U.K.: Ralph Fiennes, 2011, The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay
Here we have another film treasure taken from the vast and wonderful dramaturgy of William Shakespeare: Coriolanus, bitter, bleak, murderous play of the hell of warfare, of deadly comrades in arms, of the masses and the few, of the ties of blood and the evils of politics -- now made into a movie set in the age of bombs and the land of ethnic cleansing (Serbia), directed by and starring, in the title role, that fine melancholy actor Ralph Fiennes, with a performance so extraordinary by Vanessa Redgrave, as Volumnia, the ultimate warrior's mother, that it takes your breath away.
Shakespeare's plays can make superb movies, like this one, not only because they're so teeming with ideas and overflowing with poetry and bursting with life, but because in many ways, they are already movies, ready made -- longer perhaps than the average film, but richer and more wondrous too. Fiennes' Coriolanus -- shot in modern clothes with modern weaponry in the recently war-torn city of Belgrade, Serbia, with cable TV newspeople acting as narrator or chorus, and cell phones everywhere -- is the kind of modernization I am usually inclined against. Shakespeare with guns never seems to work as well as Shakespeare with swords. Or spears. The first time I saw Baz Luhrmann's street gang version of Romeo and Juliet, I disliked it. But I was wrong. When you use Shakespeare's words, the speeches, the people -- and you have them mostly here -- then you've set the table for something grand: a feast of poetry, a feast of humanity, a feast of soul and flesh and beating heart.
And, in Coriolanus, a feast of blood. This is a play of murder, and a movie of killers. Coriolanus is the dread-soaked tale of an ill-fated warrior, who wins battles for Rome against the attacking Volscians. He is then encouraged to run for Roman consul by his wily friend Menenius (Brian Cox) and his warrior's mother Volumnia (Redgrave), and outwitted by two rascally demagogic tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and their radical, too-easily-led mobs. Exiled, the sinewy, bullet-headed bald-shaven Coriolanus seems to take it stoically, but we can feel the pain reeking from him. He shows up, now with beard and shaggy hair, in the den of the Volscians and of his great brutal rival Aufidius (Gerard Butler). He goes over to the enemy, leads the Volscian troops to victory over his old home city, and then, on the brink of sour revenge, becomes the target of one of the most moving and terrifying speeches a stage mother ever gave -- in an acting performance by Redgrave worthy of every award from the Oscar on down.
The secret of playing Shakespeare, at least in our day, in a more intimate medium like film, is to say the speeches so the poetry shines through and yet say them so naturalistically that the meaning and the humanity come out as well. This is no easy task, but for any good actor, it's a joyous one. The stage around them can be as packed or as bare as you like. Fiennes' Coriolanus looks so bleak, so gray, and so bloody -- but I didn't care about that slightly monotonous landscape, because the words were there. And the actors: Fiennes and Redgrave and Cox and Jessica Chastain (as Coriolanus' pretty wife, Virgilia) and all the others, some English, some Serbian, some from other lands. Shakespeare belongs to them all, to all the world. (Extras: commentary by Ralph Fiennes; "making of" documentary.)
John Carter (B-)
U. S.: Andrew Stanton, 2012, Buena Vista
What can you say about a movie that cost upwards of $250 million to make and still bores you a little? That maybe it's not quite enough?
John Carter, the live action Disney epic based on the popular early 20th century pulp series of science fiction novels (A Princess of Mars, etc.) by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, reportedly cost all of that and more, and it still looks like as if it's missing something. But maybe it's missing something money can't buy. Set mostly in a Martian desert landscape that looks like Monument Valley, with an adventure script that suggests Star Wars crossed with Avatar, The Searchers and Flash Gordon, it's not a bad movie. In fact -- with its robust action, its classy cast and a gallery of Martian creatures that look like escapees from George Lucas' cantina -- it's sometimes quite entertaining.
John Carter was adapted by a trio of writers, Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chambon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), from the Burroughs novel cycle that became a pop classic and inspired the whole genre of Flash Gordon-Buck Rogers "space operas." The book is one of Burroughs' high-machismo fairytales: a male fantasy perfect for guys who get pushed around, and want to push back. In the movie, Captain John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch of Wolverine) is an explorer and ex-Confederate Army captain who dies and leaves his fortune, and a journal, to his relative, the young Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara).
The journal describes Carter's hitherto unknown and undreamed-of Martian odyssey: It tells us how Carter mysteriously travels to Mars (not by spaceship, like Flash, but by something like teleportation) and has a series of adventures while being bounced around between three warring Martian factions -- two of which (the residents of the flying City of Helium and their nemeses, the Zadonga Warriors) look human, and talk English, and one of which (the Tharks) are six-limbed galloping creatures who also talk English. (As well as Tharkian, with subtitles.) The Tharks are the most interesting, and often the best acted, by Willem Dafoe as wise leader Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as rebellious Sola.
