Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

At the age of 85, Tony Curtis has left us. Known mostly for being Janet Leigh's husband and Jamie Lee Curtis' father, but Curtis' acting career was on of distinction as well. Sure, he was not the talent of a Robert Mitchum or Marlon Brando. His performances in The Defiant Ones, Spartacus and Sweet Smell of Success were not the central roles, but they added much more to those successful films with great wit and his incessant need to never play it safe. There were many actors who were better then Curtis, but few as unique. Known mostly for his performance in the Billy Wilder hit Some Like It Hot, here's my favorite clip of him from that film...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Top Ten: Coen Brothers

Haven't done this in a while. An ol' fashioned Top Ten list. The subject this time around? The Coen Brothers. In celebration of the premiere of the teaser trailer for their new film, True Grit. The original John Wayne film from 1969 is one of my least favorite Westerns ever, but I've been slowly talking myself into this one. Especially after getting this (admittedly short) peak, which includes a scruffy Jeff Bridges (some shades of The Dude? We'll hear more about him in a little bit), a shooting Matt Damon, and glimpses of a feisty performance from newcomer Hattie Steinfeld. We've heard that the Joel and Ethan are much more interested in adapting the 1968 Charles Portis novel then remaking the Oscar-winning film - which is hopeful. But enough about True Grit, let's take a look back at the entire Coen Brothers catalogue and countdown their Top Ten films.

10. The Ladykillers (2004)

Most Coen fans consider this comedy caper the worst of their fourteen feature films, but even saying that, there are few who would admit that they are not overcome by the film's infectious absurdity. A remake of the Peter Sellers 1955 comedy of the same name, it follows a zany collection of criminals led by Prof. G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), and including a demolition man with irritable bowel syndrome (J.K. Simmons) and a loudmouth petty thief (Marlon Wayans). Posing as a Christian music band, they hide out in the basement of a pious, gregarious woman named Marva (Irma P. Hall). Containing one of Hanks' most delicious comedic performances, The Ladykillers has some of the biggest laughs in the Coens' illustrious comedic history. While the film keeps the silliness of the original, there is still the Coen touch of peculiarity and quirk, leading to a conclusion that is as hysterical as it is anarchistic. Another piece of trivia: this is the only Coen Brothers film where they had nothing to do in the writing of the screenplay.

9. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

This is by far the sweetest Coen brothers film, with many classifying it as a children's film ("You know, for kids!"). When the president of a manufacturing company jumps out the window of the top floor of a forty-five story building, the scheming vice president (Paul Newman) decides to hire a dunce to replace him to drive down the stock so he can it up cheap. He hires the exceptionally idealistic Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) who takes to his job quickly, even with fast-talking undercover reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) out to expose him. With open references to the screwball comedies of Preston Sturgess and Frank Capra, The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coens' most heartfelt love song (they prefer saluting the screwballs and film noirs amongst genre, but Westerns get their fair share as well). It also contains some of the best work from film composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins. It's probably the similarity to films of long ago that caused Hudsucker to be one of the Coens' biggest box office flops, but it's reputation has grown quite a bit in the decades since.

8. Miller's Crossing (1990)

If Hudsucker was a blown kiss toward 1940's romantic comedy, then Miller's Crossing was one of the least subtle winks to 1940-50's film noir. The plot is a spiraling one, focused on loner gangster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), whose boss and mentor Leo (Albert Finney) is having trouble keeping piece between mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) and the brother (Jon Turturro) of his girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). As Tom double-talks and sidesteps through all these characters in hopes to get things to turn out his way, many things go right and many other things go very, very wrong. A straight drama, Miller's Crossing is probably one of the Coens' least distinct films, with very little of their trademark oddities popping up (though their are a few here and there). Instead, they focus solely on catching the suspense and moral ambiguity of classic gangster pictures from long ago. Needless to say, like The Hudsucker Proxy, it also had its initial struggles at the box office, but today its usually held up among some of their more polished work. Also, this is their first of five collaborations with Steve Buscemi (albeit a very short one), and all of those films make the Top Ten (Oh joy!).

