Hey everyone. My one regret of the week is that I missed the press screening of the new Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway, which I'm hearing is Demme's finest work in a very long time. I plan on seeing it as soon as it opens, and it's sounding like you should too.
Body of Lies
Director Ridley Scott is a machine. The man cranks out a movie ever year or two, and almost without fail they are well worth watching. He's also a man who loves to take often-complicated stories and tell them in a way that to some degree makes sense. Oh, and he likes to blow shit up. Well, with Body of Lies he gets to do all of these things and produce a cynical and smart look at the way America does business in the Middle East. In many ways, the film reminded me of a less-complicated version of Syriana, complete with a marquee-topping actor (in this case Russell Crowe in his fourth collaboration with Scott) gaining lots of weight to underscore what Scott and screenwriter William (The Departed) Monahan see as America's brassy, pushy, bullying ways in foreign lands.
Playing his supremely effective version of an antihero (as he's done before in Blood Diamond and The Departed, to name a couple), Leonardo DiCaprio is Roger Ferris, a CIA operative/"political advisor" working anywhere in the Middle East he is required. Ferris has clearly spent an inordinate amount of time learning the cultures in which he works and the intricacies of each government, so he can work in both overt and covert manners to achieve and protect U.S. goals. He spends most of the film in Jordan in pursuit of a top terrorist leader hiding in the kingdom. His relationship with Crowe's Ed Hoffman, a stateside CIA man (the two are rarely on screen together as they communicate primarily by cell phone), is abrasive at best, but the two clearly form a perfect union of brains, brawn and resources to make most missions play out exactly how they plan them. Overplaying slightly with his heavy Southern accent and protruding belly, Crowe (DiCaprio's co-star from 1995's The Quick and the Dead) is actually tons of fun to watch fast-talk and run circles around his man in the field. We trust nothing that Hoffman says, and much of the film is a guessing game to see how he'll screw up Ferris' mission. Their interplay is often confounding but never boring.
Scott's secret weapon in Body of Lies is British actor Mark Strong, who plays Hani, the head of the Jordanian secret police. I feel the need to point out that he's British because I think anyone watching this movie would assume he's actually an actor of Middle Eastern decent. He's unbelievably good here in his scene assisting and guiding DiCaprio through the labyrinth that is Jordanian culture. Even in not-so-great movies, Strong has always risen above, making memorable supporting appearances in such films as Syriana, Sunshine, Stardust and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. And looking at his list of upcoming projects, you get sense that the man is about to deservedly break through in a big way very soon. For me, this is the role that does that. Hani is impossible to read, smarter and better informed than anyone else in the room, knows exactly when to utilize the many resources at his disposal, and can accurately predict how his friends and enemies will respond to every move he makes. And somehow we know this just from watching Strong's performance. He's the scene-stealer who isn't trying to steal the scene (unlike Crowe, for example).
I should also give credit to Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who plays a nurse taking care of Ferris. He falls for her, but the culture dictates the course and manner of their courtship. Even an attempt to shake her hand in public must be rebuffed. It's an interesting and welcome softening of DiCaprio's character, but we ultimately know that his enemies will exploit the relationship.
Body of Lies has a complicated but not impenetrable plot about the pursuit of this top terrorist. I wouldn't recommend a bathroom break during the film for fear of missing a key piece of information, but beyond that, I think a reasonably intelligent person will be able to keep up. Scott may pack one too many action sequence in the film, but he stages them so beautifully, you can't stay mad at him. The performances are all staggeringly good, although Crowe comes dangerously close to parody. There's a sequence where Hoffman flies to Jordan to meet Hani to discuss a resource Hani has in the terrorist organization. Hoffman wants access to this insider and he won't leave until Hani agrees. We already know how the scenario is going to play out, so it feels a bit extraneous and unnecessary to let the scene play for as long as it does, when clearly it's just another excuse to let Crowe ham it up and play the quintessential asshole, which he does remarkably well. But even Crowe's slight overacting isn't enough to sink this ship. DiCaprio is too good as the worn-out, wavering centerpiece, while Strong continues to impress me as the film unexpected anchor. If you'd rather not turn your brain off at the box office, Body of Lies is best movie opening this weekend.
