Saturday, January 21, 2012

#Sundance Review: "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The term “escape fire,” we’re told, comes from the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, an out-of-control wildfire in Montana’s Helena National Forest. Thirteen smoke-jumpers found themselves basically trying to outrun the blaze; one of them struck a match and burned an area of grass that he could then hide in, and which the wildfire would burn around. The story is told by Dr. Donald Berwick, as a metaphor for America’s current healthcare system—an out-of-control catastrophe that could be avoided by simple solutions right in front of us. But that raging wildfire also serves as a metaphor for the healthcare crisis as a documentary topic. It’s too big to be controlled, though the makers of the cumbersomely-titled Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare give it their best shot.

Friday, January 20, 2012

#Sundance Review: "Hello I Must Be Going"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Two terrific actresses made their feature film debuts in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. One of them was Kate Winslet, and well, you know what happened to her. The other was Melanie Lynskey, who went on to a decidedly lower-profile career than her co-star’s; rather than sinking on the Titanic and winning Oscars, Lynskey has become one of the most valuable utility players in film (and television), giving brief but memorable jolts to pictures like Shattered Glass, Away We Go, and Win Win. I’ve yet to see a film that wasn’t better because she was in it; I’ve also yet to see a film that seemed to take full advantage of her gifts. Hello I Must Be Going, thankfully, is that film, and the fact that someone was finally smart enough to give Lynskey a hearty leading role is reason enough to excuse the picture’s occasional faults.

#Sundance Review: "This Must Be the Place"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Exactly how much of a film’s running time are we willing to spend grappling with how to approach it? It’s a question worth asking in the face of This Must Be the Place, which stars Sean Penn as an aging emo rock star who hits the road to find the Nazi who tortured his father at Auschwitz. That’s right; less than a week after ingesting the trailer for FDR: American Badass!, here’s Robert Smith: Nazi Hunter. It will not surprise you to hear that it is a deeply strange film. Twice over its course, Penn’s “Cheyenne” says “Something is not quite right here,” and it’s only marginally less of an understatement the second time. Something’s not quite right throughout This Must Be the Place. The question is, how much of it is intentional—and, even if it all is, whether that makes it successful.

#Sundance Review: "West of Memphis"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

At this point, it’s probably safe to say that the case of the West Memphis Three has been covered, documentary-wise. It first came to national attention back in 1996, when filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made Paradise Lost, a riveting documentary account of the murders of three little boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and how three teenagers were accused—wrongfully, it seemed—and convicted of the crimes. Berlinger and Sinofsky returned to the story in 2000 for Paradise Lost: Revelations, and then again just last year; their third film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
was complete when the story finally came to a (relatively) satisfactory conclusion, prompting the addition of an epilogue. Between the three Berlinger/Sinofsky films, a total of seven-plus hours of documentary film has been made on the subject. What more is there to say?

#Sundance Review: "Declaration of War"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

His name is Romeo. Hers, improbably, is Juliette. “So we’re doomed to a terrible fate?” he asks, when they first meet. Well, perhaps. We can only presume so, since that meeting is a memory that Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) calls up while her child is going for a CAT scan. The juxtaposition is jarring, the way we’re transitioned from the buzzing of the medical equipment to the sounds of punk music, from the brightly-lit hospital to a dim house party, from a worn mother to a young, single beauty. She has been through some things, and that’s what Declaration of War is about.

She and Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) fall in love, as we can see from the young-lovers-frolicking montage that follows that first meeting. They have a baby, and after the glow of birth fades, they’re deeply bewildered; their baby cries, all the time. “This kid is tyrannizing us,” Romeo complains. (These scenes recall the early childhood sections of We Need to Talk About Kevin, forming a contraceptive double-feature if there ever was one.) They go to the doctor, but it’s no big deal—they’re feeding him too much. A couple of years pass. The child isn’t walking, and he’s vomiting a lot. There should be another easy fix, yes? There is not.

It is here that Declaration of War moves squarely from romance into domestic drama, and from that point on, it adroitly conveys the urgency that these parents feel, that keeps them up nights, as they attempt to first diagnose and then treat their son. It feels slice-of-life, at first glance, but it isn’t; the filmmakers use pace, visuals and sound design to create, for the viewer, a genuinely stressful experience.

The leads, Donzelli and Elkaïm, wrote the script, and Donzelli directed. They also have a child together. One does not get the sense that this is a story drawn from thin air. It’s an intimate picture; Donzelli goes in tight throughout their ordeal, focusing on the moment-to-moment details, the irritations, the logistics. It’s all surprisingly gripping (strangely, since we pretty much know the outcome from the prologue), and immensely personal. Giant things happen in transitional voice-overs (delivered, in fine French New Wave style, by omniscient, third person narrators). What Donzelli and Elkaïm are interested in putting onscreen are little things.

