Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lights in the Dusk (2006, Aki Kaurismäki)

I would be tempted to call this “minor Kaurismäki” but for the fact that that sounds almost redundant. The “minor-ness” Kaurismäki’s work in general is the source of much of its charm- it’s not so much love-it-or-hate-it as it is be-on-his-wavelength-or-just-shrug-him-off. His work is fascinating in its low-key way, and even his best movies (like his masterpiece Drifting Clouds) aren’t great due do their ambition but rather because the usual Kaurismäki ingredients have combined to make something particularly tasty. Lights in the Dusk, by comparison, is minor even by Kaurismäki standards, possessing most of his trademarks- sad-faced put-upon heroes, offscreen violence, jukebox classics, and the like. Plus it’s gorgeous in the usual Timo Salminen way (although I always imagine Aki’s lighting directions sounding like “OK Timo, let’s light this scene like we did on The Match Factory Girl, OK?”). But I missed the other stuff that distinguishes his best work from the rest. For one thing, where is his usual stock company? The film’s hero seems too young and unformed to have arrived at that patented Kaurismäki worldview. Meanwhile, the great Kati Outinen is relegated to a bit part, and guys like Sakari Kuosmanen and Markku Peltola are nowhere to be found. In addition, the inspired offhands bits of business are relatively sparse. The hero’s response to the question “what was [prison] like?” is a strong contender for the year’s best line, but nothing else quite equals the scene in Juha where a gunshot rings out and none of the extras seem to notice (since it’s a silent movie and all), or the drinking scenes in Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana. Also, I miss Matti Pellonpää. Just wanted to get that out there. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl (2007, Dan Gillespie)

Sure-footed execution triumphs over dicey subject matter in Lars and the Real Girl, a surprisingly affecting indie about a young man, his realistic sex-doll girlfriend, and the community that rallies around them. It's important that the film takes place in a small town- this is a close-knit community that protects its own, and it's inconceivable that the story would play the same way in a big city. I think the tone is key here, since while it's pitched as a light comedy, it never becomes smutty and rarely dabbles in irony, which makes the occasional points where it does stick out all the more (like the throwaway joke where we find out that "Bianca" has gotten elected to public office). I believe these two points go hand in hand- the portrayal of a small town is less Napoleon Dynamite than All the Real Girls, and it can't be accidental that Gillespie cast two of the film's stars, Patricia Clarkson and Paul Schneider, in significant roles here. Gillespie also takes the central premise seriously, which becomes clear in the directing choices he makes throughout the film, shooting Bianca as a flesh-and-blood character, even giving her the occasional reaction shot. But that the laughs the film gets are almost all of the "good" variety is as much as tribute to the actors, beginning with Ryan Gosling as Lars. Gosling doesn't play Lars as crazy or a yokel, but as a gentle, painfully withdrawn young man who latches on to his delusion. Surprisingly, he doesn't use Bianca for sex, but role-plays with her much the same way a child does with a favorite doll or stuffed animal, projecting his own somewhat arrested ideas of what it means to be a boyfriend and to care for/about a woman. And the supporting cast- Clarkson, Schneider, Emily Mortimer, Kelli Garner- is just as assured, putting over a storyline that might seem simultaneously icky and quirky and making it surprisingly affecting. There were times when I had a hard time buying how completely the town embraced Lars and Bianca, but the film works surprisingly well, which under the circumstances was no mean feat. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Things We Lost in the Fire (2007, Susanne Bier)

Yeesh, would someone please cheer Susanne Bier up already? A veteran of the Dogma 95 movement, Bier has become to grief what Von Trier once was to martyrdom, although without his experimental tendencies or bad-little-boy sense of humor. With her American debut, Bier examines the fallout from the death of Brian (David Duchovny), in particular the effect it has on his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) and his heroin-addicted best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). It would be affecting stuff if it didn't feel so programmatic- Audrey resents Jerry but has him move in, he stops taking drugs, he endears himself to her kids, she kicks him out, he falls off the wagon, she rescues him, and so on. In addition, Bier overdoes the extreme-closeups- eyes, hands, ears, mouths, and the like. These shots become too insistent in a story that's already plenty melodramatic. The same might be said of Berry's performance, which is pretty good in her lower-key moments but descends into histrionics whenever the grief hits her. Much better is Del Toro, who is as good here as he's been in anything since Traffic. There's a scene where Jerry tries to kiss Audrey, perhaps out of gratitude, but she recoils, and Del Toro throws in a small gesture in which he places two fingers over his lips. It's an inspired touch, and I don't doubt that it was Del Toro's idea. I also liked his scenes with John Carroll Lynch, as a neighbor and friend of Audrey's who's facing his own private hell, a loveless marriage. Del Toro is one of Hollywood's best and most inspired performers, but gets precious few chances to show it, although I'm grateful that he hasn't taken to making schlock like Nicolas Cage, a similarly inspired actor who too often spins his wheels. Del Toro never steps wrong here, and any flaws this movie has are counterbalanced by his performance. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Dan in Real Life (2007, Peter Hedges)