I may be officially through with true-life sports movies for a few years. When the makers of such films start recycling actors who have appeared in such films, I know it's time for me to tune them out. I love seeing Dennis Quaid in just about anything, and I was genuinely impressed with him in 2002's The Rookie, but he seems more like a caricature spouting clichéd lines in his latest work in which he plays Syracuse University football coach Ben Schwartzwalder, the man who broke many a color barrier by recruiting Hall of Famer Jim Brown onto his team in the mid-1950s. But this film isn't about Schwartzwalder or Brown; it's about the man who came after Jim Brown at Syracuse, Ernie Davis, a running back who also wore Number 44 (Brown's number), best known as the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. While Brown was a man ahead of his time in many respects, Davis was a man for the times — the times being the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. And while Davis wasn't a marcher or protestor, his achievement inspired million of black Americans to continue the fight. As you can tell, all of the elements are in place to tell a pretty uplifting story about a man who rose up from poverty to become a hero to many. But the filmmakers basically ruin this story by inflating it with an air of self-importance will swelling music, slow motion, and overblown performances that serve to sabotage Davis' great achievements. A documentary on Davis would have served his memory so much more effectively.
I liked some of the early scenes showing Davis as a boy growing up in a coal-mining Pennsylvania town. According to legend (or at least the filmmakers), Davis learned to run as fast as did from running away from white kids looking to do him harm. Charles S. Dutton plays the young man's grandfather who raised him and gave him a strong moral center. The biggest problem I have with The Express is that director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, Impostor and many episodes of "October Road") presents Davis as flawless. He doesn't lose his temper or have any vices. His greatest flaw is apparently ignoring signs that he may have an illness that doesn't really manifest itself until just after his run at Syracuse. Even his acts of civil disobedience are fairly tame, at least in the movie. Schwartzwalder, on the other hand, is clearly an old Southern boy who is still wrestling with his latent racism, but as one player puts it, "He likes to win more than he hates black people." Even the character of Jim Brown (played by Darrin Dewitt Henson) seems a bit more fleshed out that Davis.
If it's possible for a film to have too much heart, then that's the crime here. I know that sounds impossible, but Fleder and his team are just trying too hard to build their legend. Davis' story doesn't need all of the pomp and circumstances it's given here. The treatment is about as subtle as... well, actually, it's not subtle in any way. Every sports movie cliché is marched out, every inspirational tale trick is on display, and it all combines to crush you under the weight of its self-importance. I'm not in any way knocking Davis' achievements, but all this film made me want to do was research the real man's life to sift through the over-glorification and find the human being at the center of these tremendous events. If watching this movie inspires you to do the same, maybe it's a worthy film, but I don't think so. It is possible to do a great man's life injustice by trying too hard to make him a deity. Without giving too much away about the way Davis' life and career played out, I will tell you that the film even softens the final chapter in his life by denying us details that would make him seem a little more human. I can't with a clear conscience recommend this movie if you care or would like to learn about Ernie Davis.
City of Ember
Tossing in a bit of that old time religion into what is essentially a story designed for young adults has never really bothered me. I find it kind of amusing most of the time. So hearing talk of civilization rising from the darkness into the light and ancient scriptures and mysterious unseen figures known as "the builders" doesn't faze me, at least not in a bad way. Whether it's the often-interpreted anti-Catholicism thread running through the His Dark Materials trilogy, or all of the Jesus symbolism of the Narnia books, spiritual references and doctrine are as much a part of certain types of literature as they are films, although often these overtones are toned down in films. Not so much with City of Ember, a film as much about using your brain and thinking for yourself as it is about following the texts of the ancients.
Based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau (and adapted by Caroline Thompson, who also wrote the screenplays for Edward Scissorhands, The Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride), City of Ember is the story of Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway, who played Joy Division's drummer in last year's Control), who lives with his inventor father Louis (Tim Robbins) in an elaborate city apparently located underground. If I understand the mythology correctly, the people of Ember went underground after the "end of the world." They were placed down there with a suitcase of sorts set to open up 200 years after the descent. The suitcase contained the instructions on how the people could return to the surface safely, but the suitcase was lost, and the people ended up staying down there far longer than the city was built to last. At the heart of the city is a generator that has been breaking down a lot lately, causing citywide blackouts and rumblings that feel like mild earthquakes. Doon works with the city's pipelines, but has a great deal of access to many of the mechanisms keeping civilization functional. He is friendly with Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, best known for playing the lying younger sister of Kyra Knightley in Atonement; she's also set to play the dead girl/narrator in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones adaptation), a messenger in the city who races from person to person delivering verbal telegrams.
Doon and Lina find various clues that things are going horribly wrong in the city, and that Mayor Cole (Bill Murray, in one of his most head-scratching characters) and his associates (led by right-hand man Toby Jones) are not putting the community's best interests first as panic sets in with each new blackout. The young twosome put their big brains together to discover all sorts of hidden codes and rooms and agendas, and above all else, the film is a celebration of intelligence over all other things, which is quite refreshing. Kenan's exquisite visual style, so perfectly realized in the animated greatness Monster House, is a little more dreary in City of Ember, but there are some details in the catacombs and machinery of Ember that are well worth examining. The production design here is unreal, and reveals the city as a sort of living organism and fully realized character in this movie. There are a couple of times when the design looks more like a theme park, and those moments took me right out of the story.
