Saturday, May 22, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Blackmail"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I'll share a full-length movie, available for honest-to-God free on the Internet, that gets the ol' JB stamp of approval. This week: Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail."

While Hitchcock's first sound feature has some of the clunkiness of most early talkies, he's also exhibiting some early signs of his signature style and favorite themes. It's no North by Northwest or Rear Window, but it's a pretty good little potboiler, and has some great moments--including the film's most famous scene, in which the heroine, who has stabbed a would-be rapist, has her nerves jangled by her family's mindless breakfast conversation, in which she only seems to hear the word knife ("Blah blah blah blah KNIFE blah blah KNIFE blah blah blah KNIFE"). Good stuff, that.

Cassavetes: "A Constant Forge"

There’s this great moment in A Constant Forge where we see director John Cassavetes on the set of one of his films (I believe it’s Husbands), and he’s just giggling. He’s got pure joy on his face, and a thrill in his voice, over what he’s just seen happen to a scene: “I like it when it’s better!” he announces. “Hate it when it’s lousy.” You can come up with plenty to say about Cassavetes as a filmmaker, and at 200 minutes, A Constant Forge certainly does. But it also respects the simplicity of the man and of his art. He liked it when it was better, and hated it when it was lousy.

The structure and style of the extended documentary is as unconventional as its subject’s own films—it begins with a quick zip through his full filmography (well, almost full—his much-maligned, done-as-a-favor-and-for-the-money last film Big Trouble isn’t even mentioned), primarily as a formality and an introduction, but spends the bulk of its running time as a thematic, rather than a chronological, exploration. Director Charles Kiselyak expertly interweaves discussions of his characters, his women, his methodology, his business sense (or lack thereof), his theatrical sidebars, his musicianship, his infectious spirit. Though Kiselyak is somewhat hamstrung by the limitations of his clip library (no Minnie and Moskowitz, no Gloria, no Love Streams, very little Husbands—basically, it only uses the films from the Criterion set it was included in), the behind-the-scenes pieces (mostly drawn from The Making of “Husbands” and “I’m Almost Not Crazy”) are tremendous.

All of the usual suspects turn up to thrown in their two cents—Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Peter Falk—along with those whose collaborations with him never made it to the screen (Jon Voight, Sean Penn, Carol Kane), the lesser-known but invaluable stars of the early films (like Faces’ Lynn Carlin and Shadows’ Lelia Goldoni), and his fellow filmmakers (John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich). Late in the film, Bogdanovich gives voice to the criticisms most frequently lobbed against his friend, and admits that he sometimes felt the same way about those pictures. But he then goes on, and manages to sum up the beauty and brilliance of Cassavetes’s work simply and eloquently. Like much of that work, A Constant Forge is too damned long and is often just all over the place. But it is an intelligent film, and gives its subject the credit and diligence he deserves.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cassavetes: "Love Streams"

She says, “I’m almost not crazy now.” And he replies, “I just don’t care.”

That may be the quintessential line of Cassavetes dialogue, a two-line summary of basically every film he ever made. It comes early in Love Streams, widely considered his last “real” directorial effort (he stepped in as a substitute director of 1986’s Big Trouble as a favor to his friend Peter Falk, and to finance another film of his own which he never lived to make). The film’s most shocking moment comes right at the beginning—with the film company logo. Surprisingly, Love Streams was financed by Canon Film Group and Golan-Globus, best known as the purveyors of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson 80s actioners and the Breakin’ movies. But they occasionally got the prestige jones, and luckily Cassavetes was able to take advantage of it to film this adaptation of a play he’d directed for his L.A. theater group.

The smooth, professional look of the film (with little to no handheld camera) is the primary difference between this and his 70s films; some of the camerawork—like a shot following Cassavetes’s car as he chases after his son—is downright stylish. But thematically and narratively, it is very much in the style of Husbands or A Woman Under the Influence—for better or for worse. If he found a way to fuse his loose style and love of character with traditional storytelling in his previous picture, Gloria (which I and I alone consider the best film he made), he’s back to his old, somewhat self-indulgent tricks here; that is to say, he’ll wander, he’ll meander, he’ll try out patience, but then he’ll end up with an extraordinary scene like his character’s drink with his son. You get rewards in his films, but you have to pay your dues.

The film contains one of his most interesting performances, as a seemingly together guy mere moments from falling apart; Rowlands, as his emotionally needy sister, is brilliant, but that’s all but a given by this point in his filmography. Her bitter divorce with a character played by Seymour Cassel could very well be the eventual fate of their title characters in Minnie & Moskowitz; her pain at losing her daughter is heart-wrenching, in spite of how god-awful the actress playing that daughter is. There are other elements that don’t work either, like the strange fantasy dance/song sequence near the end, or the closing passages, which drag on too long—he’s worn us out before the clock has run down.

