Friday, February 08, 2008

2007 Spills Over And Over And Over...

Yeah, I know it's February 2008, but it always takes a few months to catch up on the previous year's film releases so bear with me. Some are only now making it to my area theatrically and every few days NetFlix envelopes arrive with films from the tail-end of 2007 so I'm gradually catching up. Here's what I've been seeing starting with a few movies I just recently viewed on the big screen:

THE SAVAGES (Dir. Tamara Jenkins, 2007)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are two siblings (Jon and Wendy Savage - hence the not so subtle title) who have to deal with their father's (Phillip Bosco) worsening dementia in this almost too real to life film that hurts so good. I felt like a voyeur watching this at times because the situations come from such personal places.

Early on Linney and Hoffman are established as liars - to themselves and everyone around them. Both have literary aspirations - Hoffman is a Professor with a Doctorate and author of obscure books on obscure topics; Linney is an aspiring playwright so you can see where they might competitively clash. Hoffman and Linney have to travel from New York to Pop's place in Arizona to figure out what to do about their father's housing. Bosco is foul mouthed and forgetful (he mistakes his new nursing home for a hotel) so our brother and sister duo have more on their plate than their already exasperated lives will allow.

In a movie full of great natural-feeling moments, Gbenga Akinnagbe as a caretaker steals some vital screen time and as Hoffman and Linney's respective lovers Cara Seymour and Peter Friedman fill out the great but spare cast. Tamara Jenkin's first film - the underrated late '90s SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS, as much as I hate using the phrase, showed promise but surprisingly not as much as this film delivers.

"Maybe dad didn't abandon us. Maybe he just forgot who we were" Linney says at one point and you can feel every syllable - not a single one of them phony or feeling like they exist only in a "movie" world. Hoffman and Linney are both top notch actors and they never falter here (this could be very well adapted to a great 2 person play); both deserve nominations (this should have been what Hoffman got a Oscar nomination for - not CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR).

Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay, has a smooth assured directorial style and that's impressive with such rocky neurotic material. If I had seen it sooner THE SAVAGES may have made my top ten of 2007 but now I don't want to knock anything off. Still it's in my ongoing spillover and one I urge you to seek out. This is one of those slices of life that really cuts.

(Dir. Julien Schnabel, 2007)

A few weeks back at the DGA Awards actress Sean Young (BLADE RUNNER, NO WAY OUT) heckled director Julien Schnabel when he took the stage because she thought he was taking too long to get to his remarks regarding his best director nomination for this film. “Come on - get to it!” she yelled, “have another cocktail!” he replied before walking off. Nobody could rightly yell at the screen for this movie to “get to it” because it immediately gets there with its premise, with its visuals, and with its remarkable sense of purpose.

The premise: Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalricis) is paralysed after a stroke and can only communicate by blinking one eyelid. In this locked-in syndrome he is surrounded by women - his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), his therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) who devised the one-eye communication method, his mistress (Agatha de la Fontaine), and a few pretty nurses (incuding Schnabel’s wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia) so he at least is never at a loss for beauty.

We are never at a loss for beauty either - even though the first 10 minutes or so are a bit disorienting (images are seen through Bauby’s blinks) once one gets accustomed to the style the film is as engaging and colorful as one could desire.

It is funny that to fully appreciate and understand the title one has to see the film (or read the book), in other words it would be a spoiler to tell you what the title means so I won’t go there. There are many flashbacks, which are seemlessly stitched into the film's fabric, so we see Bauby in better days. We get insight into his character, or lack of character when you consider the mistress, and get a great extended cameo by the legendary Max von Sydow as his stern cranky father.

I got lost in this movie in its last third in the best possible manner - swept up in the notions of splendor one can only fully visualize from a state of confinement. Reportedly Johnny Depp was originally going to portray Bauby. I’m so glad that didn't happen (he had PIRATES commitments apparently) for Depp's ginormous star presence would have surely distracted from the real show. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is another candidate for 2007 spillover and a gorgeous experience that one doesn't need “another cocktail” to get to.

And now some new release DVDS:


Despite some good word of mouth in its theatrical release last fall this got majorly overlooked – even in the nonsensical “is the Western still alive?” debate that some critics indulged in. At the year's end it made a number of top ten lists and recently garnered Academy Award nominations for Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck) so wider interest in it will be sure to spread. 

This film absolutely deserves a bigger audience for it’s a great movie; it’s powerful as well as subtly moving and comes off as a true story, which it is, and a tall-tale at the same time. A gaunt Brad Pitt is the infamous outlaw Jesse James - a notorious bank robber, bloody murderer, and "legendary figure of the Wild West" (as Wikipedia puts it). 

As a timid awkward newbie to the James Gang, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) longs after some of that legend glory and posits himself in the line for history by...uh...just reread the title - I guess I don't have to worry about spoilers here! The film could as well be titled “The Last Days Of The James Gang” for over its 2 hour and 40 minute running time the other members (including Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, and Paul Schneider) get a lot of screen time and their all fates intertwine with those of the two title characters. 

There is a large chunk of the film that Affleck is absent from as we learn family backgrounds and the score on deadly set-ups past and future. Pitt, understated with a persona drenched clean of razzle dazzle, is the best I've ever seen him - not a second of actorly digression. Casey Affleck once again makes the case that he's the Affleck brother that should be in front of the camera as his Ford progressively seethes from within - outwardly idolizing yet quietly despising the aloof but intense James. 

