Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Movie Review - Crazy Heart

Like a sad country song, this movie unfolds slowly and somewhat predictably with a melody that gets under your skin even though you know better. Jeff Bridges completely disappears into the character of Bad Blake, an alocholic, worn down, beat up country star who's been reduced to playing little backwater dives and bowling alleys accompanied by local house bands. True to his name, Bad is a mess: drunk on stage, arrogant towards bartenders and fellow musicians, sick and tired of his own life. When Bad agrees to an interview with Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young Santa Fe journalist, as a favor to the piano player in his back-up band, things get a little more interesting as he is not only taken with Jean but with her young son Buddy (Jack Nation) as well. Soon Bad is becoming part of a surrogate family he's simply not ready for and his hard drinking ways put everyone to the test. A painful secret from his past with no easy resolution further complicates matters.

Competing for Bad's attention is the shadow cast by his professional competition, country superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former protege who's far surpassed Bad's former success and now wants his mentor as his opening act on an upcoming tour. There's not much new in this tale of redemption, but the cast and writing are top notch and the country songs are outstanding. Writer/director Scott Cooper establishes an authentic sense of Bad's derelict life, drifting from one crowded, boozy bar to the next while allowing us to enjoy those few cathartic moments on stage when the music makes the whole messy world briefly disappear. The film has a very realistic, if not particularly fresh, approach to Bad's alcoholic free fall and his awkward attempts to connect with Jean and Buddy. Farrell brings charisma to the part of Sweet with surprisingly effective country vocals plus a believable, conflicted rapport with Bridges. Robert Duvall makes his usual crusty but wise appearance as an old school friend of Bad's who offers support, along with some wobbly singing. It's easy to see why Bridges has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. Despite glimpses of kindness and sorrow beneath his reckless exterior, the character of Bad Blake was not an especially appealing one for me, but there's no denying the amazing performance by Bridges.

Things to love about this movie: Good chemistry between Bridges and Gyllenhaal; excellent music and performances
Things to hate about this movie: Nation is annoying as Buddy; a few too many scenes of Bad barfing in hotel rooms (once is enough, we get it already); rather predictable plot
Pleasant surprises: Colin Farrell does a great job singing (and speaking) like a country western star; Jeff Bridges acquits himself nicely with excellent vocals and guitar; no tidy ending
Unpleasant surprises: Robert Duval's singing leaves much to be desired in this film; I would have liked a little screen time for Colin Farrell

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Movie Review - Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

This movie is simply a revelation, from its unique approach to its subject matter (parental abuse) to its amazing first-time director (Lee Daniels) to its breakthrough lead actress (Gabourey Sidibe). There's never been a screen character quite like Precious/Claireece (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight teenager with one small child and another one on the way (both a result of rape by her own father), a mother (an astounding performance by Mo'Nique) who verbally and physically attacks her on a daily basis and an impoverished existence in Harlem. It's no surprise that Precious is completely shut down, her face an expressionless mask with only the occasional burst of anger giving any clue to the warm, complicated girl underneath. The fantasy life of Precious, however, is as colorful and flashy as her real life is bleak and hopeless. In moments of particular stress, she flips a mental switch to enter a glamorous world where she's the center of attention, dressed in glittering gowns and flirting with the man of her dreams. School is almost as bad as home for Precious until a caring teacher (Paula Patton) begins to turn things around. As part of a small, special class for troubled kids who are struggling both socially and academically, Precious begins writing and connecting with others. It's not a transformation as it would be in most movies, just a few slow steps towards opening up and acknowledging her own self worth, making progress in little ways, turning a corner.

What's particularly exceptional about this film, in addition to a marvelous script (by Geoffrey Fletcher) and outstanding performances, is the way in which the small triumphs are achieved against truly overwhelming odds. I can't think of a single moment on film last year to match the emotional impact of the final shot in "Precious" or the turbulent journey leading up to that moment. A perfectly cast and executed movie like this is increasingly rare. There are scenes of almost unberable cruelty and sadness, yet to experience the horrifying, surprisingly inspiring story of Precious is worth being put through some hell.

