Wednesday, November 29, 2006

November Movie Roundup: "The Fountain," "Casino Royale," "Borat," "The Last King of Scotland"

Well, full reviews of “The Prestige” and “Marie Antoinette” are finally up, but I have in the meantime managed to fall even further behind in my reviewing. What’s rather sad is that I’ve only seen four movies in the interim. But in the interest of catching up and starting afresh, I’ll summarize my thoughts on them. I hope to do a better job of keeping up in December, though traditionally ’tis the season for movie overload and this year doesn’t look to be an exception.

Capsule reviews, in reverse chronological order:


directed by Darren Aronofsky
starring Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Patrick Thomas

"The Fountain" has sparked more passionate debate and deeply divided reactions than any movie in recent memory—a sure sign that, if nothing else, it takes some big chances. Aronofsky is a ballsy director, and his labor of love aims higher, both aesthetically and conceptually, than most films of comparable budget and public profile. Whether or not it succeeds is a question I’m still wrestling with and may revisit when my thoughts have gestated a little more. The pervading theme is man’s quest for immortality, spanning time and space in three different incarnations of the same storyline. In each one, a man (Hugh Jackman) named Tom or Tomas—by turns a 16th century conquistador, a present-day scientist seeking a cure for cancer, and, much further in the future, a vaguely Buddhist monk-like figure floating through the universe in a giant bubble (yep, you read that right)—strives desperately to save the life of the woman he loves. The latter is played principally by Aronofsky’s own muse, Rachel Weisz, who appears as both the Queen of Spain and the scientist's wife Izzy. In the third age, to quote A.O. Scott, she, “if I’m not mistaken, has turned into a tree.” Scott’s quip is funny and apt, but it’s probably fairer to say that at that stage, the quest has been stripped down to its barest essence—the search for eternal life without passing through death—to become an end in itself. Small wonder, then, that its symbol, the tree of life, is fused with the concept of the beloved.

That sounds rather facile, and some critics have already dismissed the movie as such. But I don’t know that it’s necessarily to Aronofksy’s discredit that he seems less concerned with intellectual rigor (or, say, historical or mythological accuracy) than with spiritual resonance. What’s more important is whether he achieves that resonance, and I would say, against all odds, he does. “The Fountain” certainly takes itself seriously, and perhaps inevitably, there are moments it’s impossible for the objective viewer to take entirely seriously. (Jackman and Weisz deserve a lot of credit for giving the movie as much emotional grounding as it has; or maybe I just like them as an onscreen couple.) For all that, however, I found it neither bloated nor pretentious. Actually, given the scope of its ambitions, it’s a remarkably quiet and short film, clocking in at just a little over an hour and a half (though for some viewers, no doubt, it will feel an hour too long). It’s also an incredibly beautiful one. The repeated use of parallel images and visual echoes across the three eras, which might have been tedious in another filmmaker’s hands, have a luminous poetic resonance here that’s well matched by a haunting, understated musical score. Both have stayed with me, and I expect will linger there long after the details of crisper and smarter movies have faded.

GRADE, subject to revision: B+


directed by Martin Campbell
starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright

Setting aside any possible unfortunate associations with the “Matrix” trilogy, “Casino Royale” might just as aptly have been called “Bond Reloaded.” No doubt about it, this isn’t your daddy’s Bond. And I don’t just mean that he’s blond. Yes, Craig is blond and blue-eyed, and yes, he’s rougher, tougher, bloodier, and less suave than previous Bonds. He’s also a lot more ripped and a hell of a lot more convincing as a secret agent. That, in a way, mirrors the changes wrought in the Bond formula as a whole. Many of the trademark features of a Bond film—the signature lines (and, for the most part, the Bond musical motif), the cornball double-entendres, Q and his gadgets, the superwealthy supervillains with their elaborately inefficient schemes to take over the world and take out Bond, so well-spoofed in the first “Austin Powers”—are markedly absent. Ostensibly this is because “Casino Royale” is supposed to get back to basics, as the story of how Bond got his start as .007. In reality it’s part of an attempt to inject new life into a sagging franchise. The result is a whole new sensibility, from the scenes of gritty, sometimes unnerving violence (more “24” than “Goldfinger”) to the love story between Bond and the stunningly beautiful British treasury representative Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). The latter subplot swells the running time to nearly 2 ½ hours, yet proves to be the most compelling part of the movie—probably because Green manages to strike real sparks with Craig, who’s otherwise a bit too brooding and standoffish to be a plausible lady-killer. To the extent “Casino Royale” was intended to reinvigorate the series, it largely succeeds. But it does so by jettisoning much of what made Bond such a recognizable icon. The question remaining for the movies to come is whether the stripped-down Bond will succeed in supplanting the smooth operator who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred.