But there’s much about it that is good, very good: the interplay between the two leads, the impatient rhythms of the dialogue, the film’s steady parade of charmingly unflappable cabbies. Of particular note is the last one, who helps Rowlands’s Sarah deliver an unexpected menagerie of rescue animals to her brother’s home (“Can you hold the goat… Where’s the duck?”) in a beautifully-executed sequence, perfectly paid off. Love Streams has all of the cons of Cassavetes’s other work, and all of the pros. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Today's New in Theaters- 5/21/10

Shrek Forever After: I tweeted this review link yesterday, and my nephew asked the not-unreasonable question "Why do these continue to exist?" My reply: "$$$$$$$$$$$$." It certainly isn't to make people laugh (which they barely bother to do) or to conjure up some kind of emotion (which they try and fail at, badly). It's a nice-looking movie, but that's about all you can say about it (well, Morgenstern comes up with a few more things).

Macgruber: Confession: I don't really watch SNL all that much anymore. I mean, when I hear that something funny happened, I track it down on Hulu, but whenever I try to sit down and watch the damn thing from end-to-end, shesus is it mostly terrible. So my first encounter with "Macgruber" was a couple of weeks back, on the mostly-solid Betty White episode, and there didn't seem to be much to it that screamed, "Let's make a movie of this!" But pre-release buzz has actually been very good, and all three of my fellow DVD Talk theatrical critics liked it-- and seriously, that like never happens.

Solitary Man: There's talent to burn on both sides of the camera in the latest from Brian Koppelman and David Levien, but it doesn't quite come together-- the picture feels slight and unfinished, more like a filmed outline than a fleshed-out narrative.

Holy Rollers: Unsurprisingly, the week's best new release is the one you're probably least likely to have heard of. Kevin Asch's true story of a smuggling ring in which Orthodox Jews were hired as couriers to bring ecstasy into America from Amsterdam sounds like a wacky fish-out-of-water comedy, or jokey drug pic, but it takes the material (and the moral implications of it) seriously and thoughtfully. Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, and Ari Graynor do their best screen work to date.

Two in the Wave: Some of the filmmaking choices are a little peculiar, but Emmanuel Laurent's documentary account of the French New Wave and how the key friendship behind it (Truffaut and Godard's) fell apart in its wake is compelling, required viewing for cinephiles.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In Theaters: "Shrek Forever After"

It has been nine long years now since Shrek rolled into theaters and become a surprise smash for the then-upstart animation division of Dreamworks SKG; they’d had some minor success with Antz and The Prince of Egypt, but the tale of the not-so-rotten ogre became their first unquestionable box-office bonanza, and the first indication that the young studio might serve as genuine competition for Disney and Pixar. In fact, for grown-ups, part of the fun of that first film was in its blatant raspberries at the mythology of Disney’s fairy tale films—given extra oomph by the fact that Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg was a disgruntled former Disney employee (the villainous character of “Lord Farquaad” was reportedly based on his former boss Michael Eisner). The original film was inventively animated, well-voiced (particularly by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy), and, most of all, funny as hell—from the shots at Disney to the pop-culture parodies to its own warped character humor. Three years later, Shrek 2 offered more of the same, and was mostly successful; the story didn’t have much of anywhere new to go, but the addition of Puss in Boots (the only purposefully funny thing Antonio Banderas has ever done) gave the film a big boost.

But by the time Shrek the Third came around in 2007, the series was showing its age; the pop culture references had grown tired from overuse not only in that series but in its animated contemporaries, and ditto the fairy tale send-ups (thanks to junk like Hoodwinked! and Happly N’Ever After). By the third film, the worn-out characterizations and strained humor had the feel of a sitcom that had been on the air too long.

The new fourth installment, Shrek Forever After (and I can assure you that’s the title, in spite of all those TV spots for Shrek: The Final Chapter), fails as well, but in a completely different way; while Shrek the Third, try as it might, just wasn’t funny, they’re not even trying this time. To continue the TV metaphor, the new film plays like a “very special episode,” only instead of Arnold meeting a kid-toucher or Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington developing a drug problem, Shrek and Fiona have marital issues. Yes, really. They’ve decided to treat these cartoon ogres and animals as serious characters with real problems. Okey dokey!

