23 January 2009

Rewinding 2008: Part IV

Reviews of Burn After Reading, Changeling, The Edge of Heaven, The Reader, and Tropic Thunder.

As I work on whittling my best-of list for 2008 (set to be published in the near future), I'm pausing to consider releases from the year, both the good and the bad, that I haven't reviewed on Screen Savour.


Burn After Reading, the first venture out from Joel and Ethan Coen since snagging writing, directing, and picture Oscars for No Country for Old Men, is a ridiculous film, meant entirely as a compliment. This is familiar territory for the Coens: a genre-defying plot stuffed with idiotic and strange characters that will cynically shift gears and pull the whole contraption out from underneath you. The joke is rooted in the paranoid political thriller, which is served alongside a mockery of contemporary narcissism. There is a strong comic ensemble at work in the film's (basically) three story lines: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and an especially funny Brad Pitt all play characters ranging in importance from a fitness trainer to a top man at the C.I.A., weaving in and out and crossing paths to frequently anarchic returns. This is nowhere near the best work to come from the Coens, but its zaniness is admittedly contagious. The film doesn't stay quite as tightly wound near the end, saved only by the deadpan Simmons in the film's final scene, but mercifully the Coens keep it short (just over 90 minutes). Like an accidentally fired bullet, we're in and out quickly, left only to ponder what the hell just happened to us. That sort of effect can be system-shocking in a drama, but here in an uninhibited comedy and sculpted by the trademark offbeat Coen humor, the joke works.

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There is dissonance between the screenplay and the production values of Clint Eastwood's Changeling, a film that would be easy to dismiss as simply awful if it wasn't well made. Still, it is a bad movie – simplistic and frustrating, with a naive and two-dimensional script that is unbecoming of its otherwise slick and beautiful style (Tom Stern's bleak and muted cinematography is often striking, and the art direction and costumes are first class). Billed as a "true story," Changeling is at least based on the true events surrounding Christine Collins (an overwrought Angelina Jolie) and the disappearance of her nine-year-old son, a case that sends her through the ringer of a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department in 1928. "Corrupt" might not be strong enough of a word; the police bring Collins a boy who is not her son, bully her into accepting the boy for the positive press, and then institutionalize her as she fights. It is a heartbreaking horror story, done no service by its maddening and frustrating lack of depth. Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski oversee a universe of ugly caricatures, where good is good and bad is bad and gigantic neon signs of amateur storytelling have been constructed to enforce these dichotomies. Even characters of potential complexity, such as Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a reverend on a crusade against the police department, don't require any thought because they are hardly emotional creatures. Oddly, both of Eastwood's 2008 releases – this and Gran Torino – suffer from problematic scripts, but of the two, Gran Torino proved Eastwood could still be sprightly in the director's chair despite some writing flaws. Changeling is as heavy as lead, poorly written, and one of the year's least enjoyable offerings.

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The controversial change two years ago to the submission and nomination process for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar has resulted in many good non-English language films following through the cracks, and the way a particular foreign film can straddle two years in its release date makes it significantly more difficult for it to earn the accolades it deserves. I'm not the first person to say Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite in its native German tongue), a 2007 release overseas and a 2008 release here in the United States, should have had the chance to compete for something. It is an engaging and often surprising film, one that missed the Oscar short-list last year and is ineligible this year, but due to great support among critics and film festivals, is finally getting more of the audience it richly deserves. Like Crash and Babel before it – only much, much better – Akin's film is an exploration of international growth and how lives can overlap and affect each other, even across national boundaries (the film occurs in both Germany and Turkey, as Akin is a German-born man with Turkish ancestry). Its stories are so firmly interlocked that I won't go into them at the risk of exposing even the slightest bit of mystery. Let it be said only that Akin skillfully charts his course and executes it sublimely.

