Friday, January 20, 2006

Match Point

Here’s a reactionary approach to Woody Allen’s Match Point. Did Woody Allen’s mother leave him when he was a child? Was Mia Farrow a terrible nag? Did he get rejected by women an awful lot as a boy? In short, what is his drama?

Match Point features three primary female roles: the controlling, manipulative mother; the sweet but boring wife; and the emotionally and intellectually empty sexpot who becomes a terrific nag. Ouch.

Then again, as my very wise boss and admirer of this film pointed out, the male characters aren’t exactly models of virtue either: the Machiavellian upstart; the lazy, self-indulgent male heir; and the detached father who expresses love through money. Allen’s film offers us few examples of redemptive humanity.

From a more psychological point of view, consider this film as male wish fulfillment. (spoiler alert!!) Our “hero” Chris Wilton marries into a wealthy family that thinks he can do no wrong, cheats on his wife with a voluptuous blonde, kills the blonde after knocking her up, and then gets away with all of it. Offering hot sex, suspense, and even some dark humor, Allen’s film explodes onto the screen, perhaps reinvigorated by the change of scenery from New York to London and the lack of the "Woody-stand-in" character.

Rhys Meyers and Johansson are ideally matched as lovers. Their voices evince a similar quality: smoky and understated with few variances of tone or intent. Somewhat dull and emotionless, their voices reveal the emptiness of the characters. Allen almost single handedly creates the sexual energy between the two actors. During an intimate conversation at a bar, Allen employs a series of close-up shots, allowing the camera to make love with the actors more than they do with each other. Whereas a medium shot would place both actors in view, Allen instead uses the camera angle to develop an intimacy that the actors, perhaps, lacked.

In one of the most compelling scenes in the film, Chris’s wife, Chloe (played by Emily Mortimer), asks him if he is having an affair. The silence that follows, as Chris must make a decision about his future, emits a palpable tension through the theatre. Forced to choose between lust and luxury, Chris makes a sensible choice but hatches a dangerous plan. Despite the fact that the audience doesn’t necessarily empathize with these characters, Allen infuses their conflicts with suspense by carefully increasing the stakes as he builds his story.

In a sort of wink at the audience, Allen presents his hero in an early scene reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Subsequent scenes echo this masterpiece, as Chris finds himself in a situation similar to Raskolnikov’s famous murder scene, a desperate and bumbled attempt at greatness. Yet Dostoevsky’s true power derives from his meticulous portrait of a man processing his guilt and discovering that he is not as powerful as he thought.

Allen, on the other hand, affirms his hero’s primacy. Though a mere coincidence allows Chris to walk away from his crime, Allen pointedly eschews the route of the Russian author. Chris suffers one moment of weakness following the crime, but quickly recovers his cool. A later scene features a nightmare during which the dead haunt their murderer, but Allen upsets expectations with a reveal that this is not Chris’ nightmare at all. Chris presumably sleeps quietly in his bed.

Here’s the most disturbing aspect of the film: I found myself rooting for Chris. Despite a rather wooden performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, his character’s chutzpah is endearing, somehow. Or perhaps his blatant assaholicness (yes, that’s a word I just made up) makes him more sympathetic in contrast to the snobby English landowners around him. In this vein, David Denby of The New Yorker wrote that the audience identifies with Chris because he is the scrappy poor Irish boy who dares to infiltrate the upper crust. Furthermore, Chris evidences some sign of self-awareness, while those around him wander oblivious through life. He compels interest because his lingering humanity does fight, however weakly, against his lust for power.

Allen’s preoccupation in this film lies with Chris’ climb to the top rather than the costs of his efforts. To this end, he has crafted a carefully plotted and intricate portrait of one man’s daring. As the audience vicariously experiences Chris’ desire, for sex and power, as well as his fear and hubris, we may feel a bit dirty, but we won’t be able to turn away from the screen.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Narnia Chronicles: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

My mission when seeing the Narnia film was to determine at what point my sister would have to remove my four-year-old niece from the theatre. Having read the novel as a family, my niece is relatively prepared for the primary events of the novel: people frozen by the evil witch, a family betrayed by one of their own, and a brave leader’s sacrifice of his own life. Yet as a disgruntled mother commented in the row behind me during a particular scary scene involving a mix of real and CGI wolves, “this wasn’t in the novel!”

