Film/TV » Film Features

Only Human

This week in the movies: Collateral, The Door in the Floor, Metallica, and The Village.

Michael Mann s Collateral is a dark subversion of the city-as-plaything ideal that s been a staple of romantic cinema from L Atalante to Lost in Translation. But unlike those other urban-set, dual-protagonist pairings, this is no romance. Rather, Collateral is city-as-haunted-playground, because Mann s Los Angeles is a spread-out, disjointed killing field of eerie beauty: gleaming skyscrapers overlooking glistening streets; streets that connect posh nightclubs to low-rent high-rises and crossed by wandering junkies and migrant coyotes. With its meditative aerial views of downtown street grids and rich digital-video cinematography that unites sparkle and grime into a kind of seedy nocturnal poetry, Collateral is one of the best-looking modern noirs you ll see. It could be a corollary to another modern noir and Mann s best film, the epic crime story Heat a more modest, more arty riff on L.A. s underside and on the juxtaposition of straight and criminal leads. So it s a shame that there s less here than literally meets the eye.
Collateral pairs a hired assassin in town for one night (Tom Cruise s Vincent) with a cabbie on the night shift (Jamie Foxx s Max). Vincent arrives in the city late with orders to knock off five people involved in a drug-trafficking trial set to start the next morning. After being impressed with Max s knowledge of L.A. shortcuts and traffic patterns en route to his first hit, Vincent hires Max to be his driver for the night, securing his services first with a handful of hundred dollar bills and later, when Max knows what Vincent is up to, through threat of violence.
As the cabbie, Foxx continues his perhaps unlikely rise from sitcom celeb to A-list actor, though it s easy to imagine dozens of other actors inhabiting the same role just as well. Appealing supporting players Mark Ruffalo and Jada Pinkett Smith are fine, if perhaps underused. But the attraction here is Cruise, and for a director who has worked with such high-wattage actors as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe, Daniel Day-Lewis, and even William Peterson (who gave an intense, moody performance in Mann s Manhunter, the superior precursor to The Silence of the Lambs), Cruise seems a little too plain a little too dull for a Mann protagonist. (And, yes, I m pretending the Will Smith-starring Ali didn t happen. Can t we all agree on this?)
Clearly, Cruise s own image is at work here, with Mann both playing off Cruise s unflappable persona and trying to get dramatic mileage by having the actor play against type as a ruthless bad guy. (A scene in a jazz club is a set piece to show off the depths of Vincent s heartlessness and Cruise s bravery.) Cruise s Vincent certainly makes for a compelling visual, his silver hair and gray stubble matching his shiny, shark-colored suit to form the image of hit man as walking handgun. Cruise is as watchable as ever, but his Vincent is too much the cipher. His line readings are so practice-perfect that Vincent could as easily be a Cruise hero from any of the actor s other action movies.
Onetime art-movie heavyweight Steven Soderbergh, in films such as Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean s Eleven, has turned Hollywood pitch-meeting premises and US Weekly-approved casts into magnificent movie-movies through sheer directorial grace. The TV-reared Mann has been one of the very best mainstream American filmmakers since Heat capped his transition from the little screen to the big one a decade ago. Collateral apes Soderbergh in roughing up a Tinseltown set-up with art-movie visuals, but Mann only wrestles this rather banal and contrived scenario to a draw.
Under the direction of an industry hack like Joel Schumacher or Brett Ratner, Collateral might have ranged from unwatchable to instantly forgettable. Mann gives it enough soul and visual verve to make it worth seeing, which is a not-inconsiderable feat. But ultimately, Collateral might be just another Hollywood star vehicle.

