Greengrass, Nolfi, Scorsese, Van Dyke, Winer

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2011). It’s very fun to watch Martin Scorsese in this later phase of his career in which he clearly feels empowered and has the accumulated goodwill and respect to make whatever damn movie he feels like at any given time. If that means he’s sometimes going to flip through his record collection and say, “Hey, what about this guy?,” so be it. This documentary on the Quiet Beatle isn’t hugely revelatory in any way, but it’s a nice, creative compendium of the life and art of someone whose undervalued membership in the most significant band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll alone makes him a compelling figure. Scorsese largely sidesteps the most familiar clips and photos in favor of digger a little deeper into the massive archives dedicated to Harrison and his former band, stringing it all together in a way that respects chronology, but also leaves room to let the progression of the film be dictated by mood. The best moments are those that capture Harrison in offhand ways that capture the cynical wit that shaped his talent. I’ll always value the moment that Harrison greets Paul McCartney, decades after they bandmates, by asking the oblivious rock legend if he’s wearing a genuine vegetarian leather jacket. At well over three hours, the whole thing is too long, but it’s harder to figure out what to cut out. The dullest portions for me revolve around Harrison’s ever-evolving spirituality, but that would perhaps be the least appropriate material to excise.

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). Paul Greengrass seems perfectly suited to working an Iraq War movie that deals directly with the machinations that went into starting the conflict in the first place. On paper, it combines the strength for dense information soundly considered that elevated United 93 with the clear, kinetic filmmaking that got him major hits with the second and third Bourne films. In execution, though, it’s a bland, muddled mess. Matt Damon plays an Army officer weary over being sent on horrible dangerous missions to look for hidden stockpiles of weapons that don’t actually exist. He begins exploring some leads on his own, uncovering the horrible truth about deliberate manipulations of intelligence to lead the nation to war under false pretenses. It’s a worthy topic, but it has no dramatic heft in Greengrass’s exploration of it. The revelations will be shocking to only the deeply misinformed, and the film is otherwise sadly inert, amazingly generating no tension from soldiers being continually and needlessly put in harm’s way.

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934). Nick and Nora Charles investigate the disappearance of a friend, tipping back cocktails and occasionally pausing to watch their beloved fox terrier do the occasional charming trick. The Thin Man is one of the great entertainments of its era, building a good, complex, assiduously honest mystery while infusing the whole affair with an abundance of charm and grace. Myrna Loy has star power to spare as Nora, but it’s naturally William Powell who owns the film as Nick, making intelligence and comfortable decadence into the finest qualities a man could possibly aspire to, especially if they’re exhibited in tandem. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich amazingly take the hardness of Dashiell Hammett’s language and transform it into pure, irresistible froth, practicing the sort of storytelling alchemy that was at its apex during that first decade or so after movies learned to talk.

Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011). I’m increasingly realizing what a small minority I’m in for holding the following opinion, but here goes: I think the remake of Arthur is pretty good. It certainly doesn’t reach the unlikely heights of writer-director Steve Gordon’s 1981 original, but it has an agreeable exuberance and just enough embedded cleverness to the humor. It tries to find its own voice even as it sticks to the general plot of the earlier film. Russell Brand is amusing and occasionally even inspired as Arthur Bach, the childlike scion of a wealthy family who distracts himself from his miseries with drink. It’s a gloss on the persona he’s stuck with for most of his film outings, but with innocence in place of arrogance, fearfulness in place of contempt. For me, it wears better than the well-established alternative. There are issues, to be sure: Helen Mirren never quite figures out how to give her sardonic nanny character a fresh voice (but then the Oscar-winning John Gielgud performance is arguably even tougher to best or reinvent than Dudley Moore’s ribald comic turn as the title character) and poor Greta Gerwig seems doomed to follow precisely in Parker Posey’s tire tracks as an actress who is vividly inventive in indie features and utterly stranded in big studio fare.

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011). There has to be a point when filmmakers collectively decide that adapting Philip K. Dick stories for the big screen is a purely foolhardy endeavor. Either that, or they’ll consider providing an artistic example of the definition of insanity. In this latest stab at the impossible, Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve screenwriter George Nolfi makes his directorial debut by trying to wrestle Dick’s “Adjustment Team” into cinematic shape. Matt Damon stars as a man who discovered the fedora-topped agents who orchestrate reality to make sure it coheres to some grand plan concocted by an unseen higher power known only as The Chairman. It’s his love for a talented dancer played by Emily Blunt that causes him to continually push his predetermined charmed life off the rails. Positioned as a thriller with political commentary tossed into a mind-bending turbine, the film is instead unbearably pretentious silliness. The conceit of needing special magic hats in order to gain access to the backstage passages that the adjustment officers use to travel rapidly from place to place is especially goofy, making it seem like the universe is controlled by some weird hipster angels.

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