Saturday, September 25, 2010

Film Review | The Tillman Story

Not Coming Home
by Thomas Delapa

It’s long been said that the first casualty of war is the truth. When it comes to the tragic Pat Tillman story, truer words were never spoken.

All-star NFL football player. Free spirit. Square-jawed jock. Patriot. All-around good guy. Pat Tillman was all of the above. When he and his brother Kevin enlisted in the Army in 2002, shocking their friends and family, even the White House stood up and saluted. Upon learning that Pat Tillman was to be sent to the frontlines in Afghanistan, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent out a paternalistic memo to the Secretary of the Army, stating “we might want to keep an eye on him.”

By now we know the recoiling hollowness of Rumsfeld’s words. On patrol in April 2004, Cpl. Pat Tillman was shot to death by his own men, in an outrageous—and still baffling—case of friendly fire. The official military term is “fratricide”, though there was nothing brotherly about what Tillman’s Army band of brothers did to him—either then or in the six years since his death.

Much as many Americans would like to bury the long-running wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, director Amir Bar-Lev’s explosive film The Tillman Story brings the war home, front-and-center. For Tillman’s mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, she and her vociferous family willfully enlisted to make the documentary to “set the record straight.” It’s a story that, for the Tillmans and countless others, has become a heart-broken record after more than eight years of war.

When Tillman joined the Army, walking away from a million-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals, the media shot off a salvo of praise for this seemingly gung-ho American. In death, he was eulogized by President Bush as a “fierce defender of liberty.” Of course, those tributes were delivered when his death was initially reported as a result of enemy fire. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for valor, and the nation, led by the flag-waving Fox News, rushed to memorialize him as a fallen hero.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to Arlington. To start with was Tillman’s expressed wish not to be given a military funeral. Cracks in the propaganda myth started appearing before the plaster had dried. By late 2004, the Tillman family began to suspect that the Army was lying to them about Pat’s death. Partially through their own investigation, corroborated by witnesses, the family determined that not only was their son killed by friendly fire, but that military authorities had covered up the facts in the case from day one.

Through interviews with former members of Tillman’s Army Ranger unit, as well as recent footage from the Afghan mountainside where he was killed, Bar-Lev methodically reconstructs the chaotic firefight that took place on April 22, 2004. Since there was no Taliban in the area, when the smoke clears, it becomes horrifically apparent that Tillman’s death came at the hands of jumpy, trigger-happy members of his own unit. To date, no individual has been held responsible for his murder, while only one higher-up—Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger—was sacked for the cover-up.

In what amounts to salt in the wounds, the makers of The Tillman Story recently lost their battle to get its rating switched from “R” to the more box-office-friendly “PG-13” —chiefly because of its barrage of F-bombs. Audiences who do see this powerful and poignant film will quickly realize that the real obscenity is what happened to Tillman, from his outrageous death to the cowardly and disgraceful burial of the facts.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 9/24/10

Friday, September 17, 2010

Film review | I'm Still Here

Nowhere Man

by Thomas Delapa

Joaquin Phoenix may be still with us, but his really awful mock documentary, I’m Still Here, is going nowhere fast.

Dumped in theaters with little fanfare, the film has now been revealed to be a hoax. In a recent interview with The New York Times, director Casey Affleck said that virtually the whole act was made up. Except for the truly gullible (“Unflinchingly honest” raved Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman), the few people who’ve actually seen Phoenix’s bizarre pseudo reality show might have hurriedly left doubting what they saw.

In a long, 108-minute crash-and-burn, Affleck follows Phoenix from his 2008 “retirement” as an actor to his to aborted rebirth as a hip-hop performer. From the tabloid fodder of his disastrous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman to his mawkish auditioning for rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Phoenix implodes before the cameras, looking like a cross between Charles Manson and the Unibomber. In his private, profusely profane, moments, he lets it all hang out, starting with his pot belly. When he’s not trashing his friends and cronies in fits of mumbling paranoia, he’s imbibing with cocaine and hookers. The spectacle quickly goes down the toilet, bottoming out in a disgusting scene of scatological revenge. The meltdown climaxes in Phoenix’s short-lived appearance at a Miami night club, where he hops into the crowd to fight a heckler.

