Tuesday, January 29, 2008

New DVD releases January 29

By now, everybody knows the story of The Invasion. By that, I don’t just mean the plot of the movie, which is familiar to anyone who has seen Don Siegel’s cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Phil Kaufman’s hit remake of the 1970’s, or Abel Ferrara’s underrated 1993 shocker Body Snatchers, or Robert Rodriguez’s mediocre knock-off The Faculty (though whether it’s his fault or writer Kevin Williamson’s remains somewhat unclear). I mean how Warner Brothers was unhappy with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s version of the movie, and brought in the Wachowski brothers and director James McTeigue to make it more to their liking. The end result pleased neither critics nor audiences, but it really isn’t that bad. While the formula is tweaked with somewhat (instead of a alien clone of the person, the change comes from within), the basic hook of the story remains the same – something from space (this time caused by a space shuttle crash) lands on earth, and the result is people start saying things like “My husband is not my husband,” and before you know it, everyone except a few hardy souls are emotionless pod people. The hardy souls in this one include Carol (Nicole Kidman), a psychiatrist whose patient (Veronica Cartwright, who was in the Kaufman version as one of the hardy souls) is the first to wonder about her husband, Ben (Daniel Craig), a scientist who has a crush on her, and his colleague Dr. Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), who, of course, is the one to discover the correlation between sleep and the aliens taking over.
Both Siegel and Kaufman’s films relied not just on scares, but a sociological element (depending on your point of view, Siegel was skewing either Eisenhower conformity or feeding into Communist paranoia, while Kaufman took on the whole 70’s self-help movement) which made their films deeper and more frightening, while Ferrara and Rodriguez went for straightforward shocks (Ferrara did it successfully – Meg Tilly as a pod person is as creepy today as it was back in 1994 – Rodriguez less so). Hirschbiegel is going in the former direction – on the film’s most successful level, it suggests what the world would be life with a truly epidemic viral infection (the alien is passed along either by contact – Carol’s ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam), a specialist with the CDC, touches a piece of the shuttle wreckage and becomes infected – or orally – he ends up spitting on Carol). There’s also a nifty, somewhat underdeveloped stab at having the pod people influence real events going on now (peace in the Middle East!), which is contrary to the thesis of the film, set down by Russian diplomat Yorish (Roger Rees), who seems to think we’re at our most human when we’re at our most destructive. And there are some creepy scenes, as when Carol manages to escape onto a subway train, and is warned by a passenger not to show emotion to fool everyone else.
The problem is the film seems to have been itself taken over by the pod people. I didn’t mind the brief flash forward scenes; to me, they added to the creepiness. And the happy ending isn’t entirely unexpected; after all, the only version to date that is able to go all the way with an unhappy ending is Kaufman’s version (even Siegel’s version had a tacked-on ending with the army ready to fight the aliens). But all of the previous versions, even the Rodriguez version, had a core of people we were meant to identify with, and were sad to see turn into clones. Kidman, Craig, and Wright are gifted actors, but they have nothing to work with, though Kidman gets to do the controlled panic she’s done before. It’s as if the studio sucked all the life out of them, and replaced it with the story of Carol wanting to protect her son Oliver (Jackson Bond), and while it makes sense plot-wise (because of a childhood disease, Oliver is immune from the alien), it seems like a very conventional resolution.
Joe Menendez’s Ladrón que Roba a Ladrón may be a knock-off of con/heist movies like Ocean’s 11 (the new version) and The Sting, but at least it’s a fairly entertaining knockoff. As usual, the con men here are merely trying to bilk a bad guy rather than an innocent, although in this case, the bad guy has been bilking the innocent. Mocte Valdez (Saul Lisazo) is a former thief who now bilks innocent Latinos, mostly illegals (the film is set in L.A.), with infomercials selling fake cure-all products. His former colleague Emilio (Miguel Varoni) wants revenge for that, although, of course, his rage is more personal. The twist here is, as his partner Alejandro (Fernando Colunga) explains, their normal crew won’t do it (they don’t accept Emilio wanting 50% of the cut on this deal), so they use illegals that aren’t thieves but are skilled at the positions they need. They include a mechanic (Ruben Garfias) and his daughter (Ivonne Montero), a construction worker (Gabriel Soto), and an actor (Oscar Torres) who can pretend to be a union official to organize the workers at Valdez’s complex (when he confesses he’s from SAG, the workers excitedly wonder if Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts will picket with them). Movies like this, of course, depend on how smoothly the plot runs, and surprising us at the end. On the latter front, Menendez disappoints somewhat – I guessed two of the major twists – but he does fine on the former. This isn’t as deep as, say, Nine Queens (another Spanish con movie, which had a more Mamet edge to it), but it’s fun.
