Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tricks and treats galore in "The Prestige" and "Marie Antoinette"


directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Jonathan Nolan
based on the novel by Christopher Priest
starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis

Hands down, “The Prestige” is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in 2006.

That’s not to say it’s the best, or deepest, or most artistically ambitious. Nor is it trying to be any of these things. It’s simply the most enjoyable piece of entertainment to appear in theaters this year—the thinking man's popcorn movie. And as such it’s likely to remain unmatched this holiday season, even as the studios lay their annual glut of offerings on the altar of Oscar. Part of the reason “The Prestige” works so well is that it operates on its own terms, largely unburdened by such self-conscious expectations. It isn’t packaged or conceived as awards bait; nor is it targeted at lazy viewers looking only for a kiss, bang, and boom for their buck. Fittingly for a story about dueling magicians, it treats the audience as an active participant who’s willing to be hoodwinked, but only so far—only just enough to ultimately figure out the truth behind the trick.

The dueling magicians are turn-of-the-century Londoners Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The pair start out as fellow assistants to an established prestidigitator, but quickly establish different strengths and styles. Angier is suave, polished, evidently well-educated; Borden reserved, rough-hewn, and working-class. Not surprisingly, the extroverted Angier projects the more compelling stage presence, while the fiercely focused Borden proves the more talented magician. In a sense, one has all the style, and the other all the substance—or so it appears at first; as with any good magic show, nothing is quite as it seems.

The covert rivalry turns overt when a tragic accident during one of their shows drives a permanent wedge between the two men and sparks a bitter, increasingly obsessive game of oneupmanship. The movie begins with what appears to be the climactic end of that game; I don’t think I’m giving much away by noting it’s anything but that. “The Prestige” is, after all, a product of the brothers Nolan, whose last joint effort was “Memento,” and though the narrative non-linearity of “The Prestige” isn’t as deliberately disorienting as their earlier mind-bender, its double pretzel twist of a plot has already inspired enough online chatter to fill a book several times the length of the screenplay. The Nolans are canny enough to drop just enough hints (some subtler than others) to add up to a mostly airtight explanation while leaving just enough room for multiple variants and alternative interpretations (some more farfetched than others).

That’s half the fun. The other half comes from watching the different personalities of Angier and Borden play each other to the brink of death and back: both Jackman and Bale turn in remarkably thoughtful and nuanced performances for a film that’s essentially one extended sleight-of-hand. The rest of the cast necessarily takes a back seat to their face-off, though Michael Caine is appealing as their troubled mentor, while an almost unrecognizable David Bowie cuts a nicely enigmatic figure as Nikolai Tesla, the mysterious inventor who may or may not hold the secret to Borden’s greatest trick of all. Scarlett Johansson fares less well as the stage assistant and love interest caught between Angier and Borden; whether it’s the script or her acting, or both, she seems to function primarily as eye candy, and shows considerably less animation than you’d expect from a girl lucky enough to kiss both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.

“The Prestige” is flashier and more ingenious than the other magician-movie of the season, “The Illusionist.” It’s also more modern in sensibility, and if it feels too slick by half, that’s because it is. Yet beyond its guessing-game mechanics and indirect indictment of the dangers of obsessive alpha-male competition, it does offer some interesting observations on the divide between performance and craft, and what separates the man on the stage from the man behind the scenes. “No one cares about the man in the box, the man who disappears,” Angier says at one point, revealing perhaps more about himself than his audience; according to him, it’s only the man who reappears who matters. The genius of “The Prestige” is that it makes us care enough to discover both.



directed by Sofia Coppola
starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, many others

She’s not just another poor little rich girl. Yet something about Marie Antoinette has managed to inspire a fascination that easily outstrips her actual historical significance. And at bottom it’s the same fascination that attends any public or semi-public figure steeped from head to toe in the kind of opulent wealth that remains a distant fantasy for most of us—a fascination heightened where, as here, the subject is an attractive young woman. There’s an inherent glamour about such a figure, and a hint of mystery: who is the person inside that bubble of privilege?

