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)