[Yes, it's been a while since I wrote much about any movies here. It's not for lack of seeing movies, as I've probably seen more movies this year than any year in my entire life. But I do love the feedback from readers and the e-mail discussions that arise from them, and people enjoy discussing movies more than any other topic. So here are 3 reviews, with a look back at movies of the summer to follow soon. A lot of people have remarked that there's nothing they want to see in theaters recently, but I think there's more of interest on screens now than there was during summer blockbuster season.]
[SPOILER NOTE: No major spoilers ahead that you can't get from the movie trailer, especially for Flightplan since the heart of the plot is a mystery, but you will encounter some minor plot revelations if you read on. Those who insist on abstinence until seeing a movie in theaters, and I applaud you, should just move on...]
Andrew Niccol movies always center around a clever concept or scenario. They must sound like gold when pitched to a studio exec.
In a futuristic utopia/dystopiad where every baby is genetically engineered to be perfect and those who are not are discriminated against, one of the few remaining natural born babies yearns to do what society has deemed him incapable of achieving (Gattaca).
Truman Burbank lives a normal, happy if unexciting life. But he is not satisfied. Something is not right. Eventually, he discovers that his entire life is a reality show that is being filmed 24/7 and edited for television. Everyone around him is merely an actor, and his home is part of one giant set. He sets out to meet his maker and break out of this made-up universe into the real world (The Truman Show).
A down-and-out producer is seemingly doomed when the star walks off the set of his latest movie. Desperate, he creates a digital actress to take her place. The simulated actress becomes a huge star, but everyone believes she's a real person. Enchanted by his success, the producer can't bring himself to reveal the truth to the world (S1m0ne).
This stuff practically writes itself. Of course, that's also the problem. This stuff does write itself. Even if you haven't seen the movies above, you don't have to strain to anticipate the punch line. After the initial "why didn't I think of that" jolt, those movies unfold exactly as you'd expect.
Niccol's latest movie is about an international arms dealer, and so one would expect several arguments to be made. Arms dealers are immoral social parasites who facilitate global violence. If you peddle arms, you cannot wash your hands clean of innocent blood. The tentacles of the military-industrial complex run deep.
And to some extent, the usual points are made, but the pleasant surprise about Lord of War is that at it delivers its outrage in a measured tone of irony. The movie shakes its head, wags its finger at humanity, and says all the right things, but it's also winking at the audience the whole time.
Lord of War begins with a montage following the life of a bullet, from a brass casing on a conveyor belt, into crates shipped for unknown destinations, out of the crate and into the hands of an African soldier/guerilla, and finally into the barrel of the rifle from which it is fired into the forehead of a young boy wielding a machine gun. [At the official website, click on "Life as a Bullet" to see a non-animated version of this opening series of scenes.]
After watching the movie, I read The New Yorker review, in which David Denby wrote of this sequence: "...by forcing the audience to take the bullet’s flight, he is suggesting that we are complicit both in arms sales (the United States is a leading exporter and in eager enjoyment of movie violence), of which this sequence is a startling and admonitory example."
I read this opening a bit differently, though Denby has confessed many of his sins in public before, and perhaps he has never forgiven himself for arming neighborhood kids on both sides of a snowball fight in his youth. Rather than indict the audience, the opening sequence exonerates the bullet. The bullet rests in the same position on screen in front of us as it's whisked around the world, an inert piece of metal with no say over its own fate. What's disheartening is that the relentless forward motion of the bullet seems to propel both the bullet and the audience towards an unavoidable conclusion. Niccol implies that these arms sales and the human conflicts they supply are natural conditions of life, that nothing can be done to halt them. It sets the tone for the movie: it's highly watchable, lyrical, and thought-provoking, and it doesn't settle for putting the usual suspects on trial.
At the age of 20, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) intuits the economics of global conflict, and with a businessman's mentality, decides to capitalize on the market opportunity. Orlov, a son of Ukrainian immigrants living in NYC and posing as Jews, ditches his job at his parent's diner and begins selling guns.
He discovers that his lack of a nagging conscience makes him a great salesman to both his customers and himself. He doesn't need to convince himself that the world needs dealers like himself; he truly believes it, and his customers respond to his conviction. Soon he is the go-to guy of despots and leaders the world over, surpassing competitors like Ian Holm who choose to sell only to those whose missions they agree with.
As I am in an editing class now, I paid attention to the work of Zach Staenberg here, and his work keeps the movie's feet earthbound instead of up on the moral high ground. The movie is filled with moments that flirt with sanctimony, but Staenberg never lingers on dead bodies or any other shots that might cause a modern audience to roll its eyes.
The movie doesn't linger on visual punch lines either. Arms dealing is treated in the movie like any other business, leading to a whole host of dark comic images. Early on, Orlov attends an arms dealing trade show, in which leggy models in camoflauge dance on tanks while wielding guns like canes in a cabaret. Before you have time to dwell on the image, the movie has cut away. The pace of the humorous beats is relentless, but modern audiences who've grown up in the age of The Simpsons will find it familiar and comforting. It's one of the few movies I've seen in recent years that has the comic pace of a half hour sitcom.
