Archive for December 2004

The Aviator

December 17, 2004

Some directors are drawn to obsessive heroes who sink everything into their dreams or goals; the heroes are usually onscreen surrogates for the directors. Steven Spielberg had Schindler’s List, Francis Coppola had Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Michael Cimino hungered for years to make a movie version of The Fountainhead. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator fits snugly into this category. Scorsese, perhaps cinema’s greatest living obsessive-compulsive director now that Stanley Kubrick is dead, is a natural match for Howard Hughes, the billionaire crackpot and/or visionary (depending on your view). Hughes lived every filmmaker’s dream, pouring unprecedented thousands of his own cash into the flying epic Hell’s Angels, escorting ladies like Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn to premieres, and focusing relentlessly on his fantasy — to build the best airplanes ever — even when everyone else thinks he’s nuts.

Leonardo DiCaprio seems to have become for Scorsese what Tom Hanks has become for Spielberg — a go-to guy for dependable charisma (DiCaprio is signed on for Scorsese’s next film as well). As Howard Hughes, DiCaprio is allowed to hit far more notes than he did as the sullen lead in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. His Howard is a go-getter, a man who responds to a roadblock by throwing money at it. Yet all his riches can’t insulate him from his inner demons — his terror of germs, instilled in him (or so John Logan’s script has it) by his mother. Gradually over the course of the movie’s two hours and forty-nine minutes (which streak by until the somewhat talky finale), DiCaprio shows us the dark side of obsessiveness, the habitual hand-washing, the jars of urine lined up neatly.

This is a jittery epic, always on the move; its energy matches Howard’s, and when he meets Katharine Hepburn we can see why they click so well and why they don’t last together — Cate Blanchett nails Hepburn’s haughty nervous energy, which we see is a cover for her insecurity around her pompously intellectual Connecticut family. (You can also understand why she eventually gave her heart to the gruff, amiable pillow Spencer Tracy, who was able to calm her down.) The movie’s Howard loves to achieve, but dislikes the limelight; he’d much rather be up in the cockpit of one of his planes, breaking a speed record or cranking his own camera during the shooting of a dogfight scene in Hell’s Angels. Scorsese’s admiration for Hughes is palpable — here’s a guy who got up in a plane and shot his own footage for the picture he was producing.

The Aviator bogs down a bit when it gets into the conflict between Hughes’ TWA and the rival Pan Am, run by a pipe-puffing Alec Baldwin with devious senator Alan Alda in his pocket. Howard is crucified in the press for spending wartime money on planes that wouldn’t fly, leading to a rather dry hearing in which Howard practically produces a pie chart and pointer to defend himself. The movie’s populist theme is that the corrupt rich guys are trying to stomp the little guy — some little guy! Hughes was a millionaire at age eighteen, inheriting his father’s oil drill company that afforded him $2 million a year. We don’t really care whether Howard’s name is smeared in the papers; we care more about whether he can beat down his germophobia long enough to make himself presentable. In short, his inner conflict is a lot more compelling than two guys being mean to him.

This is Scorsese’s most engaged and engaging filmmaking in a while; it feels like an epic without strain. As soon as the first nightclub scene hits the screen, you know Scorsese is in an enchanted milieu — big-band music, movie stars milling about (Jude Law contributes a fun few minutes as Errol Flynn, who of course gets into a fight). The Aviator is a tribute to Hollywood and an outsider who wanted to be part of it, but whose vision was grander than Hollywood. It ends on a note of triumph, ignoring Hughes’ final hermetic decades (Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, in which Hughes turns up in the desert and leaves millions of dollars to a gas-station owner, would be a good follow-up to The Aviator). But Scorsese has made the movie he wanted, about the hero whose story he wanted to tell.

Million Dollar Baby

December 15, 2004

Over the past few years, I’ve said a few times that Clint Eastwood is in the Autumnal stage of his career — the period wherein his movies have started coming to grips with old age, loss, death. Million Dollar Baby, which a lot of people are convinced is his masterpiece, may be Eastwood’s most Autumnal work yet: gritty, dark, melancholy, on speaking terms with failure and regret. By now, Eastwood and his longstanding tight unit of collaborators are incapable of making a slipshod movie; this one is, as usual with Clint, measured and solid and expertly acted. But it left me cold nonetheless. Eastwood is attempting something major here, but the script isn’t complex enough to support it, and nobody here really does anything he or she hasn’t done before.

