The Heart of the Matter in Beirut

There’s a great scene in Brad Anderson’s latest film, Beirut, where a former party-diplomat turned washed-up labor contract negotiator Mason Skiles (a frazzled-yet-still-dapper-perfect Jon Hamm) settles into his Beirut highrise hotel after returning to the city for the first time in a decade and after finding it a hostile, gunshots-outside-of-the-airport-and-checkpoint-riddled mess, pours himself a drink and walks to the window to take in the bitter, shattered view of a stooping, bombed-out skyline.  Anderson’s camera then shifts POV’s to that of the bombed out skyline as it pans out and we see Mason staring out his window, the hotel itself one of those battered buildings, a shell-hole and tentacled crack blighting its side just a few windows away from Mason’s own.

You can imagine a late-era Graham Greene having written the scene, but it’s Tony Gilroy who penned the screenplay instead.  Gilroy adroitly uses the civil war-torn era Beirut of the 70’s and early 80’s the same way Greene used WWII blitzkrieg era London (in The End of the Affair) and post-WWII era Vienna (in The Third Man).  It’s a cluster **** of diplomatic nightmares, crumbling buildings, intrigue and perils (of both the heart and the body).  Continue reading

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They Were Playing My Jam Until…in The East

Follow the sound of my voice in The East.

Follow the sound of my voice in The East.

Brit Marling has to be one of the strangest young “artists” to emerge from the indie movie scene in the last few years.  She has a classic natural beauty, a deep whisper of a voice and an intriguing upside down smile that make her very watchable on-screen.  She’s also a writer and ideas creator behind the scenes, cooking up thought-provoking roles for herself and her fellow actors  Yet after seeing her in four interesting films (After Earth, Arbitrage, Sound of My Voice and now The East), I’m not entirely convinced of her acting ability.  She has a vacant stare (which works to her advantage depending on the role), an aloof physical presence, and while she knows how to cry predictably emo-style in emotional breakdown scenes, she rarely shows any other emotion.  It’s like she’s wading slowly through water up to her eyes on-screen.

Well, Marling has re-teamed with co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij for the eco-terrorism indie thriller The East.  Whereas in their previous endeavor – the quasi-entrancing Sound of My Voice – Marling played a soft-spoken cult leader claiming to be a time traveler, here in The East she is the corporate operative assigned to infiltrate a clandestine vigilante terrorist co-op which targets corporate polluters and big pharmacy.  The group is lead by the soothingly charismatic Alexander Skarsgard, who we eventually learn is a former trust-fund boy turned terrorist.  Also on board for the well-rounded cast are Patricia Clarkson (excellent as always but underused) as Marling’s cold client-focused boss and Ellen Page (convincingly dedicated to the cause) as a key player in the terrorist group. Continue reading

No Ruth My Love in Zero Dark Thirty

Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.

America’s grand dame of literature, Toni Morrison, has given us many haunting words…but none have echoed in my mind more than the ones from A Mercy when a young girl who has lived through a colonial hellscape in 17th century Virginia announces to the world that she is, “In full.  Unforgiven.  Unforgiving.  No ruth, my love.  None.  Hear me?”

I’d like to think that former art student and painter Kathryn Bigelow has read Morrison, but who knows?  That’s the beauty of connecting one piece of art to another.  Morrison’s words came to clear mind while watching Bigelow’s tightly wound dramatization of events more recent – the man hunt for Osama Bin Laden – in Zero Dark Thirty.  How does one fight against terrorist enemies who are willing to kill anyone (including themselves) to achieve their mission?  Well, the answer is painfully simple.  You show them no ruth.  No mercy.  And you hunt them down by any means necessary and kill them. 

At the center of Bigelow’s film is one of filmdom’s greatest female characters of all time (all the more powerful for having been based on a real-life CIA analyst still working in the field), an agent named Maya played with calculated precision by Jessica Chastain (the doe-eyed red-head, all awkward coils that are both sinewy and frail, and with a soft voice that hides her steely demeanor beneath) who announces her talents to the world with this role much in the way that Cate Blanchett first staked her claim as the Queen in Elizabeth.  Here we see Maya’s journey over ten years from wunderkind analyst to ruthless field operative.  Continue reading

The Return of Manic Depression, Terrorism and the American Way in Homeland

Saul and Carrie – mentor and protege – sane and insane?

In the middle of its first season, I successfully turned key players in my family and several coworkers. Homeland was not a show to watch half-heartedly – you had to commit to the cause. I extolled the series’ virtues in the midst of season one when I presented Five Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Homeland. And people, once introduced to its brilliance, were willing to take up the banners in support. The show recently moved from cult status to mainstream success with its bevy of Emmy wins.

