Archive for December, 2008

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The Fat Lady Sings, But Not For Hitler — Valkyrie

December 29, 2008

VALKYRIE (2008)
d. Bryan Singer 

Bryan Singer reteams with Chris McQuarrie for the first time since The Usual Suspects to deliver a taut thriller about a group of Germans officers, led by Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), who plan on assassinating Hitler and taking control of the government in an effort to end the war.

It’s an interesting fact that there were 14 previous attempts on Hitler’s life, and as History attests, Stauffenberg’s attempt is doomed to failure. Much like characters subject to their inescapable fate in Benjamin Button, Stuaffenberg and company set up the pieces that inevitably leads to their own downfall. Most of the thrill of the movie is seeing how an elaborate well-thought out plan unravels.

In the age of the Internet and immediate information, it is a marvel to see how the engine of misinformation in the age of telegram and phone calls back in the 40s almost resulted in a different outcome to World War II. Stuaffenberg, having believed that a bomb has killed the Fuhrer, controls the flow of information by simply having an inside man severing the phone connections from the Wolf’s Lair (Hitlers strategic bunker) to Berlin where the coup is taking place. And it takes several hours before rumours of Hitler’s demise are dispelled.

It’s also amazing how far the plan was actually executed because of such delays in communication. Valkyrie refers to a contingency plan where, if Hitler were killed, the German National Guard would be given power to arrest anyone in order to keep civil unrest at a minimum. Stauffenberg and his staff’s plan was to use Valkyrie to arrest all SS officers and troops in order to prevent them from retaking the government; in their absence, Stauffenberg would have his men wrest control of the government.

Of course, all this would have gone according to plan if Adolf Hitler were actually dead.

Tom Cruise displays great restraint as he boils internally as everything he has is at stake — his career, his family, and his life. His performance is commanding and forceful, and it helps that he is surrounded by the most amazing ensemble of British actors ever assembled outside of a Harry Potter movie.

On his side are Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, and Kenneth Branagh all giving nobility and dignity to their characters. We also get major supporting roles from Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong), Tom Wilkinson, and no less than 3 more actors from Pirates of the Caribbean (Tom Hollander, Kevin McNally and David Schofield in addition to Bill Nighy).

So in spite of knowing the outcome, the twists and turns of a plan that almost came to fruition makes for a thrilling and tense movie filled with great performances.

***1/2 stars.

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Looking Great For His Age(s) — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

December 28, 2008

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008)
d. David Fincher 

“You never know what’s coming for you.”

So says a number of characters in David Fincher’s excellent film, and in many ways, it speaks about events within the film as well as commenting on the narrative. Showing the same masterly restraint (compared to his earlier work) that steered his overlooked Zodiac, Benjamin Button is many ways a study of life’s lessons over time as the former film was a study of procedure and investigation over time.

Fincher’s control and exercise in period detail help support a strong romantic story about the person (Brad Pitt) who was born old and grows younger as time passes. We learn as the character learns how life has its own plans and how one can live within that. It is in many ways a very tragic tale as the story, framed in the present in a hospital ward where the dying Daisy (a luminous Cate Blanchett) is tended by her daughter, centers on Daisy’s doomed romance with Benjamin.

When Benjamin is born, a wrinkled dying baby, his father, horrified, abandons him at the steps of a nursing home. It is this setting where time’s inexorable forward march and life’s fleetingness surrounds Benjamin; people come and go, either through death or traveling through. As he grows younger, he meets Daisy when she is but 5 years old, but it is love at first sight. They meet time and again as she grows older, and despite our hopes that theirs is an eternal love story, we know as the characters also know, that nothing is perfect forever.

Along the way, Benjamin meets many interesting characters who help teach him about life and its passing. His adoptive mother, played brilliantly by Taraji Henson, loves him and treats him as the son she always wanted. Everyone from his father (Mahershalalashbaz Ali) who quotes Shakespeare, to the tugboat captain (Jared Harris) who reveals his desire to be an artist, to his first real love (Tilda Swinton) who attempted to swim the Channel, all teach him that there is more to people than meets the eye; that, like himself, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that there is depth beneath the skin. Each actor does amazing work here, all better supported by a great script by Eric Roth (no stranger to the historical epic as he also wrote Forrest Gump and Munich).

And through it all there are portents of fate, that, in spite of the opening story of Gateau and his desire to turn back time with his backwards counting clock and regain his son who was killed in WWI, time cannot be thwarted. And as Benjamin grows older and towards his inescapable fate, so too does the story countdown to when Katrina makes landfall in New Orleans, its flood waters rising to wash away the past in an unforgettable last image.

This haunting tale of love, loss and life is carried on the talented (and perfectly formed) shoulders of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, whose performances shine brightly. Outstanding work by everyone involved.

**** stars.

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High Level Spy Shit — The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading

December 27, 2008

BURN AFTER READING (2008)
d. Joel & Ethan Coen

The Coens return to comedy a year after their intense thriller No Country For Old Men with a movie that also marks a return of many themes and character-types seen throughout their work.

Burn After Reading’s basic premise revolves around a disgraced Washington analyst (John Malkovich) who, while undergoing a divorce (from Tilda Swinton), has his memoirs and financials on disc end up in the laps of two gym managers (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) who mistakenly believe that it is high-level spy shit. The double pun here concerns the burning of information onto the disc as well as a reference to the book Burn Before Reading, which was about CIA goings-on.

A large part of the fun of the movie is witnessing how the errors of judgement and farce pile up in typical Coen fashion until the last act is a dazzling maze of twists and turns all predicated on mistaken identities and the idiotic choices made by people way in over their heads.

Frances McDormand brings in a brilliant performance as one of the gym managers who, prisoner to her desire for plastic surgery, decides to use the disc as an opportunity for a blackmail scheme. Her character is an amazing study in how everyday people can think they are in control when in reality they are anything but.

