It's been a busy couple weeks of movie-watching. Below are some capsule thoughts. Some are excerpts that can be read in full (along with other film reviews) at Talking Moviezzz.
Gone Baby Gone
"Gone Baby Gone", the directorial debut of Ben Affleck, is imbued with a strong sense of local favor and the film succeeds best when its focused on the drunken, belligerent recesses of shoddy Boston pubs and hangouts. As a moral thriller though, it's less impactful than Eastwood's treatment on crime and punishment ("Mystic River", also from a Dennie Lehane novel) and Affleck is certainly not as deft in handling the film's complex deviations. There's one shoot-out scene in particular that feels clumsy and patched together without any real sense of logistical placement (i.e. after being chased up a flight of stairs and shot at, why would someone just lean against the door they just ran behind.... why not shoot through it?). Also, there are several overlapping pieces of dialogue that feel rushed, as if Affleck and company were running out of ways to present the film's tumultuous twists and turns with pace and clarity. While there are strong individual moments (namely the performance of Casey Affleck and Ed Harris), "Gone Baby Gone" is ultimately underwhelming in its sledgehammer approach in explaining the moral complexities of its individuals. Do we really need all those flashbacks to fill in the narrative blanks? And while novelist Lehane is most assuredly capable of grasping the more subtle -and deadly- undercurrents of denouements (think of that final shattering scene in "Mystic River"), that subtlety is gone in this film. Less is certainly more.
More of a curiosity for being the first feature length film to tackle our presence in Iraq post 9-11, "The Situation" allows director Philip Haas to handle the various conflicts with determination and intelligence. This is more about the mosaic of people who dot the dusty landscape rather than a war movie (though there is some well staged violence in the final moments). Starring Connie Nielsen as a journalist covering the bloodshed, she finds herself mixed up in love triangle between CIA operative Dan (Damian Lewis) and optimistic fellow journalist Zaid (Mido Hamada). Make no mistake- while "The Situation" contrives such a melodramatic predicament, it's very smart about the internal politics of the region and the hatred that boils over when several factions of religious groups vie for control. It's also a very sharp dissection of military ambivalence towards unchecked aggression. Haas (whose previous films include the well made "Angels and Insects" from 1995 and "Up at the Villa" in 2000) takes a stance on his feelings about this period in our history, but "The Situation" also examines the conflict from opposing sides which lends the film an unusually respectful tone. This honesty stems from the personal experience of journalist Wendell Steavenson who co-wrote the script. And Nielsen is spectacular.
"Rendition" straddles the line between good and not-so-good, presenting yet another view about post 9-11 hypocrisy and policy making that features A-list actors banging out solid (yet ordinary) actions. We understand who'll be vindicated and who'll have a change of black heart halfway through. A-list stars hate portraying anything except the eventual savior, right? But there is one expertly crafted surprise in "Rendition" that takes place out of context with the bureaucratic superiority of the film's main plotline. Throughout the film, we learn and follow the daughter of Abasi, played by Zineb Oukach. I figured out fairly early on what the plot twist with her boyfriend Khalid would lead to and it felt unnecessary at the time. But director Gavin Hood doesn't tilt his hand until the very end, and when that realization comes, it doesn't feel like a gimmick, but a wisely structured motivation for the actions of father Abasi. Ultimately, "Rendition" is about two families and the consequences of religion and politics on both. I would've liked to experience more with the family of Abasi and Fatima, but since "Rendition" is more about the injustice to a perfect and rich Chicago family, the details of the more interesting family are left to fill in the cracks.
One can't deny the poetic rat-a-tat-tat delivery of much of Tony Gilroy's script for "Michael Clayton" and, up until the final 10 minutes, I felt like this film was headed for something special. Not only do Clooney/Wilkinson/Swinton embrace every scene with head-on authenticity and lack of vanity, but Gilroy's direction is crisp and well-structured. But then the end- and it comes as a whimper instead of a bang. This is territory done before in numerous legal thrillers and while "Michael Clayton" hides its blandness in rich dialogue that comes in clipped speeds, it's still holds a been-there-done-that feeling. Perhaps the hype killed this one for me.
