Thursday, May 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.20: Ridley Scott's Robin Hood

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 29 (C-)

Man oh man, do I hate to end things on a negative note. Ridley Scott has made more strong films in the past decade than many give credit (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick men, Kingdom of Heaven’s Director’s Cut), but his output as of late has been more than a little dispiriting, starting with the thoroughly mediocre and anonymous romance-comedy A Good Year to the solid but impersonal American Gangster to the eminently forgettable Body of Lies. His most recent film at least sounded more promising at its inception: originally titled Nottingham, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’ spec script was one of the most original Robin Hood tales ever conceived.

The film would feature the Sheriff of Nottingham as the central character, a sympathetic man in a love triangle with Maid Marian and a nasty version of Robin Hood, all while the sheriff investigates a series of grisly murders that Robin was framed for. Russell Crowe was cast as Robin Hood, and Ridley Scott was brought on as director. For whatever reason, Scott decided to go with a more traditional Robin Hood tale (or rather a “how he became Robin Hood” tale) written by Brian Helgeland of L.A. Confidential fame. The result is the single most tedious film of Scott’s career.

Robin Longstride (Crowe in his fifth and worst film with Scott) is an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army. As he returns from the Crusades, he voices his unhappiness with being part of the violent struggle, and he and his friends are imprisoned. Richard (Danny Huston) is soon killed by the treacherous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), who works for the French army. Richard’s wicked brother John (Oscar Isaac) takes over England, and soon harsh taxes begin over the people. Robin impersonates a dead knight and, in accordance with the knight’s wishes, visits his father (Max von Sydow) and his widow Marian (Cate Blanchett). Robin is soon caught up in a war between France and England, and he, Marian, and his gang of “merry men” fight for England, and for freedom.

Robin Hood is more immediately recognizable as a Ridley Scott film than A Good Year, American Gangster, and Body of Lies, in that Scott plays more with lighting and stages more epic battle scenes in keeping with his more recent war epics. But where Gladiator was exhilarating, Black Hawk Down punishing, and Kingdom of Heaven thoughtful, Robin Hood is mostly forgettable. Yes, the battle scenes are expertly staged, as always. But we’ve seen battle sequences from Scott before, and better. When Scott more or less restages the opening sequence from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for the climax, it’s hard not to think of the better film that influenced it. It plays almost like a parody of Scott’s other war epics, with none of the rousing energy or emotional power. Scott’s previous epics recalled the grandeur of Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and Seven Samurai. Robin Hood shows how Scott had wringed this formula dry by the end of the 2000s. And where Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven were vivid and used the period details to enhance their story, Robin Hood is murky, dreary, and no fun to look at.

Robin Hood has a good cast, but it doesn’t use them particularly well. Danny Huston’s Richard the Lionheart makes little impression, nor do the various merry men or William Hurt as William Marshal. Max von Sydow is solid, as always, but isn’t given much to do other than play the kindly old man. Oscar Isaac was a bright spot in Body of Lies, but he’s basically asked to repeat Joaquin Phoenix’s role in Gladiator, but with a weaker script to work with. Mark Strong is fine as Godfrey, but he’s played so many villains over the past few years that this one doesn’t do much to distinguish itself. As for Crowe and Blanchett? Neither of them are actively bad, but they’re working with a script that takes itself too seriously despite giving them virtually no depth of character to work with. He’s a hero because he’s Robin Hood, she’s a heroine because she’s Maid Marian. Yawn.

It’s an old question at this point, but really: did we need another Robin Hood? Did we need an origin story for him? It isn’t even as if this is Gladiator, a familiar story told a new way. This is an old story told a painfully generic and comically solemn way, with characters and colors that all bleed together in the tedium. It has none of the emotion or thought behind Scott’s best films. Much blame can go to Crowe for not fighting for the original script and the new work by Helgeland (whose work outside of his Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential is a little less impressive), with its focus on dull political subplots like no Scott film since 1492. At the end of the day, though, Scott chose to make this ossified, dull piece of junk, and it can’t even be called one of his interesting failures. It’s part of a recent run of generic films from Scott, and it’s easily the weakest.

But, on the bright side, it might be the last. Scott remains one of the most gifted craftsmen of his generation, one whose best work ranks among the best genre films ever made. Prometheus, his first return to sci-fi since his masterpiece Blade Runner and a prequel to the space-horror film Alien, looks like one of his most promising features in years. His work with Michael Fassbender in Prometheus has prompted him to work with Fassbender again on the Cormac McCarthy-penned The Counselor. He has his name attached to a number of other projects, some promising (Tripoli), some curious (Blade Runner sequel), some…bizarre (a film based on the board game Monopoly…no, really). Here’s hoping we get a few more gems.

Ridley Scott: All Films Considered.

1.     Blade Runner (A)
2.     Alien (A)
3.     Kingdom of Heaven (A)
4.     Thelma and Louise (A-)
5.     Black Hawk Down (A-)
6.     Matchstick Men (A-)
7.     The Duellists (A-)
8.     Gladiator (B+)
9.     White Squall (B)
10.  American Gangster (B)
11.  G.I. Jane (B-)
12.  Body of Lies (B-)
13.  Legend (C+)
14.  Someone to Watch Over Me (C)
15.  A Good Year (C)
16.  Hannibal (C-)
17.  Black Rain (C-)
18.  Robin Hood (C-)
19.  1492: Conquest of Paradise (D+)

Shorts: 1984 (A), Boy and Bicycle (B)

Best Actor: Harrison Ford (Blade Runner)
Runner-up: Russell Crowe (Gladiator)

Best Actress: Sigourney Weaver (Alien)
Runner-up: Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise)

Best Supporting Actor: Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner)
Runner-up: Edward Norton (Kingdom of Heaven)

Best Supporting Actress: Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men)
Runner-up:  Sean Young (Blade Runner)

Best scene: “Tears in the rain…” (Blade Runner)
Runner-up: Ripley’s escape (Alien)

Director Spotlight will be on break in June, but in its place will be a special project with The Film Temple's terrific sister site, G-blatt's Dreams ( highlighting the work of the great popcorn filmmaker James Cameron, just in time for the summer. Updates will take a bit longer, but we're both excited about this. Hope you are too.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.19: Ridley Scott's Body of Lies

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 55 (B-)

Body of Lies is a perfectly OK spy movie. It features solid performances, a passable script, and reasonably well-directed action sequences. Why, then, is it such an unsatisfactory movie? The problem isn’t just that it doesn’t stand out from other spy thrillers of the era. The problem is that it wasn’t directed by some nobody Hollywood action director; it was directed by Ridley Scott, a master filmmaker whose films in the past, even at their weakest, often features unforgettable sequences, and Body of Lies is forgettable above all else.

Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a spy in the Middle East working on bringing down terrorist Al-Saleem. Ferris’ boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe in his fourth film with Scott) is a blustery CIA man using questionable tactics in the War on Terror. When Ferris gets in the good grace with Jordanian Intelligence head Hani-Salaam (Mark Strong), he finds assistance tracking down Al-Saleem. But things get complicated when he falls for a pretty girl in Jordan, and Ferris soon doubts who he can really trust in a game of political intrigue.

Say something for Body of Lies: it’s slightly more distinctive looking than American Gangster. Scott’s atmospheric lighting touches come into play a bit more often than they did in his previous film, almost by necessity considering the absence of artificial light in most of the film’s locations. The film, unfortunately, doesn’t have any of the magnetism of Scott’s best films (even the lightning-quick Black Hawk Down featured some truly hypnotic moments). Scott is a terrific craftsman, but his craftsmanship seems to be mostly on cruise-control in this workmanlike film.

The cast, as with American Gangster, is solid. Oscar Isaac makes a good impression as a doomed associate of DiCaprio’s, while Mark Strong sells the high-class arrogance of Hani-Salaam (his frequent pronouncement of “my dear” is a nice touch). The real scene-stealer in Body of Lies, however, is Crowe in a juicy supporting role that’s his best non-Gladiator work with Scott. Like Strong’s character, the man is arrogant, but it’s a more easygoing arrogance of a man who knows he’s in control and doesn’t need to be in shape or wield a gun to know it. Whenever Crowe talks down to Hani or convinces Ferris to do something terrible, the film lights up.

DiCaprio, unfortunately, overplays his part as Roger Ferris. In all fairness, it’s hard for him to grab onto much when the character basically feels like a retread of Billy Costigan in The Departed (also written by William Monahan), nor does the script give him the necessary reflectiveness on his morally ambiguous deeds except in a few unconvincing scenes. It doesn’t help that he’s given an unconvincing, unnecessary love interest. Still, DiCaprio doesn’t sell the existential dread of the character nearly as well as he has in other films (The Departed, Shutter Island, Inception).

The film is a bit of a continuation of screenwriter William Monahan’s interest in political and moral ambiguity in both religious conflict (as in the superior Kingdom of Heaven) and modern technological war on crime/terror (The Departed). But neither Monahan nor Scott explore much of what these webs of lies and secrecies mean, aside from fairly vague pronouncements about untrustworthy governments. At the end of the day, it’s nothing that the Bourne movies or other spy thrillers haven’t done before, and better. Body of Lies feels like every spy movie ever made. Coming from two major talents like Scott and Monahan, that’s a damn shame.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.18: Ridley Scott's American Gangster

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 66 (B)

Grades don’t tell the whole story. Of the two “killer girl” movies I reviewed in the past couple years (Hannah, The Hunger Games), the latter is more successful at what it’s trying to do, but I’d recommend the former first because it’s more ambitious and more interesting, even if it doesn’t work as well as it should. I bring this up because while American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s well-liked 2007 crime drama, gets a “B” where, say, G.I. Jane got a “B-“, I’d recommend the latter first without missing a beat. Why? Because G.I. Jane, while marred with a ludicrous third act and a dumbass script, is more interesting on a directorial level and has striking sequences that are burned into my mind (plus you can just shut it off after the end of the second act). American Gangster, while perfectly solid, features little to distinguish itself from other gangster films.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is an enforcer for black crime lord “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When “Bumpy” dies of a heart attack and a bunch of flashy, sloppy gangsters come in, the strictly professional Frank takes over Harlem crime with a potent brand of heroin called Blue Magic. As Frank rises to become the biggest kingpin in New York, he gets in with mobster Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) and battles with corrupt cop Trupo (Josh Brolin). Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe in his third film with Scott) gains notoriety as an honest cop who’s tough on crime and corruption. Richie becomes the head of a new drug task force that will bring Frank down.

Scott assembles a hell of a cast: Brolin, on the way to a major comeback with the same year’s No Country for Old Men; veteran character actors like Ted Levine (as Richie’s superior), Assante; newer character actors like John Hawkes (as one of Richie’s partners) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Frank’s cousin); Ruby Dee (in her only Oscar-nominated performance) as Frank’s mother; Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a flashy gangster, and two Oscar-winning leads. Scott also has an Oscar-winning screenwriter like Steve Zaillian, whose research into the particulars of Harlem in the 70s feels extensive.

The problem is that American Gangster feels like every gangster movie ever made. The scenes where scrappy gangster Frank becomes the biggest and baddest guy around recalls Scarface. The “cool-headed leader” thing is straight out of The Godfather. The period detail, while strong, too often seems like it’s mimicking old Blaxploitation films like Superfly or Across 110th Street (the theme of which shows up, reminding us of its better use in Jackie Brown). Scott depictions of the ins and outs of the drug trade feels like Goodfellas, whereas the cops and criminals storyline recalls The Departed. It’s not that the film can’t borrow from other movies- it’s that it doesn’t do anything new with these tropes that’s ultimately frustrating.

Worse still, the cast, however strong, doesn’t get to do all that much. Ejiofor, Assante, Gooding, Hawkes, and Levine are all fairly wasted. Brolin is good, but he feels a bit like every dirty-cop ever. Dee is strong, but her Oscar-nomination feels more like an apology for ignoring her work in Do the Right Thing. Crowe is reliably solid, but he’s stuck with the hoariest cop-movie clichés in the world: dedicated cop can’t keep a marriage together, his partner dies from a drug overdose and he vows revenge, he’s so straight that he’s in danger, etc. It’s Serpico (with a dash of Donnie Brasco), but without Al Pacino’s immediacy or quiet desperation. It doesn’t help that Crowe played a cop before in L.A. Confidential (his best performance) and an honest man squeezed by corruption in The Insider. Bud White and Jeffrey Wigand are such memorable and fully-formed characters that Richie Roberts’ cop melodrama can’t help but seem a little familiar.

Scott’s work seems to have gone mostly into the production design (which is, admittedly, fantastic). American Gangster is well-crafted and has the same meticulous design of all Scott films, but the filmmaking feels strangely generic. There are a handful of solid set-pieces, but for the most part American Gangster feels like Scott making a gangster movie just because, well, he’s making a gangster movie. There aren’t any hypnotic shots or sequences in the old Ridley Scott style, and while his signature atmospheric lighting comes in at a few places, the film mostly feels frustratingly generic. It’s not that the film isn’t solid and perfectly entertaining. It’s that it’s workmanlike where even Scott’s biggest duds of the past (Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, 1492, Hannibal) had moments of astonishing filmmaking that felt unique and fresh even where their scripts failed.

