October 20, 2007

Redacted

Directed by Brian De Palma

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Brian De Palma’s latest bid for relevance seems to be doing the trick. After all, it has all the trappings of a hell raiser, and not in a Carrie kind of way. Redacted lifts from the newspaper headlines and dramatizes events that surround U.S. troops raping a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and wiping out her entire family. De Palma has stumbled upon a truly topical subject in the current presidential race, and talking heads will soon buzz about the film like it’s Fahrenheit 9/11 all over while other button pushers like Lake of Fire and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days might have to take a backseat. The director apparently fired the first shot at a now-infamous New York Film Festival press conference, in which he and Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles got into a heated spat over censorship of actual war photographs used in the film’s end title sequence.

The Fahrenheit 9/11 comparison is actually quite appropriate, since Redacted is in every way the same kind of angry, rambling, heavy-handed cinematic diatribe. A mockumentary except no one will be laughing, De Palma’s new film pieces together faux surveillance cameras, newscasts, documentaries, blogs, vlogs, and video diary entries shot during the tour of duty of Pvt. Angel Sakazar (Izzy Diaz).

De Palma’s filmmaking here is energetic and deliberately amateurish. It comes off like a meandering trip down the information superhighway in that few of the multiple narratives actually amount to anything. But his visual style is not nearly as crude as the way he not so subtly runs down his list of talking points. The film’s central event is devastating, but the director’s ulterior motives are a lot less pertinent. As much as it is a critique of the Iraq war, Redacted also simultaneously lashes out at multimedia conglomerates filtering information and at technology that allows everyone to pick up a camera, shoot and find an outlet for their “work.” He has a point, but perhaps that could have been another film – it already sounds better than The Untouchables: Capone Rising.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

No Country for Old Men

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The Coen Brothers function only in two genres: the noir and the screwball. This pattern emerged more than a decade ago with their first two films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, and little has changed since. Critics at Cannes must have suffered a collective attack of amnesia when they hailed the Coens’ latest, an eponymous adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, as a return to form. Not too long before the brothers made such commercial throwaways as Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they actually had another a noir merely six years ago called The Man Who Wasn’t There. If there’s anything “new” about the Coens’ allegedly “new” film, it’s the fact that they have Javier Bardem in a role that ordinarily would have gone straight to John Turturro. Rounding out the cast are Barbara Streisand’s son in law and the newly-minted Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s former college roommate.

Although this adaptation is quite faithful to McCarthy’s source material, it’s still unmistakably Coen Brothers: Smalltime crook: check. Unsophisticated cops: check. Creepy mental case: check. It’s perhaps more Coens than is necessary at the expense of the Pulitzer-winning novelist’s touch. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) goes hunting and accidentally stumbles onto the scene of a drug deal gone bad. He uncovers a truckload of dope and a suitcase full of dough then absconds with the money. On his trail are a ferocious cartel and a recently escaped serial killer (Bardem) armed with a cattle gun and Buster Brown bobbed hair.

The Coens get a lot of mileage out of this cat-and-mouse chase, and the set pieces are expertly executed. But they have missed the entire point of McCarthy’s novel, which the title plainly gives away. The world-weary, near-retirement Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who narrates the book unfortunately becomes a subplot in the Coens’ version. One can venture to say that, albeit entertaining, No Country for Old Men is an even more misguided attempt than Billy Bob Thornton’s stab at McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

Although lately Jones seems to be typecast in this kind of role (i.e. In the Valley of Elah), his turn adds some much needed heart and soul to No Country for Old Men. Given that Jones also did such a fine job directing the McCarthyesque Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he should have taken this film over from the Coens.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 03, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Directed by Julian Schnabel

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor of French Elle magazine. At the age of 43, he suffered a stroke that left most of his body paralyzed. With the assistance of his physical therapists and transcriber, he communicated through the blinking of his left eyelid and spent 14 months authoring an autobiography The Diving Bell and the Butterfly before his death in 1997. This staggering true story is the basis of Julian Schnabel’s new film of the same name, and fortunately the painter/director has the good sense to not turn it into some sort of uplifting schmaltz like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside.

Instead, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood capture all the inner demons – the shame of having to be cared for, the suicidal thoughts, the defeatist attitude, the embittered selfishness – that Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, had to battle. The film doesn’t make him out to be an inspirational hero, because he was all too human. Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his two children whom he never married, dutifully remained by his side in the hospital despite his infidelity. In a heartbreaking scene, his mistress Inés (Agathe de la Fontine) calls, and Céline even facilitates the conversation and tells Inés that Bauby’s been waiting for her visit. Céline then finally breaks down and runs out of the room.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly isn’t entirely anguished and depressing either. Schnabel’s painterly eye creates stunning imagery based on Bauby’s cherished memories and vivid imagination. The generosity and dedication of his physical therapists Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garamendia) also make one deeply appreciative of the human race’s capacity for compassion.

Bauby told the truth and nothing but in his autobiography, and Harwood and Schnabel faithfully depict his ordeal onscreen without filtering it through subjective editorializing. They don’t sugarcoat the fact that Bauby could be horribly disagreeable and difficult to deal with, but the viewers could still relate to him and care about his plight. If this film were in the hands of a Steven Spielberg or a Ron Howard, it probably would not be nearly as genuine and heartfelt.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.