Friday, June 29, 2007

Disturbia



Disturbia spends much of its time jumping through the usual teen movie hoops before finally pulling out some decent thrills. It's a fine one-watcher with a likable and good performance by Shia LaBeouf, but underuses and undersells the creepiness of David Morse. It also contains a severely average performance from the girl next door, played with generally little besides flirtateous glances and scared eyes. But it's worth a look-see for Shia fans. Something I am not ashamed to say I am. The guy's good (see also A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The Battle of Shaker Heights), and he could be great.

***

Shallow Grave



I fear I may have spoken too quickly of my disappointment in Ewan McGregor’s range as an actor. I say this because I recently rewatched Danny Boyle’s first film, Shallow Grave, and found McGregor to be quite capable in his role. The character still allows McGregor to display his charm, starry-eyed wonder, and expressive inflection of the lines written by Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge.

Shallow Grave somehow got more taut, more scary, and more clever during my second viewing of the film. The performance by the leads (Kerry Fox, McGregor, and Christopher Eccleston of 28 Days Later fame in one of the creepiest performances in my memory) were very good and benefited from a brilliant chemistry between the performers.

Basically, a bag of free money is never free (see A Simple Plan if you doubt me). I am reminded of a great quote from a bad movie, 8mm: “If you dance with the devil, the devil don't change. The devil changes you.”

Boyle again shows a knack for visual inventiveness and ability to organize thrills in a expert manner. He truly is a master. Even when the script and actors are out to lunch, he’s always doing good work from the director’s chair.

A taste of the wit of the script: [Juliet, Alex and David are about to dispose of Hugo's body by rendering it unidentifiable]
Juliet Miller: “I can't do it. “
Alex Law: “But Juliet, you're a doctor. You kill people every day.”
John Hodge put together a basic thriller that excels in practically every way. Even a twist that should be seen a mile away is surprising and fun. He writes the disintegration of friendship and morals very well.

***1/2

The Wind That Shakes the Barley



The Wind That Shakes the Barley was brutal. It is great movie, but a grave feeling washed over when watching the film. My gut was wrenched with every gut-wrenching scene while the characters fought the good fight against their oppressors and the not so good fight amongst themselves. My gut was all wrenched out by the end of the film. Key phrase: gut wrench.

There is a lot of violence in the film, but it never glorified. It is always awful, even when it seems to be justified. The wages of engaging in violent acts is presented in a realistic light.

The political aspects of the beginning of the Irish Republican Army are not glossed over. All sides are presented authentically, though the British are portrayed as self-righteous, tyrannical bastards. And I guess they were, but I’d have to do the research to make any assured claim.

The brotherly drama that unfolded really hit home for me. I was awestruck at the depth and conflict blood ties were presented with. I was tearing up at the conclusion. I was afraid I was going to have to conspicuously wipe my eyes with my sleeve in front of my friends, but I managed to escape with tear glossed eyes and a wary smile.

The cheers and accolades from Cannes are not unfounded. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is an excellent film.

****

Chad Betz Reviews Once

Editor's Note: I will begin posting Chad Betz reviews whenever he feels like sending one in. Please take the time to look over his reviews. They are much more insightful and wonderfully written than anything I ever wrote.


Saturday, June 02, 2007

Once might be the finest musical ever, and that's because it's the first musical that really captures why music is important to the lives of those given to it. By making its actors of musicians and musicians of its characters, the film allows its musical scenarios to play out naturally. By making music the action to the characters' inner monologues in the moment, not outside of it, not big production numbers surrounded by birds and children's choirs and cute dance choreography, by doing this the film keeps us focused on the music and the people playing it. And this is music that is about real life situations and the real emotional reactions to those situations; as the songs play out so does the relationship between the film's main two characters, unceremoniously named "guy" and "girl."

