Sunday, February 15, 2009

Recent Screenings

The International (2009) - Clive Owen plays a weary but determined Interpol agent and Naomi Watts an assistant Manhattan D.A. who team up for an investigation of the corrupt International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC). Based in part on the real-life Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the IBBC has dealings with every important global player, legal or illegal: drug lords, African terrorists, the CIA, the Mafia, other major banks, and numerous governments. The closer Clive and Naomi get to the heart of the matter, naturally, the more people die around them. Forgoing the hyper-kinetic sprint from one explosion or car chase to the next that's so popular these days, The International proceeds at a nice, leisurely pace, making it feel closer in spirit to an international thriller from the 1960s or 70s. This slower pace gives a screenwriter and director the opportunity to really explore the complexity of a situation - in this case, global finance and all of its interconnections - as well as to develop their characters. Unfortunately, though I kept waiting for the plot and characters to develop, director Tom Twyker and screenwriter Eric Singer don't take much advantage of their opportunity, and the slow pace too often feels, well, slow.

Luckily, there are other elements that make The International enjoyable, especially Frank Griebe's excellent cinematography. There are some wonderful individual shots throughout the film, most of them composed for the big screen, including a marvelous image of Clive Owen ascending the wide and enormous marble stairs that lead up to the headquarters of the IBBC. And then there's the delicious international scenery: Milan, Berlin, New York, Lyon, Istanbul (with a great a roof-top chase), and one stunning sequence filmed in Lake Garda, Italy that took my breath away. How long has it been since I've been able to really dwell in the extoic locations of a big Hollywood movie and not been jerked away by a car chase?

And though there's only one big action sequence in the film, it's definitely a winner: A terrific shoot-out down Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. (Though one does wonder why it takes so long for the NYPD to arrive.) They could have actually shortened that scene, however, and used a little more action elsewhere.

Clive Owen looks more like Peter Falk's Columbo than an action hero this time around, the result of his character's obsession with bringing the corrupt bank to justice, which has left him exhausted, world-weary and paranoid. It's an underrated talent for actors to pick roles in good, intelligent films, and Owen is one of the better examples of this right now. I wish, however, that he would start to stretch himself a bit more. Make a comedy, Clive; It won't kill you. His role as Interpol agent Louis Salinger feels too much like previous roles. But I enjoy watching him on the screen, and he definitely carries The International. Naomi Watts does as well as she can with a not very interesting or well-written role. I appreciate the director's willingness to not push a forced romance between Owens and Watts, but they could've used more chemistry. They're both fine actors, but they never find a way to make the screen crackle.

Ultimately, The International feels different from most contemporary thrillers - as if it were, gasp, actually made for adults - and I liked that very much. It's a solid, intelligent film, good but not great. It never quite lives up to its potential, but it's worth watching.

The Dark Knight (2008) - After all the hype and hullabaloo, I finally got a chance to see Christopher Nolan's latest Batman film a few weeks ago at the IMAX Cinema at Lincoln Center on a limited re-release for the Oscars. I felt like I had let go of as many preconceptions as I could and was ready to just go along for the ride, in the mood for a big film on a big screen. And I did go along with the ride for a while, enjoying the first half of the film quite a bit, but after about 100 minutes, I looked at my watch for the first time. After two hours and fifteen minutes, I looked at it again. By the time the film ended, I felt exhausted and relieved to get out of there. Even the IMAX Cinema seemed weary and restless, as twice during the latter part of the movie the lights came on and an automated announcement thanked everyone for coming. (AMC gave us a free ticket for that - good customer service on their part.)

There's a lot to recommend in the film. As everyone and their uncle has mentioned, Heath Ledger does an excellent job as the Joker. His performance turns a normally cartoon villian into a more complex human figure. (Though, if he hadn't died, I wonder if he'd be such a lock to win the Oscar.) On the other hand, few people have mentioned Aaron Eckhart as Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent, and I thought he did very well with a role that could've easily remained one dimensional. Christian Bale excels as billionaire Bruce Wayne, but his Batman remains unnecessarily irritating and dull. (After all is said and done, I'm beginning to wonder if Adam West wasn't the most enjoyable Batman.) Maggie Gyllenhaal is a definite improvement over Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, but her vast talents seems wasted in the role. Gary Oldman does a fine job as Commissioner Gordon, and Michael Caine gets all the best lines as Alfred the Butler.

There are several beautifully composed shots in the film - I think of Batman up on the roof at night, looking down on Gotham. And some of the action sequences are first rate, especially Batman's rendition of a crooked Hong Kong business man, and a long chase sequence where the Joker and his henchmen are trying to stop a heavy police caravan transporting Harvey Dent.

