From the Archive — In the Valley of Elah

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For many, Paul Haggis will forever be the person who directed the most egregious Best Picture Oscar-winner of the past twenty-five years. He’s not. That honor belongs to Ron Howard. I’ll over no further defense of Crash at this time (although I’ll admit I can) and will instead note that Haggis’s follow-up directorial effort is a solid film and boasts a couple tremendous performances. This review was written for my former online home.

The sophomore directorial effort from Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah, takes on the Iraq war with a pointed urgency. More specifically (or more broadly, depending on how you look at it) the film grapples with the cost of war on the people who wage it, those who love them and the very psyche of the country immersed in it. Like Haggis’s Oscar-grabbing Crash, the film is heavy with ambition, examining a multitude of layers in addressing the social ills it puts in its sights. Unlike Crash, it largely overcomes any tendency towards oversimplification or, worse, manipulating the characters and the situations to craft scenarios that state the filmmaker’s thesis with a leaden thump. Instead, it tells a wrenching story with grace and integrity. Even when a scene rings a bit false, it at least feels like it’s still part of the story at hand rather than a Crash-like attempt to show off every bit of the politicized pinwheel.

The story focuses on a man who finds out that his enlisted son has one missing after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not one for adjusting to others’ paces when a problem needs solving, he loads into his pickup truck and begins investigating the situation for himself. The film is structured as a mystery, with the discoveries of new details regarding the son’s disappearance going hand-in-hand with discoveries about the life the son was leading. The father is played by Tommy Lee Jones as man of conservative dignity, addressing the topless waitress in a topless bar as “ma’am” and unwilling to be seen in his undershirt. Watching him encounter the seediness his son moved through is to realize the film is less about clues to this young soldier’s death and more about clues to his damaged life.

Jones gives a great performance in the lead role. I’ll grant that I only have so much authority to make an decisive statement on his recent career, having remorselessly bypassed many performances, but I still feel confident calling this the finest work he’s delivered since getting a shiny little statue several years ago. Jones subtly shows the crumbling belief system of his character as time and again his personally held truisms about his son, the military, the country and his own approach to the world are proven tragically, hopelessly wrong. Jones has never been shy about infusing some bombast into his characters and there are few actors more capable of spinning warped line readings into revelatory character moments, but here he withdraws and plays everything tight and perfect, showing his inner wounds through his eyes. Charlize Theron is excellent, too, playing a police officer who gets drawn into the case and struggles against the inherent sexism in her department.

That last detail, however, also represents one of the weaker elements of the film, the portions where those who bristle against Haggis’s social-statements-by-numbers soapboxing will find ample evidence that there’s still plenty of weight left in those heavy hands of his. While some of the scenes with her hostile cohorts have the snap of genuine exasperation in the way they depict the reflexive nature of the misogyny, enough others stumble along as undercooked nonsense from a screenwriter laboring to make a point. There are other less glaring moments, as well, but the most significant test of patience may be the final shot. It is the obvious close of the film from the moment it is set up in the first act, and the gesture depicted underlines Haggis’s arguments with blaring emphasis. This is a major punctuation mark attached to the end of the film, as if Haggis has closed with a graphic of a exclamation point. As opposed to the glistening fakery of the cleansing snow at the end of Crash, though, it still feels in character and holds enough hard truth to make it feel less like a manipulation and more like a man coming full circle, returning to a moment from the beginning of the journey that changed him forever.

From the Archive — House Party 2

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There were some films I covered during my three year tenure as co-host and co-producer of a weekly movie news and reviews radio show in the early nineteen-nineties that I remember as actively making me angry. This was one of them. I’m fairly sure I made that clear when I delivered this review on mic. I preserved the quotation marks I included in the script, certain they were a signal to heighten the clear contempt in my voice when I uttered the words contained within them.

The film House Party 2 sends a very clear message about women. Women are objects whose sole purpose is to provide pleasure to men. The house party referred to in the title of the film is in fact a “jammie jam,” where women who are dressed “appropriately,” meaning in skimpy lingerie, are allowed in for free and all the men have to pay ten dollars for the privilege of ogling them. Women are supposed to do whatever their man wants them to, and any woman who is determined to think for herself — say, for example, a feminist played by rapper Queen Latifah — is treated as a minor villain.