All the other characters help to situate Orlov's conscience. His wife Ava (Bridget Moynahan), morally-conscious arms dealer Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), his bum of a younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), an Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke), and an African dictator and frequent customer Andre Baptiste Sr. (Eamonn Walker). It's no surprise that the most compelling of these is the most ruthless one, Baptiste. The others are only of moderate interest; their fates feel prescribed. The faceless and shadowy figure of an American general, one who uses Orlov as a middleman, also feels like a movie cliche, but his screen time is limited.
Nicolas Cage mutes his performance by about 3 decibels here to match the measured sensibility of the movie. He's always had the hangdog face of someone who's always sad when he's happy, and a bit happy when he's sad, like an earnest clown, and it's perfect here. Those around Orlov try to force him to confront the moral outrage of his line of work, but he refuses to engage, even if his eyes say differently. He always brings the conversation back to the mundane, and his words have an appealing if morally bankrupt common sense:
The first and most important rule of gun-running is, never get shot with your own merchandise.
I sell to leftists, and I sell to rightists. I even sell to pacifists, but they're not usually repeat customers.
Back then, I didn't sell to Osama Bin Laden. Not because of moral reasons, but because he was always bouncing checks.
The movie doesn't offer any solutions to the business of arms deals, let alone the violence in the world. Orlov never feels more true to himself than when he's trying to close a deal, but his face reveals his anguish. He's the guilty bystander.
In one scene, Orlov wanders in a daze around an African guerilla camp, disoriented by having done lines of cocaine mixed with gunpowder. He stumbles into two soldiers, one of whom tries to gun him down in anger. When the gun jams, Orlov offers to take a look at it, to see if he can help fix it.
In another scene, Orlov outlines the virtues of a 9mm handgun to Baptiste. When Baptiste subsequently picks up the gun and shoots a security guard through the head for flirting with a girl, Orlov leaps to his feat and screams in dismay, "Why'd you do that?"
Baptiste, shocked at Orlov's impudence, points the gun at Orlov and prepares to pull the trigger.
Orlov continues, both out of self-preservation and honesty, "Now it's a used gun! How am I going to sell a used gun?!"
[Footnote: It's an odd coincidence, or perhaps it's another ironic wink, that in real-life, the most well-known Yuri Orlov is a famous nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident, not a gun dealer.]
For most of the suspense thriller Flightplan, the audience is in Kyle Pratt's (Jodie Foster) shoes. Her husband recently died from a fall from a tall building, and she and her 6 year old daughter Julia and bringing his body back home to NYC from Berlin. They happen to be flying on the new E474 jumbo jet, whose engines Pratt helped to design. Early in the flight, Pratt falls asleep for a moment, and when she wakes, her daugher has gone missing. No one on the plane seems to have seen her even board the plane, and everyone looks at Pratt as if she might be delusional from grief.
Jodie Foster externalizes the strength and fear of an anxious mother like no one else can. With the control of a world-class gymnast, she can cause her large blue eyes to quiver and fill with tears. I've missed Jodie Foster, last seen in a surprising cameo in A Very Long Engagement. As a leading actress, she fills injects a sense of gravity and heft, even when it's not provided by the script. And in this case, it's not, though Foster manages to keep us engrossed. Is she imagining things? Didn't we see her daughter on screen, or were we merely seeing hallucinations from Foster's mind? With their shoulder shrugs and blank expressions, every passenger and crew member seems like a suspect.
The critical moment in the movie, the one where it depressurizes, so to speak, is the one when the movie finally pulls us away from Jodie Foster's perspective, and, in doing so, reveals the solution to the mystery. I won't reveal anything except to say that it is both preposterous and mundane. No one in the theater gasped in shock at what was behind the curtain, as they did at the end of The Sixth Sense. It was all down to the runway from there.
The movie suffers from another comparison, one that will haunt movies for years: 9/11. All airplane terror scenarios offered up by movies such as Flightplan and the recent Red Eye will forever pale alongside the story behind the airplane hijackings of Sept 11.
Like Road to Perdition, A History of Violence is adapted from a short graphic novel (I love titles that arise from stock phrases, like this one, or like Tobias Wolff's short story The Night In Question). Tom Stall runs a diner in a small town, leading a quiet life with his pretty wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two children, Jack and Sarah. Though on the surface all seems idyllic, we know that danger is on its way because we've met two sinister drifters in the opening scene.
We also feel a sense of foreboding because director David Cronenberg and his editor and cinematographer ratchet up the dread in the first part of the movie notch by notch, letting shots linger while the Howard Shore score lurks and trembles ominously in the background. The opening shot is quiet, a medium full-shot that holds on the two men, checking out of a hotel. We sense their blood is cold in their laconic movements. Their faces have long ago ceased to register any human warmth. No music plays at all, the shot is almost silent.
When one of the men goes to check out, he asks his partner Billy to pull the car up. He complies, starting the engine and driving up about fifteen feet, evoking a nervous giggle from the audience. It's the first of many comic moments that Cronenberg inserts to release a bit of the tension. He's like a hot-air balloon pilot, wielding humor and suspense with an anesthesiologist's precision precision to keep the audience floating between laughter and apprehension. At the same time we laugh at the irony of pulling the car up, we're holding our breath awaiting a gunshot from inside the hotel lobby.
