political “old boys’ network,” later convicted of five counts of fraud). In 2008, filmmakers Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin (Slam) went to Newark to embark on a multi-faceted documentary portrait of the city in flux, focusing not only on Booker’s progressive administration, but the attempts to change the city’s fates from within the police department, school system, and gangs.

The resulting miniseries, Brick City, is a fast-paced, fascinating look at the complexities of city government and urban life; multiple critics dubbed it a nonfiction version of The Wire (and indeed, the three separate pull quotes on the DVD cover stating as much might be a bit of overkill), but it’s an accurate (and deserved) comparison. The five one-hour installments span from Spring 2008 through the historic November election, as Booker watched another charismatic young African-American with an impressive academic history and a gift for oratory ascend to the highest office in the land.

But Booker isn’t the sole focus of the series, which finds interesting characters throughout the city: Garry McCarthy, the tough, dedicated Bronx native who serves as director of police; Ras Baraka and Todd Warren, the principal and vice-principal of Central High School; “Street Doctor,” the face out front of the Street Warriors community outreach group; and Dashaun “Jiwe” Morris, gang member-turned-author/activist. But they find their primary human drama in the story of Jayda and Creep, both former gang members, now reformed; she was a Blood and he was a Crip, giving a nice Romeo & Juliet vibe to their subplot.

One of the joys of a story like this is the unexpected connections between the people involved; it’s surprising, for example, when tough Vice-Principal Warren turns out to be one of the peacemakers in Jayda and Creep’s occasionally turbulent relationship. But all are enamored of Booker, who is clearly the series’ star, a legitimately passionate and engaging leader—and also a bit of a smooth operator, seen speaking Spanish to Latino constituents in one scene and tossing out some Yiddish to a group of Jewish businessmen in the very next one. But he seems like the real deal, his hard work borne out of a sense of obligation to the community rather than political gamesmanship. He lives in one of the city’s rougher neighborhoods, mentors a young man who once made an attempt on his life, and goes out on late night patrols with the police. In one extraordinary scene late in the series, he makes a quick stop at a grocery store and encounters the sister of a mother of three who was murdered in the streets that very day; the way he speaks to her, comforting and warm, bespeaks a genuineness that is disarming. He’s a truly sympathetic figure—so much so that when a woman at a community meeting announces, “I feel like you have failed me,” it stings us too.

The show’s six months in the life of the city are seen, probably accurately, as a series of crises and potential disasters: shootings, arrests, gang warfare, budget shortfalls, politics and in-fighting at the police department, and a looming, possibly unfeasible opening date for a new high school ten years (and $100 million) in the making. There are some concerns up front that the filmmakers are trying to take on too much, and doing it too fast, in too fragmented a style—we have to work a little to keep up. But once we have our bearings, the series draws the viewer in; it is gripping, riveting, intelligent television, and by the second episode, even something as seemingly mundane as a budget meeting makes for a compelling scene. The directors’ only real misstep is in their use of occasional visual trickery (like slo-mo and faux-step printing); the filmmaking is so seamless otherwise, this unnecessary stylization calls attention to itself.

The various disparate elements are pulled together in the show’s knockout final hour, which juggles the city council race (in which the Booker-endorsed candidate faces off against the Sharp James-ish Charlie Bell), the Obama campaign, and the “Blood Initiation Day” (with the gang announcing a goal of 25 murders) with real urgency and power. Principal Baraka speaks plainly, openly, and heatedly to his students, telling them that the dangers and odds that they face on a daily basis “doesn’t mean you’re tough, it means you’re oppressed.” It’s a stunning moment, the kind of speech that any actor worth his salt would sell his soul to deliver in a film. The fact that this is no actor, but a dedicated educator who faces these problems every day, makes it all the more powerful.

If Street Fight was the story of Booker the campaigner, Brick City is the story of Booker the legislator; he learns, as President Obama has, that they are two very different beasts. “Everybody talks about reform, but nobody wants to change,” notes Police Director McCarthy. “Change comes hard.” The troubles in our cities, the attempts at change, and resistance to them are not unique to Newark, New Jersey; they’re happening all across our country right now, and Brick City skillfully and intelligently captures this specific, difficult moment in 21st century America.

"Brick City" is currently available on DVD.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

In Theaters: "Daybreakers"

So are we about done with all the vampire shit already? Between the Twilight movies and the Underworld movies and Rise: Blood Hunter and Cirque Du Freak and The Vampire Diaries, I’ve just about had my fill; maybe some inventive filmmaker is going to come along with a fresh take on this very stale fad, though it’s dubious. But even if we weren’t in the midst of a tiring glut of vampire action, the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers would still be a lousy movie.

It’s the kind of picture whose badness is right out front, from its very first scene, a pre-title sequence in which a young vampire girl leaves a suicide note and then goes out to burn up in the rising sun, via an astonishingly shoddy special effect. The scene doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the narrative; in retrospect, it seems to primarily exist for the purpose of its giant close-up of her desk calendar, which helpfully informs us that it is April, 2019.

