Rendition(10/26/2007)

 

            This Halloween, millions of dollars will be spent by audiences seeing Saw IV, part of a long series of horror movies placed in the controversial “torture-porn” sub-genre.  Many have theorized that these torture based horror films have been exploiting subliminal fears the American public has about the type of torture that has occurred in places like Abu Ghraib.  Gavin Hood’s new film Rendition has nothing to do this idiotic sub-genre, it challenges these controversial tactics head on.

            The film is about the CIA’s controversial practice of “extraordinary rendition.”  With this practice the CIA essentially kidnaps terror suspects and transports them to foreign countries where they are subjected to interrogations involving torture to gather intelligence.  The film tells the fictional story of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian ex-patriot living in America who falls victim to this practice.  Shortly after a bomb goes off in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, El-Ibrahimi is captured at an air-port on his way home from a trade conference in Cape Town and is moved to another unnamed country.  There he is interrogated by a man named Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor). claiming he received calls from the terrorist behind the bombing.  Inexperienced CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s boss died in the bombing, witnesses this with increased skepticism as to El Ibrahimi’s guilt. 

            Meanwhile, El-Ibrahimi’s American wife, Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), is extremely worried when her husband fails to come home his conference.  She goes to an old friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) working as her senator’s aid, he tries to convince this senator (Alan Arkin) to pressure Head of Intelligence Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) to bring El-Ibrahimi home. 

            Meanwhile, the Abasi Fawal’s teenage daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) find’s herself in a relationship with a boy named Khalid (Moa Khouas), whose brother appears to have terrorist ties.

            That’s a lot of characters and storylines to handle, and the film doesn’t quite juggle them perfectly.  The film’s advertising suggests that the film centers around Reese Witherspoon’s character, this isn’t really true.  Witherspoon really doesn’t have much more screen time than the rest of this large ensemble.  There could probably be an interesting film that focused entirely on any one of these stories, but when they are all together it feels a bit uneven.  For instance, the story about Fatima and Khalid worked pretty well and ended with a neat twist, but ultimately was not connected with the rest of this very well at all.  It feels like another separate movie.

            Some of the performances here work better than others.  Streep is up to her usual standards, as is Alan Arkin.  Omar Metwally also does a very good job with his physically demanding role.  J. K. Simmons, famous for role on TV dramas like “Law & Order” and “Oz,” is also a very nice presence in his small role.  Peter Sarsgaard isn’t as good as any of the above mentioned, but he isn’t really weak either, and neither are Zineb Oukach or Moa Khouas as the two young Arabs. 

            Reese Witherspoon however, finds herself overacting, a lot.  In many ways she seems to be trying way too hard to get another Oscar.  When she finds herself screaming at people in desperation it gets a bit laughable.  Jake Gyllenhaal is in the odd position of being a bit too well cast here. His character generally comes off as naïve and confused, a character type he’s played a few too many times.  If the character was played by someone who was cast against type this would have been more bearable, with Gyllenhaal it feels like a bit too much.

            There has been a recent trend of ambitious films coming out of Hollywood with earnest messages about important issues.  Rendition, in many ways looked like it would be an extreme version of this, that it would be a movie that would push its message at the audience in an absolutely invasive way.  Is this the case with the movie?  Well, sort of; your enjoyment of the movie will probably be directly proportional to how much you demand subtlety.  The movie’s politics are in no way a mystery; it deals with political issues directly and sugarcoats nothing.  I personally didn’t see this as a problem.  Admittedly I agreed with the film’s politics before I entered the theater, and wasn’t looking at it with much skepticism. 

            That said, it isn’t as biased as it may appear.  The movie does explore the arguments that defend the policy of extraordinary rendition and tempts the audience to agree with them.  The film mentions that the policy was created under Clinton, and generally avoids other partisan issues.  The movie’s ultimate message is that extraordinary rendition is a policy that denies people their human rights and that torture is cruel and unusual.  This wasn’t something I really needed to see movie in order to learn, but that’s not a huge problem, even choir members liked to be preached to sometimes.  But, again, if you are looking for a subtle and sophisticated delivery of this message you’re going to the wrong movie.

