Monday, December 10, 2007

Give it Up for Some Langella Love

It must be that time of year again: the film critics’ associations have begun handing out their annual awards. Close on the heels of the National Board of Review’s choice of “No Country for Old Men” as best picture, both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Society of Film Critics have followed suit and given “NCOM” top honors. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, however, gave the nod to the not-yet-released “There Will Be Blood.” (Which reminds me, I need to add that movie to my must-see list, though I believe it doesn’t come out until after Christmas.)

Both the NYFCC and LAFCA named Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor for his role in “There Will Be Blood.” I’m sure he deserves it. However, MAJOR kudos to Boston for recognizing Frank Langella’s fabulous performance in “Starting Out in the Evening”! (LAFCA also named Langella its runner-up for Best Actor.) With this, and Langella’s recent Indie Spirit nomination, there may be hope of an Oscar nod after all…I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed, and hoping that the distributor will do a LOT more to promote the movie and release it in more cities! As far as I can tell, it’s still only playing in N.Y. and L.A., though I think it’s due to open in Chicago soon.

Much fuller coverage of all the awards leading up to and through the Oscars is available at the inimitable Film Experience.

I, in the meantime, will continue to monitor Langella’s awards progress, and future release dates for “Starting Out in the Evening.”

Update: Aha, a whole bunch of new release dates have been posted...It opens in Chicago this Wednesday, and then it looks like the next wave is this Friday, Dec. 14, when the film hits D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Philly, and other assorted cities. For the full rollout schedule, go here.

December Movie Omnibus Part I

Since my last post, I’ve managed to see four of the films that were on my must-see list. That’s the good news. The bad news is I’m too busy these days to write the full-length reviews that they each deserve. I don’t, however, want to let them all pass without any commentary on my part. So I’ll compromise with one of my “omnibus” reviews, briefly summarizing my reactions to all four, and will attempt to provide a more in-depth response at a later time. In reverse order of viewing:


Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Harriet Walter
Based on the novel by Ian McEwan

A high-class, high-gloss adaptation of McEwan's much-feted novel, “Atonement” manages to remain admirably faithful to its source while retaining a cinematic richness all its own. Wright’s second feature film is being billed as a sweeping WWII romance à la “English Patient,” but while it is in part a tale of love and war, it’s really about how the imagination of one precocious, privileged little girl (Ronan) irrevocably affects two other lives (Knightley and McAvoy), and how her later actions as an adult (played successively by Garai and Redgrave) shape the course of their love story. To say more would be to give too much away, so I won’t. The film is visually sumptuous and arresting, from its evocations of a palatial English estate and its mood of pre-war summertime languor, punctuated by undercurrents of menace, to the hypnotic tracking shots of the carnage and chaos of the retreat from Dunkirk. It’s also well acted, in a buttoned-up 1930s-British style that only sharpens the shards of intense emotion that do pierce through. (I’ve concluded, after this movie and last year’s “Pride and Prejudice,” that Keira Knightley should only act in films directed by Joe Wright.) But the restraint and reticence that predominate make “Atonement,” on the whole, a quieter film than some may expect—more elegiac than epic, despite a rather aggressive score by Dario Marianelli that plays off the recurring theme of clicking typewriter keys. Like “Lust, Caution,” another, though very different (and I think superior), film that turns on repressed emotions, “Atonement” operates on the iceberg principle: what you see is only the barely visible tip of a mass of unarticulated feeling. GRADE: B+


Directed by Chris Weitz
Starring Nicole Kidman and introducing Dakota Blue Richards; also featuring Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee, Clare Higgins, and the voices of Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates
Based on the novel by Philip Pullman

Another faithful adaptation (well, except for the truncated ending), but this one, alas, doesn’t work quite as well as the book. Not because of the atheistic subtext. Nor even because the film waters down that subtext. After all, Pullman’s antipathy to Christian theology and power structures isn’t as front and center at the beginning of his trilogy as it is in the later books, or at any rate isn’t strictly necessary to the plot of The Golden Compass as a stand-alone story. But that, in a sense, is the root of the problem: while the point of the overall trilogy is nothing less than a complete up-ending of the classic justification of the Fall, this first installment is concerned mainly with creating Pullman’s alternate universe and setting in motion the events that will ultimately lead to his subversive conclusion. And because the universe of The Golden Compass and its conceptual underpinnings are complicated, the explanation- and exposition-heavy first hour of the movie is likely to feel extremely slow and at the same time overly compressed and potentially confusing to those who haven’t read the book.

