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Column Fri Sep 03 2010

The American, Machete, Going the Distance, The Tillman Story & Valhalla Rising

The American

You're going to hear a lot of people (critics, in particular) agree that The American feels retro or has a certain European wire running through its core, and I can see that and maybe even agree with the latter assessment. But what the only 2010 offering from actor George Clooney (after three films out last year) really has is a level of sophistication and understated menace that sets it apart from perhaps every other film about a professional assassin ever made. With guidance from the great photographer/music video maker, Control director Anton Corbijn, The American takes us inside the mind of a man who can kill for a living and lets us examine not only what makes him good at his job, but also how those very elements are the ones eating away at his soul and slowly consuming any remaining thing about him that is good.

With sparse dialogue and a camera that moves slow and steady, the film begins in a snow-swept, faraway woodland in Sweden. A slender handsome man with a salt-and-pepper beard is enjoying the company of a lovely woman in a cabin. The two go for a walk in the drifts when she spots another set of footprints in the snow. The man reacts instantaneously by running for cover just as bullets whiz by his head and explode the bark inches from his face. With defense and survival mechanism all activated, the man deals with the situation in a matter of minutes, and when he's finished, his peaceful life is shattered.

The wonderful thing about The American (one of many, actually) is that screenwriter Rowan Joffe (adapting the book "A Very Private Gentleman" by Martin Booth) doesn't bog us down with background. Do we really need to know how long this killer who sometimes calls himself Jack, sometimes Edward has been at the game? Can't we look at his tired face that almost never cracks a smile to be fairly certain that the answer is "Too long"? Clooney knows he has a gift for delivering crack dialogue with more charm and poise than any other human being on the planet, so it stands to reason that the gifted actor in him would want to see if he can be as convincing playing someone who rarely speaks. And he handles the task so well that you find yourself analyzing every word out of his mouth for deeper meaning. By getting so little information about this man, director Corbijn forces us to pay attention, look for signs and clues, watch his reactions. When Jack tells a prostitute that she doesn't have to pretend to enjoy sex with him because "I'm here to get pleasure, not give it," is a startling moment of coldness and forces us to wonder just a little bit more than we already did, 'Who is this guy?'

While Jack's handler (Bruce Altman) looks into who is trying to kill him, Jack is relocated to a small Italian town where he is asked to assemble a special weapon for another killer, a Belgian woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, who, in a nice touch, has a different hairstyle and color each time we see her). And as he did in Sweden, Jack meets the stunning Clara (the aforementioned prostitute) and tries unsuccessfully not to have feelings for her. His other challenge is to not be paranoid that she or anyone else he comes into contact with in this place is part of the conspiracy to take him out. Another member of the cast is Paolo Bonacelli as Father Benedetto, who takes Jack under his wing. The idea of a killer and a priest matching wits and philosophies on life, sin, and redemption might be a touch on the obvious side, but Italian acting legend Bonacelli is so enjoyable in this role, we can't help but forgive. The two test out their powers of observation on each other in unexpected ways, and their scenes together are some of my favorite.

For Jack, falling in love is an act of desperation-- a last-ditch effort to hold onto what remains of his shriveling heart. And I can see why he chose Mathilde to be his savior. She's almost too good to be true (if you ignore that whole prostitute gig), and Corbijn relishes in showing off every inch of her natural, curvy frame. Considering Clooney has, for the most part, shied away from more explicit sexual exploits on screen, it's strange to see him so free with his and others' bodies in something like Up in the Air or The American. I'll admit, it's good to know the old guy's still got it.

You may be confused with my review because the trailers and commercials you've seen for The American have centered on gunplay and what appear to be action scenes, and those things do exist in this movie, but to such a small degree, you almost get angry when they arrive and interrupt the far more interesting things going on during the quieter moments. I think it's safe to say that Clooney has worked his way into yet another high point in his career (that I'd say started with 2007's Michael Clayton) in the last couple of years, and The American might be the best of the bunch since that film. At the very least, this character represents a path that Clooney has never really gone down before. His performance demands a level and type of attention that I'm not used to extending to an actor who is usually pretty easy to read and relies on a familiar library of expressions and other acting tools to make his point. But here, he's making us do much of the work while his character goes out of his way to hide his feelings from those in his life and us. It's a role I want to revisit soon, to look for more signs in the lines in his face. It's a strange game I'm not used to playing with Clooney, but I dig it--and this film--tremendously.


