November 26, 2010

Fair Game

Fair Game is a political expose first and a movie second. It's a documentary thinly masked as narrative, and director/cinematographer Doug Liman doesn't seem too care in which form the viewer receives his film as far as that goes. He does seem rather concerned with the image of his main characters. How does one evaluate a movie that's so politically charged? It deals with Valerie Plame, a CIA agent whose identity was outed in a column by writer Robert Novak in 2003. The issue was Joe Wilson, Plame's husband, who claimed to know for a fact that Iraq did not purchase uranium from Niger. And of course that all has much to do with whether or not Hussein had WMD's. Since Wilson's article, "What I Didn't Find In Africa" threw suspicion on the President's campaign against Hussein, conflict arose. In an effort to stop Wilson, his wife, Plame, became a target of Vice Presidential aid Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. And the movie is based on books by both Plame and Wilson--drastically different from the way the media reported the scandal, often referred to as "Plamegate." In the lead role, Naomi Watts is surefooted and strong and poised and noble. She's accused by the media of being a nothing desk agent who stunk at her job, and she takes it all in stride while her blowhard husband (played effectively with that lovable loose cannon Sean Penn) whores himself out to the media in an effort to fight back. Whether you believe in Valerie Plame the Sacrificial Lamb or Valerie Plame the Incompetent depends very much on how much homework you've done outside of the film.

As entertainment, Fair Game is at its best when it deals with the story of an Iraqi doctor (played by Liraz Charhi), who is tapped by the U.S. to funnel information from her brother, a high-ranking scientist working directly under the Iraqi government.  Plame is spearheading the operative to get this information--using Charhi's character as a tool--and the whole deal goes bad when Plame is revealed as a CIA agent. That portion of the story is abruptly dismembered from the rest of the movie (perhaps this is in line with the real events, but it's frustrating regardless). The politics of war run deeply through the movie, and it's difficult to divorce such a vital strand from Plame's story of inner-torment as she copes with her worlds (marriage, career and social relationships) careening out of control.

There's a lot of real news footage in Fair Game that further takes us out of the narrative and into the documentary. Actors playing political officials like Libby and Fleischer and Rove cannot compete with the real footage of Bush and Cheney and Rice, et. al. It's fascinating, but you wonder why Liman didn't just go straight for a documentary format. Maybe he's hoping to collect some Oscars on his mantel (the Academy does love important work, and Fair Game reeks of importance). Watts may even land herself an Oscar, although Penn's bombastic performance is the one that really leaves you on edge. He's positively frightening in one turbulent scene after another, and when he's not losing his temper, he's a live wire waiting to do so, grinning like a prophet and a politician roled into one.

Liman's camerawork, by the way, is more than a little dizzying at times. Perhaps he was trying to create camerawork that was as fuzzy and convoluted and headache-inducing as this whole scandal.

With Ty Burrell, Sam Shepard, Bruce McGill, Brooke Smith, David Andrews, Noah Emmerich, David Denman, Polly Holliday, Geoffrey Cantor, and Adam LeFevre. 108 min. ½

November 24, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Director Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is a mystery yarn of the spell-binding variety, in which Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer who is hired to finish the memoirs of a former British prime minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang's last ghost writer died of an apparent suicide while working on the book. Meanwhile, Lang is being investigated by the British government for war crimes. (He allegedly authorized the torturing of terror suspects). McGregor becomes immersed in the mystery just like his predecessor, bringing us along for the ride.

This is by far the most enjoyable movie I have seen in 2010 (or rather, it's tied with Robin Hood and The Social Network and Easy A). It's a sharp and tingling political thriller with a subtle sense of humor that keeps it from being unpleasant. Polanski's artistic touch is here too. There's a wonderful seen at the end where McGregor hands an incriminating note to another character at a large gathering, and it passes hands about twelve times as it goes from him through the crowd to the recipient.

McGregor does a nice job in this, and it's a really first-rate movie, a liberal's political thriller. Viewers to the right will likely think Lang was just doing his job, but the movie attempts to ruffle our political outrage while keeping us on the edge of our seats. Tom Wilkinson has a nice and ominous part as one of the heavies, a shady academic with ties to the former PM--he has some wonderful double entendres (his presence is always a trifle menacing and severe) that add to the tension of the movie.

