Monday, October 30, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Queen"

"The Queen"
Director: Stephen Frears
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 69 (Same as "Marie Antoinette" for whatever reason)
In a Nutshell: I didn't dislike Stephen Frears' "The Queen," but I need somebody to explain to me why it was made. Or, to be more specific, I need an explanation for why, nine years after Princess Diana's death, this was the time to explore the royal family's reaction to the tragedy and why, in turn, that reaction had to be a feature film, rather than a BBC or HBO telefilm. Or maybe I just need an explanation of why *this* was the movie to be made on the subject. A perfectly interesting fly-on-the-wall piece full of interesting details, unexpected humor and fine performances, "The Queen" lacks a narrative imperative, a thematic motivation.

I like Stephen Frears, "The Queen" could have been made by any number of competent directors of the British big and small screen. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, rather than Frears, drives this talky film, which spends much time explaining the protocol of British Royalty and government, exposition which is much more for the audience than for the characters on screen, which caused the former writing student in me to scream, "Show me, don't tell me!"

And, in the process, the movie bends over backwards to offend nobody. The Queen is out of touch with reality, but she's a noble woman who has spent too long in too difficult a position, a position made more difficult by the need to show love for a woman who dedicated her life to undermining her. Tony Blair is a modern man and a progressive thinker, but he holds traditional values and cares too much, perhaps, for many of the establishment institutions he swore to tear down. If "The Queen" wanted to be political, it could have made more hay from Blair's decline from leftist innovator into a man who may not best be known as George W. Bush's willing lap-dog. Instead, the movie is anonymous.

Oscar prognosticators -- folks like Jeffrey Wells, David Poland and, at the very nadir, Tom O'Neil -- love deciding the Academy races early and Mirren has already been given the Oscar for the year. Bravo. And she's great here, playing a far more muted, internalized performance than you typically see drawing this kind of awards attention. The performance is all in subtle intonation and mannerisms and how she, as the God-saved Queen, carries herself. But I suspect that Mirren is going to win an Oscar this year because she's Helen Mirren and she doesn't have an Oscar and not because this is somehow the finest performance of her career. A reasonable and possibly correct argument could be made that in the calendar year, this is Mirren's third best filmed performance, following her Emmy-winning work as a different Elizabeth in HBO's eponymous film and the latest incarnation of her "Prime Suspect" franchise. You don't see that very often.

I'd like to see more buzz, incidentally, for Michael Sheen's performance as Blair, as he manages to look both foppish and pragmatic in a very interesting way.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Prestige"

"The Prestige"
Director: Christopher Nolan
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 81
In a Nutshell: When I read Christopher Priest's novel "The Prestige," my reaction was that the book wasn't necessarily all that good, but that it ought to make a great movie. In the surface, I may not have actually been right about that. The book relies on shifting time frames and narration to perform its slight-of-hand, well aware that certain tricks are best masked by the limitations of the reader's imagination. It would take a masterful piece of adaptation to replicate the book's deception. In that context, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have done about as good a job of adapting as was humanly possible. Tightening the book's unwieldy structure, particularly its slowly unraveling conclusion and sacrificing only a few of my favorite images from the page. On screen, "The Prestige" is a much more contained text. Giving dueling magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) a tragic shared past and semi-friendship separate from what was contained in the book explains much of the rivalry that follows. The magical obsession of these two men fits "The Prestige" into Nolan's gallery of pathologically obsessed heroes, men too bent on the business of revenge to exist within the natural world. I've read complaints that the film's twists are too easy to spot, but I can't speculate on that, since I knew the answers going in. I just relished the craftsmanship Nolan uses to distribute clues while also misdirecting. I don't think the movie -- about how magicians perform tricks, about they steps they take to get to that wondrous final step... the prestige -- is really about amazing the audience at the end. It's about the audience's pleasure in knowing they're being tricked throughout. That's why the final reveals aren't supposed to be out-of-left-field-stunning like in a cheap twist film like "The Sixth Sense."

