Monday, September 29, 2008

August 2008

Like a charming, sexy, insightful short story, this breezy entertainment chronicles the summer vacation of two American women staying with relatives in Barcelona. With much of the story told by a narrator with a matter-of-fact approach to the most surprising plot turns, this film is more literary than cinematic----almost like you’re reading it rather than watching it----yet still features some of the strongest acting I’ve seen film this year.

Scarlett Johansson plays the flirtatious, adventurous Cristina, along for fun, while Rebecca Hall’s Vicky is researching her thesis on Catalonia culture, attracted by the innovative Modernist buildings of Antoni Gaudi, a 19th Century Spanish architect. Not long after arriving they are approached in a restaurant by a smooth-talking, arrogant painter (2007 Oscar winner Javier Bardem) who invites them to fly off with him for a weekend of sight seeing and possible sex. Bardem’s Juan Antonio is a great character and Bardem delivers a first-rate performance as this artist who’s introduced as a boorish egotist and slowly grows on you. He turns out to be a down-to-earth, thoughtful romantic who can’t escape the emotional hold of his volatile ex-wife, wonderfully played by Penelope Cruz. Together, they are both hilarious and poignant, one of the most fascinating movie couples of recent years.

Not only does the film make interesting points about differing sensibilities of Europeans and Americans (we always seem to be living life as tourists) but asks the tough questions about what love really amounts to and its importance in our lives.

Oh, by the way, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is written and directed by Woody Allen. You know, that one-time great director who has become such an embarrassment to both critics and fans.

In a few more years, it might be designated a genre unto itself: independent movies profiling working-poor, troubled women. Not only do these films give adventurous actresses great roles but they offer a sympathetic entree into less than glamorous stories. Just off the top of my head, I can think of five recent films that fall into this category---“The Good Girl” (2002), “Monster” (2003), “Down to the Bone” (2004), “Sherrybaby” (2006) and “Come Early Morning” (2006)---and I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting.

“Frozen River,” the feature debut for writer-director Courtney Hunt, stands with any of those pictures and features a brilliant, unflinching portrayal of a struggling mother by Melissa Leo, best known as one of the detectives on the 1990s TV show “Homicide: Life in the Streets” and for her wrenching performance as an reformed addict’s wife in “21 Grams” (2003).

In this new film, she’s also the wife of an addict----he’s a gambler who has just split with the family’s savings as the film opens----just barely able to put food on the table let along make the payment on the double-wide trailer they’ve ordered. Leo’s co-star in this film is the bleak, snow-blanketed New York-Canadian border town, adjacent to the Mohawk Indian Reservation, where she lives. Unlike the typical Hollywood depiction of Eastern winter as a beautiful, storybook setting ringing with holiday cheer, “Frozen Winter” presents the weather as yet another burden. I know first hand the depressing, even oppressive effect those seemingly endless winters can have on someone.

Leo’s Ray falls in with a feisty Mohawk woman (an imposing Misty Upham) of few words who occasionally smuggles illegals across the border, using the protection of the reservation as her safeguard against the federal agents. It’s the frozen St. Lawrence River that they must drive over that gives the film its title and also a metaphor for the fragile circumstances of these women’s lives.

Looking older than her 47 years, Leo digs deep into this uneducated, frustrated but determined woman, giving a glimpse at the difficulties faced by millions of families that most of American would rather forget about.

RECOUNT (2008)
As frustrating and embarrassing as it was to watch and read about the recount battle in Florida in the days following the 2000 president election, seeing it dramatized in this HBO movie can’t help but make you mad. At the time, I was steamed that Al Gore (the candidate I voted for) was getting screwed out of Florida’s electoral votes. Eight years later, the results are history, water under the bridge; what this movie shows is that after 218 years of elections, this country is just making it up as we go along. If this happened in a Third World country, we’d be lamenting their laughable version of democracy.

What’s clear from “Recount,” a mix of fictional dialogue and documented events, is that George W. Bush won the election because his party’s lawyers were smarter and more politically savvy than the Democrats. The GOP, lead by James Baker, understood right from the start that it wasn’t about who had the most votes but who was the best at playing cutthroat politics. Meanwhile, Warren Christopher, representing Gore, was talking about finding a “fair” solution to the standoff.

