Saturday, December 30, 2006

Holiday Trifecta: "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Notes on a Scandal," "The Good Shepherd"

Maybe it's because it's that time of year when we celebrate giving and empathy for those less fortunate; maybe it's because such sincerity demands an ironic, clear-eyed counterbalance of tragedy and misery; or maybe it's just because it's the stretch run of Oscar season. But for whatever reason, the holidays have become home to grim dramas with statuette aspirations. For every Happy Feet or Charlotte's Web there's a solemn parable about lives wasted and lost, or a "human" story in which humans are picked at and exposed, like scabs.

So with my parents and brother in town for the holidays, we did what any family unit would -- hit the local cineplexes for what promised to be the latest round of dolor and (fingers crossed) intelligent storytelling, something to make us feel good about feeling bad. Did we receive what was promised? Read on.

Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, Dir. Clint Eastwood)

For our homeland. Until the very last man. Our duty is to stop the enemy right here. Do not expect to return home alive.
-- General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Letters From Iwo Jima

The moment Clint Eastwood chomped on a cigar, indiscriminately dispatched his first baddie, and pocketed his first fistful of dollars in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, he pioneered a new kind of anti-hero: disdainful of convention, self-interested, and yet inextricably linked to society-at-large. His Man With No Name may have been inspired by Toshiro Mifune's Sanjuro from Kurosawa's Yojimbo, but while Sanjuro was a rueful free spirit, bah-humbugging any attempt to bring him into the fold, Eastwood's heroes are often tied to the law -- they may use it for their own ends (bounty dollars for criminals), they may perptuate the system even as they grow sick of its inadequacies (Dirty Harry and The Gauntlet), or they may talk themselves into imparting the law where it dare not show its face (Unforgiven) -- but justice of a sort is always served.

Eastwood's recent films as a director have further mined these depths. Unforgiven wanted to have its cake and eat it, too (Bill Munny is a truly irredeemable character, but isn't he a badass at the end?) -- ditto for Mystic River, which concludes with a vigilante act that is indefensible and unpunished, and Million Dollar Baby, which posits euthenasia as the last refuge of the Hemingway-esque tough guy. Some see subversive commentary on the Eastwood anti-hero in these works, while others might see the emperor dressed in new clothes.

So here comes Letters From Iwo Jima to further muddy the evidence -- in a bold move, avowed Republican Eastwood has made a film about the enemy! Based on the events of those fateful weeks on Iwo Jima back in 1945, the film follows the Japanese forces under the command of General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) as they carry out their last-ditch stand against the Americans. Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis's screenplay is resolutely old-fashioned in its approach, focusing on several characters in this desperate outfit: the weary Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a mild-mannered baker who isn't as gung-ho about sacrificing himself as his superiors would like him to be, the by-the-book Shimizu (Ryo Kase), an upright soldier who doesn't question orders but isn't as impervious as one might expect, the genial Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an equestrian legend who is more "Americanized" than the rest, and Lt. Ido (Shido Nakamura), the inflexible diehard who is all too willing to throw the lives of his soldiers away, as well as his own. Presiding over them all is General Kuribayashi, who is depicted as the classic Eastwood hero: assigned to Iwo Jima because he has displeased the wrong higher-ups (one can imagine Dirty Harry getting demoted to beat cop in the inner city), gifted with the common touch (he relates to his men better than their former superiors), an outside-the-box thinker (knowing American tactics, he orders his men into Iwo Jima's mountains for their last defensive), doggedly heroic, fighting a lost cause.

That last point is important, because there is no justice in Letters From Iwo Jima -- not everyone dies, but not everyone who deserves to live does. And yet, the soldiers all pull together in the end, and this could be read not as a departure from the typical Eastwood moral code, but its ultimate fulfillment -- previously his heroes were distinguished by their individuality, their demand to be outside the system even as they defended it, but here they defend the system to the death. Are we meant to see their deaths as proof that one must buck the system to survive? Harry Callahan could always throw away his badge after executing a serial killer, but nothing awaits the loyal soldier Kuribayashi but a cold grave.

