Posts Tagged ‘Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer’

DGA Docs Noms: Solid … If a Bit Predictable

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

The DGA announced nominees for Documentary this morning. Nothing terribly surprising about the noms, other than the absence of Exit Through the Gift Shop. Wonder if there’s the feeling that Banksy isn’t a “real” director, or some lingering feeling that the film is a hoax? I can’t really argue against any of the directors who were nominated, though:

Last Train Home

Inside Job

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Waiting for “Superman”


Looks pretty much like a take on how the final Oscar nominees for doc could turn out. The most interesting thing to me is the presence of both Alex Gibney and Charles Ferguson on the list. Gibney mentored Ferguson through his first doc, the very excellent No End in Sight, and it showed. Now Ferguson hits it out of the park again in a year when Gibney has two docs — Client 9 and Casino Jack and the United States of Money — that could have conceivably been nominated.

I still haven’t seen Last Train Home, which is leading the pack for next week’s Cinema Eye Awards, or Restrepo. The latter, at least, is in my screener box at home and I suppose I should force myself to finally watch it. I know, I know. It’s a great movie. I hear you. I’m just so worn out by war movies, I haven’t had it in me to watch it. But I will.

I would have liked to have seen a little love for Thomas Burstyn, who directed This Way of Life, which is still one of my favorite docs of the year (it has the third slot on my Top Ten Docs list this year). But this isn’t a bad list, overall.

Top 10 Documentaries of 2010

Friday, December 31st, 2010

I had kind of a bad year for documentaries, which is too bad because I love docs. Maybe it’s partly because I missed Sundance, or because docs can be hit and miss and I just happened to fall on the wrong side of that equation this year. Whatever the case, I managed somehow to miss quite a few docs I should have seen.

I’ve done my best to catch up with those I’ve missed for which I have screeners, but even so there are some notable films this year that slipped through the cracks for me, so this top ten list should be taken with the big grain of salt that it very well would have looked completely different if I’d seen the following films (listed in alphabetical order):

The Oath
Waiting for “Superman”

There’s also the dicey issue of when a film should be considered eligible for an end-of-year top ten — the year you see it? Or the year it finally gets a release? Whatever the case, there seems to be some complex alignment of stars, planets, and the footprints of baby polar bears that determines when a documentary is eligible for year end consideration, and this seems to me to be more frequently an issue with docs than narratives.

So, I saw Winnebago Man at Cinevegas in 2009, but although it wasn’t released in the US until this year, All These Wonderful Things, my go-to site for all things doc, lists it for 2009. On the other hand, I saw fest darling The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls at TIFF in 2009, and I saw it on some top tens last year, but it was nominated for an IDA award this year and All These Wonderful Things lists it for this year.

And the Harry Nilsson doc … sheesh. I reviewed that film for Cinematical at the Seattle International Film Festival in — no kidding — 2006. But rights issues over Nilsson’s songs kept the film in limbo until now.

Here are my own completely arbitrary rules for when a film is eligible for end-of-year consideration:

1. I saw it this year at a film festival, or
2. It had a theatrical release, or
3. It was nominated for an award by an organization broadly recognized as having some authority or weight (yes, okay, I guess the Golden Globes count for this purpose),
4. All These Wonderful Things lists it for this calendar year,
5. It’s a “critically acclaimed” film being buzzed about and generally considered by people other than me to be eligble for this year.

These rules are completely arbitrary, not to mention subject to interpretation and prone to starting arguments over drinks at the bar at the Yarrow Hotel midway through Sundance. Nonetheless, they are what they are. For the docs, I poured through several different lists of 2010 documentaries to try to capture as many docs as I’ve seen that are considered eligible for 2010. Maybe I included some you wouldn’t have, maybe I failed to include something you think I should have. Let me know in the comments.