I don't know what it is, but I sort of balked at this when I saw how ridiculously happy this extended family was. To me, the portrait of a resolutely upper-class family that gets together at grandma and grandpa's fashionably rustic beach house and plays charades and has boys-vs.-girls crosswords competitions and runs a family talent show sort of makes me balk. It's not that I doubt families this happy exist- more that I can't help but shake the feeling that Hedges makes everything feel so warm and friendly so he won't complicate the main storyline. I mean, come on- there's not even really a scene of someone making derogatory remarks behind someone else's back, and no matter how happy a family is, there's ALWAYS bound to be some of that. But I think this is emblematic of something I resist in both of the films Hedges has directed to date- a tendency to freeze out the messy background stuff, the better to focus on the often contrived setups. Dan in Real Life isn't as annoyingly contrived as Pieces of April (really, how could it be?), but the writing of the film feels unnecessarily writer-ly. Even setting aside the setup- Dan (Steve Carell) meets the perfect woman (Juliette Binoche), who turns out to be his brother's girlfriend- everything in this movie feels like setup-and-payoff, and as a result nothing really breathes. Consider the blind date Dan's parents (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) set him up on with a local girl- before she shows up, Dan's brothers give Dan a hard time about what the girl looked like when she was younger, in particular an unflattering nickname she had, "Pigface." Soon, they sit down at the piano and improvise a song around the nickname, and keep on going until she knocks on the door and reveals herself to be... Emily Blunt. Ho, ho! Surprise, everybody! Also, Binoche is so obviously perfect for Carell that the plot mostly becomes a game of waiting for them to overcome the stuff that gets thrown at them and make the leap. That said, once you get past the contrivances and Hedges' occasional tendency to shoot his goodwill in the ass, the movie does have a certain charm, owing largely to Carell and Binoche, who are relaxed and engaging individually and have real chemistry together. Ebert is spot-on when he compares Carell to a young Jack Lemmon- he can do the fussy and the neurotic stuff (I'd love to see him and, say, John C. Reilly or even Seth Rogen do The Odd Couple onstage) but he brings a real humanity to all of the performances I've seen. Even Dane Cook is surprisingly watchable here, when the massive self-involvement he always projects isn't getting in the way. For a movie that was always coming thiiiiiiiiis close to annoying me, I enjoyed Dan in Real Life more than I expected. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Early Oscar™-bait Roundup