            The movie generally worked well enough despite some definite flaws for most of its running time, but the narrative really falls apart in the last twenty minutes or so.  The conclusion feels rushed and simplistic.  The sub-plot with Fatima and Khalid proved itself to be tangential and unworthy of the screen time invested in it.  There are a handful of loose ends, one of them particularly maddening, and the resolution generally felt anti-climactic.

            The film was directed by Gavin Hood, director of the South African film Tsotsi, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2005 for which he gave a memorably enthusiastic acceptance speech.  I wasn’t a huge fan of Tsotsi, it was a good film worth seeing, but I’m not sure I would have given it that Oscar.  Still, he was a director that caught my eye.  This film is a step down from Tsotsi, but I’m still interested in Hood.  He seems to have a pretty decent grasp of the language of film.  The technical aspects of this film are not overly noteworthy, but they work well for the film.  The editing is particularly nice.

            Rendition has an important message, but is that enough to make it worthy?  No, not really, but this does have more to offer than that.  The story is pretty good until the problematic ending, and the unneeded sub-plot works well enough despite its uselessness.  The message is very clear and has already been pretty clear to anyone who’s read a newspaper lately.  Some of the performances are a bit iffy as well.  For the most part this is a thoroughly competent piece of work; it just doesn’t quite make it.

**1/2 out of four

Michael Clayton(10/19/2007)

            The new George Cloony vehicle is given the fairly ambiguous title Michael Clayton.  This isn’t the best title to market a movie with; very few movies tend to simply be named after fictional characters.  This title may be a detriment to the film’s overall box office, but it is worth it.  The title helps the movie a lot, it gives away none of the film’s moderately complicated plot and it reminds the viewer what they should be paying attention to amidst this controlled chaos, the title character.

            The film follows (of course) Michael Clayton (George Clooney), who on paper is a lawyer, but his employers call him a “fixer.”  Clayton’s job in the law firm is crisis management, he’s like The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, when there is a touchy situation he is sent to clean them up and get things under control.  The movie provides this character with quite a mess to deal with.  The firm’s top lawyer, who is defending the U/North chemical company in a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit, has an apparent breakdown during a hearing. This lawyer, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), had a history of mental illness and had just gone off his medication, but it seems he may be planning more than a fit.  The firm’s senior partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) asks Clayton to follow Edens and get him under control.  Meanwhile Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the in house attorney for U/North, begins an investigation of her own into Edens.

            The film does not fit into genre boxes perfectly, it is a legal thriller but that genre shouldn’t be confused with that of the court-room genre, as there are no courtroom scenes to be found here.  The film actually fits in better with that of paranoid 70s thrillers like Three Days of Condor.  Additionally, this is a thriller more the way All the Presidents Men or The Insider, don’t expect edge of your seat suspense.  It is surprising that the film was not based on a novel, as it features a level of complexity and detail often found in popular paperbacks today.  The film’s script is actually an original work by Tony Gilroy who has been writing high profile films for over a decade.  Gilroy also makes an impressive directorial debut here.

            To call this plot labyrinthine is definitely an exaggeration.  Audiences will not be able to coast through the films plot, but this isn’t nearly as complicated as a lot of other movies that are far more worthy of that adjective.  The film is far less complicated than 2005’s George Clooney thriller Syriana, although it does require more focus than the average cookie cutter drama.  As long as the viewer pays attention they should fine here.  Aside from the story, this is a very good script.  The dialogue really crackles here, it sounds really great without feeling like it’s trying too hard or feeling out of place.

            As I established earlier, it is important not to forget about the title character amidst all the plot twists, the character based payoff goes hand in hand with the plot’s payoff.  When you put the main character’s name in a film’s title it puts an extra burden on the actor playing him.  Michael Clayton is a challenging role to play, it’s nothing like the roles Clooney has become famous for.  Clooney has to bring a lot to the character that isn’t necessarily on the surface.  Clayton is a man of mystery and Clooney has less to do more with less, and look pretty cool while he does it.  Clooney was well cast here and manages to pull of this difficult role quite well. 