That's what pop music is about, right? A "guy" and a "girl" and all that entails. In its brief span, Once manages to draw out these two archetypes with an understated balance of sadness and joy; all the while backstories limit their fleeting current story together, so their "once" happens in front of our eyes like a dream cut to factual tape, shaky handheld camera and rough editing making us feel like a friend watching a home video rather than a distanced observer in a cold theater. It's the anti-Chicago.

Musicals are often romanticism, and this is a musical about finding romanticism that's honest with how we live life from day to day. It's simultaneously morose and hopeful, and I can't think of a better film representation of how music can do what Paul Schrader suggests drama does: document the incremental movements of the human soul. Once is both music and movie while avoiding grand leaps and pompous gestures... it is nothing but beautiful, painstaking increments, which are as much a part of the soundtrack as the soundtrack's a part of them. The first time "guy" and "girl" make music together is a scene I don't think I'll ever forget, and that's because it captures a moment that so many of us have cherished or still long for, that instant where you see a reflection of the best parts of your own soul in someone else, and it quietly shakes you to the core. For now it's just you, her, and the God that made you both.

Those are the moments for which we live. That someone finally made a musical about such moments feels utterly right.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fracture



As I was watching Fracture, I kept comparing Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkin's sparring to another teriffic acting duel: Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day. Sure, the plots are nothing alike, but I was reminded of how Hopkin's and Washington did a damn fine job of chewing scenery (and I liked it) in their respective roles. However, I was drawn more to the nuanced, subtle performances by Ryan Gosling and Ethan Hawke in their respective roles. They were all the more amazing because their counterparts were trying so very hard to be amazing.

I pretty much loved Fracture. Gosling is the most exciting young actor out there, and he delivers another great performance here. Hopkins does a good job too being bad and smart and loving it.

I felt really tense and on the edge at my seat at several points during the movie, and that genuinely surprised me in a legal thriller.

My only complaint, a minor and unsure one, is that the solving of the mystery at the end seemed quaint, almost out of a Matlock or Murder She Wrote episode. It worked. It surprised me. But I wanted a little more pizazz after all those acting aerobatics that preceeded it.

****

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wonder Boys

SPOILERS



I was thinking about Wonder Boys and its themes. I thought I should write a little about it, but rest assured that a full review will be posted some time this summer.

It took me a few times to really figure out the message of the film. This film used to be my #1 favorite (now it's Magnolia), so I have watched it quite a few times. But it took me three or four times to really get it. It's about making choices. Grady Tripp avoids making choices in his writing (his tenent Hannah tells him so) and he is unwilling to choose a real life with his mistress. His life is a mess, just like the always-growing mountain of pages he calls his book. When he starts making choices, things start straightening out.

There's also the familiar theme of "saving" someone and/or yourself. Grady tells his transvestite passenger that he has to go rescue James Leer. He/she answers that he looks like he could use some rescueing of his own. He rescues and then abandons Leer. But he makes a choice, his first real choice in a series of choices that bring him back around. He rescues Leer again. And this choice starts the road to responsibility. He takes responsibility for his student. He owns up to his affair. He chooses a life with someone he loves. Sure, the film sort of says adultery is okay as long as it's with someone you love, but he comes clean to the husband of his mistress. That's better, right?

Great Movie.

****1/2

Bringing Out the Dead

I was roaming around the Jeffrey Overstreet review website lookingcloser.com and found a review of Bringing out the Dead. I didn't really agree with it, so I thought I'd do the film justice on here.



Bringing out the Dead is about a lot of things: the sad state of the world, the strong hold of hopelessness, redemption. But what I really latched onto when I watched the movie was the theme of saving and being saved. This isn't in the spiritual sense of the word, though I guess it could be interpreted as such. Nicolas Cage needs to save people to save himself. Without that act, the act of bringing people back to life, he is losing his. He is like his patients, each spends a moment in between the living and the dead, waiting for someone or something to push them over in either direction. Cage's Frank has just been spending more time there than the people he loses. Frank needs saving. But he can't be rescued because he can't save anyone else. When he lets a patient die, he "saves" that man from the struggle he (Frank) can't win. And death becomes salvation. While it is easy to think this is when Frank is "saved," I think he truely finds his truth and a gentle push toward hope when he lets himself fall asleep in the arms of Patricia Arquette. He is letting someone save him. That's how I think the film's ending can be interpreted in a spiritual sense - there is nothing you can do on your own to save yourself. You have to let someone else do it for you.