7. Burn After Reading (2008)

Only seven months removed from winning three Oscars for No Country For Old Men, the Coens came out with Burn After Reading, one of the funniest, but damning looks at the idiocy of American culture. The film follows an ensemble including two dim-witted gym employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt), their boss (Richard Jenkins), a disgruntled, recently fired CIA man (John Malkovich) and his ornery wife (Tilda Swinton), and a charming, gun-wielding government officer with a penchant for exercise and wood flooring (George Clooney). When the gym employees get a piece of the CIA agent's memoirs, they mistake it for confidential information, and their search for retribution leads to often hilarious, often dangerous results for everyone involved. Funny in a way that's dark and brooding, Burn After Reading is probably the best dissection of Bush America that we'll ever see. It cuts a knife through our superficial values just as sharply as No Country, but it has the gaul to sunny and cheerful about it. By far, the best of the Clooney-Coen collaborations, and has what may be the best performance of Brad Pitt's career.

6. Blood Simple (1984)

As their debut film, Blood Simple really got the word out quickly about how talented these two Midwestern brothers really were. A grizzly Texas crime film, it deals with a bar owner named Marty (Dan Hedaya) whose crazy jealousy over his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover Ray (John Getz), leads him to contact a sketchy private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) to put a scare into him. Much like other Coen films, this meticulously plotted plan goes horribly wrong because of circumstances that are far outside of the characters' control. In a lot of ways, this is a much less mature version of their masterpiece Fargo, with the elements of dark crime and bad luck so similar to the 1996 film. As their first film, its particularly impressive, considering it contains some of the most intense scenes they've ever produced. One of those scenes involving one character burying another alive, which is probably the most dastardly act a Coen character has ever perpetrated (with the noted exception of Gaear Grimsrud and his notorious woodchipper). There are lots of things in Blood Simple that seem out of the Coens' style, which is to be expected as they searched to find their voice. That said, it is still one of the best film debuts of all time.

5. Barton Fink (1991)

After Barton Fink swept up at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival (taking Best Actor for Jon Turturro, Best Director for Joel, and the highly-coveted Palme D'or), many finally started taking the Coens seriously. Before Fink, they were only thought of us stylish genre filmmakers with plenty of flash, but barren of heart. Fink was a different direction, much more existential and categorically ambiguous - inspired more by Freud then by Howard Hawks and Preston Sturgess. The follows the titular Barton (Turturro), a writer who's hot off a Broadway success and is asked to come to Los Angeles to draft a boxing picture. He dreams of writing a masterpiece about "the common man", but when he's sent to ominous Hotel Earle he can't focus. He finds all sorts of distractions in the all sorts of things, including his peeling wallpaper, the sexual moans from upstairs, and especially the constant visits from his friendly, but overbearing next door neighbor Charlie (John Goodman). Tackling various subject matter such as the "life of the mind" and poking fun at film studios (Michael Lerner's hilarious performance as studio head Jack Lipnick earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), Barton Fink was the Coen Brothers' first great film and would set the standard for every film they released after it.

4. A Serious Man (2009)

Released just last year, A Serious Man became only the third Coen film to be nominated for Best Picture (of course, it helped that they expanded the field that year to ten, but still). Described by many as being Joel and Ethan's most personal film, documenting the life of a Jewish man in 1950's American Midwest. Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having some problems: his wife has decided to leave him for the family friend Sy (Fred Melamed), his son is a pot-smoking delinquent, and his oafish brother Arthur (Richard Kind) won't get off his couch and find his own apartment. With allusions to the Book of Job, A Serious Man is unlike most Coen Brothers films, since for the first time, they allowed their characters to recruit empathy from the audience. If you could make any argument against their movies, its that their characters silly (sometimes offensive) caricatures of actual people. Not here. They want us to feel bad for Larry Gopnick. But just as they give us a place to filter our emotion, they break them down, sending Larry through a hellish journey throughout the film. It's their most audacious experiment, and was instantly considered one of the best of the Coen pantheon upon release.