The story begins with a flashback to a sidebar from the events of the first film, in which we discover that Fiona’s royal parents (the underutilized John Cleese and Julie Andrews) nearly signed away their kingdom to Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) to save their daughter—and stopped short only when word reached them that Shrek had rescued her. We then jump ahead to find Shrek (Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) happily raising their baby triplets, who are approaching their first birthday (their domestic monotony is conveyed in a clever montage which shows some unfulfilled promise). But Shrek somewhat resents the cuddly, likable ogre he’s been transformed into; he longs for the days when he inspired fear rather than fandom. Rumpelstiltskin overhears the couple’s falling out, and approaches Shrek with a deal: Shrek will give the deal maker a day from his childhood, and in exchange, we will have a “day off” to be a real ogre again. It’s only after the deal is signed that he discovers the day he’s given away was the day of his birth, meaning he now lives in a world where he’s never been born.

Yep, the movie becomes It’s a Shrek-derful Life.

But the fact that writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke approach the material with the dourness of a von Trier movie can’t be the only explanation for the lack of laughs. Part of the blame lays with Murphy and Myers, who both ceased being funny years ago; the little spins that they used to be able to put on pedestrian lines no longer make us chuckle. Neither does Dohrn, whose characterization of Rumpelstiltskin is singularly annoying and obnoxious; from an entertainment standpoint, he’s roughly the film’s equivalent to the title character in Myers’s last Austin Powers movie, Goldmember. Banderas’s suddenly-pudgy Puss gets a few laughs, but the only consistent source of comedy is Craig Robinson (from The Office and Hot Tub Time Machine), and he only gets a half-dozen or so lines. Thankfully, the filmmakers appear to have put the kibosh on the pop-culture references, but without them, there’s not much left to these movies; most of the comic set pieces fall flat (particularly the painful business with the Pied Piper).

There are flashes of innovation (the climactic sequence with the corresponding chains is fairly inventive), and the animation remains terrific—detailed and life-like. But in general, Shrek Forever After is a lackluster effort, short on fun and shorter on laughs. Hopefully those peculiar, mistitled ads are correct, and this is in fact the “final chapter” for Shrek; the series has already overstayed its welcome.

"Shrek Forever After" opens Friday, May 21 in wide release.

In Theaters: "Solitary Man"

As screenwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien are names I’m always happy to see in the credits; their filmography includes the terrific Rounders and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13 and The Girlfriend Experience. But something goes awry when they move into the director’s chair; their debut effort was the imminently forgettable Knockaround Guys, and now we have their second picture, Solitary Man, which is full of good intentions, great scenes, and excellent performances, but can’t assemble its elements into anything consistent.

It begins “about six and a half years ago,” as Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is a man on top; he owns several BMW dealerships, has a full and happy family, and so on. We meet him as he’s getting the news that something unfortunate has come up on his EKG, and his doctor would like to run some more tests. Jump to the present, and oh how the mighty have fallen; Ben lost his entire auto empire after a fraud scandal, his marriage is over, he’s broke, and his only pleasure seems to come from random hook-ups with women half his age (or less). He could be on the verge of bouncing back; his current girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) is well-connected and could help get him back in the car game. All she needs him to do is take her daughter Allyson to his alma matter and put in a good word with the dean. He manages to find a way to screw it up.

From the trailers, this trip appears to be a much bigger chunk of the film than it turns out to be; we’re all settled in to soak up broken, horny Ben’s collegiate adventures, and he even gets a foil—reliable old Jesse Eisenberg, as his uptight student guide Cheston. Ben trots out the wise, knowing man-of-the-world act, telling the young man that his campus is “nothing but possibilities,” and informing him that “some day, you’re gonna be my age. You do not want to regret a night like this.” The picture seems to be teeing up to be a kind of cross between Douglas’ lost-in-academia masterpiece Wonder Boys and Eisenberg’s lessons-in-love debut Roger Dodger. But we don’t get that story—it goes off on a different thread, though when Ben returns to the school later in the film, there’s all this talk of how much Cheston looks up to him. Based on what? The five minutes they spent together?

The whole movie is like that; there are promising scenes and intriguing ideas, but they’re all undercooked and smashed together to fight for their share of the film’s slender 90 minutes. It tries to do so much in so little time that it feels like scenes are missing, and the scenes that are there aren’t fluid or fleshed out—they can’t get smoothly from point A to point B, and the expositional dialogue is forced. They hit the point and push on without much texture or flavor, resulting in a series of short scenes that feels more like a filmed outline. As a result, it comes off a bit too constructed, and as an audience member, you can see the strings they’re working.

But everyone in it is so good—Douglas does this kind of role better than anyone, and he and Sarandon are great together (it looks, for a minute, like their snappy banter is going to take center-stage, but the movie doesn’t go in that direction either). There’s not enough Mary-Louise Parker, but she works what she gets; same goes for valuable bit players Richard Schiff and an unbilled Olivia Thirlby, though Jenna Fischer can’t negotiate her role into anything more than a story convenience. Perhaps the most interesting performance in the film is that of a relative newcomer, the unfortunately-named Imogen Poots, who invests daughter Allyson with a sharp unpredictability—she’s got a nicely zizzy quality and sinful disposition that makes the moment when Ben turns from likable rogue to self-destructive asshole almost work.

