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Archive for December, 2004

Death of a Salesman.

The last film I’ll see in 2004, the harrowing Assassination of Richard Nixon, is arguably also the darkest. A much more successful gape into the maw of despair than Sean Penn and Naomi Watts’ earlier foray, the ghastly and ridiculous 21 Grams, The Assassination of Richard Nixon also boasts a strange producing pedigree, with Alexander Payne and Leo di Caprio both listed as executive producers (Azkhaban‘s Alfonso Cuaron also gets a producing cred.) Yet, in a way, it makes sense that these guys would be involved. Perhaps they felt they had to set the record straight — most people in the throes of terminal melancholy don’t end up with the likes of Virginia Madsen taking note, nor do most folks descending into stark raving madness have Ava Gardner come over and shave them.

Then again, Samuel Byck wasn’t like most people either…in fact, that may be the biggest problem with this otherwise haunting film. Played for laughs in the Sondheim Assassins, Byck here is portrayed as a beaten-down American Everyman of the Willy Loman/Travis Bickle school, albeit one with a Pulp Fiction-like problem with authority and a frozen run of luck like you read about. But, while the film’s hold lies in Sean Penn’s powerful portrayal of a down-on-his-heels, borderline-stable guy who gets one too many doors slammed in his face (to Penn’s credit, his performance never really feels like a stunt, as it might have with a lesser actor), the real Samuel Byck was an even stranger bird than this film lets on. For example, there’s no mention of Byck’s protesting outside the White House in a Santa suit here, and the whole tapes-to-Leonard-Bernstein angle is played as straight as it possibly can be.

But, historical veracity aside, The Assassination of Richard Nixon still makes for a grim and compelling 90 minutes of darkening gloom, anchored by Sean Penn’s slow, fidgety burn. (Watts, Don Cheadle, Michael Wincott, and Jack Thompson all do good character work here, but the film is Penn’s, and he’s the only one to leave a mark.) The movie’s unrelenting downward trajectory is clear from the opening titles, and the final scene at BWI airport probably played a few minutes too long, particularly as Byck awaits boarding for his final destination. All in all, though, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a somber inquiry into a life of quiet desperation, and a sad reminder that, regardless of what our American dream may promise, there are no guarantees in this world, and all too often no respite for the damned.

Capitol Thunderdome.

No doubt anticipating some kickback-heavy sessions in 2005, Tom DeLay and the Congressional GOP aim to eliminate several House ethics rules, among them the procedures for investigating complaints and the restrictions on free trips for relatives. “Government watchdog groups called the proposals startling and unjustified. If the proposed rules are adopted next week as GOP leaders suggest, they would amount to ‘the biggest backtracking on House ethics rules that we have seen,’ said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.Update Sensing a PR nightmare on Day 1 of the new Congress, the GOP back down and void the recent Save-DeLay rule. Good for them.

House of Cards.

Going in to Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, I wasn’t looking for much more than Hero without the scary uber-nationalist politics. Unfortunately, while the movie contains some similarly entrancing art direction and foregos any ruminations on leadership this time around, Daggers also falls behind Hero in the story and action department. Hardcore kung-fu fans will probably love this House, but to be honest I got kinda bored with it.

It’s clear early on in House of Flying Daggers that Zhang isn’t shooting for anything with the ambition and gravitas of Hero…Instead, we’ve got a plot strung together with a number of genre cliches, most notably the “deep” undercover cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) questioning his motivation and the sixth-sense-laden blind girl (Zhang Zi Yi, lovely as always) who improbably kicks more ass than Rutger Hauer in Blind Fury. Hey, genre exercises are cool…let’s get to the fighting. Alas, there seemed to be a lot of filler between the action setpieces, and I found myself hoping through several unmemorable meet-cute scenes that more low-level flunky guards would show up and be efficiently dispatched.

With that in mind, I know it’s a little late to be complaining about the realism of kung-fu sequences. But the fights in House of Flying Daggers are so stylized and farfetched that I didn’t find them all that engaging — there was no real sense of danger to be had. In Crouching Tiger, Hero and countless lesser kung-fu films, I never found myself thinking so much about the logistics of what’s going on, but Daggers seems to beg questions like, “Where are these tree-flying policemen obtaining their inexhaustible supply of bamboo spears?” and “How straight and true could you throw a dagger if gravity was of absolutely no consequence?” Perhaps it’s unfair to call out this House for its fantastical fight sequences, but for one reason or another my disbelief was suspended less than usual.

At any rate, not to give the whole game away, but the movie does eventually contain some unexpected twists in the middle going. That being said, the denouement of the film also suffers from one of the most egregious dead-“not dead” reverses I’ve seen in recent memory. If martial arts films are your bag, then you’ll probably find House of Flying Daggers an operatic tale of love, passion, and betrayal. But, as for me, I kinda wish these two young lovers had spent less time being smitten and more time smoting.

Flame On.

20th Century Fox tries to counter that burning train wreck smell (the latest word: $20 million in additional effects and a de-Incredibles script rewrite) by offering a behind-the-scenes look at Fantastic Four with Stan Lee. Nope, still not feeling it.

Tintin meets the Tenenbaums.

