On DVD: Prime Suspct: The Complete Collection

Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison is an intense, driven, flawed alcoholic who meets sexism and harassment on the job with determination and a sense of political saavy. Not only is she technically shrewd, she is also a fine, highly intuitive detective who feels her way toward the truth, occasionally stumbling over her personal and professional faults - all of which make her one of the most convincing and indelible fictional detectives ever portrayed. Through the seven installments of Prime Suspect, Helen Mirren shapes this complex character, making an equally exorbitant investment in Tennison's self-destructive tendencies and her talent for police work.

This series of seven long, multi-part films, originally broadcast on ITV in the UK and on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre here in the US, comprise no less than some of the finest crime drama ever televised. Although there are traces of the great British traditions of crime fiction here and there, Prime Suspect has a distinctive style marked by a focus on character and dire, bleak atmospherics. Gray skies, concrete police buildings and housing estates, and the fluorescent lights of cheap offices and municipal morgues are the visual signals that tell us we're neck-deep in police work. Yet it's a far more grim and realistic look than the brighter colors of, say, Law and Order.

But the real distinguishing features of all seven series of Prime Suspect are the writing and the acting. Creator Lynda La Plante wrote the first and third installments, establishing the major characters and tone of the show. Tennison is an outsider, a woman working in a man's world, a fact that drives her professional successes just as it contributes to regular flare-ups of her personal flaws. Particularly during the earlier series, Tennison is beset by a variety of forces that plague her career, originating in the criminal world and among her own colleagues. Prime Suspect's second major character, appearing in the first, third, and seventh series, is Tennison's chief antagonist and colleague, Detective Sergeant Bill Otley, played with a cadaverous, withering smarminess by Tom Bell. Sexist, treacherous, and threatened by Tennison's talent, Otley works hard through the first and third series to discredit Tennison, hoping to have her removed from his supervision. Otley's adversarial - and, at times, outright illegal - behavior drives Tennison to further excel at her job - and to drink excessively off-duty. Her relationships with men, at times healthy and at times not, are always short-lived, thanks to her professional commitment and dependence upon booze.

Mirren and Bell are joined by a parade of fine actors in roles both large and small. Tom Wilkinson appears in the first series as Tennison's kind but ultimately defeated boyfriend. Ralph Fiennes is in it as well, but too briefly to merit the placement his name receives on the DVD packaging. The third series alone includes performances by David Thewlis, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, and Jonny Lee Miller. Frank Finlay appears in the last two installments as Tennison's father. In short, much of the first rank of contemporary British actors makes their way through the series at some point.

The storylines of each installment of Prime Suspect are consistently compelling and often genuinely unpredictable, particularly by the standards of the average crime drama. The first series begins with a relatively straightforward rape and murder, but the suspect is anything but usual: when Tennison first catches up with George Marlow (played by John Bowe), his guilt is anything but clear. We are unsure whether Marlow is the killer, or if Tennison's ambition has gotten the better of her. In addition to the usual murder or two, future series attack pressing and touchy social issues such as racism, child prostitution, drugs and gangs, and war crimes stemming from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. In each case, plots move swiftly and are often ingeniously constructed. Only very occasionally do the machinations of the mystery genre reveal their cogs and wheels.

But the real heart and soul of Prime Suspect is Mirren as Jane Tennison. It's the tension she generates as an unpredictable but brilliant loose cannon that keeps us riveted to each and every minute of this outstanding series. Tennison's flaws - her alcoholism, occasional irrationality, and her struggle with double-edged "female" instincts - keep the character on the fence, hovering between blockbuster success and the danger of failure. We can't always predict that she'll do the right thing - and even when she chooses the proper path, her behavior upon it can be reckless and self-destructive in the pursuit of solving a case, proving a point, or simply spiting antagonistic colleagues such as the intolerant and dangerous Otley. In maintaining our interest in Tennison, her missteps are as important as her wiser maneuvers. They keep her human, plausible, and accessible. 

Read the full review here


Essay: Tim Burton in Blunderland - An Addendum

After writing about Tim Burton a week or so ago, I felt obliged to see his Alice in Wonderland from earlier this year despite extremely low expectations, if only because it’s the only film of Burton’s that I had not yet seen.  As I said, my expectations were already buried so deep they were treading water – and yet, amazingly, they were not met.  

Burton’s version of Alice isn’t so much “re-imagined” as it is ground up into disgusting, incoherent chunks which are then lobbed indiscriminately at an unsuspecting and malnourished audience.  Despite a very shaky decade of work, Burton’s films up to this point have at least reflected the director’s unique adherence to bizarre and often beautiful design work.  But Alice is Burton’s first downright ugly film, with a color scheme that looks like a kindergarten classroom minus the fun and sense of possiblity.  The hideous CGI work saps the scenery of appeal and personality, which is especially regrettable given that Burton’s reputation was originally built upon a hand-crafted style that favored miniatures and stop-motion.  

Strangely, there are cameo appearances by the twisted tree and windmill from Sleepy Hollow – one of Burton’s best visual achievements and dullest stories.  It’s as if they were included here to remind you of who directed the film, because there is almost no other evidence of Burton’s involvement.  The CGI environments of Alice are slapdash and phony – colder and less imaginative than those of Avatar, a film I don’t admire but enjoyed more than this hash.  The look of Alice is further proof that Burton’s work on the film could only have been in the capacity of hired gun, no doubt receiving a hefty paycheck from Disney to churn out a new version of a very old studio-owned property.

The story represents a wholly unnecessary diversion from the source novels by Lewis Carroll.  The script takes a weird turn and casts an older Alice as some kind of amnesiac who has forgotten her earlier trip down the rabbit hole, and now finds herself back in “Underland” trying to defeat the Red Queen.  The total effect is incoherence, as the script recycles Carroll’s material in a way that parallels the original story without exactly replicating it.  It’s a confusing choice, without logic, that renders Carroll’s wonderful work inert.

As Alice, newcomer Mia Wasikowska holds her own against an onslaught of mostly invisible co-stars.  She’s lovely and talented, yet somehow miscast.  Perhaps she’s too lovely for the part – and not scrappy enough?  I’m not sure.  Wasikowska is good in the role, but without being right for it.  

Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter as another in a series of roles that call for the actor to cast aside a large part of his considerable talent and play a mannered buffoon.  Sometimes he’s quite good at this – especially when the script calls for it.  But Alice’s script is poor to begin with, and his role in particular bears evidence of artificial “enhancement” for the sake of its star.

The only thing reminding us that we are in Burton country is Danny Elfman, whose score is dependably pleasant if not revolutionary.  The quality Elfman’s score is all the more interesting for having been inspired by such a terrible film.