And it gives us a grin to see old friends Douglas and Danny DeVito sharing the screen again. The picture wisely takes advantage of their history, particularly in the film’s best scene, a quiet front porch conversation at Ben’s lowest moment, as he laments his fall from the cover of Forbes magazine, and all the friends he forgot along the way. “If it means anything,” his buddy tells him, “when you were on the cover of Forbes magazine, I was on the cover of Forbes magazine. I saved it and everything.” It’s a short but effective scene that gets at something real and true about long-term friendship.

There are a number of good moments like that one (I particularly liked how Ben plays video games with his grandson and critiques his “short-term strategy”), but unfortunately, Solitary Man is a movie of good moments that never gel. This is the first film that Koppelman’s written without Levien (though they co-direct), and perhaps he needed his partner’s feedback at the writing stage; whatever the reason, they don’t bring it off. There’s so many reasons to like it—it’s a very likable picture—but it never quite gets its act together.

"Solitary Man" opens Friday, May 21 in limited release.

In Theaters: "Holy Rollers"

Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers is based on the true story of a smuggling ring in which Orthodox Jews were hired as couriers to bring ecstasy into America from Amsterdam—the logic being that no customs agent would give them a second glance, much less any hassle. It would be easy to imagine the plot being played as a broad, goofy comedy, particularly considering the cutesy title they’ve given it. So the surprise is what a thoughtful, weighty picture Asch has made, and how skillfully he’s done it; he (and screenwriter Antonio Macia) take these characters and their situation seriously, and the film is better for it.

The time is 1998, and the protagonist is Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a devout Jew who lives with his parents in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan as an assistant to his tailor father. But his family is struggling, and when his arranged marriage is dissolved due to lack of funds, he’s a perfect mark for unruly Josef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha). Josef approaches him offering big money for “importing medicine from Europe”; it’s only after the job is done that he finds out exactly what his cargo was. He is ashamed and repulsed at first, but slowly drawn in to the scheme—not only for the money, but for the feeling of belonging and worth that he gets from Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), the smooth operator who runs the business, and Jackie’s sexbomb girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). So he’s got a good thing going—for a while.

Macia’s screenplay and Asch’s smooth direction are tip-top; the confined, cocooned world of these characters is laid out skillfully, with a sense that we’re peeking behind a curtain, so we don’t feel the plot going into motion because we’re distracted (and fascinated) by the details. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of its portrait of Orthodox life, but it feels authentic, like it’s a story told from the inside out. The film’s construction is smooth and professional—the scenes lay out cleanly, the reveals are well staggered, and the entire endeavor is paced just right.

Eisenberg has caught a bit of a bad rap over the last couple of years, unfairly pegged as Michael Cera-lite, but he shows admirable depth and range here—he’s completely believable as the Hebrew-speaking young man of faith who is pulled into a life of crime with more ease than he’d have thought. Bartha, an actor who tends to fade into the background (he was the groom in The Hangover), is electrifying—he’s given more edge to work with than usual, and plays it up. Abeckasar’s Jackie is perhaps the film’s most complex character, the no-nonsense businessman who is also tenuously hanging on to his Jewish roots, calling his mother on Shabbat and showing proper courtesy to Sam’s father while simultaneously orchestrating the exploitative operation; he’s quite good as well. And the charismatic Graynor (so good as the drunk, lost friend in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is terrific, a sensuous, ripe forbidden fruit that comes to personify all of the temptations available to poor Sam.

His conflicts—both internal and external—are fairly easy to see coming, though observing them through the prism of Sam’s faltering faith gives the picture a fresh, thoughtful spin. His activities aren’t just scary because they’re illegal (though Asch doesn’t downplay that element either—their first entrance back into the States is a nerve-racking sequence); the filmmakers don’t shy away from the complexities and moral implications of the faithful young man going deeper into the darkness. The picture’s ending is a bit too abrupt—I’m all for leaving the audience wanting more, but we’re left to infer too much, and cutting to the “what happened next” title cards always plays like the lazy way out. No matter; Holy Rollers is an unexpectedly thoughtful and involving film with more on its mind than you might expect.

"Holy Rollers" opens Friday, May 21 in limited release.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On DVD: "Comedy Rehab"

Paul Rodriguez’s Comedy Rehab special begins intriguingly, without much fanfare: some posters in front of the theater, comics hanging out backstage, cutaways to the warm-up guy. Backstage, Rodriguez saunters out to his position behind the curtain, gets himself in place, and then works himself up—running up and down the fake stage stairs, planning his entrance, getting his energy going. Then he steps out on stage, and puts something like 30 years of comedy expertise to work.