Sofia Coppola’s take both does and doesn’t answer that question. Loosely inspired by Antonia Fraser’s recent biography of the ill-fated queen, it offers a dreamlike, impressionistic view of her bubble that’s content to show fleeting glimpses of her inner life rather than probing purposefully into its depths. In this respect, and in overall mood and affect, this “Marie Antoinette” is very much in the same vein as Coppola’s previous films, “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” and confirms her establishment of a distinctive directorial voice. Coppola’s own paternal lineage notwithstanding, she clearly feels no need to conform her stories to the aggressive arc of the Aristotelian plot, or the equally aggressive narrative fragmentation popularized by Tarantino, Nolan et al. Her stories aren’t driven, nor are they splintered; they simply flow along, sometimes lazily, sometimes briskly, eventually merging into a larger sea of unknown or unspoken possibility. So it is here, though in this case the historical endpoint is known, and documented, with a narrow specificity that one senses didn’t quite jibe with the director’s looser, more fluid vision. For this reason, perhaps, the film concludes not with Marie Antoinette’s execution but with her flight from Versailles—the end of a long, strange chapter in her life, but not the end.

It begins at the beginning of that chapter, with the teenage Marie (a well-cast Kirsten Dunst) being handed over by her mother, the Austrian dowager Maria Theresa (Marianne Faithfull), for marriage to the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). After a long journey and an elaborate passing-off ritual, the bride arrives at Versailles and is immediately swallowed up by a sea of rigidly ornate ceremonies and coldly scrutinizing faces. At first bemused, then bored, she bears up reasonably well under these peculiar conditions, finding companions among the friendlier faces in her royal retinue and indulging in bonbons and the latest fashions. Indeed, although Coppola acquits the queen of the infamous line, “Let them eat cake,” the film is so laden with visual confectionery that I felt a sugar overload by the end of it. Whether the froufrou imagery of pink and white icing, fruit, and flowers is period-accurate—it probably isn’t—ceases to matter much in the context of the larger point it’s illustrating: namely, the near-obscene excess of luxury lavished on individuals who had no idea where it came from or at what cost.

Life isn’t all sweets for Marie, however. Her new husband, whom Schwartzman plays as awkward, though not unkind, and absurdly solemn for his years, seems more interested in his daily hunt than in her charms, and their marriage remains unconsummated for several years. This fact becomes a hot topic of catty court gossip and a source of grave concern to Marie’s family and advisors (principally an ambassador played with characteristic aplomb by Steve Coogan), who dispatch regular reminders that her royal standing hangs by a thread: specifically, by her ability to produce a male heir that would cement the tenuous Franco-Austrian alliance. These weighty geopolitical considerations don’t carry half as much impact, however, as the more immediate presence of her French brother- and sister-in-law, who openly enjoy a good deal of conjugal bliss and easily beat her to the birthing room. Marie’s frustration—a jealousy both social and sexual, concealed beneath a veneer of smiling politeness—is palpable, and makes her long stretch of celibacy feel even longer.

Happily, young Louis is eventually clued in to his role in the marital bed, and Marie finally gives birth to her first child. Once past that hump (literally), the film’s pace simultaneously accelerates and slackens. Timewise, it skips over spans of several years and hardly registers events that an ordinary biopic might dwell longer on, such as the birth (and one blink-and-you-miss death) of further children, and her passing affair with a dashing lady-killer. (Whether intentionally or not, it also spurs questions about the paternity of the little Dauphin.) Yet the overall tempo slows to match the prevailing mood of languorous idleness that falls over the queen’s life – reflecting a pervasive sense that having fulfilled the only duties assigned to her, she can relax and concentrate on nothing other than having a good time and making Versailles a prettier and pleasanter place for her habitation.

