Prestiege Period Piece Pontifications: DOUBT, VALKYRIE, and THE READER

Awards season is officially upon us so I’ve been trying to catch up with all the heavy hitters. Its difficult because a few films haven’t even come to my area yet (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, THE WRESTLER). Thats why a best of 2008 list will have to wait for those whove emailed me asking where it is. In the meantime though, here’s 3 much talked about movies that I have caught up with:

DOUBT (Dir. John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

“Where’s your compassion?” an exasperated Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bellows at Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). “Nowhere you can get at it” she sternly and coldly responds. The unflinching Principal at St. Nicholas in the Bronx is dead certain that the Priest, new to the Parrish, is guilty of an inappropriate relationship with an alter boy (Joseph Foster) who is the school’s only African American. Hoffman’s Father Flynn is accessible, easy-going, and feels the church should be “friendlier” which is all in direct opposition to Streep’s ball busting Beauvier who states: “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow.” Hoffman exhaustingly maintains that he is innocent and refuses to go into detail claiming it was a private matter he discussed with the boy in the rectory, but Streep, based on the snooping reports of Sister James (Amy Adams), will not back down.

Set in 1964, DOUBT is a fairly small scale film. It has a small cast and spare locations with most scenes featuring one-on-one confrontations. What’s big here is the performances. A showdown between great actors is center stage which is fitting because it is based on Shanley’s Tony Award winning off-Broadway play. Though it’s mostly Streep and Hoffman’s show, Viola Davis as the boy in question’s mother has a heartbreaking scene with Streep that undoubtedly should get her nominated for an Oscar. That she appears for only a few minutes should not disqualify – Beatrice Straight took home the award for an equally short amount of valuable screen-time in NETWORK (1976). The amicable Adams has third billing but she does not emotionally stir up the proceedings like Davis does.

There are no shocking revelations or twists in DOUBT and no formulaic liberties are taken. It is simply the no-frills straight telling of a disturbing dilemma with a spotlight on oppressive Mother Superiority. Hoffman, having made no sketchy career choices of late (following the superb BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD with the wondrous SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and then this), confirms he’s one of the top actors working today while Streep adds another notable notch to her distinguished filmography. Shanley’s screenplay serves them well although the brisk summing-up ending left me more than a little dry. Small quibble though, DOUBT delivers a sharp showcase of ace acting chops and while I doubt (sorry) it’ll take home much gold in the current competition it’ll still win over many fans of powerful performances.

VALKYRIE (Dir. Bryan Singer, 2008)

Recalling THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in its opening translation transition, VALKRIE begins in German but the titles and Tom Cruise’s voice-over reciting of a letter he’s writing slowly but fluidly morph into English. In this mini-epic (that is compared to the scale of Singer’s X-MEN or SUPERMAN RETURNS) based on true events from 1945, Cruise portrays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who joins a group of Generals and Counselors in a plot to assassinate Hitler (played by British stage actor David Bramber) and restore Germany’s world standing. Among the plotters are such talented thespians as Kenneth Branaugh, Kevin McNally, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, and oddly enough quirky comedian Eddie Izzard. As a possible roadblock to their resistance is the always reliable Tom Wilkinson as Officer Fredrich Fromm.

The film takes its name from Operation Valkyrie, a plan that uses the Reserve Army to keep amongst the Germany country should Hitler’s communication be disrupted, or should Hitler be killed. Cruise as Stauffenberg, wears an eye patch and is missing his right hand from an Allied attack in Tunisia that opens the film, is fiercely focused and he exhibits none of his trademark glibness – at no point does he flash his blinding grin. I know those who despise the man for his couch jumping, Scientology spouting, and cringe-inducing cocky demeanor but only a stoic dedication to the role is on display here. He holds his own with the mostly male ensemble and shares a few nice moments with Carice von Hauten (who stared in another World War II drama – BLACK BOOK) as his wife.

