Mandel Maven's Nest Flicks: Noir Night Out
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward and, since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
Kurt Brokaw, of The Independent, has corrected me that the proper nomenclature for contemporary films should be "neo noir".
A neo-noir of sex, blackmail, secrets under the TARP, and more could be spun just from this conversation I overheard between two young men at a testosterone-fueled matinee of the Film Forum's Nick Ray retrospective:
So I'm in a new relationship.
Where'd you meet her?
You mean that really happens? You can really go to Vegas and get laid? How'd you meet her?
I bumped into her on the Strip. She works for The Fed.
What's The Fed?
Umm, umm, umm. She analyses bank stuff. She has to go to Washington a lot lately. So she passes through New York. But I live like a bachelor the rest of the time.
Initials S.G. and Blow the Man Down. (5/20/2019)
Smaller and Smaller Circles (preview courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment) (2/27/2019)
State Like Sleep (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2018)
No Stone Unturned (seen at 2017 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival) (11/9/2017)
Sweet Virginia (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Pineapple (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Buster’s Mal Heart (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/11/2017)
The Cleaner (Cistic) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)
Marshland (La isla mínima) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)
Women Who Kill (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/28/2016)
Detour (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/11/2016)
The Ticket (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/2/2016)
Live Cargo (Note to Wire fans) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/1/2016)
Remember (My additional Commentary on the Jewish women.) (3/31/2016)
Night Train (Pociag) (revival seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)
Calvary (Notes: Additional pointed plays on stereotypes: Even as bitter barman Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt) hosts evenings of traditional jigs and reels, he is about to lose his house to foreclosure, complaining “How come the church never speaks out?” The younger, sycophantic Father Timothy (David Wilmot) is envious of the senior priest’s faith, who the daughter sardonically mocks as “the future of the Irish priesthood.” The African lover bitterly jokes sarcastically about assumptions of black virility.) (8/15/2014)
The German Doctor (Wakolda) (Useful supplements: Director Talk interview and Tablet Magazine visit to Bariloche.) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (5/2/2014)
Omar (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Director Talk interview is a useful supplement.) (2/21/2014)
An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)
The Project (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (see it with A Hijacking (Kapringen) (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (previewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (6/4/2013)
Bullhead (Rundskop) (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (1/3/2013)
Reportero (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: In people-on-the-street interviews, some readers do complain that the articles are too wordy. With the paper also going after corrupt enablers in the Mexican police and justice system, interviewees includes the justifiably nervous families of their staff.) (6/16/2012)
Naomi (Hitpartzut X) (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (11/21/2011)
Into the Abyss (previewed at 2011 DOC NYC Festival) (11/17/2011) (Note: On Death Row is the accompanying Investigation: Discovery TV mini-series, though “director’s cuts” are being screened at festivals.)
Incendiary: The Willingham Case (10/21/2011) (Notes: Correction—The “Death By Fire” episode of PBS’s Frontline was first broadcast 10/20/2010, and the website provides updated information on the case.)
Dreileben: Beats Being Dead (Etwas Besseres als den Tod), Don’t Follow Me Around (Komm mir nicht nach), One Minute of Darkness (Eine Minute Dunkel) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/11/2011)
Mesrine: Part 1 (Mesrine, L’instinct de mort Mesrine) and Part 2 (Mesrine, L’ennemi public no. 1) (previewed at 2009 Rendez-Vous with French Film at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (briefly reviewed in best of 2010 - scroll down) (1/9/2011)
Red Hill (11/5/2010)
Animal Kingdom (8/13/2010) (Notes: Is the family named Cody in tribute to Jimmy Cagney in Raoul Walsh's White Heat who also had a mother issue? To clarify, Joel Edgerton plays Baz Brown, the brothers' oldest friend who wants to spend more time with his wife and baby, and has found an easier way to get risky money, by day trading in the stock market. And Ben Mendelsohn is suitably creepy.)
Backyard (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/15/2010)
The Absence (L'absence) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York African Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center and African Film Festival) (4/20/2010)
Red Riding Trilogy – 1974; 1980; 1983 (previewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/5/2010) (Notes: To reflect Peace's shifting first-person viewpoints, each is filmed in a different style by a different director employing different cinematography. The documentary The Arbor, briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries, reflects the almost the exact same time and place.)
Fifty Dead Men (emendations coming after 2/21/2009) (8/21/2009)
Flame & Citron (Flammen & Citronen) (7/31/2009)
Brave Men (Galantuomini) briefly reviewed at 2009 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/5/2009)
Vegas: Based on a True Story (briefly reviewed at Part 3 Family Ties Around The World of 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)
The Mugger (El Asaltante) (briefly reviewed at 2009 Film Comments Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center (2/20/2009)
Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine) (3/14/2008) (emendations coming after 9/14/2008) (Note: Several scenes are like a cross between Control and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)
It Always Rains On Sunday (3/7/2008) (emendations coming here after 9/7/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Manda Bala (Send A Bullet) (8/17/2007)
Ghosts Of Cité Soleil (6/27/2007) (emendations coming after 12/27/2007) (Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist is very helpful to view as an introduction.)
The Bridesmaid (La Demoiselle D'honneur) (8/4/2006) (emendations coming here 2/4/2007)
Lucky Number Slevin at first seems like a humorous noir tribute like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang of mistaken identity before it harshly turns into V for Vendetta.
Telegraphed by a long prologue with the incredibly adorable kid from E. R. with the crinkly eyes Oliver Davis, the first half of the film is dominated by the simply wonderful chemistry between a dryly laconic Josh Hartnett (with the crinkly eyes), quite attractively draped in a very low rise towel for at least a third of the film, and Lucy Liu in her best role since TV's Ally McBeal. I'm not just biased that Liu grew up just down Queens Boulevard and went to the same high school as The Scion to admire that she plays an unusually smart cookie for a genre film who is always thinking while she's volubly flirting, even while distracted by what's under that towel. I would certainly look forward to the two co-starring as a talky team again, even as he towers over her by over a foot. When the screen goes black as they hit the sack, with not even an old Movie Code fireplace or wind-blowing curtains in sight, director Paul McGuigan uses how much we want to see them together to cleverly distract us in the story when they have a cute morning-after.
Morgan Freeman is ever wily, especially in arch monologues, but Sir Ben Kingsley grinds the film to a halt as "The Rabbi". Though he was so scary in Sexy Beast, he was similarly miscast in HBO's Mrs. Harris as a Jewish heavy, his "Rabbi" here is not just ludicrous in accent, plot and Talmudic rationalizations (it's usually British mysteries that enjoy the visual comedy of Hassidic criminals), but just seems like a desperate stretch to avoid the usual Italian or Russian mobster clichés.
Stanley Tucci doesn't get to play cop often and he sure seems to be enjoying gritty here. Mykelti Williams is almost unrecognizable, playing closer to his Forrest Gump character than his usual more recent wise acre cops. Robert Forster is a marvelous raconteur in a cameo monologue.
While bread crumbs are left throughout the film, especially through nagging little disrupters that at first seem like debut feature writer Jason Smilovic's script or continuity errors but turn out to be clues, the tone of the film changed quite abruptly as the bodies piled up, particularly those of characters we'd gotten to know. The audience fell into an uneasy silence, partly because you could literally hear people concentrating to follow the sudden plot twists. The ending, however, is surprisingly less cynical than usual for the genre. But then Hartnett's smile could melt any cynic.
While the cool opening credits recall classic Saul Bass, it doesn't live up to other film references, including Hitchcock's North by Northwest and various Bond movies. The discussion of L'il Abner's "Schmoo" seems too Pulp Fiction pop-culture referential, but I certainly will remember this film's definition of a Kansas City Shuffle if it's referred to in a future film.
The production design of each character's apartment and entrance hallways is amusingly garish, looking like Britain in the mod-'60's.
Some of the exterior shots do seem too obviously set in the fictional NYC of the other Bruce Willis with guns movie this year 16 Blocks that is really in Canada (odd that in promotional interviews the cast said they shot the film in Montreal whereas all the credits acknowledge Toronto and other places in Ontario).
The original trailer kept the mystery twists, but unfortunately the more recent ad campaign is giving too much away. (4/13/2006)
16 Blocks overcomes a strained plot and wincible use of an obvious Toronto as a ludicrously pretend New York City to be an involving thriller. It's like The Shield crossed with The Gauntlet set in a fictional Manhattan.
Our attention is kept rapt in the performances of an understated Bruce Willis and Mos Def. Compared to his flashy action roles in previous Richard Donner directed films, Willis's alcoholic, paunchy, gimpy cop is similar to Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire, particularly when you can see him thinking on his feet, such as in a very engaging hostage sequence with its ironic reference to Speed.
Mos Def, who has been good in small roles in such dramas as The Woodsman to Lackawanna Blues, makes his character an effective chameleon with a heart here instead of what could have potentially just been a bug-eyed comic motor mouth. His two essential explications of the plot fulcrum, however, are difficult to discern.
Even though we have seen some of these plot twists in other movies, the snappy editing and music help build up tension encased in a temporal and geographical countdown. Donner effectively keeps a quiet background to the exchanges between Def and Willis, as their relationship raises this from a conventional action movie, almost bringing it to the level of another corrupt cop morality tale about doing the right thing, Training Day.
David Morse has played a lot of villains lately, but he's snarkily silver-tongued here, even if his desperately calculated actions start straining credulity.
I was relieved that there is no silly romantic side story, even as Jenna Stern gets a brief turn as an earthy paramedic.
The over the credit songs nicely includes songs by artists who featured in the dialog.
As someone who walks those alleged 16 blocks in Lower Manhattan frequently, the Toronto stand-ins were distractingly obvious, from the quaint awnings to non-diverse extras on the sidewalks to wide streets in front and alleys behind buildings. The number of bullets shot in this couple of hours is more than the NYPD probably fires in a year, let alone around civilians. I cannot imagine that Latino drug dealers leave around copies of The New York Times, but at least a careful production assistant did have some bus passengers reading a Chinese-language newspaper in Chinatown (though I don't think they usually carry around tape). A parking garage with elevator access in the old building 100 Centre Street was a laugh, let alone the lack of security in this building. I am particularly fed up with Hollywood movies that impose on NYC the sound of police helicopters as a dramatic device when that's an L.A. thing; in NYC helicopters are primarily heard at rush hours over the bus and tunnel exits. At least the interior production designs were nicely grungy, particularly in the recreated old tenements and subway station. (3/24/2006)
The Fallen Idol builds on a classic situation of English children's literature--the lonely rich kid from overseas in the big house left with hired caregivers-- to create a masterful suspense tale that deftly examines truths and half-truths, lies and white lies from the boy's confused perspective.
Based on Graham Greene's short story "The Basement Room", the film builds on the look of Hitchcock's Rebecca, with a house as visually significant as Manderlay, plus fraught with Lillian Hellman's sophisticated view of childhood as in These Three. Key is not just Georges Périnal's enthralling story, but the stunning direction by Carol Reed in how he uses gorgeous black and white cinematography from both a memorable interior and a London that ranges from scary night to a misleadingly bright daylight that is equally full of secrets, as seen in a new 35 MM print at NYC's Film Forum.
The beautiful production design is dominated by a gorgeous staircase in the ambassador's residence that has to rank with one of the all time movie centerpieces as in Gone With The Wind, and is as central for the first and last third of the film as the Rear Window in another Hitchcock film. Reed has the camera go up and down those heavily symbolic stairs as a shared link from the main floors that are the busy public areas, down to the basement servant quarters then up and up to the private residential areas, with overlooking balconies and windows that are key for spying on each level. The staircase sets up several dramatic events (adding layers to the film's title), climaxing in a notable scene of the incredibly tense voyage of a child's innocent-seeming paper airplane that carries a significant clue slowly, slowly traversing that vertical no-man's/everyman's land from the top to the bottom, as we hold our breath where it will land.
Throughout the film, the complex world of adult relationships and interactions is seen through the eyes of a child (the wonderfully natural, lively, lisping Bobby Henrey) so that childish activities take on ironic or double meanings of freedom or dread, between appearances and reality, from a good night story, to a game of hide and seek, to a picnic, to running away, to an idyll at the zoo that one would assume inspired Rowling for a key scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Throughout the film, the boy constantly misunderstands what he is seeing - sometimes he sees the truth, sometimes he doesn't, sometimes he only sees part of the truth, as the adults alternate in advising him to lie or don't lie.