The other factions have star power too. Smart, raven-haired, Newman-eyed love interest Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her stolid pop Tardos (Ciaran Hinds) are among the Heliumites. The Zadonga heavies include Dominic West as Sab Than, the creep who aspires to Dejah's hand (and has conned her dad into a "political marriage"), and the ubiquitous Mark Strong as evil advisor Matai Shang, who can change shapes (which makes him an ideal politician).
I probably would have adored this movie at oh say, nine. It's faithful to Burroughs, looks fine and the cast is a good one. But that cast is weak at the top -- with Kitsch's Carter. For most of this movie, he lacks the conquering presence of someone who reacts so well to getting whisked off to Mars from the Old West, and who then becomes a local hero of the Tharks due to his ability to leap around in huge bounds in the altered gravity -- and who could woo and win a Martian Princess. As to whether it's a good movie, well yeah, it is, I guess. if you're, oh say, nine. (Extras: commentary with Stanton and other filmmakers; deleted scene; featurettes; Disney second sScreen.)
Safe House (B-)
U. S.: Daniel Espinosa, 2012, Universal
Safe House. Too much, too fast. The action is too unrelenting, the script is too derivative, the cast is too good (for the material), and Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds -- playing a legendary CIA genius operative/turncoat (Washington), and the inexperienced Cape Town, South Africa safe house keeper guarding him (Reynolds) -- have little chemistry. (Washington overpowers his partner too easily.) Still, in some ways, Safe House isn't a disappointment. It's simply the action movie business-as-usual.
The movie -- which suggests what might happen if Training Day were filtered through Three Days of the Condor and all three Bourne films -- has been done with a lot of physical expertise, on gorgeous or exciting locations in Cape Town, South Africa and environs -- and with very good actors. In addition to Washington and Reynolds, the lineup boasts Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades and others -- most playing CIA agents or employees, rogue or otherwise, thugs, hit men and Reynolds' Parisian love interest (Nora Arnezeder), most of them involved in almost nonstop treachery and violence -- a barrage of firepower and bloodshed that barely pauses for a breather, or a good line.
I didn't dislike it. But I didn't like it much. I wish two or three of the action or chase set-pieces (say, the soccer stadium scene) had been replaced with a few more scenes devoted to character and dialogue and human interaction.
Instead, the movie just piles on the action, shovels on the mayhem -- chases, gunfights, one blam-blam after another -- relying on the fact that the characters and plotlines are mostly clichés to keep us well-situated in the story. Admittedly, the clichés are aimed at a slightly more adult audience. Washington, for example, with his usual panache, plays a seeming bad guy Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who was once one of the Company's ace operatives and deadliest assassins, but who turned traitor and has been out in the cold for ten years or so.
Now, suddenly, the stoic-faced Frost gets pulled back. Some valuable secrets, and the determined squads of hit men on his tail, drive him back into the arms of the American embassy -- and into a Cape Town safe house, where he's bullied and waterboarded (by Robert Patrick as a brutal intelligence officer), and then left in the care of Reynolds as seemingly green Matt Weston, the relatively new safe house keeper. All this is only minutes it seems, before the gang after Frost breaks into the house and wipes out everybody but Frost and Matt -- triggering a chase that lasts for the rest of the show.
Denzel Washington is such a camera-friendly actor -- he has one of the screen's great playful smiles -- that it's hard not to root for him, no matter what kind of character he's playing. Frost is an ultimate rebel, a man without any of the usual ties or allegiances who faces the world, his world, with a shriveling contempt-- but Safe House is so busy all the time crashing and banging that we never get to know him enough. The best match in the show, acting-wise, is probably the hookup between old friends Frost and Ruben Blades' Carlos, and that scene descends into yet another bloody melee.
Safe House was written by first-timer David Guggenheim. And it's a little disillusioning that this screenplay -- which could have used a few more rewrites -- once won a Harris poll as one of Hollywood's best unsold scripts. The direction, by Swedish emigre Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money), is gritty, highly professional looking and fast, maybe too fast. Like the current Franco-American French directors from the Luc Besson stable (Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton), Espinosa seems to have learned his lessons in big-time American action movie making well, maybe too well. They've forgotten the first rule of the great action movies, the ones by Ford, Hawks, Kurosawa, Leone, Peckinpah: You've got to give a damn about the characters.
Act of Valor (C)
U. S.: Mike McCoy & Scott Waugh, 2012
With its cast of real-life Navy SEALs playing characters based on themselves, in a script partly drawn from real life, in scenes that the SEALs actors helped design and choreograph, Act of Valor should have been the last word in combat realism. And that's something that you'd think American audiences would be ready for -- especially in the aftermath of the inspiring real-life SEALs trackdown and termination of Osama bin Laden.