Even if these quandaries aren't answered -- certainly Eastwood doesn't linger on them -- it's easy to appreciate Iwo Jima as a well-made war film. As he's gotten older, Eastwood's rhythms have slowed to an almost funereal pace; it's almost impossible for him to film something now and not have it come out elegaic. Fortunately with this film, he's found the perfect marriage of subject and style. Leaving the heavy lifting with second-unit director Michael Owens (who puts together some well-shot war scenes based on the bleached-out Saving Private Ryan template), Eastwood concentrates on the individual episodes: the heartfelt conversations between men in the tunnels, the harrowing scenes of mass suicide, the hastily-scribbled goodbyes to loved ones, the interludes in the midst of the storm. A flashback in which Shimizu reminisces about an incident in which he was ordered, and failed, to shoot an innocent family dog has a fine brevity and weight to it, while the execution of one of the characters by American GIs is as tense as anything Eastwood has ever shot.

The film isn't especially subtle in the telling. When an American soldier is captured and the Japanese soldiers come to realize that Americans are "people too," it comes off a bit pat, and when a gun given as a gift to Kuribayashi by the U.S. Army from the time he spent in America in the thirties comes into play at the end, you might as well be reading about symbolism in Screenplay 101. Still, the Japanese actors all do sterling jobs, and the humanism on display is inescapable. Best of all is Watanabe's Kuribayashi. Even as he fits the bill as a tough, indefatigable military man, there is something sly, almost winsome, in his manner, as if he is fully aware that there is a certain madness to men like himself. That layer of extra awareness is something new in the Eastwood ouevre; if the lone hero's final destination is death, at least a bit of humanity peeps through when confronting that destination with a wry, self-deprecating smile.

Notes on a Scandal (2006, Dir. Richard Eyre)

When I was young I had such a vision of myself. I dreamt I'd be someone to be reckoned with, you know, in the world. But one learns one's scale. I've such a dread of ending my days alone. Recently, I've allowed myself to think that I may not be. Am I wrong?
-- Barbara Covett, Notes on a Scandal

Nothing seethes like a good claustrophobic British drama, and this film, based on the Zoe Heller book, is like a two-hour sneer. Patrick Marber (Closer) wrote the screenplay for this one, and like the Mike Nichols adaptation of Closer a few years back, following the characters' progress in this film is like watching bugs under the microscope, wriggling away in the final moments before they're squashed.

The movie begins with a cavalcade of information and comment: we are listening to Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench), a veteran teacher at a boys' academy who has quite plainly given up on her charges, and her colleagues who teach them. Her opening monologue is a marvel of stinging wit, as she punctures the facade of everyone within eyeshot ("Here come the local pubescent prowls. The future plumbers, shop assistants, and probably terrorists too"). She is master of all she surveys, and we're ready to follow the film through her authoritative eyes -- and then it all goes to hell when the new art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett) shows up.

Just vague enough to be desireable, twisting stray strands of hair in her fingers, eager to please her new colleagues and carrying the whiff of her younger, rebellious, flower-power days about her, Sheba is as tasty a morsel in Barbara's eyes as can be imagined. Even as Barbara becomes abashed and solicitous with her newfound friend, entertaining visions of days forever spent with Sheba at the cafe, or eating supper with Sheba's rumpled husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and their mentally handicapped son, reality intrudes. Yes, it turns out Sheba has a thing for younger men -- the 15-year-olds, to be exact. As an ongoing tryst with one of her students threatens to derail her career, it provides Barbara Covett (that last name says it all) with an opening to be indispensible. As Barbara tells us, all but rubbing her hands with glee: "With stealth, I might secure the prize long-term, forever in my debt. I could gain everything by doing nothing. "

For its first half or so, Notes on a Scandal fits agreeably within the hallowed tradition of nasty English social comedies. As you would expect, Dench and Blanchett are nearly flawless, and their interactions are a constant push-pull of dominance and submission -- Barbara has the upper hand most of the time, but there is something willful and devious about the way Sheba can manipulate the older woman's infatuation, as well. Buoyed by Dench's acerbic jabs and making mincemeat out of the supporting cast (woe be to Bill Nighy and the emasculated teachers at the Academy who are merely pawns in the game), the film pops along at an agreeable, wicked clip. When Sheba's wrongdoings are finally exposed, however, everything curdles up: we have drawn-out shouting matches that are supposed to pass for (gulp) real drama, the characters' actions lose credibility (would Sheba really move in with Barbara?), and with a late revelation Barbara becomes less of a frustrated, complicated woman and more of a, well, monster. Notes on a Scandal is never less than involving throughout, and to the end we're propelled by the "what's going to happen next?" suspense of the narrative, but it adds up to a chilly exercise in inevitability -- good for a shock to the system, but less substantial than it thinks it is.

