Film Club: Woody Allen, The Hurt Locker, Public Enemies and More
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Woody Allen has a new film back on American soil, Johnny Depp plays legendary gangster John Dillinger, and director Kathryn Bigelow brings us the critically acclaimed film The Hurt Locker. We'll discuss all these films and more on this month's Film Club of the Air.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We are right in the heart of the summer movie beast, with very loud machines transforming, subway trains out of control and battles going on overnight at the museum. But strangely enough, here on the KPBS Film Club of the Air, we've found a number of summer movies for adults. We'll be talking about a riveting war movie told from the point of view of a bomb disposal unit, another May-December unlikely love story from Woody Allen, then a movie that casts Johnny Depp as the gangster John Dillinger, and then move on to a grown-up zombie movie and hear about a political film from Italy that's being compared to "The Godfather" movies. My guests on the KPBS Film Club of the Air are KPBS film critic Beth Accomando, author of the Cinema Junkie blog at KPBS.org. And welcome, Beth.
BETH ACCOMANDO (KPBS Film Critic): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Scott Marks is the author of the film blog EmulsionCompulsion.com and the film critic for Uptown News. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT MARKS (Film Critic, Uptown News, and author of the film blog Emulsion Compulsion): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Good morning to both of you. So let's get right to it. First movie up for discussion is "Public Enemies." The film follows the gangster John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, through the last year of his life, the time roughly between his famous jail break and his being gunned down outside a movie theater in Chicago by federal agents. It also tells the parallel tale of how government agents got their man, with Christian Bale playing the relentless G-man Melvin Purvis. Beth, what did you think of "Public Enemies?"
ACCOMANDO: Well, you know, Michael Mann is very much a stylist. He did – on TV, he did "Miami Vice" and "Crime Story" and he did "Manhunter" in theaters, and "The Insider." So he's somebody who frequently has made these kind of action films where it's very much style is the substance. But "The Insider" was one of his films where he kind of also got to the drama. Now "Public Enemies" is a film that sits a little bit uncomfortably, not quite going either way so it's not really totally drunk on style yet it doesn't really have a strong narrative in the sense that you really get to know these characters. So it sits kind of awkwardly between these two extremes that he's done. And I took my son with me to see it and we were trying to figure out – he was kind of like, eh, it was okay. And we were trying to decide why we didn't quite like it that much and we decided to call it a joyless action film because just didn't seem to have – it's like he didn't seem to have any pleasure in what he was doing in terms of making the film. Not that an action film needs to, you know, make you feel high or you need to enjoy it but that there needs to be some sense of like why did he make it and what was his driving passion in terms of getting this on the screen? So it – I – I'm glad I saw it and I liked it to a point but it didn't quite click as well as it could've.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Scott, I know you're a big fan of Dillinger movies. What did you think of this one?
MARKS: You know, there's been, what, four – no, this is the fourth one. I've seen three before this. There was a great documentary that came out in the thirties, a rickety little documentary that pretty much sets out the entire Dillinger story. Then you had the one with Lawrence Tierney in the forties. The great John Milius, Warren…
MARKS: …Oates collaboration in the seventies, which is still the best of the bunch. This is way too long. I mean, this thing, you could've lopped off 20, 30 minutes of this film and you wouldn't have noticed anything. Depp is great. Depp is great in those cockamamie pirate pictures. He's almost always great. So, I mean, that's a given. I think he wastes a lot of people. You know, you see James Russo in the opening credits. Haven't seen James Russo in ages, a great character actor, a little pug of a man. And he's pretty much done away with before the opening credits. LeeLee Sobieski pops up. She has a little cameo. There's a lot of names in this picture but they're kind of withheld to little background performances or small performances. That said, I was never bored by it. I wish they would put away these – put away the handheld camera. You're going to hear a lot more about this when I talk about "The Hurt Locker." I just – I am tired of this as a mode of expression. Use it for immediacy, use it to capture a moment, use it to show nervousness, don't use it as a sole form of expression throughout an entire movie. And also, for a major Hollywood release, I don't think I've seen a film that was shot on digital video that was this obvious. It – it's beautifully designed and nicely lit but it's very annoying to look at.
CAVANAUGH: Very interesting because as a period piece, the look of this movie is very important. Beth, what do you think? How would you describe the look of the movie?
ACCOMANDO: I mean, I liked the way it looked. The digital video didn't really bother me in this context. Plus, you put Johnny Depp in a period film and he looks damn good, too. But I mean, I – one of the things I really liked about kind of that period setting was the old Tommy guns and the old style guns and the sound effects that they used for those. So that part of the action, I enjoyed, and I thought that was well done and I liked that. But, I mean, I thought it – I mean, I thought it captured that period well.
MARKS: There's one great scene in the film that's built solely on conjecture and it's towards the end when Depp winds up at a police station…
ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah.