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski is certainly their most cherished film, simply because it is their best pure comedy. Following The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and his angry friend Walter (John Goodman), we see a sequence of strange characters and events that lead up to very little that makes sense or forward story progress. Instead, the film prefers to focus on its own meanderings, including an ornery millionaire (David Huddleston), his estranged step-daughter (Julianne Moore), a group techno pop nihilists, and Dude and Walter's innocent bowling partner Donnie (Steve Buscemi). It's certainly the coolest movie to spend such a quantifiable amount of time in a bowling alley, but it's also one of the greatest deconstructions of film noir ever. In a lot of ways, it's an "anti-film noir", containing many of the same plot elements of the Howard Hawks film The Big Sleep. But instead of a grizzled, go-getter protagonist, we're left with The Dude - a man who actively avoids all kinds of conflict. Which is why The Big Lebowski is such an incredible watch: it's a delightfully ridiculous comedy on the surface, while being a stinging comment on cinema below the surface. And let's not forget one of the greatest uses of Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)".

2. No Country For Old Men (2007)

After The Ladykillers was declared by many to be their worst effort, some thought that maybe the Coens' days as the wonderful oddities of cinema were numbered. So, after three years of nothing, they finally came out with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country For Old Men. The story is about Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a streetwise Texas hunter who comes across a maximum drug deal gone wrong. All he sees are dead bodies, mountains of heroin, and a satchel with $2 million, so he takes the money and runs with it. This gets the amoral bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) on his trail. Anton is a killing machine, who works in a very mechanical way and never leaves evidence behind. But Anton does have grizzled, downtrodden Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) following him, hoping to find the two men before a blood path ensues. As a grim metaphor for American society, No Country is scary in its foreboding foresight of an unstoppable evil in our country's future. As a thriller, the film pulsates with suspense, thanks to the brilliant work of the Coens, as well as veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins and career-best work from sound editor Skip Lievsay (neither Lievsay nor Deakins won the Oscar that year, in one of the more egregious look-overs of the ceremony). It is the first Coen Brothers film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and likely to be the only one. Lightning doesn't strike twice.

1. Fargo (1996)

If you're going to be considered a seminal filmmaker, you usually have to have at least two legitimate masterpieces. Scorsese has Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Woody Allen has Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Billy Wilder has Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment. No Country For Old Men was their second masterpiece cementing them in the pantheon in great American filmmakers. Fargo was their first, and their best. A dark comedy about a deeply indebted car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two slimy criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, so he can split the hefty ransom money that will come from his well-off father-in-law (Harve Presnell). What they don't expect is the smart eye of Police Chief Marge Gunderson (France McDormand in an Oscar winning performance) who is still the best officer in her district despite being six months pregnant. Part dissection of small town America, part meditation on good vs. evil, Fargo is easily the Coen Brothers greatest film and one of the greatest films of all time. The lovable Marge is easily the best character that the Coens have ever crafted, but its her placement in the world of this film that is fascinating. She represents everything that is good, and the Coens have her face off against the ultimate evil manifested by Buscemi and Stormare. Though Marge wins, the mood at the end is ambiguous. In a lot of ways, in contains some of the same warnings in No Country, but it's less angry and more hopeful. More funny and less downtrodden. It's quietly delightful in its comedy, and brutally shocking with its violence. It's one of the most well-rounded films ever. And it also has Peter Stormare throwing Steve Buscemi in a woodchipper, and who doesn't love that?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (**1/2)

Directed by Oliver Stone


When Gordon Gekko first appeared in 1987's Wall Street, his silky charm mixed with his snake-like, coldblooded nature fascinated audiences to the tune of an Academy Award for Michael Douglas, the man who played the infamous Gekko like Pat Riley with a blue streak. In a lot of ways, the film was a warning to the greedy suits staring at stock markets in New York City. Come 2010, their greed has cost us much more then it probably cost them. I don't know if Oliver Stone figured that his film had that sort of foresight, or if it was more of a stage for Douglas to dance with charm. Either way, the film made such an impact that they decided that a sequel was in order... twenty-three years later.

In 2001, Gekko (Douglas) is at the end of his eight-year prison term and by this time, he has no one to pick him up as he makes his way towards freedom. With nothing but a few gold watches and a mobile phone the size of a satellite, Gekko stands with scruff on his face and bitterness in his eyes as he's forced to take a cab on the way out of jail. Fast forward to 2008, and Gekko has decided to publish his financial advice book, "Is Greed Good?". He's headlining book signings and making speeches at colleges, marketing himself as a reformed sinner come to warn everyone about economic doom that is just around the corner. An economic doom that exists because of the very society of financial impropriety that he was at the center of two decades ago. In times of panic, people turn to strange advisers, and with the stock market sinking, Gekko is allowed to speak in front of hundreds of accounting students as a man of wisdom.