But, then again, a solid film is a solid film, and American Gangster has one element that does feel fresh: Denzel Washington. Washington has done too many lousy thrillers in the past decade, but he always brings gravitas and charisma to his role. Frank Lucas isn’t as memorable as his terrific bad-guy role in Training Day, but Washington’s stillness and control throughout the film makes him the one truly great element of the film (whenever Crowe comes up, you wish that Washington would come back). He’s a character who represents progress: money loss for the Italians and the dirty cops, the chance that black businessmen (what is a gangster but a capitalist at his most foul?) can take over the world. His relation to the film is similar to Jay-Z’s relation to his equally solid album inspired by the film (also called American Gangster): love the performer. The work around him? Eh, it’s alright.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Director's Spotlight #7.17: Ridley Scott's A Good Year

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 37 (C)

After a mammoth undertaking like Kingdom of Heaven, it isn’t unreasonable that Ridley Scott might kick back a bit and do a project that’s a little more lightweight. The problem with 2006’s A Good Year isn’t that it’s a lightweight movie. The problem is that it’s a dull romance-comedy with little in the way of romance or comedy. The film was Scott’s first feature with Russell Crowe since their Oscar-winner Gladiator. It’s hard not to wonder whether or not they couldn’t have found anything better than this.

Max Skinner (Crowe) is a  stockbroker in London with little regard for anyone but himself. When his beloved uncle Henry (Albert Finney) dies, he leaves his vineyard in Provence, France to his nephew. Max travels to Provence to sell the vineyard, but he runs into a few things on the way: Christie (Abbie Cornish), Henry’s illegitimate daughter who has a stake in the vineyard, and Fanny (Marion Cotillard), a spirited waitress who Max starts to fall for. Max slowly starts to realize that there’s more to life than money and at this point you know exactly where this film is going.

That plot, however generic, isn’t necessarily a bad movie. The problem is that screenwriter Marc Klein doesn’t give the cast anything funny to say or do. There are plenty of feeble attempts at physical comedy- Russell Crowe in a tiny car! He accidentally runs Marion Cotillard off the road! She bruises her fanny (and her name is Fanny) and later shows a whole crowd what he’s done! A dog just peed on Russell Crowe’s foot! He’s playing tennis and getting really tired! A scorpion just found it’s way into the house! Wine humor! After a while, you get the point: none of this is the least bit humorous, amusing, or charming.

It doesn’t help that Russell Crowe, while a terrific actor with a wider range than some give him credit, is not a naturally comic actor and seems out of place in the film (Colin Firth and Hugh Grant seem like better fits for this material). The romance of A Good Year doesn’t work either, considering how bland and unappealing Crowe’s character is. An about-to-be-huge Cotillard at least animates the film a little bit, but for the most part Crowe’s character seems undeserving of her love or this opportunity.

But what about Scott? Surely the man who made even Black Rain and Hannibal good looking could make this watchable? Well here’s the worst part about A Good Year: with the exception of his usual gift at photographing scenery and capturing shafts of light on film, this is barely recognizable as a part of Scott’s filmography. Gone are the vivid colors and bold choices, replaced by a muted tone in London and a generic middlebrow art-house feel. Scott doesn’t bring the stakes, his craftsmanship doesn’t carry over to comedy, and after a short time the film is overcome by stultifying dullness. I eventually gave up trying to fit this thing into his filmography and started counting the number of glasses of wine in the film (I counted 38). The scenery is nice, but it’s in support of the stalest, blandest comedy on the face of the earth. It’s all scenery, no substance.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.16: Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut)

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 91 (A)

I probably should have forgone “Ridley Scott’s best film since Blade Runner” until I had caught up with all of his most acclaimed films. I described Thelma & Louise as such, but Black Hawk Down would easily rival it. And with Prometheus looking like Scott’s most promising film in some time, it might be better to not throw the phrase around again and make it seem meaningless. But Kingdom of Heaven is one of Scott’s very best films, his most ambitious since Blade Runner, and one of the most underrated films of the 2000s.

That might surprise some, considering the film’s reputation. Released in 2005 to box office disappointment and critical shrugs, Kingdom of Heaven was knocked for its choppy pacing, poorly defined characters, subplots that went nowhere, poorly thought out love story, and thin connections to the modern religious conflict. My memories of Kingdom of Heaven were dismissive, and a repeat viewing didn’t do it any favors (Grade: C+). When the film received a Director’s Cut release on DVD, I ignored it. Too many of Scott’s recent films (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster) have received extended cuts that added in deleted scenes against the director’s wishes. I truly didn’t believe that a new version of Kingdom of Heaven could be much better.

It is. Scott was unhappy with the film’s treatment, which trimmed the 191-minute film to just under two-and-a-half hours. The restored version doesn’t just add more time- it adds the real meat of the character’s relationships, a sense of who they are and why they make their decisions, a more cohesive structure, a brisker pace (longer, but things cohere now), and real thematic weight. Kingdom of Heaven’s Director’s Cut is no longer “Gladiator goes to the Crusades”- it’s a rousing epic in the style of Lawrence of Arabia, Seven Samurai, or the more recent Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The four-disc DVD splits the film into a roadshow presentation, complete with an Overture, an Intermission (continue Part 2 on Disc 2), and an Entr’acte. This is the way the movie should have been seen, and now that it exists, it’s the only way the movie should be seen. Forget the bastardized theatrical version. Had the film been released as originally intended, it likely would have been received as one of the best films of 2005. As it is, too many people still need to rediscover it.

1184, France: blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is haunted by his wife’s suicide and shunned by the villagers. His scheming priest half-brother (Michael Sheen) manipulates him and uses him to get in the good graces of the town’s lord. One day, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) arrives with his group of Crusaders, ostensibly to visit with his nephew, who leads the town. Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father, and he implores his son to join him on the way to Jerusalem, where he serves the king. Along the way, Godfrey is mortally wounded by his scheming nephew. He knights his son and orders him to go to Jerusalem, serve the king, and protect the helpless before succumbing to his wounds.

 In Jerusalem, Balian befriends Raymond of Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), a knight who wishes for peace with the Muslims, and the peace-inclined King Baldwin (Edward Norton), who’s dying of leprosy. Raymond clashes with Raynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), a knight guilty of massacring Muslim caravans, while Balian finds a rival in the power-hungry Guy of Lusignon (Marton Czokas) and a love in Guy’s wife (and Baldwin’s sister) Princess Sibylla (Eva Green). As King Baldwin’s health weakens and Guy seems poised to take over, the conflict with Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) looms, and Balian must take leadership to defend the people of Jerusalem and find a peaceful solution.

 In many ways, Kingdom of Heaven feels like the film Scott has been building to his whole career. It features his most successful religious themes since Blade Runner, a more successful look at religion in history than 1492, a strong female character to rival either Thelma or Louise, a doomed sea voyage a la White Squall, heavy use of military characters (The Duellists, G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down), and use of production design that makes Gladiator look like The Room. It isn’t just that the production design is intricate (although the look of the castles, armor, and cities is awe-inspiring…and with minimal CGI). It’s that more than any of Scott’s films since Blade Runner, the production design is essential. The French village from the beginning doesn’t seem as harsh without the shot of Michael Sheen picking a maggot out of an apple. Balian’s early existential crisis doesn’t hit without the tactile feelings of cold winter airs or his dank blacksmith tavern. His success in Jerusalem doesn’t seem quite as wonderful without his vast land. Jerusalem looks as rapturous as any city designed for a deity should, while its leprous leader hides behind a golden mask, a gentle and wise soul marred by a condition that causes his body to fall warp and deteriorate.

