Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Childhood's End: Into the Woods at Signature Theatre

Once upon a time, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., there was a tiny company named Signature Theatre that wowed local audiences with near-perfect, low-budget productions of unconventional dramatic fare. For thirteen years, Signature made its home in a converted garage in an industrial section of town, among the long-term storage sheds, office buildings, and assorted auto-body shops. Meanwhile, as its audience grew, it gained a national reputation for its willingness to take artistic risks, premiering important new works by Michael LaChiusa (The Highest Yellow) and resident composer Matt Conner (Nevermore). Under artistic director Eric Schaeffer, it was especially well-known for Stephen Sondheim musicals. And yet the company remained in the old garage, with inadequate rehearsal space, only a few dressing rooms, and nearly constant traffic noise.

No longer. Like a fairy-tale princess, Signature Theatre is dressed up and ready for the ball with a state-of-the-art, two-theater complex in the heart of the Shirlington entertainment district. Naturally, Signature's inaugural production in the new space is the crowd-pleasing Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Into the Woods, a Mulligan stew of Brothers Grimm folklore in which Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel entangle themselves with an overprotective Witch, a strange old man with a mysterious agenda, and a Big Bad Wolf who's hornier than Austin Powers on Viagra. Throw in a baker and his wife on the ultimate storytime scavenger hunt, pepper to taste with some of Stephen Sondheim's smartest (and most underrated) music, and the result -- for the first act, at least -- is some thoroughly delightful discombobulation. As for the second act ... well, we'll get to that in a minute.

Signature's ensemble cast feels like a grand coming-home party, with every member involved in at least one previous production (and most involved in several). Company stalwarts like Harry Winter and Signature co-founder Donna Migliaccio -- as the Narrator and Jack's mother, respectively -- give the terrific performances we've come to expect of them. Stephanie Waters makes a sweet, sympathetic but never saccharine Cinderella; April Harr Blandin is no less winning as the no-nonsense Baker's Wife, even though on opening night (after a full week of previews) her voice seemed close to the breaking point. Erin Driscoll gives unusual depth to Rapunzel, the show's most woefully underwritten character, and Daniel Cooney makes the Baker far more complex than the average scatterbrained husband the script demands. As Jack, Stephen Gregory Smith plays yet another fresh-scrubbed ingenue, but he gives his song "Giants in the Sky" (a perennial audition piece for college-age tenors) an unexpectedly intelligent finish. (Smith is an actor to watch.) If the cast has a weak link, it's Eleasha Gamble as the Witch. Gamble can fill the house with her husky Broadway belt, but she delivers her dialogue -- and two rap numbers -- with an unmistakable lisp.

Of course, the real star of this show is the MAX, Signature's new 299-seat main stage, and director Eric Schaeffer can be more than forgiven for wanting to show it off. The stage looks like a children's book illustration come to glorious life: Robert Perdziola's set, the largest and most elaborate in Signature's history, provides pen-and-ink outlines (a crumbling, vine-covered tower, a sweeping curved staircase, ganglia-like branches drooping from the flyspace), while Chris Lee's lighting splashes the theater like watercolors. But Schaeffer's direction, though surefooted and strong, is also surprisingly devoid of his customary grace notes (save for an occasional touch of confetti) and innovative concepts. Signature's penchant for reinventing shows in visually startling and provocative ways -- is not really on display here. Nor does it need to be.

The only problem with Into the Woods is the show's second act, which not even Schaeffer and his talented troupe can save. It begins promisingly enough, as the fairy-tale characters find their "happy ever afters" violently disrupted by a threat more dangerous than any they've ever known. But James Lapine's book takes sadistic delight in subjecting beloved storybook characters to a grisly fate (fortunately, most of the deaths occur offstage), while overwhelming the audience with half-baked platitudes about selfishness, greed, the end of innocence and the importance of responsible parenting (among other things). The effect, sadly, is like one of James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, only stone-cold serious.

In time, even Sondheim succumbs to the general dry rot: To end Into the Woods, he serves up three maudlin ballads in a row, then tacks on a falsely upbeat finale that gives new meaning to the term "bad faith." Like Lapine, Sondheim obviously wants to teach us Something Important, and though his insight proves slightly better than his colleague's, his message is just as grating: He wants us to know that because these characters' lives are connected, they cannot satisfy their own desires without imposing an unethical burden on someone else. It's a classic anti-capitalist argument (Buy that instant coffee and you'll destroy a Brazilian rainforest!), put over with sledgehammer subtlety: As the show's treacliest song states no fewer than six times, "No one is alone." But at its best, Sondheim's score conveys the idea of interdependence more profoundly and intelligently than his lyrics or Lapine's book ever could: With a handful of two-, three- and five-note motifs gliding effortlessly from one character to the next, it creates a common world for fairy-tale archetypes and the audience to inhabit together. It's a pity Sondheim and Lapine couldn't trust the music to convey their message.

