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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in.


Ian and Terry are two working class blokes from London. Both dream of a better life. Ian works in their father’s restaurant, hobnobbing with businessmen who promise him part in their lucrative real estate deals. Terry is a mechanic, hands constantly dirty and mind stuck in a spiraling cycle of gambling and drink. When he looses £90,000 one night, he goes to his brother for help. Their decision? Seek some financial backing from their benevolent Uncle Howard. He runs a series of successful clinics, and always seems to have large amounts of cash to give the family. But when they ask for his help, Howard turns the tables. Seems he’s under investigation for unethical - even criminal - activities. He needs the boys to do him a favor. He needs them to kill the board member that’s ratting him out. Stunned, Ian and Terry weigh their options. One wants to take care of his pregnant girlfriend. The other wants the money to break out of his desperate life. Together, they must decide what they are - men, or murderers.


Though he’s tackled crime and misdemeanors before, Allen is the last director you’d imagine capable of creating a tense, interfamilial suspense thriller. There’s just too much classicism in him, too much Greek tragedy meshed with hours spent in Manhattan arthouses absorbing every Bergman riff imaginable. Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative drought evident in Cassandra’s Dream. It’s not just the overdone angst, the push me/pull you problems in the storyline, or the odd sensation of hearing English actors spout the filmmaker’s patented New York-isms. No, the real problem with this talky, turgid exercise in moral ambiguity is that Allen has finally found a cinematic category he can’t fully handle - and the resulting awkwardness is undeniably dull.


While stars Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are both accomplished actors, it’s only the latter that makes an impact. Though he chain smokes to the point of distraction, Terry is the weaker member of the conspiracy, and as a result, the one we feel the closest bond toward. McGregor’s Ian is so smugly sure that he’s destined for business acumen greatness that we can’t connect to his perplexed pipe dreaming. At least Farrell’s flawed sibling uses realistic vices - gambling, drink, lying - as a means of making sense of his lax life. If they are supposed to represent two sides of a similarly dispirit coin, we don’t see the connection. Instead, it’s like watching Slack and Slacker complain about their miserable existence in clipped British accents.


Even worse, those around Ian and Terry are like specters, ill-conceived one note supporters that never provide a foundation for their feelings or flaws. Tom Wilkinson’s Uncle Howard, supposedly rich and successful, comes across as vague and poorly written. He has enough money to buy and sell his relatives out of their ever increasing financial worries. He can jet set around the world and keep high living arrangements in three very expensive cities. Yet the minute his ethical lot is challenged by a whistleblower, he has no other option than to ask his nephews to commit murder. If it was a matter of counter comeuppance, a kind of challenge to his young charges to put their morals where their mouth is, Allen needed to run his screenplay through the typewriter a couple more times. As it stands, the half-assed hitman angle feels like a necessary narrative catalyst, nothing more.


Equally uninspired are the other personalities floating around the boys. Claire Higgins mother character is so whiny (‘we’re poor, and it’s all Dad’s fault’) that when Allen tries something novel with her toward the end, we don’t respond. Similarly, there are so many clues and connections being expressed by Terry’s gal pal Lucy that we wonder why she hasn’t called the police and turned the brothers in. Yet the worst offender is Sally Hawkin’s Kate. Spewing lines that would sound arch even coming out of the circa ‘70s mouth of Diane Keaton, she’s the spoiled, slutty actress whose muse is the excuse for her bed hopping indistinctness. We never really care for her, so we don’t see Ian’s fascination. Oddly enough, Allen lets both girlfriends drop at the end, hoping something poignant comes from it. It doesn’t work.


Indeed, all of Cassandra’s Dream is a moody, maudlin miscue. Whereas previous Allen efforts revolving around good people doing bad things had a stigma of social relevance to them, the entire narrative plays like so much UK jive. There is nothing particularly English about what Allen is up to, nothing indicating an insight into people or place. Instead, this is a clear case of locational locomotion - taking a bland, baseless story and sticking it wherever the travel agency takes you. Perhaps in a US setting, without the ephemeral ambience of a European perspective, this material might work. But one senses Allen treading water here, waiting for his next bout of inspiration. Clearly, it’s been a long time coming and has yet to arrive.


