Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Savages

I had heard mixed reviews for this movie for a while, but I read the script for my screenwriting class and really enjoyed it. The movie was its own kind of pleasure. I think since I can relate to having a loved one in a nursing home with dementia, the character echoed my parents in ways I couldn't see before. The guilt. The awkward, heartbreaking goodbyes after short visits. The struggle to see your parents weak and frail and dying. And family. Another family movie that speaks to the strange ties that bind. Thick blood that sticks to everything even when it hurts. This is strong writing. This is strong acting. Laura Linney has her own brand of theatricity, but she is, to borrow a classic critic cliche, a winning performer. Her acting is specific to her and I can say with a smile that she played her character in a way no other actress could have. She's not imitating anyone. And after seeing Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his spectrum of quality performances this year (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Charlie Wilson's War), I'd have to say that his work as John Savage is my favorite. It's not the gritty drama of BTDKYD, but it offers its own kind of drama. The chemistry between Hoffman, Linney, and the fine Phillip Bosco as their father is palpable. He's able to create a conflicted character that easily could have turned into the "evil brother". Instead, there was a helpless sadness to the guy that seemed all too familiar. There's comedy, but this is really a drama through and through. And rewarding at that.


Gone Baby Gone

This film started out like an above average Law and Order episode, but eventually found its footing starting into the second act. The stakes kept rising - to the point where irreversible consequences were ahead of every choice. And it's a thriller that thinks. If you don't have something to talk about on the way home from this picture, you weren't paying attention. The way the pieces fit together might feel a bit contrived, but it makes a lasting impact unlike many of the more heralded films from last year. Casey Affleck turns in another work of skill (though The Assassination of Jesse James: BTCRF is superior just for the sheer amount of nervous energy and loneliness the guy gave off). The character allows him room to work. There are contradictions that make the guy unique, but a moral truth at the center that makes him easy to root for no matter which number door he chooses at the end. Michelle Monaghan provides stellar supporting work. I've been looking out for her since her turns in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Mission Impossible III (though I'm not going to touch Heartbreak Kid or Made of Honor). Like her character, Monaghan has the talent to back up her looks. More than just a pretty face. I have to say that Amy Ryan was good, but I probably wouldn't have noticed her without all the hoopla around her performance. And Ed Harris chews his fair share of scenery. And the dialogue is unsure of itself. There's a lot of you-don't-know-me posturing. But the filmmakers are sure of the story and how to package it into a pressure cooker. And it's a doozy.


Rocket Science

I enjoyed the characters and the way that the director respected them enough to infuse them with quirk and qualities that ground them in familiarity. The situations were outside my realm of experience, but the feelings of awkward youth are all too familiar and seem to keep rolling into adulthood. And that's why these coming of age tales will keep me coming back for more. Rocket Science has a winning protagonist constantly in over his head. It makes for a good mix of comedy and just the right amount of angst. It works. Writer/director Jeffry Blitz has an ear for fast talking teens on the other end of the teen spectrum from Juno. And more importantly, he has the memory of one who has had circles talked around them.


The Fall

A ho-hum summer found a high-point (after Chicago trip) with The Fall. I was pleasantly surprised at how involved I was in the story. Its director, Tarsem, is indulgent and visually intelligent, but I felt a connection to his film's characters unlike my closest comparison - Pan's Labyrinth. While Pan's Labyrinth is superior is so many ways, my gut reaction to The Fall stands out. I had invested in the two leads (Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru) to the point where the spectacular visuals were secondary to their fates in the real world. Catinca in particular was wonderful. I haven't seen a child more natural on screen at that age in a long time. The chemistry between the leads carries the film even in the midst of all the razzle dazzle. And it does dazzle. Even when the dialogue in the story-within-the-story plays flat, the grand spectacle overcomes. The film offers some unsolved mysteries that fueled a confusing conversation on the long drive home, but only fuels my desire for another viewing.


Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull

This will be the second time I've written a post for this - the first has disappeared into internet limbo. I'll make it short. I had fun. I had low expectations for this installment of the dusty franchise that were surpassed. I laughed (sometimes outloud) and was thrilled. None of the new characters made much of an impression, but I was impressed at how spry Indiana was (or his stunt men). I think that if all the naysayers would stop and think of all the pre-alien action in the film, they'd see it for what it was - an okay version of the hollywood big machine. The film may be over-concerned with it's own history, but for a casual night at the movies, it entertains.


The Incredible Hulk

Several things have become clear during recent weeks. One of which is that I am one of a ever diminishing few that have fond feelings for Ang Lee's The Hulk (2003). Marvel is still smarting from the audience backlash for what I thought was a step forward in character development in the comic genre. Take out mutant poodles and Nick Nolte and you've got yourself a really good movie.
The Incredible Hulk (2007) is the antithesis of the its predecessor. It tries to straddle both priorities - character and audience pleasing action. It ends up just doing okay on both accounts. The talented cast is given little to do except run or look frightened. The dialogue is average. The action is promising until the CGI Hulk starts to take center stage. It all culminates in a CGI blowout as The Hulk takes on his uber-villain, The Abomination. Truth is that I couldn't muster any interest in these two CGI goliaths colliding. I checked my watch. A CGI-heavy battle can be done well, the obviously CGI'd Kong and dinosaurs of 2005's King Kong left me riveted. Note to team Marvel: watch Iron Man again...and King Kong (for how to do a beauty and the beast cave scene right)...and any Edward Norton movie to see how to utilize your star. Kudos though to the heart monitor for building suspense. It almost worked.