But The Dark Knight has some issues. It's too long (by 45 minutes), and it takes itself too seriously. You know it's serious, because Batman speaks in that awful, overly-serious voice. Most surprisingly to me, however, is how flawed the film-making can be at times. Heath Ledger's acting and lots of explosions can't hide the fact that this is one poorly constructed movie, with gaping holes (a showdown between Batman and the Joker at a penthouse party inexplicably stops, for example), a number of philosophical and narrative contradictions, and far too many scenes and sub-plots that serve no purpose. Can anyone tell me why we have to suffer through several scenes of a Bruce Wayne employee threatening to reveal his boss's identity, when, at the same time, Wayne keeps threatening to reveal his own identity at a public press conference? And just how many people are kidnapped in this movie? Can anyone keep count? By the time a woman and son are taken towards the end, I was like, "Oh, please. Just let them die and get on with the film." When you don't care about an innocent mother and child being killed by the villain, something's gone terribly wrong.

Worst of all, however, may be the pseudo-intellectual aspects of the film. The Dark Knight is all about "moral complexity," and Nolan practically holds up flash cards at times in case you miss his point. He explores the motivations and moral complexity of Batman, but this kind of psychological and sociological look at a super hero was already tackled in the first two Spider Man movies, and in a much more effective and entertaining way. Nolan hammers home some vague ideas about our own individual moral complexity via a ridiculous set-up involving two bomb-laden ferries, one full of "normal" people and one packed with the worst bad guys. "See, hardened criminals can act decently and normal people can forsake the Golden Rule." Wow. Complex. (Though this sequence does yield one of the better lines in the movie, spoken by a very serious looking criminal with a deep, serious voice.) Unfortunately, while criminals may behave decently at times (who knew?), it seems that every member of the Gotham Police Department can be easily corrupted, from rookie cops to Commissioner Gordon's closest and dearest friends, one of whom is willing to hand over important people to be killed because mom ran up some hospital bills. In another sequence, Nolan dresses up the Joker as a nurse (nurses want to help people, get it? It's ironic!) and gives him a speech about chaos and the big-shots who make plans and what it all comes to in the end, and the speech probably sounds pretty deep to a 13 year-old. And though the Joker condemns those who make plans, he's obviously spent an incredible amount of time on his own elaborate and complicated plans, because they all go perfectly, allowing him to outwit all of the big shots, including the politicians and the police and even the hardcore and ruthless mobsters - everyone, that is, except for Batman. What's truly impressive is that the Joker, who's escaped from an insane asylum, pulls off all of these incredibly elaborate plans with an endless supply of henchmen whom he repeatedly kills (wouldn't that hurt potential recruitment?) or who are stupid and/or crazy fellow escaped inmates. (I guess no one bothered checking reports about dozens of inmates escaping from asylums.) Amazing what can be accomplished if you're able to motivate your employees.

With the Joker as Osama Bin Laden, threatening the good people of New York/Gotham, Nolan also looks at the post-9/11 world and wonders what people might be willing to do in a time of crisis. The war on terror, you see, is also pretty morally complex. Rendition, it turns out, is okay and even pretty fun. Surveillance of the population is also justified, as long as its only done in extreme cases and by someone who's really trustworthy, which, I believe, was also the Bush administration's argument. Torture, though, is going too far. Batman says so. Thus, when the Joker/Bin Laden comes, we may have to do things we're not always comfortable doing. But it's all for the greater good - a chance to give those hardened criminals who have occasional moments of moral clarity an opportunity to travel by ferry in peace.

Alas, a dark palette and a super hero speaking in somber tones doesn't equate cinematic depth. (Though it's enough, evidently, to make critics giddy.) The problems with The Dark Knight - being too long, taking itself too seriously, unnecessary plot lines, and pseudo-intellectual themes - all point to an even greater issue: self-indulgence. I really enjoyed Memento, Christopher Nolan's film from 2000, but his last three films (Batman Begins, The Prestige, and the Dark Knight) have felt increasingly self-indulgent. And with the financial success of The Dark Knight, I don't know who's going to tell him to do a better job of trimming his screenplay and editing his film.