Her actions, based on her greed and self-absorption — to the point of idiocy, are a theme constantly explored in the  Coens’ films. They of course always spell disaster for several characters. It’s something we see from Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo to the barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There  to even The Ladykillers.

For example, she unwittingly sends Brad Pitt to his doom by having him break into Malkovich’s house in order to get more information they can use to supply to the Russians. Part of the humour is that her espionage skills all seem to have been culled from an antiquated idea of spy-politics during the Cold War. Even the Russians are baffled by her actions.

Another character whose world falls apart in the Coens’ hands is George Clooney’s. He is cheating on his wife with Tilda Swinton, and, because of his womanizing ways, ends up crossing paths with McDormand. But what sinks him is an event that blindsides him and reveals his inadequacies and mortality. From that point, his paranoia takes over.

It’s all done humorously and with the classic Coen irony that allows us to finger-point and laugh without feeling as if we are implicating ourselves even as we identify with these characters.

Despite the heady and mesmerizing last act where all the jigsaw pieces fall into place with expert handling, the feeling of having been there done that does linger, and I was somewhat disappointed in Brad Pitt’s antics this time around, though his character’s final scene is tense and horrifying.

Overall, a fine effort by the Coens, but not the best. Perhaps on par with The Man Who Wasn’t There in its finely crafted execution and the sense of spiraling dread it creates, but not enough to blow my expectations out of the water.

**1/2 stars.

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“Looks Are Everything” — Carnal Knowledge

December 22, 2008

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
d. Mike Nichols 

Daring for its time, and still somewhat disarming today, Carnal Knowledge deals with the heightened reality of two men and the relationships they forge with women over several years. The movie opens with a voice-over dialogue between best friends Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) that lays down their basic philosophies. They both would rather love someone than be loved; Jonathan especially believes that both states are exclusive to one another and not mutual.

Domestic Bliss

Domestic Bliss

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“The Whole Place Is A Kill Zone” — Two-Minute Warning

December 21, 2008

TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976)
d. Larry Peerce

Thank the 70s for providing us with many great thrillers and disaster movies. Peerce’s Two-Minute Warning combines the two to provide a tense nail-biter that , even if the outcome is never in doubt, makes for a great movie.

Snipers Get the Best Seats

Snipers Get the Best Seats

Like a number of disaster movies at the time, this film is chock full of star presence. Charlton Heston plays the police chief who becomes embroiled in a lone sniper’s assassination plot that involves the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the championship game between LA and Baltimore. Heston’s dilemma is how to catch this sniper who has 90,000 potential victims under his scope. The setting serves as a great backdrop against which the other stars’ stories unfold.

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“Don’t Drink The Milk!” — Lucky McKee’s The Woods

December 18, 2008

THE WOODS (2005)
d. Lucky McKee

Lucky McKee first caught my attention with his quirky horror film May, about a psyche-damaged, lazy-eyed loner that was at parts romantic and disturbing, usually in the same scene. In his feature follow-up, The Woods, Mr. McKee continues exploring the theme of the female outsider swept up in forces beyond her control when an attempt, either internal or external, to fit in ends in disaster.

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Beware the Dreaded Glue Man! Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale

December 17, 2008

A CANTERBURY TALE (1949)
d. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger 

I never thought I would not like a Powell & Pressburger film, but here it is. A Canterbury Tale is not what I expected and perhaps I am missing some vital connection or meaning that would have better informed my viewing. As it is, I found the film slightly charming — the setting of the English countryside is beautiful, the American soldier’s quaint expressions speak of a bygone era of gentlemanliness and patriotism, and the English customs as seen through the American’s eyes become a source of humor.

Unfortunately, the plot and the stakes on which the action revolves are quite thin. While this leads me to suspect that there is something else going on here (something allegorical or, dare I say, religiously experiential?), what is here is a bit daft.

Basically, an American G.I. (Sgt. John Sweet) finds himself stranded in a small town, one train stop outside of Canterbury (his destination), and he immediately becomes embroiled in an incident where a newly arrived English woman from London, Alison (Shiela Sim), gets glue poured onto her hair. He and an English Sergeant track the ne’er-do-well to the local courthouse, but lose sight of him. There they meet the local magistrate, Colpeper (Eric Portman).

Intent on discovering the identity of this “Glue Man”,who has struck several time before, the American agrees to stay and help Alison uncover the perp’s identity and have him arrested before his streak continues. What follows is an investigation by the 2 Sergeants and Alison as they explore all aspects of the small town and slowly reveal their pasts to each other.

Ultimately, the investigation seems rather silly since the answer is glaringly obvious from the beginning, and the stakes seem somewhat low on the totem pole as the enemy doesn’t seem that threatening. I mean, “Glue Man”? Really? I’ll have to chalk that up to “another time, another place”.

What Powell and Pressburger do well is the build up to finally entering Canterbury and revealing the massive cathedral located there after all the talk about it. It’s a majestic moment, though I felt left out as to why such a moment should be singled out as majestic — it seemed melodramatic.

The performances on a whole are what you would expect from a late 40s film, where everyone says what they feel. And the real life G.I. Sgt. John Sweet as the American soldier gives such a level performance that stays straight throughout the film that you will either be charmed by his gosh-darnit delivery or be infuriated by it. Shiela Sim fares better as a woman overcoming the loss of her lover (hence the reason for her return to the small town), as does Eric Portman who gives the magistrate a serene dignity in spite of his dubious actions.

Criterion does its normally excellent job of providing a great clean crisp transfer with improved audio. Otherwise, I felt this to be a minor work compared to The Red Shoes, and not as engaging as The Small Back Room, which came out the same year.

** stars.