The young Ralph Richardson is absolutely marvelous as he switches from father substitute to hen-pecked husband (Sonia Dresdel as his wife recalls Agnes Moorhead), to relaxed lover, to efficient butler.
While this new print revival is being distributed as a forgotten masterpiece, my parents vividly remembered seeing it first run in their neighborhood Brooklyn movie theater and that it was quite popular. I presume that the same team's next work on the masterpiece The Third Man overshadowed this gem in film history, but also perhaps because this film doesn't end on quite the note of cynicism that a contemporary audience expects from their work. (3/15/2006)
Tsotsi should be seen on a big screen in order to fully appreciate its varied and intense look, performances and sound.
First the look. Even as writer/director Gavin Hood has updated Athol Fugard's novel to the new South Africa of an integrated police force, upscale blacks who can demand their attention vs. abandoned AIDS orphans, the settings in Johannesburg vs. Soweto with their sharp and horrific contrasts are not something American audiences have seen and almost seem as if they are from a futuristic post-apocalyptic vision. Each character is dramatically and very emotionally defined by the surroundings we see, where they once or currently live.
Not only is Lance Gewer's cinematography from day to night, from barren openness of no man's land to the closed-in dense township simply gorgeous, he is particularly good at capturing the luster of dark skin tones swathed in colorful clothes. Many scenes, particularly the excruciatingly violent ones, are heightened with dramatic lighting.
The actors grab the screen even amidst this extreme mise en scene. Presley Chweneyagae as the titular nicknamed thug is not just physically charismatic, but the changes in his voice are gripping in communicating the extreme range of feelings he experiences over the few days the film takes place. This is a road trip through his soul, from flash backs to existential acts from his depths to finding his humanity (and his real name). His relationship with a cruelly accidental foundling infant has no comparison to the dozens of films, usually comedies, made around the world about an irresponsible guy stuck with a kid and how a child can be father to man. While his picaresque physical and psychic journey is almost as theatrical in its coincidences as Crash, the tension is built up as it is unpredictable in each confrontation whether he will react violently or redemptively.
Just when I thought his side kicks were undifferentiated, even they turned out to have complicated stories that were well portrayed, particularly Mothusi Magano as "Boston".
Terry Pheto as "Miriam" is the very essence of woman as bringer forth of life, from her artistic talents to her nourishing milk. She is beautiful and strong. It is rare to see maternal love so powerfully portrayed on film as by the women here.
The soundtrack of local South African music is wonderfully atmospheric, and I'm dancing in front of the computer while listening to the CD now. Particularly outstanding are the tracks by local kwaito artist Zola which uniquely combine local and international hip hop into a new sound, as well as tracks with the inspiring voice of Vasi Mahlasela over choirs, which recalls Ladysmith Black Mambazo. With an attention to detail in the music, the middle class family listens to soft R & B on their car radio, in comparison to the township sound that surrounds the Soweto residents.
Bravo for the very legible subtitles throughout and translated musical lyrics, even as we can occasionally pick out some pidgin English amidst the township jive.
Nice to see that an art house in Manhattan could attract a significant African-American audience for this film even before it won the Oscar.(3/13/2006)
Running Scared uses every cliché of the violent film genre with stylish élan.
Similar in look, pacing and volume to Tony Scott's recent Domino without the enjoyable winking self-mocking, throwing in CSI-type scene-of-the-crime camera tricks, writer/director Wayne Kramer includes some irony and humor amidst, from the opening scenes, the carnage of one very bloody night.
Kramer seems to be going down a list for inclusion of every nasty element possible through an odyssey to get home safe that feels a lot like the enemy traps laid in Walter Hill's The Warriors: Russian mob - check, corrupt cops - check, white wannabe hip hop pimp - check, backyard meth lab - check, Jamaican drug dealer in the playground - check, Latino poker game - check, New Jersey mobsters doing business in a strip club - check, characters' traumatized by a history of domestic violence - check, iconic movie references - check John Wayne, all wrapped up in family business loyalties.
Kramer does find creative ways to use these stock characters and situations like a very dark anti-commedia dell arte -- the gritty violence is post-post Tarantino and more like Extreme Asian, including brightly-colored threats of bizarre child abuse. The all-American violent sports metaphors, oddly, include no references to football, but focus on baseball and hockey, wherein I was introduced to the term "red ice."
But there is little of the sweet character development and interaction from Kramer's The Cooler, as everyone pretty much shouts at each other, with the dialog mostly consisting of variations of the F word and other obscenities.
While those who go to see Paul Walker movies for the same visual reason I do will be disappointed that he is never shirtless, there is a one-minute sexy scene that establishes that for a guy who seems to be a low level mobster he does considerately engage in foreplay with his wife (Vera Farmiga), or what passes for foreplay in his culture. This establishes him as a family man, such that she can declare with assurance that she knows he "is not evil," whatever else he's done. Those intense blue eyes probably convinced her too. This scene may change the image of doing laundry.
What is attention-keeping are reverse role twists of each character's switch from villain to victim and vice versa over the course of the night, sometimes through talky explanation but most often through colorfully gruesome attacks and justifiable homicide, including by the wife, as Farmiga against all odds manages to again reveal the mettle she exhibited in Down to the Bone.
Young Cameron Bright's odd intensity is appropriate as in Birth because every dim wit in the film can see the kid doesn't look normal; he is appropriately described as "the kid who never smiles."
For a film shot in the Czech Republic, the night shoots don't quite cover up that this is an ersatz New Jersey, where Hoboken is sort of in Newark, there is only one 24-hour diner, and Brighton Beach seems to be down the Jersey Shore. Walker's Jersey Boy bona fides are established for about 10 seconds by playing Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, with earthy father/ son advice why this music is superior to rap and techno. This after he has already assured the kid he'll appreciate naked women in the future.
Mark Isham's score includes plenty of techno, under the shouting, and relentlessly supports the fever pitch action, with a lot more variety than in his other scores.
The closing credits reinforce the feeling that this could be an adaptation of a graphic novel, as the plot is summarized with dark animation.(2/26/2006)
Breaking News (Dai si gein) is one of the most urban crime thrillers I've ever seen, using the density and verticality of a modern city as an intense frame for the fast-paced action.
Hong Kong here seems to have visually become like the futuristic cities with satellite cameras of Blade Runner and Code 46, with almost all the action taking place with 360 degree views of narrow streets, crowded plazas, dark hallways and elevator shafts. There's a door-to-door attack in a corridor that throws down the now classic scene from Oldboy as so much balletic nonsense compared to this gritty but very beautiful realism, with cinematography by Siu-keung Cheng.
Director Johnny To grabs our attention in the enthralling opening scene of a shoot-out on a Hong Kong street. With almost no dialog we can figure out that this is a stake-out going horribly wrong. While the scene dizzyingly must have been shot on a cherry-picker zooming up and down and around as if we are on external elevator or hanging from windows with a zoom telephoto lens, the angles are always important as the camera swoops and narrows and broadens our view from shooter to victim to shooter to victim as we swivel to where the shots are heard. I felt like I was in the antenna of the aliens in War of the Worlds. The visuals are always directly related to the sounds, as edited by David M. Richardson.
Though I could only infer some of the internal politics within the police bureaucracy with the significance of some using English names and others traditional Chinese names amidst the various competing levels of authority, some of whom spoke stilted English, it was easy enough to pick up on the techie criminalist statistician vs. the on the ground street cop (a terrific Nick Cheung, who is like a thinking cop's Bruce Willis), let alone the difficulties a woman cop (Kelly Chen) has on the force. Her need to prove herself and her modern approach is a driving theme in the film and gives it considerable difference from a more conventional crime drama. She may be a neophyte at being in charge, but she is not an idiot.
There are parallel old school/new school, gangsters vs. assassins with different rules and technology that get caught up in the siege though I wasn't sure of the details of all their intersecting plots. The criminals are considerably more charismatic than all the cops except "Inspector Cheung", and have a sense of humor during an amusing hostage taking.
The instant, real-time new and old media attention in what is as much a door-to-door war between cops and criminals as in Black Hawk Down becomes part of their battle plans. It is as violent as a Paul Schrader or Martin Scorsese film, but has the mordant cynicism and humor of Billy Wilder, as the violence mocks the continued blandishments we see from the government officials about the falling crime rate.
While script writers Hing-Ka Chan and Tin-Shing Yip may have intended the high tech PR-controlling official to be a satire like Wag the Dog in having controlling the press be an essential component of controlling crime, it is just a very small step beyond the NYC Police Department techniques innovated under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. So it's a running gag that a kid with access to the Web can outwit their media manipulations. Survival seems to be based more on the results of the battle for public opinion.
I wasn't sure if the Hong Kong police force always looks like storm troopers or if the production design was making a political point. Clearly there was some point to the hostages being surrounded by commercial symbols of Western capitalism and culture.
The music by Ben Cheung and Chi Wing Chung supports the tension very effectively, including electronica and traditional instrumentation.
Unfortunately, the film as distributed in the U.S. had the worst subtitles I have ever seen. Not only are they filled with spelling and quizzical grammatical errors, as well as frequently white on white, they seem to have been translated using an antique English dictionary. The most egregious distraction is constantly calling these bloody murderers the charming appellation of "bandits" -- how about thugs or gangsters or criminals or crooks or bad asses, and so forth. Why didn't a native English speaker look over these subtitles? At least the credits were mostly bi-lingual. (2/14/2006)
The Matador is a fun very black comedy that plays on the hit man movie genre as deftly as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang did with detective movies and The Freshman did with Mob movies. This genre appreciation is reflected in the final credit by writer/director Richard Shepard "For my dad, who loved movies."
The script and the editing are pitch perfect, managing to give credibility to a slightly silly premise -- that an aging international hit man (Pierce Brosnan) with a Tony Sopranos-like nervous breakdown hits it off with a suburban nebbish (Greg Kinnear) -- by making both sympathetic. But not a single scene, or even sentence, is predictable and each veers off in unexpected directions.
Brosnan establishes such an unpredictable character that you really do think he is cravenly capable of doing anything. You start smiling (or groaning) in anticipation of just what crazy thing he might do next. He particularly gets into the zingy dialog with its ribald metaphors, as he goes from chuckles to poignant and back. (And the language is quite amusingly coarse.) Kinnear is marvelous as his foil, as the film teases us until the end about the nature of their relationship.
Hope Davis doesn't get to do very much as the loyal wife except nicely look sexy and tipsy.
The movie hearkens back to the feel of 1960's spy movies or tongue-in-cheek British TV shows like The Persuaders or The Avengers, though with real, violent criminals here, reinforced by a cheerful soundtrack
that goes from Tom Jones to mariachi bands to well-chosen classic and contemporary rock.
The credits not only go on in detail about the issues around the tradition of bullfighting, but say all the location shooting was in Mexico, which stands in for the world very colorfully. (2/8/2006)
Caché (Hidden) uses the visual power of film to create an escalating examination of contemporary paranoia and personal global responsibility the way Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation did with sound and fictional criminals.
Writer/director Michael Haneke plays visual tricks on the audience as voyeurs from the opening shot, much as he did with Code Inconnu, as he coyly plays with technology, building on the pervasive surveillance potential of our times.
The comfortable upper middle class life of married intellectuals Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche is more and more disrupted by spooky video and drawings from some kind of stalker. With a bit heavy-handed constant background TV news coverage about terrorism and other violence in the Mideast, as well as too much irony that Auteuil works on TV (evidently in yet another book discussion show like the central narcissist in Look At Me (Comme une image)), race is quickly introduced as a flash point in contemporary Paris from a brief street confrontation and reinforced with Auteuil's flashback dreams of his youth.
While the political angles are obvious, the Hitchcockian tension is very effectively built up (though not narratively resolved even as some secrets are revealed that lead to other inscrutabilities), not just as we see Auteuil repeatedly lie and Binoche practically disintegrate from nerves, but through sudden violence.
While we never understand who all is lying and who isn't, the film further plays on the truth that visual images don't in fact communicate the reality of a situation and can be misleading about relationships, particularly once paranoia has destroyed trust. The film also raises the question if people change their behavior if they know they are being watched and that you can't really hide from your past. Cynically, but perhaps honestly as opposed to in Crash, here there is no easy resolution of acceptance of guilt and responsibility in personal lives any more than there is in the legacy of colonialism and racism.