Scott’s great influences of the past return. Kingdom of Heaven is filled with enough atmospheric lighting to make Scott-favorite Orson Welles proud, and the combination with William Monahan’s spectacular, Shakespeare-influenced script recalls Welles’ finest Shakespeare films (Othello, Chimes at Midnight). Scott’s Kubrick-like perfectionist attention to detail is as clear as it has been since his early heyday. His love of opera comes through when uses the opera piece composed by Hans Zimmer specifically for Scott’s Hannibal (in that film’s one truly great scene) for a beautiful burial scene that’s as emotional as anything Scott ever shot. As for the film’s epic structure- Scott’s own Gladiator inevitably comes to mind, but Scott really combines the modern epic style of Lord of the Rings (particularly in a final battle that recalls Helm’s Deep) and the old-fashioned epics of the past, particulary Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which features a similar “protect the people” storyline) and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (which also features heavy religious themes and sympathetic portrayal of Muslims). Bonus: the roadshow presentation that recalls how Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur would have been viewed in the past and highlights how fantastic Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is.

Kingdom of Heaven features some of the most gorgeous images in any of Scott’s films. The film has all of the old stand-bys- snow floating through the air, shafts of light, blue haze (in this case from cold winter skies), heavy use of natural light and fire, the ubiquitous blue mist- but the film features gorgeous lyrical imagery that rivals anything Scott ever put on film. A match cut brings together Balian’s happy past with his wife and his harsh modern realities (this shot was inexplicably left out of the theatrical version). Sheen’s character is enveloped in flame to suggest the fires of hell taking a fanatical man. Godfrey’s final moments have the same deliberate pace of the Ridley Scott of old (which contrasts beautifully with the quick-paced action of the battle scenes). Heavy smoke and incense drapes Balian in a bathhouse. Balian and Sibylla suggestively blow out the candles before they make love for the first time.

Scott’s direction of the battle scenes is exceptional- the build-up and scope is greater than that of Gladiator, and the scenes themselves have greater impact. It’s in part because this is Scott’s most thoughtful look at military warfare in his career. Before his death, Godfrey charges his son to be a good knight. But it is not enough just to fight, nor is it wise to fight for religion. Instead, he must fight for goodness, to protect the people and the king. Baldwin shares this view, and his scene of diplomacy with Saladin is incredible, but Guy and Raynald use the military for less noble pursuits. Ostensibly fighting for God, they really fight for their own glory. A fierce and righteous retribution comes upon them, but when Balian uses military tactics to defend rather than to attack, there’s a more noble cause, and it’s easier to root for him.

But Kingdom of Heaven is even more impressive on a character level. Scott casts each character to perfection: Michael Sheen sells his weasely priest, a perfect representation of the church’s fanatical past, where the marvelous David Thewlis brings a more sensitive and thoughtful side to his religious Crusader, a man with more respect for God than religion (“religion is for fanatics…holiness lies in right action and courage for the defenseless”); there are theories that the character may be an angel. Jeremy Irons brings a more high-class  thoughtfulness and dignity to Raymond, a man concerned for his king, the people, and harmony in the region, while Brendan Gleeson contrasts him perfectly as the fanatical Raynald, whose righteous indignation and Crusader’s fury puts the kingdom in jeopardy. Marton Czokas hasn’t had many great roles in the years since Kingdom of Heaven, which is a shame: he’s the perfect villain for Kingdom of Heaven, a portrait of evil in greed, ego, and political opportunism.

Liam Neeson has played so many mentor characters in his career (The Phantom Menace, Gangs of New York, the same year’s Batman Begins) that it’s easy to dismiss this as “just another mentor role” on first glance. But the Director’s Cut expands the role to being one of the most effective father-son relationships in Scott’s filmography (right up there with Blade Runner and Gladiator). Balian’s own son has died (another aspect left out of the theatrical version)- he’s a father without a son (when Balian burns his child’s clothes and cradle, it’s a moment of astounding visual storytelling). Godfrey, too, is a father without a son, and his reluctance to reveal himself to his son makes more sense in the Director’s Cut because there’s more build-up to it, and his death is more meaningful. Balian has only just learned of his father’s existence, and now he’s going to lose him. In his final moments, he charges his son to “create a better world”- a father’s dying wish to his only son. Neeson brings such gravitas to his small but vital role that his presence informs the rest of the film- indeed, he’s so highly considered as a truly moral man by Sibylla, Tiberius, and Baldwin that it’s easy to see how they would be so welcoming to his equally noble son.

The golden age of Edward Norton seems to have passed- the actor is too widely regarded as “that dick who tries to take creative control over every project”- which is a shame, considering how terrific he is here. We never see Norton’s face- Baldwin wears a mask, and when Sibylla finally removes it the face is deformed- but his movements and line-readings are so specific and deeply felt that the performance could be seen as a master class on acting. Baldwin is a deeply moral and intelligent man- a strong character with a weak body- and his anger towards Raynald after he massacres a Muslim caravan is palpable. He forces Raynald to kiss his leprous hand (Scott’s close-up on the bloodied fingers is highly effective), and beats him with a stick until he has no strength yet. The tides of conflict and religious war is too much for his frail body.

In the film’s theatrical cut, Eva Green’s performance is perhaps the greatest casualty. Where Irons, Neeson, Gleeson, and Norton all make strong impressions in both versions of the film, Green’s Sibylla seemed like a needless love subplot thrown in just because the film needs a love subplot. In the Director’s Cut, the subplot finds its passion and the character her complexity. Green had made an impression in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers two years before (and her performance in Casino Royale is one of the better Bond girls), but this remains her finest performance. Sibylla is a woman forced to put on a mask for the world- she is a princess- and pretend that her husband Guy isn’t a complete bastard (she was forced to marry him at 15). She’s attracted to Balian’s dignity and sense of goodness. She’s the first woman he’s truly spoken to since his wife died. When she visits his home, he provides her hospitality and warmth, and she responds to his ingenuity on the farm. Scott gives Green several wonderful, tender love scenes with Bloom- her washing the dirt from his face, their lovemaking in the dark, a morning after with pomegranate as a forbidden fruit. It’s easy to see why Baldwin wishes for her to end up with Balian instead of the odious Guy.

