W.(10/19/2008)

            When Michael Moore made Farenheit 9/11 in late 2004, George W. Bush was the most divisive person in the world.  Now, that probably isn’t the case.  With approval ratings in the twenties it’s probably safe to guess that a majority of people can finally agree that “dubya” is a horrible president that should never have been elected.  In case you haven’t guessed already, I’m no fan of our current president, and I never have been.  I’m making my bias clear right up front, unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the last eight years there’s no way to look at something like this without bias.  Oliver Stone is not a filmmaker known to keep his head in the sand; he’s completely upfront with his biases, and that’s what makes his movies so interesting.  The George W. Bush presidency is the perfect subject for Oliver Stone to do his magic, and low and behold here’s an Oliver Stone directed biopic about our forty third president.

            Many people lump Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon as peas in the same pod, but they’re really very different films.  JFK is not a biopic; the title character doesn’t even have a speaking role. Nixon is a full fledged biopic, though despite being over three hours long it focused almost exclusively on tricky Dick’s political career.  With W. Oliver Stone examines a president’s entire adult life and in half as long a running time.  The film generally focuses on three separate periods of Bush’s life: his life as a hellraising college student, his time as a businessman and Texas politician, and his presidency.

            Playing the titular character is Josh Brolin, who’s coming off a great 2007 in which he acted in Grindhouse, American Gangster, and No Country for Old Men.  I liked the choice of Brolin for the role from the moment I heard about it and he doesn’t disappoint.  Doing a George W. Bush impression isn’t that hard, just about every two bit impressionist in the country does him.  The trick here was probably just not getting too carried away with the impression, to not focus on the impression to the detriment of the acting in a given scene.  If Brolin had focused too much on the impression the movie could have devolved into a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. 

            The other various cast members also need to be able to make a balance between impression and acting, and some do it better than others.  James Cromwell doesn’t really look much like George H.W. Bush, but there’s a certain New England aura too him that makes him the right contrast to the younger Bush’s Texas swagger.  Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush takes a similar approach and so does Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld.  Thandie Newton on the other hand tries so hard to imitate Condoleezza Rice that her line readings are devoid of any real humanity.  Toby Jones has similar problems playing Karl Rove, and Jeffrey Wright is never quite able to pull of Colin Powell.  Richard Dreyfuss is probably the only actor other than Brolin who is really able to pull off imitation and acting in equal measure.  Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney looks and sounds exactly like the real Vice President and he never feels robotic in his imitating.

            I’ve always been a fan of Oliver Stone’s movies, the man used to have an uncanny ability to put out a lot of very long and very ambitious movies in very quick succession while still maintaining a very high level of quality.  Then he made U-Turn and it’s like the man’s career fell off a cliff.  Any Given Sunday had its moments and World Trade Center was competent enough, but with clunkers like Alexander and the aforementioned U-Turn it’s hard to deny that Stone’s output has been dramatically worse than it once was.  W. Looked like a perfect project to make a comeback out of, unfortunately I think this falls prey to a problem I never expected a fearless director like Oliver Stone to have: it plays too safe. 

            The film feels very plausible, a bit too plausible.  Almost everything in the movie is a well documented historical event that Bush himself would probably agree to, albeit with a deliberate focus on the things that make Bush look bad.  It’s almost like Stone was so afraid of being dismissed as a left wing kook that he decided to stick so close to the facts that there isn’t much left for the movie to show that wasn’t already covered in Fahrenheit 9/11.  I’m not saying I wanted Stone to lie, what I wanted was for him to tell me something I didn’t already know, even if it meant using a little speculative fiction.  Some of the best moments in the movie are during pre-Iraq strategy sessions where Dick Cheney lays out a scary theory of American imperialism.  I’m sure this stretched a lot further than what can strictly be proven, it was probably speculated, and that’s what I wanted to see more of.  I would have liked to see Stone go behind the closed doors of the White House and seen the planning that went into some of Bush’s botched policies like he did with Richard Nixon.

            I also think the film suffers because it doesn’t really show a lot of the consequences of Bush’s actions.  Of course one could easily argue that we’re seeing those consequences in our daily lives, but why fictionalize this at all if we already know all the real details.  There’s some brief Iraq war footage, and the film goes a little bit into the period where Bush sees that the war isn’t as easy as he expected, but the film stops long before he finds himself become the least popular president since Hoover.  The film also focuses in entirely on Iraq during the presidential portions, which is also a problem.  Hurricane Katrina isn’t mentioned once even though that was where the public really turned on him.  The Patriot Act is mentioned briefly and there’s a set up for No Child Left Behind that’s never delivered on.  While Iraq is probably going to be the main red flag in the Bush legacy, it’s by no means the only mistake he made.  This was never a problem with the three and a half hour Nixon, hopefully we’ll see a director’s cut that can fit more of this stuff in, until then we’re stuck with a film that focuses mainly on George Bush Jr. that underachieving president’s son who might have a better job some day in the future. 