Despite some nice supporting roles and extended cameos from the likes of Murray, Robbins, Martin Landau, Mackenzie Crook and even Mary Kay Place, the best acting comes from the two young lead actors. Younger actors can really grate on me, but for some reason Ronan and Treadaway really impressed me. Director Kenan is clearly having fun with his gadgets and contraptions and hidden passages and alcoves. Sometimes his enthusiasm translates, and sometimes it falls short of really becoming infectious, which is what I really wanted to happen. That's absolutely nothing horribly wrong and embarrassing about City of Ember; it just doesn't always leap off the scream the way it needs to sometimes. There's a huge mole creature that slithers around Ember eating everything in sight; that is badass. But the long boat ride at the end of the film didn't thrill me the way I think it was meant to. In a lot of ways, that's how I felt about the movie itself. There are quite a few things to take great pleasure in, but overall, my pulse probably never raced once while watching the film. I'm still on the fence about this one; I think this is officially a "mixed review" from me.
To read my interview with City of Ember director Gil Kenan from Comic-Con 2008 (which means I hadn't seen the film yet), go to Ain't It Cool News.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Character-driven, small, poignant stories have always been director Wayne Wang's strong suit, but that never stopped him from trying his hand at more traditional American fare with such films as Anywhere But Here, Maid in Manhattan, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Last Holiday. Neither of these is a terrible film, but they don't hold a candle to Wang's best efforts like Chan Is Missing, Eat a Bowl of Tea, Smoke, The Center of the World or his groundbreaking The Joy Luck Club. His latest work, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is something of a return to form, a quiet tale of an elderly Chinese man coming to Spokane to visit and hopefully reconnect with his grown daughter. Despite his coming such a great distance, she doesn't seem particularly thrilled to see him. She is polite but largely uncommunicative, and leaves him alone in the house for hours at a time while she goes to work or out "with friends." She is a divorced woman whose ex-husband went back to China after they broke up, and she's filled her days with meaningless activities, work and ill-advised love affairs.
Despite its modest production values, simple story and minimal dialogue (the father speaks very broken English), Good Prayers has a lot going on under the surface. As much as the film is about the father and daughter, it also provides Wang with the opportunity to drop the old man who still admires the communist ways into this strange country where he can explore, meet new people, and discover that English is a far better language for expressing feelings than Chinese. In another director's hands, this film would have been done cutesy and played for laughs, and while there is some light humor at play, the movie is more contemplative and tenuous than most American films. I was in awe of some of the interactions between the old man and a spirited older Iranian woman he meets in a park. They have regular daily meetings and can barely communicate with their mangled English, yet they still connect when talking about their complicated children.
In the film's final scenes, much of the daughter's odd behavior is explained, secrets are revealed by both her and her father, and what remains when he decides to leave to go on a cross-country train trip across America is a better, if not great, connection between the two. The two lead performers (Henry O and Faye Yu) are absolute perfection. She is a frazzled and weary woman who just wants something good to happen in her life. He is the doting, curious father who just wants to understand his daughter after largely ignoring her as a child. Based on the writings of Yiyun Li, Good Prayers uses a minimal number of tools to tell a universal story about parents and children that will probably seem familiar to anyone whose parents seemed distant but not necessarily cruel. At times, this is a silently devastating work that is one of the best small films I've seen all year. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Although the subject matter is inherently interesting and disturbing, this take on the de-programming of gay men and women through Christian-run ministries is maybe a bit too simplistic to make for a compelling film. Not entirely without merit, Save Me is the story of Mark (Chad Allen), a drug-addicted gay hustler on the verge of a complete meltdown who comes to just such a ministry run by a married couple played by Judith Light and Stephen Lang, who have their own reasons for founding such a home for men. They wouldn't consider themselves de-programmers; they simply want to teach these men to accept Jesus into their hearts, and the rest will hopefully take care of itself. Each member of the community is given certain responsibilities and a code of conduct is strictly adhered to, some of which has nothing to do with gay behavior (smoking and drinking are forbidden, for example). At the home, Mark meets longtime resident Scott (Robert Gant), who seems to be working the program successfully as well. But when the two start spending time together, the attraction seems undeniable despite Mark's earnest belief that he has seen the light to Jesus.