But where the romance provides a terrific introduction to the character, the film’s second half forces Green to face unspeakable tragedy. Her brother’s health weighs heavily on her soul, and her final moments with him are spectacular. When her son, the next male blood heir to the throne, is diagnosed with leprosy, she poisons him rather than let him deteriorate. It’s an impossible situation that brings Guy to the throne (“she let her son go…along with Jerusalem with it”), but her actions, ultimately are compassionate. She does not want her son to suffer the same way her beloved brother did. It’s a situation straight out of Shakespearean tragedy. Just as Shakespearean tragedy built off of Greek tragedy, Kingdom of Heaven takes the more direct tragedy of Gladiator and builds onto it with greater weight, deeper characters, and more ambitious themes.

Orlando Bloom’s performance was poorly received when the film was first released, not without reason. The inexpressive blandness of Bloom’s work in Pirates of the Caribbean and Troy still seemed present- he wasn’t as actively bad, but the character’s religious crisis never came through and he was constantly upstaged by the supporting cast. The Director’s Cut improves this, however. Bloom isn’t terrific in the role- it’s one time where Ridley Scott could and should have casted Russell Crowe, or alternatively someone more magnetic like Christian Bale, and didn’t- but Monahan’s script is so strong he mostly works. In Bloom’s hands, Balian works best as an audience surrogate- a man who comes into contact with strong personalities and is swept up by them (think Keanu Reeves in The Matrix). Might the film have been improved by someone who could bring Balian’s crisis of faith and moral uprightness across with more charisma? Probably. Is it actively harmed by Bloom’s work? No. There are even a few scenes where he’s actively good, and it’s likely the best performance we’ll ever see out of him.

Balian’s crisis of faith didn’t work in the theatrical cut, but that’s largely from what was omitted more than Bloom’s performance. In the Director’s Cut, the crisis is far clearer- Balian’s torment comes not only from his wife’s suicide, but the torment of his fanatical priest brother and the knowledge that suicide was considered a mortal sin by the Catholic Church at the time. His wife has been condemned, treated like a monster, and even beheaded at her burial. His journey to Jerusalem with Godfrey makes more sense now. He travels to erase his sins and the sins of his wife. But religious awakening proves elusive even in the Holy Land- even at the spot of Christ’s crucifixion, he cannot feel God’s presence. His anger over his wife’s death, and later over Baldwin’s death and Guy’s takeover, is palpable. When he uses a spark to set a bush on fire, he taunts “Where is your Moses? I did not hear it speak.” He is nonetheless a man of moral righteousness- when Baldwin suggests that he kill Guy to take Sibylla as his wife, he refuses.

Kingdom of Heaven was released smack-dab in the middle of America’s War on Terror, in the same year as Spielberg’s masterful Munich and Rob Zombie’s terrific horror movie/war allegory The Devil’s Rejects. Kingdom of Heaven is perhaps the best of the bunch. The film’s portrayal of the Crusades was criticized by some as being romanticized and inaccurate, and indeed the events were more brutal and filled with religious hatred than portrayed. But it’s an intentional choice on the parts of Scott and Monahan to connect the film’s story to modern events.

The hawkish side of the Crusaders- Guy, Raynald- have no mercy or empathy for the Islamic people. “Kill an infidel for the path to heaven”, one crusader says. Guy marks Godfrey as a “traitor to Christians” for his sympathetic views. These men fight for the Pope and the Catholic church of the time, and for their own sense of righteousness, “not for Christ”, as Raymond argues. They believe that God wills the destruction of Islam, and that diplomatic Christianity has little use. They do not listen to reason or conscience.

Under Baldwin, however, there is a kingdom of conscience. Muslims are allowed prayers, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims can work and trade together, not because of business, but because it’s right. The more understanding and diplomatic view towards Muslims appeals to Balian, who refused to take a slave in Islamic military man Imad ad-Din (an excellent Alexander Siddig channeling Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia). That mercy later saves his life with Islamic leader Saladin spares his life. Baldwin and Saladin can make a better world. When the film reaches the final battle, Balian recognizes in his speech the Islamic claim to the Holy Land, and argues that they should no longer fight for religion, but for survival and protection of Jerusalem’s people.

The film’s portrait of Saladin is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of Islam in Hollywood history (the industry has a reputation for demonizing Muslims). Excellently played by Ghassan Massoud, Saladin is a shrewd military tactician and a man more than willing to kill when it is necessary or deserved (Raynald), but he is a deeply moral man with respect for Christianity. He is more than willing to find diplomatic solutions with Baldwin in the early sections of the film, and the end sees him stop the siege of Jerusalem in order to find reason with Balian. He agrees to provide safe passage for Christians from Jerusalem after he defeats their army. When Balian comments that Christians butchered Muslims when they took over the Holy Land, he remarks “I am not those men”, and, in a spectacular sequence, picks up a cross that had fallen during a battle.

Mortality is the dominant theme in Scott’s work, and it’s fully explored here. What separates Balian, Baldwin, and Saladin from Guy and Raynald is their respect for life. Balian’s torment over his wife’s death doesn’t reach peak levels until he learns that her body was disrespected and that she faces damnation. When his father dies, he is obligated to fulfill his wishes and become a beacon of hope and justice in the Holy Land. When the Muslim caravan is slaughtered by Raynald’s men, Baldwin promises to punish him for the wrong. When Baldwin dies, then, the consequences are an end to that respect for life until Balian takes over. Balian’s respect for the dead is questioned during battle when he burns the bodies of the dead rather than giving them proper burial, but it is to save the rest of the people from disease. “God will understand. If he does not, then he is not God, and we need not worry”. A final confrontation with Guy (another sequence thoughtlessly omitted in the theatrical cut) shows Balian refusing to strike Guy down in a mercy scene reminiscent of the ending of Scott’s first film, The Duellists.

When Balian is met by the king of England (Richard the Lionheart, who would appear in Scott’s later film Robin Hood), he refuses. He’s found his redemption and a new love. He has no need for crusades for glory. Kingdom of Heaven is, ultimately, a plea of tolerance in the form of a rousing action-epic. In a final note, the film details a final crusade that lasted three years and brought an uneasy truce between Christians and Muslims.  As the final title card reads: “Nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive.”

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.15: Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 83 (A-)

Matchstick Men is the most underrated film of Ridley Scott’s filmography. Released in 2003, the film was a commercial disappointment, and although it was warmly received by most critics (Roger Ebert gave the film four stars), it hasn’t had the critical revival it deserves. It’s a shame, considering that it’s one of Scott’s warmest and most character-driven films. In a sense, it feels like one of Scott’s most autobiographical films: it’s a film about a man with alienating obsessions and obsessive focus on the littlest details.

Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a con man suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He’s agoraphobic, he’s ridden with crippling tics, and he’s bothered by the slightest diversion from routine. His partner and protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell) wants to go for a big score, but Roy is reluctant. When Roy visits a psychiatrist for the first time, he alludes to a past relationship that fell apart and the possibility that he has a child. When Roy finds out that he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), he takes her in, but when their relationship carries over to Roy’s work, it makes him more vulnerable.

