Thursday, February 24, 2005

King Arthur: Director’s Cut / ** (UR)

Arthur: Clive Owen
Guinevere: Keira Knightley
Lancelot: Ioan Gruffudd
Bors: Ray Winstone
Cerdic: Stellan Skarsgard
Tristan: Mads Mikkelsen
Gawain: Joel Edgerton
Galahad: Hugh Dancy
Dagonet: Ray Stevenson
Cynric: Til Schweiger
Merlin: Stephen Dillane

Touchstone Pictures presents a film directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by David Franzoni. Running time: 137 minutes. Unrated director’s cut (contains intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language).

King Arthur is one of those movies that looks good and feels good, so it must be good, right? Wrong. This movie ticked me off. I rarely get mad at a movie, even those I don’t like, but there is something wrong with an industry that pays the screenwriter, director and producer as much money as these big names pull down to make mistakes that an undergraduate film student wouldn’t be allowed to get away with in their first year. The problem isn’t that King Arthur is so bad as much as it is that the mistakes made here make it glaringly obvious you are watching a contrivance of story that is supposed to have a desired effect by the filmmakers of which I don’t think they even know what it is.

The filmmakers promise that this is the story of the real people the Medieval British myth is based on. Arturius (Clive Owen, Closer) is a Roman warlord who has been stationed in the Roman occupied land of Britannia during the latter days of the Roman Empire. He captains a group of knights whose ancestors were brought to Britannia from their homeland of Sarmatia to serve as slaves to the empire. Taken from their families as children, these slave knights serve the Romans for fifteen years to win their freedom. During that period these knights have forged a strong bond with Arthur, as they call their leader, whose just idealism no longer fits the outlook of the crumbling Roman Empire. Arthur insists upon total equality with his men, even to the point of employing a round table for their gatherings so not even he can be seen as their superior. Huh! So that’s why it’s round.

Upon the eve of their freedom, Arthur’s as well as his knights’ as the end of their charge will allow him to return to Rome, these round table knights receive one final mission. Rome has decided to abandon Britannia, as the cost of defending it against invading forces has become a burden during these harder times. Arthur’s knights must rescue a Roman priest and his family from the invading Saxons, lead by the sinister Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard, Dogville).

It is here that one of the primary problems of this film arises. The knights, first having been forced into service by the Romans, have been betrayed and had their freedom denied after it was earned. Arthur is obviously separate from the group of knights in this betrayal despite the fact that he must also delay returning to Rome, yet the script by David Franzoni (Gladiator) makes such a point about Arthur standing as an equal among the knights. In the situation given, it is impossible for the knights to perceive Arthur as an equal among them.

Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd, the Horatio Hornblower series) is supposed to be Arthur’s “best friend,” yet he lives in service to Arthur and he seems well aware of that. There is no sense throughout the film that these two are friends. Near the end of the film Arthur says to Lancelot, “You know me better than anyone,” yet Lancelot spends the entire film disagreeing with Arthur and acting as if Arthur is a superior he would prefer not to work for. The lack of apparent friendship and comradery between the two takes their relationship in a direction contradictory to the story and makes the inevitable love triangle with Guinevere a much weaker dramatic development.

Guinevere (Keira Knightley, Pirates of the Caribbean) is not the fairy tale princess of legend in this tale; rather she is a member of the Woads tribe, a clan native to Britannia who put up a strong resistance against the Romans claiming the land as their own. When the Woads and Arthur determine that the Saxons pose a stronger threat to the island than they do to each other, they form a tenuous alliance.

I suppose there is a romance between Guinevere and Arthur, and I suppose Lancelot plays a slight factor coming between the two, but these aspects of the Arthur legend are so scarcely touched upon that it seems Guinevere and Arthur find themselves together simply because their names are Guinevere and Arthur. As for Lancelot, he seems plenty interested in Guinevere, but Guinevere barely seems to notice him until the events of the final battle with the Saxons and then her reaction to Lancelot seems to come from nowhere.

Clive Owen is an interesting choice to play Arthur, as he doesn’t seem to have that superhero quality about him as most leads in epics such as this. His unassuming manner fits the role well, allowing him to convince the audience of his pure intentions and somewhat na├»ve outlook on his world. He is a servant of Rome and serves his nation unquestioningly, even when he feels he must right certain atrocities committed by the very people he has sworn to protect. His idealistic vision of Rome comes crashing down during a conversation with Alecto (Lorenzo de Angelis), the son of the Roman priest he is sent to rescue. Alecto informs him that Rome is no longer the place Arthur knew as a boy and the philosopher, whose teaching has formed the core of Arthur’s beliefs, has been branded an outlaw for his emphasis on man’s need for freedom.
I hope Franzoni put a “Thank You” in the credits to Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace for his larcenous use of the word “freedom” as the ultimate motivating tool for these slave knights. Every time a character needs some motivation to fight, director Antoine Fuqua (Tears of the Sun) might as well have just inserted a clip of that rousing speech delivered by Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart. But Arthur’s realization that the “freedom” he so nobly fought for in the name of Rome would not be forthcoming is not the problem with this particular scene. This scene is a victim of bad story structure.

