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Column Fri Nov 06 2009
The Men Who Stare at Goats
You can file this under "story so utterly ridiculous that it has to be true." This is one of those tales you may have heard your favorite neighborhood conspiracy theorist mutter about over the years. The idea that the U.S. Army had a small unit of men singled out because they possessed even a hint of psychic abilities seems preposterous, yet if even one such soldier proved to have such abilities, the military immediately attempting to somehow capture and weaponize these powers seems all too believable. And according to newspaper man Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor presumably standing in for source material author Jon Ronson), that's exactly what happened.
Wilton was simply hoping to feel more like a man by going to cover the Iraq War for his outlet after his marriage collapsed. He's unable to indoctrinate himself in with the embedded journalists, and he stumbles upon Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a one-time member of the First Earth Battalion, a group pulled together years ago during the Cold War, when it was rumored that the Russians were experimenting with paranormal powers as part of their military operations. Much of the film goes back and forth between Cassady and Wilton barely escaping death in Iraq (perhaps because of Cassady's finely tuned abilities or maybe it's just dumb luck) and flashback to Cassady under the command of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges with a rope-like ponytail). Other members of this psychic army include Kevin Spacey as the envious Larry Hooper, whose meager powers don't come close to Cassady's, and the always reliable Stephen Lang as Brigadier General Dean Hopgood, who is so eager to possess these abilities that he concentrates with all his might and runs full force into walls, hoping to pass through them. What's even more incredible about the First Earth group is that their mission, as Django saw it, was not to win a war but to end all wars. As you might guess, no matter how successful this group was, it was doomed to failure.
Director Grant Heslov (who produced and co-wrote Good Night, and Good Luck with Clooney, and got two Oscar nominations as a result) has constructed one of the decade's great farces, but he's done so by simply laying out the facts in such interesting and entertaining ways that the humor just jumps off the screen. When Django goes missing, Cassady is called out of retirement to find him, but what he discovers along the way is something twisted, a perversion of the principles that Django instilled in his men. There is an absolute joy in watching George Clooney play a role like this, in which he is required to play a ridiculous man who takes everything he does with the utmost seriousness. I've seen both films coming out this fall starring Clooney (the other being Up In The Air), and I can say without hesitation that in the one coming out in December, he gives us the greatest performance of his career. Without realizing it perhaps, it's the performance he's been building toward all these years. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, Clooney gives us the funniest work he's ever done. He's working decidedly against type. Gone is the charm and confidence; it's been replaced by nervous ticks, paranoia, abrasive personality, and a kind of delusional tone that is so unlike anything he's done to date. And he plays it like he's been doing it his whole life, utterly convincing.
Sometimes the comedy is subtle, and other times, well, it's not. Still, one of the great running gags involves the members of the psychic army referring to themselves as "Jedi Warriors." When Cassady explains this to Wilton, you can't help but laugh when Ewan (Obi Wan) McGregor asks "What's a Jedi Warrior?" The line wouldn't even be in the screenplay if McGregor wasn't the one delivering it. And for those of you who have altered your lives over the years to watch The Big Lebowski a few more times a day, you're going to be in hog heaven watching Bridges play the closest thing to "The Dude" that he's played since that movie.
I will admit, the film's final act — when Clooney and McGregor finally get the entire picture of what has happened to the psychic battalion project — is not as strong as the rest of the film, if only because the reality of the situation is pretty grim and the laughs essentially cease for an extended period. Luckily for us, the collected talent on display in this film pulls us through to the end and leaves us with a wholly satisfying film-going experience. For most of The Men Who Stare at Goats, the laughs come at a dizzying pace. What's more, the film clocks in at just barely over 90 minutes, making the entire experience of watching it feel like a fucked-up fever dream that reveals to us a world where things that shouldn't happen do so with alarming regularity, and rarely with the intended results. Despite its weakened ending, I truly loved this smart, venomous work that reminds me that George Clooney is an actor who should never be underestimated.
A Christmas Carol
I'll start by saying that for as long as I can remember, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been my favorite story of all time. I remember being some single-digit age, reading the book for the first time, and feeling like I was getting some message from the story that wasn't in the words — a message about regret, forgiveness and family. Strangely, I never believed the story was really about Christmas. Plus, the idea that you could see how people would act after you were dead fascinated me more than you could possibly understand. But most importantly, this was a ghost story with specters that were both scary and useful. Marley's ghost will always terrify me, even if he means well. Growing up, there wasn't a film version of A Christmas Carol that I wouldn't watch — the more faithful to the book, the better. But when all is said and done, my list begins and ends with the 1951 film Scrooge (I believe later video releases took the film back to its original name) with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge.