Which all leads back to the opening thought. Is Allen helping or hurting his legacy by pumping out the product - ANY product - every 18 months or so? Would his already wounded reputation benefit from a little artistic hindsight, a banishment both creatively and continentally? When something like the incomplete experimentation of Alice or September appear like masterworks in comparison, Cassandra’s Dream really shows its fatal flaws. The only true tragedy here is that a once vital and important filmmaker has apparently lost his way. Whether he finds it upon a return to his native soil remains to be seen. Clearly, the move abroad was a mistake. Cassandra confirms this. 


 



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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium.


When we first meet the ambitious prospector, Plainview is trading silver for surveys and supplies. His ultimate goal is oil, and he soon strikes it rich. Hoping to interest the big companies in his land-based pipeline ideal, Plainview targets a small town. Thanks to a tip from a disgruntled member of the destitute Sunday family, the mogul gets what he wants. But it comes with a price that he may not be willing to pay. Local preacher Eli, brother of the betrayer, wants Plainview to support his fledging church. With lip service and lies, the two come to a cautious accord. But as money begins to blur the ethics of all involved, both sides start to suffer. Plainview’s young son is injured in an accident, and Sunday uses the issue to blackmail the man. Even worse, an important piece of land stands between the tycoon and his ambitious dream. As usual, Eli holds all the cards - or at least, that’s what Plainview lets him think.


When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism. Both dogmas are offered in their most perverted, unsavory versions, each one championed by an icon seemingly forged directly out of the individual ideologies’ darkest heart. Plainview is the most obvious in his subversion. He may play protector and beneficiary, but the only good that will ever come out of his speculation inures to his bank account only. On the other end of the spectrum, spiritually if not in principle, is Eli Sunday. The original flim flamming man of God, this unholy holy roller wants everyone to believe in his noble, church going purpose. But again, we soon discover that there’s more to his motives than Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Indeed, between the two, Eli is more evil, since he can’t differentiate between the congregation and his own personal coffers. For Plainview, it’s always about his own pockets.


The war that Anderson sets up plays out against a blistering backdrop of the West as untamed wilderness. Forget the cowboys and their Native American enemies. Ignore the gunslingers and the main street High Noon showdowns. This is how the new frontier was won (or better still, overthrown), and it’s more cutthroat and depraved than any exchange of gunfire. By using the indomitable pioneer spirit against itself, by showing that everyone has an agenda when it comes to land, money, and the fine art of the double cross, Anderson lifts the story beyond its patient, personal components. In some ways, it’s like watching human incarnations of philosophical opposites striving for karmic control. Both men here are despicable and self-centered, but only Plainview lives up to his name. Even with his Cheshire Cat grin and down home palaver, the man is one mean SOB.


Sunday is the harder component to get a handle on, and it’s to actor Paul Dano’s credit that he never lets Day-Lewis overwhelm him. A last minute replacement on the film (apparently, Anderson was not happy with his first choice), he brings an unnerving quiet to what could have been a scenery chewing caricature. Religious fervor often brings out the worst in a performer, letting the spirit overtake any sense of subtlety. Here, Dano is all underplayed menace. He seems weak willed and self-righteous, but the minute Plainview tries to trounce him, the wily preacher shows his hidden horrors. Sunday is easily the oddest element in the film, a figure that some may mistake as minor. But in truth, he supplies the most important facets of the film - a barrier begging for our sly industrialist to confront and conquer. And it’s not an easy campaign.


Naturally, all the buzz that’s built around Day-Lewis and his work here may seem like nothing more than massive media blitzing, but for once, the hype is actually under-serving the work. The English thesp is absolutely spellbinding, so good that his mere presence in a room creates untold levels of character complexity. Some have likened his voice and manner to late filmmaking legend John Huston, but that’s not all together true. Instead, Daniel Plainview is the very essence of the self-made man, a human carved out of the various personalities and perspectives he’s gained in a world filled with business-oriented observation. He’s a master mimic and manipulator. Anderson makes this a physical as well as emotional reality by having the first act of the film play out in pantomime - no dialogue, just Day-Lewis in all his 49er regalia, endlessly toiling for that next scrap of the dream. He is building who he is as he systematically stakes his claims.


