FEB/MARCH 2007 MOVIE REVIEWS
*** Superior Film
** Solid Effort
* Same ole
# Sleep Aid
***DOWNFALL (2004) – The last days of Hitler down in the bunker with chums like Goebbels hanging around to the bitter end. It’s told partially through the eyes of the young lady who comes to work as a secretary for the lunatic in 1942. Her memoir is part of the source material. It gives you an opportunity to root that she’ll get the hell out in time while we hear sober Nazis plead with Hitler to surrender to the Americans before the Russians take over the city. DOWNFALL is to the bunker what DAS BOOT is to the submarine, compelling despite being told from the viewpoint of our sworn enemies. If you see only the occasional foreign film, put this one at the top of the list.
**THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN (2005) – Sweet film with Anthony Hopkins as amateur mechanic from New Zealand that dreams of taking his modified Indian Motorcycle to race in the Great Salt Flats. Inspiring and while it’s doesn’t blow you away, it leaves you with a good feeling.
*WINTER KILLS (1979) – From the Richard Condon novel (Manchurian Candidate), this black comedy about younger brother (Jeff Bridges) of JFK like President and the circumstances surrounding his assassination begins in all sincerity and then becomes increasingly absurd up to the climax. John Huston plays the father and a lot of cameos are sprinkled throughout. Had it maintained more subtlety and provided its surprises more believably, it could have been a minor classic. Instead, it’s so in your face by the end that I turned on it.
*THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964) – James Garner stars as that charming con man that he does best. Julie Andrews in only her second role shows the kind of range and career she could have had if Mary Poppins and the Sound of Music hadn’t defined her. Garner plays scrounging junior officer in England during World War II, who manages to stay out of the fighting by being invaluable to his General. Andrews plays the dame that hates his open cowardice but somewhat likes the idea that he won’t be heroically killed like her late husband. It’s scripted by Paddy Chayefsky, so you get comedy wrapped around some legitimately serious issues. James Couburn shows up as Garner’s best friend. Not really worth seeking out, but it won’t sting if you happen across it.
*MY ARCHITECT (2003) – Documentary by the illegitimate son of noted architect Louis Kahn who dropped dead in New York’s Penn Station just around the time he was becoming known in design circles. The son, Nathanial, grows up and goes on a journey to learn about his father, his father’s other children, and the legacy that he left. Kahn had three separate families although he never actually left his wife. What’s interesting is how none of his scorned women blame him for anything. It’s something about the genius they all saw in him that allowed them to forgive him any transgression. The architecture itself is only somewhat interesting as Kahn seemed to get by on his personality more than anything else. Louis sort of comes off as a heel rather than hero so past Nathaniel’s own reckoning you don’t really feel any satisfaction.
**KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962) – Roman Polanski’s gained international attention with this his first full-length film. A husband and wife are heading to a weekend on their boat when they pick up a young hitchhiker. The psychological games between the husband and hitchhiker make up most of the film from there, with the wife providing the sexual tension. The film really keeps you wondering how much the competition will escalate and it never crosses the line of believability although much of the shenanigans seem petty. I wonder how Polanski made such a movie under Polish communism and what would a person in 1962 Poland do for a living to own a nice sailboat. The confines of that boat help create a really interesting tension that makes the movie worthwhile even if the plot is almost nil.
**Z (1969) – Nominated for Best Picture in 1969, this movie is loosely based on a Greek political assassination in the mid 60s that brought down a noted progressive politician. Yves Montand stars as the quiet yet charismatic leftist that gets knocked off early on so that the mystery of his downfall can unravel. The movie, shocking at the time I’m told, reveals how the right-wing government was complicit in the great man’s death. After seeing Oliver Stone’s JFK, this seems like kindergarten. I have to think that the politics are largely responsible for the reputation of this movie, although it’s put together decently enough to be compelling. It makes me wonder though what’s the best movie ever made that shows the overthrow or assassination of a beloved right-wing figure?
**FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966) – The second movie in the Harry Palmer series is a solid follow-up to IPCRESS FILE. Michael Caine is recruited to East Germany where he is to help a defecting Russian general. Despite his superior’s excitement over this opportunity, Caine doesn’t buy the General’s story and tries to figure out what’s really at work here. The movie also tells us more about Palmer’s origins as an agent and introduces to us an old friend of his. Caine is charming as the hero and either of these first two movies are worth seeing.
