Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Another Great Night at the Movies

Green Zone

“I thought we were all on the same side,” Roy Miller, the soldier, says to Marty, the ‘rogue’ CIA agent. “Don’t be so naive,” comes the reply. A few minutes later, Miller is saying the same line back to the agent. It’s a line that summarizes Green Zone for me, both in positive and negative ways. The film is trying to tell its audience that they shouldn’t be so naive as to believe the U.S. invaded Iraq because of WMDs. Surely that is old news by now and so I would ask why the filmmakers are so naive as to think people still believe it (or am I the one being so naive as to underestimate the naivete of the masses?). But I applaud the effort nevertheless. Better said, I would have applauded the effort if it wasn’t for what the film clearly states WAS the reason for the invasion: to get Saddam. Come on! If you’re going to talk about being naive, don’t play so stupid as to think it was all about Saddam. Regardless of how badly the U.S. did or did not want to get rid of Saddam, the invasion was about oil and military control in the middles east, not about getting Saddam (and certainly not about WMDs). So either the filmmakers are themselves so naive (which I doubt) or they are trying to go as far as they think they can. Their hearts are in the right place, I guess, but if you are going to make a film about being naive, you cannot afford to come across as being naive yourself or as assuming the viewers are that much more naive than you are.

Green Zone is the story of Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a soldier asking too many questions about why the intelligence about WMDs keeps coming up empty. He finds a sympathetic CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) and they try to uncover the truth (conspiracy?). Damon play that innocent intelligent character again, the one I like so much and which he does so well. Good stuff. Gleeson is an excellent choice as the CIA agent, though he struggles with his American accent. More good stuff. The film features the kind of grainy shaky handheld camera work (director Paul Greengrass likes this stuff) that I usually can’t tolerate, but it actually works in an environment like Baghdad. And the film opens well and hums along nicely for about three-quarters of the way. Then we get the big action scene (it doesn’t help that I am no fan of action scenes), which lasts forever and feels anti-climactic, as does the ending. It’s trying to end like Missing or Under Fire, two of my top ten films, but it just doesn’t feel like the filmmakers have gone anywhere near far enough. Maybe they were scared of turning people off.

Green Zone (the choice of the title is a mystery to me) is not near as good a film as The Hurt Locker, but at least it’s trying to expose the truth behind the lies which led to the invasion of Iraq while also doing its part to humanize the Iraqi people (Freddy was a great character) and exposing the abuse of prisoners, and that’s worth more than Hurt Locker’s efforts at humanization. So Green Zone gets a solid ***+ from me. My mug is up but the stuff inside could have been really tasty if the film hadn’t come across as too naive.

Shutter Island

Shutter Island is almost impossible to describe. It’s more of an experience than a story. The story is about a U.S. Marshall (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating the impossible escape of an inmate from the world’s most secure prison for the criminally insane in 1954. Or is it?

From the opening scene, the film feels surreal and unreal. Then it moves to feeling off balance and fragmented. Scene after scene feels out of place and conversations sound like something from a 60‘s Hammer horror film. And the music feels way over the top, manipulation for pure manipulation’s sake. You are never sure what is really happening on Shutter Island. That can be a good thing, I suppose. And the film starts strong, creating an ominous and grey atmosphere that really grabs hold of you. But the film’s middle hour, focusing on flashbacks and nightmares, flags more than a little. Half of it did not seem necessary.

And the mandatory surprise ending? No big surprise to me at all (I can’t understand the critics who thought it came out of nowhere), but nevertheless very well done and completely satisfying. In fact, the wonderfully atmospheric opening scenes and the excellent last half hour pushed Shutter Island into the ***+ range. I like old-fashioned psychological thrillers (and what can I say, I’ve always liked the dark and brooding film noir films, and Shutter Island fits in that genre as well). On the whole, Martin Scorsese delivered what I was looking for: a well-made quirky film. Some of the acting felt over-the-top (Ben Kingsley was the acting highlight, with another excellent performance), all of the music felt over-the-top, and even the cinematography (which I loved) felt over-the-top. But I walked out of the film completely zoned out (questioning my sanity?) and did not recover for at least an hour. Few films do that to me anymore, so something obviously worked.

Not as good as Green Zone, but the ending was more satisfying. So Shutter Island also gets ***+. My mug is up again after a very entertaining night at the movies.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

One of the Last Decade's Best Films

One of the most frustrating experiences for a film buff who likes to figure out his top ten films of the year or top 25 films of the decade is when he watches a film on DVD that would have been high on one of those lists but didn’t make it in time (that’s why some of the films in my top 25 of the decade were not in any of my top ten lists).