Ever since seeing him as Michael Douglas’ obnoxious son in the deadly remake of The In-Laws, I’ve always dismissed Ryan Reynolds as the poor man’s Jason Lee. However, he has shown possibilities in talent lately; he was one of the few good parts of Smokin’ Aces, and he’s not bad in the lead role of John August’s The Nines. As he proved in his script for Go, August does like to play around with the story, and like that one, this movie actually has three stories in one: in the first Reynolds is Gary, an actor who is under house arrest after being drunk and disorderly, the second has him as Gavin, the creator of a TV show vying for a spot on the air, and in the last one, he’s Gabriel, a video game designer who may be controlling all of them. Hope Davis (a flirty neighbor in the first, a network exec in the second, and a jogger in the third) and Melissa McCarthy (Gary’s publicist in the first, the star of Gavin’s show in the second, and Gabriel’s wife in the third) appear in all three sections as well – in fact, all three stories revolve around Reynolds being torn between the two of them. After the intriguing set-up of the first segment, and the dead-on satire in the second (it’s shot as if it was a Project Greenlight-like documentary about the pilot), the film does falter in the third segment, and also becomes somewhat pretentious (what with language about “the creator”). However, it’s at least an entertaining mindbender, and well performed. I always thought McCarthy laid it on a bit thick as Sookie, the chef who was best friends with Lorelai Gilmore in TV’s Gilmore Girls, but she gets to combine her sweet nature with an edge here, and it gives her role some bite. And Davis, as usual, effortlessly shines – she’s rarely been as sexy as she is the first segment, and her performance in the second is on a par with Sigourney Weaver in the earlier film The TV Set. As for Reynolds, this is the first time I’ve had a sense of him paying attention to the other actors, instead of grandstanding. He develops actual chemistry with Davis and McCarthy, and has a presence without them as well.
This week’s major re-release is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. While it was a modest hit upon its initial release in 1993 (making about $70 million), it has since become a cult classic, and many consider this Bill Murray’s best performance until his turn in Rushmore five years later (Murray himself considers it and Rushmore as two of the best scripts he ever read). Somewhat surprisingly, and sadly, it’s also the last time frequent collaborators Murray and Ramis (Ramis wrote or co-wrote five films of Murray’s, and appeared in three of them) worked together on a film; they stopped speaking to each other after the film was wrapped. The film itself is a good example of the yin/yang working relationship the two had; Murray gave Ramis’ comedy an edge, while Ramis brought out Murray’s charm and sweetness (Wes Anderson, Murray’s latest collaborator, has drawn out his melancholy side, and filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch have followed suit). As Phil, the weatherman who reluctantly covers the Groundhog Day celebration and finds himself living the same day over and over, Murray uses his usual deadpan comic style to a deeper effect than in his previous movies with Ramis. Whereas his characters in, say, Stripes and the two Ghostbusters movies (to say nothing of Caddyshack) were overgrown boys, Phil is undoubtedly an adult, and is charming to no one who knows him very well (his “performance” as the weatherman is the only charm he has. As with Scrooged, this makes his redemption all the more touching, because Murray really works at it, rather than coasting on any sentimental feelings. And he has genuine chemistry with Andie MacDowell as the producer he falls in love with (it helps she tones down her mannerisms). When I first saw the movie in theaters, I thought the film became too pat and sentimental at the end (an admitted weakness of Ramis throughout his career), but as the quality of mainstream comedies has dimmed in recent years, that sweetness seems more earned all the time. This 15th anniversary edition features some new documentaries and deleted scenes.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Oscar nominations, and a final word on Heath Ledger