As a director, Anderson does a sensational job of assembling his story, He starts small - closed in caves and small ranch shacks. Before long, we see Plainview literally traversing the distance between his claim and the Pacific Ocean. Every so often, the plot throws our emblematic anti-hero an issue (complex son, long lost brother, obstructionist land owner) and we watch as our auteur devises interesting and insightful ways of having Plainview overcome them. By the end, he’s so indestructible, so completely devoid of inherent human kindness that a chance for reconciliation and redemption are avoided for one last game of one-upmanship. Within a design centered more on individuals than ideas, it’s amazing how deep Anderson manages to get. Add in the stellar look and texture of the film and you’ve got one mesmerizing masterpiece.


In fact, the funny thing about There Will Be Blood is that it has the kind of narrative resonance that drives a wedge into your subconscious. As you sit around, days…even months later, your mind wanders back to certain symbolic items: the burning oil rig; Plainview passed out on the floor; Eli’s ethereal services; the last line of dialogue - “I’m finished”. It all gels into the kind of monumental motion picture experience the artform has been missing for far too long. If this movie is ignored come awards time, it will merely be another sign of its lasting classicism. True cinematic greatness eventually gains critical consensus. For Anderson, Day-Lewis, and Blood, the time is clearly now.


 



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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


Hype - specifically the viral, Internet marketing kind - has been under the gun recently, thanks in part to the failure in 2006 of Snakes on a Plane. Pimped and overplayed by fans who felt the title alone indicated a pure kitsch confection, the resulting benign b-movie was very good. But compared to the web-based blitzkrieg that came before, excitement and expectations were bound to clash and then be dashed. The failure forced studios to reexamine its information superhighway strategies. It didn’t stop Lost legend J.J. Abrams from embracing the concept for his latest production - the monster destroys Manhattan home movie Cloverfield. Now, after months of speculation and backwards ballyhoo, the novel genre effort has arrived - and it definitely lives up to the propaganda.


Young Rob Hawkins is leaving New York for a new job opportunity in Tokyo. On the night before his departure, younger brother Jason, best friend Hud, and various friends and family have gathered to celebrate. They include Jason’s fiancé Lily and the object of Hud’s obsessive affection, Marlena. The only person missing is Beth, Rob’s long time gal pal and secret love interest. Confused by something that happened between them weeks before, the trip to Japan has both questioning their commitment. During the festivities, an earthquake - or something like it - hits the city. Suddenly, the power goes out. In the panic, the partygoers head for the building’s roof. There, they see something horrifying. A section of Manhattan explodes into a massive fireball. Then there is a scream. It’s something big. It’s something angry. It’s something ready to destroy New York, block by block. 


Cloverfield is the first great film of 2008. It defies or exceeds the potential inherent in the premise and the approach. Those who believe they are in for another Burkittsville romp will be stunned by the surprising scope here. Somehow, within the POV ideal, TV director Matt Reeves has found a way to make events play out as epic and beyond our comprehension. There are sequences of silent terror. There are moments of big budget action set piecing. Buried in the middle is a believable story about post-modern kids, cameras and cellphones in hand, trying to make sense of some undeniably Earth shattering events. This is so much more than a mere Blair Witch Godzilla. This is a film about perspective, about how we view our world through the media’s mighty lens.


Like Cannibal Holocaust, which used torture and reprehensible atrocities to take on the glaring, unforgiving eye of the filmmaker, Reeves reinvents the giant creature category of horror to question our perverse POV fixation. During the initial chaos, when fireballs and skyscrapers are falling to the ground, one of the characters asks Hud why he’s still filming (he was assigned the job of getting taped testimonials during the party). His answer is matter of fact - “People are gonna want to see this. They’re gonna want to know how it went down.” That’s 2008 in a nutshell, a social conceit that doesn’t believe anything as reported unless there’s accompanying footage taken from an up close and personal perspective. There’s another telling moment when a band of looters pauses to watch a TV report on the attack. Though the events are happening right outside the shop, they are transfixed by how the small screen editorializes and distances them from the fray.