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I'm as much a fan of World War II movies as the next person (hell, I'll almost see any movie that has to do with World War II, no matter how bad it appears), and it is with that declaration of love for the genre that I say Stephen Daldry's The Reader is abysmal as a post-war film, as a love story, and as a parable of moral exploration. It commits the egregious sin of inserting a commentary track right into its drama, where academics say weighty things such as Characters Conceal Their Secrets and What The Hell Is The Point Of Anything, only to have its own characters – gasp! – concealing secrets and pondering the points of things. This overtly instructional approach brings with it feelings of manipulation, which is understandably problematic for a film associated with the Holocaust, where the immorality was so heinous and the failure of humanity was so staggering that should be preferable to leave your audience with room to think for itself instead of blindsiding it with a two-by-four of reducible justice. The Reader is adapted from Bernhard Schlink's novel about a young man (David Kross) who begins a torrid affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet) in Germany during the 1950s, and whose law-school mind is forced to think about Big, Important Ideas when she is revealed to have a former S.S. guard on trial for her involvement in the genocide. The writing plays it ridiculously safe at the shallow end of the pool, and the way the film moves to equate the innocence in an unknown affair with life-long self-torture inside one man seems to defy logic. Winslet is moody, distant, and naked by all definitions the world, and Bruno Ganz (who starred in an infinitely superior WWII film, Downfall) and Lena Olin are strong in supporting roles. All the acting in the world, however, couldn't warm this slice of coldness and banality; what's worse, it's smug enough to have illusions of grandeur and vain enough to think it reaches them.

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I can see why someone in film development approved Tropic Thunder; it sounds like it might be much better than it really is. It is the story of actors filming a war film, left in an actual war zone and trying to claw their way back into their own reality. Directed by Ben Stiller, and co-written by Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen, any pretense that the film might aspire to something larger feels automatically abandoned after fifteen minutes. An approved level of satire should be attainable, however, but the movie is all gums and no teeth. Despite a novel introduction of faux trailers and a pitch that seems as if it might bring the heat, once Tropic Thunder gets rolling it proceeds to hit every cliche in the film-about-a-film genre: a cadre of difficult actors, including a dim-wit (Stiller), a junkie (Jack Black), a musician (Brandon T. Jackson); a mimbo-ish agent (Matthew McConaughey); an ineffectual British director (Steve Coogan); and a foul-mouthed greedy producer (Tom Cruise, under layers of make-up and padding). The only light in any of this Robert Downey, Jr., coming off of a tremendously successful year as Tony Stark in Iron Man and here as Kirk Lazarus, a "five-time" Oscar winning Australian method actor who undergoes a pigment-treatment procedure to play a black sergeant in the film. It's probably no coincidence that Downey receives the film's best lines (there's a one-liner about staying in character until recording a DVD commentary, another long joke about how actors have to strike the right balance of mental deficiency to win an Oscar), and though his black-face should wholly offend my sensibilities, something about being let in on the joke makes the performance the center of attention. The performance is actually some sort of gift – since the film doesn't provide many laughs and stumbles through to its end.

7 comments:

Tony Dayoub 23 January, 2009  

T.S.,

Saw all of these except for Edge and Reader, and since you were on the money with the other three in your reviews above, I expect to feel similarly when I get to these two.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier 23 January, 2009  

Not having read the text on which "The Reader" is based (but being vaguely aware of its themes) I must say the story is a bit bewildering. I could almost hear the producers talking with the screenwriter: "No, no, we *know* it's about the Holocaust, just concentrate on the love story, that's the important part." Problem is, the romance is an allegory: remove its deft (and very specific) symbolism and it just seems like petty behavior (particularly the way Hanna's illiteracy is treated as emotionally revealing for Michael when determined -- it was the crux of the novel's metaphorical inquiry, or so is my understanding). These are characters robbed of a purpose. Anyway, you're totally right about the acting -- Ganz is typically stellar, and I must say I did find Winslet's "moody, distant nudity" rather affecting, although she may lean a little too heavy on the stern Nazi dominatrix stereotype in the film's first half. Then again, maybe I have just a thing for moody, distant, ripely nude German women.