The Good Shepherd (2006, Dir. Robert DeNiro)

You know what I tell people when they ask why I don't use the word "the" when I talk about CIA? Do you put a "the" in front of God?
-- Richard Hayes, The Good Shepherd

Bobby DeNiro directing an epic about the skullduggery-laced history of the CIA? To people who had resigned themselves to seeing DeNiro in such fare as Meet the Fockers, this must have sounded like a blast of fresh air. Count me among them, and I went into this one looking forward to a well-acted, literate, bracing account of our country's secret service, something that would satisfy the heart as well as the head. When the first images of the film wash over us -- a pinched Matt Damon as CIA officer Edward Wilson holding cryptic conversations with operatives and managing the Cuban missile crisis even as a mysterious reel of film shows up on his doorstep -- we're primed to see a good mystery unfold, tendrils of plot and conspiracy ready to unwind over the next few hours.

Alas, not meant to be. Unquestionably ambitious, with its heart in the right place, The Good Shepherd never reaches liftoff. Its scope is immense and mirrors The Godfather in its hero's progress -- beginning with the ascension of Wilson to Yale's Skull and Bones society in the 30s, the film follows him as he is recruited to the fledgling OSS (the future CIA) and manuevers his way to the top chain of command, and stands back and watches as he sacrifices loved ones, honor, and morality to ensure the safety of the family, er, I mean U.S. government ...

And therein lies the rub -- in outline and development, The Good Shepherd bears uncomfortable resemblance to other, better films, and it can't differentiate itself. It's all competently shot, but the various espionage ploys and blackmails remain murky throughout, with none of the zip of a modern-day spy thriller (amen, Jason Bourne) and none of the dazzling braininess of the old-school spy dramas (hello, John le Carre). The script tries to make up for the lack of involving spyjinks with touches out of Mafia potboilers -- at several points Wilson meets up with his counterpart from the KGB in public spaces, their bodyguards at the ready, like mob bosses fighting over their turf. The climax to the movie also features multiple assassinations, clinically executed Michael Corleone-style.

You would figure that with a subject like the CIA, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material, and that seems to be what's happened here: both overstuffed and undernourished, the film races through events and personal crises like nobody's business. Individual moments rise above the murk every so often -- the interrogation of a Soviet defector who may or may not be a double agent has some bite, and when a character gets thrown out of an airplane without a parachute, the assassination has a shocking suddeness to it. But what's lacking is a sense of order or dynamics -- when everything is given the same emphasis and pace as everything else, there's little to hold onto.

You would assume that with a renowned actor in the director's chair, at least the characters would have some life, but no one has been given anything to play. Overcrowded with bit and walk-on parts, the film leaves the audience playing the spot-the-actor game: Hey, there's Alec Baldwin as a chain-smoking FBI man! There's William Hurt contributing two lines as a sinister senator! There's Joe Pecsi showing up for three minutes as a Cuban crime lord! Marvel at Billy Crudup's not-of-this-commonwealth accent as he plays an upper-crust Brit operative! Blink and you'll miss Timothy Hutton as Wilson's suicidal father! Even De Niro deems it necessary to enter the fray in a cameo as a duplicitous general, but apart from complaining about a gamy leg and trying to channel Marlon Brando, his "star turn" accomplishes nothing that anyone out of Central Casting couldn't have done just as well. Most damaging of all is Damon's peformance -- when deployed correctly, his blank, callow features and man-child voice suggest reticence, uncertainty, and even desperation. You would think playing a character who has to compromise and then forsake his conscience entirely would be right up his alley, but both the script and Damon under-deliver. His countenance frozen into statuelike immobility, Damon's Wilson is merely another ping-pong ball at the plot's beck and call (it doesn't help that the makeup artists were apparently on vacation, and he looks almost exactly the same in 1961 as he did in 1935 -- and with an adult son, no less!). "The true story of the CIA through the eyes of a man who never existed," this film's poster trumpets, and sadly, Wilson is an empty shell of a character who doesn't exist, either.

Even in this gargantuan mess, two performances stand out. Michael Gambon brings intelligence and impish wit to his role of Dr. Fredericks, Wilson's Yale tutor and initial instructor in the ways of spycraft -- one aches to see him in one of those old-fashioned spy yarns. And then there's Angelina Jolie, who plays the free-wheeling Southern belle that Wilson weds. Physically, Jolie and Damon are a complete mismatch (perhaps an intentional move on the filmmakers' part) and Jolie doesn't get to do much besides pout and pine for her estranged, remote husband, but somehow she manages to come across as a force of nature. Damon may be a man-child, but she is most certainly a woman.

