Sunday, December 31, 2006

"The Good Shepherd," dir. Robert DeNiro (Oklahoma Gazette)

In fictionalizing the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency, “The Good Shepherd” dares comparison to a slew of great espionage flicks from past decades. To me, however, the movie it most aspires to be isn’t about spies at all, “The Godfather.” That isn’t to say that “The Good Shepherd” is a masterpiece, but its epic tale of secrets, deception and divided loyalties bears the sweep and depth of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic.

No wonder, then, that “The Good Shepherd” is co-produced by Coppola and directed by Robert DeNiro, who earned an Oscar for 1974’s “Godfather, Part II” in 1974. Hey, if you’ve got to model yourself after something, it might as well be the best.

The provocateur protagonist of “Good Shepherd,” Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), is the quintessential CIA spook. A buttoned-up Yale man and member of its elite Skull and Bones secret society, he is recruited in 1940 to help build a secret foreign intelligence operation in anticipation of the United States’ entry into World War II. Edward’s laconic, guarded nature makes him ideal for the job. He accepts the government’s offer, especially after he is forced into a shotgun marriage with a society girl (Angelina Jolie) he barely knows.

Edward goes to work, first in London, where he learns the spy trade from a scholarly British agent (Michael Gambon), and later in post-war Berlin. Spanning from the dawn of the Cold War to the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Edward’s experiences provide a tableau for “The Good Shepherd’s” sharp and involving history of American espionage. DeNiro captures a pitch-perfect tone, from Robert Richardson’s solemn cinematography to a languorous pace that allows this universe of secrets and lies to percolate with intrigue.

Light and shadow are revealed through small details. A character’s seemingly innocuous comment or action can later take on critical meanings; alert moviegoers are likely to find themselves sizing up character right along with Edward. Despite the film’s lengthy running time (167 minutes), the screenplay by Eric Roth (“Munich”) has precious little flab.

Perhaps DeNiro’s considerable acting chops helped spur great performances. Whatever the reason, “The Good Shepherd” uses its star-studded cast to great effect. Jolie, Gambon, DeNiro and John Turturro are memorable in supporting roles, and Tammy Blanchard is heartbreaking as Edward’s college sweetheart.

But this is Matt Damon’s movie all the way. Quiet but with eyes flashing intelligence, he is devastating as a man who sacrifices a personal life for one without trust or intimacy. In fact, the picture’s success at breathing life into Edward Wilson proves to be a double-edged sword. It is difficult for a story to follow a reserved, emotionally remote protagonist without becoming reserved and emotionally remote in the process.

That’s the thing with ambitious projects: Sometimes you stumble. “The Good Shepherd,” whatever its missteps, has ambition to spare. Epic in scope and provocative in execution, the movie is a compelling examination of Cold War-era espionage. The Cold War is over, but the saga of Edward Wilson feels curiously relevant today, in the wake of faulty CIA intelligence on WMDs and questions about where interrogation ends and torture begins.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"The History Boys," dir. Nicholas Hytner (Oklahoma Gazette)

Caveat, cinephile: While you will find much to admire in Nicholas Hytner’s film version of Alan Bennett’s many-award-winning 2004 play, “The History Boys,” you might well, as do I, also find that with which to take exception.

First, that to admire. One of England’s most popular playwrights, Bennett is a writer of wit and emotional insight. The themes in this story of a diverse group of boys at a Yorkshire grammar school working for admission to Cambridge or Oxford are unimpeachable in their wisdom.

In teachers Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), Bennett sets up two opposing approaches to education and comes down heavily on the side of learning for learning’s sake. He scorns the idea of education as a mere means to the end of career success or financial security.

Middle-aged Hector, a portly, impassioned spouter of poetry and lover of lines from melodramatic films, sees learning in the arts and humanities as a never-ending process of life enrichment and character development.

Younger, thinner, hipper Irwin sees education as a tool to achieve goals, the most immediate of which here is acceptance at either Cambridge or Oxford. Irwin teaches strategy, how to spin what one knows and manipulate responses in entrance interviews and on exams to make of oneself a product one of the two prestigious schools will want. What one knows doesn’t matter as much as how one can use it to advance in life.

Hytner also directed the original play, and his filmed version of it is funny and touching and clever almost without pause. Most of the film’s cast comes from that stage production. Griffiths won an Olivier, the British equivalent of a Tony, for his performance. Although their characters are all clearly types — the thick-headed athletic one, the selfish handsome one, the sensitive gay artistic one, etc. — the actors are appealing and, for the most part, believable.