Despite all of the attention, acclaim and money The Dark Knight has received, I'd have to say it wasn't even the best super hero film of 2008. That would've been Iron Man. Though it wasn't as ambitious as Nolan's effort (or maybe because it wasn't as ambitious), Iron Man was a leaner, tighter, and better-crafted movie. It had just as much to say about society, and it did it with humor and fun. And Robert Downey Jr. didn't have to affect a seriously silly "serious" voice when he put on his super hero outfit. Best of all, I enjoyed watching Iron Man and never once looked at my watch.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) - Billy Wilder's second effort as director opens with an unforgettable sequence in which a tank full of apparently dead British soldiers rambles up and down the dunes of a desert in North Africa. Eventually, one of the men regains consciousness, only to fall out of the tank and be left behind, absolutely alone in that vast ocean of sand. The solider is played by Franchot Tone, a leading man in 1930s Hollywood who started his career as one of the original members of New York's Group Theatre that first brought Stanislavski's acting methods to this country. After wandering through the desert, Tone winds up at a hotel in a bombed-out and desolate Egyptian village, out of his mind from sun-stroke. Before he can recover, the hotel is taken over by advancing German troops, led by the Desert Fox himself, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, played marvelously by Erich von Stroheim. Tone takes on the identity of a waiter who was a spy for the Germans in order to find out where Rommel has buried several depots of oil, food and ammunition that will allow him to move rapidly across the desert and take Egypt from the British. It's a taut wartime espionage film, with an efficient and intelligent script by Wilder and longtime collaborator Charles Brackett. The black and white cinematography by John Seitz earned an Oscar nomination that year and helps create an atmosphere of tension and intrigue in the old hotel out in the desert. You can almost see Wilder becoming a great director before your eyes, developing his chops on a fairly typical Hollywood film before tackling his next project, Double Indemnity.

Five Graves to Cairo
may not be one of Wilder's best efforts, but it proves that even B-Level Wilder was superior to much of what Hollywood could produce.

16 comments:

Entertainment Blog said...

Dark Knight, very nice movie!!

Liam said...

I don't know if I'll ever recommend a movie to you again. I saw the Dark Knight quite awhile ago and enjoyed it, maybe forgiving its flaws more than you did. I might also agree that Ironman was better in the end (don't let Lukas hear that). I think also you might be finally more impressed with Spiderman than I am -- don't get me wrong, I liked both 1 & 2 (didn't see 3), but you seem to put them up as the model to beat for superhero movies.

Perhaps my standards are lower than yours when I go see popcorn movies. I can be quite content with style, acting, mood, and one-liners and I don't care so much about the structure of the script. That made it easy for Heath Ledger to carry the movie for me. (Incidentally, in all these movies the CGI-filled action sequences bore me the most).

The International sounds good. It's amazing no one did the shoot-out in the Guggenheim before.

cowboyangel said...

"Entertainment Blog," thanks for visiting.

cowboyangel said...

Liam,

Sorry, you'd already heard most of my Dark Knight review, more than once on some points.

I like you telling me about movies, even if I totally ignore what you say. :-) I don't actually. I listen to you, I weigh things. If it has Ben Stiller in it, I take what you say with a grain of organic sea salt.

Spider Man 3 totally sucked, by the way. Don't waste your time or money. If 1 & 2 were examples of how comic book movies can be done well - 3 is an excellent example of how badly it can all go wrong. I probably mention the first two Spider Man movies because they're some of the few comic books movies I've seen that seemed to transcend the genre and were just very good films, period. I think Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is another great example, though that's not exactly a comic book film. And Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire, too.

I can deal with the Iron Man and Spider Man films, because of the wink-and-a-nod, tongue-in-cheek quality of the films. We're just going to have some fun here.

I don't know if you're standards are lower. You may be less demanding. That's an important distinction and a compliment to you. I'm sure I'm too hard on certain films.

The structure of the film becomes an issue when the film feels like it's going on too long. I can deal with plot holes and certain contradictions if I'm lost in that world and enjoying the movie anyway. For whatever reason, this one started to drag for me.

And I'm definitely reacting to what I perceive as self-importance on the part of the film and overdone adulation on the part of many critics. I'm sorry, but just because a comic book movie gets all dark and serious doesn't elevate it to the level of bloody Ingmar Bergman. I felt a similar frustration with Pan's Labyrinth and the response to it. These are two works obviously taken very seriously by their film-makers - it's written all over them - and they're being pitched by critics who should know better as more mature, adult comic book movies. I see them, however, and I think - Well, yeah they're at a higher level. They're geared towards 16 year-olds instead of 13 year-olds. So I start getting that "I'm a freak in my own country" feeling. It's like being told by literary critics that Jim Morrison's poetry is just as good as John Ashbery's.

This all points to a trend that concerns me - that the "democratization" of culture, eliminating the line between high and low art, which was so important and vital, has become an excuse at times for producing mediocre work and pretending it's just as good as a great work. It's great that we can study Bob Dylan on a serious level, but that doesn't mean we need to approach every popular musician the same way. Dylan's a 1 in a 1,000,000 artist. That he accomplished his art via popular music says more about his artistic ability than it does about popular music being a vehicle for great art.

Speaking of great art in popular culture - no comments on the Billy Wilder film? Have you ever seen that one?

cowboyangel said...

Sorry, not Goblet of Fire - Order of the Phoenix, the 5th HP film.

And, yes, I'm surprised there's never been a good shoot-out in the Guggenheim. Weird, huh?

Liam said...

I've never even heard of the Wilder film, but I'd love to see it.

Yeah, I wasn't bored during TDK, so that wasn't a concern for me.