            As good a Clooney is, he is somewhat upstaged by the supporting cast.  Tilda Swinton has a role with many of the same challenges as Clooney’s.  Karen Crowder is a villainous antagonistic role, but not a clichéd one.  She is a villain that never twirls a moustache or shows any outward evil at all, she must act ruthlessly without being ruthless.  These elements were not lost on Swinton who performs the role perfectly.  Sydney Pollack is also an interesting presence; he is after all the director who brought us the aforementioned Three Days of Condor.  Pollock manages to do what he usually does as an actor, be himself.  He works great as a bureaucrat and is a consistently engaging screen presence.  It is Tom Wilkinson who truly steals the show; he gives an Oscar worthy supporting performance.  Unlike Clooney, Wilkonson has a character that allows him to show off his range.  As Arthur Edens, Wilkinson is allowed to chew scenery in all the right ways. 

            This is a very good movie, but it isn’t great.  When all is said and done the story isn’t as special as it seems.  Deep down this is a fairly conventional thriller looking at the type of situations we’ve seen done a lot before, albeit rarely as well.  The movie is resolved by the same Hail Mary pass I’ve seen end a million of these movies, but I’ll be damned if I’ve seen such a scene written or acted much better.  The script relies a bit too much on coincidence at a crucial moment, but that’s really not too big of a problem. 

            At the end of the day this is a very strong movie.  This is definitely worth seeing; it has talented actors delivering great dialogue in an enjoyable story with strong direction.  There are a number of great scenes to enjoy, it’s fun to watch.  Still it is just shy of greatness; it’s just missing a certain ambition.  Perhaps it’s better to succeed at being like John Grisham than to fail at being Dostoevsky, but when you compromise like that you end up short of greatness.  I’d hesitate to ever put this on a year end list, but it’s probably a lock for honorable mention, and certainly worth seeing.

***1/2 out of Four

Eastern Promises(10/19/2007)

            The first scene in Eastern Promises involves someone getting his throat cut with very bloody results.  The scene may be shocking to many, but it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s particularly familiar with the works of David Cronenberg, a director famous for bringing extremely graphic violence to the screen in new and interesting ways.

            The film centers on Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) a second generation Russian immigrant in London working as a mid-wife at the local hospital.  A pregnant girl shows up at the hospital going through troubled labor, she ends up dying in childbirth.  Khitrova decides to track down the girl’s family in order to find a place for the newborn baby.  This search leads her into the dark world of imported prostitution and sex slavery run by the Russian mafia.  Among these Russian gangsters is Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortenson) who first appears to be the driver of a crime boss named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his violent son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).  Finding this dead girl’s family soon becomes complicated and these gangsters are dangerous people to deal with.

            Eastern Promises was written by Steven Knight, whose most notable prior credit was the film Dirty Pretty Things.  This film is somewhat similar in that both deal with immigrant minorities in London’s underground.  I found Dirty Pretty Things was a work with some interesting ideas, but also that it was ultimately forgettable.  I feel this script would also have been interesting but forgettable were it not for some very interesting acting and the intervention of David Cronenberg. 

            Cronenberg has become so famous for his disturbing body horror and gore that many people forget about one of his biggest strength, his ability to direct actors.  Cronenberg was behing Christopher Walken’s brilliant performance in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum’s great turn in The Fly, and Jeremy Iron’s double role in Dead Ringers that was famously snubbed by the academy.  In his last movie, A History of Violence Cronenberg got an amazing performance out of Viggo Mortenson as he came off his star turning role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.   Morenson is working with Cronenberg again here as the massively tattooed gangster Nikolai, and he is very strong again.  His acting is subtle here, but noticeably good; his character isn’t as easy to show off with as it was on A History of Violence but I think he is just as good.  Though Mortenson clearly steals the show, the acting is great from the rest of the cast as well.  Naomi Watts is one of the best actresses of her generation and her work here is up to her usual high standards.   Vincent Cassel is also great as the violent and disturbed young gangster Kirill, as is Armin Mueller-Stahl as his father.  Jerzy Skolimowski also make a memorable appearance as Anna’s father who claims to be former KGB… but probably wasn’t. 