While Phoenix and Affleck may have pretentiously meant I’m Still Here as an attention-getting satire on celebrity, the laughable joke is on them. Phoenix doesn’t need a director or even a therapist. It seems obvious that this sophomoric poseur still needs to be potty trained.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Film review | The American

Born in the USA

by Thomas Delapa

George Clooney isn’t just a bona fide movie star. He may be the last American matinee idol. In a time when most U.S. leading men are either fading (Jack Nicholson), aging (Al Pacino), strange (Mel Gibson), selective (Tom Hanks) or forever adolescent (Tom Cruise), Clooney still shines with the kind of looks and charisma that hark back to old Hollywood.

But King George is also reluctant movie royalty. Apart from his lucrative roles in the leaky Ocean’s Eleven franchise, he prefers to swim upstream in risky, offbeat and independent films. For a heartthrob, he’s a wallflower when it comes to old-school romance. To this critic, there’s no question his most likable performance was as a conniving convict in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Likable is likely the last word you’d use to describe Clooney’s role in The American, a stark, Europeanized thriller that’s as far from Hollywood as Tuscany is from Tuscaloosa. Just to get our attention that this isn’t your father’s George Clooney, in the first scene he shoots a woman in the back.

In a role that only the NRA could love, Clooney’s Jack is an itinerant underground arms dealer who specializes in custom-built guns. He works alone, travels alone and—mostly—sleeps alone. His only contact is a chilly superior (Johan Leysen) who warns him to, above all, “don’t make any friends.” Ambushed in Sweden, Jack hightails it to Italy, where he goes on the lam in the harsh (and earthquake-prone) mountainous region of Abruzzi.

If Clooney’s vehicle is of a peculiar anti-commercial caliber, it also isn’t especially original. It’s loaded with homages that recoil with imagery from cinema’s minimalist past, from Fred Zinnemann’s fine The Day of the Jackal to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s famed existentialist dramas, such as 1975’s The Passenger.

In their adaptation of Martin Booth’s 1990 novel (A Very Private Gentleman), director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe seem to want to ascend to the lofty peaks of allegory. Jack isn’t simply an American, but the American–in the oft-quoted words of D.H. Lawrence, “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Clooney is all those things, and less. We know nothing about him, other than he has a butterfly tattoo on his back, is bravura in bed, and is equally adept breaking a man’s neck with James Bondian license-to-kill authority.

For the other dramatic details, we’re supposed to read between the lines. The trouble is, those lines are as meandering as the curves on the prostitute that Jack shacks up with in the small town. For all the chaste anti-commercialism that the movie shoots for, Clara (Violante Placido) is the sort of happy Italian hooker that only Hollywood could dream of: sweet, young, voluptuous and ripe for the taking.

In Jack’s daytime hours, he gets busy filling a custom rifle order for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), an alluring assassin and master of disguise who looks like she belongs on Goldfinger’s payroll. As Jack works methodically to assemble the gun and its special silencer in secret, Corbijn packs these scenes with minimalist pop, crafting a statement on the torrid longstanding love affair between firearms and the man.

Elsewhere, Corbijn and his cinematographer put Jack in the crosshairs, positioning him alone in composed long shots that underline his isolation, if not desolation. Despite the warning, Jack tentatively befriends a wise local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who refutes Jack’s naive Americanized notion that he can “escape history.”

If Jack is aimed to be the violent, allegorically ugly, American, neither can Clooney escape his fateful inability to express his character through an arsenal of long silences, blank stares and airless ennui. I’ll grant that Corbijn’s nifty twist finale finds its target, but otherwise The American is more miss than hit.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 9/8/10

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Animal Kingdom" Is a Roaring Good Aussie Crime Drama

Animal Kingdom (Review)

By Steven Rosen

From Cincinnati CityBeat, Sept. 7, 2010

As movie catch phrases go, it’s up there with “I drink your milkshake” from There Will Be Blood. Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver), the Lady MacBethian mother of a dysfunctional family of Melbourne criminals in Animal Kingdom, stares at a crooked cop — her eyes alight with knowingness as she smiles — and states, “And you’ve done some bad things, sweetie.”