Things to love about this movie: Inspired filmmaking and acting with spot-on casting; no sentimentality; terrific soundtrack; the little touches (like the household cats who are shown better treatment than Precious)
Things to hate about this movie: Only the fact that we've never seen anything approaching this story until now
Pleasant surprises: A de-glammed Mariah Carey turns in an excellent performance, ditto for Lenny Kravitz
Unpleasant surprises: Lee Daniels has been omitted from many Best Director lists

Friday, November 27, 2009

Movie Review - The Road

Apocalyptic tales abound during these uncertain times of global warming and conflict, so it's not surprising to find an adpatation of a Cormac McCarthy novel joining the likes of blockbuster "2012" at theaters. The screenplay never clarifies the nature of the disaster that has befallen Earth, but the consequences come close to annihilation of the planet. A landscape of utter devastation awaits Viggo Mortensen (known only as The Man) as he wanders an almost featureless terrain with his young son Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Boy) in a desparate attempt at survival. A perpetually gray, smokey gloom floats over leafless trees, deserted buildings, abandoned cars. Animals are a thing of the past, along with human decency as roving bands of starving survivors toting guns and vacant stares sporadically appear like zombies in search of other humans to cannibalize. The film focuses almost exclusively on the relationship between The Man and The Boy. The Man has assumed the role of father figure with a vengeance, in turns comforting, protecting and rescuing his son from a never ending barrage of threats. The boy's mother, played by Charlize Theron, appears in flashbacks and dream sequences as a glowing yet tragic figure. The Man's credo for survival comes down to two basic principles: He and his son are "the good guys" and are "carrying the fire." The ways in which these concepts are tested make for a grim, provocative, relentlessly disturbing film of considerable power.

Mortensen's performance is marvelous, but his character was problematic for me. The rigid moral code to which he clings proves inadequate to the reality in which he exists while his son's more compassionate response seems wise in comparison. Perhaps that's the point but I wasn't sure. I couldn't help comparing this film to an incredible Inuit film, "Until Tomorrow", from last year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival. In that movie an Inuit woman attempts to survive a harsh tundra environment with her grandson following the slaughter of their entire tribal family. The differences in the two films couldn't be more stark. In "Until Tomorrow" the grandmother carefully builds her young grandson's confidence and self reliance, teaching him all the skills he will need to survive without her. In "The Road" Mortensen gives his son a legacy of fear, dependence and mistrust which strikes me as the classic white American ethic of good guys vs. bad guys. This misguided ethic comes into question when The Man and The Boy encounter a thief (Michael K. Williams). The amazing cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe manages to convey a threatening atmosphere while barely varying in tone or color.

Things to love about this movie: Smit-McPhee's heartbreaking performance; Michael K. Williams' outstanding cameo as the road thief; unforgettable images of a hopelessly broken world
Things to hate about this movie: The sense of characters and events as symbols rather than individuals and storytelling
Pleasant surprises: An ending which may be more open to interpretation than it first appears
Unpleasant surprises: A little too long with some repetition of occurences; a rather annoying cameo by Robert Duval

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Review - New York, I Love You

Following in the illustrious footsteps of "Paris, Je T'aime", this anthology of Big Apple tales can't help but suffer by comparison. While "Paris" captured a vivid cross-section of citizens in a fascinating array of life situations, "New York" offers a spectrum of characters ranging from A to maybe D. This lack of range is especially disappointing given its focus city. Despite the vast possibilities of NYC these stories seem fixated on a rather juvenile boy-meets-girl theme. Beginning with a cryptic 3 character offering starring Hayden Christiansen, Rachel Bilson and Andy Garcia in a bar, the film takes us through a kinky prom night (Anton Yelchin and Olivia Thirlby), a painter's (Ugur Yucel) obsession with a woman who works in a dry cleaner's shop, an annoying pick-up artist (Ethan Hawke) who meets his match (Maggie Q) and an elderly couple's (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) querulous journey to the beach. Additional stories include the attraction between an Indian diamond worker (Irrfan Khan) and a Hassidic Jewish woman (Natalie Portman) who's about to be married, a smoking break on the sidewalk between 2 strangers (Chris Cooper and Robin Wright) and the musings of a one night stand couple (Drea De Matteo and Bradley Cooper) who find themselves wondering why they can't walk away from their encounter. The most effective stories for me, however, were the ones which deviated from the couples scenario. In an almost mystical segment written by Anthony Minghella and starring Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf and John Hurt the ghostlike events leave us with all sorts of riveting possibilities. Another story involving a father's (Carlos Acosta) bittersweet day out with his young daughter includes all the nuances and romantic images that are missing from most of the other tales.