The Darjeeling Limited
After all the aforementioned somber affairs, I needed some light-heartedness. It'd be easy to rail against Anderson for refusing to grow up and pushing his cinematic visions forward, but that's a lazy complaint. There are plenty of modern filmmakers who tackle a given subject two/three times over in various environments and milieus (I'm thinking of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and even Werner Herzog). It's not how many times they do it, but how well they do it. And "The Darjeeling Limited" does it very well. A great bonus to seeing this film was the inclusion of Anderson's 12 minute short, "Hotel Chevalier" before the main feature, humorously established through a title that read "A Short Film- to be seen before the feature". Not only does it prepare us, visually, for Anderson's rigorously constructed mise-en-scene, but it enriches the upcoming story due to its attention to the human interaction that all three brothers eventually run away from. There's talk about their lives back home, such as the upcoming birth of a baby for 1 brother and the attempted suicide of the other, but rarely does Anderson ever show us physical glimpses of that fear. Think of the humor provided behind the death of Ben Stiller's wife in "The Royal Tenenbaums" as he ritualized his fire escape plan or the many occurrences of fatherly abandonment there and in "The Life Aquatic". In "Hotel Chevalier", it may be a slight example, but the motivation for Schwartzman to run away is there and it creates a secondary world outside of "The Darjeelings Limited" exotic and at times cartoonish landscape. The references to "Hotel Chevalier" continue to creep up in the later longer film, but its not necessary to understanding (or appreciating) "The Darjeeling Limited". As expected, the three brothers' trip exposes them to human sadness, sexuality, and remorseful memories and it probably buries deeper into sadness than any previous Wes Anderson film. There's a well handled lapse into darker territory about halfway through "The Darjeeling Limited", and the way Anderson confronts this shift proves that he's growing as a filmmaker. Stylistically, one will immediately recognize the aesthetics of the film. The detailed colors, the pop soundtrack, the lateral camera moves as well as the whip pans substituting for cuts- its not a huge departure but its still effective. "The Darjeeling Limited" will please those who admire the previous whimsy of Anderson and hopefully attract a new audience unfamiliar with his vibrant outlook on the world.
Day Night Day Night
This is a superb film. Imagine what the Dardennes Brothers would do with the story of a female terrorist going through the motions of her last 2 days on earth before carrying out a suicide bombing in Times Square, and you begin to scratch the surface of Julia Loktev's spellbinding feature. Riveting from first scene to last, actress Luisa Williams lays everything on the screen as the camera perches just over her shoulder or cements her face dead-center. There's one scene in particular, that builds to unbearable tension, then releases us over the edge just to delay the tension more. Not only is Loktev's camera penetrating, but her commentary on modern times intelligent. See this one if you can.
Things We Lost In the Fire
I love the films of Susanne Bier and found her previous 2007 film, "After the Wedding" to be one of the best of this year. "Things We Lost In the Fire", her latest release, continues her fascination with suburban ennui and tragic circumstance by placing Halle Berry at the receiving end of a murdered husband (David Duchovney), two precocious children and her dead husband's heroin-junkie best friend (Benicio DelToro). It's not that the film is bad by any means, just less emotionally damaging than her previous efforts. Perhaps something was truly lost in translation as this is her first English language film. Still, it's a film that avoids the easy narrative plot holes and Del Toro is remarkable. I found myself much more involved with the relationship of Duchovney and Del Toro than anything else in the film, though. Their relationship is nicely sketched out. Duchovney continues to care for his best friend, show up for his birthday and buy him groceries when everyone else is ready to carve his name on a tombstone. We all bring our own experiences and recollections into a film, and this relationship hit home especially. I've dealt with a similar friendship, seeing a best friend become disillusioned and sink into addiction. He'll drop off the radar and it'll be months before I hear from him again (as is currently the case now). All I can do is hope he's found a stable girlfriend and not lapse into a darker environment. When everyone else (including members of his own family and our own old circle of friends) has written him off, nothing will change our friendship. "Things We Lost In the Fire" observes this same type of friendship with clarity and it overshadows the more central relationship between Berry and Del Toro later. I wanted less of that and Duchovney to live longer with his junkie friend.