Although there are several reasons why the Oscar nominations this year are not being greeted with the enthusiasm/derision as they usually are – the writer’s strike, the awards fatigue that always sets in, the fact there are few, if any, “audience-friendly” films among the major nominees, and, of course, the tragedy of Heath Ledger’s death – it’s still the Oscars, and, for me anyway, it’s still fun to put in my two cents, so here we go:


Tommy Lee Jones: Let me preface by saying that I didn’t like In the Valley of Elah at all; whatever you think of the spate of Iraq-themed movies of the past few months (and to come), I think Elah was one of the more facile examples of that genre. However, Jones gave an honest performance in the movie, particularly because he wasn’t afraid to make the character unlikable.

Laura Linney: One of the knocks against the Oscar acting nominees is they traditionally involve some kind of gimmick. Whatever you think of the Best Actress nominees this year (and I’ll be debating the merits of one of them below), four of them undeniably have a gimmick aspect to them: Cate Blanchett was playing an historical figure, Julie Christie must deal with Alzheimer’s, Marion Cotillard was playing a drug addict and had to have a heavy makeup job to resemble her character, and Ellen Page was dealing with pregnancy. Linney’s character had no such afflictions – sure, her father was suffering dementia, but she was the caretaker, not the one suffering. And she did nothing obvious in her performance. She just played this character in an unsentimental way, again not making her likable, but making her believable and true. It’s not the type of acting that usually gets recognized, and for most of this awards season, she hasn’t been, so it’s nice to see Linney getting recognized here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: I would have understood if Hoffman was ignored by the Oscars simply because the voters this year couldn’t choose which of his excellent performances deserved to be there. Was it his outwardly confident but inwardly sad and raging payroll manager whose robbery plan goes horribly wrong in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead? Or was it his concerned but self-involved literature professor forced to take care of his dad in The Savages? Personally, I think the voters got it right in choosing his performance as Gust Avrakotos, the CIA agent who helped Charlie Wilson run his war. From his first moment on screen (where he gets the classic line “Excuse me, what the fuck!”), he owns this movie.

Hal Holbrook: Yes, it’s a sentimental nod to a respected actor who’s never been nominated before. Yes, his character in Into the Wild can be seen as a cliché. But Holbrook never played his role as a cliché, and that’s what matters.

Amy Ryan: I’ve been a fan of Ryan’s ever since I saw her on TV’s The Wire, and I was afraid she’d be overshadowed by her more high-profile co-stars. She takes the stock role of the junkie mom and adds anger and vulnerability to the role.

Tilda Swinton: There have been plenty of corporate villains in films, but none like the one Swinton played in Michael Clayton. She may appear to be unruffled, but she’s really unsure of herself. And the decisions she makes in the film come less out of any cold-bloodedness on her part then on her need to please her boss. While Swinton at times struggles with her accent, that’s the only false step in an otherwise note-perfect performance.

Tamara Jenkins and Sarah Polley: Quite frankly, I was hoping one of these talented women would be nominated for Best Director, since they both did terrific jobs on that score. But I’m glad they both got a screenplay nod for taking different stylistic approaches to a similar theme – how we confront aging in this country, or more to the point, how we don’t confront it.

“Falling Slowly” – Shoot ‘Em Up, my least favorite movie of the year, could have been nominated for an Oscar, for all I cared, as long as the most transcendent song of the year got nominated. I was going to kick in my TV set if it didn’t.

No End in Sight: Once again, this was a fine year for documentaries, but this one was the best on all levels, technically and thematically. Without grandstanding, it made a clear case as to what’s happened to Iraq, and us, since we invaded them.

There Will be Blood: It goes without saying how I’m thrilled my favorite movie of the year garnered eight nominations, including Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.


Atonement: It would be uncharitable for me to suggest this was nominated for Best Picture because it was a sop to those who only like tasteful literary adaptations, because I’ve liked many of the tasteful literary adaptations that have shown up in that category (The English Patient, for one, was my favorite movie of the year it won Best Picture). This film, however, had too much clanging symbolism (sometimes literally, like the typewriter keys) and show-off scenes (the war section, particularly that tracking shot) to be effective as a movie, let alone as an adaptation.

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age: I think Cate Blanchett is the best actress to come to Hollywood in the last 10 years or so, and she fully deserved her nomination for playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Her work in this movie is another story. Granted, it’s not entirely her fault; the movie itself is awful, and dragged other talented performers down in its wake besides her (Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush, and Samantha Morton, to name a few). But she was melodramatic and unconvincing where she had been anything but in the first movie.

Casey Affleck: This year, we saw Affleck give a terrific performance that shows he can finally escape out of his brother’s shadow. I’m talking, of course, about his work in Gone Baby Gone. In the Jesse James movie, on the other hand, I know I’m in the minority on this, but I found him mannered and repetitive.

Dario Marianelli: Again, one of the main reasons why I didn’t like Atonement was that pounding typewriter, which was in perfect complement to the thudding score that hit us over the head with the theme of the film.

That’s who I think shouldn’t have been nominated. In part two, here’s who I think was unjustly ignored:

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Granted, it had a small studio behind it, who couldn’t make sure Academy members actually saw the thing. But this was one of the great comeback stories of the year: 83 year old Sidney Lumet comes back after over a decade of either bad (Guilty as Sin) or worthy but flawed (Night Falls on Manhattan) films to make a dazzler that stands up with his best films (Prince of the City, Serpico), and both he and the film get ignored. At the least, he and writer Kelly Masterson should have been nominated.

