Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recent Movie Roundup 7

A catch-all post encompassing films watched months ago and just this weekend, at theaters and at home.
  1. Charlie Wilson's War (2007) - Forget about director Mike Nichols or star Tom Hanks, this for me was an Aaron Sorkin movie, his first chance since the abysmal failure of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to demonstrate that the man who created The West Wing was still in there. Charlie Wilson's War has all the stylistic hallmarks of a Sorkin work--breakneck dialogue, wry humor, and, most refreshingly, the sense that here, for once, is a film that expects a certain level of intelligence from its audience--and certainly the subject matter--the true story of a senator who orchestrates a covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by arming the mujahadeen--seems to play to Sorkin's strengths. It gives him the opportunity to return to one of his most beloved themes--the belief that with power in their hands, smart, well-informed, driven people can make the world a better place, but whereas in The West Wing Sorkin was free to create a universe in which such well-intentioned actions nearly always bore fruit, in Charlie Wilson's War he has to contend with the consequences of the US's actions in Afghanistan.

    I think Sorkin tries to acknowledge the grim results of Wilson's actions when he tells us that that US 'screwed up the endgame' by abandoning Afghanistan to fundamentalists when the Soviets were defeated, but to me this smacks of just the same blindness that the film supposedly excoriates. For one thing, this article argues that the film presents a biased and inaccurate version of events, and that even as the war was raging the US was funding internal disputes between different Afghan groups, favoring the most anti-communist, and most fundamentalist, among them over their more moderate counterparts. More importantly, Sorkin's thesis, that with full knowledge and comprehension of a situation one can achieve complete control of it (leaving aside for a moment the question of whether full knowledge and comprehension are even possible--in Aaron Sorkin's universe, they always are) strikes me as old fashioned to the point of being almost imperialistic. Charlie Wilson's War ultimately says that we're in our present predicament because the US failed to act correctly, but isn't it possible that in some situations, all action, including inaction, is incorrect? That's not a possibility that exists in Aaron Sorkin's invented universes, but when he tries to apply that mindset to the real world the result feels inauthentic.

  2. Sweeney Todd (2007) & The Darjeeling Limited (2007) - I'm listing these two films together because both fail for the same reason--because they were made by set designers who also happen to direct. Tim Burton's been heading down this path for a while, which is a particular shame as, for all his obsession with grime, soot, and shadows, there's something undeniably plastic about his visual sensibility. Much like the recent spate of computer animated films, his historical recreations seem to squat resolutely in the uncanny valley between completely realistic and deliberately stylized, and their emotional impact is dampened because of it. Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd--which in its theatrical incarnation is performed on what is nearly a bare stage--can't survive this treatment. Burton's insistence on setting the film in something resembling reality highlights the ludicrousness of its plot, and the film is further undermined by his failure to make that reality fully real. All of this would still be fine (Sweeney Todd is not, after all, a show one watches for plot; it doesn't even have much of a theme or a central point) if the musical performances were worthwhile, but though Johnny Depp is surprisingly good as Sweeney, the show really hinges on Mrs. Lovett, and Helena Bonham Carter simply doesn't have what it takes for that role, which demands pipes, and plenty of them. The only way Bonham Carter can control her voice is to keep it tightly under wraps, which is completely unsuited to her character--compare her thin and reedy rendition of "The Worst Pies in London" with Patty LuPone's brassy performance.

    The Darjeeling Limited is by far the more successful movie--funnier, more engaging, and much, much prettier to look at. It is also without a doubt the least of Wes Anderson's films, a retread of many of his favorite tropes--privileged yet dysfunctional families, strained sibling and parent-child relationships, absurdist humor concealing deep loneliness and pain--that does nothing to develop them or do anything with them that Anderson's previous films haven't done better. This story of three brothers, still reeling from their father's death and reluctantly trying to become a family again, is short, funny, and sweet, but ultimately effervescent--the most interesting and significant aspects of the film are the visual, the painstaking work Anderson clearly put into scouting locations, dressing sets, and making props. Anderson's films have always been characterized by an obsession with things, which often wormed its way into the plot as well (in The Darjeeling Limited the dead father is represented by a gigantic and hideous set of matched luggage, and the brothers squabble over monogrammed belts, bottles of perfume, and cars), but in The Darjeeling Limited it seems to have crowded out all other considerations.