Not only is the past never dead, but the film keeps repeating issues of not just am I my brother's keeper, but the sins of the father are revisited on the sons, such that it's important to keep watching even as the credits start to appear at the end (there was much shouting when some folks got up to leave too soon, blocking cryptic clues to those behind them).
The subtitles are very poorly done, with many scenes having them white on white, instead of the much easier to read yellow.(1/18/2006)
From The Guardian, March 24, 2006, The million-pound art movie by Jon Bentham (fair use excerpt):
The film was probably helped by a trailer that made it look more of a thriller than it actually was, [Robert Beeson, managing director of the movie's UK distributor, Artificial Eye] says, although he acknowledges that that was never the director's intention. Regarding the question of "whodunit", a rather po[ker]-faced Haneke has stated vehemently: "I'm not going to give anyone this answer ... If you come out wanting to know who sent the tapes, you didn't understand the film. To ask this question is to avoid asking the real question the film raises, which is more: how do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions? "People are only asking 'whodunit?' because I chose to use the genre, the structure of a thriller, to address the issues of blame and conscience, and these methods of narrative usually demand an answer. But my film isn't a thriller and who am I to presume to give anyone an answer on how they should deal with their own guilty conscience?"
Pickpocket creates a striking cinematic criminal for the post-World War II age of alienation and existential Nietzschian hubris. Writer/director Robert Bresson draws on literary precedents like Dickens's Fagin and Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, with the look of Fritz Lang's M.
As a character study, "Michel" is shown as alienated from the economy, his friends, his family, even as they keep reaching out to him. His behavior becomes cruel to those closest to him as he retreats more and more to an isolated (ironically unlocked) garret.
From his isolation he starts seeing himself as exempt from truth and morality. While there is a sub-theme of sin and possible redemption throughout the film, formal religion is surprisingly absent for a French film, particularly when a preachy friend turns out to be a hypocrite. Bresson well shows how "Michel" becomes subject to temptations and the rush of taking risks, as the camera stays perfectly still when Michel contemplates a crime and millimeter by millimeter tempts the fates.
The most powerful scenes show his contrasting exhilaration in what becomes compulsive gambling behavior and even deluded hubris, shown through fast-paced, quickly edited shots. He exults in the precision of nefarious team work, that has more than a frisson of homo-eroticism.
With little dialog, the voice-over narrator seems to be his autobiography, but is not completely trustworthy, especially as his restlessness gets too quickly described.
His return to a constricted space is ironic, as he had become completely self-centered anyway. The formality of his dress in suit and tie and the beautiful classical score of Jean-Baptiste Lully music provides additional formalistic structures to constrain the characters.
"Michel"s concluding redemption by the love of a good woman is not completely convincing, particularly as I doubt that French movies were subject to a behavioral code as were American movies of the period.
The gorgeous black and white was worth seeing on a theater screen, as I assumed NYC's IFC Center showed a fresh print.(1/11/2006)
As a dark comedy, Ice Harvest sometimes veers too much to the comedy, then alarmingly gets very dark. This tight rope of noir and satire was better achieved this year in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
The trailer gave away a twist or two and the characters aren't quite up to Elmore Leonard quirkiness, as the strippers with hearts of gold talking about their families while nearly nude isn't that funny upon repetition and other plot twists can be foretold. There's a running joke about John Cusack's character changing cars, but even that runs out.
But Scott Phillips' novel adapters Richard Russo and Robert Benton have collaborated before on dark tales of rust belt towns where the criminals and cops all know each other, though their wry stories usually take place in upstate New York and don't usually have this much violence. Here, grungy parts of Illinois do a good job of standing in for Wichita, Kansas, with amusingly named strip joints.
Cusack recalls his role in Grosse Pointe Blank, which more successfully straddled murder and laughs. Billy Bob Thornton has done sleazy before and his hair stylist, who has a separate line in the credits, is to be commended. Oliver Platt is doing virtually the same character he does in the Huff TV series. Connie Nielsen is the stand-out, as she channels Veronica Lake in looks and voice.
The music is not as effective as it could be. While the few seasonal religious songs are heavy-handedly ironic, that theme isn't carried through the conclusion, which has a Peter Wolf cover of a country song. The score is devoid of Christmas theme as well.
Director Harold Ramis sticks in some tongue-in-cheek references to other films, from Potemkin to Titanic to a line from Field of Dreams. (12/11/2005)
Derailed feels a lot like Unfaithful with a twist, though with a lot less sex and far more violence, as it tries to be another decade's take on the lessons of Fatal Attraction.
The problems with the film are almost immediately obvious as Clive Owen has to dial back his charisma as we're supposed to believe that he is a beleaguered suburbanite, beset by work, financial and family problems. While it is kind of refreshing that the usual movie advertising guy is not a hot shot, the few seconds seen in the trailer are about fifty per cent of all we see of his usual magnetism.
As Jennifer Aniston's femme fatale at first seems a bit out of place on a suburban commuter train, it does take just a bit of a stretch to believe that this guy might leave common sense behind and think with his anatomy. She loses some credibility as the twists unravel and I figured out the key plot turn way in advance.
While I admire that the film didn't use the usual minority or Russian mobster villain, particularly when the story plays on every other city dangerous vs. suburban safe stereotype, the French Vincent Cassel's chameleon character just made no sense in his psychopathic-seeming unpredictability through all the twists, and despite the leeringly distasteful violence he's not as sexily dangerous as he was in Read My Lips (Sur mes levres). Of course, he's not helped by a plot that tries to cover up coincidences and incredulities with tossed off bits of dialog, though the full book may provide explanations.
Rapper RZA is almost unintelligible and his character makes less sense than Cassel's. Xzibit has fewer lines but more presence for the small thug role he has.
The look of the film is the best part, with good use of Chicago settings and richly dark cinematography. The production design around each character is very credible.
The music misses a lot of atmospheric potential, with hip hop of course blasting in the inner city scenes but nothing that sounded noteworthy even in the bar scenes, though I didn't hang around for the credits to check.(11/29/2005)
Classe tous risques feels like the granddaddy of The Sopranos in mixing the criminal and the domestic, and of the buddy film to feel as contemporary as Reservoir Dogs.
Even as these gangsters are affectionately entangled with wives, children, lovers and parents, they are coldly ruthless, and we are constantly reminded they are, no matter what warm situation we also see them in. They can tousle a kid's hair - and then shoot a threat in cold blood. The key is loyalty, and the male camaraderie is beautifully conveyed, without ethnic or class stereotypes, even as their web of past obligations and pay backs narrows into suspicion and paranoia, as the old gang is in various stages of parole, retirement, out on bail or into new, less profitable ventures. An intense accusation is of sending a stranger to perform an old escape scenario. It is a high point of emotion when a wife is told off that she's not the one the gangster is friends with, while virtually the only time we hear music on the soundtrack is when he recalls his wife.
Streetscapes in Italy and France, from blinding daylight to dark water and highways, are marvelously used from the opening set up of a pair of brazen robbers -- who are traveling with one's wife and two kids. Rugged, craggy Lino Ventura captures the screen immediately as the criminal dad. And the second thug is clearly a casually avuncular presence in their lives, as they smoothly coordinate the theft and escape, in cars, buses, on boats and motorcycles, in easy tandem. This is not the cliché crusty old guy softened with the big-eyed orphan; these are their jobs and their families and they intersect in horrific ways.
The film pulls no punches in unexpectedly killing off characters, directly and as collateral damage, and challenging our sympathy for them, right through to the unsentimental end, which is probably why there was never an American remake.
It seems so fresh that it's not until Jean-Paul Belmondo enters almost a third of the way into the film, looking so insouciant as a young punk, that one realizes that this is from 1960. Sultry Sandra Milo has smart and terrific chemistry with him, from an ambulance to an elevator to a hospital bed.
While the Film Forum was showing a new 35 mm print with newly translated subtitles, it was not pristine. The program notes explained that the title refers to a kind of insurance policy and is pun on "tourist class." (11/28/2005)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a rollicking, loving satire of pulp detective novels and the noir movies based on them (as writer and debut director Shane White based this), particularly those set in Hollywood. But the fun and games don't get in the way of a twisty good story with lots of dead bodies, action and, of course, babes in the woods and femme fatale. Where White's previous buddy cop scripts threw in jokes between the violence, this one counts up the bodies amidst the jokes.
The opening credits are the best Saul Bass-jazzy tribute since the start of Catch Me If You Can, while the opening narration sets the tone for the satire, self-awarely sending up classics like D.O.A., by making fun of the fact that it's narrated with rewinds and film stutterings, and then with lurid chapter headings. The references to other movies come fast and furious throughout, from Chinatown to Reservoir Dogs, as well as the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and their countless film adaptations, though the digs at Hollywood aren't quite as scabrous as L.A. Confidential. Including scenes from a younger Corbin Bernsen crime movie is used here illustratively to the plot almost as integrally as the old Terence Stamp film in The Limey. He certainly does look like a matinee idol gone to see, but then so does Val Kilmer.
A key to making this all original is Robert Downey Jr.'s marvelous comic and earnest turn as a fish out of water as a crook imitating an actor imitating a private investigator, which even recalls what tends to happen to Bob Hope in the On The Road movies. He shoots off rapid fire wise-cracking dialog like an Olympic hurdler and creates a full character's range of little tics, particularly for unrequited love.
It's an intentional joke that Kilmer plays his straight man as "Gay Perry" who uses his character's orientation as a clever and amusing twist on the macho-ness of a genre that usually thrives on sexual tensions.
Michelle Monaghan spiritedly holds her own between these two pro's, but if it was supposed to be part of the joke that she is so obviously more the ingénue than Downey's old high school classmate who is over the hill in Hollywood at 34, that running gag isn't quite believable here. Maybe it was trying to be commentary on the usual Hollywood casting of younger women with older men.
The cinematography beautifully capitalizes on the various L.A. settings of seedy nights and blinding days.
Each scene goes off in unexpected turns that are both howlingly funny, yet serious within the typically convoluted plot, though the epilogue gets too silly even as it makes fun of epilogues.
The closing song over the credits is from Downey's solo CD.(11/20/2005)
The Passenger (Professione: reporter) is a tour de force of visual story telling. While there is more dialog and the plot makes more sense than many other Michelangelo Antonioni films, it first and foremost uses filmmaking as a medium to tell its story.
The camera is always our eye, taking in sweeping panoramas of the North African desert to an architectural tour of European churches and an appreciation of the variegated urban and rural landscapes of Moorish Spain, still showing relics of older invasions, where it all comes together as we literally go from dust to dust. We are the passengers on this existential trip to try and change identities through someone else's travels logging almost as many locations as an outlandish Bond film .
Because so much of the film is dispassionately observational about natural landscape and cityscape, and windswept plazas that provide imitations of nature within a city, it stands up through time, even as the 1975 clothes, hair, TV journalist technology, and, somewhat, male/female relationships, look a bit dated and we can no longer assume that African guerrilla fighters and gun dealers helping them are more noble than the corrupt inheritors of colonialism. The camera is constantly picking out culture contrasts - camels vs. jeeps, horse-drawn carriages blocking Munich traffic, Gaudi's serpentine architecture vs. Barcelona's modern skyline, a cable car gliding over a shimmering body of water.
And, of course, the very American Jack Nicholson in a very European film, with the many layers of meaning as he plays an adventurous broadcast reporter who ironically tries to escape the truth about himself. His young, sexy, challenging self is surprisingly effective here as we believe both his ethical lapses and his obsession. Avoiding the narration that a film today would utilize, Antonioni well takes advantage of what now looks fairly primitive tapings of the reporter's past and current interviews to convey background and flashbacks on characters through minimal explication with overlapping sound and gliding visuals. The intertwined story lines constantly re-emphasize the point of not really knowing a person or a culture from the outside, with a repeated refrain of "What do you see?".
Maria Schneider's character skirts just this side of a male fantasy cliché, though Antonioni helped to create the type, and a few subtle plot points save her from total disingenuous sex kitten femme fatale (even as her character shrugs that one plot point is "unlikely"). Nicholson's repeated refrain to her of "What the f* are you doing with me?" takes on different meanings as we know more.