I also think that this works as another form of the Wizard of Oz Syndrome (WoOS). Like the cowardly lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man, Frank is after something he already has. Frank desperately wanted to save someone, and he did, just not in the way he thought he had to. He "saves" Patricia Arquette's character, Marc Anthony's character, and the drug dealer. He doesn't bring them back from the dead, he just keeps them here with the living. And if Frank really saw, actually let himself see, that he was doing what he felt he had to do, the epiphany Overstreet talks about would have happened much sooner in a different way.

Great Movie.

P.S. - Overstreet usually gets it right.

****

Monday, June 11, 2007

Vacancy



Vacancy accomplished exactly what it set out to do: to scare the snot out of me. There is no real substance to the movie, although the filmmakers do try to create multi-dimensional protagonists with conversations at the beginning of the movie. The characters soon become secondary to the suspense. The scares are the real draw here. Once the terror starts, it doesn’t let up until the end.

Pluses. I thought the leads did a fine job with their parts, although those conversations that attempt to flesh out their characters are the most awkward part of the movie. After that, they pretty much just had to act scared. And they did. Pretty well. I don’t really put a lot of stock in either Luke Wilson or Kate Beckinsale’s acting range, and they didn’t really have to stretch their talent in Vacancy. But they were good enough to hold my attention and keep me rooting for them instead of rooting for them to die, which sadly can be the case with all the stupid young people in most slasher/horror films. I guess part of what made this movie work was that Wilson and Beckinsale behaved in fairly intelligent ways considering the circumstances. I think the film justified much of the helplessness of the two protagonists. Kind of a real “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conflict.

The film was scary. And while there were a few of those quiet-in-the-dark-then-sudden- rush-of-sound-and-motion jump in your seat moments, I found the general mere suggestion of doom to be the real spine tingler. I just felt the leads were doomed. Horror sequels are the norm nowadays. Killers must live to kill again in further franchise installments. They’re cheap to make so they generally make their budgets back and then some. I mean, Boogyman was the number one movie the weekend it was released. And it sucked. Thankfully, Vacancy did not suck. It is even good enough to get my recommendation.

The film takes place at a little hotel in the middle of nowhere. The filmmakers successfully made the rooms feel claustrophobic for me. I felt as trapped as Wilson and Beckinsale did.

Minuses. While much of the film was suspenseful and scary, a few of the climatic scenes were anti-climatic. Stabbings weren’t the chilling events they were meant to be. The anticipation of the stabbings and confrontations was when the real nailbiting occurred.

Some of the horror movie clich├ęs are there. People who should of died the first time rise again. Protagonists seek darkness as cover. Killers wear masks and dark clothes. People split up. And so on and so on.

Then there is that awkward attempt at the beginning of the film to make Wilson and Beckinsale more than you average horror movie victims. I think the filmmakers succeeded in spite of the attempt, but it can’t be chalked up to the writing, acting, or direction of those conversations.

Frank Whaley also seemed to be a bit zanier than I want my villains to be. I think back to the menacing Rusty Nail from the movie Joy Ride. That guy meant business. Whaley is just too over the top to be put in the same category as other villains from more successfully constructed films. His killer pals were far more effective.

The film doesn't seem like the type of film that can maintain its quality over the course of repeated viewings, so once is probably enough for anybody.

So, the thrill of the chills was plentiful enough to get a solid recommendation from me. Just don’t expect any real substance even when it’s forced on you.

***

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Game



SPOILERS

I've watched a couple of movies in the last week with a Wizard of Oz Syndrome. Heck, in The Game Michael Douglas even said he's pulling back the curtain because he wants to "meet the Wizard."