            Eastern Promises, like many Cronenberg’s last film is hard to classify.  It doesn’t really fit as a thriller of horror film, as tension doesn’t really seem to be the goal here.  It’s way to violent to be what many would see as a conventional drama, and it also doesn’t really feel like a crime film as the Russian Mafia feels more like a backdrop then the real point.  The fact that it doesn’t easily fit in any box allows it to avoid many genre conventions and remain highly unpredictable. 

            Cronenberg is no longer within a horror or science fiction setting, but “the new flesh” still lives, albeit in a more realistic setting.  There is a scene involving a frozen body that many of Cronenberg’s fans like me will lap up but “normal” find fairly disgusting.  There’s also a scene where Viggo Mortenson gets into a violent bloody knife fight… naked.  It’s a scene that, again, will be very interesting to Cronenberg fans but will make almost anyone else very uncomfortable.

            To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how much there would be to enjoy here if it weren’t for Cronenberg, and the solid cast.  I can’t say I found the story overly fascinating.  What I did find interesting was Cronenberg’s auteur stamp, although it’s more of an evolution of the style that was established in the superior History of Violence than it is a revolution.  This is certainly worth seeing for people that dig Cronenberg’s style, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the rest of it, but Cronenberg’s style all that really makes it special.

***1/2 out of four

The Darjeeling Limited(10/12/2007)

 

            Wes Anderson was one of the Wunderkinds that come along ever few years in the independent film scene.  His films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royale Tenenbaums were wonderful breaths of fresh air.  Anderson had a refreshing style that was both technically impressive and also light-hearted and fun.  His films utilized dry humor perfectly, getting laughs without demanding them from every scene.  Meanwhile his excellent, new wave inspired visuals took the viewer along for some wonderful rides.  Anderson was delivering a unique mix of styles that was so unique from everything else his audiences were expecting.  However, Anderson’s ride hit a bump in late 2004 when his forth film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou received mixed to negative reviews.  It seemed Anderson had suddenly jumped the shark, as it were.  I however remain a defender of The Life Aquatic, it was not as good as his previous three works, but it was an enjoyable film that has grown on me the more I’ve seen it.  Anderson is back in 2007 with his new film The Darjeeling Limited.

            The film is about a trip three brothers take through India.  Francis (Owen Wilson) is the eldest brother who had recently been in an accident leaving him with massive bandageing on his face.  Peter (Adrian Brody), is married and his wife is pregnant back home, although he isn’t overly exited about the prospect of having a child.  Jack (Jason Schwarzmen) has recently broken up with an unnamed girlfriend.  These brothers have recently lost their father and are trying to take a spiritual journey in this foreign land, complete with laminated itineraries.  Their ultimate destination is to meet up with their mother who has become a nun working at an orphanage.  

            I’ve always been a fan of Wes Anderson’s style, I even found The Life Aquatic quite enjoyable, especially after multiple viewings.  Anderson’s visual styling is as strong as ever here; he uses a yellow color scheme that fits India perfectly.  Anderson continues with his active moving camera and energetic editing. 

            The acting featured here is also very solid.  Jason Schwarzmen delivers another unique and quirky performance as Jack, it’s consistently fun to watch his mannerisms throughout the movie.  Owen Wilson is in his element, this isn’t much of a stretch for him, but he does his job well enough. Adrian Brody is new to the Wes Anderson troupe, and is a welcome addition to the cast.

            As good as the visuals and acting is here, as a story the film has major problems.  The characters here are not likable or interesting.  These three brothers are not well established in the beginning of the movie.  Many say they dislike exposition in movies, but in reality what they dislike is poorly done exposition, here we don’t even get that.  There is a short film on the internet called Hotel Chevlier that acts as a prequel.  I missed this short before seeing the movie and hoped that the needed exposition for the movie would be in it, but it isn’t, it gives some insights into one of the characters but The Darjeeling Limited remained poorly introduced.  The development does not get better from their.  I did not care about these shallow characters as I watched the film. 

