Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Lost somewhere in the, uh, maelstrom that was "Bennifer", that was the alcohol abuse treatment, that was the uneven acting performances, the record-breaking number of Razzies, was this talented and tragically good-looking guy named Ben Affleck.

Well, I guess we've never lost sight of his good looks. How could you really? He's damn pretty.

But the talent part. Sometimes he's damn good--like in Kevin Smith films and the underrated Hollywoodland---but he doesn't seem to flourish in the big budget films. Sort of like Stallone following up the marble-mouthed Rocky with a series of mono-syllabic dim-witted action characters (Rambo, Cobra) people forget that he wrote Rocky, as well as most of his other films.

Affleck looks to be trying to stave off this kind of pigeon-holing both with his role as George Reeves and his direction of today's movie, Gone Baby Gone. (Of course, he's been trying to do this all along if the bit with Matt Damon in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back isn't entirely parodic.)

So, how does he do?

Not bad. Not bad at all.

This movie is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and so invites comparison with Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (by the same author) which, on the one hand, is a pretty gutsy move, but on the other hand--well, Lehane can clearly plot. Affleck's not padding out Mousehunt, here.

The story concerns a missing girl incident of the sort anyone who's ever flipped past "On The Record with Greta van Susteren" is familiar with. Casey Affleck and his girlfriend Michelle Monghan are private detectives/repo-men(?) who are hired by the family to augment the police investigation. As the story progresses, we learn more about the missing child's mother, who is increasingly revealed as a horrible person, and responsible at some level for her child's disappearance.

As with Mystic River, at the point where a normal detective story would end--the clues pretty much unravelled and the plot explained--this story goes on for another 20 minutes. In this 20 minuets, Lehane's story presents us with a horrible moral dilemma.

I hated this in Mystic River more than Sean Penn's Oscar-baiting hamfoolery, as I tend to hate all stories that try to tell us, in the end, man is far more degenerate than even we thought. (It's sort of porn for cynical intellectuals and I think about as accurate as the sexual kind.) In Gone Baby Gone, however, the challenge is a lot more credible and interesting. And Casey Affleck's decision is both more straightforward and more complex than the protagonist in "River".

So, what do we have, once we distill all the Affleck-hype (positive and negative)? Surprisingly great performances from Casey and Michelle, predictably great performances from Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, and also outstanding work from the lesser known John Ashton (as Ed Harris' police partner), Amy Ryan (as the world's worst mother) and Titus Welliver as her brother. (I found Titus Welliver's performance particularly moving.)

Casey knocks it out of the park despite not looking the park at all. (He has more than a few of his brother's mannerisms, too.) He has to be tough, smart, sensitive, brutal, etc. This is no easy role.

We also get a really good score from Harry Gregson-Williams, who seemed to be channeling the Newmans for this film. (A little bit Randy, a little bit Thomas.)

It didn't hurt to have Academy Award winning John Toll behind the camera. The cinematography was just so: Not flashy or ostentatious, not lethargic, keeping pace with the story without trying to horn in on it.

One never knows, in the final analysis, what part the director plays (without having been on set) in creating a film. Some directors fit more into the auteur theory than others. And I suspect Ben Affleck's benaffleckiness is going to encourage a "second shooter" theory.

But really, even if all he did was get out of the way and let everyone else's talent do the heavy lifting, this is quite an accomplishment. (Movies where the various egos struggled behind the scenes to get their way don't usually work out.)

In short, not only do I like this movie, I like what it portends for Ben Affleck's career.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Rape of Europa

In the third film of our documentary-thon, we saw The Rape of Europa, a feature based on Lynn Nicholas' book of the same name.

I heard a sentiment expressed recently--not about this movie, which is a fairly obscure little film, but about another WWII-based feature--which went something like, "There were other wars, you know!" From the clichéd use of Nazis in computer and video games, to the post Saving Private Ryan deluge of WWII movies, TV series, documentaries, museum shows, art exhibits and strained analogies to current social and political events, it can certainly seem like we're inundated with WWII over any other event in history.

I've heard this same sentiment expressed several times over the past 30 years. I've never had any response for it.

The Rape of Europa covers a facet of WWII I've never seen treated in detail, unless you count Kelly's Heroes, to wit, the Nazi raids of art treasures from all over Europe.

The film starts with Hitler's rejection from art school and proceeds quickly to his rise to power and the attendant expurgation of the entartete Kunst (degenerate art), followed by his grand plans to create a super-museum of all the great artwork of Europe, accumulating as he invaded each country.

But it's not that simple, of course. There was the systematic stripping of Jews of artwork and--just in case you thought the Nazis weren't bad enough--their religious symbols (torahs, menorahs, and so on). There was the defensive moves by the Russians and French to protect their artwork, both of whom were used to evacuating art work after a century of industrial-era European warfare.