Into the Wild: The speculation seems to be the poor showing this film had among the nominees was because of some kind of backlash against Sean Penn. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’s too bad. This was his most mature work as a writer/director, and his screenplay, at the least, should have been nominated. And granted, the Best Actor category is always a tough category to break into, and none of the nominees gave bad performances. But Emile Hirsch broke out of his usual teen roles to give a gutsy and compelling performance (which he lost weight for). Also, Catherine Keener provided a great balance to the movie with her sympathetic portrayal of a hippie who reaches out to Hirsch, and I wish she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Zodiac: It’s being said now David Fincher’s film about the infamous serial killer got shut out of the Oscars because (1) it was released too early in the year, and (2) it had to compete with too many other dark-themed movies this year. That’s probably true, and too bad, because at the very least, Jim Vanderbilt should have been recognized for his script, Robert Downey Jr. for his work as the crime reporter who becomes spiritually broken while covering the case, and Harris Savides for his breathtaking cinematography.

Angelina Jolie: I’m sorry, but whatever you think of Jolie in real life, I think she disappeared into the role of Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart. There were no histrionics, no “Oscar-bait” scenes (a meaningless term anyway), just an honest portrayal of one woman trying, and failing, to rescue her husband.

Josh Brolin: Next to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, Brolin had the best year, performance wise, even if I didn’t always like the movies he did. At the very least, he should have garnered a Supporting Actor nomination for either his work in No Country for Old Men (or Best Actor, depending on what you think of his role), or his portrayal of the corrupt cop in American Gangster (which was the best performance in that overrated movie).

Leslie Mann: Whether you think Knocked Up was a funny and pointed film telling guys in their 20’s and 30’s to wake up and get over themselves or a wish fulfillment fantasy ignoring the reality of relationships and abortion, you can’t deny Mann lent this movie an edge in her portrayal of one half of a couple that has seen better days. Few scenes in movies were as compelling as the one where she gets turned away from a nightclub, and I think her work merited a Supporting Actress nomination.

Shélan O’Keefe: This was a terrific year for child actors, from Dillon Freasier in There Will Be Blood, to Edward Sanders in Sweeney Todd, and even Saoirse Ronan in Atonement, whose performance I did like. But none of them matched O’Keefe in playing a child who, through circumstance as well as temperament, becomes wiser, and sadder, beyond their years.

Jonny Greenwood and Eddie Vedder: Every time the Music Branch of the Academy takes a step forward (letting two rap songs win Best Song this decade, for instance), they take a step back, and disqualifying both Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, which added to that picture’s dread, and Vedder’s songs for Into the Wild, which evoked Chris McCandless’ rebellious spirit, qualifies as a major step back.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days: Along with the Music Branch and the Documentary Branch, the Foreign Film Branch is the one that usually sits on its brains for a living. Last year, all but one of the nominees (Water) was at the very least a good and challenging movie. Granted, I haven’t seen any of this years nominees yet, but I find it a little hard to believe any of them could be better than Cristian Mingiu’s harrowing tale of trying to get an abortion in communist Romania.

I was going to make a blog entry devoted to Heath Ledger, but there’s a lot said already. I will not speculate in any way on his death, or what may have led to it. I will add my voice to those who say a potentially fine career was sadly cut short. Whatever you thought of 10 Things I Hate About You, he actually underplayed his role as the bad boy, making him all the more charming and watchable. And he proved he was willing to jump towards more challenging roles in The Patriot, despite being saddled with a silly romance plot in that movie. He seemed adrift in the next few years after that in his starring roles (A Knight’s Tale), only able to get a chance to show his stuff in supporting roles in films like Monster’s Ball and Lords of Dogtown (where again, he was able to underplay to nice comic effect). Of course, he broke through in a big way in Brokeback Mountain as someone who repressed feelings he didn’t quite understand as if his life depended on it. Finally, while Cate Blanchett has deservedly gotten most of the praise for I’m Not There, next to her, Ledger is the best thing about it, capturing Bob Dylan’s moody charisma. He will be missed.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New DVD releases January 8