Some may say this rampant sexism is a simply a characteristic of the culture that House Part 2 immerses itself in. If the film were merely documenting those sexist attitudes, as the far superior film Boyz in the Hood did, then it would be excusable. Instead, House Party 2 is celebrating those attitudes, absolutely reveling in the distasteful treatment.

Actually, House Party 2 has an abundance of reasons why it’s just not good. In the film rapper Kid goes off to college, and his cohort Play loses his tuition money to a shady woman promising a record contract and a king’s ransom. This causes Kid to struggle with jobs and grumpy deans, plus try to deal with all his classes. And it’s all tired and hackneyed. Of course there will be one college professor who’s extra hard on Kid and eventually help him see the light and realize what a good student he can be. Of course Kid and his girlfriend will drift apart only to come back together again. And on and on. By the end, you’re longing for the joyous fun of that promised house party, but the film even cheats you out of that. By all rights, the party should be fun to watch. Instead, it’s just as dull as the rest of the film.

There are several performers in this film who one imagines would be entertaining with better material. Tisha Campbell, playing Kid’s girlfriend, is a smart charmer, Georg Stanford Brown is striking and imposing as a college professor, Queen Latifah approaches her character with impressive conviction, and Kid has a natural, upbeat comic sense. All of it is wasted here. This film is a house party none of them should have attended. I know I wish I never had.

1 star, on the 4 star scale.

 

From the Archive — The Orphanage

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It appears director J.A. Bayona is on his way to a second straight week at the top of the box office. To a large degree, that’s attributable to being handed the keys to the right ongoing cinematic venture. I can’t speak to the quality of the latest edition of Dinosaur Land, but when I reviews Bayona’s feature debut, it sure looked to me like he has some impressive skills. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Picturehouse Entertainment has made sure that producer Guillermo del Toro’s name figures prominently in promotional efforts for the new film The Orphanage, undoubtedly hoping that some of the moviegoers that made 2006’s dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth into a modest hit will exchange dollars for tickets to see this Spanish-language film. Fans of Pan aren’t necessarily going to have an automatic affinity for this film, but those who recall del Toro’s exquisitely bleak dalliance with the dark with The Devil’s Backbone may be another matter.

Like Backbone, The Orphanage is a moody, elegant ghost story which makes great use of simple, unsettling imagery. This film follows a woman who brings her husband and adopted son back to the orphanage where she grew up, fulling intending to revive the imposing structure to make it into a sort of group home for special needs children. The fates (and filmmakers) have different plans. Screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona use long hallways, creaking doors and enveloping shadows to great effect. There’s a clear understanding that the sort of cheap jolts are commonplace in U.S. horror films isn’t nearly as potent as long, agonizing considerations of deep-set, unidentifiable noises or probing eyes staring out of a rudimentary mask. The suddenness of an unexpected figure jumping from the dark may get the adrenaline rushing. The smothering anticipation of something horrific emerging will haunt dreams. (That’s not to say they’re completely immune from the temptation to shock as at least one moment relies on mere surprise to make it work, and it winds up as one the film’s weaker points.)

A film like this also benefits immeasurably from good acting, usually not a priority for those who craft films likely to be labeled “Horror.” In the lead, Belen Rueda is completely committed to finding the honesty in the supernatural goings-on. She plays the grief, desperation, personal fortitude and fear of her character with a grueling exactitude. Even when the film shows some narrative strain–the unconvincing skepticism of other characters or plain familiarity of the storyline–Rueda wrenches it back into effectiveness with the conviction of her acting.

Bayona is very strong and creating mood and ever better at developing tension. The film may occasionally falter in ways typical of the genre, but Bayona’s elegant shot construction (the beautiful cinematography is by Oscar Fauna) and assured visual storytelling help smooth over those rough patches, including the unnecessary coda which washes away the mild ambiguity of the scene that immediately precedes it and should have been the film’s closing note. Thanks to the honorable efforts of Bayona and his collaborators, The Orphanage is sharp and deep and, yes, scary.