MARKS: …and he stumbles into the unit that's investigating his crimes. This almost touched on celebrity and it almost had like a comedy feel to it. And I thought that that was terrific. I can understand why they didn't want to add more of that to the movie because I think a lot of people are familiar with the Dillinger story and they thought, well, you know, we can get away with a couple of little flights of fancy. There's also an interview scene at the end with Marion – how do you say her last name? (phonetically) Couteyay?
CAVANAUGH: Cotillard. Cotillard.
MARKS: Cotillard, thank you – that was obviously based on the writer's imagination that I thought was pretty good. The best thing in the film aside from that is the chemistry between the two leads. I thought they worked very, very well together.
CAVANAUGH: We actually have a clip from the movie.
MARKS: I knew that, I set it up.
CAVANAUGH: You practically did. Johnny Depp, of course, as Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his girlfriend Billie. They're in a restaurant and he reveals to her what he does for a living.
(audio of clip from the film "Public Enemies")
CAVANAUGH: That's Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his girlfriend Billie from the film "Public Enemies." Scott likes the – Cotillard's performance. What do you think, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, she was good. Again, the problem I have is just kind of what Michael Mann wanted to do with it. You mentioned that scene where he goes into the police station, that was good. There are these individual scenes that work well but overall it's not as compelling a drama as like "The Insider" in the sense that you're really getting to know these characters and getting to understand where they're coming from and their motivations. It's partially trying to do that and then it's also partially trying to be this very stylistic period gangster film and it doesn't really commit to either one fully and so it felt a little bit frustrating.
CAVANAUGH: And, Scott, too, I also don't want to leave out Dillinger's nemesis, Melvin Purvis played by Christian Bale. What about his performance? You know, both of these actors have come off playing these larger-than-life sort of cartoon characters, you know, Depp from "Pirates" and Christian Bale from "Batman." And I'm wondering, how, you know, what are they like as semi-real people?
MARKS: The last three roles that I've seen Bale in, it's basically the same gravelly kind of Clint Eastwood delivery. So this – "Terminator," I don't know why they wasted money on a name actor; anybody could've played that role. You just needed, you know, a good looking guy and, boom, throw him into the mess. And in a crazy way, the same, I think, can be said here. The way Bale plays this role, anyone could've played it. Ben Johnson played Melvin Purvis in the Warren Oates version…
MARKS: …and he really has a lot of charisma. He has fun with the role. I just – this was kind of like a straightforward Robert Stack/Elliott Ness "Untouchables" kind of…
ACCOMANDO: But I think that's the fault of the script, really, too. I don't think they get – they position Christian Bale in an odd place because there's kind of this triangle between Hoover, Dillinger, and Purvis, and Christian Bale's kind of caught in this place where he doesn't really necessarily approve of the way Hoover's running this investigation yet he wants to catch this criminal that he feels is, you know, dangerous. But he ends up being this kind of constipated performance where he just – he doesn't seem – and I think this is partially – it is mostly the script. It doesn't give him much to do. It doesn't really allow him to come out and criticize Hoover and it doesn't really allow him to go full tilt after Dillinger in a way that's, you know, particularly revealing of his character so it – I think it's an awkwardly positioned role.
CAVANAUGH: And I wanted to ask you both, too, about the portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover. What did you think of the actor who took that role on?
MARKS: Go ahead, Beth.
ACCOMANDO: Well, it was Billy Crudup who we just saw recently as the Blue Man in "Watchmen." Well, it was funny because a friend of mine came out of the film and we – and was saying like, oh, man, she says, you know, they were really just dissing Hoover and portraying, you know, playing up on the rumors of his sexual ambivalence or the fact that he might've, you know, been – that the mob might've had pictures of him in cross-dressing, things like this, and she says, yeah, you know, they had the – when he's picking the men for his FBI investigation and he says – he wants these kind of like young, Ivy League boys, and Christian Bale at one point says, no, we need like real men from Texas to come in. But, I mean, again, I think in – the book that it's based on, Hoover comes out as much more a better developed character in the sense of how he's effecting the investigation and the way he's driving it. In this film, you get maybe one or two scenes where, you know, it's kind of an offhanded commentary on the Bush administration where, you know, Hoover at one point says, okay, it's time to take off the white gloves, you know, essentially these guys are kind of like terrorists and we've got to do whatever it takes to capture them. But it doesn't get developed.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Scott…
MARKS: Did you really believe Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover?
ACCOMANDO: N – that he – No.
MARKS: I mean, he didn't look like him, he didn't have the force that the man had…
ACCOMANDO: But that's why I think they were trying to make him, you know – I mean, I think they were kind of downplaying the fact – or playing against that kind of image that he had. I – I just think it was an underwritten part, just like Christian Bale's. I mean, in the book it's much more of an equal footing amongst a multiple – a larger group of characters. In this, the focus is obviously on Dillinger despite the fact that it was called "Public Enemies." But you don't get – I think if it had developed this kind of triangular relationship between these three, the film would have been more interesting.