I'm not sure if this 2005 re-release of the director's cut, with supposedly nine minutes that were not in the original U.S. release, is notably pristine, as it wasn't particularly sharp, but the director's trademark crystalline blue sky is still breathtaking and is a must-see in a full screen rather than on DVD. The views practically feel like the old Cinemascope.
A climactic landscape shot brings all the violent, sensual, philosophical and narrative plot and thematic points together in a marvelous way that has been much imitated but is still powerful, as the camera looks out a window at a cool distance in the heat, key events culminate back and forth frantically in front of the camera, in and out of frame, and the camera moves through the bars and is free to roam in ever more close-ups.(11/12/2005)
The Dying Gaul feels like an updated Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set in Hollywood instead of academia. But it gradually veers towards Fatal Attraction as the opening jabs at commercial filmmaking, with lots of name and title dropping that seem to be writer Craig Lucas's revenge on compromises he made for his successful Prelude to a Kiss, give way to catastrophic psychological manipulation.
The initial Hollywood commentary is emphasized through the settings, as the movie producer, Campbell Scott, and his ex-writer/liberal activist/household and children manager wife, Patricia Clarkson, live in an extraordinary house with a rippling pool and ocean view. Their financial success is wielded like a weapon as the camera restlessly swoops around all their possessions, household help and scenic property. The emotional price he's paid for this is clear as Scott's "Jeffrey" could be in Glengarry Glen Ross (to drop film titles like he does) as he'll clearly do anything to seal a deal.
Peter Sarsgaard drives on to the studio lot and into their lives with a completely different character from his four other released films this year, with inflections and body language that only occasionally get a bit too flamboyant as affectations of an out gay writer discussing issues of sexuality in the movies and his late lover. His grief and need for human warmth is so palpable that it is even believable that after failing with psychological counseling and Buddhism to deal with it, he clutches at what used to be called spiritualism, here delivered through the internet, shown visually both in the written word and the actors talking to the camera like reading aloud from their computer screens, edited effectively in the best key scenes with real life.
Clarkson is wonderful as she morphs from busy housewife lounging in a fetching bikini, to curious dabbler in the dark side, to woman scorned and revengeful manipulator. She may be the Ultimate Scary Mother, sexy, maternal and controlling, who while distraught over violent video games goes after the psyche. Unusually for how such a triangle has been portrayed in films (and the film is specifically set in 1995 as perhaps a more innocent time), we also get brief, sympathetic insight on another woman similarly affected by the writer's selfish actions that puts Clarkson's "Elaine" in perspective as she could have been portrayed as more of a brittle harpy. But each character alternately attracts and repels us.
In his directing debut Lucas does not well serve his own script, adapted from his play, as it could have been a lot tauter in exploring the slippery slope of ethics in human relationships, that all it takes is that one small step to deceive or keep secrets before one falls into the well. There could have been a lot fewer arty scenes in silhouette, at sunset, across water.
The Steve Reich music throughout becomes more irritating than tension-inducing.
While the title has something to do with the writer's long monologue about the significance of the Roman sculpture as an artist's way to make victims sympathetic, one is left here more with the feeling that these three folks deserve each other, though the collateral damage left in their wake is a tragedy. (11/11/2005)
Lord of War is a very black comedy that turns quite serious. It deals effectively with issues that The Interpreter botched because this uses real place names in real conflicts with no trussed up sympathies for white victims, assisted by vivid location shooting from Brooklyn's Brighton Beach to South Africa.
Nicholas Cage is another "Gordon Gekko" as a Ukrainian immigrant who finds a knack for using his gifted entrepreneurial skills to achieve the American Dream, but as a quick-witted, flim-flam gun dealer very like the dapper drug dealer in the comparably stylish Layer Cake. In an arch narration, Cage's "Yuri Orlov" shrugs that his business is no morally different than a tobacco or car salesman. With its eye on international affairs, the film doesn't touch on second amendment issues of the U.S. gun market or on what goes around comes around in terms of terrorism, except that he blithely notes that he didn't sell to Osama bin Laden because his checks bounced.
Seen through the prism of "Yuri"s burgeoning career and family, the film is particularly good at tracking the impact of the end of the Cold War and the small conflicts around the world that have emerged as an export business from the resulting surplus ordnance, especially those between various liberation fronts that have found their horrific full flowering in Africa. I think this is the first feature film to show the sickening impact of the boy soldiers and blood diamonds of Sierra Leone, while it is equally filled with grim ironies about African realities and contradictions of living in a daily war zone.
The film is full of dark and absurdist humor, from the opening description of how his family faked being Jews in order to get out of the U.S.S.R. to what happens to an abandoned airplane on the African plain.
Ethan Hawke, as his Inspector Javert type nemesis, gets stuck with the clunky idealistic dialog, making obvious what we can already see are the consequences of "Yuri"s actions, even as we are entertained by his flamboyant, Milo Minderbinder type tricks to outwit the law. The ending is appropriately cynical and probably realistic.
Jared Leto, who is much more than his beautiful blue eyes, again movingly embodies a troubled soul, as in Requiem for a Dream. He and Cage establish a warm chemistry that makes their brotherly trust palpable.
Eamonn Walker, of Oz, is not over the top as a corrupt Liberian power monger, given the horrors that have been perpetrated there. Bridget Moynahan gets to poke fun at her own talents, as she plays a model turned wooden actress who is content on her husband's worshipful pedestal until she slowly wakes up from the fantasy.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol's whooshing camera angles get a bit gimmicky as they reinforce "Yuri"s sales pitches, but they are chilling in showing the enormity of the business and how that volume gets used one on one. It is also a visually exciting way to keep our attention on a serious topic instead of preaching at us, which is reserved for informational text before the credits.
The choice of '80's songs into African and other world music helps to create the appropriate ambiance, though I presume they couldn't get the rights to Dylan's "Masters of War" and Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money." (9/23/2005)
The Memory of a Killer (De Zaak Alzheimer) is a sophisticated synthesis of several genres into a stylish thriller. There's the opening shots of a steam engine, saluting European film noir contrasting with the sharp sunlight of corrupt Marseille; the Georges Simenon-like police investigation contemporized with gritty Brit mystery crimes and the hunky bantering buddy cops where one is a wild rule-breaker and his boss is an Eliot Ness straight arrow; the samurai code of honor; the Western where the old gunslinger takes on one last conflict, like The Unforgiven and already adapted to Man on the Train (L'Homme du Train); a revenge showdown, like the recent Four Brothers; the memory stream of consciousness tricks of Memento and the snappy editing of Hong Kong crime thrillers like Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao). And we even get a The Sopranos-like psychological profile of a hit man.
While director Erik Van Looy smoothly integrates all these elements together in adapting what must have been a complex novel that was evidently inspired by a real series of gruesome murders that traumatized the Belgian public and law enforcement, this is terrific, intelligent popular entertainment and only its subtitles keep it in limited release in the U.S. in art houses. Too bad a Hollywood adaptation is inevitable.
The film has an exciting dual structure of following the cops and the criminal as they get intertwined and chase each other, as each sorts out vengeance and some justice (with surprising collateral damage) ever higher up the responsibility ladder so that our sympathies, and theirs, are compromised. While we atypically don't see anything of the cops' personal lives (except with an amusing visual twist that it's the guy in the shower), we do get thrust into their quite believable bureaucratic and legal wranglings, which, while a bit confusing for an American audience, can be inferred to be similar to the jurisdictional conflicts between local police departments and the FBI that we've seen in plenty of movies and TV shows. The English subtitles seem pretty good at communicating the localisms, though some of the cultural conflict in Belgium between French and Flemish speakers is lost, particularly when it is significant which language is being spoken.
The twist that is given away in the original title of the film, translated as The Alzheimer Affair, is that the highly intelligent and perceptive criminal, the charismatic Jan Decleir, realizes he is losing his memory, and sees his near future clearly in his hospitalized brother. We get inside his head as he is trying to out race not only the cops, his traitorous client and duplicitous boss, but himself, so that his taunt of "too slow" takes on a double meaning. His professionalism takes over even when the flashy cinematography indicates he doesn't quite remember what he's done.
While the body count is high, the violence is one on one and is not gratuitous. Each death ratchets up the tensions and complications as what at first seems street level crime has cynical political implications. Much of the film takes place in the dark, like Collateral, and while there's a fair amount of sudden coming up from behind scares, that's usually the start of a suspenseful scene where cat and mouse decisions ricochet off in surprising ways.
The music very effectively supports the action, particularly when the story continues in an unexpected direction, though the choice of a Starsailor song over the credits didn't seem to fit.
It's a bit perplexing that The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre mon coeur s'est arrete) is getting wider distribution (probably because it's a remake of an American film and has a young hunk at the center), when this is the better European crime thriller of the summer. (9/21/2005)
The Skeleton Key is a conventional spooky thriller well gussied up by its New Orleans atmosphere, acting and neat twist.
With nature's threats to New Orleans dominating the news, it's lovely to see and hear reminders of why those parishes are a vital component of America's cultural heritage, not the least of which for harboring all kinds of creative spirits. While opening in a hospice is new moving on to the creepy old plantation house is a bit of a cliché. But the Spanish moss, bayous, the racially and linguistically mixed population, the streets of the Quarter and the city do effectively establish the mood. The stereotypes are even dealt with mockingly as Kate Hudson's "Caroline" is dismissed by Gena Rowlands for "not being from the South" so "She won't understand this house." The blues and jazz well evoke the local culture, particularly the Rebirth Brass Band. There are funkier takes of the classic "Iko Iko" than the Dixie Chicks's commercialized version, but it does make it less suspicious to the curious "Caroline" (and at least they used visuals by a Neville Brother). The Robert Johnson track isn't local, but his crossroads myth fits the mood nicely. The reconstruction of a fictional chant was even more authentic sounding than the faux song in Wag the Dog, or Moby's deconstructions, though 78 record players seemed to be a bit too readily available. Unfortunately, the score by Ed Shearmur does not recall any of the local mood and its loud clichés are annoyingly distracting.
While the award-winning actors are slumming a bit in this genre, they do seem to be having a great time and they class the place up. Was that a veiled reference to Almost Famous when "Caroline" describes how she used to "follow a band"? While there is the obligatory shower scene, sexual tensions are too thinly hinted at, even at the end.
The editing is terrific at creatively visualizing the back story with period sepia flashbacks, much better than other such films have done. There were too frequent turn around and scream scenes, but that strengthened that the clever and consistent ending doesn't take that way out.
This story works as well as Joss Whedon supernaturals and The Others, and better than most of the M. Night Shyamalan oeuvre.(8/30/2005)
Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud) is a master work, so it's startling to learn that it was Louis Malle's first feature. It's a mother lode textbook of how-to for noir genre filmmakers as he creates his own style from what he's learned from other masters.
Malle pays tribute to the tense murder style of Hitchcock with Billy Wilder's cynicism of selfishness a la Double Indemnity plus Graham Greene-like, post-war politics from The Third Man-- and arms and oil dealers with military pasts in the Middle East are not outdated let alone adulterous lovers and rebellious teenagers.
The film drips with sex and violence without actually showing either -- sensuous Jeanne Moreau walking through a long, rainy Paris night is enough to incite both.
The black and white cinematography by Henri Decaë is breathtakingly beautiful in this newly struck 35 mm print, from smoky cafés with ever watchful eyes like ours to the titular, ironic alibi's long shafts (which surely must have inspired a key, paler scene in Speed) to highway lights, to a spare interrogation box, but particularly in the street scenes. The coincidences and clues are built up, step by step, visually, including the final damning evidence.
Miles Davis's improvisations gloriously and agitatedly burst forth as if pouring from the cafés and radios, but the bulk of the film is startlingly silent, except for ambient sounds like rain that adds to the tension in the plot.
The characters are archetypes -- the steely ex-Legonnaire, the James Dean and Natalie Wood imitators, the preening prosecutor -- that fit together in a marvelous puzzle. But all are cool besides Moreau's fire, as she dominates the look of the film, just wandering around Paris.
There is some dialog that doesn't quite make sense at the end, but, heck, neither does The Big Sleep and this is at least in that league, if not higher in the pantheon. (8/29/2005))
Secuestro Express is a neat little twisty thriller in the exaggerated style of gritty British crime dramas like Layer Cake, with a pointed political and social overlay.