For actors who have a larger-than-life, or at least highly extroverted, persona, there’s always a danger that when they have to play a regular guy, they flatten themselves out and become one-dimensional. Sam Rockwell doesn’t have that problem in playing Brad, one half of the yuppie couple in George Ratliff’s horror/thriller Joshua. Rockwell has toned down the hipster persona that’s served him in movies like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy just enough to fit the contours of the movie. Brad is a Wall Street trader, and Rockwell’s air of confidence fits that part of him well. Even better, though, are Brad’s scenes with his family, whether it’s with his wife Abby (Vera Farmiga), trying to convince her everything will be alright with their new baby, or with his son Joshua (Jacob Korgan), being the dad who thinks everything seems cool. But when Brad’s façade cracks, as when he discovers his dog is dead, Rockwell doesn’t sentimentalize his grief either, but plays it openly. It shows Rockwell has a lot more to give if he wants.
Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the weak link to Joshua is, well, Joshua himself. Many critics thought the film went off the rails when the first half, portraying how the marriage of Brad and Abby slowly becomes undone, descended to the cheap horror stunt of the two of them discovering while their baby girl may keep them up nights, it’s Joshua they need to be worried about. But the real problem is the way Korgan plays the role. I’m perfectly willing to believe this is Ratliff’s fault, but the fact is, after five minutes with Joshua, any one in their right minds would have called the child psychologists pronto (Brad may be self-absorbed, and Abby is obviously pitched to hysteria, but they’re not stupid). I had some problems with the recent horror film The Orphanage, but at least that kid acted like a believable kid. Korgan is fine when he’s playing the piano (and admittedly, when he plays “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” at his school talent show, that was quite creepy), but it all becomes stupid pretty quickly. Oh, and the religious fanatic mother-in-law (Celia Weston) was obvious as well. Yes, the first half, dealing with the disintegration of the marriage, was tense and compelling, and while Farmiga was definitely channeling Robin Wright, she does pull it off. And Dallas Roberts has some nice moments as Abby’s brother. But overall, the movie only serves to prove indie horror films can be just as wrongheaded as the big studio ones.
Near the beginning of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Dr. Searle (Cliff Curtis), the doctor/psychiatrist on the spaceship Icarus II, is sitting in the observation room, looking at the sun from their (relatively close) vantage point, and wanting to just drink the experience in. That scene perfectly distills the essence of Boyle’s films; he wants the viewer to see the movie not as a story to watch, but as a mood piece to groove on. The problem is, more often than not, Boyle’s mood pieces only go so far before they run out of gas (exceptions being Trainspotting and 28 Days Later), and so it is with Sunshine.
Reuniting with writer Alex Garland (who wrote 28 Days Later, as well as the novel that The Beach was based on), Boyle continues his genre hopping (he’s done, among other things, a yuppie thriller (Shallow Grave), a romantic comedy (A Life Less Ordinary), and even a kids movie (Millions) with his attempt at science fiction. Icarus II is being sent to the sun to somehow re-ignite it and put an end to the chill that has descended over Earth. Besides Dr. Searle, the other astronauts include Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), the nuclear scientist (they intend to explode a nuclear bomb inside the sun), Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), the botanist (she grows the garden on the ship that provides oxygen), Trey (Benedict Wong), the navigator, and Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), the captain. Boyle and Garland basically sketch in these characters; they’re more interested not just in the ship, but the mission, or rather, the enormity of it. It’s not just the fact that they’re trying to save the earth, Boyle and Garland seem to be saying, but the fact that they’re trying to restart the source of all life. The scenes of characters just staring at the sun may not move the plot forward in any discernible way, but they make you feel what the characters are feeling, and that’s no mean feat.
The problem comes for Icarus II when it picks up a distress beacon from Icarus I, the first ship that tried this mission, which failed for an inexplicable reason. And that, regrettably, is when the movie starts to go off the rails. Boyle’s balancing act of Kubrick and Solaris (the Tarkovsky version) turns into an Event Horizon retread (which was itself a retread of other, better films), as a villain character is introduced, and things start to go haywire. Did the studio pressure Boyle and Garland into this plot turn that becomes predictable and annoying? Or is it another example of Boyle not being able to end his stories right? Whatever the reason, it’s still disappointing. You can’t really blame the actors; all of them are reasonable enough as scientists and astronauts, and no one tries to steal the movie from the other. Still, Sunshine, like Boyle’s other films, seems to burn out too quickly.
The original version of 3:10 to Yuma, by director Delmer Dawes, adapted from the short story by Elmore Leonard, featured some subtle filmmaking and not-so-subtle acting. This remake by James Mangold is the opposite. For the most part, Mangold sticks pretty close to the original story – Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a poor farmer, agrees to be part of the posse that escorts notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the train station so he can be sent to a federal judge, but Evans and the others must not only contend with Wade’s gang, led in his absence by the psychotic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), but also Wade’s attempts to psych out Evans. At nearly two hours long, Mangold’s version is about 25 minutes longer than the original, features a sequence involving Luke Wilson as an outlaw that seems unnecessary (though admittedly, Wilson is surprisingly good playing a villainous character), and psychological baggage that spells out everything for the viewer (Evans wanting to prove himself to his son, and having physical and psychological wounds to overcome). Finally, I don’t want to give anything away, but the ending feels like a compromise between Leonard’s and Dawes.