CAVANAUGH: Scott, I know that you don't dislike this movie but you don't really like it, so I'm wondering what you think the best part of it is.
MARKS: That little fantasy scene at the end, and the performances. I – Aside from the – Yeah, you're right about the screenplay but it's also his dramatization. I mean, he just really doesn't pump life into these characters, and it's been done so many times in the past, with the greatest of ease, apparently, that I was kind of surprised that this thing was just so dead. Michael Mann is also not someone known for his sense of humor and this could've used a little bit more of that. And I think it could've used a little bit more Martin Sheen in "Badlands" where you had Dillinger kind of playing off his celebrity and his fame. That's what fascinated me about that final scene, the way he actually not only came to terms with his celebrity but he embraced it and he loved it and he loved playing it up. And maybe I could've withstood a little more egocentric – maybe a bit more flair from…
MARKS: …Johnny Depp, although he's very, very good.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Scott, I can't believe that you missed "The Lady In Red" with Pamela Sue Martin. That was also a Dillinger film.
MARKS: Lewis Teague, I own a copy of it. Terrific movie. Not a bad movie at all. Very, very entertaining.
CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. We've been speaking about "Public Enemies" and it's currently playing in area theaters. When we return, we will talk about a movie that may come as a surprise to people who think they have no interest in Italian politics. "Il Divo" when we return on the Film Club of the Air here on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. We're back with the KPBS Film Club of the Air, talking about some of the more interesting movies in release this summer. And my guests are Beth Accomando and Scott Marks. And the next movie we'll – going to be talking about, an Italian movie called "Il Divo," which is just one of the nicknames for Italy's seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. The movie tells the story of this strange man and the string of assassinations and corrupt alliances he has been accused of masterminding. The movie is in Italian with subtitles. It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And, Beth, if you could start us off by telling us just a little bit more about Guilio Andreotti, who is the subject of this film.
ACCOMANDO: Sure. He is either a famous or infamous politician, depending on what point of view you might want to take. He came to power in post-war Italy and he's rumored to have had mob ties. A lot of his detractors and critics sometimes mysteriously have disappeared. He's been brought up on charges, he's never been convicted of any. He served multiple terms, as you mentioned, as Prime Minister and he was designated with the honor of Senator for Life back in 1991, so he's a very dominant political figure in Italy and rather ripe for a kind of portrayal like this.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we're talking about the years, roughly, from the seventies to the early nineties…
CAVANAUGH: …which is the scope of this movie. And, Scott, I know that both you and Beth liked this movie a lot. But tell us, Scott, why you like it.
MARKS: Well, I saw this back in February. Victor Laruccia at the Italian Film Festival had a DVD copy and he had me over. He goes, you got to see this movie, you got to see this movie. So I sat and I watched it, and it's great to have an Italian who knows something about Italian history with you when you're watching this movie because you can just hit pause and have, you know, basically, you know, a history book and all your questions answered for you, so that helped me a lot. And I was hoping that this would eventually play San Diego. It's a very, very tough film. It's a tough film because I think it throws so much information at you that you may walk out feeling a little stupid but I don't think that that's the intention of the filmmaker. This is a – this is an epic. It's 105 minute epic about a character who isn't passive but he's just kind of nondescript. He's this little hunchback dwarf, Ed Sullivan shoulders. He doesn't walk. He appears as if he floats, and yet this man, for almost 50 years, was the law in Italy. This is one of the most compelling films – this is a movie, this is a real movie. This is so well put together and so well directed and so well filmed, and I've seen it three times and do I – can I even pretend to say that I understand it all the way through? No. But, you know, there's a lot of films I've seen more times than this that I still can't say that I understand but I still want to keep going back to figure out more and to learn more about this film. So from the point of view of a brilliantly structured epic and a film that really keeps you in your seat, there's nothing like this that I've seen this year.
CAVANAUGH: You know, Beth, you've compared the story line to "Richard III." Tell us about that.
ACCOMANDO: Well, I think there's a lot of parallels between Andreotti's character and Richard III in Shakespeare's "Richard III" because both of them are these kind of misshapen people, both of them take the audience into their confidence through narration, basically, kind of breaking the fourth wall. I mean, Richard literally looks to you. In the movie, there's a voice over narration. And both of them have this kind of Machiavellian quality to them where they take this real kind of delight in the machinations that they work and – and, you know, one point you hear in the voice over Andreotti says something like, well, you know, I've been called all sorts of names—and he lists this huge list of names, everything from the devil to the black pope and – and he says, but, you know, I haven't taken anybody up on charges, you know, because I have a sense of humor.