Using swooping, in-your-face close-up cameras, limited narration and dossier-style onscreen character and time descriptors, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz, in his full-length fiction debut, captures a docu-drama feel to make the kidnapping of a young, lighter-skinned couple by a motley group of "nigros" (darker-skinned) thugs, with a variety of psychological and financial motives for doing this "work", a commentary on class in Latin America, specifically in Caracas, Venezuela.
The individuality of all the characters, including the criminals, adds to the explosive unpredictability as stereotypes of Latin American culture are ironically skewered, including oligarchies, macho men, religion and sensuality, as each person uses political and class rhetoric to justify greed, selfishness and condescension on all sides.
Drugs are caustically shown to have pervasively corrupted and enthralled all levels of the society through a harrowing picaresque exploration of "the ghetto" (as the subtitles translated the geography). The acting is excellent, particularly Mía Maestro, of TV's Alias, who goes through an entire spectrum of emotions. Jean Paul Leroux as her boyfriend "Martin" is very good at shifting gears as our sympathies shift around him.
The song selection felt very atmospheric and the soundtrack kept the tension ratcheted up.
The "fire next time" coda didn't quite work or add much to what we think the characters learned that night except assuring us that life ominously goes on among all the classes despite the continuing sharp differences. (8/9/2005) In an interview on BBC America, the director explained his inspiration for the film -- being kidnapped himself for 45 minutes.
November is a neat little twisty thriller that lets us inside post traumatic stress.
Director Greg Harrison uses visuals very effectively around a sympathetically volatile Courteney Cox as a photographer/teacher, much more evocatively than M. Night Shyamalan does in a similar genre. He draws on but doesn't imitate Blow Up, Eyes of Laura Mars and Robin Williams' other photo developer movie The Final Cut, with the blood red as a memory trigger like in Hitchcock's Marnie.
Photographs are particularly used as a trompe l'oeil that visually matches our guessing to what we think we know is happening in the story or did happen in a store robbery. Harrison is particularly good at showing how emotions, particularly guilt, color our perceptions and influence our memories.
Anne Archer, as Cox's mother, does a marvelous take on how almost the same scene can be shaded in different ways.
The chapter headings of the stages of grief border on precious, but do provide a framework for Cox's feelings. So you are more prepared emotionally for the surprising ending, like an Ambrose Bierce story, than manipulated as in a film like The Others.
The rundown downtown Los Angeles locations, especially at night, enhance the darkness of the story.
The score works very well to keep the tension high. And it's always nice to hear a Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings funk song repeated.
I always stay for all the credits of films, but the slow, endless crawl at the end even defeated my patience. (7/30/2005) (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish woman)
Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) is an involving, cross-cultural take on the L.A. Confidential noir genre of a murder mystery with a political filter, layered with elements that gritty British TV detectives have mastered, from Prime Suspect on.
While co-writer/director Joon-ho Bong uses the conventions of the contrasting buddy cop movie, sometimes simplistically for comic effect, he has more social commentary on his mind than a captivating investigation into a serial killer and avoids the usual titillating gore fest.
Set specifically in 1986, the film visually captures the changes in industrializing, modernizing and politically restive South Korea, where new, dark, noisy factories were sprouting up in the middle of agricultural areas. From the opening shot that could be out of Witness, we see a peasant bring what looks like a city sophisticated cop to a crime scene. But that's just the start of the conflicting comparisons. We’ve seen enough CSI’s to sympathize with him immediately as he hopelessly tries to secure the crime scene for clues despite a Keystone Cops-incompetent forensics and investigative team who keep sliding into the irrigation ditch. But he starts to seem a bit of a buffoon to us as he gives more credence to gossipy tips from his girlfriend than clues from the scene and he manufactures "evidence."
Our sympathies are curdled even more as we see him conduct an old-fashioned coercive interrogation of a developmentally disabled suspect -- and he's the good cop. Even without knowing anything about Korean law, it certainly looks like they are compromising the investigation, as his thug partner, who is nowhere as complex as Russell Crowe's Bud White, gets as out of control as a cartoonish Lethal Weapon cop, and that cop never grows and develops in the story beyond being a brutality enforcer so becomes a pathetic comic figure. Their complicit boss just seems ineffectual as he’s clearly over his head with this kind of murder investigation.
But through the background TV broadcasts of demonstrations and civil defense alerts and drills, we gather that their interrogation procedures were more developed through oppressing political dissidents and forcing confessions than professional criminal detective work.
Ironically, they ultimately can’t get the resources they need in this difficult case because of these politically-drummed up time-consumers, especially for manpower and sophisticated forensic tools that they have to beg from the FBI.
The film changes tone and settles down into an intellectual thriller as a classic big city detective is sent from Seoul, and we have some of the interchanges we've seen in In the Heat of the Night and in Insomnia, as the first cop now seems even more of a simpleton in his standard operating procedures of relying on his knowledge of the locals and instincts about human nature (though even a fellow officer teases him about whether he can tell apart a rapist and victim’s brother), while the city guy is looking and listening for clues and real evidence, like a Korean Dalziel and Pascoe.
But the tension is ramped up as the killer keeps killing – and the film starts showing us the murders as they are about to happen just as the cops are getting hints about his modus operandi and even after the police are on alert. Their frustration at not being able to stop him is grippingly conveyed by the lead actors, as each starts to abandon their usual procedures out of mounting frustration, and by the editing.
A droll side bar is that the macho team is given a key clue by a policewoman who they otherwise relegate to getting them refreshments. Their macho attitudes also keep them from learning vital clues from the marginalized men they pick up as suspects.
The coda in contemporary Korea is effective, reinforcing a sense of societal complicity is letting such murders happen and go on, though I was curious what happened to the city cop as well as the local guy. I had no idea until I read the IMDb message board that this was based on a real case, so I appreciate even more that a cheap ending wasn't tacked on.
The cinematography and editing are terrific throughout, with many of the scenes in the dark and rain. Particularly dramatic are harrowing scenes along railroad tracks and a tunnel that are reminiscent of stark imagery from Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
It is frustrating for English subtitle readers that not more of the Korean on the screen, such as newspaper headlines or heard, such as the TV broadcasts and pop tunes, isn't translated. (7/22/2005)
Crónicas is an updated, Latinization of Billy Wilder's cynical 1951 film Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival), where a tabloid reporter selfishly manipulated an emotional story of a trapped miner.
Where films like Medium Cool and The China Syndrome showed reporters as heroes getting radicalized by the stories they are covering, writer/director Sebastián Cordero effectively creates a hot, grimy, gritty environment for an ethically-challenged tabloid TV reporter who gets too mired in a serial murder investigation in the slums of Ecuador that recalls the hysteria and circus around the Atlanta child killings.
The irony of the power of today's ubiquitous media is shown to searing effect, including the power to manipulate it for personal purposes by all sides. The cat and mouse negotiations between the reporter and a questionable source (the enthralling Damián Alcázar) are as tense as those in The Silence of the Lambs, and in an ugly environs that we can practically smell through the screen.
John Leguizamo is completely believable as a swaggering, self-promoting celebrity TV reporter for a popular show covering scandals across the southern hemisphere, flitting from his Miami base to drug lord hostages in Colombia to salacious murders, in and out of English. We are alternately sympathetic to his efforts and his bouts of conscience, then repelled by him.
He is flanked by somewhat stereotypes of a lanky, battle-hardened cameraman who eagerly focuses on close-ups of violence and gore and an ambitious woman producer who plunges into research and infidelity with equal verve, who utilize the most shiny, high tech communications gear to capitalize on their tunneling through the muck of human nature, though even they finally reach their ethical boundaries.
The focus is kept tightly on the reporter's responsibilities, as the producer comments ruefully: "We got the only honest cop in Latin America." The script and the camera certainly play with us, in edits of slowly revealed information that change our impressions of the facts, and as the reporter tensely tries to both get a scoop and do as much of the right thing as his ambitions allow.
As an intelligent thriller, this film certainly puts a brutal spin on the issue of a reporter protecting his sources, even as the worst of the implications happens off camera.
The background song selections fit the mood, though I have some feeling that the Spanish lyrics had significance.
The English subtitles had some errors. (7/18/2005)
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre mon coeur s'est arrete) is a dark, intriguing character study of a son caught between loyalty to his corrupt, landlord father and his dead mother, a classical pianist.
From an opening monologue by a friend about filial responsibility, we see first his violent following in his father's foot steps, then his sudden epiphany as he is reminded of his mother's life. While Jacques Audiard, director/co-adapter, from James Toback's film Fingers (which I haven't seen) also crafted the twisty crime story Read My Lips (Sur mes levres), this is not a crime thriller but is reminiscent as a similar thug out of place in a white collar world who tempts another into it, this thug is tempted to fit into the high culture world.
No wonder his mother "had fits", according to the subtitles, when married to his dad, who expects the son to threaten his deadbeat tenants, demanding more such physical proof of loyalty as the son confesses his re-immersion in classical music, that the dad frequently derogatorily refers to as the province of homosexuals. Though his intense loyalty to his dad precludes an Oedipal interpretation, it is a gentle, lovely scene when he finds and listens to a tape of a rehearsal by his mother.
Romain Duris, previously seen in the U.S. just for his gorgeous looks in lighter fare L'Auberge espagnole and Le Divorce, could do for classical piano what Liszt did in his day. The costume designer must have loved clothing his bifurcated look, from black leather to the surprise when he is transformed into suit and tie -- especially when that shirt gets unbuttoned. I was reminded of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront wanting to be a contender instead of an enforcer, but boxing is a more common career pairing than this somewhat naive quest to be a concert pianist as an altogether different use of his hands.
He wends his way between these jarringly opposite career paths through constant negotiations and revenge, until he sees everything as a deal and everyone as having a price or is a prize in a competition, including women. Around religiously practicing the piano each day, he is simultaneously trying to move up just from routing immigrant squatters to clear development cheaply to doing more complex, shady investment deals, but gets screwed by his partners, so he screws them back, literally through their women.
The seedy corrupt world of illegitimate real estate development and loan sharks, the kind of money laundering deals featured in The Sopranos that go from head busting to silver-towered banks, is viscerally evoked. He so doesn't see how odd the two parts of his life are that it is amusing when he frankly explains to the concert promoter's assistant what he does for a living with no conscience about his extra-legal tactics or violence. The only possible link we see between his two lives is his intense, almost meditative listening to rhythmic, pounding electronica music. We visually see the strain of him leaving his violent world for the piano in his fascinating interchanges through only music and body language with his Chinese coach, as he has more difficulty relaxing and being in touch with his emotions than with technique.
The film does lay it on a bit thick about music as the universal language, though in effect it's only Italian music instructions, like "legato" that they can verbally share. There is an amusing side theme of immigrants to France who start out not speaking the language, leading to frustrating and even dangerous miscommunications, but who in two years, in the coda, have succeeded beyond the Parisians.
The closing shot shows how he bizarrely integrates the two parts of himself, but the coda is a bit odd.
Duris is so captivating that he makes it all make more visual sense than logic.
I'm not completely sure what the title is referencing. (7/11/2005)
Layer Cake fulfills the stylishly gritty Brit gangster film tradition from The Long Good Friday to Sexy Beast through The Long Firm mini-series.
Debut director Matthew Vaughn has learned his lesson from producing Guy Ritchie films like Snatch to not let the flashy techniques dominate the story. He's helped that J.J. Connolly adapted the twisty screenplay from his novel, and the stylishness inventively communicates visually the complicated exposition of intertwining generations of competing criminals in flashbacks, simultaneous activities and strategic Rashomon angles for coy release of information as manipulatively needed.
Like the out-law side of the TV series The Wire, a la "Stringer Bell," the film looks at post-Godfather lessons of drug dealing criminal enterprise through the bureaucratic eyes of "the New Breed" as an intelligence meritocracy who see themselves as Prohibition middleman entrepreneurs who just happen to have ruthless methods of enforcing market prices.
Even with the heavy Brit accents, slang and legal references American audiences can follow the details of the plot through the context, though I assume that's what's keeping it in art houses instead of in the multiplexes. Vaughn takes wonderful advantage of Daniel Craig's magnetic blue eyes (it's hard to resist calling them the cliché piercing) and protean body language that can change with his outfit (or hunky lack of it). Craig incorporates but now goes beyond the street smart alcoholic cops he could have gotten stuck playing on TV shows.
