Monday, February 19, 2007
From Denmark and made in 1996 (the first part of the eventual Pusher Trilogy), Pusher explores a week in the life of a small-time drug dealer who tries to solve his money problems by getting in over his head on a big score. It balances the ordinariness of the everyday with gritty street life existence and does so convincingly.
Frank seems to be eking out a meager existence as a dealer. He pals around with his friend Tonny and is involved romantically with Vic, a dancer. When an old jail acquaintance comes to him with a sure thing, Frank goes into hock with even further with Milo, the local bigwig. In between he stays out late, parties, and has inane conversations with Tonny about sex and women.
As Frank’s dilemma builds the mood of the movie becomes more frantic. His brooding personality turns to distraction as he attempts to collect money form the various losers that owe him. Soon, of course, this all catches up to him. The movie is at once grim with cloudy, damp, cold Denmark as a backdrop, as well as human. Frank becomes not an anti-hero of cool as portrayed in many modern films that feature such characters, but a well-rounded and deftly conceived character that makes poor decisions to correct bad ones.
There are some heart-pounding scenes of power by director Nicolas Winding Refn – Frank running through the streets shown from a longview from the sidewalk with the police in pursuit and when Frank at his wit’s end tries to collect money from a hapless and scared junkie. The script tells it story without the flair for the melodramatic and/or grandiose exclamation point that spoils many of the genre’s endings. Instead, the finality and ambiguity of ending simply adds a period to the final shot to make all that leads up to it all the more remarkable.
A mish-mash of a movie that is clumsy and shallow and an altogether poor follow-up to the previous two X-Men movies, X-Men 3: The Last Stand is disappointing mostly because of the potential that it wastes. The previous installments directed by Bryan Singer, provide much fertile ground for this story to take seed, yet it uses narrative as distraction between action scenes and doesn’t try to drill for the depths that seems to come naturally for other comic book movies (Spiderman for instance).
The story is about a mutant who is able to take powers away from other movies and the pharmaceutical company that exploits this child’s power to create a “cure” for all mutants. The allegory that exists between this and the search for the “gay gene” in our contemporary times is unexplored. The head of the drug company moves ahead with this because his son is a mutant with big feathery wings sprouting from his back. Fans of the X-Men comic book will be sorely disappointed to see how underdeveloped the character of Angel is. To say he’s a plot device to make a point about the kindness in those poor misunderstood mutant hearts is an understatement. The use of Angel and his relationship with his father is contrived, silly, and laughably resolved.
There’s also incoherence to the scenes. Wolverine murderously slices his way through Magneto’s guards outside of a forest retreat. That’s it. Nothing more happens. Just an excuse to have Wolverine go on a killing rampage. There are a few surprises but these are shoehorned in between such drivel that their dramatic effect is negated. The fate of Wolverine’s love for Jean Grey is ham-handedly foreshadowed that one waits with impatience for it to happen if only so that this ordeal of a movie can end.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Half Nelson concerns itself with a middle-school teacher with a drug habit, the student who discovers him smoking crack in the gym locker room, and the complicated relationship that ensues between the two. Its strongest point is the straightforward way that Dan Dunne’s, the teacher, and Drea’s, the student, concern for each other affect the unfolding of the story. Drea’s back-story – her imprisoned brother and her surrogate father, who is also a drug-dealer – are known to the audience but are kept from Dan. How this lack of knowledge affects the way Dan approaches Drea’s wellbeing is superbly illustrated.
Though the movie does lag a bit after the initial set-up and takes, perhaps, too long to reach its end, it’s anchored by the performances. Ryan Gosling is understated as the teacher. He reaches not for pathos but achieves sympathy for exacting the line between his own tormented actions and his need to do well in the classroom. Shareeka Epps as Drea shows a determined yet vulnerable strength as she struggles to understand her teacher’s weaknesses, her mother’s absence due to working double shifts and Frank’s, the local drug dealer, kindness and generosity.
