Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Harry already wished all of you a Merry Christmas, so allow me to chime in and add that I hope you have a happy new year. I hope the season is treating you well overall. I’ve had a bit of the sweet and sour so far. On the one hand, things couldn’t be any more joyous on a personal level. Mrs. Moriarty and I had some remarkable recent news, and we’re celebrating the impending expansion of the immediate family. I’ve got one film that’s out to directors right now for a possible spring shoot, I just started one new job and think I’m about to start another, and there are a slew of possibilities for the year ahead. On the other hand, my computer (not quite 15 months old) is in the process of taking one final massive shit on my desk even as I type this. The apartment above mine caught fire, driving me out of my office and away from my DSL line thanks to smoke and water damage. It’s been frustrating, too, since there are any number of articles I’ve wanted to write, including my BNAT coverage, interviews with both Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, my last DVD Shelf column of the year, and a slew of reviews for the new holiday films.
After all... ‘tis the season, right? I’ve done a fair job of keeping up with movies this year, but I’ve missed some surprising titles and am in the midst of correcting that right now. I’ve been using my WGA card, the backlog on my own shelves, and the kindess of friends with Academy screeners, devouring four or five films a day for the last week. I’ve gotten off to a good start, and thought I’d share some impressions with you. I’ll say this... I’ve already started some preliminary work on my top ten list for this year, and I think 2004’s been a feast for anyone willing to do the legwork. There are a lot of great films out there, and actually narrowing things down to ten will be a fairly brutal process. Any year I really have to struggle to pare things down, I feel lucky. And as always, the year’s really stacked with a lot of heavy hitters just now hitting theaters around the country.
I’ve read Patrick Marber’s play, but I’ve never seen a production of it. It seemed to me that his screenplay adaptation is a fairly faithful translation of his own work, which makes Mike Nichols an ideal choice as director. He’s always moved back and forth from stage to screen with ease, and he’s made some great plays-turned-movies in his time, like WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and ANGELS IN AMERICA. Anyone trying to compare his new film to his savage ‘70’s classic, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, is missing the point. The works both deal ostensibly with sex, but they couldn’t approach the material more differently. CARNAL was hot-blooded, full of explosive fury, while CLOSER is much colder, more more of a simmer.
At heart, it’s a slight piece of material. There’s not a lot to this squaredance of casual cruelty, but Mike Nichols has done a nice job of elevating things as much as possible. It’s dangerous to cast movie stars in a piece like this, because they can either unbalance the intentions of the piece or force a director to soften harsh material because of ego. Thankfully, neither is the case here. Nichols gets good work out of all four of his actors, and it’s nice to see that he didn’t try and open the piece up or add extra characters who aren’t needed. All that matters is what happens between the four people who make up these two couples: Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) and Larry (Clive Owen) and Anna (Julia Roberts).
The film opens with an accident that brings Dan and Alice together, and there’s a nice evolution to the attraction between them. As the film moves from scene to scene, time can be a slippery thing, and there are some big leaps forward, whole years rushing by in a single cut. Dan and Alice end up living together, and he’s about to have a book published, which is what brings him into contact with Anna, a photographer hired to take the picture for the book jacket. Dan falls for her, and there’s a momentary transgression. It’s really just a minor thing, considering all the fallout that results from it, and what really causes the problems isn’t a single kiss... it’s the way everyone reacts to that kiss. As soon as it happens, Alice finds out about it, and she confronts each of them in her own way. That first scene between Portman and Roberts is electric, and Portman’s work should finally serve notice that she is an adult now. She is the heart of the film, the secret engine that drives everything. You could make the case for Jude Law as the lead, but Dan never seems fully aware of how he’s being controlled by Alice. The pressures she puts on him, the things she says to Larry after his disastrous marriage to Anna... she expertly plays games with everyone in the film, and when everything comes together by the end, Dan realizes that he may never have known her at all. Even worse, he realizes that he may be poorer for having missed the opportunity while he had it.
