Friday, April 30, 2010

A Week in the Life of a Film Geek (April 26-May 2, 2010)

A Week in the Life of a Film Geek (April 26-May 2, 2010)

Advise and Consent (1962) *****
Directed by Otto Preminger

My tweet:

Advise and Consent
(1962)- Absorbing & intelligent. Perfectly captures what's (still) wrong with our government. ***** out of 5

Other thoughts:

There are two ways to go about judging Preminger's political thriller about a candidate for Secretary of State and the Senators who must vote to ratify or deny his nomination. On the one hand, the plot itself is a bit stiff and dated. Yet, on the other hand, its exploration into the fundamental flaws that exist in politics and government couldn't be more relevant today as we hear of scandal after scandal and watch as once moderate politicians go to the extreme of their parties in order to hold onto their seats. It's this second paradigm which allows me to call Advise and Consent a masterpiece. Just this week, centrist Republican governor of Florida Charlie Crist left his party to become an independent because the primary voters overwhelmingly favored the more conservative candidate. If Crist wants to keep his job, what choice does he have but avail himself of the two party system altogether? Some government, huh?

An ensemble piece if ever there was one, Henry Fonda plays the nominee, and from the beginning, I figured that he was going to be the pure lamb among the wolves. Advise and Consent is not that simple. Everyone has their secrets, and everyone lies in order to prevent these secrets from coming to light. At one point, Fonda's Robert Leffingwell explains to his teenage son that he told a "Washington lie." Clearly, there's a sense that deception is par for the course in the political arena.

There are villains on both ends of the political spectrum. A South Carolina conservative Democrat named Seab Cooley, played with all the gusto of a Tennessee Williams patriarch by Charles Laughton, has a personal vendetta against Leffingwell, and thus he does his digging in order to assure control over the outcome. At the same time, a young liberal Wyoming senator named Fred Van Ackermann (George Grizzard) wants to prove that he has clout so he does his own scheming in order to make sure Leffingwell becomes Secretary of State. This tug of war ends up in the lap of the chairman of the Senate committee, a Utah Republican senator named Brig Anderson. The secret that he holds, which I didn't see coming because of how long ago the film was made, is damning enough to cause some real damage. Meanwhile, the President of the United States is dying and doesn't trust his own Vice President, which is why he wants someone as talented as Leffingwell to run the State Department.

Lies, blackmail and corruption occur so rampantly that one can't help but be outraged and exhausted at the same time. I cannot think of a film that more successfully indicts our political system. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington similarly deals with corruption in Congress, but that film argues that a good man can hold onto his virtue and integrity if he believes hard enough and carries around with him a cheering pack of boy scouts. If Mr. Smith was a senator in this film's senate, then he'd be torn to pieces and force fed to the scouts for lunch.

We should be angry that we can't trust our politicians. Do good people ever decide to enter the political arena? Sure. Do they ever leave public life without getting a little blood on their shirts? Advise and Consent is not the sort of film that's going to tell you the answer you want to hear.

For a Few Dollars More (1965) ***1/2
Directed by Sergio Leone

My tweet:

For a Few Dollars More (1965)- Final act disappoints, but Leone's style is solidified. The result is slick and entertaining. ***1/2 of 5

Other thoughts:

A Fistful of Dollars was made by a relatively inexperienced director, and the final product lacks the commitment and confidence of Sergio Leone's later epic Once Upon a Time in the West. In contrast, the style and scope of For a Few Dollars More contains a focused maturity, as if Leone took ownership of his own talent behind the camera and allowed his notorious indulgence free reign.

With a running time of 132 minutes compared with Fistful's 99 minutes, Leone takes a simple, straightforward story that could easily be told in 90 minutes and pads it with extended close ups of faces of grizzled actors simply scouring at the camera. The final shootout goes on and on, testing the viewer's patience almost to the point of irritation, and with one gunshot, the whole sequence ends. When done right, that sort of unapologetic self-seriousness is exactly what makes Leone a master film maker. At the same time, such audacity runs the risk of going too far, and the final act of For a Few Dollars More does not succeed as a result. There's too much of a build up for such an abrupt and disappointing resolution.

