Saturday, March 28, 2009

Duplicity: Spy Versus Spy Romance Delivers The Goods

The period between the December/January's "serious" movies and the start of the May blockbuster season is usually the most cinematically dead. February, March, and April are typically filled with studio flops being dumped, formulaic thrillers, and second-tier comedy yuk fests, with maybe an odd Watchmen or two.

Which is why finding a well done, entertaining spy dramedy like Duplicity is so nice. With Julia Roberts as Ms. Spy plying her trade against Clive Owen's Mr Spy, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity delivers a nice, entertaining thriller of corporate espionage, head games, and heist romance that sends us to delicious locations (like Rome, Miami, and Cleveland) and delivers both the witty banter and well-designed ending that the best counter-intelligence plots achieve. You might call this film "Ocean's Two," and reducing the complicated motives and plots to just two characters tightens the story and heightens the drama.

What gets us off on just the right footing is that when Roberts's Clair meets Owens' Ray, they are both government spies employed by competing governments, and she's in the middle of taking him for a ride in order to steal the secret papers he's carrying with him. That initial moment of distrust becomes both a romantic barrier and a personal code for them throughout the rest of the story. The next time we see the two encounter each other, its five years later - and it turns out they are both working for the same company. Or are they? As flashbacks fill in what we've missed, we learn that the two may or may not have fallen in love, and may or may not have hatched a plot to take advantage of the corporate rivalry between two macho capitalist barons of fiercely competing consumer personal care product companies: Tom Wilkinson's Howard Tully and Paul Giamatti's Richard Garsik.

The fact that we don't quite know whether the two are gaming each other as well as their bosses keeps us on our toes while we try to unravel the plot that they might have hatched. On top of that, both Wilkinson and Giamatti deliver delicious over-the-top performances that let us begin to understand that Claire and Ray aren't the only ones playing deceptive, hard-ball shenanigans. What we come to understand: Garsik is ambitious, vain, and vainglorious. Tully is egomaniacle, paranoid, and vengeful. And both men are hyper competitive animals. Naturally, these failings let them fall right into the trap - set for them by Claire and Ray? or by someone else? - as the plot beings to thicken.

I also think that both Roberts and Owens give better performances than we've seen from either in quite a while. Roberts has one fantastically funny scene where she's sent to interrogate the office worker that Owens has just seduced, and plays the undercover schtick with hilarious aloofness. Meanwhile, Owens actually seems charming as he delivers pick-up banter that turns out to not only be well rehearsed, but carefully plotted as well.

That's why the duplicity here has the delicious complication of a movie like Mamet's The Game, but goes beyond Mamet's film to add an important sense of passion. There's a nice chemistry between Roberts and Owens that makes us believe that these two could be both fascinated and potentially burned by each other. Like their corporate counterparts, the two are driven by one overriding basic motivation: Greed.This is the Greed of being an American, the kind who wants that one big payday so we can retire to 500-thread count sheets in Rome. So we all understand each other. But these characters are destined to find something more valuable than their payday, and that's what's so nice about how the film unwinds - by the time Claire and Ray get past their distrust to fall in love with each other, we've fallen in love with them, faults and all, and we feel they get the reward they deserve.

It's also nice that someone else in the film learns to appreciate them as well. Not everything is as it seems, in this fine movie. And that's what makes learning about new people like Claire, Ray, Tully, and Garsik so romantic: what we fall in love with most are the people who can surprise us.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Knowing: I Knew It. But It was Still Fun

Knowing, the new film staring Nicholas Cage, falls, at least at first, right into that paranormal sci-fi genre created by Stir of Echoes, but soon takes a turn into land recently travelled by another sci-fi movie investigating a similar "Noahs Arc" theme. In fact, one might say that the two movies end on eerily similar notes, as if the filmmakers had been cribbing one another's scripts. There is a tendency for Hollywood movies to come in pairs. I just hope this plot device doesn't become a trend.

But since I can't really go into the ending without major spoilers, let's put all that aside for the moment.