Perhaps as a consequence, the middle part of “Marie Antoinette” loses a fair amount of momentum, yet it also effectively evokes the languid rhythms of Marie’s girlish desires and the strange, rarefied universe she occupies with her entourage, who frequently seem no more substantial than the figures on a Chinese fan. A rare exception is the always-excellent Rose Byrne as the Comtesse de Polignac, the queen’s pretty, and pretty wild, favorite, whose reckless self-indulgence makes Marie (who, it transpires, loves music, theater, and puppies as much as hats, shoes, and cakes) look like the innocent Coppola essentially makes her out to be. In this context, Marie’s ill-famed attempts to create a pastoral idyll out of the Petit Trianon seem considerably less callous and slightly—though only slightly—less absurd than history has painted them, given her near-absolute insulation from the living, breathing reality of starvation, blood, sweat and tears they unintentionally mocked.

This insulation also informs the film’s apparent inattention to the larger historical context of the French Revolution. Apart from a few hints dropped by a courtier's word-of-mouth here or a minister's admonition there, there’s hardly any sense of the gathering storm until near the very end, when it suddenly breaks at the very gates of Versailles. And that lack of foreshadowing is quite plainly deliberate. When it does come, we feel the shock of violence—shown not in an action sequence but in still shots of the palace the night before and the morning after the flight of the royal family and the sweep of the rampaging mob—as sharply as its targets, like the shattering of a porcelain jar. A porcelain jar may in fact be the best way to describe the peculiarly sealed, hermetic, yet precariously fragile nature of Marie’s world, pre-1789. That its destruction feels as abrupt and faintly unreal as it does is no more than a reflection of how it presumably felt to her. It’s her subjective perception that most interests Coppola, far more than the (undeniably wrenching) stories that lay outside it, and to criticize the film for ignoring the latter is in essence to miss its point.

Similarly, while much has been made of Coppola’s use of ’80s punk music and such deliberate anachronisms as the trainers Marie wears under her flouncy skirts, the film floats easily above such contemporary trappings because they’re clearly meant to reflect the sensibility of a girl on the verge of womanhood, with nothing to direct her except her own vagrant impulses. It’s a sensibility not so much ahistorical as transhistorical, and one that links the film to the director’s earlier work. Coppola has stated that she intended the three films to form a trilogy, and “Marie Antoinette” does feel like the third movement of a rather loosely structured sonata. It’s a fair bet, however, that the longing-lonelygirl thread will continue to appear in Coppola’s work; the challenge for her will be to develop it into different, distinctive ideas, rather than pretty variations on the same theme. Whether she succeeds or fails, how she goes about it will be interesting to watch.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Murder and mayhem to go: "The Departed" sizzles; "Dahlia"'s both over- and underdone


directed by Martin Scorsese
starring Leonardo di Caprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin
based on the Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs"

Sequels, remakes, and spinoffs: those are words dear to the ears of any studio executive looking to acquire rights to a successful movie. To the rest of us, perhaps precisely because we’re not studio execs, those same words connote a form of cannibalism peculiar to Hollywood. Indeed, for many moviegoers, they exemplify all that’s wrong with the industry—its dispiriting neglect of original ideas in favor of supposedly tried-and-true formulas, and its relentless march to the beat of the corporate drum.

But while this dour view is unfortunately justified for sequels and spinoffs (with some dazzling exceptions, at least for sequels), I submit that it is less so for remakes. This might have something to do with the fact that whereas almost any movie that scored at the box office is ripe for a sequel, a movie generally has to be pretty darn good to spur talk of a remake. The flip side of this, of course, is the obvious question: who needs a remake if the original got it right?

It’s a fair question, and there’s no denying that too many pointless and poorly conceived remakes are greenlit on a regular basis. Still, a remake, at its best, isn’t so much a recycling as a reinterpretation of material that resonates beyond the particular milieu in which it was created, and seeing it recreated for a new age or a new culture can be intriguing, illuminating, even original in a way that a nominally “new” movie all too often is not. I find this especially true for films that cross national and linguistic boundaries. So there is room for both Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and Clint’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (not so much for Bruce Willis’ pallid attempt at a third round), two versions of “Insomnia” (one set in Sweden, the other in Alaska), and now, most recently, for both the Hong Kong blockbuster “Infernal Affairs” and “The Departed,” Scorsese’s Bostonian-inflected take on the same story.