"And what is the Wizard of Oz Syndrome?" you may ask. Well, it's when you flip around the majority of the reality of everything preceeding the big reveal, the moment our hero or heroine wakes up and says, "I've had the oddest dream. And you were there. And you were there. And..." That is the case with The Game, albeit with a thriller twist. And like most WoOS movies, the satisfaction is in the ending. If it doesn't work, the film doesn't work.

The ending in the Game works for me. It rendered everything before it implausible, but I gladly hand over my disbelief in return for a mind-bending thrill ride with one of my favorite actors, Michael Douglas, and the handiwork of director David Fincher.

I must admit, the film loses some quality of experience on repeated viewings, but very few movies can rival the excitement I felt when I first watched it. First, problems. I found some of the hijinks to fall a little flat this time through. "Hijinks in a thriller?" you might say. Consider them "thriller hijinks." Michael Douglas gets tossed into this game that really kicks off with might be considered an unorthodox "meet-cute" scene not that much different from your average, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Only, in the Game, the guy and gal are being chased by police and angry dogs. The snappy dialogue between Douglas and the woman in the scene, played by Deborah Kara Unger, is a real bump out of the film. First, it's not realistic. Second, it's too cute. This movie is actually really dark and that scene really sticks out as one of those "Sesame Street - one of these things is not like the others" moments. Another one of those moments occurs when Douglas interacts with his televison's personality.

The implausibility of the plot does not keep me from loving this film, but it can prove bothersome when the big reveal happens. Even though I labeled this post with a "SPOILER" warning, I'm not going to ruin the twists and turns of the story. Just know that you do have to lay down your better judgment for a moment. It's not difficult to do, I swear.

The film really hits its stride after Douglas starts to unravel the mystery in Christine's apartment. The action picks up, the stakes rise, and all is right in the world of entertainment.

Pluses are many. Michael Douglas gets to do some of his familiar but amazing acting tricks. He plays the rich sour puss. He plays the man at the end of his desperation rope. He plays the vengeful spirit for all its worth. He does all this with considerable skill, which makes the "thriller hijinks" stand out all the more. But he is the audience's eyes and ears into this labyrinth of a mystery. And he portrays all the desperation, frustration, and confusion I felt as I watched The Game for the first time. Because I felt so connected to his character throughout the film, I felt the ending was justified and earned. So, the success of the film should be placed on Douglas' shoulders.

Sean Penn gets to do his familiar acting tricks. He plays it smooth, then lets out his whining shouts in that warbling foul-mouthed child's voice of his. But I like the guy and his talent. His role is small, but Penn knows how to support the lead. Sure, he chews some scenery, but there are few who I would rather watch chow down.

Fincher is the other driving force in the film. He doesn't appear for one second in the film, but his eye for staging a scene is always there. He uses a lot of low angles, hard lighting, and adds a gray tint to the movie. It adds to the already dark tone of the film. The low angles, coupled with various skewed angles portray the confusion of the film. The lighting and camera work during the scenes that take place at night are really remarkable considering many of the key scenes occur outside after dark. Fincher knows how to get the most out of his actors. Much has been written about his obsessive nature as a filmmaker, but I think the results are enough to excuse any hard headedness the guy throws around. He makes good movies. Even when they're so-so (Panic Room), they're made better than most of the movies out there. I say this because he knows how to construct a film. The credits show puzzle pieces splitting apart, and that is essentially what his films are - carefully designed puzzles that he can seperate and put back together at his choosing. The guy really knows how to build suspense and capitalize on the emotions of his audience.

Another big plus is the score. It contains one main theme, but that little piece of music accentuates the chills and thrills that are peppered throughout the film. Timed perfectly with the action on screen, the score often much scarier than what a piece of music has any right to be.

