Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.
Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).Continue Reading
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
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.
Back in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the American independent film scene there were several films released during the decade that became lightning rods for controversy stemming from their, at the time, risquÃ© subject matter. I use the phrase "at the time" because it's not clear whether movies are really capable of shocking us nowadays. In the age of the "torture porn" genre (Hostel, et al.), where even Law & Order plotlines can get pretty damn sick for prime time television, a lot of what stirred social conservatives to boycott studios over what they deemed objectionable material in movies just doesn’t work them up the way it used to. It may come down to whether or not movies are really the pop cultural force they used to be.
The idea that an indie ensemble drama that features mostly a lot of awkward communicating between the unbelievably dysfunctional could cause so much trouble now seems almost quaint. Happiness, with its empathetic treatment of a pedophile character and it's numerous, uh, money shots, might still seem provocative by today's standards if for nothing else than for its refusal to deny the film’s screwed up characters their essential humanity, but at the time of its release it caused an outright media firestorm prompting its original distributor to deem it too toxic for release. It eventually found a new distributor and did open to equal parts fawning praise for people who think that provocative equals good and righteous denouncement from a lot of people who probably didn’t even bother to see the film.Continue Reading
Based on Patricia Highsmith's book The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of her five Ripley novels known as the "Ripliad," she is also the author of the book that became Strangers on a Train), which of course was also filmed later by Anthony Minghella in ’99, the French version Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) proves to be a much more entertaining ride. That’s not to say that the American version isn’t also very good. I like it a lot and I don’t know which version is closer to Highsmith’s book, but where Minghella tried to ring psychological complexity out of simplicity, often making it feel overstuffed, director René Clément (most famous for Forbidden Games from ’52) goes for a more straightforward suntanned noir. And as much as I admired Matt Damon as Ripley, Clément’s ace-in-the-hole is the young French superstar Alain Delon who doesn’t wear his acting on his sleeve like Damon did--instead he just naturally oozes charisma, making the character less a super-geek psycho and more a smooth criminal.
The film starts right off with two American buddies (strangely, played by the French stars) living the cafe life in Italy. It’s casually mentioned that the father of the rich one, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), has hired the other, Tom Ripley (Delon), to convince his party-boy son to return home to San Francisco (?!) and finally face his adult responsibilities. Of course, Minghella’s Ripley starts in the States, with the setup played out on camera; score this to Purple Noon for cutting to the chase. None of Philippe’s other rich friends care much for Tom, including his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) and his pal, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns, an actor actually born in America, though most of his career was in French cinema. He’s fine but the American version’s Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie in the role). But the ever cruel Philippe enjoys having Tom around where he can pick on him and taunt his lack of sophistication. (Ronet is much more mean-spirited and less charming than Jude Law’s take on Dickie). Ripley envies Philippe’s lifestyle, his money, his clothes, his freedom and his relationship with Marge. The American version gives Ripley an obvious homosexual obsession with his idol. Here it’s only lightly hinted at; Ripley’s main obsession is more financial and materialistic. The French version does not linger on their relationship long enough to get into those matters, and by the end of the first act, Ripley has purposely killed Philippe in order to steal his money and even woo Marge. The murder in the American version is a fit of passion; here it’s premeditated. The suspense comes in how he covers it up. It’s on a boat and it’s not easy. And the rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Ripley and the police investigating the murder (and later Ripley is forced to kill Freddie), as Ripley pretends to be Philippe to keep the investigators and Marge off his trail.Continue Reading
The Talented Mr. Ripley
A lot of directors working today try to ape Hitchcock. His films are the gold standard for artful forays into psychological terror. Christopher Nolan is just the latest celebrated director trying to tap into a rich vein of Hitchcockian malice for his own films. But while Nolan succeeds with astonishing set-pieces within his films—think of the face-to-face interrogation room sequence between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight—his films are, for the most part, long on disorienting gimmicks and rather low on psychological depth. He also doesn’t go near the subject of sex and Hitchcock’s films are full of sex—sexual obsession, sexual dread, sexual paranoia—the one exception being sexual fulfillment which seemed to exist only within the arms of his most beautiful and iconic star couplings in films such as Notorious and To Catch a Thief.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a first-rate Hitchcockian exercise from the late director Anthony Minghella and it has all of the corrosive sexual dread you could ask for as well as a disturbingly convincing subtext on the kinds of identity games Americans are always involved in. It’s glamorous and dark and manages to top Hitchcock in at least one respect—its undercurrent of eroticism is explicitly homosexual.Continue Reading