Friday, April 24, 2009
Transsiberian was the not the nail-biter I expected from writer director Brad Anderson, but it was a tense thriller worth checking out if you have patience for plot and characters to develop. Anderson was the filmmaker behind The Machinist. That film made a big impression on me to the point where I'll check out anything Anderson makes from here on out. Transsiberian, his most recent film, doesn't shake me to the core the way watching Christian Bale waste away physically and mentally did, but it does offer another excellent lead performance from Emily Mortimer. Her plight is a traveler's nightmare's ditch that only gets deeper as she stands quivering with a shovel wondering if she'll ever make it home alive. Transsiberian is not Hostel. It is not Saw. Its scares and thrills are earned. And even when the plot zig zags haphazardly to a close, Anderson knows how to satisfy his viewers at the end. I've been thinking "Hitchcock" since I've seen the movie, but maybe that's just because of the Russians, trains, and women under duress. And honestly (don't stone me in town square) I'd rather watch an Anderson movie than Hitchcock's best.
There's nothing mind blowing about State of Play, save for the fact that it is a tightly plotted, well-acted, all-around solid thriller. I kept going back into my head during the movie to compare and contrast with All the President's Men. Both seem geared toward that Watch Dog journalism heroism that made Woodward and Bernstein icons both of their profession and popular culture. Russell Crowe is not nearly as noble a man as either of the Washington Post reporters. That's because while the conspiracy in questions is on a grand scale it is on more personal level for our hero. His old pal Ben Affleck as U.S. congressman is caught up in a scandal that may or may not be of his own doing. The other theories point toward a soldier-for-hire corporation under the congressman's scrutiny. The situation allows the filmmakers to comment on the current state of the flailing newspaper medium, corporate politics, corporate espionage, and other hot-button topics. But again, it's the personal interests of Crowe's potbellied reporter that make for an above average thriller. Ben Affleck, that much maligned actor, has long been a guilty pleasure of mine, though I'll stand proud next to him now that he's taking his career seriously again. He CAN act, and when he chooses the right projects (State of Play, Changing Lanes, Dogma, Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy) to allow him to flex those acting muscles, I'll be there to watch. There's no performance here that's going to get any award season attention, but it's a great cast doing solid work on a good project that deserves attention from adult audiences. Three screenwriters worked on the script at different stages, all of whom are writers of note. Tony Gilroy of the Bourne franchise, Duplicity, and Michael Clayton fame took over after the director wanted to separate this version from the BBC version. Billy Ray of Flightplan, Breach, and Shattered Glass fame made unknown contributions. But it's ole Matthew Michael Carnahan of Lions for Lambs and The Kingdom fame who brings his liberal politics to the project. I'm not against what State of Play has to say about politics, but it's not surprising that a conservative republican senator is a shady bastard in a Carnahan script. The script's twists are surprising, but if you really want to surprise me, present the issue objectively.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
A brave turn for Gus Van Sant, not for the film's honesty or subject matter, but rather for allowing the story to unfold according to its subjects needs rather than experimenting with minimalism and vague profundities of past pictures under his direction. He doesn't play it safe by any means visually or thematically, but he shows restraint where restraint is due. Though it only follows 8 (?) years in the life of Harvey Milk, Dustin Lance's screenplay and Sean Penn's performance paint a detailed portrait of Milk's essence. He's alive on screen. When first viewing the trailer, I began to worry that Penn's performance would be overly mannered (that he would play at the character rather than "being" Milk) as I've seen in other roles. That worry was unearned. It's really a great performance. I was also impressed by James Franco and James Brolin in supporting roles. The hoopla surrounding their roles seems a bit much though. As supporting actors and characters, they serve well to tell the story. In my opinion however, recognition should be given to the best performance in a supporting role, not the best supporting performance (best at supporting to be more specific). A small gripe that takes nothing from the film. It's a great biopic that never glamorizes, play down, or sensationalizes for its own sake. And while it's bias on homosexual rights and morals is clear, I did not find it offensive. While Dan White is clearly wrong and disturbed, I sympathized with his plight and confusion - to the film and fimmakers' credits.