Themes...Well, the movie centers around a "remember what's really important in life" theme. Added to that is the idea that your life is your own; and death doesn't have to be a monkey on your back. While these themes are not exactly subtle, they are nowhere near a hinderance to the enjoyment of the film. And I can't really argue with them. But the real reward for living is the embrace of the good you have and could have if only you would let yourself have it. And it needs to be said even if it's shoved in your face a bit.

***1/2

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Mr. Jealousy



I said earlier that I enjoyed Eric Stoltz in Mr. Jealousy. Well, scratch that. I loved him in Mr. Jealousy. Very funny, but in that dry sort of way that is very difficult for performers to achieve.

This film is very much in the Noah Baumbach style. Intellectuals on the cusp of true adulthood and maturity resisting any change. In the case of Mr. Jealousy, the young intellectuals are in their thirties rather than the just out of college gang in Kicking and Screaming. The Kicking and Screaming gang was just beginning to feel the angst of what a character in Mr. Jealousy might have called "Post-Euphoria." In Mr. Jealousy, everyone has jobs, goals, and relationships. It is those relationships that the film focuses on. It seems that maturing romantically, so to speak, has its own struggles. In the case of Mr. Jealousy, maturing means dealing with jealousy that rears its ugly head in every relationship Stoltz as Lester has had since adolesence. It's a problem I can relate to. Not just the jealousy, but the problems men stick themselves with that keep them from being happy with that special person already in their lives. In that way, certainly not stylistically, I felt this film was a kin to High Fidelity, where John Cusack faces the struggle to achieve his own romantic maturity.

Baumbach writes with a very personal tone which suggests he writes at least partly from experience. His scripts also reflect a common intellectual humor in their dialogue. Mr. Jealousy is no exception, but I think it can be said that he had improved some in the time in between the preceeding film, Kicking and Screaming, and his second film, Mr. Jealousy. His script is definitely more focused. And while Kicking and Screaming has the better lines, Mr. Jealousy holds its own in that category and stands apart with its more realistic dialogue.

Baumbach also adds an offscreen narrator to the mix in this film. His voice is conversational but dry and detatched. He seems only mildly interested with what is happening. And that's a plus. The narration is never really forced. No humor is created out of anything less than necessity. The narration is spare. It only adds to the moments it is used, rather than serving as a bump out of the reality of the film.

Stoltz is great, showing a real skill for subtle humor. He has some great reactions and lines delivered with just the right balance of realism and wit. Like Cusack in High Fidelity, it's very important to like the lead character in these movies because they're the ones sabotaging their relationships. They are to blame, but we as an audience have to sympathize somehow with their destructive behavior. And I did. I like Lester a lot. I was rooting for him the whole time.

The object of his jealousy and desire is played by Annabella Sciorra. My prior experience with the actress left much to be desired. She was the lead in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. That movie sucked, unless of course you make fun of it with a group of friends. Then there was her brief work on Law and Order: Criminal Intent which can be categorized as solid but easily forgettable. But she is very worthy of both jealousy and desire in Mr. Jealousy. Her character has a playfulness and delightful clumsy streak that make her adorable. She asks questions like "What would you do if I bit you right now?" and makes them endearing. That's skill. Her clumsy streak lets the actress show off some physical comedy skills.

My buddy Chris Eigeman shows up in a supporting role. He's solid as always, but the real scene stealer is Carlos Jacott. He was the scene stealer in that other Baumbach movie, Kicking and Screaming, as well. He just pulls off absurdities in his character so well. In his Baumbach movies, he plays insecure men. Like Stoltz's character, I relate to Jacott's.

I must admit that I initially had a lukewarm response to this film, but with each subsequent film my heart grows fonder. The film has a slight storybook feel with its narrator and fragile romance, and I love it for that. The way it approaches romance and the pursuit of that romantic maturity we men have so much trouble finding rang true even when the situation grew unbelievable. When you can believe in the essence of a film, any absurdity is welcome because it doesn't detract from the joy of the movie, of Mr. Jealousy.

****

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Water The Fish, Andrew?

