Fox Searchlight Pictures

Blood and Wine (1996, Bob Rafelson)

Boiling them down, three things ruin Blood and Wine. Stephen Dorff, the script and the approach. The last two are complicated, because it’s hard to see determine where the script and the approach differ. Blood and Wine was, at the time of its release, promoted as the conclusion of an informal trilogy for Rafelson and Nicholson–Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and this one. It isn’t. Blood and Wine is no character study. It’s an attempt at extracting the thriller elements from a film noir. In that aspect, it’s at least interesting. Rafelson gives the characters, who are still essentially archetypes, some more time to become full. Jennifer Lopez gets the most of this attention, playing the femme fatale, only with depth. Lopez’s Cuban accent comes and goes, but her performance is strong more often than it is weak.

Rafelson’s direction is brilliant. Nicholson is great. Judy Davis is great. Michael Caine is astounding–it’s hard to believe he gave this astounding performance then almost immediately started hacking it out. Seeing Dorff with these actors–though the majority of his scenes are with Lopez, who’s far better than he is, but not astronomically–is uncomfortable. Watching Davis (in her, unfortunately, glorified cameo) act opposite him… it’s incredible she was able to keep a straight face. She’s giving this layered, textured, beautiful performance and he’s got less screen presence than a wilted tulip. He’s just awful. Much of Blood and Wine can be spent imagining someone else in his role and how much more successful the film would have turned out.

But it isn’t just Dorff being a terrible actor, it’s how loose the script gets when it concerns he, Davis (as his mother) and Nicholson (as his step-father). Dorff’s an indeterminate, younger than Lopez in the film–at times it seems like he should be a teenager, then he drinks a beer in a bar so it seems like he should be at least twenty-one. The script makes him hostile to Nicholson–and turns him into an adaptive killing machine like Michael Biehn in The Terminator–so Blood and Wine flops when it tries to position the two as some kind of (albeit dysfunctional) father and son.

The scenes where Nicholson is caring for Davis, who he mistreats, are stunning. Or when he and Caine (as his partner in crime) are on a road trip, peerless. The scene where Nicholson cares for the ailing Caine… it’s wonderful. It’s a shame the film acts like Dorff and his romancing of his step-father’s girlfriend Lopez (which fails because Lopez isn’t visibly any older than Dorff) is a better plot thread.

The end of the film–it’s hard to say if Blood and Wine is too long, because it’s entirely too crappy in general by the final third, to really concentrate on assigning specific blame–is a misfire, almost a damning one. I had to force myself to remember how well Rafelson made the film and what beautiful performances sixty percent of the cast turned in.

Both Harold Perrineau and Mike Starr are good in smaller parts–especially Perrineau. Michal Lorenc’s music is wonderful, as is Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography. The editing–from Steven Cohen–occasionally has some bumps, like maybe Rafelson didn’t get enough coverage.

It’s an incredible disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Nick Villiers and Alison Cross, based on a story by Villiers and Rafelson; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Steven Cohen; music by Michal Lorenc; production designer, Richard Sylbert; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Alex), Stephen Dorff (Jason), Jennifer Lopez (Gabby), Judy Davis (Suzanne), Michael Caine (Vic), Harold Perrineau (Henry), Robyn Peterson (Dina Reese), Mike Starr (Mike) and John Seitz (Mr. Frank Reese).


The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

Maybe Darren Aronofsky actually gets it. As The Wrestler started, I marveled at what must have been Aronofsky’s longest shots to date until they kept getting longer and longer. His direction of the film is incredibly simple–put the camera on the actors, occasionally do an establishing shot. No medium shots. Long shot to close-up. The handheld camerawork is excellent. He frequently follows Mickey Rourke around, a move–similar to one Bryan Singer just used in Valkryie–seemingly with roots in modern video games. It’s strange seeing it here, in this iconic, timeless motion picture. It feels just right, something Aronofsky never gets wrong–The Wrestler always feels right.

