Sunday, May 28, 2006

Summer Movie Predictions

Summer. For many, summer is a time for relaxation and vacation. For others, it’s a time to replenish the depleted bank account by trading away one’s time and soul for some hard-earned cash. Some lucky folks go on trips all over the world, proclaiming the cause of Christ, thanks to generous grants our school offers.

Me? Aside from a job and the worrying about what I’m going to do with my life come next summer, I’ll be at the movies, and I figured I’d enlighten you, the dear reader, as to what might be worth seeing. Joining me this week, because he enjoys the tag-team writing so much, is none other than Ben Wyman.

Now, I was a huge fan of “Sin City,” Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation of the first three installments of Frank Miller’s graphic novel series. Though flashy film effects and over-the-top CGI aren’t necessarily what get me into a theater, Rodriguez managed to do it well, and mix it into a decent story to boot. So, naturally, when I saw the trailer for Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly,” I was intrigued.

The movie’s synopsis, according to my ever-faithful resource, the Internet Movie Database, goes something like this: “Darkly" imagines a paranoid world in which it seems two of every ten Americans has been hired by the government to spy on the other eight, in the name of national security and drug enforcement. When one reluctant government recruit (Keanu Reeves) is ordered to start spying on his friends, he is launched on a journey into the absurd, where not even his girlfriend can be trusted.

“A Scanner Darkly,” distributed by Warner Independent Films, is due for limited release on July 7, followed by a nationwide release on July 14.

Moving along, considering how hot the weather tends to get, it’s only natural that the Democrats will pick up their battered banner and champion the cause of global warming once again. At least, that’s where director Davis Guggenheim will focus his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“Truth,” as written in a synopsis by an obviously left-leaning Plantation Productions, is not a story of despair but rather a rallying cry to protect the one earth we all share. "It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly, and wisely," said Gore.

Personally, I just miss laughing at Gore’s monotone voice, and I’m interested to see what kind of fodder he’s trying to load into the metaphorical political cannons. “Truth,” distributed by Paramount Classics, will see a limited release on May 24.

Finally, what summer would be complete without a major release from the can’t-do-wrong folks at Pixar Animation Studios? “Cars,” was supposed to be Pixar’s final film with Disney before Disney bought them out for a mind-boggling sum.

Pixar can do no wrong in my eyes, but still, I can’t help but feel a little off-put by “Cars.” Perhaps it’s that they’ve already gone the “lifeless made lifelike” route with 1995’s “Toy Story” (and its 1999 follow-up, “Toy Story 2”), but I can’t help but wonder if they’ll manage to strike gold for a third time. But then again, they’ve been pretty tight-lipped on the project so far, and they managed to make me misty-eyed over a fish in 2003, so I’ll try to keep the faith a bit longer.

Wyman: I enjoy the challenge and thrill of Oscar season, but there's a heady, universal joy during the lazy days of summer: the mindless blockbuster. Every year, there's months of build-up before each film, with fans turning out in droves for each sweltering opening night. And you go too, of course, and you have a good time, but by the time you're back at work on Monday you've forgotten all about it, because of course, blockbusters are usually not very good.

But wait. There's hope. This summer has a bumper crop of films with surprising potential, and a crew of talented directors. "Rush Hour's" Bret Ratner breathes new life into "X-men," while "X-Men's" Brian Singer gives us the return of "Superman." Meanwhile, a resurgent Ron Howard takes on "The Da Vinci Code," and "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams revamps "Mission Impossible." And even if those fail, there's still the wild cards of M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water," and Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly." We're not even to July yet, and that's about half of my graduation money right there.

Summer movies are simply too fun to miss. Sure, Will Ferrell's "Talledega Nights," may disappoint, and "The Break-Up," the tabloid-friendly Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn vehicle might bust, but who cares? Jack Black and the boys from "Napoleon Dynamite" have "Nacho Libre" right around the corner. Johnny Depp dons the mascara again for "Pirates of the Caribbean," probably the most fun you'll have this summer.