BORAT: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit for Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

directed by Larry Charles
starring Sasha Baren Cohen, Pamela Anderson, assorted bigots and some unfortunate innocents

By now I don’t think there’s a person with any remote chance of reading this blog who isn’t aware of this movie or its basic setup. So let me just get down to the essentials without giving away too many of the jokes. Is “Borat” funny? Hell yes. I don’t think anyone who’s seen it (and wasn’t unlucky enough to be in it) would disagree. Is it mean-spirited? Well, yes, sometimes. There’s no denying a good number of his targets deserved to be punked, or worse, given the level of prejudice they reveal. Others simply look foolish, and that’s fair game in the name of comedy. But there are some who, to paraphrase a commentary I read recently, were guilty of nothing more than good manners in the face of appalling behavior. Is this a sign of their own hypocrisy? I don’t think so. What would *you* do if a foreign guest with an outlandish accent casually insulted your wife’s looks or shat in a plastic bag and handed it to you at your own dinner table? (There is, of course, the somewhat disquieting fact that what got Borat thrown out of the house wasn’t the bag of poop but rather his unbidden invitation of a large black woman to join the all-white party. But then, by that point the party had endured a lot of abuse, and it probably didn’t help that she was dressed like a prostitute.)

All that said, it’s physically impossible to keep from laughing even as you may be internally squirming. That’s the operating principle behind a large part of the movie, which—far more than Borat’s skits on “Da Ali G Show”—gets a lot of comic mileage out of sight gags and broad physical humor. E.g., Borat driving a dilapidated ice cream truck, a bear cub roaring out the truck window and scaring the bejesus out of a flock of little kids, and a long, extended nude wrestling sequence between Borat and an obese, hairy man through the halls, elevator, and crowded conference room of a hotel. Subtle social satire it’s not. Howlingly funny, yes. You like? High-five!



directed by Kevin McDonald
starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerri Washington, Gillian Anderson
based on the novel by Giles Foden

If you’re wondering why a movie about the notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin would be called “The Last King of Scotland,” the short answer is that he apparently called himself that. The sort-of-long answer is that Amin had a liking, bordering on a fetish, for Scotland and all things Scottish. This provides the hook for the narrative, framed from the perspective of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scot fresh out of med school who comes to Uganda on a whim and somehow ends up becoming Amin’s personal physician. Amin is magnetically charming, witty, and generous; he’s also, as Nicholas unwillingly begins to discover, a paranoid psychopath. But by the time Nicholas realizes that he’s living in the middle of a reign of terror and it would be healthier for him to leave, he’s trapped.

Though it seems at first glance to be primarily a psychological portrait of a dictator, “The Last King” at its core is a thriller, and a damn good one. It starts out at a relatively leisurely pace, then picks up speed as the net closes in on Nicholas and the horrors surrounding him become more visible. Even if you know or can guess how it all ends, the last quarter hour of the movie is still a knuckle-biter. At the same time, the film wouldn’t work half as well as it does if it weren’t anchored by excellent acting. Forest Whitaker’s been picking up a lot of Oscar buzz for this portrayal of Amin, and it's deserved; he’s clearly studied Amin closely and given a lot of thought to what made him tick, as well as what made him so appealing to his supporters. But while Whitaker nails the charm, he doesn’t, in my humble opinion, get his hands entirely around Amin’s dark side. I bought the charisma; I didn’t quite buy the paranoia or the rage as the source of Amin’s murderousness. Perhaps that’s more a fault of the script, or the difficulty of characterizing evil, than a flaw in the actor’s interpretation.

It’s a credit to both Whitaker and the rest of the cast that the supporting turns still stand out next to his outsized performance—especially McAvoy as the hapless Nicholas. You may recognize him as the faun from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” but he’s a revelation here, entirely convincing in conveying the mix of cocky impulsiveness, good intentions, and naïve thoughtlessness that draw Amin and others to him but ultimately lead to disaster for people he never meant to hurt. The movie’s full recognition of the harm he contributes, however unwittingly, cuts against the inherently problematic nature of telling an Ugandan story from a European outsider’s point of view. This may be a tale of a white man’s burden, but not in the usual sense: the burden includes his own accountability.