Monday, April 23, 2007

DeCaprio is Back In the Running with Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond is a terrific bit of genre entertainment from Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, The Siege, and the somewhat laughable Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai. However, if you are looking for a serious treatment of controversial subject matter—illegal slave labor diamond mining in South Africa—this may not be the movie for you. Blood Diamond isn’t so much a political drama with action sequences (even if Zwick believes that’s what he’s making) as an action thriller with a convenient political backdrop to lend it some urgency and gravitas. It’s a movie, after all, and if Syriana is anything to go by—which was so utterly incomprehensible critics had no choice but to praise it—then politics and cinema simply don’t mix. Blood Diamond is considerably more poignant and moving than your average action thriller, however, and this is mostly due to Leonardo DeCaprio giving his first grown-up performance, as the embittered, hardened, and resourceful diamond smuggler Danny Archer.

In his earliest roles—the young retard in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Robert DeNiro’s battered son in This Boy’s Life, The Basketball Diaries, The Quick and the Dead, and as the young Rimbaud in Total Eclipse—DeCaprio was shaping up to be one of the most exciting actors since the young Robert DeNiro. But then something went wrong. He became a megastar with Titanic and got all buffed up for The Beach, and with his thick neck and his small round head, his Dr. Spock eyebrows and pallid skin, he began to look like he’d got stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. As a result, he seemed miscast in the adult roles he was given (most of all as Howard Hughes), as if the qualities that made him such a mesmerizing actor as an adolescent made him almost uncastable as an adult. In his work for Scorsese especially (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed), he seemed to lack any substance or weight as an a actor, and he was a negligible presence. (The exception was Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, in which DeCaprio’s guilelessness and elfin features—his apparent immaturity—fitted well enough with the Walter Mitty-ish role.)

For Blood Diamond, DeCaprio assumes a thick, rather endearing South African accent and gives an impressive performance of contained intensity and depth. For the first time since those early roles, he seems to be tapping the reserves of his talent. If in his last few performances he seemed to be coasting, here he has apparently come to full attention. All of a sudden his acting is full of surprises—of small, almost throwaway touches, the kind of moments that create a fully formed, deeply affecting character. With this role, DeCaprio has rediscovered his instinct for acting—so formidable in those early roles—and with it his passion. Without him, Blood Diamond would be a so-so political thriller; with him, it’s something more poignant and memorable.

Jennifer Connelly doesn’t fare quite so well, alas, in an underwritten part as the conscience-driven journalist. In her early scenes, Connelly is poorly directed and too heavily made up (beauty like this doesn’t need make up); she appears to be overplaying to compensate for the lack of a character, and for some unfathomable reason she is practically salivating over DeCaprio. Later, she is more contained, and has some affecting moments. She does the best she can with this earnest, two-dimensional role, that of the dedicated journalist/free spirit torn between conscience and ambition.

The main role really belongs to Djimon Hounsou as the noble black man trying to find his family, and Hounsou’s Solomon is a powerful presence, the heart of the film. As an actor, he’s the ideal complementary presence for DeCaprio’s edgy, ruthless egotism, and together they make the most unlikely (and touching) of friendships. This is all familiar stuff, of course, and besides the performances and the political back story, there’s nothing really new about Blood Diamond—just another blood thriller dressed up as a tale of government corruption and personal redemption. But it’s an exemplary model—a muscular action movie with heart (if not brains) as well as brawn.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New Movie Posts: The Proposition, Bobby, The Good Shepherd, Borat, Thank You For Smoking

The Proposition is a very nicely shot, well-cast (Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, John Hurt, Danny Huston), but finally uninvolving little gothic Western written by Nick Cave. It is also yet another movie that was absurdly overpraised. Cave currently enjoys the dubious luxury of not being able to take a wrong step with critics - the surest recipe for artistic complacency and stagnation - and it's Cave's script that lets the film down. Admittedly, Cave has come up with a good, archetypal story (a criminal is sent to kill his brother in exchange for freedom), but he doesn't appear to be interested in writing real characters we can sympathize with, or even believe in. The dialogue is functional at best, at worst pretentious and heavy-handed. Cave's presence is felt throughout every scene and every line, and it feels like an intrusion. His penchant for murder, darkness, and quasi-Biblical subtexts works fine when it's the backdrop for Gothic ballads, but here it just seems indulgent, slightly sophomoric. Though it looks beautiful, The Proposition doesn't really amount to much, not least because the film - Cave's script - is so full of itself. It parades its "deeper" meanings and existential violence like some whiskey-soaked barfly trying to be deep but only succeeding in being annoying. The Proposition is somehow smug and self-enamored, and it has a kind of arrogance - it never bothers to develop its themes or characters or bring them to life. When all the blood and thunder is over, however much we may be impressed by the spectcale (critics bought Cave's malarky hook, line, and sinker), we really couldn't give a damn.

