Sunday, October 22, 2006

What so proudly we hail...

Clint Eastwood’s devastating Flags of Our Fathers isn’t really a war movie. Or more precisely, it’s much more than a war movie. It’s a meditation on war, on the gap between the nightmarish events experienced by those who fight and the superficial imagery that those outside of war manipulate in the name of politics and patriotism.
It’s the story of an image, the famous photo of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima: You’ve seen the picture a thousand times but the ideas behind it – the heroism that you might have taken for granted, just as awestruck observers did when it turned up on every front page back in 1944 - are far more complicated. Used as a symbol of the final rush to victory at the end of World War Two, it’s a powerful icon. But as this film shows, it remains just a symbol, and the gap between that familiar but faceless group struggling with a flagpole and the real lives of the six men in the photo is bitter and heartbreaking.
That Eastwood is a masterful director is no surprise to anyone who’s followed his career, but as he gracefully allowed his own career as an actor to take a backseat, he is becoming increasingly ambitious, backing away from conventional narratives and allowing his films to breathe with their own sense of rhythm and environment. Just as Million Dollar Baby started out as a sports movie and trapped the audience into experiencing something far more deep and disturbing, Flags of Our Fathers starts with a few familiar notes from war movies and nostalgia, but they’re just part of a subtle plan to strip the glamour from the victory rallies and photo opportunities and reveal the real aftermath of war on the men who fought it. Just as his last film considered life and death with insight and depth but without a trace of sentimentality, Eastwood raises issues about war and heroism that few other filmmakers dare to approach.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Random Notes

When word leaked out that Andrew Lloyd Webber had been trying to get Scarlett Johannson to star in a revival of "The Sound of Music", I was a little surprised. Can she sing? And even if she can, does she really want to risk comparisons with the multi-octave range of Julie Andrews? This week, however, interest in Ms. Johannson's musical talents returned with the news of a record deal. The first release (which makes me laugh every time I think about it): "Scarlett Johannson sings Tom Waits".

Most of the obituaries for writer Jerry Belson stress - and rightly so - his work on the likes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Tracey Ullman Show", both of which deserve their reputations. But I'd also put in a word for two small comic gems Belson wrote for the big screenin the 1970s, Michael Ritchie's Smile, and Burt Reynolds' underrated (in fact, practically unknown) The End. (I could probably add a third Evil Roy Slade, a rare gag-oriented made-for-tv movie.)

Wonkette reports that the Leader of the Free World (TM) watched two movies at Camp David thsi weekend: Talladega Nights: The Story of Ricky Bobby and Jackass 2. I tried to find a news report confirming this, but..well, you just see what happens when you do a Google search containing "President Bush" and "Jackass".

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Don't call it a comeback.

Forget all of the silly “comeback” pieces – they’re the province of unimaginative journalists and editors who believe that their primary audience is composed of trend-chasing 24 year olds. The pleasures of The Departed come from Scorsese doing what he has always done best, telling a complex story (in terms of psychology as well as narrative) with a cinematic style that lives up to the medium’s name: moving pictures. It’s fast, sometimes confusing (but in a way that encourages multiple viewings) and unsparingly bleak in its portrayal of corruption and evil. Evil, as it happens, is the central theme of Scorsese’s film, and if you’re thinking that there’s a happy ending that which redeem anyone – from the devilish mob boss played by Jack Nicholson to the twin pairs of moles – a cop pretending to be a hood and a hood pretending to be a cop – played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon – well, you’ve got the wrong picture. I won’t give away plot points: if you’ve seen Infernal Affairs, it’s a surprisingly faithful remake, but with a better grip on the psychological pressures that turn these two warring moles into near-psychotic adversaries. Why worry about comparing it to Goodfellas or Casino or anything else? It’s a serious work from a major film artist. That’s not good enough for you?

A brief and somewhat fatuous interview with Scorsese can be found here.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

After Shock

Belatedly turning up on video this week after making the festival rounds in 2004, Wim WendersLand of Plenty has the feel of his more off-the-cuff pictures like Lisbon Story or Alice in the Cities, but its subject – the after-effects of the World Trade Center bombing - give it a searing significance that belies the off-key slightness of the narrative. Like The Million Dollar Hotel and The End of Violence, it uses a decaying Los Angeles as a symbol for a confused and bankrupt culture, but it’s also something of a road movie, a quest for answers in this violent and paranoid time. It’s about two crossed paths: Lana (Michelle William) is a young woman returning from a stay in Palestine to work in a downtown homeless shelter. Her uncle Paul (John Diehl, who gives an almost indescribably good performance) is her sole relative in the area, but he’s reluctant to make much of a connection; he prefers to spend his time cruising the streets in his van like Travis Bickle starring in a one-man version of The Conversation, taking part in an electronic network of paranoiacs keeping tabs on Arabs and other non-Americans. Despite being at cross purposes, the murder of a homeless Middle Eastern man brings uncle and niece together and they try to learn the victim's identity and return him to a suitable resting place. Do they find a common ground? Answers? Not really, but if you're among those who think this country went just a little bit crazy five years ago, you'll admire Land of Plenty for the questions it raises about these nervous times.

View the trailer here.

Speaking of Wenders, he recently took part in some sort of international think-tank called Dropping Knowledge, the Global Dialog Platform. Find out more here.

And for more video – on a much lighter note, Lemony Snicket channels Bob Dylan in this short video reminding us that The End is near – just six days away, in fact.