Consider the heroine, Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor but plucky Southern gal played by Hilary Swank at her pluckiest. Maggie, at 31, wants to be a boxer. She may not have the moves yet, but she has Heart, and, as a century of sports movies will tell you, Heart is all you need. Maggie comes from bona fide White Trash, characterized here with possibly the most blatant set of caricatures in any Eastwood-directed film since Sudden Impact. But Maggie herself is Good and Pure, with scarcely a flicker of ambition or greed clouding her path. She just wants to Be Someone. She just wants to Fight.

Eastwood, as creaky “cut man” and gym owner Frankie Dunn, just wants to Be Left Alone. Yes, Clint is the Irascible Old Coot Who Won’t Give Our Heroine a Chance. But Maggie keeps coming to the gym, and before long, Frankie’s old friend and gym janitor Scrap (Morgan Freeman) starts sneaking her lessons after hours. Oh, what a challenging role this is for Morgan Freeman, who gets to Be Wise and Keep His Own Counsel and Narrate the Movie. Scrap is an old softy, and, it turns out, so is Frankie, who eventually consents to train Maggie.

There is a Training Montage. There are Decisive Boxing Matches, most of which Maggie wins in the first round. There is Foreshadowing: Frankie has a thing about not taking risks with his fighters, because of Scrap’s own Sad Backstory involving the loss of sight in his right eye. There is even a Villain, in the person of dirty-fighting former prostitute Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), this movie’s Mr. T to Maggie’s Rocky. Billie has a nasty habit of sucker-punching her opponents even after they’ve fallen to the canvas. We know, unless this is our first movie, that Maggie and Billie are due for a clash of the titans.

What we may not foresee is the Plot Twist, of which much has been made. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it. It certainly kicks Million Dollar Baby off its expected track, turning the movie into a lugubrious meditation on Life and the Meaning of Same. A priest is consulted. The movie’s already dark lighting scheme goes all the way into shadow. Eastwood holds melodrama at arm’s length with his usual leathery reserve, but it lurks in the movie’s corners. Maggie’s family is brought on for more jeering, accompanied by a Sleazy Lawyer. Eastwood may be trying for archetypes here, the way he did in Unforgiven, but in that movie (which I consider his true masterpiece) he dug around inside the archetypes, casting off the mythological cobwebs that had gathered around them. This movie replaces that with lazy screenwriting (based on stories by F.X. Toole, which I haven’t read); it’s as if scripter Paul Haggis took a hard left turn towards catastrophe because he didn’t know any other way to avoid a clichéd finale, but he just trades one cliché for another.

Million Dollar Baby is certainly a somber enough piece of work to explain all the accolades and awards. But, to paraphrase Frankie, somber ain’t enough. This is Eastwood’s weakest work in years, perhaps because it yokes itself to a hot-button theme instead of a story that resonates. I also think the movie might’ve been more touching with a cast of unknowns: The reason we were able to buy Sylvester Stallone as a broken-down, below-poverty-level contender in the first Rocky is that, at the time, that wasn’t far from his reality. Stallone also managed to write a denouement (if we forget about the sequels up until Rocky Balboa) in which failure and realism co-existed with triumph and a dream fulfilled. Here, we have rich Hollywood actors shuffling around in the gloom of expensively grimy sets, pretending they live there, and at the end, the characters have to pretend to make a hard choice, though, when you think about it later, the script leaves them no other choice.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

December 10, 2004

Wes Anderson creates a highly stylized and peculiar world, which either works for you or it doesn’t. It works for me beautifully, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou deserves to take its place with Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as a half-jocular, half-melancholy portrait of dreamers and losers. As Anderson’s career has grown and he’s been allowed more money to play with, his onscreen universe has gotten more lovingly, obsessively detailed; his movies seem to unfold in some alternate universe where Futura Bold is the dominant font and an exotic, nonexistent fish like the “rhinestone bluefin” is so taken for granted by the characters it’s used as bait.

By now, a Wes Anderson movie without Bill Murray (who has graced Anderson’s previous two films) seems unthinkable, and here he finally has the lead as Steve Zissou, underwater explorer. There was a time when Zissou’s short films about the mysteries of the deep were eagerly devoured by kids worldwide, who belonged to “Team Zissou” by way of an official Zissou Fan Club ring. Now Zissou is 52 and finds himself having to scrounge for funding, often at odds with pompous tycoon Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who happens to be the ex of Zissou’s wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). Zissou has a new and emotionally urgent mission: find and (possibly) kill the elusive jaguar shark that ate his old friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) on Team Zissou’s last expedition.