Into the Woods is unsatisfying as a whole, but the first act has more than its share of charm, and it's the kind of show Signature Theatre has always done well. Perhaps it's fitting that this musical about childhood's end would mark the end of Signature's childhood, and if the resulting production feels more like a backward glance than a great leap forward, that also feels appropriate under the circumstances. No doubt the company's future will hold its share of growing pains, as the directors and actors learn to make full use of their new space. But the current production of Into the Woods has set them off on the right foot.

Into the Woods. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Two hours and forty minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. At Signature Theatre through February 25. Tickets $37-$63. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (800) 955-5566 or visit

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My Stupid Oscar Column (or, "Cinema Purgatorio")

As usual, this year's Oscar nominations are enough to drive any self-respecting cinephile to despair. Dave Weigel at Reason magazine (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) suggests that this year's offerings weren't so bad, but Hollywood distributors didn't bother to get the good films out to consumers.

Not so fast.

Weigel cites as proof the Rotten Tomatoes list of 2006's top-reviewed movies -- but there aren't many surprises on that list, either: It's the usual gathering of silver-fork snob bait, exotic foreign fare and grungy left-wing documentaries, with an occasional Hollywood blockbuster like Casino Royale or The Departed just to prove that the commercial cinema isn't entirely dead.

The only problem is that in many cases -- and especially where documentaries are concerned -- we're dealing with films that never played outside a few large cities, and therefore never had the chance to be reviewed by anyone but a handful of doctrinaire-Marxist film critics. (And if you believe the news media has a leftist bias, just turn to the New York Times arts pages and try to keep your jaw off the floor.) Some films on the Rotten Tomatoes list that received near-universal acclaim, like Barbara Kopple's Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up and Sing or Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple were actually quite pedestrian affairs: Jonestown was a standard PBS documentary writ large, while Shut Up was eye-stabbing agitprop. All the same, when a critic agrees with the basic ideology of a movie -- those poor Dixie Chicks were targeted by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy; the Bush administraion willingly left African-Americans in New Orleans for dead; the Iraq War is nothing but a Republican scheme to keep Hallliburton and a host of private contractors rolling in public dough -- she or he is likely to give the actual filmmaking a pass, without seriously inquiring whether the thing is any good.

Oscar fell victim to terminal smugness long ago; for decades, the surest way to craft a Hollywood prestige project has been to stroke the prejudices of the urban American Left. Suburbs are suspect among this crowd, so people who live there must be looked at askance; rural areas are always hotbeds of bigotry and violence; political causes are always viewed in stark black and white. I'm not sure if Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout was entirely correct to claim recently in Commentary that "Hollywood rarely makes artistically serious movies, save by inadvertence" (one could always cop out by noting that most artistically serious things occur by inadvertence). But when it comes to the prestige films that populate Oscar's roster, truly innovative or imaginative filmmaking is nearly as rare as hen's teeth.

In fact, the batting average for nominations this year may be slightly better than average. Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima withstands comparison to the best work of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, while James Longley's Iraq in Fragments displays an astonishing visual sensibility. United 93, which I suspect will be studied and analyzed decades from now as a cinematic masterpiece, even received nominations for directing and editing; given the film's conspicuous excellence (and unconventional storytelling style), I expected more thorough neglect from the Academy.

So without further ado, let's get to the major categories:

Best Actor: I don't think anyone expected Ed Zwick's Blood Diamond to receive so many acting nominations. But Leonardo DiCaprio isn't really in the running for this year's Best Actor, and neither is Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness. Mickey Mouse Club alumnus Ryan Gosling turned in the year's best performance by a biological male in the gut-wrenching Half Nelson, but the film itself is so obscure that Gosling is just lucky to be nominated. The real contest is between Peter O'Toole in Venus and Forrest Whitaker in Last King of Scotland. I'm betting the Academy will forget O'Toole's embarassing Biblical bodice-ripper One Night with the King, and let the old White guy triumph over the younger Black guy. However, I won't mourn if Whitaker wins. Missing in action: Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries Rian Johnson's detective yarn Brick on his slender shoulders, combining elements of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and the Continental Op, then adding a note of lonely teenage angst that is entirely his own. Kazunari Ninomiya's performance in Letters from Iwo Jima is no less remarkable; as Saigo, an ordinary Japanese soldier, he gives American audiences a humane portrait of the enemy. And Matt Damon was the best thing about Robert De Nero's silly CIA epic The Good Shepherd. The best "missing actor" of 2006, however, is Aaron Eckhart, who took the role of a knight-errant tobacco lobbyist in Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking, and turned it into a tour de force.

Best Actress: I haven't seen Volver because it's a foreign film, and foreign films take a long time to reach the Virginia hinterlands. Knowing Pedro Almodovar's track record with actors, I suspect Penelope Cruz's work is more than worthy of a nomination. I can testify that Kate Winslet's work in Little Children is superb, even though her character is largely unsympathetic. But the real story is the "Battle of the Titans": Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. Mirren is the only one of the three without a phallic gold statuette of her own, so I'll root for The Queen while acknowledging that despite the myriad shortcomings of Notes of a Scandal, Judi Dench gave the better performance. Missing in Action: Several possibilities here, but I'll limit myself to two. Joey Lauren Adams's character drama Come Early Morning gave Ashley Judd the role of a lifetime, and she puts not a foot wrong. It's one of the year's best performances, in one of the year's best films. For Ali Selim's Sweet Land, the beautiful Elizabeth Reaser gives an impassioned, thoughtful performance as the immigrant wife of a Minnesota farmer -- and to top it off, she speaks only German through most of the film. Although Selim never subtitles Reaser's dialogue, we always know precisely what she's saying.