Any film that features Stephen Lang is welcome in my life. I think he's one of the most underrated actors of the last 25 years, and I'm guessing you don't even know what he looks like. Part of the problem is that he's a bit of a chameleon, his look changes from role to role, and here he plays a generally laid-back guy who seems much more forgiving when the men under his watch slip. I thought for sure we were going to find out that he was really gay or had been in his pre-Jesus days, but the film isn't quite that obvious. Light's Gayle character is more complicated. She had a son from her first marriage who was gay and did die from his drug lifestyle. Her motivations are a bit clearer, but her attachment to Mark, who reminds her of her son, is a bit ridiculous. I'll at least give director Robert Cary (maker of the much better Ira and Abby) points for restraint; he doesn't take the film into any kind of unnecessarily explicit territory, other than an opening scene romp that Mark and a stranger get into. I'm not sure the film qualifies as "gay cinema," at least the kind we've been seeing so much of lately. It treats its characters and situations with a bit more dignity and paints them as fully rounded people for the most part. But despite its attempts at soul searching and even handedness, the biggest problem with Save Me is that it is achingly predictable and often downright boring. No amount of prayer can forgive that sin. The movie opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer
I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd never heard of Anita O'Day in my life... at least I didn't think I had. While watching this great tribute to her life, I realized that I'd seen her perform in the landmark concert film Jazz on a Summer's Day. Her lovely form and priceless voice (singing a fantastic interpretation of "Sweet Georgia Brown" in a smoking black cocktail dress with gloves) stuck with me even as her name flew right out of my head. Her name was spoken in the same breath as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. She played with such geniuses as Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa and Hoagy Carmichael. She was a great talker, one of the boys when she hung out with her band, and a ferocious heroin addict for huge portions of her life. She's come within a hair of death more than once, had her throat literally stripped of the ability to sing through a mistake during one of her hospital stays, and she stills perseveres. She broke color barriers (both by playing and singing with black musicians and by being a white woman in a black woman's field), and is beloved by music critics and audiences worldwide.
Sometimes you just go to a documentary to sit back and be schooled about someone you should have known about most of your life, and The Life of a Jazz Singer is one of those instances. Yes, it is infuriating to hear O'Day laugh about her mistakes and missed opportunities, but her singing makes all of those bad feelings float away. Her honesty in a series of some of the most blunt interviews I've ever heard is refreshing and a bit scary. I was particularly moved by the most recent interview sessions conducted just before her death two years ago by co-directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden. There is something so refreshing about an iconic figure like O'Day not worried a lick about how the world will remember her. She admits that being famous and beloved is great, but that being high is pretty sweet as well. She makes no apologies for living the jazz life, and the movie is doesn't attempt to glorify her life and mistakes in any way. At the same time, O'Day doesn't need any kind of artificial buildup; just listening to her sing is enough to sell her as someone worthy of all of the praise heaped upon her. I was particularly interested in listening to the music critics explain O'Day's unique style, phrasing and ability to interpret songs. It comes across like the greatest education in how jazz singing works I've ever had. I truly loved meeting the great Lady O'Day, and you will adore her and this film just as much. The Life of a Jazz Singer opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
More music, a very different and yet no less fascinating type of music, from a man who may or may not have been crazy. But if history has taught us anything, it's that music and insanity are not mutually exclusive. Arthur Russell grew up an Iowa farm boy who took up playing the cello because that was his mother's instrument as well. The interviews with his still-living parents are so beautiful, I almost wish the whole film had been told through their eyes. They are classic conservative parents who learned to be open minded as the love they felt for their son trumped feelings they may have had about his being gay or the bizarre music he wrote and performed.
After spending time as a hippie in San Francisco, Russell made his way to New York City, where he immediately fell in with a crowd of writers (including his great friend Allan Ginsberg) and other musicians (such as Ernie Brooks and Philip Glass). Wild Combination details the many layers of Russell's life, including his love life and the depths the man explored to make the music in his head. It seemed like a real event whenever Arthur actually completed a song, let alone an entire album. He wrote and produced some of the disco era's most complex hit songs and went on to make experimental and intensely inventive music that would inspire many a singer-songwriter. Often using highly reverbed voice and his handy cello (as well as a roomful of keyboard, drum machines and guitars), Russell recorded hours of tapes, many of which are only now finding their way to the public. It may be safe to say that so many years after his 1992 death from AIDS, Russell has never been more popular, thanks to some diehard friends and family who have combed his recordings and put out compilations of unreleased material. Director Matt Wolf has done an impressively thorough job piecing together this man's life and perhaps even redefining what a genius is or might be. In so many ways Russell sabotaged his own work, and no attempt is made to hide that fact. He was clearly a difficult man to get to know, work with, or even like. But his music touched a chord with people, and above all else, this film explains why. The movie plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, October 10 at 8pm; Monday, October 13 at 8pm; and Tuesday, October 14 at 6:15pm.