New York City is, of course, the extra character in each story yet was somehow sadly minimalized as a locale. The energy, diversity and sheer charisma of this great city never comes across as effectively as it should and certainly NYC deserves better. Also missing in action are some of the great New York actors who might have given the film more authenticity: Harvey Keitel, Tim Robbins, Annabella Sciorra, John Leguizamo, Taye Diggs, Rosario Dawson. Maybe they weren't available for an indie project such as this one, but surely a wider variety of ethic groups could have been represented here. This movie strikes me as a missed opportunity that calls out for a re-do.

Things to love about this movie: A brief but gorgeous dance performance by Carlos Acosta; the Shekhar Kapur-directed, Anthony Minghella-written "Hotel Suite" segment; the always terrific Robin Wright (even if she's wasted on a nothing story)
Things to hate about this movie: The totally pointless opening segment which starts everything off on the wrong note; too much cutesie coupling, not enough New York or variety of characters
Pleasant surprises: Drea de Matteo is actually shown riding the subway
Unpleasant surprises: Orlando Bloom's scenery chewing appearance in a lame story with Christina Ricci; no mention of Broadway (c'mon, this is NYC)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Movie Review - Public Enemies

Criminals and Michael Mann go together like milk and cookies, so the story of the final days of 1930s "Public Enemy Number 1" John Dillinger would seem a perfect fit for this action oriented director. There are, indeed, action sequences aplenty with bank robberies, prison breaks, shootouts, even a girlfriend workover. No shortage of old style machine guns being fired from the runners of old style cars by old style hoods wearing long coats and hats. What is on very short supply here, however, is coherent story telling and character development. The period details are perfect, from clothes to sets and Johnny Depp makes a marvelous John Dillinger but there was way too much unimaginative gunplay along with a surpising lack of any spark. The cinematography is deliberately dark, a choice which made it feel washed out and grubby instead of menacing. I realize that every Mann film can't be as brilliant as "Heat", but I expected him to do more with this story than simply present a rather routine crime saga.

The centerpiece of the action is a cat-and-mouse game between the wildly successful Dillinger and his uptight FBI agent nemesis Melvin Purvis (a very stoic Christian Bale). FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup in a creepy characterization) is on a mission to clean up America, including apprehending the most notorious criminals of the day (Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson). Purvis has been charged with bringing in the popular Dillinger and his gang, a task he quickly realizes will be much more difficult than anticipated as the street smart criminals run circles around the typically doltish Feds. Of course there's a beautiful, loyal girlfriend for Dillinger (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) plus a double crossing madam (Branka Katic) who fingers Dillinger after being threatened with deportation. Aside from Dillinger, the only character explored in any detail is Purvis, who begins having guilt and misgivings about his role in bringing Dillinger to justice as well as the methods used by the FBI. A large supporting cast, including Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson and Stephen Lang as Charles Winstead (the man who finally guns down Dillinger) pops in and out of the action so quickly we can barely keep them straight. Let's hope Mann hasn't decided to abandon his edgy, multi-layered style of action filmmaking for a video game approach.

Things to love about this movie: Depp's performance is captivating and made the movie for me; an exciting beginning with Dillinger's jail breakout of several gang members; good chemistry between Depp and Cotillard
Things to hate about this movie: Mann's usually brilliantly realized action scenes fall into a boring sameness here and I had trouble telling one shootout from another
Pleasant surprises: It was nice seeing the elusive Stephen Dorff as a member of Dillinger's crew; interesting information on the real people in the story shown at the end of the film
Unpleasant surprises: The wonderful and talented Cotillard is relegated to little more than a girlfriend role

