April 13, 2010

Kurt Reviews The New Movies

Culture Editor Kurt Brokaw weighs in on two neo-noirs ("The Departed" and "Hollywoodland") and two selections from the recent New York Film Festival ("Little Children" and "Pan's Labyrinth").


The Departed.

Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 crime/suspense thriller "Cape Fear" as an over-the-top near-horror exercise (with Robert DeNiro taking the Robert Mitchum role), so the notion of Marty remaking a very recent Hong Kong crime drama is not a unique undertaking. "Cape Fear" is a heavy-breathing revenge tale, and "The Departed" has an irresistible premise of a Boston mobster infiltrating the police's organized crime smashing unit, at the same time a young officer goes undercover and becomes a trusted accomplice of the mob boss. It's Matt Damon edging closer and closer to Leonardo Di Caprio. and vice versa, and Scorsese is back working the kind of full-tilt, all-stops-out movie-making that grew his career.

Indeed, Scorsese seems to have taken some lessons from recent caper films like the frenetic "Bourne Supremacy" and "Miami Vice," for "The Departed" moves with non-stop urgency, marked with fast cutting and a persistent, ever-changing rock music score that rarely lets up. The picture is exhausting, and it's exceptionally ugly and shocking in spots, and it stumbles along under the bloated, gasbag exhibitionism of Jack Nicholson as the mob chieftain. But its whirlwind momentum holds you even as you're wincing and almost turning away from Marty's mayhem. It's bravura moviemaking, and the screenplay by William Monahan has that kind of crime culture authenticity that Scorsese has kept a lock on over the decades better than any other director. "The Departed's" bleak, tragic ending will probably end up being a key factor in denying Scorsese yet another Oscar win, but he soldiers on, this time adding Damon and Mark Wahlberg to De Caprio's star power so that the film has a chance of maybe breaking even. Maybe.

The one rather peculiar note amidst all this carnage is the nonrelenting use of cell phone technology as a carrying device throughout "The Departed." As in "Inside Man," somebody's always on the phone, communicating absolutely crucial information while bodies fall left and right. All these 800-pound gorillas, patiently tapping out numbers and peering into their tiny little lit-up screens. Ah, crime in the modern age. Back in 1949, "White Heat" worked its cop-as-the-mole-in-the-gang premise without a single phone call, and in its simple old way it worked better.


Little Children

Beware of this one. It's the most stylized and artificial drama since "Closer," the infidelity lesson with Julia Roberts & Co. In "Little Children" it's a weary Kate Winslet (armed with all of her Ph.D credits except a dissertation) vs. a dysfunctional society filled with Bad Surprises and Awful Revelations and Terrible People. Kate's a suburban mom with a husband who does branding (not advertising) campaigns for Chinese restaurant chains when he's not watching Internet pornography. Kate and her little girl become playground and swimming pool pals with a house husband and his little boy (his wife is an absorbed documentary filmmaker).. A Greek chorus of disapproving women look on. The women (including the mother of the filmmaker) are as dopey as the original Stepford Wives of the 70s, or even the one-dimensional 50s women that dump on Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven."

Complicating the affair that Winslet begins with the neighboring dad is a creepy, under-the-rock pedophile who lives down the block with his sympathetic mother. The one near-berserk dad who's determined to kick out the child molester is an out-of-control ex-cop who plays on the neighborhood football team with Kate's lover. Oh, dear. You know all these disparate forces are going to inevitably converge in some awful, bloody ending, and they do, they do.

This is a terrible movie. It's pulled along by a sophomoric narrator--a coy, knowing, understanding voice that sounds for all the world like the narrator in "Babe" the pig movie.; The narrator helps sort out and more or less confirms the thoughts we envision various characters having. It's a smug, snooty device, and it's as poorly thought out as the shameful performances a number of capable actresses are forced to give as the Good Mothers. The guy behind all this tripe is Todd Field, and how this junker snuck into the New York Film Festival is a mystery.



"The Black Dahlia" spent over two hours positing a possible solution to the slaying of a 40's bit player. "Hollywoodland" is the same kind of noir puzzle, except here we're asked to accompany a private eye who's digging into the shooting death of George Reeves, the first television series "Superman." This is about the most peculiar casting you're ever likely to see in a neo-noir. Ben Affleck is the kids' hero who's faster-than-a-speeding-bullet. Adrien Brody is the shamus. The head of MGM, who may or may not be involved in the star's death, is played by Bob Hoskins, and his wife--who has a long-term affair with Superman--is Diane Lane.

"Hollywoodland" has none of "The Black Dahlia's" spectacular set pieces. It's a drab, grubby little affair that intercuts Ben's brief fame and descent into bit roles and heavy drinking with Adrian's investigation into his death. Brody is initially uneasy and at times looks lost in the role, but then he takes a terrible beating, and settles down into a sodden, low-key, hard-drinking dick--kind of like Elliott Gould in "The Long Goodbye." As a reduced character actor, he's much better, Ben Affleck is--well, what is it with this guy? Affleck was good as a failed drunk in "Bounce," and here he's an overweight failed drunk, and he gets some mileage out of scenes when he realizes he's never going to command serious screen roles and may end up on the wrestling circuit in his Superman tights. He's good with Diane Lane, who easily plays the washed-up wife of a czar and who deliberately mutes her performance to give Ben more screen presence. The movie has an unforced, sleazy feel, something like Horace McCoy's excellent 30's novel of bit players, "I Should Have Stayed Home." That's pretty much the message of "Hollywoodland," and it delivers that with pulpy satisfaction.