There are a couple of docs that did not make the list, to which I want to give special mention. Oscar-shortlisted doc The Lottery, a well-told tale of four kids whose parents are pinning their hopes on their names being drawn for admission to a charter school in Harlem, just barely missed making the cut. Dancing Across Borders, which I first saw at SIFF a couple years ago, is a great example of a documentary evolving naturally out of real life: a woman takes a trip to Cambodia, sees a young boy performing as a street dancer, and is entranced by his talent. She eventually sponsors him to come to the United States to train with the New York School of Ballet; after years of hard work catching up, he lands a company position with Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he becomes one of their star dancers. It’s an uplifting film, and not a bad effort documenting the whole thing by first-time director Anne Bass, the woman who sponsored him.

Passione, which I caught at TIFF this year, is an unusual doc that weaves storytelling and music to tell the story of the importance of music to the culture of Naples, with the always entertaining John Turturro as our guide. And I have to give a shout-out to Song Sung Blue, an underseen and underappreciated doc I caught at Ebertfest, which tells the touching story of a Neil Diamond impersonator named Lightning and his singing partner and wife, Thunder; this was the most surprisingly good doc I saw this year, and it will be available in February through the film’s official website. It’s well worth checking out.

I don’t know if it’s just the way it worked out, or if I was just more drawn this year to docs that entertain as well as inform, and less drawn to “serious” documentaries, but my Top Ten docs for 2010 very much favored films that were about a diverse range of very entertaining subjects. None of them are about the war — and I feel a bit guilty for not including Armadillo or Restrepo, but I’m so tired of war docs right now. Two “serious subject” films made the cut, but the other eight span the gamut from street art to soul music, from a foul-mouthed RV salesman to an obsessed beauty queen. I think you’ll find all of them entertaining in one way or another, if you see them for yourself. Here they are:

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop

By far my favorite doc of the year, and something would have gotten bumped off my top ten overall if I’d caught it sooner. Crazy story, crazy style, but it works. You can read my recent write-up of this one right here.

2. Inside Job

Charles Ferguson is, along with Alex Gibney, one of the smartest “issue” documentary filmmakers working today. He worked with Gibney on his first doc, the Oscar-nommed No End in Sight, and like Gibney, he excels at breaking down the complex and making it clear. Inside Job is on the Oscar short list this year, and I think it’s very likely Ferguson will end up two-for-two with the Oscar noms for his first two films. Not bad.

3. This Way of Life

My favorite doc from SIFF this year, this beautiful film is about an unusual family in New Zealand fighting to maintain the free way of life in which they’ve chosen to raise their children.

4. Thunder Soul

The heartfelt story of the unlikely success of an inner city high school jazz band in the ’70s, and the reunion of its members to honor the band director, whose passion for music and belief in them shaped their lives

5. Winnebago Man

Meet Jack Rebney, whose foul mouth of astonishing proportions made him a legend when video footage of him cursing and stomping his way through a shoot of an RV infomercial. Winnebago Man, though, takes a surprising turn when the filmmaker and Rebney, who’s become a recluse, develop an unusual friendship.

6. The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls

It’s not every year that two docs with New Zealand subjects end up on my top ten list, but I had to make room for The Topp Twins, who are, perhaps, the world’s only yodeling lesbian musicians.

7. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Surprisingly good documentary about the acid-tongued comic legend.

8. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

The second of the serious docs to make the cut this year, Alex Gibney’s searing look at the politics behind Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace is chilling.

9. Tabloid

Errol Morris expertly weaves together the oddly compelling tale of a former beauty queen who was charged with abducting and imprisoning the young Mormon missionary she was obsessed/in love with. Not only that, but there are also cloned dogs. Reminded me a bit of 2007’s Crazy Love, which I guess makes me a sucker for stories about nutty people.

10. Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)

Even if you don’t know who Harry Nilsson is, you’ll still enjoy this lovely tribute to the legendary musician. If you’re already a fan, you’ll enjoy getting to know more about his life. Lots of little-seen footage, plus strikingly sad/engaging interviews with Nilsson’s abandoned son from his first marriage and the children he had later in life, when he was ready to be a dad.