Much of the action of the film is driven by fate or chance: a mistimed step into the street, a practical joke on an anonymous stranger, an encounter in a strip club. Tiny moments add up to profound life changes very quickly. Each of these characters has a different definition for words like “need” or “love,” and how they interpret those things is quite revealing. Jude Law plays the weaker, uglier side of his ALFIE persona here, a guy who loves the chase but doesn’t know what to do once he gets the girl. He’s a marvel of insecurity. Julia Roberts is great as a woman who should know better, someone who seems to need a certain amount of drama and misery in her life in order to feel complete. Clive Owen’s an animal, a big bag of testosterone, and watching him as he figures out the rules of hits particular game is the most entertaining thing about the film. By the time we’ve come full circle to the image of Natalie Portman walking down a crowded sidewalk, turning heads to the sound of that same great Damien Rice song, it’s been a rough ride, and everyone’s nursing some new scars. This may not have the same lasting power of the very best work that Nichols has done, but seriously... what does? CLOSER confirms that Nichols is still able to make smart, cutting films about the distance between the heart and what it yearns.
IN GOOD COMPANY
IN GOOD COMPANY is a simple, likeable, forgettable little comedy, which is to say that it’s the sort of film that is not only functional, but actually enjoyable while you’re sitting there watching it, but when you try to describe it to someone the next day, it’s hard. There aren’t a lot of great moments or memorable scenes or really cutting dialogue you want to quote, but there’s a certain amount of amiable charm to the enterprise that’s hard to deny, and I think it’s safe to credit Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid with most of that.
They’re both genuinely charming in the movie. Dan Foreman (Quaid) is the ad sales manager for a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED-style magazine until his parent company gets bought out by a mega-conglomerate owned by Teddy K (Malcolm McDowell in a cameo role), a supershark a la Trump or Murdoch. Dan gets demoted to make room for Carter Duryea (Grace), a kid half his age. From Dan’s perspective, the kid’s got the world by the balls. Carter’s not exactly happy, though. His wife Kimberly (Selma Blair in a cameo role) walks out on him, he smashes the front end of the Porsche he buys before he even leaves the dealership, and he’s scared that he may not know what he’s doing in his new job. He tries to bury his loneliness with work, and he sees Dan, a good family man, and he can’t help but be jealous.
That’s a rich setup with lots of potential, and for a while, it looks like the film is working, really hitting on all cylinders. The great comic complication comes in the shape of Scarlett Johansen as Dan’s college student daughter Alex, and Carter gets completely swept off his feet by her. Unfortunately, once the film splits its focus, it starts to falter. It never decides if it’s about Quaid and Grace or Grace and Johansen. Aside from one brief confrontation, the two relationships barely play off of one another at all. It’s a shame, too. I wanted to like the film more. It’s handsomely made, and Paul Weitz has a nice sense of how to build his scenes visually. It just isn’t a fully-baked script. Ultimately, this is no ABOUT A BOY. That film managed to draw together all of its character threads so well that you found yourself rooting for the conventional finish. It earned it, so it didn’t feel like a cheat. Here, it’s like Weitz wanted to defy convention, but he didn’t have a better ending in mind. As a result, Johansen just sort of gets lost, forgotten almost completely during the third act of the film. Still, if you’re a fan of either of the lead actors, chance are you’re going to find something to like here.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
I feel strange about my reaction to Clint Eastwood’s films as a director these days. I thought last year’s MYSTIC RIVER was instantly overrated and deeply overwrought, a mess with some operatic flourishes that seemed to dazzle people enough to blind them to its faults. I hated feeling that way, too.