Gordon catches the eye of the new, young Wall Street hotshot Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf), who specializes in alternative energy. Jake is the protege of the veteran, disgruntled investment banker Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Zabel gives Jake a $1.4 million bonus, days before his bank goes down the toilet. In a moment of complete vulnerability, Zabel is forced to sell to monolithic rival banker Bretton James (Josh Brolin - who plays the part with Gekko-like ruthlessness) for pennies on the dollar. The presence of the failure so large causes Zabel to throw himself in front of a subway train. The bank was sunk because of anonymous, incriminating rumors spread throughout the financial district (where, we learn, gossip flies faster then a sewing circle). The rumors are almost directly connected to Bretton James, and Jake instantly sees the man as a villain.

He soon finds that his distaste with Bretton is shared by Gordon Gekko. But there's a wrinkle in Jake's curiosity with Gekko, and that is that he's engaged to his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake approaches Gekko after one of his many school speeches and is able to get a private conversation with him after he mentions the engagement. Gekko admits that it was Bretton's slimy admissions that caused him to go to prison for eight years, and he agrees to help Jake take Bretton down, if he also helps him re-establish his relationship with Winnie. Jake is able to get in with Bretton pretty quickly, but getting Winnie to reconnect with her father turns out to be trickier. She has no trust for him and is convinced that he'll find a way to hurt the both of them, but Jake is unconvinced, sure that prison has changed Gekko for the better. As Jake gets deeper with Bretton, Gekko comes closer to Winnie, but no one's intentions are as ideal as they seem and everything soon bursts as the lies are exposed.

When you consider that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a sequel twenty years removed from its original - which in of itself is a pretty dated 80's movie - the film is actually rather amiable. Douglas gives his best performance in close to a decade, obviously refreshed by reprising his Oscar-winning role. He's got Gekko down pat, letting the squealing ruthlessness always be prevalent underneath the austere slickness. LeBeouf is very capable as the film's main protagonist, and is exceptionally better here then Charlie Sheen was as the focus of the first Wall Street (and right on cue, Sheen does make a small cameo as his character, Bud Fox, just in case we were all wondering what he was doing these days). With its good cast, the film is able to take full advantage of their talent, since their performances fully outperform the screenplay that they speak through.

I admit that I have a prejudice with films like these, since I know close to nothing about financials and when the film goes on long stretches explaining the so called nuances of the stock market and the economy, I tune out. There are still certain concepts within this film that I'm still not sure I truly understand, and that is not the film's fault. What is the film's fault is its incessant need to be topical. Oliver Stone jumps at the opportunity to capture the moment of a downfall that he doesn't totally stop to think about whether or not his methods and metaphors are a bit too heavy-handed. This is particularly true about a ridiculously obvious motif involving children and bubble makers, and I'll just leave you with the suspense on that one.

But I guess that's the way Stone tells stories, and that is why I barely enjoy any of his films (with the big exception of Platoon). It's a shame because Stone's overwrought techniques really undermine what is actually a relatively fine film. There's a carousel of entertaining supporting performances from Mulligan, Brolin, as well as Susan Surandon and Eli Wallach (who I'm pretty sure has died twenty years ago - his corpse is getting all the work, now). If I'd worked at a movie studio, I'm not sure I would even endorse a sequel to Wall Street, since I'm not sure how big of an impact its really had outside of style and snazzy movie quotes. But alas, I don't get paid to make those kind of decisions, and that's probably for the better. Whether or not greed is good, there's plenty of it in movie making these days.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Death of 'The Master'

Grim news has emerged from various blogs and entertainment sites: production on Paul Thomas Anderson's next film, The Master, has been suspended indefinitely. Meaning, while the film is not cancelled, the chances of it being made with the stellar cast and crew that was being reported suddenly seem pretty meek. This is devastating for anyone who's been following the development of this project for the last few months. It was beginning to rack up an astounding collection of talent both in front and behind the camera. First off, it is a P.T. Anderson screenplay, which is enough to get at least me excited, since he's probably the greatest contemporary filmmaker in the business right now. Then there was the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman would play the lead role, while there would be a supporting cast including Jeremy Renner, Reese Witherspoon, and Thomas Jane. Add to that, Robert Elswit - frequent Anderson collaborator and Oscar-winner for shooting Anderson's There Will Be Blood - was signed on as well to be Director of Photography. It's a tremendous group of people to come together for one movie, and being slated for release in 2011, it probably would have been the most anticipated film of next year. And now it seems over.