That being said, the first two thirds deliver the goods with a story about two highly skilled bounty hunters who team up to go after an angry, sadistic thug named Indio. Clint Eastwood returns as "The Man with No Name," and this time he brings along an established sense of gravitas which was solidified by A Fistful of Dollars. On the surface, his motivation is the $10,000 reward for Indio who is wanted "dead or alive," but one suspects that under the surface, he's really a man of virtue hardwired to dispel evil. He joins forces with Colonel Douglas Mortimer played with great charm by Lee Van Cleef. His motivation for capturing Indio might be the reward money, or it might be something a bit more personal.

Their first encounter goes down as one of the most awesome scenes in movie history. The Man with No Name shoots the hat off of Mortimer and every time the Colonel goes to pick up his hat, the Man shoots it again. Eventually, Mortimer gains the upper hand when his hat moves out of the range of the Man's shooting skill, and at that point, the Colonel pulls his gun and shoots the hat off the Man and keeps it soaring in the air with shot after shot. This, folks, is how establishment of power ought to be executed.

The plot requires The Man with No Name to infiltrate Indio and his men from within in order to lure them to their doom by trapping them in an ambush by both bounty hunters. Similar to Fistful of Dollars, the good guys remain in control for the first two-thirds of the film, then the tables are turned and they're brutally beaten only to gain control once again. This time around, because of its predecessor, this twist feels a bit tired, though the fact that Indio's cockiness plays a part in his own downfall adds some depth.

Despite its flaws, For a Few Dollars More is pure in its desire to entertain. It's so visually rich and stylish that it's hard not to be swept away by its charm.

The Good Heart (2010) *1/2
Directed by Dagur Kari

My tweet:

The Good Heart- What the hell? Forget 3D. Here comes the 1D revolution. *1/2 out of 5

Other thoughts:

Nine years ago, I saw a film called L.I.E. about a boy questioning his sexuality and a pedophile who has gained the boy's trust. allowing him the opportunity to take advantage of the boy. L.I.E. is a fascinating film precisely because it's not afraid to show the humanity of the man, but at the same time, the man is certainly punished for his sins. Not surprising with subject matter like this, L.I.E. was not a box office success, but it began the career of Paul Dano and elevated the respect many have for Brian Cox as an actor. The Good Heart reunites these two, though it's easy to forget their scenes together in L.I.E while watching. since Dano is now a tall, lanky man well into his twenties.

Like last year's clunker Rudo y Cursi reuniting Y Tu Mama Tambien's Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, this film's casting is a bit of a gimmick, which sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Did Dagur Kari not trust his material enough that he's resorted to leeching off the success of someone else's movie?

This smug, one dimensional character study contains some of the worst dialogue in recent memory. Cox gives it his all playing a caricature who goes through a transformation that's not the least bit believable until we're left with a conclusion that would make even Nicholas Sparks' teeth hurt due to its syrupy sentimentality. Dano is a solid actor, and I don't think he's given enough credit for his excellent performance in There Will Be Blood. Here, Dano delivers a shallow, mannered performance, though his character, who starts off a meek, idealistic bum and eventually becomes a cold, cynical misanthrope, is written with the broadest cliches imaginable, so it's not all Dano's fault.

Over and over again, things happen within the movie that would almost never happen in real life. I'm okay with one or two moments that stretch believability, but when they're presented over and over and over again, I start to resent the laziness of the screenplay, written by Kari. I didn't believe the beginning of the friendship. I didn't believe the yoga class. I didn't believe the hospital scenes. I didn't believe the duck. I didn't believe the immigrant woman. I didn't believe the jejune characterizations of the bar patrons. I didn't believe the transformations of the main characters. I didn't believe the ludicrous twist at the end. I didn't believe the stupid final scene. Most of all, though, I can't believe this movie was made.

Watching The Good Heart was an insult to my intelligence, and I respect everyone who reads my blog enough to implore you not to give this crappy excuse for indie film making your business. It's movies like this that make me long for films of a certain calibur like L.I.E.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) **1/2
Directed by Terry Gilliam

My tweet:

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)- Clunky & underwhelming...sorry to say, those words also apply to Ledger's performance **1/2 of 5

Other thoughts:

