26 February 2008

Vantage Point

About halfway through the film, the groans started. The audience was audibly frustrated, and they had no qualms expressing it. By the third or fourth time that the film “Vantage Point” rewound to start the events over again from someone else’s perspective, that frustration was starting to get loud.
Such is the inherent problem with the gimmick behind the film. The basic premise, of at least the first hour, is that you will see several different viewpoints of a presidential assassination and terrorist bombing during an international summit in Spain. Owing an obvious debt to Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” the goal is that each viewpoint holds different clues to unraveling the mystery at hand, which in this case is who assassinated the president and set off the bomb.
You’ve got the secret service agent Thomas Barnes, played with an ever-present grimace by Dennis Quaid. There’s an American tourist, Howard Lewis, played by last year’s Best Actor winner Forest Whitaker. There’s a Spanish police officer, Enrique, who is enigmatic and possibly useless to the story.
And let’s not forget the President (William Hurt) and the terrorists themselves, who occupy the last frame of reference. Between each section, the director employs a rather obnoxious and obvious rewind effect and then displays a ticking clock showing us that we’ve gone back to the beginning. After a while it feels like several episodes of “24.”
But the clock is not the only thing that makes the film feel like television. Each section ends with a cliffhanger, and it starts to feel very contrived. There’s enough to this story to keep us interested, so why rely on artificial suspense?
There are some merits to the style, though. It’s a fresh take on what could (or might be) a very average story. And we are allowed the perspective of people who would not normally be caught up in a thriller like this.
It could be done well, but it gets to be a little too messy. The timelines don’t always match up and the aforementioned rewind effect and other elements tend to dumb it down a little, as if we could not pick up on it on our own.
Luckily, after an hour, that technique is exhausted and we get to the payoff: a thirty-minute non-stop action sequence that is meticulously choreographed and finally gives us the gratification the audience deserves by then. Car chases, espionage, betrayals, kidnappings, murder, all boiled down into a frenetic and tight scene that almost makes up for what’s gone before.
When it all comes together, it makes sense and we can sit back and enjoy. It just makes you wish the rest of the film had just dispensed with the gimmick that it could not employ flawlessly. There’s the end of a good movie here, but you have to settle for less in order to get there.
It takes expert filmmakers to pull off the kind of film that director Pete Travis has tried to present here. You have to have a certain respect for your audience’s intelligence and a strong sense of narrative momentum. I’m just not sure those involved were up to the task this time.

23 February 2008

The Best Films of 2007

It was a great year for film. No doubt about it. About midway through the fall I started to worry: I haven’t written a bad review in a while. Am I losing my edge? My credibility? My discretion? I was writing one good review after another. But they deserved them. I can’t remember a time so saturated with good cinema as this year has. There were a lot to choose from, but here’s my favorites.

The Top Ten

1. There Will Be Blood - The most ambitious, audacious, epic, classic, groundbreaking, thoughtful, evocative, engrossing, and memorable film of the year. This film is a cut above in so many ways. If you haven’t seen it, go. Now.

2. Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street- It’s my favorite musical. Perhaps there’s no way I couldn’t have enjoyed it. But I also know all the ways it could’ve gone wrong. And it didn’t. Wonderfully performed and visually rich. And Tim Burton has never been better.

3. Ratatouille- I don’t think I’ve ever used the word sublime in print before, but I will now. Because I think that’s the best word to describe the joy at work in this film. Artistically, the most fully realized and satisfying computer animated movie ever. All that would be enough to make the list, but on top of that it’s incredibly enjoyable. I’m convinced that if this film doesn’t warm your heart, you don’t have one.

4. I’m Not There- Bob Dylan is my artistic hero. One of the reasons for that is his refusal to be pigeonholed, to give into the impulse to satisfy anyone. He is solely ruled by his own artistic instincts, a quality I hope I could develop one day. Therefore, there’s no way to do justice to such a man by making a movie trying to depict him as just one man. Six actors was the right way to do it. Todd Haynes has given the biopic a well-deserved kick in the pants.

5. No Country for Old Men- I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said. Well acted, excellently adapted, deftly directed. The consistent mood sustained in this film creates an atmosphere I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. And I liked the ending, for the record, because the movie’s conclusion is correct. What can you really do in the face of such irrational, senseless violence?

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford- One of the most underappreciated movies of the year. Surprisingly good performances all around in what amounts to our American version of the story of Judas. It’s at once a legend and a deconstruction of that legend, with images that tap into our collective American unconscious. Watching it is an experience unlike any other.

7. Atonement- The movie was marketed incorrectly, I think, as a kind of classic wartime romantic drama. There are elements of that, to be sure, particularly in the central love story. But to boil the movie down to that would be an injustice. It’s much more complex than you would expect, with a final message that’s artistically relevant and heartbreaking at the same time.

8. Once- The simplicity of this film gives it a charm not found in any of the big studio releases this year. It might not reinvent the genre, but it does unearth a kind of musical that doesn’t rely on big dance numbers and operatic discourse. More than any other musical, here the characters are truly singing from the heart.

9. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead- one of the most straightforwardly tragic and intense dramas in recent memory. The display of acting here is an achievement in itself, and Sidney Lumet doesn’t pull any punches in his old age. It’s brutal and sorrowful, like a Greek tragedy, but with the kind of energy of a truly modern story.

10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly- Kudos to the filmmakers for turning what might have been an average sob story into a truly unique experience. A story that’s always engaging with emotion that’s not the least bit artificial. And Max von Sydow will break your heart.

The Second Tier

11. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days- Really brutal, at times painful and frustrating, in terms of the characters and their choices. Artistically, confident and thoughtful direction never shy away from the harsh realities.

12. Lars and the Real Girl- one of the best original screenplays of the year. It’s genuinely moving, with a tenderness found in few films of the past few years.

13. Across the Universe- a fitting companion to the musical innovations of the greatest band in history. A weak story is forgiven by surreal musical numbers that never cease to surprise.

14. 3:10 to Yuma- A hopeful sign that exciting, thrilling Westerns are making a comeback. This is the genre we Americans do best. It’s about time we got back to it.

15. The Savages- A serious comedy indeed. It feels real and genuine, with one of Laura Linney’s best performances.

16. The Bourne Ultimatum- the smartest action movie in years. It’s good to see such a well-made product in such an underappreciated genre.

17. Michael Clayton- a fine directing debut for Tony Gilroy. It could be called a thriller, I suppose, as some do classify it. But it’s much more thoughtful than that label would suggest.

18. Juno- A little overrated, I have to say, but a good film nonetheless. The script drove me nuts sometimes, but it’s much more emotionally complex than I originally gave it credit for. Good performances all around, and good to see the Arrested Development alumni thriving.

19. Into the Wild- from Sean Penn, I had expected a politically liberal hippie tribute/odyssey, but what I found was a film that refused to glorify this flawed person, mourned the tragedy of wasted potential, and managed to make him into a hero.

20. Romance and Cigarettes- John Turturro’s crazy surreal/realist musical is hard to classify, even harder to judge. For sheer audacity and experimentation, it earns a place here. Though the ending is a mess, it’s one of the most artistically brave movies this year.

Honorable Mention

21. Grindhouse
22. Charlie Wilson’s War
23. The Darjeeling Limited
24. No End in Sight
25. Eastern Promises

Guilty Pleasure of the Year Award:

Worst film of the year (tie):
Year of the Dog

10 February 2008


Roy Scheider
"I can do anything. I'm the chief of police."

Youth Without Youth

I’m starting to think that Francis Ford Coppola wants to be immortal. Two of his last three films, though they span over a decade, deal with the trouble of aging. The peculiar “Jack” starring Robin Williams depicted a boy who ages at several times the normal rate, and so becomes a boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. Now, with “Youth Without Youth,” his commentary on aging becomes even stranger, and incredibly convoluted.
The director of “The Godfather” brings us the story of Dominic, played by Tim Roth, a professor who we first see at age 70 in 1938. He is struck by lightning and suffers terrible burns, but when the doctors remove the bandages, he looks no more than 35 or 40 years old. The doctors are baffled, but the appearance of Dominic’s strange doppelganger, seen only to him, seems to hint that Dominic knows more than he is telling.
With the renewed youth come strange powers, none of which are explicitly explained. He can sometimes see the future, read books without opening them, or read minds. His abilities and reverse aging make him the target of a mad Nazi scientist who is doing experiments with electricity to change human evolution.
The aforementioned story takes the first half of the film. Throughout, Dominic keeps trying to finish his “life’s work,” which is a study of the origin of language and human consciousness. This study comes into the foreground in the second half of the film, which seems to be another film entirely.
That hour shows Dominic encountering a woman who randomly starts spouting ancient languages. She keeps regressing back to older and older tongues, and Dominic thinks she will eventually arrive at the first language. He is excited to complete his research, but when she begins to age at a rapid rate, he knows he cannot sacrifice her for his work.
I have given a great deal of plot synopsis, which I normally don’t like to do, but I feel that doing so for this film is a personal achievement in itself. The film’s editing and cinematography make following the narrative difficult, with two Dominics often wandering the same frame, or flashing back to different parts of Dominic’s life, which, since he aged backwards, are difficult to distinguish.
I could easily call the film a mess, and it probably is. Yet Coppola still has that kind of directorial confidence that makes me still wonder if there was something I didn’t see, if there was something he was hiding from me. I almost feel stupid that I didn’t “get it,” but then again maybe it’s not meant to be “got.” Either way, I can’t say it was a very satisfying cinematic experience.
If the story I told confused you, then the ending won’t help. I am always very annoyed by films that end with the doubt that everything that happened before may not have actually occurred. Indeed, we are not even sure when the ending happens in the long, complicated chronology. If Coppola meant to give us a grand statement on human consciousness or existence, then I have to say he has failed. There may be something to this film, but I just don’t think I have the patience to try to revisit it again.