My point in telling you all this is to make clear that even hearing Dickens' words thrills me to no end. Scrooge insisting that Marley's ghost is a figment of his mind caused by undigested food always gets me. The way he dresses down his assistant Bob Cratchit for wanting to take Christmas off is pure poetry. The way he pleads with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that he's a changed man is so desperate and honest. So watching writer-director Robert Zemeckis' largely faithful rendition of A Christmas Carol was a pleasure at times, simply for the memories it stirred up inside me. There's also a certain fascination factor that goes into watching a film comprised of motion-capture performances by a handful of actors playing multiple roles, most of which actually have features that resemble in some way the actors themselves. This is by far the most realistic-looking version of this process that Zemeckis has been spearheading in recent years with The Polar Express and Beowulf. The "dead eyes" are a thing of the past, but the fact that nearly every character has unusually rounded cheeks struck me as bizarre. Still, to watch these characters move, it's incredibly easy to forget sometimes that these are computer-generated beings and not actors in makeup.
That said, lead actor Jim Carrey (who plays various ages of Scrooge as well as all three spirits, including the one who doesn't talk) would have been the best choice for a live-action version of this story as well. Lemony Snicket proved that he's a man who can wear effects makeup and prosthetics well. He's the man with a thousand voices and faces, and he can handle the dramatic elements as easily as the comic, overly gruff side of Scrooge. What we get is a beautifully strange animated work that, at times, looks so perfect in capturing human looks and behaviors that it's a distraction from the timeless story. The version of this film that I saw was in IMAX 3-D, and some of the cityscapes and flying sequence are exquisite. But for every detailed tour of 1800s London, there are money shots of Scrooge flying through the air or running away from a haunted horse and carriage that act as unnecessary action sequences in a film about plot and characters.
I appreciated that this version of A Christmas Carol is absolutely not for little children (not that any version really was). Marley's ghostly jaw nearly detaches when he screams. The Ghost of Christmas Present (perhaps the most stunningly rendered of any element of this movie) has what appears to be a massive coronary, dies, and turns to skeletal ashes. There are dead bodies throughout, scary moment galore, and a lead character that would rather see poor people dead than be charitable toward them. Be smart, parents, and leave the little ones at home.
There are some really nice moments in A Christmas Carol, particularly the scenes of Scrooge's past, when he was an abandoned boy and young man surrounded by a few people who loved him. Robin Wright Penn voices both Scrooge's sister and his only real love (nothing weird about that, nope), and the scenes between them are heart-wrenching. Bob Hoskins is on hand as Scrooge's first boss, the jovial Mr. Fezziwig, Colin Firth plays Scrooge's nephew Fred, and Cary Elwes plays a legion of characters throughout the story. But it's Gary Oldman who most impressed me as Bob Cratchit and Marley's Ghost, and even Tiny Tim. Oldman has a bevy of great voices and personalities to choose from, and he pulls out a couple of gems for this film. The touches are nice, but something about this production just didn't gel for me. I almost want to watch it again with the sound off just to fully appreciate the visual landscape and really pick apart what I like and dislike about the human character designs going on here without feeling like I'm missing plot points.
On a certain level, if you are endlessly fascinated by the new technology that is going into making today's animated works look so groovy, then you really can't miss A Christmas Carol. But if you actually cherish this story, you may find the entire experience frustrating and disappointing. In the end, I don't think I can recommend the experience of going to this movie, but if decide to take it on, you shouldn't have difficulty finding a unique vision to stare at for 90-some minutes. The film is a failure on an epic scale, but that doesn't make it any less of a curiosity and a continuing experiment.
The Fourth Kind
Here's the thing, if the idea of seeing actual footage of alien abductees going under hypnosis to remember being taken — a process that results in wild convulsions that literally breaks bones in their body — appeals to you, you're in for a hell of a ride with The Fourth Kind. I consider myself a person who would absolutely be excited at the prospect at seeing such footage, and this film certainly sets up the idea that we are about to see such material as we examine the life of Dr. Abigail Tyler (played at times by Milla Jovovich), a psychologist living in Nome, Alaska, who treats enough patients with the same visions of late-night visitors to realize that something more is going on than just sleep deprivation. The film establishes itself as a mixture of real footage of some of these sessions (most of which involve hypnosis to unlock these buried memories) and recreations from Jovovich, Elias Koteas as a colleague, and Will Patton as the disbelieving local sheriff.