The film escalates to such a peak throughout the running time, when it reaches the third act, it’s precariously perched. For the second time this year (August was the other), a film got its ending perfect. No false stops, no trickery. Just the ideal choice in under the circumstances. I can’t believe The Wrestler pulled it off, since my faith in Aronofsky as a filmmaker basically started a scene or two into this film. But Aronofsky isn’t working without a script here–Robert D. Siegel’s work here is outstanding. The script’s tiered. Since The Wrestler is such an all-time Hollywood upper, Siegel works in quite a bit of humor–the staging of the wrestling matches provides a lot of laughs (Aronofsky’s pseudo-documentary approach really works well in the wrestling scenes). The film never gets expositional when it comes to how the wrestling matches function (how do they decide who wins?), always giving enough information for the scenes to pass clearly.

The script also has a–somewhat–subtle juxtaposing of Rourke’s wrestling and Marisa Tomei’s stripping. Neither are spring chickens, both operate in a land of make believe where the audience is a willing participant. It’s sort of obvious if one were to think about the comparisons, but the film doesn’t exactly make a lot of time for such reflection. The film’s packed, with no digressions. Everything revolves around Rourke. Well, except maybe a scene. And I think it’s the scene where the juxtaposition occurred to me–there’s a scene with Rourke shaving his pits, then Tomei’s on stage with her pits obviously shaven–it all falls into line. It’s discrete, not at all overblown, and it’s never played like an eventuality. The reason washed-up wrestler Rourke’s love interest is a single mom who strips isn’t because there’s a good analog going, it’s because Rourke’s the kind of guy who hangs around strip clubs.

As for Rourke, in his much lauded comeback… he’s great. But it’s the kind of thing Rourke has been able to do his whole career. He’s always been an excellent actor. If anything, The Wrestler is a bit depressing in that respect–there are so many great roles he could have done, but never had the opportunity. Aronofsky’s camera follows him around, listens to him, takes a step back and watches him. It’s a transfixing performance.

I think there are only three actors listed in the opening titles–Rourke, Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. I’ve heard great things about Wood, but I’ve never seen her before (“Once and Again” doesn’t count, does it?). She’s great. Every delivery, every gesture, every expression, all are amazing. Seeing her and Rourke together, it’s one of those acting team-ups one doesn’t get to see very often.

The surprise, then, is Tomei. For all the hubbub surrounding the film’s acting, it ought to go to her. Tomei’s got a decent-sized role–Rourke’s in every scene except two–but she creates this character with a life going on off-screen. I kept wondering why Aronofsky ended each scene with her in the club on stage–it seems (I mean, I am giving him a lot of credit already) like the scenes are meant to get the viewer to think, to imagine that off stage (and off screen) life where the film hasn’t taken him or her. The film relies on the viewer to fill in the blanks, without ever identifying the blanks.

The Wrestler‘s a significant film–it’s Rourke (finally) in a role an actor of his stature deserves and it’s the first time Aronofsky’s come near deserving his critical rep (maybe he should just direct other people’s scripts). The end, following that moment of indecision–where the film could veer far off course–is glorious.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Robert D. Siegel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Tim Grimes; produced by Aronofsky and Scott Franklin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Mickey Rourke (Randy), Marisa Tomei (Pam) and Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie).


Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle)

With Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle hasn’t just finally made his grand romance (something he’s wanted to do since A Life Less Ordinary–this time without the “acting” stylings of Miss Cameron Diaz), or given cinema its first great mainstream romance in nine years, he’s also made the best adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel (even if it’s a novel Dickens never actually wrote). I haven’t read Slumdog‘s source novel, so I don’t know if the Dickens references originated there or if screenwriter Simon Beaufoy contributed them. For whatever reason (lack of reference to them on the novel’s wikipedia page and author’s website), I’m going to attribute these inclusions to Beaufoy.

The result–a modern day, pop culture Dickensian something or other. Boyle uses the story’s Indian setting to confound the viewer–I wonder how it plays to Indians and those familiar with the culture–because there’s such a disconnect between the main character’s youth and the modern story. But Boyle also uses a fractured narrative to further confuse the viewer. This structure turns Slumdog into a police investigation from the viewer’s perspective–he or she is going in without the necessary information, which is the norm, but the protagonist is the suspect. As the film opened and the structure presented itself, I got worried–extremely fearful, actually–of a Usual Suspects twist at the end.

At some point, that fear went away. Maybe it was the multi-layered narrative and my developing trust in Boyle. As a filmmaker, Boyle manages to earn a huge amount of trust with every project (well, post-Beach) and then, on his next project, cash it all in and start over.