It says a lot when a film can trigger tense suspense in a scene that involves getting the Fürer’s signature on a rewritten order and in several other key set-pieces just a step away from minutiae mundanity. It’s also noteworthy that the actors, instructed to talk in neutral accents by Singer, all work well together. The most precise performance I’ve witnessed yet from Nighy, while workhorse vets like Brannaugh and Wilkinson both make uneasiness an acting art form. Reportedly this is faithful to the historic record and that should come as a surprise to those who have a generalized overview of the era. While by no means a masterpiece, VALKYRIE is extremely engaging entertainment that highlights its humanity without using broad strokes. I only hope anti-Cruise folks will lose their bias and give it a chance. It would be a shame for such a solid story and production to be gratuitously overlooked.

THE READER (Dir. Stephen Daldry, 2008)

A few days ago Kate Winslet won Golden Globes for both this film and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The second time up to the podium she was shocked in a Sally Fieldian way as she blubbered through a unprepared acceptance speech. As a presenter afterwards, Ricky Gervais called out to her: “I told you – do a Holocaust movie, the awards come, didn’t I?” Referring to her self satirical appearance on his show Extras. Of course that’s just a joke and it’s too cynical for this movie’s material but it still stings because I didn’t feel for this film and its characters like I wanted too. Winslet, bereft of the bouncy charm she brought to her roles in films like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE HOLIDAY, plays Hanna Schmitz – a former guard at Auschwitz who has an affair (David Kross) with a boy half her age. The story is told from the point of view of the boy as he grows up into a weary troubled Ralph Fiennes.

The film proper begins in 1995, flashbacks to 1958 when the relationship began, then to 1966 with Kross finding Winslet on trial and onward to the late 80’s. Winslet, who had Kross read many classic books (“The Odyssey”, “Huckleberry Finn”, etc) in bed, bath but not beyond to her, is illiterate and conceals this even though it jeopardizes her freedom. This is an intriguing premise but unfortunately there is too little chemistry between Winslet and Kross and later Fiennes for the strong emotional pull the film severely needs. The narrative craft and chops are there but the urgency and sense of purpose seems, at best, muted. The context of the horrors of World War II do not need to be re-stated but here the trappings and effect on millions are absent leaving only the concerns of these 2 fairly dull people. And that, like the man once said in a far more worthy effort, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

More later…

I Love The Smell Of Napalm In The Morning; Smells Like…Parody!

TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2008)

The comedy fortunes of Ben Stiller have fallen a bit lately (THE HEARTBREAK KID, anyone?) so it ’s a certainly a treat to see him in the full-on mockery mode that worked so well in ZOOLANDER taking on the industry that made him famous and bringing along a crew of above par talent (including Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, and one unrecognizable Tom Cruise who buys back a huge chunk of street cred here). Unless you’ve been locked in a sound proof vault with no windows over the last few weeks you know that this movie features A) Robert Downey Jr. in black face as an Australian Academy Award winner who is playing a jive talking African American. B) A group of actors (Stiller, Downey Jr., Jay Barochel, and Bradon T. Jackson) trying to achieve A-List status making a Vietnam war picture but get stranded in the jungle and have to become real soldiers in order to fight their way out a la ¡THREE AMIGOS! and GALAXY QUEST. C) The before mentioned Tom Cruise as a bald pudgy foul-mouthed executive who nearly walks off, that is hip-hop dances off with the whole film.