The battle scenes are pretty graphic as well, with some shots echoing Lord of the Rings exactly. The film is, in essence, LOTR light, as many critics have noted. Unfortunately, it is lighter in terms of its emotional impact, as well. As the Harry Potter films have demonstrated, child actors often falter during strong emotional scenes. In fact, only the most recent Potter film has offered the same level of powerful catharsis as the novel upon which it is based.

The actors portraying the Pevensie children are beautiful and their performances are sincere. Yet being children, they seem able to deliver only emotions as basic as fear, anger, and joy. Everything in between, all the shades of gray that complicate human relationships and bring a story its resonance, elude them. The movie is entertaining, but somehow, I couldn’t quite connect.

As the children discover the wonderful land in which they have found themselves, the music soars to grand heights of feeling. Yet what the children have discovered is nothing more than a winter wonderland: does it snow so rarely in London that the sight of white tipped pine trees has the power to amaze? Similarly, when Santa arrives to present the children with magical gifts that help save the day, I couldn’t quite echo their awe. Is this the sad reality of being an adult? I can no longer appreciate wonder?

Gender roles are restricted in some sense by the source material. Whereas Santa gives the male Pevensie children weapons to lead everyone to victory, the females receive more feminine presents: a horn with which to call for help and a vial containing a healing lotion. But quibbling about this is like quibbling about the dearth of female roles in Lord of the Rings. I may want to see Susan and Lucy stop their mourning and get into the game, but it is difficult to fight a gender war with a deceased author who wrote over fifty years ago.

That said, on the whole, Narnia is enjoyable holiday fare. Even I can chill out and just enjoy a film once in a while.

By the way, my niece and nephew loved the film, and little Susie only had to leave the theatre once.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


So far, I haven’t seen Capote appear on many of 2005’s top ten lists, but the film is certainly worth seeing, even during this rare season of good movies. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance masterfully brings back to life Truman Capote, as famous for his writing as he was for his bizarre manner of speaking. In keeping with Hoffman’s faithful depiction, the movie presents both the good and the less admirable aspects of Capote. Rather than make a hero of him, screenwriter Dan Futterman depicts his main character’s self-destruction.

As a biopic, Capote achieves a clearness of vision and depth of characterization that films like Ray and Walk the Line fail to realize. Unlike the latter movies, Capote does not attempt to depict the entirety of its main character’s life. Rather, the film selects a specific focus for its inquiry: Capote’s investigation into the murder of a Kansas family and his friendship/manipulation of one of the accused murderers.

Maintaining this steady attention upon one episode of Capote’s life, the screenplay nevertheless offers insight into Capote’s friendship with childhood companion (and famous author in her own right) Harper Lee (played by the always impressive Catherine Keener) and his long-term partnership with lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). Throughout the film, director Bennett Miller develops his characters and the plotline by continually examining how Capote’s investigation affects his job, his relationships, and his sense of self. As a result, the film achieves a nuanced and layered portrait of a historical figure without sacrificing its specificity.

Capote juxtaposes the main characters’ downfall with the rising star of his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She plays a typically feminine role: Capote’s conscience. Lee humors her friend’s arrogance, warns him to better appreciate his faithful partner, and forces him to accept his responsibility to convicted murderer Perry Smith. Portrayed with simplicity and subtlety by Keener, Lee is a gentle nag who appreciates all that is good in Capote even while she recognizes his many weaknesses. In many ways, she acts as the mother he never had.

Though most every schoolchild probably reads Lee’s one and only novel at some point during grade school, her name proves so androgynous that I wonder how many children would associate her name with the character in the film. I think of this because the film presents Lee’s success in such a coy manner, with her novel always referenced in passing or in the background. Is Futterman taking her fame for granted or consciously minimizing her own story to highlight Capote’s?

Of course, the film is called "Capote," not "Lee," so Miller’s continual relegation of Lee to the sidelines should not surprise or offend. Yet with such a remarkable actress in the role, I cannot help but wish Futterman had better filled out her character. Why does Lee continue her friendship with such a selfish man? When he hurts her, why does she return? When he shames her, why does she continue to fight for him? One can only assume she receives something in exchange for her trouble (or else is simply a saint), but the film does not answer these questions. We know what role Lee played in Capote’s salvation, but the reverse remains unclear.

To complete his non-fiction book, In Cold Blood, Capote connives, contrives, and confides to gather his information. Yet he does not come out on the other side unscathed. As presented in the film, Capote’s ruthless pursuit of the truth strips away his humanity and leaves him a broken man. With fine performances, carefully controlled direction, and a tight screenplay, Capote offers some of the most devastating cinema of 2005.