In the previous scene Arthur is still quite committed to the charge of the Roman Empire when, in an action of “it’s about time someone did that”, Guinevere kills the very Roman priest Arthur was sent to protect. Why Arthur didn’t turn and strike her down in retaliation for the Roman Empire, I couldn’t tell you beyond the fact that it just wouldn’t do to have Arthur murdering his love to be. Now if Arthur’s disillusionment with Rome occurred before this scene, the fact that Guinevere’s action instigated no punishment would have been understandable; but since Arthur’s resolve as a soldier of Rome had yet to be shaken, his acceptance of the priest’s execution makes little sense. A simple transposition of the two scenes would have easily fixed the problem.

Because Arthur now feels Rome has betrayed him, he has good reasons to join with the Woads and become the champion of Britannia that would inspire the Arthur legend, but the same cannot be said for his knights. The Sarmatian knights are never given a good reason to fight for Britannia along side Arthur other than they really like the guy. After returning the surviving members of the priest’s family to the Romans, their freedom is finally granted. They no longer have any reason to fight for anybody. They can go home now. But in Hollywood good spirit they do stay to fight the Saxons -- all of them against eight knights. Yes, the Woads do help after hanging out in the woods for a while to make sure these knights are the real deal, but most of the Saxons take on the eight knights.

It is actually the high quality of the battle scenes that makes this movie so frustrating to watch. It is here the true potential of this material shines through. The filmmakers have done a wonderful job giving each knight his own unique fighting style and the fight choreographers utilize them as a team, supporting each other and employing each warrior’s strengths to progress the fights into their favor. Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself), in particular, really stands out during the battle sequences, with his almost samurai fighting style. The way each member has his own specialty and how they work together as a team brings to mind such classics as The Magnificent Seven and its predecessor Seven Samurai.

But then, in the end, the film stumbles right onto its face with an unforgivable blunder. The mistake does not really involve the plot of the film, but discussing it will reveal one of the final developments of the plot, so those still wishing to see the film with at least a partially objective outlook should read no further.

Narration has always been a point of contention with filmmakers. Some believe that no good film could ever use narration. I have seen far too many great films that utilize a narrator’s voice over to adhere to this school of thought. There are some boundaries that can be drawn with narration, however. Again some filmmakers believe a film should never be narrated by a dead person, but exceptions can be made to this rule. For instance if the story can only be told by a dead person, such as in the classic film noir Double Indemnity, it is perfectly acceptable. The narration also serves as a sort of purgatory in that old gem, but if the story can be told by a person who actually survived the events depicted, then it should be. There seems to be no good reason why a dead man is telling this story of King Arthur. There are several survivors who would have plenty of reason to tell the story themselves. As a movie that claims to be historically accurate it would be possible to have someone who lived ages after the events tell it, but the only reason I can fathom that a dead man would be telling this story, is the filmmakers didn’t want the audience to know that the narrator died in the end. And that is simply jerking the audience around.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Garden State / ***½ ( R )

Andrew Largeman: Zach Braff
Sam: Natalie Portman
Mark: Peter Sarsgaard
Gideon Largeman: Ian Holm

Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Zach Braff. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated R (for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality).

A few years ago -- probably many more than I’d like to admit -- I returned home for my 10-year high school reunion. It was an unabashed blast and I ended up spending the evening with my lifelong core of friends and a strange collection of other acquaintances, including a few people I barely knew in high school. It was a night of surrealism, laughter and too much alcohol. In Garden State writer-director-star Zach Braff creates a world that, while composed under very different circumstances, captures the absurd and revelatory nature of finding yourself in a scene once so familiar yet so far removed from your current reality.

Andrew Largeman (Braff, NBC’s Scrubs) is a struggling actor in Los Angeles, whose fifteen minutes of fame came when he played a mentally handicapped football quarterback in a movie. Estranged from his New Jersey based family, he returns home when his wheelchair bound mother accidentally drowns in the bathtub. His relationship with his father (Ian Holm, The Sweet Hereafter) is something that was broken years ago, perhaps because his father took it upon himself as a psychiatrist to be his son’s shrink as well.