Into the Wild (2007, Sean Penn)- it's illustrative to see this movie the same weekend as The Darjeeling Limited, as the two movies so clearly illuminate the differences between spiritual tourists and honest-to-goodness seekers. Anderson's heroes see India as a kind of quick fix for their troubled souls, making a whirlwind tour of the most "spiritual" stops situated along the route of their train before ending up confronting the mother who ran out on them, all in an attempt to confront their troubles. But Into the Wild realizes that it's not as simple as that. Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) had his share of demons to be sure, but then so did his sister, and she didn't take to the road. The film shows us that while some people turn their backs on the past and make a new life outside the mainstream, it's got just as much to do with their psychological wiring as it does with the circumstances they seek to escape. But even more importantly, it also says that the seeker's tendency- be it wanderlust or spiritual unrest- is something that can never quite be quenched. I'm not sure about some of Penn's aesthetic choices here- the onscreen text, the occasional chronological jumbling- but there's no denying that this is his most assured film as a director, due in no small part to his kinship with McCandless, being something of a seeker himself. Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)- first, the obvious: this movie is completely bleedin' gorgeous. The only movie I've seen recently that can rival this for sheer visual pleasure is Silent Light- it's that beautiful. But it would all just be eye candy if not for the compelling story at its center. Many critics have remarked about the way James' mystique presages our modern-day celebrity culture. But this wouldn't work half so well if Jesse himself wasn't so aware of it. Even in the eyes of his own men James is a towering figure, which goes a long way to explain his power over them- they drop everything to do his bidding, and when he comes around they're justifiably nervous. Jesse is completely mindful of his legend, which made his untimely end sort of inevitable, not least in his own eyes. Being the notorious Jesse James, the only death that would have made sense would have come from the barrel of a gun, and as the idea starts to consume his thinking, he figures why not just offer the chance to someone who's aching to do it? As such, the film becomes a dance of death in its second half, involving the increasingly paranoid and death-minded James and Bob Ford, whose obsessive man-crush (less sexual fixation than childish hero worship) has become bitter and resentful. But for me, the movie really cements its awesomeness in the final reel, following James' death, when it examines the fallout of the killing in the lives of Ford and others. The celebrity that Ford was afforded for a short time after the killing soon gave way to a lonely existence, as James' mystique only grew from being gunned down before his time. Suddenly a cold-blooded killer became a legend of the lawless west, and the man who effectively ended his killing spree was an unloved coward. Shooting Jesse James in the back was simultaneously the best and worst thing that Robert Ford could have done for himself, with his story culminating in one of the most lonely and senseless deaths I've seen onscreen in a long time. I hope to see this again in the near future, and urge all of you (especially you Muriel Awards voters looking for a prospective winner in the Best Cinematography category) to do the same. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Lust, Caution (2007, Ang Lee)- maybe it's just that I was so bowled over by Black Book earlier this year (scroll down to May for review), but while I respected Lee's Occupation drama, it didn't really do much for me. For the most part, Lee's style feels very middle-of-the-road: the visuals are handsome but not lush, the period feel is convincing but never immersive, the story is involving but rarely compelling. Like much of Lee's oeuvre, it's about repressed desire, which this time finds an outlet in the much-ballyhooed NC-17 sex scenes (acrobatic but rarely erotic). But given the relatively tepid approach Lee takes to the majority of the film- sex scenes and protracted stabbing scene aside- I longed to see what a more expressionistic filmmaker like Wong Kar-wai, or a more poetic one like Hou Hsiao-hsien, might have made of this story. Another problem is that despite being more than 2 1/2 hours long, it very much feels like an expanded short story, with a somewhat bloated narrative through-line and some vagueness around the edges. What, for example, were we to make of Yee's wife, played by Joan Chen? We mostly see her playing mahjongg or going shopping, but what is her relationship with her husband (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) like? The film doesn't seem to know, and Chen projects almost no inner life for the character. Clearly the resistance fighters would see her largely as an obstacle to getting to her husband, but there's got to be more to her than that. Also, Tang Wen is pretty and more than willing to get naked, but I wasn't all that taken with her as an actress. She seemed too opaque to successfully sell the role- not opaque in the repressing-her-feelings-for-the-cause way needed for the character, but more in the not-particularly-expressive way. Nice nipples though. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gone Baby Gone (2007, Ben Affleck) [8]

Well, dress me up in a Santa Claus suit, because I'm just giving 8s away! But I honestly wouldn't be if I didn't think the movies deserved them, and this one is no exception. Like fellow actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood did four years ago with Mystic River, Affleck has turned a Dennis Lehane novel into potent cinema. But although Affleck isn't nearly the director Clint is, I actually think that works to the film's advantage. Eastwood's direction of Mystic River was moody and portentous from get-go, signaling that we weren't just watching another urban murder mystery, but Affleck's more meat-and-potatoes filmmaking actually gears the audience up for a fairly conventional, though well-told, whodunit, all the better the spring the serious stuff on us unawares. Gone Baby Gone is the rare Hollywood movie that actually gets better as it goes along, revealing more interesting shadings. The key to this movie isn't the solving of the mystery or the finding of the little girl, but the moral debate at its center, a conflict between absolutism and relativism. Interestingly, Lehane flips the usual pattern of these films by making the private investigator the story's primary proponent for black-and-white morality. SPOILER: It's because of this that the film's final reel, which will no doubt prove to be a point of contention for many audiences and critics, worked wonderfully for me. Time and again in the film, the line of morality isn't drawn between cops and civilians, but the older and younger characters. Patrick (Casey Affleck) has never really gotten his hands dirty, so he isn't sympathetic to the moral code of the older cops (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris) who are willing to bend morality to serve the greater good (someone should book a double bill of this and Hot Fuzz in my opinion). In many ways, Patrick is still thinking in the mindset handed down to him by his childhood priest- "clever as snakes, innocent as doves." Yet by the end of the movie, he begins to come around to their way of thinking. He fulfills his moral obligation to return the little girl to her skanky, unfit mother, but while he knows he did the right thing, he finds himself sharing the older men's compulsion to do right by the girl above all else. So he takes it upon himself to keep an eye on her. What else is there left for him to do? END SPOILER. Now, I'm not advocating that Ben turn all of his attention to directing- the jury's still out on how much talent he has in that area. But he's smart enough to stay out of Lehane's way, and in this case that's more than enough.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy) [8]

