Picks: Recommended with Reservations
Matchstick Men, dir. Ridley Scott. It's all in the timing of things-and that means it's all in the director's control of the pacing and logic of the shot selection. What amazed me early on in the film is how well it was paced. Within that pacing was some fine acting by Nicholas Cage, of course-but I saw the acting in service of the director's vision. For instance, when we see him cleaning feverishly early in the film, I thought of the film American Beauty-another example of a film that was all about the vision of the director. In other words, in watching a film like this I realize I am watching chess pieces moved around the chess board. I don't criticize the film because a character was not realized fully and three-dimensionally. These are all flat characters-just relax-have a good time. In Scott's film, though, he pushed the limits of vision by repeatedly using snazzy jump cuts to complement the disruptive behavior of the main character-as if to underscore every wild and crazy mannerism. But that film technique bothered me after a while. If there is a formula to this film, it is, "Move it along-just keep the pace quick and dirty!" One Sinatra song after another-just relax.
Then the plot kicks in and the "daughter" shows up, and I never believed in the daughter being his daughter-but that's okay, too, because everyone is a flat character in this film. But then as the manic plot unfolded, I began to get uneasy. And then something happened that more than irks me: the film is all about con men, but then we the audience are conned. If you wish to read on and hear my rant about this-as I give the plot away-you are welcome to do so.
As I watched the
father-daughter plot develop, I was frustrated because I did not believe the daughter
character for a minute. Everything was cutesy and manipulative. Well-no wonder!
She was in on a con that had as its mark her dear old Dad! So the con man is conned,
with the help of her Dad's partner. The shrink who works with Dad in several scenes
is in on the con, too. So the whole point of the plot is to pull out the rug from
under us and leave us with that sour taste in our mouth. You mean the whole film
I have been watching was the opposite of what it was supposed to be? Even as a
wizened film viewer I am disappointed when I am conned in this way. And then a
year later they meet again-and now we are supposed to see her as the loser and
her Dad as somehow vindicated. She pulled the con, but she did not grow as a character.
He was humiliated by her, and yet now he has the woman from the check-out counter
scenes (don't ask) waiting for him, at home, pregnant, and perfectly happy. That
seemed to be one sentimental ending, if you ask me-and then here comes another
Sinatra song! Please! Enough already! What started out as crisp and enjoyable
became convoluted and unbelievable. Can someone please explain to me-in movies
like this-why the con always works to perfection when it's the bad guys doing
the con? Do we somehow believe that people are so easily manipulated that they
can be turned inside out by that manipulation? Does the subtext of a film like
this suggest that people are like lab rats when you get right down to it?
A Mighty Wind, dir. Christopher Guest. It was easy to watch this film—a relaxing diversion, a good Friday-night experience. Best of Show (2000) it was not. The film lacked the comedic energy of that wacky cast. The two characters that were most interesting were the ones played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. They played Mitch and Mickey (a riff on 2/3 of Peter, Paul, and Mary?). Both are great comedic talents, but both were held back because of the seriousness of their roles. I loved Levy's hangdog expression and his characterization of a once-great star suffering from a severe shortage of healthy brain cells. I cared for his character, mainly because Guest knew how to film him and where to film him—and Levy's acting took care of the rest. There was no pay-off to the film. The televised concert at the end of the film was all right; it was great to know that all the performers sang and played their own music; and I enjoyed the music and the performances. But the climactic concert did not move me in the way the climax of the dog show in Best of Show integrated all the plot strands and character relationships. All of the other characters (placed either into the Folksmen or the larger musical group—a riff on The New Christy Minstrels) never were individualized, and the two characters that were featured were uninteresting. Something didn't work in this film—even though I laughed hard at many of the segments. It lacked the requisite arc of movement from set up to complications to climax to follow through. What is clear, however, is that Guest knows exactly how to make the film look like a real documentary. One of the best examples of his art is to notice the way the backgrounds of the talking heads perfectly complement the subjects. In that sense the background objects and décor become a character in the film. Production design and art production were five-star in the film. Memo to Guest: When Bob Balaban was featured in scenes, the energy level of the film dropped significantly. His monotone deadpan delivery is cloying after a while.