With nothing at home offering him any psychological warmth, Largeman (as he is referred to by almost everyone but his father in the movie) looks for comfort in the one area of familiarity that remains in his life, his old high school friends. He runs into his old friend Mark at his mother’s funeral. Mark is played by a great new talent Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass), who quickly returns Largeman to the drug addled, going nowhere party environment that was once so comfortable in high school, in which Largeman now seems uncomfortable and by which somewhat bedazzled. The atmosphere is too much like a life that has already passed these young men over. While the men are now 26 years old, the girls still seem dangerously close to high school aged; so much so that one high flyer assures Largeman that they are legal, “At least I think they are. Are they?” It is from this drug-induced reality that Braff’s unusual and remarkable visual style seems to find its stanch inspiration. The pictures he constructs with his camera have an almost trippy feel that seems to stem from first hand experience with the lifestyle presented here.

This unique visual humor permeates the entire movie, including scenes that have nothing to do with his old high school drug buddies. When Largeman’s father arranges for him to meet with a colleague, Dr. Cohen (Ron Leibman, Auto Focus), Largeman sits in the doctor’s office waiting and notices all the certificates and diplomas on the wall -- hundreds of them creating their own wallpaper-like pattern across the office. As Largeman looks up one wall, he notices one single diploma has found its way onto the ceiling. I lost it at this sight gag and laughed through most of the rest of the scene. If the ceiling had been covered in diplomas as well, I don’t think it would have been as funny, but that solitary framed certificate hit just the right point of absurdity.

In the waiting room, before gazing upon the good doctor’s certification honors, Largeman meets Sam, played with her own home-spun brand of girlish spunk by Natalie Portman (Closer). Sam is the light, the life in the film. She’s as quirky as the rest of this strange trip Braff takes us on, but she also offers a fresh start, a change. After introductions that start with a sharing of great sounds on a Walkman -- always a great beginning to a relationship in my book -- the two embark on a love affair of sorts, but Braff doesn’t trap himself into a romantic comedy with the couple. Sam does change Largeman’s life, but with a true exploration of what Largeman’s problems are. There aren’t any silly misunderstandings, even though Sam’s brother, the obviously unrelated Titembay (Ato Essandoh, Roger Dodger), provides an easy excuse for some. There are no harsh realities of love to be learned. She is just the woman who finally allows Largeman to see more than just his own problems, even though their relationship through the duration of the film consists of a mere four days.

Eventually Largeman and his father must have their resolution with each other, and this necessity does reveal the picture to have a fairly typical coming of age structure. Holm is solid in his performance of a dad who must face his son as he is rather than as he wishes the son to be, with heartfelt words by both. The British actor is an interesting choice to play Largeman’s father as he so often plays such clinical characters, and does so here as well, but the brief moments of conversation he holds with his son reveal a fragility in the character that seems only to be inspired by his son.

The coming of age material really isn’t incredibly original, but as it is presented here, with Braff’s wonderful sense of visual structure and wry humor, it transcends its own universality to become something original. Braff has established himself, in one fell swoop, as not only a serious triple threat (acting, writing, directing), but as an artistic visionary that this critic will expect great things from in the future.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster / ***½ (NR)

James Hetfield
Lars Ulrich
Kirk Hammet
Robert Trujillo
Jason Newsted
Dave Mustaine
Bob Rock
Phil Towle

IFC Films presents a documentary produced and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Running time: 140 minutes. No MPAA rating.

My personal experience with Metallica is limited. They have some songs I like, and every once and a while I’m in the mood for their particular brand of ultra-heavy rockin’. I’ve mostly handled Metallica vicariously through friends who were amped when their “Black Album” was released, but had already gained a much higher appreciation of their early albums. I enjoyed the exposure this gave me to the group, but never had the desire to become intimate enough with their music to purchase an album of my own. Of course, this is more attention many people would have given the band before now, but their new documentary depicting the making of their latest studio album St. Anger might include enough unsuspected elements involved in their artistic process to interest more than just the heavy metal fan base.

Some Kind of Monster starts like a typical behind the scenes look at one of the world’s most popular rock groups, which generally is an experience for fans only, but the film slowly evolves into an unusual look at the near disintegration of a fragile alliance of men who have spent most of their lives together. The involvement of IFC Films and award winning documentarians, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of the Paradise Lost series, helming the project is an indicator that this is not going to be the average love fest of most band endorsed behind the music productions. It is like the ultimate VH1’s Behind the Music episode where they reveal all of a particular band’s dirty little secrets. And yet it goes much further than just telling the sad story of the Metallica money making machine, and brings the audience a look into band and personal decisions that feel like they should be much more private than a filmed document allows them to be.