ACCOMANDO: And he just kind of – you hear in his voice this like smile. And then he adds to it, and magically people sometimes just disappear, after that. And there's – I mean, that quality of taking you into his confidence and kind of laying out here's what I'm doing and here's what I'm going to do and aren't I clever and – and he does display wit and humor in the film. He's not entirely unsympathetic, although the way the film depicts him, he does – he is involved in some really horrible things. But as a character in the film, you are absolutely fascinated with him. And I think, you know, Scott mentioned that there's a lot of information and you may feel confused but I think the key to all this is it's like he's in this eye of the storm. It's like there's all this chaos going on around him and you're thrown a lot of names and a lot of events and you get taken through Italian politics but you always understand what's going on in the sense that this man is in charge and in control and very calmly and quietly is taking care of these things. So even though you may not know is this guy a mobster or is this guy the politician and whose family is he from and why did he, you know, kill this guy, you always understand, on a certain level, the dynamics of what's going on. And…
MARKS: But would you agree that the director basically takes a strong point of view against Andreotti? That he is a bit of a moralist?
ACCOMANDO: No, I don't – I didn't really feel that. I didn't feel that he was a moral – I didn't feel like he was condemning him or placing a moral judgment on him just like…
MARKS: Then why is there that one scene…
ACCOMANDO: …I don't think that…
MARKS: …that obviously never happened when Andreotti basically just sits there and spills his guts and confesses?
ACCOMANDO: I didn't feel that was – he was making a moral judgment on that. I mean, just like I don't think Shakespeare judges Richard III when he depicts him in that play. He presents him to us and kind of leaves it to us to make certain decisions.
CAVANAUGH: The director is Paolo Sorrentino…
CAVANAUGH: …and I think that the movie is very straightforward in laying the host of murders and the conspiracies at the foot of Andreotti but, Scott, would you agree that the portrayal of this very, very odd man is also very human? He does get to explain himself?
MARKS: He does, and you have that wonderful moment where he and his wife…
ACCOMANDO: Oh, this is a good one.
MARKS: …sit and watch this Italian singer on TV singing, if it was in English, it would be like the Carpenters, I mean, something really syrupy and they briefly hold hands. That's such a lovely little scene but the way it's lit, it's like you're looking at a Universal horror film from the thirties.
MARKS: There's something really scary about this. And the whole visual look of the film seldom jibes with the action that's going on onscreen. That's another reason I love this movie and that's another reason I think Sorrentino does a great job. And it's this dreamlike quality that he infuses almost every frame with, where at the end when these names are just coming at you on the screen, you know, like in red, I mean, sometimes they mechanically turn, sometimes they pop out, sometimes they move, it's almost like you get the sense that you're being bombarded the same way the director was being bombarded with all these names, all this information that was thrown at him during his research in – while making this film. And I don't know that I've seen that done quite like this before in a movie.
CAVANAUGH: And what about Toni Servillo portraying Andreotti? Now he won Best Actor at Cannes, didn't he?
MARKS: Yes, he did. The first thing you're going to do after you see this movie, you're going to find the actor's name and you're going to Google his name to see what he looks like in real life.
MARKS: Because you just want to make sure. I mean, this guy, it's like Richard Nixon with charm, if you could imagine that oxymoron.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, it's funny because I saw "Frost/Nixon" just about a month ago and I remember thinking what a strange character Richard Nixon was, but nothing compared to Mr. Andreotti. I thought this was – how strange it was that this man even rose to this position of power considering his ex…
ACCOMANDO: He was even stranger looking in real life, I mean, if you see pictures of the real Andr – He's even like – He looks a little bit like the character from "Nosferatu" a bit, you know, totally hunched over and these like bat-like ears poking out. It's very…
CAVANAUGH: Talk to us a little bit, Beth, Scott mentioned the images in this film. It really is a beautiful movie.
ACCOMANDO: Well, it's almost like each shot or each sequence is like a little miniature work of art in itself. And, I mean, one of the things that I really loved about what the film did, is you would get snippets of things early on in the film that didn't make any sense at all, that you couldn't figure out, like what is this – what is this, like I think it was a skateboard going through a like sewer pipe thing and a car following. But the thing is, is he kind of teases you with this stuff and then pays it off later. So he hooks you, confuses you a bit, I mean, you feel that he's really in control of all of this but each individual sequence felt like a complete little work of art with a specific point and goal in, you know, each little moment kind of.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we have been talking about "Il Divo." It's currently playing at Landmark's Ken Cinema and, Beth, you were saying you think it's not going to be there very long.
ACCOMANDO: I think it's scheduled to end on Thursday. If it's done well enough, they might hold it over but if you have any desire at all to see it, I would rush out and see it before Thursday.
CAVANAUGH: And it's worth it, right, Scott?
MARKS: Oh, my God, this is…
MARKS: …this is the best. You know, you heard me last time say that this has been a particularly good crop of movies this year. This leads the pack. So I cannot recommend this film highly enough. This is – this was a joy to watch. And it's a lot of fun and there's an energy level in this film – forget "Transformers." I mean, I couldn't last 40 minutes in "Transformers." I was like a mechanical bull, they just threw me out of Mira Mesa. This is a much better ride.