Margot at the Wedding

The cast of Margot at the Wedding all offer remarkable performances in a somewhat unremarkable movie. I've never seen these actors perform these kind of roles before. There aren't really many of these kind of roles around. Like The Squid and the Whale, Margot spares no sore or bruise unturned in its family. Watching group dynamics is rarely this brutal or honest. It's a naturally flowing movie, but didn't give me that emotional payoff that Baumbach's other film's did. I cringed at the horror in a different way that I did during The Descent, but it was no less difficult to watch. There are layers there that will continue to reveal themselves on subsequent viewings (just check out the conversation with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Baumbach on the DVD for starters), but for now I can offer only a tepid intial response. Its revelations lack awe.


Speed Racer

It's hard to praise the Wachowski's after their dismantling of their once great Matrix franchise, so I'll keep myself restrained in this mild praise. Speed Racer is fun. It offers very little than entertainment, but I think that's priority number two (after box office dollars). The film is cartoony and maybe a bit too concerned with the antics of the youngest member of the Racer clan and his chimp. But Speed Racer dazzles. It has a look all its own and it's confidant in its handling of the world. The acting is suitable for the source material and demographic audience, but doesn't really utilize any of its talented cast. The dialogue isn't great, but it's not really a dialogue film. The film is a tad long. But it works. The races are far more exciting than I imagined they could be (when it was clear what was happening on screen). A fine one-watcher.


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

I enjoyed the acting. It's the best I've ever seen Hawke or Hoffman (save for Capote), though they do slide a bit into act-ting mode at times. I'll chalk up to bravado. As for the story, it offers little surprises but has drama in spades. It's hard to see flawed people do awful things and try to make amends for these awful things with more awful deeds (it hurts to watch sometimes), but I felt for them. By the time the film reaches it's inevitable final note, I was emotionally drained - the film pours out itself, but offers no consolation for its audience. It's a difficult film that struggles to clean itself up after a messy third act, but it's a acting hammer from the acting gods. A throw back to dour character dramas from sporadic history.


The Getaway (1972)

I've long subscribed to the Hollywood Steve McQueen myth: that cool can equate talent. That's why I keep checking out the guy's filmography. I've actually never really taken to any of his films, though The Great Escape is entertaining. The Getaway, however, is confounding for its misogynistic Steve McQueen character. The women exist in this movie to serve their criminal counterparts. And they're never good enough. To make matters worse, Ali McGraw offers little more than her pretty face to her role. She's wooden and bland. The whole film follows suit. The direction is uninspired. The violence may have seen daring at the time, but it's boring here. Very 70's. Red paint-by-numbers. My first Peckinpah experience was not good.


George Washington

I love David Gordon Green. I had to see his first flick. I was a bit disappointed. The story and execution were classic Green, but the film lacked the definitive emotional punch that I got from his other films. A novice cast shows some nerves and growing pains in the acting process. But George Washington is original and offers several scenes of refined beauty in its unrefined world. It's daring in subtle ways, never flashy in its pursuit of the interiors of its characters.


The Descent

Good Golly, Miss Molly! What a fright. I watched this in the dark with the shallow, heavy breathing of my aging canine in the background. I was pleased with most everything here. Good characters and surprising development and staging for a horror film. I was constantly on edge. I cringed a lot. I enjoyed the film, but wonder what the film could have been with a better cast. Everyone does fine work, but a few knockout performances would have enhanced the atmopshere a bit. Great for a B-level horror flick, good for anything. Gore is involved - you've been warned. Also, kudos to the writer-director for writing a group of believable and interesting heroines into the genre. There were also countless times that I stopped to marvel at how awesome the camera work was. Tight, claustrophobic angles and locations abound.

Might be the scariest movie I've ever watched.


28 Weeks Later

I gave this film another shot. I realized I hadn't given it a fair chance the first time around. I enjoyed it more the second time. The complaint of gore over character development is still relevant, but this is a solid sequel to the amazing first film. I guess where the first film offers hope at the end, this film offers none. "It's not all fucked," Jim said to Selene. The 28 Weeks guys say different. I guess I want the hope...and the character development. Weeks does offer real scares and a frantic pace that keeps the thrills constant.


Standing Still

I am in favor of hip young cast ensemble movies, especially when some of them are talented. But in the case of Standing Still, talent is useless as the cast is made to go through the comedic/heartstring/growing-up-is-hard-to-do motions. None of the characters or thespians made an impression in this breezy film. No one is given the chance to (save maybe for Ethan Embry's brief time on screen as a over-eager children's motivational guru). There's no excuse for wasting Amy Adams.


Iron Man

It's so pleasing to see a fun, competant superhero blockbuster. Witty, natural dialogue and solid performances from the accomplished cast help create worthwhile characters worth spending time with Downey, Jr. outside the suit. Still, they found a way to let some stilted, forced final battle dialogue creep in. A minor flaw in a very good diversion. The filmmakers made a good movie out of an okay-to-lame comic character.


Short and Sweet Updates

I've neglected this site for far too long. I'm gonna throw out some reviews, so get ready.