The screenplay (various drafts have been leaked around, so many have read it - though I have not) is about a man dubbed The Master, who becomes the leader of an exciting new religion in the 1950's. Apparently, this religion bares a striking resemblance to Scientology, and The Master is meant to be a recreation of Scientology's creator, science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Most of the film deals with The Master's strongest follower, Freddie, who has become entirely entranced by the charms and manipulations of the religious figure. Some have described the script as Freddie's story, and his own fight for his soul. Hoffman was slated to play the title character, while Renner was set to play Freddie. Many who have gotten their hands on the script have praised its ambition, as well as its moral ambiguity, but there was a lot of concern for its marketability. As blogger Simon Dang wrote in his blog The Playlist: "if intelligent dramas are being threatened with extinction of late (or at least at a certain budget), surely this could become a problem for PTA."

Now, there are certainly plenty of conspiracy theories that could easily and irresponsibly planted. Most obviously, the film seems to target one of the most burgeoning new religions in Los Angeles, so it's not like making this film would get P.T. Anderson any friends. The ominous quote from Renner that there was a "wall we couldn't overcome - or, at least Paul couldn't overcome", may suggest a certain director-talent altercation or tension. We'll probably never discover the truth. Here are the facts: Both Renner and Hoffman have signed onto numerous, high-budget projects that will probably fill up their time for the better part of a year. Also, The Master's financial backers, River Road, have said that they are no longer financing the project. So, as much as I hope the film will eventually get made, I know that the version The Master that we've been obsessively anticipating for about half a year will probably never see the light of day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Post-Festival Oscar Predix

Now that both Venice and Toronto have closed up shop, we finally have a clearer picture of where we might be heading come Oscar-baiting time at the end of the year. With Sofia Coppola's Somewhere winning at Venice, many were surprised since Black Swan was getting all the best notices and Coppola's film getting nothing particularly positive in its reviews (in fact, many cried fowl saying that Jury Head Quentin Tarantino was picking favorites since he and Coppola used to have a romantic relationship). At the end of the Toronto fest, the Colin Firth-lead film The King's Speech won the big prize, the People's Choice Audience Award. It makes a lot of sense when you consider the film's high concept plot and period setting (both are crowd-pleasing, and therefore, Academy pleasing). So, now we're not totally shooting blind when we do our best to do Oscar nomination predictions. With mid-September upon us, here's what the Oscar forecast is looking like (in my opinion):

Javier Bardem, BIUTIFUL
Robert Duvall, GET LOW
James Franco, 127 HOURS
Mark Wahlberg, THE FIGHTER

Jennifer Lawrence, WINTER'S BONE
Natalie Portman, BLACK SWAN
Michelle Williams, BLUE VALENTINE

Christian Bale, THE FIGHTER
Dustin Hoffman, BARNEY'S VERSION
Geoffrey Rush, THE KING'S SPEECH

Keira Knightley, NEVER LET ME GO
Lesley Manville, ANOTHER YEAR
Miranda Richardson, MADE IN DAGENHAM

Darren Aronofsky, BLACK SWAN
Danny Boyle, 127 HOURS
Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION

Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumber, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Andres Heinz and Mark Heyman & John McLaughlin, BLACK SWAN
Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION
David Seidler, THE KING'S SPEECH

Michael Arndt, TOY STORY 3
Simon Beaufoy & Danny Boyle, 127 HOURS
Alex Garland, NEVER LET ME GO
Debra Granik & Andrea Rosellini, WINTER'S BONE

127 Hours
Another Year
Black Swan
Blue Valentine
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
Never Let Me Go
The Social Network
Toy Story 3

How To Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Roger Deakins, TRUE GRIT
Matthew Libatique, BLACK SWAN
Anthony Dod Mantle & Enrique Chediak, 127 HOURS
Wally Pfister, INCEPTION