ACCOMANDO: Well, and I mean, I think it's accurate to say it's got the same mix of artistry and pop entertainment value that films like "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas" have. I mean, people don't – I mean, people don't hesitate or haven't hesitated to go see films like that thinking they're going to be too confusing or that they're going to, you know, not like it. This film is very entertaining. There's a lot of showmanship in this movie.
MARKS: It's not as good as "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" but…
ACCOMANDO: No, but it's…
MARKS: …Andrew Sarris hit it on the head. Andrew Sarris, he goes this is what "Godfather III" should have been.
MARKS: Yeah, that made sense. So if you were disappointed by "Godfather III"…
CAVANAUGH: That's an idea.
MARKS: …here you go.
CAVANAUGH: That's an idea. "Il Divo," as I say, currently playing at Landmark's Ken Cinema. And I just want to update you because "Public Enemies," the movie we talked about just before, is opening this weekend but there is a midnight performance tonight at AMC Theatres, so just to be clear.
MARKS: And if anyone from Landmark is listening in, I know they get the schedules on Monday. Call in and let us know if you're going to hold "Il Divo" over at the Hillcrest for another week.
ACCOMANDO: It's at the Ken now, though.
MARKS: Yeah, it's at the Ken but usually if they do it…
MARKS: …they'll hold it over, they'll bring it to the Hillcrest.
CAVANAUGH: Let us move on to another film, "Whatever Works." It is a Woody Allen movie. After several years of making movies in foreign locales, Allen is back in his hometown of New York City. Now the movie depicts the unlikely love affair between a know-it-all, crabby geezer, played by Larry David of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and a teenage runaway, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who shows up in front of his house one day. And this odd couple gets married and then has to deal with her southern and very conservative parents. This movie, I think it's fair to say, is getting terrible reviews. So, Beth, if we can, let's start with you. Are the critics right? Is that Beth? Is that bad? Is it that bad?
MARKS: It is bad.
CAVANAUGH: Is it, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: It is bad.
MARKS: It is just bad.
ACCOMANDO: I mean, I didn't find it was that bad. It's not, by any means, his best work. I think it's refreshing to see him back in New York right now. It's a script that has been sitting around for a while. He has revised it but it was written 30 years ago. You know, it was entertaining to a certain degree and I had fun watching it and I did enjoy seeing him back in New York but, no, I don't think it's as bad – I haven't read other critics' reviews at this point but, you know, if they're saying that it's the worst thing ever like, I think, Scott might be saying, I don't think it's that bad.
MARKS: No, not the worst thing ever. That's "Small Time Crooks." But this is – this is his worst film since "Small Time Crooks." It's ugly, it's condescending. It was written in 1976 right around the time he starred in "The Front" with Zero Mostel and he wrote this film for Zero Mostel and he retooled it for Larry David. And when I first heard about this, it's like, my God, he finally found a stand-in for himself that's acceptable.
MARKS: It's not John Cusack. It's – Now here's…
ACCOMANDO: Or Scarlett Johansson.
MARKS: …a scoop. And while I like Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," I didn't like him in this film at all. And Woody's up to his old lazy tricks, having everyone talking to the camera, put the camera in front of them and follow them as they walk. This is radio. This is a horribly directed film. It's smug, it's condescending, it's one of those films that basically says if you're not like me, you're nothing. I want no part of you in my life. The happy ending is the worst tacked-on happy ending since "Shadows and Fog," and if you don't remember that film, at the end the characters run off and join the circus. So there's one bright light in this film and the only reason that I would say you should see it is for Evan Rachel Wood. Forget about Marilyn and Jayne Mansfield, this is a dumb blonde on par with Judy Holliday and that's about as high a praise as I can give this type of character. She is astounding in this film. Somebody should've pulled Woody Allen aside and said, Woody, you know, this whole stuff, this mishegas with Soon-Yi, it's finally dying down. Why are you making a film about a misanthropic old man falling in love with a young girl? Take a year off. Go write something else. Don't go through your old suitcase and pull something and revamp it. It was very, very badly timed. I think it reopened a lot of sores in the whole Soon-Yi relationship and it's hideous to look at. Around the time of – what was the Django Reinhardt film? "Sweet…
CAVANAUGH: "Sweet and…
MARKS: …and Lowdown." He started dipping his films in honey and just hideous looking, this kind of golden hue that has no stylistic bearing on the film. You saw it at its worst in "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" and it's back again. So unless you want to see a great performance by Evan Rachel Wood, go rent "Take The Money and Run" and see how Woody Allen hasn't advanced as a director since then.
CAVANAUGH: And, Beth, really isn't that at the heart of the criticism of this movie, is that it's this same old subject over and over and over again. This, you know, sexy young runaway falling for a curmudgeon, an older guy.
MARKS: Not falling for, falling all over. She comes onto him and they cleverly mask it so there's no hint of sex, there's no hint of romance or relationship. They get married. You cut to a year later. You see no intimacy between them. He's very, very careful to keep that out.