They end up capturing swoony, vibrant moments, like a late night conversation on a hospital cot as they confess their fears to each other in hushed voices—fears that quickly take a turn towards gallows humor. That said, they don’t shy away from the serious subject matter, particularly in those late scenes where they ask why, where they remember how good and easy things were before. Weren’t they? These things always modify in memory, which is, when you think about it, much of what the film is about.

Donzelli shot Declaration of War using the HD video function of a Canon still camera, which helps it feel as light and off-the-cuff as it should. Some of her experiments don’t work; there is a peculiar music break, for example, that pretty much stops the picture, the song and photography coming off as simply too corny and twee (one gets the feeling the pair have seen Magnolia too many times). That’s a momentary distraction, though. Declaration of War is a modest film, but it sticks.

"Declaration of War" screens at the Sundance Film Festival on 1/20, 1/21, and 1/28. It opens January 27th in limited release.

#Sundance Review: "Wish You Were Here"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here is the kind of film that goes to a great deal of trouble to discombobulate a story that, told straight-ahead, would not amount to much. It tells that story smoothly, and its shifting timeframes certainly hold our interest, as do several sharp, searing performances. But by the time the credits roll, we’re not quite sure what all the hubbub was about.

The story begins in Cambodia. Four Australians are enjoying a cheap vacation in a remote resort area. Alice (Felicity Price) and Dave (Joel Edgerton) are married, two kids, a third on the way. Alice’s sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) invited them along; she’s going along with her new boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr), who is something of an entrepreneur. One night, they party a bit too hard, and Jeremy disappears. Maybe.

Darcy-Smith unfolds these early scenes with precision and care; he’s good at suggesting that things are awry by holding a look a beat too long or catching a conversation in progress. Dave and Alice return to their family, and the unforced naturalism of the scenes with their kids create a quiet intimacy that starkly contrasts the inner turmoil of Dave, who seems to be holding something back from Alice.

A bombshell is dropped. I’ll not reveal it here; suffice it to say that the film is, ultimately, not exactly about what its trailers and advance press have indicated it is about, but something more direct and personal. We move back to Cambodia, catching glimpses of the trip, seeing a bit more of this Jeremy, but still not getting a firm grasp of what’s hiding behind his enigmatic nature.

The pieces of the puzzle are assembled slowly and methodically, and not without creating some suspense. But, after a time, we start to lost patience—is Darcy-Smith withholding information solely for the sake of withholding information? His short, punchy scenes seldom seem manipulative, not exactly; it’s more accurate to say that the audience becomes aware enough of the technique to start to see through it, and perhaps resent it.

This is not to imply that Wish You Were Here is without value. Darcy-Smith co-wrote the screenplay with co-star Felicity Price, and she wrote herself a pip of a role, hard-edged but complex—hers is a tough, terrific performance. Edgerton, so good playing strong, silent types in Animal Kingdom and Warrior, is awfully good as well; much of the film requires him to act not only his character, but his character concealing any number of things. He shines, particularly in a raw, open scene near the end of the film that gives the performance real weight.

But their work is not enough, and neither are Darcy-Smith’s flashes of blunt power and quiet resignation. Wish You Were Here tests the viewer’s patience; we keep waiting for them to get on with it, to fill in the blanks, to keep the scenes going a few more beats so we finally have a handle on what the hell’s going on. And when we finally find out, it can’t help but feel anticlimactic—these things always do. The closing scenes amount to an on-screen shrug. Those in the audience are bound to sympathize.

"Wish You Were Here" premiered tonight at the Sundance Film Festival. It also screens on 1/20, 1/21, 1/25, and 1/27.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In Theaters: "Coriolanus"

Ralph Finnes first played the role of Coriolanus on the London stage nearly a dozen years ago, and appears to have been unable to shake it—it stayed with him for all of this time, and here we have, as his feature film directorial debut, a film adaptation of the play. It’s not hard to guess why he wanted to immortalize his performance on film; it’s a decathlon for the already intense thespian, full of giant acting arias. Every word spoken to the Roman peasants drips with acidic indifference (“Get you home, you… fragments”), and when he has had enough of their accusations, his speech is powerful, rafter-shaking even—nearly as terrifying as the quiet chilliness of his proposal to ally himself with his enemy. But this isn’t a book-on-tape turn, the way some actors play their Shakespeare; his is a powerfully physicalized characterization, and even in his dialogue scenes, he’s like a coiled snake about to strike.