Kevin Spacey portrays Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Gore who had a falling out with the Vice President and then later returned to his team for the campaign. He leads the charge when the vote is so close that state law mandates a recount. It’s one of Spacey’s best performances in recent years as he butts heads with the overly deliberate Christopher (John Hurt) while trying to push for a full recount. As determined as Klain is, he can’t match the legal acumen and political ruthlessness of Baker, superbly portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. One of his best moments comes when he urges the lawyers to work toward moving the case to the federal courts because he sees the Supreme Court as favorable to Bush. These GOP loyalists who never stop preaching about states’ rights are aghast; this is clearly a state issue. Brady dismisses the party line; telling them to forget about GOP beliefs and concentrate on winning.

Also memorable is Laura Dern as the buffoonish Katherine Harris, Florida’s clueless secretary of state, who saw the fight as an excellent way to raise her political profile. Dern captures the arrogance and self-serving mentality we’ve come to expect from incompetent office holders.

While the sympathies of director Jay Roach (who replaced an ill Sydney Pollack) and screenwriter Danny Strong, are clearly with the Democrats, the manipulation of the system by both parties (not to mention what Florida officials did before the election) that is at the heart of “Recount” should upset anyone who still thinks every vote counts in this country.

I’ve always believed that a film should not be judged on how faithfully it translates its source. Just because a movie shares a title with a novel (or, on the other end of the spectrum, a television show) doesn’t mean the filmmakers are obligated to replicate every plot turn or characterization. Yet, I have to admit, my jaw dropped while watching this new version of Evelyn Waugh’s masterful novel when a love triangle is created when none existed in the book, changing the relationships and motivations of all the characters. Those who love the 1945 novel or the 1981 miniseries, which starred Jeremy Irons, may want to avoid this “Brideshead.”

But for everyone else this is a pretty good film. I gritted my teeth and did my best to watch it with fresh eyes and I must admit the plot changes worked, replacing the subtlety of the written word with an easier to follow path typical of mainstream movies.

Mostly set between the world wars, the story is told by Charles Ryder, a naïve, middle-class Oxford freshman, who becomes fast friends with flamboyant, hard-drinking and very wealthy Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son of a titled family. While Sebastian, whose sexuality remains cloudy, falls for his new friend, Charles, whose passion is painting, falls in love with Sebastian’s home, an ornate, countryside castle called “Brideshead.”

While it’s Charles story, Sebastian is the center of everything in both the book and the superb TV version, yet here he’s marginalized as the emphasis shifts to Charles relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia and mother, Lady Marchmain. It doesn’t help that Ben Whishaw, playing Sebastian, never seems to have a firm grasp on his character. He never becomes the kind of incorrigible rouge you can’t help care about.

Matthew Goode, who was excellent in Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” gives a thoughtful, well measured performances as Charles as he struggles to find something to give meaning to his life, while Emma Thompson brings a stern, unbending presence to Lady Marchmain, whose devotion to the Catholic Church affects everyone under her influence. Also doing good work are Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain and Hayley Atwell (“Cassandra’s Dream”) as Julia.

While I believe this would have been a better film had director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Andrew Davies (a “Masterpiece Theatre” veteran) and Jeremy Brock stuck to Waugh’s plot, “Brideshead” is worth a look, if only because it’s the rare movie that explores the conflict between faith and earthly happiness.

THE FAN (1996)
This bizarre, cartoon-like thriller stars Robert De Niro as a very angry man obsessed with the newest member of the San Francisco Giant baseball team. Imagine De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin (“King of Comedy”) combined with his Max Cady (“Cape Fear”) and you’ll get an idea of how out-of-control his performance as Gil Renard, a knife salesman (luckily, he isn’t a gun dealer) who loses his job and then loses what little mental stability he possessed.

Wesley Snipes plays the Barry Bonds-like (at half the size), self-obsessed superstar who is convinced that he can’t break out of his batting slump because he’s not wearing his lucky No. 11. The equally showboating Juan Primo (an underused Benicio Del Toro) won’t give up the number and once Gil finds out, he takes matters into his own hands.

The most ridiculous aspect of this misguided picture is the way Gil has access to the players’ area of the ballpark. He seems to go wherever he wants without anyone noticing and, on top of that, manages to get Snipes’ Bobby Rayburn to come to the phone during the game. Before you know it, he’s checking out Bobby’s home closet.