Steve Coogan as the frustrated frizzy-haired film maker of what Access Hollywood calls: “the most expensive war movie never made” (a line likely drawn from pop culture punditry response to Francis Ford Coppola’s extremely over schedule production back in the late 70’s: “Apocalypse When?”) decides to deposit the actors into the jungle with only a map and a script and he’ ll film them with hidden cameras and rigged explosives. This plan immediately derails, in a crude but hilarious moment I won ’t spoil, and they run up against a heavily armed gang called Flaming Dragon who have a heroin producing work camp. They capture Stiller and hold him for ransom once the leader (fiercely played by child actor Brand on Soo Hoo) recognizes the actor from his career damaging flop “Simple Jack”. Meanwhile Stiller’s hotshot agent, Matthew McConaughey in chilled “alright, alright” mode, fights Cruise’ s heartless exec character for TiVo to be contractually provided for his client before realizing the severity of the situation. The real cause of the botched conflict is a grizzled Nick Nolte as the author of the book “Tropic Thunder” and the inspiration for Coogan ’s “Guerilla style” tactics. Nolte and explosive expert Danny McBride (fresh off almost stealing PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) also get captured by the Dragon gang and all the pieces are in line for a ginormous and outrageous shoot-em-up finale with every player getting his shot at glory.

Before the film proper of TROPIC THUNDER begins (before the Dream Works logo even hits the screen that is) there are funny fake trailers that introduce us to the quartet of protagonists. They set us up to embrace Stiller as a high grossing action star in “Scorcher 6” – an obvious dig at big overblown unnecessary franchises, Black as a pandering fart joke machine comic superstar in “The Fatties: Fart 2” – yep, a beyond obvious swipe at Eddie Murphy’s sad state of fat suit affairs, an ad spoof featuring Jackson as an “Booty Sweat” energy drink hawking rapper, and most amusing “Satan’s Alley”, complete with a FOX Searchlight logo announcing it as a prestige picture, giving us Downey Jr. and Tobey Macguire (who once shared a bed together in WONDER BOYS) as monks in a forbidden homosexual relationship. These and the many other digs at Hollywood cookie-cutter commerciality are the heart of this overblown but surprisingly not obnoxious comedy. The in-your-face-ness of the self aware atmosphere keep it from having to live or die joke to joke. Downey Jr. is undoubtedly the best part of this project, his unflinching take on Russell Crowe-esque maniacal method acting results in many of the movies biggest laughs like for one: “Huh! What do you mean ‘You People?’ ” Downey Jr. angrily asks Stiller at a stressful juncture. Jackson, who is authentically African American says, with an even angrier tone to Downey Jr., “What do you mean You People?’”

For all its over-the top silliness TROPIC THUNDER has a great gritty widescreen look; it has shots that look exactly like the excess-riden war epics its parodying like, of course, APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON – the poster of which Stiller tries to imitate, with his pumped up arms raised to the sky, every 10 minutes it seems. I experienced uncountable successions of giggles but not all out guffaws during this movie. It never lagged on the laughs but they’ re of the small smirking kind for the most part. Still, it noisily announces itself as the mega comedy you can t ignore with performances that will be talked about for years and lines that will be endlessly quoted I predict. I have to say that Stiller himself as an actor is not doing anything we haven’ t seen before – with his wide eyed pathos and tampered ego posturing his character is basically Derek Zoolander as if he were an action star and not a super model. But as a director and writer, Stiller is doing something I want to see more of, that is making comedies with a wide scope of inspired tangents and most importantly casts full of talented energized folk who aren ’t afraid to make wicked fun of themselves while taking crazy chances too.

More Later…

Odds & Ends With Some More Politics Schmolotics

Hey folks – I haven’t been posted this week ’til now because I’ve been busy with a few projects. First, writing my long-in-the-works book “Crime & Popcorn: An A-Z Guide To Conspiracy Cinema” which I may take some time off the blog soon to finish. Second, the marvelous are having an April Coen Brothers blog-a-thon with reviews and articles about their incredible oeuvre. I am contributing a 2 part piece on the music in the movies of the Coen Brothers for the fine site. You can read Part I here.

After my post Nitpicking on NetFlix (March 17, 2008) I was surprised to be approved as a NetFlix affiliate after applying a long time ago. So I proudly welcome NetFlix into the Film Babble Blog fold. However don’t think I’ll stop bitchin’ though – I mean you guys still don’t carry the much written about and heavily advertised BONNIE AND CLYDE: 2 Disc Special Edition and that after waiting for 4 months (very long wait from Dec. to April) for what I thought was the 2 LANE BLACKTOP: CRITERION COLLECTION DVD I got the old 1999 Starz/Anchor Bay version! C’mon! Uh, sorry to go off there…anyway welcome.