# ROOM 666 (1984) – Wim Wenders “documentary” shot at the Cannes film festival where noted directors of the day, Spielberg, Godard, Herzog expound in front of the camera about the future of film and their hopes for the medium. A good enough idea, but the subjects are mostly rambling and not terribly insightful. Thankfully shorter than an hour, but still a labor to get through.
**LA MOUSTACHE (2005) – Interesting French film starring Vincent Lindon who decides to shave his moustache and is surprised that no one notices. An American film with this premise would be about how the world was conspiring against our hero. The charm of European movies is how it’s never automatic. Maybe our hero is right, maybe our hero is crazy. The shame of this movie is that the question never really gets answered and reality itself becomes open for interpretation. I don’t mind ambiguousness if you can make me 90% sure I know what happened and can suppose the rest. Here, the whole thing becomes so dream-like that any interpretation is possible. That’s the only minus.
*THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED (2005) – Documentary about the MPAA and the subjective rating system. It succeeds when it compares movies and talks to directors about their problems. The history of the system and process is little-known and worth exploring. But there just isn’t enough material to make a whole movie about that, so the filmmakers decide to stake out and learn the identities of the secret MPAA board. The detective game could have been riveting, but it plays instead as a half-ass cable reality show. It gets worse when the movie becomes a soapbox for people to whine that sex is purged while violence flourishes. The system is not perfect but what system is? At least it’s a market response to film content instead of a government one. But, wait . . . the endless cries of censorship culminate in a guy saying he wishes that the government controlled movies because government censorship could be litigated in a court of law while the MPAA cannot be touched. So it’s better to allow real censorship with the hopes of lawsuits than a market solution that might close the question. Theatre owners like the current system because it loosened the content of movies while shielding them from angry parents. And since most movies are watched on DVD and most never have a theatrical playing, this whole exercise was kind of pointless. The unrated DVD is a big market and makes a lot of people watch the movie twice. A film about real censorship in world cinema would have been more poignant instead of this cry-baby piece.
*HOLIDAY (2006) – Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jack Black and Jude Law in this romantic comedy that benefits for its lack of the Frat Pack and Jennifer Aniston. Winslet trades her English Country home with Cameron Diaz and her Hollywood mansion for two weeks during the holidays and they both might meet-cute and fall in love with the male leads. The film deserves an honorable mention simply because Eli Wallach gets a pretty juicy supporting role and shines throughout. Also, get this, his character is a retired Hollywood screenwriter who is going to accept an award and they never once mention that he was blacklisted. Movies from 1975 on had hereto convinced me that every 1950s screenwriter had been blacklisted and I am almost incredulous to learn that one guy made it through the whole decade in tact. I can only guess that Wallach had that tragedy removed from the script because the typewriter would have no doubt included it even beyond the wishes of the scenarist.
*16 BLOCKS (2006) – Standard police fare with Willis as the believable alkie cop trying to protect a witness who is to testify against crooked cops. David Morse supports as the calm heavy that he seems born to play. Mos Def (that’s a person’s name?) is the annoying chatterbox witness that would have gained more sympathy by shutting up which thankfully he does as the movie wears on. Decent but a little overrated maybe due to Richard Donner’s participation or simply the conflict of bad cops that critics seem to believe more so than honest ones.
*INFAMOUS (2006) – The second Capote bio-drama that promised to be more about his entire life but in reality treads the same exact Kansas ground as CAPOTE (2005). It does spend more time in the trendy Manhatten circles with plenty of cameos by socialites, but it’s otherwise unsurprising. Toby Jones benefits from his diminutive presence versus the larger Phillip Seymore Hoffman, but other than the solid impersonation, Jones doesn’t get the emotional moments as well as Hoffman does. The movie also makes a mistake in casting Daniel Craig as Perry Smith. Craig is too powerful and masculine for Capote to overcome, whereas earlier portrayals of the character by Robert Blake (IN COLD BLOOD) and Clifton Collins (CAPOTE) were almost childlike. The issues here are more superficial and the stakes don’t seem as high. There is a funny bit about Capote claiming to have beaten Bogart at arm wrestling so that the whole town then tries to beat Capote.
*DARLING (1965) the movie that put Julie Christie on the map would seem prime for a remake with so few great female parts, except that Christie’s promiscuity that made the original interesting and controversial is very tame in relation to the average celebrity’s real life experiences. The movie mostly demonstrates what use to be outrageous and how flippant characters would eventually get their comeuppance. Today, the character would just seem to be an example of a valid lifestyle choice that you dare not criticize.