Part of the shiftiness of the action (and judging by murmured predictions in the audience all got as fooled scene by scene either by the what or the who or the why as the gob-smacked characters) is due to playing on our assumptions about characters if we relax into thinking they are stereotypes, from masterminds to enforcers, thanks to a marvelous cast of character actors.
Visual jokes pop up throughout, like a close-up of a copy of Dante's Inferno in a king pin's library, a negotiation in a gentleman's club and the ironically titular dessert at the center of a celebratory meal, to keep the very cynical humor going when the going gets bloody.
While the score by Ilan Eshkeri and Lisa Gerrard is very effective, the British pop song selections, even in the background as helping to establish flashback periods, are choice. (5/30/2005)
I read the novel to get a few plot points straight and discovered a marvelous world!
It's written as if by a participant observer in an anthropological study of an alien world. The rich, scabrous slang, much of it Cockney updated or for all I know Connolly has invented his own even more profane version, can be interpreted more easily visually than in the film and the character studies are even funnier and more pungent, including more racial elements, as master storytellers provide delicious details that seem to be passing the time but are crucial plot elements or revelations.
It's also less confusing, as you find out information the same time as the lead character, rather than the movie's flash around technique where the audience knows the "McGuffin". Even knowing the plot, the book is a wonderful read for the use of language, characterizations and atmosphere. Or waxing philosophical as in the "good simple home cookin" of the "fuckin deep thinker" thug who advises about "the three eyes, remember the three eyes": "He used to say that your intelligence, your imagination and your integrity are yours and yours alone and no cunt [Brits use this term more generally than Americans] can make you give them up unless you want to. You can give them away, you can sell them to the highest bidder, you can let people think that they've got you where they want you, but you know you got a different deal going on in your head, and all the time you're letting them believe what they fuckin wanna believe, you, and you alone, know different."
And the titular sage view of the world in the film comes straight from the book, though here it's delivered near a conclusion that cynically goes past the movie: "You're born, you take shit, get out in the world, take shit, you climb higher, take less shit. The higher you climb, the less shit you take, till one day you get up in the rarefied atmosphere and you've forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son."(6/21/2005)
Kontroll could be as much set in a completely realized futuristic totalitarian city as it is in the contemporary Bucharest subway system.
It feels like a cross between Walter Hill's classic subway chase movie The Warriors and the chilly urban sci fi of Gattaca, with underground cinematography that looks like the grittiness of Sin City without special effects.
Despite an opening disclaimer from the transit authority that may or may not be official, the movie projects the subway system as a Soviet style relic with an odd waste of full employment slacker ticket checkers, or controllers, literally operating as gangs, who could be efficiently replaced by an automated system. They are as much in conflict with their bosses, who they call "The Gestapo Suits", as they are with the abusive denizens of the trains who resent paying for the dirty, lousy service.
The captivating atmospherics are stronger than the picaresque story line of a system haunted by death and violence as we follow a particular motley crew of misfits, led by the charismatic Sándor Csányi, who is a cross between Clive Owen and Goran Visnjic of E.R. His conquering of his post-breakdown fear, guilt and isolation for some kind of salvation amidst the psychological damage they are all suffering provides the film's arc. All the actors have wonderfully expressive faces and create distinct individuals.
The debut American writer/director Nimród Antal dedicates the film to his father and the father figure in the film adds a family element to the stark, grungy surroundings, as does the sweet romance with a gamine.
But the cryptic symbolism gets too heavy, from costumed characters amidst the commuters, ravers, rebels and criminals to a mysterious reappearing owl as reality crosses with dream sequences.
The music by Neo is throbbingly propulsive. As neither the credits nor the official Web site were translated into English, I could not identify the dynamic rock and electronica song selections, even though many of them had English lyrics. (4/15/2005)
Sin City is a sizzling tribute to the impact of 1930's noir fiction on popular culture imagery.
So it was amusing that my husband and I were more than twice the age of the other audience members and we were enjoying laughing out loud to the satirical references that none of them seemed to get. I hope all the attention to the violence won't keep away other people who are old enough to remember the roots of graphic novels in the hard-boiled detective in a corrupt city book and movie genre, as the film is actually much less gory than Kill Bill and such action films as Assault on Precinct 13 and has a lot in common with L.A. Confidential.
While the crimes that are described or committed are macabrely heinous, descending from the progenitor noir M, we actually don't see them directly, as the camera either pulls away or we see them in silhouette or after. So it is the power of your imagination that turns your stomach.
Imagination is set free in a highly stylized, mostly black and white universe beget by Metropolis and much more effectively realized here than any of the Batman movies, as color, particularly blood red, only appears for emphasis. As the intersecting stories flash back and forward, we also find that some of the characters actually survive their tortures, albeit transformed physically or psychologically.
Most of the actors fit into the hyper-reality of this fictional world, particularly Bruce Willis, a sinuous Jessica Alba and virtually unrecognizable Mickey Rourke and Benicio Del Toro. The planes of Clive Owen's and Rosario Dawson's faces look great but they are having so much fun playing atypical roles that they can't keep the requisite straight faces and don't generate the necessary chemistry. Owen's Brit accent slips in occasionally (I was wondering if like Hugh Laurie's qualms in House, M.D. that those sentences had a lot of R's in them) while Dawson does have to wear what must be the most uncomfortable thongs and stiletto heels.
The women's position in this society and therefore in the film is of course problematical. While the only opportunities for women are as scantily clad bar maids, entertainers or prostitutes, we're supposed to respect that they have brokered empowerment among the powers that be to run their own businesses that capitalize on men's baser needs, as well as having an overly stereotyped mysterious Asian assassin as one of their own. They are the fulcrum of the film as their exaggerated knights errant are obsessed to the death with defending them and their hard fought position in exchange for even a little artless affection from them, which raises the view of women here a smidgen above teen boys' comic book fantasies. I haven't yet looked at Frank Miller's source material to know if Alexis Bledel's character originally does call her mom a lot or if that was added for an additional pop culture reference layer to Gilmore Girls, as the dialog and the images are full of such touchstones.
The music is terrifically propulsive in adding to the momentum. But that is just one of the many components that multi-tasker Robert Rodriguez has taken care of himself to create as enveloping and more exciting a visual environment than the The Matrix movies. (4/5/2005)
For another take on what the women are wearing in the film see: Pow! Why Designers Are Mad About the Comics by Eric Wilson in The New York Times, April 5, 2005
Oldboy is a visually exciting update of The Count of Monte Cristo as played out in Korean gangster style.
It is a thrilling ride that dramatically visualizes the revenge theme, much as Memento dazzled the murder mystery genre. Not only does the script, co-written by the director, create realism out of fantasy like Dumas's story, but each scene tops the next with production design, cinematography, camera movement and striking imagination.
This film makes the case for cinema as a separate art form from literature, even as various proverbs and sayings are repeated with increasing irony. I had not read much about it in advance, other than Quentin Tarantino's understandable enthusiasm, so was alternately reviled by the cruelty and enchanted by balletic juxtapositions, such as what I gather is now considered the classic "corridor scene" that is like The Matrix meets A Night at the Opera.
If the imagery wasn't captivating enough, Min-sik Choi is mesmerizing in a tour de force lead role that demands a ceaseless exploration of emotions from catatonia to hysteria to brutality to tenderness.
Not only do U.S. audiences miss what I'm sure are many keystone cultural references throughout the film, but key dialog is unfortunately exchanged when the subtitles are white-on-white, though I'm fairly sure I was able to infer the details sufficiently to follow the twists and turns of the plot, as for all the breathless flim flam the core revelations become a bit predictable as they recall other infamous noir films even as they go way beyond Dumas.
I could definitely have done without the repeating violent scenes that seemed an unnecessary tribute to Marathon Man, unless this has some resonance for Korean attitudes about teeth (so have referred it to my dad for his monitoring of images of dentistry in popular culture).
The diverse music score is wonderful, both the original elements and the use of classical and other music. (3/31/2005)
Bad Guy (Nabbeun namja) is an earlier film of Ki-duk Kim that is probably being released now in the U.S. due to the success of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom), but fans of that visually entrancing parable should be warned how very different this exploration of the depths of human nature is. The style has some similarity in that there is no exposition and we have to connect images that tell a tale of two very different people over time.
Context is everything as voyeurism keeps repeating along a sexual spectrum of men and women together -- to romantic or erotic or degrading or lustful or violent, full of obsession or love or hate or longing or disgust, whether in prostitution, a relationship, or rape. A key context is emotions and degrees, whether by the man or woman, or mutual, or drained of feeling such that I'm not sure love has any meaning in this film.
There's a recurring use of Egon Schiele's erotic art to make some kind of comparative point about a continuum of sexual images and their effect on the viewer.
The titular character is reminiscent of Quasimodo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame fixating on Esmeralda if he were a psychopathic pimp in, I presume, Seoul's lurid red light district and played by the charismatic Jae-hyeon Jo, like an apolitical Romper Stomper.
I did get a little lost where he fit into the hierarchy of the yakuza-like gangster organization that controls the district, how much authority he has, and who was on top of whom to interpret their obsessions. Some of the encounters we see are presumably his limited fantasies as he miraculously recovers from various violently noble efforts to protect and reach out to the object of his affection that reminded me of the ambiguous ending of Jane Campion's The Piano.
The film explores some of the same territory as the work of Catherine Breillat, but the context seems uneasily different when I'm the only woman in the theater and the director is male, perhaps because the central woman is always an object, even as she pitifully adapts to her various degradations, and even resists being freed from them. All the women in the film treat each other like the men treat them.
According to posters on the IMDb, the closing song is "Blott en dag", a Swedish psalm, written by Linda Sandell. (2/25/2005)
The Machinist demonstrates that Session 9 wasn't the only creepy thriller that Brad Anderson could do.
While M. Night Shyamalan and commercial fare like The Grudge get the attention and the big bucks, Anderson is quietly mastering disturbing, psychologically scary shockers. While the previous movie took advantage of our imaginations leaping around a spooky environment, The Machinist makes our discomfort palpably visual in Christian Bale's painful to look at body, as his character is ravaged by insomnia and loss of appetite; by the end of the movie it's shocking to see his normally handsome face. But all the focus on his astounding weight loss takes away from the other elements in the almost black and white film that make it a scare fest.
The movie establishes The Twilight Zone mood immediately with the soundtrack, which includes generous use of the Theremin, as Hitchcock did in Psycho.
The production design is excellent at supporting the mood. The suspense builds and is sustained through to the satisfying conclusion as you genuinely get involved in Bale's efforts to solve the increasingly mysterious happenings around him. Even though you are pretty sure he could be hallucinating, you are intrigued to figure out the trigger.
Despite looking like a caricature of a Holocaust victim, Bale creates a full character, from the jocular male camaraderie of the factory where he doesn't quite seem to fit in to responding one beat off to the warmth of the two women in his life, a waitress and a prostitute with the an open heart of gold (played, as usual, by Jennifer Jason Leigh, but effectively languid). (11/22/2004)
Enduring Love is a creepy philosophical exploration of what is love in many of its manifestations along the spectrum from a biological imperative to a madness that lacks all reason and how love relates to individual responsibility to a fellow human being.
While there is passing reference to parental love, child’s love, Christian love, and probably some others that went by me, it’s primarily about male feelings and how they appear on a spectrum from romantic love in an equal relationship, to several versions of much older men in love with various less-equal women, from a non-virtually non-verbal au pair, to a student, to a much younger woman who provides a second chance to a grandfather.
The stunning cinematography makes the outlandish realistic and the editing keeps us involved in what is essentially a very cerebral story.
I adore the actor Daniel Craig, but he plays one of those academics whose course topic just happens to be issues he’s dealing with in his personal life, so I guess he’s teaching philosophy but I think the students should demand a refund. His character is meant to represent the contemplative academic man of thought, such that his friend, played by Bill Nye, can express surprise that he acted “like an action hero”, but Craig is so muscular and solid (and has in the past played cops) that the glasses are not enough to make us surprised when he responds viscerally and physically in life-threatening situations. So I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be surprised or not. Or is he supposed to be an Everyman that we’re to identify with to answer the question “what would we do in such a situation?” He does portray very well his increasing deterioration and haggardness due to be continually harassed by a stalker.
