Friday, September 26, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

“I know who the Sleeping Man is.”

Aside from the beginning scenes and the epilogue the majority of the film takes place in 1944 where four members of 92nd Infantry Division (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller) find themselves cut-off from their unit and trapped in a small Italian town in the Tuscan countryside surrounded by German troops.

The film is about secrets which are slowly unveiled to the audience, though not necessarily the characters, over the course of the movie. The discovery of the small child (Matteo Sciabordi) in 1944 who survived the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre and the murder and discovery of the artifact by the police at cub reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in 1983, at the beginning of the film, are but two pieces of a much larger story.

There’s much here to discuss. The four main leads carry the film and Miller stands out for me playing the childlike Pt. Train who proves to be the perfect lens in which to view the events of the war, the disagreements between the men, the troubled young boy, and the need of faith in dire circumstances.

There are also many strong performances by Italian actors including Valentina Cervi as the beautiful Renata, Piefrancesco Favino as the illusive Buttefly, and Scalbordi as the scared and confused young Angelo. Much of the film was shot on location in Italy which allows for a natural look and feel to the film which green screens alone wouldn’t have accomplished.

Lee and writer James McBride (who adapts the screenplay from his own novel) craft an engaging and slowly developing tale that hold its secrets close to the vest. Some may be put off by the 160-minute running time, but Lee takes his time allowing events to flow naturally rather than forcing quicker action. Although the film does include some bloody battles, its the quiet scenes which carry the most weight and make up the bulk of the film.

There are many memorable moments throughout the film, but I’ll discuss two. The first involves the stark revelation of the events at St. Anna which doesn’t flinch at the brutality on display. The second involves a prayer inter-cut throughout the various characters and groups and cobbled together for great effect (much like the various characters singing “Wise Up” from Magnolia). Both, in a film which is very good, are stand-outs and two of the most memorable moments from movies this year.

The story, and the film, is also influenced by the racism of the time. The 92nd Infantry, an all black segregated unit was still an experiment disliked by many officers during WWII. Although this influences the perceptions of the characters the main focus of the film is not on how these men were treated but what they were able to do on the battlefield. Only in one spot, during a flashback to soldiers early days, does the story itself seem to stop to allow for a somewhat forced message about the racial inequalities of the times.

Although thorougly engaging and incredibly well-made the film does have one or two flaws. At times the dialogue seems mumbled, especially early in the film, which makes following the storyline at times a bit too much of an adventure. My only other complaint is the ending which is the only place where Lee seems to rush rather than allow the story to naturally unfold. Given it’s already 2.5 hour running time its obvious why the epilogue is so short, but although the ending does include the right emotional impact the final scenes seem a bit bungled.

Movie critics see so much crap, and so many mediocre films, we sometimes jadedly forget that filmmaking can still be done with the skill and talent Lee presents here. While some may object to the liberties Lee takes with history it is important to note the film is based on McBride’s novel which is only loosely inspired by true events. What Lee gives us is an engaging and compelling tale, equal parts character study and suspense film. Simply put, Miracle at St. Anna is one of the best films of the year.

The Lucky Ones

“Thank you.”
“No, thank you.”

The film, except for small cameo roles, is a three-man piece. Two soldiers wounded in action (Rachel McAdams, Michael Peña) with 30-day furloughs and one (Tim Robbins) on his way home for good travel home on the same flight.

Do to circumstances beyond their control the threesome find themselves renting a mini-van and travelling west.

Cheever (Robbins) just wants to make it home to his wife (Molly Hagan) and son (Mark L. Young) in St. Louis. T.K. (Peña) is on his way to Las Vegas in hopes of curing an unfortunate medical problem caused by his injury. And Colee (McAdams) is traveling to Vegas to return a friend and fallen soldier’s guitar to his family.

Their journey across the country will lead to surprises and disappointments as the world they fought so hard to get back to has change and dreams they had for their futures turn to ash.

The script by Neil Burger and Dick Wittenborn is much more light-hearted than I expected. Filled with comedy and tragedy, its a story about three people’s journey together.

Although the characters’ backgrounds inform their decisions this isn’t really a film about war or a message about our soldiers in Iraq. At it’s core it’s simply a road movie of an unlikely threesome who find they have more in common than the uniform.