CAVANAUGH: It's sort of -- You know, when I heard about this movie and I heard about its plotline, it sort of reminded me about Michael Jackson and the facial surgeries. It's like why – please, you know, we – so much about Michael Jackson has been in the news because of his tragic death but there was a point in which you said, why don't you just stop? You know, everybody was feeling that in their heart. And everybody's feeling that in their heart about Woody Allen. Why don't you just stop this plotline.
ACCOMANDO: Well, but, you know, people seem to complain about his stuff in a similar manner. It's – You know, when he makes dramas, they go, oh, why can't you go back and do the funny stuff you used to do? And then if he does this, well, why don't you go back and do some – I mean, he makes a film – he's made a film essentially every year since like 1969. That's a lot of work. And I think, yeah, you're probably going to end up repeating yourself and who was it, Jean Renoir said that a filmmaker makes the same film repeatedly, you know, and that's all they do. This is not his best work. I think there are elements in it that I enjoyed and that I liked and, yeah, if you want to see him at his best you need to go further back in time and see some of his other – I mean, you know, films like "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Crimes and Misdemeanors" are far more, I think, far better constructed and richer in terms of what they do. This is much more sit-commy. But…
MARKS: There's always "Matchpoint" and "Cassandra's Dream" and those were made within the past five, six years, and I liked those films a lot. I wish…
ACCOMANDO: I liked those…
MARKS: …he would…
ACCOMANDO: …a lot but I still don't think they were as good as those other ones.
CAVANAUGH: We do have a clip that I really have to get in from this film. Here Boris Yellnikoff, played by Larry David, is sitting around playing cards with some of his friends and a woman approaches him and we learn that her son is taking chess lessons from him.
(audio of clip from the movie "Whatever Works")
CAVANAUGH: The best line was the end. That was a clip from "Whatever Works." And I just want to wrap up our discussion of this. I know that Scott really liked the performance of Evan Rachel Wood. Did you like that? And also what did you think of Patricia Clarkson?
ACCOMANDO: Well, I loved Patricia Clarkson and I like her as an actress. I think she's amazing. Evan Rachel Wood is not somebody that I generally like. I find her pretty affected in a lot of her other films, but I did like her in this. I thought this was one of her best performances and she was very enjoyable. And this film really reminded me, like a not-as-good version of "Mighty Aphrodite," which was the one that had Woody Allen with Mira Sorvino.
CAVANAUGH: And, Scott, I am just not going to ask you another question about this because we are – we know what it is that you don't like about it and we have to move on, and I'm afraid that you're going to tell us more. "Whatever Works" is currently playing at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Theaters. I will be asking Scott Marks a lot more questions about a couple of other new films, along with Beth Accomando, as Film Club of the Air continues in just a few minutes.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You're listening to These Days. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and we are talking about summer movies this hour on the KPBS Film Club of the Air. My guests are Scott Marks. He's the author of the film blog EmulsonCompulsion.com and the film critic for Uptown News. And KPBS film critic Beth Accomando, who is author of the Cinema Junkie blog on KPBS.org, a blog that just won Best Blog Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Congratulations.
ACCOMANDO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: We're moving on to a story, a movie, that is set, on this day when American troops formally withdraw from the major cities, in Iraq. Our next film, in Iraq, is called "The Hurt Locker." It revolves around a small team of American soldiers whose job is to dismantle improvised explosive devises and much of the action involves the leader of the team dressed in protective suit and helmet, working on a bomb while his team is frantically watching for civilians who might detonate it. "The Hurt Locker" is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who also directed "Strange Days" and "Point Break." And, Scott, you know the Iraq war has been dramatized many times now in movies. What, if anything, makes this film different?
MARKS: Well, the one thing I heard about "The Hurt Locker" before I went and I saw it is that this is the first film to dramatize the Iraq war that gets it right. And while watching this film, it's a genre picture. It's a war picture. This could've been set in any other war. I really didn't see what this had to say about the Iraq war that was different from Vietnam or Korea or any of the other wars. It starts really, really well. You get a portrait in contrasts. You have Guy Pearce, who has a small role at the very, very beginning as a bomb detonator, and this guy's strictly by the books. I mean, he phones in very step, every move he makes. And, of course, his punishment is he gets blown up for it. And then when you get Jeremy Renner, who's the new kid on the block, the cowboy, he comes in, doesn't phone in anything, doesn't even, you know, put the safety equipment on, just walks in there, diffuses it, boom. So – No boom, I'm sorry. He diffused it. This is a great study in contrasts to me and I really like the setup in this film but after awhile there's one detonation too many. You know, it's like now you see him, now he's blown to bits. The film does run two hours and, what, ten, fifteen minutes. I think that this is a film that really needed an editor, really needed to be tightened. But it's not a bad movie, it's just – I don't think it's up to Kathryn Bigelow's, you know, stuff like "Strange Days" or "K-19: The Widowmaker," two films that I really admire.