Jess Gonchor, TRUE GRIT

Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Jon Harris, 127 HOURS
Pamela Martin, THE FIGHTER
Andrew Weisblum, BLACK SWAN

Jenney Beavan, THE KING'S SPEECH
Janty Yates, ROBIN HOOD
Mary Zophres, TRUE GRIT

Carter Burwell, TRUE GRIT
Rachel Portman, NEVER LET ME GO
Gustavo Santaoalla, BIUTIFUL
Hans Zimmer, INCEPTION

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Town (**)

Directed by Ben Affleck


If Ben Affleck had appreciable acting talent, he could probably be just as big as George Clooney. The likability factor is there, as well as the charm, and no one can deny his boyish, yet chiseled good looks. Alas, he does not have the skill to carry say Three Kings or Michael Clayton the way Clooney can, so he’ll probably always live down his reputation as a sub-par performer, who’s main achievement was an over-exuberant Oscar speech with co-star and writing buddy, Matt Damon. Now, Affleck has taken to work behind the camera. His first film, Gone Baby Gone, was pretty good, even if it was preachy and misguided at moments. His newest film, The Town, has its moments where it delivers on that early promise, but for the most part seems like a sophomore slump.

There are quotes that open the film, explaining the infamy of the city of Charlestown, Massachusetts. There, bank robbery is like tradition, handed down from father to son. One man who’s life is steeped deep into this tradition is Doug MacRay (Affleck), who is the architect behind a group of bank robbers. He speaks in the film’s first scenes with his three partners about how they’ll pull off their latest job. They bust into the bank, equipped with dreadlocked skull masks, and take the place over. They grab the young bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), and ask her to open the vault – which she’s able to do after Doug talks down her nerves. Things are going smoothly until fellow gang member, and Doug’s best friend Jim (Jeremy Renner), turns the bank clerk’s face into a bloody pulp. They’re forced to take Claire as a hostage.

They let Claire go soon after they escape, but Jim takes her ID and discovers that she lives nearby in Charlestown. He tells Doug that she could probably go to the FBI with substantial evidence, and he wants to follow her to make sure that she doesn’t talk. Doug insists that he should be the one to follow her (Jim has already shown his lack of patience with innocent bystanders), and does so almost immediately. When he approaches her at a laundromat, she does not recognize him or his voice. He notices that she is still emotionally jumpy since the heist and offers to buy her a drink. The two begin a romantic relationship, but Doug is conflicted when she begins to discuss her cooperation with the Feds and how the heist has made her feel. Things get even more complicated when Jim discovers their relationship and begins to question Doug’s priorities.

On their trail is the feisty Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), who’s constantly a few steps behind them, but this time around he has a few aces up his sleeve. For one, he has Claire giving him information. Unknowing that Doug is the robber who traumatized her weeks before, she brings Adam closer and closer to Doug. There’s also Krista (Blake Lively); Jim’s sister and Doug’s former lover. She’s a drug mule and mother – she thinks Doug is the father of her daughter, but he insists otherwise. Getting closer to her, Adam hopes to get closer to Doug. Doug tries his best to dodge Adam in his relationship with Claire, but it doesn’t help that Jim is constantly asking him to prove his loyalty by taking more, riskier jobs while the police spotlight on them grows larger and larger.

Affleck emulates two filmmakers pretty directly in this film. In style and tone, he does his best to recreate a Clint Eastwood film. Along with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, he floods the screen with muted but over-exposed light, contrasted by dark shadows that nearly slice through the screen. In plot, The Town borrows greatly from Michael Mann, who’s made a career producing crime films much better then this one. With parallel cop and robber storylines, Heat would come to mind, but The Town doesn’t nearly approach the moral ambiguity and narrative slickness that was in Mann’s masterpiece. Sure, if you’re going to rip-off filmmakers, you might as well rip-off one’s that are as good as Mann and Eastwood, but Affleck doesn’t bring much new to the table here, and what ends up being shown is a film without any directorial identity.

Which is a shame, because the film begins with great enthusiasm that causes you to invest great interest in the characters. Sure, the script is convenient and predictable, but all of the characters speak with flash and wit, and it moves briskly. That is, until it reaches its halfway point and becomes bogged down in crime movie archetypes. Affleck treats his criminal characters with much more affection than the law & order types, and I’m not exactly sure why. They’re not really given any real moments of redemption or sacrifice (at least not the kind that really equals their copious sins), but I feel like I was supposed to empathize with these homicidal felons more then I actually did. Perhaps I would feel for them more if Affleck didn’t supply them with cheap crutches, such as Krista or Doug’s convict father (played with disappointing dullness by Chris Cooper).