The story of Metallica presented here kicks off with the MTV News announcement that longtime bass player Jason Newsted is leaving the band, citing personal reasons and physical distress that are so vague it is easy to tell something bad is brewing within the band. Soon it is revealed that the band is approaching their new album in a way they have never approached a project before. Renting space in San Francisco’s famous former military compound the Presidio, the band is determined to write everything from scratch in the studio sessions. Along with inviting the documentary film crew along for the ride, the band has also hired a therapist, group performance enhancement specialist Phil Towle, to help them with their band dynamic since the departure of their bassist. With all these new elements on the table, I quickly found myself thinking, “Well, now they are just asking for some sort of meltdown, aren’t they?”

Perhaps, part of the band’s genius is their ability to stick their necks out for their craft, as they did with their highly publicized battle with music download progenitors Napster. The band fielded a great deal of negative backlash from their fans over their lawsuit against the music sharing company. The filmmakers choose not to deal with the travails of this endeavor until near the end of the film when the entire situation is in a state of chaos. But the film itself could be an incredibly shrew business move to continue to build the publicity juggernaut that is Metallica, with much the same wounded (but sound business) results that had the Napster incident garnering the band the label “the most hated band in rock.”

Individually the band members are in the habit of sticking their necks out as well. As events heat up to a boil at the Presidio, with accusations flying and doors slamming, front man James Hetfield suddenly leaves and admits himself into a rehabilitation program for his alcohol abuse. The band and their new album remain in a state of limbo for a year while Hetfield hashes his own personal demons out. Drummer Lars Ulrich, however, seems to carry his demons around with him. There is a fascinating section where Ulrich and Towle try to deal with the impact Ulrich’s father has had on his work. The most intriguing part of these therapy sessions is the fact that his father is present for them.

While the in studio creative process of the band, fights and noodling included, is a surprising study of a way to produce popular music; it is eventually the intimate eavesdropping on the band’s therapy sessions that become the meat of this film. Watching Ulrich and Hetfield alternate between rolling their eyes at each other’s observations on the other’s actions becomes a source of tension that pulls you forward in anticipation of the next emotional explosion. All the while lead guitarist Kirk Hammet’s childish innocence seems to be the only thread preventing these two alpha males from ripping each other’s throats out.

Hetfield seems to take the most liberties with the band in the way he leaves things unsettled for so long while he is in rehab. During his absence there is a surprisingly emotional reunion between Ulrich and former band member Dave Mustaine, who was kicked out by the rest of the band before their star had fully risen. It almost seems Mustaine himself could be the subject of a feature length documentary studying the lengths to which an emotionally damaged person will hold a grudge over a twenty-year period. Upon Hetfield’s return the dynamics created by squeezing one person who has been through a life-changing period back into his old environment are even more extreme despite Hetfield’s more balanced emotional status.

As the band approaches it 715th day working on the new album and its inevitable completion becomes more of a sure thing, a great deal of order has been restored to the group and the auditions for their new bassist begins to resemble something a little closer to a typical behind the scenes rockumentary. By that time the strange environment the band has developed for itself has had a profound, even visible, effect on its members, and the therapy phrase “If you want to go deeper…” has become a tool of each of their vocabularies. When they embark on the promotional tour for their new album, the opening theme music for the tour the band has chosen is from Ennio Morricone’s score to the film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, an appropriate summation of everything that comes out of their latest experiment captured in this film for all to see.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Million Dollar Baby / **** (PG-13)

Frankie Dunn: Clint Eastwood
Maggie Fitzgerald: Hilary Swank
Scrap: Morgan Freeman

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Paul Haggis, based on stories from Rope Burns by F. X. Toole (Jerry Boyd). Running time: 133 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language).

Morgan Freeman’s character, Scrap, talks about the magical draw boxing still has on him early on in Clint Eastwood’s latest picture Million Dollar Baby, as having to do with seeing someone who has this dream that no one else in the world but themselves can see coming true. It seems this could describe the hopes that anyone pursuing any goal in life might have for himself or herself. Perhaps this universality of the hard choices made in life is what fills so many boxing pictures with the potential for greatness. But Million Dollar Baby isn’t really about boxing. What good boxing picture is? It is about love. Love in a harsh world where most people focus more on money and success than the most essential of human needs.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a grizzled old boxing trainer, who runs a broken down back alley gym (aren’t they all in these types of movies) and occasionally manages a talented young gun. Scrap (Freeman, High Crimes) is Dunn’s longtime partner and companion in the business and the life. The gym is lightly peppered with a range of boxing wannabees, from the all-heart and no talent Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel, The Rules of Attraction) to the potential title champion Big Willie Little (Mike Colter).