            The film’s clever trailer is a montage to the tune of the song “Once in a Lifetime” By the Talking heads.  Over the course of the montage the song’s lyrics seem to match up with what we’re seeing on screen.  Among the most telling of these lyrical juxtapositions is the line “And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?” That’s the question I think Stone is most interested in answering, and it’s a valid question to be ask going into an election.  If nothing else, I think this might work as a cautionary tale about the importance of vetting the people you vote for.  George W. Bush had no business being president and he was voted in by people who went with him without really thinking about the implications of his policies.  This is a movie about the dangers of casually voting for an underachieving dude just because he talks tough.  Otherwise it’s a fairly standard biopic that reenacts a lot of stuff we already have video footage of. 

             I’m making it sound like I disliked this movie a lot more than I actually did.  The movie is not boring, it held my interest for its entire running time and it worked fairly well as a narrative.  I think I’m mostly just disappointed because of how great I think this maybe could have been.  This is a well made film with some good performances at its center; it does enough right to be worth watching.  What it isn’t is the Oliver Stone comeback film that I’ve been waiting for.  For the most part this feels like yet another missed opportunity in an early autumn movie season full of them.

*** out of Four

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Body of Lies(10/10/2008)

            He often doesn’t get quite the respect or reverence he deserves, but Ridley Scott is one of the most important directors of the last thirty years.  One of the first directors to be given the promotion from advertising director to feature film director, Scott brought a new level of polish to the screen, raising the bar on cinematic production values.  This is a fairly unpretentious accomplishment, but it’s every bit as important as the accomplishments of people like Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, or Werner Herzog.  Scott’s mastery of cinema production values is his greatest strength, no movie has better sets, special effects, photography, or set pieces than a Ridley Scott movie, and he’s still a cut above all his competitors. 

            However, I must say that a number of the movies Scott has made during this decade haven’t been as good as they should have been.  When Scott made Gladiator in 2000, it looked like he was making a major comeback, but since then I frankly think that he’s been playing it a little too safe.  His first post-Gladiator project, Hannibal was awful, I blame Thomas Harris’s horrible novel for that one, and since he made the excellent Black Hawk Down right after it Scott still seemed like he was on the right track.  Then he made Matchstick Men which I think is an underrated gem, but after that the trouble started.  Kingdom of Heaven was passable, but not anywhere as good as it could have been, partly because of Orlando Bloom’s lackluster screen presence and partly because of a compromised theatrical cut.   At least Scott learned his lesson from that and never casted Orlando Bloom again… or anyone else who isn’t Russell Crowe.  I didn’t even see A Good Year, and American Gangster was good, but again not anywhere near as good as something with that pedigree should have been.  Now Scott has made another film, and this one was about the American war on terror, now that didn’t sound like something that would be playing it safe.

           The film centers around Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a CIA agent on the ground in the Middle East.  He takes orders from Edward Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a middle aged CIA member who claims to be an expert on the region but who gives his orders over the phone from his suburban household.  After a botched operation on the ground in Iraq, Ferris is sent to Amman, Jordan to track down a terrorist leader who is the likely perpetrator.  There he teams up with the local intelligence agency lead by a man named Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), who demands only one thing: that Ferris never lies to him.  They devise a plan to infiltrate a terrorist safe house by conditioning a member of the organization to their side.

            I don’t need to tell anyone how much 9/11 and the war on terror had affected our society.  When the wars in the Middle East began, it was a great opportunity for filmmakers to use their craft to either make statements about our society or at least have a dramatic situation to depict.  The movie that was probably best able to utilize the geopolitical situation was probably Stephen Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, a film that had the patience to honestly describe the full complexities of the Middle East’s affect on America and America’s effect on the Middle East.  Three years later, Syriana remains the gold standard for this genre, unfortunately most of the movies related to Iraq or the broader war on terror since then have not lived up to their potential.  Many of them fall prey to peachiness, as was the case with Rendition, others are just too busy being angry to act as good narratives, as was the case with Redacted.  These movies are overbearing and don’t work, but at least they’re trying to do something, on the other end of the spectrum there’s last year’s retarded action film The Kingdom, which exploited the war on terror in order to film a number of explosions and justified it with meaningless pseudo-moralizing in the last fifteen minutes.  Body of Lies never reduces itself to the level of that stinker, but by the end it doesn’t seem to have much more on its mind.