On to the main story. It is, indeed, 2019, a bleak future world (is there any other kind?) in which the vampires have taken over, and humans are hunted and farmed for blood, which is running dangerously low. Scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) works for a pharmaceutical company, run by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), whose evilness is inferred by the presence of his giant cigar. Dalton is attempting to create a synthetic blood substitute, though his trials aren’t going well, based on the number of heads exploding at them (okay, it’s just one, but still…).

Edward’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) is an army vampire hunter, but they’ve got all kind of issues, which are spilled out clumsily in their first shared scene; it’s the worst kind of overwrought melodrama and obvious exposition imaginable, interrupted only by a seemingly random attack from a horrifyingly mutated vampire (it’s an out-of-nowhere end to the scene, but certainly better than more of that turgid dialogue).

Plot, plot, plot. Edward encounters a group of renegade humans, led by Willem Dafoe, whose presence in a film like this is basically a foregone conclusion (“Lionel Cormac,” he announces, jutting out his hand, “my friends call me Elvis”). Come to find out, Lionel—sorry, Elvis—was a vampire who turned back into a human after a bizarre accident, which Edward attempts to replicate. His one shot at this experiment is intercut with the approach of the army in an attempt to create tension, but since we’ve got no bearings of the environment, no sense of where things are happening in relation to each other, it basically kills the suspense.

The picture is full of novice screw-ups like that, which we’re presumably supposed to not notice since we’re so overwhelmed by the snazzy aesthetics. Granted, the film does have a distinctive look—provided you haven’t seen Dark City. Otherwise, the self-conscious attempts at stylization and cool are mostly ridiculous, made worse because the film is taking itself so very, very seriously. One ridiculous scene after another is played absolutely straight, with the only desperate stabs at humor coming from groaner lines like “Life’s a bitch, and then you don’t die” and “Being human is about as safe as bare-backin’ a five-dollar whore!” Paging George S. Kaufman.

The special effects are mostly laughable and the acting is similarly unimpressive; Hawke’s primary direction appears to have been to widen his eyes for a better view of his colored contact lenses. The film’s two-plus year journey to the screen caused its central premise to be badly undercut by HBO’s True Blood; both utilize some of the same concepts (open vampirism, synthetic blood), but Daybreakers is sorely missing that show’s eroticism and/or its clever social satire.

The film does have a couple of good gross-out scares, and the occasional flash of inspiration (like the army devouring itself, or the business with the shaft of daylight in Edward’s car during the chase scene). But it’s all basically slick and stupid. When it arrives at its clunky climax, the filmmakers trot out the full battery of clichés—cars smashing through plate glass windows, the kidnapping of the heroine, and a last-minute save by a supporting character, revealed in a manner so trite and ludicrous, someone at my screening laughed out loud. Okay, it was me.

"Daybreakers" opens Friday, January 8th in wide release.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In Theaters: "Sweetgrass"

Sheep are funny. Early in Sweetgrass (two shots in, if memory serves), a large group of them faces directly into the camera, and the shot is framed and held in such a specific, quirky way, you can’t help but laugh. Later in that pre-title sequence, one of those sheep is regarded in a long close-up; it eventually turns and looks right into the camera, chewing. The effect is absolutely disarming, and begins this unconventional documentary on exactly the right note.

I’d imagine that if you took a poll of, say, ten friends, and asked each of them to describe their level of interest in watching a documentary about sheep herders, you’d end up seeing that movie alone. In its conception, Sweetgrass sounds almost comically esoteric (“All right hippies, you think you like documentaries? Try this”). But it has a deliberate, elegiac style, and in many ways it proves the old maxim that the way to get people to listen closely is to speak quietly.

It is, in fact, a Western—these sheep herders among the last cowboys, and their 150-mile sheep drive through Montana doesn’t even exist anymore (the film was shot between 2001 and 2003). But it’s not a straight-forward documentary portrait—to begin with, the on-screen text that contains that information closes the film, rather than opening it (as most docs would tend to do). There is no narration, no interviews, no music. It is not, to put it mildly, a film that is in any particular hurry. It is not “about” these men, or their job; it is more like a snapshot of these moments, brought to vivid life.

And what snapshots. Early on, we have a startling sequence in which we watch sheep getting sheared before the drive, and it happens in long, continuous takes, in which the wool comes off seemingly in one, effortless stroke; we marvel at the skill and proficiency of these men. Afterwards, there is a haunting image of freshly shorn sheep, dozens of them, standing motionless in a field as the snow falls around them. It’s a shot that kind of takes your breath away.

The expansiveness of the photography (which is somehow beautiful in spite of the fact its low-end digital video origins, proving that you can make a great-looking movie on just about any format) is particularly stunning during the drive itself. The massive herd trots down a small town’s main street, the plainly visible Radio Shack storefront confirming the anachronistic nature of the tableaux. The sheep get stuck in a tricky, impenetrable pass, and the filmmakers’ birds-eye view is contrasted with a moving shot from ground level, with braying sheep on all sides. An extreme wide shot, from a considerable distance, shows exactly how the cowboys and their dogs move the temperamental sheep up a hill; all we can make out is white specs moving en masse, while the frustrated cowboy shouts inventively-organized profanities.

