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 clich├ęs. 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+


Anonymous said...

Eh. I think comparing this to Reservoir Dawgs is a little unfair and mean spirited. I don't think that the broken narrative is so much a device of the writer as much as the director and editor attempting to direct the audiences' attention and empathy on one character for their given sequences. I may be wrong. Any thoughts Wild Lines?

your secret admirer

Josh said...
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A. Dowd said...

Yes, plenty of thoughts, not-so-secret admirer.

Perhaps the Reservoir Dogs comparison is a bit superficial, though I didn’t intend it as a total slam. (I like Tarantino’s debut well enough.) Both films swirl endlessly around a botched heist, chopping up the chronology and aggressively shifting focus from one character to the next. The main difference between them lies in tone, and I ultimately prefer Quentin’s trendy nihilism to Sidney’s, if only because the former seems to openly recognize (and enjoyably revel in) the emptiness of his narrative, while the latter seems erroneously convinced that he’s made a film of weight and import. Both are skuzzy, genre distractions, but only Lumet possesses pretensions of seriousness.

As a storytelling technique, Before the Devil’s fractured, nonlinear approach is an interesting alternative to timeworn crosscutting: it narrows our focus onto individual sections (or sequences, as you call them), locking our perspective on one character or another, letting each story fragment play out without the burden of keeping the overall narrative chugging along. But what I think it actually ends up doing—and that damn Easy Rider flutter effect doesn’t help—is drawing attention to itself, reminding us at every turn that we’re watching a movie. The best crime thrillers immerse us in the panic and guilt and paranoia of the characters. I always think of Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, with its slow, masterful turning of the screws, and its bumpkin criminals in WAY over their heads. Every time I started to feel a comparable tinge of apprehension in Before the Devil the movie was doubling back on itself. That in-the-moment tension is neutered at every turn by the endless looping and slicing of time and space.

And while I agree that Lumet also employs this nonlinear approach as a tool of empathetic guidance, empathy is damn near impossible with characters this thinly sketched. What do we really learn about these people? We get the general dynamic between the brothers—Andy’s the jealous bully, Hank’s the self-loathing pushover—and we get the idea that their father is mostly to blame for all of this. But everything remains surface-level. The movie just doesn’t have time for nuances of personality, for little moments that might shed some light on who Hank and Andy REALLY are. Left to fend for themselves, the actors do what they can to breath life into archetypal figures, but they’re stranded by amateur writing. My favorite Bad Screenwriting Moment is the scene where Hoffman sits and talks about how empty his life has become, about how it’s “missing something.” This is Kelly Masterson’s idea of fleshing out his characters, of giving them shape and shade. It’s a bad speech that this pit-bull would likely never make. (Admittedly, the sashaying drug dealer’s response is pretty funny: “Get a wife or a therapist.”)

Before the Devil may be an efficient potboiler, but it’s seriously malnourished as a drama. Which would be fine, of course, if the second half didn’t drown us in malaise. And that last scene is completely unconvincing. Where’d Albert Finney’s defeated patriarch find the brass to pull that hardcore, Hitman-style stunt? It’s a showy bit of nastiness that the film doesn’t earn and it’s capped off by a stroll into blinding daylight that highlights Lumet’s attempt to transform his brisk little cheapie of a crime thriller into an epic family tragedy. It doesn’t fly.

Just my two cents. Okay, more like my buck and a quarter. Sorry, but I just don’t get all the praise that’s been dumped on this thoroughly average film.

Josh said...

Dude, it's just Clint. You can stop trying to get laid. Clint's not going to fuck you, and even so? You don't want him to.

...but seriously, I agree with everything you just said.

A. Dowd said...

I know who it is and it is not Clint. C'mon, Josh, you think Clint knows what 'empathy' is? That's artsy-fartsy talk!

It's actually a DIFFERENT Southern good-old-boy. Smart guy, quite the charmer, but he's totally wrong about this movie.

Anonymous said...

man, andrew alexander i love you.

also, you're totally wrong about this movie. the film's unique story-structure helps distingush it from other "genre-distractions" by focusing on the importance and impact an event has on one particular character. before the devil... is restrained not shallow in the way it portrays its characters, and their archetypical nature is what makes their respective descents into violent madness or resigned hopelessness more shocking and personally disturbing.

also i do realize im at least two weeks late to this particular debate.

-your big irish admirer

A. Dowd said...

This debate welcomes your thoughtful insights, you beautiful Irish bastard!

Yet I remain unconvinced of the merit of "focusing on the importance and impact an event has on one particular character" when said characters feel like index-card place-holders. ("I'll fill them in later," you can almost hear Kelly Masterson thinking, before writing that totally badass hospital scene or dropping the umpteenth "faggot" into one of Andy's deliciously callous put-down sessions).

If the characterizations are restrained, they are to the point of abstraction. It takes some big, juicy, enjoyable overracting on the parts of Hoffman and Hawke to make human beings out these brothers.

Thinking on this, as well as The Danimal's beloved Exiled, I'm reminded of how important strong character development is, even in genre films. Before the Devil SEEMS to be about these brothers, but it's really just about itself, its own structure and architecture. I could tolerate that more if we didn't have to spend so much time with them and yet still learn so little about them.

We get to know the curves of Marisa Tomei's body better than we get to know these characters... not that I'm complaining on THAT matter.

Josh said...
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Josh Staman said...
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