            This movie does not have a message, it doesn’t clarify the Middle East, and it isn’t a well reasoned drama.  In fact Kingdom of Heaven, a movie about the 12th century crusades, probably had more to day about the modern Middle East then this does.  All right, that’s an overstatement; there are a few ideas on the surface about the effect of decision making by people removed from the realities of the region, but it’s clear to me that this is not why Ridley Scott made this movie.  This is a spy thriller pure and simple that happens to deal with the current conflicts.  The film makes me wonder what all those cold war spy movies must have felt like while the cold war was actually going on.  Like most of my generation I don’t remember much of the Cold War, and I wonder if the way I watched a Bond movie like From Russia With Love  would be different if the Russians actually posed a nuclear threat.  Of course a lot of those movies usually sidestepped their political implication by making the real bad guys separate criminals like SPECTRE or some sort of rouge general, there’s no such separation in The Kingdom or Body of Lies, the villains are Islamic terrorists with only superficial differences from Osama Bin Laden.  Similarly exploitative undertones also killed off a lot of the fun that could have been had from movies like the new Rambo and Blood Diamond.  Frankly, I’m not comfortable with simplistic action movies being made against the backdrop of the serious problems in the Middle East.

            Of course this all would have been a lot more forgivable if I thought Body of Lies worked better as a straight up thriller.  The movie’s fractured act structure prevents the stakes from really raising to high before the movie moves on to other things, and the ending is really anti-climactic.  Also the action is mostly front loaded, in the first act there is a pretty big shootout, and an awesome car chase involving a helicopter.  After that though, the movie becomes more of a cloak and dagger affair. 

           Ridley Scott’s direction is as slick as ever, and the dialogue is also quite good.  Russell Crowe gives a pretty fun performance; it’s certainly fun watching him talk on one of those cell phone microphones that dangle down on a wire anyway.  Di Caprio is also perfectly functional as the film’s hero, although I could have done without the vaguely southern accent he’s trying to do.  The one who steals the show here is Mark Strong, who is really bringing his A-game as the head of Jordanian intelligence. 

           It should really be noted that this movie coasts along as far as it possibly can with great production values, star power, and good dialogue.  But all this can only take it so far, Scott manages to maintain a certain level of dignity through the whole affair, but it can’t make up for the movie’s general pointlessness.  It’s never as stupid as The Kingdom, but I don’t think it will be much more memorable either.  Scott can do a lot better than this and I think he needs to think a little less commercially with the projects he chooses, as can the rest of this cast.  Body of Lies is ultimately a movie unworthy of its pedigree, a real missed opportunity.

**1/2 out of Four

Blindness(10/3/2008)

            One of the great pleasures of watching a lot of movies is the ability to spot new talent and watch it emerge over the course of a career.  Every critic, film buff, and industry watcher wants to feel the way Martin Scorsese did in 1967 when he came out of Who’s That Knocking at My Door and proclaimed Martin Scorsese one of the great new talents of his generation.  For me, and many others, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God seemed like the start of a great director’s career.  City of God was a bold and brilliant film that show the presence of a true cinematic genius behind the camera, a natural talent who had a Scorsese-esque ability to choose just the right trick to make every shot work to its fullest potential.  It seemed like there was no place to go except down from that modern classic, but his follow-up The Constant Gardener did not disappoint.  Mierelles showed no signs of a sophomore slump, with that film he had shown real maturity and toned down some of City of God’s virtuosity to fit that very different film.  Expectations were high for Mierelles’ third film, Blindness, which could solidify Mierelles as the great talent of our time if it lived up to his first two films.  Unfortunately, Blindness isn’t as great as his previous films; in many ways it feels like the sophomore slump he somehow avoided with The Constant Gardener.

            The film opens with a man (Yusuke Iseya) stopping his car in the middle of the road and telling the good Samaritans who stop to help him that he suddenly went blind while driving down the road.  He eventually finds his way to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who can find no explanation for his sudden blindness.  The next day, that eye doctor tells his wife (Julianne Moore) that he too is suddenly blind.  It’s quickly decided that this blindness is the result of a spreading contagion and the government decides to quarantine everybody afflicted.  The blind are brought into a detention facility and told to fend for themselves with no assistance from anyone with sight.  The Julianne Moore character never loses her sight but decides to stay by her husband’s side in the quarantine just the same.  The facility is undersupplied and unsupported, the blind quickly grow restless particularly a man in Ward 3 (Gael García Bernal) who shows no interest in cooperating with the people trying to make the place better.