In Theaters: "Haywire"

So turns out, Steven Soderbergh’s bone-cracking action movie isn’t nearly the aberration you might’ve anticipated. The film, Haywire, is a fast-paced spy movie in which mixed martial arts star Gina Carano beats her way through a rather distinguished cast of supporting players—and it is, at first, a bit jarring to see the Oscar-winning filmmaker indulging an audience’s appetite for ass-kicking and glass-smashing. But once the initial shock has worn off, his familiar interests and stylistic devices begin to surface, as well as his continuing (and welcome) insistence on bringing new life and energy to wheezy old tropes. The genre gives the filmmaker a new jolt of energy; he, in return, gives it a crackling intelligence.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Theaters: "Crazy Horse"

Few clichés are more shopworn than “I’m not a stripper, I’m a dancer,” but the women who work at the Crazy Horse cabaret (“the best chic nude show on earth”) are dancers, and good ones. It’s not a bump-and-grind show; their routines are tightly choreographed and impressively produced, utilizing trick lighting and ingenious staging “to suggest, to seduce, without offering oneself.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On DVD: "The Tuskegee Airmen"

Hmmm, I wonder what could have prompted HBO Home Video to upgrade their 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen for a Blu-ray release? Looking at their slate for January, we see that it's being accompanied by the new performance film Thurgood (starring Airmen's Laurence Fishburne) and their acclaimed 1991 film The Josephine Baker Story; some kind of pre-Black History Month trilogy, perhaps? Yes, that must be it. I'm certain its January 17th Blu-ray release has nothing whatsoever to do with the theatrical release, three days later, of Red Tails, the George Lucas-financed dramatization of the Tuskegee story. Must be a coincidence!

When word first broke that Red Tails, which Lucas had reportedly been trying to make for decades, was on the way, many of us wondered why he'd bothered. HBO had, in fact, made a fine film from the story already (featuring Red Tails co-star Cuba Gooding, Jr., even), albeit one that used composite characters and stock footage (as opposed to Lucas's CG-heavy flight sequences). But returning to The Tuskegee Airmen proves it an effective and absorbing picture, with heavy emotional weight.

The WWII-era Tuskegee project was an "experiment" to see if black fighter pilots could train for, and perform in, combat conditions. We get an idea of what they're up against in the early scenes, as the north-to-south train stops to oust the black trainees to a separate car--so that they can give up their seats for German POWs. More trials come during their training, which is supervised by the racist, pompous Major Joy (played, no surprise, by Christopher McDonald), and not all of the men make it.

Their strong personalities (some would say stock characterizations) are set up early: bookworm Peoples (Allen Payne), thoughtful Cappy (Malcolm Jamal-Warner), gregarious Roberts (Cuba Gooding Jr.), charming Johns (Mekhi Phifer), and dedicated Hannibal Lee (Fishburne). The teleplay, by Paris Qualles, Trey Ellis, and Ron Hutchinson, is occasionally strained, but the scenes of barracks byplay are funny and easy-going, and they give the actors plenty to dig into.

John Lithgow is brought in as the villain with the biggest bullseye--as an utterly vile Senator who seeks to stop the program, he's not subtle, but he's awfully convincing. Gooding Jr. gives the kind of pure heart performance that won him an Oscar the following year. The Lee character's mood and ideological swings sometimes seem timed mostly to the convenience of the narrative (and its need for conflict), but Fishburne imbues him with strength and dignity. Admittedly, his anchor role is a bit thankless, compared to the showier roles of his compatriots and of Courtney B. Vance and Andre Braugher as their commanding officers.

The former makes a real weapon out of his cool, quiet delivery (watch the deliberate way he tells Peoples "I wish... there was something... I could do"), while the riveting Braugher gets the best speech in the picture. "There is no greater conflict within me," he tells a Senate subcomitte, than two simple questions: "How do I feel about my country? And how does my country feel about me?" Gooding Jr.'s Roberts puts a finer point on it: "Why would you want to fight for a country that thanks you by lynching you?" But, to his credit, Fishburne's Lee considers the question, and has an answer that many brave men and women have also come up with.

The Tuskegee Airmen has its problems--the dialogue is occasionally tinny, the use of stock footage is ill-advised, and some corny devices are employed (Lee's late-film flashbacks to his fellow airmen, complete with echoed sound, are especially egregious). But it's filled with heartfelt, direct scenes, like Braugher's testimony and an improvised landing near a chain gang, and when that music swells as the frame pans across the photos of the real men, the real heroes, it gets you. This is a story that went untold for too long; if it's being told again, well, there's worse things for George Lucas to do with his money.

