Thursday, December 6, 2007
Fall Movie Guide, Part I
I realized this week that I've seen far too many movies this autumn-- some great, some mediocre, some atrocious, all worthy of discussion-- to let my utter lack of free time stop me from writing about them. Sleep and sanity and other responsibilities be damned, I've decided to throw together my thoughts on this fall's cinematic output, or what I've seen of it anyway. Over the next few days, I'll be writing capsule reviews of everything I've seen from September 1st to now. That's somewhere near 30 pictures, I'd reckon. They won't be full analytical examinations of the movies, but rather just fleeting summaries of their relative flaws and merits. I'm sometimes wary of assigning a grade or letter value to a film, if only because such absolutes often stand in sharp contrast to the more complicated, less cut-and-dry feelings I have for a work. But I'm okay with using them here-- these are reviews as shards of opinion.
In any case, here's the first crop, listed alphabetically. Enjoy!
Across the Universe. A two-hour-plus Flower Power Gap ad. Like last year’s Bobby, Julie Taymor’s Fab Four musical reduces the counter-cultural movement—its music and its ideas—to nostalgic kitsch, a series of slogans and postures and Kennedy-era clichés. Freshly scrubbed teen mannequins croon hit-or-miss Beatles covers in a Disneyland version of the 1960s. Taymor packs her Broadway-ready fantasia with wall-to-wall allusions (a bowl of strawberries here, a Magical Mystery Tour there) but she never cuts to the heart of the band’s cultural impact, their mystique or their near universal appeal. Hers is a shallow jukebox tribute. Try Todd Haynes’ dense Dylan deconstruction instead. D+
American Gangster. Ridley Scott is no Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann. He proves that handily with his latest, a slick but empty crime epic that possesses neither the detail-oriented precision and pop electricity of the former’s work, nor the gritty, erratic poetry of the latter’s. Tracing the fast rise and hard fall of Frank Lucas, a powerful, real-life drug lord in 1960s Harlem, the film is long on plot, but short on energy, feeling and dramatic heft. Denzel Washington grandstands lazily as Lucas, a bigger-than-life figure that Steve Zaillian’s unwieldy screenplay fails to ever properly humanize or develop—he’s a faceless icon, not a character. (By contrast, Russell Crowe sleepwalks through as the schlubby detective on Lucas’ case.) A coldly proficient action director, Scott’s at home in the sterile corridors of empty space ships and the open plains of barren, ancient battlefields. It’s the real world—and the real, flesh-and-blood folk who occupy it—that he can’t seem to fathom. American Gangster strives for Godfather-style gravitas, but its maker hasn’t the heart or the soul for the job. C-
The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. A work of disquieting power and striking visual splendor, Andrew Dominik’s long-delayed second feature re-imagines the modern American Western as equal parts tone poem and prickly, complicated character study. It’s a genre film of the Terrence Malick variety: patient, entrancing, and deeply, rewardingly philosophical. In the performance of his career, Brad Pitt plays the infamous outlaw Jesse James as both man and legend, a loose-wire contradiction, drunk on his own mythos, yet haunted by the dawning revelation of his very real mortality. Even more remarkable is Casey Affleck as the craven, obsessive Bob Ford, drawn like a moth to James’ fading flame, his intense hero worship the movie’s first casualty. Bob and Jesses’ fates are linked from the beginning, and the film builds slowly but surely to its inevitable conclusion, unfolding like a vivid, fever-dream eulogy for a dying era. Beautiful and completely gripping from start to finish, this could damn well be the movie of the year. A
Atonement. The frenzied pitter-patter of a typewriter sets the pace instantly for this handsome and surprisingly urgent adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel. Sidestepping the mannered stiffness of Merchant & Ivory, director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) sets his watch to the quickening pulses of his young, well-to-do protagonists. There’s a charged, kinetic energy, especially, to the extended first act, during which socialite Cecilia (Kiera Knightley) falls for classmate and groundskeepers’ son Robbie (James McAvoy), while precocious, 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) watches on, gears of jealousy and confusion turning in her head. A betrayal shifts the action from a vast English estate to the French frontlines of WWII, and the film, perhaps to its detriment, widens in scope. Despite a jaw-dropping, long-take survey of the battlefield, Atonement’s a better chamber drama than it is a war movie, and one gets the distinct impression that the novel’s intricacies have been truncated and simplified for the big screen. Still, the cast is first rate (particularly Ronan, with her silent, penetrating stare) and Wright whips the could-have-been-turgid melodrama into a chaotic tempest of emotions. If but all Oscar-bait, prestige pictures could be this dynamic. B+
Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. When critics write that Sidney Lumet directs this dour, ruthlessly nihilistic crime thriller like a man half his age, what they’re really saying (whether they know it or not) is that the 81-year-old filmmaker is now dabbling in the sort of flashy, gimmicky, time-jumping pyrotechnics he blessedly avoided for most of his career. Like Reservoir Dogs recast as a King Lear family melodrama, Lumet’s latest centers on the botched robbery of a mom-and-pop jewelry store by the owners’ bitter, middle-aged, strapped-for-cash sons (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, as the two most genetically unlikely movie brothers since Twins). First-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s nonlinear storytelling—first we see the failed heist, then the planning, then the grim aftermath—is effective in tying up loose ends and revealing the “big picture,” but it consistently cuts the tension in half, drawing us out of the conflict to gawk instead at the script’s showy, Byzantine structure. Lumet’s still a master of the mundane—nobody captures the tacky clutter of boardrooms and office buildings better– and the veteran filmmaker is aided immeasurably by a commanding cast, with both Hoffman’s loutish bully and Hawke’s simpering loser given a respective driving meltdown scene to make their own. But it’s all in service of a dime store Greek tragedy, and mixing up the scene numbers can’t distract from the empty core of the thing. C+