Comedy Rehab finds the ace stand-up returning to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he got his start in comedy, to perform and to introduce a crew of up-and-coming Latino comics. If there’s one major complaint about the program, it’s that there’s not enough Rodriguez—or that he makes the mistake of opening the show, giving his protégés the textbook “hard act to follow.” He’s so funny, such a skilled master of the form, that he sets a bar early in the show that’s too high for his fellow comics to reach.

Rodriguez, who appeared on numerous Comic Relief benefits and on the The Original Latin Kings of Comedy special, is a smoothly professional comedian—his jokes are sharp and pointed, his transitions are fast, and his timing is expert. In his set (which runs about twenty-five minutes), he gracefully leaps from topic to topic—history, fidelity, aging, Latino family life, dieting—with conversational ease, and with plenty of laughs. He describes his meeting with Governor Schwarzenegger (“through an interpreter,” he explains, “because he doesn’t speak English”), does an uproarious bit about Latina mothers, and tries to decipher the puzzle of Lou Dobbs’s xenophobia, since Dobbs has a Latina wife (“Lou, if it wasn’t for us, you’d be jerking off!”). The subject matter isn’t exactly revolutionary; he discusses Viagra, and touches on the many differences between white people and Latinos. But unlike some of his less-talented contemporaries (read: Lopez), he can push his material past mere they-do-this-but-we-do-this observation and into a realm that is funny on its own terms (see his terrific bit on lost hikers).

His first guest, Gene Pompa, has a dry, pointed wit (he describes a Southerner announcing “I don’t talk Mexican,” to which he replies, “You also don’t speak English”). But he keeps the audience at a bit of a distance; funny and clever as he is, his slightly standoffish style keeps him from building much momentum. Shayla Rivera’s set is the low point of the show; she’s likable as all get out, but she spends the first chunk of the set pandering for easy applause and relies too heavily on weak, obvious material.

The third new comic is the best of the bunch, and gets a memorably introduction from Rodriguez: “You’ll be hearing a lot about this guy… because he just bought a high-powered rifle.” Manny Maldonado’s got a good, quicksilver energy, and his risky, off-beat material is refreshing (even if not all of it lands). His fast-paced, giggly delivery and itchy physicality are well-used, particularly for his stranger bits—for example, he describes catching a nine-year old smoking and asking “What are you stressin’ about?” Her reply: “Times tables… (blows out smoke) Tetherball… (blows out smoke)… Hannah Montana…” But a little of Maldonado goes a long way; by the end of his set, when he’s trotting out impressions, you wish he’d have stopped while he was ahead.

Rodriguez is so clearly the best thing in the show that one wishes it had more of him, or that his comedy was more evenly spread throughout. By front-loading the show with his performance, it peaks too early; he’d have been wiser to do a brief opening, sprinkle in some jokes in the introductions, and save his monologue as a strong closer. But it’s still worth at least a rental, primarily for the opportunity to watch its talented host do his thing.

"Comedy Rehab" is now available on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Today's New DVDs- 5/18/10

Invictus: It may buckle into a too-familiar sports formula in its third act, but Clint Eastwood's dramatization of South Africa's Rugby World Cup victory under Mandela is compelling and emotional stuff, and Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon couldn't be better.

The Messenger: Terrific acting is also the primary attraction of this sparse, powerful drama. Ben Foster keeps getting better, while Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton are unsurprisingly but memorably good. It's a deeply felt and powerful film.

Extraordinary Measures: Hey, Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser! I remember those guys.

Carlito's Way (Blu-ray): It's never accumulated the cult following of its director, producer, and star's previous collaboration Scarface, but this 1993 crime drama has an elegance and operatic skill of its own, and features a couple of crackerjack DePalma set pieces, as well as a wonderful, darkly comic Sean Penn performance.

PoliWood: Barry Levinson seems to have found himself a new calling--this "film essay" on politics, media, and celebrity is better than any fiction film he's made since, well, Wag the Dog, itself an outstanding comedic examination on politics, media, and celebrity.

In Theaters: "Two in the Wave"

Emmanuel Laurent’s Two in the Wave begins and ends with the iconic closing images of Turffaut’s The 400 Blows—young Antoine Doinel, running on the shoreline, then stopping to gaze toward the camera, which freezes and pushes in. It’s a powerful moment in that brilliant film, a perfectly-captured illustration of the fear and uncertainty of adolescence’s end. Seen in the framework of this documentary telling of the French Nuevelle Vague movement, it represents parallel moments of uncertainty for its creator, the great Francois Truffaut. Two in the Wave begins with his triumph at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival—a festival he had been banned from a mere year before—where The 400 Blows began this fierce new movement in French film with the force and power of a starter pistol. It ends with the bitter falling-out of Truffaut and his friend and contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, the brilliantly subversive filmmaker whose politics ultimately overtook his filmmaking and drove a wedge between the pair. In between, it tells the story of how the two men, and their fellow French cinephiles, changed the landscape of film the world over.