From the Archive — Big

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Since I’ve been on a little bit of a thirty-years-ago kick lately, why not take unearth a movie review of a film released in June 1988. I wish I could report I wrote about Big when it hit theaters, but I wasn’t quite plying that particular trade. This was first posted at my former online space as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

As I recall it, Big was the first film I saw when I went away to college. It was a June release, but those had a tendency to slip back into town at the end of the summer in humble little Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Sure enough, during my first few days in my new academic home, sleeping in a converted study room in Hyer Hall because the dorms were overbooked at the start of the year, one of the four screens of the nearby Campus Cinema was playing Penny Marshall’s comedy about a boy who grows up unexpectedly fast. It wasn’t a transformational experience, exactly. It was, however, a nice bit of personal foreshadowing. I would spend countless hours in Stevens Point movie theaters in the years to come.

Putting aside nostalgic pangs, the movie itself is pretty terrific. It had the weird misfortune of coming out when there was a spate of movies about boys magically tossed into adult bodies, but Big was the only one that really worked. This certainly owed a great deal to the performance by Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin, bringing a winning innocence and uncertainty to this kid thrust into an adult world, his previous posturing abut wanting to grow up stripped away from the scary reality of it. Hanks had a career that was flailing at this point, far better known for the films that were resounding failures than anything else. He probably looks back fondly on Volunteers since it’s where he met his wife Rita Wilson, but no one else does. Big was a clear view of how well he could do when the material was better, and he got a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination for the performance. The bumpy road wasn’t completely smoothed over at this point. There were still problematic films to come, things that probably seemed like good ideas when he signed on for them, and fascinating disasters. Then there was the freeway pile-up that was The Bonfire of the Vanities, which Hanks was served a hefty portion of the blame for considering most decided his was woefully miscast as “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, although any film that is counting on Melanie Griffith to do dramatic heavy lifting has graver misjudgments contained within its frames. That was actually the film that changed things for Hanks. He retreated and rethought his career, emerging a year-and-a-half later reunited with Penny Marshall to deliver inspired character work in A League of Their Own. From there, back-to-back Oscar wins loomed.

The other major beneficiary of Big was Penny Marshall. Her debut as a film director was thoroughly unengaging, borderline unwatchable Whoopi Goldberg comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash (now that I think about it, there are a remarkable number of Whoopi Goldberg comedies that can be described in the same unkind manner), but Big demonstrated a deftness and a command of tone that briefly earned Marshall greater opportunities. Probably the most notable was her very next film, Awakenings, which earned her the distinction of being one of several female directors that crafted a Academy Award Best Picture nominee without getting corresponding attention in the directing category. Marshall’s boost was more short-lived. By 1994’s Renaissance Man, her directing was surprisingly indifferent. Only two more films followed after that, neither registering much more than a blip on the cultural consciousness. It’s now been ten years since she directed a film.

I don’t know that anyone would consider Big a classic, but its the sort of film that remains charming and warm and offhandedly delightful, especially when discovered somewhere amidst the legion of channels on a lazy, rainy weekend afternoon. But, again, maybe that’s my nostalgia typing. After all, somewhere in my psyche, the film represents the door cracking open to a completely different level of commitment to the movies. It helped this kid grow up into who he’d become, too.

From the Archive — WALL-E

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Although I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2, I long for the days that Pixar evinced nothing but the barest interest in sequels. With rare exceptions, the studio consistently strove for vivid inventiveness with each new effort, as if the especially lengthy and intensive process required to deliver feature-length computer animated films mandated each one have a true sense of purpose. When WALL-E was released, ten years ago, the philosophical shift could be spied on the horizon. Only one of the eight Pixar films that preceded it was a sequel. Three of the next five films revisited previous characters. I remain more lukewarm on WALL-E than most, but I have great nostalgia for it as part of a bygone time for a studio that once admirable approached auteur status.

Those Waste Allocator Load Lifter – Earth-Class units are certainly durable devices.

The new film WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton’s follow-up to Finding Nemo, is concerned with the lonely longings of one of those robots some 700 hundred years in the future. Earth is vacant of human life, the population having long since fled when the towering skyscrapers of refuse made the planet inhospitable. WALL-E, it seems, is the last of his kind, a little boxy robot with at least some level of sentience, going about the daily toil of crunching piles of garbage into tidy cubes. The first chunk of the film follows WALL-E as he works his job with dedication and, like so many blue-collar ‘bots, wiles away the evening hours watching old musicals with his cockroach cohort. His routine is pleasantly disrupted by the arrival of a hovering robot called EVE. She scans the ravaged cityscapes for an indeterminate prize, and quickly captures our hero’s circuitboard heart.