Mangold does handle all of the gunplay and violent passages well, but his best work comes with the performances. As Wade in the original, Glenn Ford certainly brought the requisite charm, but he lacked the appropriate menace. Crowe has that menace down pat, but he never overplays it, nor does he overdo the charm. And the scene where he seduces a barmaid (Vinessa Shaw) is quite sexy. Like Crowe here, Bale is not exactly stretching himself with this part – Evans fits in maybe a little too well with his recent parts of silent conviction (most notably, of course, Bruce Wayne). But the way Bale internalizes the conflict he feels between doing what he thinks is right (taking Wade to the train station) and maybe doing right by his family (taking Wade’s money and letting him go), which is much better than Van Heflin, an actor I like, merely indicating that conflict in every gesture. As for the rest, Peter Fonda lends his usual dignity to the role of Byron, the Pinkerton man who has been tracking Wade for a long time, and Alan Tudyk brings humor to his role as the doctor who comes along (Gretchen Mol, unfortunately, is wasted as Evans’ wife). But Foster tops them all, channeling Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, and playing Charlie as someone who, for all his psychotic nature, has a little-boy need for approval from Wade. 3:10 to Yuma was hailed by some upon release as reinvigorating the Western. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a solid example of the form.
The re-issue this week that’s getting the most play is the 50th anniversary release of Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember, but there are better, less heralded re-releases to get excited about. If she’s remembered at all today, Sondra Locke is most likely thought of as the bitterly estranged ex-girlfriend of Clint Eastwood. But she was a good actress when she got the right role, and her very first film, Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, adapted very well by Thomas Ryan from the Carson McCullers novel, gave her a good one. She plays Mick, a teenage girl right on the brink of womanhood, and while it’s a potentially clichéd role, Locke never makes a false step. Whether affecting airs at a party she’s thrown because she thinks it’s what she’s supposed to do, squabbling with her parents (as per normal in these kinds of stories, her father (Biff McGuire) wants to give her everything, but from Mick’s point of view, her mother (Laurinda Barrett) always stops him), or her reaction after losing her virginity to her boyfriend, Locke seems entirely natural.
As anyone who’s seen the movie or read the book recalls, Mick is only one major part of the story. The other crucial role is of Singer (Alan Arkin), the deaf mute who moves into the small Southern town where Mick and a host of others reside. Singer, an engraver at a jewelry store, has come to this town to be close to Spiros (Chuck McCann), his closest friend and another deaf mute, who is also mentally challenged. Singer finds himself interacting not only with Mick (he rents out a room in her house), but also Blount (Stacy Keach), a drunk radical, Dr. Copeland (Percy Rodriguez), a bitter black man who counts Singer as his first white friend, and Portia (Cicely Tyson), Copeland’s estranged daughter. The idea of an afflicted person bringing people together like this, of course, has potential to be a mawkish and unbearable story, but neither Miller nor Arkin overdo this. Arkin, in fact, gives the most restrained performance of his career, keeping things simple and direct. Even in the one scene where his inability to speak drives him to frustration, as when he’s trying to get Portia to come with him to her father, he resists the urge to sentimentalize Singer. Miller likewise avoids the usual trap of Southern movies, which is to make everything garish. It could be argued he goes a little too far in that direction, making the film seem too episodic. And, of course, fans of the novel will miss Biff, the owner of the bar/café Blount and Singer hang out in, and Blount’s radicalism is toned down for the movie (though Keach lends his role authority). But those are minor quibbles; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is quietly affecting and moving.
Another movie dealing with a young woman’s awakening is Robert Towne’s Personal Best. Although it was a box-office failure, this tale of two track stars training for the 1980 Olympics did cause quite a stir when it came out because it involved a lesbian relationship between Chris (Mariel Hemingway) and Tory (Patrice Donnelly), those two athletes, and because Chris later breaks up with Tory and becomes involved with Denny (Kenny Moore, a track writer and former runner; he later appeared in Towne’s Tequila Sunrise and co-wrote Without Limits with Towne, another great movie about track and field), an Olympic swimmer. For the latter, Towne makes no moral judgment in having Chris go from Tory to Denny; it just happens. As for the former, Towne doesn’t descend to the made-for-TV theatrics that mar even John Sayles’ otherwise fine film about a lesbian relationship, Lianna, but presents it in an honest and direct matter. And he gets an erotic charge out of the material (watch the arm-wrestling scene between Chris and Tory) without becoming a voyeur. Also refreshing is how the other characters react to it; Terry (Scott Glenn), Chris’ coach, doesn’t worry that two of his athletes are involved, or that they’re both women, he worries Tory may be acting needy to distract Chris from her abilities.
Just as important as the way Towne handles the relationships, however, is the way he handles the track background. Movies about athletes tend to overlook the training and the ability, as if “heart” was all you needed to win. Towne doesn’t make that mistake, concentrating on how Tory, Chris and the others prepare for meets, and how they worry about whether their bodies are up to the strain (this extends to how the athletes behave off the track as well – the scene of the women in the locker room is done without a hint of voyeurism, as is the scene where Denny is peeing in the bathroom and Chris wanders in. It’s all natural and unaffected). And while I tend to think of Towne for his great dialogue, he mostly tells the story through images (though Terry does get off a zinger when he complains about what he has to put up with coaching women; “Does Chuck Noll worry that Franco Harris is going to cry because Terry Bradshaw won’t talk to him?”). Also, the performances are first-rate. Moore and Donnelly are non-actors, yet they seem born for the camera. Glenn, of course, has the crusty but kindhearted part down pat. But Hemingway is the one who drives this movie. Chris starts out being awkward both physically and emotionally (after the first race, she throws up), yet at the end of the movie, she’s the one who’s strong, and Hemingway takes you through that journey without a false step.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Best And Worst of 2007

