Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
Ray Winstone is an actor of substantial presence. With brutish physicality and a menacingly gruff voice, he often plays tough characters one should never cross. His work in 44 Inch Chestcomes as a bit of a surprise, as he’s a lovelorn mess for most of its running time. Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the writing team behind Sexy Beast, are still interested in the extremes of masculine behavior. Whereas their screenwriting debut observed the rage of a singularly nasty character, 44 Inch Chest considers how cockney gangsters might opine on friendship, pride, love, and revenge. Even with an unbelievably badass cast, it sometimes feels as if the action would be a better fit for the stage. And while the conclusion drags, there are scenes of ferocious intensity that’ll delight anyone who likes their dialogue terse, funny, and profane.
In their darkest moment, I suspect recently cuckolded men often conjure a fantasy similar to the movie’s plot. Colin (Winstone) is practically catatonic after his wife Liz (Joanne Whalley) announces she met another guy. Understandably devastated, Colin musters the energy to call Archie (Tom Wilkinson), a close friend who immediately springs into action. With the help of Mal (Stephen Dillane) and Peanut (John Hurt), Archie nabs the philanderer and locks him in a wardrobe. Later the suave Meredith (Ian McShane) joins the party. Together Colin’s four friends coax him out of his despondent state, and soon discuss how to handle loverboy best. First there’s unanimous consensus he must die, but when Colin is left in a room with him, mercy becomes a distinct possibility.
With relatively little onscreen violence, director Malcolm Venville relies heavily on the verbal dexterity of his cast. The long middle section, in which five guys converse in an empty room, is talky but never boring. Colin and his friends are electrifying to watch, with Ian McShane as the clear standout. He turns Meredith into a velvet-tongued gay man who values profound detachment and unblinking vengeance. Seemingly he’s the least invested in Colin’s situation, yet his matter-of-fact tone aids Colin when he’s at his most panic-stricken. It follows Archie and the others lack Meredith’s charm. Their camaraderie is nonetheless infectious, especially as these friends find creative ways to verbally abuse one another.
It’s entertaining, yes, but the crude language serves a deeper purpose. These men are tough to the core, and f-bombs are the only way to describe their attitude to Colin’s unfortunate situation. When Colin discusses the nature of love to the man who slept with his wife, there is bizarre eloquence in his speech, even when Winstone is ready to explode. Venville and his screenwriters are unafraid of machismo’s ugly side, so we know Colin is capable of monstrous behavior. There are dire consequences to breaking a violent man’s heart, a lesson Liz learns all too well. Juxtaposing friendship with violence is hardly a new theme, yet with a cast as good as this, I don’t mind the lack of original insight.
44 Inch Chest is at its best when we’re unsure what Colin will do next. It’s all the more enthralling when Peanut and Mal hilariously make the case for bloodshed. Much to my chagrin, Colin arrives at his decision with plenty of time to spare, so the writers fill the remainder with tacked-on hallucinatory scenes. And because the conclusion is foregone, there is little dramatic tension in the last half hour. These shortcomings are enough to deter many from purchasing a ticket. But for those of you who savor the opportunity to watch well-dressed Brits swill booze and bark nasty four-letter-words (I know you’re out there), you’ll have a fucking great time.
Posted: January 15th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
On my way to see The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson’s latest, I stood next to a woman who was reading the novel on which it’s based. Her eagerness piqued my curiosity – I wondered whether the movie would inspire me to read the book. Upon reflection, I don’t think I’ll pick up Alice Sebold’s bestseller anytime soon. Even to someone unfamiliar with the story, it’s easy to pick out the inadequacies of Jackson’s work. Despite some engaging scenes, the movie never gels into a cohesive whole, and the screenplay denies the characters any depth. Even worse, its conclusion become unpleasant as I think about it more.
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a happy young girl until she is brutally murdered by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), her creepy neighbor. Her mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) do their best to cope, and eventually Susie’s unpredictable grandmother (Susan Sarandon) tries to salvage the crumbling family. Meanwhile Susie exists in a fantastical higher plane, one between heaven and earth, that is inspired by childhood mementos. Another dead girl (Nikki SooHoo) informs Susie she must “let go” of her earthly existence before she can enter eternal bliss. Haunting her family and crush (Reece Ritchie), Susie stays put, keeping a watchful eye on George. Her murderer grows restless, you see, and her younger sister (Rose McIver) is his next target.
