Monday, July 27, 2009

Harry Potter's Half-Blood Prince Goes Half-Way to Ending

I've lost count as to where we are in the Harry Potter franchise, but it seems like we must, ever so slowly, be nearing the end.

The latest film - The Half-Blood Prince - teases us with yet further revelations about the nature of Tom Riddle / Voldemort, as well as introduces the devices by which he'll need to be defeated (called Horcruxes, these are objects into which Voldemort has placed a portion of his soul, making him immortal as long as the object exists.) The film also exposes the ultimate allegiance of some of the enduring characters, and propels Harry into the leadership position that he'll need for the final confrontation of Voldemort.

All of which is to say, the film is entirely preparatory for the ending - and though it is directed with aplomb by David Yates, this is rather thin gruel for entertainment.

The fault could simply be the length of the series, which is starting to look a bit long in the tooth, especially as the three principals have far surpassed the adolescence that they're supposed to be exploring in this movie. All the sudden randiness amongst the kids left me with a rather icky feeling - and the effect of twenty-two-year-old actors (whom we've watched in these characters since they were children) pretending to be horny seventeen year olds is disconcerting, if not downright weird.

The real stars of this film - Michael Gambon as Professor Dumbledore and the ever delicious Alan Rickman as Professor Snape - carry along their scenes with appropriate scenery chewing dialogue, but the film bogs down whenever Harry and friends make way with the primary screen time. I imagine that the sudden blooming of teenage lust as Harry and Company find themselves on the verge of graduating from childhood was much more appropriately fairy-tale in the books than in the film, which stoops to the most unfunny of teen-movie tropes to make its points.

What we have in the story of the Half-Blood Prince is a pivotal turning point in any young person's life - the point at which childhood must end, when mentors and adults must inevitably be insufficient, and we must learn to make our own way in the world: facing for ourselves all the trials, wonderfulness and danger of both love and death, loyalty and courage, leadership and allegiance. Facing them finally without the teachers who have gotten us to the verge of adulthood.

This is a profound and unique time in anybody's life, but unfortunately, The Half-Blood Prince fails to capture the dramatic feeling of such a moment. Instead, we get excerpts of other summer movies, long episodes of comical lust, and short scenes of confrontation that should have been pivotal instead of thrown-off.

Yates does a great job of making the visuals ever fascinating, and of revealing what we'll need to know for the final treasure hunt and battle. But as for explaining the feeling of the film - and what I imagine was the underlying appeal of the books - I'm afraid this movie rings hollow.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moon Movie Makes Dramatic Landing

If it’s starting to feel like you’ve seen Mr. Potter and his wand doing the same adolescent battle against the forces of boarding-house mischief a few too many times, you may want to instead check out a tiny sci-fi film called Moon, staring Sam Rockwell as a mining engineer spending a long-term assignment isolated on the far side of the moon.

Moon - a simple movie plainly made without the massive effects budgets of the Harry Potter franchise and other summer blockbusters - clearly relies on the cleverness of its story and the acting talents of Rockwell (and Kevin Spacey, as the voice of GERTY, the astronaut’s computer companion) to deliver its thrills. Moon is much more the inheritor of a Stanley Kubrick sensibility, bringing his 2001-moon-base commercialism into the world of the mid twenty-first century.

The movie in fact opens with a commercial for the moon energy of “Helium 3” with so practiced a corporate tone of anonymity that many in theater thought they were still watching the pre-film commercials, rather than the main attraction. This is the first hint that the movie wants to play with what we think we know and what we think we’re watching: and it does so quite successfully.

For all apparent purposes, Rockwell’s astronaut, Sam Bell has been on the moon now for nearly three years, and is about to end his tour of duty. But the isolation is driving Sam a bit crazy - he misses his wife and young daughter terribly. There also seems to be some unexplained interference that has prevented real-time contact with earth all these years: all his communications come with a twenty-minute time delay.