Almost in spite of the impersonal, detached style, we get a sense of who these men are. John, the grizzled, aged cowboy, is a real character; his observations are candid (and often hysterical), as are his interactions with his younger counterparts. One of those men gets the closest thing the film offers to a confessional, as he finds a point on a mountain high enough that, if he stands on a pile of branches, he can get good enough cell phone reception to call his mom and lament the horrible shape he’s in (it’s a painfully open scene, and the filmmakers decide to spare him any humiliation by panning deliberately across the landscape while the call is heard).

Sweetgrass is directed by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor; they spent the better part of the previous decade on it, and their dedication and determination shows in the uncompromising final product. With its lengthy, unbroken shots and eschewing of traditional documentary devices, some audiences will no doubt find it off-putting, if not achingly dull. But I was fascinated by it. Yes, it could certainly be tighter, and I would be lying if I said that my mind did not occasionally wander while watching it. But I’m not entirely sure that’s not supposed to happen (Zen and the Art of Sheep Herding?); it’s the kind of film that engages you with its images, and lets you linger on them and contemplate them for a while. I’ve never seen a film quite like it, and I’m willing to bet I won’t for quite some time.

"Sweetgrass" opens Wednesday, January 6th at New York City's Film Forum.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Loose Ends: Holiday Leftovers

So here’s some quickie reviews of movies I saw (y’know, for fun) over the holidays. All three are currently in wide release, etc. etc.

Avatar: Well, it’s awfully pretty. And the special effects are amazing, yes, and the 3-D is phenomenal. And for some people (okay, apparently, based on the box office, for a lot of people) that’s enough, but that’s not what I go to the movies for; the fact of the matter is, the surplus of impressive visuals can’t make up for the boilerplate dialogue, murky political allegories, and general silliness of the entire enterprise. There was a time when James Cameron was a writer of lean, mean, terse but effective action screenplays; this one is a load of bloated nonsense, full of paper-thin characterizations and slangy dialogue (“You’re the man, doc!”) that sounds dated now, to say nothing of how it would play in 2154, when the picture supposedly takes place. If his third act is any indication, Cameron just wanted to make a big action movie, so I’m not sure why we needed all the goofy mumbo-jumbo that precedes it—it’s as if just crafting a well-made potboiler along the lines of T2 or Aliens isn’t enough for “the king of the world” anymore. That’s too bad; he remains a technically dazzling filmmaker, and he can still put an action sequence together like no one else, but Avatar tries too damn hard to do too damn much for too damn long.

Sherlock Holmes: Guy Ritchie hasn’t directed a truly great movie in damn near a decade, so it’s a surprise to see that he’s done such a bang-up job with his admittedly risky take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character, re-imagined here as an action hero as skilled with his hands as he is with his brains. The screenplay (by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg) works in much the same way that William Goldberg’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did: by importing a quippy buddy comedy dynamic into a seemingly incongruent time and place, and taking it for a spin. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law couldn’t be better in the leading roles (though Rachel McAdams’ character is a third wheel, and is played like one), the production design is first rate, and Hans Zimmer’s janglingly enjoyable score keeps things zipping right along. It’s a little overwrought, sure, but as popcorn entertainments go, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

The Road: Director John Hillcoat (of the raw, brutal Aussie Western The Proposition) creates a dark, powerful take on Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, full of strikingly dystopian imagery and ruthlessly unvarnished storytelling (“Two left… one for you, one for me”). The scenes of violence and suspense have a disturbing immediacy (aided greatly by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ frightening score), while Joe Penhall’s screenplay adaptation nicely preserves McCarthy’s sparse but poetic dialogue. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are outstanding, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams shine in their unexpected bit roles, and Charlize Theron is effectively utilized in the kind of flashback glimmers that seldom play in other films, but work here. It’s a tough, difficult picture, but it packs a wallop.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kael of the Week: What's Missing?

"Not every movie has to matter; generally we go hoping just to be relaxed and refreshed. But because most of the time we come out slugged and depressed, I think we care far more now about the reach for something. We've simply spent too much time at movies made by people who didn't enjoy themselves and who didn't respect themselves or us, and we rarely enjoy ourselves at the movies anymore. They're big catered affairs, and we're humiliated to be there among the guests. I look at the list of movies playing, and most of them I genuinely just can't face, because the odds are so strong that they're going to be the same old failed entertainment, and, even though I may have had more of a bellyful than most people, I'm sure this isn't just my own reaction. Practically everybody I know feels the same way. This may seem an awfully moral approach, but it comes out of surfeit and aesthetic disgust. There's something vital to enjoyment that we haven't been getting much of. Playfulness? Joy? Perhaps even honest cynicism? What's missing isn't anything as simple as talent; there's lots of talent, even on TV. But the business conditions of moviemaking have soured the spirit of most big movies."

- From "The Bottom of the Pit"
The New Yorker, September 27, 1969