Affleck does rack up an A-list cast with Renner, Hall, Hamm, Cooper, and himself. Oh, and let’s not forget Pete Postlethwaite as the Scot florist/organized crime leader (did people forget how talented an actor he was? Seems doomed to parts like these lately). As a film director, I feel like Affleck could be really good, but not this time. There are flashes of brilliance – a scene between Renner, Hall, and Affleck at an outdoor café sparks with suspense – but the overall product just feels a bit hackneyed and uninteresting here. Not that there isn’t an audience for star-riddled films like these. I don’t doubt that it cold be a decently sized hit, and give Affleck enough influence to make more, better films. Hey, even Eastwood made Space Cowboys.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Trailer Watch: The Fighter

So.... this is awkward. In the first trailer, David O. Russell's latest film, The Fighter, could not seem any more like "Generic Biopic Starring Movie Star A". Now, that could be just the marketing - which I surely hope is the case - but the only interesting/exciting thing about this preview is the glimpses of Christian Bale as Mickey Ward's drug addict brother. I blow hot and cold on Mark Wahlberg. I've seen him be pretty exceptional and two of his best performances (I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings) came when Russell was behind the camera, but he seems to be pretty common and self-serving here. He's been working on this film for close to a decade, but the level of nuance in this character seems a notch below the Lifetime Channel. I'm going to see this film and I hope that I'm wrong, but this is exactly the by-the-books bio-drama that says nothing new but collects statues come awards season. I just like to see films win awards because they were really god, and not because they were trying to win awards.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Natalie Portman pulled in by 'Gravity'

I try not to make it my business to comment on industry news - because after all, there's nothing I know from my Orlando apartment that you can't get from any of the industry blogs that scatter the internet, but there was a juicy rumor trolling the movie sites that made me want to bite. Film director Alfonso Cuarón's latest film, a 3-D epic named Gravity has been stuck in a bit of a pre-production hell. For what it's worth, Cuarón was the man behind the masterpieces Children of Men and Y tu mamá también, but he has been stuck working on Gravity since then. The film is slated for a 2012 release, but even that does not look safe anymore. Of course, they didn't need the news that the planned star of the film, Angelina Jolie, has decided to leave the movie before shooting started. There have been many different names being passed around as a replacement, but the most prominent one seems to be Natalie Portman.

We all know that Portman is pretty hot right now, considering all the praise that Black Swan is currently getting at the Venice Film Festival (and the expected Oscar love it will get early next year). It seems that her role in the ballerina psychological thriller will finally solidify her adult acting career, since lord knows we've been witnessing her child career for what seems like forever. Ever since The Professional in 1994, we've been hoping that she could expand that talent into something very special. Sure, there were signs of that in 2004 when she had the double release of Garden State and Closer (for which she received a Supporting Actress nomination), but both those roles capitalized on her cute childishness, so they can hardly be counted as real adult performances.

So, we'll get to see her break loose in Black Swan and I think it would be fantastic if she joined forces with the obviously brilliant
Cuarón for his most ambitious project yet in the years to come. Sure, Gravity also has the chance to be a stuffy, megalomaniacal sci-fi, but it has the opportunity to be truly fantastic if executed properly. Now, Portman hasn't confirmed anything, and the part has only been offered, but the early word is that she will accept. I hope that everything will come together for this project, because I'd like Cuarón to get the same amount of attention as his Mexican counterparts Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu (particularly because he's immensely more talented then both of them).

Here's to hoping. It's always silly to get excited about films before they're released, let alone before production has even started, but I am. I'll have Gravity on my calender for the Fall of 2012.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The American (***)

Directed by Anton Corbjin


When you consider the pacing of a film like The American, as well as the tone and the characterization, you soon realize how unsuccessful a film like this will be, unless its lead is one of the greatest movie stars of the last fifty years. It's the kind of movie that challenges the morals and (particularly) the attention spans of someone who would gladly see a George Clooney film just because he's in it. Whether or not this is one of Clooney's best films seems to be beside the point, because what can be said with a certainty is that this is probably one of the most challenging roles of his career, physically and emotionally.