One part Herge, two parts Cousteau, and all parts Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, alas for Bill Murray’s thwarted post-Lost in Translation Oscar hopes, doesn’t really work. In fact, at times it seems like someone’s parody of a Wes Anderson movie. But, if you dig Anderson’s penchant for artfully constructed shots crufted over with kitsch so precious it’d make Belle & Sebastien blush — and, frankly, I find it mildly endearing — then you’ll probably have a decent time aboard the Belafonte. The movie’s a complete non-starter, but it is a rather pretty and innocuous non-starter, a bland pleasure cruise of a film.

At least the cast appears to be having fun…except for Murray, who’s doing yet another amusing variation of the resigned, laconic, vaguely crestfallen wiseass that’s his signature. I never thought I’d see Willem DaFoe out-ham his turn as the Green Goblin, but by golly I think he’s done it. Cate Blanchett is luminous again, although she (and these seamen) are a world away from The Aviator. Owen Wilson doesn’t add much to the equation (and he’s a bit overexposed in my book these days anyway), but Michael Gambon, Bud Cort, and Noah Taylor are all enjoyable in brief supporting turns.

That being said, these actors are all dressed up in authentic Team Zissou gear with no place to go. The story — ostensibly an Ahab-like quest for a carnivorous jaguar shark — never amounts to much, and we are instead treated to a series of episodic vignettes of life at sea (albeit on a boat with a spa, interns, a recording studio, and a Brazilian Davie Bowie fan). Many of these individual scenes are diverting, and I remember smiling through a lot of ’em, but, to be honest, they don’t really add up to a movie. By the time The Life Aquatic starts trying to gain some dramatic headway at the end, it feels forced and unearned. Ultimately too clever by half and probably the least engaging of Wes Anderson’s films so far, Aquatic is cute but not very resonant. All in all, it makes for a blithe but instantly forgettable two-hour tour.

Head-to-Headers.

As you can see, I’ve tweaked the design around here for 2005…and there’s probably more to come. The rotating title image is a trick I’ve seen at much better-designed sites such as High Industrial and Donkeymon, so I was pleasantly surprised to see I could basically cut-and-paste my way to coding prowess via this helpful article. All title pics are used without permission and intended as homage…how’s that for a useless disclaimer?

Kid Icarus.


Chock-full of period glamour and notable performances, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is breezier and better than the last Marty-Leo outing — it seems both lighter of foot and more self-assured (and, for that matter, more historically accurate) than the plodding, heavy-handed Gangs of New York. That being said, I did find myself wishing at various points in the second and third hours that Scorsese had taken a page from Howard Hughes and found a way to get from TWA to OCD more quickly. Well worth seeing and consistently entertaining, The Aviator is also (like many Scorsese films) probably 15-20 minutes too long.

Arguably the goofiest scene in the film is in the opening moments, as we see the child Hughes being bathed by his mother and forced to spell Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E…it plays like exactly the same type of ham-handed Freudian shorthand that so marred Alexander a couple of weeks ago. But, soon thereafter, the movie jumps to 1927 and the set of Hell’s Angels, and The Aviator settles into cruising altitude. Watching Hughes indulge his passions for fast planes and starlets against a backdrop of New Era glitz is great fun…at times, the movie even feels like Oceans’ One or Two, with Jean Harlow, Kate Hepburn, Errol Flynn, and Ava Gardner all holding court in Old Hollywood.

Only later in the film, when the madness begins to come upon Hughes and the interminable handwashing begins, does one start to feel the drag. I found myself looking at my watch long before Hughes begins finding unsavory uses for milk bottles. Still, despite the turbulence, The Aviator is kept aloft through the compulsive years by a number of solid performances, including (but not limited to) Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (Surprisingly after drek like Van Helsing and Underworld, she’s pretty good here), Matt Ross as Hughes’ long-suffering aeronautics #2 Glenn Odekirk, Alec Baldwin as Pan Am head/Hughes rival Juan Trippe, and Alan Alda as the unctuous anti-Hawkeye, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster. (di Caprio, for his part, is excellent throughout.) And, flying head and shoulders above them all is Cate Blanchett’s uncanny turn as young Katherine Hepburn. Alive, acerbic, and adorable, Blanchett’s Hepburn walks away with every scene she’s in, and the film misses her dearly after her second act exit. (Damn you, Tracy.) With a gal like Cate’s Kate by his side, it’s little wonder Hughes found a way, however briefly, to soar amongst the clouds.

XXX.

Well, there may be 48-72 hours left in 2004 (good riddance — I’ll be remembering this year as pretty much a lamentable waste, orals and prospectus notwithstanding), but my twenties ended about an hour ago…and, y’know, I really wouldn’t have minded if they’d lasted a mite longer. 😉

But, life marches on, so here’s to 30. I’m back in NYC as of late this evening, and will probably celebrate by checking out one last wave of movies before the end-of-year round-up. So, see y’all on the flipside.

Tang-tungled Rummy.

In a boon for conspiracy theorists the world over, Rumsfeld refers to the 9/11 Pennsylvania plane as “shot down.” Said Rummy during one of his usual rambling Two Minutes Fear-type screeds, “I think all of us have a sense if we imagine the kind of world we would face if the people who bombed the mess hall in Mosul, or the people who did the bombing in Spain, or the people who attacked the United States in New York, shot down the plane over Pennsylvania and attacked the Pentagon, the people who cut off peoples’ heads on television to intimidate, to frighten — indeed the word ‘terrorized’ is just that.” Freudian slip or slip of the tongue? Either way, it was a bonehead mistake.

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