Sunday, November 18, 2007

Before the Director Knows It's 2007

My friend Jane and I saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead tonight. We both agreed that it was masterful in its way, but definitely had some quirks worth mentioning.

This is Sidney Lumet's new film. He's very accomplished, the director of Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, and a bunch of other great films, plus a host of not so notable films. And it should be noted that he's quite old. Watching this movie, you sense that. Old directors tend to do weird things, like have people make calls on pay phones, or throw their cell phones around in disgust ("this damn new technology! these buttons are so small!"), and have their characters pick up airline tickets from a travel agency (when was the last time you did anything other than use the Internet or maybe, just maybe called an airline. . .).

Anyway, he's old, but he's clearly confident. The structure is interesting: it keeps jumping around in time, mostly goes backwards, but not always. In every new sequence we learn more, though, about why these two brothers would hold up their own parents' jewelry store. It's a movie that is fueled by (a highly original) plot, and by some pretty terriffic acting. I actually don't like Philip Seymour Hoffman that much, because his characters are always so damn miserable (except for Magnolia, miserable but compassionate), but let's face it: the guy can act; he can do a slow seethe or a total meltdown with equal passion and subtlety.

And I was telling Jane that for me the movie almost broke a VeryMarkMcCormick cardinal rule: for a movie (or book) to be successful and gripping, you almost always need a sympathetic protagonist. At least a sympathetic main character. All the characters in this movie are hard to like, but there are arguably three protagonists, and in the end, you kinda have to like the Ethan Hawke character, not because he's so hot and there's a great shot of his ass, but because he is truly caught between the epic hatred of his father and his brother.

I read recently (and I cant' find this now--if you read it too, please let me know) that American movies are currently sort of suffering from an excess formalism, which means that even the best independent movies are perfecting the art of cinema, bringing together exquisite cinematography, editing, directing, acting, music, etc, to create these perfect little gems. The article cited the Coen brothers as being the pinnacle of this fomalism. In other words, try as hard as you want, but you can't dislike a Coen bros. movie, because they're so well crafted. This movie is a bit like that. It's hard to find fault in it, but will you be moved, will you care much, at the end? I don't think so, but it's worth seeing nonetheless. Still, will someone please tell Lumet that people don't smoke in their offices anymore, not even in New York.

1 comment:

Robin said...

So funny! Wow - I never would have thought that old directors would do such quirky things, but of course they do!! But why doesn't someone stop them? Who's job would that be? The actors? The producer?

Anyway, I can't believe that you mention Jane TWICE in this post and you don't mention me anywhere on this whole blog. And it would have been so easy in the blog about the Painted Veil - "The next night I went to my friend, Robin's, house and ate delicious spaghetti and meatballs..."