The movie becomes episodic in its middle part – and a few of these represent the heart of the movie: Dan runs into a father of a former student at a bar and Drea visits her brother in prison. Early in the film, Dan tells an acquaintance that he just wants to reach one student and that’s all. These scenes heart-wrenchingly display the yawning divide that all teachers must navigate: their own failings and the complex tug of the world outside of the classroom.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
Why We Fight looks at the motivation of the current Iraq War by documenting the half-century of the growing “military-industrial complex.” Lucidly and forthrightly presenting the business and political needs for war, this documentary powerfully explains the current imperial folly our country has undertaken and the institutions in place that allows it to do so. As one speaker explains it, the idea of war – and the businesses that manufacture the weapons, the armed forces that spend the money to buy those weapons, the think tanks that write policy supporting the use of those weapons, and the politicians that protect the weapons-makers - is so embedded in the fabric of our foreign policy that it is invisible. For example, while as Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney saw a proposal for the army to outsource its service programs to private concerns. Later as CEO of Halliburton, one of its subsidiaries, Kellogg, Brown and Root becomes the country’s leader in providing these services to the Pentagon. Then as Vice President, Halliburton wins a no-bid contract for non-military services in the Iraq war. Of course, this evolution is by the book in the legal sense and there’s no paper trail of criminal misdeeds or shadowy conspiracy. This allows those that connect the dots to be written off as paranoid. But the dots are there to be connected. And to not be a little paranoid at this juncture is to be guilty of partaking in the “legalized corruption,” in the words of another commentator, of our system of laws that have allowed this entrenchment to become the status quo.
Monday, February 05, 2007
I remember while watching Nevada Smith as a boy being befuddled near the movie’s climax when Nevada has a change of heart toward the man who killed his parents. The same man he had vowed revenge on and pursued for all those years. He sought this man the entire movie only to give up now? It made no sense. My cousin explained to me that heroes don’t kill for revenge and Nevada realized this thus becoming a true hero. Oh, I thought. OK. That makes sense. The film set me up for revenge as Nevada’s triumph and instead, he achieved a triumph of a different kind. Wow, what a great movie my 8-year old self thought.
That was one of my first experiences with the Western. That archetype of the cowboy hero with the white hat has stayed with me – and stays with me still. Of course the portrayal of such heroes has become more complex. Perhaps, it was the cynical Vietnam-era movies like The Wild Bunch that ushered in the change. There the story centers on a ragtag group of anti-heroes and the viewer’s bloodlust is rewarded, in a sense, by a great violent ending (that also captivated my younger self). Live by the gun; die by the gun, so to speak. Later still, we have William Munny of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. An anti-hero - his revenge scene is the best scene in a movie rife with great scenes -who can’t change yet he survives.
Mixing many of these archetypes and set on a smaller, character-driven scale – yet pregnant with epic ambition - is Seraphim Falls, a solid revenge movie that begins in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in 1868 and ends in the cracked-earth desolation of a Nevada desert. Its main strength is the set-up: it begins as a terrific pursuit movie. Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) is shot while preparing a rabbit over a fire. He tumbles down the snowy mountain, falls into a icy river, and keeps on the move not knowing who pursues him or why. Soon we meet Carver (Liam Neeson) and 4 trackers. This opening sequence spans about 20 minutes and is done with minimal dialogue. It is exhilarating to watch. The patience of Carver contrasted with the frenzied escape of Gideon presents two elements that will define the rest of the story: Carver’s commitment to killing this man and Gideon’s ability to survive.
Carver wants Gideon dead for committing a terrible act of war involving Carver’s family in the waning days of the Civil War, an act that haunts both men. The one weakness of the screenplay (by David Von Ancken, who also directed, and Abby Everett Jaques) is that Gideon is given too much wiggle room to not be personally responsible for the crime against Carver’s family. His “it was war” excuse doesn’t satisfy Carver (and it shouldn’t), but it seemed that it tries to hard to exonerate him to the audience. In addition, the story almost loses its footing with some heavy-handed metaphors about using violence as an end versus finding a remedy to one’s problems. It worked for me – I didn’t mind the intrusion of the Indian at the waterhole or the traveling saleswoman peddling snake oil - with the exception of one scene where Gideon allows a bottle of elixir (“to fix what ails you”) to crash to the ground.
The movie is grounded by the performances: Brosnan is at his peak and probably the best I’ve ever seen him. Recovering in a small ranch while on the run, he has a gentle scene with a young boy then turns steely as the boy makes a grab for his satchel. Neeson matches him. His stature serves him well as the pursuit begins – he bullies the other trackers with the right amount of authority and threat. He faces an imperious railroad foreman with disdain and guile. Then his hulking presence, with the shoulders drooping, as he and Brosnan are both beaten and weary from the pursuit shows the cost of his obsession.
Carver’s quest for revenge puts him on the road that Gideon has been traveling all this time. Coming across an abandoned wagon in the desert, Carver remarks that there are choices a man makes to end up in a place like this. The real trick is finding out what a man needs to do to get out of a place like that.