Like Lord of the Rings and King Kong, The Lovely Bones juxtaposes fantasy and suspense, and special effects exaggerate typically small objects into enormous size. One scene in particular, when gigantic ships in bottles crash onto a beach, is a pleasant reminder of Jackson’s extraordinary imagination. It’s too bad the storytelling cannot rival the imagery of Susie’s afterlife. When the dad’s suspicion of George grows, for example, repetition overstates a plot development, so all tension deflates. Ronan has the thankless task of narrating the entire film – she speaks in irritating ethereal wisps that betray the likable pluck of her earlier scenes. Her voiceover lacks insight, and it becomes clear there’s complexity in the book which is absent in the movie. Actors do their best, even if they’re only given a single emotion to portray. Tucci makes an excellent psychopath, especially in a suspenseful scene with Susie’s sister, and Weisz’s grief is convincing. But for all its good intentions, Jackson’s work feels like a clumsy highlight reel of Sebold’s novel, not a thoughtful adaptation.
I can see why Jackson was attracted to this story. His oft-forgotten thriller The Frighteners also examines how spirits struggle to save innocent lives. Whereas his earlier work is a fun genre exercise, The Lovely Bones aspires to be a meditation on loss and eternal love. Because of its loftier goals, parts of the movies are disquieting. George’s fate, for example, has karmic implications which may offend anyone who prematurely lost a loved one. And Susie’s afterlife is a little selfish, as she deliberately stops her family from reaching closure. I don’t know whether Sebold’s book is difficult to adapt, or if Jackson simply doesn’t care about character depth. Given his numerous missteps, however, next time he should conform to the source material, not the other way around.
Posted: January 12th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
Eric Rohmer, director of the famous “Six Moral Tales,” died Monday after spending a week in the hospital. Details are sketchy, as the director was famously secretive. Check out obituaries by Roger Ebert and the New York Times’ Dave Kehr.
Rohmer was known for thoughtful, even funny films, ones in which characters would passionately debate religion and philosophy. Love was always a central theme, and the drawn-out conversations sounded consistently authentic. Like Mike Leigh and Robert Altman, it was almost as if Rohmer’s characters had free will. In the movie Night Moves, Gene Hackman character famously said, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” That says more about Hackman’s character than the quality of Rohmer’s work.
He was introduced to American audiences with My Night at Maud‘s, which was nominated for two Academy Awards. It follows a catholic engineer who spends a night discussing romantic possibilities with a recent divorcee. Then came Claire’s Knee, in which a diplomat pontificates on the erotic possibilities of touching the knee of his friend’s daughter. The titular knee is indeed quite nice – the diplomat refers to it as her “most vulnerable point.”
My favorite is Love in the Afternoon, in which a happily married man considers an affair with Chloe, an old flame. Weirldly enough, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock remade this movie with I Think I Love My Wife. In the Rohmer original, flirting is a delicate game, and characters obsessively intellectualize their emotions. Ebert concludes his review with, “[Rohmer] has not been so very sophisticated after all, we realize; he has just been very good at seeing sophistication for what it is — the highly developed art of avoiding simple, direct human relationships.” There’s no better way to put it.
Rohmer isn’t just known for the six moral tales. He continued working well into the end of his life. In 2007 he released Romance of Astree and Celadon, set in a enchanted forest of 5th century Gaul. I’ve only seen a handful of Rohmer movies, yet his death motivates me to explore more titles. Only a handful of filmmakers have an easily identifiable, unique approach to writing and direction. I hope I haven’t made his movies sound boring. His work insinuates itself into your mind, moreso than the terminally twee dialogue of most indie romances.
Do yourself a favor and add some Rohmer to your queue now. Oh, you’ve already seen some of his stuff? Let’s discuss in the comments.
Posted: January 11th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
What a beautiful, sprawling mess this is. Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a visual delight, with bizarre psychedelics that veer from beautiful to shocking. It’s a pity the story does not match Gilliam’s eye-popping ambitions. The actors are given little compelling material, and are reduced to odd caricatures. It follows the movie is devoid of tension – Gilliam isn’t exactly known for his tight plotting, and here he is no different. After an hour, his latest feels like an overlong music video with an A-list cast.
Stick with me here, as this’ll be a little bizarre. It’s modern-day London, and a traveling theater company, headed by the immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), entertains gawkers on the street. By walking through a portal, one can enter Parnassus’ mind, where he conjures your wildest fantasy. It’s quite an act, one that’s hindered by the amateurish production. Parnssus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and his apprentice Anton (Andrew Garfield) do their best to maintain interest, yet business isn’t good. To make matters worse, Parnassus promised Valentina’s eternal soul to the Devil (Tom Waits), and he’s ready to collect. I guess this Devil is a gambling addict – he wagers he can capture five souls faster than Parnassus can. The Doctor agrees, and with the help of Tony the charismatic stranger* (Heath Ledger), perhaps he and his motley crew have a chance. Too bad the Devil has a few nasty tricks up his sleeve.
