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Column Fri Jul 10 2009
A review of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest sort-of documentary featuring a character that brings out the very worst in American behavior and prejudices is set loose on the world this weekend, and while there are many differences between the flaming Austrian fashion show host Brüno and Kazakhstani traveler Borat (or the British hip-hop wannabe Ali G, for that matter), it's the things that are similar to Cohen's other characters that make the film work so well despite a few shortcomings. With the very clear objective of finding the ultra-shallow and the wildly homophobic in the world today (Brüno does travel the world a bit in this film), Cohen is a master manipulator and instigator; he also feeds off other people's discomfort, and I completely understand how addictive that is, because I certainly enjoy watching it. And while a review for this film could easy just be me describing or transcribing joke after joke, I'm not going to ruin any more of the fun than the trailer already has. Well, maybe a little.
First of all, there are things in this movie that I didn't know you could show in an R-rated movie, and most of them have to do with big floppy penises. Most comic actors might make one joke per movie that involves someone catching him in a compromising position that could be interpreted as gay. Ha ha, big laugh, very funny, because of course no comic actors are gay. But Cohen's Brüno bathes naked in those moments, and he would be exceedingly disappointment if his gayness came across as anything but authentic. He has determined that every gay man is looking for sex all the time and that every one wants to be a star. Or, more precisely, he's determined that that's what much of the world thinks of gay men. He flaunts his designer fashions, loose and free attitudes, and sexual aggressiveness to anyone willing to look at him, including a group of four of the scariest hunters I've ever seen, soldiers at a boot camp, church leaders who specialize in de-gay-ification, a frenzied audience of wrestling fans, an angry daytime talk show crowd, and even Republican Congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul. The level of anxiety I felt at times watching Brüno was immeasurable.
Still, the film is a lot more scripted than Borat, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just different. While Borat had something resembling a loose story about man making his way across America to meet Pam Anderson, Brüno's objectives seem a little less clear. He wants to be a celebrity for some reason, and the result is a series of disconnected pieces connected by Cohen's narration that seems to serve no other purpose than link the segments. There are also perhaps a few too many scripted moments between Brüno and his assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), which are still funny but clearly not made up spontaneously. The two have something resembling lovers' quarrels, but they aren't a fraction as interesting as the encounters Brüno has trying to solve the Middle East peace crisis, or searching for exactly what his charitable cause will be to make himself cool in the eyes of the world. In a particularly despicable meeting with an agency that helps celebs find charities, Brüno inquires about what the new trendy charity is: "Clooney has Darfur. What is DarFive?"
Cohen doesn't seem as willing to drag innocent victims into his fun and games, which isn't to say a few folks don't get caught in his crossfire. He seems more intent on going after establishments and large groups of frightfully bigoted people. The aforementioned wrestling scenes starts up as a very funny experiment, but quickly degenerates into one of the ugliest displays of mob behavior that you'll ever see on film or anywhere else. Cohen lingers on the crowd's reaction to seeing two men kiss and slowly begin to undress, and he might as well have flashed, "Vassup, USA!" during the prolonged sequence. It's not one of America's finest moments, for sure.
For those who are curious, the version of the film I saw did have the LaToya Jackson interview taken out, which I'm kind of bummed about, but I completely understand. I'm sure the exchange will show up on the DVD in a few months, and the film certainly doesn't suffer from lack of laughs because of it. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find two consecutive minutes of Brüno where you aren't laughing. Cohen and his Borat director Larry Charles have again assembled some fantastic footage that emphasizes both Cohen's abilities as a comic writer and a man who knows how to think and react to any situation or danger with comic timing fully intact. This movie is wall-to-wall laughs. Yes, there are huge sections of the film that are exceedingly stupid, but that doesn't mean you won't lose yourself in giggle fits. The film ends with a song, a tribute to Brüno and his never-ending quest for greatness and some level of stardom. Won't you help this gentle Austrian achieve his lifelong goal to conquer the world one nation at a time like his idol, Hitler? Make Brüno your charity, today.
The Hurt Locker
How can I put this as gently as possible? Let whatever higher power I believe in help me find the words. Ah, here we go: You're a fucking idiot if The Hurt Locker is playing within a 50-mile radius of where you live and you don't go see it. OK, I understand there might be extenuating circumstances that could keep you from going to see what is one of the best films of the year and easily the finest set in the midst of the Iraq War, but unless you're in a vegetative state, you've really go not excuse. If you don't have a car, start walking. If you're too young to see this R-rated fare, they're doing wonders with aging makeup these days; take advantage of this. The truth is, I don't think director Kathryn Bigelow's film about three men in the Army's Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit (in other words, they disarm bombs to the tune of hundreds per tour of duty) is going to make a lot of money, but that's entirely up to a nation that has for the most part dismissed films about war in any part of the Middle East or ones about soldiers returning home, whether the works are features or documentaries. It's shameful and it's very telling.
