Posted: February 26th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
There’s no question Roman Polanski knows how to make a thriller. Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are classics – they serve as a reminder of the heights a top filmmaker can achieve at the top of his form. Yet for every superb entry, Polanski has made a number of duds. Polanski’s latest, The Ghost Writer, unfortunately belongs in the latter category. Despite fine performances and moody cinematography, it’s marred by hackneyed writing and laughable plot developments. Credulity-stretching twists are rarely an issue, yet with Polanski’s trademark pace, there’s plenty of time to be frustrated by the movie’s inanity.
Ewan McGregor plays the titular character, a doggedly intelligent writer who takes the piss-poor dribblings of the rich and famous and converts it into digestible prose. He protests when his editor assigns him to the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the former British Prime Minister who’s facing war crime charges. It doesn’t help that the previous ghost writer died under mysterious circumstances. Nonetheless, McGregor’s character moves from England to a remote beach house in Martha’s Vineyard, where he gets to know Lang and two important women in his life. His wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) is a familiar cliché of a politician’s spouse, shrewd and bitter; Lang’s assistant Ameila (Kim Cattrall) is politely aggressive. The former PM is petulant and defensive, a nakedly obvious imitation of Tony Blair (Brosnan is on record confirming this). Inevitably the writer uncovers intriguing documents from his predecessor, which sparks a weary investigation into Lang’s early life. It’s no shocker the dark secrets may cost him his life.
The first act is strong, with ample energy and deft introductions. After a disappointing turn in The Men Who Stare at Goats, McGregor makes his character likably sardonic. In Lang’s austere home, there are far more questions than answers, and it’s engaging when the insouciant writer navigate through strong personalities. The wintry beach setting is foreboding and the cynical characters offer several amusing one-liners, yet all these elements cannot save the movie from its storytelling shortcomings. The conspiracy he uncovers is like a jigsaw puzzle for children. There are too few pieces, and any non-toddler can figure out how they fit in a heartbeat.
Even worse, the specifics of the writer’s investigation cannot stand against the most basic scrutiny. A major development hinges upon the GPS route set by Lang’s GPS the dead writer, and based on the importance of its destination, it’s difficult to believe Lang someone wouldn’t think to wipe its memory*. Yes, I realize such a gripe is minor, yet individual moments such as these are frustrating because they do not culminate in a satisfying conclusion. I suspect the inept simplicity of The Ghost Writer’s final revelation will annoy most audiences, or cause them to laugh, as I did ruefully.
Thanks to recent legal troubles, Polanski is as controversial as ever. An uncommonly famous director, he’s unafraid to use his work as a chance to defend himself. When Lang laments the limited number of countries to which he can travel, it’s easy to guess Polanski shares his frustration. Even without such scenes, the debate over Polanski’s personal life rages on. Some use the director’s past achievements to defend his crime, whereas others demand the harshest justice. It’s certain critics and defenders will never agree on how the director should spend the remainder of his life. Now, perhaps, they can join together in shared offense over the implied insult that such a sophomoric conspiracy could cultivate genuine thrills.
* Kudos to Tim for pointing out my error in the comments.
Posted: February 24th, 2010 | Filed under:Theater | Comments Off
With Richard II and Henry V, now in repertory at The Shakespeare Theater Company, there is an interesting contrast on what makes an effective leader. Whereas the former falls due to mismanagement and frivolous spending, the latter is an inspirational hero, one who can rally beleaguered soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the production mirrors the traits of the respective kings. Richard II is effete and intellectual, a traditional production in which language is the primary focus. Henry V, on the other hand, is a more dynamic work – coupled with several comic scenes, it can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with the histories.
The plays are the first and last of Shakespeare’s tetralogy and detail a tumultuous time in England’s history. Before the action of Richard II, the king (Michael Hayden) has already secretly ordered the death of his uncle. The secret assassination is the Elephant in the room as Bolingbroke (Charles Borland) quarrels with Mowbray (Darren Mathias). Richard II banishes both men, and uses Bolingbroke’s absence as an opportunity to steal from his father (Philip Goodwin). Understandably vexed, Bolingbroke strategically uses Richard’s war with Ireland as an opportunity to usurp the throne. Soon Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV, and banishes Richard to the north of England, where assassins take his life.
