Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Get Smart

Get Smart didn't.

For the first 30 minutes or so, I sat there disengaged and without a laugh, not even a chuckle.

Clearly an expensive project, with terrific actors, but somehow or other, it just didn't work.

Is it a script issue? I don't know. There were a lot of good lines that captured some of the Don Adams character, and I really like Steve Carell, but the magic was missing. If I recall the original (yup, I'm old enough to remember), it wasn't a belly-laugh comedy, but a "smart" comedy that entertained and delighted, but without huge laughs (my memory may be failing me).

I think they tried to capture that, but whatever it was they tried, I don't think it worked. Steve Carell delivered his typical role, sort of a sweet bumbler, but it lacked the Don Adams' zanniness - as I think about it, Carell's character had just too much character; he's too self-aware. Don Adams was just a simple-minded guy who thought he was brillaint; Carell's Smart is smart in a sad sort of way with some real hopes and dreams, more than meets the eye.

Other characters fall flat, too, though all of them delivered their lines well. Great music, cinematography - it was all there, but like a puzzle inadvertently mixed up with another puzzle, the pieces just didn't fit.

I think the best performance, and the one that got the most laughs from me, was Alan Arkin, playing the chief.

Too often, it felt as if the film didn't know which way to go - an action-romance, a romantic comedy with action, or just a farce. It's a rare movie that can bring off good comedy in a "serious" setting - the issue, then, becomes more a matter of irony, which this film totally lacked.

The romantic effort between Smart and Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) waffled between serious and foolish - nonetheless, I found myself rooting for Smart, but just who is he? Don Adams' Smart was just that - shallow and silly, a buffoon with aspirations to greatness. Carell's Smart is way too complicated, too real, too human, but not enough to win the day for this film. I wish they had dumped most of the TV "get smart" tag lines and visual imagery and simply did a more Peter Seller's like comedy - who's ability to reveal pathos in the midst of idiocy was remarkable. Is Carell capable of that? I believe he is, with the right script. Though I'd like to see Carell tackle "serious" film where he plays characters who mostly lose and bear their losses with quiet dignity, experiencing an unusual grace in their struggle, with darker elements in their character - I think here of Michael Douglas' "Falling Down."

I wonder if this film will have any legs - I'd not see it again, but then maybe I should - just to see if it wears any better. I'll let you know if I do.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


"Mongol" - an epic in both feel and story. Thanks to Sergie Bodrov for bringing this to the screen.

Cinematography, music (I loved it: mystical and powerful at the same time), story – all the ingredients of a great film are here. One technical piece I really appreciated: the subtitles visually clear - it was an "easy read" so to speak.

Some gaps in the story, for sure, but the power of the story comes through: after his father’s murder, years of suffering and hardship, a mother’s undying love, faith in God, his father’s legacy, a wife forever loyal, to whom he was equally loyal.

Twice, his wife is abducted and raped, giving birth to a boy and girl whom he later declares to be his own, revealing a level of love and kindness beyond the usual boundaries of these virtues.

Is Genghis Khan the fierce bloodthirsty tyrant we hear of in history, or is there more to the story? Likely more, as there always is.

But that may yet come in a sequel.

For now, this is a story of young boy and his formation, the power of a family to love in adverse times, and the power of loyalty and faith.

The film captures the immensity of the Mongolian Steppe – vast, empty, sacred.

As I watched the film unfold, I was touched by “the people” therein – they’re people, not just a race; they want to love and be loved. There was one remarkable moment when the camera plays down a line of girls, prospective wives for the young boy. It was time for him to select a wife, so his father takes him to neighboring clan – being but nine years old, after picking his wife, he’ll return in five years.

As the camera played from face to face, each profoundly different, I found myself reflecting on my “racial” eyes – I can look at someone from another race and see only a race. But as the camera panned over their faces, I saw individuals, each profoundly different, as well are, and that’s the antidote to any form of racism. Everyone’s a person; everyone’s different, but “racial” eyes make it possible for us to see only a race.

Toward the end, something of Genghis Khan’s dream is revealed: he wants to stop Mongols from killing one another; he wants to build a nation. As the film draws to a close, we see Genghis Kahn making his first forays into leadership. He remembers those who were kind to him when he was on the run and imprisoned, and he doesn’t burn a monastery (to find out why, you’ll have to see the film all the way to the end).

Powerful, evocative, well-done.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Kung Fu Panda


It's a new word for a new day.

What a great film ... animation terrific ... sound and story wonderful.

Great family fare ... with a message for every child ...

Po, voiced by Jack Black, is a fat little panda whose father is a noodle soup expert, because his father was, and his father's father, and his dream for Po, to be a noodle soup expert ... and one day, he'll tell Po the "secret ingredient."

But Po dreams of being the Dragon Warrior who will save the land and bring peace to the people.

Quite by accident, Po ends up with the Furious Five who are being trained in the hope that the Master will choose one of them to be the Dragon Warrior and unroll the Scroll.

But Oogway, the Master, sees it differently and chooses Po.