Why have I become so long-winded? Why does it take me so much space and time to say what others can say so well in so little of each? This blog started after the coherent and concise reviews of a Mr. Andrew Rudd caught my eye. He touched on themes, direction, performance, personal reaction and so much more in one paragraph. "That's the goal," I said to myself. "Don't bore them, kid," I heard me say. I have found I've got a lot to say, but it becomes a rambling, misguided mess by the time it hits the web. I used to fill pages with my old reviews because they included all the ramblings currently found on this page and plot synapses. Now, the synapses are gone, but the rambling, misguided mess is still falling like rain from an obese cloud. And yet...I write. I write to no one in particular because I have something to say. Onward, moviegoer. To the fray I march with humble hopes of sharing meaning and insight with the brave few who stumble upon this page.

Stay



Stay is not a great movie. It's tries too hard to be a great movie to actually accomplish its goal. It is, however, a very good film deserving of some love from viewers. I have a hard time getting people to appreciate this movie. It's "too confusing," "the ending was bad," or as my friend said tonight, "It sucked." Well, to that friend (as I tried to explain to them) and to you, dear reader, it certainly does not suck. I can understand why some find it hard to get on board with this movie after all is revealed.

It is confusing. It reaches sometimes for complexity that isn't there or is fleeting once found. But there is so much complexity that is there. There is so much ambition in the script. There is so much I need to ask the director and screenwriter.

The film certainly is disorienting. And in the case of Stay, I really liked that. The plot and the unique and always changing visuals kept me guessing. I kept asking not only questions about what I was literally seeing (i.e. - how'd they do all those transitions? How come I keep seeing double?) but bigger questions about themes and the reality of the film. It's a very well plotted film whose complexities really only come to further light upon repeated viewings. I gain more understanding each time I watch it. There are many new "a-ha!" moments when you get to process the plot and visuals after what is almost certain to be a frustrating first viewing.

But the frustration is good because I felt so rewarded at the end. It works. If it worked for everyone, I'd be a happy man. But like so many endings that change how we view all the story before it, it can leave viewers feeling cheated. I know there are not a lot of current M. Night fans amongst the few who might read this, but the guy used to do endings really well. I remember reading once that his endings (known for their twists) should seem inevitable upon subsequent viewings. That's one of the things I find I like in endings that can be categorized as twists: there're clues left along the way that you miss, but are right there waiting for you if you look for them. And, like Memento, Stay has one of those endings people will interpret different ways. Some won't be interested enough when the credits roll to bother to try their hand at figuring anything out. After all, many twists lay it all out for you with flashbacks and voice overs. Indeed, Stay lays out most of the revelations for you; but there are colors, movements, words, and meanings hidden within the film that never really get explained. Talking about them after the movie is done is both maddening and deeply satisfying. I got to think. I had to engage myself with the movie to like it. And that's okay. We shouldn't shy away from that kind of effort.

Then again, there were problems. David Benioff is one of my favorite writers. His two literary works of fiction are dear to me. I enjoyed his script for 25th Hour, which was based on his own novel. But some of the tremendous effort this guy must have had to exert to keep this labyrinth together shows. And not in a good way. The plotting is wonderful. The ability to see forward, backward, and around corners is evident in his script, but his ability to create cohesive dialogue is sometimes lacking.

I say sometimes because he handles the character of Henry Letham (played by the excellent Ryan Gosling) very well, others not as well. It seems to me that when Benioff formed the idea for this script in his head, it started with Henry and everything else was built up around him. So, Henry gets all the really good lines and complete thoughts.

The lead character is played by Ewan McGregor, but, again, I think he's secondary in thought and execution to Henry. He carries much of the point of view of the audience, growing more and more confused as the film progresses, and his descent into that state of disorientation and confusion is written and captured well. My real beef with Benioff is the scenes when McGregor's Sam Foster is having a quiet conversation with basically anyone other than Henry. There's a lack of reality in his lines, which may be excusable given the direction of the script, but it made it difficult to invest myself in the reality of the character. He never seemed as real as Henry or the world around them (if that's possible given the direction of the script). And I tip my hat off to Benioff that he was able to lack in this area and still keep me fully invested in the movie and its intricate storyline.