Laurent’s film works best on the most basic documentary level—it tells a fascinating story, and it digs up some great clips. We see Truffaut and his young star, Jean-Pierre Léaud, at that first Cannes festival. We see the Truffaut and Godard fighting their final common cause, backing the “May 1968” protestors at that year’s Cannes festival. And we see interviews, many interviews, Truffaut at Cannes, Godard interviewing Fritz Lang (“You know my films better than I do,” Lang laughs), shocked viewers of Godard’s Breathless (“It’s not serious, not serious at all!”), Truffaut and Godard arguing theory with passion and fierce intelligence, a sunglass-clad Godard commenting wryly, always too cool for the room.

Two in the Wave is most intriguing as a cultural study of how the French New Wave came to be, and how it shook up the modern cinema. Not only does the viewer get a real sense of how Cahiers du cinéma (which Truffaut, Godard, and several critics-turned-New-Wave filmmakers wrote for) prompted “a cultural rebirth” for cinema in France, but how these “young Turks,” dubbed the “Hitchcock-Hawks clan” by Cahiers co-founder André Bazin, championed their specific influences (Rossellini, Welles, Renoir, Bergman). What’s more, we see how they sponged up those influences—including the parallelism of specific shots—and merged them with their own sensibilities to create their postmodern style (their characters loved cinema as much as they did, as seen in a clever montage of people in their movies going to the movies).

But it is primarily the story of the two filmmakers, “brothers in the cult of cinema,” originally united in their mutual admiration (Truffaut calls Godard “the greatest filmmaker in the world” and contends that “there’s cinemas before Godard and cinema after Godard”) and common causes (not only May 1968, but fights against censorship and in favor of Henri Langlois’ reinstatement to the Cinémathèque Française) before their divergence in the late 1960s; Godard “goes radical”, while Truffaut continues to hone his skills as a craftsman and more traditional storyteller. When their friendship ends, it gets personal and ugly, with poor Léaud, who acted in pictures for both men, stuck in the middle, the child of their divorce. The conflict comes to a head with Godard’s nasty (and nonsensical) critique of Truffaut’s Day for Night (and Léaud’s work in it), and Truffaut’s scathing 20-page response, in which he writes to his former friend, “I think you’re acting like a piece of shit.” This is fascinating stuff, and Laurent delves into all the gossipy details while remaining admirably neutral—you’ll likely side with whomever you prefer, whether you think Truffaut had become a staid bore or (like me) you feel like just about anything Godard produced after Weekend was borderline unwatchable.

The storytelling is involving, though the technique is sometimes questionable—interview subjects who should be identified are often not, and Laurent utilizes a peculiar B-roll device, accompanying much of the narration with footage of a pretty young French actress Islid Le Besco (familiar to those of us unfortunate enough to have seen The Good Heart) looking through old photos, newspapers, and issues of Cahiers, or going out to the cinema. It’s an odd choice that doesn’t really play; some of his other tricks (like a clever biographical sequence where her hands lay down, in front of the camera, a perfectly timed series of accompanying photographs) land more smoothly. Clips are mostly well-chosen, but there are a few befuddling exclusions (there’s neither a mention nor frame of Godard’s Band of Outsiders, which many viewers—myself included—consider a seminal picture of the movement). And the ending feels somewhat abrupt—the film seems to shut down just as our interest is at its highest. Those objections aside, Two in the Wave is a rich and intriguing film, and a feast for film buffs.

"Two in the Wave" opens Wednesday, May 19 in New York City.

Monday, May 17, 2010

On DVD: "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" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 18th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

On DVD: "The Messenger"

"I need men of solid stature," his colonel tells him. The job does not require him to be a grief counselor; in fact, engaging or showing emotion is discouraged. Their job is to deliver a message, and to do it in a timely fashion: they find the next of kin (or "NOK" in shorthand) and inform them that their child or their spouse has died in combat. That is the job.

The Messenger is such an arrestingly simple idea for a film that it's a little remarkable it hasn't been done yet. We've seen the scene, in countless war pictures, where the mother, the father, the pregnant wife opens the door to see the two soldiers in their dress uniforms standing on the porch, wearing grave expressions. But who are those men? What is their life? Who would want to spend day after day riding, as one character calls it, "a tidal wave of grief"?