I was raised on Clint Eastwood’s films. He was one of the staples of my dad’s cinematic diet. I’m the kind of Clint Eastwood fan that owns stuff like COOGAN’S BLUFF on DVD. I’m crazy about many of the films he directed, and not just the easy-to-like stuff like UNFORGIVEN, either. BIRD, WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART, and BRONCO BILLY are all favorites of mine, films worth revisiting often. He’s made a lot of average or even weak films over the years, though, including MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL and A PERFECT WORLD. I remember when I was managing a theater in Sherman Oaks, and I had to go in one Tuesday morning to host an exhibitor’s screening for THE ROOKIE, which was one of the big Christmas movies for Warner Bros. that year. Eastwood showed up at the breakfast event, and since I was the manager on duty, it was my job to escort him around. I ended up sitting next to him during the film, which I pretty much despised. It was the most uncomfortable two hours imaginable, and Eastwood kept looking at the faces of those of us sitting around him. At the end of the film, he turned to us and said, “What did you think?” I didn’t even manage an answer, trying to figure out how to answer tactfully but honestly, before he just shook his head and said, “Me, neither.” How can you not like a guy like that? With these last few films, though, it feels like the critical press has decided that now is the time to rally around Eastwood’s body of work and celebrate everything he’s accomplished, and not just what we’re actually seeing onscreen. At least with MILLION DOLLAR BABY, there’s something of merit going on. I’m just not convinced this is the masterpiece that so many people seem to be proclaiming. Ignore the over-exuberant hype or it’ll ruin the film for you. This is a small movie, a modest story, and its virtues are quiet ones. If this is, as rumored, Clint’s last movie, then he’s chosen to go out in a minor key.
Maggie (Hillary Swank) wants to be a fighter. It’s that simple. She doesn’t care that she’s 31, that she’s had no training, or that she doesn’t seem to exhibit any particular natural skill for it. She simply wants to be a fighter, and she sets her mind on one particular trainer, a grizzled old gym owner named Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). He’s a guy who is nursing a lot of disappointments in his life. Every time he trains a fighter well enough for them to get a shot at the title, they leave him, just like it appears his daughter did at some point. He spends part of every single day in church, to the exasperation of the priest he peppers with relentless questions like verbal rabbit punches, unable to stop sparring wherever he goes. He wants nothing to do with Maggie at first, but of course he eventually changes his mind. He has to, or there’s no movie. Screenwriter Paul Haggis, working from a collection of short stories by F.X. Toole, a real life fight trainer writing under a pseudonym, paints in a lot of quirky detail for each of his characters, filling Frankie’s gym with all sorts of colorful eccentrics, and there’s a glib likeability to the first half of the film. I know that Eastwood and Morgan Freeman have worked together before, and they’ve certainly got the same easy chemistry that they had in UNFORGIVEN during their scenes together. Freeman’s narration is ham-handed and obvious, though, and more than anything, it’s unnecessary. The only part that really works is the ending, where Freeman’s writing someone a letter. The rest of it just belabors the point. Maybe the simple truth of it is that by this point, we know all of Freeman’s tricks as an actor. It’s been a long time since he surprised me in anything. At least Eastwood cries here, something I’ve never seen before. Technically, it’s as professional as can be, the aesthetic that Eastwood favors. Tom Stern’s cinematography is crisp and polished, particularly in the fight scenes, punctuated beautifully by Joel Cox’s cutting, and the score by Eastwood himself is effective, supporting without underlining.
Much has been made of the film’s narrative “left hook” that turns this from a simple boxing picture into something else... only it really doesn’t. It’s a nicely handled melodramatic twist a la THE CHAMP or BRIAN’S SONG, and it gives Eastwood that chance to shed a few tears. This is one of the year’s two most shameless tear-jerkers, and without being too spoiler-specific, I’ll say that this would make a brutal double-feature with THE SEA INSIDE. Eastwood’s real purpose here isn’t making a feel-good sports film about triumph. He wanted to pose a difficult moral question, but he wanted to stack the deck first so your sympathy would be fully engaged. It’s tastefully made, to be sure, but it’s hardly a subtle film. You’ll respond; you’ll have no choice. What redeems the film is the deeply-felt humanity that has become Eastwood’s signature as a director. No matter how damaged or broken or dark some character is, Eastwood does his best to impart something honest about them, something you can identify with. Maybe that’s why people are responding so strongly. Look... if it’s old-fashioned you want, step right up. You’ll get two scoops here. It’s obvious that Eastwood cared deeply about the story he was telling, and Swank couldn’t work any harder if she tried. She lays herself out there, and even if I feel like it’s a fairly shallow performance, all surface, it’s still impressive in a way. If they gave awards based on sheer sincerity, MILLION DOLLAR BABY would be poised for a clean sweep.