Open Range, dir. Kevin Costner. I found this to be an amiable, not terribly challenging return to the Western. The film is Kevin Costner’s Idea of the West—that is, the open range, the wide valleys, the cowboy on the horse, the stilted language of the cowboy (what Costner views as cowboy poetry), the courtly love tradition that dominates relationships between men and women, the myth that when men are pushed into a corner they become killing machines. This Idea of the West (a la the myth of the West), feels like a comfortable shoe in some scenes. Shades of High Noon, Unforgiven, and countless John Ford heroes are ticked off here and there. It took a while for me to warm to the film. The first shot looked like a matte shot, a bit fakey, and most of the wide-angle shots of the western landscape (read Canadian Rockies) were uninspiringly photographed. I remember The River Runs Through It and can see the marvelous golden cinematography—but not here. I never felt the landscape became a character. The dominance of heavy rains in the center of the film was reminiscent of the downpour at the end of Unforgiven. It worked in the latter film because the exterior tumult was a signifier of the hero’s inner torment; it was simply window-dressing here. In Unforgiven the key scene occurs when the hero resumes drinking. We know he is going straight to hell—and that kind of unforgiving metaphor on Eastwood’s part is nowhere in this film. Costner wants his men to be sensitive and mushy, and he makes sure we get a good taste of it here in two ponderous scenes with the beautiful Annette Benning at the end of the film. The fakiness of some of the early scenes worsened during the first scene showing the typical western town. What a dreadful, busy, unconvincing stagey set.
I did appreciate the strong friendship (mentor to student) between the Robert Duvall character (Boss) and Costner’s Charlie. I also appreciated the way the screenplay revealed secrets about their characters late in the film. Thank God there were no flashbacks to sentimentalize their past hardships—it was just one man sharing with another man. Previews of the film suggested that here are two men of few words and much common sense—and even profundity. I did think much of the dialogue, stilted as it was meant to be, was effective. But two problems. One is that Duvall was much more loquacious than I had expected. Sometimes he wouldn’t shut up. He was preachy, obvious, and talky. But when he was good—he was very good. Duvall is an American Treasure. Costner’s dialogue sounds like Costner; often his attempt to reveal emotion with a catch of the voice simply reveals his weakness—that is, his voice does not project convincingly. I know he wants to be that Western Man: he wants to become part of the seamless myth. But I don’t think it works for him.
And what was Annette Benning doing in the film? What role do women have in films like this? Another reason I appreciated Unforgiven is that Eastwood’s women were prostitutes—the vulnerable, the abused, and—in that respect—the truly innocent. With Benning we have the pull of the modern woman who at the same time is stuck in a time warp that makes no sense. All if could think of was—“Hey, that looks like Annette Benning without make-up.” Still, there were times I relaxed and moved into the world of the film. When the two men make up their mind to avenge the killing of one of their party, and the serious wounding of another, the Western formula kicked in, and I enjoyed much of their interaction.
A word about technique. There were few masterful shots in this film. One of the best was a low-angle shot of an early confrontation (two men vs. four men) shot through a section of barbed wire. That was a metaphoric shot. Too often Costner simply utilized low-angle shots (to canonize his characters), or low-angle with crane shots to move camera up, or a POV shot in town where Costner is the subject of the POV and the camera rotates around his face (in medium close-up) to show him in command of the street. So there were some nice touches—but nothing spectacular. The dominant shot was a two-shot of the two men standing on one side of the frame—both men looking off in the distance together. Now that’s Western iconography for you. A few gimmicks didn’t work: the Switzerland chocolate and Cuban cigars, the stereotypical cute dog, and the sentimentality dripping around the edges when the dog dies. That was a bit much.