Over the last few years, more filmmakers have been gravitating toward minor-key films in a style closer to that of 70s-era filmmakers, before the studios decided movies needed to be for everyone. Michael Clayton, much like We Own the Night last night, is a superlative example of this kind of movie, moving at a leisurely pace yet containing almost no wasted brush strokes. It's key that almost every important character, save Michael's young son, is over 40- Michael Clayton isn't a film about youngsters on the make, but about grown adults who have sacrificed a lot to live the lives they lead, and who stand to lose even more. But while the film has the trappings of a legal thriller, it's at its heart a character study, a blinkered story about a blinkered man. Michael doesn't have much of a life- he's always traveling between assignments for his job as a law firm's "fixer," and in between he picks up his kid, occasionally plays in a backroom poker tournament, and worries about the debt he's incurred on his failed restaurant. He almost never smiles, and I don't think we ever see him at home. He's always being sent somewhere or other on business. Clooney is perfect for the role, a well-dressed professional with no small amount of skill but who feels no love for what he does. And the rest of the cast is just as good- Tom Wilkinson somehow pulls off crazy without resorting to histrionics, and Tilda Swinton plays her cool-customer corporate counsel while suggesting the great sacrifices that she's had to make along the way in tiny but indelible touches (the no-nonsense suits, the on-the-fly makeup job, etc.). Like a con artist has to be more convincing than the people he's trying to imitate, so she has to be even more on her game than the men surrounding her in the boardroom boys' club. Michael Clayton is that rarest of things, an entertainment designed specifically for adults, and it's even more impressive for being Gilroy's first film behind the camera. Many screenwriters-turned-directors can't strike the right mix between screenplay and direction, but Gilroy is a natural.

Monday, October 8, 2007

We Own the Night (2007, James Gray) [8]

One of the charms of James Gray's films is his unabashed love for classical style. Gray has never been one to rely on narrative tricks or show-offy direction, grooving instead on sturdy, unhurried storytelling, handsome cinematography, and atmosphere to burn. So it is with his finest film yet, which falls under the Howard Hawks rule for a successful film- three great scenes, no bad scenes. I'll leave the pleasures of the three scenes for you to discover, except to say that I find it admirable that Gray, who can shoot a crackerjack scene of action and suspense as well as practically any filmmaker currently working, doesn't allow the film to get bogged down in action. We Own the Night is at heart a drama about family- the somewhat dysfunctional family at its center, the police who protect their own, the Russian mafia who welcomes a trusted surrogate son as long as he's not a risk. It's also a world of men in the old-fashioned sense, men who keep their own counsel, who bottle up their emotions even at the most difficult of times, who recognize the value of duty and loyalty and keeping your mouth shut and ears open. There are few stars of the younger generation who can pull off characters like this, and it's a credit to Mark Wahlberg that he manages to pull it off from the get-go, and to Joaquin Phoenix that he can convincingly and seamlessly show his character changing from a hard-partying, independent-minded youth into something resembling Gray's concept of the old-school "man." I wasn't quite buying his character's naiveté in being blind to the club owner's mob connections, but that's a minor quibble. Gray keeps most of the film at a simmer, but when he turns up the heat, We Own the Night cooks. The film's title was taken from the NYPD's motto in the late 1980s, which is when the film is set, and Gray perfectly captures the gray, dingy New York of the period, back before it got a fresh new coat of PR paint. In addition, the tension between law enforcement and the crime element at the dawn of the War on Drugs is surprisingly palpable. Gray isn't interested in a neon-colored VH1-style nostalgia trip dress-up party, but in portraying a time and place where people actually lived.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Week of October 1-7, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid (2007, Peter and Bobby Farelly) [4]- it's sort of bracing to see a big-budget comedy that's this brazenly caustic nowadays, unafraid of giving the audience a weaselly protagonist who lies and cheats on his wife and acts like an all-around assbag. In addition, there's the Farellys' usual body-panic issues, plus a lot of anti-romantic, male-centric thoughts on modern marriage that no doubt will alienate any unsuspecting women in the audience. But just because it's interesting doesn't make it especially good. The film has ideas, but they don't mesh especially well, nor does the movie really do a whole lot with them. Instead, the story eventually settles into a predictable, almost lazy rhythm, with Ben Stiller skipping out on his honeymoon with his convalescing, hot-psycho wife Malin Akerman to spend time with the adorable Michelle Monaghan, another in a long line of super-cool Farelly dream babes, who can swear and drink and play with the boys but still be, y'know, hot. Hell, there's even one of those scenes where Stiller and Monaghan try to have an important conversation but aren't actually talking about the same thing- what's the Ebert's Movie Glossary name for that again? Glad to see the story take a darker turn at the very end, but unfortunately the film just kind of throws it out there before the credits. And I won't even start comparing it to the Elaine May version of the film, not just because it's been years since I saw that one, but also because this film has enough problems without comparing it to its betters.