If every movie is an illustration of one principal or another, Knowing - which tells the story of a kid who finds a strange list of numbers planted in an elementary school time capsule fifty years ago - is an illustration of how a great director can turn a b-movie script into a pretty good movie.
What I mean by this is that the story of Knowing pretty much touches upon every sci-fi cliche of the past fifteen years, including apocalyptic codes, prescient children, weird obsessions, dramatic disasters, strange visitors, and well, you get the picture. You know that a script has been dumbed down for the audience when the hero takes ten minutes out of the story's introductory exposition in order to explain, in lecture format nonetheless, exactly what the nature of the sun is. Apparently someone behind this film thinks that most movie goers out there will be surprised to learn that the sun is hot. It's at this point that if you can't predict the ending of this movie, you get an F in sci-fi b-movie plot formula.

There's nothing in this story that needs to be too complicated, but another script rewrite could have helped. Some humble suggestions: what if the little girl who produced the original series of mysterious numbers wasn't long dead, depriving us of any fun – what if she were very much alive and scaring the bejeezus out of our heroes? And does Cage really need to play an astrophysicist? That makes him either grossly negligent or a fool for missing what’s happening. (He’s also miscast, but that’s another story.) He should be just about anything else, possibly an IRS auditor. And do we really need another story with an absent parent that stands in for teaching a kid how to accept loss? Why not something different, like divorced folks. It’d actually be kind of nice to see people who don’t like each other trying to negotiate their fate together. And there's a bit of a perspective problem with the ending, which focuses us on a single family when much more more is at stake – a narrowness of coverage that makes the final sequences feel a bit hysterical.

But rather than spend more money on the script, the studio instead attached a kick-ass director – Alex Proyus, director of The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot. Proyus creates a taught pace for the film, starting from the opening where the strange little girl, Lucinda Embry, feverishly scribbles out a sheet of numbers (as part of a class assignment) that will predict every disaster to occur for the next fifty years. Each scene maintains that pace without letup, and Proyus keys up the suspense even more through his mysterious strangers lurking in the woods (whose getup he cribs straight from Dark City).

But perhaps most masterful is Proyus’s handling of the various disasters, which come at you from the gut and have the intensity and hyper-reality of the most elaborate nightmares. There’s even a dream sequence of a forest fire that I swear is something I’ve dreamed myself: terrifying scenes of animals fleeing on fire. The images here are modern, CNN-filtered and GPS located nightmares of our deepest phobias; there’s more than one sequence here (I can think of three off the top of my head) that stand with the best action sequences in movies over the past decade: the moment in Casino Royale when the plane sweeps the police cruiser off the ground; the plunging airplane in Superman Returns; the exploding hospital in Batman: The Dark Knight. Those scenes where each high-points in those movie but in Knowing Proyus delivers not just one but three – possibly four – breath-catching sequences. And he manages to tie all this imagery together with a powerful visually compelling ending CGI sequence that delivers what the director has promised.

So I recommend this movie to see these moments, which will be hard to get out of your head. Just go in knowing that the one thing you know about Knowing is, you already know the story.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Swing Vote Gets On Base With Predictable Comedy

The best thing about Swing Vote may be that Kevin Costner has finally found a role that's right for him: a do-nothing sarcastic slacker who represents the average American dolt. Costner, though an intelligent writer and director, has never quite had the movie-star acting chops that has made me want to watch him from start to finish as he tries to carry a film. But this is a role that seems to come easy for him, though, as with his character, it certainly doesn't offer many challenges.

The premise of this unlikely dramedy is that the Presidential election comes down to the decision of a single voter in New Mexico (Bud Johnson, played by Costner), whose faulty ballot needs to be recast in order to decide whether the incumbent Republican (Kelsey Grammer) or the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) will win the White House.

Ok: an unlikely scenario, I grant you. That's why the first third of the movie drags, since getting us to this convoluted setup seems more tedious than it needs to be. I wish they'd have just been able to give us a five-minute first act and get to the set-up and second act right away, since that's where the dramedy actually begins.

There's nothing here that can't be predicted by a precocious eleven-year old: first one Presidential political operative (Stanley Tucci) suckers our hero with craven political pandering, then the other one (Nathan Lane) tops it, and back and forth the political football bounces. What keeps this kind of well-trod political satire (think Wag the Dog or State and Main) entertaining is that Costner's Bud Johnson is more a symbol than a man: he is the apathetic American Voter, being courted by Cynical Politicians. There are no laugh-out-loud jokes and the satire is more folksy than cutting, but Lane and Tucci give a nice manic counterpoint to Costner's blankfaced laziness.