            The film’s second major flaw is that it simply isn’t funny.  Anderson obviously tends more toward dry quirky humor, but here he seems to avoid humor altogether.  There were definitely a handful of chuckle inducing scenes here, especially a moment involving a purchase made by the Adrian Brody character, but these moments are few and far between.  There were a lot more laughs in Anderson’s previous films, and his quirky style really just can’t sustain a purely dramatic story.  Serious things happen here that really just fall flat because this style just isn’t meant to convey any sort of reality.

            The film runs a lean 91 minutes, many would find this faster pace worthwhile, but I felt it would have benefited from more time to develop the characters and to simply allow more funny things to happen.  Just when the movie seems to be going somewhere it ends.  

            Anderson does however continue to prove the supremacy of his classic rock knowledge.  Anderson has consistently put together great soundtracks for his movies, here he brings to the table a handful of songs by The Kinks, and a great Rolling Stones track.  The rest of the soundtrack consists of pre-existing scoring from Indian films, specifically the works of Satyajit Ray.  These songs are perfectly integrated with the onscreen visuals and help the movie a lot.

            Unfortunately, this killer soundtrack was not enough to save this film.  I don’t want to come off as feeling too negatively about the movie, there are definitely a lot of good moments here, most of the individual scenes are quite good, they just never gel together to form a quality whole.  It’s hard to actively dislike the film, it is after all fairly charming, but it does not live up to Anderson’s previous works.  Then again that’s what I initially said about The Royal Tenenbaums, which after repeated viewings became my favorite Anderson movie to date.  Maybe a similar 180 will occur after I give his new film a second chance, but until then I will have to remain underwhelmed by The Darjeeling Limited.

** out of four

Into the Wild(10/12/2007)

 

            Millions of people use their vacation time to go camping every year.  Outdoors recreation is almost a national pastime, one I’ve never understood.  The comedian Alonzo Bodden pretty well summed up my opinion of the activity when he said “Why the hell would I work hard all year to go out and pretend I’m homeless?”  Interestingly though, Sean Penn’s new movie Into the Wild, manages to make me completely understand why someone with the exact opposite view of outdoors recreation went on a journey I would have thought insane. 

            Based on the Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction account of the same name, Into the Wild documents the journeys of Christopher McCandless AKA Alex SuperTramp (Emile Hirsch).   McCandless, a rebellious and slightly bitter youth, set out on a cross country adventure in the mid-90s that ultimately lead him to the Alaskan wilderness.  McCandless came from a troubled, yet privileged, home.  Before his trip McCandless had graduated from Emory University with twenty thousand dollars in the bank and a promising law career in his future.  McCandless however had developed a strong negative view of society as materialistic and shallow.  Inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Jack London, McCandless ventured out through the back roads of America.

            Penn’s Into the Wild is in many ways an episodic journey, the bulk of the movie shows McCandless Odyssey which brought him to places like Carthage, South Dakota and Slab City, California.  McCandless would hitchhike across the country and go on adventures like an unlicensed kayak trip through the Grand Canyon into Mexico.  Along the way he met all sorts of kooky people who helped him like a Jan and Rainey Burns (and Catherine Keener Brian Dieker), relics of the Hippie era who see a lot of themselves in Alex Supertramp.  He also runs across a farmhand/conspiracy theorist named Wayne (Vince Vaughn), and an old man named Ron (Hal Holbrook) who possibly wishes he had spent his life adventuring as McCandless has. 

            All the people he meets try to impart some advice to him and perhaps would have convinced him to return to a life of normalcy, but they, like the audience, are eventually won over by McCandless’ persistence of vision, his striving for a pure life along the lines of Thoreau.  This striving and persistence of vision unfortunately is also McCandless’ tragic flaw.  Had McCandless’ stuck to a Jack Kerouac style road adventure he may have moved on in life and, like the young Che Guevara of 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, gone on to greatness.  Unfortunately McCandless was too successful in his journeys, too well supported and too over-confident, he eventually found himself in the Alaskan wilderness and over his head.