FilmDr 23 January, 2009  

TS,

Nice mini-reviews, although I beg to differ about The Changeling and Burn After Reading. I found the latter more an unfunny "universe of ugly caricatures," whereas The Changeling should receive more credit for the way it anatomizes the way figures in authority (in this case, the LA police) can abuse their power, i.e. by manufacturing narratives for the press, denying other people's perspectives, and by throwing people into insane asylums. The Changeling mostly fell flat for me at the end. It clearly did not know where to stop, and the pseudo-uplift at the end seemed tacked on to create closure.

Otherwise, I'm enjoying your rapid survey of recent cinema.

Tony Dayoub 23 January, 2009  

@FilmDr:

...Burn After Reading. I found the latter more an unfunny "universe of ugly caricatures,"...

I think that was kind of the point. In my own review I said the following:

"I'm now convinced this may be one of the Coens' most successful and subversive movies. It is the absolute perfect way to explore themes that reside in our current collective consciousness. In a world where the righteousness of our wars are questionable, our constitutionally protected right to privacy has been squashed, and our financial markets are on the verge of collapse, what is a more apt allegory than this laughable story. Just like all the characters in this film, our political leaders are pointing fingers, watching their backs, and attempting to cover their asses from culpability. Pitt's performance may seem like it belongs in another movie's. But doesn't our president's conduct also seem that way, too?

Years from now, when we get to the end of our current state of affairs, and take a look back to sort it all out, we'll be [like the CIA Greek chorus at the end of the film,] wondering how it happened, and what it all ultimately meant in the greater picture."

The Changeling should receive more credit for the way it anatomizes the way figures in authority (in this case, the LA police) can abuse their power, i.e. by manufacturing narratives for the press, denying other people's perspectives, and by throwing people into insane asylums.

Don't you find the methods the film uses to "anatomize" abuse of power are a little too on-the-nose or cliche? I agree that the film does not know when to stop. I find this to be typical of most recent Eastwood films(multiple climaxes piled on top of each other) with the exception of Gran Torino which I found to be quite economical in its storytelling.

Farzan 24 January, 2009  

Good post, I very much enjoyed Burn After Reading. I gave it a B in my review and thought the jokes worked well. Sure the story seems pretty useless, but its a goof ball comedy that works

FilmDr 24 January, 2009  

Tony,

You make some good points about Burn After Reading. The film very effectively skewers the vanity and excessive body consciousness of its middle-aged characters, but I ultimately found them less than human, and their mechanical behavior made the film less effective for me, less humorous, and the Coens brothers come off as a bit too clinical in their treatment.

As for The Changeling, I didn't notice the cliches as much as you and T.S. did. I like dramatized bureaucratic power games. The physician in the insane asylum knew how to turn any claim into more fodder to accuse the woman of being crazy, and it reminded me of the tactics in nineteenth century stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper."

T.S. 24 January, 2009  

Thanks for the discussion here, everyone. Although I didn't mean specifically for these two reviews to run next to each other (it just sort of happened as I was writing), Burn After Reading and Changeling do have surprisingly polarizing elements about them – both of which seem to walk the line so narrowly that they seem to come over as either a success or a problematic failure. FilmDr, I agree with you that the asylum physician did prove to be a shocking and tense element in the film, and it was frustrating (in a good way) how he could easily manipulate the course of events. My problem with Changeling, and this certainly could only be me, is that every thing in the movie works this way; his power might be scintillating alone, but coupled with the police force and the way the film seems to hammer into the ground Christine=good, authorities=bad was a point of frustration (in a bad way). Like The Reader, Changeling in my view does too much instructing instead of unfolding. I don't need Eastwood to tell me who the baddies are in his film, just as I don't need Daldry and his screenwriter bullying me into feeling pity for Michael, particularly when the affair is innocent and I had a tremendously hard time understanding how the protagonist was connecting the guilt in his mind. (Lena Olin's character, as a Holocaust survivor, also seems to troubled by this and doesn't quite understand Michael's "moral predicament.") The overtly mechanized storytelling is primary source of offensiveness for me; my feelings for both films are negative, and I'm still aghast The Reader has turned the Academy Awards into a self-fulfilling punchline on what passes for good films. In a way, I'd be just as shocked if Changeling had been nominated for Best Picture – just as shocked, but maybe not surprised.

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