Dunn is also haunted by his past, both professionally and personally. He attends his Catholic Church services every week and makes a habit out of annoying his parish priest with theological debates that effectively wind up Father Horvak (Brian O‘Byrne, Intermission) and provide some comedic moments early on in the picture. In these exchanges with Father Horvak, Eastwood’s charms as an actor really have a chance to shine, as well as providing the director Eastwood with a counterbalance to his usual sobering look at his characters and situations.
But, like many aspects of this film, Dunn’s relationship with Horvak grows to have deeper meaning and provides the story with its most profound look into the soul of its hero. Eastwood’s scenes with O’Byrne span the hidden spectrum of talent this icon of film harbors beneath his gruff exterior and proves his Oscar nomination for the role to be well deserved.

So Dunn carries his demons, many of which remain unnamed, with him and as a result those few people he does let close to him, he protects, often beyond their own good. After hanging onto Dunn for two years longer than most boxers would, Big Willie Little finally has to move on to another manager for the sake of his prizefighting career. Without a gifted boxer to manage, Dunn feels he may finally be able to live out his life in boxing without anyone else to protect -- that is until Maggie finds her way under his skin.

Maggie dogs Dunn from the first moments of the story, begging him to train her in the sport. Dunn doesn’t train female boxers. “Girl tough ain’t tough enough,” he growls at her in the same tone his gunny sergeant from Heartbreak Ridge regarded his soldiers. But the tenacity with which Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), the actress who portrays her, seems to so naturally embody eventually wears Dunn down, and ultimately leads Dunn to respect her with the love of a close family member.

Maggie’s own family is presented as Missouri backwater trailer trash, without a care for Maggie until her success in the ring promises financial gain. Maggie’s attitude toward them is filled with the same innocence that drives her dream of becoming a prizefighter. After her first prize success in the ring, she buys her mother (Margo Martindale, The Human Stain) a house and surprises her with it. Instead of expressing her joy in Maggie’s success, she complains that now the government will take away her wellfare checks and almost delights to tell Maggie what an embarrassment her career as a boxer is to the family.

The Maggie who enters the boxing ring, however, is an entirely different person. She is a fierce fighter, fueled by her desire to rise above the station allotted her in life, who has a bad career habit of knocking her opponents out in the first round. Eastwood’s fight scenes don’t have the rigorous attention to detail as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. They don’t require it. The brevity with which Maggie dispatches her opponents prevents much meandering in the ring, but Eastwood is also presenting a much simpler world here than in Scorsese’s more flashy film. He did clear up one mystery for me about the sport, however. I finally know just what they are doing with all those Q-tips in the fighter’s cuts.

Along with the incredible anchor of Eastwood’s combined direction and performance, the character portrayals by Freeman and Swank are pivotal to the film’s success. Swank finds balance between so many different elements that go into her role, from that girl following a dream innocence that carries her into Dunn’s gym in the first place, to the desperation of someone with nothing, to that fierce aggressive drive that proclaims her success in the ring, to her good natured core that serves her loved ones, both appreciated and unrequited.

Freeman acts as the voice of the storyteller, giving narration as well as providing embodiment of the audience’s emotions in the character of Scrap. He sees the things that other characters don’t, offers the obvious advice when it is needed, and even provides a counterpoint to a much larger issue than is expected from a rather innocent set up. There is also an incident with the character of Danger where Freeman is allowed to step in with the wisdom and power with which he is so inclined to right a wrong for Danger and himself at once.

During the sequence where Maggie tries to share her newfound success with her family, Dunn’s actions give a hint as to the secret to Eastwood’s success as a director. When Maggie announces her plans to surprise her mother with the purchase of her house, there is the impression Dunn is aware of the disappointment this will bring her, but he doesn’t try to dissuade her from her good nature. When Maggie shows the house to her mother, Dunn just observes in the background, never intervening. This is a lesson Maggie must learn for herself, a lesson the audience is never sure she learns until a vital point in the plot. Just as Dunn does not get in the way of his pupil and her life, Eastwood as a director uses such a subtle hand, he never gets between the story and its audience. Eastwood’s will is never imposed on his audience; he is merely the guiding hand to the experience of this story. He is like a quite Zen Buddhist master, and we, as the audience, can only take away from his lesson what we bring to it, but he does give us something to think about.

Note: I would welcome any discussion on this film from anyone who has seen it. It has become a very hot button movie since its seven Academy Award Nominations, and offers a great potential for thought and discussion for reasons I am not willing to go into in my review. Had I seen it in time, it would have taken the top spot in my top ten list for the objective and classical delivery of its thought provoking subject matter.