I'm sure writer-director Robert Rodriguez would say that he loves all of his films equally, but when I watch one of his uber-violent exercises like the Mariachi films, From Dusk Til Dawn, Sin City, Planet Terror, or his latest, Machete, I can feel the smile on his face as he invents new and glorious ways to portray slaughter. Do I think it's all he can do well? Absolutely not. The first two Spy Kids movies are well worth watching. But when Rodriguez covers his lens in blood, his films spring to life. The bonus feature of Machete is that Rodriguez (credited as co-director with Ethan Maniquis) gets to take his faithful companion in most of his works, Danny Trejo, and place him front and center among one of the most eclectic casts of any film in recent memory.

As most of you probably know, Machete began its life as a storyless trailer that Rodriguez pulled together to go between features during his Grindhouse double-feature with Quentin Tarnatino. And for reasons that I think are understandable, fans of both Rodriguez and Trejo wanted to see that film go feature length. So rather than create a story from scratch, Robert and his cousin Álvaro Rodríguez devised a story using each and every scene from the trailer, as well as the ripping themes from the headlines involving illegal immigration, migrant workers, day laborers, packs of roving vigilantes patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, building a fence the length of said border, and politicians running on a campaign of tossing illegals back to Mexico. It's an impressive exercise, and the resulting film is loads of fun, even if it is a little light as social commentary.

The film opens with Trejo's Machete when he was a Mexican Federale attempting to save a kidnapped woman from the country's most notorious drug dealer Torrez (a bizarre but smile-worthy performance by Steven Seagal), who turns the table on Machete and leaves him for dead in a burning building after killing the man's wife. But since the film is called Machete, of course the man didn't die. Three years later, he winds up in Texas doing day labor. A man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) claiming to represent the cause of immigrants pulls up in a fancy car and offers Machete $150,000 to kill a senator (Robert De Niro) who is running on a platform of kicking immigrants out and keeping them out with an electrified fence. Booth says the state's dirty little secret is that it can keep costs down because of illegal workers, and they are needed to keep things running. Machete agrees, but things go south when another shooter attempts to take him out, and he realizes the whole thing was a set up with him as the patsy. The senator is shot in the leg, and the entire incident turns out to help his campaign.

On the side of good, Machete finds assistance in the guise of two beautiful women. Michelle Rodriguez plays Luz, who runs a taco truck but also is a leader in something called The Network--a group of illegals who secretly keep on eye on the entire state and report to each other, as well as help find jobs for new immigrants. The other babe in the mix is immigration officer Sartana (Jessica Alba), who sympathizes with the immigrants and especially Machete's plight since he was once a part of law enforcement. Other bizarre casting choices that add flavor to the mix are Don Johnson as a ruthless racist of a cop who kills immigrants crossing the border, Tom Savini as a hired assassin, Cheech Marin as a local priest whose vows are "flexible," and Lindsay Lohan as Booth's junkie daughter. Sure, it's stunt casting, but Rodriguez has always had fun with his cameos and supporting players, and he knows how to give someone one or two great scenes before killing or otherwise dispatching them.

The plot is a little thin, the performances--especially by the villains--are a little too blatant, and nothing about the fight sequences is particularly realistic. But who says they need to be? Much as he did with Planet Terror, Rodriguez has set Machete in the b-movie/drive-in world where nudity and violence are a necessity, plots don't need to be complicated, and performances are secondary to action and revenge. That said, I was especially impressed with Fahey's whispery work; he even manages to out-act De Niro, who has chosen to play the senator almost like Yosemite Sam. And it's good to see Michelle Rodriguez really get to sink her teeth into a role while still looking sexy as hell. She gets to do a lot more here than she did in Avatar or either of the Fast & Furious movies she's in, and it suits her. The woman can act, and not just as a badass, although when she turns on the badass, step back about 20 paces. And even Alba is solid in a less glamorous role that allows her tackle some of the film's heavier moments.

Machete has its dead spots, but whenever Trejo puts on his patented scowl, lets his hair flow, and loads up with every sharp object in a five-mile radius, he's unstoppable and utterly ruthless. At its core, Machete is a revenge film with a social-justice undercurrent, and on that level the film works beautifully. It's also a rip-roaring gore explosion, and features more blood and guts than just about any horror movie you'll see this year. Just before the end credits roll, the film promises us two sequels. So what are they waiting for?