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) certainly doesn't want the job; he's just back from overseas, where he barely made it out of a hairy firefight alive. But he has three months to go, and that's his assignment; Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a longtimer, will show him the ropes. Stone runs down the rules for him, and there are many: say "killed" or "death" instead of euphemisms like "no longer with us," never talk to a neighbor or friend, stick to the script, don't hug, don't engage. Deliver the message, quickly and efficiently, and get out.

But one visit, while he's still learning the ropes, catches Montgomery off-guard. Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) sees them coming, and heads them off--"How did he die?" They tell her, and she nods, and thanks them. She's not emotional; in fact, she's apologetic. "I know this can't be easy for you," she tells them. "Can you believe that?" Stone asks Montgomery on the way to the car. "That's a first." But something about the widow draws Montgomery back to her; he's nursing a broken heart, badly, and he finds himself wanting to protect her, to comfort her.

The broad strokes of the story make The Messenger sound like a treacly "love conquers all" tale, or a didactic anti-war treatise; it is neither. Co-writer/director Oren Moverman (whose screenplay credits include I'm Not There and Jesus' Son), in his feature directorial debut, works in an off-hand, naturalistic style that keeps the film from feeling like the Lifetime movie it could so easily have become. The dialogue is direct and effective, imparting exposition without feeling like "expositional dialogue," and the screenplay has a keen sense of exactly when to get in and when to get out of every scene.

From an emotional standpoint, the picture doesn't pull any punches--we see several of their visits to parents and spouses, and they are raw, emotional, and gut-wrenching. In the first one, they are greeted at the door by the deceased's girlfriend, clearly pregnant; oblivious, she invites them in to deliver the news to his mother ("she'll be right back, she's right down the street"), but the longer they wait, the more she suspects something is wrong, and the suspense and awkwardness of the scene is powerful (if discomforting). Those scenes are tough, but Moverman also doesn't lay on any easy, extra sentimentality; there is no excess, in either the writing, the playing, or in Nathan Larson's sparse score.

Ben Foster is an actor who I resisted for quite some time; he seemed to have one character, a damaged emo kid, and I kept seeing it over and over in projects varying from The Punisher to Six Feet Under. But he won me over with his tightly-coiled performance in 2007's 3:10 to Yuma; this film confirms that he is, indeed, an actor of real skill. He's really underplaying here, to an almost risky degree, but it works--it's a performance of fierce control, which makes his flashes of emotion more effective. Watch him closely in a difficult scene with Steve Buscemi as an angry father; he's shot in a tight close-up, and the way the camera holds on his face makes the viewer search it for cracks in his façade.

Harrelson is also first-rate, deftly maneuvering the complexities or his layered character (he seems, at first, to be a standard-issue by-the-books hardass, but turns out to be a good deal more interesting, and flawed, than that). Morton is understated and heartbreaking, giving a complicated, lived-in performance; it is she, in fact, who may benefit most from Moverman's hands-off shooting strategy. He tends, in important scenes, to just let his actors go, playing scenes in long takes with minimal coverage, letting them work up a full head of emotional steam. He does it around the midway point, with a beautifully-realized scene in which the soldier and the widow's flirtation comes to a head, playing the entire scene in an unbroken take that reframes rather than cuts, keeping the momentum and through-line of Morton's stunning acting (and Foster's able support). He does it again near the picture's end, as Foster tells Harrelson about his last battle; Moverman's camera pushes in slightly, but keeps Harrelson in the frame, and the result is shattering.

The conflict between Stone's routine and Montgomery's emotion feels like the (rather obvious) construct that it is, and is barely bothered with and quickly abandoned; also, the subplot with Montgomery's ex (an underused Jena Malone) is half-cocked, and feels somewhat phony and obligatory within the otherwise genuine film. Those are the complaints. They're not much, from a big picture point of view. The Messenger is a deeply felt and powerful film, and contains some of the best acting I've seen in any recent film.

"The Messenger" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 18th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New on Blu: "The Edge"

“You spend much time in the woods?” the old lodge master (L.Q. Jones) asks Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins), the billionaire whose party is staying at his lodge. “No,” Charles replies. “I’m afraid most of my knowledge is theoretical.” He’ll be able to say different by the end of the film. Lee Tamahori’s The Edge is the story of how Charles is put to a real test of survival—not just against the harsh elements of the outdoors, but the darkness of his fellow man. For the film’s writer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, it can now be seen through a different prism: as an intriguing piece of creative autobiography.