MW on Movies: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1, The Next Three Days, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One (Three Stars)

U.S.; David Yates, 2010

The beginning of the end for a very long, mostly gratifying, often magical and sometimes splendiferous and surprising cinematic journey on a constantly twisting fantastical/literary road, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One splits the last of the J. K. Rowling books in half, and leaves us suspended on the saga’s cliff-edge — with all the furious climax-building and loose-end-tying left for next year’s Part Two.

So, twist, twist … Faced with so much material in Rowling’s last Potter book, as well as with the end of a franchise, director David Yates, writer Steve Kloves and producers David Heyman and David Barron take a chance, jump off the cliff and slice us off in mid-Hallows, promising more later.

At the end here, somewhat abruptly, they leave the kids and the plot boiling their way to that long-awaited final confrontation between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and his series-long buddies Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and their Satanic nemesis, evil wizard-master Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) — a being so foul, so evil, that his soul is split into seven scattered pieces (horcruxes to you) — along with Voldemort’s fiendish company (Alan Rickman’s icy Professor Severus Snape, Timothy Spall’s squirmy Wormtail, Helena Bonham Carter‘s mad Bellatroix Lestrange, all those damned Death Eaters and the rest of the Whole Sick Crew) and the explosion we know will come in next year‘s promised H.P. & the D. H., Part Two.

Then, the last Potter part (after this penultimate Potter) will wrap up everything Rowling has dreamed and that the filmmakers have filmed so faithfully and well, in what will probably be a blaze of excitement, special effects and Hogwarts auld lang syne.

Meanwhile, back at the cliff…

I didn’t enjoy Deathly Hallows 1 all that much overall (though sometimes I enjoyed it mightily). But I certainly admired it. How often in film history do we get something this rich and full, or see a group of moviemakers so determined to bring us every last jot and tittle (sometimes captivating, sometimes not), stage as much as they possibly could of a first-rate writer’s long, long, epic novel-series? What wouldn’t we give if some French film auteur had devoted similar care to Balzac‘s Comedie Humaine? Or some American had done all of Farrell‘s Studs Lonigan, or Faulkner’s complete Yoknapawtapha Saga? Or even all the Oz books?

Deathly Hallows 1 though, is the darkest of all of the Potter movies, the bleakest, the most melancholy, and the least packed and stuffed with roast turkey platters of toothsome British character acting, and sugarplums of fantasy, and after-the-feast bobsled rides of slam-bang action.

There was only one time in the whole movie I felt any delight, and that was at the little interpolated tale of The Three Brothers and their wishes: an animated bon-bon supervised by Ben Hibon, that looks a bit like one of those wonderful old Lotte Reiniger silhouette films (like “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,”) Tim Burtonized into sepia life.
I also got a kick out of the re-appearances of so many past Potterites specially Madman Mooney (Brendan Gleeson), and pink slithery elf Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones), and I enjoyed Rhys Ifans’ blowup as Xenophilias Lovegood in his wild digs. And, like everyone else, I liked the dance in the wilderness between Harry and Hermione. (With all that gray mist, shouldn’t it have been to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes?”)

But for this outing, at least, unadulterated joy is a stranger. Instead, we start off the movie with a what-took-you-so-long appearance by Bill Nighy as dour Rufus Schrimgeour (Nighy being one of the few great contemporary British character actors, who haven’t already popped up in a previous Potter), Rufus arriving at a ghastly feast hosted by that hideous noseless-corpse-looking fiend-beyond-fiendishness Voldemort, issuing more sepulchral threats to rid the world of all things Potter. (This loathsome creature, this dastardly bastard, this cold-eyed Lucifer, this creep has, I swear, a future in politics — if he gets a good make-up man.)

And that’s the jolly part.