To read my exclusive interviews with Machete star Danny Trejo and writer/director Robert Rodriguez, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Going the Distance

Sometimes, studios pile a bunch of normally funny people in a film together and the results don't even cause a ripple in the comedy pool. But every so often, something shocking happens--a movie actually surprises you with how filthy, hilarious, and moving it is. And the reason Going the Distance is all the more shocking is that it comes under the direction of the largely untested Nanette Burstein, a successful documentary filmmaker (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) making her feature debut with this R-rated comedy exploring the ever-growing phenomenon of long-distance dating.

Drew Barrymore and Justin Long play New York-based fledging writer Erin and record company peon Garrett, respectively. They meet in a bar just hours after Garrett has been dumped by his last girlfriend for being afraid of commitment. But something about Erin fascinates him because she can keep up the crude speak with his guy friends, and they just click. Problem is that in six weeks, Erin is planning on moving to San Francisco to go to grad school and look for work. Since the short-term nature of their time together would seem to indicate a casual but fun fling, they agree to keep things light. Naturally, they fall hard for each other and decide to attempt to keep the flame burning with a nation between them.

I realize what I'm describing sounds like the worst kind of rom-com scenario, but Barrymore and Long have someting kind of incredible between them. They were a real-life couple when they made this, and that affection and connection permeates Going the Distance. There's a scene early on when they go on their first "real" date over dinner. The scene looks like it was shot in a grainy film stock and appears to have captured a completely spontaneous conversation that I'm sure was totally improvised, but it feels almost like we're spying on them rather than simply watching a staged event.

It also helps that both actors are surrounded by a group of often funnier supporting actors playing their friends, family, and co-workers. Garrett keeps company with roommate Dan ("It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia's" Charlie Day, in a role that essentially guarantees him five years worth of film work-- he's that good), who never lets up asking the eternal question, "Why are there no baby pigeons in New York City?" "SNL's" Jason Sudeikis is also around quite a bit as Garrett's co-worker Box, sporting a '70s-style mustache and the firm belief that older women will be drawn to it. Garrett also works with, among others, Ron Livingston (Office Space) and Kelli Garner (Lars and the Real Girl), whose character is also in a long-distance relationship and advises Garrett to have lots of phone sex.

I firmly believe that when the chapter in the book on film comedies that includes 2010 is written, it will include several pages devoted to the aborted attempt at phone sex between Erin and Garrett sequence. The language sounds so bizarre coming out of these two actors' mouths (that's kind of the point) that I laughed as much to encourage their attempt as I did just because it was so damn funny.

Erin has a few people on her team as well, including sister Corrine, played by the great Christina Applegate, and her husband Phil (Jim Gaffigan). Naturally we get the obligatory scene of the sister threatening the life of the boyfriend if he breaks her sister's heart. And I'm certainly not saying that Going the Distance is devoid of all of the trappings of the modern romantic comedy, but director Burstein seems intent on following the Knocked Up-era Judd Apatow model of combining vulgarity with sincerity, and it works at every turn. The few sequences that involve site gags or more blatant attempts at laugh-getting (such as Justing Long's failed attempt to go to a spray-tan establishment) actually tended to annoy me because they got in the way of the winning story and character development.

You'd figure with all of the electronic tools at our disposal to keep in touch with someone far away, long distance relationships might be easy to make work, but this film proves that even under the best of circumstances, a strong love connection can only take so much being apart. Even the film's final act did not play out the way I thought it would. That's the thing about Going the Distance--it never ceases to surprise you at how smart and funny it is. And I've seen the film twice, so this isn't simply a case of low expectations being met with a better-than-expected work. The pop-culture references alone are worth the price of admission. There are Holocaust and Hitler jokes; one of Barrymore's funniest lines involves The Accused; and you might think a film that uses Top Gun as one of its running go-to gags was weak, but you'd be wrong. I don't know how Burstein did it, but I hope she keeps on doing it. And to be honest, it's great to see a capable woman direct a movie traditionally made by man-boys. I'm loving on this movie something fierce, and you will too.

