Doubt

44/100

Synecdoche, New York

1024_synecdoche.jpgSynecdoche, New York is a fascinating, thought-provoking film. Re-reading what I wrote about other films written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) I see that I’ve compared his work to origami pieces, and I still think that’s apt. You can lose yourself in their multifarious layers and folds — and sometimes, when imprecise fingers and thumbs finish modeling the creature, the thing doesn’t really match what you saw on the instruction page. I wonder if Charlie Kaufman films are like that, too, born from screenplays so psychologically intricate and emotionally personal that the finished home his imaginings find on screen doesn’t quite match the blueprint. This film is very much of a piece with its predecessors, but somehow the tone is different. It’s more ceaselessly despairing, with little modulation of the overall grind.

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Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War is a rare thing–a funny political film, a sexy

history lesson. Director Mike Nichols brings a light comic touch to the

story of the Democratic Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) with a thing for

the ladies and a soft spot for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Julia

Roberts plays the wealthy conservative socialite who convinces Wilson

to orchestrate the covert diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars

to the Afghan rebels in the years following the Soviet invasion in

1979. Neither Hanks nor Roberts is particularly convincing as a Texas

politico, but that’s OK. The film crackles whenever Philip Seymour

Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, comes on screen, ripping

mischievously through his sardonic dialogue and bringing everyone

else’s game up a notch. Adapted from a book by the late George Crile,

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay strongly suggests that

the Congressional failure to help rebuild Afghanistan’s decimated

post-war infrastructure helped make that country an eventual hotbed of

terrorist activity. But what sticks is the criticism of U.S. politics

as essentially a popularity contest, driven by friendships, favors, and

fickle public opinion–a system prone to leave jobs unfinished as they

become unfashionable. B Originally published in the White Plains Times.

DVD Traffic Report: April 22, 2008

480_greenlight.gif480_charlie-wilson-dvd.jpgCharlie Wilson’s War (Universal)

Charlie Wilson’s War is a rare thing—a funny political film, a sexy

history lesson. Director Mike Nichols brings a light comic touch to the

story of the Democratic Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) with a thing for

the ladies and a soft spot for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Julia

Roberts plays the wealthy conservative socialite who convinces Wilson

to orchestrate the covert diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars

to the Afghan rebels in the years following the Soviet invasion in

1979. Neither Hanks nor Roberts is particularly convincing as a Texas

politico, but that’s OK. The film crackles whenever Philip Seymour

Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, comes on screen, ripping

mischievously through his sardonic dialogue and bringing everyone

else’s game up a notch. Adapted from a book by the late George Crile,

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay strongly suggests that

the Congressional failure to help rebuild Afghanistan’s decimated

post-war infrastructure helped make that country an eventual hotbed of

terrorist activity. But what sticks is the criticism of U.S. politics

as essentially a popularity contest, driven by friendships, favors, and

fickle public opinion—a system prone to leave jobs unfinished as they

become unfashionable. Originally published in the White Plains Times.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Charlie Wilson’s War (Widescreen)

480_easy-living-dvd.jpgEasy Living (Universal)

Preston

Sturges began his career at Paramount in 1937 by writing this

Depression-era-New-York comedy about a wealthy industrialist (Edward

Arnold) known as The Bull of Broad Street, his unhappy son (Ray

Milland) who leaves home to work as a busboy at an automat, and working

girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), whose life changes after a

crazy-expensive fur coat chucked off the roof of a Manhattan apartment

building lands on her head. (She turns around, angrily, and demands,

“What’s the big deal anyway?” The turbaned dude behind her

responds, deadpan, “Kismet.” It’s that kind of screenplay.) Turns out

the coat is a powerful status symbol, and Mary soon learns that nothing

attracts wealth as powerfully as, well, more wealth. The no-frills slapstick of director Mitchell

Leisen (an accomplished art director and costume designer) is no substitute for the elegance that Sturges

would later develop helming his own material, but it’s fairly well-tuned for this sophisticated, breezily entertaining farce of

misunderstood identities. And Jean Arthur is terrific. I’m not sure how

good the DVD looks, but it’s got to be better than my VHS copy, which

was recorded from Showtime almost 20 years ago.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens with one hell of a flourish. No sooner have the lights gone down than you’re greeted with the spectacle of Philip Seymour Hoffman vigorously fucking Marisa Tomei from behind. Hoffman is watching the coupling in a floor-to-ceiling mirror; the effect is not much less sordid than the similar scene in American Psycho. (Tomei goes on to, essentially, spend her screen time in the next few reels of the film topless — with the sudden arrival of this, Feast of Love, American Gangster, Into the Wild and In the Valley of Elah, not to mention the towel-free shenanigans of Viggo Mortenson in Eastern Promises, it looks like I picked the wrong year to start complaining about a lack of nudity on the part of Hollywood movies.) Their furious, awkward rutting behavior is sort of a metaphor for the whole film, which is about a certain animalistic low-mindedness and love of money — behavior that stinks like a rotting carcass. After a first-reel heist-gone-wrong sequence, the action rachets down somewhat, but much blood (along with some other bodily fluids) will be spilled once the film starts cranking again toward its Shakespearean conclusion.

Ladies and gentlemen, Sidney Lumet has entered the building, and he wants you to know he’s still a badass.


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