Afterward, with Hogwarts closed to Harry and company, with his adopted family (including Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths) forced to flee, with his friends joining together to disguise themselves as a band of fake Harries to fool the Death Eaters, wanted posters with his visage marked “Undesirable Number One,“ plastered all over the town, and finally lost and wandering, with lissome Hermione and scowling Ron, through what looks like the ashy, seared ruins of a sunless land out of somebody‘s nightmare (thanks to cinematographer Eduardo Serra), Harry is thrust finally, rudely into a glum, threatening, care-laden adulthood, and forced to face, undiluted with Hogwarts antics, the problems we all face, especially if we’re magic guys (or ladies) and have the devil on our trail.

Series devotees and Constant Readers of Rowling (R.I.P., Dorothy P.), will love it all, I’m sure. (And that’s quite a huge, huge bunch.) Less fervent Potterers may be honestly confused. I sometimes wondered what the hell was going on, and who was who, and even what a horcrux was. (Remember, again: It’s one of the seven severed slices of Voldemort’s satanic sinister soul.) And I fervently wished I’d set aside time to read the whole book. (I used to read them all, in more halcyon days.) My advice to non-experts or aficionados. Get a crib-sheet, or bone up on a Harry Potter website, before you see it. Or better yet, read the book. (The show will still be around, in a few weeks.)

I mentioned the cast. Everybody does. Everybody should. From Part One on, this series must surely boast the most talented and luminous movie roll call of great British star and character film actors, ever — or at least since “Gosford Park,“ where the cast had richer parts and Robert Altman to turn them loose. Maybe they could all start their own rep company, called “Everybody Comes to Harry’s.” Anyway, they all came to this series, or a lot of them (see above), from this movie’s other cast-mates Miranda Richardson (as Rita Skeeter), Imelda Staunton (as Dolores Umbridge) and John Hurt (as Ollivander) to previous series participants Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, Richard Harris and Michael Gambon — the last two as the late, lamented master, who drives Harry batty, in this outing, with his impenetrable clues.

One almost expects to see the ghosts of Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud enter from stage left, pursued by a bear, cast as the ghosts of wizards past. And I wouldn’t bet on Sean Connery and Michael Caine remaining still absent from the feast at Deathly Hallows, Part Two. (Or will Connery, Caine, Colin Firth and other no-shows start wearing, as Nighy almost did, t-shirts emblazoned “No, I wasn’t in a Harry Potter movie.”) Whatever, whenever, it shows how attractively ambitious producers Heyman and Barron have been — and how well Rowling has been served by all present and all dePottered. (Sorry.)

It also shows also how good a screenwriter Steve Kloves is. (That’s the auteur of The Fabulous Baker Boys, who’s done all but one of the Potters — and isn’t it time he got another shot as director?) And how lucky and ready David Yates was, succeeding directors Chris Columbus (Harry Potter 1 & 2), Alfonso Cuaron (Part Three) and Mike Newell (Part Four) as the Potter helmsman, for the last four straight.

Yates, who is painstaking and versatile, if not inspired — but who seems to really love the books — was mostly a British TV director before 2007‘s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which demonstrates how excellent and keenly literary the best of British Television is. (Yates made another episodic Brit novel adaptation on TV, filming Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.)

To digress: Yates comes from a good school. And I really love being able to watch a long, richly detailed, well-acted and faithful British TV adaptation of a great novelist like Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, or Thackeray, or of a fine 20th century novelist or entertainer like Anthony Powell, John le Carre, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene — or even of “Poldark.” (All of which you can get on videos of British TV, also once the stomping ground of ace directors Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Michael Apted and Alan Clarke.) And I wish that someone someday would release the complete anniversary edition they did of all Shakespeare’s plays. (Or maybe do them all over again, with the casts of the Harry Potter films.)

That stellar cast accentuates the fact that the Potter series’ central triumvirate — Radcliffe, Grint and even Watson — don’t (yet) have the acting chops, or near them, of their elders. One likes them because they’ve been with us in these roles so long. But none of these kids can nibble scenery like Helena Bonham Carter, or fondly burble like Toby Jones, or ooze hauteur like Maggie Smith, or swagger like Robbie Coltrane, or brood like Michael Gambon, or percolate like Miranda Richardson, or condescend like Imelda Staunton, or cast a pall like Ralph Fiennes. (That’s right: Who would expect them to?)