My picks? I think "Pirates" and "The Da Vinci Code" should be everything we're hoping for, and that "Lady In The Water" proves to be the surprise hit of the season. But if you're longing for a little substance, please, don't miss "A Scanner Darkly." You won't be disappointed. And how often in the summer can you say that?

Peracchio: Speaking of surprise and substance, probably one of the most anticipated films of this summer for fans of Internet in-jokes is none other than “Snakes on a Plane.” You may think I’m joking, but I’m dead serious. “Snakes” is something like the black sheep of the disaster film genre, and stars Samuel L. Jackson as the man who saves a plane full of people from a crate full of deadly snakes.

At any rate, the ridiculous title, and even more ridiculous premise, have generated a huge amount of buzz on the Internet. So much so that fans are making their own trailers, and the film’s official website actually sports a logo created by a fan.

“Snakes,” distributed by New Line Cinema, is currently in post-production and due for release on August 18.

This past year proved the value of the independent film, but for once, I’m excited to see what the big-money studios have to offer. Until then, there are plenty of other pictures to see, and not much time left in this semester to do it. Lord knows, once summer hits, I'll have to find a real job.

Friday, December 23, 2005

And I mean it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005)

Directed By: Andrew Adamson
Written By: Adamson and a bunch of other people adapted the beloved C.S. Lewis tale.
Starring: A bunch of appropriately ugly British children, Tilda Swinton, and Liam Neeson's voice.
Synopsis: A group of young siblings, while escaping from the WWII bombing of London at an old professor's house, find their way into a magical world where it's always winter and all the animals are computer-generated.

I didn't want the film to look like this. I wanted to go see Narnia and have it look like Lord of the Rings, only even more. I wanted accuracy, realism, and even the most nit-picking viewer to be unable to tell what's computer-generated and what's not. I wanted something huge, epic, and most of all, I didn't want it to be a (*flinch*) family-friendly Disney movie.

But then the news floated down that it was going to be... cutesy. Cartoonish, even. How baffling. This is a grand, huge story - why hand it off to Andrew Adamson, director of the Shrek films and a former visual effects supervisor? Why make an epic, spiritual film into a kid's movie? It should be more than that. But that's what it is.

And the truth of it is, it's a hell of a kid's movie.

For all the smack I was talking about Adamson in pre-production (and if you ever talked to me about it, you knew that I was sounding off on the subject), he honestly made a damn good film, and I've got five damn good reasons why his version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is worth seeing:

5. For someone making a kid's movie and not a huge epic, it's actually pretty grand. The final battle, in which Peter and his army take on the army of the White Witch takes place on a broad, sunlit battlefield that reminded me uncomfortably of the Gungan battle in The Phantom Menace, but Adamson proved awfully adept at giving the battle a lot of flash. Jamming as many various CGI creatures into the fight as he could find budget for, he throws in a lot of species that Lewis never really thought to involve (phoenixes? griffins? men crossed with pterodactyls? Why not?) around hundreds of intriguing specialized characters in blissfully outlandish outfits designed by the oh-so-dedicated WETA Workshop. So much is going on that on a viewer's third or fourth time through, they'll probably still be picking up new creatures floating on the wings (no pun intended. In fact, just to clear things up, puns are never intended at 10-4GB. Never). A few of the Lewis faithful might object, but without it, you just have a rehash of the craptastic renassaince-fair world imagined for the BBC version. This makes the world a whole lot more interesting.

4. Speaking of interesting, the CGI creatures are awfully entertaining. Sure, they're cartoonish, and you never really buy that they really are a beaver/rhinocerous/lion/etc., but they're barrels of fun. Adamson wants to let all the characters fully interact with the characters, so the animals don't just talk; they're major characters in the story, giving all the good lines, bickering with each other, narrating parts of the story. Adamson doesn't hide his CGI, and he doesn't pull back from the animals so that they look more realistic. Instead, he shows them close up, lets you see that they aren't real beavers - and then goes ahead and lets them be real characters. It's kind of... gutsy. Not a lot of other filmmakers are willing to let the audience see the flaws in their special effects, I sure wouldn't. But Adamson knows it's more fun this way. Bravo.