And then the training begins (under the tutelage of Shifu - Dustin Hoffman) ... all terribly hard for a fat little panda ... the Furious Five don't want him; he doesn't fit; he doesn't belong. And finally the day when the scroll is his; it's unrolled, and there's a brief flash of soft light on Po's face, and then disappointment. The scroll is empty.

Returning home in defeat, Po's father tells him the "secret ingredient" - there is none ... only the faith that it's the best noodle soup in the world.

Suddenly there's a crisis in the land - the long-imprisoned enemy has escaped to claim the Scroll and become the Dragon Warrior.

Po learns in a flash of understanding: there is no secret ingredient, and the empty Scroll, slightly reflective, reveals the face of the one reading it. That's the message of the Scroll.

He's the One, after all.

Filled with lots of genuine laughs, visual wonders ... this is a great One! Hats off to Jack Black and the animators.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

Is incredible.

Marvel Studios has it right.

The story line walks a balance beam between story and action, and they've succeeded with just the right amount on both sides.

I loved the acting ... it had a sense of restraint - no one grabbing the limelight ... with the underlying passion of good (mostly) people caught in bad times, with choices mostly between bad and bad. Liv Tyler conveys a remarkable balance of beauty and innocence in her love for Banner and her estranged relationship to her father (the general). It's a feat of this script to have captured some of the human drama implicit in this otherwise action story.

If there's a story within the story, it's this: the desire for power, even in the defense of the good, corrupts the soul. The Hulk himself is the result of medical experiments to produce the ultimate WMD. Yet power is what the world is all about, and rather than shunning it, can we learn to harness it, control it, use it?

Tim Roth (Abomination) is merely a professional soldier who wants to link what he now knows to a younger body ... as the general (William Hurt) says, "I think we can arrange this." His plight is that of every professional soldier - a job to be done, and don't ask questions. If there's a lesson here, it's this: don't expect the soldier to make "moral" decisions - that's up to the Brass, and if the Brass are blind, the whole thing succumbs to mindless obsessions and fruitless battles. William Hurt conveys something of the Captain Ahab syndrome - when the goal of conquest becomes everything, and everything else is expendable. As the novel ends, Captain Ahab is ensnared in the ropes entwined around Moby Dick. This story ends with more of a question - will the general be lost? Or will his daughter's love and the horror of Abomination bring him to his senses?

One of the most delightful moments: Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is delivering a pizza to a lab (he wants in), but is stopped by a security guard, who's permission to enter is won by giving him a free pizza - and who's the security guard? None other than Lou Ferrigno, with his massive arms, who played the original Hulk on TV. The audience went bonkers!

The music was terrific ... sound editing impressed me ... visual effects perfectly done.

I give this effort my highest rating.

Friday, June 6, 2008

"War, Inc."

War is big business, and big business loves war.

Hat's off to John Cusack (producer) and Joshua Seftel (director) for bringing this biting satire to the screen.

Cusack and his sister, Joan, play a murderous team in Turaqistan, a fictional nation invaded by America's private military named Tamerlane (its tanks are covered in ads like Nascar racers), run by a former VP (Dan Ackroyd) who holds a video conversation with Hauser (Cusack) while sitting on the can, looking strangely like Cheney.

Was Blackwater the model for Tamerlane?

The absolute cynicism of the war machine is portrayed in this dark comedy.

Cusack plays his role with detachment - he's a killer, and very good at it, and that's that. As the story unfolds, we learn of something deeper and utterly tragic behind his "career," and the way he's been deceived and manipulated by the head of operations (Ben Kingsley), a smarmy little creep intent on running the world from his bunker, which happens to be located in the basement of a Turaqistan Popeye Chicken Restaurant. At this moment, the film rightly captures the elaborate technology seducing the powerful into believing themselves to be invincible.

Cusack's role reminded me a bit of Robert Downey in "Iron Man" - the detachment, the irony, and the learning curve.

Just when things finally work out, the film seemingly ends just a heartbeat away from a final tragedy. Then a cut to Ackroyd putting a wild spin on things, justifying further American military engagement all in defense of our freedoms. As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

In the end, no one escapes the snare of such evil ... like Hannah Arendt's work on Eichman and her observation - "the banality of evil" - great national crimes are not committed by sociopaths or fanatics, but ordinary people who simply lose their way in the myriad of justifications, until the abnormal appears normal, and one's defense of such is patriotism.

In view of our nation's current involvement in Iraq and elsewhere, and the growing realization of what Bush and Gang have done to us, this is a movie for the moment, but also for the ages, for in every age, we confront our lust for war and our distorted notions of patriotism.

I think War, Inc. will become and remain a cult classic. I'm not much for predictions, but I'll put this one out there. Ten years from now, and twenty and thirty, we'll be seeing this film on late-night TV or whatever the means might be by then, and folks will see it for what it is - truth-telling to power.

And for no other reason, see this film for Joan Cusack - one of the greatest comedic faces to fill a screen.

Check out Arianna Huffington's review.
And the New York Times: Interrogation for Profit.