And what a story it is. Like “IA,” “The Departed” is a tale of two cops who both happen to be moles, working for opposite sides of a long-running war between the police and the local mafia—here, Boston’s own Irish mob, led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, in slightly—but only slightly—restrained psychopathic mode here). Young Billy Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), both Southey natives, start out at about the same time, as upwardly mobile cadets training to join the staties. From that point, however, their paths are a perfect study in contrasts. Costigan is tossed out of the academy, acquires a criminal record, and begins consorting with low-life, bottom-rung drug dealers before his family ties and capacity for bone-crunching violence lead him to Costello’s inner circle. Colin, on the other hand, graduates with flying colors, ascends quickly through the ranks, and becomes a detective assigned to help get the goods on Costello. But appearances, as always, are deceiving: Costigan and Sullivan are in fact Trojan horses, each sent by the enemy to infiltrate the other side’s operations. Things get really interesting when a planned bust of Costello falls through, tipping off each side to the fact that there’s a mole in their ranks—and each mole is instructed to find and uncover the identity of the other.

It’s a killer setup, and the narrative of “The Departed” stays remarkably faithful to its source. Apart from the addition of one new plot twist—which anyone who’s seen “IA” should be able to anticipate fairly easily (hint: it’s tied to the addition of one new character)—the changes it introduces are mostly collateral. But the sensibilities that pervade the two tellings of the story are strikingly different, and this one is definitely Marty’s. “The Departed” showcases a flashier, bloodier style than the studiously cool, taut, melancholy-tinged presentation of “IA,” and though both films are interested in the psychological effect of going undercover on an individual’s sense of identity, they go about exploring it in very distinct ways.

As in the original, the two moles never quite cross paths until very late in the game, though they come tantalizingly close several times. They’re like two shadows chasing each other, which leads to some grimly witty echo effects and several gripping, white-knuckle sequences. “The Departed” more overtly plays up the doppelganger aspect of the story, to good effect, as Leo and Damon look far more alike than their Hong Kong counterparts (Tony Leung and Andy Lau), and with their characters’ shared Boston-Irish lineage, they create the impression of two sides of the same coin. Hardly surprising that they end up gravitating towards the same romantic interest (Vera Farmiga, who—lousy Boston accent aside—manages to deliver a delicately calibrated performance in what could have been a throwaway role), a police psychologist who’s sort of a composite of the two female characters in “IA.”

But the movie really belongs to Leo, just as “IA” did to Leung, though the angry, tortured Costigan is pure Scorsese, and a very different ball of wax from Leung’s sad-eyed, deeply weary good cop. Unlike Leung’s character, whose sense of self slowly unravels under the purely externally imposed weight of his dual role, Costigan’s fractured and fracturing identity, one senses, derives from deep within him. It’s in his blood and in his background, and it shows more in di Caprio’s tightly coiled intensity than in the script’s passing, rather perfunctory references to Costigan’s family (particularly deceased papa Costigan, who apparently had all the qualities to be a Frank Costello-like heavyweight, except the criminal desire for power). And while the movie does give a nod to the poignant surrogate father-son relationship between the police mole and his superior officer (here played with soothing warmth by Martin Sheen) that gave “IA” much of its soul, it ends up taking a back seat to the more jagged dynamic between Costigan and Costello, a considerably more sinister (and colorful) father-figure, and to the internal torment of Costigan’s own mind. Sheen’s Captain Queenan is further upstaged by his own number-two guy, Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), the only other man in the force who knows Costigan’s true identity and the only one who dislikes and distrusts golden-boy Sullivan. Wahlberg taps into his own Southey roots to produce what is probably the most naturalistic performance in the movie—and I don’t just mean the accent. He practically emits sparks of rage that don’t feel acted at all.

Damon, meanwhile, holds his own as the clean-cut, upstanding young officer who sold his soul to the devil long ago. His Sullivan compares nicely with Andy Lau’s perfectly respectable turn as the clean-cut, upstanding young officer in “IA,” being at once more inviting and more inscrutable. But as with “IA,” I couldn’t escape the sense that the scales of sympathy were too heavily tilted in one direction. We never really see into the heart of Costello’s mole the way we do into Queenan’s, and as a result even an actor as talented as Damon can’t quite give his character the fully realized presence he deserves. No doubt this opacity is by design; yet I couldn’t help thinking an already terrific story could be made even better if we got a little more insight into the inner workings of the “bad mole”’s mind. What we get instead is more Nicholson, hamming it up for the camera but fortunately not taking over the entire movie (as I feared he would).