And in the end, that’s all it is: terrible.  Devoid even of the merest flashes of creativity, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has made me reconsider the “appeal” portion of my earlier post.  Instead of trusting in his own storytelling instincts, I think Tim Burton should take a hard look at what he has been producing.  Certainly, he can’t need more money.  And I find it hard to believe that he simply "enjoys working" – especially since he’s one of the few directors who have the kind of pull to get their own projects off the ground.  Maybe Burton needs to take a break – there’s no doubt that I need one from him.

On DVD: The Simpsons: The Complete Thirteenth Season

Reviewing the thirteenth season of The Simpsons, I feel more in danger of repeating myself than ever before. Last year, I wrote about the series' good but not great twelfth season, with an acute awareness that the show had begun a slow but irrevocable death spiral. Although the twelfth season remains amusing and entertaining on the whole, there's a change in feel and a reduced focus on character. Still unsure as to what I should reasonably attribute The Simpsons' unmistakable decline in overall quality - Changes in show management? New writers? The rise of Seth MacFarlane? - the thirteenth season is further proof of the regrettable change in comic tone that the series took on in the early part of the last decade. More important than the uptick in one-off jokes and shock gags is the fact that The Simpsons begins to repeat itself quite unapologetically. The thirteenth season contains a surprising number of jokes and situations recycled from earlier episodes; these aren't clever inside references for fans, either - the show's makers were simply re-using old material and hoping we wouldn't notice. 

Despite several good scripts by the prolific and consistent John Swartzwelder, The Simpsons' style takes a turn into territory that is clearly - and unfortunately - influenced by Family Guy, a place where throwaway jokes lead to hyperlinked mini-scenes of the "It's like the time Yogi Berra had cocktails with Yoda" variety. It's strange to reflect on the perverse injustice of The Simpsons being so impacted by Family Guy - a show that began life as a transparent rip-off of The Simpsons, but with gross-out jokes. Both are Fox properties, which likely had something to do with it - although that doesn't explain it, exactly, because Family Guy had poor ratings in its first two seasons, after which it was temporarily cancelled by Fox. Maybe staff at The Simpsons saw Family Guy as the way of the future and consciously tried to piggyback elements of its style. The true explanation lies well outside the purview of this review, but the fact is that the influence of Family Guy is an important factor in the show's changing tone.

At the beginning of this year, Fox released The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season on DVD and Blu-ray in an opportunistic attempt to capitalize upon the show's first high-definition season. In reviewing season twenty, my multi-talented colleague at DVD Talk, Jamie S. Rich, wrote a warm, honest, and very funny break-up letter to the series, citing its frustrating decline in wit and inventiveness. In a lot of ways, many of Jamie's observations apply directly in the case of the thirteenth season. The fact is, I stopped watching the show regularly around 2001, and it was my first time seeing many of these episodes. I was reminded all over again of how I felt a decade ago: that the show had grown stale, repetitive, and overly reliant upon its reputation and past brilliance.

From the vantage point of ten years on, The Simpsons' thirteenth season looks like a show caught in the midst of an uncomfortable identity crisis. It's impossible to argue with the ingenious entertainment that The Simpsons generated without exception for a good solid ten years. Any program that stays on for twenty - and almost none do - is bound to struggle with freshness. The thirteenth season offers its fair share of laughs - especially in the episodes "A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love," "She of Little Faith," and "I am Furious (Yellow)" - but our main characters no longer drive the stories the way they used to. The long and short of it is that The Simpsons remains recognizable and entertaining in the thirteenth of its (so far) 21 seasons, yet this isn't the family we fell in love with. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures

Turner Classic Movies and Warner Brothers have teamed up to issue a new edition of the TCM Spotlight series, this time a five-film set of WWII-era action pictures starring Errol Flynn. Although highly propagandistic on the surface, these films are quite entertaining and admirably made. Four out of the five are directed by the perennially unsung Raoul Walsh, a filmmaker of great force and economy who presaged the work of Don Siegel (who did the montages for a few of these pictures as well as Casablanca before coming into his own as a director). Walsh had an understated style but he knew how to capture complex movement and character interaction with a minimum of set-ups and cuts. His kind of talent was rare within the studio system, which forced directors to work cheap and fast, and Walsh's ability to create a fluid narrative within such constraints is enshrined here in this release just as effectively as Flynn's star power and unmatched charisma.

Desperate Journey (1942) is an enjoyable but by-the-numbers flag-waver co-starring none other than Ronald Reagan. Flynn and Reagan are two members of a bomber crew shot down over Germany and imprisoned. Of course they escape and save the day, but they grapple with Nazis galore along the way, including an evil officer played stiffly by Raymond Massey.

This is wartime entertainment at its most phony and most entertaining. Reagan is terribly chipper and one can't help feeling that what he's pleased as punch to be on the Warner Brothers lot instead of being shot at in Germany or the Pacific. Flynn is equally roguish, of course, and not much more believable as the bomber's navigator. But there's some fun action here and it's all well-shot, incorporating some decent visual effects for the era.

Edge of Darkness (1943) is one of the more thoughtful films in the set. Strongly - and oddly - echoing John Steinbeck's novel The Moon is Down (published the prior year), the story takes place in a Norwegian fishing village recently occupied by Nazis, but is purportedly based on a different novel, by William Woods. Most of the town's citizenry oppose the Germans' presence, even planning armed resistance. But those who wish to fight back are afraid of quislings in their midst who could turn traitor. Flynn plays one of the leaders of the secret movement, working alongside characters played by Judith Anderson and Ann Sheridan. The story portrays some interesting shades of gray in the form of characters with divided, or at least uncertain, loyalties, such as the town doctor, played by Walter Huston. Although the film's conclusion isn't exactly unconventional, the plot moves in some unexpected ways, thanks to complex characterizations and performances.

It's the only non-Walsh picture in the set. Director Lewis Milestone oversees some great sets, including a lovely miniature fjord used in wide shots. The climactic battle is energetically shot and edited. Flynn is not as front-and-center in Edge of Darkness as a star of his caliber would normally be. The movie is a genuine ensemble piece, with solid work by Huston, Anderson, and Sheridan. Sheridan in particular is strikingly forceful and aggressive as Flynn's compatriot and love interest. The only misstep in the acting department is Roman Bohnen as shopkeeper Lars Malken. Malken is a coward, but the role is over-written, and Bohnen's chattiness renders this tragic character simply annoying. Overall, however, Edge of Darkness takes its subject matter seriously, and while a tad overlong, it's probably the most thematically engaged film in this set.

Northern Pursuit (1943) places us firmly back in B-picture territory. This action thriller begins with a well-staged sequence that shows a German U-boat "dropping off" a group of spies in the Great White North. Flynn is an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who becomes suspected of collusion with the Nazis, and must escape to the far north in order to capture the spies and prove his patriotism. It's a silly story on the surface made more plausible by Walsh's taut direction and a decent screenplay by Frank Gruber and Alvah Bessie (Bessie is also responsible for the scenario of Objective, Burma! - see below).