Best Supporting Actor: I didn't much care for Alan Arkin's old-fart shtick in Little Miss Sunshine, and as good as Jackie Earle Haley was in Todd Field's "Little Children," I never got the sense that his character was much more than a writer's contrivance. Djimon Hounsou is a feel-good nod from the Academy; I suspect the nominations for Blood Diamond were more in support of a social cause than an actual movie. Frontrunner Eddie Murphy will probably win for an extended version of his old "Saturday Night Live" James Brown routine. Although I don't much care for any of the nominees here, Mark Wahlberg is the only one of the lot whose performance comes as a surprise. Missing in Action: Paul Giamatti must be the most neglected actor in Hollywood. His befuddled inspector in Neil Burger's The Illusionist was yet another feather in a cap that by now must look like something out of the Ziegfeld Follies. And Sergi Lopez offered an all-too-convincing embodiment of totalitarian evil in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth.

Best Supporting Actress: Two foreign-language stars, one British babe, an American Idol reject, and an adorable kid could make up an interesting ensemble cast in its own right. Conventional wisdom says the Oscar will go to Jennifer Hudson, who in Dreamgirls seems to play a caricature of herself, more or less. In the P.C. ensemble drama Babel, Rinko Kikuchi gives a good performance as a Japanese deaf-mute, while Adriana Barraza falls victim to the film's Idiot Plot. Cate Blanchett is fine in Notes on a Scandal, though not extraordinary. For my money, Abigail Breslin was the only reason to see Little Miss Sunshine, and not much of one at that. Still, if I had to choose I'd probably cast my vote for the kid. Missing in Action: Ryan Gosling is astonishing in Half Nelson, but Shareeka Epps matched his every step as a troubled inner-city youth.

Best Editing: With United 93 on the list, I don't see how the award could go anywhere else. Still, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Cuaron might score points for their work on the stylish but nonsensical Children of Men.

Best Foreign-Language Film: By and large, this is a category I haven't seen. I'm rooting for the German entry, Florian von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, if only because it takes the currently unfashionable position that Communism should not be remembered with nostalgia. Days of Glory looks like it was honored more for its politics than its filmmaking, but I suspect Pan's Labyrinth will take home the prize.

Best Documentary: I suspect that the Al Gore infomercial An Inconvenient Truth, directed by hidden persuader Davis Guggenheim, has a lock on this category. The movie is leftsploitation cinema at its finest -- which means that although it's not especially interesting to watch, it manages to tell its audience precisely what they want to hear, when they want to hear it. Truth certainly has the highest profile of this year's nominees, and the prospect of an earnest acceptance speech from the former vice-president might cinch the deal. "Deliver Us from Evil," "Jesus Camp" and "My Country, My Country" are fairly typical low-budget video productions: "Evil" and "Camp" in particular prove Godard's adage that "to make a film, you have to have stars," even if they happen to be a pedophile priest and a sadistic youth minister. My vote for the year's best documentary goes to James Longley's achingly beautiful Iraq in Fragments, one of the year's few films to subvert every newsroom cliche about the Iraq War. Longley presents Iraq as a diverse country, and tells his stories primarily through the voices of children; the final section of the film, on Kurdistan, will be a revelation to American audiences.

Best Animated Film: I happened not to like Cars, Monster House, or Happy Feet much. Of the three, Monster House had the most potential to squander: The film begins as an effective children's chiller with several nicely developed characters, but turns into a series of increasingly noisy and preposterous action scenes by the finale. I'm guessing that if An Inconvenient Truth wins Best Documentary, Happy Feet will win here. Missing in Action: The computer-rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly proved, alas, that Richard Linklater still can't think like an animator. But it was still more visually compelling than any of this year's official animated-film nominees.

Best Original Screenplay: I suspect Michael Arndt will win this award for Little Miss Sunshine, as a tribute to the film's unexpected success. Peter Morgan's script for The Queen doesn't really catch fire until the final scene, when the tables are unexpectedly (and delightfully) turned. Guillermo Arriaga's Babel is a second-rate polemic, however one tries to spin it. Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis's story for Letters from Iwo Jima is a textbook example of how historical films ought to be done; it follows Georg Lukacs's formula for the historical novel to the very letter. But "Pan's Labyrinth" is the most consistently clever of the lot. Although it loses some focus in the final scenes, and never quite adds up, it's the one script here with a truly poetic touch. Missing in Action: Rian Johnson's Brick offered everything you could hope for in a script -- fascinating characters, lively dialogue, snappy scenes, a tight plot, an ending that feels exactly right, and several unexpected twists along the way. And Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson told a compelling story, with scenes that possessed the ring of hard-won truth.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The screenplay for Borat seemed more a matter of patchwork than craft, and Patrick Marber's disjointed script for Notes on a Scandal proved that, try as he might, he still can't write a scene containing more than two characters. The small team behind Children of Men practically eviscerated P.D. James's novel, while William Monahan's work for The Departed seemed both slack and sluggish. But I liked Todd Field and Tom Perrotta's conspiratorial adaptation of Little Children, right down to its omniscient third-person narrator. Borat may win, but I'm rooting for Field and Perrotta. Missing in Action: Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater's fictional adaptation of the nonfiction bestseller Fast Food Nation was first-rate leftist agitprop, seriously underrated by bewildered critics and audiences. But the best adaptation of the year was also the most faithful: Jason Reitman's zippy, zinger-laden script for Thank You for Smoking delivered the action and sarcasm of Christopher Buckley's novel in ninety breathless minutes.