Now, the exception. Set in the homoerotic context of the British all-male grammar school tradition, “The History Boys” explores the sexual tensions inherent in boyish crushes on teachers and the difficulties to which denial of one’s sexuality can lead. No problem.

However, Hector daily takes a different one of his beloved pupils for a ride on the back of his motorbike so he can fondle the boy’s genitals. Problem. A teacher touching a 17- or even 18-year-old student sexually, no matter how vital a life force that teacher represents, just isn’t acceptable. If Hector were a straight man and the student a female, all would be outraged.

Irwin, too, struggles mightily with the desire to have a sexual relationship with a pupil. Problem. In a stagy final scene looking forward to what the boys become as men, the openly gay student explains that now a grammar-school teacher himself, he daily fights the urge to touch his boys. PROBLEM. Suggesting gay men struggle with unceasing desire for young boys feeds a dangerous stereotype unfairly linking homosexuality with pedophilia.

Bennett has expressed in various places his conflicted feelings about his sexual orientation. They show here, and they do harm.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Oklahoma Film Critics Circle Announces 2006 Awards

The Oklahoma Film Critics Circle has announced its annual awards for the best and worst in film for 2006.

“This year saw Oklahoma’s film critics for the first time working as a group in deciding awards on a statewide level,” said Kathryn Jenson White, film critic for the Oklahoma Gazette and founding president of the critics’ organization. “We created OFCC in February 2006 so that we could work together to promote film and increase the visibility of Oklahoma’s film viewing community among filmmakers and studios. The film critics of Oklahoma see all the major films of any given year and write hundreds of reviews of them as individuals. They also choose their best-of-the-year films for their individual media outlets. These awards represent our consensus.”

Representing print outlets in Oklahoma with consistently active film critics — the Oklahoma Gazette, The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, Urban Tulsa Weekly, The Norman Transcript and The Edmond Sun — OFCC has 12 voting members.

“The voting was intense in this our first year,” Jenson White said. “While Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ and Paul Greengrass’ ‘United 93’ were clear favorites, the tally for the rest of the films we nominated for our Top 10 list included many great films just under those that got the most votes. The performance categories were particularly strong in 2006, with only two votes separating Helen Mirren’s amazing depiction of Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen” from Judi Dench’s wonderful turn in ‘Notes on a Scandal.’ The Best First Feature category was also hotly contested, with the film that came in second to ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ ‘Thank You for Smoking,’ gathering passionate support.”

While 2006 ended as a strong year for fine films and outstanding performances, the news wasn’t all good. OFCC critics named 27 films as contenders for Obvious Worst Film of the Year and another 25 for Not-So-Obvious Worst Film of the Year.

“As professional moviegoers, we can’t choose to see just the films we want to, of course, so all our members see many failed films,” Jenson White said. “And although we agree on many films, all of us also have individualized tastes. While ‘Borat’ made our Top 10 list, several of our voting members placed it on one of their worst film nomination slates. ‘Superman Returns’ and ‘Shut Up and Sing’ had champions, but not quite enough votes to make the best list. The Not-So-Obvious Worst Film category contains films that, like this year’s choice, ‘Bobby,’ tried nobly but failed, and films that had many good qualities but some element a critic considered a fatal flaw.”

Not all of 2006’s films opened in Oklahoma before voting for the year’s best took place, although studios provided press screenings and DVDs of many of their films so critics could assess and consider them for year-end awards.

“One of our goals with these awards is to help studios understand that enough Oklahomans love good film to make it worth their while to open films here,” Jenson White said. “We aren’t a major market, but we have a dedicated group of cinephiles in the state who hunger to see the best films made each year.”