Then there were the Poles, whose Royal Castle was completely obliterated as punishment for their resistance, the Italians, whose reward for allying with the Nazis was the Nazis destroying their cities as they retreated from the American advance. And, of course, the Americans, a handful of "monument men" trying to convince a bunch of grunts that they should risk further bloodshed to save a monastery or a bridge.

It's all told with stock footage and still photos, narrated by Joan Allen, and punctuated with interviews of a few surviving children whose family's artwork was confiscated, monument men, museum curators and the like. Despite this, the drama is all there. Stories of heroism and sacrifice abound here as they do in all tales of WWII. The efforts to restore and return artwork continue to this day, though it is somewhat like unscrambling an egg.

There is a little bit at the end that tells the story of a German official whose job it is to try to reunite all the stolen Jewish artifacts with any surviving community members or their ancestors. It's probably a powerful story unto itself, and it does remind you that you've spent the past 90 minutes focused on the harm done to inanimate things--however culturally important. Unfortunately, it feels a little tacked on to the rest of the movie.

Despite this, it's fascinating story, and I'm glad it's finally being told.

Even if there ARE other wars.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

In The Shadow of the Moon

The next documentary I saw after the highly engaging and amusing King of Kong was In The Shadow of the Moon. If the former was about a handful of guys obsessing over a trivial accomplishment (about as trivial an accomplishment possible while still being noteworthy, if that makes sense), this film is about a handful of guys downplaying what are arguably the greatest adventures that homo sapiens ever undertook.

This documentary simply interviews the surviving astronauts about the Apollo program, providing enough backdrop so that someone fairly ignorant of the times can grasp the magnitude of what was done, and some idea of why. The conspicuously absent Neil Armstrong in a strange way typifies the low-key attitude of the astronauts. Some call him a recluse but as is pointed out in the film, he apparently leads a public life in his current hometown of Lebanon, Ohio. He's just not in to the whole celebrity thing, God bless him.

NASA has fallen into a certain degree of disrepute of late--they are, of course, a government bureaucracy, and those don't get better over time--but it's helpful to note that they accomplished the impossible: They put men on the moon and got them off alive again. Using computers less powerful than the one in your TV remote.

For me, it's the "getting them off again alive" that's the most impressive. It's one thing to drop a can with a couple of guys in it onto a rock a few hundred thousand miles away. It's another thing for that can to land safely on a less-than-paved surface. And I can almost get behind the conspiracy theories, when you tell me that teeny-tiny lifted back off and met up with another teeny-tiny can that was orbiting around at hundreds of miles per hour.

And they talk less trash than Billy Mitchell. Far from thinking they were hot stuff, they tended to just view each other as regular guys. In part, this would have to be because they were all top-tier, so it had to be hard to impress each other. (Though Armstrong managed, at one point, by following up morning of near-death catastrophe with an afternoon of paperwork.) In part, though, I suspect it was due to a respect for the forces they were dealing with, all of which cast the human body into its frighteningly frail perspective.

As a result, I wasn't surprised that the film ended with them talking philosophy, God and religion. They confronted more space in those few hours than most of us can even conceive. (I recall stories of early European settlers looking out across the Great Plains and vomiting upon seeing so much empty space. Yeah, multiply that by a thousand, and then square it since the space extends in almost every way you can look.)

Only the very end of the film, during the credits, do they talk about the whole conspiracy theory angle, but unfortunately no clip of Buzz Aldrin socking a guy.

If King of Kong is an example of engaging storytelling on a minor topic, this movie is an example of spare storytelling on a huge topic. Next, I'll look at a documentary that combines some engaging storytelling with a completely different sort of huge topic.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Kings of Two Worlds

Two documentaries recently released demonstrate what I consider to be good movie-making while using two different and honest approaches to their subject matters. What's interesting also, is that they're at completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of, let's call it "social relevance".

First up is The King of Kong, Seth Gordon's look into a world most of us couldn't care less about: World champion retro-gamers. I mean, seriously, I can sort of see the interest in modern games like Unreal Tournament, which have a sort of football-esque feel and head-to-head action. These have the potential to be really fascinating live. Well, maybe.

But 1980s-era quarter munchers? Pac-Man? Centipede? Donkey Kong? I just don't see it. In fact, Donkey Kong pretty much put an end to my time in arcades. In order to get good at these old games, you had to memorize patterns. That strikes me as one of the biggest waste of time and energy imaginable: Memorizing an arbitrarily constructed and delicate pattern for the purpose of getting good at a video game. I mean, seriously, it's harder than learning Latin, without the attendant utility and respect-mixed-with-fear you get from knowing Latin.