And Slumdog Millionaire starts accruing early on. Once the structure’s clear–adult protagonist Dev Patel being questioned by Irrfan Khan about winning “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with flashbacks to his youth–Boyle gets extremely playful. All of the flashbacks are about the young version of Patel, played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, and his brother Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (at the furthest back flashback). Here’s where Slumdog whacks the (presumably) Western viewer with a cricket bat. Slumdog‘s presentation of India–from a Western director and a Western studio… I can’t believe anyone signed the filming permits. It’s an unending horror. The respites the viewer gets are usually due to–with the occasional humorous aside–returning to the present. Boyle smartly (big shock) opens with one of the funniest scenes in the film, which takes gross-out humor to the pages of The New Yorker.

The film quickly develops into a fated romance between Patel and, in the present, Freida Pinto. Because Patel is so centrally the lead, there’s a real connection between him and the actors playing his younger selfs (Khedekar and Tanay Chheda–Boyle’s transition from flashback period to flashback period is singular). Slumdog revolves around him. And if it isn’t revolving around him, it’s around his brother–Ismail has the flashiest flashback period, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala (I guess he’s pretty flashy too) plays him in the middle and Madhur Mittal as the adult. If it weren’t for Pinto, Mittal would have the hardest role in the film, due to his character’s arc. But Pinto–she’s got to be flawless in every scene. As a kid, she’s played by Rubiana Ali, who earns all the viewer’s regard. Ali does a great job, but she’s a precocious kid. It’s a little easier than showing up for one shot and having to be the end all, be all of a two hour motion picture, which Pinto does. Even harder for Pinto is when she finally becomes a big character–she can’t have a false move, because the viewer has to believe in Patel’s devotion to her… otherwise it doesn’t work. And Pinto makes it work.

As for Boyle, his direction is amazing. It deserves a lot more attention than I could give it here and a lot more recognition. Slumdog‘s music is essential (from A.R. Rahman), perfectly integrated with Boyle’s sensibilities. To sum up Boyle’s direction… during the first flashback–Slumdog‘s use of subtitles is ingenious (I hope they keep it for the DVD), sorry, tangent–I wondered how Boyle looked at the script for the sequence and somehow came up with what I was watching. I couldn’t imagine how his brain processed the script, how he imagined the shots. He’s an exceptional director.

The film’s relationship with the viewer is where I’ll exit (and where the film exits too). Slumdog Millionaire has a first person narrator who isn’t on screen. It’s the film itself.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; co-directed by Loveleen Tandan; screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on a novel by Vikas Swarup; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantel; edited by Chris Dickens; music by A.R. Rahman; production designer, Mark Digby; produced by Christian Colson; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Dev Patel, Tanay Chheda and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (Jamal), Freida Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar and Rubiana Ali (Latika), Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (Salim), Anil Kapoor (Prem) and Irrfan Khan (Police Inspector).


Choke (2008, Clark Gregg)

Choke working at all is kind of something special. The film’s got a major twist at the end, but it’s a silly one and isn’t, with any thought on the matter, particularly feasible. The film’s got a major plot point for Sam Rockwell–his mother’s diary reports he’s the half-clone of Jesus–and, eventually, he believes it himself. The film never gets the character to the point he could, conceivably, believe it. There’s also the problem of treating a dramatic character study of a sex addict like a Farrelly Brothers comedy. Having Rockwell, strange as it might seem, doesn’t really bolster the film’s prospects. Anjelica Huston’s contribution is far more important (while Rockwell gives a great performance in Choke, it’s the kind of thing he can sleepwalk through), because Huston’s able to combine insane disengagement with genuine concern. Even though the film’s funniest scenes are the ones Huston isn’t in, her scenes are the best.

The credit goes to Clark Gregg, who both adapted the novel, directed the film and appears in a small role (as the film’s only–semi–villainous character). With a miniscule budget and excellent casting, Gregg makes Choke into a limited success. The film’s potential is hard to gauge–it doesn’t shoot particularly high and, even with its curbed ambitions, fumbles in the end. A lot of the problem comes from the twist, which is throwaway. It occurs in the last five minutes of the film (Choke only runs ninety minutes; five is a not insignificant period) and never gets resolved with the principles. It gets resolved off-screen, as Choke changes gears into the affable dirty comedy again, so it doesn’t have to take responsibility for being absurd. Choke‘s characters can be absurd–the two main settings are the mental hospital where Huston is committed and Rockwell’s job, a colonial America theme park–but it never can go off the deep end. To get the ending, it goes swimming way too close.