Much of Cloverfield functions this way. Through the lens of a handheld camcorder, the impressive beast (and the astonishing special effects used to create it) comes across as totally believable and unnerving. Even with the shaky, optically disorienting aesthetic used in both the composition and narrative construction helps sell the concept. Full on, what we see here might appear fake or forced. But captured in glimpses, viewed out of the corner of the frame or in the distance as part of another scene’s backdrop, the rampage is a revelation. Those who get queasy from such a Blair/Bourne ideal may want to pack a little Dramamine before they head to the Cineplex. But there is no cure for the impact and power the visual element brings to the standard scare tactics.


Certainly, there are references and homages everywhere. A jaunt down a dark, foreboding subway tunnel recalls Stephen King’s The Stand and moments from James Cameron’s Aliens. The battle between the military and the monster resemble any number of Kaiju experiences from the past, while the makeshift medical lab hints at other world-ending virus tales. What we don’t expect is the Brooklyn Bridge destroying melee, as well as the scramble across a pair of damaged apartment towers. Some of this material may seem sensationalized, presented for the pure art of action. And character motive is sketchy at best. But Reeves, along with Lost scribe Drew Goddard, are relying on our post-9/11 instinct of survival at any cost, and our need for familial connections, to explain the contradictions.


Indeed, the obvious references to the World Trade Center attack (massive debris clouds consuming the streets, victims covered in soot roaming aimlessly through the chaos) is a wonderful - and wise - choice. Because that was a media driven disaster, something 90% of us experienced via our television set and nothing else, it helps sell such a stylized design. Even better, the first person POV that made The Blair Witch Project such a noted novelty works much better here. Of course, this could be because Cloverfield has an actual plot. It’s not a Candid Camera “gotcha” like indie experiment. While comparisons are fair, they’re far from direct. Witch definitely wastes its haunted woods potential. This amazing movie makes the most of the caught as it happens dynamic.


It will be interesting to see how this film eventually plays on the small screen. Since it’s the kind of entertainment that requires the display of a theater to sell its scale, a move to DVD may diminish much or all of its power. But there is still enough awe-inspiring imagery and dread-building suspense here to keep fright fans happy, while those looking for something to salvage an already awful cinematic January should jump for joy. There will be split sentiments - typically along already established genre love/hate lines - over the effectiveness of this gloriously gimmicky exercise in storytelling. The best advice? Ignore the hype and experience Cloverfield for yourself. It’s the only way to gauge how valuable the pre-release You Tubing of the title actually was. Besides, you’ll get a chance to see one of the year’s biggest surprises in the process.


 


 


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Thursday, Dec 27, 2007


No critic can see every movie in a single year. There are only 365 days from 1 January to 31 December (366 with that added leap), and even if you saw two movies a day, you’d barely get through the entire 2007 release calendar. Someone with much more time on their hands calculated that over 750 films were offered over the last 52 weeks - nearly 15 per 7 day cycle. That includes direct to DVD entries, long shelved titles finally seeing a perfunctory distribution, and standard Cineplex offerings. Toss in a few ‘yet to find a release’ efforts and those given a mere limited showcase for award consideration and you can see how the numbers add up. SE&L struggled to see 125 films theatrically this year - that’s just over 10 a month. When you add in digital releases and other options (pay per view), the number moves closer to 250.


Still, we didn’t see everything - and as a result, we didn’t get a chance to review everything. Yet over the next five Fridays (with the occasional break for a noteworthy new 2008 film), we will try and play catch-up. These left-overtures, made to guarantee a more informed, inclusive assessment of 2007 will cover heretofore unknown documentaries, several celebrated movies that simply slipped through the cracks, and more than a few unknown quantities. First up, however, are four highly anticipated and high profile releases. Each one stands as a significant part of the current cinematic calendar, and no overview of the year in film would be complete without at least a marginal discussion. Granted, a few of the remaining major titles will get the full review treatment (There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but this section hopes to address the more glaring aesthetic gaps quickly and efficiently. It all begins with:


Once [rating: 8]
Once is a nearly flawless little film - emphasis on the word ‘little’. It’s not out to tell a grandiose tale of unrequited love or star-crossed passion. Instead, it lets lonely people - in this case, a struggling street musician and an earnest immigrant from the Czech Republic - discover each other, connect, and then slowly drift apart. It uses songs to tell of their growing affection and respect, and the music also fills in the blanks regarding emotional context and personal angst. There is a real familial texture to the film - writer/director John Carney was in a band with lead actor/featured busker Glen Hansard, and the lead collaborated with actress Markéta Irglová on several of the key numbers. Performed live, with as much raw power and synergy as possible within a very low budget scheme, what we wind up with is an epic told in incomplete lyric lines, a classic fable forged out of slowly strummed guitar, lilting piano, and strained, struggling voices.


