Friday, September 20, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.5

Official Secrets

Filmmaker Gavin Hood's leftist politics have finally found a shrewd, crackling home in this tale of a British whistle-blower (Keira Knightley) and the investigative/legal melee that erupts around her after she leaks a damning classified document to the press. I can't say it surprises me that the British government was just as morally corrupt and blinded with land-grab avarice as the U.S. in proclaiming a war against Iraq, but "Official Secrets" does maintain some levels of genuine intrigue even if we know how the based-on-true-events eventually plays out. Half investigative procedural as the Observer staff (strong performances by Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode and Matt Smith) stagger to fit the pieces together to mold a believable story and half moral legal drama as Knightley deals with the personal consequences of her stubbornly realized actions (including the presence of a great Ralph Fiennes as her lawyer), the film juggles all of this with confidence, even if the narrative beats feel a bit hemmed from the start. Regardless, it's a film that rewards the viewer with intelligent conversations and mounting drama without patronizing.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Paul Collaizo's "Brittany Runs a Marathon" was snapped up by Amazon Studios fresh out of this year's Sundance, and it fits their middle-of-the-road expectations perfectly. It's not a bad film, by any means, it's just a safe, audience-friendly slice of self-help intervention that breaks no rules or extends beyond its pat circumstances. As the woman who decides to change her life and begin running, Jillian Bell is admirable, flashing streaks of warm humanity within a narrative that rarely paints outside the lines and its cast of secondary characters (such as Michaela Watkins) often threaten to become more interesting than anything else. 

The Goldfinch

Far from the disaster that's been plastered on this film for several weeks now, John Crowley's "The Goldfinch" is more of a gilded whimper than anything else. Adapted from a well loved novel of the same name, the film hints at greatness through the machinations of a teenager's growth into adulthood after a shocking act of violence alters his course. Like life itself, "The Goldfinch" is messy with subplot and supporting characters..... replete with missed connections, lost attachments and personal tragedies... that dot the landscape of his lost compass path. Sometimes, this jagged journey can be mythical and immensely moving. Unfortunately, the journey here feels much too earnest to allow anything to sink into one's bones. Performances by Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman, especially, feel overly internalized and oddly suffocating. Only when the film breaks away from their posh New York lifestyle and journeys to the desperate ends of the earth (literally a decrepit housing division at the edge of Las Vegas) does it ever really come alive with conflicted characters and energized emotions (courtesy of young Oakes Fegley and Finn Wolfhard). 

Friday, September 06, 2019

Out of the Past: On "Union Station"

One of my favorite chase scenes in all of cinema resides in William Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971). No, it's not the very muscular and chaotically choreographed car chase under the subway system, but a game of cat-and-mouse-hide-and-seek that pits Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his fleet-footed attempt in keeping up with his target (Fernando Rey) on the hectic streets and (eventual) busy New York subway system. It's a masterclass set-piece of editing and sound that strikes at the heart of two people trying to out duel each other.

So imagine how crestfallen I was- and alternatively thrilled- while watching Rudolph Mate's "Union Station" (1950) a few months ago when the same type of criminal versus cop chess appeared in this aces crime thriller. I may need to go back and see if Friedkin lip services Mate's film in any way, but "The French Connection" is undeniably indebted to "Union Station's" crisp, boldly edited chase scene that features a cop following a suspected criminal around and about, ending up on a subway car where the tables are suddenly turned.

In fact, pretty much all of Mate's masterpiece is a brilliant study of bodies in motion and the logistics of men standing, watching, waiting.... something that's been the machismo hallmark of current directors such as Michael Mann and Johnny To for decades now. One of those men standing and watching is William Holden, the cop of the film's train station title who's drawn into a web of tension when a group of kidnapping suspects use his train terminal to do their extortion and bidding. Partnering with the New York police, Holden initially helps them identify the criminals (with the help of beautiful Nancy Olsen), and from that point on, "Union Station" realizes several sequences of paranoid stake-outs, double crosses and electric action scenes that sets the film apart from the rudimentary film noir efforts the film is often associated with. Coming at the beginning of the 50's when noir was beginning to metastasize in other things (i.e. the hard boiled cynicism of Robert Aldrich and Cold War metaphors), "Union Station" is so thrilling for its simplicity and its attention to form. None of this is surprising since the director, Mate, came from the ranks of celebrated Hollywood cinematographers (and had already helmed two highly regarded noir classics "D.O.A." in 1949 and "The Dark Past" in 1948). What is surprising, however, is that "Union Station" is a largely forgotten relic of the noir wave that deserves its place in the pantheon of hard boiled cinema.