The beauty of this documentary, though, is that you do end up caring. Though a fair number of statements by the competitors were laugh-out-loud funny, especially when applied with just the tiniest bit of perspective, you have to give these guys their props. They're not really wasting any more time than the average TV watcher (or moviegoer, hey) and in that time they've become the best at what they're doing.

And there are a lot of poseurs, as well. People who would pretend to the crown of video game mastery, and a lot of them--no matter how hard they work at it--will never touch the hem of our two heroes, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.

The movie takes the (always dramatically fruitful) angle of the underdog challenger (Wiebe) looking to dethrone longtime champ (Mitchell). The two are polar opposites as far as their social personalities. Mitchell is a smooth-talking high-powered businessman type who wears a pony tail (yes!) and could easily be selling real estate or doing the motivational lecture circuit, and who views himself as a winner.

Wiebe, by contrast, is a sort of lovable loser, a nearly great athlete (whose big shot was blown by his father), musician (he looks good playing the drums, but I couldn't tell you if that was good drumming, and his piano playing--well, it reminds me of mine), artist, out-of-work aerospace engineer, whose life is full of near misses, but who uses his mastery of Donkey Kong to make a name for himself.

We're treated to the cardboard table that is retro-game-score-record keeping, an organization that looks like it's run on quarters and out of trailer parks and pre-fab homes, but which prides itself on its integrity. And we have the shunned would-be retro-gamer going by the name of "Mr Awesome" who claims they've shut him out.

Mitchell repeatedly gets favorable treatment from the record keepers, which tweaks our sense of fairness, and he ducks out in a chance to go head-to-head with Wiebe, who fails to beat the high score live, just a couple of blocks from Mitchell's home and restaurant.

Of course, at the level of DK they're playing, sheer randomity is as big a factor as anything as to who gets the higher score. While either of them can routinely break the long-standing 650K score, neither can guarantee what will happen after that, leading to a lot of taped scores. And Mitchell gets the chance to point out that he's simply not prepared--out of training!--to go head-to-head with Wiebe at that point.

Nonetheless, reconciliations are made, and people mostly come across looking like real people, in all their flawed glory. Wiebe gets his place at the table for a while, then Mitchell comes back, and so on.

Wiebe's personal story has a happy ending as well, as he finds his niche as a school science teacher, and brings his considerable focus to bear on making science interesting for kids.

Contrast with "In The Shadow of the Moon".

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


Documentaries are sort of treacherous things. Even the most honest intentions can create a false image simply due to what materials are accessible to the filmmaker. As a result, I tend to favor documentaries that don't try to make some overarching point but rather honestly tell you a particular part of a particular story from a clearly stated point of view.

For example, I enjoyed Supersize Me not because it was a startling exposé on the dangers of fast food but because Spurlock set the--clearly biased--ground rules in advance. He told you up front he was going to overeat, under-exercise, and otherwise skew things toward their gruesome conclusion. (He dropped that honest in his "30 days" series, unfortunately, making it unwatchable to me.)

I used to be a big fan of Michael Moore, watching "TV Nation" and "The Awful Truth" quite dedicatedly, up until the point I realized that, in his world, nothing is more important than the point he's making. He treated people quite badly on his show--people who did nothing other than allow him access to their world and dare to differ in their opinions. Later I found out how terribly he had slanted his seminal Roger and Me.

Sicko is sort of fascinating, I admit. It's apparently technically accurate while at the same time, such a blatant insult to the intelligence, one wonders why anyone would bother. When he cites a survey stating that the USA is 36th in world health care, just slightly ahead of Slovenia, one wonders why Americans aren't flocking to the slightly higher ranked Costa Rica. Or why Canadians, at #30, would so much as dream of coming to the USA for medical treatment. (A touching fictional characterization of this is shown in The Barbarian Invasions.)

He even extols the virtues of Cuba. Cuba! Castro sets up a glossy free health care clinic and a bunch of "useful idiots" flock down and say how wonderful it is, without ever bothering to notice how few Cubans actually get to use it and are relegated to dumps. Cubans come to American on freakin' doors! And even with the sham front, Cuba still manages to get a lower rating on that survey Moore tries to shame America with.

Besides which, Farenheit 9/11 (the title a stupid and horrible rip-off) stayed in theaters so long a bunch of good indie films and docs never had a shot locally. It's up there with What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? among films that annoyed me just by being successful enough to take up valuable cinema space. (And you just know they hung on because true believers were dragging their poor friends to see these "life-changing movies".)

Anyway, the great documentaries aren't political. Or rather, the great documentaries that ARE political tend to be viewed through a different lens over time. I go to the movies for a lot of reasons, including escaping politics. I'll take a little movie like Paper Clips or Murderball to show me places and lives I've never known, or a Bukowski or Divan to show me people from different walks of life.

This all brings me to the latest documentaries I've seen, both wonderful, and both very different: The King of Kong and In The Shadow of the Moon. Reviews coming.