3. For a bunch of kids working alongside blue screens and said computer generated animals, the acting's pretty impressive. Especial props go to Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest Pevensie children and the best actors in the film. Keynes manages to give Edmund both arrogance and vulnerability, and gives his character a complete arc, which is impressive for someone who was 12, maybe 13 when this was filmed. I'll get to Henley in a minute, but I also wanted to mention (I guess I'm feeling magnanimous today) the excellent turns by relative unknown James McAvoy (a perfectly charming Mr. Tumnus) and Jim Broadbent (Professor Kirke), who both understood perfectly the winsome nature of the story and carried themselves accordingly.

2. Adamson tried, really tried, to give Aslan more than just lip service as a God metaphor. I understand, I really do, that it's hard to do. And I think Adamson kinda botched it, I don't think it worked at all, but I'm proud anyway, way to go. He tried to balance both ways, and so the Christian market is aggravated at how Aslan isn't established as the Lord of All Creation, and the media is angry at how Aslan is such an obvious God metaphor, and how dare Adamson try to sneak in religion while we weren't watching? Why, it's upsetting the children! But I really felt that Adamson understood who Aslan was, and he wanted to make him important without bogging down the story with religious symbolism, which is awfully tough when one of your characters is killed in payment for someone's sins, resurrected from the dead at daybreak, saves the world from evil, and then disappears into the horizon. Adamson always had the deck stacked against him. But he wasn't trying to piss anyone off. He just wanted to make a good movie.

1. Lucy. Allow me to spin you the tale of how, in 1988, BBC began making movie versions of the Narnia series that featured a charmless young actress named Sophie Wilcox starring as Lucy Pevensie. I haven't posted her picture here, mostly because the sight of Wilcox's face, to this day, usually inspires me to retch (also, I couldn't find any pictures anywhere to put up, everyone else on the web apparently being of like mind) She giggled, whined, and flounced her tiresome little way through the first three films, slowly descending from merely aggravating into unconsciousably vexatious, until the plot of the series mercifully removed her from the films. Researching for this post lead me to discover that Wilcox's career promptly stalled following these films, finally resurrecting ten years later, which hopefully allowed her enough time to grow out of being so impossibly insufferable.

I bring all this up because I was so worried that Adamson would somehow manage to find another little Sophie Wilcox, or worse, bring back the original. And instead he gave us the charming, surprisingly mature Georgie Henley, who scampers through Narnia with the infectious delight of an English child who's only known grey skies and bad dentistry. Since we discover Narnia through her eyes the reason this whole film gains such momentum throughout the first half is her engaging performance. And unless she follows the Sophie Wilcox method of acting, she's only going to get better. I'm already looking forward to Prince Caspian.

Breakdown: Narnia gets a full, and deserved, three stars for not having Wilcox anywhere in the film, another star for having Henley instead, and another star for the performances of Keynes, McAvoy, etc. all. It also gets a star for casting unknowns in almost all the roles not created in a computer lab, and another for casting LOTR fan fave Kiran Shah (Elijah Wood's eccentric body double throughout the films) as the aggressive Ginarrbrik. However, it loses two stars for having unrealistic CGI characters, but gets one back for having the wherewithall to actually make them more than furry Jar-Jars. And finally, it loses two stars for screwing up Aslan. I'm sorry, Adamson, I hate to do it, but it really is the whole point of the story. Maybe next time. Still, Four Stars Out of Five.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Hello, and Welcome!

Hello, and welcome to 10-4GB's latest venture!

It's not really anything new, of course - merely a reorganizing of current content, in order to create more specific pages and make it easier to find things. But it's the first step in 10-4GB's new layout, which should be complete by the end of this spring semester.