One of Walsh's strengths is creating an immersive mise-en-scène out of limited backlot resources, a talent that is in bold evidence here. Although snowflakes fall too drily from the shoulders of our icebound characters, the cabins, sled dogs, trees, and wide shots are right in the details, and it all works together to create a credible version of Canada's northern wilds. Tension is high throughout, helped by good supporting work from Helmut Dantine - who also plays a key role in Edge of Darkness - as the lead German spy. He has a thin-lipped reptilian quality and a command of the Nazis' cold, bureaucratic outlook. Northern Pursuit also features a number of small surprises for those of us overly-familiar with genre conventions, including a implausibly crackerjack ending that involves the assembling of a bomber out of parts stored in wooden crates.

Uncertain Glory (1944) stars Flynn in one of his more unlikely roles. Here he plays a French murderer, posing as a resistance leader in order to prevent anti-resistance retaliation by the Vichy government. His chief ally is a detective played by Paul Lukas, whose Hungarian accent is as inappropriate as Flynn's Australian one. While the outcome is hardly unorthodox, the picture is never exactly by-the-numbers, either.

As in Edge of Darkness, some interesting questions of national and philosophical allegiance are raised in ways that suggest some surprisingly gray areas - especially in view of the jingoistic wartime environment in which this film was produced. It's another fun thriller from Walsh, who creates a treacherous atmosphere and strong visuals, including good use of miniatures and stock footage.

Objective, Burma! (1945) is the longest and most well-known picture in the set. It's also the only one previously-released on DVD. Here, Flynn leads an ensemble cast as Captain Nelson, who takes a group of paratroopers into Burma to destroy a Japanese radar location. The team's mission is swift and successful, but getting out of Burma proves a far bigger challenge.

The movie is a sort of "military procedural," depicting operations with what would appear to be an unusual, almost forensic level of detail. Objective, Burma!, despite its sense of authenticity and other qualities as a well-made film, is not as reliable as one would like to believe. It was famously decried - and banned - by Winston Churchill for fictionalizing a British operation as a largely American one, a matter discussed in the commentary track. But it's still a highly entertaining adventure that avoids overly romanticizing combat and instead puts the audience in the middle of the operation - which is mostly achieved by way of the character Williams (Henry Hull), a reporter on the mission and our conduit for information about the way the military works. Walsh's direction was never more assured or skillful; he uses much more camera movement and cutting here, to convey action and build suspense. 

Read the full review here


News: Me and Thrifted - Partnerblogs!

I've just posted my first guest entry over at Thrifted's new blog.  An offshoot of the stupendously successful vintage fashion shop, the Thrifted blog is both a compendium of and filter for all things fashion, style, and visual culture.  That will include film, which is my bag, but I'll be writing about other stuff as well.  

My first post is on a topic of perennial fascination to me: the suburbs.  I'm a product of the suburbs and I constantly think about the place I'm from - asking myself why anyone in their right mind would want to live here, and imagining what things were like two generations ago, back when Santa Clara County was still known as the Valley of Heart's Delight for a reason (i.e., it was bursting with the fragrant blossoms of fruit trees and boasted some of the most fertile soil in the world).  

My current opinion of the greater San Jose submetroplex has deteriorated over the years, but you'll see in my post for Thrifted that it still has its selling points - and there are more beyond what I've covered here, but I'm saving those for a future sequel post.


Essay: Summer Movies in the Context of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"

In my neck of the woods, kids are already going back to school, although I daresay no child should even have to think the word “school” until after Labor Day. But the summer wanes, and I realize I’ve been to the theater more often in the summer of 2010 than during the last six or seven years combined – mostly due to the fact that I’ve started reviewing new theatrical releases for DVD Talk. Although home media continues to offer increasingly enjoyable and technically thrilling viewing experiences, moviegoers themselves become more crass, loud, and generally unpleasant. Therefore, I have avoided theaters perhaps more actively than any self-respecting cinephile. But access to press screenings has afforded me the opportunity to once again enjoy movies on giant screens with the volume jacked all the way up – the way they are meant to be experienced.
Despite the fact that 2010 has been a poor year for films in general, there have been a few gems, including the just-released Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which, as I pointed out in my review, brings back a sense of unpredictable, lightweight fun to the summer movie. It’s a cannon-blast of sheer invention and off-the-cuff cinematic wizardry that brought me back to my youth – when summer films meant a certain tone, a certain escapist flourish that was both creative and commercial. Over the last decade or so, summer releases have become franchise-driven cash grabs primarily aimed at young children and families. The 1980s had Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and certainly Lucas and Spielberg are directly responsible for what we are seeing now – an unending onslaught of summer releases that attempt to capitalize upon whatever pre-existing property studios can get their hands on, from children’s books and costumed heroes, to Oprah’s latest book selection and remakes of movies that have just barely been released on Blu-ray.
Indeed, Scott Pilgrim is a franchise waiting to happen – even though something tells me this won’t exactly occur in a traditional way, with spin-offs and shitloads of merch and a sequel every so often. For one thing, the film compresses most of the story material from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series into one feature. For another, it’s looking doubtful that box office returns will merit an immediate sequel – although it’s worth noting that box office has become less and less significant in terms of corporate decision-making, with the longer-lasting home video and subsidiary rights income playing a larger part. Scott Pilgrim, with its cultish following and huge staying power among young international geekdom, could perform admirably over time, possibly generating sequels and who knows what else. As far as the theatrical release is concerned, Universal was entirely correct to bet on the great Edgar Wright, but probably made a mistake depending on the built-in audience who already know and love the Scott Pilgrim comics – they are not big enough to launch a franchise.
But the question of whether or not Scott Pilgrim is franchise-friendly is beside my point. The real significance of the movie is the fact that it recalls an older tradition around summertime releases – the kind of hugely entertaining sense of weightlessness we remember from the years of Back to the Future, Gremlins, Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the pre-Brosnan James Bond films, and all of those Spielberg and Lucas behemoths. Let’s not forget that the reason so many of those summer films went on to become franchises in their own right is because the originals were so unique, so oddly expressive of that near-anarchic summertime spirit that you ingest and celebrate as a kid and too often forget about as you get older. 
The last decade or so has seen some imaginative franchise work, particularly the Harry Potter film series and Christopher Nolan’s deep, dark Batman films. Less inspired are the Iron Man, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Spider-Man films. While the former group, despite heavy studio investment, seem to have hewed closer to their creators’ vision, the latter and more dominant group are immersed in the unavoidable stench of corporate strategy – tuned ever-so carefully toward pre-packaged safety, their plots and characters arranged just so, in a way that guarantees mediocrity free of surprise or risk.