Meanwhile, Bud's daughter Molly, played by newcomer Madeline Carroll, represents the earnest wonkishness of those of us who truly care about politics. She the kind of kid who seems predestined to grow up to to be an anchor on the McNeil/Lehrer Nightly Newshour, or, as she suggests, chairman of the Fed (though that's unlikely to be as popular an ambition these days). I found Molly a bit too cloyingly civics-class earnest to really take to heart, but what the story does offer is a rather well-done backstory involving Bud and Molly's mother, played in a remarkably acted cameo by Mare Winningham. Winningham's few minutes blows out the other acting in the film and delivers an emotional punch at just the right moment in the narrative, so that we're successfully launched into the film's one and only possible closing. That turn into the improbable finale is an emotional leapfrog moment where a lot of dramadies fall down, but this one tackles it head on and earns - as well as possible given the premiss's artificiality - its inevitable closing grandiosity.

Which is to say that the film ends with a big speech from Bud where - and I doubt I could possibly spoil anything by saying this - he is revealed to have Character After All. I usually hate speeches like that and this one is no different, but since I've accepted the whole movie on its terms so far, it's the only possible speech that Bud could give to end a movie like this.

So it's not a great movie. But I see something of myself in Molly, and I'm a fan of political satire. You could do worse. So if you have to press me - and I figure I'm hesitating a little like Bud here - I suppose that for the five bucks it costs to rent on an otherwise boring Tuesday night, this movie would get my vote.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The International: Bank Thriller Suffers from Lack of Leverage

In The International, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts star as a pair of law enforcement offers (one Interpol, one NY DOA) hot on the trail of a criminal international bank.

The movie, which seems to have been held back from its original release date and has received scant notice in theaters, may be suffering from having been overtaken by recent events. Nothing in this film about a very very very bad bank is no where as dramatic as the bad banks that Geithner and Obama seem to be dealing with every day.

However, for the sake of movie analysis, let's put all this aside and deal with the movie on its own terms: a cinematic story, much like The Constant Gardener, based on a real-life banking conspiracy that explores a high-finance, international critical criminal issue under the rubric of an action thriller. This is a perfectly acceptably plotted, well directed, well acted thriller about tracking down a murderous, international banking conspiracy, and yet, for some reason, the movie never quite achieves that certain something that most good movies need to really draw you in.

I could point out a number of culprits: while the cold steel & glass architecture where most of this takes place is quite impressive as sculpture, the steel gray cinematography and the sterile environments give the movie a cold sheen that seems distant and drab. The movie peels back layers upon layers of conspiracy only, really, to arrive at a kind of vague corporate oligarchy, where there are very ill-defined bad guys who we are never given any information about, or a real chance to hate. The detective work here begins to take on the excitement of a tax audit, only without any actual figures to review. Clive Owen's inspector Salinger character is the typical cop working around the system, but his protestations and flame-outs seem more stock than character driven. And when the real confrontation happens in the movie - in which a critical character must be turned - the dialogue devolves into a banter of empty cliches, and the character gives in without any real reason or motivation. If only LA Police Chief Brenda Johnson on "The Closer" had interrogations this easy. And this all happens about twenty minutes before the movie ends...leaving the rest of the film to hang flat.

On the other hand, the movie has one great scene involving The Guggenheim Museum that was truly Hitchcock inspired. The hired hit man here also turns out to be one of the films best characters. The postmodern artwork in the museum gives the scene the perfect thematic punch, just the way Hitchcock would have done (it seems to say, just as postmodern art deals in recycled imagery, banks deal in recycled obligation). I guess that shows that if you're going to steal, steal from the best. If only the rest of the movie had that same energy, that kind of resonance, and that same sense of character, I'd be recommending it. Unfortunately, aside from this scene, everything else in the film feels phoned in.