Morse is staying at the remote lodge with his trophy wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson), a model who is doing a photo shoot there. The older man’s suspicions are somewhat aroused by her close relationship with her photographer, Bob (Alec Baldwin); he thinks the dashing young photog may have designs on his bride. Already feeling pressure to prove his manhood and daring, he decides to accompany Bob and the photographer’s assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau) on a quick errand in their leased puddle-jumper. But a freak bird strike crashes the plane, leaving the three city men to brave the elements—and giving Charles a chance to put his book smarts to the test.

When Mamet wrote The Edge, he was at a bit of a crossroads; his directorial efforts to date had mostly been intimate, character-driven affairs, with a greater emphasis on his famous fast-paced dialogue and sleight-of-hand plotting than on anything as commercial as action filmmaking. But, as evidenced in his books on film, he was clearly drawn to the “pure cinema” element of the action film, and the opportunities it provided for the kind of complex male characters he specialized in. But was there room in the action cinema for a brainy guy like Mamet? Did action/adventure screenplays, which typically consisted of variations on “We’ve got company” and “We gotta get outta here!”, have any use for a wordsmith of Mamet’s skill?

In a way, Charles Morse may be one of the more autobiographical characters of the Mamet canon, though the terse writer may not be a billionaire, or married to a model (that said, his wife Rebecca Pidgeon ain’t chopped liver). But Morse’s journey into the unforgiving woods, armed only with his fierce intellect, is not unlike Mamet’s tentative attempts, in the decade or so that followed The Edge, at more conventional action filmmaking—first writing for other directors (for Tamahori here, for John Frankenheimer in Ronin, for Ridley Scott in Hannibal), then for his own directorial efforts (Heist, Spartan, and Redbelt).

The script for The Edge is marvelously constructed; Mamet’s got a terrific sense of conversational exposition, and (as the fan of magicians and con men is wont to do) he lays the whole movie out in the opening scenes without ever tipping his hand, without ever dipping into the shallow, easy exposition of a lesser screenwriter. Once the men are lost in the woods, he wisely stays with them; since there are no scenes of the worried wife or the frustrated search party, we’re just as lost as the three protagonists are, just as clueless as to how desperate their situation really is. The dialogue in is unmistakably Mamet—from the quotable epigrams (“Never feel sorry for a man that owns a plane”, “That’s the spirit that beat the Japanese”, “I’m not dense, I just have no imagination”) to the inspired repetition (“Did you know that you can make fire from ice?” “Fire from ice, can you think how?”) to the tough-guy rhythms. But it’s also not so purely stylized as to alienate either his detractors or those who don’t know the writer from Adam, but are just looking for a good-time movie.

In too many of his recent films, Anthony Hopkins has done such transparent paycheck work that he might as well appear on screen with a price tag hanging off of his head. But his performance here, is an unaffected man of the world, is quietly sensational; it’s a full, robust character arc, from the opening scenes, wandering through the background, thumbing through books and being agreeable (there’s something wonderful about the way he says “Yeah,” and I can’t even begin to explain why), through the middle sections, trying to think and reason his way out of the situation, and into the climax, in which we see a fire in his ice-blue eyes as he stares down the Kodiak bear that is stalking them. At the time the film was made, Baldwin was beginning his slow transition from leading man to supporting character actor, having shown his capacity for the latter with his unforgettable ten-minute role in the film version of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. His work here is similarly seductive; it’s fun to listen to his matter-of-fact growl-purr, and how he curles it around Mamet’s dialogue.

Tamahori’s direction is elegant yet unobtrusive, workmanlike without showing off. His shots rarely call attention to themselves, and when they do, it’s earned—as in the slow pull back after their big fight with the bear. In fact, those bear scenes are where he really shows his stuff as an action director; the first big chase, as the bear pushes them across a high-flung tree over the rushing rapids, has got the Saturday morning serial intensity of an Indiana Jones movie. When the bear comes back, drawn by the smell of blood, it’s scary, shocking stuff, and their final confrontation with the beast really gets your heart going. (Much credit is due, and given in an awkward end title, to Bart the Bear and his trainers—the bear is right up on them, right there with them in that frame.) In those scenes, Mamet and Tamhori are seizing on the true thrilling potential of the action/adventure movie—that when we actually know and care about characters, the stakes are raised, and that (when properly done) a character’s actions in a heightened situation tell us more about them than any dialogue can.

Charles and Bob’s transition to tough, bearded hunters may be a little too clean, and there’s a chance that, in placing the bear battle where it does and pulling the ending out a wee bit too long, the film peaks too early—the human drama is certainly compelling, but it can’t hold a candle to Hopkins taunting the bear with cries of “Come and get me!” and liberal use of Mamet’s favorite 12-letter word. Still, The Edge is an awfully good yarn, and an accurate bellwether of interesting things to come for its esteemed writer.

"The Edge" is available now on Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature info, read this review at DVD Talk.