Monday, October 22, 2007

Now playing at a theater near you... (i.e.: movies that opened on 10/19 that I didn't get to review in time)

Once again, I apologize, I apologize, I apologize. College life has been crizazy, which is no excuse, but there it is. Took a much-needed “vacation” home this weekend and caught the new plays from Tom Stoppard and Aaron Sorkin, as well as “Sleuth” (liked most of it, despite the perpetually yawning audience) and “Control” (liked it, despite my youthful ignorance and never hearing of Joy Division). This weekend was a big one for releases, so I regret that I couldn’t get my reactions up in time, but for what it’s worth, I will have full reviews this Friday for “Dan in Real Life,” “Saw IV” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and here’s my quick takes on this past weekend’s films:

“GONE BABY GONE” - * * * *

While personally, I’ve remained a fan despite some of his poor decisions, Ben Affleck officially deserves an apology from pretty much everyone else. With his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” he’s delivered an excellent (having seen it three times now, I’m fairly certain that adjective is earned), gritty, compulsively compelling, morally complex crime drama that excels in virtually every department. Based on a novel by Denis Lehane (“Mystic River”), and set in an exceedingly seedy Dorchester neighborhood, the film revolves around a missing 4-year-old girl, and the two private detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) hired to find her. Rather than the cinematic depictions of Boston in “The Departed” and “Mystic River,” here it feels like we’re watching a documentary; Ben, if anything, is a master of atmosphere and everything always feels like it has a discomfiting layer of grime on top of it. Casey Affleck and Ed Harris are particularly strong, but Amy Ryan and Amy Madigan as the missing child’s degenerate mother, and caring aunt walk away with the movie. With a top-notch script, confident direction, a profound third-act moral dilemma and superb performances all around, the unrelentingly (and admirably) grim “Gone Baby” is one of the more rewarding and unexpected films of year so far.

This is a film that will really need to be championed to be recognized at all, but if that happens I could see nominations for Ed Harris (Supporting Actor), Amy Ryan (Supporting Actress) or Best Adapted Screenplay

“30 DAYS OF NIGHT” - * * *

Taking place in a town (Barrow, Alaska) where darkness lasts for an entire month, David Slade’s vampire films has its scary moments for sure, but is really worth seeing for its style, atmosphere and flair for strange quirks. Though it missteps by succumbing to the camera-moving-so-quickly-you-can’t-tell-what’s-going-on school of filmmaking with its first death, for the most part, the killings and appearances of the vampires are remarkably effective. As preludes to their attacks, we just see vague, blurry figures in the background slowly appear with no hint of music; when they finally do appear, it’s a quick leap out of darkness, snatching their victims before anyone can figure out what’s going on. Slade’s moody, atmospheric work here establishes a significant sense of dread and foreboding doom, and some of the grotesque violence is downright poetic; there’s an overhead shot showing the entire town, and the chaos and blood spilt in the snow throughout it that’s truly awesome.

Some of its details (the vampires speak their own subtitled language) have been dubbed “pretentious” by some, but I appreciate any sparks of originality or oddness in a genre increasingly known for its sameness. The acting is a bit hit-or-miss. Josh Hartnett (as the town’s hero policeman) is bland as usual, while Danny Huston, in a surprise bit of casting as the head vampire, is having an insane amount of fun and makes his “character” genuinely frightening. Deserving of special mention, though, is Ben Foster, who I’ve actually grown to despise, as a human accomplice of the vampires. Here, he’s playing another mannered, affected psycho with a comically weird voice that I’m starting to think it’s all the guy can do (he doesn’t do it particularly well either). While Christopher Walken waited until his 60s, Foster is already turning into a parody of himself; thankfully, he’s killed and out of the movie by the 45-minute mark.