Instead, it feels like just another war picture -- with more authentic-looking action than usual maybe, but with the same old clichés, the same old villains, the same old camaraderie, the same old conventional dramatic shtick and stuff and the same old flag-draped sentimentality and recruiting-poster themes. There are exotic villains named Christo (Alex Veadov) and Abu Shabal (Jason Coffee) and shoot-'em-ups in Costa Rica and terrorist battles in Mexico. There's a would-be heart-tearing Pacific Ocean beach goodbye. And though it probably works for much of its intended audience, it's a movie that doesn't inhabit the same universe as Platoon or The Hurt Locker or Apocalypse Now, not to mention the honestly and affectingly gung ho war movie classics of John Ford, Howard Hawks or William Wellman.
Nor does the movie seem to be making good use of its unusual cast: a group of actual Navy SEALs still on active duty, most of whom use their own first names (though not usually their last, presumably to preserve their safety and security). Except for the already justly praised (by other critics) Van O, who does a great interrogation, they don't act at the same levels at which they wage war -- though maybe that's a script problem.
The movie was written by Kurt Johnstad (300) and directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh (who sign themselves The Bandido Brothers and who appear at the beginning of the movie). All three have backgrounds in stunt work, and maybe that's why the stunts here seem so much more authentic than the emotions. In any case, the movie reportedly started as a documentary (with McCoy and Waugh embedded with the SEALs) and later became a recruiting film, and finally emerged as what it is now: a major-release feature, packed with major stereotypes and all-pro action.I think McCoy and Waugh would have been wiser to keep it a documentary, or even a recruiting movie.
Too bad. But I would like to pay tribute to some of the Act of Valor SEALs and castmates that I was able to find combing through the various cast lists, mainly Variety's: Dave, Lt. Rorke, Ray, Ajay, Mikey, Sonny and Weimy. Keep it up, guys.
The Woodmans (A-)
U.S.: C. Scott Willis, 2010, Kino Lorber
One problem with being a great artist, or a hugely gifted artist, is that the temperament isn't always easy to live with -- especially for the artists themselves. Another problem: You have to depend on perceptive critics and audiences to earn your living or win recognition, and they aren't always available.
The Woodmans is a fascinating documentary about Francesca Woodman and her family. The Woodmans are all artists: father George, mother Betty, son Charlie and daughter Francesca. But Francesca is the reason the story is being told. She was a prodigious young photographer of the '70s and early '80s, who killed herself by jumping from a New York City loft at 22, in 1981.
Her photographs were mostly black-and-white, of herself, nude, in sparse backdrops (apartments, lofts, beaches, fields, walls with windows), given a slight surrealist tinge by blurring or off-center composition, or Francesca's odd, unashamed full-frontal or curling fetus-like poses. She shot pictures from a very young age (her father taught her), grew up in Boulder, Colorado and Italy with her family, and moved to New York City in her late teens, planning to earn a living in fashion photography. She wasn't hired. She missed out on an NEA grant. She was rarely exhibited. She had an unhappy love affair. At the end, she'd given up photography, given up art, given up on herself.
But she did enough in her short life to become, starting about 10 years after her suicide, one of the stars of 20th-century photography. Whoever didn't hire her and whoever didn't give her that grant, probably felt like idiots. And they were idiots. The boyfriend who made her unhappy should have felt terrible, and maybe he did, maybe he does. Her family, as we can see, still ache, though they all discuss her with an artist's sometimes unsettling objectivity.
An irony. Francesca, in her short, unhappy life, achieved what every artist really wants: some kind of immortality. Meanwhile George, Betty, and Charlie, in their longer and relatively happier lives, missed the brass ring she posthumously snatched -- even though they functioned productively, made art, were paid for it. Betty, maybe the most successful of them, made ceramics, and then fine arts ceramics, and then huge art works, like the one we see her doing, commissioned for the Beijing Embassy.
Death is a hard road to immortality. And obviously, it's Francesca's despairing jump from the loft that fed her later cult status -- like Sylvia Plath's post-suicide fame, in literature. But director C. Scott Willis, an ex-Nightline TV producer, rightly perceives that this is a family story. It's also a tale of the pain and glory of American success and romance and art and self-salesmanship.
Betty, George, and Charlie -- and many of Francesca's friends and classmates -- all talk on camera, holding back, it seems, little. Francesca talks to us too, from her diaries, her journals, and, most of all, from those strange, beautiful monochrome pictures of herself. I kept thinking as I watched and listened to this beautifully told, sharply edited chronicle: Poor Francesca. Brilliant Francesca. Sad Francesca.