That those communications have been oddly edited seems to escape his notice, and perhaps that’s due to his mental state - he is beginning to have hallucinations of a strange woman visiting his moon base, even standing outside on the moon in the middle of a hail of rocks from one of the Helium 3 harvesters.

To say much more about the plot would be to ruin the clever surprises. Let’s just say that one particular special effect plays a critical role in the movie, and it challenges Rockwell to create two identical but subtly different characters. The subtleties in the acting here are fabulous and – along with his turned out performance in Frost/Nixon – help establish Rockwell as one of the most interesting actors of our day.

The film has many touching moments – supported by Rockwell’s performance – that underscore the nature of humanity as it moves into frontiers of science. Bell is not a perfect man: he’s driven to bouts of anger and destruction, he’s reckless, and in the end, we can understand, as well as sympathize with, the situation he’s created for himself. In one of the final shots, as Sam stars up at the earth from his rover on the moon, it’s hard not to feel the longing he feels as the metaphor it’s intended to be: how our science has changed who we are, and made it impossible to touch the things we hold most dear. Like many sci-fi’s (think back to the Alien series), the movie casts a corporation in the role of bad guy; yet this movie also poses a deeper question about our own complicity, our own willingness to sell our soul, so to speak. That question is strongly hinted at in this film and I think it could have been a better movie had it been explored a bit more.

Yes, this is a movie with just one actor holding most of the screen time – a tour-de-force if you will – and yes, it does travel in stock sci-fi tropes (though it tweaks them nicely, particularly the AI played by Spacy). I wish the film had been able to spend a bit more time on Sam’s psychology and find a bit more resources to lavish upon the texture of the story – in the building of the sets and the composition of the scenes, which are mostly clever and serviceable yet don‘t all deliver the moment as well as, for example, Sam‘s ending stare at a distant blue Earth. This is a story that really could have benefited from the sorts of grandiose budgets and studio support visited upon the more “hit” driven childish fare of summer. But, sigh - the adults will take what morsels we can get.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Whatever Works" Works Beatifully

With over fifty films now to his name, Woody Allen has become as profligate as Shakespeare ever was. Like Shakespeare, Allen comes out with a new work regularly (seemingly whether inspired or not), and will probably not be remembered for his many more lightweight attempts (Hollywood Ending comes to mind). Also like Shakespeare, Allan's work can be broadly divided into tragedies (Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point) and comedies (Annie Hall, Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Celebrity, Proof) which treat the same subjects as the tragedies, only with a comedic rather than tragic outlook (with the one exception being Melinda/Melinda, which is a tragedy and comedy in a single movie).

In Whatever Works - a definitive comedy in the Allen oeuvre - Allen takes his standard existentialist, crank husband from Husband and Wives, Small Time Crooks, Deconstructing Harry, Manhattan, etc., and this time distills the character into a pure representation of existential dread in the form of the totally misanthropic and unlikeable Larry David (playing a cantankerous professor and self-professed geniuous of quantum mechanics, Boris Yelllnikoff, who was "nearly nominated" for a Nobel prize).

The story is wrapped in a story (the movie opens with Yellnikoff and his buddies chatting outside a Manhattan bakery, where they address the camera to tell Tellnikoff's story). One day Boris realizes that his beautiful Upper East Side apartment and intelligent Upper East Side wife are completely meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and decides to throw himself out the window. His suicide is foiled by an awning, and he ends up transporting his miserable existence to a basement apartment apparently in some fictional remaining "untrendy" district of Manhattan somewhere (though the '70's and '80's Woody Allen seemed synonymous to New York, but ever since the movie Celebrity in 1998 - a movie in which Woody Allen essentially confessed that his life bore no relationship to ordinary mortals who might inhabit the city - Allen's Manhattan has seemed increasingly disconnected from the city I know, even as he clearly still knows certain key details intimately: the way an alien who's made a career studying this elusive isle might see it).

