Swank’s On A Plane

AMELIA (Dir. Mira Nair, 2009)

It’s apparent up front that 2 time Oscar winner Hillary Swank has the right stuff to step into the shoes of world famous American aviatrix Amelia Earhart. She’s got the tiny waif-like frame, the smiling eyes, and, yes, the big teeth. She infuses Earhart with the tom boy pluck of a young Katherine Hepburn; a fierce independently willed woman fighting to make a name for herself in a man’s world. Unfortunately the movie she anchors was assembled according to the rulebook for Conventional Biopic 101.

The basic obligatory biopic formula rules are as follows: You start near the end of your subject’s life and then flash back through the greatest hits. You show your subject as a child when the light of inspiration first flashed through their eyes. You have a montage showing when your subject first got famous – here it’s a sweep through ticker-tape parade spectacle, press quotes, and re-staging of well known photographs.

You then get the rough patches with the subject rising above marital discord and the doubts of peers before your ostensibly emotional finale. At the very end you show historic footage of the real person and folks leave the theater thinking they’ve seen a noble tribute to your subject. Then you sit back and wait for your Academy Award.

So there are no surprises in this by-the-book biopic but it’s fair to say that nobody was expecting any. Mira Nair makes competently crafted films and on the surface this is a good looking and well acted work. It’s just that the pure passion and sense of purpose to make this project fly (sorry) are sorely missing.

Swank reaches for passion and comes close at times, especially when she tells her promoter turned romantic pursuer George Putnam played by Richard Gere that she must be free – “a vagabond of the air.” But beyond that she’s got nothing but strained cock pit close-ups and there’s not enough to latch onto throughout the broad strokes.

Despite some fleeting charm, Earhart’s alleged affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) particularly has little effect. Gere is too wooden as the jilted husband to make us care so the infidelity comes off as an inconvenience not heartbreak. The flying sequences are beautifully shot though, with gusto and suspense hinting at a movie that could’ve been if the rest of it been given the same Oomph.

Because it so aesthetically fits the Academy mold, AMELIA may still come home with some gold. Swank is sure to be nominated but I’ll be shocked if this film gets anywhere close to a Best Picture nod. See? That’s what it all comes down to. Through all the hype and noble trappings, this is just formula biopic Oscar bait – nothing more.

More later…

Dylan Mythology Dissected Magnificently

“It has chaos, clocks, watermelons…you know what I’m sayin’…it’s everything.”

I’M NOT THERE (Dir. Todd Haynes, 2007) It’s funny that the upcoming WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (the Judd Apatow written and produced comic mock epic with John C. Reilly as the lead) proposes to set fire to the tried and true clichés of modern music bio-pics because after the exciting experimental experience that is I’M NOT THERE those worn methods are already ashes. As most reading this know well by now Bob Dylan is portrayed by 6 different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw) who embody the man in different distinct eras and incarnations. Each has a different name, a different attitude, and of course, a different aesthetic. It may seem weird or even a bit pretentious in concept to cast a young black kid as a box-car hopping tall-tale telling pre-fame Dylan or an Australian Academy Award winning woman to play his Bobness at the height of his amphetamine-fueled rock star glory but the way it’s played out here is mindboggling in its magnificence.

The finger-pointing protesting period provides the always up to the task Christian Bale with the Bob with most conscience through separate eras one – political and one intensely religious. Gere’s Billy The Kid hiding from society persona seems to be the Dylan who is the most free – or at least pretending to be. Seemingly drawn from a tapestry woven from words spoken in every Dylan interview, every song in Dylan’s catalogue being official or bootleg, and every single photograph or footage of the real man, some of the most affecting moments are the quietest. When Gere’s Billy-variation-on-Bob surveys the vast unpopulated wilderness beneath him from a high mountain trail a notion of what Greil Marcus called the “Invisible Republic” can be sensed. That however is the musing of a Dylanologist like myself – someone who can’t quote Bob chapter and verse may find that and other sequences slow and hard to decipher. Man, I pity those people.