You see, I'm taking a class next semester called "Interactive Media." It's just the standard, basic media communications class teaching you the basics of internet page design and the like. Every college has one, most media majors take it as freshmen or sophomores. I brilliantly postponed it until the final semester of my college career, not the semester in which most college students are known to put forth their best efforts in pre-requisite courses. But it'll still be useful.

Therefore, I'm hoping to convince the professor to let me use the class to create a new "Ten-Four, Good Buddy" website. We'll see if he'll let it fly.

All of which is completely besides the point, which actually was to welcome you to the new addition. Please poke around and check out some of the things you might've missed before, now that they've finally been archived. All of the reviews have been updated in some way - footnotes added, new introductions, incorrect material corrected, and so on. Go on, take it for a spin.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Jarhead (2005)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Anthony Swofford, William Broyles Jr.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhall, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, and Chris Cooper
Synopsis: A young Marine (Gyllenhall) in the Gulf War is frustrated at the fact that though he's on the front line, he never gets to fight.

I'm not, as you might have guessed, a Marine. I can neither verify nor deny the accuracy of the information put forth by Mendes in his harrowing documentary-style war-free war flick based on Swofford's Jarhead. I have no intentions of talking knowledgeably about the nature of war, of the killing of innocent citizens, or the homoerotic behavior of thousands of men trapped in the desert with nothing to do. If you scroll around online for a minute, you'll get varying opinions on the realism of Jarhead from military personnel, spanning a range from "stunningly exact" to "absurd," which leaves me in the lurch if I have any intention of congratulating Jarhead on its accuracy - or, conversely, debunking its falseness. And if there's anything that ticks a military man off, it's the false camraderie that comes from faking military knowledge when "we" went to war.

I didn't go to war. I don't know what it looks like to walk through burning oil fields. And I don't want to pretend I do. So I'm going to take this carefully.

Maybe you find this introduction completely unnecessary. "Show some nuts and write the review, kid," you say. But:
a) If I'm going to make a perhaps erroneous statement: "Jarhead is full of unconvincing, war-movie hokum that merely creates an unfair mythology to an already overly-mystified military branch" (and I am), I don't want to have any ex-Marine come and break a bottle over my head for any inaccuracies I might make. After all, Swofford was a Marine. Broyles was a Marine. What do I know?
b) Mendes works as a commercial director for RSA Films, a joint company of Scott Free, whose building conjoins this one. You've seen his work, I'm sure: the Ebay commercials that suddenly erupt into song-and-dance routines, or those Allstate commercials where Dennis Haybert tells you how Allstate will still be there, providing car insurance, even when aliens come and do awful things to your children, as the camera slowly pulls up to his face. I'm just afraid that if I rag on the flick too much, one thing might lead to another, some phone calls will get made, and Ridley'll come down here and break the bottle of Glen Elgin single malt I just delivered to his office over my head (am I a name-dropper? Yes I am)

I'll list out my complaints in an orderly fashion, so that if Mendes has a problem with anything, he can drop in* and correct the error of my ways.

Counting down from least ridiculous, the Top Five Unrealistic Metaphors:
5. At the end of official hostilities, yelling "we won't need this anymore," the soldiers and officers burn their uniforms and fire several clips from their automatic whatevers into the air. I'm sure none of them realized that they might have to stay in the Middle East a touch longer, though in Mendes' version, they seem to fly home the next day.
4. After spending several months together in a desert with nothing to do, I imagine a good deal of homoerotic banter goes on between the Marines. But simulating acts of fellatio in the middle of the desert for the TV cameras, regardless of its documentation in Swofford's narrative, is just ham-handed story-telling. And frankly, I don't buy it.
3. When Gyllenhall and Sarsgaard, a crack sniper team, are about to take a shot, a commanding officer (Dennis Haybert, again) comes in and overrules, making them move out for an airstrike. In frustration, Sarsgaard attacks Haybert and takes out his aggression on him. No one makes a big deal out of this. No discipline action is taken
2. In an early scene, Swofford's commander (Jamie Foxx) accidently kills one of his own men in training when the inexperienced soldier panics and stands up into the live fire Foxx is shooting over his head. Foxx stays in command of the unit. No discipline action is taken.
1. And, finally, the ultimate nonsensical piece of metaphorical tom-foolery ever foisted on a war movie: As Gyllenhall wanders through Kuwait's burning oil fields (like the burning of his own unrequited passion for war), a riderless Arabian horse (as lost as the war's own purpose), covered in oil (the currency of the war), appears from the darkness (like the bleakness of war) and comes and nuzzles Gyllenhall (like the affection he lacks from being away from his girlfriend because of the war), who rubs its neck and talks to it for a moment (like he can't talk to anyone because he's alone on a battlefield because of the war) before it disappears across the sands (like the sands of... um... war. I was doing great until then).

