Leonard Maltin reviews three new movies opening this week:
The way the folks at Disney are treating this film you’d think it was a turkey; it’s anything but. It may not be as hard-hitting or provocative as District 9, but it’s still science-fiction with some real thought behind it. The setting is the near future; people have grown lazy and now send sophisticated, good-looking robots out into the world to live their lives for them. As a result, crime has been virtually wiped out—until now. A renegade has gotten hold of a high-tech weapon that’s not only killing surrogates but their “controllers” as well. FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell—or rather, their surrogates—set out to solve the case, and immediately begin to discover skeletons in various closets. Ving Rhames plays a character called The Prophet, who leads a band of holdouts that reject the idea of surrogates, believing that people are surrendering their very humanity. Meanwhile, Willis has issues of his own at home with a wife (Rosamund Pike) who refuses to participate in their marriage, allowing her surrogate to take over completely.
The notion that technology has run ahead of morality is both timely and intriguing; that’s one reason Surrogates is so interesting. But the reason the movie works is that it’s primarily interested in offering a good story with plenty of action and visual effects; the message follows along. I’m not familiar with the graphic novel (by Robert Venditi and Brett Weldele) that inspired this movie, or how closely the screenplay (by Michael Ferris and John Brancato) adheres to it, but my curiosity has been piqued. There are some aspects of the plot that might have been explored more fully; with a bit more effort this could have been a great film, instead of merely a good one, but on the whole I think Surrogates accomplishes what it sets out to do. Bruce Willis does a fine job in what is essentially a dual role: as the surrogate, sporting a toupee and waxy skin, and as the world-weary man behind the avatar who wants to feel things first-hand again, even if that process causes him pain.
A friend recently told me that the trailer made this movie seem like a cross between Westworld and The Matrix. It isn’t. In fact, I’d call it an original; that’s why I enjoyed it.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL
Screen biographies often hew to a formula, but director and co-writer Anne Fontaine has dodged cliché at every turn to create a vivid portrait of the young woman who became a legend in the world of fashion, Coco Chanel. What’s more, she found the perfect actress to embody her in Audrey Tautou.
Fontaine (who wrote the screenplay with her sister Camille, based on Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book) admits in the film’s production notes that she has used dramatic license. Her goal was to give us an impression of the factors that forged Chanel’s worldview, as well as her sense of style. A period film like this could drown in production design and detail, but Fontaine doesn’t try to show off: the costumes serve a storytelling purpose, as they should, so when the young Coco rejects the current style of ornamentation in hats and suggests simplicity instead, it makes a valid (and visual) point.
Benoît Poelvoorde gives a colorful and charismatic performance as Chanel’s wealthy benefactor who subsidizes her “independence,” and that’s one of the story’s more intriguing aspects: from childhood on, Coco was stubborn and marched to her own drummer, but she saw no contradiction in using men to achieve her goals, on her own terms. Alessandro Nivola is also quite good as the one true love of her life. But it is Tautou around whom the film revolves, and she effortlessly embodies the character of Chanel in her formative years.
Coco Before Chanel is intelligent, entertaining, and eye-filling. The drama is perfectly supported by a beautiful score by my favorite contemporary film composer, Alexandre Desplat. Yet like Fontaine’s other collaborators, he never intrudes or attempts to steal the show. His music becomes part of a seamless whole.
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
I take each Michael Moore film as it comes—I am not a full-time member of his flock—but I think his latest film is one of his best. As in Sicko, he’s taken on a subject that already has Americans fuming, without any help from rabble-rousers: the banking industry. I’m not exactly sure who sides with the fat cats in this case except their own brethren, but Moore provides a pretty solid backstory to help us understand how we got into this mess.
The movie makes ingenious and often knee-jerk-funny use of stock footage, including an opening segment from an Encyclopedia Britannica classroom film about ancient Rome that chronicles its excesses—and inequities—and makes it sound like a perfect description of us, today. From that moment on he’s off and running, blaming the deregulation of the 1980s for sewing the seeds of a culture of greed.
As always, Moore doesn’t provide the whole picture, and doesn’t pretend to. He doesn’t make “documentary films.” I’d call what he does “advocacy cinema,” and it’s completely subjective. But I think his examples in this case are persuasive and powerful, and a climactic piece of footage featuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt is particularly poignant.
Obviously, Moore has become a polarizing figure for many people, and there are those who wouldn’t dream of watching this movie even if they might agree with its conclusions. I found it engrossing and extremely upsetting, which I think is an appropriate reaction to the outrageous situation he depicts so well.