Both Hansard and Irglová deserve a lot of credit for how open and honest they are, artistically speaking. Music is a tough undercurrent in any film, its sonic significance meaning the world to some, a cloying, clumsy conceit to others. Here, Carney lets it do most of the heavy lifting, leaving his actors time to bring the nuances of the narrative to life. There are dozens of memorable scenes here - Hansard playing his songs (for the first time, supposedly) to his dad, the hastily cobbled together band impressing a hardened studio exec. - but it’s the morbid, moving tunes scattered throughout that leave the biggest impression. If you’re hoping for overblown romance set inside an equally grandiose or glamorous setting, Once will fail to deliver (Ireland is very cold and claustrophobic here). Love is not the main driving force between these two empty souls. As a matter of fact, both believe they can overcome the sentiment’s inherent limits and rediscover (or restart) it’s fire. No, what this film wants to champion is the collaboration in creativity, and how substantial (and superficial) it can be. For Once, it’s wonderful.


The Kite Runner [rating: 6]
It would take a viewer with the aesthetic skills of an Olympian to overcome the horrendous hurdles placed in entertainment’s way by this well-meaning but misguided adaptation of the famed bestseller. First and foremost, the story is full of purposeful convolutions. Events happen without rhyme, reason or clear set-up, simply stated for automatic acceptance and rote response. Characters aren’t dimensional - they’re mechanical, purposely created to fit certain narrative demands and manipulative paradigms. Our lead is a coward - and never changes from youth to adulthood. And child rape and sexual abuse are the poisonous plotpoints du jour. While many who love Khaled Hosseini’s novel will be happy with the adaptation (many of the main beats have been kept almost intact), fans unfamiliar with the tale of two boys - well off Amir and servant boy Hassan - living life in a pre-Soviet/Taliban Afghanistan will wonder why everything has to be so cruel. Seeing older kids bully younger ones is standard schoolyard shtick. Letting those threats end up in sodomy and defilement seems outrageous, and without proper dramatic foundation.


The Kite Runner is indeed a film dense with cultural disconnect. Perhaps if filmmaker Marc Forster had abandoned the books manipulative material and dealt with the elements of the story that were really interesting (what happened to the young victim during the reign of the Soviets and the rise of Islamic extremism) instead of focusing on the mopey, depressed, guilt ridded Amir, we’d feel more engaged. The featured transition from whiny kid to dour adult is neither compelling nor credible. Even when given the chance to fight for what he wants toward the end of the story, he lets another little boy do the defending. While the kite tournament material is intriguing (even with all the obvious CGI sophistication) and the history harrowing, Forster can’t find a way to make the many divergent threads work in complete consort. The end result feels incomplete, missing important moments and a real message. While it’s wonderful to see the Middle East painted in less than jingoistic images, the parts don’t add up to a substantial sum. This is one Runner that stumbles before hitting the finish line.


Atonement [rating: 8]
For those of you who miss the bodice ripping regality of a good old fashioned period piece weeper, Atonement will fulfill your Merchant/Ivory five hankies hankering quite nicely. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s beloved novel, and dealing with a love that transcends Earthly trappings (like class, law, and war), we witness the story of destined lovers James McAvoy (as Robbie Turner, the educated servant’s son) and Keira Knightley (as upper crust babe Cecilia Tallis). Skittering around the fringes is jealous tween Briony, longing for the much older man she can’t have and jealous of a sister whose much more refined and beautiful than she. During a dinner party, the child witnesses something that sets her off. One false accusation later and Robbie is in jail, Cecilia has disowned her family, and Hitler is invading France. The film then fast forwards to a world ravaged by conflict as the couple attempts to get back together (he’s a soldier, she’s a nurse). Along the way we get reminders, both subtle and starkly repugnant, that nothing in a time of international crisis ends up sunshine and secret rendezvous by the sea.