But let's be fair. For each moment of heartbreaking lunacy, there are two of breathtaking imagery. Mendes (American Beauty) appreciates the small things, and it's the tinier moments that land like grenades in the minds of viewers (that's a war metaphor. I can do it, too). When Gyllenhall tries and fails to masturbate to a picture of his possibly unfaithful girlfriend, it's a heart-in-throat sort of emotion that grips the viewer - in the hands of any other director, it would drive us from the character; here we just feel the pain. Kudos for truly unique direction.

Plus, in a story of bleak, empty warfare, Mendes' never lets his desert be an barren wasteland. Instead, the characters (and therefore the audience) always seem to feel strongly that the enemy is waiting just over that shimmery horizon, or in the shadow of burning oil wells (but no, it's just an Arabian horse covered in oil). There's lyricism to his urgency, you feel the sweep of the landscape, but there's always a deep gut feeling that you're among the action. If there was any action.

Plus, characteristically strong performances from Sarsgaard, Foxx, and Cooper manage to carry an incredibly difficult piece, while Gyllenhall simply shines as a tightly-wound, closed-off individual in a world of solidarity. But for all Gyllenhall's energy, the audience is never really let inside. We feel for him, but we never feel with him. It's the same distance we get from, say, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List or The Constant Gardener. We appreciate the flawlessness of the acting, since it lets us feel the tension and power of each event. But we're still on the outside looking in.

In the end, it's a collection of pieces that never really gels into anything unified, but instead wanders through the desert endlessly (like an Arabian hors... oh, never mind).

The Rundown: Lessee, Jarhead gets one star for fantastic direction by Mendes, one for fantastic cinematography by Roger Deakins, one for fantastic performances by all concerned. Gyllenhall also get a star for having the sheer bravado to be willing to run through a good ten, fifteen minutes of the film wearing only a Santa hat around his groin, but the star gets taken away for actually letting him. I also give a star for the sheer power of the images, but I'll take that one back, too, 'cause I'm still ticked about the horse. That's three stars.

Oh, another half a star for the horse. That really was ridiculous. Two and a half stars.

* I'm in the library, Sam. Stop by anytime.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Elizabethtown (2005)

Directed By: Cameron Crowe
Written By: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Paul Schneider, and Alec Baldwin
Synopsis: A failed young exec on the verge of killing himself returns to Elizabethtown, KY, to take care of the details of his estranged father's funeral.

Most reviews of Elizabethtown so far have dealt with its relation to Cameron Crowe: after all, if there's any modern-day director who defines the auteur theory, Crowe is it, and Elizabethtown is no exception. But the unlikely facts of the matter are that this review may end up being mostly about Orlando Bloom.

I've reviewed Bloom's work before: the troubled and mediocre Kingdom of Heaven, the abhorrent Ned Kelly. And I'm no stranger to putting the man in a box, he's spent most of his short career on one-note performances. Outside of Cruise, he's bashed more than any man in Hollywood. But the honest fact is that Bloom delivers a performance in Elizabethtown of the most sublime, subtle power.