Matchstick Men sees Scott working on a smaller scale than he had throughout the rest of the 2000s- it’s not a gargantuan period piece, it’s confined to one city (Los Angeles), and there are few big action set-pieces. But Scott sacrifices none of his signature style; if anything, the small scale highlights Scott’s talents better than many of his large-scale projects. More than ever, Scott uses his love of heavy shadows and shafts of light well for the film’s look, but here it’s more than just an atmospheric touch. Roy is a character who requires low lighting to function. The shafts of light are invasive and upsetting for him, particularly when a door opens and the light becomes outright blinding. Scott’s use of close-ups- on carpet stains, crumbs, and faces- highlights just how nerve-wracking life is for Roy. Scott also brings the more hurried editing of his past handful of films to the fray- he makes heavy use of jump cuts to highlight the film’s focus on process, be it regular routine (all-important to Roy) or the con game. Scott’s use of design is just as purposeful as ever- rather than ornate locations, Scott makes the mundane overwhelming, even distressing, as if to put us in Roy’s fractured mindset. There’s a meticulous focus no matter where we are in Ridley Scott’s world, and that’s what distinguishes Matchstick Men from other con movies.

Scott’s two primary influences- Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles- show up in the film’s meticulous nature and atmospheric lighting. The whole “con man” plot, meanwhile, is heavily in debt to a David Mamet film, where we can never know whether what we’re seeing is truth or part of a con. The film often plays like a knowing parody of a Mamet film (“for some people money is a foreign film without subtitles”. The film is much warmer and more emotional than Mamet’s cold exercises, however, and that’s where Scott brings in more modern influences. The film’s editing (heavy use of jump cuts, shots where the frame flips) recalls Steven Soderbergh’s work (The Limey, Soderbergh’s own con film Ocean’s Eleven). The film came out in close proximity to the Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze film Adaptation (also starring Cage), another film focused on process and existential crisis, and the similarities don’t feel coincidental. But most notably and thrillingly is the film’s similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, most notably the more empathetic con film Hard Eight and the outright loopy Punch-Drunk Love. Like Punch-Drunk Love, Matchstick Men features a loopy score that fits its protagonist, a lonely, anxiety-ridden basket case with no real relationships whose life is turned upside down.

Scott casts each role to perfection, from Bruce McGill’s boorish sucker to Beth Grant as a kindly old woman to PTA regular Melora Walters as Roy’s old flame. Sam Rockwell is a shrewd pick for a Cage protégé- he has the same quirky, off-kilter quality, but he’s less innately neurotic and more overtly brash. Rockwell plays the character as a likable, charismatic rogue with more stability than his boss, and who’s destined for better things than Roy.

Cage has become a bit of a punch-line in recent memory, but for two-and-a-half decades he was the most exciting, unpredictable, and talented actor of his generation (yes, over Sean Penn). Matchstick Men is part of a great run in the early-2000s (Adaptation, Lord of War, The Weather Man) before his career went off the rails (Bad Lieutenant notwithstanding). Cage’s role could easily fall into an easy tic-laden caricature a la Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, but Cage brings a specificity to his wounded, sad-eyed character. Roy is a man ridden with a terrible disorder, but he feels so guilty for ripping off good people that. Cage finds a perfect balance between the smooth criminal and hopeless neurotic side of Roy in the film’s early going, and it makes his emotional connection to Angela more believable as the film goes on (the film’s “I used to drink” backstory feels a little contrived, as if the con man aspect weren’t enough to ruin a relationship, but it’s a minor complaint).

With Roy, Scott makes his most overt exploration of the nature of obsession in his filmography. Roy has no choice but to follow routine, and any break upsets him (his “uhhhh” whenever he’s presented with an impossible situation is priceless). Leaves in his pool upset him. Crumbs on the floor upset him. He’s frustrated by his disorder, but he has no control over it. He’s so upset that he wishes he could kill himself, but “if I blow my brains out, it’ll mess up my carpet”. He has no personal relationships because of his obsessions. When he and Angela meet, he has no idea how to relate to her, and his new fatherhood runs in line with his obsessive worrying in an alienating fashion. When he’s truly distressed and people bother him, he flips out (“have you ever been taken outside and beaten till you…PISSED BLOOD!”). But he’s a character with a conscience and a character who does want change, and it makes him worthy of redemption.

Alison Lohman’s performance as Angela is a revelation. Lohman has appeared in good movies since (Drag Me To Hell), but it’d be surprising if she ever topped her work here. 24 years old at the time but looking every bit of 14, she’s the strongest and freest character in a film full of men with few options (it makes sense that a Ridley Scott film would have the strongest character be a woman). Lohman’s giddy naiveté is intoxicating, and the father-daughter relationship with Cage features some of the most joyful moments in Scott’s filmography (a bowling-alley sequence set to Roxy Music’s “More Than This” is just gorgeous). She’s brings Roy redemption and a sense of responsibility, and it provides an emotional undercurrent missing from most con movies.

INEVITABLE SPOILERS: The fact that Angela isn’t really his daughter, but rather a part of Frank’s con is made heartbreaking by the real emotional connection between the two. The Bruce McGill con seems like a standard, if rousing, con game, but while attentive viewers might predict what’s really going to happen at the end, Scott shoots the late scenes effectively. The possibility that the characters are in real danger is palpable, so it’s wholly believable that Roy will try to protect his daughter and take the rap…for a fake crime. Matchstick Men’s warmth over other con movies is proven when Scott gives Roy an out- yeah, he got screwed, but he’s now more open with people, he has a steady job (as a carpet salesman, which is pretty hilarious considering his fixation on carpet stains), and he’s married with a kid on the way. But the film’s real climax is no doubt his final, unexpected confrontation with Lohman (now looking every bit of her 24 years)- there’s still warmth in the relationship, and nothing can sour that. “Don’t you want to know my name?”, she asks. His response: “I already do.”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.14: Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 85 (A-)

Ridley Scott had a major critical and commercial comeback with 2000’s rousing popcorn epic Gladiator, a film which won 5 Oscars (including Picture and Actor for Crowe) and garnered him his second Best Director nomination (he lost to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic). Scott’s 2001 war film Black Hawk Down would get him a third nomination and be another considerable hit alongside Gladiator and Hannibal, but the film has met a number of criticisms over the years. It’s a film about a major military and foreign-policy screw up almost completely devoid of politics (Scott is mostly an apolitical director), it was produced by dreckmeister Jerry Bruckheimer (more famous for his teamwork with Michael Bay), and the film was notably pro-military film released shortly after 9/11, no doubt gaining popularity from a more gung-ho public. But Black Hawk Down isn’t just a mindless jingoistic exercise a la Bruckheimer and Bay’s Pearl Harbor from the same year, nor can it really be blamed for its release months after 9/11. Ridley Scott’s intelligent war movie is rather one of his finest, alongside Thelma & Louise as his strongest post-Blade Runner film.