Many of Gilliam’s image are beautiful and striking. My favorite is when the content of a black river coils skyward and becomes the Devil’s noggin, re-imagined as a menacing cobra. Other locations, like an improbably imposing cliff, look like something out of a surrealist painting. Yet visual chicanery can sustain one’s attention for only so far. Tarsem’s The Fall has similarly grandiose images, yet its central relationship (the stuntman and the girl) maintains audience interest. Human stories are necessary to counterbalance ocular extravagance, otherwise viewers grow impatient. Making matters worse, Gilliam constantly revises his universe, so confused audiences spend too much time figuring how it functions. The final scenes contain a clumsy role reversal that barely functions as a twist. The Devil and Parnassus tempt the imaginarium’s visitors, and the implications of their captured souls is never clear. No one expects realism from the guy who brought us Brazil, yet a fantastical world should have functional rules – it’s how a director builds tension and engages an audience.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus features Heath Ledger’s final performance, and it’s almost as if his death haunts the movie. The effect is bittersweet – his work shimmers with playful menace, and is the movie’s highlight. Other actors, even the always-welcome Tom Waits, cannot instill wit and energy into their characters. Gilliam has its share of die-hard fans – I can think of one in particular who’ll give me an earful for this review. The movie will undoubtedly give her plenty to enjoy, as she’ll quickly forgive the director’s shortcomings. For the rest of us, it’s difficult to accept his missteps.
* Gilliam had to rewrite the screenplay after Ledger’s death. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell step in for Ledger’s missing scenes – their contributions are memorable but brief. The extra actors aren’t a distraction, and the explanation for the change in Tony’s appearance is intriguing.
With his directorial debut, Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heartoffers a clear-eyed view of an aging country singer’s alcoholism. Anchored by strong acting and understated power, the movie rises above the clichés of a typical addiction story. It’s not that the singer sinks to the bottom and seeks redemption. He’s at the bottom all along, and a good people help him finally acknowledge it. These people in his life have issues of their own, and are too world-weary for big speeches. They helplessly watch the singer debase himself, hopeful they’ll catch him on a day when his peerless talent shines. And like a sad country song, there’s enough warmth and hope in Crazy Heart to guide us through the low moments.
In a performance that’ll undoubtedly receive an Academy Award nomination, Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, the singer in question. We meet Bad as he slogs through a tour of the southwest. He once headlined large venues, and at age 57, he now plays the back of bowling alleys. When he vomits mid-performance, one gets the impression this occurs often. Two people unexpectedly enter Bad’s life, and offer a glimmer of redemption. The first is Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe reporter who Bad easily ensnares with quiet southern charm. The second is Tommy (Colin Farrell), Bad’s former protégé who has since become a star. After Bad opens for Tommy, Tommy suggests Bad write him some songs. Bad begrudgingly agrees, and returns to his Houston home where his bartender friend (Robert Duvall) offers a regular Saturday gig. Jean visits Bad for a long weekend, and brings along her young son (Jack Nation). It doesn’t take long for Bad to ruin everything, so his booze-soaked abyss becomes darker than ever.
Jeff Bridges has spent a career embodying characters from the inside-out, and Bad Blake is no different. There’s no artifice, and it never appears as if he is acting. Die-hard fans already know Bridges is an accomplished singer, and the performance scenes are believable. It’s fascinating to watch Bridges act as he sings. Like a worn baseball mitt, his voice is frayed from abuse, yet still gets the job done. In a thankless role, Farrell plays Tommy as a thoughtful, shrewd professional. Tommy isn’t a prima donna – he remembers his roots, and his affection for Bad is real.
Special attention should be given to Gylenhaal, who rises to the challenge as Bridge’s equal. Her eyes subtly betray her complicity in Bad’s alcoholism, particularly as he drinks with her son nearby. It is easy to see why she lets him into her life. Bad seduces Jean by conjuring lyrics for her, and their dialogue is plainspoken yet poetic. In fact, Bridges strongest accomplishment is how he makes audience believe his character’s talent. Bad abused his gift over the years, yet there are brief glimpses of the powerhouse he once was. Talent is Bad’s biggest strength and weakness – it’s the reason others forgive him and the reason he cannot see his lowly state. Cooper’s direction has a firm grasp of this situation, and it’s a wonder Crazy Heart is his debut. He does not rely on showy tricks to illustrate Bad’s addiction. With straightforward camerawork, there is ample time for us to develop affection for Cooper’s characters.
I was ready to dismiss Crazy Heart because of its clumsy title. With a vague idea of the movie’s premise, I thought it sounded like an inelegant reference to Bad Blake. Little did I know how effectively the title would be used, and to whom it references. In a masterful scene, we see how “crazy heart” kicks around in Bad’s head, and how it jumpstarts his creativity. Like the movie as a whole, this scene achieves its modest ambition with careful observation. No one will be surprised by Crazy Heart, as an addiction story can end in only two ways. Yet for those who value heartbreakingly plausible characters, it contains rich rewards.