I’m not one of those people who thinks 2007 has been an exceptional year for movies – there were too many films that were either disappointing (In the Valley of Elah, Lust, Caution) or ones that were good but, considering their directors, could have been better (Eastern Promises, Rescue Dawn). Nevertheless, there were a lot of very good movies, if only one that I’d call an out-and-out masterpiece. Here, then, is my top 10 list for the year, along with my honorable mentions, my favorite performances of the year, and the five films that were the worst I saw in 2007:

There Will Be Blood: Whatever you think of him as a filmmaker, there’s no denying Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who wears his storytelling ambitions on his sleeve. While his previous epic tales (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) looked inward to his own feelings about the world and human relations, his latest film, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, looks outward to the familiar tale of a man (Daniel Day-Lewis, in another mesmerizing performance) who reaches the top of his profession but becomes isolated from himself. What Anderson does is combines the epic reach of his tale with the intimate details of his characters in a way few other directors have. The result is the one true masterpiece I saw this year.
Black Book: I know there are people who’d rather eat holiday fruitcake every day for a year than watch another WWII-related movie. But in his comeback movie, Paul Verhoeven destroys all of our preconceptions about the “last good war.” There were definitely good guys vs. bad guys, but as Verhoeven vividly demonstrates in this tale of Dutch Jews fighting against the Nazis, the lines between them weren’t always as clear as we’d like them to be.
Michael Clayton: Making his directorial debut, writer Tony Gilroy makes the rare thriller/drama that didn’t feel like it came of a machine marked Thriller 101, that gave its characters and dialogue space to breathe, and exuded intelligence from every frame without being heavy-handed about it. And while George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson have deservedly been getting credit for playing two corporate sharks that belatedly see the light, it’s Tilda Swinton who deserves the most kudos playing a corporate villain like we’ve never seen.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Sidney Lumet comes roaring back to prominence and relevance by taking one of his favorite movie genres – the New York City crime melodrama – and, despite the fractured narrative, making it simple, tough-minded, and heartbreaking, especially in the last 15 minutes. It helps he has great actors at the helm, particularly my nomination for this year’s acting MVP, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
No Country for Old Men: Part of the backlash against this latest effort from the Coen brothers is how this movie is all formalism. That may be true, but when the formalism in question – sharp writing, tight direction, nail-biting suspense even without a score to juice things up, and pitch-perfect performances from the cast, especially the chilling Javier Bardem – is so acutely done, it’s hard for me to complain.
(tie) Away From Her/The Savages: Both of these films are from women directors tackling issues normally dealt with in disease-of-the-week TV movies with an honesty normally not found in those efforts. Both of them feature strong performances not only by the afflicted – Julie Christie in the former, Philip Bosco in the latter – but also by those dealing with the affliction – Gordon Pinsent in the former, Laura Linney (in the lead performance of the year) and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the latter. And while they have different styles in telling their story – the former’s gentle lyricism contrasts with the latter’s brutal humor – they’re both damn good.
Once: Since Moulin Rouge kicked off the “musical revival,” most of the films in its wake – even the good ones like Chicago and Sweeney Todd – have merely copied the old stage-to-screen musicals of the 50’s and 60’s, being as concerned with the surface than the feeling below, if not more. John Carney’s film doesn’t resonate because of its smallness of scale compared to those other musicals, but because it produces more genuine feeling not just in its story, but also in the very music driving the story.
No End in Sight: What makes Charles Ferguson’s documentary about what went wrong in Iraq so compelling and heartbreaking isn’t just the calm outrage that fills every frame, but the idea that the people who were initially in charge and knew what they were doing were set aside for the people who got us in this mess today.
Zodiac: What made David Fincher’s docudrama about the infamous serial killer was not the level of detail he, writer Jim Vanderbilt, and a top-notch cast (especially Robert Downey Jr.) brought to the story, although that certainly helped. It was also the rare serial killer movie – hell, the rare movie – that dared to explore how our obsession with serial killers, from any perspective, has been less about understanding the monster beneath than fetishizing the details of their workings.
Into the Wild: In his acting, writing and directing, Sean Penn has usually hewed to the position of the outcast staying on the edge of society. What makes this movie, based on the true story of Chris McCandless, so appealing is not just that Penn’s work here is his clearest declaration of that position, but also because for the first time, he tempers that position with the mature outlook that maybe parts of that society may be more help than hindrance – and McCandless came to that outlook to late to save himself. And Emile Hirsch’s performance as McCandless clearly shows him as a talent to watch.

