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This is Not a Watchman Review

[published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The world doesn’t need another Watchmen review. Everyone with access to a preview screening and a web page has already done one. The world is not short of opinions and the web doesn’t seem to differentiate between considered responses and emotional reflex put to words, though you can find some of the better ones here (thanks to David Hudson at The Daily @ IFC.com for wading through the onslaught to pick out the more interesting responses).

So this is not a Watchmen review. It’s a consideration of what the film is and how it got that way: perhaps the most faithful cinematic replica of a comic book experience every accomplished.

Here is my question: why would anyone want that? I have the graphic novel. I’ve read it a few times and can pick it up anytime I want to.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

I go to the movies to be immersed, impressed, awed, engaged. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen feels like a film made to deliver a sense of comfort that everything is exactly as you remember from the graphic novel. The character stories and arcs are all there, along with the complex backstories and the alternate history of America. The signature images from the comic books are all on display: the marvelous costume designs (which in some cases evoke comic-book silliness and garish impracticality of yesteryear costumed heroes), Doctor Manhattan’s Mars Fortress of Solitude, Archie the Nite Owl’s ship. In an interview Alan Moore gave to Wired Magazine, he complained that no film could get the texture of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Maybe, but I can’t image anyone getting closer.

Yes, Snyder streamlined the story and judiciously edited out certain subplots and side-stories (notably the “Tales from the Black Freighter,” which will be released on a separate DVD later this month and is promised to be returned to the DVD release – though fans of the comic will notice that the news agent and the comic-book fan are present in a few shots). And he even dared to change the details of Moore’s original ending, twisting it with an insight so perceptive that one wonders if Moore would have done the same had it occurred to him, so beautifully does it wrap itself within the self-contained mythology and the character dynamics.

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“Hobson’s Choice” – DVD for the Week 2/17/09

Hobson's Choice
Criterion's "Hobson's Choice"

My affection for the cinema of David Lean is decidedly equivocal. He practically defines the British “Tradition of Quality” strain of filmmaking that favors taste and literary pedigree over personal sensibility and stylistic adventure. You’ll never find the fierce authorial intelligence or cinematic thrill of Alfred Hitchcock, or the fearlessly romantic imagery or wild heartiness of Michael Powell, in a David Lean film. I’m respectful of the crisp professionalism of Brief Encounter but not moved by the encounter. On the other hand, neither Hitch nor Powell could have created an epic work with the mythic dimension and human grounding and sheer visual sweep and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia. And the wide-eyed charge and understated warmth (not to mention a genuinely Dickensian cast for a big screen incarnation of the colorful supporting characters) he brings to Great Expectations pumps the blood through the smartly adapted script.

With Hobson’s Choice (1954), Lean brings broad humor and light satire to the “Tradition of Quality.” As in his Dickens adaptations, there is a sharp sense of class distinction and the safe distance of period filmmaking with which to make it. But he also plays off those great expectations of period seriousness in the opening scenes, as the prowling camera establishes the deserted cobblestone streets and the signs on the shop windows on a rainy night before slipping inside the quaint 19th century boot shop to take inventory of the fashionable boots and smart shoes on display. The stillness is cracked by a pounding thump and a whip pan to the skylight, where a branch is thrashing in the wind. Then a human shadow falls ominously upon the shop door. It’s a moment right out of Great Expectations, until that shape belches and stumbles through the door to reveal Charles Laughton in comic mode, playing the drunk and loudly slurring his protestations as his daughter tries to whisk him off to bed.

Laughton is comically tyrannical as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower who huffs away with arrogance and indignation at the three daughters who work his shop as unpaid employees. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, is more babysitter and nurse than daughter at home, and more accountant and manager than employee at work. She decides there’s more to life and plots her escape from Hobson’s tyranny. Willie, the meek bootmaker and unappreciated sculptor with leather, is key to her plan. John Mills, so marvelous as the adult Pip in Lean’s Great Expectations, plays the nervous Willie as a man who has aged into a such sense of inferiority that Maggie has to literally drive it out of him.