            The key problem with Blindness is simply that it is really depressing and unpleasant to sit through, which wouldn’t be a problem if it had a really strong story or a really profound message, but it has neither. The trailers don’t tell you this, but most of the movie isn’t set in the wider society dealing with this crisis, more than half of it is spent in a dark, dank, disgusting prison.  The people are stuffed in like sardines, and the government isn’t even trying to help improve conditions.  Painfully, the situation looks disturbingly similar to what happened to the people stuck in the New Orleans Superdome during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The difference is those people were stuck for about a week, and the people in the film are there for months on end with no end in sight and even less outside assistance.  This allegory gives the sequence some degree of power, but at the same time there’s only so much of this abuse an audience can take.  These scenes seem to go on forever, eventually the film moves on from this hellhole into some of its more impressive sequences in the last twenty minutes, but by then it’s too little too late.  I only wish more of the film had taken place in the city than in that horrible prison.

            The film’s central message is that society falls apart when it has to face a major crisis situation, but this is hardly a unique or original message.  The story bears a very close resemblance to “Lord of the Flies,” and brings very little new to the table.  This is made worse by the fact that we’ve seen a lot of movies like this recently; some titles that come to mind include Children of Men, 28 Days Later, War of the Worlds, and The Happening, in fact The Happening would have probably been a lot like this if it hadn’t been completely inept. 

            The characters here all fit the same cliché types you’d find in a Hollywood disaster film: You’ve got the leader type in the woman who can see, you’ve got the wide old man in a character played by Danny Glover, you’ve got the hooker with a heart of gold that everyone judges at first but come to respect, you’ve got the kid who’s only there to quietly sit around and up the stakes for the larger group, and you’ve got the unbalanced crazy guy and his henchmen there to act as villains for the group.  That’s really the root problem with the movie, deep down it’s just a Hollywood genre movie the ones listed above, it just doesn’t want to admit it.  The end result is a movie that’s the worst of both worlds; it’s no more profound or well told than the average disaster movie, yet it’s an extremely depressing, claustrophobic, and unpleasant experience to sit through.

            What saves the movie from being a real disaster is some very good acting and production values.  The acting in particular has a knack for making the viewer almost forget just how cliché a lot of these characters are.  I took issue with the way Julianne Moore portrayed her character early in the film, particularly the airheaded moments when she put herself in jeopardy for no reason, but as the film progressed her performance really grew on me.  Moore and her character hold a quiet dignity and strength that really felt like one of the few things that was able to rise above this hellish world that Mierelles managed to create.  Mark Ruffalo also played her husband in a very well done, naturalistic way.  Gael Garcia Bernal is also very strong as the scenery chewing villain of the piece.

            The production qualities are also quite good, particularly the art direction which conveys a really desolate mess of a post-apocalypse in the last few scenes and effectively makes the quarantine facility look every bit as awful as Meirelles seems to want it to be.  The cinematography is also pretty interesting.  The blind characters describe their condition as an extreme whiteness, like “swimming through milk.”  To match this Meirelles took a bold step and seemed to turn the white light on the set up to eleven, leaving the visuals of the movie completely washed out in whiteness for large portions of the film.  I’m not sure that this really adds a whole lot to the movie, he would have had to take this a lot further if his goal was to make the audience completely empathize with the blind people on screen, but I don’t think it really hurts the movie much either. It’s an interesting decision that makes the movie unique if nothing else. 

            The movie does have a number of very good scenes, in fact very few of them fall flat, the problem is that they don’t gel together into a greater whole… at all.  Fernando Meirelles has made two great films so far, and I’m sure he’ll make great films in the future, but this one straight up doesn’t work.  There are elements here to respect, but the movie is unlikable in many ways.  This was a nice try, but a disappointing failure nonetheless.

** out of four

Miracle at St. Anna(9/26/2008)

            I like Spike.  Spike Lee has been putting out bold and original films for more than twenty years now.  Lee is a filmmaker who doesn’t pull any punches, when he wants to make a point he’ll go all out.  This means that he can make some really biting satire, but it also means he can go too far occasionally.  It also means that some of his movies can get overloaded with interesting ideas and become messy polemics rather than well thought out debates.  His newest film, Miracle at St. Anna, looks at the African American experience during World War 2. 

