Saturday, November 24, 2012

New to DVD...Some good, Some rancid

There are four new films out on dvd this month, all of which won critical approval. But, as my grandson reminds me, what do we critics know?

1. MOONLIGHT KINGDOM, directed by that master of quirky Wes Anderson (RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS), presents a Romeo and Juliet story where off-beat tweens fall in love and bring their whole island home into panic and eventual harmony. The style of the film is detailed and beautifully but artificially colored, as in a fairy tale. The cast includes newcomers as the tweens and a bevy of Anderson types: Bruce Willis as a sensitive cop, Bill Murray as a detached and often drunk dad, and Ed Norton as an inept but charming scout master who finally saves the day. If you liked films like RUSHMORE, this should be a treat.

2. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, directed by Lauren Greenfield, is a documentary about David A. Siegal and his wife who aspire to build their own palace based on Louis IV's Versailles. Siegal's fortune was based on luxury time-share resorts. When the filming began, the Siegals were building the largest mansion in America near Orlando, Florida. Jackie Siegal tours us through her mansion and her life, both of which are gaudy and bigger than life. As we watch we feel like doing the superiority dance. How can these people live this corruption of the American dream? How can they have such poor taste? You really have to see the film to believe the excess. Yet as the dream turns sour after the financial crash, we actually feel some sympathy for these folks, especially the children. But, not that much!


1. TAKE THIS WALTZ, directed by Sarah Polley, stars the engaging Michelle Williams as a young Canadian wife who loves her sweet husband, an appealing Seth Rogen, but is attracted to a free spirited and sexy man who just happens to live across the street. This film is vapid and filled with longing looks and fuzzy, sunlit photography that even the Hallmark Channel seems zippy in comparison.

2. MY SISTER'S SISTER, directed by Lynn Shelton, is another relationship story that falters quickly. Jack(Mark Duplass), who is still grieving his brother's death, takes a quick vacation offered by his platonic friend Iris (Emily Blunt). He thinks he will be alone but discovers Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemary de Witt) has arrived. As they get drunk together, their animosity turns into into lust. The next morning Iris arrives and Jack and Hannah desperately try to keep their tryst a secret. That's the movie, folks, except for one annoying factor....the language. I stopped counting the f words at 50, and this in the first half hour. The plot is thin, the wit is witless, and the language is blue to black.

My opinion on these last two is not shared by many. Rolling Stone loved MY SISTER'S SISTER, and NPR was high on both. Okay, I'm a fuddy-duddy, but I like stories with a plot and a purpose and dialogue that is meaningful, witty, and heartfelt. These two just don't measure up.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lincoln Meets Spielberg

Throughout his storied career, Steven Spielberg has thrilled us with shark attacks, alien encounters, and adventurers like Indiana Jones. He has also presented great moments in history to more people than any teacher or text book. Of course, his films like SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and MUNICH are his interpretations of history. His extraordinary talent as a director of action, emotional acting, and inspiring propaganda has few matches in film history. Yet there are detractors who fault Spielberg for his sentimentality (E.T., HOOK) and his occasional lapses into populism (the JURASSIC PARK series).

In his new film LINCOLN, Spielberg tackles one of the most legendary and loved figures in American history. I had qualms about how the great man would be portrayed by Spielberg. In  the film's first sequence, Lincoln is shown in an aura of shadowy lighting talking with young white and black soldiers in the field. They revere the great man and quote the Gettysburg address, as John Williams' worshipful music lifts to a crescendo.  Too much? Perhaps, but it's pure Spielberg, and it works. This sequence sets up the rest of the film as Lincoln attempts to live up to the expectations of these soldiers, slaves, and all who support the Union.

So, is LINCOLN a review of the president's last days before his assassination with a series of frozen tableaux of his achievements?  Not at all.  Instead Spielberg and his screen writer Tony Kushner (ANGELS IN AMERICA) concentrate on the passing of the 13th Amendment which would outlaw slavery for all time in America. Director and writer tread that fine line between suspense and didacticism, a line most history teachers know well. And they succeed beyond our expectations. A bevy of great actors power the furious debate in the House of Representatives. David Strathairn, who masterfully portrayed Edward R. Murrow in GOOD LUCK, AND GOOD NIGHT, is Secretary of State William Seward, a brilliant politician and true friend and advisor to Lincoln. Sally Field is Mary Lincoln and gives the part a mixture of spite and loving devotion.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's oldest son, James Spader as a Republican "activist," and the venerable Hal Holbrook as a party leader all give first-rate performances. But Tommy Lee Jones as radical Thaddeus Stevens lifts the debate in the House to hilarious levels with his blunt but truthful characterizations of his Democrat opponents.

But the film's impact rests on the shoulders of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, and he gives the part a subtle mixture of homespun wit, humility, anger, and political savvy.  What makes this version of the Lincoln legend so relevant to our congressional quagmire today? This film is about politics, good, bad, and ugly, and Abe Lincoln is right in the middle of the fight. He buys votes, hires amoral lobbyists, and persuades defeated incumbents with job appointments. But his goal is one of the greatest in American history, freedom from slavery.

Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis and their associates have created a document of living history that calls its viewers to many levels--suspense, character, and a love of history. Very few films can claim the like.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


For 50 years, the James Bond franchise has chugged along, despite aliens, star treks, teen vampires, and Hogwarts. SKYFALL, the latest in the series, is quite different from the cool, elegant, and ironic tone set by Sean Connery in the sixties and sustained by replacement Bonds for decades. In 2006, Daniel Craig became the new Bond, giving him a tough, no holds barred personality, and...he was blonde, short, and a bit declasse, in comparison with Sean Connery's Bond.

This is even more apparent in SKYFALL, in which director Sam Mendes (Oscar winner for directing AMERICAN BEAUTY) infuses melancholy and even impending death for not only Bond but also for M (played as though her life depended upon it) and for her espionage unit M-16.  Over and over, there are allusions to obsolescense or death itself.  As Bond waits for his contact with the new Q, he sits squarely in front of William Turner's masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire Being Tugged to her Berth to be broken up. When Q (a perfectly cast Ben Whishaw) arrives, he analyzes the painting in terms of death and destruction. Bond flinches slightly but refuses to accept the metaphor as referring to him.

All of this sounds rather heavy for a Bond film, but fear not.  We still have a crackling good opening sequence where Bond chases his prey through Istanbul on a stolen motorcycle and destroys the requisite market places (think Indiana Jones), then flies over rooftops, jumps on a moving train, uses a caterpillar to pulverize a full car of VW beetles, wrestles with his nemesis as they enter a tunnel, etc., etc. But I don't want spoil it for you.

Yes, there are Bond girls in SKYFALL, but the titilating seductions of DR. NO and all the others are gone.  As for super villains, don't look for Dr. No, Lotte Lenya and Robert Shaw as
Spectre agents  in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Jaws in two films, or Oddjob in GOLDFINGER or Goldfinger himself. Instead we have Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva, a former M-16 agent who was betrayed by M and wants regenge on her, Bond, and Britain as well. Bardem minces around in a blonde wig and pinches Bond's wounds with sick zest.  He and his gang of thugs are thoroughly disgusting and unbelievable, but they do set up several dramatic face-offs in London and in Scotland at Bond's ancestral manse.

Most of SKYFALL is exciting, but the tone is dark and menacing, as though Mendes is imitating Christopher Nolan's moody Batman series. Connery, Roger Moore and the other urbane Bonds would not be comfortable in this ugly new world. Who could blame them?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Real Versus Surreal: ARGO and CLOUD ATLAS

Two current movies approach the world in vastly opposite ways. ARGO, directed with frenetic action and drama by Ben Affleck, takes on a real incident from 1979 when 6 Americans escaped to the Canadian Embassy as Iranian mobs stormed the U.S. Embassy. A little known story because of official secrecy, the incident makes a crackerjack piece of entertainment that is filled with suspense, action, and satire. Affleck stars as a CIA agent who concocts a fake movie called ARGO with the help of a once successful film director, drolly embodied by the great Alan Arkin, and a once successful make-up pro, played with delightful understatement by John Goodman. Their plan? Create a fake sci-fi film and go to Iran to scout for locations and sneak the refugees out. That this actually happened doesn't take away from the gung-ho drive and character development director Affleck brings to ARGO. We get to know the six refugees as well as the agent and the Hollywood types, and the result is one of the year's best films.

And now for something totally different. Directed by Lana and Andy Wachocski (THE MATRIX) and Tom Tykwer (RUN, LOLA, RUN), CLOUD ATLAS is a phantasmagorical message film filled with so many plots and themes it makes INCEPTION look like Candyland. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and a host of others embody a number of characters in different eras but often similar situations. In general, this adaptation of David Mitchell's complicated fantasy novel stresses individual freedom from oppression by the corporate state. We see this in the 19th century slave trade, in a young composer trying to keep his original ideas from being stolen by an old master, in innocent elders attempting to break free from their prisonlike nursing homes, and in several other plots.

 The most impressive variation takes place in New Seoul Korea in the 22nd Century, where a fabricant worker (clone) leads a revolution against a totalitarian government. Taking cues from films like BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX, the filmmakers have created a dazzling world that masks oppression with glitz. The action scenes are amazing, especially as they are intercut with similar critical moments from the other plots. All of the actors play their roles with honest emotional intensity, but the English actors Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are both brilliant as the old, both good and bad, and the rising new (good). Both are worthy of Oscar nominations, as are the set designs and the make-up

CLOUD ATLAS is not a perfect film. It sometimes becomes didactic in its messages, and it is too long. But it is a spectacular, involving, and never boring film that makes the viewer gasp and even think. That's what good movies should do.