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“The Midnight Meat Train” – The Pitiless Order in Clive Barker’s Horror Universe

[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The Midnight Meat Train. What a perfectly descriptive and accurate title. The name alone should have secured this Clive Barker adaptation a theatrical release. In a youth film culture that has embraced increasingly violent and sadistic horror films, especially those that linger on acts of inhuman brutality and excruciatingly endured mutilations (quite accurately dubbed “torture porn”), what’s not to like about a film about a silent butcher who bludgeons the passengers of a late-night subway ride, preps the carcasses like slaughtered cattle and hangs them like sides of beef? Lionsgate, which turned the trap-and-torture Saw series into a lucrative franchise, apparently thought this was too much and dumped it directly into a hundred or so second-run theaters last fall, a nominal theatrical release in advance of the inevitable unrated DVD. Because the film was released direct to sub-run houses without a press screening, most newspapers never bothered to review the film. Most of the commentary comes from fan-ish websites and online genre hubs, where the focus is largely on the film’s effects and scare tactics.

Not to make too much of the film, which I caught up with via the unrated DVD, but it’s a gnarly little horror that delivers the grotesque spectacle without the usual brand of sadism. The Butcher, a silent, imposing slab of a man played with impassive focus by Vinnie Jones, kills his victims quickly and efficiently by design (a few put up a fight and take longer), dispatching most with a single blow from a steel hammer. Neither homicidal maniac nor bloodthirsty ghoul, he’s an unspeaking, unemotional servant, a man on a mission that he executes without pleasure or remorse.

Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train
Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train

The Butcher (identified as Mahogony in the credits but unnamed in the film) is the film’s bogeyman, an ominous golem who patiently and deliberately stakes out his space in the chaos of activity around him. Leon (Bradley Cooper), a street photographer who chases police calls for a living but prefers to document the underbelly of urban life (“I want to capture the heart of the city,” he explains to coolly powerful art world maven Brooke Shields), is the nominal hero. In terms of this film, it means he becomes obsessed with the Butcher, shadowing his movements from home (a gloomy hotel) to work (a commercial slaughterhouse hidden in a dinghy alley) to his nightly nocturnal rides on the subway. His waitress girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) is disturbed by his obsession, which takes root in his mind like an infection. Or maybe it’s a kind of vaccine. After surviving one run-in at the slaughterhouse, Leon follows the Butcher on a midnight ride and catches him in the act on a subway train, and is in turn caught by the Butcher, who… lets him go. With a rune carved in his chest. A warning? Or part of a transformation? (The ordeal has already given this once-vegan a taste for beef. Cooked rare.)

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“Chocolate” – DVD for the Week 2/10/09

Chocolate
Chocolate

It may seem peevish to choose Prachya Pinkaew’s Thai action film over a pair of Luis Bunuel masterpieces or a Clint Eastwood box set or even Eric Rohmer’s latest delight. So be it. I concede that The Exterminating Angel is arguably the essential release of the week and that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is a small release of a major film from a living treasure. But it’s just more fun to write about Chocolate.

Prachya Pinkaew put Thailand action cinema on the international map with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong), the martial arts movies that introduced stuntman Tony Jaa as an action hero. Like the martial classics of the seventies, these films threw stories together merely as an excuse to showcase the prowess of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Chocolate has a clever premise – the autistic (or “special”) daughter of a retired Thai gang woman turns out to be a martial arts savant, absorbing the lessons of the martial arts studio next door and the action movies she devours on TV – but it’s little more than an excuse to showcase Pinkaew’s latest discovery: JeeJa (also spelled JiJa) Yanin, a slip of a twenty-something woman playing the teenage dynamo named Zen.

Zen is the offspring of Zin (Ammara Siripong), a wild child on the Thai streets, and her Yakuza lover Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), who incurs the wrath of local crime boss, No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) and is exiled back to Japan before his child is born. Zen is preternaturally attuned to the slightest sounds and movements around her and she obsessively watches martial arts movies (in particular, Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior), rewinding the fight scenes to catch all the moves. Her childhood buddy/honorary big brother Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) finds a way to turn her moves and hyper-senses into street-fair theater, playing barker while Zen catches objects out of the air without even turning her head. It’s all to pay for Zin’s hospital bills (did I mention she has cancer?) and Moom finds a potential payday when he finds a secret accounts book noting all these businessmen crooks who owe Zin money. Of course, they refuse to pay. Of course, Zen busts out her moves when every one of their manual laborers turns out to double as a henchman and unending streams of fighters converge on this diminutive girl. In one fight in an open-air butcher market, they brandish cleavers. Could you make her any more of an underdog?

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“Gumshoe,” “Five,” “Our Man in Havana” and Martini Movies – DVDs for the Week 2/3/09

What exactly is a “Martini Movie”? Sony hasn’t really explained the meaning behind the moniker it’s used to brand a collection of otherwise unrelated films from the Columbia Pictures catalogue. But based on the promotional featurettes the Sony has whipped up for each of the now ten DVDs released that imprint, a “Martini Movie” is a cinematic cocktail made up of varying measures of hard-boiled attitude, sardonic self-awareness, nostalgic naiveté and campy exaggeration. And, according the cocktail recipes printed on each disc, these are movies best seen under alcoholic lubrication.