Looking up at what I’ve written, I see that this has become less a review of “The Departed” than a compare-and-contrast with “Infernal Affairs.” That wasn’t my conscious intent, and yet on reflection it seems only appropriate. Much as I admired “The Departed,” I’m troubled by the fact that the film to which it owes so much was largely kept out of theaters in this country—even as the Hollywood big guns were ponying up for the all-American remake. For this reason alone, I strongly encourage anyone who’s seen or is interested in “The Departed” to track down a copy of “Infernal Affairs.” (It’s available on Netflix.) But it’s not the only reason. The fact is that both movies are worth seeing, and both movies only benefit from the comparison. That’s a rarity that shouldn’t be missed.



directed by Brian De Palma
starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, others
based on the novel by James Ellroy

Earlier this fall, before “The Black Dahlia” opened in theaters, I predicted that it would mark a “return to form” for director Brian De Palma. Judging from the film’s reception, it’s clear that many, if not most, critics had that same expectation, and equally clear that, for most of them, it was sadly dashed. The negative reviews, even (or perhaps especially) at their most scathing, had an aggrieved tone that reflected the particularly sharp letdown of movie buffs who’d hoped for some 21st century masterpiece of noir—or at least some classic De Palma pyrotechnics—and who found “Dahlia” to be neither the one nor enough of the other.

Their disappointment was infectious, and pretty much squelched my initial desire to see the movie. Still, I did come across enough defenses of it and some intriguing references to a staircase sequence to revive my interest somewhat. So I finally got around to seeing it a few weeks after its underwhelming debut, and as always, there’s something to be said for diminished expectations: I actually rather enjoyed “The Black Dahlia.”

Which doesn’t mean I thought it was a good movie. It’s not. The noir style is laid on thick, veering close to camp, but the substance is too thin. The script seems to have been compressed (or so I understand) from the James Ellroy novel with a rather desultory hand: the snaky convolutions of the plot and subplots aren’t particularly well foreshadowed or developed, and as a result each twist feels at once arbitrary and anticlimactic. In that respect, as in others, “Dahlia” suffers by comparison with “L.A. Confidential,” which managed to streamline an equally complicated Ellroy narrative into a tight, crisply paced mystery—a mystery that ultimately turned less on the whodunit than on the gradual revelation of the psychological core of its flawed, yet fleetingly heroic, protagonists. Riveting performances from Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and the then-obscure Russell Crowe of course helped: “L.A. Confidential” remains one of the best pieces of ensemble acting I’ve ever seen. By contrast, the characters in “Dahlia” remain stiff, opaque, and oddly disengaged from one another.

The story’s supposed to be about two cops (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) who become obsessed with the gruesome, tabloid-ready murder, mutilation, and dismemberment of a young would-be Hollywood starlet (Mia Kirshner) in the mid-1940s. Yet we get no insight into why this obsession should grip these two particular men, especially since the film gives only a muted sense of the fever that the crime (based on a true story) stirred in the press and public. The cops’ personal obsession doesn’t feel real—it doesn’t pulse,—partly because Hartnett’s performance, though not bad, is too reticent, while Eckhart’s is bad: his descent into a wild-eyed daze rings totally false. Doesn’t help that no one around these two feels real, either—certainly neither of the two femmes fatales, the dark lady (Hilary Swank) or the fair (Scarlett Johansson). Johansson, a vision of dewy overripeness, at least looks the part, but that’s about all she does with it, something that might be fairly said about the film as a whole. Swank, sporting a ludicrously unrecognizable accent and looking awkward and faintly freakish rather than alluring in her Black Dahlia copycat getup, frankly misfires. She’s not half as freaky, however, as the Usher-esque house of horrors embodied by her family, with Fiona Shaw the standout as her mentally unhinged mother.