Maybe it's unfortunate that this film is sort of my introduction to Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam's solo directing career. Granted, I have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is maybe my favorite comedy of all time, but that classic was co-directed by Terry Jones. Looking through Gilliam's directorial filmography, I'm impressed with the quality I've heard described about many such as Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. At the same time, I'm ashamed that I've not seen a single one of those I just mentioned. Without a doubt, I'll have to do a Terry Gilliam marathon in the near future.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has ambitions of magical visual film making, but sadly it's instead a clumsy, clunky, disappointing mess of a movie. The screenplay, written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, offers a story that's totally uninteresting. Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), who is also the devil, returns to Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) in order to collect on a promise made many years prior that, in exchange for eternal life and a resurgence of youth in order to win the heart of a woman, Parnassus must hand over any children that resulted on their 16th birthday. Wouldn't you know, Parnassus did in fact have a daughter named Valentina (Lily Cole) and yep, she's about to turn 16. For reasons that are not totally clear to me, Parnassus headlines a traveling carnival show where people can pay to walk through a mirror into their own imaginations. He's assisted by Valentina, a loyal dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer) and a wide-eyed young man named Anton (Andrew Garfield) who has a bit of a thing for Valentina.

As Parnassus freaks out and drinks himself to a stupor over Mr. Nick's return, a strange man is found hanging from a bridge with a flute lodged in his throat to prevent his neck from breaking. His charm, charisma and way with the ladies is just what their lackluster sideshow needs to bring in the bucks. We learn that his name is Tony, and he's played in real life by Heath Ledger and in the Imaginarium by three actors--Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Ferrell. Within the Imaginarium, we learn more and more who Tony is and what he wants from the traveling company.

As you can tell, there are lot of elements of fantasy, and the Imaginarium scenes are done with a jarring and somewhat crude style of CGI animation. Unfortunately, this makes the real world scenes downright soporific in comparison. Visually, they come off as a blend of Dickensian England with disjointed glimpses of modernity. If you want a film that successfully mixes old and new England with a bit of fairy tale invention, watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Also, I never thought I'd say this about any director, but Gilliam should have tried to be more like Michael Bay. There's one real life scene involving the sideshow vehicle crashing through the streets causing explosions that goes down as one of the most awful executions of an action scene I've ever seen. You'd need to inject yourself with adrenaline in order to get excited while watching this sequence.

The Imaginarium scenes are adequate and occasionally special, but they don't feel complete. Had someone like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry tackled this material, perhaps the magic could have registered more significantly. This is vintage Monty Python animation, but that film was meant to be campy and cheesy. This time around, the goal is to illicit whimsy and wonder, and sadly, Gilliam doesn't deliver.

I'm not going to temper my take on the film in order to honor the memory of a truly great actor who tragically died way too soon. Therefore, I say without hesitation that I hated Heath Ledger's performance as Tony. He alternates between overacting and looking terribly bored. There's one exchange with Lily Cole that is painfully uncomfortable to watch. Ledger bizarrely delivers his lines while stroking her face, and during the whole thing, Cole looks scared. Depp, Law and Ferrell perform Tony inside the Imaginarium with consistent wide eyed caprice, which made me long for one of them to have been originally cast in the role. Out of the three, Jude Law impresses the most, so he would have been my choice. Ledger is an amazing actor which he proved in both Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. Maybe his personal life got in the way of his performance because it's truly horrendous. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will always be remembered as his last film. Personally, after this review, I'm going to forget that he was ever in this movie.

Note to Hollywood, please stop casting Verne Troyer. He can't act--at all. There have to be other little people out there who actually know how to develop a character and deliver lines with some emotion and nuance. Peter Dinklage, though not a dwarf like Troyer, would have been excellent as Percy, whose character is key to audience affection for Parnassus. Lily Cole is one of the most beautiful actresses working today, yet her beauty is very odd. She evokes Hollywood glamor from the 1920s and 1930s, inviting comparisons to Myrna Loy and Lillian Gish. No other actress out there looks anything like her, and I predict that she might just become a huge star because of it. Christopher Plummer looks like he's having a lot of fun, but I think he was miscast. He's never without class and charm, which doesn't quite fit his character's self-loathing and frustration.

Andrew Garfield is high on my list of actors to keep an eye on. Though he overacted in what should have been a tempered performance in Boy A, I thought he was the standout in Lions for Lambs, which is saying something considering that the cast includes Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford. By far, he delivers the best performance in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, bringing a frantic energy and charisma. It's clear he knows how this material ought to be played. If only everyone else could have matched Garfield's spirit.

Every great director is bound to have a few missteps in his or her career. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus does not belong on a list of Gilliam's better films. For this reason and for his acting, let's all agree to call The Dark Knight Ledger's unofficial swan song.