If there is one glaring flaw in this otherwise faultless film, it’s the character of Briony. She’s a monster, more brazen Bad Seed in her purposeful destruction than scared, green-eyed innocent. We watch her, soulless sense of entitlement driving her to acts of unconscionable cruelty, and wonder if she’ll ever be redeemed (or as the title suggests, held accountable for her numerous sins). The answer, sadly, is no. Even when Vanessa Redgrave shows up two hours later to give the girl an older, wiser veneer, we still see someone who barely comprehends how horrendous their actions really were. Luckily, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright distracts us with lots of amazing cinematic statements. There’s an incredible tracking shot that follows Robbie and his fellow soldiers through a Hellish maze of military mayhem along a French coastline, and the final images of our long suffering lovers are simply stunning. Yet one can’t help but feel the impenetrable pall cast by Briony over the entire affair. It’s a necessary contrivance to keep the plot moving (and the tragedy fertile), but without a sense of justice, Atonement just doesn’t pay its penance. It turns a potentially magnificent movie into something that’s merely good.


Juno [rating: 8]
Juno is a snarky afterschool special for the Pinkberry crowd. It’s Knocked Up for the non-Britney brigade. It’s a movie with its own built in sense of Mystery Science Theater 3000 self-referential satire and one of the brightest humoresques in a genre stumbling for a rebirth. Some may see it as the nu-millennial notion of irony as genuine wit taken to ungodly extremes, and others will read the name “Diablo Cody” on the credits (born Brook Busey, she’s the screenwriter swimming in all the Tinsel Town juice right now) and wince at the proto-porn moniker. Yet as with any fairytale, no matter how supposedly nascent, you have to take the flights of fancy with the familiar. After all, this is the story of a teenage gal (the title trooper, played to perfection by Ellen Page) getting pregnant, and no one really having a conniption as a result - clearly a work of fabulist fiction. Deciding against abortion and going for the other “A” word (adoption), our hyper-spunky heroine looks for the perfect parents. Thus begins the film’s biggest paradigm: who makes the best parent - the cool guy who loves alternative rock and exploitation gore films, or the stuck up career woman who emotionally understands the burden of a baby. Tough call.


Yet thanks to Cody’s quirky dialogue, driven by one too many games of Trivial Pursuit and a couple of correspondence courses from the Quentin Tarantino School of Slam Speak, and Page’s flawless manipulation of said mouthfuls, we sail along on rays of Kevin Smithey sunbeams. Director Jason Reitman doesn’t let his outward love of Wes Anderson’s static tableaus undermine the mirth. Instead, his is a cinematic comic timing practically bred into his DNA (his Dad is Stripes/Ghostbusters’ Ivan). With equally engaging work from an all star cast - JK Simmons, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney - and a story which sells none of its problematic potential short, we wind up with something that’s smart, sassy, a tad too big for its broadminded britches, and a clear companion piece to the year’s other kings of much cruder comedy. In a world where every underage choice gets its own issue oriented movie of the week on Lifetime, Oxygen, or a combination of the two, Juno’s jaded joking is a breath of really fresh air. It stands as one of 2007’s brightest, best - and frequently, most baffling.


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Monday, Dec 24, 2007

The Great Debaters [dir. Denzel Washington]


Sometimes, a movie can be too ambitious. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. The story of all black Wiley College and its historic win over the University of Southern California in a 1935 university debate challenge sounds like the stuff of a surefire inspirational spectacle. There’s human interest, compelling characters, hot button historical context, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of race, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.


So why does Denzel Washington’s most recent turn both before and behind the camera, the crudely labeled The Great Debaters, seem so shallow? Why does a story that should soar plays as stodgy, grounded, and lacking in the basics of insight? It could be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.


Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on the Wiley College debate team. At 14, he’s the youngest student at the school, where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett). He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams.


Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be. 


Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. The filmmakers argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact. Truthfully, it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.


Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university president - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.


Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.


In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.


Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.


And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. It’s solid, but that’s all.


 



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