This portion of the film is presented with minimal dialogue, Stanton making every effort to let the visuals handle the duties of the storytelling. Great care has gone into all of these scenes leading to a clarity entirely unharmed by the bold choice. I thoroughly admire Stanton’s approach even if I have to concede that I wasn’t completely caught up in it.

Similarly, when the action shifts to the distant spacecraft holding the human race — now grown bloated and slow-witted by centuries of pampered lassitude — I appreciate Stanton’s decision to inject some satirical social commentary even if I still feel distant from the product. He’s engaged in the same sort of frustrated futurecasting that Mike Judge offered in Idiocracy, examining American society’s current indulgence in unhealthy lifestyle choices and taking it the the logical, if extreme, conclusion. Throughout the cold war, the bleakest future we could imagine involved a scorched landscape populated by mutated marauders fortified with nuclear nourishment. Now our worst nightmare seems to be more of ourselves, our faultiest societal tendencies enhanced to the most unattractive degree. Today’s morning show segment laced with clucking condemnation will be our undoing tomorrow. Our new post-apocalyptic landscape has Twinkies in it.

I do like WALL-E, but I find my opinion far enough removed from the critical consensus ready to anoint this a new pinnacle for Pixar that I wind up dwelling on why it doesn’t quite work. Why, despite its evident artistry, did it leave me entertained but unmoved? Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. (My partner-in-all-things made a strong case about how the science of groundwater completely undercuts the ending.) The clearest, most concise point I can make is that WALL-E himself doesn’t really come together as a character. He’s perhaps too central to the film to be largely defined by the things he wants. We know WALL-E by what he’s not, what he doesn’t have, which makes his aspirations more dull than sweet. The surrounding, supporting robots may be more narrowly conceived in some ways, but they’re also more compelling. I was far more interested in EVE and her programmed protectiveness and lightning-quick temper (manifested as laser blasts) or even little M-O and his compulsive adherence to his one purpose in electrical life.

Again, these reservations are finally more slight than they probably seem here. It remains a Pixar offering and comes bearing all of the characteristic strengths. The directing is sleek and inviting, the plotting is tight and smart, and the countless hours spent on those humming banks of computers have yielded a lustrous look that remains light-years ahead of what’s programmed together by the other studios cranking out computer animated features. Even if the digitized dreams aren’t quite as moving as I’d like, I’m still grateful I got to share in them.

From the Archive — My Writers: Anthony Bourdain

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I occasionally write remembrances of famed individuals after they die, if the performer or writer of figure of some other note held a certain significance for me. Anthony Bourdain qualifies, mightily, and yet I’ve struggled with the idea of alchemizing my thoughts into words on a digital page. This is partially attributable to the shock of his death. Also, I’ve encountered so many others with far better stories to tell (or at least capability to summarize the importance of his most recent work with admirable succinctness). I feel I have so little of worth to add, especially since I would largely be reiterating what I wrote about him in the “My Writers” series, a post that went up exactly two years ago tomorrow. But I also feel compelled to not let the moment fully past without sharing. For the record, this is the passage of Kitchen Confidential that relates to the opening line:

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It’s a small matter, far less important or profound that any of the stories I link to above. This passage relates to the directness and clarity of Bourdain as a writer, qualities he never relinquished, even when he employed more muscular, heated, and complicated language, often in the name of ferocious explications of injustice. He was a good person, and he relentlessly worked to be yet better, a growing process that he willingly experienced in a very public fashion.

Anyway, this is what I once wrote. It is woefully inadequate as a celebration and commemoration of his complicated contribution to the greater culture, but it’s what I have today.