Cate Blanchet as Jude has the most amusing and electric (yep, I went there) material and her presence in the black and white as-if-filmed-by-Fellini mid-60’s montages never falters. As many have remarked she may look and act the most like Dylan – at that particular time that is. She has obviously studied DON’T LOOK BACK so she has every mannerism perfected -right down to the handling of a cigarette and the frantic on-stage flailing of arms. Blanchett’s Jude is the most hostile and cornered of all the Dylans. If you’ve seen NO DIRECTION HOME or have at least heard the leering lyrical equivalent to acid being thrown into a former lover’s face ditty “Positively 4th Street” – you may have an inkling why.Ben Whishaw as Arthur is the Bob with the least impact and screen-time. He simply recites carefully chosen media-taunting cryptic one liners from the public record. While the quotes are good – he’s my vote for the weakest link here. Ledger’s section (or sections as the structure gets broken up quite frequently) in which he plays an actor playing Bob (or actually Jack – Christian Bale’s character) has a lot of merit with its discomforting domestic bliss breakdown and break-up intertwined with a Vietnam war time-frame but it’s not as well visualized and vital as Blanchett’s or even Gere’s portions. Marcus Carl Franklin’s bits are achingly sweet and for the youngest player here – his assured poise transcends any thought of gimmick casting. Other than the Dylans, the supporting cast is splendid – David Cross as Allen Ginsberg, Julianne Moore wonderfully mimics Joan Baez, and Bruce Greenword beautifully personifies the over-educated but still clueless interviewer / interrogator Mr. Jones from Dylan’s classic “Ballad Of A Thin Man”.

Filled with mostly Bob originals and a number of great sharp covers, the soundtrack * is spectacular but that’s far from surprising. What is surprising is how this perverse take on the bio-pic formula works so damn well and how hypnotic its effect is. One shouldn’t go see it to make sense of the myths or to put into any concrete cinematic context the life of Bob Dylan (director/writer Todd Haynes knew going in that that’s impossible) but if one views it like a piece of modern art – where you have to squint to make certain parts focus and you have to open your eyes wide to see how distorted the details really are – they are certain to get more than just mere glimpses at greatness.

* As I suspected the bulk of the covers that make up the 2 disc so-called soundtrack (previously reviewed – Film Babble Blog 11/10/07 I’M NOT THERE Soundtrack Is Where It’s At) are not featured in the movie. The amount of original Dylan recordings used could make up a nice alternate/actually accurate soundtrack – hey, now there’s an idea for a great CDR comp!

More later…

Some Fall New Release DVDs If You Please

Catching up on some new DVDs fresh out of the red Netflix envelope into my DVD player then onto my blog. Let’s start with yet another movie I recently regretted missing at the theater :

NO END IN SIGHT (Dir. Charles Ferguson, 2007) I was not the only one that missed this one in its brief limited release – from what I’ve heard it played to mostly empty theaters. Seems like most are tapped out when it comes to another liberal hatin’ on Bush anti-war documentary so folks stayed away in droves. That’s a damn shame because this is such a different animal than such staples as FAHRENHEIT 9/11 or WHY WE FIGHT in that it gives us much more of a precise and sobering overview of the war in Iraq from one horrible decision to the next. Campbell Scott’s straight narration (some have called it flat but I think it has more gusto than that) lies over the many interviewees that this manifesto is mostly made of. The ones interviewed are so high up in there that it can’t be denied – sorting out the good guys from the bad can be quite a game – I figure Colonel Paul Hughes who was director of strategic policy for the U.S. occupation in 2003 to be one of the good guys; Walter Slocombe (who comes across as a ‘dumbfuck’ as Natalie Maines would say) – senior advisor for National Security and Defense and head of CPA is, by my guess, one of the bad guys.

