Friday, November 25, 2005

The Bio pic is back....

Once you get beyond the somewhat distracting nasal tone of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Bennett Miller's "Capote" is certainly nothing to laugh at. "Capote" succeeds where a lot of biopics fail. Instead of saddling itself with 30 or 40 years of the ubiquitous 'rise and fall' of its protagonist, the film focuses on a sliver of the writer's life- specifically the five years spent on his research and relationship with two men accused of murder in a small Kansas town, and the ensuing masterwork that resulted from those acquaintances. This compression of time allows the film to create layer upon layer of emotional complexity between its characters and it serves as a terrific representation of guilt versus complicity.

I'm not one for writing plot synopsis, but I feel that in the case of "Capote", the film's excellence lies in its narrative trajectory. More observant viewers will recognize the theme of the film from it's opening moments- a shot of a Midwestern farm treeline juxtaposed with the New York skyline at night- director Miller's perfect evocation of the violent and jarring collision between personalities and cultures that soon become enmeshed as the film wears on. New York writer Truman Capote (Hoffman) reads an article in the paper about a Kansas family that were brutally bound and murdered. He immediately feels this is the proper idea for his next book, his first non-ficition entry. Traveling with his friend and research companion Harper Lee (the outstanding, reserved Catherine Keener) they quickly ingratiate themselves into the small Kansas town where the murders took place. Capote's fame and penchant for rabid storytelling win him inside the graces of a local policeman's home (Chris Cooper). This gives Capote detailed, unedited peeks at the crime scene photos. Soon after, two drifters are arrested and accused of the murder. Capote is on the steps as the two men (Mark Pellegrino and the should-be-nominated Clifton Collins Jr.) are led back into town. He and Perry Smith (Collins Jr.) locks eyes and its obvious there is an unspoken (sexual?) attraction between the two men. Soon, Capote finds himself spending days with the incarcerated killer Perry where he quickly identifies with the man's sense of abandonment in childhood. The film's poetic script sums up their relationship best- "Perry and I were like brothers. Except at one point he went out the back door and I went out the front." Perry and his accomplice receive a swift "guilty" verdict and are placed on Death Row where Capote continues to investigate Perry's psyche through random visits. Capote becomes infatuated with Perry, eventually helping him find a better lawyer to raise an appeal. Or is because Capote has yet to find out exactly what happened inside that Kansas farmhouse from Perry himself? Is his dedication to finding a stay of execution for the killers done out of compassion or artistic selfishness? These are only a few of the complex emotions and unspoken drives of the film.

The film is continually enthralling, eliciting grand emotions out of small moments. Take for instance the honesty in which Clifton Collins Jr. responds to Capote as he breaks down, wishing he could've done more for the convicted killer. Or the monumental scene in which our perceptions of Perry drastically change and he talks about that night in the farmhouse. But even that grandstanding scene is shaded with complexity, especially since Perry's "confession" comes right after the realization that Capote may not be the 'amigo' he had once thought. Without seeing the film, I understand all of this is hard to comprehend. It's one of the best of the year. Someone should just give Clifton Collins Jr. the Oscar now.

James Mangold's "Walk the Line", by definition of the above writing, should not succeed as a biopic. It does conjur up those excessive 30 or 40 years of a struggling artist's life that usually sinks all the energy out of the film (as it does in "Ray" from last year). And it almost does here, starting back in childhood where the tragic accident and death of Johnny Cash's older brother instills the prerequsite demons and addicition in him. But, the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and especially Reese Witherspoon carry "Walk the Line" towards a climax that is suprisingly affecting. A nice film indeed.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Girl Power

Directed by Tony Scott and written by Richard Kelly, "Domino" is one of the most entertaining films I've seen this year. Everything about this hyper-kinetic film shouldn't work- from the time fractured (and time-worn) narrative structure of the film to the washed out, amped-up, frenetic pace of it's telling, it's anchor and heart lies in the performance of Keira Knightley. Alternating between a sexy prowess and the ultimate kick-ass-and-take-names-girl in a flash, her range as Domino is impressive to say the least. Sure, Scott and company wade through a host of meta-cinema tropes used to similar effect in previous films ("True Romance" and "Enemy of the State", specifically), but "Domino" succeeds despite it's barrage of cameos and at times, shallow humor. It also succeeds in giving the audience a trio of outsiders to associate with in Knightley, Mickey Rourke and newcomer Edgar Ramirez. Plus, it's hard to dislike a film that blazes off the deep end and eventually weaves in a subplot with mescaline and Tom Waits as some sort of expunged angel stumbling across the gang in a desert.

Niki Caro's "North Country" also details the exploits of a society-fringed female, this time charting the legal and emotional battles of a sexually harassed mine worker in Minnesota. Already pegged as a sure-fire Oscar contender next year, the small glories of Caro's film comes not from Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes, the beleaguered center of the film, but from very strong supporting performances from Richard Jenkins as her father and her best friends played Frances McDormand and Sean Bean. Perhaps the most intense scene of the year comes courtesy of Jenkins as he finally overcomes his reservations about his daughter's conviction and stands up for her as she tries to speak at a miner's council meeting. Caro's a wise director, allowing the emotion to speak for itself, casually and slowly swinging the camera back and forth between Theron and Jenkins on stage as he stumbles through his improves speech. It's a thrilling moment in a film that has some nice, if somewhat cliché, perspectives on blue collar America in a not-so-distant time.