Thursday, September 01, 2011

Summer catch-up

The Guard

Brendan Gleeson can do this type of thing in his sleep. Portraying a crude, racially insensitive and hooker-obsessed cop in a sleepy Irish seaside town, “The Guard” works largely due to his terrific performance. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the film works as a comedic companion piece to his brother’s film (also starring Gleeson), “In Bruges”, a few years back. A sharp script that tosses out one liners with a frenzy and just the right amount of self reflexive movie references, “The Guard” shouldn’t be taken seriously… even if its narrative deals with psychotic drug dealers and corrupt cops. Also starring Don Cheadle as an FBI agent sent to Ireland to investigate an international drug smuggling ring, the ingenuity of the film is its lackadaisical approach to solving the central crime. While Gleeson and Cheadle disagree and question each other’s idealized stereotypical misgivings, the story works itself out with little effort. “The Guard” reminded me a bit of “The Big Lebowski” in the way it takes its noir grounding and answers everything while its main characters wander around with fantasized notions of grandeur. It’s a fine line, and McDonagh handles it beautifully. Also great is the appropriation of the western genre with its wide angle lens and sweeping pans of the Irish countryside, none more so gleeful than a portentous 360 degree pan between a cop and a 10 year old boy on girl’s bike. See this film before it shuttles from the theaters.

Road To Nowhere

In “Road To Nowhere”, director Monte Hellman has his star couple watch a lot of movies in their downtime, selecting clips from Bergman‘s “The Seventh Seal” and Erice‘s “Spirit of the Beehive”. These clips are first seen within the confines of the TV screen and eventually overtaking the whole image. This immersion into these great films is an apt comparison to “Road To Nowhere” itself, a meta-film that continually shifts between real time and a movie-within-the-movie with little to no guidance. Starring Tygh Runyan as a young filmmaker making a movie about a real-life money grab and double suicide in North Carolina, he discovers a relatively unknown actress (the beautiful Shannyn Sossamon) and hires her to play the leading femme fatale. An insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) weasels his way into the good graces of the production crew and slowly insinuates the idea that the “actress” may actually be the femme fatale in real life. The collision between supposed real life, cinematic recreation and tabloid gossip (refracted through the presence of a young blogger on the set who actually covered the scandal, played by Dominique Swain) becomes head spinning. Like Abel Ferrera’s “Dangerous Game”, Hellman plays the same nasty trick as director and actress fall in love and the lines between reality and fiction blur. “Road To Nowhere” is a film that demands future viewings and weaves a rhythmic spell on the viewer through its highly stylized acting and slow camera movements. It’s also pretty damn great and a galvanizing return for maverick filmmaker Hellman.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Produced and written by Guillermo del Toro, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has his fingerprints all over it from its leading female child to the gothic, labyrinth style house where the terror takes place. Freshly removed from her mother in Los Angeles and whisked away to the cold environment of Rhode Island, young Sally (Bailee Madison) soon discovers some nasty little creatures living under the house and aching to feed off her teeth. As the aloof parents, Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are merely serviceable in their roles, sublimated to the father who thinks it’s all in his daughter’s imagination and the mother-figure who slowly empathizes with the child. The problem with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is that its aim seems to be pitched somewhere between Grimm’s Fairy Tales and “Gremlins” without really pulling off either. Based on a 1970’s TV movie, it is marginally refreshing to see a film that doesn’t embrace the current adrenalized market for horror films, but it’s unconvincing narrative and stock characters are just as antique as the Polaroid camera that becomes a singular plot point.

The Debt

Despite the ads that sell this as some type of action-packed “Munich” knock off, the real reason to appreciate John Madden’s “The Debt” is its total lack of explosive action and the marvelous performance of Jessica Chastain in her 12,000th film this year. Bouncing back and forth in time between a 1966 Isreali intelligence mission to capture and expose a Nazi death camp doctor and the ramifications of this mission on its agents some 30 years later, “The Debt” handles all this moral gravity with depth. Also starring Sam Worthington (who fares the worst in it all), “The Debt” slowly raises the tension as the mission progresses and things get complicated both politically and emotionally between the MOSSAD agents. While “The Debt” goes a bit AWOL towards its finale, it’s a sure-footed film for 90% of the way that doesn’t deserve the late summer dumping ground its been afforded.

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