Charlie Wilson's War. Didactic poli-sci lesson on How the System Works, entertainingly illustrated by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols. The titular war is the one between the Soviets and the Afghans in the Reagan era, and Charlie Wilson is a nonfictional Texas congressman (played with supreme complacency by Tom Hanks) who, ideally situated for budgeting purposes, spared some time from his enjoyment of the perks of power (single malt, cocaine, strippers in the hot tub) in order to do the bidding of a rabid Right-wing fundraiser in his home state (Julia Roberts, fully surrendering to her natural or enhanced grotesquerie, at one point intrepidly separating her gluey eyelashes with an open safety pin) and broker a covert alliance between the Pakistanis and the Israelis, combatting the Evil Empire from discreetly behind the scenes. This is not your typical tale of the cavalier cynic getting involved, finding religion, committing himself to a cause. The protagonist's profligate ways are typical enough, and the refugee camp that opens his eyes is depicted very straight, but there remains, even after that, a sense of irony about his crusade -- no more solemnity in his demeanor than in that, let's say, of the surgeons in MASH -- so that his commitment is forever perceived as something of a pose, something within quotation marks. The job gets done all the same. Philip Seymour Hoffman, sporting a lush mustache and full head of dark hair in testimony to the character's Mediterranean ethnicity, goes Hanks one better (several better, in fact) as a disgruntled CIA spook who, irked at not getting the Finland assignment after studying Finnish, cannot even throw a tantrum without a wink. Not only does Hoffman walk away with the show, he also gets to recite the Buddhist parable whose punchline frames the entire picture, turning an ostensibly happy ending into an up-in-the-air ending, or in other words no ending at all. We know too well what happened next.
The Savages. More Philip Seymour Hoffman. Actually quite a bit more, in the male lead this time, blond and bearded, a thinner, more penetrable disguise, as a Buffalo drama professor at work on a tome on Bertolt Brecht. Even more Laura Linney, however, in the larger female lead, brunette and bedraggled, as an unproduced dramatist at work on a "subversive, semi- autobiographical play" (as she describes it in her grant applications) inspired by the works of Jean Genet, Eugene O'Neill, and cartoonist Lynda Barry. They are brother and sister, forced into the same yoke to deal with their demented father (Philip Bosco) after his Sun City "girlfriend" of twenty years kicks the bucket and her family kicks him out. These are big performances in a small film made up of small moments, a life-is-messy comedy of small (but not few) laughs. Writer and director Tamara Jenkins, not heard from since her (subversive, semi-autobiographical) Slums of Beverly Hills, seeks the universal in the individual -- the particulars, the peculiarities, the normal abnormalities (the lachrymosity of Hoffman, the mendacity of Linney) -- which is the right way to go about it. The peculiarities needn't have been so artsy-fartsily peculiar.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Julian Schnabel relates another true-life tale from the wide world of art, this one a little more liberated from convention than his Basquiat or his Before Night Falls (though it immediately and continually brings to mind Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside), the tale of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor at Elle magazine, who in the prime of life suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed but for his left eyelid (and his imagination and his memory), and who dictated a memoir, letter by letter, through a system of blinks. The first three-quarters of an hour or so are reasonably audacious, subjectively visualized through the eyes of the invalid (Mathieu Amalric, at this point unseen), with cropped faces and figures, blurred edges, off-kilter angles, etc., and yet the camera looks awfully free-swinging and the editing awfully jumpy for the P.O.V. of a paralytic, as if Schnabel felt he had to lend a helping hand to keep things hopping. (The rotation of comely coquettes to serve as speech therapist, physical therapist, and amanuensis seems to have been assembled out of similar motives.) Much of the remainder of the film feels drawn out and padded, with the major exception of a tense scene in which the wife, operating the speakerphone in the hospital room, is required to mediate a call from the mistress. The essential subject matter is one that demands in its treatment purity and rigor, and that receives instead disorder and indulgence. (This really wasn't the time and place for further proof of the director's hip taste in music, U2, Velvet Underground, Tom Waits.) The film clearly has emerged as the topmost critical favorite of the season, if not the whole year, but I suspect that it has been the recipient of the special dispensation granted the handicapped, the quickness to applaud the least little show of humor, verve, perseverance.