Chris Herrington

In The Door in the Floor, Jeff Bridges plays Ted Cole, a failed novelist turned children s-book author who has channeled his grief into his stories and illustrations. His books are creepy and cautionary, and his pictures are more like sketches of nightmares than anything fit for kids. (Imagine Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss teaming up with Freud and a lot of black paint.) Kim Basinger plays Marion, Ted s depressed wife.
We learn early on that they have lost two teenage sons in some kind of accident, and Marion has never recovered. Or perhaps they have both escaped in different directions: he, outwardly, in his work; she, inwardly, away from him and from their young daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning), whom the couple had in an attempt to rebuild from the loss of their sons. The Coles live on a lake in upstate New York in a large house filled with photographs of the sons. Their grief is also, as it were, illustrated. Four-year-old Ruth knows the halls of their home like a favorite children s book. This is the only way she can know the brothers she never met.
Ted decides two things at the beginning of summer: that he and Marion should try a separation and that he will work with a young assistant. Enter Eddie O Hare (Jon Foster), a junior from Phillips Exeter Academy who also would like to be a writer. He is young and aspiring and all the things that young assistants and Exeter juniors should be. He is also, like many sensitive, creative, intelligent, 16-year-old male virgins, ferociously awkward. He has seen extremely little of the world, except maybe through books, and he is an admirer of Ted s work. However, we must never get to know our idols too well, as they say, or we learn that they do not live on pedestals. Nor do their talents come without a price. To his credit, Eddie learns quickly.
Another common denominator among 16-year-old male virgins: An opportunity to shag Kim Basinger would not be easily passed up. After catching Eddie masturbating with her undies as visual stimulant, Marion s flattery turns quickly to enabling. (In a moment that should be icky but is instead very sweet and touching, she leaves his favorite garment of hers, a pink sweater, out for him for his next gratification). Then, enabling turns to seduction. Before long, Eddie has a full summer of apprenticeship and coming-of-age. He juggles his errands for Ted and his private sessions with Marion along with his own growing understanding of adult concerns and feelings. As his affection for Marion grows, so does a contempt for Ted, who spends way too much time sketching the town vixen, Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), and who cannot even drive himself to his appointments. Eddie, we are told, was picked to be Ted s assistant because he s a good driver. We learn, before long, that there is another reason entirely.
Novelist John Irving, known for his slightly over-the-top blend of tragicomic prose, has had a mixed bag of film adaptations. I count this one, based on the novel A Widow For One Year, among the top three, along with 1982 s The World According to Garp and 1999 s The Cider House Rules. Uniting them all is the presence of an infidelity (or more) that precipitates, is precipitated by, or is confounded by tragedy. Door shares this with Cider House: young male protagonists who come of age in a foreign and strange new land while attempting to master a trade. Door shares this with Garp: the sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful navigation of tone. Garp at least was quirky throughout, and its darker and more serious moments were distributed evenly throughout the film. That s the challenge, I guess, of making Irving s worlds work getting the tones right. Cider House was extremely successful, while The Door in the Floor founders in its middle act, which is a veritable farce. It begins with Evelyn trying to run down Ted with her SUV and ends with Ted s sketch of her vagina getting caught in the windshield wipers of a moving car at an awkward moment. (When would that not be awkward?)
While uneven, The Door in the Floor offers one of Bridges finest performances (he manages to juggle comedy and tragedy like an expert, even while the film cannot), a nicely subtle turn from Basinger, and the introduction to young Foster, who embodies youthful lust, ambition, and courage as well as could be hoped.
Director/screenwriter Tod Williams, helming his sophomore effort, has a lot to learn about mood and consistency, but he takes an important note from Bridges Ted, who explains the writing craft to young Eddie: It s in the details.

Bo List

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is less a standard rock film than a high-rent, real-life This Is Spinal Tap about a bunch of rich regular guys going through a collective mid-life crisis.
Reduced to three members after the exit of bassist Jason Newsted, Metallica the biggest concert draw of the Nineties retires to the empty barracks of a former military base to work on a new album. But the problem is that co-founders Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield can t stand each other, while poor guitarist Kirk Hammett is like the timid child of constantly sparring parents, wilting sadly during his bandmates frequent arguments. Along for the journey are an opportunistic pair of arena-rock slime: Bob Rock, who produces and provides basslines, and therapist/performance coach Phil Towle, who helps the band work through its issues. Also on hand are filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother s Keeper and Paradise Lost), who film the whole thing.
Despite feeling about 20 minutes too long, the film deftly weaves the film s dual reasons for existing: the promotional tool the band no doubt thought they were commissioning and the deadpan self-indictment that the film really is.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster contains more unintentional comedy than any film this year not named Fahrenheit 9/11. These supposedly badass rock stars are callow, spoiled, and almost terminally uncertain: See them fork over 40 grand a month to Towle, who almost becomes a member of the band until Ulrich and Hetfield realize that firing him is the one thing on which they can agree. Watch the band blow obscene amounts of money on years-long recording sessions for an album (St. Anger) that only rabid fans were even remotely interested in. See Ulrich and Hammett argue self-consciously about whether using solos is too trendy or using solos is too dated. Witness recording sessions in which the band cobbles together therapy-rock lyrics even they don t always seem to understand. ( My lifestyle determines my deathstyle is a rare Hammett contribution. Like deep, man.) See them insist they ve proven you can make aggressive music without negative energy. Ulrich wants to stretch out with experimental beats. Hetfield wants to kill bears in Siberia and race go-karts to prove he s a rebel. Hammett seems like he wants to crawl back into the womb.
Not everyone comes out looking bad here: Ulrich s comically mystic father is the only person in the film with the cojones to tell the band when its music sucks. ( I would say delete that. For me, that doesn t cut it, he says. Teresa Heinz Kerry would be proud.) New bassist Robert Trujillo seems too boyishly enthusiastic to be wasting himself with these dinosaurs, though the million-dollar check they cut him probably makes it all worthwhile. But the true heroes here are the fans who come out to watch the band jam during a fan-appreciation day. Could it be that music fans are more compelling than musicians? This certainly wouldn t be the first work of art to make that case. CH