"The Tuskegee Airmen" is out on Blu-ray today. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

On DVD: "Thurgood"

As a network, HBO certainly doesn't suffer for a lack of recognition (take a look at any Emmy or Cable ACE award nomination list). But not enough praise has been given the company for their increasing interest in documenting solo performances on Broadway--usually by big stars, mind you, but there's still something commendable about the fact that they're bringing high-dollar productions to audiences across the country who might not otherwise see them. That said, Will Ferrell's You're Welcome, America, Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking, and Colin Quinn's Long Story Short were all comic monologues--stand-up performances on a network that has always had a bit of a specialty that particular arena. Their recording of Thurgood, Laurence Fishburne's one-man realization of Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, is something quite different: a serious examination of an important man.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On DVD: "The Ides of March"

“Mike Morris is a politician,” the reporter (Marisa Tomei) tells the junior campaign manager (Ryan Gosling). “He will let you down, sooner or later.” That idea seemed particularly timely as George Clooney’s The Ides of March was rolling into theaters last fall; the picture is steeped in iconography and language that echo the 2008 Obama campaign (from the candidate’s Shepherd Farley-style campaign posters to mentions of “drinking the Kool-Aid”), and seemed aim squarely at a liberal audience that did, in fact, feel let down by a President who seemed, as Clooney’s Mike Morris does, like he would “make a real difference in people’s lives.” There’s an interesting movie to be made about that, but The Ides of March does not turn out to be that movie. It flirts with relevance, but is ultimately a fairly standard political thriller—albeit one made with a sense of smooth, professional craftsmanship.

Clooney’s story (which he scripted with Grant Heslov and Beau Willmon, from Willmon’s play Farragut North) is set during the week of the Ohio primary race for the Democratic presidential candidate, which has basically come down to a two-man contest between Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell), whose campaign is run by shrewd Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and Governor Morris (Clooney). Morris’s campaign manager is longtime operative Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman); Stephen Meyers (Gosling) is his number two man. The decisive race in Ohio is close, which much riding on who will get the endorsement (and delegates) of Senator Franklin Thompson, who is angling for a cabinet post. In the midst of all of this, Stephen begins a campaign trail romance with intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who turns out to be the daughter of the head of the DNC. And then things get complicated.

The film’s early scenes are its best. The script talks plain and names names, throwing around smart political talk; Meyers and Duffy’s conversation about learning to how to play the game from Republicans is sharp and lucid, while Morris’s comments from the stump about taxation and “socialism” (as well as Zara’s crack that the Republicans “can’t find a nominee that’s not a world-class fuck-up”) are tartly timely. Though some of the details of the campaign stretch credibility (no candidate could proclaim himself as indifferent to religion as Morris does and actually survive a primary for either party), its portrayl of primary politics and their backstage byplay feel authentic; a line like “I don’t care if it’s true, I just wanna hear him denying it” sounds less like Stephen Meyers and more like James Carville. Gosling and Wood’s two-scenes have a nice zing to them (reminsicent of the screwball comedy homages in his underrated Leatherheads), Clooney’s offhand sense of humor is disarming—see Hoffman and Gosling’s offstage compliments after the first debate, or the business with Wood and Gosling’s tie the morning after their first date—and he draws out some nice directorial flourishes, like the way he handles a late scene with Hoffman going into an SUV.

Every member of the cast is utterly convincing. Clooney’s smooth persona has rarely been better employed—both his playful charm and his steely directness. Gosling gets a good, hard arc to play, and he wails on it; the speed which his idealism loop-the-loops into cynicism is dazzling (watch carefully how he tells Wood “I hope not”). It’s a memorable turn, even if he calls up a wide-eyed, manic look that will make Drive viewers fear he’s about to break out the hammer. Hoffman gets a showcase scene in his hotel room, a footlights monologue that betrays the film’s stage roots, but he’s so compelling you don’t notice the scaffolding; the way he pivots from cool contempt to utter rage is what good screen acting is all about. Wright is underused, but Clooney juggles the rest of the ensemble cast with ease.

For all of its trimness and vitality, the trouble with The Ides of March is a lack of ambition. It feels, for the first half or so, like they’re really tapping into something all but impossible to articulate about the disappointments of the last three years, or (better yet) about the futility of the political system in general, as it exists right now. The picture edges right up to those ideas, but then retreats into wild-eyed, Clinton-era conspiracy theories. It moves into rather predictable potboiler territory, and that’s a shame—even if it is a good, well-executed potboiler that hits its marks dutifully.

"The Ides of March" is out tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.