Best Cinematography: Here's one award that the overrated Children of Men may deserve: Emmanuel Lubezki's gritty, grainy, desaturated images fit the story perfectly, and the virtuoso-verite camerawork lets the audience sail past the absurdity of the script. Guillermo Navarro's delicate manipulation of light and shadow in Pan's Labyrinth is a worthy contender, albeit less showy. Missing in Action: If documentaries were nominated in this category, I'd suggest James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, which contains the most genuinely arresting images of any movie this year. But David Tumblety's painstaking sense of composition in Ali Selim's Sweet Land is equally memorable, and Tim Orr's lyrical lenswork on Come Early Morning also deserves some recognition.

Best Director: The Academy has a disturbing tendency to nominate good directors for the wrong movies. Inarritu was nominated for the mediocre Babel but not for the superlative 21 Grams; Stephen Frears has been recognized for a placid effort like The Queen instead of grittier, more vigorous works like Dirty Pretty Things and High Fidelity. In what can only be described as a cosmic joke, Martin Scorsese will probably win that long-overdue Oscar for one of his worst films, The Departed, while two directors on this year's list, neither of whom have a prayer, are in top form. Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is the World War Two film Akira Kurosawa never made (but should have), and Paul Greengrass's United 93 is a marvel of documentary-style realism. My vote would go to Greengrass, whose unconventional approach to ripped-from-the-headlines material pays rich dividends. But Eastwood's work in Letters is nothing to sniff at, either.

Best Picture: At least three films on this year's list shouldn't be here -- the ensemble drama Babel, the ensemble comedy Little Miss Sunshine, and the ensemble action-movie The Departed. I suspect The Departed will take home the Oscar, unless Academy voters are turned off by stylized violence and choose The Queen (a well constructed though bland silver-fork movie) instead. Of the five films listed, Letters from Iwo Jima strikes me as the best, though it's also the most obscure. Missing in Action: The year's best picture was United 93, a harrowing depiction of the 9/11 attacks from the perspective of America's air traffic controllers and the heroic passengers on a doomed flight. It is filmmaking for the ages, and will be remembered when this year's Oscars have been long forgotten.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Children of the Corn: Desire Under the Elms at The American Century Theater and Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) at LiveArts

Of all the indisputably great American playwrights, Eugene O’Neill may be the most uneven. For every bona fide masterpiece that has stood the test of time -- an Anna Christie or Long Day’s Journey Into Night -- there’s some preposterous dud that inspires nothing but unholy laughter -- an Emperor Jones, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, or Lazarus Laughed. O’Neill’s 1924 tragedy Desire Under the Elms falls squarely into the latter category, and the respectful, competent production currently on view at Arlington’s The American Century Theater (TACT) lets us all see why.

The plot involves a quasi-incestuous love triangle in which New England farmer Ephraim Cabot and his disgruntled, much-maligned son Eben both vie for the attentions of Ephraim’s new bride, Abbie Putnam. I presume Ephraim Cabot raises plenty of corn on his farm; unfortunately, so does O’Neill. Perhaps he believed that this play took the best parts of Hamlet, Medea and Oedipus Rex, and rolled them up into the Great American Tragedy. For contemporary audiences, however, the whole thing plays out like Jerry Springer on valium.

The actors can’t turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse, but at least they give it a good go. Kevin Adams gets the juiciest role as crusty old Ephraim, and works it to the wall; Parker Dixon’s Eben Cabot is a tightly wound bundle of sex and rage. (Yes, Desire is the sort of play where the characters have names like “Ephraim” and “Eben.”) But Susan Marie Rhea gets the play's most difficult task: As Abbie Putnam, she has to keep a perfectly straight face while delivering some of the worst dialogue O’Neill ever wrote. All three principals handle their jaw-breaking Maine dialect without sacrificing diction, and that's no mean feat.

Director and set designer William Aitken has been seen on the TACT stage before -- as Ishmael in Orson Welles’s Moby Dick Rehearsed, Ned Crossman in Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden, and most memorably as morally bankrupt father Herb Lee in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy. Desire is Aitken’s first show for TACT as a director, and I’m afraid his inexperience shows: The pacing seems sluggish, and the show doesn’t really begin to grab the audience until after intermission. By that point it’s too little, too late.

