Interview (Buscemi, 2007)

Steve Buscemi’s smug D.C. journalist gets into a series of verbal fisticuffs with Sienna Miller’s It Girl actress after their initial interview goes awry, and the proceeding interlude borders on warfare. Despite booze, drugs, and innuendo, each manipulator holds their own, delivering countless barbs of potent wisdom that initially feel well-meaning.

Buscemi constantly keeps us guessing as to what’s real, fabricated, or a mix of the two, and the leads perform this dance marvelously. Interview is the kind of throwback theatrical movie where two characters slither around the truth, worm into sensitive spots, and unleash a plague of vindictiveness on each other – the last wo(man) standing wins.  I haven’t seen the Theo van Gogh original, but Buscemi’s re-visioning feels altogether American – the culture of celebrity seems a perfect bedfellow for the corroding ethics of high end political paparazzi.

Youth Without Youth (Coppola, 2007)

After ten years of winemaking, mentoring his filmmaker children, and failing to produce stalled personal epics, Francis Ford Coppola has finally returned to the cinematic landscape. During Coppola’s prolonged absence, his fellow New Hollywood colleagues (Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas) have experienced continued success and authorial clout, something the bear of the 1970’s American boom hasn’t achieved in a long time. With Youth Without Youth, a modestly budgeted period melodrama consumed with “experimental” stylistics and the issue of time itself, Coppola returns to the auteur’s pedestal with his most muddled and conflicted work, that at times, feels like it could go on forever.

Set in Eastern Europe during the late 1930’s, Youth Without Youth tells of an aged and guilt-ridden professor named Dominic (Tim Roth) who before attempting suicide, gets struck by lighting, barely survives, and begins to grow younger as a result. His memories and knowledge grow more potent and dynamic, not only making him a medical miracle in the eyes of his doctor (Bruno Ganz) but an object of affection for the invading Nazi’s. An intriguing setup no doubt, and Coppola injects a dark sense of menace in these opening scenes, where light and shadow often merge to highlight the unseen metaphysical forces at work. But the story ultimately disintegrates under the pressure of plot twists, character doubles, and countless dissolves, revealing a distracting artificial indulgence posing as a profound core.

Youth Without Youth is startlingly cliche considering its experimental intentions. The lost love at the heart of the film, while completely void of emotion to begin with, functions merely as an excuse to explore the reborn mind of the protagonist. His supposedly “tragic” fall from grace is neither impressive nor fantastic, but entirely muted in terms of drama. Coppola achieves a sort of twisted Avant Garde Noir, but doesn’t have the ambition to reinvent this fascinating merger in a coherent way. What was Coppola’s intentions with this parable about inaction and parallel experiences? It couldn’t have been to create an original or enticing love story, or challenge particular genre conventions at work. Coppola’s failure comes into full focus only as the subtle nuances of mystery hiding in the film’s dark corners turn out to be plastered nostalgia, an oblivious and rambling contemplation of love, desire, and doubt itching to feel important.

The Walker (Schrader, 2007)

Frankly, Paul Schrader’s Washington D.C. drama about a high class male escort named Carter Page (Woody Harrelson) who gets embroiled in a murder investigation isn’t so much bad as it is tepid and inconsequential. Schrader doesn’t descend into his usual sexual explicitness or violence, instead choosing constant innuendo and toned down threats as a guide through the political power plays and manipulations of his characters. This approach continuously flounders, irking out dialogue as if coined by a reformed lobbyist looking to even the score. The corruption, disloyalty, and fluidity at the core of The Walker and it’s sleazy high class expose speak to a human conflict between honor and respect, something Schrader has addressed to much better effect elsewhere, namely in the struggles of the lower class in Blue Collar and Affliction. I’ve found Schrader doesn’t do well when addressing the trials and tribulations of the wealthy elite. For me, Schrader needs the grit and grime of working class anti-heroes to fully explore the harsh themes at the heart of much of his work, which in turn reveals the humanity within a director not especially known for such a trait. 