Just about everything in The Ghost Writer is subtle. The movie develops in layers. We get glimpses of the tense relationship between Lang and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) and the underlings (including his personal assistant/mistress, played by Kim Cattrall) who work for him at his home on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Lang, as we come to learn, acted in the favor of the U.S. on numerous occasions in his political decision-making. (The only non-subtlety in this movie is that Lang is a stand-in for Tony Blair).

There's certainly something to comparing this movie to Hitchcock. It has an unnamed double, like the second Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca, and it has a bit of the everyman-on-the-lam theme that fueled North By Northwest among other Hitchcock movies. However, The Ghost Writer doesn't operate like a hacky imitation of another director's work. (Polanski doesn't have to do such things, after all). It's a movie that taps in quite successfully to the political, technological and thematic current of the early 21st century. The movies are starting to integrate the tech-savvy habits of humans with less awkwardness, although it's still a bit strange seeing McGregor's character doing research on Google. It almost takes you out of the picture for a moment (not to mention the fact that he finds exactly what he's looking for, which is so improbable).

Also worth mentioning is the lovely score by Alexandre Desplat--it reminded me of Bernard Herrmann's score in that trashy De Palma thriller Sisters (1973). The xylophone dances on top of the suspense scenes with an intriguing boldness. It somehow manages to both lighten the mood and drive the film's organic sense of mystery and intrigue.

Based on Robert Harris's novel, The Ghost, it was adapted for the screen by Harris and Polanski. With Jon Bernthal, Robert Pugh, James Belushi, and Timothy Hutton. 128 min. ½

The Next Three Days

In The Next Three Days, which was filmed on location in Pittsburgh, Russell Crowe looks puffy and inept as a high school English teacher who devises a plan to bust his wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of jail. She was convicted of murdering her boss three years earlier, but Crowe's character isn't interested in whether or not she did it: he just wants his wife back. Crowe is the movie, because Banks spends most of it stuck in the slammer awaiting his visitations, and while she gives a successful performance, it's Crowe's task to make this movie believable.

The improbabilities that bog this movie down are manifold. It's hard enough to believe that Crowe's character could successfully break anyone out of jail, but the movie covers that problem by letting him fail, frequently. He tries to find people in Pittsburgh's ghettos to get him fake I.D.'s and winds up getting his face smashed (and his pocket picked). In fact, you get the feeling that his own lack of street-smarts will dissuade him from undertaking the operation altogether, but he persists, even when it seems impossible to prove his wife's guilt.

The movie is suspenseful and keeps your stomach in knots, but it's the moral ambiguity that makes The Next Three Days a little more interesting. You start to think that Crowe's character has gone bonkers just like Don Quixote, who comes up during a discussion in his class, and provides a clumsy impetus for our understanding of Crowe's transformation. He simply refuses to accept the reality of his wife being in prison for murder, so he opts for an alternate reality. Quite interesting, but the movie doesn't have the strength of its convictions. [SPOILER] We're let off the hook at the end because Bonnie and Clyde turn out to be nice and innocent, not mean and cold-blooded. Crowe makes it work, but the movie is just a heartbeat away from being an absolutely inconceivable mess. With lesser talents it would have been just that, but as it is, I liked it for the most part.

Adapted from the French film Pour Elle (Anything For Her) (2007). Directed by Paul Haggis. With Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Jason Beghe, Olivia Wilde. 125 min. ½

November 23, 2010

Morning Glory

I'm sure that in retrospect the studio executives behind Morning Glory regret releasing it so close to the premiere of the latest Harry Potter installment. Morning Glory is slight and episodic, light and fluffy entertainment that doesn't have much umph to it: Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, an endlessly energetic but naive young producer who is handed the task of salvaging Daybreak, a morning talk show that no one watches.

It's sort of about how McAdams's character grows from being a career-obsessed single woman to a more well-rounded, on top of the game, mature woman who's willing to let a little romance (provided by Patrick Wilson) into her life. It's also sort of about her struggle with a grizzled, iconic anchorman (Harrison Ford, looking as lively as a corpse) who is forced to co-host Daybreak much to his chagrin. Ford's character, named Mike Pomeroy, feels that such trivial subject matter is beneath him, while his co-host (played by a marvelously funny Diane Keaton, who's given less than she deserves but does wonders with it) revels in seeing the beloved newsman taken down a notch.