Aitken’s set is rather spartan and unimaginative: Its raised platforms demarcate the various rooms of Ephraim Cabot’s farmhouse clearly enough, but without so much as a twig visible -- let alone an elm tree -- the production lacks a clear sense of place. Lighting designer Scott Folsom fares much better, contributing a startlingly simple special effect that enhances the play’s only truly shocking scene.

There have been some nasty rumors in the D.C. theater community that TACT has made deep cuts in Desire, and all I can say is that if substantial cuts were made, I didn’t notice them. Except for a comic rendition of “Oh! Susanna” dropped from Act I, everything seems more or less intact. Still, at a mere two hours (counting intermission), Desire happens to be a very short play (by O’Neill’s standards, anyway) -- which may be the only reason here for theatergoers to rejoice.


The sleepy college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, may seem an unlikely location for a much sought-after Off-Broadway show to make its regional debut. But the vanguard community-theater group LiveArts has beaten a few D.C.-area professional troupes to the punch with their production of Will Eno’s one-man show Thom Pain (Based on Nothing). This would be a major coup if the play were any good, but as it stands, Thom Pain might be the most excruciating eighty minutes I’ve ever spent in a theater. (And I’ve seen Spamalot.)

For those not in the know, Thom Pain is a monologue in which the eponymous character attempts to tell three personal stories, two pertaining to his childhood and one about his adult love life. Ultimately, he fails to finish any of them. The effect is rather like getting cornered at an office Christmas party by a drunk who pours out his heart for hours on end, except that drunks are usually more coherent than Mr. Pain. If Eno is trying to make some comment about our attention-deficit-disordered society, then all I can say is, "Mission accomplished." During the first hour, I must have checked my watch at least five times (once to see if it was running), and during the final twenty minutes I started daydreaming, despite my best efforts not to, about all the better ways I could have spent my time.

I won’t blame Bill LeSueur, the gaunt, balding-blond actor who tries to carry this show on his shoulders. His performance is restrained and methodical, conveying his character’s angst with minute precision and a hint of real pathos. It’s terrific work, especially by community-theater standards. But in the end there’s no show for LeSueur to carry, and his best efforts -- as well as those of director Cristan Keighley -- go to waste.

So why have the tastemakers of New York praised this arid nothing of a play to the high rafters? Well, a play about nothing can (in theory) be a play about anything, and Thom Pain is so thoroughly devoid of either content or merit that clever critics have fallen all over themselves to make something, anything of what they’ve just witnessed. (As Eno himself might put it, "it really is, like, whatever.") The phenomenon is at least as old as the "Royal Nonesuch" scam of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; and truth to tell, most people will say or believe almost anything to keep themselves from looking -- or feeling -- like suckers. For my part, if I were so inclined I could do likewise, establishing my intellectual bona fides by describing Thom Pain as a postmodern meditation on the nature of (per)for(man)ce as well as on the epistemological reflexivity of audience and audience-ness in the late-capitalist imaginary. I won’t, though. The fact is, this show is dull as dirt.

Desire Under the Elms, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by William Aitken. Two hours, with 15-minute intermission. At The American Century Theater through Feb. 5. Tickets $23-$29, children 18 and under admitted free when accompanied by an adult. For more information or tickets, call 703-553-8782 or visit

Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), by Will Eno. Directed by Cristan Keighley. Eighty minutes, no intermission. At LiveArts through January 27. Tickets $14. For more information, call 800-594-TIXX, or visit

Tim's Top Twelve Movies (2006):

There are so many ties on this year's top-ten list that I ended up with twelve titles instead. Since two of the films I listed are more than thirty years old, I suspect the excess may be forgivable.

1. United 93: Paul Greengrass, best known for helming the Matt Damon thriller The Bourne Supremacy, proved his artistic mettle with this gripping docudrama about the 9/11 attacks. This is more than cinematic journalism; it's filmmaking for the ages.

1. Army of Shadows (tie): Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece, adapted from Joseph Kessel's novel on the everyday workings of the French Resistance during WWII, is decidedly unglamorous and existentially grim. From the opening shot of Nazi troops marching beneath the Arc de Triomphe to the unexpectedly violent epilogue, the film is suffused with the stoic despair one would expect from the director of Bob le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge. Yet Army seems more personal, more emotional, more urgent than Melville's other films, which is no surprise considering that the director was active in the French Resistance.

1. Overlord (tie): Stuart Cooper's spare, uncompromising 1975 film about the life and death of an unremarkable British soldier during World War Two features one of the most arresting images in cinema history: A soldier falls backward and collapses within the iris of an eye. Overlord incorporates newsreel footage with new material beautifully photographed by John Alcott, Stanley Kubrick's favorite cinematographer). Unseen in the US save for a few airings on cable television, American cinephiles got their first chance to see Overlord in theaters during the past year. Not many seized the opportunity, but this film may yet find its audience: A spiffy new Criterion Collection DVD is planned for April.

