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.

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