Like many of the films I have been watching lately, I have come to new realizations about actors I once held in high regards. There were Winona Ryder in Alien Resurrection and Ryan Phillippe in Way of the Gun. Now there's Ewan McGregor. I've always liked the guy. He has charisma to burn. I won't argue there. He's a very likable peformer, with lots of performances in solid movies. But he's not that good of an actor. Put your hate letters away. Just think with me about this one. Has he ever given a truly great performance before? Has he ever felt "real" to you? I'm not just saying real within the reality of a movie, because I realize he works great in fantasy films (Moulin Rouge, Big Fish, etc.). I mean real as a real human being. Does he behave in a manner where you could believe someone could be that way in real life? Because I think he really struggles in that way. He is almost always incredibly earnest when speaking, that idea never really being more clear than in Stay. One could argue that he never really has needed to act any different because his roles are usually in hyper real films (Trainspotting comes to mind) that eschew a traditional sense of reality. Perhaps. Good point. But I ask you if that is perhaps the mark of an actor of limited range. I think it is. He really bugged me in this movie. I needed to stay on board with his character because he was essentially my eyes and ears throughout the film, but he made it much more difficult than he needed to. Again, I like the guy. He does what he can do exceptionally well. But I expect more from an actor with this type of role, one with such importance.

Then there's Gosling, who is excellent and believable even when reality is confusing and questionable. His strength is all the more perceivable when he's on screen with McGregor's weaknesses. This isn't a great performance by any means. The film doesn't really allow for greatness, but it is pretty damn good. Gosling is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. While his performance as the troubled young Henry is nowhere near the same league as his breakout in Half Nelson, there is much to be applauded in his work here. He's believable in a film that sometimes (purposefully) is not. He can be devastating in one look, a skill he has shown in other work. He has lots of devastating looks to give in Stay because the poor guy's depressed as hell thinking he's going to hell for something he did or will do. Henry is also always able to draw you in even when he's being cryptic, as he often is. And Befuddlement is present here as well. He's kind of a cool looking outsider here in more ways than one. And Gosling makes all these things ring true. He may scream, "CONFLICTED YOUTH!", but it's such a equisite howling that I won't fault the guy.

The only other thing that really needs rambling about is the direction. This is going to be a love it or hate it part of the equation for many viewers, but I really loved what Marc Forster does with his material here. While his visual style and direction might seem overly indulgent to some, I saw it as very fitting and telling of the reality of the film. It fits like the ending fits - better for some than for others. But when the ending clicks, I think the other is almost certain to as well. Transitions are creative here, but may get a bit repetitive. They can be maddening when watching the film for the first time. However, they help create a cohesiveness for the film as a whole rather than just a sum of its very strange parts.

P.S. - If you can figure out what the color yellow signifies, let me know.

***1/2

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Way of the Gun

Note to reader: this film does not warrant this long of a review, but when I sat down to write it, I discovered I had a lot to say about it. So, if you give up midway through, I understand.



Rewatching The Way of the Gun after a two or three year break in between allowed me to view the film with a fresh perspective. It is not as strong of a film as I originally thought, but I still really like the film. The flaws are more glaring now, but strengths are clearer as well.