Meanwhile, Jack, a shy and somewhat dweebish teenager, encounters his own problems at school. At gym class, Jack catches a flyball off the bat of the school bully Jared to end the game, causing said bully and his usual posse of toughies (arms folded across the chest, nodding slowly with sneers on their face) to antagonize Jack all over town. It's an absurd moment. After Jared hits the flyball, he flips his bat away like Barry Bonds and starts his home run trot, yet the flyball doesn't cause Jack to have to move an inch to catch it out in rightfield. Jared obviously doesn't play much baseball. His reaction of anger is so exaggerated that the audience burst into laughter.
We know at that moment that both Tom and his son Jack will both have to confront their own antagonists, that Jack will be a foil for his father. The movie has the feel of a Western, so we know that the two criminals will stroll into Tom's bar for a showdown. Tom prevails and becomes a local hero, but the publicity from the local media attract three unwelcome visitors to town, led by Ed Harris with a creepy makeup job and a bad eye. These men claim Tom is not who he purports to be, that his ability to kill is no coincidence. Soon not just his wife and kids but even the town sheriff are wondering just who Tom is.
There's a moment in the movie, a simple change of a character's accent, that reveals the truth we've suspected. As with many of the finest moments in the movie, it's delicate but unmistakable, a quiet thrill. The subtlety has the audience leaning forward into each moment.
The scenes of violence are shot and edited in real-time, which is not to say they aren't breathtaking in pace. No slow-mo or stuttering frames or jump cuts, but the swift editing gives the violence the feeling of an explosion, as if violence is a primal impulse or instinct hardwired into the human condition. The creators are fully in control of the story at all moments, and their virtuosity is impressive to behold.
But for a Cronenberg movie, and for all the violence, A History of Violence is not as provocative as so many reviews would have you believe. As with Road to Perdition, the movie feels a bit slight, like pulp fiction dressed in a tuxedo, or a novella on steroids. The contrived nature of the story elements and of many of the characters undermines the movie's credibility as a fable of America, or violence.
The character of Tom Small is the type you only find in pulp. He's a rural Jason Bourne, and though Viggo Mortensen lends humanity to all his roles (perhaps it's because he's a cultured guy in real life, painting, writing poetry, exfoliating, arranging flowers, composing ballads on his lute), the character lost me at "Hello, I'm a low-key farmer, but at the first sign of violence I can transform into a lean, mean, killing machine."
Another well-known actor appears at the end of the movie and offers a tickle of a performance, but again it's the type of artful performance that distanced me from any grand messages about violence and humanity. Only Edie and Jack feel like people I know.
And perhaps that's for the best. I've always suspected my local dry cleaner of possessing a dark past. One day I might complain that she'd missed a stain on one of my dress shirts, only to have her fly over the counter to deliver a flying kick to my cranium before removing my eyeball with a sewing needle.
Is there any movie that Ebert doesn't like anymore? In middle age, his critical thumb has discovered Viagra. This week, there are more stars on his homepage than on an American flag. His reviews from early in his career contain so much fantastic work that it's a bit disheartening for me to see his critical carving knife dulled with use. Whereas Pauline Kael seemed to like fewer and fewer movies as she aged, Ebert seems to laud more and more. Perhaps he's caught a case of the softies from his vapid on-screen partner Richard Roeper.
It's also a problem with reducing movies to thumbs up, thumbs down, or 1 through 4 stars, or any sort of rating system, one reason I gave up using the star system here. The Siskel and Ebert television show has turned Ebert into a populist arbitrator for movies, and he can never go back now. Our enjoyment of every movie is different, and a star rating is too reductionist in isolation. It's one reason Ebert has had to spend so much time in recent years trying to get people to read his reviews to make sense of some of his ratings; to many people, he's all thumbs (in fairness to him, he still writes full-length reviews of all movies he screens).
Across thousands of people, an objective measure like that has some use, and in our time-constrained life, many people simply scan soundbites or critics recommendations for a quick yay nay. We've come to expect movie reviews in our magazines and newspapers on the week a movie opens, to help us decide what to see, and so critics orient their reviews to that market. If you can reduce your opinion to a soundbite, it might be picked up and included in the print ad for the movie.
A site like Metacritic, which attempts to translate all movie reviews into a 100 point scale, is amusing as a very rough survey of the overall critical response to a movie, but Metacritic weights all reviews differently in coming up with their aggregate score, so anyone who reads too much into the exact overall number, whether it's an 88 or an 86, a 72 or a 75, is reading both a precision and an accuracy that just isn't there. Read an Anthony Lane review and ask ten people where it rests on a 100 point scale, and you'll likely get ten different numbers.
At the end of the day, the only review that matters is the one that matches your own opinion of the movie. Usually that's your own review, but not always. Some reviewers can verbalize your response to a movie, break down how and why you felt a certain way about something. That's why people go back and read Pauline Kael's reviews after they've seen a movie.