4. Iraq in Fragments: James Longley's triptych on the aftermath of the Iraq War is unquestionably the year's best nonfiction film, beautifully shot and edited over two and a half years. It offers an insider's view of rising Sunni discontent in Baghdad, as well as a personal glimpse of Moqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ite militias in the south. Yet Longley balances these bleaker elements of postwar Iraq by focusing on the country's northern section, where intrepid Kurds have beaten the odds to create a thriving democracy and a new economic infrastructure. Longley keeps his own voice out of the story; he allows the Iraqi people to speak for themselves, and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. Doubtless some will attack this film for suggesting that some parts of Iraq are better off than they were four years ago. But as Iraq in Fragments reminds us, the reality on the ground is never as simple as the American Left, the European Left, or the liberal American media would have us believe.

5. Half Nelson: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are best known as documentary filmmakers, and their gritty, guerilla-filmmaking style is perfect for this emotionally wrenching tale of a Marxist high-school history teacher who happens to be a crack addict. Ryan Gosling has received numerous accolades for playing the World's Worst Teacher, but Shareeka Epps is just as good as a student with some serious problems of her own. The film's depiction of an inner-city high school is depressingly on target.

6. Letters from Iwo Jima: Only an American could have made this movie, and I suspect only an American would have wanted to. Luckily, that American happens to be Clint Eastwood, the closest thing current American cinema has to a Kurosawa, and Letters from Iwo Jima ranks with his best work. Despite the film's sentimentalized view of Imperial Japan, it succesfully captures the experience of losing a modern war. Performances are consistently excellent; battle scenes are nerve-wracking, but not thrilling or heroic. It's a shame that Americans are no longer able to make sympathetic films like this about American soldiers.

6. Brick (tie): Rian Johnson's pitch-perfect homage to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler is set, improbably, in a California high school. The dark, drug-fueled plot and strangely featureless landscapes are more reminiscent of Gregg Araki than the Hardy Boys, but the script is peppered with Jazz Age slang. As a hard-boiled misfit investigating his ex-girlfriend's disappearance, Joshua Gordon-Leavitt practically carries the film.

6. Come Early Morning (tie): Joey Lauren Adams is probably best known as the bisexual girl who sleeps with Ben Affleck in Kevin Smith's romantic fantasy Chasing Amy. With Come Early Morning, Adams establishes herself as a director, and she's a good one. Her affectionate, meticulous depiction of small-town Arkansas life would be cause for celebration in itself; and as Lucy Fowler, an insecure thirtysomething woman with a deep fear of any relationship beyond a one-night stand, Ashley Judd delivers one of the year's best performances. The real surprise is that the main character's quest for fulfillment is spiritual rather than romantic: Come Early Morning is quite possibly the only American film this year to address, in undogmatic terms, the role religion can play in the life of an individual. Throw in a terrific country-gospel soundtrack, and lyrical cinematography from Tim Orr, and you have a cinematic gem just waiting for cinephiles to discover it.

9. Sweet Land: Ali Selim's gorgeously lensed, impressionistic prairie epic is like an O. E. Rolvaag novel come to life. Every meticulously composed frame is a work of art. Selim's pro-immigrant political sentiments are much too heavy-handed to be convincing, but Elizabeth Reaser's performance as a German outcast in post-WWI Minnesota rings absolutely true. Add a great score by Thomas Lieberman and Mark Orton, and you have one of the year's most challenging, frustrating, and unforgettable movies.

10. Thank You For Smoking: Jason Reitman's zippy throwback to the classic Preston Sturges comedies features a winning, rock-solid performance from Aaron Eckhart as a tobacco lobbyist. But in a radical departure from most political fare, this film portrays the tobacco lobbyist as a knight-errant, defending helpless corporations from the depredations of liberal Congressmen (represented here by William H. Macy's conniving Senator Finisterre). It makes for intelligent conservative satire, a rarity in the cinematic marketplace.

10. Look Both Ways (tie): This Australian indie from director/animator Sarah Watt features an innovative and slightly avant-garde mix of live action, traditional animation and computer-generated montage. Focusing on a young woman who has witnessed a fatal train accident and a middle-aged man who has just been diagnosed with cancer, the film is concerned mainly with the randomness of human mortality. Although Look Both Ways is frequently amateurish and unfocused, it contains the most deeply and unexpectedly emotional sex scene I've encountered in any film.

10. Little Children (tie): Everything about Todd Field's second effort as a director feels airless and overdetermined. But when Little Children works (which is most of the time), it is compassionate, scalding, achingly beautiful, and emotionally devastating. The main plot, about a stay-at-home suburban mother (Kate Winslet) whose existential ennui leads her into a tawdry affair with a hunky stay-at-home father (Patrick Wilson), is counterbalanced by an even darker subplot in which a convicted child molester (the eerily skeletal Jackie Earl Haley) moves into the neighborhood. It feels like a modern-day Madame Bovary, and self-conscious references to Flaubert appear at almost every turn. Although the child molester seems more like an author's contrivance than a fully developed character, the affair between bored spouses is perfectly convincing. Novelist and co-screenwriter Tom Perrotta deftly chides his characters for the unrealistic fantasies they entertain, yet in the end views them with more compassion than his literary model would have.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Notes on a Top Ten List

I've finally bought a new 2007 calendar, which must mean that the "awards season" has once again descended on us cinephiles. This year "awards season" feels like duck season -- or perhaps rabbit season -- and aside from watching various cartoon characters fight over who gets shot on the red carpet, I don't see much this year to hold my interest. Most of the movies that intrigued me in 2006 were decidedly off Oscar's radar; indeed, I don't recall a year when there was such a divide between the films Hollywood wanted me to see and the ones I actually enjoyed.