It’s nice to see Samantha Morton with hair and a svelte body, even if both are movie magic.(11/7/2004)
I'm late in discovering the Hong Kong crime thriller genre so I can only compare Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao) to its Hollywood compatriots. It grippingly is the equal of such intense examinations of the anguish of undercover cops as Donnie Brascoe or dirty cops such as Narc and Training Day.
Key is the dynamic opposite pairing of two leonine, charismatic actors, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, the self-sacrificing heart throb from Hero (Ying xiong) and the languid lover from In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa) here as an antsy, anguished too long undercover cop versus Andy Lau as his crisply efficient, ambitious counterpart.
The plot, propelled as well by the music, unpredictably twists and takes hairpin turns from the beginning so that even with helpful flashbacks it's a thrilling roller coaster ride to try to follow the constantly changing loyalties, manipulations, deals and revelations, not unlike the TV series The Wire. Regardless, you get that the real battle is for the characters' souls as much as their lives and you hold your breath to the last surprising minute.
The initial motivations for how the men came to be at this crossroads will doubtless be explored in the prequel and sequel that haven't been released in the U.S. yet.
The women are just the girlfriends, but they do have separate lives, jobs and choices that impact the men in their lives.
With noted cinematographer Christopher Doyle listed as a "visual consultant" in the credits, the great bulk of the film takes place at night, like a comparable chase film Collateral, so it was unfortunate that the print I saw was not pristine. It was also annoying that the subtitles were white on white illegible and that ideograms that are shown in the scenes are not translated, even when the camera rests on them for a length of time that makes one assume something significant is written there.
The two leads are also pop stars and sing on the soundtrack.(10/15/2004)
Criminal is an adequate Americanization of one of my favorite films of 2002, the delightfully twisty Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas).
Adapter/debut director Gregory Jacobs doesn't quite make up for the extra tension that Argentina's financial chaos added as an urgent back drop.
Some of the twists are too smoothly straightened out by focusing more on the older con man, here played by John C. Reilly, and his sister, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal without the original's sensuality, despite her low cut blouse.
Diego Luna is a mite young, but he's cast to turn Reilly's character into more of a manipulative mentor and less an apparent partner.
On its own, without comparison to the original, it's an amusing and workmanlike update of The Sting crossed with The Grifters. (9/21/2004)
Red Lights (Feux rouges) borrows from several recent international films. It starts out a lot like the weekend prep and traffic jam of Friday Night (Vendredi Soir). It then combines the territory better traveled by the Dutch film "The Vanishing (Spoorloos)" crossed by With A Friend Like Harry (Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien).
When it keeps up the Hitchcockian tension of an everyman bit-by-bit under siege, the anticipation grips your attention. But the lying, alcoholic nebbish at the center is ultimately unsympathetic.
I don't know if the Georges Simenon novel it is based on is dated or is so furious at the wife's comparative success as a corporate lawyer, but the guy actually seems deserving of her scorn. I don't think his stupid, drunken actions accidentally make him any more of a man, let alone justify the catharsis all seem to have gone through. (9/15/2004)
Collateral is a cool looking and sounding night odyssey. Very similar in feel to director Michael Mann's Heat, it is an extended chase scene between wary opponents, in this case two classes of adversaries.
One is the involuntary opponent, Jamie Foxx, doing mild-mannered surprisingly well, as the Hitchcockian ordinary-man-rising-to-extraordinary cab driver; he uses his comic talents quite believably in one scene where he has to mimic Tom Cruise's Special Forces-turned-hit-man mode of talking.
The other is law enforcement as they belatedly figure out what's going on, and provide the exposition explanations for the viewer. I wouldn't have recognized greased down Mark Ruffalo if I hadn't seen him doing a Tonight Show promo spoiler for the film.
Cruise is very effective here as a coiled, well organized villain, where, as in Magnolia, he can't just use his now boring grin and movie star hero stance and Mann is not intimidated by him in shot placement (even though Cruise has something like five assistants and personal specialists listed in the credits).
The mise en scene rules, with sharp editing by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell, especially in a climactic nightclub scene where I lost track of the body count. A couple of more conventionally blazing action sequences follow (and I'm pretty sure the L.A. subway doesn't run so late at night).
There are many amusing references to other movies quietly dropped in with a straight face as being part of the characters' make-up, such as from Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, and Speed, and pop culture in general, such as references to Cruise's height and an island photo on the visor from an old TV commercial.
The CD soundtrack only samples the complex musical selections (though it does include the Calexico song) and pounding mood setting that could be by James Newton Howard but more likely by Howard Zachary Koretz or Antonio Pinto. There was one disconnect when the soundtrack is clearly playing neo-soul by someone like Ellis Hooks or Van Hunt or Ricky Fante that's not on the CD, yet Foxx's driver is talking about "the classics" coming out of his radio so I thought he meant Old School Soul but the conversation confusingly moved on to classical music.
This movie is definitely better seen and heard on a big screen than it will be on DVD or television. (8/10/2004)
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead looks like a traditional film noir with plot points updated for today's frankness.
While the script by Trevor Preston doesn't completely make sense in its pay off (but then The Big Sleep doesn't either and that's become almost de rigeur in such films), the gliding direction by Mike Hodges keeps the suspense fluid and involving, with a focus more on character than story.
Like Bogey, Clive Owens's "Will Graham" is reluctantly brought into the murky maelstrom by the need for Truth and Vengeance, here on behalf of his much younger brother (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in a visually and character-wise dark role, when he could have opted like American actors to live off silly teen hunk movies after Bend It Like Beckham).
While there's no femme fatale, Charlotte Rampling, as welcome as she always is on screen, is brought in for confusing leverage -- but I could not figure out if she was the brothers' mum or Clive's much older lover from his rejected murderous past.
Simon Fisher-Turner's music particularly aids in building the mood and tension. (6/6/2004)
I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura) has a lot in common with the recent Russian film The Return (Vozvrashcheniye).
Both start off with poor pre-teen boys' bullying games that then intersect with their returning fathers' parallel adult realities. The contrasting conclusions reflect different national temperaments and the possible political messages in the films.
A major difference is the look that surrounds the contrasts between childhood innocence and male brutishness (abetted by cowed female complicity), where the Russian film is practically in a frigid black and white, the Italian film has the lush, sentimental cinematography of Italo Petriccione, who also worked with director Gabriele Salvatores on the dreamily beautiful Mediterraneo.
The suspenseful thriller aspects roped me in, though the tension was undercut a bit by the Lavender Hill Mob antics of the conspirators, but the bumbling added to an uneasy feeling of unpredictability, aided by the suspenseful music by Ezio Bosso and Pepo Scherman.
We literally see the happenings through the eyes of the children, which is helped enormously by the unusually expressive and naturalistic child actors Giuseppe Cristiano and Mattia Di Pierro. (6/6/2004)
Young Adam opens on a coal barge in a murky river that could be out of a Victorian novel, like Mill on the Floss, and only gradually in the film is a specific time period, just past WWII, established.
Through flashbacks that unfold as pinpricks on his consciousness, we see that Ewan McGregor's "Joe" has a lot in common with amoral characters from even darker novels, shades of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser's An American Tragedy, who became George Eastman in A Place in the Sun.
McGregor's palpable charisma, which has been stifled in lightweight material lately, makes his callous, and explicit, sexual conquests quite believable. Tilda Swinton and Emily Mortimer respond bravely in kind as women who provoke him from his reading and writing into action.
But for what purpose other than immediate gratification and selfishness as he just drifts from one accidental sensual opportunity to another? The only oblique explanation for the title is that the barge is named "Eve" and that "Joe"'s sins have led him to fall from middle-class gigolo to working-class.
The production design is excellent at establishing clean/unclean motifs for constant dirt and grime to wash off and neat environments --and people-- that become filthy.
David Byrne did the atmospheric music and closing song and Dick Gaughan selected the brief snatches of traditional songs.
While three of the leads are either born or living in Scotland where the film is set, it is unusual for that setting that I could actually understand what the actors were saying without subtitles. (5/18/2004)
Close Your Eyes (a.k.a. Doctor Sleep, also the title of the original book by Madison Smartt Bell) is a taut little spooky thriller for grown-ups that is very much in the mode of The X Files, including its emphasis on the occult and telepathy, or The Others.
The noisy teen-agers in the back row of the Times Square theater where I saw it were vocally disappointed in its emphasis on the psychological over extreme gore, though there is some onscreen violence.
The various accents of the co-stars are explained nicely and their interactions are not at all cliché as we do not get the usual side stories.
Goran Visnjic does the best handsome, sleepy-eyed, insomniac since Al Pacino in the remake of Insomnia (U.S.) and, for E.R. fans, you do get to hear him do a line or two in Croatian, but even his character complains about no sex though he's married to Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's "Eowyn" (Miranda Otto).
Shirley Henderson is nicely brittle as an anxious cop, amidst the otherwise usual Brits from gritty British mysteries. Paddy Considine, the Da of In America is suitably different here as a pale weirdo.
The trick ending could lead to a sequel.
Simon Boswell, who has done the music for a lot of noir movies, does a nicely spine tingly soundtrack here. (4/27/2994)
The Reckoning is like a very dark Cadfael episode (though I've only seen the TV episodes with Derek Jacobi and not read the books by Ellis Peters so maybe the books are more serious).
It's a medieval competently intriguing CSI with an overlay of arty "a ha!" as a troupe of traveling players learn the power of contemporary theater to reveal truth and impact politics. At least I assume the latter is the excuse for the extraneous shots of Willem Dafoe's sinuous body doing warm-up exercises.
While of course we have no idea how English was spoken in 1380, the polyglot mishmash of accents (and hair cuts) was still confusing (not counting the Norman lord who made sense played as a lascivious Frenchman). Usually in Brit films and TV even though I can't tell a Manchester accent from Cornwall, I can at least infer class differences and I was surprised, for example, that the players couldn't tell how posh runaway priest Paul Bettany sounded as he claimed to be a laborer. Though Matthew MacFadyen of MI-5 (Spooks) acquitted himself well in the costume and longer hair of "King's Justice," he just sounded too contemporary to me, like when Harvey Keitel takes on historical drama.
There was some historical background in an introduction, but I was surprised to hear the usual conclusion as in a "Robin Hood" movie: "When King Richard gets home. . ."
Given that the entire story takes place in the gloom and snow, I was also surprised to see that they'd filmed it mostly in Spain and a credit given for the brand of sun block they used. (3/14/2004)
On the Run (Cavale) is the first third of an engrossing experiment in story telling that crosses Rashomon with a television miniseries to show us an ensemble of intersecting characters over a couple of days to gradually reveal the complicated truth about each.
Writer/director Lucas Belvaux uses a clever technique to communicate just how differently the characters perceive the same situations-- they are literally in different movies and, a la Rules of the Game, everyone has their reasons.
On the Run is a tense, fast-paced escaped con on-the-run Raoul Walsh-feeling film, with the auteur himself playing a Humphrey Bogart-type who can be cruel or kind; An Amazing Couple (Un couple épatant) is an Ernst Lubitsch-inspired laugh-out-loud comedy of mistaken communication; and After the Life (Après la vie) is a Sidney Lumet-feeling gritty, conflicted cop melodrama with seamy and tender moments.
Time Code experimented turning the two-dimensions of film into three with multiple digital video screens. This trilogy is more effective in showing us what happens as characters leave the frame. Belvaux goes beyond the techniques used in the cancelled TV series Boomtown or the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu in Amores Perros and 21 Grams with their stream-of-consciousness flashbacks character by character.
I don't see how I can deal with each film separately. Theoretically, one can see the three movies alone or independently out of order, but that would be like watching one episode of a series like The Wire
or The Sopranos and wondering what the big deal is. Only a handful of patrons in my theater joined me in a one-day triple-feature; I guess the others have a better memory than I do that they could see each film on separate days, though a marathon does inevitably lead to some mind-wandering that could miss important clues and revelations so this is ideal for a triple-packed DVD.