McAdams has a very likable quality that sustains an uninteresting character. She's Mary Richards without the gutsy spunk that made her character grow from timid to tough. She's not sassy enough to be Murphy Brown, and she doesn't have the nerdy humanness of a Liz Lemon. (Notice that all these characters come from television.) I don't think we'd care a wit about Becky Fuller if someone less charming and sympathetic and likably idealistic were playing her. But McAdams pulls it off at least to a point, and we're willing to root for her, but the movie doesn't really give us much to root for. Becky's dream of being offered a job at NBC on The Today Show will clearly have to be sacrificed so that she can preserve the familial quality she facilitates when she takes over Daybreak, but there's so much squabbling and chaos between the crew and the personalities on the set that we never really see that growth: it's all bombastic lunacy fueled by angry jibes at each other until suddenly they're this big, warm, oozing family that needs each other and can't bear to part with each other, but the movie doesn't really bridge the gap between these two points. Call it laziness or a lack of focus on the part of the writers.

This is the kind of movie we go to to see good actors climb into juicy characters and take pot shots at each other. We get that to some degree, but Morning Glory never makes up its mind: is it a cute, romantic working comedy or something leaner and smarter or something preachier? It dabbles on all sides, and so the result, while passably entertaining and at times laugh-out-loud funny, is mixed, if not uneven. Jeff Goldblum does some wonderfully funny work as Becky's boss--he's got such a good deadpan delivery that you enjoy his character ragging on Becky -- it gives her something to fight against. Keaton and Ford have some enjoyable tension but it's like a less intense version of Walter Mathau and Jack Lemon squabbling and hurling insults at each other in Grumpy Old Men. ½

November 05, 2010


I like James Franco because he makes interesting career choices. I won't say his choice to do General Hospital last year was daring, or provocative, or interesting, but it's refreshing to see an actor doing what he wants to do. On the other hand, Franco's newest movie, Howl, is kind of daring. Howl is about Allen Ginsberg and his phantasmagorical poem ("Howl"), which was accused of being obscene.

The movie traces the trial in which David Strathairn and Jon Hamm face off as lawyers on opposite sides of the case, while a cartoonish-looking Bob Balaban sits sternly at the bench with his gavel. Interspersed with the courtroom drama story, which is the most mainstream thing about Howl, are scenes of Franco as Ginsberg, being interviewed by an unknown person, talking about his writing style, his thoughts on art and the creative process, his homosexuality, his relationships, and his mother, who died after she underwent a lobotomy.

The standout in Howl is the animation: a visual representation of Ginsberg's poem, which is the third part of Howl's intercutting story. It's vividly mad and madly vivid, a fascinating realization of Ginsberg's rambling, chaotic, sensual style. Such an ambitious attempt at uniting poetry and film makes Howl worth seeing, although it's probably not going to find much of an audience. It's more of a documentary than a piece of narrative, and the courtroom drama section of the movie is, despite being the most traditionally dramatic aspect of the movie, not the emotional center of the film. Is it an attempt to ingratiate the movie's form with mainstream audiences? I'm not sure, but I think it does provide a bit of respite from the trippy animated scenes and the scenes where Ginsberg talks to the camera like it's his shrink. Franco has a sort of droll, blase way of reading the poem (and speaking in general) that is charged with an energy that comes from his chest and seems to force its way out of him. His voice is a strange combination of lethargy and passion: he's like a stoner who's simultaneously mellow and unhinged.

Jon Hamm and David Strathairn don't really have much to do other than defend their side of the "obscenity in literature" argument, and while they are good actors who do convincing work, it's not very challenging work. Hamm is easy to like, so of course it's not hard to put him on the side of open-mindedness, and Strathairn does a good job playing the stuffy, wormy conservative villain who wants to outlaw what he doesn't understand. The judge's decision isn't really very momentous, but then we're left with the impression that this was never the point of Howl. Instead, it seems more an attempt to give a voice to someone who had trouble being understood but struck a chord with his incoherency. Ginsberg's poetry has been compared to jazz in its rhythm and its style, and indeed it seems like linguistic jazz--seemingly unstructured and unpredictable, going against the rules of form and style, but penetrating the senses with its dark, deep and fluid imagery.

Directed and written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. With Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, and Alessandro Nivola. ½