Look at it this way, American troops just pulled out of Iraq's largest cities last week. If this news makes you happy, go celebrate by checking out this extraordinarily tension-filling character study of these soldiers who locate and dismantle roadside bombs, often booby-trapped to explode when someone just like them tries to disable it. It was the 4th of July last week. Did it make you feel even a little patriotic? Then go honor our troops by celebrating their unfathomable bravery by checking out The Hurt Locker, based on a screenplay by Mark Boal, a journalist who saw much of what is portrayed in the film when he was embedded with an EOD squad. The film doesn't even have what I would consider much of a story, and that's OK. What we get instead is something so much more powerful and insightful; we get characters doing the scariest job on the planet over and over and over again, until we are right there inside their heads, moving our fingers across dusty wires right along with them, and holding our breath for as long as we can. Does this bomb have a timer? A trigger? Or will it be activated remotely by an unseen terrorist with a cell phone? Each bomb is different, and each situation brings a new set of circumstances that would drive most human beings to a resounding and well-earned mental collapse.
The actors' names in this film won't mean much to you, but they are well worth mentioning and learning for future reference (because there will be future reference). I've admired Anthony Mackie's work for quite a number of years in smaller roles in 8 Mile, The Manchurian Candidate, Million Dollar Baby, We Are Marshall and Eagle Eye. He's been in a couple of lesser-known Spike Lee offerings, and I believe he's set to play Jesse Owens in a biopic due next year. In Hurt Locker, he is meant to be the voice of reason in the ear of his new partner Jeremy Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James, North Country, 28 Weeks Later), a man so confident in his abilities that he forgets sometimes that he works as part of a team. Mackie is the voice of God that keeps Renner alive mission after mission in 120-plus-degree heat. There are a few more-familiar faces tossed in just to make sure you're paying attention (David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes all show up briefly), but these exceptional actors don't distract us in the slightest from the real work at hand.
Although Bigelow has been known to get her testosterone on in the past with such films as Point Break, Strange Days, Near Dark and K-19, this film isn't about action as you know it. The Hurt Locker certainly incorporates certain action elements, but it does so in very different ways. The use of music is sparse; she uses silence and long stretches without dialogue to build tension; there's not a lot of yelling during a missions (the soldiers seem to store it up and let it out back at the base). It's almost impossible to fathom when death is a fingerslip away that people can be so outwardly calm and steady of hand.
Honestly, there isn't much more to say about The Hurt Locker beyond "Go see it." I don't want to reveal too much more about what little plot there is, and the film's true enjoyment comes from watching these character do their jobs and interact with each other in some of the most revealing and beneath-the-skin moments of any film set during this conflict. I suppose you might see the film as part ultimate suspense film-part character study (the film is roughly divided in half in just such a fashion), but all I saw was a master tension builder at work. The more we learn about these men, the more we care about them entering each new mission and the more we know about their fragile state of mind as they do. Watching The Hurt Locker terrified me at times, both for the physical and emotional well being of its characters. My psyche was seriously fractured after watching this movie, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Seek this one out like your life depended on it.
Blood: The Last Vampire
Let me see if I remember this correctly. There is a half human-half vampire 16-year-old named Saya running around Tokyo trying to kill vampires in the hopes they will point her in the director of the leader of all vampires, Onigen, who killed a bunch of people she knew and has haunted her dreams since she was a little girl. Somewhere along the line, Saya gets tangled up with an American high school girl whose father just happens to be a general on an American Air Force base. For those of you into Japanese anime, the title and story of Blood: The Last Vampire may sound familiar. I remember seeing the original animated version less than 10 years ago, and it was OK, I suppose, but hardly worth turning into a live-action feature. Apparently the people who made this film thought the same thing, since it looks like they spent almost no time or money putting together a halfway interesting horror-action movie.
Pretty much every drop of blood is CGI created, and it ends up looking like globules of oil or mercury rather than blood. If I've said it once, I've said it thousand times. CGI is not scary or gross, and dumping tons of fake blood into this movie doesn't mean much when 95 percent of it is computer generated. Zzzzzz. I guess I'm more curious why French director Chris Nahon (who did the decent Jet Li film Kiss of the Dragon) chose to make this film in English, while filling it with mostly Japanese characters. At least if it had been dubbed in English, I might have gotten some comic relief out of that, but instead we get characters clearly not speaking their first language, and perhaps not even understanding what they're saying much of the time.
Blood's bloated story and over-stylized look annoyed me from the first frame, and it only gets worse from there. Sure, Gianna Jun, who plays Saya, is cute and wields a sword like a sexy warrior, but once you get over that, the rest of the film is just plain dull and uninspired. Having the American girl character is particularly annoying because it's a clear plot to make American teens curious about this film (they'll get over it). But these are minor problems compared to the awful special effects, camera work, editing, writing and acting. Aside from those things, the film's a winner! But seriously, just because the film's token white girl (Allison Miller) looks remarkably like Kristen Stewart and the film has young, good-looking vampires in it doesn't mean you Twilight fans should start flocking to Blood: The Last Vampire. Please show at least a modicum of taste. Thank you.
