2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.
Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.Continue Reading
Catch Me if You Can
Catch Me if You Can is the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (DiCaprio) who, by the tender age of seventeen, cut over $2.5 million dollars worth of fraudulent checks and was one of the FBI’s most wanted. Frank travels the globe, taking on such identities as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and an attorney. Always on his tail is fraud expert Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) from the Bureau.
Although a story of a con man on the run from the law, the way this story is told, it comes across more like a fairy tale about the impetuousness of youth. Steven Spielberg’s direction is flawless in maintaining this tone throughout, telling a “crime story” that is amazingly playful. John Williams’ hip retro score and the great momentum of Michael Kahn’s editing add to this happy-go-lucky sort of attitude. The vibrant color palette, fantastic sixties costume and production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, all contribute to make up this wonderful “true story of a real fake.”Continue Reading
Charlie Wilson’s War
A smart and funny political biopic for grown ups from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) about the likable Texas congressman whose influence led to U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays “(Good Time) Charlie Wilson” as a well meaning political hack who watches as his crusade for the U.S. to assist in helping the people of Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers turns into a Cold War sideshow that inadvertently gives rise to Islamic Radicalism. The film manages to stay light on its feet without glossing over the sobering consequences of what was a complete mishandling of a volatile situation.
Che: Part One
Everyone can come up with their "overlooked for an Oscar nomination" mis-justice list. Such a list may start with the fact that Martin Sheen wasn’t nominated for Apocalypse Now. And if you want to dig deeper, my list would point out that Orson Welles’ brilliant performance (and direction) in Touch of Evil was overlooked by awards givers. But out of the last ten years the performance and film that had Oscar pedigree written all over it and got no love was Benicio Del Toro and the film Che: Part One. Frankly it barely even got a theatrical release. Of course Che was director Steven Soderbergh’s epic story of the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and, like Tarantino’s Kill Bill double bill, it was so big it was lopped into two different films (and its awards consideration, totally mishandled). They are two very different movies, and Part Two is worth seeing (though much harder terrain if you don’t already know the history of Che’s involvement in trying to bring a revolution to Bolivia). Like history itself, Part One is a more easily digestible piece of pure entertainment, though in the end, the two together help give Che a bigger arch. Like the Cuban revolution itself, the romance is in the buildup, the planning, and the underdog story. The actual governing, not so pretty. But don’t think this is some kind of boring homework assignment, it's wonderful filmmaking anchored by Del Toro’s brilliant performance as the future college dorm-room poster superstar.
The film picks up almost where Walter Salles’ much more popular The Motorcycle Diaries ended. Exiled in Mexico the young Argentinian doctor, Che, is introduced to the budding Cuban intellectual revolutionary Fidel Castro (the also excellent Demian Bichir, who scored a forgotten Oscar nomination for the film A Better Life). Like everyone else Che is mesmerized by the charismatic leader and he agrees to join up. Cut to the jungles of Cuba where a weak Che eventually learns the ropes of a fighting guerilla (wonderfully spoofed in Woody Allen’s Bananas, thirty years earlier). He slowly earns the respect of his comrades and the peasants he meets along the way, to whom he gives free medical care and insists on educating. And though Che becomes a tough talker, he seems to be a poet at heart, a quality Del Toro always brings to his roles -- no matter the part there always seems to be a hipster softy lurking in there. Che also develops a relationship with a young protegee, Aleida March, who actually became his second wife (played by the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, an Oscar nominee for her harrowing work in Maria Full of Grace).Continue Reading
Loosely based on his autobiography written from behind bars, Chopper is the story of legendary Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read who garnered fame with his claim that he had killed up to seventeen people.
Andrew Dominik’s screenplay adaptation is wonderfully colorful and peppered with Aussie colloquialisms, while also being naturalistically brutal and raw. It is the type of story that pulls no punches and hits you in the face like a locomotive.Continue Reading
Cleo From 5 to 7
What defines the feminine experience? What does it mean to live, breathe, and die as a woman? Agnes Varda questions mortality through the eyes of a beautiful young woman on the edge of success in 1960's Paris. Cleo has been to the doctor and is waiting for the diagnosis, though she's convinced it's cancer. We follow her in real time for two hours and stand as witness to the fullness and frivolousness of a life coming to terms with itself.
Death and despair compel the coquettish Cleo into existential searching meeting with friends, lovers and strangers and we see her precise steps into and out of an other's preconceived perception. Coy lover, whimpering child, precocious beauty, passionate collaborator, old friend and lovely stranger: Cleo is all of these but then so much more as you realize she is fast forwarding the journey to find herself the anchor that she desperately needs to face her death and to fight for life.Continue Reading
When 24 Hour Party People came out, I overheard a lot of dour Raincoat types leaving the theater expressing their wish that whole film had been about Ian Curtis and not those awful acid house Blue Tuesdays or whatever was going on after Ian Curtis' death, at which point their lot zoned out 'til the credits. I thought of how awful that would be - a film about Joy Division. Biopics are always so suspect. Myth-making, made-for-cable garbage with chest-beating and hammy impressions instead of acting... you know, the kind of thing the Oscars are made of. Thankfully, Control is not like that.
Control is directed by Anton Corbijn, which I didn't know till the end. Whatever you think of the guys videos, he has an eye for arresting (if sometimes comically dour) imagery. He's also Dutch and therefore a natural fit for Joy Division’s world which is black and white and eternally wintery, even in the summer – like World War II movies.Continue Reading
Cradle Will Rock
Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.
The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)Continue Reading
One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.Continue Reading
Days of Heaven
The tale is simplicity itself: A young man (Richard Gere), his girl (Brooke Adams), and his spunky kid sister (Linda Manz) flee trouble in Chicago and find harvesting work on a wheat farm owned by a wealthy Texan (playwright-actor Sam Shepard). The couple, who are masquerading as brother and sister, learn that the farmer is terminally ill, and the young man encourages the woman to marry the farmer so that they can claim his fortune after he dies. Confusion, suspicion, disaster of near-Biblical proportions, and tragedy ensue.
Were it not for Manz’s deadpan voiceover narration, this pictorial masterwork could almost be a silent film – director Terrence Malick’s spectacular images tell the story. Shot by Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for his painterly cinematography (with an assist from the supremely gifted Haskell Wexler), Days of Heaven is among the most gorgeous features ever made. Filmed mostly in twilight’s “magic hour,” the film is bathed in hues of lavender and gold. It’s a rapturous visual poem that shocks the eye with its beauty.Continue Reading