The Kingdom (2007, Peter Berg) [4]- another film that feels a little schizo in its execution, and not necessarily in a good way. After an opening-credits rundown of American history in Saudi Arabia and a double act of terrorism in an American compound near Riyadh, the movie is mostly content to be an procedural thriller, closer to network television than big-screen cinema. In fact, aside from the costumes and the heavy artillery, this could easily be a story about a serial killer or mad bomber on U.S. soil. Supercool FBI agent Jamie Foxx assembles a crack, motley crew to investigate the case, and with help from the Saudi military, headed by a west-sympathetic family-man officer, they hunt down the terrorists responsible for the attacks. For most of its duration, the film is clearly for U.S. involvement in the investigation- there's even a face-off between action-minded bureau chief Richard Jenkins and wishy-washy cabinet member Danny Huston ("interventionism: not a funny matter"). And then when the team is attacked, there's no choice left but to strike back. But in a movie that practically ignores the geopolitical implications of its storyline, the final scenes feel like a last-minute stab at topicality. Without them, one might half expect a fade-out followed by a sneak peek at next week's episode. There's certainly a place for something in the style of CSI or 24 against the backdrop of the Middle East, but if you're going to do it, fer chrissakes commit to it.

Rocket Science (2007, Jeffrey Blitz) [7]- as a former high school policy debater, I was grateful to see that for once a movie got the world right. Real-life policy debate is a far cry from the common image of two polished speakers standing at podiums and oratorically delivering prepared speeches. Instead, it's standing at a table, evidence at hand, and aggressively barreling through as much as you can in 8 minutes (the technical name is "spreading"). But this but one of the many ways in which the film defies expectation. The film sets up conflicts and situations but resolutely refuses to resolve them in a conventional manner, often just letting them simmer through the very end of the movie or just die away. Nothing is ever quite solved in Rocket Science, and the film ends up becoming not about how we overcome our problems but rather how we eventually learn to resign ourselves to them and move on. But even this doesn't quite happen for our hero, in large part because he's too young to know better. But by the final scene, he's well on his way.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, Seth Gordon) [7]

Not being a gamer myself, I had a hard time believing the hype about this crowd-pleasing documentary. However, I was quickly won over, largely because the characters are so engaging. There surely must be some editing-room magic at work in making Billy Mitchell into the manipulative villain here, but no matter- the film works best as a contrast between cunning gamer-world "insider" Billy and straight-shooting outsider Steve Wiebe. Steve doesn't fit the gamer stereotype, but more important he's completely guileless, challenging Mitchell to a mano-a-mano to break the Donkey Kong record in the spirit of healthy competition. For his part, Mitchell shirks from the challenge, covering his anxiety with mindfucks and manipulating the system, run largely by his cronies. In a way, gaming needs guys like Mitchell, charismatic lifelong gamers who have built a mystique through decades of long-standing records. But what the film shows us in the end is that gaming also needs someone like Wiebe, who can claim the record as his own and give hope to all others who would try, and do so in the most sportsmanlike manner.