MOVIE REVIEWS LATE 2007 Part 1
I have a backlog of movies back to early November. Here are few to chew on:
THE PAINTED VEIL (2007) – Just when you thought the world was finished adapting Somerset Maugham books to the screen, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts give it one more try. Maugham was big in his day and a lot of his work was made into movies in the 1930s ands 1940s. This story was a Greta Garbo vehicle way back. Here Norton plays a British doctor working in China in the 1920s. Watts is forced to marry Norton by her parents during the first 10 minutes of the movie. She soon falls for the married Liev Schreiber and is discovered by her husband. Norton gives her the choice of accompanying him on a trip to the heart of China to cure a cholera epidemic or face the public humiliation of a divorce. She makes the trip and while there Watts sees the goodness in her husband as he heals the sick and she eventually falls in love with him. The movie is a reminder of the limits of modern drama in the anything goes era. The fact that someone’s reputation meant something in the old days made situations like these perilous. People use to need redemption and that could make a whole story. It can still theoretically work in a period piece with the right tone of seriousness, but this movie does not achieve it. If you like the subject matter or Maugham novels give it a try. Otherwise you’re not missing anything.
DOWN IN THE VALLEY (2005) - Edward Norton again. This time he’s a modern day cowboy with a secret. He quits his job at the filling station to tag along with a group high school kids going to the beach. Norton goes because of Evan Rachel Wood and they soon begin a love affair. Wood’s father, the always solid David Morse, doesn’t like him much but Norton easily wins over her brother Rory Culkin with his cowboy ways. Bruce Dern and Geoffrey Lewis show up later in small roles. I’m not sure what drew this many decent actors to the material. Norton plays the cowboy in a Gary Cooper sort of aw shucks way which works for what it’s worth, but the relationship with Wood never seems real. Her continued affection for him makes less sense as you get to know him. Independent films are allowed to be more unpredictable, but like so many indies, this movie uses that freedom to be surprising rather than authentic and the last 20 minutes or so are not believable. In retrospect, the cowboy’s secret must have been what drew Norton to the material. He just didn’t get a decent third act to go with it.
A MIGHTY HEART (2007) –The western press prides itself by writing of the enemy in equal terms with America. If nothing else a Daniel Pearl movie should remind the press which side they are on. Pearl was just trying to get the story, but he was an American to the terrorists and just as worthy of death as a soldier in uniform. Angelina Jolie plays Pearl’s wife in this film and she sorts out what happened to him. Jolie is decent as the protagonist, but we know the ending already so the slow reveal feels more like a delay than plot points. I think it will be a long time before a terrorist movie can compete with United 93.
BLACK BOOK (2006) – Paul Verhoeven returns to The Netherlands to helm this story about the Dutch resistance during World War II. The main character Rachel is a Jew who died her hair blonde to pass as gentile and woo German officers for the intelligence it would bring the resistance. Later in the film her German notices her dark roots and pegs her for a Jew but doesn’t care. Are there no dark haired gentiles in Holland? The film is very episodic with locales and characters changing often especially before our heroine settles in with her own Nazi. It has an extended epilogue and at 145 minutes, there was ample room to cut another 20 minutes. Still, it’s pretty entertaining and Verhoeven’s Hollywood experience shows, because although the film is shot in Dutch, it looks and feels very Hollywood.
SUPERBAD (2007) – Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen have an ability to mix the profane with the heartwarming and SuperBad continues the tradition of 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Two high school kids lament their impending separation as they get ready to go off to college. Their final exploits together include scoring alcohol for the big party and winning over the girls they like. Those desires are real ones and it makes you root for the characters. But much of the action is farcical including a subplot involving a couple of sheriff deputies. Still, I laughed a lot and the relationship with the principles was touching.
KNOCKED UP (2007) – It’s hard to figure out what Katherine Heigl would see in Seth Rogen’s bum character in the first place, but after a one night stand they’re going to have to get to know each other, because Ms. Heigl is having his baby. Crude jokes notwithstanding, the film has real heart summed up in Rogen seeking advice from his father played by Harold Ramis. Ramis doesn’t have any advice. He’s been divorced 3 times. He just knows that he loves his son. About every ten years someone comes along and redefines comedy with a new style, Mel Brooks in the 1970s, the Airplane guys in the 1980s, the Farrelly Brothers in the 1990s and now Apatow/Rogen. What we know is they all burn bright and after a couple of films wear out a little with familiarity. I wonder how long they have.
DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993) – I pushed this to the top of the list after I bought the HD DVD player. A decent enough high school film with funny moments, but I wouldn’t have guessed that Richard Linklater was behind it if I saw it on TV. Supporting performances by Parker Posey as the nasty upperclassman, Ben Affleck as the bully, and Mathew McConaughey as the graduate that can’t stop hanging out with High School kids. The leads are people we hardly recognize. It all takes place during the evening of the last day of school. Had I watched it in a batch of other high school films I don’t think I would have pegged it as the classic it is supposed to be.
LAND OF THE PHAROAHS (1955) – A rare Howard Hawks bomb that broke the streak of 10 or 12 hits in a row, this movie put Hawks into a 4 year sabbatical in the mid 1950s. I had never sought it out prior, but I recently read a Howard Hawks biography and figured I might as well give it a whirl. A mostly British cast is led by Jack Hawkins as the Pharaoh. James Robertson plays the architect that he enslaves to build him a tomb in the form of a great pyramid that will be impossible to rob. Joan Collins stirs things up midway as the girl from Cyprus that Hawkins makes his second wife. There is a great anecdote in the Hawks book about Joan partying it up so much during the production that she gained 10 pounds and they had to disguise it. Martin Scorsese considers it a guilty pleasure. It’s not a terrible movie but not exciting either.
THE DINNER GAME (1998) – French film based on a stage play and it feels like one with almost all the action taking place at a single Paris apartment. Every week a group of snooty Frenchmen hold a dinner trying to bring a guest who is the biggest idiot of the night. The movie is how this idea backfires against a publisher who lures an accountant/idiot to dinner. The accountant makes the publishers life all the worse and yet teaches us all some humanity. A bonus is the movie is only 78 minutes long so it’s not stretched like the material would be with a Hollywood production.
RESCUE DAWN (2006) – Based on the story of Deiter Dengler, a German kid during World War II who decided to become a pilot after watching the allies bomb his country. Dengler immigrates to American and becomes a Vietnam era flyer shot down on his first mission. Director Werner Herzog had already made a documentary of this material a few years prior. Christian Bale leads and Jeremy Davies co-stars for Dude’s double take. I was expecting more with a Bale/Herzog collaboration, but it’s still a good enough movie worth seeing. English language makes it more accessible too. Except for a scene knocking the CIA late in the action, the movie is surprisingly pro-American. Didn’t someone tell the German Herzog that Brian DePalma and Oliver Stone would have made the other side the good guys?