Owen Wilson turns up as Ned, a Kentucky pilot who thinks Zissou might be his father. Ned was a Team Zissou fan as a kid, and still has his Fan Club ring; we’re left to imagine the bittersweet feelings of his mom, who once slept with Zissou thirty years ago, as she gave young Ned the money to send away for that ring. Wilson co-wrote all of Anderson’s films except this one (Noah Baumbach collaborated with Anderson here), and if the script is missing Wilson’s particular childlike touch, his presence as a drawling gentleman smitten with a visiting reporter (Cate Blanchett) makes up for it. His scenes with Murray resonate with the unspoken, and it’s a relief that there’s no manufactured tension over paternity — it’s never suggested that Ned is a phony out for Zissou’s money (what little he has left).

As always, Anderson goes in for precise symmetrical compositions, with people framed dead center between bookshelves or doorways. The artifice here is a little self-conscious — such as the cut-away views of Zissou’s elaborately furnished ship, the Belafonte — but never takes you out of the movie. Neither does animator Henry Selick’s work with the stop-motion sea creatures, clearly not meant to look photorealistic. At heart, The Life Aquatic is a cartoon inhabited by three-dimensional people with adult problems. There are the usual unaccountable touches that somehow feel right, like the Team Zissou member (Seu Jorge) who croons David Bowie songs in Portuguese — a restful sound — or the blue highlights in Anjelica Huston’s hair, or the three-legged dog left behind by some Filipino pirates, or Willem Dafoe as an inept German shipmate who loves Zissou like a father and resents the intrusion of (possibly) a real son.

The problem, as with Wes Anderson’s other films, is how to sell it to the masses (especially The Life Aquatic, which at $50 million is Anderson’s most pricey endeavor to date). The commercials emphasize Bill Murray’s deadpan wit and some broad humor, but moviegoers will find Murray playing a near-dislikable character, a blowhard too used to getting his own way to notice that not everyone shares his devotion to himself. And the humor here is bone-dry, without even the surefire sight gags of the otherwise rather glum Royal Tenenbaums. Yet Murray triumphs here by being true to Zissou’s melancholia, and so does Anderson. The Life Aquatic is an odd, entrancing creature that of course got overlooked at the crowded holiday multiplex and at awards ceremonies, but its appeal, I think, will be more timeless than that. 5

Blade: Trinity

December 8, 2004

In the third and, one hopes, final installment of the Blade series, the eponymous vampire-hunting hero (Wesley Snipes) is as stubbornly blank as ever. It’s as if Snipes and writer-director David S. Goyer (who also wrote the previous Blade films) thought that even a flash of humor, vulnerability, or humanity would compromise the character’s integrity. But the Blade of the original Tomb of Dracula comics from the ’70s wasn’t afraid to joke around or smile; he belongs, I guess, to a different era, when black heroes didn’t have to be scowling ciphers. Laurence Fishburne in the Matrix trilogy, Samuel L. Jackson in the new Star Wars films, and certainly Snipes in the Blade movies — these are all fine actors with a knack for soulful, complex, funny characters, but you wouldn’t know it from these movies. Are the white movie geeks who make these sci-fi/horror flicks reassuring the white audience by robbing powerful black men of any personality?

Blade: Trinity is as much a piece of witless eye candy as the other two, though director Goyer devises nothing as inspired as the “blood bath” sequence that opened the original Blade (1998) or the hellaciously ugly übervamps in Blade II (2002). The new movie is largely more of the same, adding two characters — Abigail Whistler (Jessica Biel), ass-kicking daughter of Blade’s mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), and Hannibal King (Ryan Reynolds), wise-cracking former vampire — who function as T&A and comic relief, respectively. As written here, Hannibal — who in the comics was a vampire who assisted Blade — is actually closer in spirit to the Blade of the comics: tough but witty, boldly contemptuous of vampires to the point of turning them into punchlines.

Throughout this series, Goyer has been fond of throwing in lots of mumbo-jumbo about vampirism as a virus, political squabbles between “pureblood” vamps and “turned” vamps, etc. Here, Blade is pitted against Dracula himself, played by the beefy, profoundly miscast Dominic Purcell, who looks more like a soccer goalie than like the King of Vampires. In Dracula’s blood is the vampire virus in its purest form; apparently the bloodline has gotten diluted, because Dracula regards today’s bloodsuckers with disdain. Aside from Dracula — who, for his other trick, transforms into some sort of vamp Sauron clone — there’s the snarky vampire Danica Talos, an amusing role for Parker Posey, whose pale skin and extreme widow’s peak have always given her the look of a supernatural vixen anyway. For random amusement, there’s a vampire pomeranian, though not, disappointingly, a pet of Danica’s. (Posey’s Best in Show co-star John Michael Higgins turns up as a smarmy shrink who analyzes Blade.)