Oh, snicker if you must. But I was paying pretty close attention on this one, and I'll stand by that statement. Let me try to convince you:

Elizabethtown is a complete mess. There's no way around it. Even those who truly loved the movie (I have a pretty fond impression myself) have to admit that it is, in many ways, a trainwreck of a movie. It's a structural wasteland, based, as far as I could tell, on some private, four-act structure that Crowe invented just for this picture. The music is turned up loud and often, usually at the expense of dialogue, story, and, indeed, logical sense.

But through it all, there is Bloom, creating space for himself as Crowe's whirlwind love letter to family, Ketucky, and timelessly rootsy pop tunes spins out of control. As each scene crashes around him, Bloom does what great actors do: he acts as if he believes so much what he's doing that the viewer can't help believe, too. It's tough to imagine, but Bloom is carrying, truly carrying, a picture.

In one extended sequence, as Elizabethtown's omnipresent voiceover wanders through some off-subject background info, Bloom stares curiously at his father's casket. He wanders around the casket, brow furrowed, and there's no narrative reason for us to care, or even wonder at his thoughts. But we do, simply because, somewhere in that strange, awkward, effeminate delivery, Bloom made me buy it, he sold me that he's a troubled man with deep pain floating just below the surface. It's something terrible and suicide-worthy, we feel, but nothing a little Tom Petty couldn't fix. Bloom's character is mostly an empty nothing of a person, but somehow I became convinced perhaps this is a guy with a story that deserved to be told.

Oh, yes, the story. I always forget. Elizabethtown is the tale of Drew Baylor, a young business exec at a monstrous shoe corporation whose brilliant career-making shoe design manages to lose his company a billion dollars. Frustrated and angry in that self-righteous way leading men always are at the beginning of cheerful romantic comedies, he builds an unbelievably appalling suicide machine out of an exercise bike and is on the verge of killing himself when the phone rings (this is the first, and only, plot point in Elizabethtown). His father has died on a trip to meet family in Kentucky, and the family needs him to go to Elizabethtown to take care of the details. Baylor goes because, hey, families stick together, and he can totally commit suicide whenever, so there's no rush.

On the way, he meets an amazingly cheerful flight attendant (Dunst), and the strange and estranged extended Baylor family (Schneider, Bruce McGill, plus a lot of pleasant chubby people), a collection of cheerfully redneck Kentucky down-home boys.* It's at this point that the pop music really starts rolling.

I'll lay my cards on the table at this point: I love Cameron Crowe. Diss Vanilla Sky all you want, I'll stand behind it forever - not to mention the '70's-nostalgia perfection of Almost Famous. But the first hour and a half of Elizabethtown almost feels like someone's been imitating Crowe. It's got all the elements there: the music, the trip-down-memory-lane vibe, the solid acting - but it's too heavy-handed. There's no frothy dialogue, no memorable lines, few standout performances. It's jumpy and awkward and not fully fleshed-out. It's all just sort of... mediocre.

But, in the same way that Bloom's performance slowly grows and and grows, so does Crowe's film. It just gets there in an awkward way - though, to me, a particularly funny one, because in my mind, Crowe has made a textbook student film. I can just see him sitting in some Hollywood office, talking to his producer: "okay, so I had this idea where I see Orlando Bloom drinking Ale-8, and Susan Sarandon dancing through the spotlight, and Kirsten Dunst smiling a lot, so I wrote this story around it, but I don't want it to follow a typical 'three-act' structure. See, it's about this guy, and he's all torn up, he's gonna commit suicide, but then he meets this girl, who just comes up to him from nowhere and she's amazing, and his life starts to turns around - and then he goes to meet his family, and they're all crazy, but you really like them, and the story never really resolves itself, but there's great music, and a great vibe, and at the end everyone just feels good." And since his producer is Tom Cruise, he gets the green light.