            The film is not all about McCandless’ pre-Alaska journeys, the film jumps between those journeys and his climactic stay in Alaska.  The film uses the voiceover of McCandless’ sister Carine (Jena Malone) who gives insights into the childhood that influenced McCandless’ while also exploring the dark side of his journey.  These segments show the trauma McCandless did to his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) by running off without telling them his plans or so much as calling them.  

            Into the Wild is one of the best character studies I’ve seen in quite a while.  Many will not like McCandless as a person and the movie doesn’t demand you to.  This is a complex person that would be hard to understand for someone like me who doesn’t like to go outside to so much as water my lawn.  On paper the guy seems like a complete dipshit, yet this movie makes me wish I had such experiences.   You have no idea what kind of talent it takes to make me want to be someone like this.

            The story here may remind many of the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man.  This is an understandable as both films feature passionate, idealistic, young men in the Alaskan wilderness heading for disaster.  However, there are major differences between Chris McCandless and Timothy Treadwell.  While Treadwell had a similar passion and held a similar distain for modern society, he also suffered from delusions of grandeur and ultimately seemed borderline insane.  McCandless had no such delusions, he was more of an adventurer than a naturalist.  McCandless saw the Alaskan wilderness more as a challenge than as a home and he had no intention of staying there.  

            While Treadwell descend into misanthropic anger, McCandless’ anger was aim squarely at society rather than those who live in it.  McCandless maintained a definite respect for those he met along the way, he was not trying to escape from people but from institutions.  It is a mistake to view McCandless strictly as a rebel; he’s more of a tourist than an iconoclast.  McCandless truly enjoyed the way he was living.  There are shades of Quixote in McCandless, he may seems insane to some, but he’s just living the way he wants to live.  

            I haven’t had the privilege of seeing any of the other movies Emile Hirsh has acted in, so this was the first time I’ve seen him act.  As this movie centers squarely around a single character it is important that he be played by just the right actor.  Hirsh definitely delivers here and Penn was wise to cast someone like Hirsh who was experienced but also a little off the radar of the average cinema attendee.  Hirsh is not chewing scenery or showing off here, he giving simple naturalistic acting, it’s the type of invisible acting many might not notice.  If anything Hirsh should be congratulated for pulling off some of McCandless’ more pretentious character traits and keeping them from hurting the perceptions people have of him.  The rest of the cast is great too, especially William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden who, along with a smart script, keep McCandless’ parents from seeming like stereotypes. 

            The real star here however is Sean Penn as a director.  Penn is of course an Oscar winning actor known for his roles in everything from Mystic River to Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I had missed Penn’s prior outings as a director, and was shocked at just how talented he was behind the camera.  This is clearly a labor of love for Penn, and there is an obvious respect for the source material.  Penn quotes directly from Krakaur’s non-fiction book; going so far as to divide the movie into chapter titles and putting handwritten diary entries onto the screen John Madden style.  These non-digetic elements give the story a well needed reminder of its authenticity, as this is most definitely one of those stories you wouldn’t believe if it wasn’t all true.  

            The scenery here is breathtaking; from the tundra of Alaska to the rapids of the Colorado River, to the deserts of California and the beaches of the Pacific Northwest, McCandless manages to see so many beautiful things.  The film doesn’t use or need showy cinematography; it simply films beautiful images and lets nature impress you.  The viewer completely understands why McCandless continues on his trek despite some less than pleasant setbacks.  

            These wonderful images are accompanied by a perfect soundtrack featuring original music by Eddie Vedder, the famous lead singer of the Seattle grunge band Pearl Jam.  This solo work by Vedder does not sound like the heavy rock of the band he’s famous for, which I love incidentally. Rather, Vedder delivers a number of folksy down to earth tunes.  I don’t know if this music would stand up when listened to on an album, but it fits perfectly within the movie.  I would be very surprised if one of these songs didn’t end up with an Oscar nomination. 