Goyer is better at writing action scenes than at directing them; most of the fights go by in a flash, goosed along by hyperactive editing and hampered by cameras that seldom keep a proper distance. Blade: Trinity often feels like a third-season episode from a nonexistent Blade TV show, meant to introduce characters (Abigail and Hannibal, dubbed “the Nightstalkers”) that can be spun off into their own series. It’s also clear by now that Dracula should never be used as a supporting player in another character’s story — in both Van Helsing and in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode featuring him, he came off as a hammy fop, and here he has about as much menace as Stephen Dorff’s Deacon Frost in the first Blade, and without Frost’s malicious wit.

Can much else be done with the vamp-slayer subgenre? Back in the ’60s, Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers turned the legends on their heads — who can forget the Jewish vampire unimpressed by the crucifix? — and recently such horror-comedies as Bloody Mallory (from France) and Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter (from Canada) put some oddball, farcical twists on the familiar narrative. But doing this sort of film seriously, with its heroes lugging superior firepower, doesn’t give you much that you wouldn’t get from a video game: the vampires are reduced to soulless target practice. Blade himself seems as soulless as his prey, too. It may be a plot point that his status as a half-vampire cancels out normal human responses to things, but it would be nice if we saw the man underneath the scowl and the pose. As it is, he’s more like half-vampire, half-robot.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

December 5, 2004

Rush_peter_sellersComedians are a notoriously miserable lot, or so goes the pop-culture legend. Crying on the inside, they face the lights and transmute their private agonies into pratfalls. The specimen we meet in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, one of HBO’s usual iconoclastic biopics, is a hollow man to himself and others, an ingenious chameleon who has no true face. In this telling — based on a book by Roger Lewis — Sellers, who rose to international fame as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series, was an impossible narcissist, mama’s boy, and all-around case of arrested development. Given to lavish displays of atonement as well as rage, such as buying his little boy a pony after smashing the child’s toys, Sellers railed against his surfeit of onscreen personality by sabotaging his own. He may have felt that no one wanted him — just him with an accent, a fake nose.

The movie itself, directed by Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space) in a rather extreme change of pace, deals in the expected psychotherapy (it’s all Mama’s fault) and inevitably functions as a shallowly telescoped portrait of a thirty-year career. Some attention is paid to Sellers’ virtuoso three-character work in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Tucci drops in for a sly turn as Kubrick), none at all given to Lolita, Sellers’ prior film for Kubrick. Roughly half the film documents Sellers’ tempestuous marriage to Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron, gratefully glamming back up after Monster), but forgets about his subsequent two wives and gives his first one (gamely rendered by Emily Watson) little more than a bit role.

As a showcase for Geoffrey Rush, though, Life and Death is more than worthwhile. A fellow chameleon, though presumably sounder of mind, Rush takes on the formidable task of mimicking Sellers’ best-known roles — Clouseau, Strangelove — and does spooky justice to the source. Physically, Rush shares Sellers’ broad-shouldered knack for knockabout comedy, and though the 53-year-old Rush doesn’t look much like the Sellers of the Goon Show/Ealing Studios years (where the movie begins), he grows into Sellers’ face the older Sellers gets, and by the time Sellers nabs his dream role in Being There the resemblance is startling. Even before then, from certain angles Rush is an uncanny dead ringer. Looks aren’t everything, though, and the performance wouldn’t work if Rush couldn’t paint a coherent picture of an often incoherent man. (The movie should’ve been called Nowhere Man.)

Driven to success by his fear of an anonymous life in a London flat changing diapers, and resentful of success when it came, Sellers seems never to have heard the maxim “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” Money troubles force him to glue on the Clouseau mustache again; he gets royally pissed at the wrap party and insults Pink Panther director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow, who has not been credible in a wig for at least a decade, but triumphs with one of his warmer, saner performances). Brushes with mortality push Sellers to realize his long-coveted role as the aptly-named Chance in Being There; Sellers’ near-fatal first coronary allows director Hopkins his most inspired moment, when Sellers, ever the narcissist, is haunted by all his film characters, a Scrooge visited by himself.