I pitch that same idea every week to my professors, and they always give the thumbs down. I'm beginning to see why. But the fact is that by the time the credits are rolling, Crowe has made it work. The pop music that was so frustrating and overbearing throughout suddenly seems to pull the images together. The story finds narrative flow. You start to care about the characters. And suddenly, without any idea why, you're happy. Elton John is pounding through "My Father's Gun" again, and you're watching Kentucky fences fly by, and Dunst is still smiling her heart out, and Bloom is now wandering through America's heartland talking to his father's ashes in the passenger seat, and yet... it just all seems right. Kudos, Cameron. I don't know how you did it.

Breakdown: Lessee here, Cameron, you get two stars for getting such an excellent performance out of Bloom, two stars for a fantastic soundtrack, and one for beautifully evocative cinematography. Since I completely sympathize with all of your mistakes on the film, we'll only take off half a star for having no structure whatsoever, and half a star for trying to jam too much music into the flick. We'll follow that up with another half-star off for disappointing subplots featuring Paul Schneider and Susan Sarandon, among others, and another half-star for occasionally resorting to pointless slapstick. We'll let that cover it - keep in mind I didn't mention dialogue, Cameron, you're getting off easy. Three Stars.

* Most reviewers have discounted the realism of the peppy Kentucky family as mere blue-state opinioning on red-state values, which simply reveals these reviewers as hapless blue-staters. They may, indeed, have "their finger on the pulse of the nation," but have probably never sat in a Waffle House at three in the morning, ordered steak and grits, and put Conway Twitty's "Red Necking, Love Making Night" on the jukebox (not that I'm condoning such behavior). I'm not claiming to be a native, but to someone who dearly loves the people of the Bluegrass State, Crowe makes Baylor's family feel like home.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Directed By: George Clooney
Written By: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, and Frank Langella
Synopsis: CBS reporter Edward Murrow takes it to red-scare leader Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hijinks do not ensue. Instead, everyone gets so depressed and mopey that they have to be shown in black-and-white.

To say that Clooney's directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, lacked subtlety is... a bit... understated. Quite a bit of an understated, actually. One reviewer referred to it as "a movie dressed up in a camouflage shirt and pink polka-dotted pants in the middle of a surprise summer snowstorm." Colorful imagery, that. I don't think I could have come up with that myself.

I bring this up because Clooney's second picture is so much the antithesis to this. Good Night, and Good Luck bristles with tension, but the tone and style of the picture is, well, understated. Quite a bit understated, actually.

Inspired by the simplicity of Jean-Luc Godard's films (most notably, Breathless - Clooney wanted to use the same lenses so badly that when they didn't fit, he tried to scotch tape them to the camera), Clooney's film is sparse, subdued. He couldn't be any more deliberate. For almost every shot in the film, he let his actors pick out where they wanted to be, then moved the camera around to film them. It's a smart choice - in a story of such slow, careful change, the audience constantly feels like a fly on the wall, observing action that flows organically around the camera. In an utter rarity in recent filmmaking, every piece of the film's style - from its European cinematography to its silky 1950's black-and-white styling to its modern sensibilities - enhances the story.

Oh, right, the story. I forgot. Good Night is the true-to-life tale of how famed journalist Edward R. Murrow (it's okay, I hadn't heard of him either) turned the tables on red-scare ringleader Senator Joe McCarthy through a series of accusatory pieces on the mildly-groundbreaking CBS news show See It Now.

I wasn't particularly familiar with the story before seeing the film (alright, fine, I didn't know a damn thing about it), but Clooney's got newsman in his blood and his script - co-written with Grant Heslov, another actor-cum-writer - lays the facts out with a surprising journalistic clarity. In fact, Clooney's might even be too careful in covering all his bases: afraid that any deviation would let the press cut his film to ribbons, Clooney triple-checks his facts, leaning on actual recorded dialogue or stock footage whenever possible.* Most surprisingly, rather than having someone play McCarthy, he only uses what footage of the senator is available. It's simultaneously refreshing and a cheap filmmaking crutch for the story to lean on.