What happens next is essentially a sketch of the Woody Allen/Soon Yi Previn story that has permeated most of the romantic story lines in Allen's movies since his marriage in '97: an extremely young (in this case Southern) ingenue, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (played by Evan Rachel Wood) falls into Boris's lap, and eventually the girl realizes that she loves the smart but crazy old coot and woos the insufferable Boris into marrying her. Of course, Allen has a way of complicating such relationships with other minor characters - in this case, Melodie's holy-rolling mother (Patricia Clarkson) and father (Ed Begley Jr.), who individually come to New York seeking out their daughter only to find their religious Southern rigidities swept away by the magic that is this city of dreams.

As I said, the story is a mere sketch - Allen at this point merely needs to signal the character types and quickly gets to making over his Southern caricatures into fully blossomed New Yorkers, replete with multiple sex partners, art installations, and brand new neuroses. But on this sketch Allen hangs some of his best one-liners and insights in a decade, and the movie turns out to be a real pleasure.

In a way, it's as if Allen spent the Bush years oversees in England, and now that Obama's in office, he's decided it's safe to come back to New York: but in picking up the New York Times, has found himself depressed and in despair at the stupidity and mindlessness that has become our national politics (Boris introduces his theory of existentialism by basically explaining that anyone who simply reads the New York Times every day can't help but conclude that human beings are miserable fools and the world is meaningless.)

But Boris guides us - his audience - through the transformation of the mindless drones who come to intersect his life into passable human beings, providing wonderfully poised insight ("she was like one of those white, Mormon, perfectly poised young men who suddenly grab a riffle one day and start shooting everyone in sight from a tower...only with sex.") along with his brilliant comic touches ("Why don't you listen to Beethoven, it's like fate knocking." Followed by a knock at the door in time with the music, to introduce us to Melodie's mother.)

He also seems to have finally caught on to a bit of the zeitgeist of the times again, lampooning both the prevailing pomposity of right-wing sexual rigidity and the cantankerous pessimism of the besieged intelligentsia.

As good as it is, however, this isn't a genius movie like Annie Hall or Bullets Over Broadway. The filmmaking seems rushed - Allen should have rehearsed his actors more, and many of the scenes needed a second or third take. And in a way, the distilled existentialism we get in the end is really a bit sophomoric, compared with his greater works. Allen seems to be the only 70-year-old existentialist writing movies today, when everyone else has moved on to either pure nihilism (i.e., the Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez school), or traditional Aristotelian tragedy and conveyed meaning (cum Michael Mann, David Fincher, or Ron Howard). That gives this movie a kind of quaint feel, like a French New Wave Cinema piece for the Obama era - which seems to be the kind of smaller gesture Allen has been going for in his movies lately.

That he's decided to minimize his ambitions, however, doesn't mean that Allen doesn't have the writing/directing chops to still give us a minor classic, like he does here. The one issue that hangs over the movie, though, is the ending - which never ties us back to the opening timeline and thus leaves us hanging on an essential question: is the happiness and acceptance that Boris finds at the end an attitude that he realizes after his suicidal despair at the beginning, or just a prelude to his eventual return to the suicidal despair of the introduction? Allen's existential answer seems to be that it doesn't matter, since every feeling is temporary anyway.

That's a bit sloppy, but hey - whatever works.

Bruno Breaks Barriers: Including Taste

(but read review first - it's not for everyone.)

Once more into the breech, my dear Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of "Da Ali G Show" and 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Once more Cohen has taken a character from his show - a strange foreign fellow with flagrant cultural insensitivities - and brought him to America to make fun of the local fauna. This time, instead of an oafish, boorish exhibitionist anti-Semite with a mangled middle-Asian accent, he's created a mincing, gay-pride-parade stereotype Austrian fashion plate who wants to be "more famous than Hitler" (and has a mangled Teutonic accent.)

Some people will call this the worst movie ever, but that's only because sometimes great comic catharsis is perilously close to travesty - and this is one of those times. But there is brilliance in Brüno's formula. I give any recommendation to see this movie with a grain of salt: it is not for the weak of heart, or the easily shocked.