Still, there’s ample food for both thought and wonder, even for the Pullman neophyte. The visual design of the movie is a marvel to behold—I could easily have spent hours studying the gorgeously retro-futuristic architecture, dresses, and vehicles, or the fluid forms of the daemons (animal manifestations of people’s spirits) frolicking or fluttering about. Nicole Kidman is in superb form as the seductive, dangerous but perhaps not wholly heartless villain, Mrs. Coulter, while newcomer Dakota Blue makes a fine, plucky Lyra, the protagonist and keeper of the titular compass, which functions rather more like a crystal ball. Ian McKellen, on the other hand, proves distracting as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, the armored polar bear whom Lyra befriends. Overall, this is a thoughtful and well-made adaptation of a tricky book, but one that I fear will only puzzle or disappoint those looking for another “Narnia” or “Lord of the Rings.” And that’s a shame, because I would really like to see the rest of His Dark Materials make it to film—especially The Subtle Knife, the middle and by far the best book in the trilogy. GRADE: B


Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Yet another faithful adaptation of a critically lauded book (though in this case one I haven’t read), the Coen brothers’ latest is not for the faint of heart. One might just as easily have called it “Grim and Grimmer,” as it traces the flight of Llewelyn Moss (Brolin), a hard-bitten Texan who finds and absconds with a stash of drug money, his pursuit by one Anton Chigurh (Bardem), a ghostface killa tasked with recovering the money, and the much wearier tracking of both men by Sheriff Bell (Jones), who always seems one step behind the hitman. There’s no question “No Country” is a highly accomplished film: the Coens sustain and tighten the suspense with a masterful hand, adding sparing touches of black humor that seem to be more theirs than McCarthy’s, while trusty cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the silent bleakness and menacing shadows of a terrain as implacable as the planes of Chigurh’s face. And the oblique, meditative ending, though not, perhaps, to everyone’s taste—especially those expecting an OK Corral-style showdown—haunts the mind for days.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something extremely stylized, and therefore slightly alienating, about all this relentless nihilism. Although I’ve read only one novel by McCarthy (The Road, which is also being made into a movie, reportedly starring Viggo Mortensen), I suspect this is as much a reflection of his writing as the Coens’ adaptation and direction. Bardem (who’s pretty much unseated Daniel Day-Lewis in my book for the Alec Guinness Living Chameleon Award) has been picking up a lot of supporting-actor awards buzz. His Chigurh is one scary fucker, no doubt about it. Yet the part as scripted didn’t seem real to me, even as an archetype of evil, or death, or what have you. The scenes in which he toys with the lives of potential victims, scenes which many will likely revere for their dialogue, I found artificial and, well, dull, even as I could feel the tension underneath being deliberately drawn out. That may just be a matter of personal taste. But at the end of the day, “No Country for Old Men,” for all the dirt and blood it splatters, feels more like a superlatively polished tribute to Yeats’s “artifice of eternity” than a real insight into the nature of evil. GRADE: B+


Directed by Kevin Lima
Starring Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Timothy Spall, Idina Menzel

A pure delight, and the ideal starmaking vehicle for Amy Adams. As blue-eyed Giselle, a Disney princess who’s ejected from the (animated) kingdom of Andalasia into the big bad “real world” of (live-action) New York City, she’s perfectly convincing, and perfectly adorable. Her sunny innocence conquers New York—from the birds and, um, other creatures who flock to do her bidding to the strollers and street-musicians in Central Park—but at the same time gradually adapts to it, or at least to its messier and more complicated definition of love. The latter finds its embodiment in Robert (Patrick Dempsey), the jaded divorce lawyer and single dad who reluctantly comes to Giselle’s aid and ends up, of course, falling for her. Probably the best scene in the entire movie is also the most “adult,” and not just because it features Dempsey in a bathrobe: it’s the moment in which Giselle discovers the feelings of anger and (surely not coincidentally) sexual attraction. It’s a surprisingly and wonderfully charged scene, without ever being inappropriate for children. But this is about as serious as “Enchanted” ever gets; for the rest, it’s supremely light-hearted, very funny, and frequently very clever in its gentle satirization of Disney conventions. I won’t spoil the jokes in advance, though I will say that James Marsden, who just keeps getting better and better with every movie, is a riot as Prince Eric, Giselle’s fatuous but essentially good-hearted betrothed who comes blundering after her to rescue her. One of the most hilarious sequences in the film involves him rushing through a Manhattan apartment building, knocking on every door in search of Giselle, and the varied reactions he gets from the different residents. Timothy Spall is also a hoot as the scheming Andalasian courtier who’s dispatched after Eric to keep him permanently apart from Giselle.

“Enchanted” isn’t without its share of flaws. The opening, animated section looks a little pallid and comes off as a bit too pastiche-y. Same goes for the songs, composed by Disney veterans Alan Mencken and Stephen Schwartz, though there is one rather fetching number in the park that may set your toes tapping. Susan Sarandon doesn’t get enough to do as Narissa, the evil Queen who casts the spell that sends Giselle to New York. Idina Menzel gets even less as Robert’s suspicious girlfriend—I mean, why cast Idina Menzel in a Disney flick if you’re not going to have her sing? And the big climactic confrontation at the end falls rather flat. But these are all quibbles that hardly mar the movie’s effervescent charm. What’s so remarkable about “Enchanted” is that it works as both send-up and model of the classic Disney princess tale. It’s one of those rare cases in which the viewer can have her cake and eat it, too. GRADE: B/B+