When I review my notes, I am amazed at the talkiness of many of the scenes. Duvall also starred in a great film, Tender Mercies, where he said only a few sentences in the first 12 minutes. In this film, Costner’s courting goes on too long. He says too much. The scenes are imbued with excessive sentiment. There are some delights embedded in these scenes, but too often they are ruined by excess. The showdown at the OK Corral scene goes on too long as well. It begins with efficiency and believability, and each time it feels just right suddenly Costner is emptying his two six-shooters (shooting at least seven shots from each, it seems). Then another believable scene: when Costner dispatches a scared young thug holding the woman of his heart hostage. The reaction shot of Costner after this climactic moment was the one time in the film when I thought the film lived up to Unforgiven. But then that dropped away into a long-running gun battle, town members included, that made no sense at all. In the climactic scene Costner reaches into his magician’s bag for the worst of all techniques: slow-motion! And then after the climactic action Duvall’s character stands there and preaches another sermon on cowboy virtue. I could not believe where Costner proposes to Annette Benning—but again, this is Kevin Costner’s idea of the Western Hero. “You’re the handsomest woman I ever saw!” Then there’s the kiss—haltingly at first, and then in a flash it jumps to the 21st century. This is called having your myth and beating a dead horse, too. (Better than Average)
dir. David Cronenberg. [Technically, this is a better film than this
category--but I place it here because of the concerns I raise below.] I felt robbed
after watching this film, and the only way I can talk about it in this review
is to sooner or later reveal what happened--not in the revelation of any details
of the plot, but in a revelation of the true nature of the character. The premise
of the film is to show us a psychotic young man. Our first question: what caused
this wreck of a man? But as the film plays out, we never get the answer to this
question-although we get a clue that it may have something to do with the way
his emerging fear of sexuality shattered his relationship with his mother. What
do we get? We are shown the bizarre behaviors of a psychotic young man, recently
released from a mental hospital. We watch a riveting performance by Ralph Fiennes
as the character. Some strange things begin to happen as he engages in a version
of life review. In the past we see him as a boy, and we see his parents interacting
with him. But in an Annie-Hall-like twist, we see the adult version of Spider
watching the child version of Spider. Of course, none of the characters from the
past acknowledges his presence. He moves through the world of the past like a
ghost. These scenes are compared to scenes of the young man in the present lurking
about the neighborhood around the run-down building he stays in with other societal
rejects. In one of scene from the present he visits a vegetable patch adjacent
to some old potting sheds and writhes on the tilled ground--as if revisiting a
grave from his past. Then even stranger things begin to happen. At first the boy's
relationship with his mother is idealized. She is a prim and proper woman, and
the boy seems the light of her life. But when the mother and father begin to engage
in intimacy, the boy's attitude begins to change. In an early scene the mother
asks the boy to fetch his dad from the pub. But when the boy goes there, he has
an intriguing interaction with three prostitutes. They tease him, and yet he seems
mesmerized by their vulgarity. The next time we see one of those prostitutes,
she has become a vulgar version of his mother. This version of the mother is a
tart. Her teeth are dirty, she wears excessive mascara, and she speaks with a
thick lower-class accent. Even worse, he boy's father wants to have sex with that
No doubt this is a confounding business to figure out what all of this means. Perhaps we have been conditioned by other films-the latest being Antwone Fisher-to expect that we will learn the source of the main character's psychosis. In other words, we watch a film like this one and await the revelation of childhood abuse. After all, some childhood trauma must have happened to the character to make him such a physical, emotional, and psychological wreck. We see this man and we cry out, "Someone turned him into this nearly catatonic state." Unfortunately, that desire to grasp the source of the psychosis is a red herring for the viewer.
It all starts with a trick that is played upon us with the opening credits. We see a series of images of what appears to be discernible patterns in wallpaper, brick walls, doors--all of which remind us Rorschach ink blots. What do we see when we look at those images? Do we see a pattern in the stain on the wall, the lines of the wallpaper, the combination of bricks and mortar on a wall? Of course, what we "see" in the context of this film is the question, "What evil person abused this young man?" But by taking that approach we miss the other possibility--that the young man turned himself into this hollow man.
At one point, I wrote in my notes, "Are we simply watching a psychotic man?" The answer is, "Yes." I am reminded of my response to A Beautiful Mind. When it is revealed that the psychotic mathematician never worked for the CIA (it was all a product of his delusions), I was of two minds: 1) I was impressed that the director showed us psychosis from the inside/out, but 2) I was frustrated that I was duped in order to understand that truth. Films take place in the present tense, we can trust the surfaces of that "now" (including the narration offered to us through the main character's eyes), and we tend to believe what we see. A film like this reminds me also of the famous 28-minute film often used in introductory film courses back in the 1980s. That film was An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge. In that film a confederate soldier is captured, and his captors hang him from a rope attached to a beam on the bridge. But at the moment the rope is tightened, it breaks, and the condemned man drops into the water. Miraculously, he frees his hands from the ropes, swims away, and survives numerous shots taken at him from the banks of the river. He escapes. He runs through the forest. Eventually, he finds his way back to his small plantation home. He walks up the avenue of trees and sees his beautiful wife, wearing a hoop skirt, standing on the porch. He approaches her, she reaches out her arms, and at the moment of the embrace he suddenly is pulled backwards as if by an invisible force--and we cut away to the dead man hanging on the end of the rope attached to Owl Creek Bridge. In other words, most of that film takes place in a split second of the consciousness of this soldier. So the audience is tricked. It's a great example of how film time can expand real time. But it's only a technical trick, something to teach undergraduates. I felt the same way about Spider. Okay. So you fooled me.