**ROCKY BALBOA (2006) – Spending your career cashing in on cartoon action movies doesn’t get you much respect in Hollywood, especially when you aren’t overtly leftwing. Once in a while Sylvester Stallone would show up in a character part like Cop Land and be quite convincing, but he only really gets to act when he writes his own material. This last Rocky film is surprising especially after his last abortive attempt at re-defining the franchise. Rocky V was so terrible that it could very well have been his burial. ROCKY BALBOA is not by any means great in the conventional sense, but it has such an understated honesty that it’s one of the most enjoyable surprises out of Hollywood in a long time. In the past, Rocky has used boxing to fight bullies and even the cold war, but here his heart as a fighter is used for his own redemption. If you liked any of the Rocky movies you should appreciate if not really enjoy this one.
*DaVINCI CODE (2006) – The most interesting thing about this story is how popular it is. A hardcover best seller for three years is rare and then followed by a movie that grosses $200 million makes DaVINCI CODE something like a modern day GONE WITH THE WIND. I haven’t read the book and I skipped the movie in the theatre, but this franchise is just too much a part of the zeitgeist to ignore forever. I don’t know where the book and movie vary, but a scene in the second half of the movie demonstrates why I think it’s so popular. When trying to decode an Isaac Newton puzzle, Tom Hanks realizes the answer is APPLE. It’s not Newton’s laws of motion or thermodynamics or calculus that you have to know to understand the mystery, but the thing you learned about Newton in 4th grade. The same goes for the DaVinci references in the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. You don’t have to know anything about DaVinci or Newton other than the most superficial or famous icons of their existence. The movie takes cultural and historic things that you are so familiar with that it makes you feel smart. And I think it’s that play to personal vanity that separates it from simple potboiler to international sensation. Umberto Eco used the Templars as the Center of his early 1990s novel, FOCULT’S PENDULUM without anywhere near the success. And it’s not like Eco wasn’t a bestselling author, he wrote the popular NAME OF THE ROSE. But FP takes a great deal more analysis and brainpower to get through. I have had a copy sitting here for years that I have yet to crack. A friend told me that Dan Brown is the Grisham version of Eco and although I haven’t read Grisham either, the comparison seems apt. I think the movie is probably the best way to catch up on the hoopla without the time investment. Still they could have done us a favor and made it 30 minutes shorter.
*A GOOD YEAR (2006) – This movie is much more of a comedy and a slapstick one than I would have expected. I saw it a week ago and it’s already mostly forgotten. A familiar story with venal Crowe returning to the place of his childhood to remember his better upbringing and the lessons he forgot. Albert Finney is the kind uncle shown in flashback As you’d expect, Crowe’s change of heart is rewarded with the love of a fetching French woman. The title is confusing unless the book was significantly different. The whole story takes place in a week or so.
*HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) – Detective Adrien Brody looks into the death of actor George Reeves AKA TV’s Superman. Ben Affleck is decent as Reeves in flashback as is Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins. It doesn’t really go anywhere and there isn’t much payoff, but they do a good job of recreating that period.
**THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Another worthwhile Chris Nolan effort pits Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival magicians in Victorian England. Both are excellent as is Michael Caine as the mentor to both. Based on the acclaimed 1990s novel that even incorporates David Bowie as Nikola Tesla into the plotline. The Prestige is interesting for the story twists, approach and style. On the special features, Nolan sounds very much British while his screenwriter brother, Jonathan, sounds like an American. It turns out that their father is British and their mother is American and they grew up In Chicago which explains the Batman locale.
*MARIE ANTIONETTE (2006) – Sophia Coppola’s third film is probably her least interesting. Kirsten Dunst is affable enough as the Queen we’re all taught to hate, but the movie is slow going with King Jason Schwartzman a dolt who doesn’t seem interested in his arranged marriage. You could almost hear the incredulous screams from fraternity houses as he turned down her advances. The movie also suffers in my opinion from Coppola’s choice of modern musical montages in place of a classical score.
*INVINCIBLE (2006) – Typically inspiring and mostly predictable story of everyman Philadelphia native who succeeds in his long shot tryout with the Eagles. You root for Wahlberg all the way. Another member of the recent Disney subgenre of underdog sports stories like MIRACLE and THE ROOKIE.