Henry V is far more triumphant. After the Dauphin (Tom Story) sends Henry (Hayden) an offensively mocking message, Henry is ready to invade France. Despite a foiled assassination attempt and warnings of Henry’s military prowess, the French remain unconvinced the Englishman has a shot at victory. Invasion is imminent after the Duke of Exeter (Derrick Lee Weeden) makes a final appeal to King Charles (Goodwin). Later Henry goes in disguise to gauge the attitude of his men before his victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Upon establishing peace, Henry has an adorable courtship with Princess Katharine (Rachael Holmes). The members of the Chorus inform the audience the peace is short-lived, as Henry VI squanders his father’s victory.
With extensive casts and actors playing multiple parts, the repertory invites comparison of the talented actors. Michael Hayden is convincing as both Kings. With an emphasis on consonants, his Richard is serpent-like, even a little effeminate. In the closing acts, Hayden’s portrayal becomes more elegiac, and there are tragic dimensions in spite of the character’s shortcomings. Borland is a strong counterpoint to Hayden. As Bolingbroke, the actor has the gait of a bold leader, and speaks with righteous confidence, particularly as his usurpation gains appeal. There are a number of other strong performances, particularly from Ted Van Griethuysen as the complex Duke of York, yet the cast never develops into a cohesive whole. This could be the fault of the play itself – it’s entirely in free verse, characters are more prone to pontificate. Careful attention to the poetic language is its own reward, but I found myself adrift the moment my focus lapsed.
Aside from the feat of memorization Hayden underwent, his portrayal of Henry is a revelation. Already a more likable character, Henry is shrewd and funny, and it’s rewarding to see how he caters his rhetoric to whomever he’s speaking. It’s no surprise he’s the most engaging when he rallies the troops. After his famous “Once more into the breach” speech, it seemed as if the audience, too, was ready for battle. His courtship with Katherine is a reversal from the wartime scenes. The pair delicately flirt in a combination of French and English, and their bilingual shortcomings elicit plenty of laughs. As Northumberland and Exeter, Derrick Lee Weeden is other standout cast member. With a memorable baritone, his deliberate delivery not only commands authority but also is the easiest to understand. The directors must be fully aware of the power in Weeden’s voice, as he’s called upon for speeches both sinister and droll. Unlike Richard II, the cast of Henry V have an easy rapport. The broad characterizations of soldiers and French aristocracy allow quick identification of heroes/villains, and even when the dialogue as its most esoteric, it’s easy to follow the action.
David Muse, who directed Henry V, uses modern flourishes to engage the audience. The Chorus wears anachronistic costumes, and earn some chuckles as the apologize for the shortcomings of the stage (there’s even a prop gag when a member busts out a laser pointer). Characters climb the stage walls, and at one point, Henry gallantly descends from the upper platform to the lower level. Shakespeare plays feature minimal instruction, yet Muse’s creative stage direction gives us plenty to watch. Michael Kahn, who directed Richard II, is far more traditional in his approach. Short on heroics and high on poetry, Kahn’s approach feels stilted by comparison. Some metaphors, such as when Bolingbroke and Richard have both grasp the crown, are heavy-handed in a disengaging way.
After six hours of Shakespeare, I remain amazed at the playwright’s consistent relevance. The flaws and virtues of Richard and Henry are found in today’s politicians. His dialogue captivates, and the complexity of his characters can inspire hours of conversation. For those Shakespeare nuts who can’t get enough of this stuff (I hope you’re out there), definitely see both plays before production ends in mid-April. On the other hand, if you think Shakespeare is a tedious bore (I know you’re out there), I beseech thee to see Henry V. It’s rabble-rousing entertainment, one that reminds you of Shakespeare’s unique power.
Richard II are Henry V are running in repertory until April 10th. Buy tickets here.
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Islandtakes elements from two reliable genres, noir and psychological horror, and combines them into something curiously affecting. It’s curious because even if some plot twists are predictable, its power is on an emotional level, which is uncommon for a detective story. Cheap scares do not interest Scorsese. Rather than pepper his movie with annoying gotcha scenes, he uses eerie nightmare sequences, the best since The Shining, to creep out audiences and build character development. More importantly, the quiet irony of the final scene makes it easy to forgive the shopworn middle section.