I own a Global kitchen knife because of Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential, originally published in 2000, was one of those rare books that became a sensation, stirring up interest among a wide range of readers, most of them charged up by the sense they were receiving a glimpse of something wonderfully secretive about the restaurant industry. At the time, Bourdain was the head chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, but he was also an accomplished enough writer that he had a couple food-themed crime novels under his belt. Kitchen Confidential was his coming out as a nonfiction writer, providing a memoirish examination of the hardscrabble romanticism of a life in professional kitchens interspersed with some gut-level philosophizing over what was and wasn’t legit in the booming foodie and celebrity chef cultures. His disdain over the mush that emanates from a garlic press caused me to drive that tool out of our household kitchen, and his discussion of kitchen knives, insisting the gauntlets toted in black cloth bags by many chefs were entirely unnecessary when one good, sharp blade of Japanese steel would do for the vast majority of tasks, was enough to make us seek out one of offering of his suggested brand. That Global knife still resides in our kitchen, getting use most every night.

The success of Kitchen Confidential changed everything for Bourdain, most notably precipitating a television career that’s nabbed him a load of Emmy nominations and two of the actual trophies, not to mention leading to his current status as a near-savior of CNN. It also led to him (or essentially him) being played by Bradley Cooper. Bourdain also became a favorite interview subject, which often involved others trying to provoke him into reviving his withering commentary on other famous culinary figures, particularly those drawing some sort of paycheck from Food Network, a favorite early target. He played along for awhile before eventually starting to demure, partially out of a recognition that he was unmistakably joining their celebrity ranks, but also as an extension of the pointed thoughtfulness that informed his writing in the first place. Now that he was no longer the anonymous loudmouth in the back tossing out invective, he had a clear instinct to be properly informed in his assessments, thus he had an episode of one of his shows in which he sat with former target Emeril Lagasse, ate his food, and tried to understand the man who he once reduced to a clown spouting catch phrases. Not only did Bourdain acknowledge the skill of the fare put before him, he grew fascinated and impressed enough with this former adversary to write him a scene of high dignity in HBO’s Treme.

It’s that level of intellectual integrity that keeps me coming back to Bourdain’s words, whether on the page or for his shows, for which he’s usually the sole credited writer. There’s consistently great material in the collection The Nasty Bits, much of it openly wrestling with the misgivings Bourdain has about his elevated stature or the conflicted feelings he has when a place, a person, or a plate of food challenges his firmly-held preconceptions. He’s an opinionated person who allows himself to be convinced otherwise, at least if the about face is earned. (Granted, by his own accounting he’ll just cave sometimes, as when he claimed he softened his stance on Rachael Ray because she sent him a fruit basket.) Sometimes that can lead him down an unfortunate avenue, as with his unapologetic championing of The Taste, the cooking competition show he co-produced and co-hosted which was as shammy and contrived as any food television program not involved manufactured drama over the baking and decoration of cakes. Overall, though, the quality of openness to different viewpoints and experiences makes his writing and commentary smarter and better. And seriously, that Global knife is fantastic.

From the Archive — Eastern Promises

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This italicized portion usually contains some modern pontificating on the earlier writing presented in this weekly feature. In this instance, though, I have no annotations. This review was written for my former online home.

David Cronenberg’s last film was called A History of Violence, which would be an apt title for his latest since that is as good of a description as any for what is tattooed on the skin of the Russian gangsters at the center of the story. The inked markings are intended to be a map of their villainous accomplishments and stature within the organizational pecking order, and, through the lens of Cronenberg, it makes for an immediately imposing image, a sharp signal of the brutality that can emerge at any moment.

Of course, The History of Violence could be comfortably assigned to any number of Cronenberg films or maybe his career as a whole, so Eastern Promises is just fine as this new film’s title.

“Just fine” is also a decent summary for the film as a whole. A medical emergency brings a midwife played by Naomi Watts into contact with the Russian Mafia in London. Secrets emerge, family strife is laid bare, an infant’s future lies in the balance, and it’s largely sedate, predictable and–most shocking given the director–a little pedestrian. It’s not bad, by any means, but nor does it get under your skin. It improves in its last third with a few genuinely surprising twists that go a long way towards making the earlier portions more intellectually satisfying even if it doesn’t inspire a sudden emotional investment.

One thing that’s fully rewarding is to see a fresh entry in the collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. Just as Violence represented unprecedented accomplishment in Mortensen’s lead performance, so too is Promises another new pinnacle. He plays a criminal foot soldier who is both a stolid observer and a careful contributor. Mortensen takes this seemingly passive role and infuses it with a flinty inner life. Even before Promises sparks to life in its final third, Mortenson’s creativity is a cue that the film holds more potential than is apparent.