These Three

Oh, goody. Redacted, directed and written by Brian De Palma, is a high-def video pseudodocumentary, or if you prefer, humorless mockumentary, about some Marines in Samarra (John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is de rigueur reading for one of them) who, in the line of duty, mow down a pregnant Muslim en route to the delivery room, and, in their leisure hours, rape and murder a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. Just to hit the highlights. The "source material" consists principally of a fictitious video diary, which one of the leathernecks hopes will be his entrée into USC film school, and a fictitious French documentary with English subtitles, plus snippets of staged footage from security cameras and embedded journalists. Not to mention the authentically documentary photo montage at the end, to push your face into the war in case you weren't taking the film seriously enough, and to wrap it up in a cloak of sanctity. The average moviegoer, self-protectively staying away from this sort of thing, selectively taking shelter in American Gangster and Bee Movie, will not share the omnivorous critic's sense of battle fatigue.

De Palma, one of the few contemporary American filmmakers to possess a recognizable style (B-movie baroque), is willing here to give all that up for a semblance, a guise, a pretense, of Unvarnished Truth. By his own admission in an accompanying Director's Statement, he "told this story years ago" in Casualties of War (and needless to say, in full-blooded 35mm), one of the better Vietnam films, to say nothing of the better De Palma films. "But," he adds scoldingly, "the lessons from the Vietnam War have gone unheeded." Another film was deemed necessary, and without any fancy stuff. There may be dabs and dribbles of lyrical artiness in the French documentary (a shot of a scorpion aswarm with ants, a cliché since the opening sequence of The Wild Bunch), but that can be blamed on the French. In the main, the handheld digital camera, corralling a pallid picture in a wavering frame, proves to be the same labor-saving, corner-cutting device for De Palma as it is for the pre-eminent mockumentarist, Christopher Guest. Different for De Palma, though, is the expectation that the device will vouch for his veracity and his verisimilitude. In spite of the unfamiliar faces that make up the cast (Izzy Diaz, Patrick Carroll, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Rob Devaney), the naturalistic acting comes across as unnaturally actorish, and one wonders anew why it should be so difficult for actors to act natural. Any such shortcomings would of course be less of a drawback in a docucomedy, where, if the distortions do not actually enhance the comedy, they sabotage only laughs. They do not, as they do here, sabotage high dudgeon.

The Mist is the third Frank Darabont film to have been adapted from the works of Stephen King, although the first two, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, were not the sort of work for which that author is best known. (Darabont's most recent film, The Majestic, already six years ago, was truly horrible, horrific, horrid, but not in any way intended.) This new one, adapted from a King "novella," is much more what we would expect: "Something in the mist! Something in the mist took John Lee!" Said mist has rolled down from the mountain on which there is ostensibly some type of missile-defense base, rolled across the lake, rolled into town, and what's in it -- including the thing that took John Lee -- is a menagerie of jumbo insects, reptiles, mollusks, God knows what.

By and by, we get a throwaway science-fictional explanation for this -- really more mythological than science-fictional, more Pandora's Box than Frankenstein's Monster -- but the concern of the townsfolk barricaded inside the local supermarket, The Food House, is simply to survive to the end of the movie: "It appears we may have a problem of some magnitude here," announces the skeptical store manager after viewing the chopped-off tip of a tentacle, still thrashing, at the loading dock. The traditional voice against tampering with nature, though quite properly a religious one, is in this instance a stridently fire-and-brimstone one (Marcia Gay Harden's), going on about "the end of time," never mind the end of the movie; and there is no opposing voice more authoritative than Thomas Jane's, Toby Jones's, Jeffrey DeMunn's, Laurie Holden's, or Frances Sternhagen's (a no-star cast). The computer-generated creatures, very well-done, never overdone, are infinitely more congenial than this shrewish doomsayer, and not even Darabont's slushy, slapdash direction (shallow focus, rack focus, lack of focus) can spoil the party.

Speaking of mist, I'm Not There blows another cloud of mist into the mystique of Bob Dylan. Filmmaker Todd Haynes, who once enlisted Barbie dolls to tell the Karen Carpenter story, now borrows a gimmick used by Todd Solondz in Palindromes, employing a rotation of dissimilar actors to play a single role, a multiplication of a gimmick used by Luis Buñuel in That Obscure Object of Desire. (Not a gimmick, in other words, exclusive to filmmakers named Todd.) The fact that Bob Dylan is a real person and a public figure, about whom we may have our own ideas, further complicates matters, and it is easy to lose track of the subject of the film when we are looking at a prepubescent black boy, Marcus Carl Franklin, hopping freight trains in Depression-period hobo-style, or looking at Richard Gere in granny glasses on horseback in the era of the model-T, and all the easier when they are masquerading under the aliases of Woody Guthrie and Billy the Kid, respectively. The songs in the film (sometimes sung by Dylan himself, sometimes by others) leave no doubt as to the protagonist's identity, and no doubt as to his uniqueness, but between the half-dozen different faces and pseudonyms, the film seems to be not so much about the "many lives of Bob Dylan" as about a half-dozen different lives altogether. The elusiveness of the man, the multifacetedness of him, would presumably be The Point, but that point could have been made more subtly: the dissimilarity of Marcus Carl Franklin and Richard Gere amounts to gross overstatement. Adding to the confusion is a visual patchwork stitched together out of grainy black-and-white, glossy black-and-white, jaundiced color, and peachy color (Edward Lachman, cinematographer), not even counting the diverse cinematic allusions, catch them if you can, to Fellini, Godard, Peckinpah.

Christian Bale, who plays the protagonist in his Greenwich Village folkie phase as well as in his Christian-convert phase a decade later, gets the speaking voice, the cadence, just right. And Cate Blanchett, who takes over the role for the intervening commercialized and electrified and amplified phase, additionally (and paradoxically, as the sole transgender impersonator) gets the look just right for good measure. In the nonsequential narrative, we can be glad whenever either of these two is having a turn. And we can be glad, too, whenever it's Heath Ledger's turn (Ben Winshaw, the sixth impersonator, is but a talking head), if only because Ledger brings with him, in the part of Dylan's wife and the mother of his children, Charlotte Gainsbourg. This completely credible actress, who can look homely and can look lovely and can look in between, has never looked lovelier. Is it age? Maturity?

All three of these are opening next Wednesday.

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