The film relates the 1993 story of the Battle of Mogadishu, commonly referred to as “Black Hawk Down”. The Somalian city is the setting for mass famine and genocide under brutal leader Mohammed Farrah Aidid, and after war is declared on peacekeeping UN officials, the United States send Army Rangers, Delta Force, and the U.S. Airborne into Somalia to capture Aidid and his men. The men include:
General William Garrison (Sam Shepard), commander of the mission; Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), an idealist put in charge of the Rangers when his CO has a seizure; Specialist John “Grimesy” Grimes (Ewan McGregor), a desk clerk put into combat after another soldier breaks his hand; gruff Lieutenant Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore); cynical Delta Force sergeant Norm “Hoot” Gibson (Eric Bana); Delta Force leader Jeff Sanderson (William Fichtner); humorless Captain Mike Steele (Jason Isaacs); rookie Private Todd Blackburn (Orlando Bloom); and homesick U.S. Airborne pilot Michael Durant (Ron Eldard). During the mission, two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down, and the soldiers are pinned down in a seemingly endless battle with the Somali militia.

Black Hawk Down is perhaps Scott’s least character-driven film. Hartnett has the largest role, and several other actors have choice moments, but it’s largely an ensemble film more focused on the event than the characters. That’s not to say that it’s a drawback, but rather a purposeful choice that’s a virtue of the film. Scott assembles a likable ensemble- effortlessly charming McGregor; likably goofy Hartnett; gifted character actors Shepard, Fichtner, and Sizemore; future stars Bana and Tom Hardy- and gives them just enough to work with to be distinguishable from each other. The film isn’t about individuals, but rather a collective force of men working together in an impossible situation. Giving them more would likely detract from the experience.

And what an experience it is. Black Hawk Down is the most viscerally punishing modern war film since Saving Private Ryan. Scott might have gone all-out on the gore in Gladiator (and the risible Hannibal), but he uses realistic violence in Black Hawk Down to put the audience in the shoes of the soldiers. From the moment the battle begins, we are in hell: bullets and grenades fly everywhere, and men are dropping like flies. Buildings are blown apart, and Scott uses his love of matter hitting shafts of light well: crumbling wall, dust, sand, and smoke fly everywhere, often accompanied by bits of gore. It’s about as realistic as ground level depictions of combat can get, with a queasy blow-by-blow verisimilitude that’s only aided by the realistic military garb, the crumbling city, Scott’s dense compositions, and a dense layer of sweat and grime that seems to pulsate off of the actor’s body.

Scott makes his heaviest use of shakycam yet in Black Hawk Down, but it’s more purposeful and effective than ever. It’s never too obtrusive, we can always tell what’s going on, and the sense of confusion and disorientation is just enough to put us in the soldiers’ shoes without going too over-the-top. Bruckheimer, his other directors (Bay, Scott’s own less talented brother Tony), and others who have made incomprehensible action scenes as of late (Gary Ross with The Hunger Games) might want to take note: this is how you use the shakycam well. It’s comparable to Paul Greengrass’ use of the technique in his Jason Bourne films or United 93, while Scott’s focus on the minutiae of the incident mirrors what Greengrass did for the latter film. It keeps the film ultra-specific and non-exploitative.

It should be noted, however, that it’s not all relentless explosions and destruction. Scott balances the film with well-placed moments of quiet that only increases the existential dread of the situation. One effective sequence shows Tom Hardy and Ewen Bremmer all alone, forgotten by their team, trying to navigate a broken city. Scott’s love of blue light, smoke, fans, and haze is easily parodied, but damned if it isn’t effective at building a mood in the early-going. Better still is the hypnotic build-up to the battle- all helicopters flying over a beautiful ocean that contrasts the desert heat- and the moodier final third, in which the lights go out and the men have to deal with saving the wounded more often than they do with combat. Scott’s depiction of darkening skies is in part chronological (they were bogged down for quite a while), but more importantly it sells just how desperate their situation is as it’s clear they’re not going home as quickly as they thought they would. By the time they reach the end and they’re brought glasses of water (shimmering in the desert light), the importance of that moisture is a simple yet highly effective touch.

Scott brings in plenty of his old influences- Orson Welles’ atmospheric touches, Stanley Kubrick’s perfectionist detail- along with references to his past films (Blade Runner’s crumbling city, G.I. Jane’s militaristic viewpoint, White Squall’s focus on teamwork, Gladiator’s primal fury). More notable still is the influence of modern war films- the hypnotic beginnings, with their focus on a heavy haze and stench of death over Somalia, is reminiscent of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The depiction of desert heat is no doubt influenced by David O. Russell’s Three Kings. The punishing modern warfare is in debt to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. But perhaps the most important and least heralded influence is that of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Scott juggles the gigantic cast with expert efficiency (Malick’s characters are more well-defined, but what works for him would be distracting for Scott), but more importantly he sells the absolute existential horrors of a war situation, complete with total destruction of the environment and unsentimental death scenes. The fact that Hans Zimmer’s excellent, moody, melancholy, Middle Eastern-tinged score recalls his career-best work on The Thin Red Line doesn’t hurt the comparison.

Ridley Scott’s career-wide obsession with mortality is viscerally present in Black Hawk Down.  The weight of death hangs over the film from the beginning: people are dying of genocide by starvation, and it’s an absolute mass slaughter. It becomes even more tangible later as bodies are blown apart, vehicles are caked with gore, and helicopters are shot down. Each soldier’s death is a blow (ultimately 19 men died), and the sense of camaraderie is felt as the men determine that they’ll leave nobody behind: not even the dead. When family-man Durant is captured, they make it their mission to save him (Durant was ultimately saved after 11 days). When Blackburn breaks his back, they rush him back to base. In the film’s most memorable and brutal scene, a soldier’s artery has been severed, and two men try to save him. It’s no use, and he bleeds out, but the scene’s importance is felt. It is all-important that as many of these men as possible survive.