And as spectacular as that first season was, I had this feeling in my gut that this could become another Dexter. Like Homeland, Dexter was near genius in its inaugural season, wholly unlike anything else on television at the time, and shockingly entertaining. Yet I knew then eventually someone would catch Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who killed serial killers while working for the Miami PD as a blood-spatter expert. I mean how many serial killers could there be in one city and how dumb could the Miami PD be, right? And now that show is a parody of itself, ridiculous beyond belief, and limping through another ill-advised season far past its prime. Homeland, too, faces a similar conundrum. How long can Brody (Damian Lewis) keep this up? Won’t he eventually get caught? Won’t Carrie eventually remember “Isa!” or won’t someone in the government or someone in his family catch on that he’s working for terrorist mastermind numero uno, Abu Nazir?

But I forgot a key difference between these two shows. Homeland has balls. Continue reading

Orphans, Terrorism and Dickensian Economics in The Dark Knight Rises

Orphans of the world – Rise up!

They’re all orphans. We’re all orphans. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is the orphan of murdered parents. So is the child of R’as Al Ghul. Idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) – yup, his parents are dead too. Even Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been orphaned in a way by his family who moved to the safety of another city.  In the later half of the film, Gotham – itself a character in Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy – whose bridges have been destroyed and tunnels blocked, becomes orphaned by the rest of the nation.  Then, of course, there is Gotham’s downtrodden citizenry, orphaned by the elite.  And what, pray tell, do these orphans do?  They get angry.  They rise up.

It’s fitting to have this Dickensian theme of orphans running through Nolan’s tale, as he closes out the film with a quote from Dickens’ classic opus on the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities.  But unlike Dickens, Nolan lives in a world of Al Qaeda, and it’s terrorism and fear that act as the impetus to revolution in Gotham.

Eight years following the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is hobbled, disheartened and reclusive in his opulent manor.  The streets of Gotham are clean thanks to Commissioner Gordon and the Dent Act (itself a piece of corrupt subterfuge) but there’s an economic crisis brewing.  A cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, who brings a welcome slinky theatricality to her pivotal role) absconds with Bruce’s mother’s pearls.  But he’s got even more lady problems with Miranda Tate (Nolan muse Marion Cotillard) who looks to take a controlling interest in the crumbling Wayne Enterprises.  Meanwhile, a master terrorist named Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy) orchestrates a daring mid-flight kidnapping of a nuclear physicist.  These events set the wheels in motion, and from there it’s full tilt towards an explosive climax where all parties mentioned play an integral part that isn’t always made clear until that key turn of the screw. Continue reading

Revisiting Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

And thus Bruce Wayne’s fate was set from the start.

When I think about my favorite genres of film I turn to noir, crime dramas and psychological thrillers. My least favorite genres of film would probably be musicals, romantic comedies and comic book movies. Hence, back in 2005, when one of my favorite up-and-coming purveyors of my favorite types of film decided to take on a reboot of a comic book movie franchise, my faith was tested. Not even I could predict then that Christopher Nolan would pull off the unexpected. He took the most obvious and surface level of modern archetypal stories and used its trappings as a vehicle to tap into a cultural zeitgeist and to provide commentary on our contemporary war against global terrorism.
Continue reading

Red State

I do not come in peace.

“People do strange things when they believe they’re entitled, but they do the strangest things when they just plain believe.”

As a man best know for his blue comedies and ear for hipster geek dialogue, nobody would’ve ever accused writer/director Kevin Smith of profundity.  Over the years Smith has been at his best when he’s fiercely independent (Clerks, Clerks II, Chasing Amy) or when he’s courting controversy (Dogma).  The rest of his cannon has been fairly forgettable.  Yet here with Red State, an independent and doggedly controversial film that has escaped mainstream release and instead premiered on-demand (after a few key one-off preview screening events), Smith has performed one of the strangest about-faces in modern film.  It’s a mish-mash of genres – part psychological thriller, part horror film, part satire – and though unnervingly uneven, by many measures its Smith’s most accomplished film.  And best of all – love it or hate it – it’s a film worth talking about. Continue reading

A Review of Atom Egoyan’s “Adoration”

Devon Bostick and Scott Speedman wonder if they'll serve cheese and wine after all this violin playing.

Devon Bostick and Scott Speedman wonder if they'll serve cheese and wine after all this violin playing.

Interesting Dramatic Experiment
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

A teenager (Devon Bostick) who was orphaned after the tragic deaths of his parents is prompted by his teacher (Arsinee Khanjian) to deliver a fictional monologue about his father’s failed terrorist act as fact in an elaborate “dramatic exercise” in Armenian-Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s latest thought-provoking piece of abstraction Adoration.  As the fiction spins out of control over the internet, the true motives of those involved in the lie are revealed and back-stories come collapsing in on each other in Egoyan’s signature elliptical style.