Still, the best "new" movie I saw in 2006, Paul Greengrass's United 93, did receive a wide release, and racked up fairly impressive grosses considering its R rating, the time of year it was released, the difficulty of the material and the relatively low budget. Some critics -- mainly on the Left, I gather -- claimed that this movie was released "too soon" after the 9/11 attacks: Four and a half years was simply not enough time for the nation to heal from such a deep psychological wound. I doubt the same was said of Pearl Harbor. To be fair, when that atrocity occurred, the cinema was part of Americans' common culture, theaters showed newsreels along with the main feature, and even escapist B-movies were expected to discuss present-day social issues. I was reminded of this fact a few weeks ago as I watched a 1942 Falcon programmer from RKO starring George Sanders. Not only did the titular detective foil a gang of Nazi saboteurs -- a subject of deep national concern at the time -- but he also observed a fashion designer's attempt to design her new clothing collection around wartime rationing. The film was shot a mere six months after the US declared war on Japan and Germany, and at the time our boys Over There were dying in numbers that make Iraq look like a Sunday-school picnic. Clearly those ripped-from-the-headlines Hollywood movies like They Were Expendable, Objective, Burma! or even Casablance were the epitome of Bad Taste. It was Just Too Soon, you see.

What is so unforgivable, and so deeply powerful, about United 93 is that it commemorates the atrocities of September 11, 2001, in such a direct, unflinching manner that no one can deny their significance. As for the film itself, it's positively Eisensteinian -- the closest thing the English-language cinema has come to producing a Battleship Potemkin. The resemblance, alas, is not limited to matters of mere technique: Like the 1920s Eisenstein, Greengrass turns the individual-versus-community dynamic on its head, presenting the ordinary passengers of United 93 as a collective protagonist while depicting the terrorists as atomized individuals. Despite the film's pernicious subtext, I must concede its proper place at the head of my top-ten list.

Other "Terror War" movies fared less well, though they received louder critical plaudits. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's ensemble drama Babel may well accomplish the impossible by making Brad Pitt a respectable actor, even though one never forgets for a millisecond that the scruffy, decidedly unglamorous fellow emoting all over the screen was deemed People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive not once but twice. But the scenario has more holes than Swiss cheese, and the various characters in the drama never miss an opportunity to compound (or create) their misfortunes by doing the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. In essence, Babel serves up a left-wing political version of The Idiot Plot, in which most of the central conflicts could be resolved in ten minutes if the characters weren't such drooling imbeciles -- and yet we're supposed to believe that the characters' problems are related to evil US government policy. (If only we weren't so concerned about terrorism! If only we allowed illegal aliens to break our laws with impunity!) The intended moral of Babel doesn't hold up to the most basic scrutiny: A better one, if we must indulge, is that when stupid people do stupid things, there's usually a bad outcome. (Another possible moral, which may not please the travel industry, might be that Americans shouldn't vacation in Morocco. In that respect at least, Babel could fit on a deadly double bill with Hitchcock's 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much.)

Andrew Sullivan likes Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, a sci-fi action flick about a world where all women have become infertile. For cinema snobs it will doubtless be manna from heaven, but not for me. Cuaron has transformed P.D. James's delicate but most likely unfilmable meditation (and here the word is more than a critical cliche) on childlessness, age and decadence into a slam-bang paranoid fantasy on the Terror War and related immigration crisis. The result plays, as Al Gore would say, "like a walk through the Book of Revelations." (There may also be an element of left-wing wish fulfillment in the way the film blows the United States off the world map: Take that, George W. Bush!) Still, the virtuoso camera technique reminded me of Orson Welles's best work, and one ambush scene early in the film -- filmed over several minutes without a visible cut -- deserves the kind of scrunity reserved for the opening shot of Touch of Evil. Of course, Touch of Evil does manage to say something profound about age, decay and the nature of friendship: Welles knew his classics, and could slip Shakespearean gravitas into even the most mundane potboiler. Children of Men, in contrast, is all style and no substance, only slightly less absurd than Robert De Niro's profoundly misguided "the-CIA-is-family" epic The Good Shepherd. It is grindhouse filmmaking with arthouse pretensions.

I doubt that Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth belongs on my top-ten list, either. True, its parts are magnificent, diabolically imaginative and wondrous to behold. But they never add up to much, and the denouement feels pat (it's less so if you know your Spanish history). I haven't seen Pedro Almodovar's Volver yet, so I can't weigh in on it. As for Stephen Frears's The Queen and Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal, I think they're both solidly crafted -- The Queen more so than Notes -- but although each featured a crackerjack performance from its respective lead actress, neither struck me as particularly noteworthy, save for the way that Frears's Queen embodies the public sentimentalization of the British monarch even as it decries the process. I may write more about Notes on a Scandal in a week or two; frankly, I'm less interested in the film's venomous homophobia than in the way it reveals the many shortcomings of screenwriter/playwright Patrick Marber -- best known for Closer, one of the first plays to feature a cybersex scene. (Truly, we've come a long way since Aeschylus.)