Whether or not that’s an accurate overview of the first wave released in October 2008, which included the sub-Gilda noir exotica Affair in Trinidad with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, the racketeer drama The Garment Jungle with Lee J. Cobb and Sidney Lumet’s witty 1971 heist film The Anderson Tapes, it’s a downright disingenuous appellation for at least some of the films released under that brand on DVD this week. The five films in this eccentric collection are the hipster youth generation satire Getting Straight with Elliot Gould; the Jeff Goldblum psychics-on-the-run comedy Vibes (notable as the feature debut of Cindi “She-Bop” Lauper); Stephen Frears’ first film Gumshoe with Albert Finney; and the first-ever home video releases of Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five and Carol Reed’s 1959 spy satire Our Man in Havana. It’s this latter trio of titles, minor classics debuting with little fanfare in bare-bones editions, that I hope to draw a little attention to.

“I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and play Las Vegas.” So proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic, to his therapist in the opening scene of Gumshoe (1971). But he’ll settle for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (no divorce cases), his present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call from a client, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from The Fat Man includes ₤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie’s no P-I and he knows it, but when his brother gets him canned from his only paying gig, there’s nothing stopping him from following the trail to the end of the line.

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Review: Gumshoe

Albert Finney
Albert Finney plays hard-boiled

[originally published in Movietone News, May/June 1972]

“SAM SPADE: Ginley’s the Name—Gumshoe’s the Game.” After a year of psychoanalysis, brought on by his girlfriend’s marrying his brother and terminated by his genial conclusion that the shrink is “off his head,” Eddie Ginley places the foregoing advert in a Liverpool paper. His breakfast-time reading is The Thin Man and his running patter — when not actually performing his job as emcee at a bingo club — is case-hardened Humphrey Bogart. His own voiceover commentary (“For everyone else in Liverpool it was just another Friday morning…”) eases into boyish practicality long enough to make clear Eddie doesn’t expect to be taken seriously: when a phone call sends him to that hotel room to receive a wrapped parcel from a Fat Man smoking a cigar on the other side of a tall chair, he assumes it’s just his mates’ way of slipping him a birthday present (he’s making the gloomy turn to 31). The package proves to contain a thousand pounds, a girl’s photograph, and a revolver to—presumably—do her in.

From the opening titles, nicely evocative of the old Universal Sherlock Holmes credits, Gumshoe is a minor masterpiece of faultless footwork, treading with absolute conviction that high wire of stylistic commitment with clinical absurdity lying to one side and shallow sendup to the other. Stephen Frears’ direction, Neville Smith’s dialogue, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music all take that necessary chance of pushing just a little too far, which is the only way to push far enough. But as much talent as these gentlemen evidence, Gumshoe would only be charmingly lightweight without the rigor and intensity of Albert Finney as a standup comic in a trenchcoat trying to come of age. It’s tempting to speculate on the origins of Gumshoe, and how much Eddie Ginley might have been conceived and written for Albert Finney, who was last seen in his directorial debut, Charlie Bubbles, climbing into an utterly improbable carnival balloon and sailing up out of all his insoluble problems. Charlie Bubbles moved some observers, appalled others (I stood among the latter), but it will be worth re-viewing if only to strengthen one’s appreciation of this new gem. There Charlie/Finney’s estranged wife was superbly played by Billie Whitelaw; here she plays Eddie’s lost love, to whom he repairs now and again for psychic rearmament — to stage a smoky, piano-playing, late-night reunion or to be kissed goodbye/kissed off at a railway station. In the incestuous way of private-eye thriller plotting, Gumshoe enables Eddie Ginley to pay off, by means of melodramatic ingenuity, those very psychic wounds that have necessitated his fantasy-embracing lifestyle. The ambiguity of the last lengthy shot — whether Eddie has been trapped forever in his dreamworld or whether he has taken a decisive step toward adulthood — is profound rather than facile, and thoroughly earned.

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“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” – DVD for the Week 1/27/09

Is Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired in fact the “DVD of the Week” this week? I mean, is it the standout film this week, or an overlooked masterpiece, or a superior use of the DVD medium? Or am I just reaching to fill the slot of a weekly feature?