Technically, "The Prestige" is marvelous. Wally Pfister's cinematography balances the obviously glorious moments -- the opening shot is a thing of beauty, particularly if you know its meaning and the image of Angier in a field of inexplicable light bulbs also lingers -- with less showy period details and Lee Smith's editing is flawlessly complicit in Nolan's storytelling. The performances are also strong throughout, with Jackman and Bale working hard to protect two characters who are distinctly unheroic and almost impossible to identify with. As related in Priest's book, I think the casting should have been reversed, but the brothers Nolan have similarly reversed which character ends the story as the tragic anti-hero. Bale is intense and believable and this is unquestionably the finest work Jackman has ever done on the big screen, by a wide margin, I'd say. While Michael Caine's wise old engineer is a good addition from the book, the ladies are still distinctly background characters. That being said, I though Scarlett Johansson's British accent (which geographically all over the map) was passable and her appearance in period magical assistant's garb was beyond reproach.

I think "The Prestige" is a better movie than many of its reviews have been indicating and a *far* better movie than Disney has been able to market it as. For me, "The Prestige" is one of the year's very best studio releases and one of its better films overall as well.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

MovieWatch: "Flags of Our Fathers"

"Flags of our Fathers"
Director: Clint Eastwood
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: I saw "Flags of our Fathers" immediately after seeing "Running with Scissors" and in the aftermath of having plodded through Ryan Murphy's directorial clumsiness, Clint Eastwood's utter professionalism was a welcome relief. I've also spent the past week scratching my head and wondering if that juxtaposition caused me to mentally over-rate "Flags," which is a good movie, but by no means a great one. The problems begin and probably focus on screenwriters William Boyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, who had high aspirations for the movie, but never cracked the narrative puzzle of James Bradley and Ron Powers' book. The problem is that the movie is being promoted as a "Saving Private Ryan"-style "war is hell" depiction of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Front. Many of the people who criticize the movie will like denounce it in exactly those terms: It isn't as viscerally thrilling as "Saving Private Ryan," nor do the scenes of conflict get much deeper than exploring what happens to innocent young men when they're thrust into horrifying battle. That's a short-sighted view of the movie, though. The movie Eastwood wanted to make isn't about boys at war, but about three men -- Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach -- who are brought back home to be representative heroes in order to help sell bonds. The movie is a semiotic puzzle about the value of imagery -- in this case, the famous photo of the soldiers raising the flag -- and whether a reproduced image can have historic merit beyond the men or events it depicts. This is a natural topic for Eastwood, who has been mechanically reproduced in faux-heroic contexts as often as any man alive. And I applaud his desire to make his own "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (nobody says "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," but you know they're thinking it). But Eastwood and his writers know that viewers expect an extended centerpiece fight scene and even though the director doesn't sleepwalk through the battle scenes -- they're full of limbs, CGI planes and explosions and heart-breaking deaths -- you can tell that that's not the movie he wants to make and yet it has to be there anyway. So Eastwood and the writers fragment the story so that it jumps around from the present -- with an underused Thomas McCarthy as James Bradley trying to learn about his father -- to the battle, to the bond-tour afterwards, occasionally integrating flashbacks-within-flashbacks even if that strategy proves more confusing than illuminating. I think I liked the individual pieces of the movie, but as it neared its end, I began to wonder if it had made the unified argument about what "printing the legend" does to the facts.

On a technical note, the movie is marvelous and as evocative as anything Eastwood has ever shot, particularly the dark, over-saturated look of Iwo Jima contrasted with the more basic colors of life back home. The cast is deep, but beyond the three leads -- Beach has the showy part and can expect an Oscar nomination if the movie plays well, though there's much to be said for Phillippe's restraint, which makes this his most adult performance -- nobody gets much of a character. As a result, you never much figure out who the soldiers are by name, but you find yourself looking for Barry Pepper or Jamie Bell or Paul Walker just to find people to identify with.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Departed"