The same can easily be said of most big-budget productions, but the legacy and cultural memory associated with summer releases is something special – and it has mostly been handed a raw deal by Hollywood of late. Whereas summertime releases once grabbed our attention with a certain amount of invention, wit, daring, big ideas, and originality (and, of course, marketing assaults), those assaults are now even more aggressive and are backed by built-in audiences for pre-existing characters, stories, and media. It’s that immediate identifiability that matters most. As long as you hire Johnny Depp or Michael Bay, you can safely pour $300 million into America’s top-selling washing machine and turn it into a ten-year film franchise complete with sex-toy merch and a ride at Disneyland called The Spin Cycle.
Director Edgar Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall have wisely hewn to the unique humor and whimsy of O’Malley’s comics – rather than “expanding” Scott Pilgrim’s story into something gargantuan and inappropriate, which would have killed the characters. Special effects and other visual touches abound in the film, but everything from the situations to the conflicts to the sight gags stem from Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers and Gideon Graves, et al – not from a desire to wow audiences or ensure that every last dollar of the film’s production budget shows up on screen.
What it boils down to really is the same old goddamn argument that is made time and again, over and over, by people who get it – and is routinely ignored by those who don’t: stick with your characters. Abandon them, and you endanger continuity of plot and the long-term shelf-life of a film.
If the summer movie-going season is to have a future – and let’s face it, most big summer releases from the past decade are beyond forgettable – filmmakers and, most importantly, executives should look at how the spirit and craft of Scott Pilgrim relates to the sleeper blockbusters (Jaws, Star Wars, Die Hard) of the past. Bold, unwavering risk and a commitment to character have always been the key elements in the best summer thrill-rides – and the seeds of every major film franchise.


Essay: Tim Burton - An Appraisal and an Appeal

The hero of imaginative, marginalized teens everywhere, as well as anyone interested in film as a visual art, Tim Burton remains one of the most inventive, recognizable, and influential living filmmakers.  I stand by this claim despite the fact that the last decade of Burton’s work has been wildly uneven, with some films that can only be called mediocre in a spirit of great generosity.  After roaring out of the gate with two dazzlingly creative and very funny films – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) – Burton was well on his way to a major career when he was hired to direct Warner Brothers’ big budget re-imagining of the Batman franchise in 1989.  The enormous success of Batman and its sequel paved the way for Burton’s more personal projects, including Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Ed Wood (1994).  

Through the late 1990s, Burton maintained a steady – if not always critically lauded – flow of releases that married his unique perspective and flair for design to stories that looked askance at mainstream American society.  Almost every original screenplay Burton has directed – Pee Wee, Scissorhands, Nightmare, Ed Wood – tell stories of lovable outsiders who insist on living life according to their own individual codes, at the risk of being marginalized or even ostracized.  Some of Burton’s “franchise” work touches upon similar themes – including Batman Returns (1992), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – and sometimes with great success.

Things have changed, however, as Burton has recently become more of a director-for-hire than an artist tirelessly shaping stories rooted in his own personal vision.  Since the end of the 1990s, Burton has made six films:  Planet of the Apes (2001) was a remake; Big Fish (2003) was based on a best-selling novel; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) was based on the classic book by Roald Dahl (already adapted into a beloved film); Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) is an adaptation of a Tony-winning Broadway musical; and Alice in Wonderland (2010) is a new treatment of the Carroll classic that has already seen countless interpretations.  Only The Corpse Bride (2005), the stop-motion musical comedy, was based on an original screenplay without a specific previously published referent (the story is inspired by a folk tale of indeterminate origin).

Although most of these films made a decent amount of money – and Burton certainly remains a filmmaker who is free to choose his projects as he sees fit – none are as memorable as anything he directed prior to the year 2000.  Planet of the Apes was a visually bold but unnecessary remake hampered by an overworked plot and an undercooked script.  Big Fish was Burton-lite, missing his visual signature while courting an out-of-place whimsy that felt like it was imported from overseas and spoiled on the journey.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marked a return to grand visual concepts and starred Johnny Depp in a bizarre but memorable interpretation of the title character, but the whole thing seems a bit too tailored for the under-12s.  Sweeney Todd is both the most-lauded of this group of films – garnering Oscar and Golden Globe nominations galore – and, in my view, the worst.  Never has such a gory film been so bloodless.  Depp is out of his depth in the musical lead – not because he can’t sing, but because he can’t act while singing; besides which, it’s a poorly developed one-note role.  The entire film feels like a scene from Madame Tussaud’s: visually lavish, but immobile.  (I have yet to see Alice in Wonderland.) 

The Corpse Bride, while not as singular as Burton’s first stop-motion feature (perennial favorite The Nightmare Before Christmas), is an enjoyable, painstakingly crafted feature filled with Burton’s trademark imaginative design and gallows humor.  It is missing the satisfying character arcs of his best films, but remains worthy of repeat viewings.

Burton’s great films – and there are several of them – all date from the 1980s and 1990s.  I’m not suggesting the man’s best work is behind him.  What I am saying is that his best films come from either his own ideas, or screenplays that are otherwise original.  Burton’s dependence upon studio-owned properties is depressing – both from the standpoint of those films’ overall quality, and from the perspective of the filmmakers he has influenced, who struggle to make careers against enormous odds.  To turn around and watch a hero abandon his own genius in favor of pre-packaged characters – some of whose histories go back many generations – is like having a piece of your own imagination put into a blender and served to The Man with a lemon twist. 

In his first fifteen years as a filmmaker, Burton specialized in movies that were both escapist and rooted in identifiable human experience.  Beyond that, Burton’s visuals marked him as a director unusually attuned to design – from the low-budget whimsy of Pee Wee and the megabudget steampunk of Gotham City, to the pared-back cheap vintage black-and-white of Ed Wood and the incomparably imagined holiday worlds of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Too often, however, Burton has been criticized for his rich, detailed visuals – as if his talent were a filmmaking handicap.  While Burton is not known for exploring interior psychoscapes in any great detail, his characters have tended to balance a darker inner world with a more appealing or “innocent” exterior.  They are the doorway to his cinematic point of view, reflecting the consciousness of a child or childlike person, who is either gifted in peculiar ways or otherwise bound to an against-the-grain personality requiring a fight to be recognized or valued by the rest of the world.  Despite a fair amount of criticism to the contrary, most of Burton’s films are rooted in believable, sympathetic characters whose own personalities form the basis of their conflicts and struggles.  We care about them for a reason – and a large part of that reason lies in the familiar sensitivity with which Burton handles them.

