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Motion pictures on my TV screen, a home away from home livin' in between 
30th-Sep-2008 07:51 pm

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008). This documentary about Roman Polanski's flight from the law in the 1970's was one of those buzzed about Sundance Film Festival wonders that looks less impressive removed from the high altitudes of Park City, Utah. Perhaps festgoers were kinder to it because being inside the theater provided some respite from the winter chill. Zenovich is an adequate documentarian when it come to plain old construction, although her habit of inserting clips of Roman Polanski acting in his early films to provide spot-on visual accompaniment to the information being related (a shot of Polanski talking on a pay phone when someone mentions receiving a call, for example) is pointless and grating. The greater fault is Zenovich's actual thesis. She's so concerned with railing against the questionable actions of the judge in Polanski's case--led by rescinding on the promised parameters of Polanski's punishment after he agreed to a plea bargain--that she virtually ignores the genuine unseemliness of the director's actions that landed him in trouble in the first place, dismissing his sexual assault against a drugged thirteen-year-old girl as an understandable outcome given European norms. Worse yet, she drags in the girl's prior experience with drugs and alcohol in the rhetorical equivalent of "She had it coming, did you see how she was dressed?" The choice undermines Zenovich's credibility and raises suspicions of what else might be skewed in the film's scholarship. Even as the film reasonably posits that Polanski faced undue impediments to getting his plea bargain agreement honored because his celebrity caused the judge to be overly concerned with press reaction to courtroom decisions, it conveniently ignores that it was Polanski's celebrity that likely led to the offered reduced repercussions for his actions.

Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh, 2007). Sleuth's stage origins make the film feel like it has three cleanly delineated parts. It's especially handy because each successive chunk of the movie is progressively worse than the previous, and it's almost comforting to be able to identify where the narrative degrades with such precision. The first third, as Michael Caine's wealthy author and Jude Law's callow actor face off in a battle of mental manipulations has a certain zingy charm that almost entirely derives from an overt awareness of the mechanics of the film. Branagh is playful with his camera, moving it in and out (and over and through) the modern home that serves as the sole set, and the adapted screenplay by Nobel Laurette Harold Pinter is shaped so thoroughly by his pause-laden rhythms that you can practically see the image of him clutching cue cards reflected in the actors' pupils. The novelty wears away in the second third, and the closing act--most markedly different from the source material--is purely disastrous.

Elegy (Isabel Coixet, 2008). Director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer adapt Philip Roth's 2001 novel The Dying Animal with resoundingly satisfying results. Roth's familiar late career preoccupations are all in place: an educated man who feels mortality pushing in on him as assuredly as if he were an autumnal leaf being pressed between the pages of a book, a vibrant young woman who provides some distraction from the slowly fading light, and a complicated outer world keeps offering unwelcome reminders as to how messy life can be. Ben Kingsley is sensational in the lead role, offering a compelling portrait of a problematic man, a literary figure whose highly capable intellect is constantly compromised by the impetuously of his emotional selfishness. Penelope Cruz is nearly his equal as the former student who enthralls him. Coixet's direction is clean and nicely blunt. She doesn't overplay situations, letting the honesty of the toughest scenes play out without embellishment or apology.

Under the Volcano (John Huston, 1984). Albert Finney gives a ferociously powerful performance as a boozy British consul in Mexico in the days immediately preceding World War II. Based on Malcolm Lowry's acclaimed novel, the film is a bit of a slog, a natural outcome of the plot-light, psychologically-dense story that's bound to work better on the page than across the dynamic, visual medium of film. Huston's craftsmanship is sturdy as always, but the undercurrents of the story never really emerge. Finney is commanding, though. He uses every bit of his physicality and his grand crag of a face to feed the performance. The man's teetering hold on his own well-being comes through with every aching move as Finney crosses through scenes with the slow uncertainty of a leaden marionette.