Bobby. One of the best things I have seen recently, Emilio Estevez's film came as a real surprise. It takes place on a single day leading up to Bobby Kennedy's assassination, in the hotel where it occurred. An ensemble piece with a great cast (Sharon Stone, Christian Slater, Anthony Hopkins, Demi More, Estevez, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Laurence Fishburne, and some impressive, lesser-known actors), Estevez (who also wrote the script) directs with sensitivity and assurance and a remarkable lightness of touch. Estevez's real gift is his empathy for his characters (and for the actors playing them), and it's hard to think of another recent movie so completely and effortlessly populated with living, breathing people. The film deftly aspires to Altman-style ensemble, and though it never quite rises above the level of slick and proficient filmmaking, it's an amazing achievement nonetheless. Every scene offers unexpected pleasures, and every performance seems to crackle with the joy of acting (with the possible exception of Estevez and Anthony Hopkins, neither of whom do much new here). The scenes are woven together brilliantly, into a seamless and flawlessly entertaining tapestry of human lives. The individual moments - engrossing when taken apart - build towards a devastating climax in which, against all odds, Estevez manages to make us feel the event as a bona fide tragedy. Rightly or wrongly, he creates the powerful sense of a more innocent, idealistic time in which the corruptability of leaders was not a given and optimism was not synonymous with naivete. And he gives us, free from the cynical/ironic distance of most movies today (vide The Proposition), the death of hope. (The heavy-handedness of Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" here may be the film's only real wrong step, however.) In its own far humbler (and consequently more affecting) fashion, Bobby stands as a worthy companion piece to Stone's JFK. Not a masterpiece, but an almost perfect gem, a tiny work of art that is all the more impressive for being so unassuming.

The reviews for The Good Shepherd (in the UK) were almost unanimously damning in roughly the same terms, that the main character (Matt Damon) was a lifeless cypher and the movie was long-winded, meandering, and dull. All pretty much true, but lugubrious as it is, Robert DeNiro's film is still just about worth a look, not least for its early Skull & Bones initiation scenes and some fairly convincing snapshots of the inner workings of the CIA. It's half a good movie that never quite comes together and goes on way too long. But it's no worse than a lot of other 2006 movies that got praised to the skies.

Borat was one of the biggest moneymakers of last year and I suppose the time had come for a tacky, raucous, tasteless and politically incorrect third world comedy. Borat is certainly all those things, but it's not really that funny - in fact, it's kind of annoying. Like Clerks, it's an example of raw, amateurish and basically crude filmmaking that was lucky enough to coincide with what audiences wanted, and subsequently soared to heights of success far beyond any actual merits the film possessed.

Thank You For Not Smoking
Very entertaining little social satire, carried by Aaron Eckhart in a career-topping role, with some mildly subversive insights and a good supporting cast (Maria Bello, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, Sam Eliott, that annoying kid from Birth and all those other bad movies). It skillfully walks the tightrope of its subject matter - a protagonist whose job is to put a good spin on cigarettes and who is basically a scumbag, but whose charm is irresistable - and manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of pastiche and pass for a semi-realistic character tale. Recommended.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Stop Making Sense
Stranger Than Fiction and the Question of Creative Responsibility

Stranger Than Fiction is a perfect film with one tiny flaw: it doesn’t actually make sense. But such flagrant disregard for narrative logic is inseparable from the film’s charm, and whether directly inspired by Charlie Kaufman’s cinema of self-analysis, it’s probably safe to say that the film wouldn’t exist without Kaufman’s precedent for non-linear, anti-logic meta-narratives. Stranger Than Fiction is less lacerating in its wit and less dark and scabrous in its insights than Kaufman, but considerably more affecting. It’s also closer to perfection as a post-millennial, pre-apocalypse schizophrenic romantic comedy, and confirms that the schizo comedy more or less invented by Kaufman (after some early flirtations by Woody Allen) is the natural evolution of the rom-com genre. Current times are far too precarious for a simple “boy-meets-girl” scenario to adequately distract us from our collective anxieties anymore.