Some of the latter, possibly. Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week and it is probably the best new film of the week, while Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd make their respective DVD debuts as well. All of them in simple movie-only editions (as if the Woodman would ever offer a commentary track). And my favorite release of the week is Shout! Factory’s three-disc set of The Secret Policeman’s Balls, which collects the performance films of five Amnesty International Benefit shows, from Pleasure at Her Majesty’s in 1976 (featuring members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball in 1989, featuring a rare reunion of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore among the comedy treats. The art is all onstage, however, as the films are basically no more than straight record of an event.

But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is a fascinating film and a terrific DVD. The film delves into the story of Roman Polanski’s notorious statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, his indictment on six felony charges and his subsequent flight from the U.S. in 1977. Polanski’s story reaches much farther back, of course, and is framed by his history: he survived the Holocaust that killed most of his family and endured the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and the insatiable, irresponsible media circus that hounded Polanski and recklessly smeared his reputation before the investigation discovered and arrested Charles Manson and his followers (giving the press an even more sensationalistic story). That might screw up anyone, but it hardly explains or justifies Polanski’s “relationship” (his word) with 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, plying her with drugs and alcohol before having sex with her. The film doesn’t flinch from Polanski abhorrent crimes (to which he confessed and plead guilty) and the excerpts of police interview transcripts with Polanski and Gailey are discomforting and disturbing.

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“Magnificent Obsession” – DVD of the Week 1/20/09

Deep in the second act of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, as Jane Wyman’s blind heroine Helen Hudson mourns for her lost sight after a disappointing prognosis from the world’s greatest ocular specialists in a Swiss Clinic, she steps out of her bedroom and into the drawing room of her accommodations (no tourist class for this class act). The conversation of the previous scene took place in full light, but as Helen glides into the room like a whisper the room is suddenly in shadow, as if dusk has crept up on Helen and her devoted step-daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush). “The night is the worst time,” she confesses to Joyce, her face picked out of the darkness by a sliver of rim lighting on her cheek, like a crescent moon. “It does get darker, you know. And then when I finally do get to sleep, I know that when I get up in the morning, there won’t be any dawn.” We’re not quite blind, merely drifting at the edge of her perpetual darkness, and it casts a somber atmosphere over the scene. There is no “realistic” reason for our plunge into darkness and Sirk makes no explanation as he, for a few brief moments, takes us into her twilight world. But it feels right. His use of light and color is not unlike the way the underscore builds through the scene. As Helen gropes through the apartment to reach the balcony, where her fumbling knocks a pot off the ledge and smashing into the street below, the score crescendos on the shattered pot, the physical echo of her shattered hopes as she sobs over her affliction. Like the music, Sirk conducts the light to reflect the inner world rather, not the material world. When Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) swoops in to cheer her up, the rooms lights up with him. “I’d forgotten how happy I could be,” she chokes in the brief glow of his presence. It’s doomed to be short lived in this world of grand emotions and self-sacrifice, at least until the final triumph where love does indeed conquer all.

Magnificent Obsession is the first of Douglas Sirk’s great Hollywood melodramas, a romantic tale of hubris and loss and sacrifice and rebirth in a rarified Technicolor world of storybook-pretty homes and sun-dappled preserves of nature. The setting is the lakeside village of Brightwood, part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright, but apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter’s control of his portrait’s landscape. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and constantly playing with his light as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater, while never breaking the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil.

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“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” – DVD of the Week 1/13/09

“I don’t interpret. I don’t transmit any message. I avoid expressing theories and forcing meanings. I reconstruct documents, I offer information which leaves to the spectator the entire responsibility for his own judgments.”

– Roberto Rossellini

 

This week, Criterion resurrects key productions from Roberto Rossellini’s cycle of historical films directed for television in the final act of his career. Largely overlooked in light of his legendary neorealist dramas and his more intimate dramas starring his lover Ingrid Bergman, these films are could technically be considered historical dramas, but they are nothing like the spectacles that you usually find under this genre.

 

Criterion releases four of these productions. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces

 

The film opens on the deathbed of Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister of France who has amassed a fortune in his position. The ambitious and corrupt Fouquet is jockeying to take his place (and enrich himself in the process) and the entire court is full of intrigue and plotting at the Cardinal’s illness, all figuring how to make their power play. Or so we’re told, as this information is all exposition, a dialogue serving largely to explain and explicate everything to the audience. (Rossellini also takes time to explore in detail the state of medical science: doctors passing judgment on the odor and color of the Cardinal’s urine, and prescribing more bleeding. Isn’t it lucky that they’ve measured just how much blood a man can lose and still remain alive?)

