Friday, October 27, 2006

Dim bulbs

Ways to turn down the wattage on a movie, culled from this fall's releases:

1) Make your twist ending incomprehensible. The finale of The Prestige (pictured) had me scurrying to the Internet Movie Database to find out exactly what happened, and I wasn't alone. When I did, I realized why the filmmakers had been so coy with their dropped hints and photographic asides (the hats): It's pretty ridiculous. And it's off-putting that Christian Bale's character exhibits no emotion whatsoever about the fate of a fellow character. Then again, the whole film, while well-mounted, is pretty chilly and difficult to warm to; I prefer the summer's warmer-blooded magician movie, The Illusionist, but enough with the hocus pocus.

2) Throw away your movie with the very final shot. I enjoyed most of The Departed, nothing more, and nothing less (but nothing more) than a slick genre picture from Martin Scorsese, on a more even keel than recently. But I hope the DVD hits with two versions on the same disc: One with rat, and one without. I've read that the last shot is meant to be acridly humorous, and to underline the theme, but the theme--we're all rats!--is not one that needed to be underlined at the 150-minute mark, with 90 percent of the cast dispatched. We got it already.*

3) Don't bother to ID your characters. Just as the spectators in Stardust Memories prefer the "early, funny ones" of its Woody Allen-ish filmmaker, so, too, do I prefer the early, violent ones of Clint Eastwood. Flags of Our Fathers means to tell us that heroes are merely survivors, getting on with a ferociously difficult task, and that heroism is manufactured for the survival of societies--but the first point is illustrated with familiar, Saving Private Ryan imagery that has lost its potency since 1998, and the second, more abstract point is beyond its director's workmanlike abilities to engage with. (My friend John Calhoun called 2004's Million Dollar Baby "the best picture of 1954," too true.) Further hurting the cause is that, except for Adam Beach as the tragic Ira Hayes, the parts are dully cast and dully played, and that not nearly enough is done to identify the characters, some of whom turn up, confusingly, in the present-day scenes as well.

Which brings me to 3a) throw a lot of flashbacks at us, just as we're absorbing what's happening in one timeframe, and 3b) shoot everything in an eye-straining colorless color, as if that is the "color of war" (the color of war is simply natural color; Eastwood would never have bothered with this high-falutin processing before Unforgiven domesticated him). I was only moved by the black-and-white photographs and memorial footage that play over the closing credits.

4) Upstage your fact-based movie by showing us the real person. The Last Days of Scotland isn't a biopic, and takes rather far-fetched liberties with the truth. Initially, I didn't quite believe Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin; the actor specializes in gentle, or at least slyly introspective, parts. He assumed authority, though, in a wonderful scene where a wound Amin sustained is dressed, a sequence played for nervous comedy and near-terror by Whitaker and James McAvoy, as his doctor. I slowly bought into the illusion...then the credits roll and footage of the actual dictator is shown, returning me to square one and my gut reaction that Yaphet Kotto was a lot closer to the mark in the 1977 TV movie Raid on Entebbe.

5) More a comment than a concern: Scare us with a supporting player. As creepy as Nosferatu the vampire, Jackie Earle Haley makes such an alarming impression in Little Children I almost lost focus. All I could think of when he emerged from the ranks of the cinematic dead as a child molester was, "Is this what age 45 looks like?" I saw him in one of his teen-dream pictures, Damnation Alley--he looks to have been living there for the last 30 years. Frightening.

*Reviewing the sci-fi thriller Outland in 1981, Pauline Kael anticipated a movie where the good and bad guys stalk each other on computer screens. This is that movie, except it's via cellphones. There may have been others before, but this one felt particularly technophilic, and at least there are real chases and shoot-em-ups to compensate for this rather distant and faceless interaction.

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