Reflecting what amounts to a global identity crisis, the film is populated by semi-functional lost souls doing what they can to keep their heads above the waters of despair. An OCD IRS worker (Will Ferrell) falls in love with a tattooed Harvard drop-out and failed revolutionary, resigned to baking cookies for a better world (the ever-enrapturing Maggie Gyllenhaal); an acclaimed author and suicide manqué suffers from guilt and uncertainty over her literary gift and her wont for killing off characters (a deglamorized Emma Thompson is the tortured soul of the film); a literature professor for whom books are more real than people (another terrific turn by Dustin Hoffman, well on his way to career resurrection in offbeat supporting comedy roles). All characters in search of something if only they knew what, who have taken refuge in their routines in order to survive. Such eccentric characters are perfectly at home in what amounts to a self-reflective, self-referential, meta-comedy, in which fictional beings grasp to be real.

Stranger Than Fiction concerns a character in a novel who realizes that he is part of a fictional narrative and attempts to break out of the story (the inevitability of his own death) and meet his maker. The moment he does, he becomes a character in her life, which thereby becomes fiction—the movie we are seeing. It was impossible for me not to try and figure out if Stranger Than Fiction made sense, even while I was engaged in the blissful act of watching it. Fortunately, it was equally impossible to decide with any certainty, and in the end I realized it didn’t really matter much. Since we don’t have the opportunity to read the novel that Katherine Eiffel is writing, we can’t know how much of the protagonist’s life (i.e., the movie) is already captured by her fiction. Logically, however, the movie cannot really cohere, since Harold Crick (named after one of the inventors of DNA?), by finding out that a novel is being written about his life, would surely change the fiction’s trajectory entirely. He hears the author narrating his life, for example, but he doesn’t hear a narration about his hearing the narration, as would presumably be the case, within the (apparent) logic of the movie. Such an idea would force the story to replicate ad infinitum, spinning worlds within worlds, fictions within fictions, mirrors inside mirrors—a reflective universe in which there would be, finally, no object to be reflected.

Stranger Than Fiction shies away from the giddier and more psychedelic implications; wisely but also perhaps timidly, it does not venture where shamans and schizophrenics are compelled to tread, staying instead on the safer (and sweeter) ground of life-affirming (and death-defeating) romantic comedy. It flirts with tragedy, but never dares to consummate. It dips its toes into the dark waters of madness, but never plunges in. What makes Stranger Than Fiction different from other feel-good movies is that it actually earns our good feelings. It doesn’t sell itself short to please us. It’s eccentric and unique enough to create a sense of uncertainty as to where it’s going, and the resulting tension—the sense of the unexpected and the feeling that anything can happen—creates a fair imitation both our own lives and of Crick’s particular terror of losing control. As with Kaufman, almost every line in the film comes as a surprise; the scenes keep us guessing and the film seems fresh, uncalculated, uncontrived, effortless. The energy and lightness of Marc Forster’s direction, and the playful ingenuity of Zach Helm’s script, give the impression that the filmmakers are surprising even themselves. The film crackles with laughter and pathos, the laughs are easy and grateful, the tears sweet and unsullied by sentimentality. The beautiful irony of Stranger Than Fiction is that, by making Crick semi-fictional within his own life, he comes to seem far more real than most movie protagonists ever do. I think it's the best film of 2006.

The film is so breezily anarchic that there is even some doubt whether it will wind up as a tragedy (the IRS man might have to die for his sins). One of the touching quirks of the movie (and of Will Ferrell’s pitch-perfect performance) is that the “soulless” civil servant is the most innocent and endearing character in the film, while it is the tormented artist-writer whose soul is in jeopardy. When Eiffel discovers her character is a living, breathing person—not merely the concatenation of her genius—she is forced to face up to a new and disturbing sense of responsibility. The question arises: as a “creator,” is being true to her tale necessarily “right” for the character in it? This is not exactly a moral question; it goes deeper than mere morality, which after all entails ordinary human relations within an ordinary social context. Stranger Than Fiction raises the question of a God who lacks compassion for its creations, forced to face up to her own conscience by those same creations. Perhaps s/he even became a creator in the first place in order to learn such compassion? By her decision to abandon the necessary ruthlessness of tragedy and let Harold live, Eiffel may become a “lesser” (i.e. less-obsessed) writer, but she becomes a better person. She has learned that there is more to real fiction than taking lives, that there is a time for mercy as well as sacrifice. As any creator worth her salt knows, there is no tragedy without comedy, no laughter without tears.