Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New Films in Brief

Fair Game
Directed by Doug Liman

Opens November 5, 2010

No, Fair Game isn’t a remake of the awful, mid-90s Cindy Crawford-Billy Baldwin movie: rather, it’s a taut retelling of how CIA spy Valerie Plame was outed and diplomat husband Joseph Wilson was discredited by the Bush administration in a supposed fit of pique over Wilson’s declaring that a certain 16 words (about yellowcake in Niger) in the president’s State of the Union speech before the Iraq War began were untrue.

Doug Liman uses the same techniques from his fast-paced thriller The Bourne Identity: lots of Steadicam shots and quick cross-cutting to throw the viewer into confusion along with the protagonists. At times, this makes Plame’s and Wilson’s story a mere conspiracy thriller, but it does suit the material: except for fall guy Scooter Libby (a note-perfect David Andrews), the Wilsons’ adversaries in the administration and the media remain in the shadows.

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn give intelligent performances as Plame and Wilson, although this may be the first instance ever of the stars being less attractive than the people they’re portraying. Liman uses archival news footage to good effect, smartly ending the film by cutting from Watts sitting down in front of a congressional committee to Plame’s actual testimony. Fair Game might run over familiar ground at this late date, but we always need reminding about our elected officials’ duplicity, particularly during wartime.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Directed by Daniel Alfredson

Opens October 29, 2010

The “millennium trilogy” ends with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, starring the unlikely truth-telling team of computer hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander and crusading journalist Mikael Blomqvist. The convoluted plot, which takes up nearly 600 pages of Stieg Larsson’s novel, is so filled with the twists, turns and crossed paths of so many interchangeable villains there’s no way a 2-½ hour movie can fit it all satisfactorily.

So director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Ulf Rydberg cut the story to the bone, leaving us with incidents that don’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book. (Luckily, millions already have!) Characters have been cut out entirely, relationships have been rearranged, and many events have been telescoped, all to the movie’s detriment. Whatever their literary flaws, Larsson’s readable books are full of pointed political and social criticism, much of it directed at Sweden’s government and media, so perhaps it’s smart to jettisoned much of it for the screen (the upcoming American remake will surely occasion further shredding).

The three movies, which play like outlines for the far more expansive books, all have a saving grace in the form of the exceptionally riveting presence of Noomi Rapace who brings to vivid life Lisbeth, a beloved, misunderstood and strangely compelling heroine. Rapace’s stunning acting more than compensates for the trilogy’s onscreen shortcomings, like wasting the wonderful actress Lena Endre in the tiny role of the editor-lover of Blomqvist (himself played rather dully by Michael Nykvist).

127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle

Opens November 5, 2010

I can’t think of a director less suited to the subject matter of 127 Hours than Danny Boyle, Oscar-winning creator of one of the more obnoxious Best Picture winners, Slumdog Millionaire. Overkill is Boyle’s forte, and he repeats his tried-and-true tricks in mind-boggling fashion retelling hiker Aron Ralston’s incredible true story of amputating his own arm after being trapped for five days in a last-ditch effort to survive.

Boyle overdoes everything right from the start—split screens, grotesque close-ups, tilted camera angles, speeded-up motion, God’s-eye view shots, over-the-top sound effects, relentlessly noisy music—all because of his misguided notion that this amazing story actually needs goosing-up for an audience to watch it. The nadir occurs during a late-night thunderstorm as, while thunder crashes and lightning strikes—and Ralston tries catching as much rainwater as he can in his bottle—the director actually plasters A.R. Rahman’s swelling musical score over the loud storm, causing an unintentionally funny battle between nature and Boyle.

Nearly saving the movie are the power of Ralston’s survival tale and the intensely physical performance of James Franco. Onscreen for the entire movie (except during frequent cutaways to the canyon’s vastness or the dully literal flashbacks to his family life), Franco makes Ralston goofily likable; we even cheer for him while he’s severing his nerves to extricate himself. As Ralston slices away, we hear crudely earsplitting sound effects, an idea stolen from A Clockwork Orange; where Kubrick was cunningly satirical, Boyle is painfully literal.

Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta

October 13-November 11, 2010
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street

Director Margarethe von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa made the memorable 1986 feminist biopic, Rosa Luxemburg, about the famed Socialist. Their latest collaboration, Vision, is an engrossing biography of 11th century nun and mystic, Hildegard von Bingen.

A cottage industry has grown up around von Bingen, whose musical compositions have been performed and recorded: however, as the film shows, she was also a poet, a playwright, and what we would think of today as a botanist and medical expert of sorts. Her mysticism is what von Trotta and Sukowa concentrate on, as her holy visions first make her a prophet, then all too predictably a heretic. (Von Trotta wittily opens the movie with the dawning of the 11th century as a group of end-timers discover the world does not end at the close of the first millennium.)

Sukowa, a subtle actress in other von Trotta films, plays the whole movie in a habit that forces the viewer to concentrate on her face’s endless expressiveness. It’s a measure of both the actress’s and the director’s artistry that they create a compellingly real person out of such a legendary cult figure.

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