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September 13, 2007

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”(***)
Directed by Sidney Lumet

This fall is going to feel more and more like the seventies as we are getting new films from a trio of great directors of that golden era in American cinema: Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Brian De Palma. We’ll also see a brilliant new documentary from Jonathan Demme about the U.S. President who closed out the seventies under heavy criticism for a hostage crisis situation he could not resolve. The Coppola film, “Youth Without Youth,” is not in Toronto, but I am anxiously awaiting a press screening as it is Coppola’s first work in ten years as a director.

Sidney Lumet has been far more active but often with mixed results. The last truly great film he made was “The Verdict” in 1982, though in the fifteen years between he has certainly made some interesting films. His greatest works were in the 70s when he directed such films as “Serpico,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Equus” and into the 80s with “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict” and the criminally under-appreciated “Daniel.”

One of the great actors’ directors, Lumet rehearses his performers to perfection and then works quickly, coming in on time and on budget, which pleases his producers and studios. Actors revere him for his knack of bringing out the very best in them. There was a time when taking a role in a Lumet film meant you had a very strong chance of being nominated for an Academy Award and perhaps winning one. In the 70s and 80s, actors were nominated for twelve Academy Awards under the guidance of Lumet, four taking home wins. “Network” won three of the four Oscars for acting in its year. One of the performances, from Beatrice Straight, boasted just eight minutes of screen time!

Through his career, which now spans six decades, Lumet has directed just about every major actor and actress, guiding some of the strongest performances ever put on film including Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men,” Katherine Hepburn in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, Rod Steiger in “The Pawnbroker”, Al Pacino twice in “Serpico” and again in “Dog Day Afternoon,” William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight in “Network,” Richard Burton and Peter Firth in “Equus” and Paul Newman in “The Verdict.” He is a master craftsman, one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema, and at 83, he’s still going strong.

Lumet’s latest film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” is fresh and alive, a nasty tale of a robbery gone horribly wrong, unfolding like a grand tragedy, almost Shakespearean in its execution. Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers, one reasonably successful, though stealing from his company, and the other not. They devise the robbery of a mom and pop jewelry store hoping to make a fast few thousand dollars, the catch being it is their parents’ store. The robbery goes as wrong as it could possibly go and their mother is killed in the shootout that was never supposed happen. Panicking, they do everything to cover their tracks, but Hank has involved outside parties who want to be compensated for their losses. Thrown into the mix is the fact Hank is sleeping with Andy’s neglected wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) who is simply fed up with her husband. When their grieving father, Charles (Albert Finney), starts poking around in their lives, he discovers that his sons were involved and the whole thing becomes a terrible nightmare for the family.

The performances in this film are superb, in particular Hawke’s as the terrified brother who knows he is responsible for his mother’s death and now fears being killed himself for his part in this entire mess. Hoffman is equal to him in every frame as the calculating, much colder brother who is upset his mother was killed, but really does not see it as his fault. Marisa Tomei has never before been this sexy or wounded; I loved every minute she was on screen. If there is anything I had trouble with it was Albert Finney’s slack-jawed father, though admittedly the performance grew in power over the course of the film. I wondered why he spent the first half of the film with his mouth open looking like an idiot. The slap on the face he delivers to Hoffman seems to wake him up and from that point on he is outstanding.

Nothing nice happens in this film, it is as bleak as they get, but well-told and nicely acted with Lumet’s direction superb.

“Man From Plains” (*****)
Directed by Jonathan Demme

Documentaries seem to be having something of heyday over the last decade, many enjoying mainstream success, with major filmmakers stepping into the role of director. Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Werner Herzog are just three directors who have gone the doc route to extraordinary acclaim. Lee was sadly ineligible for Academy Award recognition last year by not for his stunning efforts in “When the Levees Broke,” simply the greatest doc I have ever seen.

Jonathan Demme goes the way of non-fiction with “Man From Plains,” one of the best films of the festival this year, following former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on his 2006 book tour for his best seller “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which was acclaimed in some quarters and condemned in others. Though Carter’s presidency was tainted by his failure to get American hostages out of Iran, he makes clear here his thinking that rather than kill tens of thousands, including the hostages, he chose the more peaceful route and though that choice often made him look soft, in the years since, he has looked more and more like a great President and man of peace.

Indeed, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing peace to the world. The film documents his tour, beginning at home in Georgia where he attends church and barbeques, posing for endless photographs for those who love him, and then moves around the United States promoting his book, making television and radio appearances, always smiling, and certainly willing to take on anyone who challenges his beliefs in the book.

Carter comes across as a very intelligent, well-read, laser-sharp man who, in his 80s, may be in his prime. Along the way he discusses his 61-year marriage to the love of his life, poetry, his mother, history and religion and of course his thoughts on the presidency of current leader George W. Bush, who like many Americans, Carter has very little use for. I felt at the end of the film I knew Carter, and certainly had found a profound respect for the man emerging while watching the movie, and wished, oh how I wished that this man was in office right now. If he was, would we be Iraq? The film is an insightful, probing effort that is a frontrunner for best documentary feature of the year.

“Redacted” (****)
Directed by Brian De Palma

“Casualties of War” was a dark, troubling, unsettling film set in Vietnam about a squad denied liberty, who decide to kidnap a young Vietnamese girl for their sexual pleasure. They take her out of her bed, from her home while her mother weeps and hands her a scarf, take her into the jungle where they rape her for several days, brutalize her and then kill her. Only one refuses to take part and reports his buddies when they return, finally seeing them court marshaled for their actions.

The incident was true, first written about in 1969, and read by Brian De Palma who waited 20 years to make the film, casting Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox. The film is one of the finest studies of the madness in Vietnam, but audiences shied away from the all too real horror, making it of course one of the most authentic studies of that war. The late Pauline Kael hailed the film as a masterpiece, but one is hard pressed to find anyone who has seen it. I believe it to be, along with “Blow Out,” the finest work of De Palma’s career.

He too makes a profound comeback with “Redacted,” an angry, ferocious new film shot on digital video with the look of a documentary about a squad of soldiers in Samarra caught in the middle of a civil war and the madness of the war in the Middle East. Like the misguided young men in “Casualties of War,” they too take a young girl from her home and rape her repeatedly, but then murder her entire family to cover their tracks. What we see is unsettling and horrifying, as De Palma’s camera goes for the ultimate in truths. We listen to YouTube confession from soldiers who have been in the war, watch juxtaposing images that offer different points of view, but are never far from the nightmare of what these young men have done. There is a stunning moment at the end of “In the Valley of Elah” in which a clear-eyed young soldier speaks about going to food after committing a heinous act, and I was constantly thinking about that while watching this film. Are they merely trained to be killers and not given an off switch, or is it possible to give one an off switch?

There is something vital and immediate about this film, as though the soul of the young woman murdered was screaming from her grave for justice, a justice that may never come. A powerful and often frightening film, “Redacted” is among the most fearsome studies of war put on the screen.


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