(I should point out parenthetically, and somewhat paradoxically, that I hold Batman Returns as the most emotionally satisfying of all Burton’s films; something rare, unusual, and touching passes between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman – a strange, ethereal sense of doom.  For all the impressive visual pyrotechnics of Burton’s second Batman feature, this strained, tentative relationship is what holds it together and makes it last.  Compared to its predecessor, Burton had both a larger budget on Batman Returns, and increased creative freedom.)

The “appeal” part of this article is not a criticism or a complaint.  Burton is a genius who has already accomplished more than most filmmakers could have ever dreamed.  He’s only 51 years old, and presumably has many more productive years ahead of him.  So, the appeal comes from the knowledge that Burton is much better than his recent work, and the fact that we’ve seen him stretch his comfort zone and try new and interesting things in the past.  A great director need not be consistent.  But he must trust his instincts and believe in his ability to tell original stories in unusual ways.  Burton’s recent reliance upon studio-owned mega-properties as his primary storytelling material flirts with the danger of audiences forgetting who he really is and why he is unique.  I don’t think Sweeney Todd or Big Fish carry anything like Burton’s spirit with them, and I can’t imagine them lasting inter-generationally in the collective memory; these are bland, dry films with blunt edges.  But I trust that a return to original material would sharpen Burton’s wits, and unburden his imagination from the weight of previous versions of the same story and pre-existing design schemes already ingrained in the public consciousness.

It is with admiration and humility that I exhort the man.  Tim Burton – get back to nature.

Edit: Here is a short follow-up piece I wrote after watching Alice in Wonderland.


In Theaters: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is shockingly refreshing - exciting, idiosyncratic summer entertainment of the best kind. Staying extraordinarily true to the characters and tone established in Bryan Lee O'Malley's highly personal and very funny comic book series, co-scripter and director Edgar Wright piles on huge amounts of cinematic technique to a story that barrels across two hours with unheard-of creative ferocity. Wright and his crew set a new standard for maintaining an extremely fast pace without ever abandoning coherence, continuity, or the characters. The nonstop energy and invention of the picture are remarkable, as are the performances by the talented ensemble cast. Like the comics, the film is fast and furious fun, but it's also a tribute to those post-college lost years - that hangover-blurred period of parties and coincidence when life is simultaneously more promising and less exciting than it might seem at the time.

The title character, played by Michael Cera, is an aloof, somewhat emotionally stunted 22-year-old who shares a futon with his gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) and plays bass for the rock trio Sex Bob-omb. Scott has just started (unwisely) dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but almost immediately meets his roller-blading dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona has a tough exterior and a shady past. Scott is soon challenged to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes if he intends to develop a relationship with her, which takes Scott - and Sex Bob-omb - through a series of confrontations with increasingly outlandish settings and stakes.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World functions successfully on two vastly different but equally important levels. First of all and most obviously, it is astonishingly entertaining. Working from O'Malley's plot and characters, the film adds layers of storytelling flourish that are both appropriate and unexpected. Wright jams in dozens upon dozens of visual jokes, cultural references, and throwaway 8-bit gags that are worked seamlessly into the film's broader appropriation of video game style and graphics in its plotting and design. What's most impressive is that Wright's assured visual and editorial touches - even the goofiest ones - somehow come off as rooted in the characters and situations. Despite all of its self-awareness, Scott Pilgrim does not come off as smirky or snarky. It doesn't play fast and loose with cultural trivia that it only half-understands, or spend time trashing its indie rock-drunk competitors and compatriots. Unlike the larger milieu out of which it originated, Scott Pilgrim treats its characters with respect, looking at some familiar situations through an exaggeratedly fantastic lens and effectively paying tribute to that 20-something feeling that anything could happen on a night out with friends.

Which brings me to the second facet of Scott Pilgrim's success. Recent films that concern themselves with Generation Y (or younger) characters, tend to feature snide backbiting, self-hate, misdirected pseudo-intellectual blather, indulgent absorption, and over-medicated shoe-gazing - all of which are usually supposed to indicate some kind of perverse inward searching and/or personal growth. The characters in Scott Pilgrim engage in none of this delusional, self-destructive behavior - and the result is far more realistic than the alternative.

You've just graduated from college. You don't want to move home, but you're not ready to join the corporate workforce. You want to wallow in a little more youth. You join a band. You get into some fucked-up relationships. But you make connections, you learn, and you change. When you look past its huge visual and kinetic dazzle, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a knowing and heartfelt tribute to these "lost years" to which many of us would happily return. While not exactly nostalgic, the film is a reminder of that feeling of untethered freedom, and, through it encourages the kind of individualism that makes new discoveries possible in life.

I believe that sort of individualism exists in creator Bryan Lee O'Malley, and in director Edgar Wright. Rarely relying on pre-fabricated clichés or references to other works, Scott Pilgrim takes place in a heightened version of Toronto where a punch can send your opponent flying into a ten story-high castle wall, or where sound waves morph into gigantic electro-beasts, turning a Battle of the Bands into a proxy monster fight. These flights of fancy are not just special-effects exercises; they are manifestations of the genuine creative invention and expressive yearning of the film's characters - and their creators. This is the first time in quite a while where I experienced special effects as an integral aspect of the story, and not as an add-on meant to elicit a merely sensory response. The same can be said of all the other graphic and editorial quirks that suffuse the movie - the animated, comics-style sound waves emanating from Sex Bob-omb's amps; sound effects taken straight from old Nintendo games; swift cuts that compress time in a way that reflect Scott's often-distracted state of mind. In another film, these might all be mannered distractions, but here they emerge from the film's world effortlessly, helping sweep us along with its unstoppable forward momentum.

Cera, who has suffered from over-exposure up until recently, is well-cast here, and works to expand Scott beyond Cera's now-schticky stone-faced awkwardness. As in the comics, Scott is often self-indulgent, oblivious, and aloof, growing to understand why he wants to be with Ramona and what he's willing to do to be with her. Cera accommodates these aspects of the character with a firm grasp of youthful confusion and impeccable comic timing. As Ramona, Winstead embodies the mystery and allure of this independent, somewhat unapproachable girl with skin-thickening "battle scars" to show for her past romantic travails. The film is well-cast all-around, with an amusing, smarmy turn by Jason Schwartzman as Gideon Graves, and a surprisingly hilarious one by Brandon Routh as a would-be vegan warrior.

Maintaining great humor and a sense of the unexpected while efficiently navigating a dangerous, breakneck speed, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the reason we anticipate summer films every year and remember them so fondly. Rooted in familiar experience and characters, Scott Pilgrim intuitively addresses the extended adolescence of the post-college years. It's an explosively entertaining movie that is as memorable for its quiet but persistent heart as it is for its considerable spectacle.