Hackneyed without ever rousing any interest, this misconceived Oscar bait is exactly what you would get if you took an Oprah’s Book Club book, adapted it into a Lifetime movie, and managed to convince Oscar winners to star in it. Halle Berry is fine, though she’s given a few too many blatant “Oscar clip” scenes of screaming and crying, and as the magical heroin addict who comes to live with her after the death of her husband and his best friend, Benicio Del Toro is strong (if not totally believable in his relapse moments). Life lessons are learned, problems are overcome, mistakes are forgiven, wounds are mended. Saps will praise it as “powerful,” the rest of us will find it dull, forced and lacking any original perspective.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Some people are saying Berry and Del Toro have chances, but they really don’t deserve nominations and I’m sure the film’s quick disappearance from theaters (and memories) will ensure they don’t get them

“RENDITION” - * * *

A true ensemble piece (and a hell of an ensemble it is, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin) and politically relevant thriller, “Rendition” explores the U.S.’s current policy of extraordinary rendition—i.e.: expediting suspected “terrorists” to other countries where there are no sanctions on torture, so we can work our magic on them. Posing similar questions to Milos Forman’s “Goya’s Ghosts” (what won’t people admit to while being tortured?), “Rendition” will likely please smarts and stupids alike, if they bother to see it, that is. Yes, this is certainly the Hollywood version of a political film, and some characters/themes are one-note, but that’s alright. It completely works as a compelling thriller and a piece of entertainment that isn’t likely to alienate the masses like “Syriana” did. If it helps brings issues to the forefront, great, but if not, it still works as a movie. Though Witherspoon’ primal yell (shown in all the ads) didn’t work for me at all, she’s fine up until that point, and Sarsgaard is particularly strong. Arkin gets some juicy dialogue to work with in his small role as a pussy-ish liberal Senator (“If you push this, they’re going to be screaming national security at the top of their lungs, and you and I are going to be called bin Laden lovers”), and Gyllenhaal is surprisingly effective in a role that mostly just requires him to stare aghast and not speak for most of the movie. Streep, despite being given the most one-dimensional role (she’s a bitchy, villainous Republican senator), is so much fun to watch chewing the scenery that you can forgive that her southern accent only creeps its head out every 15 minutes or so. “Rendition” isn’t quite as important as it’d like to believe, but it’s a lot more entertaining than you’d expect.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Probably none.

“RESERVATION ROAD” - * * * (now playing in limited release, expands to addition cities this Friday)

“There is no closure. There’s only acceptance and resignation.” The preceding line is spoken in Terry George’s “Reservation Road,” and is pretty much backed up by the proceedings at every turn. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly as parents whose son has been killed in a hit-and-run accident and Mark Ruffalo as the driver of the car, the film suffers from a bit too many coincidences and imbalanced tone, but its stronger emotional moments and acting by its leading men make it worth your while. I fear the film may be lost in the awards and box office shuffle since its central elements are extremely reminiscent of other films (“House of Sand and Fog,” “21 Grams,” In the Bedroom” to name a few), but it’d be a shame; Phoenix and Ruffalo are tremendous here, doing work unlike anything they’ve done before. Both man are wracked with guilt and rage, for different reasons, and whenever they’re onscreen, the film is never less than compelling. Connelly gives it her all here, in a role largely defined by exposition, but is all too often prone to hysterics we’ve seen her do before. “Reservation Road” isn’t a perfect film, but if you get the opportunity, it’s worth seeing for two of the best performances of the year.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: I would have thought nominations for Phoenix and Ruffalo were locks, but given the film’s horrific dying at the box office this weekend (as well as its critical dismissal), it looks it might not even get put into enough theaters to be seen, let alone nominated. We’ll have to wait and see, but it’s not looking good.


Blogger bruce said...

I love David Slade and didn't realize he was behind 30 Days of Night, which makes me want to run to the theater and see it tonight.

Leave Ben Foster alone. I loved him and his character on Six Feet Under. I know nothing about his film caricatures and after reading your blog, I fear watching anything he is in because it will ruin the idealistic perception I have of him.

I want to see Reservation Road. I love those type of dramas.

What comes out this weekend?

9:40 PM  

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