Today I watched a film that would have been my second favourite film of 2008 and one of my top ten films of the last decade (and one of my top fifty films of all time). I cannot believe I have never heard of this film or seen any other film by its director, who is clearly a man of uncommon genius (on the basis of this film, I would call him one of the greatest filmmakers of our time). When I do my talks on film and theology, I stress that, for me, good films are an art form comparable to the greatest paintings, sculptures, books and classical music. If ever there was a film that could serve as an example of a pure work of art, this is it. Before I tell you the name of the film (those who have seen it may recognize the photo), let me provide the hint that it is an Austrian film nominated for best foreign language film of 2008. I have seen most of the best foreign language nominees of the past decade and, after watching this one, I am ready to state that it is my personal conviction that the real winner of the Academy Awards each year is the winner of the best foreign language film oscar. I would guess that the ten best films made each year in Europe alone are, on average, vastly superior to the ten best films made in Hollywood and far superior to the ten best films made in the U.S. This is just one person’s opinion, of course, but the odds of wasting your time watching any film made in the last thirty years go down about 90% if you limit yourself to films made outside of the U.S. (keeping in mind that the vast majority of my all-time favourite films were made in the U.S.).

Okay, enough with the suspense. What is this brilliant film that has so captured my imagination? What is this film which boasts one of the best cinematographic achievements ever? What is this film which boasts magnificent natural understated acting achievements by all concerned? What is this film which boasts one of the great editing achievements I have seen in a very long time? What is this film which features a magnificent achievement in both writing and directing by a man I have never heard of (though I do own another of his films on DVD and plan to watch it tomorrow)? What is this film which boasts one memorable thought-provoking scene after another and a brilliant use of symbols and images? What is this film of which I can say not one good word about its score, because it has none (the score of A Single Man was a central feature of its impact on me and I generally am no great fan of films that deliberately avoid music, but it worked perfectly in this masterpiece)? Will I ever let you know the name of the film? Yes, I will, but I won’t use a bold font or even capitalize it in case someone tries to jump down quickly to find it (if you are one of those, then you probably also read the back of the DVD case before watching a movie - sigh). The film in question is called revanche, directed by Goetz Spielmann, and no, I will not tell you what it’s about. It’s the kind of humanizing film that makes the word humanizing feel like a cliché (I’ll have to start being more creative in my reviews). It works on an emotional level few films can match even while it avoids both sentimentality and cliché at every turn (and even without a score). This film gets a very easy ****. My mug of Colombia’s finest is held high.

Please note that if you rent (or purchase) the Criterion release of this film (and you must do so soon, if you can handle the sex scenes), you must watch the interview with Spielmann. It is one of the most profound talks on the art of filmmaking and the making of a particular film that I have ever heard; it’s almost as good as the film itself.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Back to the Movies

Crazy Heart

I wanted to catch it before the Academy Awards but better watching it late on the big screen than waiting for the DVD, especially to see the beautiful cinematography (set in the wide open spaces of the American southwest). Jeff Bridges is certainly brilliant as the alcoholic country singer struggling with a late mid-life crisis. He and the other actors (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal) are what make this film such a joy to watch. And Bridges has always been one of my favourite actors (I remember loving him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot back in the early 70’s and then there was Starman and The Fisher King, etc.). Nevertheless, I still thought Colin Firth’s performance in A Single Man was better and that Firth deserved the Oscar as much as Bridges.

Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that I thought A Single Man was a better film than Crazy Heart. Not that I found any flaws in Crazy Heart. Besides the great acting and cinematography, we have a story that is beautifully, quietly and intelligently told, with minimal sentimentality. We understand Bad Blake intimately, all the more because the story is so simple and elegant while avoiding cliches (especially noticeable in the way the film handles Blake’s relationship with country star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). For what it is, Crazy Heart is an excellent film. But I am not a fan of country music (although I have always admired the eccentric T Bone Burnett and was glad to see him win an Oscar) and Scott Cooper’s story just never drew me in the way a film I love has to do. So a solid ***+ effort, and my mug is up, but I like a slightly darker roast inside.

The Last Station

Another Academy Award nominee that just arrived in Winnipeg (where it won’t stay long, given the fact that I sat all alone in a theatre that can hold 500), The Last Station tells the story of the last days of one of the most important figures of western thought and literature, Leo Tolstoy, focusing on the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife as seen through the eyes of a young Tolstoyan idealist who comes to work for Tolstoy (and who is experiencing a traumatic relationship of his own).

Like Crazy Heart, The Last Station boasts stellar performances, this time by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, who both deserved their Oscar nominations, as well as James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti and Kerry Condon (who has a bright future ahead of her). The problem with The Last Station is either the writing or the direction (Michael Hoffman did both). It seems to be striving for an epic quality which it can’t pull off. The result is a film that lacks focus. I enjoyed the Valentin (McAvoy) storyline very much, but it never seems to connect properly with the Tolstoy storyline that consistently overwhelms it.

Maybe I was just wanting more ideas and less drama. Like Creation (Darwin), The Last Station is particularly strong when it deals with ideas but it doesn’t do so nearly enough. It was their ideas which made Darwin and Tolstoy such important historical figures and even a dramatic biography can afford to spend a little more time on those ideas and the controversies surrounding them.

Despite this criticism, I enjoyed The Last Station more than Crazy Heart (undoubtedly because I find Tolstoy far more interesting than Bad Blake). But both films are excellent and are to be commended for their humanization and their compassion. The Last Station gets another solid ***+. My mug is up again, but again the taste of its contents needs more flavour.