I've been wondering about whether to include two films set during World War Two on this year's top-ten list -- Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 Army of Shadows, a classic study of the French Resistance, and Stuart Cooper's 1975 Overlord, a largely unseen British film about the D-Day invasion. If I include these films, they'll tie with United 93 for the top spot. Cooper's Overlord strikes me as particularly remarkable, not only for the seamless incorporation of archival footage, but also for its climactic image of a soldier collapsing within the iris of an eye. Both films are visually ravishing and relentlessly downbeat, and neither has received an American release until this year. On the one hand, I'm tempted to leave them off my list, which is theoretically reserved for "new movies." On the other hand, if you haven't seen a movie it's new.

It says something that the best out-and-out war movie of 2006 -- as opposed, say, to the best war movies of 1969 or 1975 -- was an American filmmaker's tribute to Japanese soldiers of WWII. Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is straightforward and heartfelt, and owes a sizable debt to both Akira Kurosawa and John Ford. It would be ironic if Eastwood were to lose this year's Oscar race to Scorsese's The Departed: When Eastwood won for Million Dollar Baby, Scorsese's Aviator was far and away the better film (despite its flaws), and now that Eastwood has the better film, it looks like Scorsese will win. I intend to write more about Letters, mainly about my deep ambivalence over what this film is trying to do to its audience. Eastwood's attempt to "humanize" Imperial Japanese soldiers would be less objectionable if his film didn't also whitewash the horrors of the Imperial Japanese regime -- or, for that matter, if Japanese filmmakers had made a greater (or even a visible) effort to illuminate the horrific recesses of their own history, as French and German filmmakers have done. Perhaps someday a Japanese director will document the Rape of Nanking, or the enslavement of the Korean peninsula, or those "work camps" that Imperial Japan established for Allied prisoners of war (which for sheer barbarity and depravity were equalled only by Nazi death camps).

Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which ostensibly chronicles the "American" side of Iwo Jima, ought to win some sort of award, too, if only for the most poisonously anti-American film to go into wide release this year. (There was quite a bit of competition, by the way.) If you were to see Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers back to back, you might walk away with the impression that the world might be a better place if the Japanese had won. I don't think Eastwood is fully responsible for the Flags debacle, however: The real discredit must go to Crash screenwriter Paul Haggis, who recycles his tired old thesis that America is a cesspool of racism, crassness and brutish insensitivity, hardly worth fighting over and certainly not worth dying for. In any case, Flags of Our Fathers may be the most breathtakingly cynical movie about World War Two since The Americanization of Emily.

I'm looking for ways to include some smaller films on my list this year as well, since that's where most of the excitement was: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson is a shoo-in, of course, though I don't think the film is as politically engaged as the doctrinaire leftists who write movie reviews for a living would have you believe. Another shoo-in for my list would be Rian Johnson's Brick, a thoroughly unconventional homage to Dashiell Hammett anchored by a revelatory performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who proves that his work in Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin was no fluke). Sarah Watt's Look Both Ways is an amazing film from Australia on the randomness of human mortality. Despite occasional art-school amateurishness, the film features one of the most original and emotionally devastating sex scenes I've ever seen. Ali Selim's Sweet Land is one of the most visually arresting films of the year, with lovely cinematography and flawless composition in every frame -- virtues which make the film's heavy-handed political sermonizing ("Be kind to your immigrants, America!") much easier to stomach. But the best film of 2006 you probably didn't see was Joey Lauren Adams's lovely directorial debut Come Early Morning, a minutely observed drama of romance and redemption set in rural Arkansas, featuring an Oscar-worthy turn by Ashley Judd. If you have a chance to see this film on the big screen, by all means do so; Adams's portrait of Southern culture is too subtle and nuanced to come across on a mere television set.

Honorable mentions include two films by Michael Winterbottom: Road to Guantanamo is a gripping wrong-man thriller masquerading as a documentary: Its potent blend of BBC broadcasts, recreated footage, and talking-head interviews is reminiscent of Kevin MacDonald's Touching the Void, a better film if not as topical. As far as the torture scenes go, Road is disappointingly tame -- for an old-fashioned waterboarding scene, you have to see De Niro's Good Shepherd -- but Winterbottom's frank depiction of psychological abuse is worth a thousand op-eds. One leaves Road with the depressing feeling that if anything depicted here is even remotely accurate, we may have committed an atrocity against the Guantanamo detainees beyond our poor powers of redress or restitution.

Winterbottom's other release, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, is yet another genre-defying high-wire act, combining period picture and backstage drama in the manner of The French Lieutenant's Woman, with a healthy dose of Jackass-style shenanigans to leaven the mix. The result is alternately hilarious and exasperating, and though it lacks the philosophical depth (or comprehensiveness) of Sterne's eighteenth-century masterpiece, it's a worthy tribute to what may be the most unfilmable novel ever.

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