It’s funny how the line – “refused to be interviewed for this film” is so dramatically used again and again but not so funny when it pertains to administrator of the CPA L. Paul Bremer (whose 3 central mistakes make up the bulk of this film’s crux), Dick Cheney, Condolezza Rice and asshole golden boy Donald Rumsfeld whose glib remarks like “I don’t do quagmires” will anger any reasonable human. Less a ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN than a All Satan’s Men this documentary is the definition of ‘incendiary’. As a blogger pretending to be a substantial film critic I would say this is a “must see” but as a guy watching this in an apartment sitting on a couch with a cat – I just can’t help from tearing up.

MR. BROOKS (Dir. Bruce A Evans, 2007) Without a doubt the best Kevin Costner film in ages, yeah I know that’s not saying a lot but hear (or read) me out. Costner plays Earl Brooks – a box company CEO who is in the dark of night a cold calculating serial killer. His murderous impulses are personified to him and us in the presence of Marshall (William Hurt) – an alter ego or better yet -an evil imaginary friend. After a murder of a young couple in the bed of their townhouse, Mr. Brooks finds himself being blackmailed by a voyeur played by Dane Cook who has compromising photographs (the curtains were left open in the couple’s bedroom). Cook though wants to be a killer himself and wants Mr. Brooks to show him the ropes. This idea scares Brooks but amuses and challenges Marshall so on they go off into the night following a measured but still convoluted scheme. Meanwhile Demi Moore (who is far from believable but that may just be my own personal problem with Moore) as a beleaguered police detective suffering through a tortured and costly divorce is on their trail and Costner’s daughter (Danielle Panabaker) is home from college under mysterious circumstances so the plot thickens. Maybe some would say it gets too thick – in more than one sense of the word.

I am reminded by the late Pauline Kael, several years after she retired from writing, speaking in a Newsweek interview about a little late 90’s dog called THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (starring Al Pacino as the devil disguised as a big-time New York lawyer taunting up-start Keano Reeves). She said that that film had a “hambone quality” to it that she enjoyed. I strongly feel the same thing can be said about MR. BROOKS. It has a lot of meticulously plotted psychological edges but they all frame what is essentially pulp – highly entertaining but kitsch all the same. This is what makes it work though – you don’t employ Dane Cook if you are not aware of the diciness of your material so director Evans and screenwriter partner Raynold Gideon (both collaborated on MADE IN HEAVEN, STARMAN, and STAND BY ME) know what they’re doing to some degree. Costner with his charisma in check coupled with Hurt’s smug leering sociopath repartee and a strangely sober yet almost satirical hold on the material makes MR. BROOKS resemble at more times than I’d like to admit a really good movie. Ham-boned as it is.

THE HOAX (Dir. Lasse Hallström , 2006) Definitely the best Richard Gere film in like…forever! Yeah, I know I played that hand already above but it’s really true. In this tasty tale of a man who lies his way into a major book deal Gere has just the right spin. The man was struggling novelist Clifford Irving and the lie was that he fabricated a book of interviews with Howard Hughes in the early 70’s. Hughes had been reclusive and completely out of the public eye for well over a decade so Irving and proffesional partner Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina) speculate he would not come forward to denounce the project. They also figure that Hughes denies everything anyway so how could they go wrong? The how is a huge part of the fun as is Gere and Molina’s camaradarie. Well cast as well – Marcia Gay Harden as Irving’s exasperated wife and Julie Delphy as actress Nina Van Pallandt as his mistress. THE HOAX takes some truthiness liberties that at times turn towards the surreal – like the people at MacGraw Hill that Irving pitches to – we don’t know what to believe at times especially when supposed Hughes’ hired goons show up at Irving’s door. These fatanstical touches though are carried off in a more successful manner than in George Clooney’s CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND – a likewise questionable adaptation of ‘real’ events. Irving is credited as “technical advisor” on this film but reportedly he disowns it and has denied its accuracy. He really should get over himself! This may be the best thing he’s ever had anything to do with.

More later…