Still, I'm all for it. Clooney dearly wants his film to change a viewer's perspective, and I find Good Night's earnestness deeply endearing. Each actor's performance is entrancingly personal and natural - particularly Strathairn, who gives Murrow a subtle humanity covered over by a steely public persona. It's one of the many little-noted performances this year (along with Damian Lewis in Keane) that probably won't scare up any Best Actor buzz this spring, but really should.

The problem with Good Night, though, is that the message of the film is that once upon a time, newsmen gave a damn - but those days are gone now. The film bookends with clips of Strathairn performing Murrow's landmark keynote address at the Radio and Television News Directors Convention (Not to toot my intellectual horn, but I had actually heard about this speech. Admittedly, I'd heard about it in the promotional articles for Good Night, and Good Luck) about how news reporting was being replaced by mere entertainment, and the time has come for television journalists to stand up and use the medium for good. "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire," Murrow notes. "But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

I agree. I do. I truly believe that if television reporting does nothing more than keep the viewer occupied for a moment, if it inspires nothing more than water-cooler talk, then it's wasted breath. And Lord knows I'm tired of: "Big news today in the Middle East - we'll keep you updated on the events as they unfold. But first - Kelly Ripa!"

But I'm not convinced that modern-day journalists have truly lost their belief in the power of the press. Consider the general reaction to Katrina: in the wake of tragedy, the press sprang into action faster than essentially every government office, and spent the next two weeks holding the government's feet to the fire on their lackadasical response. Admittedly, they didn't show a whole lot of disgression in understanding exactly whose feet should be held to which fire ("Hey, Benedict XVI! How could you just stand by and let the U.S. government develop no emergency flooding strategy?"), but no one's arguing that they didn't feel strongly about the issue. As a field reporter for the Daily Show gently lampooned: "I've been in New Orleans for six hours now and I still haven't gotten to publicly berate an official." I think Clooney can rest easy in that regard.

Furthermore, Clooney falls prey to one of the classic blunders (the most famous of which being never, ever give Michael Bay a camera): in striving to drive home a blistering lesson, he becomes the very evil he's fighting. Yes, entertainment shouldn't trump true news reporting in the hearts of television producers - but if that's the case, shouldn't Good Night hold the same tone? Instead, Clooney seems perfectly willing to deviate from his story in order to work in some comic relief: Murrow's interview with Liberace, a highlight of the film, helps loosen up a story becoming too wound up in its own careful pacing and weighty pauses; in the same way, modern newscasting breaks up the fiery crashes and confusing foreign policy with speculation on whether Paris has stolen Mary-Kate's boy toy. Watching Murrow try to hold on to his deadpan interview style across from the most flamboyant of all subjects humanizes his character, just as entertainment news helps humanize a medium that flourishes on destruction and pain.

I'm not saying that Clooney is wrong. I just feel that if you're so willing to film something in black-and-white, you better be ready to deal with the fact that it might be a gray area.

Rating: Lessee here - one star for Strathairn's performance and one for everyone else's, one star for making something as anachronistic as black-and-white movie, one star for making history interesting without adding any homosexuality (in case Oliver Stone ever reads this), minus one star for writing a movie that occasionally borders on propaganda but plus half a star for actually having the balls to make it. Comes out to three and half stars out of five.

There's a good deal of argument in regards to how much Clooney really did stick to the facts. I have an argument here that disseminates (a blogger's favorite word, probably used incorrectly here) an entirely different story about the legend of Edward R. Murrow. It's just as slanted towards conservative thinking as Clooney's is in the opposite direction, but if you watch the film and read the article, you'll find they agree on a number of things:
1. Communism is at least a little bad.
2. McCarthy is not cool. Neither is McCarthyism. Smoking, however, might be cool. Keep that in mind, kids.
3. It's bad to take away people's constitutional rights, even if you really, really want to.

Of course, if you already agree on these things, you don't have to watch the movie or read the article, and you've saved yourself from Saturday night of political debate that can now safely spent snacking. Good job.