Honorable mention:

The Bourne Ultimatum: Paul Greengrass, Tony Gilroy, Matt Damon and company prove once again you can make a blockbuster into a good movie if you know how to do it right.
I’m Not There: Although it didn’t hit me on the emotional level I think it aspired to, Todd Haynes’ fractured biopic of Bob Dylan is still an impressive achievement.
Juno: I’ll leave the debate over how “indie” this comedy is to those who care about such things, and say simply this comedy both made me laugh and moved me, an increasingly difficult thing to do these days (and earns points for getting Jennifer Garner to act).
A Mighty Heart: Whatever you think of Angelina Jolie’s real-life activities, she didn’t grandstand here, but gave a quietly powerful performance in Michael Winterbottom’s first-rate docudrama.
The Namesake: Forget Atonement; this was the class literary adaptation of the year. And with this, A Mighty Heart, and his small role in The Darjeeling Limited, Irfan Khan proves he’s a talent to watch.

Best performances of the year:

Best Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah. As usual, this category is overflowing with contenders, including Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will be Blood), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild). But while I didn't like the movie he was in, Jones' performance haunted me from beginning to end.
Best Actress: Laura Linney, The Savages. In contrast - or was it reaction - to last year's abundance of great roles for women and great performances by them, there weren't as many lead actress performances to cheer about (though Julie Christie (Away From Her), Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart), Ellen Page (Juno), and Halle Berry (Things we Lost in the Fire), among others, shone through). But even in a better year for women, Linney, who also had an MVP year with great performances in Breach and Jindabyne, gave her character the most dimensions, and made us care about her even when we didn't like her all that much.
Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War. It's almost unfair picking Hoffman's best performance from his work this year. But in this performance, Hoffman disappeared into his character completely, more so than in his other admittedly stellar work this year. And even though this was another good year for supporting males (including Josh Brolin in American Gangster, Ed Harris in Gone Baby Gone, Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton, and Irfan Khan in The Namesake and A Mighty Heart), Hoffman stood out.
Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton. Cate Blanchett got all the ink for her Bob Dylan impression in I'm Not There. Amy Ryan has been winning all the awards for her crack-addicted mom in Gone Baby Gone. Leslie Mann did the comedy with an edge like no one else in Knocked Up. And Shelan O'Keefe topped a strong year of child performances with her heartbreaking work in Grace is Gone. But all of these, and other great supporting actress performances, were giving archetypical, though very good, performances; Swinton took a familiar part - the corporate villain - and turned upside down all our conceptions about it.

And now, the five worst movies of the year:

Shoot ‘Em Up: The only movie I walked out of this year was this so-called tongue-in-cheek action comedy, which insisted it was clever and funny instead of being offensive and tiresome. And it’s sad Clive Owen, who was in my in my favorite movie of last year (Children of Men), was in my two least favorites of this year, this and:
Elizabeth: The Golden Age: Let' see: Shrek the Third? Live Free or Die Hard? Pirates of the Caribbean 3? No contest: this was by far the worst sequel of the year. Director Shekhar Kapur goes from the entertaining and artful potboiler of the first movie to an incoherent mess, dragging a talented cast (including returning members Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush) down with him.
Smokin’ Aces: Once you get past the novelty of R&B star Alicia Keyes playing a lesbian hitwoman, there’s really no point to this empty-headed action fest. Also, memo to Jeremy Piven – stop playing every part as a variation on Ari Gold.
Angel-A: Luc Besson’s incredibly annoying “romantic fable” puts you in the uncomfortable position of wondering if La Femme Nikita or The Professional were ever that good in the first place.
The Heartbreak Kid: Granted, I’m coming to this conclusion later than many other critics, but here goes; Ben Stiller has effectively killed off his career unless he drops his shtick and stops making painfully unfunny comedies like this woeful remake of Elaine May’s sharp comedy.