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“A Matter of Life and Death” (The Films of Michael Powell) – DVD of the Week 1/6/2009

The Collectors Choice presents A Matter of Life and Death
The Collector’s Choice presents “A Matter of Life and Death”

I’m starting the new year with something old and something new. I’ve imported my “DVD of the Week” feature from my blog, www.seanax.com, and reworked it into a focus on a single release, with links to further reviews and resources. And we start the year with the first essential DVD release of 2009.

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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There Will Be Choice: Why Gone Baby Gone Is the Best Film of 2007

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/05/2008, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that make you who you are: your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things.
–Patrick Kenzie

Gosh, what a great year 2007 was for movies. You could wipe out the Academy’s five Best Picture nominees, replace them with five others, and still have an honorable rack of best-picture candidates. One of those second five could easily be Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone—my personal vote for best film of the year.

A well-crafted film, richly deserving of the honors it has received, No Country for Old Men nevertheless too often feels like a collection of highlights from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, sometimes about one guy, sometimes about another, never matching the novel’s more focused vision. There Will Be Blood is even more all over the map—gorgeous to look at, but without the discipline of knowing where it’s coming from, where it’s headed, and what, if anything, those two points have to do with each other. Michael Clayton bounces between rich characterization and caricature, moral complexity and empty-headed mantras about corporations. Atonement seems to be about one thing, but only for the purpose of revealing ultimately that it is about something else altogether—not romance or betrayal but the power of art to liberate, and the impossibility of such liberation. And it takes that war-epic detour in the middle, as if to say, “Hey, guys, this isn’t a chick flick! Honest!” Juno is primarily about language, but uneasily so, since its characters, who are all sharply defined and mostly well-rounded, nevertheless all speak with the same voice—the impossibly quick-witted and widely experienced voice of one clever writer. And the language of the film’s characters is an end, not a means, never satisfactorily bound to the film’s moral theme about decision-making.

Gone Baby Gone is also about decision-making; but unlike the Academy’s five nominees, it is a film that from the first to the last frame never forgets what it’s about, and remains unrelentingly faithful to its theme throughout. Director Ben Affleck shows an unerring eye and a concentration of intent that makes this film really special.

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“Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader”: On the Oscar Run

Tis the season. Oscar bait season, that is, when the studios line up the major releases jockeying for spots on Top Ten lists and critics groups awards on the way to the Oscar nominations in January. Unlike the superhero movies and fantasy blockbusters and comedy vehicles that are crammed into thousands of theaters in a blanket release covering the entire country, these are often launched in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and slowly expanded into more theaters and more cities over the next couple of months (the way most movies were released, back before the era of the blockbuster changed releasing patterns forever). But to get on those lists, they are press screened to critics in major cities. Two of those films, Revolutionary Road and The Reader, have just gotten their Oscar-consideration releases (to the best of my understanding, they need to have at least a week-long theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles in the 2008 calendar to qualify for an Academy Award). These films have all the hallmarks for Oscar-bait: literary sources, “serious” themes, credentialed casts and the kinds of directors that value words over cinematic expression. While they have been racked up Golden Globe nominations, they have been conspicuously absent from major critics lists and critics groups’ awards. At their best, they are thoughtful and engaging. At their worst, they are self-important, self-conscious and stupefying.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"

Revolutionary Road is at the top (or, more accurately, the bottom) of the list of offenders. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs the adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel with such exacting (and unimaginative) control that he sucks the air from the world, like vacuum sealing it in plastic and putting it on display. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a middle class couple in the late fifties, with a carefulness that nudges out all possibility of the unexpected. These are performances – and lives – lived in quotation marks. Roger Deakins (arguably the most talented cinematographer working in American cinema today) shoots the film with a perfection that is, like the performances, too well groomed. And that I lay at the feet of Mendes, whose control smothers the film in weighty importance and foreshadows every narrative development with the cinematic equivalent of a brick through a window.

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Will Eisner, Frank Miller and “The Spirit”

“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …

“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”

– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4

Will Eisner's "The Spirit"
Will Eisner's "The Spirit"

Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.

Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the Sin City graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.

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In Praise of “Doubt” in the Certainty of Cinema

With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.

Meryl Streep has her certainty
Meryl Streep has her certainty

While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.

Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much – racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality – without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.

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“Un Conte De Noel” (“A Christmas Tale”): The Messy Joys of Family

“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)

In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.

Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.

Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve
Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve: Midnight Mass

The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).

“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years – they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.

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