So while there's nothing really terrible about this movie, there's not enough here to recommend it. Perhaps one day if it's on TV, and the banking crisis seems long ago, you might watch this film and wonder - how could it have been that people ever imagined that banks were powerful.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Watchmen: Sci-Fi Meets Ramond Chandler In Dali-eque Melange

There is a lot to say about Zack Snyder's (300) just released Watchmen, based on the 1985 graphic novel by Alan Moore (who also penned "V for Vendetta" and is widely credited for birthing the "dark" side of modern comics.) Not having read the original comic novel, however, I cannot say whether it is better, or worse, a travesty or a marvel of audaciousness. However, I do know that there is a tense relationship between the two, which seems to have affected how this movie has turned out. And so I will tell you that this is quite an original movie that at well over two and a half hours is, sadly, too long, too distanced, and a bit too tedious to really have the impact that I think this unique film deserved.

Firstly, if these Watchmen are also meant to be watch men - makers of clocks and watchers of human destiny and time - then the types of watches dealt with here are more the melted clocks of Salvador Dali than the neatly backward-ticking timepieces in a movie such as Benjamin Button. And I appreciate that. I like a movie that's willing to play with narrative and that travels in alternate realities. Snyder here has chosen to keep the movie set in Moore's original mid-eighties milieux as its base time frame of reference, which itself is a parallel 1980's to the real one (Richard Nixon is still President, somehow having repealed the Twenty-Second Amendment - and avoided Watergate - to be enjoying his fifth term). However, I think this decision to freeze the story in its original time may have been a mistake (I'll get to this more later) though I can appreciate how hard the pressure must have been not to tamper too much with what many fans must consider Moore's Bible. But I think that had the movie updated the base timeline to present day, many of its themes and obsessions would have held more resonance. But more on that in a bit.

It is perhaps unfair to criticize a movie based on Moore's graphic novel as being cliche - since it is Moore's story itself that lies as the inspiration for later films such as The Dark Knight, The Incredibles, Hancock, Sky Captain, and even perhaps some twists and turns of X-Men. But the film does travel territory that we have been down now quite a few times before: the down-and-out superhero, the quandary of superhuman power given to mortal hearts, the dynamics of a group of heroes whose vigilante actions are questionable, to say the least, and whose loyalties hang together through nothing more than their common obsessions and enemies. Watchmen perhaps originated many of these tropes, and unfortunately, Snyder isn't able to update them quite enough to be fresh again: though in Watchmen, perhaps more than most other films of this type (with the exception, of course of V for Vendetta), the society in which the superheros skulk is blacker than even our Dark Knights, and so their actions do take on the kind of heroic cynicism that have fascinated male teenagers for generations.

What is original about Watchmen is that unlike X-Men, where ability IS character, in this movie, it is the reverse: character - as it is slowly revealed in the film - IS the super ability. And so we don't quite know what superpowers these watchmen are capable of until we learn who they are, how they came to be, and who they imagine themselves becoming. The characters in this story are revealed through a Raymond Chanlder-esque detective frame, so what we have here is a mystery in which, over two-and-a-half hours, the viewer learns what powers our heroes possess. All this is very rich and textual, and the abilities of the various characters - the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach - slowly come into focus as we realize that each represents a kind of position on the moral continuum.

My favorite, and the audience's as well, I suspect, is Rorschach, our narrator, a masked man with disturbingly moving blots rather than features, who is revealed to have a clear, uncompromising moral judgement of the "scum" littering the city streets, and who prizes this moral certitude above all else: Robert de Niro's taxi driver in Taxi given mystical abilities. Inhabiting the opposite end of the moral spectrum is another Watchman, the intellectually superior Adrien Veidt (a.k.a. Ozymandias), whose ability to reach moral compromise in his quest to establish a greater good is, shall we say, superbly dramatic. Inhabiting the middle ground between the two is Night Owl (or the second Night Owl, as this story spans two generations of Watchmen), the most human of the watchmen and the most humane; he needs the aid of his technological devices to see through the darkness more clearly - and he knows also that it is his judgement the others prize as representing the heart of the group.

Circling these three are three other Watchmen: The Comedian, who's violently ironic comic detachment from life seems to be the initiator of many of the parallel stories herein; Dr. Manhattan, a glowing blue superhuman who, shall we merely say here, is detached from the living for entirely different reasons. And Laurie Jupiter (a.k.a. Silk Spectre II), who, I'm sad to say, seems to merely be the kick-ass babe the boys want to drool over. Why the women in this movie aren't given the same level of symbolic import as the men is, indeed, one of the ways in which this film squanders its potential.