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou, 2007)

Like the ambiguous floating metaphor dancing atop its Parisian landscapes, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon feels just out of reach, a slow, beautiful juxtaposition of grace and solitude guided by somber prevailing winds of change. It’s a film defined by rhythmic characterizations, but one haunted by a void of emotional expression. Hou’s characters, which include a distressed puppeteer named Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), her son Simon (Simon Iteanu), and a Chinese film student named Song (Fang Song), reflect different phases of individual artistic expression/frustration, contrasting souls on the verge of discovery or doubt, often left alone to reflect on their own relationship with the world around them. Elements of fantasy share equal weight with trivial interactions.

But since this is a Hou film, the camera glides just as effortlessly through cluttered interiors as spacious exteriors and nothing feels out of place or inconsequential. Flight of the Red Balloon once again proves Hou’s mastery of composing meticulously calculated human moments through silence and nuance, and the film’s measured pacing says more about the filmmaker’s obsessions with time and space than anything else.  If the end result feels a bit incomplete, it’s only because Hou’s fleeting glimpse at melancholy and longing overwhelms traditional modes of cinematic expression, leaving us wanting more of what can’t be defined.

The Great Debaters (Washington, 2007)

Give director Denzel Washington credit for tackling some heavy imagery, especially since the film’s young adult protagonists witness these horrific acts of brutality suddenly and without warning. Lasting visual trauma’s become an interesting narrative core for an otherwise standard and safe offering, one that neither threatens the status quo of Hollywood biopics nor completely falls prey to their linear views of history.

Right at Your Door (Gorak, 2007)

When faced with a catastrophic terrorist attack, should one trust their personal instincts or the mass rhetoric passed on by the first responders in the name of public safety? According to Chris Gorak’s Right at Your Door, a grim, apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles under attack by multiple dirty bombs, either way you’re screwed. It’s a horrifying pessimism that, taking into account our government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, feels entirely justified.

The film focuses on a regular, if not disengaged thirty-something couple named Brad (Rory Cochrane) and Lexi (Mary McCormick), who wake up one sunny morning, go through an obviously uninspired routine, and set off on their separate ways. He’s a struggling musician and she’s a successful workaholic. When the shit hits the fan, both are rocked to the core by the epic carnage that befalls the city, Brad in the safe confines of their home, Lexi out in the thick of it all, i.e. the freeway. The radio quickly calls the attack chemical, and Brad seals up the house from the inside. Of course, Lexi returns, covered in hazardous debris, demanding to be let it.

The inherent situational drama never lives up to its potential in terms of emotional range and pacing. As the script tries to shove the context for each character to the forefront, even the fascinating and ghastly situation can’t repel the clichéd moments. But the film really isn’t trying to be original in terms of storytelling. In Right at Your Door, the menace of uncertainty and distrust rules the roost, consuming personal relationships, making them seem fleeting, disorienting, and false. It’s a film that confronts a national fear, namely when does mass protectionism outweigh individual needs. Where does each of us fit in to the government’s grand scheme of containment, or sacrifice during such an event? Fraught with spatial peril, Right at Your Door speaks to a disturbing confusion of message during times of domestic crisis, both in terms of communication and ideology. It witnesses an America where entrusted institutions turn faceless in the name of “national security” and the “public’s best interest”, where cynicism and anger fuel a collective unrest. And the result isn’t pretty.

A Few Notes on We Own the Night

My original (and unenthusiastic) review for We Own the Night can be found here. But seeing James Gray’s cop thriller again, I feel it’s better than originally thought and worth discussing a bit more. During my initial theatrical viewing, the film came across as dynamically stylish and light on character, extremely watchable and engaging but disappointing in the end due to its reliance on silly plot devices. The second time around, Gray’s construction of tragedy really hit home for me. The rapport between Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg’s conflicted brothers caught on separate sides of the law became more authentic and palpable beyond genre convention. Their respective dramatic compromises, both played out significantly in the final scene, resonate greatly with Gray’s motif of familial sacrifice. While I still reserve the right to roll my eyes during a number of outlandishly implausible scenes in We Own the Night, it’s a work filled with interesting moments of tension dependent on performance and genre.