As I waited to figure out what was really happening in the film, I kept thinking to myself, "I need some information--and I need it soon--to help me grasp the nature of this man's pain. Only later did I realize I was asking for the impossible. I had to sit through the unknowable until a final revelation of plot showed me what I should have suspected all along-that the young man's exploration of the past was unreliable, twisted, and a mirror of his present psychotic state. Oh, but the power of our assumptions. Halfway through the film, when the father sits down with the boy and tenderly asks him why he would ever think that he murdered the boy's mother, most of the people in the audience laughed nervously because they all thought (based on how film works) that the father actually did murder the boy's mother. That was the last gasp of the implicit bond between filmmaker and audience. I prefer the rule, "Thou shalt not dupe the audience." Perhaps this film would have been better as a 28-minute technical exercise to help undergraduates understand another dimension about the possibilities of film.
View from the Top, dir. Bruno Barreto. This film clearly is a Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle. She is the reason to see the film, and for the most part she makes the effort worthwhile. For the most part, the film is a mediocre story of the poor girl who escapes the small town and finds fulfillment in a career. Throw in a love story, and you have the formula down pat. A good Friday-night film-but nothing memorable. Paltrow's voice-over leads us through the film-an effective device for this type of film-and her acting skills carry the day. With every clothing change, and with every hairstyle change, this actor captures the essence of her character. She always fits the parameters of the scene. I also enjoyed the color scheme of the production design--bright colors, pastels, colors that reminded me of the 1950s and 1960s. I appreciated the story of women who are seeking fulfillment in their careers. The main character had a hero-an older woman who had made it to the top and could be her mentor. Candice Bergen was a natural for this role. Unfortunately, the film also starred Mike Myers. In his first scenes he added some humor and punch to the proceedings; but afterwards, I realized that each time he appeared the film ground to a halt. His brand of humor, and his unnecessarily bizarre characterization of the failed flight attendant who becomes the star teacher of flight attendants, was out of place in the film. In short, he was not needed. The love story, between Paltrow's character and Mark Ruffalo's character, was cute but one-dimensional. Ruffalo was great as a mixed-up young man in You Can Count on Me, but in this film he was never given an opportunity to even become a three-dimensional character. He is simply there--as background. Okay--so there was a lot wrong with this movie. Okay--there were too many tried-and-true formulas in this movie. Still, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it.
Yossi and Jagger, dir. Eytan Fox (Israel, 2002). The core of this film is a love story between two Israeli soldiers stationed on the Lebanese border. But despite the quality of this core story, the use of digital video—and the constant shakiness of the handheld camera—ruined much of the pleasure of this film. The video production quality often resulted in washed out colors and ghost images in fast-moving action scenes; and the constant zooming in and out on people in scenes became wearisome. Still, at the core this film the love between the burly Yossi and the ruggedly handsome Jagger (knickname for Lior—after the rock star Mick Jagger), is beautiful to watch. The first romantic interlude occurs early in the film, and is spurred by a snowball fight between the two men. What can the two men do now that they love each other? Yossi is a career soldier. Yagger’s hitch will be over soon. Yagger wants to move away from Israel and live openly. Yossi cannot make that kind of commitment. The other soldiers in the outpost are not nearly as interesting—except for one who has Lebanese roots. Much of the early section of the film goes by in a blur of male-to-male conversations and then the arrival of two lovely young female soldiers—one who is a kept woman of the colonel and the other who has a crush on Yagger. There are references to “faggots,” a Colonel who remarks that “war is always good,” and and there is a scene that focuses on the young woman’s yearning for Yagger. Now the plot demands that a dangerous ambush be required for that evening—and Yossi will command it. Of course, Yagger has to die. There was not doubt that the screenplay was taking us down that road. The heart of that scene is the interaction between the two lovers after Yagger is wounded. It is beautifully acted, and perhaps here the intimacy of digital video works best—framing the two men in the shot, Yossi declaring his love for Yagger (while a medic kneeling over Yagger reacts), and then Yossi kissing the dead man softly on his lips. Yes, that was a beautiful moment, and yet moments like this cannot carry an entire film. The film ends abruptly (and this is a short film—less than 70 minutes) in the home of Yagger. His parents welcome the members of his unit, and the young woman who wanted to date Yagger declares that she thinks Jagger cared for her too. So the family has a “girlfriend” in front of them. That makes sense. Having a “boyfriend” or “male lover” in front of them would not be acceptable. And Yossi knows it. He sits there awkwardly and has to listen to this mundane heterocentric conversation and not break down and cry in front of the family. What would they think? He is, however, able to tell the mother what her son’s favorite music was (in romantic scene between the two lovers that song was brought up). This moment is poignant, believable, and is further evidence of many societies’ repression of the love between gays and lesbians. I could not help but feel sympathy and compassion for Yossi—trapped in that household and unable to tell anyone his true feelings.
Recommended, with Reservations A-L