I watched a movie the other day that I knew was going to be bad but I just couldn’t resist. When LIONS FOR LAMBS was released in theaters last November I wrote: “I wanted to see LIONS…but just about every critic is telling me not to – though I probably still will”. Well, I guess I never lost the lust for lameness that I had late last year. Even that its current rating is 27% on the Tomatometer couldn’t stop me from putting it in my Netflix queue.

So it is what it is:

LIONS FOR LAMBS (Dir. Robert Redford, 2007) This is so much of a high class dud that I don’t even want to write a conventional review. I mean I can’t really add anything to the criticisms that this is a putrid preachy bore and I sure don’t want to recount the plot threads that involve Redford as a heart of gold professor, Tom Cruise as a hot-shot Republican Senator, and Meryl Streep as a old school liberal journalist. So what I thought I’d do is take a look at one aspect of the film that particularly stuck in my craw. It’s less than a scene actually; it’s a few moments of dialogue-free melodrama in which Streep left alone in Cruise’s office takes a look at the framed photos on his wall.

We’ve seen this many times throughout the history of cinema – in the background of the offices and residencies there are often photos to show that these are real people with lives beyond what we see on the screen. Sometimes these are pictures taken from the actors’ personal life – baby photos, school portraits, stills from their previous movies, etc. and sometimes they are art department fakes. Streep gazes at a few career defining pictures – Cruise’s character with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and, of course, President George W. Bush. These are obviously but competently photoshoped and it’s funny to note that Cruise has most likely really been photographed with these folks but those pictures would be of real-life movie star Cruise not the Senator act we’re supposed to swallow here. As Streep’s eyes and the camera scans the wall we see a picture of a young Cruise in military duds – hey, it’s a still from his 1981 movie TAPS! Better pan faster so people don’t notice that. Her eyes finally fall upon a fictitious Time Magazine cover – too bad it wasn’t the Man Of The Year mirror that the Dude (Jeff Bridges) starred at in THE BIG LEBOWSKI in a likewise scene with phony photos on the wall. Yep – I know, any excuse to bring up THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

The pictures on the wall in LIONS FOR LAMBS would be fine if they were only in the background and never given close-ups but when prominently displayed they call attention to the seams in the film’s fabric. Redford points out a picture on his office’s wall as well. He does so to illustrate to a apathetic student that he was a solider in the Vietnam war. Redford remarks “3 of those guys never came home” or something like that – I was too distracted by how unreal the picture looked and that it was a picture of somebody taking a picture of a group of guys. I know the points these pictures are supposed to make just like I got all the points the film was trying to make but the Devil sure wasn’t in these details. LIONS FOR LAMBS is the cinematic equivalent of “blah blah blah”; the phony photos the polish on a tedious turd.

More later…

D’oh! That Damn Bee Overtakes The Gangsta! That And A Couple Of Docs

“Movie? Who’s talkin’ about a movie? This is not a movie – this is my fuckin’ LIFE!!!!”
– Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) THE COOLER (Dir. Wayne Kramer, 2003)

The news is: BEE MOVIE just hit #1 over not just AMERICAN GANGSTER but even beating out movies that opened last Friday (LIONS FOR LAMBS and FRED CLAUSE). Well that kinda deflates my post from about a week ago. I wanted to see LIONS, which Tom Cruise is already bitchin’ about flopping, but just about every critic is telling me not to – though I probably still will. Looks like the real prestige (or Oscar wannabe) picture season has not yet begun.