The Newton Boys makes for an interesting story, but not an entertaining movie. While it's clear fun was had making the film, the thrills are scarce beyond that notion. A whimsical entertainment along the lines of The Sting seems to be the goal, but Matthew McConnaughey is not up to the task as lead. He's playing at charisma instead of exuding it, and I've seen his real charisma come through before. Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Nonfrio, while both fine actors, fail to make impressions as two of the brothers. Though their crime spree spans years and various locations, there isn't more for these performers to do other than play types and stick to them. They don't really change. Skeet Ulrich, whom strikes me as the least talented of the top-billed cast, does some good work as the reluctant but loyal youngest brother. In the end, I didn't care in their fates. And rather than rooting for their success (as in such films with charismatic criminals as Catch Me if You Can and The Sting), I thought they deserved all the punishment they could get - a death sentence for this type of film.
Luc Besson is hit and miss for me. I thoroughly enjoy The Professional and Unleashed, but can't really stand The Fifth Element nor have more than mild amusement from Angel A. I won't even watch The Transporter films. But I had hopes for Taken. Liam Neeson can act. His performance in Les Miserables is astonishing (also check out Geoffrey Rush in the same film). The movie was a bona fide box office hit. However, there isn't much more to enjoy in Taken other than Liam Neeson cracking skulls. The prospect of Neeson as action hero ends up to be more promising than the result. He is a bear of a man and a true intimidating force, but the story and/or dialogue lacks heft. To make matters worse, the film takes 30-odd minutes to set up his skills and relationship with his daughter when 5-10 solidly written minutes would have served the film better. Awkward exposition through needless secondary characters and a pointless interlude with a pop star detract from the positive elements. It's a swift moving ride once it gets going. I can sympathize with Neeson's character's goal - to get his daughter back at all costs, but it seems as though he leaves behind so many innocent victims along the way. And I was left cold by the tied-with-a-bow ending. Everything is not really okay, Mr. Besson. It most definitely is not.
I can include Short Circuit in that same 80s category as Gremlins - kitch classic and nothing more - if not for Johnny 5. He (or it) is a more interesting creation for me than Gizmo and his more vagrant pals. For all his corniness and glee, he was entertaining. Sadly, Steve Guttenburg and Ally Sheedy are void of chemistry and charisma in their roles, but they're really secondary to the main event - ole Johnny 5. For him, a passing grade.
Whatever questions or wariness I may have held after my first viewing of Slumdog Millionaire are banished by my second viewing last night. For the first time in a good long while, if only for a moment, I forget who and where I was. The moment ended when overly zealous vocal enthusiasts reacted, but to be so immersed in the story was bliss. Also, able to take note of new elements, I found new admiration for the editing - not only structurally cohesive, but also utilizing seamless transitions both eye catching for the trained eye and clean enough as though not to draw attention. A masterwork. I was afraid I'd fall into Slumdog backlash, but I'll save my uncertainties now for my second Ben Button experience.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Doubt is the explosive acting clinic you'd expect from its cast. It's almost pitch-perfect, save for director-writer's John Patrick Shanley's inept metaphors hitting his audience over the head. It's not enough us to see for the winds to literally change and lights to go out, but Meryl Streep keeps telling us. And I understand these metaphors would have more effect on the stage, the story's original medium, but it's a film and it's okay to adjust. That gripe having been made, it's still a potent film about doubt and the forces that pull us toward either spirit on opposite shoulders. For Amy Adams, it's Streep vs. Hoffman, but it's never clear which power is wearing the horns, so to speak. And bravo for that, because I am still mulling over the ambiguities weeks later.
Revolutionary Road is the disintegration of marriage and the hopes that lead two people into that union. Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet turn in Award-caliber performances free of pretense and ego. Their fights are intense ands frequent, and in those moments the two performers are at their best. Leonardo Dicaprio has never been better. He's raw, stripped down to his nerves and regrets while trying to maintain some of the manliness he showed off in The Departed and Gangs of New York. Winslet is as good as I've seen her, save maybe for her work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the past and in my estimation, she's been an actress of fantastic spurts who falls under the spell of highly mannered acting. She keeps the manners to a minimum here, and her performance benefits from the absence. Thematically, Revolutionary Road is devastating. I felt awful after watching it, and perhaps so much so because I was so captivated by the increasing sadness and madness of the couple on screen. They're electric to watch together, and I'll take this melodrama over melodrama on a sinking boat any day.