Top 10 Movies
“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”
“Casino Royale”
“The Departed”
“Half Nelson”
“The Last King of Scotland”
“Little Children”
“Little Miss Sunshine”
“Pan’s Labyrinth”
“The Queen”
“United 93”

Best Film
“United 93,” dir. Paul Greengrass

Best Director
“Martin Scorsese, “The Departed”

Best First Film
“Little Miss Sunshine,” dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Obviously Worst Film
“Basic Instinct 2,” dir. Michael Caton-Jones

Not So Obviously Worst Film
“Bobby,” dir. Emilio Estevez

Best Actor
Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland”

Best Actress
Helen Mirren, “The Queen”

Best Supporting Actor
Jackie Earle Haley, “Little Children”

Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, “Notes on a Scandal”

Breakout Performance
Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls”

Best Documentary
“An Inconvenient Truth,” dir. Davis Guggenheim

Best Foreign Film
“Pan’s Labyrinth,” dir. Guillermo del Toro

Best Animated Feature
“Cars,” dir. John Lasseter and Joe Ranft

Kathryn Jenson White
Oklahoma Film Critics Circle
405.820.3438 (cell)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"The Pursuit of Happyness," dir. Gabrielle Muccino (Oklahoma Gazette)

Gabriele Muccino’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” so trumpets its uplifting message that whatever subtlety this story of a man’s triumph over adversity might have had gets drowned out in the fanfare. In fact, the title of this teachy/preachy film might just as well have been “The Happyness of Positive Thinking” or “Happyness of Closing the Sale” or even “Chris Gardner’s Pluck,” a nod to the American-dream writing machine who gave repeated fictional voice to what Norman Vincent Peale and Zig Ziglar later made marketable as a commodity: inspirational stories of those who grab the brass ring because of their hard work, faith and determination.

The Italian Muccino directs his first English-language film with a plodding literalism that proves, as it has in many such films, that too much solemn inspiration leads to the expiration of a film’s aesthetic spirit. In an attempt to lighten the lesson’s otherwise unremittingly leaden load of “I think I can, I think I can,” Muccino weaves a running joke involving hippies throughout the plot, but the humor is tone deaf. Equally inharmonious is the film’s self-referentially cute final moment.

Will Smith stars as Chris Gardner, a very wealthy San Francisco stockbroker whose rags-to- riches story — like that phrase — has cliché written all over it. The story is true, however, or at least has the Stephen Colbert-coined quality of “truthiness,” as close as Hollywood generally comes to what really happened under the rubric of “Inspired by a true story” or “Based on a true story.”

In the scripted version of Gardner’s life, we meet him as he is bottoming out financially in ’80s San Francisco — bad years for the economy as Reagan reigned and his trickle down theory led to an economic drought for many in the working and middle classes. Gardner’s wife (Thandie Newton), fed up with the salesman’s failure to support the family, leaves him and their 5-year-old son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will Smith’s son). Gardner asks a man driving a very expensive red sports car what he does for a living. The man tells him he has found the Holy Hot Wheels by being a knight of the stock market.

Gardner undertakes a grueling six-month quest (an unpaid internship at Dean Witter Reynolds) to become a true knight. Along the way he slays the dragons of homelessness and jousts with despair. Because he is pure of heart — spoiler alert (just kidding) — he succeeds.

How close the film’s story is to Gardner’s actual experience is, of course, irrelevant. How close watching this film is to reading the advice in a Franklin Covey planner isn’t. Both the Smiths and Newton deliver solid, believable performances that result in a few true emotional moments. The social commentary on how close many in America are to homelessness rings just as true today as it did during the morning in America years.

Gardner’s real-life achievement is undeniably impressive. Combined, however, these grace notes don’t come together in a stirring symphony of the triumph of the human spirit. If Muccino had turned down the trumpets, they might well have done.

Monday, December 04, 2006

“Déjà Vu,” dir. Tony Scott (Oklahoma Gazette)

Past Mistakes

Living in the past tends to work out better in art than in real life. In moviedom, time travel has long been irresistible, a literal pastime ripe with the stuff of great stories – tragedy and romance, fate and existential crisis. As such, it’s all the more baffling that the action-thriller “Déjà Vu” manages to seem so bloodless.

Denzel Washington stars as Doug Carlin, a sharp-eyed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent looking into the bombing of a New Orleans ferryboat. In the course of his investigation, Doug discovers that the corpse of a woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), has been found washed ashore in a neighboring parish. The body, covered in burns and the residue of explosives, appears to be one of the ferry victims.

Trouble is, Claire’s body was found an hour before the explosion. Doug concludes that the woman’s killer must be the bomber, and that solving Claire’s murder will lead him to the terrorist.