The Tillman Story

It's been too long since a documentary has made me as angry at and resentful of the powers that be (or powers that were, in this case) as The Tillman Story does. In a desperate attempt to create heroes in early days of the Iraq War, the U.S. government and military concocted a story about the death of the most famous man to enlist in the Army and fight in that war. Patrick Tillman gave up a multi-million-dollar NFL contract to fight, and did everything in his power to keep his reasons for doing so a private matter between him and his tight-knit family. But when he was killed during a skirmish (according to the sanctioned story), the Army myth-making machine saw an opportunity to turn the body of this man into a recruitment poster. Knowing that her son would never have allowed such a thing, Tillman's mother, Dannie, tirelessly embarked on a campaign to find out exactly how her son died and how far the knowledge of the nature of his death went up the government food chain.

Only half of the shock of this film is the reveal about Tillman's final moments. The remainder of the shocking behavior is twofold. The first is how disinterested the media was in reporting the truth after going to extraordinary lengths to report various versions of the lie. The other part of the film that floored me was the tenacity of the Tillman family. Although Pat's parents were long divorced, they worked together with his brothers to figure out what happened. One of the most incredible elements in this story is hearing about them taking documents with redacted information (basically memos with words blacked out) and filling in the blanks by literally counting the number of spaces each censored word has and figuring out what the name or location is. I never heard of any reporter doing this, and yet the wealth of information that comes from this process is beyond damning.

What's also interesting is that the film draws parallels between the Pentagon's propagandizing of the Jessica Lynch incident and what they did with Tillman's story. As the story was told Private Lynch was captured and held hostage by Iraqi forces until U.S. Special Forces moved in to save her. Turns out, she was being well tended to and protected by doctors at an Iraqi hospital. And while Lynch seemed pressured by military officials into, at first, going along with the myth, Tillman never had that choice and so it became his family's duty to carry out his final wishes and protect his legacy. Director Amir Bar-Lev has fashioned a conspiracy drama that rivals any fiction film in recent memory, and any doubt that either then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or even President Bush didn't know that stories about Tillman's death were loaded with lies is dispelled convincingly.

Narrated by Josh Brolin, The Tillman Story's ultimate strength is not in exposing a familiar pattern of lies and hero building. Where the film truly succeeds is in reclaiming the life and death of Patrick Tillman for his family. Tillman's sacrifice does not belong to the nation; it belongs to this small group of extraordinary blood relations who wanted nothing more than for people to stop misrepresenting Tillman's motivations for joining the Army and for his son's death to not have been in vain. This is one of the most powerful documentaries I've seen about the Iraq War, and I've seen a lot of them. I figure I owe people like Pat Tillman at least that much. Your blood will boil, and that's okay. My feeling is that if you are fortunate enough to have the chance to see this remarkable film and you don't, you're just as much of a part of the problem as the media, the military, and the government. Consider seeing The Tillman Story part of your duty as an American.

Valhalla Rising

Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) and his Pusher trilogy star Mads Mikkelsen (best know to Americans as the Bond villain in Casino Royale) have re-teamed to give us one of the most blood-thirsty, head-tripping takes on the clash between a sole Viking warrior and a crew of Christian crusaders intent on going to the Holy Land to claim it in the name of Britain. First and foremost, you should know that about 50 percent of what happens in Valhalla Rising makes little or no sense. Second, it doesn't really matter, because the stuff that remains is remarkable. Actually, the unclear stuff is remarkable as well, I just didn't comprehend it as well. Beautifully shot and masterfully composed, the film could be seen as Mikkelsen's One-Eye (because he only has one eye) representing the devil, leading these men to the murky, foggy hell. Or, it could be seen as a Jesus parable, with the mute One-Eye turning salt water into fresh, and just generally always knowing where to go with his disciples following his lead. However you interpret the goings on, I think you'll appreciate what the film accomplishes, whether it makes sense or not.

The dialogue-free Mikkelsen often sits stoned faced waiting for anyone who might do him harm. He typically responds by obliterating his opponent in some of the most gruesomely violent battle scenes I've seen in some time. But when you balance scenes like that with ones like the sequence where it appears all of the crusaders are tripping balls after having something slipped into their food, you may doubt your own sanity. Hardly a pure action experience, Valhalla Rising is a more complicated and cerebral creature than most might assume. The film is operating as both a visual feast and a mind-bending exercise in faith, deity vs. deities, and the use of bloodshed in the pursuit of religious goals--age-old themes that director Refn has found a new way to spin and present. It may feel like an endurance test for some stretches, but the payoff is sublime.

The film opens for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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