Although all three stars shine here, it’s McAdams who shines brightest as the simple Southern gal with a heart of gold. I was initially unsure about the casting, but she pulls the role off brilliantly. I usually like her as an actress though I’m often put off by some of the projects she chooses. It’s nice to see her back in a film I can genuinely enjoy.

The Diagnosis
Fans of the road movie, or of any of the three stars who each give strong performances, should check this one out.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ghost Town

“You died.”
“I died?”
“A little bit.”

Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) doesn’t like people. The dentist has a disdain for pretty much the entire human race, but his life is changed by an unforeseen side-effect of a routine surgery.

The dentist goes in for a routine colonoscopy, dies for seven minutes on the table, and walks out with an ability to see and hear dead people. And New York it seems has more than its share of ghosts.

Pincus is hounded by the spirits needing closure led by recently deceased Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) who wants Pincus to ruin his widow’s relationship with a lawyer. Pincus immediately falls for Gwen (Tea Leoni) and agrees, but most overcome his own personality and self-history to win her over.

A strong cast can do quite a lot for a so-so movie. Those unfamiliar with British actor Ricky Gervias are in for a nice surprise. He carries much of the film with wit, style, snootiness, and an appropriate level of clumsiness for this type of picture. I also liked The Daily Show‘s Asaif Mandvi as a colleague of Dr. Pinucs. And it’s nice to see Kinnear in a role, as Gwen puts it, as “a real asshole.”

Of course the film isn’t without some problems. Although the script does contain great set-ups for the actors it also flounders at times and relies a bit too much on the trite paint-by-number steps of romantic comedies (when the “inconvenient misunderstanding to keep the lovers apart” moment occurred all I could do was groan). And, although the scene is funny, I’m not sure the cartoonish insanity of the doctor (Kristen Wiig) was the right way to go in dealing with Pincus’ short hospital stay. And, of course, the film gets a little sappy in the final act as Dr. Pinus’ heart finally melts and the film leaves us with the forgone conclusion of a happy ending.

The Diagnosis
Although flawed the film does contain some good performances and memorable moments. It’s an enjoyable couple of hours in which you can root for the triumph of the human spirit, even one as Grinch-like as Bertram Pincus, D.D.S.

Frozen River

“I didn’t know any other way to keep us together.”

Melissa Leo stars as Ray, a struggling mother of two (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly) just trying to get by in a small town in upstate New York, just across the border from Quebec.

When her husband takes off for Atlantic City with the final payment for her family’s DoubleWide new home she’s left without options.

A chance encounter with a Native American woman named Lily (Misty Upham) provides Ray a dangerous business opportunity to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Mohawk reservation into the United States.

The film, written and directed by first-timer Courtney Hunt, is a bleak story about love, family, and how far someone will go to persue their dreams. Leo and Upham carry the film with a pair of strong performances, and when the story movies away from their characters the story suffers.

As Ray falls deeper into the business she learns more about Lily and her reasons and rationale for transporting illegal immigrants over the border. Hunt has referred to this film as the story of mothers and their children.

In both Lily and Ray, and one family the pair drives over the frozen river, this theme is explored. Yes, it’s a film about smuggling people over the border, but it’s not really a film about immigration as much as it’s about what a mother will do to provide for her family.

Although much of the film works well, there are a few issues with how elements are conveyed over the course of the film. Although we root for Ray to earn her DoubleWide we’re never shown a reason for the need of it. The current home seems largely adequate on screen for the family and I was left wondering if the large amount of money tied up in this dream couldn’t have been better spent on necessities like food and clothes. Part of the problem is the location used wasn’t rundown enough to justify the overwhelming need of a change, and part of it is the dream, though nice, is like a low-income suburban housewife dreaming about her own mansion - it never seems practical.

Also troubling is how the dream of the DoubleWide is presented as a cure-all for all the family’s problems. Although I can see how Ray would believe this, the truth is this family’s problems run much deeper and the film never really punches a hole in this delusion.

And I have some logic concerns about the plot such as why doesn’t Ray seem willing to consider many easier and more rational methods of making the payment such as selling one of her cars, letting her son get a part-time after-school job, or looking to family and friends for help? If this Double-Wide is indeed Nirvana and the answer to their prayers doesn’t it seem reasonable to make a few compromises like this before jumping into a life of crime?