If this footage is genuine, this might be one of the most incredible movies I've ever seen. If the taped interviews with Tyler are genuine and her story is true, it would be almost impossible for me to even wrap my head around what's being presented in The Fourth Kind. You don't have to dig very deep to find the countless articles and conspiracy theories who believe that Nome is some sort of epicenter for alien visitors, with the highest number of missing persons in all of Alaska, and FBI investigations that have brought a disproportionate number of agents to Nome since the 1960s. So even if this story is 100 percent fiction (and I'm not saying it is or isn't), writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi has done a compelling job setting up a backstory (or maybe it's more of a cover story) to at least entertain the idea that this footage is the real deal. Here's the problem: everything about this movie screams "Fake!" The interviews with the woman we're told is the real Dr. Tyler made me feel like I was watching an actress — a good one — reciting lines. The fact that whenever something truly messed up happens on videotape, the tape becomes distorted and we only catch just enough of a glimpse of some truly horrific stuff is a bit unnerving, but feels phony beyond words.
Maybe the problem I had with the film is that it pushed so hard to be taken seriously that I felt like I was being sold a fiction. It's the classic oversell, and all I could do was push back and look for the signs I was being manipulated. In the end, it doesn't matter whether the footage is real for the simple fact that it feels bogus. I didn't really have issues with the performances. Jovovich is, for the most part, fairly convincing as the stressed-to-the-point-of-snapping Tyler, who believes her husband was murdered in bed next to her. He was also investigating these unexplained phenomena and may have gotten too close for comfort. I like the idea that hypnotizing these people to unlock memories unleashes some sort of message from whoever took them, and that doing so causes the subject to become unhinged. There are ideas here that are good; the fault with The Fourth Kind is in the execution, and it's a flaw that pretty much torpedoed the movie for me right from the start.
Let me review this film from a different perspective. I always insist on seeing any brand of scare film with an audience, and I'm guessing that the majority of the audience members at The Fourth Kind with me bought that they were seeing a film blending real footage with re-enactments. Again, I'm not saying that this film isn't exactly that, but it felt false at every note to me. The crowd was getting their asses scared clean off — not quite at Paranormal Activity levels of fear but this was a close second. So maybe your enjoyment of The Fourth Kind depends on a combination of gullibility, willingness to buy into a premise that is structured in the least convincing way possible, and an overwhelming desire to want to believe that aliens visit Nome with alarming frequency. If that sounds like you, enjoy this film with all your heart and soul. The rest of you can sleep in or go to bed early; you have better things to do with your life.
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
I actually put off writing this review for several weeks after seeing it at the Chicago International Film Festival in mid-October because I simply could not bring myself to revisit some of the pain that resides in this film. I didn't want to contemplate a world in which Claireece Precious Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) goes through a lifetime of every imaginable abuse and comes out the other side hopeful and fortified, but far from fully mended and with a lifetime of struggle still ahead of her. The burden of knowing Precious is to care deeply but fear for the worst, because the worst is all she's known growing up in Harlem with her demon of a mother (Mo'Nique), who never misses an opportunity to abuse and put down her only child.
Precious is 16 years old, with one baby living with her grandmother and another on the way — both come courtesy of Precious' father. When the school faculty gets wind of her second pregnancy, they threaten to kick her out. She opts to transfer to an alternative school, and the seeds are sown for her transformation. Encouraged and fueled by her literacy workshop teacher Ms. Rain (the remarkable Paula Patton), Precious learns to write about her life in journals and short stories in a setting that encourages expression, coping and a bond between students. As much as Precious might sound like a self-help book propped up on the big screen, that couldn't be further from the truth.
Part horror show, part fantasy escape, part gritty urban drama, Precious manages to blend these seemingly un-blendable elements into the kind of film I simply haven't seen attempted since maybe the late 1970s. Daniels pulls few punches when it comes to making it very clear the types of abuse Precious is enduring — emotional, physical, and sexual (by both parents, although we never see her father). Every sequence set at home caused me to cringe in anticipation at what new awful experience this girl was going to have inflicted upon her. At some of her lowest points, Precious escapes into a fantasy world where she's a glamorous star and object of desire for the most handsome men she can imagine. These sequences reminded me, strangely enough, of Where the Wild Things Are, during which a boy escapes into a fantasy world to help cope with an unpleasant home life (that kid has nothing on Precious, in terms of messed-up households, let's be clear about that). In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film, Precious looks at herself in a mirror and sees a thin, pretty white girl looking back. That's her ideal, and seeing that person in the mirror makes her smile one of her rare smiles.
This film marks Lee Daniels' second turn as a director, but he made a name for himself as a producer of such masterful works as Monster's Ball and the understandably, but still criminally, overlooked The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon as a reformed pedophile. Daniels excels at telling stories about people who simply don't ever get their stories told, and Precious is no different. But Daniels is also a former casting agent, so he often makes choices in actors that most would never consider, including using musicians in key roles (Sean Combs in Monster's Ball or Mos Def in The Woodsman, for example).