God, you think, she seems so delighted to say that, so turned on. What kind of person is she? As played by the late-middle-aged Weaver, a slightly heavier version of Beverly D’Angelo, she’s a blonde-haired matron who is part Carmela Soprano and part Angie Dickinson’s Big Bad Mama.

She’s ultimately very dangerous, yes, but also nice, not imposing or intruding until circumstances demand it. Her domain is a suburban home also occupied by her three adult-age sons, who are involved in armed robbery. Her loving relationship with her troubled sons seems beyond merely supportive — it’s flirtatious.

If the Australian criminal world — and life itself — can really be compared to the animal kingdom, then she is the Lion Queen. And with her colorful wardrobe, she is also part peacock.

Director David Michod and cinematographer Adam Arkapow first shoot her swathed in dramatic blue light — climbing a stairway, slightly out of breath, announcing her arrival.

She has come to an apartment building to rescue her 17-year-old grandson “J,” a tall, quiet young man who, as the film starts, is sitting on the sofa blankly watching a game show while a woman besides him naps. It’s a scene of blissful domestic banality, something out of an R. Crumb comic.

Then, men in uniform stride past the picture window and rap on the screen door. “What’s she taken,” they ask? “Heroin,” he replies. As they unsuccessfully try to revive the slumping woman, he stands by, turning from that scene to the TV. That’s his mother dying, and he’s an innocent lamb lost between illusion and reality.

All alone, he calls grandma Smurf, whom he barely knows — she and her daughter fought years ago over a card game. She cheerily comes and brings him home (she doesn’t seem to care about her daughter’s death) and asks her sons to welcome and protect him.

Her brood tries to, but they are not an easy bunch at accepting strangers. The worst is Andrew, known as “Pope,” a dead-eyed psychotic with a hair-trigger temper, chillingly underplayed by Ben Mendelsohn to exude menace and elicit fear without going over the top.

He subtly taunts fragile, repressed younger brother Darren (Luke Ford). The sleazy, tattooed Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a drugged-out loose cannon who’s always close to a meltdown.

The brothers have a friend-in-crime, a handsome family man named Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton, looking like a Disco-era Barry Gibb), who would like to move from this risky profession to the stock market. When something unexpected happens to him, it sets off a chain of uncontrollable events as the clan seeks revenge on those responsible — in this case, some innocent cops. And “J,” still the lamb, has to figure out what to do.

This frames the narrative: Can “J” break free of this toxic family bond to help a paternal police detective (Guy Pearce) bring them to justice? And can he do it soon enough to save his young, rebellious girlfriend Nicki (Laura Wheelwright) from an increasingly depraved “Pope?”

That’s maybe a traditional crime-film story arc, but calling Animal Kingdom a traditional crime film is misleading. It’s not soaked in blood and mayhem at the expense of character development. It doesn’t aspire to the epic sweep of The Godfather or Martin Scorsese’s major mafia dramas. It actually could better be compared with the recent Winter’s Bone — a teenager, left to his own devices by a parent’s desertion, has to negotiate survival in an alien environment where bad people hide in plain sight.

It also heralds the international arrival of a very talented and assured Australian writer/director, Michod. The film won this year’s Grand Jury Prize — Drama in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema competition and is based on a true incident. Michod is very self-assured. Except for some brief narration by “J,” exposition is stripped to a minimum; scenes and plot developments are edited to move as quickly as possible while maintaining overall coherence.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Michod as screenwriter has trouble establishing the rules of engagement for his characters, especially the police. They act like cold-blooded executioners in some scenes, yet in others are frustrated bureaucrats in the face of legal maneuvering by the Weavers’ corrupt lawyer (Dan Wyllie).

But the director’s feel for naturalism overrides those rough patches. He has a flair for finding the perfect tone for his most audacious scenes. The aforementioned opening one is slow and infused with pathos. However, one that closes the film is sudden, shocking and unforgettable.

Animal Kingdom is unforgettable, too. Grade: A-