Ellen Barkin, trying to keep up with De Niro and Snipes, is irritatingly obnoxious as a sports radio host in a role that adds nothing to the film. Future star Jack Black has about 5 seconds of screen time as an engineer on Barkin’s radio show.

Despite his experience on the diamond, as Willie Mays Hayes in “Major League,” Snipes is still completely unconvincing as a baseball player. Equally unbelievable was the skinny, 30-year-old De Niro in “Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), but at least that was a movie about real people facing real tragedies.

IN BRUGES (2008)
When two Irish hit men are sent to Bruges, Belgium, to cool their heels after a blotched killing, they are told to lay low and wait for instructions. But Ray (a superb Colin Farrell) finds the quaint, touristy, medieval town pure hell and before his more sensible partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) can stop him, he’s involved in all sorts of trouble.

Falling for a local woman he spots working on a movie set, Ray ends up slugging a tourist in a restaurant, embarrassing the girl’s boyfriend, stealing their drugs and partying with a dwarf actor.

What makes this movie so appealing are these two fascinating killers. The younger, dumber Ray, haunted by his accidental shooting of a boy during a hit, is naïve, fun-loving but faces bouts of deep depression. The pragmatic Ken finds himself both frustrated and protective of his colleague as he falls in love with the beauty of Bruges. And their boss (a tightly wired Ralph Fiennes), who makes a late, but memorable appearance, is as odd a mobster as you’re likely to see.

“In Bruges” writer-director Martin McDonagh, whose 2004 short film “Six Shooter” won an Oscar, has made both a complex character study and a bloody thriller, reminiscent of the superb 1999 British crime film, “Croupier.”


       Part “Masterpiece Theater,” part teen sex melodrama, this telling of the ill-conceived union between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is a glossy, overheated entertainment that’s also completely forgettable.

In this version, based on Philippa Gregory’s best selling novel, Anne is offered up to the unhappily married king as a possible mistress by her repulsively ambitious father and uncle. But when Henry instead falls for the sweeter, more sensitive (and, if anyone cares, married) sister Mary, the father and uncle change plans and arrange for her to bed the king. It’s an understatement to say that Anne doesn’t take rejection well.

Natalie Portman seems an unlikely choice to play the manipulative, heartless Anne and never does succeed in being the bitch she needs to be. In contrast, Scarlett Johansson’s Mary, a caring, humble unpretentious beauty, falls right into the actress’ strength and she’s the best thing in the picture. Eric Bana is a smoldering love interest, but thoroughly unimpressive as the legendary king.

The soap opera-like movie gets a bit of a spark from “The Queen” scripter Peter Morgan’s dialogue, but British TV helmer Justin Chadwick’s direction is mostly by the numbers, never getting into the muddy truth of this dark tragedy.

TELL NO ONE (2008)
There’s a special art to constructing a movie that keeps the viewer in a constant state of confusion. Most importantly, the film needs a protagonist who the audience will stay with no matter how many stupid or illogical decisions he makes. The script also needs to provide good reasons as to why characters around the protagonist are withholding information. And, when the details are finally revealed, they can’t be so outrageous that the audience groans in disappointment.

The French-language film “Tell No One” succeeds on all three counts as it sends Alexandre Beck (sad-faced French star Francois Cluzet, best known in the U.S. as Dexter Gordon’s buddy in “’Round Midnight”), a pediatrician whose wife was murdered eight years ago, head first into a chase that he doesn’t really understand. He believes he’s receiving e-mails from his deceased wife at the same time the police (for very good reasons) have taken a renewed interest in him as a suspect in the murder.

There are plenty of suspicious characters hovering about and an unlikely ally: a rather brutish, low-life criminal who helps out Beck because the doctor had been kind to his sick child. Director Guillaume Canet, one of the country’s biggest movie stars (here he plays an arrogant playboy) behind the camera for just his second feature, does a top-notch job of keeping the action moving and the suspense at a high level. He clearly has a way with actors, getting first-rate performances from the entire cast, especially Cluzet as Beck and the multi-lingual Kristin Scott Thomas, playing the lover of Beck’s sister who never wavers in her support of him.

The one weak aspect of the script----by Philippe Lefebvre and the director from an American novel by Harlan Coben-----happens near the end of the film when too much of the plot is explained in one sitting. Having the secrets revealed in bits and pieces or, at least, in a more dramatic situation, would have made the revelations feel as shocking as they are to Beck.

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