Egoyan, as always, gives patient viewers plenty to chew on. Like the young man’s monologue that marries a true story to a false one about his parents, Adoration itself is an interesting dramatic experiment designed to provoke. It tackles many issues including the motives of terrorists, fractured familial relationships, the hollowness of alleged connections made through modern technology and the dangers of thinking those connections can replace real face-to-face human interaction. Though I always question Egoyan’s motive in casting his wife Arsinee Khanjian in his films, in many ways, she gives her most understated and powerful performance here. Bostick does a decent job with a tough role, though Rachel Blanchard is curiously flat in the flashbacks as his mother. The true revelation is Scott Speedman as the troubled tow-truck driver who reluctantly steps in to raise his sister’s son after she dies. His story arc proves to be the most involving, though one wishes his background had been more developed.

The bizarre detour into sleazy mediocrity with Where the Truth Lies seems to have made Egoyan a little rusty as he returns to a more familiar form here for those who have been watching the arc of his career. The elliptical folding in of the converging plot lines seems clumsier in Adoration than it did in his earlier works, and the “big reveal” comes a few scenes too early and sucks out the emotional impact. Unlike Exotica which had the swagger of a young auteur at the top of his game, or The Sweet Hereafter which came from the sublime source material of novelist Russell Banks, Adoration represents Egoyan bruised from years of wear left to his own devices. Though compelling, he gets the best of himself and let’s the ideas take over the characters. He also relies far too much on visuals of non-characters in chat rooms or of people being recorded with cameras. However, Egoyan scores when Mychael Danna lends his musical compositions. The frequent collaborator does a magnificent job creating a haunting score with a recurring violin motif that plays integral to one of the back-stories.

Back in the late 1990’s Atom Egoyan was in a league of his own and master of his own style. In the past ten years, however, international cinema has seen the emergence of filmmakers like Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel) and Germany’s Fatih Akin (whose superb The Edge of Heaven deserved a bigger audience stateside last year). They often tackle similar themes in an elliptical Egoyanesque manner.  But because their films are presented on a larger scale and infused with a certain energy and immediacy, Egoyan’s films, in all their isolated scholarly austerity, have been unfairly left out in the cold.   Adoration  may not be Egoyan’s best, but it proves he still has some good ideas in him and he isn’t ready to be dismissed just yet.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Check out my reviews of other Egoyan films:

Exotica (1994)

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Ararat (2002)

Where the Truth Lies (2005)

A Review of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”

Terror in the Knight, 22 July 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Director Christopher Nolan has tapped into a cultural zeitgeist with his soaring Dark Knight.  No other director has shown so much ambition while working within the context of such an iconic name brand belonging to popular culture. By building upon the excellent framework he set with Batman Begins and adding in the chaos of the Joker (Heath Ledger, legendary) and the tragedy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, admirable), Nolan, like Hitchcock before him, utilizes a B-level genre flick to tap into our shared cultural fears. Along with his co-writer brother, Jonathan Nolan, the director crafts a tightly wound tapestry that explores our archetypal fears of losing our identity and becoming that which we hate, while tuning into post 9/11 fears of terrorism, cowboy diplomacy, wire-tapping, and vigilante justice run amok.

The cast assembled falls right into place with Nolan’s epic and relentlessly dark vision of our current superhero mythology. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are again perfect in their supporting roles of wisdom and gadget providers, while Gary Oldman receives a surprising amount of screen time and delivers a sterling Oscar-worthy performance as the tormented Commissioner James Gordon. Replacing the dreadful Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is spry and feisty as assistant DA Rachel Dawes, but still seems out of place in her role. Bale is again brooding and effective as Bruce Wayne, though he gets overshadowed by the sly trickster that is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger is everything he’s been hyped up to be. He’s scary good and his insanely nuanced and subversively humorous performance haunts the film while his character terrorizes Gotham with a feverish intensity that is divinely married to Nolan’s amped up tempo of thrills.

The opening moments of the film fall victim to the typical trappings of a sequel as it tries to reintroduce us to the cast regulars while setting the stage for new conflicts. However, once the Joker starts playing his games, Nolan ratchets up the tension to a nightmarish effect that will leave your pulse pounding for two hours. With each terrorist act of the Joker and ensuing catastrophe, Nolan ups the ante, resulting in a film that is enormously entertaining while also making the obvious bloated runtime seem oppressive and nerve-wracking…almost as if the film is a terrorist attack against the audience…

…and maybe that’s the point. With the opening camera swoop between skyscrapers zeroing in on a single window taken straight from Hitchcock’s opening shot from Psycho, Nolan tells the audience what they are in store for. Two more images, along with Ledger’s ghastly scarred and make-up covered visage, seep into the viewer’s subconscious. The first is after a building is exploded we see an image of firefighters spraying water over the scalding steel left behind that is eerily reminiscent of scenes from Ground Zero. The second is after a hospital is demolished, an image of the building’s carcass on the television seems taken straight from the Oklahoma City Bombing. As we watch the harrowing Joker-less climax involving Batman, Dent, and Gordon, and knowing in the back of our minds what became of Ledger in real life, we realize that terrorism can not only come from without, but from within. Sometimes we are our own worst victims.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/usercomments-1186

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Check out my review of the original Batman Begins:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/usercomments-501