Where Gregg doesn’t work is the music. Gregg relies heavily on it and his choices are off. Their choosing doesn’t imply any inspiration–and in a film filled with flashbacks starring Anjelica Huston… it’s hard not to remember Wes Anderson and his superior choice of music. The flashbacks are another problem with Choke. They’re essential, sure, but they just reveal the story to be unremarkable. Huston and Rockwell have some good scenes together–but not enough–and they raise it. But Choke‘s rather conventional.

The script doesn’t give the supporting cast much content, so when Brad William Henke is excellent, it’s an achievement. Kelly Macdonald ought to be great, but she isn’t. She’s fine, but nothing more. It isn’t really her fault though. Gregg’s script doesn’t give her much to do.

Choke fails to turn its elements–the mother and son story, the addiction story, the con man story–into a cohesive, feasible comedic character study. It tries real hard and does a lot of good things and maybe reveals these elements to be mutually exclusive, but it comes up a little short. It’s a fine film and a fun viewing experience, but there’s the implication it’s going for more and it never gets there.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clark Gregg; screenplay by Gregg, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk; director of photography, Tim Orr; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson, Johnathan Dorfman and Temple Fennell; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Victor Mancini), Anjelica Huston (Ida Mancini), Kelly Macdonald (Paige Marshall), Brad William Henke (Denny), Jonah Bobo (Young Victor), Paz de la Huerta (Nico) and Gillian Jacobs (Cherry Daiquiri).


Street Kings (2008, David Ayer)

I wonder who came up with the title Street Kings, as it has nothing to do with the film’s actual content. I didn’t realize Fox Searchlight had a dimwit exec in charge of re-titling movies. Silly me. The original title, The Night Watchman, actually makes sense (especially since the movie appears to be shot with the title in mind, with Keanu Reeves watching the sunset a few times throughout, waiting to get to work).

Before I get to the good, I need to get through the bad. David Ayer, apparently pissed off he didn’t get to work on the script (or at least, a credited amount), sort of directs against the script. The first act of the script has very blunt, very hackneyed dialogue. Ayer could have directed around it but doesn’t. He plays it straight and it doesn’t work. I mean, Ayer has the greatest gift–Keanu Reeves playing a dumb guy who can get away saying these lines and still, he messes it up. Ayer’s not a good director, but I didn’t expect him to sabotage his own first act (he gets a lot better the rest of the movie). He’s got an irritating swooping camera move he does once every couple minutes. It’s bad. The other bad stuff–because there’s a lot of mediocre work here and it’s fine–seems to be when he’s aping Michael Mann. There are a couple techniques from Miami Vice and about a hundred from Heat here.

The rest of the bad is mostly Amaury Nolasco in one of the supporting roles. He’s atrocious.

Street Kings greatest success is two-fold in regards to James Ellroy. First, he managed to modernize his standard of the dumb cop who wises up. Here, it’s Keanu Reeves and he never wises up too much (he’s always a blunt instrument) and it works wonders. Second, he’s managed to get in an utterly depressing ending. Street Kings is, at its core, a depressing story about a dumb guy who wises up and learns ignorance might be bliss–kind of a story better titled The Night Watchman.

Most of the acting is excellent. Forest Whitaker doesn’t do anything fantastic, but he’s very sturdy and quite good. Hugh Laurie’s okay, but his character has a handful of quirks straight from “House.” Chris Evans is, no shock, excellent. Once he and Reeves partner up, the movie starts toward its higher plane. For the most part, Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Terry Crews and Naomie Harris are wasted. Harris is so underutilized, I didn’t even realize it was her until I read the credits.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Reeves carry a movie this well before–there’s a great scene when the dirty cops are bragging how easy it was to get it all over on him–and, title and director aside, Street Kings works fairly well.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Ayer; written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, based on a story by Ellroy; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Jeffrey Ford; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lucas Foster, Alexandra Milchan and Erwin Stoff; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Detective Tom Ludlow), Forest Whitaker (Capt. Jack Wander), Hugh Laurie (Capt. James Biggs), Chris Evans (Detective Paul Diskant), Martha Higareda (Grace Garcia), Naomie Harris (Linda Washington), Jay Mohr (Sgt. Mike Clady), John Corbett (Detective Dante Demille), Amaury Nolasco (Detective Cosmo Santos), Terry Crews (Detective Terrence Washington), Cedric the Entertainer (Scribble), Common (Coates) and The Game (Grill).