CAVANAUGH: Now what do you think, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: I liked it. And, I mean, I don't think it's – To say that it's the first film that's gotten the Iraq war right, I don't think that's really an accurate description of it. I mean, I think what it does is it gives us a contemporary war film dealing with very kind of contemporary issues that are in battle that are not the same as were covered maybe in World War II. But it's a film that avoids dealing with kind of the obvious political questions of this particular engagement in Iraq and what it does is it really focuses on these guys who have a job to do there. I mean, they don't care what's going on in Washington, D.C. And the film avoids trite clichés in the sense of trying to depict the Iraqis in any particular light. They don't try to make them all seem like enemy combatants or that there's this big conspiracy going on or that they all hate Americans. It's just these guys go out every day, they don't know who's their enemy, who could be their friend. It's a dangerous situation but it's their day-to-day job that they just have to do.
CAVANAUGH: Let's hear a clip from the movie. Here's a scene where Sergeant James is the hotshot new leader in this elite bomb squad. Two of Sergeant James' fellow soldiers find a box where he keeps all kinds of trinkets and they ask him about what they are. Here's that scene.
(audio of clip from the film "The Hurt Locker")
CAVANAUGH: That is a scene from the movie, "Hurt Locker" (sic). And, Scott, I know you have very strong feelings about the way this film was shot.
MARKS: Yeah, I just – Again, it's all handheld and I know the argument will be made, well, nowadays you can go and you can film a war and this could be filmed on someone's cell phone. Again, it's an overload of technique and I just – Somebody said to me, you know, you've got to get used to this. This is the way films are being made nowadays. And to that, I say, well, in the seventies, everything was done with a zoom lens. That was like one of the main modes of stylistic expressions in the 1970s. And now that we have cameras that can literally fit in the palm of your hand, that weigh nothing, I think people are kind of exploiting that and they're missing out on storytelling.
ACCOMANDO: But I don't think throwing this film into the same boat as like "Cloverfield" is really accurate. I mean, I think she does mix it up. She doesn't – it's not all just wild, handheld jerky-cam stuff. I mean, she…
MARKS: There's not one tripod in the entire film.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, but not all the handheld shots are annoyingly jerky. I mean, she mixes it up in the sense that sometimes the camera's rather calm and, you know, the cutting is rather calm. I mean, she – I think she works well building tension and knowing how to edit these sequences to really draw you into it. And I think that contrast between the first sequence where it's the by-the-book guy, everything's kind of drawn out and slow and you feel this tension building and you know what the dangers are and you see, literally, what the dangers are, contrasted with the other guy where it's much more casual and like the cutting style is very different and the handheld camera work is different in that, too. And you get this – you still know what the danger is because you've just seen this other sequence but it's played a lot more cavalierly in that sequence, and the two playing off each other, I mean, I think she has a contrast in the way she uses that handheld camera.
CAVANAUGH: And her use of actors, the way she uses actors and not very big, big stars as lead actors…
CAVANAUGH: …in her movies. Is that – Does that help the story? Does that help her tell her story?
ACCOMANDO: I think so because if you have somebody like Guy Pearce, who's only on the screen for maybe five minutes, your audience is much more likely to get an immediate connection to him based on the fact that they know who he is. And I think there's also David Morse has a small part, so using bigger name stars in the smaller parts and lesser known people for the main roles, I think, is a good way, a good shorthand, to kind of define some of the smaller parts quickly.
CAVANAUGH: Ralph Fiennes is also…
CAVANAUGH: …has one of these cameos in the movie. And, Scott, I know this is not as billed. I mean, this is not 'the' Iraq war movie that really tells it like it is, but is it worth seeing, do you think?
MARKS: Sure, I mean, especially if you're a fan of those old Robert Aldrich war pictures from the fifties and sixties. I mean, this – compositionally, at times, the film is quite beautiful to look at. It's just use your stylistic tools as a means of punctuation. Also, I don't believe that here's a guy who's detonated 873 bombs, this guy has been through hell and back. All of a sudden because there's a little boy in there, he's going to go sentimental and that's going to change his idea. First of all…
ACCOMANDO: But I don't think he does change.
MARKS: Oh, oh, you really don't – Why would all the darkness in it at the end? Why…
ACCOMANDO: No, because…
MARKS: …all the inner turmoil? Where does that come?
ACCOMANDO: He does – he – he…
MARKS: Why do we suddenly lose the cowboy?
ACCOMANDO: He doesn't lose the cowboy. He detonates 800 bombs because he gets high off of that stuff. And when he goes back to the U.S. because there's a brief scene, which is wonderful, when he goes back to the United States and he's bored to death and he needs to go back. I mean, I think he has emotional reactions to some of the bombs that he's detonated and I think the young boy that gets involved in this disturbs him and bothers him but I don't think it really changes him in any way.