Fedoras and world-weary cynicism, staples of noir, help define the opening act. US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at Shutter Island, a hospital for the criminally insane, to investigate a patient’s mysterious disappearance. Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is Teddy’s new partner, and earnestly wishes to gain his trust. The hospital is run by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), whose unnervingly deliberate manner annoys Teddy. And because Teddy came across a Nazi death camp during WW2, he’s hostile towards Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), the other psychiatrist on staff. Now the elements of psychological horror enter the story. Teddy has an ulterior motive for visiting the island, which he slowly reveals to Chuck. It seems a particularly violent patient, one in a restricted ward, is responsible for the death of Teddy’s wife (Michelle Williams). The dead wife, the missing patient, and his WW2 experiences converge into increasingly horrific nightmares. Soon a terrible storm strikes the island, allowing the Marshals to enter the fortress-like ward. What they find leaves more questions than answers, and Teddy’s mental state becomes the focus of everyone’s attention.
Few filmmakers have such a grasp of their craft like Scorsese, so every shot and freeze-frame has a specific purpose. This is apparent during the nightmare sequences, particularly during slow tracking shots that ratchet unease. The director effectively combines elemental fears, and the dream logic offers ample insight into Teddy. It wasn’t until the movie’s conclusion I realized these scenes aren’t merely weird for the sake of weird – they enrich the themes of contrition and madness, which are mainstays of Scorsese’s work. If I focus too much on the dream sequences, it’s because the procedural elements are the most rote. Of course Teddy suspects the worst conspiracy imaginable, and everyone, especially his wife, offer increasingly dire warnings. Characters discuss the paradox of being labeled “insane” more often than necessary, so some twists lack shock. Still, the quality of the acting and level of suspense ensure the predictable scenes are never boring.
More than any other previous work, Shutter Island confirms DiCaprio’s collaboration with Scorsese rivals the one with Robert De Niro. DiCaprio exudes world-weary toughness for the first hour, which then gives way to defeated paranoia. Thrillers often require such development, yet in one of his best career performances, DiCaprio adds a degree alarming pathos. Other cast members do an admirable job. Ruffalo again confirms his status as an excellent everyman. Kingsley hardly ever missteps, and the development of Dr. Cawley is an interesting antithesis to Teddy’s increasing despair. Special recognition should go to Emily Mortimer as the missing patient – her trademark sweetness is a chilling counterpoint to her horrific surroundings. A number of underrated character actors, from Ted Levine to Jackie Earle Haley, also make memorable appearances as violent monsters.
Shutter Island will not go down as one of Scorsese’s masterpieces. Here he instead demonstrates his command over genre and mainstream entertainment, as he did with Cape Fear nearly twenty years ago. Whereas many directors would amplify the story’s horrific elements, Scorsese maintains a slow-burn pace. Sudden moments of shock take a more profound toll, as dread is pervasive throughout its two-hour plus running time. It all culminates in a poetic, understated final exchange of dialogue. Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis seemingly leave it open to interpretation. After some thought, I’m sure you’ll agree Teddy knows exactly what he’s saying, and his tragic implications will eventually torment the person to whom he speaks.
Posted: February 12th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
A Town Called Panic feels like the fever-dream of a creative kid who loves playing with action figures. Like Wes Anderson in Fantastic Mr. Fox , Belgian co-directors Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier use stop-motion animation to create a world of talking animals and enterprising farmers. Whereas the Anderson’s work features close detail and universal appeal, the work of Patar and Aubier is coarase and will probably only appeal to the youngest kids. I know this is by design – Patar and Aubier aren’t in competition for the best art-house animated feature, and the motion of their scenes are deliberately stilted. Still, their style will prevent audiences from embracing the manic tone, so some attempts at humor annoy when they should amuse.
The plot, such as it is, is a little weird. Horse lives in a house with roommates Cowboy and Indian. I’m not entirely clear how they pass the time, but it seems like a pleasant enough existence. Animals and people are equals in the village. Simon, for example, helps run a music school with equine teacher Mrs. Longray. It’s only natural Horse has affection for Mrs. Longray, yet even after becoming her pupil, he can’t attend any lessons. Through dumb luck, Cowboy and Indian ordered 50,000,000 bricks online when they intended to order 50, and all the extra building material pushes Horse’s house into the ground. Gerard the sea creature lives on the other side of Horse’s house, so when all these bricks unexpectedly arrive, he retaliates by sabotaging the rebuilding effort. Horse, Cowboy, and Indian are understandably vexed. Soon it’s an all-out war with the sea world and whichever one the protagonists occupy.