The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson)

The first sequence in The Darjeeling Limited suggests a far worse film than Anderson actually delivers. A frantic taxi race to a train station with Bill Murray suggests Anderson has become–well, I really don’t know who, but someone who miscasts incredibly. Besides the Murray cameo coming off like Anderson fulfilling his image, the taxi race also features really fast editing… suggesting Darjeeling is going to be, just like The Life Aquatic, more in love with the Anderson composition and editing than actual storytelling content. It gets better quickly, but it’s still empty. The glib answer is Anderson obviously needs Owen Wilson co-writing, but The Darjeeling Limited provides various other reasons….

The film does feature the best lead character since Bottle Rocket, in this case, Adrien Brody’s. Brody definitely becomes the main character after a specific plot twist, but long before it occurs, he’s the one. For a simple reason too. Because Owen Wilson is playing the standard Owen Wilson in a Wes Anderson film role and because Jason Schwartzman is playing… well, Schwartzman isn’t really playing anyone. He never learned, apparently, to act. But he’s generally fine, even though his most frequent form of emoting is mugging knowingly at the camera. Wilson’s good, occasionally even touching with Schwartzman and Brody, but it’s not a stretch. It’s the kind of role he’d do in a television commercial.

Anderson released a prologue to Darjeeling online and the film annoyingly starts with a reminder to go and watch it, then the film proceeds to directly reference it… which is more annoying than Murray’s dumb cameo and the second cameo (though this one turns out all right) combined. It really does feel like Anderson’s turning in to the hipster Kevin Smith with Darjeeling, particularly the use of Schwartzman and his vapid character. It takes the entire movie (ninety minutes) to figure out what Schwartzman’s supposed to be doing and he co-wrote the screenplay.

Did I already mention Brody’s absolutely fantastic, a really wonderful performance in what turns out to be a wonderful role? I think I did.

Darjeeling is also very funny. I’m not sure who wrote the best jokes, but they’re played more for audience response than Anderson usually tries for. They keep the movie going.

When the film gets really good for a while, really effective, it’s unfortunately in a moment the film cannot close on. Instead, it keeps going and going, trying everything it can to force a satisfactory conclusion. The one it comes too, unfortunately, is cheap and awkward, like Anderson wasn’t ready to stop writing the characters yet.

Strictly speaking about Anderson’s direction–and not his writing–Darjeeling shows off how good a director he’s become. Unfortunately, his writing has become lazy. In order to allow his characters this adventure, Anderson makes them limitlessly wealthy. It gets annoying after a while, after the third crack about the six thousand dollar belt.

Because Brody’s not central throughout (in many ways, it’s Anderson’s most traditional film), it’s… like I said, a little empty overall. And people do too much for laughs, say too much for them, don’t say too much for them.

It’s a fine enough film–with some excellent scenes in it–but Anderson very obviously needs different co-writers.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Andrew Weisblum; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Anderson, Scott Rudin, Coppola and Lydia Dean Pilcher; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Owen Wilson (Francis), Adrien Brody (Peter), Jason Schwartzman (Jack), Amara Karan (Rita), Wallace Wolodarsky (Brendan), Waris Ahluwalia (The Chief Steward), Irfan Khan (The Father), Barbet Schroeder (The Mechanic), Camilla Rutherford (Alice), Bill Murray (The Businessman) and Anjelica Huston (Patricia).


Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle)

Sunshine appears to be an amalgam of Alien, 2001 and Event Horizon (at least, if Event Horizon‘s previews adequately communicate the film’s content, not having seen it). There are Alien references abound, a handful of 2001 ones, and no Event Horizon ones I’m aware of… I imagine they’d try to hide those as well as possible. It also owes more than a little to Solaris–both versions. And for the majority of Sunshine, it’s a frequent disappointment. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland–after 28 Days Later–doing sci-fi doesn’t make much sense, especially since the resulting Sunshine is a standard science fiction movie, as opposed to Days doing something different, both in terms of story and technology.