It's a shame that The Good Shepherd isn't anywhere near as incisive or gripping as it wants to be -- in the current political climate, there's no doubt a great movie waiting to be made about how America got to where it is now, and how choices in the past determined the tragedies of the present. Unfortunately, this film isn't it.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Geographic Distress: "Babel"

Babel (2006, Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
-- Genesis 11:7-8

We're often looking for the Next Big Thing, and that Next Big Thing has an extra kick if it comes from outside our hermetically sealed universes. In the cannibalistic film industry, this holds doubly true -- for all the reliance on tested formulas and rehashes of the latest hit novel/comic/TV show, Hollywood often lets its guard slip just long enough to allow a true innovator, auteur or garden-variety acclaimed filmmaker from abroad into its grasp. Think Hitchcock. Think Wilder. Think Ang Lee. In the best-case scenario, this cross-cultural pollination results in a heady mix of familiarility and originality; in the worst, it reeks of pandering and opportunism.

Which brings us to the interesting case of Alejandro González Iñárritu -- interesting because even though he hails from Mexico and thus could be labeled "international," his style of filmmaking seems ready-made for American arthouse acceptance. His breakthrough film, Amores Perros, played like an Altman movie shot through (or up?) with Tarantino sensationalism, and his first American film, 21 Grams, was a logical extension of that aesthetic. It's easy to see why the film cognoscenti (and big-name stars like Sean Penn) flock to him -- he tackles the Big Ideas (human loneliness, the randomness of tragedy) with a driving intensity that approximates integrity, he provides his actors with opportunities to chew the scenery, and he throws in some postmodern shufflings of time and narrative to stay hip. A litany of tragic accidents, mournful gazes, and dizzying jumps between now, then, and the future, his films are undeniably bracing, but jaw-clenchingly grim (the only humor to be found is of the unintentional kind, as in Are we really supposed to believe Sean Penn as a tortured math professor?). For those of us who haven't lost our masochistic Puritan streaks, Iñárritu's work allows us to feel ennobled by our collective misery, and it doesn't hurt if we get to see Sean Penn and Naomi Watts make out while we're at it.

Iñárritu's new film Babel is the latest chapter in his life-is-a-shambles view of the world, and yet it is something more, as well. The narrative trickery has been cut to a minimum: the storytelling gets topsy-tervy at a few points, but this time the whiplash is mainly of the geographic variety, as we are ping-ponged from Morocco to Japan to southern California and Mexico. The plot, written by Iñárritu's collaborator Guillermo Arriaga and based on an idea by the director, follows the fortunes (mostly disastrous) of a selection of people whose lives are tenuously connected by an accidental shooting. At the outset, the mischievous sons of a Moroccan goat herder (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) get hold of their father's rifle, and in a competition for bragging rights, they take pot shots at a passing tourist bus in the mountains. One of the bullets pierces Susan (Cate Blanchett), the disaffected wife of Richard (Brad Pitt), and while the two of them are stranded in an isolated village, the seconds ticking away on Susan's life, their Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza, never less than convincing) faces her own conundrum -- stay with Richard and Susan's kids (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) as Richard requested, or hightail it to Mexico for a day to witness the all-important marriage of her son? Meanwhile, in Japan, deaf-mute high school girl Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), frustrated with her isolation from the world and her recently widowed father (Kôji Yakusho of Shall We Dance? fame), craves contact and a little bit of lovin', and isn't above resorting to extreme measures. Shake and stir all the above, throw in further devilish coincidences, connections, and happenstances, and you can already imagine the arthouse denizens salivating: How international! How bold! How challenging!

With a title like Babel, the theme of misunderstanding would seem to be the lynchpin of the movie (or as James Brown puts it: "talkin' loud and saying nothing"). Richard finds himself helpless at communicating not just with the locals but with the unsympathetic tourists on the bus who just want to get the hell out and leave him there; an international relations snafu sees the U.S. State Department treat Susan's shooting as a "terrorist attack" (a potential jibe at all-about-us American paranoia that is never followed up on); and Chieko's thirst for sex or something even more intimate, and her inability to express that desire, lead her to flash strangers in restaurants, or in the film's most arresting sequence, make a pass at an earnest young cop by baring her entire body to him. However, Babel is less about what we don't understand about each other than it is about how we're all interconnected by the whims of ill fortune. Murphy's Law isn't just an abiding principle in this universe -- it is the entire universe. When Amelia decides to drag Richard and Susan's kids with her to Mexico for the day, is there any doubt that the enterprise will end badly? Likewise, as the local police net tightens around the two Moroccan boys, you can be sure that there will be another tragic death or two involved. In Babel, the object isn't escape so much as survival.