I thought I’d clean out my notebook and post a few documentary reviews – a couple of new release DVDs that deserve some words:

CRAZY LOVE (Dirs. Dan Klores & Fisher Stevens, 2007)

The saying “love is blind” has never been so chillingly played out than it is here. A tale torn from old New York Post headlines about prominent lawyer/mogul Bert Pugach’s wooing gone wrong of young beauty Linda Riss is best described by veteran journalist Jimmy Breslin: “It was a big story…3 black guys throw acid in a white girl’s face on behalf of her spurned boyfriend – a white lawyer in the Bronx …sensational! The 3 blacks will go away forever, now we’ll get the white lawyer – he’ll go…and we’ll sympathize with the woman forever.” That sums up the first engrossing amusing half – the second half (which is just as engrossing) is where it gets weird. After 14 years in prison (the prison was Attica – where the titanically tumultuous 1971 riots occurred, mind you) Paguch is released and lo and behold, gets back together and actually marries the blinded bewigged Linda Riss! I can’t say that this scandalous story, told in interviews with Pugach and Riss as well as a bunch of their old acquaintances – all in heavy make-up, is a “you’ve got to see to believe” spectacle because I’ve seen and still don’t believe. Paguch is well spoken and has some charm but not enough charm to pull off this deal – most women would consider hired goons throwing lye in the face to be a deal breaker but what are you going to do? Woody Allen said something once about the heart being a resilient little muscle – I just never have seen it so blatantly displayed as something only about the size of the rock on Linda Riss’s finger.

MANUFACTURING DISSENT (Dirs. Rick Caine & Debbie Melnyk, 2007)

A documentary about a documentarian. There have been many works that have criticized Michael Moore * and his methods, in books like “Michael Moore Is A Big Fat Stupid White Man”, counter-point documentaries like CELSIUS 41.11, MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA, MICHAEL AND ME and FAHRENHYPE 9/11 as well as numerous anti-Moore websites like Moorewatch (which was featured in SiCKO) so what’s another? Well, this sober overview of Moore’s career and the premise of what really is accountable in docu-journalism presented here is far above the before-mentioned mostly manufactured by the right wing product. Many who haved worked with Moore are interviewed and many reputable talking heads (including Roger Ebert, Errol Morris, and Christopher Hitchens) make pretty damning statements while at the same time praising his ideals and his piercing place in pop culture. In the spirit of ROGER AND ME, Debbie Melnyk tries futilely and exhaustingly to get an interview with Moore – she actually corners him a few times in 2004 but he’s elusive, preoccupied with getting Bush out of office, and at one point he smarmingly gets her to hug him for a photo-op, which in her narration she regrets and is obviously embarrassed by. The background on Moore being fired from his Mother Jones magazine editor gig, his famous fudging of the getting a gun at the bank in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE timeframe, and his dissing of Ralph Nader are seriously things to ponder in this new light.

A lot I can excuse and laugh off because I believe Moore is fighting the good fight – idealistically he’s got the goods but one thing that’s increasingly hard to get over is the account of the backstory of ROGER AND ME. I’ve known since a Premiere Magazine article in 1990 that he actually spoke to Roger Smith (there’s a full transcript of the interview) prior to the film but that he allegedly tried to talk friends into denying it had happened so he could retain the “I could never get to him” premise really gets to me. But then this is just another biased documentary that should be taken like a grain of salt as well. If I believe everything it says – Moore is a backstabbing asshole and I don’t believe that’s true. He seems not to be a film journalist at all – more like a comedian who hi-jacked the documentary format in order to stage his routines. MANUFACTORING DISSENT has many valid statements and necessary views on Moore and his oeuvre – some are revelatory and provoking as Hell – but it’s not nearly as funny or as entertainingly in your face as Michael Moore’s movies are. Therin lies the rub.

* As film babble readers know I’ve written quite a bit about Moore – like last summer’s post The Evolution Of Michael Moore (June 26, 2007) and I went with my family to see him speak in person at the Carolina Theater in Durham – A Night With Michael Moore 4/3/2004 – so yeah, I admit I’m way biased.

More later…