So, during that first forty-five minutes when bad things happen and characters develop and the story moves along towards the inevitable final question… I got a little bored. Boyle’s finest contribution to the film, I thought during those minutes, was his ability to cast, direct and shoot actors. Cillian Murphy and Rose Byrne are, obviously, excellent and there was never any question as to whether or not they would be excellent. But Chris Evans also turns in a really great performance, as does Cliff Curtis. It’s the best Cliff Curtis in eight years or so. So Boyle casts well, big deal. No, it’s what a good performance he gets out of Michelle Yeoh and even Troy Garity. Yeoh’s got a couple really good scenes and Garity’s sturdy throughout.

But, one must remember, all Alien did was tell a science fiction in “scary movie” language and Sunshine‘s no different. The moment my fiancée jumped space ship was when “Freddy Kruger” showed up. The monster, the bad guy, the whatever–Sunshine needed to have one because, besides some really good acting moments and a couple really nice dilemma in space scenes, the film was nothing new. Until the hero moments, which, of course, signal the beginning of the third act, I kept wishing Murphy, Bryne and Evans would reunite for some other movie. I always forget–even when I’m comparing Boyle’s success at directing actors in this film to Trainspotting–I always forget Boyle’s visual ability, through shot, sound and editing. Trainspotting‘s full of it, but didn’t think those abilities would translate. And I was wrong.

I have never seen a movie–with so many mediocre plot points and set-pieces–ascend as quickly as Sunshine. One moment it’s a disappointment, the next it’s middling, then it’s getting up there, and, finally, it’s pure wonderment at the possibilities of the film medium. It’s not a long period of sustained enchantment, but it’s a really good three or five minutes. Boyle does things in those last minutes nearer the level of 2001 than most of his fellows. Of course, they didn’t have Cillian Murphy, so it’s probably not a far comparison, which is why I didn’t name them.

I don’t know if I was expecting–from the plot description–the Apollo 13 of fictionalized space adventure (after the trailer, I knew I was getting something more comparable to Days). But it wouldn’t work as anything but Danny Boyle and Alex Garland remaking Event Horizon, because otherwise… it would have probably been The Core in space.

Looking at the response, I realize, even thought Murphy suffers a lot of complements, I did not emphasize enough how good Byrne and Evans are in this film. It’s not even Byrne’s best performance of the year, which is unfortunate since that performance is in 28 Weeks Later (just because the character has more to do). But Evans is an unexpected talent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; written by Alex Garland; director of photography, Alwin Küchler; edited by Chris Gill; music by John Murphy and Underworld; production designer, Mark Tildesley; produced by Andrew Macdonald; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Rose Byrne (Cassie), Cliff Curtis (Searle), Chris Evans (Mace), Troy Garity (Harvey), Cillian Murphy (Capa), Sanada Hiroyuki (Kaneda), Mark Strong (Pinbacker), Benedict Wong (Trey) and Michelle Yeoh (Corazon).


Joshua (2007, George Ratliff)

Joshua is a particularly disquieting experience. I’m trying to think of a comparable experience and the closest I’m coming to is Antarctic Journal, I think. That film may or may not have had a similar counting up toward some unknown resolution (Joshua does it with the newborn sister’s age in days). The premise of the film, first-born goes evil when a new sibling arrives, isn’t particularly inventive. Even the script’s plotting is fairly standard. The film pulls itself around at the end, but more through the excellent production elements than any scripted factor. Joshua is a 1970s New York–these films are the great marginal Hollywood New York films, a genre long gone–starring Sam Rockwell.

Rockwell’s performance makes the film. Not to discredit the terrifying kid (Jacob Kogan in this film could put Trojan out of business) or Vera Farmiga as the slipping mother or Celia Weston as the nut-job fundamentalist mother-in-law who can’t stand her Jewish daughter-in-law. But Rockwell. So much of this film is Rockwell the husband, the father, struggling to maintain. Ratliff’s wasted making thrillers. Sitting here, thinking about the film and how well Ratliff shot it, had it edited, had it scored, how well Rockwell worked in the field Ratliff provided… It’s a thing of wonder. Watching Sam Rockwell run down the streets of New York, with Ratliff’s composition and Nico Muhly’s music–it gave me pause. I hadn’t realized I needed to see moments like those on film and now I have and I can’t believe I went without.