Let us not forget that directorial wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan did not start out making movies with the blockbuster The Sixth Sense. As with most overnight successes, Shyamalan s took a few thousand overnights. He penned and directed the small 1992 Praying With Anger and the 1998 dramedy Wide Awake which featured Rosie O Donnell as a sassy nun. In 1999, the year that The Sixth Sense made him a household name, he also penned the screenplay for Stuart Little.
The common perception of Shyamalan is that of a four-film auteur and that his niche is the spooky, ironic ending. The trouble is that after a while you train your audience to navigate the twists and turns along with the characters, building not suspense but expectation for a bigger, better thrill. The bar is raised with each visit. I really loved The Sixth Sense. It was sensitive throughout and succeeded as a winning drama regardless of its surprise ending making the twist all the sweeter. But I have admired his follow-up films (2000 s Unbreakable, 2002 s Signs, and now The Village) in descending order, feeling each time that I was catching up to the shock-and-awe bent of the storytelling and being spoon-fed atmosphere and tricks over narrative.
It s impossible to discuss The Village in any great detail without giving away essential plot points (the trouble with placing surprise on the pedestal instead of character or theme). But the premise is this: In some far-off village in some long-ago time, a group of simple people live and love and work. Their community seems Amish or pilgrim or some indefinably wholesome, old-timey Americana. The men wear white button-downs as they farm, and everyone eats big, Thanksgiving-looking meals at long, communal tables. The men are strong but sensitive, and the women are prim but spirited. Whenever or wherever this is, it is old-fashioned but not sexist. How nice.
But this community is far from perfect. It is surrounded by Covington Woods, and in those woods lie Those We Do Not Speak Of a race of monstrous creatures who have formed an uneasy truce with the Villagers. If no one crosses the boundary into the woods, then TWDNSO will not cross into the Village or harm its people. But quiet Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is curious, knowing that the Towns lie on the other side of Covington Woods, and there may be essential medicines or learning that could help the people of the Village. In a moment of curiosity, he takes a few steps into the woods, only to have omens of disapproval from TWDNSO: mutilated animals, markings on doors, a visit from the beasts during a wedding. When an accident befalls Lucius, his blind sweetheart, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), petitions to cross the woods for medicine, and a terrifying journey lies ahead.
That s about all I can reveal, except that TWDNSO are attracted to the color red and apparently wearing yellow can help ward them off. Also, there s a village idiot, Noah, played cleverly by The Pianist s Adrien Brody. His innocence is tested by his affections for the beautiful, spirited Ivy.
I would have enjoyed this more if I hadn t figured out the Big Secret early on. There are no particular clues that led me to the conclusion, but after six years of Shyamalan spookies, I have learned that there is a formula to his surprises and it lies in What the Audience Does Not See. In The Sixth Sense, what we Did Not See was Bruce Willis interactions with colleagues or the mother of his patient or key moments with his wife. Had we seen these things, there would have been no surprise. In The Village, we are given a premise, and, at some point, the premise unravels along with the plot. So, being on the lookout, I had a pretty good guess what I was Not Seeing, and I turned out to be right.
My vague disappointment will not discourage anyone from seeing The Village. So I will encourage the curious to venture in and savor the details along the way. The cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, evoking both European master painters and the best American realists. Creepy, yes, but gorgeously so. The score is subtle yet powerful. (The first performer mentioned in the credits is the worthy Hilary Hahn the featured violinist whose work is superb.) There are lovely performances by a top-notch cast, including William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones, and Celia Weston (who all prove, in film after film, that there are no small roles when the actor is great). Bryce Dallas Howard, director Ron Howard s daughter, makes a fantastic debut. Seldom surprising and not very scary, The Village is, however, not a must-see destination. n BL

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