The Way of the Gun is the directoral debut of The Usual Suspects Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. It flopped and McQuarrie hasn't really worked much since. That's a shame because he shows a lot of promise with this movie. His skills as a screenwriter are already recognized (you know, with that gold guy statue), and they are on display here. Like The Usual Suspects, there are lots of creative lines that are ripe for quoting. Unlike The Usual Suspects, they do not always work within the context of the movie. When the lines do work, they're great. When they don't work, they are a bump out of the reality of the film. The film works so hard to force the crime movie genre dialogue that it sometimes shows its strained effort rather than playing seamlessly (i.e. - "I promise you a day of reckoning that you won't live long enough to never forget."). But there are some wonderful spots of dialogue that play to McQuarrie's strengths, particularly a scene with Benicio Del Toro's kidnapper and James Caan's "bagman" sharing a cup of coffee and discussing the sorry state of the common criminal ("These days, they want to be criminals more than they want to commit crime."). Another strong scene, definitely Phillippe's best scene in the film, is a conversation with Del Toro vaguely about conscience and the wages of sin.

But there are those awkward scenes as well. I'll chalk up much of this awkwardness to some performances. Taye Diggs doesn't really handle gritty dialogue well. He rings false as an always professional, ruthless bodyguard. He seems miscast. I'll admit, the guy is charismatic, but any talent he may have is absent in the role.

McQuarrie wants to write a gritty movie, and he mostly succeeds. Everybody in the film has questionable morals, with most of the characters playing either emotionally numb or emotionally conflicted low-lifes in either nice suits and dress shirts or thrift store shirts and nine dollar hair cuts. While this could have made it very difficult to root for anyone, McQuarrie writes his two main characters complexly enough to make me care.

The locales, especially when the setting moves to Mexico, also lend their hands to the style. A dirty brothel and shoddy motel and bar can't help but set the tone for the shady dealings that take place.

McQuarrie is also a strong plotter (if that's a word). The plot is complicated with interesting conflicts both personal and professionally amongst the characters. The conflicts created actually make the plot seem much more complicated than it really is, but that isn't as bad thing. It's really a basic kidnapping movie, but one set up very well.

The cinematography also shows off a interesting eye for mise en cine. There's some frontality, lighting choices, and framing that really holds the action well. Some of the brief quiet, still moments really stood out to me such as Phillippe and the very pregnant Juliette Lewis sharing a snadwich in a stolen van, Lewis riding an elevator with her bodyguards, and Del Toro mulling over the weight of the situation during a c-section happening right next him.

The strength of this movie is in part the plotting and characterizations, but largely the performances of two of its actors. Benicio Del Toro is great, playing a older, wiser, more experienced criminal somewhat mentoring his friend, "associate," and fellow criminal played by Ryan Phillippe. He almost always dominates his scenes with Phillippe even though his character is much more reserved, smooth, and quiet. No one in the film handles the dialogue better than Del Toro. It rolls off his tongue naturally, fortifying his low-life as a fully-realized performance.

This film is also notable because it features a wonderful performance by James Caan, who since this film was released in 2000, has been stuck in TV land in Las Vegas, which is, as one would imagine, lackluster. He plays with and against type, playing his usual tough guy persona, but with the twist that it's a aged tough guy whose old fashioned means of operation cast him in a bad light when two young, modern bodyguards convince their employer he is past his prime. The role might mirror his own career when older actors known for their out of date personas have to prove themselves as relevant. And he does. He's still a tough guy with many of the film's best scenes. It's fun to see Caan act again. He's pretty good at it.

Phillippe is the other lead, and his character adds moral conviction to the mix. His criminal is an interesting character, preaching the mission statement of his partnership in a voice over in the beginning, though his character slowly sheds his certainty of the necessity of their livelihood. He gets a nice speech I mentioned earlier in this review that stands out, but quite a bit of his performance is incredibly forced. I like Phillippe, and he certainly has improved as an actor (Breach, Crash), but I wonder how much better this film could have been with a different actor like Mark Ruffalo or Edward Norton, though their ages do not fit the part.

The theme of the film is making amends for your sins. It isn’t hit over the head of the viewer, and I actually had to do some thinking about what the theme was. But it was there the whole time in plain sight. These are bad people and their sins are many, but they are granted the chance to do something right. The question raised is: does one thing done right fix all that was done wrong.? And the film’s answer is: don’t expect anything in the way of redemption.

***