The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982). Yes, you know exactly why we watched this film recently. In perhaps his greatest performance (and that is a competitive field), Paul Newman plays a lawyer who's reached a low point, visiting strangers' funerals to hand out his business card between shaky swigs of booze. When a medical malpractice case comes his way, he senses one last chance to do something good, something right. The entire film is about finding a fresh beginning; many of the characters are trying to scrub the past away and start anew. This is pure, perfect Lumet: conveying the narrative with shrewd efficiency, disregarding showy camerawork and melodramatic tricks to better convey the soundness of the narrative through unadorned, telling moments, allowing David Mamet's masterful screenplay (adapted from a novel by Barry Reed) to carry the film. There are fine performances all around--Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, Milo O'Shea, the great James Mason, and the uncommonly good Lindsay Crouse all merit special praise--but it's indeed Newman's triumph. The tension he brings to the scenes involving his character's gradual unraveling is nearly unbearable--watch him work the phone in a long, sustained shot after his star witness disappears--and through his tired gravitas he makes you believe in a man gradually, painfully rediscovering his soul.

1st-Oct-2008 02:16 pm (UTC)
By the hammer of Mjöllnir, Kenneth Branagh made a bad movie? Preposterous!
1st-Oct-2008 04:51 pm (UTC)
I felt like Zenovich made a pretty good case. And I remember her having specific support from legal experts in the film for the fact that Polanski's sentence was not lax due to his celebrity, but that it was exactly in keeping with normal sentencing guidelines for a first time offender in a case like this. While the appropriateness of that fact can (and should) be debated, it seems pretty clear that according to the standards of the day he was railroaded good and proper. I'm not trying to excuse his actions, and I don't think Zenovich is either; but I felt like she introduced a lot of grey area into an issue that was seen in pretty black and white terms by most people. It's a difficult thing to do, to introduce the idea of extenuating circumstances into a case like this, because you're immediately accused of defending a pervert, but I don't think that's what Zenovich was doing at all. And I found the interview with the prosecutor pretty compelling; the uber-conservative Mormon even thinks he got a raw deal and doesn't blame him for fleeing the country? While I think at this point there's no danger of this incident being Polanski's lasting legacy, I do think it's a valuable film for people to see who hear the name Polanski, and immediately think, oh, that's that pervert who raped the 13 year old girl.
1st-Oct-2008 07:44 pm (UTC)
That's funny. When I hear the name Polanski, I immediately think, oh, that's the bastard who's responsible for stealing two hours of my life with The Ninth Gate.

There are, of course, fair points all around. If I were writing at greater length about the film, I may have dug further into some of genuinely unfair treatment that seemed to come Polanski's way. The film is a compelling depiction of the dawning of the age of celebrity sensationalism and corrupted justice we wallow in today (although, it's hardly new).

That acknowledged, I do think Zenovich disregards the crime fairly quickly. Fair enough, she does present enough evidence that makes the assault more indisputable than I'd previously believed (Polanski's seeming obliviousness to the notion that he'd done something wrong doesn't absolve him any more than the parental irresponsibility in letting him go off with the girl or that the girl wasn't a pure innocent when it came to drugs and alcohol). Also, the crime is not of primary concern to Zenovich. The points she's striving to make relate to the progression of the court case and, especially, the actions of the judge. In that respect it makes sense that she'd leave the particulars of the case aside. Still, bringing in commentary as to why Polanski may have done this and not understood why he was in trouble for it, and then basically dropping any consideration of the actions after airing the theory that Polanski was accustomed to some looser European norms does feel to me like Zenovich is not just shifting focus from the crime, but portraying the crime as insignificant. These are all filmmaking choices and they communicate something about the filmmaker's intent or interest.

As for Polanski's celebrity impacting the case, I agree completely that it caused his a great deal of extra duress and he had some cause to effectively give up on the system by fleeing. However, I don't buy the notion that his celebrity didn't help him get the reduced sentence in the first place. He was charged with multiple crimes and, through his plea, got it down to the least serious charge at a time when the district attorney's office was, according to the film, pursuing things with a fair amount of vigor. While not addressed, it seems implausible to me that Polanski's notoriety had nothing to do with that.

Finally, snarky joke aside, when I hear the name Polanski, I immediately think, man, I love Chinatown. It's in my default top five movies of all time.
1st-Oct-2008 07:56 pm (UTC)
Can't really disagree with you on any of those points. I think the negatives just weighed in more heavily with you than with me.

That said, Polanski owes me four hours rather than two. Because I actually watched The Ninth Gate twice, in the hopes that maybe I was wildly wrong in my initial assessment.

I wasn't.

1st-Oct-2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
Because I actually watched The Ninth Gate twice, in the hopes that maybe I was wildly wrong in my initial assessment.

Oof. You win.
1st-Oct-2008 08:50 pm (UTC)
Actually, watching The Ninth Gate twice pretty much defines losing.
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