Yes, the formula here is the same as Borat. But this time the character is more complex, tweaking multiple sensitivities at once (including celebrity culture, homophobia, racial political correctness, and middle-eastern politics). Brüno is a myopically narcissistic fame-seeking celebrophile - so naturally, he starts his hunt for his prey in Los Angeles, where he bags some real celebrities (like "American Idol"'s Paula Abdul, who falls prey to a twistedly brilliant gag involving naked Mexicans posing as furniture). Easy pickings: they fall for the gag and reveal their own flagrant narcissism. Only this time, Cohen adds a second level of humor that also works in reverse: while he cozies up to celebrities the way that Borat cozies up to nascent anti-Semites, Brüno also effectively breaks down cultural homophobic taboos by flaunting his outrageous stereotype in the face of unsuspecting politicians (Ron Paul), southerners, and other fish in a barrel in order to provoke outrage, scorn, derision - and at times, violence.

This is dangerous comedy - pointedly so, since five uniformed police officers were guarding the theater when I went in the door (either there to keep out the underage, or hired by Baron Cohen's publicist, it's hard to tell). And I know this movie isn't for everyone - there are people who will adamantly refuse to see it, and that's fine - but for the folks in the theater, the uneasy laughter at Cohen's gags was a highly vocal combination of shock, outrage, and uncontrollable laughter. This is comedy shock-therapy for our politically correct generation, and Cohen holds, shall we say, absolutely nothing back - including his dancing penis.

Did I say dancing penis? In any other movie (I think back to Year One), that might be a simple Borscht-Belt sight gag: here, it's a witty, shocking deconstruction of - well, whatever assumed prejudice that Cohen is deconstructing at the moment (in that particular scene I think it had something to do with the obsequious blandness produced by focus-group-testing American TV broadcasting). The gags go on from there, including everything from fondling Congressman Ron Paul in a hotel bedroom to a simulated mid-seance blow-job to showing pictures of a black baby in a hot tub of men having sex in front of an outraged African-American studio audience and then doubling-down on the gag by saying he's given the baby a proud African name: "O.J."

Why the movie is hilarious (and also so disconcerting) is that Cohen has a brilliant sense of just where our sexual, racial, and economic boundaries are - and he doesn't just want to tweak them, he wants to blast right through them shouting from the rooftops. In an age where we've come to delude ourselves that we have no more prejudices, that we can all get along, and that "alternative" culture is the mainstream, Cohen is there to tell us quite pointedly what hypocrites we are: we have boundaries, stupid...and while we're laughing at the rednecks who are so easily riled into violence at two men kissing, we're also laughing at our own shock at Brüno's easy homophobic caricature. Yes, we ask ourselves, should we be watching this? Is this stuff "good for us"? Will some people not get the joke, seeing in Cohen's character only a silly faggot to laugh at? Cohen makes us uncomfortable for feeling uncomfortable, and for laughing in a crowd where we have no idea whether others are laughing with us or at us, and why.

In a way, then, what Cohen has produced with Brüno is an updated Rocky Horror Picture Show, with real people playing the seduced nerd roles of Brad and Janet, and a new generation of a cooler, more multicultural audience laughing in participation. Brüno goes much farther than Frank N' Furter did in his day, but he's no less the tragic idealistic sexual dreamer, looking for a world of hung-up stiffs to deflower. He does it memorably and with the kind of shockingly powerful comic release that I probably haven't experienced since the first time I saw Frankie, Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia do the Time Warp in 1978, back at the Grandview theater in Columbus, Ohio. If you can stomach this kind of thing, and really want to be taken to the edge, it's best to experience it with a crowd.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Enemies: Once Again, Gangsters With a Heart

Released as the summer’s high-brow alternative to dumbass comedies such as Year One and kiddy blockbusters like Transformers, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies makes a valiant attempt to deliver first-class entertainment to the content-starved summer moviegoer. Even though I think it largely falls short of that goal, it’s worth keeping on your radar for a future DVD release.