Say this for Iñárritu -- his instincts as a filmmaker are peerless. Visually, Babel is a stunner, and cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro wrings arresting images from the beauty and squalor.The film's first major transition, from the parched desert of Morocco to the cozy suburban living room of Richard and Susan's family, is a startling moment -- with a simple cut between scenes, we are flung between geographic and cultural divides, and the juxtaposition is breathtaking. With the globe-spanning locales and sprawling narrative, Iñárritu knows he's being ambitious, and he luxuriates in that fact. Whereas a typical American film working with this concept would settle for a few picture-postcard shots and a dash of ethnic music on the soundtrack, Iñárritu immerses us in each of the film's wildly disparate environments. Having seen my share of Middle Eastern films over the years, it's impressive how Iñárritu manages to mirror their textures, rhythms, and tone in the Moroccan passages. Likewise, his dead-on evocations of Tokyo night life are balanced by a winsome naturalism that is the calling card of Asian New Wave cinema (think Wong Kar Wai, if Wong had a soul as well as a heart and a brain). And when he hits his home turf of Mexico for a wedding party that is by turns wistful, boisterous, chaotic, romantic, and ever so slightly sinister, it's clear that we're in the presence of a major talent.

But for all his elasticity as a filmmaker, Iñárritu doesn't allow his characters to breathe outside the calamities he has arranged for them -- ironic, given the notable actors like Blanchett who have all but begged to be in his films. Less flesh-and-blood beings than pinballs, the people in Babel take a back seat to plot, for the most part. Pitt, armed with facial wrinkles and salt-and-pepper hair, gets to squirm and bellow and express concern, and that's about all we know about him. Likewise, Blanchett's character can be summed up within her first few seconds of screentime, as she disastefully tosses away a glass of Coke served up by the locals (“You don’t know what kind of water is in there!”). And then there's Amelia's wild nephew Santiago (the estimable Gael García Bernal), who is a caricature of the Mexican hombre: he packs a pistol, drives around drunk, antagonizes and flees the U.S. border patrol, and eventually abandons Amelia and her charges in the California desert. His only function in the movie appears to be screwing up her life.

Babel works itself up to a fine pitch -- it can't avoid it, with all the escalating crises on hand. And yet, when all is resolved, one can't help feeling let down by the muffled conclusions to each of its storylines. Richard and Susan's tale, which is ostensibly the most critical from a life-and-death perspective, sputters when it should tighten up, and we are meant to feel moral outrage at Amelia's plight (those damn immigration police!), but like the U.S. State Department and the "terrorist act," the political commentary is left dangling without a punchline. Still, two performances rise above the murk. Given an essentially unbelievable character (no one in their right mind would do the things she does and expect to get off scot-free), Barraza somehow manages to maintain her dignity and our sympathy as Amelia. Even as the script contrives to place her in the squirmiest situation possible, her cries for help in the middle of the desert, with her red wedding clothes in tatters and her makeup running down her face, are indelible.

Then there is Kikuchi as Chieko: happily, the story is much kinder to her, and it is in the Tokyo segments that Babel really soars. In notable opposition to the movie's other passages, no lives are at stake, nobody's fate is dangling at the whim of an angry god, and yet by simply following the rhythms of Chieko's daily life, her run-ins with would-be lovers, night clubs, and playground swings, Iñárritu documents a yearning for connection that has an urgency and poignancy that the other storylines, with their sturm and drang, can barely muster. Whether she's flipping her skirt at a gawking passerby, grooving soundlessly to an Earth, Wind and Fire remix, giving a school official the middle finger, or breaking down as she throws her naked body into the arms of her father, Kikuchi is unstoppable; her spontaneity is the spark that provides the film with its only whiff of true mystery. Fittingly enough, Babel ends with her and her father standing alone yet together on the balcony of her apartment building at night, the camera pulling back to reveal the manifold twinkling lights of Tokyo, thousands of inhabitants in their own private worlds. For all its beautiful desolation, the sight is a comforting one, for it suggests that if Iñárritu can get past his stifling obsessions with tragedy and human folly, he'll graduate from international arthouse darling to pretty damn devastating director.