Winner of the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Fesival, this Italian work is both a perfect companion film and a great counter-offering to Gomorrah from earlier this year. For those who like a little more flash in their old-country organized crime movies, Il Divo has got you covered... sort of. Certainly quirkier and dealing with a higher class of criminal than Gomorrah, Il Divo tells the story of seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (portrayed by award-winning actor Toni Servillo, who was also in Gomorrah, coincidentally), whose sole purpose in live is to stay alive and stay in power as a member of the Christian Democrat party. He's like a shark that does nothing but swim and eat, only this shark is a little more scary. When he kills, you never see it coming because he never does the deed himself and somehow always manages to escape blame or criminal charges for his deeds.
The film makes it clear that, although Andreotti did sometimes have to cross paths with the Mafia, he wasn't a fan. Like all great villains, Andreotti viewed every terrible thing he did (all of which were followed by a quick trip to the confessional) as maintaining and supporting a greater good. And lest you think this is a story about a man who lived decades ago, think again. At age 90, Andreotti is very much alive after having served as minister of the interior, defense, foreign affairs and his current position of "Life Senator." As portrayed by Servillo (accurately, from what I hear), Andreotti is a soft-spoken man with bad posture, and an absolute understanding of human behavior. He managed to anticipate — sometimes encourage — a compatriot's deception and respond accordingly. While Gomorrah addressed crime at its lowest levels in Italy, Il Divo covers the upper echelons of political corruption with staggering camera work and freakish camera angles that seem more Wes Anderson than Francis Ford Coppola.
The film's final third focuses on the early 1990s as the Christian Democrats are finally brought down from power thanks to a series of investigations and a trial that tore the veil off Andreotti and his machine. The impact on the political system in Italy was so severe that many top-level officials committed suicide. And lest you think that crooked politicians on the level of Andreotti sit back laughing at the justice system during such trials, Il Divo shows us that simply wasn't the case for him as he goes through the worst kind of anxiety as his life is rehashed and ripped apart for the media and the people to see. With so many characters to keep track of, director Paolo Sorrentino does an effective job keeping the important figures and events straight for us with title cards identifying each character, their nickname (there are some great ones), and their position either in government or in Andreotti's organization. He doesn't quite take it to the level of a Guy Ritchie gangster drama, but it certainly kept me from getting confused.
The only thing I would have liked to see in Il Divo is maybe a bit more about how Andreotti's actions (good and bad) impacted the common people he was always claiming to help. We see a few scenes of him meeting with peasants and handing out small gifts and cash for bills, but I was left wondering what the general public thought of him. Journalists never missed an opportunity to verbally abuse him at press conferences, and sometimes they paid the price. The glimpses into Andreotti's past, passions and quirks are endlessly fascinating thanks to a flawless performance by Servillo, and the film is a beautifully executed drama that makes politics and the power hierarchy of Italy extremely interesting. Seek this one out. Il Divo opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
In Search of Beethoven
I'll admit right off the bat that I don't know that much about classical music or opera, but the two composers I know the best are Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom have been the subjects of two fascinating documentaries by director Phil Grabsky. In 2006, he released In Search of Mozart, an extensive and thought-provoking work that wisely featured long stretches of Mozart's music surrounded by analysis by musicians and conductors, who placed the works in context. On its surface, the film was a biography, but the musical selections and dissection of the music made it a wonderful journey through Mozart's life that went beyond the eccentricities and took us into the emotional heart of his works. It seems only proper that Grabsky has now turned his attention to one of Mozart's most popular admirers, Ludwig van Beethoven with the doc In Search of Beethoven, which uses a similar structure to the Mozart movie but with somehow even more emotional punch. Or perhaps it just feels that way because the subject himself was such a creature of feeling and sensitivity.
Once again loading his film with loads of gorgeous (and often familiar) musical performances (55, according to the press notes) and excellent interviews with Beethoven disciples, Grabsky's latest work, which makes its American premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a four-week run, puts all of the composer's into a context and perspective that quite simply makes the casual classical music listener a lot more invested in this lovely material. I didn't know who a single one of the experts who converse about Beethoven were, but Grabsky has assembled quite the knowledgeable bunch. If names like Emanuel Ax, Claudio Abbado, Fabio Luisi and Sir Roger Norrington mean any thing to you, you'll be in heaven during In Search of Beethoven.
I think even more than the Mozart film, In Search of Beethoven maps out Beethoven's extensive life, loves and works, and pulls them all together in a chronology that helps each part of Beethoven's life make sense of the other part. He had a habit of falling in love with women who were out of his social class, he was often in ill health, he was a deeply spiritual man, and he didn't become fully deaf until much later in his life than I was aware. The film also explains why it may have taken Vienna and the world a little longer to appreciate Beethoven's genius in light of all of Mozart's accomplishment shortly before Ludwig became more popular. It seems obvious in a biography to do such things, but you'd be surprised how many films about artists don't. I wouldn't be surprised if PBS snatched up this film and aired it soon. It's a marvelous work and a worthy successor to Grabsky's previous effort. I'm told the director will be at select screenings, but I'm not sure which ones, so be sure to keep on eye on the Siskel Film Center's website for details, showtimes, and advanced ticket sales.