Clooney plays Jack or Edward. He goes by both, but we never really learn which, if any, is his real name. At the opening of the film, he is vacationing in a Swedish cabin with a beautiful, nameless woman (Irina Björklund) and as they walk through the snowy mountains outside, they are suddenly attacked by two men with guns. With stunning efficiency, Jack/Edward is able to kill them all with a small gun he had hidden in his coat. The woman, overcome by shock, asks him in a panic why he has a gun and why they are being hunted. Jack/Edward responds by shooting her in the back. Leave no witnesses. Within five minutes of the film, we are completely aware of how cold and ruthless he treats matters of business.

After that mess, he is told by his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen) to hide out in a small town in Italy and wait for one last job. Pavel expresses his disappointment with Jack (as he calls him), but tells him to meet with a woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Edward (as she calls him) meets her in a public cafe, and she explains very matter-of-factly that she needs him to make a gun for her. Her criteria: the range of a rifle, the power of a machine gun, and the serviceable compactness of a handgun - oh yeah, and she wants a silencer. Edward agrees to make the gun as he relaxes in his small room which sits in an apartment at the top of a mountain village.

In between producing the gun, Jack/Edward strolls around the village and meets various people. One of them is Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a polite, gregarious pastor who invites him into his home for dinner and wine. Benedetto explains to Jack that having God in your heart is the one thing that can save you from Hell. Jack doesn't take much of that advice to heart. He also comes across Clara (Violante Placido), a gorgeous prostitute who he begins to take a liking to. A strong relationship blooms between Edward and Clara, but as he gets closer and closer to finishing his final job, he worries if he ever will be able to get out of the crime world and hopes that he isn't forced to do to Clara what he had to do to the woman at the beginning of the film.

For its direct title, Clooney is the only thing that's actually American in the entire film. Even the sophomore film director Anton Corbjin (also made 2007's Control) hails from the Netherlands. Along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, Corbjin photographs the enigmatic Italian hilltown Castel del Monte with such brilliant delicacy. The area's erratic angles and polished cobble stone roads form such a perfect locale to this film that it almost becomes a character in its own right. The film seems tuned in to the advantages of Italy's most beautiful landscapes, and Jack/Edward's tormented circumstance is perfectly suited for this tranquil, isolated location.

As far as character arcs go though, Jack or Edward is essentially a plateau. Not to say that he doesn't have a gradual change throughout the film, but the story does not seem concerned with helping him redeem his image. The film starts with him committing such a terrible act (mudering a woman he cares about), and I'm not sure if the audience could forgive him for this, if he wasn't played by George Clooney. And perhaps this is more honest to who Jack/Edward is as a person. I don't doubt that most contract killers will go throughout their entire lives without ever regretting their actions, but there are moments in The American that want it both ways. With the exception of falling in love, Jack/Edward never really acts humane, but the film seems to want us to accept him that way, even with his flaws.

Despite it all, Clooney does instill the character with as much emotion and gravitas as he can. Always known as an actor who relies on his charm, there are no witty remarks or pearly white smiles here. Chiseling himself into some of the best shape of his life, Clooney plays Jack/Edward like a smooth but paranoid machine; a professional so mechanical in his work, that seeing him express something like happiness feels extra-terrestrial. Jack/Edward does have one fatal flaw and that is his weakness for women and his willingness to fall in love easily. He should know, particularly after the film's opening moments, that being with a woman is putting her in a terribly vulnerable and dangerous situation, but when he is approached by the beautiful Clara, he cannot help himself. It's pretty hard to show a prostitute romance and make it seem authentic, but Clooney and Placido pull it off well.

I imagine that a film like The American has a relatively breezy shoot, since every shot and light set-up seems so excellently prepared and pre-planned. There is not a single image throughout the film that isn't handled with care. It's a welcome little movie, especially when the multiplexes are filled with drek like Machete and Going The Distance. There are moments that are drowsy and intentionally paced, moving with the speed of a Terrence Mallick picture, but you can appreciate the form and craft here. And while you don't get the charisma that we're used to from Clooney, you do see him challenging his screen persona like he never has before. Isn't that something worth watching?