On DVD: L'Enfance Nue (Criterion Collection)

Made in 1968, Maurice Pialat's debut feature L'Enfance Nue (Naked Childhood) remains an affecting portrait of an under-discussed social issue that has never been amenable to easy answers or even comfortable dialogue. Processing certain aspects of the French New Wave through his own rather spartan cinematic prism, Pialat, who began his filmmaking career as a documentarian, portrays the turbulent youth of a foster child in a sequence of contrasting events that highlight both the promise of a human life and its fragile need for unconditional love. Pialat's film retains its painful immediacy both because it was crafted with such careful, touching restraint, and because the topic of "unwanted" children remains a near-taboo in the public sphere.

A simple plotline conveyed in an economical 83 minutes, L'Enfance Nue tracks François Fournier (an appropriately enigmatic Michel Terrazon) from one foster family - the Joignys, who fear him - to another - the Thierrys, a pair of grandparents who provide closer, more caring attention. Despite a criminal streak that he can't quite fully shake, we witness François develop the ability to (mostly) distinguish right from wrong and identify who has his best interests at heart. Helping him along this path is the ardent bond he forms with Mrs. Thierry's ancient mother, Nana (Marie Marc), a spirited old woman who sees François for who he is - an intelligent young boy, not just a problem to be "solved."

And in this last thought lies the crux of Pialat's argument - a position that is suggested ever so gracefully and without an ounce of uncinematic pedantry or polemic. Yet the treatment of François as a "problem" can arguably be seen as the root of his unspoken inner struggle. Between the agency responsible for his foster care and his first set of foster parents - not to mention his birth parents, who are evidently still around but unwilling or unable to raise their son - François is surrounded by an adult atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety. No one, until the Thierrys come along, is willing to treat him like the 10-year-old boy that he is. Instead, he is handled like a volatile time bomb that could go off at any minute; and that, indeed, is how he accordingly behaves - terrorizing cats and schoolmates, stealing watches, and throwing rocks at passing cars.

Terrazon was perfectly cast. His cute, ferret-like face has an elasticity that can simultaneously harbor charm, love, and the desire to commit potentially dangerous mischief. His François is as unpredictable as the film's adults believe him to be, but when he is in the presence of that all-important unconditional affection - as with Nana - we see the unmitigated goodness beneath a troubled surface.

Despite Pialat's belief in a basic goodness at Francois's core, this does not emerge in an easy-to-swallow way. The film concludes on a note of skeptical hope. Although François shows signs of a growing maturity, he remains erratically misbehaved, and the Thierrys come close to giving up on him. Still, his native intelligence and regard for the Thierrys give him something to build on - we only hope that the faceless institutions he must rely upon will not let him down once again. 

Read the full review here

In Theaters: Animal Kingdom

Writer-director David Michôd's first theatrical feature is a startlingly harsh and morally uncompromising portrait of an unrelievedly creepy family of Australian criminals. Shot in washed-out widescreen, these delusional, paranoid characters guide us through the slow but persistent breakdown of their small, sad criminal empire. Michôd's great strength is his emotional detachment as a storyteller, which affords a strong sense of realism and obviates the operatics of Scarface or an ending that offers redemption to one or more anti-heroes. Instead, convincing detail is utilized to illustrate not only how a criminal gang may be brought to its knees - but how it may also, through its most insidious tendencies, be made to survive.

Animal Kingdom opens with a stone-faced teenager idly watching television while not more than three feet away, paramedics attempt to save his dying mother from a heroin overdose. The teenager is the shell-shocked Josh "J" Cody (James Frecheville), and he is shortly taken under the wing of his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), an evilly sweet matriarch who keeps a close watch over her brood of three crooked sons: Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is manic and drug-addled; the youngest, Darren (Luke Ford), is barely his own man and has trouble navigating the muddy waters of the criminal enterprise; and the oldest, Andrew, AKA "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn), is ambitious and dangerously unbalanced. Their partner and the only mature adult among them, Barry "Baz" Brown (Joel Edgerton), is trying to sort out an exit from The Life; he even advises Pope to invest in the stock market. Baz is also the only person providing any kind of real guidance to J. When Baz is murdered, it is the beginning of the end for the Codys. One killing begets another, and the police start to close in, led by Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce). J is forced to determine where his loyalties - and his safety - lie, and this quandary drives the clammy tension of the film's second half.

Michôd's resolute fidelity to his characters makes Animal Kingdom a crime picture with rare commitment to both organic storytelling and journalistic realism. As the title suggests, the Codys are like wild beasts trapped in a corner, driven to desperate and horrible acts. As the brothers edge closer to self-destruction, Janine maintains a chilling cool throughout, the confident leader of her miscreant litter. Her awful stoicism leaves no doubt that she would eat her young in order to survive. In the role, Weaver exudes a grotesque "love" for her sons that is little more than an instinct for self-preservation; her talent for control is primarily expressed through uncomfortably affectionate kisses.

Special mention must be made of the performance by James Frecheville, who, as J, has by far the most screen time of any cast member. Only 17 at the time of the film's production, this is Frecheville's first role and it's nothing short of remarkable. We are constantly reminded of J's youth and inexperience, and during a number of sequences, Frecheville is called upon to express a violent, elemental fear. It's a compelling, restrained performance that does double-duty as the audience's pivotal entry point into the story.

As Pope, the senior brother and de facto leader of the family after Baz's murder, Mendelsohn makes flesh crawl like no other screen creep. His horribleness emerges not so much from overt acts of terror, but instead oozes from glances, a few oddly-chosen words here and there, and the awful sense of what he is capable of. Only once in the film does he do something outright nasty, and it is the quiet fulfillment of the character's strangely gentle capacity for the unspeakable.

This brings me to a point about Michôd's technique, which generally eschews blunt or graphic violence (with a couple of key exceptions) in favor of character-driven tension that is carefully cranked up as the stakes of the Codys' situation change. When J begins talking to Detective Leckie, we know that he is putting himself in enormous danger - but it's difficult to tell just how much J knows about the Codys' criminal activity, and whether he will actually tell everything he knows. J's growth as a character is uncertain - we suspect he may be looking for a way out. But the outcome of his "arc" is more surprising, more realistic, and more chilling than what we've come to expect from the crime genre. Animal Kingdom is a remarkable debut for both Michôd and Frecheville, and it brings a new level of mature, psychological investigation to the crime picture. 

In Theaters: The Expendables

Modest though its promise may be, The Expendables doesn't live up to it. In fact in a lot of ways, it's the most disappointing movie of the summer. The premise suggests a throwback to the cut-and-dried action pictures of the 1980s - pure action that didn't need much of a brain to be effective, relying on bold stunts and direct, hard-headed anti-authoritarian heroes. The casting suggests much the same - Stallone, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, plus much-touted cameos by Willis and Schwarzenegger, all bring us back to a time when men were mostly made of muscles, voted Republican, and hated Russians. The idea of a "reboot" cleverly applied to a genre rather than a specific franchise seemed to hold a great deal of potential.