Pan's Labyrinth

To properly understand this film, it helps to have witnessed the 20 minutes preceding its premiere at Avery Fisher Hall, on the Closing Night of the New York Film Festival. Seats were $40 and the vast, four-tiered auditorium was sold out. It was a dressy, sophisticated, New York crowd.

When the lights came up after "Lump," a 12-minute short,concluded to light and muted applause, the director,a young woman no more than 30, was introduced by Daniel Stern, the President of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. She shyly took the microphone and said, "I hope you liked--no, that's not right--I hope you were able to watch all of my film. And if you didn't, I hope someone might tell you what happened."

"Lump" is a bizarre and increasingly surreal series of vignettes of a young woman having a benign series of tumors removed from her breast. The surgeries are shown in increasing detail, and the mystery is why she's having these tumors removed, one after another after another. The brief film, which plays out like something from an E.C. comic strip of the 50s ("Tales From the Crypt" and "The Haunt of Fear" come to mind), ends with a trick, twist ending that's almost exactly like the ghoulish world of E.C.

This is the setup for the Closing Night of the Festival, and it is not taking place at midnight at the Sunshine or the Anthology Film Archives or in some NYU student film class series. This is a red-carpet, black-tie premiere in one of New York's finest theatrical venues.

"Lump's" director goes away and Dan Stern, the Film Society president, walks back on and laments how tired the staff is from all their hard work over the past two weeks. Then he thanks most of them as well as a list of corporate sponsors as long as your arm. Then he introduces Richard Pena, the Film Festival director, who introduces Guillermo Del Toro, the director of "Pan's Labyrinth," who walks on to thunderous cheers and applause.

Del Toro is a hack Mexican horror director best known for creepshows like "Mimic," "Hellboy" and one of the "Blade" series. His movies are a cut above the sexploitation, slice-and-dice fare of Troma Films, and as a foreign director he's on a par with a 70s chap named Jess Franco who turned out Dracula and other horror films that were even nastier than the English Hammer and Amicus productions.

The director introduces several production people and actors, including the intelligent and game young heroine of "Pan's Labyrinth," Ivana Baquero. She is about 12 and wears a very pretty dress and looks so, so tiny on the Avery Fisher Stage. Del Toro thanks Pena for his kind words and notes how pleased he is to be back in the Festival after it honored his first sleazy effort, "Cronos," a vampire film that, he tells us, "Buck Henry walked out of."

"Well, he says, "Buck Henry isn't here tonight, and we'll see how you do with what I call the 'walk-out' scenes, and there are a few." He makes a few other introductory remarks about fairy tales and fantasy, which sound a little odd when they're laced with the foul profanity that informs his speech (and his interviews.) He wraps and his party exits to sustained applause, the lights start down, and about all you can hope is that this is going to be Del Toro's bid to forever exchange Horror for Art.

But instead, what "Pan's Labyrinth" does, with not much success, is become an Art Horror movie, not unlike a sensationalistic anti-Christ museum art exhibit or an apocalyptic art novel like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road, or even Shock Rock djs and shock rock bands like Wendy O. Williams & The Plasmatics. (Remember Wendy and her live chainsaw?) This movie is set in northern Spain in 1944, as the fascist military remnants of the Franco era are losing out to united rebel countrymen. The captain is a merciless, methodical, Hitler-styled puppet. He's brought his pregnant, unhappy wife along to have her baby at the front, and his even unhappier stepdaughter (Miss Baquero), who quickly abandons this theater of war for an underground world of fauns and other, mostly harmless mythological creatures
small and large.

Although we're initially uneasy with her discovery of this fantastical world, we gradually come to see it's the child's salvation. She becomes friends with a large fly that becomes her guiding fairy, as in her fairytale book. She must perform three deeds to prove her status as the princess who will return to her home,
with a crescent moon intact on her shoulder. When she places a mandrake root in a milk bath under her mother's bed and adds two drops of her own blood, the poisonous root takes on feelers almost like the mutant baby in David Lynch's "Eraserhead," yet the effect is not frightening. "Lord of the Rings" and other pictures have accustomed us to children interacting with strange and scary creatures, For the girl in "Pan's Labyrinth," they're much less intimidating than the awful fog of war that's taking place in the surrounding hills and woods.

Del Toro gives us the assurance, in several instances, that all the fantasy elements are in the girl's head, and are not being seen or heard by any of the movie's human actors. Actually, this is a highly questionable artistic decision. It means that essentially the girl must work out her own survival and escape from her lunatic stepfather, without the on-screen participation of the bevy of underground denizens she's gotten to know. and like. Will she make it alone? Sad to say, she doesn't.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is probably going to stay on the outermost edges of a hard R rating, with its protracted and grisly scenes of extreme torture and self-mutilation, all involving the uniformed captain. The walk-out rate was pretty low throughout Avery Fisher Hall, but the groans and heads-turning-away was pronounced in a number of scenes. Still, 30 minutes later, much of the audience was on its feet, giving Del Toro and his entourage a standing ovation in a house box A standing ovation.

The guiding force of The New York Film Festival for its first 30 years was Richard Roud, a distinguished critic with a Eurocentric vision and an artistic sensibility that brought many, many New Yorkers to entire festivals. Roud mixed easily with ticketholders before films outside Alice Tully Hall, and you almost never saw
anyone holding up their tickets for sale. When Richard Pena assumed the position, the entire thrust and direction of the Festival changed. I never see Pena outside talking with people. Maybe he's embarrassed to be surrounded with the dozens and dozens of people--female, male, young, old--who stand there night after night holding up whole blocks of tickets for sale.

Richard Roud would turn over in his grave if he knew "Pan's Labyrinth" had closed a NYFF. One writes that with hesitation, because somebody might make a short film about exactly that, and you watch-- Pena would tag it on to some worse film next year.

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