The other nice thing about Joshua is the script’s willingness to let the viewer horrify him or herself. It’s an old trick–James Whale and The Old Dark House in 1932; it works just as well seventy-six years later. There’s also an incredibly nice save at the end–did I already mention it?–but I can’t spoil it.

Like I said, Kogan’s really good. He really seemed to understand what his performance needed to do, which is rare with kid in a thriller, especially a bad seed. Weston gets to go nuts because her character’s awful. This film’s the first I’ve seen Farmiga in and it’s a thriller, so it’s probably not a good measuring device, but she does very well in a lot of it. One of Joshua‘s major problems is it’s too thought-out. A little too intelligent in the writing of the characters and their problems. It’s incredibly boring too, but in that good way. So, at one point or another, everyone eventually gets cheated by the genre.

But it’s so well-made, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, as I write this post, my fantasy film for 2010–is that year going to be Odyssey Two or The Year We Make Contact… I guess I have a bit to decide–anyway… I want Ratliff and Rockwell to adapt Ordinary People. That fervent desire has nothing to do with Joshua, I suppose, but it’d be amazing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Ratliff; written by David Gilbert and Ratliff; director of photography, Benoît Debie; edited by Jacob Craycroft; music by Nico Muhly; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Johnathan Dorfman; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Brad Cairn), Vera Farmiga (Abby Cairn), Celia Weston (Hazel Cairn), Dallas Roberts (Ned Davidoff), Michael McKean (Chester Jerkins), Alex Draper (Stewart Slocum), Nancy Giles (Betsy Polsheck), Linda Larkin (Ms. Danforth), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Pediatrician) and Jacob Kogan (Joshua Cairn).


Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)

Calling Little Miss Sunshine an independent film–regardless of its Fox Searchlight banner at the front–is a misnomer. While the financing might not have come through the traditional channels, it’s got a very high profile cast and its content is about on par with, say, Miramax films of the late 1990s, which means it’s on par with non-Miramax films of every year before 1996 or so. Whenever everyone else gave up. It’s a very traditional story. It doesn’t introduce any new filmmaking techniques and the very nice and effective editing style is probably about forty years old. Maybe even longer, I was only taking Hollywood movies into account.

But–we don’t get to see movies like Little Miss Sunshine much anymore. Independent movies with every adult in this cast–with the exception of Steve Carell I think–go straight to video. All the time. There are a bunch from reasonably well-known filmmakers starring well-known sitting on a shelf in a film can right now. So, a Little Miss Sunshine, with its good writing, good acting, good direction, stands out. It ought to be the norm (and would have been ten years ago) for a adult comedy. I thought about genre a little while watching it and American Pie ushered in new genre labels and Little Miss Sunshine, as IMDb so clearly states is a “comedy / drama.” But it’s not. One of those Alan Arkin scenes is enough to classify it firmly as a comedy.

Why am I saying so little about the film itself? Well, it’s a well-written comedy. There are some too long scenes and some of the plotting is off, but those little things are expected. How’s the acting? Why am I using rhetorical questions (I’m tired). Gee… Toni Collette is great, Alan Arkin is great (though, with the exception of some choice monologues, he’s been playing this role for ten years plus), Greg Kinnear is great. They’re great actors. Steve Carell was initially surprisingly good, but he’s so good I got comfortable with him real fast and am now upset he’s making crappy Hollywood movies. He ought to be doing something else. The kids, Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin, are both really good, but it didn’t occur to me they wouldn’t be good. Little Miss Sunshine is unexceptionally solid. Like I said, it’s what the expected norm for a film starring the people it stars, released by the studio releasing, should be.

That all said… I do think it was a little unfair not to let the viewer get to see Alan Arkin wreck havoc on the beauty pageant organizer.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; written by Michael Arndt; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Pamela Martin; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Kalina Ivanov; produced by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Greg Kinnear (Richard), Toni Collette (Sheryl), Steve Carell (Frank), Paul Dano (Dwayne), Abigail Breslin (Olive) and Alan Arkin (Grandpa).


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