As I said before this was nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography and it definitely deserves to win. Roger Deakins' (also nominated for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) work here is exquisite - every single shot is beautiful whether they are of open terrains, spare wooden house sets, or the snow covered woods where a body could be dumped and not found for many seasons.

Affleck also deserves his nomination but I doubt he'll get the gold (I'll refrain from Oscar predictions just yet) - overall the entire cast is well chosen with Sam Shepherd as James' brother Frank James, Mary-Louise Parker (who barely has any lines but a great screaming and sobbing scene) as James's wife, and the previously mentioned Rockwell in a manically precise part as Robert Ford's brother Charlie - see how 'in the family' this all is? 

In my review of 3:10 TO YUMA last September about the fate of the modern western I said that "it’s a genre that will never die". Great sprawling masterworks like Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD make me re-affirm that statement. 

(Dir. Seth Gordon, 2007)

“Out of the entire global classic gaming hobby, there's one significant rivalry that's equivalent to the big rivalries in history: Yankees/Red Sox, Maris/Mantle, Heckle and Jeckle...all the big rivalries in history you know? This is up there on that level.” - Walter Day (founder of Twin Galaxies, an international organization that tracks high-score statistics for the worldwide electronic video gaming hobby - thanks again Wikipedia!).


One thing is certain, if you watch this film you will come to know 2 names very well: Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe (pictured above). Billy Mitchell (pictured on the left below) who has been called the "greatest arcade-video-game player of all time" and is documented in the Guinness Book of World Records for his high score on the old school 80's classic Donkey Kong. Wiebe is his competitor - a failed baseballer, grunge musician, laid-off from Boeing surbananite who took to his personal in the garage Donkey Kong machine as a time killer when out of work and just happened to beat Mitchell's score. 

After many of Mitchell's minions doubt the validity of Wiebe's score self appointed records keeper turned gamer referee Walter Day invites him to prove his skills "live" - that is, at a public venue (one of the last standing arcades - Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire). This is where the tensions rise - Mitchell sends a videotape that shows a game that tops Wiebe's score. 

Mitchell is a no-show for a "live" showdown but is constantly monitoring his competition from his phone while Wiebe lives up the the challenge and continues to play on the spot. More such devious developments occur as we wonder if a real confrontation is in the cards.

For somebody who isn't a gamer and had no idea of this outdated videogame subculture I was really riveted by this production. It's the best kind of documentary - one that invites you in to a world that you've never known, introduces you to folks you end up really caring about, and leaves you with the passion and pathos of every day life from an angle that feels fresh as well as very funny.

Maybe this film too simplistically casts Billy Mitchell as the conniving villain and Steve Wiebe as the innocent underdog hero but then again sometimes you've got to call 'em like you see 'em. 

The DVD is essential because the bonus material is not of the disposable variety - there are many vital extras including Q & A sessions from film screenings, a lot of crucial cut footage, and most importantly - updates on where the players competition stands now.

As one of the bonus features is called (in a STAR WARS scroll) "The Saga Continues" - the story is going on to this day with Mitchell and Wiebe still battling it out down to the Donkey Kong "Kill screen". One of the few documentaries ever where a sequel follow-up wouldn't just be justified; it would be greatly appreciated.

THE BRAVE ONE (Dir. Neil Jordan, 2007) 

The first ten minutes almost resemble a Meg Ryan rom-com set-up - a perky Jodie Foster with bedhead bangs is a New Yorker NPR-type radio personality madly in love with her fiance (Naveen Andrews) who looks like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel.

But since this is a Jodie Foster movie we know the track record set by PANIC ROOM and FLIGHTPLAN – the happiness will be short lived and we’ll soon see our heroine stressed and ferociously working her eyes’ worry lines in a mode one character calls “in lock down” (not quite like Bauby in THE DIVING BELL above mind you). She and her beau Andrews are assaulted in Central Park and he is beaten to death by three thugs – the type who only exist in the movies; they videotape the attack yelling lines like “are you ready for your close-up?!” 

Foster is in a coma for 3 weeks and wakes up to find her lover has been buried and her view of what she calls incredulously “the safest city on earth” is forever altered. She buys a gun illegally and becomes a Bernard Goetz (who of course is referenced) style vigilante killing a convenience store robber, a couple of thugs on the subway, and an evil murdering businessman. 

A sympathetic heart of gold cop played by Terrence Howard investigates the killings and obliviously becomes friends with Foster. Their conversations are the heart of the film with Foster and Howard playing at the top of their acting game – it’s just unfortunate that the film doesn’t have more soul. 

It’s hard for me not to think of TAXI DRIVER – the Scorsese/De Niro '70s classic that happened to have a 13 year old Foster as a prostitute (a role that got her a Best Supporting Actress Nomination - she didn't win but won later for Best Actress for THE ACCUSED). 

In THE BRAVE ONE Foster stalks the same mean streets that Travis Bickle did and she obviously would relate to the sentiment when he lamented: "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." Neil Jordan's (MONA LISA, THE CRYING GAME, THE BUTCHER BOY) direction is fluidly fine and it is a gutsy move for Foster to take on this female variation on DEATHWISH

Her fierce frightened performance provides plenty of grip but the play-out here is predictable and so is the ending. The combination of Fosters and Jordan's panache does help this rise above standard thriller status – it just doesn’t rise far enough up to ring that cinematic circus bell. 


BTW: This picture of Jodie Foster doing her take on Tippi Hedren in THE BIRDS from the recent Vanity Fair photo spread "Top Stars Recreate Hitchcock Moments" is better than anything in THE BRAVE ONE

More later...

1 comment:

janck said...

The Savages is something i really want to catch soon, this review confirms it !