Friday, February 27, 2009

Quick DVD Reviews and a Couple of 'Shotgun' Links

I've been super busy lately and unable to get on this blog post-Oscar's to get some material up. Well, after a dismal showing once again in the prediction department (and the unfortunate events of Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Picture) let's just forget this years Oscar's even happened. With the 'official' movie season starting next week with Watchmen (no offense to Paul Blart: Mall Cop or Madea Goes to Jail) there hasn't been a whole lot to write about as far as new movies go, so I'm taking this opportunity to catch up on some 2008 films I missed. I caught W. and Body of Lies this past week, and next week I plan on watching Swing Vote and I've Loved You So Long. Reviews and links after the jump...


Oliver Stone's film is a fascinating look at a subject that is all too familiar to us. Instead of lampooning the president (which is like shooting fish in a barrel), Stone wisely observes -- this is what it must be like to have a father you'll never please. It's an interesting take on the 'legacy' of Dubya, and Josh Brolin is incredible as the man who must close out each important meeting with a word of prayer. What I liked most about Stone's film was that there didn't seem to be a bit of condescension in Stone's tone; everything here seems neutral enough, besides the viewer has lived through this, we don't need Stone's revisionist history running amok, here. Toby Jones is absolutely fantastic as the always annoying Karl Rove, and even though the film already confirms what we know (based on books written by the likes of Bob Woodrow) about Dick Chaney, it's still quite amazing how Richard Dreyfus embodies the man (or, I guess he could be called a character). The film doesn't feel flat, even though, as I mentioned earlier, that the viewer essentially knows how things go, and that's to Stone's credit. There are two scenes that I think make this movie great: the first is after Bush has been told that there are no WMD's in Iraq, and that the CIA messed up. The shot of Rusmfeld (Scott Glenn) not even missing a beat, supping up his noodles without looking at the President or the head of the CIA, is one of the films great moments. The other scene I'm thinking of is the way Stone ends his film. He wisely sidesteps any obvious railing against the Bush Administration (wisely avoiding text at the end of his film to inform us what happened after the film is over....again, we already know what happened) and shows Bush in the outfield of his baseball stadium in Arlington (he was the owner of the Rangers), throughout the film Bush is seen in the outfield (a dream, perhaps), and Stone bookends his film with this shot. Throughout the film Bush goes from hearing the roaring of the crowd as he stands on the pitchers mound (he's in control, throwing things, 'pitching' his destiny, etc.), to being in the outfield catching fly balls, until in the last shot of the film, he goes back to catch the pop-up, but the ball never comes down. Stone then cuts to a title card that reads: "The End." We already know how this thing ends, it's not necessary to show us the ball falling on the ground, or again, the easy joke of Bush dropping the ball. It's a great way to end a great film. W. is a fascinating, fascinating picture, and would gladly (retroactively) place it in my top 10 of 2008.

Body of Lies

Ridley Scott's spy thriller begins harmlessly enough, but as the film progresses, and the cliches of the spy thriller begin to pop up, the films banality becomes more apparent and kills any momentum this thing had at being a unique spy thriller. Scott is to be commended: his film looks great. But, when is that never the case with a Ridley Scott, the problem I had with Body of Lies is the fact that no matter how good Leonardo DiCaprio is, when he's relegated to yelling into a Blue Tooth the entire film, you're really misusing one of the best actors we have in film today. Russell Crowe plays DiCaprio's boss in a complete throw away roll, as he drives his kids to school and plays stay-at-home dad all while talking DiCaprio throughout some pretty important and intense international terrorist affairs. Silliness aside, I liked the way the film moved with a certain ease and swagger in its first half; actually sidestepping the convoluted plots that so often bog down these spy films. There are no double crosses or moles in this thriller, but the film loses a lot of that goodwill with the way the filmmakers have DiCaprio's agent be more like a Bond/Bourne type of spy, rather than what your 'normal' CIA agent probably is. As usual in these kinds of movies, the agent crows too big of a conscience for his line of work, and when he befriends an Iranian nurse, well, you can pretty much write the rest of the movie from stock thriller cliches. But whatever, it's not like I was expecting much from this movie. All I wanted was something that was entertaining for two hours, that contained authentic locals (they seemed to have shot this thing on location), and some good performances, and I got that. The film almost falters because of how average it is -- reminding of another spy thriller Spy Game, directed by Ridley's brother Tony; it too had two good performances from Brad Pitt and Robert Redford and beautiful, on-location cinematography. If you have a couple of hours to kill, Body of Lies isn't a complete waste of your time, despite how paint-by-numbers it is.

A couple of Shotgun Stories-related links:

Alexander Coleman writes-up a masterful review on my favorite film of last year, Shotgun Stories. Check it out.

Jim Emerson mentions the poetry and simplicity of the opening scene with is Opening Shots feature on the Jeff Nichols film. It's amazing how much Nichols gets across in this film by saying so little. It's rare to find a filmmaker these days who will let the audience infer bu organically letting elements of the characters past come out through the nuances of storytelling.

I've been preparing to teach a class on the American Short Story, and one of the stories we'll be reading is Hemingway's "Cat in the Rain", as succinct a story as you will find, which, in typical Hemingway fashion, makes the reader read between the lines of terse dialogue and exposition in order to fully understand the stories buried themes. Nichol's film reminds me of that. It recently played on Sundance (I made sure to Tivo it), and because of the two links above, I plan on taking a look at the film a third time. My hope is that I can give a more detailed response to why I loved the film so much, since my initial reactions to the film were more about my emotional response to the film.

That's all for now. I'll try to be back later with some new stuff, as this weekend is looking like an Argento fest all day today for me, followed by date night with my fiance and a showing of He's Just Not That Into You (ugh), and then the countdown to Watchmen begins. Be back later with more....stuff.