Then there are the EARLIER generation of Watchmen to consider, some of which seem to have aged and some of which haven't, as well as a barely touched upon assortment of villains, girlfriends, colleagues, "real life" people, and other hangers on. All of which are entirely too much for a story that needs to get in and get out from an emotional core that is already distanced from us by that syrupy Raymond Chanlder-esque narration. Say what you want about Bryan Singer, but at least that guy knows how to craft a group of diverse, assorted characters around a single, centrally involving concept that they all must circle (think "who is Keyser Soze?"). The problem for Snyder is that he's lost himself to the Watchmen serial and the multiple parallel story lines without being able to pull from it a guiding central premise for the film.

That he seems to come up with one at the end is nice: the visual coda with Rorschach especially so. I just wish he had pulled that thread sooner, and trimmed out some of the unnecessary characters and fat.

And, back to my beginning comment, I also think updating the film to present day would have had even more impact. First, with the way time is shifted here, I am continually asking myself why we keep coming back to 1985. Why is that time the present? It was for Moore because when he wrote the Watchmen comics, it was the present, and this was a critique of Reganite culture - of the moment he was living in. Moore's story was written in the alternative present because it meant to be very contemporary: a comment on the cold war, an alternate version of the present, not the past. Perhaps Snyder felt that 1985 could stand in for 2005, Regan/Nixon standing in for Bush, Afghanistan (the first war) standing in for Iraq, without needing an update. But 2005 now too is already past (we're now dramatically in Obama's 2009 - a problem of historicity that a movie, which takes years to make, has to deal with more than a comic novel, which takes mere weeks to produce). And so, sadly, the central worry of the film (cold war standoff) feels out of date. And having an alternative past to our present moment feels like a betrayal of what Moore was up to, and the "real people" referenced in the film now feel entirely out of place. We are watching now not a critique of our culture but a critique of a history we no longer feel much worry or concern about.

And yet the film's dark vision and cynical view of realpolitik couldn't be more relevant. Shifting events in the story to Iraq, Pakistan, Bush I/II and terrorism rather than Vietnam and Afghanistan and cold war I believe would have spoken to the fears of OUR time and I think would have given the film the immediate emotional punch that it needed. For that was what Moore was going for originally, and by slavishly sticking to that historical element Snyder has drained all feeling from the movie, leaving us with something historical and clinical rather than immediate and meaningful.

There's also an issue of tone, which I don't think Snyder has gotten quite right. An example would be the real people: Nixon, Pat Buchanan, etc. They are caricatures of their real-life counterparts, yet they are neither extremely caricatured, nor are they at all similar. Rather, it was as if Snyder had pulled people off the street of the approximate gender and age of those people and told them to try and sound a little like them (perhaps never even having heard them). All this creates a kind of reality that is neither here nor there, when I think Snyder needed a reality that was most definitely somewhere: placed, perhaps, in an even more heightened alternative, and carrying us through to the world we recognize, or maybe barely recognize, today. George Stephanopolous, say, and an even more clown-mirror distorted version of him, rather than a stand-up comedian's version of McLaughlin Group.

Instead, it seems that Snyder was going for an interpretation, rather than a reinterpretation, of Moore: a loving introduction to the works of the maestro. And because this material really is subversive, what he's produced is a highly suggestive film that works backwards to introduce characters (intuitively rather than deductively), that wows us with transportation between time and place and suggestive images of war and murder that are both beautiful and disturbing (Snyder brings his 300 talents to this film, and it looks fantastic), that deals with the big themes of life and death, humanity and science, will and destiny, cynicism and belief. It is a movie that I have a hard time forgetting, and yet at times bored me to tears, and that I fear I may have made sound much more interesting than it is.

All of which is to say, it is a great film hampered by some very basic storytelling flaws: lack of focus, too much emotional distance, not enough risk-taking in digesting the source and giving us back something that captures the spirit more than the word of the original.

I really wish it had been better. A clear and moving deconstruction of our present political situation is highly called for, and the sci-fi / Chandler treatment of our particular moment on the brink of destruction, which is what's promised in the Watchmen vision, could have been fantastic. But as Don Rumsfeld used to say, sometimes you go to watch the movie you have, not the movie you might like to have.

Now if only Snyder had had the audacity to have quoted Rumsfeld, he really would have been on to something.