The Great Debaters. An Oprah film (or anagrammatically, a Harpo Film) for Oprah's audience, with their insatiable appetite for uplift. The fact-based story (to what extent, I couldn't say) of the debate team at little Wiley College, an all-black institution in segregationist Texas, and of their climactic showdown on the topic of Civil Disobedience against the national champs of Harvard University, plays as a sort of two-hour spot for the UNCF. Denzel Washington, as both the debate coach in front of the camera and the director behind it, may be somewhat unimaginative, even embarrassingly unimaginative, in his complete and precise merger of the two roles into one: the great edifier. (Not just my character but me myself.) Still, if the remedial elucidation of racial issues seems a bit behind the times, it's not so much because the action is set in the 1930s as because racial progress continues to lag in the 2000s. The edifier has plenty of just cause. Fine photography, in addition, by Philippe Rousselot, reassurance, after Lions for Lambs, that he hasn't gone blind.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Grand-Guignol Broadway musical (words and music by Stephen Sondheim), Tim Burtonized for Hollywood. Which means, among other things (such as less music), a ton-of-bricks production design, an ashen color scheme sometimes edging up to the border of black-and-white (excluding the rivers, lakes, geysers of rich red blood), and the de rigueur Johnny Depp, showing off a diffident singing voice, as a frightfully frigid avenger, chilling in quite the wrong way. (Whoever said revenge is a dish best served cold can't have meant straight from the freezer.) Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall are likewise not singers.
The Kite Runner. From the Khaled Hosseini novel, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction), a story about a storyteller, and in large part a story truly worthy of a storyteller. The remaining parts are hackneyed and/or hokey. Main elements: two boyhood pals in Kabul, 1978, the sons of master and servant, and the psychologically penetrating betrayal of the second by the first, our evolving storyteller. Like the storytelling protagonist of Atonement, he has a lot to atone for, but unlike that other, he attempts to atone for it in actual life instead of by rewriting life into a rosier fiction. Notwithstanding the graphic barbarities of the Taliban in the year 2000, the film takes a tactical and tactful approach to the Islamic topic, and the nostalgic re-creation of life in the Afghanistan of yesteryear (handsomely photographed in the bargain) is highly beneficial: the competitive, combative, and colorful kite flying, the Pashto-dubbed print of The Magnificent Seven (Charles Bronson's accent giving him away as a native Iranian), the swanky comforts of the hero's home, the imposing figure of his principled, civilized, dignified father (ably embodied by the star of Taste of Cherry, Homayoun Ershadi), destined to run a gas station in Fremont after fleeing the Soviet invaders. (Timely complement to Charlie Wilson's War.) The besetting problems of dividing a screen role between a younger and an older actor are brutally spotlighted in the scene where a Taliban bully tells the now adult hero that he never forgets a face, when in truth the face little resembles the one that the bully last saw. It is not surprising that the hero, in turn, doesn't recognize the bully. I didn't either.
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After seeing some of the reviews for Atonement, I had to ask myself whether my prolonged preoccupation with No Country for Old Men might have hampered my appreciation of the former's finer qualities. The thought of seeing one of these for a second time, and not just the thought of it but the imminent prospect, gave me my answer: no, I don't think so. (Or as one of the dime-a-dozen Nordic goddesses so charmingly expressed herself on my tour of Scandinavia late last summer: I don't hope so.) My second viewing of the Coen brothers' film turned up nothing much new, specifically nothing much in the sketchy pattern of repeats and echoes (only this: the covered-in-blood hunter and covered-in-blood hunted obtain a shirt and jacket, respectively, off the backs of gawking youngsters), but it turned up continued revelling in their controlled virtuosity. I can't see that their new film says anything their Fargo didn't. Indeed it says significantly less. But the less is part and parcel of the spiritual desolation. It takes a Marge Gunderson to look out at a bleak Minnesota snowscape and say, marvelling at what people will give up in the pursuit of money, "It's a beautiful day."