Given the preceding paragraph, I’m sure you’ll agree story is at best a tertiary concern for the directors. It’s better, then, to focus other aspects of their effort. The animation is jerky. There is little fluidity to the movement, so characters move in a manner similar to children playing with toys. Such a visual style appropriately matches the voice acting and character design. Cowboy and Indian, for example, are essentially action figures, and they speak with a boisterous tone that, again, mimics child’s play. No mouths move when characters speak, which gives them an intimate quality that distances audiences from the action. Some effects, such as the use of cotton and water, are playful and creative. And there is enough variety in the scenery* to maintain attention through the movie’s lean running time.For the most part, however, the visual style is jarring and leaves little warmth toward the characters or story.
Coupled with subtitles and some naughty words, I doubt parents will be eager to bring their children to E Street. A Town Called Panic doesn’t engage adults, so I guess only French-speaking youngsters will give it a warm reception.
* As if you need further convincing to not see this movie, there is a sequence where the heroes are stuck in a snowy wilderness. Ugh. Snowball fights are SO last week.
Many of us like to sit around and talk about the kind of movies we’d like to make. I know my friends and I have discussed writing sequels to Cocktail and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. These conversations amount to little, so it’s inspiring when a working stiff actually follows through with an idea. Noticing how most DC-centric movies involve issues of national security, Paul DeVeaux decided to take matters into his own hands and make a movie about our city and its residents. The result is Adams Morgan: The Movie, a romantic comedy set during Halloween weekend, which was shot on location and features local actors. Production has wrapped, so now DeVeaux focuses on promoting his film. On the heels of a successful viewing party, Paul and I talked about the titular neighborhood, and how his movie came to be.
What inspired you to make Adams Morgan: The Movie?
I’ve always fancied myself a storyteller, and in my twenties I used to hang out a lot in Adams Morgan (back in the early 90s). I never had a bad time there. I went on the first date with my wife there.
Where did you go?
A place called Cities, which doesn’t exist anymore. I think it’s the Left Bank now. I remember going to Habana Village and dancing, I remember going to Cafe Lautrec and watching the bartender dance on the bar at the end of the night. It’s such a diverse place in terms of the food and people, which always appealed to me. It’s also a great name – a great name for a story.
How has the neighborhood changed since you went on the first date with your wife?
It’s funny. We went last fall before we started shooting to do a little research, and I don’t remember it being so boisterous so late into the night. By the end of the evening five bachelorette parties approached us. It seems a lot younger, maybe I’m just older now. The bars changed, but the vibe hasn’t. There’s still this great energy there, which we hopefully tapped into for the movie… I love the fact you can have El Salvadorean food next to West African food in a fifty food radius. I don’t think there are many places in the world like that.
What is the history of the production, and the biggest challenge you faced?
I started writing this about three years ago. I’m a creative type and a lawyer by day, so there’s not a lot of room for creative energy at work. I started writing on the side. One day sitting in my office when I should have been working, one of my friends read [the screenplay] over my shoulder and started laughing. I never showed it to anybody, but when someone read it and laughed at it, it inspired me to keep writing. I probably went through twelve different drafts. About a year and a half ago I had a bunch of friends over for a table reading. It was great, man. It was the first time I heard my words come to life. Some of it worked, most of it didn’t. I thought, “I may have something here, so I better keep tweaking this.” Fast forward to this fall – I went to this open audition called Stone Henge in Baltimore. In eight hours I saw about one hundred people, I liked about ten of them. All of them were non-union and willing to work for deferred compensation. I found a camera guy on craigslist, and he’s amazing. With a friend of a friend who knows a director, it all just came together. As for the biggest challenge, well, I like writing and I’ll probably direct the next one, but producing is a pain in the ass.You know, juggling all these schedules and making sure everyone shows up on time. And because we’re independent (I guess the new term is “micro-budget”) we had to be flexible in terms of locations.
Really well! We had about forty people show up. Full disclosure: it’s been by rugby bar since 1992. I spent so many Saturday’s drinking there after the game, so it had to be in the movie. The owner is a friend of mine, and he said, “Sunday’s are usually slow here. Come in, we’ll have space for you in the back.” It was great – slowly but surely we’re getting the word out. Friends of mine who were just trying to be supportive and had no real ideas said, “Wow, this is a real movie!” Oh, and we also had a viewing at my house two weeks ago. Got some feedback, made some more edits. Now I think we’re at where we want to be.
How would you describe the movie?