Still, at the end of the lumpy two hours, one questions the point of the tale. This is a man who looks into a mirror (as the soundtrack breaks out David Bowie’s welcome but too-on-the-nose “Space Oddity”) and sees nothing — how can you dramatize that? The filmmakers try, and Rush performs heroically, but what we’re left with is a cluttered pastiche of an unhappy life. It’s not Hopkins’ fault thatCitizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard were there first (talk about hard acts to follow — particularly when re-enacting Strangelove), and he does get some clever use out of a device in which Sellers plays various figures in his life (sadly, we don’t get Geoffrey Rush in a blonde wig doing his best Charlize Theron). The Life and Death of Peter Sellers will be talked about primarily for Rush’s various transformations, but — except for a beautifully evocative final frame of Sellers alone on a snowy street — it can’t do much to suggest Sellers’ inner drama or explain why we’re spending an evening with this mercurial wretch.

Closer

December 3, 2004

Closer (1)When Mike Nichols made his early trilogy of marital-discord films — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge — he was in his late thirties, and had probably been through a few battles of the sexes himself. Nichols’ latest, Closer, finds him at age 73 and a bit gentler, even if the source material — Patrick Marber’s 1997 play of the same name — is harsher and more profane than anything Nichols has directed to date. Nichols has had a bumpy couple of decades; for every Primary Colors or The Birdcage, there’s a What Planet Are You From? or Regarding Henry. But this eternally inconsistent director has been working on HBO lately, helming the acclaimed Wit and Angels in America, and Closer is like one of those films — it’s only as good as its cast. Fortunately, it’s a good cast.

The movie spans something like four years in the lives of four people — two men, two women — who engage in various pairings designed to strip the characters to their cores. At the start, obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) spots radiant stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) on a London street; she is struck by a taxi, he whisks her to the hospital, and, presumably, a relationship is born. No sooner do we process that information than we leap forward, without warning or notation, to a period when Dan and Alice have been together for a while; he has now written a book, and is looking for someone else. He finds Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer who takes his book-jacket photo. They kiss; she backs away; he can’t stop thinking about her.

Obsessed with Anna, Dan arranges for her to meet a doctor named Larry (Clive Owen); the method by which Dan does this is best left for the non-prudish viewer to discover. Anna and Larry actually hit it off, and — again, somewhere outside the movie’s margins — they get married. But now Anna is obsessed with Dan. And Dan is about to inform Alice that he’s in love with Anna. Poor Larry, drawn into this by deception to begin with, can only fume and despair, and Alice takes off into the night. There’s more, but it doesn’t really matter. This isn’t actually reality — it’s an actors’-scene reality. Each of the four players gets a Great Scene, with Clive Owen having a clear edge in two moments when he lets us see the former working-class tough inside the domesticated doctor Larry.

Anyone expecting more than that — or led to expect more than that from the film’s raft of award nominations and critical bouquets — is likely to be disappointed. Closer is what I’d comfortably refer to as a “piece.” Aside from a clever ceiling view of Larry and Alice facing each other in the champagne room of a strip club, as filmmaking the movie is rather flat. Nichols isn’t terribly interested in razzle-dazzle here, and indeed, compared to his other recent feature films, Closer has a scrappy independent look and feel. He gives the actors space to seethe at each other. Roberts, looking freeze-dried in her character’s self-disgust, closes her features off from the camera but has enough natural charisma to get the audience to lean forward and come to her. Portman sells a couple of heartbroken speeches, and is effective as the most mystifying character, a self-described “waif” who seems to exist only to bring out the protective streak in men. (And women, too — an early, quiet confrontation between Alice and Anna is played with subtlety and precision.) The men are fools, led by the nose and libido (and insecurity) away from common sense, and Jude Law shows us the cracks in Dan’s armor, never thick to begin with, while Clive Owen drags Larry through degradation and bitter triumph.

These people are essentially abstract — theatrical constructs created to make friction. The characters are always confronting one another and demanding honesty, then sorely regretting the demand when it’s fulfilled. For whatever reason, the movie skips the play’s tragic final-scene revelation about one of the characters, turning it into a harmless “meet cute” earlier in the film. Anyone telling you Closer dispenses stark wisdom about life and love is a bit too easily impressed by the rare movie in which grown-ups actually have conversations instead of blowing each other up. But the movie is softened by Mike Nichols’ affection for the characters — or, rather, their dramatically abrasive potential.


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