Black Hawk Down isn’t the first Ridley Scott film focused on military themes (The Duellists, White Squall, G.I. Jane and Gladiator join it), but it is the best of the bunch. The film is uninterested in the politics behind the war- only the military perspective and the professionalism of the men. They work as a collective (which is why the thin characterizations are a virtue rather than a hindrance), and they do the best that they can. They’re not fully prepared for the situation: two major players are replaced by less experienced officers, they go out without supplies thinking it’ll be a short mission, and their planning ultimately doesn’t help much. But they’re stuck in an impossible situation, fighting a questionable battle (taking out bad men but doing little good), and they’re finally put in an absolute clusterfuck. It doesn’t help that the warlords have trained women and children and the men are reluctant to shoot them. It’s a tribute to the men, not the war. It isn’t the same kind of gung-ho garbage as, say, We Were Soldiers. A late speech by Bana hits the “no one else would understand…it’s about the men next to you” hits the point on the nose way too hard (the dialogue is better terse than florid), but Hartnett’s final speech, delivered to a dead comrade, is more effective- “Nobody asks to be a hero, it just sometimes turns out that way”.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Director's Spotlight #7.13: Ridley Scott's Hannibal

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 32 (C-)

Why? Why does this thing exist? What purpose did it serve, other than money? Who read this script and saw opportunity for a good movie? Ridley Scott followed up his Best Picture winner Gladiator (odd to think that it beat Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but eh) with Hannibal, the long-awaited/dreaded sequel to Jonathan Demme’s Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs. The pre-production of the film could make for a fascinating story itself: Demme, original star Jodie Foster, and writer Ted Tally all turned down the chance to make Hannibal, believing it to be more lurid than its predecessor. The only major player who returned was Anthony Hopkins, with Julianne Moore filling in for Foster, a script written by David Mamet and Steve Zaillian, and Scott stepping in for Demme. Hannibal wasn’t just a paycheck film for Scott- he called the book “a symphony” and went all out directing it. It’s a testament to his filmmaking chops that the film is watchable at all, but what in the hell he saw in this material is beyond me.

Ten years after her career-making capture of serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, Clarice Starling (Moore) is now facing fierce criticism from the FBI after a raid gone wrong. Starling is contacted by two people: Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), the psychologist serial killer who helped her catch Gumb before escaping at the end of the last film, and Mason Verger (an uncredited, unrecognizable Gary Oldman), a horrifically disfigured former child molester and Lecter’s only surviving victim. Verger wants to capture, torture, and kill Lecter, and he uses his wealth to influence both corrupt FBI agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta filling in for a deceased Ron Vawter) and Florence police chief Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), who believes he has tracked down Lecter. Now Starling has to find Lecter before Verger finds him…or he finds Verger.

Give Scott this credit: he takes this absurd, over-the-top plot and runs with it. Scott’s old film influences (atmospheric Orson Welles, cold Stanley Kubrick) show up, but really, Hannibal is just as influenced by Scott’s love of opera (the most memorable sequence in the film shows Hopkins and Giannini at the opera) and classical literature (numerous references to Dante) as anything else. It’s an over-the-top film, to be sure, but at least it isn’t an impersonal piece of hackwork like the next Lecter entry, Red Dragon. Scott uses gorgeous locations and ornate homes and museums for the setting while shooting everything through his beloved blue light lens. His use of fans, mist, smoke, shadows, and well-placed shafts of light are as effective as ever. Hannibal is a movie that’s successful at establishing a cold and moody tone, at least for the film’s first half, that’s engaging even if the script doesn’t work. Scott is perhaps the moody opposite to original director Jonathan Demme- Scott is cold where Demme is warm, Demme’s film was realistic and harrowing where Scott’s is an operatic grand guignol horror film, and Demme was political where Scott is decidedly apolitical (although both are feminists). It doesn’t make for a successful film, but at least it’s trying something different (Red Dragon is just trying to be Silence of the Lambs).

That said…hoo boy, this doesn’t work. The problems are legion: the film makes Lecter the center of everything where previous entries (Silence, Manhunter) made him the piece of a puzzle; the film plays him up way too much and trying too hard to make him creepy. Scott and his screenwriters almost make Lecter supernatural rather than super-intelligent, and the scares become more predictable because of it. Then there’s the violence: Silence was successful in large part because Demme made the violence more psychological than visceral. Most of the graphic violence was offscreen, where in Hannibal it’s up front to the point where it’s just disgusting and ludicrous (a character’s intestines get spilled, people are fed to boars, Verger peels his own face off).  It’s way too florid to the point where it’s downright goofy rather than scary.

Most of the supporting cast is weaker, too. Demme made a film with an interesting cast full of fascinating characters. Few of the actors here get much of anything to craft a character out of: Frankie Faison is a good carry-over from Silence, but he’s only in the film for a bit. Ray Liotta overplays Krendler’s boorishness. Oldman is good, as always, as main antagonist Verger, but the whole conception of the character is part of why the film doesn’t work. Jame Gumb (Ted Levine in Silence) and Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan in Manhunter) were monsters, but they were people as well, and their realism made them frightening. Verger is designed to look disgusting on the outside as well as the inside. It’s effective for a bit, but ultimately it’s too literal a monster. It’s interesting that Scott goes for “corrupt, effete villain” rather than the other films’ more blue-collar serial-killers, but it just doesn’t work. Only Giancarlo Giannini as the sad-eyed, corrupt Pazzi comes out of this thing looking good. His scenes at least have more of a drive to them. As soon as he’s out of the picture at the end of act two (it’s no spoiler, you can see it coming), any sense of propulsion the film has goes.

Starling was the center of Silence, which is part of what made the film so effective. It’s curious, then, that she spends most of Hannibal sidelined at a desk job. There’s an attempt to make her more jaded by years of experience, she’s too inactive for anything to register. Julianne Moore is arguably the finest actress of her generation, but she has an impossible job filling in for Foster even under ideal circumstances. This film gives her nothing to do. She has no real vulnerability, as there’s never a sense that she’s in danger, be it because Lecter likes her too much or because she’s behind a goddamned desk the whole time. It gives her the paltriest sense of strength or intelligence. Shame that a director who’s given women some truly terrific roles over the years couldn’t find a way to do more with one of the great female roles of our time.

Instead, the focus is on Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins was terrific and measured in his Oscar-winning role in Silence, but given free reign, Hannibal and Hopkins are not scary. Instead, Hopkins overplays the overly-dignified nature of Lecter, not to mention the character’s sense of his own creepiness. It’s a total ham performance that never feels fresh or threatening at any point. Part of it no doubt has to do with the character’s overexposure, and part has to do with Hopkins’ own hammy tendencies (he’s even worse in Red Dragon). But ultimately, everything feels predetermined. Hannibal is going to kill the other bad guys but keep Clarice alive. He’s going to do some gross stuff. He’s going to escape so that there can be another movie. Yawn.

Ultimately, the movie is dull. It looks great, and Scott directs it to the best of his abilities, but it’s an empty film with no sense of urgency. Clarice’s obsession is never felt- she’s too inactive, and that’s why her story doesn’t work. Verger’s obsession over Hannibal is more tangible, but he too is too inactive for most of the film. As for Hannibal’s obsession with Clarice, it feels more like a script contrivance than something organic. With the exception of Pazzi’s need to capture Hannibal to provide for his young wife, Scott’s explorations of their obsessions falls flat. His exploration of mortality at least has a better sense of what it’s trying to do (death as punishment for the truly wicked), but it’s so over the top that it’s impossible to take seriously. By the time Hannibal arrives in America in the idiotic third act, any sense of interest falls away for canned suspense, non-scary “scary” scenes, and the famously idiotic brain-eating finale. Hannibal isn’t the worst film of Scott’s career, but it might be the most pointless.