Judging from the first four hours of the new season, 24 is gonna be a hell of a ride. Elsewhere, Munich is flawed but riveting, and Fiona Apple mends her broken heart with stark songs.
Frequent readers of this column know not to expect too much TV coverage. I make rare exceptions when I have the time and patience for something really worthwhile. That happened this long weekend.
24 (Mondays on Fox)
Network television is such a tired old dog that any remotely entertaining new trick is overvalued for its remote shreds of originality — we all know that cable is more daring and the cinema is more artful. With those ground rules, Lost and Desperate Housewives succeeded by offering the serialized suspense that films don't have the time for and that cable pumps up with nudity and swear words.
The trade-off for such network fare is that if you don't get on board early, you feel marooned as the plots snake from one cliffhanger to the next. But even if you haven't seen a lick of 24 — and I had not until the first four episodes of this new season — it's not yet too late. Character accounts for a little, but Kiefer Sutherland's performance is mostly one more component of a TV fun machine that's livelier because it understands its own manic implausibility and still urges you to disregard such problems.
When we live in a world with real terrorists killing real people, it doesn't sit easy watching pretend dark-skinned baddies assassinate central-casting white folks, but the show doesn't oversell the bad guys' ethnicities as the chief indicator of their evilness — "they" are as rational and human as "we" are. And for all the compromises the demands of network television require — the commercial has to go here, characters can't say this or do that — there seems to be no end to the inventive ways our 24 heroes can get into messes and then out of them. I always find television to be too sloppy and hastily put together to be as seamless as I would like. 24 gets its fuel from those limitations and weaves it into the knotty suspense.
Munich (Universal Pictures/DreamWorks)
Though he'd probably blush at the comparison, I don't mean it as a compliment to say that Steven Spielberg's recent movies have been a lot like Kubrick's later ones. Technically exquisite, rigorously controlled, but frustratingly imprecise storywise, both masters make their worlds endlessly evocative to the detriment of what they have to say.
Munich is Spielberg's best since Saving Private Ryan and his instinctive, exhilarating narrative thrust hurtles you through this moral revenge tale based on the violent retribution that followed the 1972 Olympics killing of 11 Israeli athletes. But while we'd probably all agree that violence only begets more violence, Spielberg's main character hasn't been given an emotional journey that gives that credo much heft — Eric Bana decides that killing is bad almost as an aside.
Spielberg does far better on that end by turning Munichinto a dangerous, globetrotting spy film — he makes his set pieces so gloriously kinetic that the moral cost of murder comes through visually. That, of course, was also the problem with Saving Private Ryan, too — action spoke much louder than character then as well.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Sony Pictures Classics)
Peckinpah is the obvious touchstone, but I kept thinking about The Straight Story, David Lynch's shockingly unironic travelogue where every silence was suffused with meaning. Tommy Lee Jones musters a similar calm — other than a couple time-shifting moments from 21 Grams screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the film is resiliently patient, underplayed, and modest. Its treatment of casual racism is commonplace and exact; its moments of surrealism grounded and affecting. I reject others' claims that Jones sentimentalizes his character's rugged, noble helplessness — indeed, it's a terrifically blank, wounded performance. But there are great performances throughout — not to mention a portrait of the new Old West that's as stirring as Lone Star.
Caché (Sony Pictures Classics)
I place myself slightly below those who worship Michael Haneke's latest and way above those who grumble that it doesn't add up to anything. Haneke is after symbolism, not literal Hitchcockian thrills, which keeps the mind nimble, enjoying the twists but not necessarily knowing (or caring) how it will resolve itself. So the shakiness of the design doesn't bother me — I wasn't going in expecting a ripsnorter of plot mechanics. My issue is with its presentation of the blandly affluent couple whose lives are wrecked by a series of mysterious videotapes. Haneke never makes these people particularly interesting or even warm, so their inevitable disintegration in the face of buried secrets doesn't have the weight of tragedy. Here's a film whose political, social, and thematic elements are all firmly in place. But there's nothing to care about.
The New World (New Line Cinema)
Terrence Malick's tone-poem aesthetic can only take him so far, and while the film's 150 minutes never drag, I got stuck in a beautiful stupor where normally he makes me feel like I'm in an inspired dream state. (And I should note that I saw the Academy cut, not the slightly shorter — and, reportedly, slightly differently focused — version that will be returning to theaters January 20.) The big problem here is the love story which never goes beyond the languid looks and blissed-out glances the two leads show one another. With that said, there's something entirely satisfying in watching a filmmaker who thoroughly knows what he wants — you might not agree with the strategies being implemented, but there's no lack of confidence or ideas. If none of this makes any sense to you, Avoid The Movie At All Costs.
I wouldn't recommend her as a romantic possibility. Overdramatic and moody, she'd be exasperating. But art can ennoble an individual's personal deficiencies — isn't that really the point of art? — and here it turns a whiny girl's breakup album into a testament to not knowing what you want, except that you know that you'd like to escape the situation you're in. As in real life, a messy breakup record only really is a success if you grow from it, and both music and lyrics give the sense of introspection, of wrestling with personal identity, of learning some lessons, of ugliness and beauty. A couple songs do try my patience, but far and away she's managed perspective and distance without sacrificing emotional clarity.
Gorillaz, Demon Dayz (Virgin)
While neither of these Damon Albarn cartoon, side-project efforts are coherent works, they shine in several spots, enlivening the notion that if you get some creative guys together in a room, they can occasionally make some magic happen. With Dan the Automator out and Danger Mouse in, this follow-up doesn't have as much punk rock as the original, which I wouldn't have guessed, but it is less funny, which didn't surprise me, although MF Doom is a welcome addition on one track. Albarn seems obsessed with post-millennium apocalypse but he's not dire about it — if anything, he's serene, jazzed even. Which is why the music flirts with exoticism and danger but retains a sense that music is meant to be catchy at first contact, even when it contains a cameo by Dennis Hopper.
Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better (Sony/Domino)
This is a step up from a hyped record with a couple terrific songs. Now only fractionally less hyped, they project a tougher sound that doesn't always rectify the camp leanings of its posturing. But there are more terrific songs — and even the lesser ones vary their styles, teasing you into thinking that maybe they too could become terrific with a little more time. (Doesn't happen, but still it makes you wonder.) Overall, I'm still not fully on board with this band — they seem to be selling an attitude rather than a recognizable pattern of human sentiments we all can share. But if they keep up at this clip, the greatest-hits record will be a must-own.
D4L, "Laffy Taffy" (from Down for Life, Atlantic/WEA)
Utterly stupid. But unlike other pieces of mindless junk on the radio, undeniable. The only plausible explanation I can offer up is the song's lazy swagger, suggesting sexual charisma and base carnal instincts. I'm sure it sounds great as a ringtone, too.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.