"The Departed"
Director: Martin Scorsese
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 75
In a Nutshell: Forgive me if I have to turn my film snob card in, but I *liked* "Gangs of New York." I don't care for Leo's accent or much that Cameron Diaz did, but I'm not prepared to dismiss its nearly unique combination of brutality and period excess (and artistry). But it's become trendy to be all "Blah, blah, blah Scorsese Wanted An Oscar blah blah blah." That may be why most critics, in their rush to hail Scorsese's "return to form" in departed are ignoring the fact that "The Departed" has taken the utterly brilliant conceit of "Infernal Affairs" and transposed it onto the father-son dynamic of "Gangs of New York," with Jack Nicholson's fiercesome scenery-chewy standing in for Daniel Day-Lewis' and Leo's erratic Boston accent standing in for Leo's erratic Irish accent. Heck, Ray Winstone stands in for Brendan Gleeson, which is about the most equal trade I can imagine. Regardless, the "Infernal Affairs" mechanics -- a cop inside the mob and a mobster inside the police department play cat and mouse -- are infused by the story of an heirless king so desperate for a son that he's willing to overlook the fact that the son will inevitably bring him down. Screenwriter William Monahan has done a good job of giving the story a Boston flavor and an string of tough guy bon mot, even if the accents are all over the map. He hasn't changed the plot very much, that's for sure. The crime lord part has been effectively beefed up for Nicholson, which was a fine decision. The dueling moles have been made younger and less experienced, which is a bit more problematic (Tony Leung's undercover cop had been inside for a number of years, which made it more plausible that he wouldn't be suspected -- that Nicholson refuses to just assume Leo's the mole is a different character wrinkle, I guess).

And Scorsese does his thing, collaborating with DP Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker to show all variety of hacky Tarantino and Tony Scott imitators how a twisty, violent thriller should be produced. More than a few times I found myself thinking of Spike Lee's "Inside Man" in the sense that neither movie reinvents the genre wheel, but they accentuate the ineptitude of something like "The Sentinel" or "Lucky Number Slevin" or "16 Blocks." The three leads -- Nicholson, DiCaprio and the always reliable Matt Damon -- are such strong personalities that it's amazing how many secondary performers are able to make impressions. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin provide comic relief without sacrificing testosterone, which isn't surprisingly in Baldwin's case, but comes off as near-revelatory in Wahlberg's. While his performance isn't specifically notable, I was also pleased to see Kim Bauer's CTU boyfriend Chase (or his real-life alter ego James Badge Dale) appearing in a major part in a major movie and not looking at all out of place [Oh and Chase's hand has grown back well]. I don't know that "The Departed" is actually a better movie than "Infernal Affairs," but that isn't an insult. I'm guessing it'll play better on a second viewing.

Friday, October 06, 2006

MovieWatch:"Running With Scissors"

"Running With Scissors"
Director: Ryan Murphy
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 50
In a Nutshell: I was not spectacularly enamored with (by?) Augusten Burroughs' memoir "Running with Scissors," which frequently felt disingenuously self-indulgent to me, but if the book has a great virtue, it's Burroughs' refusal to let the absurdist tragedy of his life ever effect the comic rhythm of his prose. Even when it's miserable, it zips along with an undeniable energy. It's unfortunately, then, that in writer-director Ryan Murphy's hands, a book that felt like it could be read in two hours has become a movie that feels like it takes 10 hours to watch. Despite TV credits -- the underrated "Popular" and the overrated "Nip/Tuck" -- that suggest a gift with mixing melodrama and pitch black comedy, Murphy only occasionally captures Burroughs' tone and never for a second does he get Burroughs pace. Murphy's problem comes out of the book, which is long on eccentric anecdotes and short on traditional emotional arc, and out of an inability to build a separate cinematic momentum. Too many scenes devolve into two characters sitting next to each other or across from each other delivered in static shot-reverse-shots that seem to go on forever. While certain images are well-realized from the book, the Murphy is never confident with camera placement, which drains impact from a number of shots. And Murphy is smart enough that he feels every lag, but inexperienced enough to believe that a cliched piece of campy classic rock can smooth things over. Whole stretches of the movie play out over one song after another, with the lyrics often over-articulating what's happening on screen. For all of his aesthetic problems, Murphy gets a slew of excellent performances, with Brian Cox and the underused Alec Baldwin standing out and Joseph Cross, as Burroughs, doing decent work as well. As in the book, the women are more arch and Annette Benning's performance will be polarizing, I'd imagine. If she hadn't done similarly affected work to Oscar-nominated effect in "American Beauty" and "Being Julia," I'd have been more impressed. This was a book that had to be adapted by a Bennett Miller or a Noah Baumbach or even a Wes Anderson. Actually, it had to be adapted by Hal Ashby or Billy Wilder, but neither was, um, available.