From this tantalizing mystery, “Déjà Vu” disappears down a rabbit hole of strained ideas. Doug is enlisted by an FBI agent (Val Kilmer) to help scan video recorded from a cockamamie device that can show everything in a specified location, and from multiple angles. The only drawback is that the data, ostensibly integrated from satellites, can only reveal what has occurred four days earlier. It isn’t long before Doug learns that the real explanation for what he’s seeing involves string theory, wormholes and the like.

Despite its sci-fi leanings, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Déjà Vu” is grounded in modern-day American disaster. The New Orleans location, of course, reveals a Katrina-ravaged metropolis, while the ferry explosion recalls the World Trade Center attack as well as the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Oklahoma City, in fact, is referenced by Doug and his colleagues as a kind of shorthand for a shared tragedy -- sort of what Chinatown was to the 1974 detective film of the same name.

“Déjà Vu” must have looked great on paper, an action-thriller with a kick of mind-bending time travel. Alas, time-travel flicks invariably suffer from gaping lapses in logic. The successful ones (think “12 Monkeys” or even “Back to the Future”) overcome such handicaps by highlighting the romanticism of the exercise. But “Déjà Vu” fails to muster much humanity. Tony Scott’s direction is muscular but soulless. Like a speck of dirt on a white glove, the movie’s slickness makes it easier to spot the plot holes, none of which can really be discussed here without spoilers.

Inspired moments are compromised when the story can’t withstand even mild scrutiny. No one can deny the giddy fun of a chase involving an ATF agent and the phantom image of a car from four days earlier -- but it makes no sense, not even in the convoluted ground rules set up by “Déjà Vu.”

Still, truly bodacious movies deserve some praise. Mainstream Hollywood movies are not exactly renowned for taking risks, and so a flick willing to do so -- however flawed -- is worth an attaboy or two.

"Stranger Than Fiction," dir. Marc Forster (Oklahoma Gazette)

Literary Device

Recently a friend of mine was reading a bedtime story to his four-year-old daughter when she blindsided him with a question. Did the characters in the story, she demanded to know, realize they were in a book?

Good question. My friend was stumped.

That sort of query likely inspired novice screenwriter Zach Helm to pen “Stranger Than Fiction,” which imagines what would happen if a flesh-and-blood man discovered that he was in a work of literature.

At first blush, one might assume the movie is the creation of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Adaptation”) Hollywood’s reigning master of absurdity. But this film plays more like Kaufman Lite. While Helm and director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) have devised a plot that M.C. Escher would have loved, “Stranger Than Fiction” is more interested in tugging heartstrings than blowing minds.

Will Ferrell finally graduates from raucous comedy to quirky leading man as IRS agent Harold Crick, a painfully straight arrow who leads a painfully solitary existence. As an omniscient female narrator tells us, Harold eats alone, washes the dishes alone and sleeps alone. In the morning, he counts brushstrokes while brushing his teeth.

Soon we learn that this narrator also happens to be audible to Harold Crick. The internal voice starts to drive him batty, especially when he is sent to audit a free-spirited baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), to whom he is strongly attracted.

The voiceover strikes an ominous tone after Harold resets his wristwatch and asks a stranger for the correct time. “Little did he know,” intones the narrator, “that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”

Afraid he has somehow been ensnared by fiction, Harold seeks help from a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman). The professor advises that Harold’s best hope for self-preservation might be to try ensuring that his story is a comedy. There’s only one hitch; Harold is trapped in tragedy. His author, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is renowned for killing off her main characters. Fortunately for Harold, she is paralyzed by writer’s block, unsure of how to snuff out her newest protagonist.

Ferrell gets to flex his acting chops here, playing a character so perversely guarded that even his apartment is an exercise in drabness. The entire cast shines. Thompson is terrifically neurotic as the chain-smoking novelist, and Gyllenhaal and Hoffman are typically excellent. Only Queen Latifah seems wasted in a pointless role as Kay’s assistant.

“Stranger Than Fiction” poses rarified questions about fiction, but in the end it’s a genuinely sentimental tale that revels in the pleasures of the real world. As Harold resolves to live the life he’s always wanted, “Stranger Than Fiction” finds much to love -- timeless literature, Fender Stratocasters and, in one memorable scene, milk and cookies. Such joys receive an ample boost from a stellar post-punk soundtrack that features Spoon and the Jam.

The movie also celebrates great storytelling. For all its winking postmodernist vibe, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a real crowd-pleaser. It toys with art and reality, but ultimately acknowledges that both realms have very different responsibilities.