They can dance, though. And they can yearn. And they’re still young. And they’ve grown up, as everyone says, before our eyes, in the multiplexes. How lucky they’ll feel when they’re old and wiser and gray, and doing cameo roles — and they can drop whatever has replaced a DVD into whatever has replaced a DVD player, and watch themselves, forever muggles.

Well, as you can tell, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One didn’t knock me out. But because the series, as a whole, increasingly has, I’m willing to cut it some slack, be patient, wait for the end. I’ll take it on faith that they can set up something grand and marvelous for that last pop-pop-pop-Bam! fireworks finale. Magic, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter have turned out to be wonderful subjects for the movies. (This is one movie series that, for better or worse, rarely got in a rut.) And that’s because, I guess, magic is at the heart of the movies themselves, at the core of what lets them cast their spells. Magic thrills us on the page. But it can really catch us, rapt and spellbound, in a movie — or in a big long series of movies where the moviemakers really care about doing them right. Give ’em Hell, Harry.


The Next Three Days (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Paul Haggis, 2010

This movie made no sense to me — even though it was well-acted (by Russell Crowe, Liam Neeson and others) and well-written and directed (by Paul Haggis, of Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby).

Check this out: Crowe is playing a pudgy, undershaven teacher named John Brennan, whose beautiful wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is convicted of murder, after she’s seen driving away from a parking lot that‘s also a murder site, with the dead woman‘s blood on her coat. If I were a jury member, I wouldn’t have necessarily bought that evidence — but then, Henry Fonda’s Juror No. 8, in Twelve Angry Men, is one of my heroes.

Then, even though he’s convinced of his wife’s innocence, John gets derailed by bad luck in court and a few discouraging words from lawyer Daniel Stern, and decides to break Lara out of jail instead, inspired by the wisdom of successful jailbreak artist/author Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson). I don’t buy this either, maybe because I would never hire Daniel Stern as my lawyer (I remember too well what he did with his popcorn box in Diner), and also maybe because Hilary Swank, as Betty Anne Waters in Conviction, is one of my new heroes.

What’s next?


Only a jailbreak plot that might tax the cunning, timing and stamina of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, but that looks like duck soup for an out-of-shape, academic, seemingly emotionally distraught Russell Crowe, who also has to get his kid back from a birthday party and then make a plane, right after the jailbreak.


I don’t buy this either, maybe because I would never hire Daniel Stern as my lawyer (I remember too well what his buddy Mickey Rourke did with his popcorn box in “Diner“), and also maybe because Hilary Swank, as Betty Anne Waters in “Conviction,“ is one of my new heroes.
The Next Three Days was adapted from a French movie called “Pour Elle,” which was directed and co-written by Fred Cavaye. Now, I might buy all this in a French movie, even by a director named Fred, especially if Gerard Depardieu or Daniel Auteuil — or Pour Elle’s actual star Vincent Lindon — played John (or Jean). But that’s because the French are famous for film noir and l’amour fou. They’re good at that stuff.

This movie looks good, sounds good and plays good. (Brian Dennehy and Helen Carey are John’s parents, and what jail could possibly hold the Liam Neeson who tore Paris apart in Taken? I just couldn’t make any sense of it, maybe because my “l’amour fou“ days went out with Pierrot le Fou. The Next Three Days, incidentally, is dedicated, effusively, to Damon Pennington, who I guess is a real person, unlike John. If I ever have to break anyone out of jail, I’ll give Damon a call, because he obviously knows his stuff — and also, because I‘m probably in worse shape than Brennan.

By the way, I would like to apologize, effusively, to Daniel Stern, for making a snotty crack about that great lewd popcorn gag in “Diner.” I realize it was all Barry Levinson’s doing, and they were all just following orders, everyone in “Diner” (and Levinson) only eats gourmet popcorn with escargot snacks, washed down with French Champagne, while watching Cesar-winning French movies and classic American film noirs. Besides, Daniel Stern is one of my heroes.


Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

U. S.: Alex Gibney, 2010

Client 9 is Eliot Spitzer, the crusading Democratic New York Attorney General who took on Wall Street and later the Governor who tried to take on the Republican Party, and who ultimately had his career 86’d when he turned up on a John’s list for the pricey Manhattan Internet bordello, The Emperor’s Club.

Politicos screw hookers. Sometimes they caught. What else is new? But it’s suggested here by Client 9’s gutsy director Alex Gibney — who also made the excellent Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side and the lucid, devastating Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room — that Spitzer, though certainly guilty (albeit of a victimless crime committed by more than few prominent members of the Manhattan social/economic elite ) was harassed and tracked, and then nailed by a group of vengeful Wall Street got-rocks nabobs and political bigwigs who included the eventually crippled insurance giant AIG’s ex-CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former New York Stock Exchange Director and Home Dept co-founder Ken Langone, former New York GOP Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and legendary Republican dirty trickster and self-styled stud-of-studs Roger Stone.

All four of these guys — and Spitzer, Emperors Club madame Cecil Suwal, call girl Ashley Dupre (A.K.A. “Kristin“) — who spilled a lot of beans on Client 9, and now writes an advice column for The New York Post — talk on camera. (Ashley is in archive footage.) So does another lady of the evening, code-named “Angelina,” who was apparently Spitzer‘s actual favorite companion — and who doesn’t appear on camera but has allowed her interview transcript to be read by actress Wrenn Schmidt. (I know, it sounds funny, but Schmidt plays the part very well.)

Was Spitzer stalked? And reamed? And was it because he was an effective A.G. going after Wall Street and Albany corruption, and maybe a future Democratic national candidate? Or because he was a nasty guy whom everybody disliked? Did the Fearsome Foursome have something, or a lot, to do with it?

Gibney convinced me. (Admittedly I’m sometimes an easy mark for stories like this.) Partly that’s because the main quartet of nemeses are so open, so type-cast and so boastfully self-satisfied on camera.

Lagone (at least here) looks and sounds like a man who goes to church but who makes offers you can’t refuse. Bruno (at least here) looks and sounds like a guy who’d beat up his bookie and his best friend and maybe his grandmother, but only if they got out of line. (Actually, Bruno may have a second career, after his 2009 corruption sentence is over, picking up some of Dennis Farina’s “heavy” roles.) Stone (at least here) looks and sounds like a proud cocksman who wears black underwear, has an autographed picture of Richard Nixon, and a cell phone with someone named HoneyBunny on his list of five faves. Greenberg (at least here) looks and sounds like a quiet old man, who’d help trigger a crash without a sliver of remorse. They all cheerfully admit they hate and despise Spitzer, except Greenberg, whose mild manner suggests that revenge is something served cold, that your secretary handles.

Spitzer seems remorseful. (One feels very sorry for his wife Silda, who never says anything.) He also seems like a smart guy with ideals, a temper, and too many sex fantasies. (Over $100,000 worth on the Emperors Club bill of fare.) His enemies sound like four guys who like to cash checks, and who think ideals are for nuns.

By the way, didn’t Louisiana’s current Republican Senator David Vitter get caught on a John’s list too? Isn’t he still in the Senate, battling corruption? Dude must have a good P. R. guy. Roger Stone, maybe.

This is an exciting documentary, well-investigated, well-crafted, compelling and absorbing. It’d make a good dramatic movie. And if anybody thinks this kind of stuff isn’t a big part of the reason Wall Street tanked, they belong in a Looney Tune, mentoring Daffy Duck.