Instead, The Expendables is just a drag - a boring, one-note action picture that monotonously goes through the motions, offering a parade of unconvincing pyrotechnics and awful dialogue, all while barely paying lip service to the pictures of yore that it intends to salute. And when I say "unconvincing pyrotechnics," let me be very clear: In this film, a blow-'em-up featuring explosions galore, the fire looks fake. It all just made me want to watch Commando again.

Sylvester Stallone - also serving as director and co-writer - stars as Barney Ross, a mercenary. It ain't any more complicated than that. He leads a team of characters played by Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. They are assigned - by the shady Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) - to assassinate General Garza, the dictator of a small fictional island nation. During a recon mission to the island by Stallone and Statham, the dictator's daughter emerges as the team's unlikely ally. When she is kidnapped by the evil rogue CIA agent Monroe (Eric Roberts), who secretly controls the island through the general, the team's mission becomes more complicated and challenging.

I was expecting nothing more than a plot-free excursion into the land of Pure Action, but The Expendables delivers a formless soup of explosions and pointless character moments that cumulatively add up to a negative in the entertainment column. The performances are wooden, there is little evidence of a screenplay, and the visuals are clunky and graceless. Worst of all are the action sequences, which are incoherent and impossible to track. Stallone, whose directorial handling of the recent Rambo sequel was firm and swift, favors an impossibly fast Michael Bay-like approach to these scenes, which, in case anyone doesn't already know, simply doesn't work. In order for action to be effectively conveyed onscreen, one must first be able to see it. Hackneyed, nonsensical editorial "styling" such as this destroys the work of the technicians, actors, and stuntmen who plan and participate in such sequences. Their work is rendered invisible when someone in the editing room makes a decision based on the belief that teenagers enjoy the visual fuck-you of a seizure-inducing twenty-four cuts per second. Good action - the kind of action that is supposed to have inspired The Expendables - is memorable for what it shows, whether it's guys flying through the air in slow motion, or buildings being destroyed by spaceships, or cars barreling at top speed along the Embarcadero. Whatever the thrill, it's notable first because you can see what is happening in the context of the action's location, sets, and characters. Chopping up action beyond all recognition results in the opposite of tension, and in so doing lays waste any and all storytelling that may have preceded it.

The performances are hardly worth discussing, although Jet Li can be credited for eliciting the film's only real chuckle and Mickey Rourke has a surprisingly effective scene in which his character - an old associate of Stallone's - talks about being a mercenary and having a soul that's basically dead weight. It's nice, brief work. Overall, however, character interactions are generally meaningless, even in the context of the titular team of compatriots. Their banter is limited in both scope and believability. Far from generating a feeling of personal and professional camaraderie, these guys may as well have just met each other for the sake of making a lackluster Z-grade action picture with terrible special effects. Oh, wait...

The Expendables is an action movie that is, for all intents and purposes, still in the discussion stage - it's a concept without a script or a reason to be made. A film at this stage should only be talked about; the fact that it was actually shot and edited in this premature form is a testament to the hunger for clever ideas in Hollywood. And that's understandable to a point because, as a one-pager on paper, The Expendables is terrific. On film, it's terrible.


On DVD: The Jeff Koons Show

Alison Chernick's one-hour documentary about Jeff Koons strikes a generally admiring tone in tracking the career of the accomplished and hugely famous visual artist. The film hits the highlights of his varied and ever-evolving portfolio of projects, from his earliest show, "The New," which featured spotless household appliances carefully displayed in pristine glass vitrines, and his world-famous oversized "Puppy," made of live flowers, and right up to his more recent "inflatables" of "Celebration" - cast-steel balloon animals and toys. All of Koons' art enshrines elements of American pop culture in forms that are inert, gargantuan, and "perfect." Koons uses enormously expensive methods of fabrication for his complex pieces, processes that are made even more expensive by his perfectionism, which results in casting and re-casting pieces until they meet his exacting vision. The huge expenses associated with the creation of his art - along with the unmistakably eye-catching boldness of his work - are reflected in the prices they fetch at auction, which often reach tens of millions of dollars.

In The Jeff Koons Show, Chernick mostly allows Koons to speak for himself, although she also includes commentary from fellow artists such as Chuck Close and Julian Schnabel, each of whom interestingly qualifies his admiration of Koons. Koons' own comments about his art tend to be simplistic, filled with nonsensical jargon and self-congratulation. Listening to him, I had the distinct impression that he didn't know what the hell he was doing - which can't possibly be true. The man is too successful to be a fool. But I do find his approach opportunistic, taking Warhol's more astute and "observational" approach to pop culture - an approach that highlighted the rapidity and ubiquity of mass production - and perverting it through the obscene amounts of money and time spent "perfecting" otherwise disposable artifacts from American pop culture. 

Koons has a uniquely American point of view, capturing the essence of pop culture and converting into pieces that are bright, colorful, and popular. His art is also a business that he has keenly turned into enormous personal wealth. Koons' choices of subject matter can be seen as cynical, as he often capitalizes upon imagery that is already recognizable - Michael Jackson, Popeye, kitschy clowns and toys - and appropriates them for these objects. But these objects, in their native state, are made very cheaply; Koons interprets and re-makes them using the most elaborate and expensive processes imaginable. Perhaps this meant as some sort of ironic statement; I think it one of the more ridiculous manifestations of the already lazy and indulgent era of post-modernism.

After wading through Koons' more aggravating work - particularly his unconscionably awful series "Made in Heaven," which consists of images of Koons and his wife, the Italian porn star known as Cicciolina, having sex - there are some gems to be found. I can't deny the strange, fantastic, commanding power of seeing "Puppy" in real life. And his early work with vitrines mostly succeeded in suggesting some unspoken, indescribable power behind mundane things like vacuum cleaners and basketballs. Chernick does a solid job in providing an overview of Koons' career and his significance as an artist. At just under an hour, the documentary could have easily been longer, with more about the way Koons' career developed and about his supporters and detractors, of which there are many of both.

Read the full review here


In Theaters: Get Low

Robert Duvall has been playing spirited old men for more than twenty years, and now pushing eighty, Duvall has found what might be the best of these roles in Felix Bush, the protagonist of Aaron Schneider's directorial debut, Get Low. Throughout his varied career as an actor and filmmaker, Duvall has established himself as a prolific, professional, committed, and always compelling presence, performing in a strong mixture of big-budget Hollywood movies and tiny independent films - although his contributions to smaller films usually guarantee an automatic enlargement of sorts. Whatever the project's scale, Duvall can be depended upon to provide some combination of down-to-earth sincerity, genuine heart, and, occasionally, an unpredictable ferocity. Get Low is a showcase for Duvall, and the character of Felix Bush is layered in way that allows the actor to explore an uncommonly broad portion of his range.