Pedro Almodovar’s latest film is the exact opposite, structure-wise, from Eastwood’s. Almodovar loves to play with time and conventions of narrative, and this picture plays like Queer Hitchcock, sly and subversive and stylish as hell. The only thing that puzzles me is why this film was rated NC-17. It strikes me as the most arbitrary and, yes, homophobic decision the MPAA has made in recent memory. There are some scenes with some very direct sexual material, but it’s all suggested. There’s no frontal nudity in the film at all. The only possible reason they could have given the film this rating is because there are gay sex scenes. Context should count, and beneath the hyperslick thriller surface, this is a film about guilt, fear, and, yes, homophobia.
Enrique Goded (Amenabar regular Fele Martinez) is a successful young writer/director who finds himself between projects. He’s cutting stories out of tabloids, trying to find something that will inspire his next film. All of a sudden, inspiration walks into his office. A young man (Gael Garcia Bernal), claiming to be a childhood classmate named Ignacio, gives Enrique a short story he claims to have written. The story affects Enrique very deeply, since he lived through some of it and only suspected the rest, and he decides to make it his next film, never dreaming where this particular artistic journey is going to take him. As the events of the story play out and we watch the film be made, reality becomes more and more elastic. Bernal also plays Zahara, a striking drag queen with secrets and an agenda, the main character of the story. Much of the seductive pleasure of the film comes from the way these stories inform one another, contradict one another, and then finally, tragically, become one another. Everything spins off of the actions of Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and his failure to control his lust for a boy he should have been protecting and teaching.
In a way, this is the flip side of MYSTIC RIVER. I never believed that Tim Robbins was really carrying the scars of that character, or that he could be driven to do what he did in that film. MYSTIC RIVER wanted to play things realistic, but ultimately succumbed to its own broadest melodramatic impulses. Here, the entire film is drenched in the conventions of film noir and melodrama, but it gets to some core truths about the saddest corners of human behavior. Overall, I run hot and cold on the work of Almodovar. The films of his that I like, I tend to like a whole lot, and that’s the case this time. The cast is great, and this seems to cement Bernal’s place at the top of his generation of actors. Between this and THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES this year, he’s shown amazing range, and he seems fearless. He also seems to be incapable of dishonesty. Everything he does reads real, no matter how outrageous. He grounds Almodovar’s most outsized camp instincts. Cacho plays a complicated monster, and he does and impressive job of playing him at two ages, at two totally different crossroads in his life. Nacho Perez and Raul Garcia Forneiro play Ignacio and Enrique as kids through some very harrowing scenes, and they both do tremendous work. Special mention must be made of the work by Jose Luis Alcaine, whose cinematography manages to evoke the most dramatic film noir without ever smothering the real emotion of the piece. To a certain degree, this is a style exercise, but when you’re dealing with a stylist as in command as Almodovar seems to be right now, that can be enough.
I’m going to keep posting articles all week, and I’m already working on reviews for SIDEWAYS, HOTEL RWANDA, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, THE AVIATOR, FINDING NEVERLAND, THE ASSASINATION OF RICHARD NIXON, BEYOND THE SEA, SPANGLISH, OCEAN’S 12, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, THE WOODSMAN and more. Mainlining movies like this has got me feeling drunk, so for now, I’ll go sleep it off and then get back to it in the morning. It’s been nice to finally be able to get at least some of this off my chest, and like I said... best wishes to all of you.