It’s a relationship comedy. There are three couples, all in different stages: one is beginning, one is ending, and the other is continuing. It’s about the similarities [in relationships] that occur no matter where you are. The married couple, for example, are still in love but keep missing each other. He’s too busy with work, and when she tries to make a romantic dinner, he arrives late with her already asleep on the couch. They both have the best intentions, but keep missing opportunities. The same goes for the couple that breaks up. The guy is just a flake, not a bad guy, he just can’t keep his shit together. In the earlier drafts, it was written to early from a guy’s perspective, but later I tried to make it more equitable. With the breaking up story, I had a lot of women tell me, “Yeah, that’s the way it would be.” Also, everything in the movie is loosely based on stuff that happened to me or friends of mine. I have a very good memory, so while I can’t make up fanciful plotlines, I can tweak my memories to tell a good story. Friends of mine who’ve seen the movie say, “Oh, yeah, I remember when that happened.” [laughs] Writing is fun, editing is a pain in the ass. The script is 92 pages, and I started with about 180.
Yeah, I’m a big fan of Robert Altman, so at first I wanted a story like his, one with a mutliple arcs and stories that all connect. Of course, I’m not Robert Altman, but that’s ok. What he did is a hard thing to do, and while the characters of my screenplay are somewhat connected, it’s not tight as I wanted. Maybe we’ll try something like [more like Altman] next time.
What do you have planned next?
We’re submitting it to film festivals now. We submitted it to the Atlanta Independent Film Festival. Now we’re on a list of upcoming festivals, and there are between five and ten I think we have a shot of getting into. We’re doing a lot of local stuff. We’ve met with the DC Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. They’ve been very supportive of us, and my producer is good friends with Kathy Hollinger, who runs the office. We’re going to do a screening for them, and see what happens from there. Councilman Jim Graham appears in our movie, so we’re showing the movie at his office. There will hopefully be a premiere at the Avalon in the spring.
Posted: February 5th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
There’s a moment in From Paris with Love, the new action thriller directed by Pierre Morel, where the Badass Spy and Embassy Dweeb are discussing the mayhem they caused. Badass Spy, “I think I [killed] 26 guys. That’s more than a guy an hour.” Buried in this throwaway line is the key to sitting back and enjoy the fun. Badass Spy speaks the same language countless gamers speak when they discuss their violent successes. Like many first person shooters, it’s best not to focus on story shortcomings or plot cohesion, and instead bask in the silliness of kinetic violence.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays James Reece, the Embassy Dweeb who excels at chess and dreams of becoming a field agent. Apparently his Parisian apartment and hot girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak) are not enough. Immediately before she proposes, the Ambassador (Richard Durden) gives Reece the chance he’s always wanted. Charlie Wax (John Travolta), aka Badass Spy, is stuck at the airport, so Reece must help Wax clear customs and further assist in any way he can. Turns out Reece assists Wax by carrying a cocaine-filled vase (see below) and helping kill anyone who crosses their path. They run around Paris and leave implausible destruction in their wake. This takes a considerable toll on Embassy Dweeb, as it turns out his girlfriend is part of a terrorist cell (I hate it when that happens). He and Wax have a final goal, I guess, but by the halfway point I stopped paying attention to the plot. Who needs international intrigue when you have bald* John Travolta in a car chase with a motherfucking bazooka?
Morel also directed last year’s Taken, and while his latest effort lacks the gravitas of Liam Neeson, it’s quite the hell-ride. The action scenes are competently directed if not especially original. Directors like Paul WS Anderson and Michael Bay too often rely on quick cuts as a substitute for well-choreographed action. Morel, on the other hand, edits his scene at a brisk pace, and his shots are just long enough to establish the battle lines. It’s completely unrealistic, to be sure, yet it makes just enough visual sense so the action never devolves into chaos. There are still a few clever moments, such as when Wax finds creative use of a suicide bomber vest.
The male leads embrace the silliness of the endeavor. Travolta has had his share of duds lately, and brings manic zeal to his role. It’s always nice to see him relax as drop f-bombs. As Reece, Meyers is a good foil – his sincerity and dorkiness are a nice counterpoint to Wax’s uncouth demeanor. They have an ongoing conversation about the sacrifices of spy-dom that is responsible for the movie’s funniest lines.
By now you’ve surely decided whether From Paris with Love is worth your time. It’s a pure genre exercise, and at a lean 90 minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m sure those who enjoy this sort of thing will have a good time.