            I had no idea Sean Penn would emerge as such a good filmmaker.  It’s likely that author and co-screenwriter Jon Krakaur deserves a large part of the credit as well.  This is a wonderful film that inspires and touches the viewer at the same time.  It is a character study on one level, an adventure story on another level and ultimately a tragedy by the end.  It is a great true story told in perfect cinematic language.  I certainly hope Penn doesn’t give up acting, as he’s one of our best thespians, but with Into the Wild as evidence I can safely say I want to see anything Penn decides to do as a filmmaker after this.

**** out of four

DVD Catch Up: Black Book(9/26/2007)

 

            Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoven is probably most famous for the infamous bomb Showgirls. Before that 1996 disaster Verhoven made a handful of Dutch films before breaking into Hollywood with a string of unique action films like Robocop and Total Recall.  Verhoven’s Hollywood films became increasingly sexual throughout his career, culminating in the freeze-frame classic Basic Instinct and the aforementioned Showgirls.  After that debacle Hollywood became increasingly unwilling to finance Verhoven’s wild De Palma-esque sexual thrillers.  Verhoven was able to infuse some of his sensibilities into later films like Starship Troopers, but was largely unable to get financing for the project he wanted.  For his latest project Verhoven has returned to the Netherlands for the first time in over twenty years with the film Black Book.

            Black Book focuses on Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a young Jewish woman in Nazi occupied Holland late in World War 2.  When stein and her family try to escape they are found by the Gestapo who murder her entire family.  Stein escapes the massacre and flees to occupied Amsterdam where she meets up with the local resistance group.  Along the way Stien meets a German officer named Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) who is clearly attracted to her.  The resistance convinces Stein to seduce Müntze in order to spy on his activities.  Over the course of this espionage Stien spots an officer named Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) whom she recognizes from the massacre she escaped from. 

            I’ll leave the summery at that because a big part of the fun of Black Book comes from seeing the story unfold in new and unexpected ways.  The film’s original story written by Verhoven and long time collaborator Gerard Soeteman is the film’s biggest asset.  It moves along in the great tradition of World War 2 spy films.  The film is not just a thriller, its story goes beyond the war itself and into the post-war issues.  The characters manage to surprise often and the viewer is fully invested in what happens to the characters.

            The film also has a few subtle parallels with the current state of world affairs.  The Nazi occupiers refer to the resistance group as “terrorists” throughout, a label I doubt was specifically used by the Nazis but which does serve to point out that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, as well as examine the ramifications of refusing to negotiate with such organizations.  More interesting still is the post-war aspects of the story in which many people have their lives ruined by being given a label without being given a trial to explain themselves. 

            Despite the great story, the film is burdened with an abundance of flaws, mostly courtesy of Paul Verhoven’s general wackiness.  Verhoven seems to feel obligated to fill this movie with the sexual material that Hollywood stopped allowing him to use, despite the fact that most of it is completely inappropriate in this setting.  There were certainly sexual aspects of the story, namely Stein’s affair with Müntze, but Verhoven also adds a lot of extra stuff that is completely out of place.  A big part of the problem is that Verhoven was never know for the type of serious artistic eroticism that may have worked here; instead he is known for campy, sleazy, borderline pornographic fare like Showgirls.  This material works as what it is in the more frivolous films Verhoven was making in Hollywood, but is nothing more than a distraction in a World War 2 film involving the Holocaust.

            There are other problems as well, most notably a completely gratuitous frame story which could easily be cut and also removes any suspense about the fate of the Stein character.  Also the movie runs into some major third act problems, the last half an hour feels fairly anti-climactic and it also has an ending which seems to contradict the movie’s ultimate message.

            All that said, I still enjoyed Black Book.  I think the story is so strong that it still manages to stand up despite its director’s unfortunate excesses.  There are better movies about the subject matter this film depicts, still there was more than enough here to keep me intrigued.  Recommended, but with a lot of reservations.

*** out of four