The Man Who Headlined Client 9

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

The Man Who Headlined Client 9

Weekend Films

Friday, November 5th, 2010

I have to say, Lionsgate never extended an invitation to see For Colored Girls, even if I was the only one holding out hope for the film as an awards movie for a while there. And Manohla Dargis’ review makes me wish they had… or that I had bothered them about it. I have no idea whether I would agree with Manohla’s take, but as is too often the case, the dismissive reviews in the trades read like outlets all too happy to be dismissive of a passionate effort.

Speaking of which, even though it’s not opening this weekend, I’d like to put my two cents in on Love & Other Drugs, which also got pummeled by critics who, in my opinion, were not really watching the movie they were being shown, but were too busy finding a way to disconnect emotionally from a surprisingly emotional film. It isn’t a Viagra sex comedy. it’s Love Story and Sweet November… combined with a Viagra sex comedy.

I got a very strong feeling that Zwick and Herskovitz were going back to the work that they didn’t quite hit out of the park in adapting Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago as About Last Night. Here, they get a lot of the raunchiness of Mamet, but in combination with a big melodramatic story that is, by its nature, very close to crossing the line into male-unwatchable mush… and they overcome the obstacles. And it’s not, as some would position it, just because we spend a lot of first act time with Anne Hathaway’s naked body splayed across the screen. It’s because of very smart writing and a truly awards-worthy performance by Hathaway. This kind of part has eaten up some really talented actresses over the years and Hathaway just grabs the whole thing by the balls, makes very decisive acting choices, and pulls rabbits out of her hat through the whole movie.

The only reason Love & Other Drugs isn’t a truly great film is the problem of Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor who I adored when he was younger and who has me more and more perplexed over time. On paper, he is a great choice. Young, dumb, and full of cum. But he needs to evolve in this story. And while he does okay with the role, you just never get the kind of light out of him that seeps out of Hathaway’s every pore. Ruffalo might have been the right guy, though he is a little older now. It could have been the role of Ryan Reynolds’ career, though we have never seen him quite hit this note. The one who might have turned this film into a classic would have been Michael Fassbender. The role is Jerry Maguire, in many ways. Cruise is now too iconic (and too old) to make it feel real.

I’m not saying this is a perfect film. It’s not. But it is a daring, challenging piece, and deserves to be seriously considered for all of its strengths, as well as the weaknesses. And when I look at Gurus and see that Hathaway has fallen completely off the chart, that’s a shame, because she glides through it with great assurance, no doubt supported by a strong director who helped her push and keep those boundaries.

Anyway… back to this weekend and the movies I have seen…

127 Hours kills. It’s just that simple. It’s like one of those sugar sculptures you see on Food Network in competitions. It can’t possible hold together, it is so precariously on the edge at all times. It’s going to crack. It’s got to shatter. But it holds together and brings you out the other end feeling good about a man’s (figurative) life, death, and resurrection.

ironically, I think that the skill with which Boyle & Co pull this thing off makes it look easier than it was. This is a movie that should be studied in future, especially with an eye to a strong directorial focus and a lot of use of techniques to keep it fresh – in collaboration with James Franco – within that strong idea.

Unless you have severe issues and watching a trapped person for more than an hour will given you a panic attack, I highly recommend this film to everyone, pretty much of all ages over 12. That might seem a little young to some, but has TJ Lavin gotten out of the hospital yet? I think Jackass is a lot of fun. But balance it out. Balance it out.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is a very solid doc. Somehow, it feels like it would be incomplete without a look at Inside Job as well, in which Spitzer appears as an expert on the economic disaster of the last few years. It lends a balance. Client 9 isn’t, however, just about Spitzer’s spritzer. It is about the politics of taking down this one particular John in a world where this crime is the rule, not the exception. It’s about the hubris of the righteous. It’s about the long slow race that The Bad guys are willing to run to achieve their ends. It’s about all kinds of things.

Alex Gibney is one of our best documentarians. He shows us this again, here, with his skill, style, and meticulous attention to detail. (DP/30 with Gibney on Client 9 is here.)

Due Date is the latest from Todd Phillips, who turned from a director to a walking oeuvre with The Hangover last year. This film stinks of Trains, Planes & Automobiles in the ads, but its soul is much, much darker. And that’s why it works… and that’s why it doesn’t always work.