Get Low opens with Felix Bush chasing children off his property - a grizzled, bearded, ancient old coot living out in the middle of nowhere in a tiny cabin with a small adjacent barn. It's the early 1930s, or thereabouts, and the surrounding town has buzzed with rumors about Felix for several decades - that he's a killer and a beast, and who knows what else. One day, Felix makes his way into town for a meeting with the undertaker, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his associate Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), and requests that they "make him a funeral party" - at which Felix himself plans to be present. The idea is that all the townsfolk - in fact, all the residents of the nearest four or five counties - will be invited to attend and tell a story about Felix. For this service, Bush promises Quinn a healthy sum. And, to promote the event, Felix offers the bequest of his land, to be awarded by lottery at the "funeral."

The plot turns mostly on Felix's motivations for hosting this bizarre event, which have to do with the reason he's been hiding out in the woods by himself for four decades. When an old flame returns to town (played by Sissy Spacek), things become more complicated.

Get Low is anchored by its uniformly outstanding cast, starting with the powerhouse performance by Duvall in the lead. His Felix is a mysterious, withdrawn manipulator who is also likable, temperamental, and masochistic. Duvall tackles the job with great energy, applying his enormous talent to a role that dominates the picture without a whole lot of dialogue - Bush is a man who uses exactly as many words as he needs to and never repeats himself. Duvall conveys this through an aged confidence and his usual mannerisms: licking his lips, pressing on his chest with his hands, and making bizarre wind-like noises - all of which continue to work wonderfully.

But Duvall's is hardly the lone performance of interest. As Quinn, Murray is perfectly cast. Quinn is a failed salesman from Chicago, who has recently remade himself as an undertaker in this small Southern town. He drinks, dresses flashily, and sports a pencil moustache - all of which contribute to his fish-out-water demeanor. Murray invests Quinn with an urban opportunism that is slowly but surely foiled by Felix's odd combination of decency and determination. As always, Murray is appealing and funny as this would-be shyster who finds himself baffled into honesty. Quinn's assistant, Buddy, is played by Lucas Black as a conservative, earnest young man in whom grows a real affection for the oddball Bush. And the formidable Sissy Spacek is affecting as Felix's one-time lover, who finds herself jilted all over again under a new set of circumstances.

Seasoned cinematographer Aaron Schneider brings a sensitive eye to his directorial debut, which is photographed beautifully by David Boyd. There is a point in the last third of the film where the storytelling becomes confused - almost beyond repair. The solid script by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell is patient, allowing its characters to evolve and change in interesting, subtle ways - and in this respect, the script is a gift to the film's actors. But in its last third, some strange, seemingly arbitrary things occur that are without precedent - and the film's resolution, while generally sound, is pushed a little off-balance by this handful of scenes. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will just say that Bush says and does a couple of things that I felt were out of character, and his motivations begin to feel less consistent than they were up to that point. I also have a couple of reservations about the actual funeral sequence, which, despite its prolonged set-up, doesn't include a single "tall tale" from party guests.

Among other things, Get Low comprises a wonderful group of performances by a dream cast. These actors all deserve to be in the running for 2010's major awards. The film rests on the solid foundation of its fascinating, funny, mysterious characters, and is lovingly shot and edited by first-timer Aaron Schneider.

On DVD: Brewster McCloud

Brewster McCloud begins and ends in a wobbly, unsure fashion, which isn't to say that it isn't fascinating or entertaining. But the film's middle is funnier and smoother, with multiple themes and plot strands intertwining and overlapping in a manner that constantly skirts disaster. This flirtation with storytelling chaos keeps things lively, even when the jokes occasionally fall flat or a moment fails to ring true. Robert Altman's fourth feature film (released in 1970, the same year as MASH) contains many of the director's hallmarks - overlapping dialogue and understated humor, to name two - but with a heavier thematic line and a more screwball filmmaking style.

Bud Cort plays the hero of the title, a strangely single-minded young man who lives inside the Houston Astrodome and dedicates his life to constructing a set of wings, with which he plans to "fly away." Sally Kellerman, looking like she just won the award for Hottest Lady of 1970, plays his guardian, Louise, a mysterious woman who maintains an undisclosed stake in the success of Brewster's project. Tempting his focus away from this mission is a young woman who works as an Astrodome tour guide (Shelley Duvall). A parallel storyline concerns a local investigation into a string of homicides by strangulation, led by out-of-town hotshot cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy). 

Brewster McCloud was penned by Doran William Cannon as a combination of sociological allegory and parody of 1968's Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. The parody aspect of Brewster McCloud, while funny enough for those familiar with the McQueen film, hasn't aged too well - probably because Bullitt was so much more influential upon Hollywood filmmaking than Altman's film. But the story of Brewster and his bizarre quest remains potent, funny, and significant. 

Despite everything, the film works as a whole, with the cop story providing some solid, subtle laughs amid a somewhat anarchic plot. Brewster's story - and his connection to birds in general - explicitly suggests a yearning to escape contemporary society, especially authority figures who seek to maintain a controllable level of mediocrity among the masses. It's an idea that was in full flower throughout the late '60s and early '70s, and in hindsight it doesn't seem overly original or powerful. It's Cannon's and Altman's unique, understated, witty approach to the theme that - ahem - gives it wings; undeniably a product of the 1970s, the film nonetheless avoids overt politicization or other topical references, which help prolong its life and preserve the themes even today.

The cast is excellent. Cort's appearance in the film predated his legendary role in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude by a year, but he has the same highly watchable, enigmatic charisma here as in the later film. Although Brewster's specific motivations remain cloudy, Altman and Cort signify the "meaning" behind the character's project with a relatively light touch. Kellerman is alluring and appealing, while masking her character's true nature and intentions. Murphy is good as the Bullitt-like Frank Shaft, effectively harnessing McQueen's stone-faced self-absorption and turtleneck-clad poseur-dom. Supporting turns, including colorful appearances by everyone from Stacy Keach to Margaret Hamilton, help maintain the picture's spirited momentum.

Stylistically, Brewster McCloud bears an occasionally uncomfortable stamp of its era, mainly in the form of some badly aged music, arbitrary slow-motion (which may have been used as a joke), and some crass fast zooms. But Altman's interest in widescreen photography is also in evidence, and in a number of scenes he efficiently fits several characters into the frame to create his signature "observational" style. Altman's direction here serves the themes of a smart script, and aided by the stable of oddball performances, Brewster McCloud retains its heady, cultish edge at age 40.