Holiday Season Movies: Part 3
Closing out the season, and the year, with these...
The biggest surprise this season was how much I enjoyed Charlie Wilson's War, the story of Reagan-era right-wingers, led by Tom Hanks (in a terrific performance) as the titular Congressman, who used U.S. taxpayer's money, funneled through the CIA, to run guns to the Afghanistan Mujahideen in their war against the invading—and, as we are reminded often, quite mighty—Soviet army. As I said, Hanks is great here, playing the skirt-chasing, whiskey-fueled Wilson not as a buffoon, but rather as a shrewd, maybe even principled, politician who happens to also be a hard-partying Texan. And Aaron Sorkin's script is pitch-perfect throughout, brisk and smart without being too bantery, or overly clever. But the real star here, once again, is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who completes his brilliant end-of-the-year trifecta (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Savages) with an outstanding take on the sharp, bitter, disheveled, career CIA bureaucrat chomping at the bit to kill communists. Just the fact that you find yourself rooting for this guy tells you how effective a piece of filmmaking this is.
There's a deeply engaging, epic tale—and one of the great heroines of the year—in Persepolis, the true-life coming-of-age story of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian girl who's probably ten years old when the revolution topples the Shah, and whose initial giddiness over the prospect of change gives way to fear and dread as family members are jailed or killed; and civil rights and liberties—especially for women—are stripped away by the fundamentalists. To make bad matters worse, her country plunges into war with neighboring Iraq... and when she flees to Vienna, then France, teenage Satrapi eventually winds up suicidal and homeless. To the author/filmmaker's credit, the movie (based on her graphic-novel memoir) is moving, even inspiring, rather than angry and bleak, owing in large measure to Satrapi's inextinguishable spirit—courageous, rebellious—as well as the love and wisdom of her iconoclastic grandmother. What kept the movie from being truly great for both me and my daughters (who are big fans of the two-volume memoir) was the flat, stylized, expressionistic animation which, while true to Satapri's original vision, never really allowed us in. In the end, it's all more admirable than transporting.
Yes, it's predictable and preachy. But if you just ride with it, as me and my daughters were able to do yesterday afternoon, there's also an undeniable appeal to Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters, about the historically dynastic debate team of all-black Wiley College who, in the 1930s, grew to such prominence that Harvard accepted their challenge for a match, and invited the Texans to come north for a nationally-broadcast contest in the fabled Memorial Hall. You know who wins in the end, of course, but the obvious outcome is more than balanced by several moments of genuine tension (mostly due to Texas lynch mobs and their ugly ilk), plenty of engaging period detail, and a hugely likable cast, all performing their hearts out.
After a well-played, reasonably creative and immersive first act, Atonement totally lost me. The exact moment I ceased to care about the characters, that I stopped believing in anything that was happening on screen? Director Joe Wright's "look-at-me" preening during the pivotal scene at Dunkirk. They must have spent a fortune on the recreation of the famous evacuation from the continent that saved the British army at the start of the Second World War, and yet all I could think of was: "this sure is a long, complicated tracking shot." Plus, really? I don't like James McEvoy. Not in The Last King of Scotland. Not here. And I'm getting kind of sick of Keira Knightley and her jutting chin. But I'm not sure that even the most dynamic actors, with the hottest chemistry, could have saved this cold, technical version of Ian McEwen's excellent novel.
Clearly, my expectations were WAY too high for There Will Be Blood. The trailer looked more than a little intriguing—the story of an ethically flawed but charismatic oil emperor, I thought, rising to riches and power through shrewd, possibly shady business deals, set against the great American tale of Western expansion—and the reviews have been rapturous. And yes, there are some pretty brilliant sequences here (when the derrick blows and the boy is flung, for instance), and Daniel Day Lewis can dominate the screen with the best of them. But honestly, I didn't really like this movie at all. Lewis is given no support; no one to play off of (Paul Dano is nowhere near up to the challenge as a miraculously ageless preacher). Far too long and tedious, it's not an epic at all... more like a bizarre character study of an exceedingly unpleasant man whose motives and demons, to my mind, remain mysterious throughout. Again, maybe it's my fault for expecting too much, but this has to be counted as the disappointment of the year.