Aside from the astonishing and terrifying use of comedian Mo'Nique in this film, an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey plays a social worker in charge of Precious' case after she leaves home, while a nicely understated Lenny Kravitz shows up in a couple of scenes as a male nurse Precious meets in the hospital when she delivers her second child. Carey, in particular, surprised the hell out of me, especially in a scene near the end of the film in which she, Precious and the mother sit together to confront some of the terrible abuses committed against Precious. The scene is Mo'Nique's Oscar clip (you think I'm kidding), but I don't think it could ever be played on network television. And it took me completely off guard because at that point in the film, Precious seems safe and more confident; I thought the worst was over. And then Carey asks Precious' mother to talk about when the abuses against Precious began. MoNique's monologue literally sucked the breath from my lungs. It's the worst description of terrible things one person can do to another person that I have ever heard, delivered in a mildly regretful voice, although it's clear that she has no idea the extent of the damage done. If you make it through that scene with losing it, you're a stronger human being than I.
Even with all of these other things to distract us, the focal point of Precious remains Sidibe, who wears a permanent scowl and looks like she could kill just about anyone with a look, let alone a fist. But the remarkable thing about Sidibe's work is that she cautiously reveals a sweet young woman hiding inside this person practically built out of pain and disappointment. She gives us flashes of the person who could be, who we hope will rise up out of this place. Even by the end of the film, there are so many factors stacked up against Precious. The film is set in 1987, and a certain disease was just coming to light in the world. Fear of anyone with this disease ran rampant, and when Precious finds out that someone in her life has it, her world cracks just a little bit more.
Precious is an achievement that will take a long time for me to shake. Even if I didn't like what I saw or heard at times, I'm glad someone like Daniels is out there making movies that move me to such a degree and remind me that there are people and things in the world that can still shock me into feeling something about a character and a film as deeply as this film did. This is a story of a survivor that doesn't fall back on big speeches, swelling music, angels and kittens; there's very little about this movie that would qualify as "feel good." But I did feel something after seeing it, and that's a rarity these days.
To read my interview with Precious writer-director Lee Daniels and star Gabourey Sidibe, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Several years ago, I saw a weird little movie with Crispin Glover called Bartleby (based on a Herman Melville story) that was barely released, but I never forgot its odd-ball view of the world and the quality of the performances, especially Glover's. Director Jonathan Parker's latest, (Untitled), is an insightful and sometimes shocking look at the art gallery world where commissions are key and finding the next best thing can literally make or break a gallery forever. This slight story introduces us to Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg), a composer whose tuneless compositions features such musical instruments as a bucket, a chain, or a bucket filled with chains. His brother Josh (Eion Bailey) is a moderately successful painter whose fuzzy circle masterpieces proudly hang in hotel lobbies all over the nation. He makes good money, but no gallery will touch him because he's considered a sellout. That's particularly painful for Josh, since his girlfriend Madeleine (Marley Shelton) runs a prestigious gallery in Manhattan.
Weirdly enough, Madeleine's interest in new talent extends beyond painting when she hears Adrian perform and hires him to play a music showcase during an opening for a rising artist, played with beautiful pomp and puffed-up splendor by Vinnie Jones. One of the highlights of (Untitled) is Jones' art exhibit, which seems to concern taxidermied animals in bizarre scenes. Director Parker so utterly captures everything I hate about the world of galleries and certain types of "groundbreaking" art that I'd almost recommend the film just for those scenes (and there are many). And Goldberg is usually a sure-fire bet for some laughs at his own expense, but his glum, heavy outlook on his overly depressing life is a bit tiring at times. Shelton is quite solid as the impeccably dressed and businesslike Madeleine, who is so committed to featuring the hottest up-and-coming new talent that she proudly disregards most opportunities to make any money from selling their pieces and, in the process, keep the gallery open.
(Untitled) doesn't take long to overstay its welcome and reveal that it doesn't have much to say about the art world that hasn't been said before by better films. There are a few nice touches here and there, but the overall impact of the film is muted by the simple fact that the film is populated by a group of largely unpleasant people who start off seeming funny but end up coming across as pathetic and overwhelmingly annoying. I'm not saying there aren't great films centering on unpleasant characters, but this isn't one of them. If the film had been a genuine farce about the struggle that all artists have between being true to their vision and commercial success, that might have made for an honest and interesting work, and some of that exists in small doses in (Untitled). Instead, Parker and co-screenwriter Catherine di Napoli seem more concerned with absurdism and more obvious jokes and criticism of artsy types. Nothing wrong with that; it's just not as engaging or compelling. With just a few tonal adjustments, this might have been a really fun and interesting work. What we're left with just sits there waiting to wrap things up and be forgotten. I thought about Bartleby for days after seeing it; I don't think I contemplated (Untitled) past my bathroom stop right after the screening. If you're still drawn to see it, it opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley theaters. If that doesn't steer you clear of this movie, I can't help you.