CAVANAUGH: We must move on. We must move on. And I know you want to move on because, Beth, we're getting one of your favorites next. I want to tell everyone that "The Hurt Locker" opens here in San Diego on July tenth. So now, the final film in our Film Club of the Air is called "Pontypool." A burned out morning drive deejay and his small crew are beginning another broadcasting day in the Canadian town of Pontypool when strange reports start coming in. There are stories of large crowds of people repeating senseless phrases who are rioting and murdering. And before you know it, that crowd is right outside the door of the radio station. Now, Beth, you are a self-admitted big fan of zombie movies. This is kind of like a zombie movie. Why do you like this one?
ACCOMANDO: I really like this film. What intrigued me about it is I was told it was a zombie film without zombies.
ACCOMANDO: So I was like, okay, show me what you mean.
ACCOMANDO: And the first ten minutes or so of the film I'm going, ah, I don't know if you're going to be able to pull this off. I don't know. I heard that the infection is spread through language. But it works amazingly well. And I never could've imagined the zombie film being reimagined and refreshed in such an amazing way. And it works. And it is – they're not zombies in the sense they're not people who die and come back from the dead reanimated, and they – they've been infected through language and it's an infection that basically causes them to, like a zombie, be essentially brain dead and then to want to go after people who are not infected.
CAVANAUGH: Scott, what did you think of it?
MARKS: It's a lot of fun. I mean, I – During the first ten minutes, see, I did not know that this was a zombie film without zombies. I thought that eventually they were going to – you were going to see something, you know, at least a neck bitten. Give me something. And for the first ten minutes, I was a bit apprehensive and then I realized that this is going to be a three – no, four character film, that's it. It's incredibly low budget, pretty much all on one set. And for what it is, this is one of the sharper zombie films I think I've ever seen. I mean, this whole idea that language can kill us is terrific, and it's all aimed at Rush Limbaugh and guys like that.
MARKS: I mean, you know, the hate-radio-mongers although I don't know that this man is necessarily a hatemonger.
ACCOMANDO: No, he's more…
MARKS: I think he just kind of – he's angry but I don't think he's a hatemonger. I have two complaints with the film. One, when he's reading the obituaries of all these people, where does this information come from?
CAVANAUGH: I understand that point, yes. And what is your other point?
MARKS: And the other point is when they see the building surrounded by zombies, why don't they make a call? Do something aside from just going back on the air.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, the questions that one has in horror movies go on and on. But I do understand that obituary scene. That was a little confusing. Let's hear a clip, though, from this movie because I think it'll give a flavor of what we're talking about. The movie is "Pontypool" and in this scene the talk show host, played by Stephen McHattie, takes a call from a listener who's been infected. And here's that scene.
(audio of clip from the movie "Pontypool")
CAVANAUGH: That is from the film called "Pontypool." And I just have to admit, I loved this movie. I mean, it had everything. If you wanted to make a Maureen movie, this is the one to make. It's in a radio station, morning drive, I mean, winter outside, I just loved it. But I'm also wondering, you know, from the idea that language carries a virus and it is such a remarkable idea for a low budget horror film, where did this idea come from? Beth, do you know?
ACCOMANDO: Well, it's based on a book by Tony Burgess and the book was actually described as being an autobiography of a zombie. And part of where it came from was that he had a very bad spell in his life where he was on the streets and part of what the book does is reflect how he felt, that he felt like he was this person who was marginalized and unable to communicate, and how desperate that kind of made him feel. And the film is set in Canada where you have language – two languages spoken and that division of language also reflects a cultural and social division and it reflects colonization so, I mean, the fact of using language in this particular setting also reflects a lot of other things. And the setting being contemporary where they've got these different devices, you've got cell phones, you've got radio, how do these things all play into communication and what happens when you lose language? What happens when you lose this ability to communicate?
CAVANAUGH: And very, very quickly, Scott, I just wanted to ask, I felt this movie had a little bit of a "War of the Worlds" feel.
MARKS: There's a fifties feel – Boy, I'm glad you mentioned that. There's a fifties feel that runs throughout this entire film. I don't know if it's the ultra-wide scope compositions or just kind of the low budget – I mean, I know Stephen McHattie. I don't know any of the other people in the cast but I've seen him in other films. But this whole idea that you take pretty much a no-name cast on one setting, it's like a low budget fifties science fiction film that really, in its own quiet way, delivers on a visceral and intellectual level.
CAVANAUGH: And we have to leave it there.
MARKS: Oh, I contradicted myself. All right, go ahead.
CAVANAUGH: "Pontypool" is actually available on demand from IFC so this is not one in the movies. I want to thank my guests on Film Club of the Air. Beth Accomando, KPBS film cretic – critic, that is, and Scott Marks, author of the film blog EmulsionCompulsion.com and film critic for Uptown News. Thank you both so much for being here.
MARKS: Thank you, Maureen.
ACCOMANDO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.
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