The film boasts an array of talented stars giving studiously crafted performances - Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor. The story works valiantly to create a Screnwriting-text approved plot, with nice parallelism being John Dillinger (Depp) and his criminal buddies and special Agent Melvin Purvis (Bale) and his boss J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup), who share more than a love of adventure, need for public adoration, and grandiose self-image with their criminal counterparts as Hoover‘s G-Men attempt to round up the annoying bank robbers who, along with their organized crime buddies, seem to be the only high-rollers around during the bleak 1930‘s. And the direction focuses in on key moments - a casual arrest at the Motel Congress in Tucson or a protracted shoot-out at a Wisconsin motel - to delve deeper into the tensions and tribulations of the warring parties. So there's a lot going for this film, and I was rooting for it to deliver.

And the movie certainly wants to be taken seriously. Public Enemies relies heavily on the first word in its title for its theme. The first bank robbery we see, Dillinger leaves the customer’s money and rides away from the robbery with a bevy of hostages who are more titillated by the adventure than scared. He’s a robber who’s more concerned with maintaining his popular public image than with increasing his profit margins. Yet have no illusions: this Robin Hood robs from the rich and keeps it for himself. When he begins an affair with the pure-hearted-but-spunky coat-check girl (Cotillard), you know that it’s his heart that will ultimately get him in trouble.

The same applies for Bale’s Purvis, a can-do field agent who we first see chasing down Pretty Boy Floyd through the woods of Indiana. Purvis gets his man, and does it with no nonsense; yet his boss, J. Edgar, rivals Dillinger for his love of the public spotlight, which can leave Purvis feeling, at times, compromised. And even if Purvis is fearless for his own safety, he will hesitate, it seems, when it comes to the life of his men.

Which of these two - Dillinger or Purvis - will overcome their Achilles heel first to out-tough the other is something of a predetermined question, if we know anything at all about history. So the enjoyment in this film needs to be in the ride of how we get there, and what we learn along the way. The best thing going here is the art direction, which re-creates 1930's culture with such assiduous and continuously enjoyable detail: whether it be the keystone-cops quality to the armed infantrymen guarding Dillinger’s cell or the tins of tuna that supply Dillinger’s sojourns in safe-houses in rural Indiana, the atmosphere of the film is deliciously authentic, and adds to right touch of brightness and macho posturing to the perilous sensibility of the 1930's. The film is at it's best when it's visually explaining the contradictions of this time: the descent of decent folk into an era of poverty and spectacular criminality, all while preserving a veneer of civilization. Incidental radio programs of citizens complaining of ineffectual government; the delicious thrill of Hoover’s Movietones asking the cinema audience to obliviously “look left” and “look right” to spot the “most wanted” even while Dillinger is sitting, hiding in plain view in their midst.

Yet despite all the promise, some mysterious ingredient never quite catches hold, and the film never becomes more than the sum of its parts. Certainly part of this may simply be that the loveable gangster meme has been pretty well exhausted in popular culture. From Bonnie and Clyde through to the Sopranos, there’s rather little new here in portrayal of John Dillinger as a raffish criminal touched with bouts of charity and sentimentality, and whose fate as the country‘s most notorious criminal is destined to catch up to him. Even with great performance, fascinating art direction, and a competent screenplay, there’re too many saggy sections of the film, which could have been trimmed by at least twenty minutes.

For all the firearms and fuss, we get barely more insight into what makes Dillinger tick than a short scene where he walks unnoticed into the very FBI office that’s tracking him, looking at the FBI stakeout pictures of himself while he goes unnoticed to the Feds in the room. The irony here is delicious, but preciously thin for a movie that asks us to take it so seriously.

The movie may be worth a go - especially in the waning days of summer when there's precious little else of substance - but ultimately, who Dillinger is and why he’s driven to the limelight remains at least as mysterious as, say, our own celebrity contemporaries, and what we end up learning about him pales in comparison to what we already know about our own public oddities: like, for instance, Michael Jackson.