            The film begins in a post office in 1989.  A man walks up to an African American teller and tries to buy some stamps, a sudden look of recognition falls on the tellers face, suddenly the teller pulls out a Luger and shoots the customer dead.  The teller is arrested and when the police search his house they find an ancient Italian artifact that disappeared during the Second World War.  The film then flashes back to the Italian campaign of the war.  During the flashback the film follows the 92nd infantry Buffalo Soldier division, particularly four enlisted men.   The teller, it turns out, was named Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the highest ranking of the four.  Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) are both in a state of constant conflict over their differeing view of the way African Americans are treated by the military and white society in general.  Finally, there’s Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a large and not overly bright GI who befriends a young Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) that he finds abandoned in a house.  The four find themselves being the only survivors of a tense gunfight.  Broken from the main force they take refuge in a small Tuscan village where they wait for orders.

            The film’s trailer focuses a lot on the statue head, and makes the film look like some kind of war-time artifact heist film, but this is misleading.  The statue head is actually already in the soldier’s possession when the flashback begins and it ultimately has little to do with the story outside of the framing story.  I can understand why they did this though, because the real center of the story is a much harder sell. 

            Lee clearly wants to set the record straight about the role African Americans played in the war, that’s a noble sentiment, but I wish he had found a better project to make this point through.  With a white cast leading this movie and a more anonymous director, the film would have seemed like pretty bland and derivative war movie trying to ride the wave of post-Saving Private Ryan war fare.  The racial elements are what set the movie apart, and they’re probably the most interesting parts of the film.  The way these combat troops are treated by their commanding officers and by civilians in a diner back on base is sad and disturbing, especially in a modern “support the troops” environment.   There’s also a really interesting schism between the Ealy and Alonso characters. 

            What doesn’t work as well is the story surrounding the Miller character and the Italian orphan he befriends.  In fact this sub-plot is so achingly schmaltzy, saccharine and mis-placed that it pretty much torpedoes the whole movie.  Miller’s character, Sam Train, is a large and seemingly mentally challenged character.  It almost feels like John Coffey, Michael Clark Duncan’s character from The Green Mile, somehow wandered onto a World War 2 battlefield.  The Frank Darabont comparisons don’t stop there either; there’s a very awkward use of magical realism throughout this sub-plot that just seems really strange in a movie about a war, particularly in a campaign of the war that audiences are so used to seeing through a neo-realist lens. 

            One of the prevailing complaints about the film through its festival run was that it ran too long at 160 minutes.  I’ve never been one to cry wolf about running times, I think there’s a disturbing level of attention deficit disorder running through critical circles and people are way too quick to jump on running time as a problem.  That said, even I could see where these criticisms were coming from.  I was never really bored or impatient about the film’s running time, but there was a lot of superfluous material here.  The framing story is mostly a waste, and it includes a really odd cameo by John Leguizamo.  Extended sub-plots about the Italian partisans seemed like a distraction, too much time was spent on the Italians in general when the movie should have been focusing on the four African American characters were in the theater to see.  Even the Nazi officers are given a lot of screen time that doesn’t amount to much in the overall story.  In all this mess of sub-plots the movie really loses track of the Derek Luke character, which is odd considering all the time the framing story spends trying to make this his story.  The Laz Alonso character was a lot more interesting to me, and he was given a lot more to do through the whole movie.

            On a visual level, the film works quite well.  Like most films about World War 2 made since 1998, the film owes a pretty big debt to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  Spielberg’s film ushered in a new level of authenticity in the genre of World War 2 films and the genre has been all the better for it.  This isn’t a wholesale lift though, unlike Spielberg and Eastwood’s films Lee doesn’t de-saturate the look of his war film, and this was probably the right choice given the film’s Italian setting and more fanciful tone. 

             In general, Lee plays this one straighter than he has with any movie since Malcolm X.  No one talks directly to the camera, there’s no one sliding on wheels with a steady cam, and no strange tricks with the film’s horizontal hold.  All those games worked fine in their respective movies, but Lee wisely didn’t see them as fitting in with the tone of a war movie.  This really seems less like a Spike Lee Joint than any movie of his since maybe Clockers.  In many ways it feels like he was trying to hold back his auteurist traits in order to get his message to as wide an audience as possible.

            If nothing else, Miracle at St. Anna is very well intentioned.  I think a straightforward story about three of these four soldiers preparing for a battle in an Italian town and relating with the locals would have made a fine story.  If the film hadn’t been bogged down in the framing story and the sappy story about Sam Train and the Orphan it might have worked.  As it stands though, the film really just doesn’t work, it’s too uneven, too convoluted, and lacks the grit it needed to really sell the plight of its characters.  The film is almost as messy and unfocused as a Spike Lee Joint like Bamboozled or She Hate Me, except without the same energy or satire that made those movies sort of fun to watch in spite of themselves.  Chalk this one up as noble failure.

** out of Four