Essentially, Robert Downey, Jr plays a prick. His prickness is allayed by occasional bouts of decency and having Michelle Monaghan as a wife, back home. After all, how bad can he really be if he goes home to the natural sweetness that is Monaghan.

What I found myself wondering about with this character was not about his redemption, but about the weird space he inhabits, not bad enough to be BAD, not a jerk with a heart of gold… but also not a dozen other things he might have been. And my sense was that the interest Phillips and his co-writer had in this character was not making him any clear thing, but keeping him unpredictable and undefinable. Interesting. But even on Downey, who seems unable to fail in recent years, there just is no there there. Even though it was as clear as could be, I never really believed that getting home to his wife, whose due date is Now, was really driving him. I never really believed that holding his child in his arms that first time would change his life very much. I never really cared about this guy for a single second.

And Zach Galifianakis is a bit of a cipher in all his work. He is funny. In many ways, he is Richard Dreyfuss without the energy. But like Downey, he seems a bit like he is in his own movie here and Downey is just coincidental. So much of what he does here is just being the joke, however broad or nonsensical. Get the laugh, be the stooge, move on.

Thing is, the movie does make you laugh. And for that, it deserves credit. And in some ways, it is an experimental comedy, as though Phillips looked at Planes, Trains and said, “Let’s remake it, but let’s see what it looks like without a soul.” That is a daring choice. And with the impending baby and Galifianakis, they do have some soul in there. it doesn’t feel like gag-gag-gag, like something like Starsky & Hutch. But as almost none of the insane adventures really stick to the characters – aside from various kinds of dirt and torn clothing – it really is. And that’s where it gets to be a bit more interesting than, perhaps, it deserves to be.

Doug Liman’s Fair Game is a testament to the relentlessness of some smart liberals. I’m not going to drag it out and I hope to actually talk to Liman in the weeks to come about his process. What I got from this film was a director trying to make a thriller out of a BBC drama. One act of Valerie Plame, superspy, and her unsuspecting husband, Joe, the intellectual. Then she is exposed. Then the marriage suffers, but is reborn in very chatty righteous indignation against those who exposed her.

It’s hard to see pretty women and blown-dried men in nice suburban home with full access to the media as uber-victims. It just is. Yes, a great injustice was done and the law was broken in the vain effort to change the news cycle. It could not have been fun to live through. But walk down any block in New Orleans and you will find more than one significantly more compelling, tragic, dramatic story. So the only way to make a drama about comfortable people who are a little less comfortable because someone did something to them is to find an angle inside of that story that isn’t The Story. In some ways, Liman tried to do that with the first act. But that was only one act. Perhaps this is a story about being an insider and then the small push off of that core. Maybe it;s about media failing to see the importance of something…or seeing it from too personal a perspective. I don’t know. All I know is that the central story here is just not that heartbreaking. This is not to diminish or excuse… but we’re talking movies, not real life. Liman has real skill in upping the ante and making more of something that seem mundane or vice versa, putting a “that’s life” twist onto a real thriller. But this hill was a little too much of a molehill to make into a mountain.

Critics Roundup — November 5

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

For Colored Girls|Yellow||||
Due Date|Yellow|Green|||
127 Hours |Green|Green|Green|Green|
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer ||Green||Green|
Fair Game|Red|Yellow|||
Four Lions|||Green||
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench|||Yellow||
Outside the Law (Hors-la-Loi)|Green||||

TIFF 2010 Preview, Part One

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

The Toronto International Film Festival is looming ever closer, and as always, one of the greatest challenges faced by film journalists attending the fest is determining which films on the fest’s packed slate they’ll see. With roughly a week to cover the fest and only so many hours in the day to see (and write about!) films — not to mention those late-night parties and more basic needs like food, a few hours sleep, and the ever-present caffeine fix, there’s just no way to see everything you’d like to see.