What, then, is the redeeming value of “The Black Dahlia”? Despite everything I’ve just said, it remains strangely watchable, without quite falling into the “so bad it’s good” category. Let’s face it, noir is a tricky genre to resurrect. It can all too easily degenerate into self-parody, as hardboiled becomes merely overcooked, and overcooked loses the flavor that comprised its original draw. So it is here—and yet it’s not altogether lost. Meticulously stylized and enveloped in a dreamy soft-focus sheen, the film has an otherworldly beauty that almost manages to create a universe complete unto itself, like noir at its best. Almost, until you scratch the glossy surface and realize there’s very little underneath.

And yet there’s a hint, if only a hint, of the disillusionment that underlies all true noir. We see it in the one presence who isn’t really there: the Dahlia herself, Betty Short, as captured in black-and-white clips of her unsuccessful auditions. Kirshner makes the most of what screen time she has, her put-on kittenish coyness never quite masking the haunting pathos in her eyes. There’s something slightly voyeuristic about these passing yet painfully intimate glimpses into a dead girl’s soul, which in some sense was mutilated by Hollywood long before the killer ever got to her. The spirit is Ellroy’s; the style is De Palma’s. The result is pure noir.

Oh, and the staircase sequence? It’s pure De Palma, and it’s a beaut. And that’s all you need to know.


Also saw:


directed by Zach Braff
starring Braff, Jacinda Barrett, Rachel Bilson, Tom Wilkinson, Blythe Danner, Casey Affleck
based on the Italian film “L’ultimo bacio”

Here we have another remake of a foreign movie, but this one just may disprove everything I said earlier about remakes. The premise—or rather the theme—has plenty of potential, so without seeing “L’ultimo bacio” it’s difficult to say whether the uneven, mostly flat-footed execution is a fault in the source or the translation. The theme is one that should strike a chord with anyone who’s verging on thirty and/or marriage and/or parenthood and has no tangible reason for discontentment: I have everything I could reasonably want, including someone I love; is this all there is? But as it’s presented here, its resonance is, at best, limited. In a nutshell, Braff plays an architect named Michael who finds out his live-in girlfriend, Jenna (Barrett), is pregnant. While telling her everything’s great and he’s thrilled and in no way freaking out, he secretly freaks out. Or more precisely, he slinks off and broods, “Garden State” style, hangs with his buddies, observes the marital misery of one of them (Affleck), and finds himself drawn to a pretty college student (Bilson) he meets at a wedding. Without telling you exactly what happens, suffice to say that Michael lies and causes much pain to everyone around him. Ok: that does happen in real life. But so many other things in “The Last Kiss”—Bilson’s character, for instance, and every word that comes out of her mouth, including her increasingly fevered come-ons to a man devoid of any noticeable charm or glamour—bear so little resemblance to any real life I know that it’s hard to take the movie seriously. It’s also hard, at a certain point, to empathize with someone who seems as resolutely selfish and self-deluded as Michael.

There are moments in “The Last Kiss” that do resonate, and they feel like a good movie that’s struggling to get out of a bad one. Barrett’s reaction when she discovers Michael’s deception, painful as it is to watch, feels as true and wrenching as its cause feels labored and improbable. Tom Wilkerson, wonderful as always, has some of the best lines in any movie all year when he advises Michael on his self-created crisis, and delivers them with a force that *almost* convinces you the movie has something insightful to say about life, relationships, and the choices one makes in both. Almost. But not quite.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Apologies for being AWOL, returning soon...

To those who check this site more regularly than once a month (or used to), apologies for being so delinquent in keeping up with the fall movie season. A combination of intense demands from both work and personal life in the past month have prevented me from seeing as many movies as I'd like, and the queue just keeps growing longer.

That said, I have seen "The Black Dahlia" and "The Last Kiss," and I fully intend to see "The Departed," come hell or high water, this coming weekend. I will make my best effort to offer some kind of commentary on these movies by this time next week. I'm also hoping to sneak in "The Last King of Scotland," "Half Nelson," (if it's still playing), and possibly "Renaissance" in the not-too-distant future. So stay tuned, and thanks for your patience.