  3. In Bruges (2008) - Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. After dozens of films about wise-cracking, likable assassins who escape their cruel employers and their business and make a new, decent life for themselves, there finally comes a film that acknowledges the inescapable moral stain that tarnishes such characters, and the great difficulty of overcoming it. All of which makes In Bruges sound grander and more serious than it actually is, but then I can't think of any way, short of laying out its entire plot, of describing this film without creating a false impression of it. At its most basic level, it's a comedy about two assassins sent to cool off in a picturesque Belgian town after a job gone wrong. But the film isn't a barrel of laughs, and in fact starts out rather slow and meditative before taking a turn into drama when the full extent of the bungled job is revealed. For a while, it seems that In Bruges is a naturalistic tragedy about guilt and our ability, or lack of it, to cope with it, but then religious, surrealistic, and fantastic elements start creeping into the plot, and by its end In Bruges might be a morality play, a fable, or a waking nightmare. Whatever it is, this is a surprisingly good and meaty film, anchored by strong performances (Ralph Fiennes is particularly enjoyable as the assassins' boss) and a smart script.

  4. Iron Man (2008) - Lots of fun, though not nearly as clever or as different as the trailers had encouraged me to hope. I keep hoping that one of these days I'll watch a superhero film whose characters actually make sense as human beings with an IQ above 80 (and no, Batman Begins did not meet this criteria), but, with the exception of The Incredibles, all I get is just more irony, more half-embarrassed jabs at the conventions of the genre mixed with soapy personal interactions, more characters so boxed in by their role that they never manage to be people. Iron Man very nearly escapes this fate because Robert Downey Jr. is so much fun and is given leave to just be himself (or rather, the character that Downey has been playing non-stop for the last five years) for much of the film, but ultimately it is undone by the need to adhere to the familiar progression of the origin story. Between the trailers and the fact of having watched one or two films before, I could probably have storyboarded Iron Man before I even bought a ticket for it. There are quite a few fun and exhilarating moments in the film (none of them, sadly, during the climactic battle with the rather forgettable villain who is made only barely serviceable by Jeff Bridges's performance), but not a single surprise until just a few seconds before the credits roll. I can certainly see interesting places this franchise could go, especially if someone smart, or willing to demand smartness from their audience, takes over the writing for it, but right now Iron Man is just another fun summer film.

  5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) - This film, about an out-of-work governess who lies her way into a job as the social secretary of a frivolous lounge singer in 1930s London and immediately starts setting her life in order and steering her towards the right choice between her three suitors, tries to be a hell of a lot of things. A screwball comedy, a romance, a feminist story about women who sell themselves, however genteelly, to survive, an elegy for the days just before the outbreak of the second world war and the cheerful, carefree world that war put an end to. In the end, all these different films work against one another. Just as we think we've settled into one of them, the film's register shifts and we're shuffled into another. Nevertheless, though it isn't a complete success, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is utterly charming. The performances have a great deal to do with this--Frances McDormand and Amy Adams are fantastic as Miss Pettigrew and her employer, Delysia Lafosse, and Ciarán Hinds and Lee Pace are so appealing as their respective love interests that, though the script doesn't work quite hard enough to persuade us of either the couple's attraction (in the case of Delysia and Pace's character, a penniless pianist with a dubious English-or-perhaps-Scottish accent) or the obstacles placed in their path (in the case of Miss Pettigrew and her admirer), it's impossible not to be won over by both pairings and deeply pleased by their fruition. As if that weren't enough, Shirley Henderson shows up as a bitchy boutique owner, and her perfect line readings and catty vulnerability very nearly enable her to walk away with the film. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a lesser film than it might have been, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

6 comments:

Alison said...

Just back from Iron Man. So very, very, disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, after reading so many positive reviews. Love Robert Downey Jnr. Wasted.

pangloss said...