On DVD we'll be able to replay the excellent acting to see if in fact the actors do shade their performances differently when particular scenes are enacted from different characters' viewpoints -- are these takes from the same staging or not? How is each subtly different that we get a different impression each time? Or are we bringing our increasing knowledge (and constantly changing sympathies) about each character to our impressions of the repeating scenes?
One reason this conceit works is because of the unifying theme of obsession - each character is so completely single-minded in their focus on one issue that they are blind to what else is happening even as they evolve to find catharsis. One is literally a heroin addict, but each has their psychological addiction (revenge, co-dependence, hypochondria, jealousy).
The slow revelation technique also works because of the parallel theme of aging and acceptance of the consequences of their actions, as some can face how they have changed and some can't change. You need to see all three films to learn about each character's past and conclusion, as secondary characters in one film are thrust to the fore in another in explaining a key piece of motivation.
The only place they really interchange is in an ironically, meaningless political debate at the public high school they each have some tie to.(2/29/2004)
It is not just Charlize Theron's deNiro in Raging Bull-like transformation that makes Monster so mesmerizing, but her total performance.
Not since Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry has an actress so completely inhabited such an unlikely role, completely overshadowing Nicole's nose, accent and voice register change in The Hours.
But how on earth did writer/director Patty Jenkins know that Theron could do this? There is zero else in her previous resume by any stretch of the imagination to think that her previous fluff prepared her for this. I understand Theron coming on as producer to convince everyone else and I assume it was her connections that got a first-time director noted character actors for bit male roles by Bruce Dern, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Lee Tergesen showing what he learned in Oz.
This is not just a tour de force performance but is within a brilliant examination of a truly disturbed yet desperately love-tropic person. We gradually get inside her traumatized head as she ceases to be able to distinguish between victim and predator due to early and continuing abuse that renders her barely even able to function in the demi-monde let alone mainstream society. The attention stays on the character study and barely shows the violence and gore, but rather the impact of its aftermath.
There has been less attention to Christina Ricci's excellent supporting role as her very confused and dependent companion only because she has a history of doing odd-ball indie films alternating with her mainstream Hollywood work.
The score by electronic dance music's BT is excellent, as are the incisive selections of period power pop. (1/18/2004)
La Fleur du mal (Flower of Evil) " is so ineffably French that it's impossible for an American to fully grasp all the subtleties.
For example, I'm quite sure the title is a Baudelaire reference that I don't get the full import of, rather than of horticultural symbolism. I was thinking that the young hunk Benoît Magimel was looking particularly appealing from his opening arrival, but then realized that his snug jeans and sneakers were supposed to continually visually represent the foreign look he'd adopted after fleeing to America for several years.
The sins of the fathers theme in politics is also diluted from a U.S. perspective, where each generation re-invents itself, such that a bootlegger's son becomes a revered president and a Nazi's son can become governor.
So the motivations are blunted for us and what's left is a complicated, spooky family drama of generational and blended family attractions and repulsions that may involve incest or at least some other creepiness.
What is certain from the opening shots is that dead bodies seem to be able to be explained away. ( 11/2/2003)
Wonderland is in effect a follow-up to Boogie Nights in showing the gritty downfall of a porn king legend that the prior movie showed the glitzy rise up.
While the story line is pretty much a manipulative Rashomon-like re-telling of bloody multiple murders to point fingers despite acquittals at the trials, the production and cinematography style are dazzling and accurately reflective of its '80's period, particularly through the excellent music selections, including Bernard Herrmann excerpts from Taxi Driver (except for one Billy Joel cut that didn't seem these folks taste).
We get to see actors who are virtually unrecognizable in these personas, from Dylan McDermott (not until you hear his voice do you realize that long-haired, tattooed ruffian is from The Practice), Janeane Garofalo and Christina Applegate as drugged-out girlfriends, Josh Lucas way more villainous than even in The Hulk, Lisa Kudrow as a staid wife in an odd three-way loyalty, Carrie Fisher as a religious fanatic, Eric Bogosian as an Arab gangster and Tim Blake Nelson definitely not-comic. Props must go to the lengthy list of hair, make-up and production designers, with special note that Val Kilmer had a way more realistic hair design this time than in the The Doors.
As the women survivors gave permissions for director/co-writer James Cox to use their true stories, there is a theme of very young (dumb) women mesmerized by domineering men that releases them from culpable behavior, but this certainly is Requiem for a Dream-like in showing that drugs are bad and lead to disgusting, degrading behavior.
The film does not make clear if it was sloppy police work or legal maneuvering that led to the slippery legal results. (10/19/2003)
Dirty Pretty Things returns director Stephen Frears to the multi-ethnic, working class Britain of his early success My Beautiful Laundrette, but now he's looking at illegal immigrants from countries that were not part of the British Empire and are therefore even more desperate.
It is a shadow world of fear more commonly shown in American films than British ones -- and that's without including any information of how they got there, what with the news full of crushed train-runners in the Chunnel and limp smuggled bodies in trucks and boats. Audrey Tatou is far from the gamine American audiences were first introduced to, as a prickly Turkish immigrant.
The plot has twisty and intricate double-crosses that reminded me of the old sci fi movie Coma, not just natives vs. immigrants, but frequently fellow immigrants manipulating, abusing and taking advantage of others lower on the food chain as they use every possible trick to survive.
While we get a glimpse at the very complex motivations of the push/pull driving immigration, from social and religious restrictions to political refugees to just plain economic betterment, er-- greed, there is a bit too much of the Noble Immigrant vs. the venal Nativists, culminating in a very explicit statement of assertion that could be straight from the mouth of John Steinbeck's Tom Joad: "We are the invisible ones who clean your rooms, suck your dicks" etc. But they are individuated and we care for the individuals very much.
As far as I could tell, the title is not explicitly referred to, but the accents are frequently difficult to decode. (8/31/2003)
In Swimming Pool both director François Ozon and Charlotte Rampling's murder mystery author may be playing to get a new audience via ogling Ludivine Sagnier, who could revive the cliché "nubile young starlet romps naked."
Who is Ozon commenting on as the camera oozes over that tawny taut body, searching for secrets? As she flaunts her blonde Gallic sexuality under the brilliant sun and full moon and tempts Rampling's uptight British old maid who flees rainy London for the bucolic French countryside, we are also drawn across the border into twisty turnabout.
The trick ending puts the movie into a certain Genre That Cannot Be Named without giving it all away. The film may be a droll stab at why it is that the British are known for producing so many detective novels. (7/20/2003)
Identity not only plays on stereotypes, it considers them classic references -- the dark and stormy night setting at a run-down desert motel with a snarky manager, strangers with secrets gathering, and so on -- that let you in on the jokes and twists for an entertaining pretzel.
I hope the DVD will have footnotes for all the intentional movie references, from Psycho,, to Three Faces of Eve, 10 Little Indians, and even Sunset Boulevard, etc.
I'm sure others guessed the ending, but I kept being distracted enough to not think that far ahead.
This could just have easily been a cable TV movie or PBS Mystery episode, but the "A" list cast, including John Cusack and Ray Liotta, classes the joint up. I assume Amanda Peet appreciated finally being able to keep her blouse on in a movie, even if she is playing a prostitute.
Good production design for that seedy motel and the music doesn't interfere.
This will make a nice spooky video rental when you're in the mood. (5/10/2003)
Hard Word is a gritty, sexy, Australian take on the double-crossing heist movie.
We get to hear Guy Pearce (long-haired and greasy) and Rachel Griffiths (blonde and wet) go native in their accents in an entertainingly original script by first-time director Scott Roberts.
While not the first film to have quirky brothers-in-crime as the comfortable loyalty fulcrum, the familial psychological pathologies make for a nice counterpoint to the friends', foes' and femme fatale's twists and turns. There's more jokes and ironic humor than even the violence, which helps to block out some quizzical plot turns.
The movie never tells us that the title is Ozzie slang, among other blunt phrases used throughout (such as the tendency of Ozzie blokes to affectionately call each other the "c" word). My Down Under friend Bronwyn translates (used with her permission): "In its 'ultimate' usage it means to pressure someone for sex. If you were talking to a girlfriend who went out on a date with someone new, you might ask 'did he put the hard word on?' However, it is sometimes also used just in a general sense of exerting pressure. In fact, it was in a headline in our local suburban paper (The Leader) yesterday: 'Minister puts the hard word on district pollies [politicians].' An article about the State Minister for Local Government pushing the local councils to sort out boundary reforms." (7/15/2003)
The trailer for The Dancer Upstairs, which rain endlessly for months in advance at my local art house, and the reviews, etc., have emphasized this as a political thriller. But in fact it's really in the tradition of Casablanca, where politics is a constant background to only part of the hero's motivation. I did expect someone to say "Round up the usual suspects!"
Awkwardly in this day and age, the Latino actors in the film's unnamed Latin American country (it was filmed in Ecuador and Madrid) all speak (accented) English, with subtitles to indicate when characters are speaking an Indian dialect, i.e. when the hero lawyer/detective is using his heritage to solve the complex case of politically-motivated murders.
But it's the complex layers that make this more interesting than Costa-Gavras' didactic State of Siege that is repeatedly referred to as an inspiration, both to director John Malkovich and the revolutionaries, and making this akin to HBO's The Wire in showing how a flawed cop can stick to his professionalism amidst deadly-serious bureaucratic and real politics.
The cop's simplistically drawn Beverly Hills matron-type wife turns out to incidentally help him uncover a clue, as he gradually comprehends the cynicism of a revolution that uses unexpected types of cells for suicide missions, with resonance for the Mideast as well, as ideologues are more diabolically dangerous than criminals.
That the dancer is actually downstairs is emblematic of the film's genre confusion. (6/22/2003)
The Good Thief is a classier one-last-great-heist film than Ocean's 11, in a more exotic Riviera locale with grittier repartee and well-worn actors with many different accents.
The long-time camaraderie among crooks and cops is comfortably reflected, though much back story has to be stretched to explain why American Nick Nolte fits in.
Based on a 1955 French film I haven't seen, Bob le flambeur, I don't know how much Neil Jordan changed from the original. It has the kind of twists and turns that has strangers in the audience turning to each other at the end to compare notes. Really odd that Ralph Fiennes's cameo is uncredited, as he's terrific, and much more effective here as a leonine cynic than as a romantic in Maid in Manhattan.
This has the most creative transsexual character since Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and neat use of the Polish brothers.
Jordan resists another male fantasy until the end when Nolte finally pairs up with the seductive teen-ager who conveniently announces she has just turned 18 so he can't add statutory rape to his rap sheet. Oh, so then we're supposed to feel happy ever after.
Very nice world-weary multi-lingual soundtrack, including Serge Gainsburg and Leonard Cohen. (4/20/2003)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an effective noir satire.
The faux reality of Chuck Barris's TV shows make for a good transit point between his two mental worlds. His just-in-it-for-the-money schlock shows were so prescient for the "reality" television actually on the air waves now that it puts his Cold War paranoia in relief as equally prescient for a post 9/11 world.
Sam Rockwell makes Barris almost too likeable and sympathetic, other than his habitual philandering, which could be just as much a fantasy as there's a psychological explanation given for his urgent need to be macho. While it actually would make sense for the CIA to use a nebbish as a spy to blend into the background, George Clooney's directorial debut accents the satirical elements in Charlie Kaufman's script with heightened stylizations between what might be real and what might be fantasy.
The production and costume design perfectly capture the period, even better than in the flashier Catch Me If You Can, including the use of American Bandstand which is shown more accurately here than on NBC's sentimental "American Dream."
The to-the-camera testimonials from Barris's colleagues, including Dick Clark, are an amusing reference to Reds, as if his exploits were as significant as John Reed's during the Russian Revolution.
Clooney's exaggerated on-screen spy handler and Julia Roberts's ridiculous femme fatale make Drew Barrymore seem wholesomely normal, thereby accenting the divisions between Barris's worlds. Clooney's Ocean's 11 pals Brad Pitt and Matt Damon provide cameo visual jokes. (2/8/2003)
Narc is a gritty police whodunit effectively set in the Detroit drug wars.
Jason Patric and Ray Liotta are terrific as narcotic detectives who get consumed by a cop-killer case.
All the technical credits are excellent (though I did get a little lost some times on complicated plot points in dialog I couldn't quite catch), especially in the contrasting cinematography between the warmth and security of home and the dirty gray risks of the job.