Movie Review - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

After a rather lengthy delay the latest installment in the Harry Potter saga finally arrives and is more or less worth the wait. In fact, my review is even more delayed than the film! Once again all of our familiar friends are back at Hogwarts for another round of riveting adventures with the addition of teenage romance muddling the soup a bit this time. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have grown up before our eyes but manage to retain believability as the wonderful students who continue to encounter one disaster after another. A great deal of the story here revolves around the investigation by Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Harry of the evil Voldemort's origins, including visits to the past where Harry encounters the young Tom Riddle (Voldemort's original name) at ages 11 (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin) and 16 (Frank Dillane). Riddle's attempts to discover the secrets of a forbidden Dark Art which may hold the key to his power remain elusive to Harry, who has a lot on his plate: He must also deal with a vanishing cabinet, an unbreakable vow and, of course, an exciting Quidditch match as well as his growing attraction to Ron's sister Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright). A busy guy indeed. Luckily Potter is up to the task and so is Radcliffe. In addition Harry has come into possession of a mysterious Potions book marked as the property of the "half-blood prince" which enables him to excel in his Potions class but begins having a disturbing effect on the lad.

There's a lot going on in this movie, some of which I haven't even mentioned yet. Harry's nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) figures prominently in the story along with the fabulous Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) who returns as the Potions teacher. Helena Bonham Carter makes a perfect Bellatrix Lestrange, Jessie Cave is a hoot as Lavender Brown (with a huge crush on Ron Weasley) and director David Yates does a good job of juggling the multiple storylines and characters. As usual, it's delicious escaping into the world of Harry Potter.

Things to love about this movie: Ron's delirious joy as he becomes a star Quidditch goalie; the riveting performances by Fiennes-Tiffin and Dillane who both reveal the seeds of evil in Voldemort in chilling fashion
Things to hate about this movie: The romance scenes didn't really work for me and were not only clunky but a bit silly
Pleasant surprises: Despite the lengthy delay in its release the movie is just fine (I had fears that the delay might have been caused by quality problems)
Unpleasant surprises: Some rather cheesy f/x with the Milennium Bridge in London being destroyed by Death Eaters

Movie Review - The Hurt Locker

In a word: Wow! Director extraordinaire Kathyn Bigelow pulls off one of the best films of the year in this zinger of a tale about a bomb squad working a lethal beat in Iraq while navigating the equally dangerous dynamics of learning to trust their fellow team members. Jeremy Renner delivers an electrifying performance as Sgt. Will James, a fearless adrenalin junkie who goes cowboy in the face of danger, putting his two fellow soldiers Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) at risk. Not to mention making their job of ensuring his safety next to impossible. A tense, effective opening scene sets the stage perfectly with the original team leader Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce in a memorable, if brief, appearance) becoming the victim of a quick series of unfortunate errors. We're immediately in the land of relentless paranoia where these soldiers live, desperately watching every doorway, rooftop and passerby for the smallest of clues. Is that man in the market making a call on his cell or signaling the detonation of a bomb? Is that kid just wandering up the street or is there a package of explosives under his shirt? This movie puts the typical action story to shame with razor sharp editing, one riveting nailbiter scene after another and, most importantly, three involving characters (James, Sanborn and Eldridge) who mysteriously work their way into our sympathies. One of the most impressive achievements of the film is the way in which these soldiers seem so typical yet become so individual in their approaches to the hell in which they find themseleves.

Although Renner is the standout in the cast, with the flashiest role and the most screentime, his supporting actors Mackie and Geraghty are equally impressive along with an almost unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes as a team leader the bomb squad encounters in the middle of the desert. Mackie in particular delivers a character of depth and substance, making Sanborn's growing frustration and conflict with James extremely dynamic. Of course the other real star of the movie is director Bieglow whose previously established ability with action sequences (in such films as "Point Break", "Strange Days" and "Near Dark") comes to full fruition here. Aided by outstanding cinematography (from Barry Ackroyd) and writing (Mark Boal), Bigelow has created a diamond of a film -- brilliant, sparkling, perfectly cut, cold, clear and a thing of brutal beauty to behold.

Things to love about this movie: The clever use of a running countdown of days left in Iraq for the soldiers; one of the most effective depictions of a soldier's return to civilian life I've ever seen; the perfect ending; some nice little touches like a shot of a gritty street cat or James' connection with a soccer playing kid
Things to hate about this movie: Can't think of a thing
Pleasant surprises: For a story about men and explosives there's a welcome subtle touch to many of the most powerful points in the film; James proves to be much more complicated than he first appears; no explicit scenes of animals or humans being blown away
Unpleasant surprises: None