One difference between our approaches is that you seem very affected by the reception films get. I think you have an excellent point about keeping standards up, but it also seems your experience of a film is very conditioned about what it's "supposed to be." Your expectations about The Dark Knight were very high -- mine weren't (expect about Ledger, and he lived up to them for me).

I wonder if working in the subtitling lab made me more tolerant of mediocre films. I had to work with so much crap that a film that had at least some entertaining moments was fine for me. I don't usually react very negatively towards a film unless it's really, really awful, or unless there's something about it that offends me on a moral or political level (just off the top of my head, "True Lies" has some really sick ideas about male power over women).

I am looking forward to the next Harry Potter movie.

cowboyangel said...

You're right to a large degree about my high expectations. In this case, though, I really was in a pretty good mood to see the film. And I don't think looking at my watch is a result of failed expectations. That's an immediate, almost physical reaction to a film. My irritation with it's self-importance and pseudo-intellectual aspects is definitely me reacting to high expectations. But that's after I walk out of the theatre and say, "what the hell?"

And my high expectations have nothing to do with poor writing and editing. It will be called on that in the future. It's simply too easy to compare it with other better-made films. My noting with it vigor, however, is reacting to high expectations.

and, yeah, you're probably right about your sub-titling work. I remember well your fury at certain bad films. Dare I mention Vanishing Point?!?!? :-) After a while, I can see why you would cut films some slack.

I, on the hand, have spent much of the last eight years consciously trying to watch classic and great films, so, yes, I do have high standards. When a silly comedy from the 1930s is better written than a contemporary "important" drama, I tend to scoff.

crystal said...

Make a comedy, Clive

He did - they called it Arthur :) Actually it was unintentionally funny, so maybe that doesn't count.

My sister also had grave reservations about the Dark Knight, so I still haven't seen it. I do like comic book movies, though like Spiderman 1 and 2 (3 not so much) and the first Fantastic Four movie. And Hugh Jackman in theX-Men movies. The next one also has Liev Schreiber as Sabertooth so maybe it will be good.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal,

You didn't like King Arthur? I thought it was okay - had kind of a cool atmosphere. Though, to be honest, I can't remember it very well at all. Not a great sign. I know Keira was in it!

The Dark Knight's worth seeing. Though I was kind of hard on it in my review, I did give it a 7. It has some great elements.

I almost mentioned the first two X-Men as examples of good comic book movies. I didn't see #3. I didn't like the Fantastic Four, even though I'm a fan of Ioan Gruffudd.

Did you ever see Dark Man, with Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand? That was a strange but pretty good comic book movie.

I liked the first one or two Christopher Reeves Superman films, even though I'm not a big Superman fan. The recent one with Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor was awful, though Spacey was good.

And I liked the Michael Keaton Batman film with Michelle Pfeiffer at Catwoman, mostly because of her.

crystal said...

I did see Darkman - remember it as being dark :)

I liked Superman too - I liked his Clark Kent. I used to read those comics as a kd. Maybe that's why I liked the first Fabtastic Four, because I read those too. Didn't see Daredevil or The Hulk. I pretty much liked Conan. I'm waiting for a Thor comics movie - that would be fun.

Garpu said...

I dunno. I generally hate superhero movies, but I liked Dark Knight. It was an entertaining waste of seven bucks.

Jack said...

Glad to be let in. I was an especially avid movie-goer in the forites. At least one movie a week, sometimes more. Five Graves to Cairo was one of my favorites. Do you have any comments on seeing a film when you are young and re-seeing it later. Five Graves...had a special meaning to those seeng it in the context of WW2.

The first time I realized a movie was more than just entertainment was Lang's Women in the Window which we considered far superior to Scarlet Street. I think this critical judgment is reversed today.

Two films I particularly remember from the forties were Background to Danger and the Mask of Dimitrios. Are you familiar with these?

Steve Caratzas said...

Excellent observations on The Dark Knight, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and actually think of as a "film".

Your points are all well made and completely valid. Though I was initially disappointed it did not get a Best Picture nod, next to Slumdog Millionaire such a nomination would be kind of ludicrous.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal,

I've been wondering about Thor myself. I was never a big fan, but I'm surprised he hasn't shown up on-screen yet.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal,

Oh, I just got the one movie with Clive as lead that is listed partly as a "comedy" by IMDB - Shoot 'em Up. We'll see if Clive can make me laugh, but I'm betting Paul Giamatti is the clown to Clive's straight man.

cowboyangel said...

Steve,

My review of Dark Knight is harsher than my actual level of enjoyment.

So, Slumdog is that good? Seems like it's going to win Best Picture, though we're talking about the Academy and they could easily pull a Driving Miss Daisy with Benjamin Button. We considered Slumdog last weekend but were in the mood for a global economic meltdown espionage film.