I think you are a tad hard on Iron Man - yes, the last 20 minutes do turn into a Transformers movie and I could have hapily left after that, but i thought the part before was as near a realistic picture of how a smart man might become a super hero as we've had so far.

In Bruges on the other hand I think you do not give enough credit to how down right blacker-than-black FUNNY is it; or the density of the thematic references, from art to religion to other films; or how brilliantly Mamet esque the dialogue. I think this writer will be the next filmic Stoppard when he grows up:)

Raz Greenberg said...

I remember thinking, "it was ok" after seeing "Charlie Wilson's War", but liking the movie less as time passed. Yes, it has Sorkin's familiar touch for sharp and polished dialogue, but it lacks his sense for drama. There just isn't much happening in the movie. Once Wilson's legal troubles are over, it gets repetitive and rather boring fast - sure, Wilson's actions changed the world, but wathcing it happen is like watching someone negotiating over the small details of some business deal. If you're not into accounting, it doesn't hold much of an interest.
Other elements in the movie had potential, but felt like their development stopped halfway. Wilson's own character - again, something that is featured very strongly in the first (and better) part of the movie, but somehow loses focus later - could have carried an interesting message to the audience: that a good politican and stateman isn't necessarily a good person. This stands against a popular notion in Hollywood, not to mention in Sorkin's own work, so maybe he was too afraid to go all the way with this one.
And there was some stuff that really shouldn't have been there. The endless sequnces featuring bombing of civilian population accompanied by cheery music were awful. What were they thinking? Was that supposed to be ironic or something?

Liz said...

I've been listening to the Sweeney Todd broadway soundtrack recently. My god, I had forgotten just how bland Bonham Carter is. I enjoyed the film more than you, but with a couple of really stunning singers in the leads it would have been so much better.

ecbatan said...

I have never seen a "real" performance of Sweeney Todd -- that is, with "real" singers -- so in a way it didn't bother me as much in the film the Bonham Carter clearly wasn't up for the singing part of her role. Though clearly I could see that she WASN'T, mind you. And I'm sure there are better singers than Johnny Depp, too, though as you say he was still quite effective. I really enjoyed the film, despite its shortcomings -- I do think complaining about the absurdities of the plot to be completely beside the point. (That is, the show has never intended -- indeed, the source material, the 1840s penny dreadful, never intended -- anything approaching a realistic plot.)

I do think the phrase "set designers as directors" completely apposite, though!

For me, by the way, Sorkin will forever be the creator of Sports Night. Oh, and he did a political show too.

I had my expectations for Iron Man carefully reined in, and in that context I quite enjoyed it.

--
Rich Horton

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Pangloss:

I think whatever realism is in evidence in the portrayal of Tony Stark comes from Robert Downey Jr., not Iron Man's script. He plays the character like a smart man, but he doesn't talk like one.

Raz:

You're right about Charlie Wilson's War starting out stronger than it ends, but that may be because the film's emphasis is less on what happened and more on why it happened - the fact that a single person's ambitions were enough to change the world - and what happened as a result of it, which of course is something that is never mentioned in the film itself but which the audience is clearly expected to be thinking of at all times. As for Wilson's character, I found Guss Avrakatos and even Julia Roberts's character much more interesting than him.

Rich:

I've never seen a 'real' performance of Sweeney Todd either, but I have seen the 1982 cast recording with Angela Lansbury. It's worth tracking down if you're interested in seeing what good singers can make of this material with only a fraction of Burton's production budget, not to mention featuring several songs that the movie lopped off.

(You might also be interested in this taping of Sondheim giving a master class and teaching a young singer how to perform "These Are My Friends." It's a really interesting example of how much nuance goes into making that song a success, which the performers in Burton's version couldn't really achieve, though as I understand it they had Sondheim's seal of approval.)

My problem with the plot isn't so much that it isn't realistic as that it doesn't exist. Sweeney swears vengeance. Takes vengeance. Dies. That's not really a plot so much as a sequence of events.

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