The film provides opportunities for from frank storytelling and gives the viewer a stark look at how those on the edge can rationalize an act. Although the ending provided in the film is responsible, it’s also a bit simplistic as the DoubleWide is seen to be the magic pot at the end of the rainbow. Even with my issues with Frozen River it’s an easy recommendation, though given the themes and emotions tied up in the script I expected a little more.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Righteous Kill

“This thing is a clusterfuck to end all clusterfucks.”

Turk (Robert De Niro) and Rooster (Al Pacino) are two warhorse detectives for the NYPD. We learn early on that they’re good cops who take the job seriously, but aren’t above taking shortcuts for justice when the courts let them down.

Things get sticky for Turk, who presents the tale from a taped video through a serious of flashbacks, when a recent string of deaths begin to lead back to him. His Lieutenant (Brian Dennehy) and the cops working the case (John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg) believe they have a cop serial killer on their hands, with Turk being the most likely suspect.

The film centers on De Niro’s character, his job, and his unhealthy relationship with a crime scene investigator (Carla Gugino). There are also subplots involving the cops trying to take down a local drug dealer (50 Cent) with the help of a lawyer (Trilby Glover), and a woman (Melissa Leo) whose daughter was brutally killed by her boyfriend.

The performances are all first-rate as the supporting cast all raise their games to act with this pair.

I was particularly impressed with Glover, who I have not seen that much of, and 50 Cent who has some definite talent for the movie baddie role. And props to all the actors playing cops in the film who have the right feel for the role (plus I’m always happy to see Gugino on screen).

Although rough in spots (and not only the sex between De Niro and Gugino) the film does a have a tale to tell, even if it meanders a bit in its storytelling. It’s a bit long, and the final act, with its twists and turns, may put off some movie-goers. The late revelations also lack the pop and resonance they should given the film’s understated tone throughout.

Righteous Kill is a good film, but for a film starring De Niro and Pacino is that enough? Judging the film on its own merits, yes. It won’t live up to expectations, but there are good performances and a story (especially the first two-thirds of the script) that are worthy of notice. Is it a great film? No, but it is worth a look.

Burn After Reading

“I thought you might be worried about the security, of your shit.”

Burn After Reading, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, is a thriller set in a world not too far from Dumb & Dumber. It’s a tale of secrets, lies, and murder through an idiot lens. It’s an interesting idea that struggles at becoming a good film.

The story centers around a recently fired CIA agent (John Malkovich) with a bad temper whose memoirs wind up in the hands of two dumb gym employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt). After being attacked the first time the pair attempt to return the disk their plans turn towards blackmail or to selling the dubious contents to the Russians. As to why the film chooses the Russians, well, the joke is obvious though the rationale (like so much in the film) is not.

How the disk managed to end up in the hands of the pair is a bit convoluted and involves the agent’s wife (Tilda Swinton) who is sleeping with a Treasury Agent (George Clooney) and is plotting a divorce. The tale is further complicated when Harry (Clooney) starts dating Linda (McDormand) in one of many coincidences the plot relies on. The world these people live in is scarcely larger than the New York City of the first Fantastic Four film.

One of the major problems here is the set-up. Both Clooney and Pitt are cast as goofs and the Coen Brothers expect us to laugh because they believe seeing the pair in goofy roles is funny in and of itself. Although it is at times, that premise is flawed. Instead consider the alternative if the roles themselves were beefed up and were funny on their own - before casting stars in them. Clooney and Pitt both provide fine moments, along with some groans, but the characters they play, especially Pitt, are impossible to take seriously even when the film turns serious.

Also an issue are the logistics of the pairs. Swinton and Malkovich need to be married at the beginning to set-up the plot but we are given no plausible reason why this pair would ever hook-up, much less make the walk down the aisle. The same can be said of Clooney’s Lothario who has his choice of all kinds of women, many over the course of the film; why would he go for a complicated affair with the ball-busting wife of an acquaintance, or spend more than a single night with insecure Linda? When the only answer is “because the plot requires it to” you know there’s trouble.

Which isn’t to say I disliked the film. When it manages to put its over-goofiness in check it provides many memorable moments, both humorous and sad. My favorite involves a CIA Officer (David Rasche) reporting to his superior (J.K. Simmons) about the increasingly crazy events which keep spiraling futher and further out of control. These are terrific, reminding me of old Bob Newhart phone bits, and I wish more of these had been spaced evenly throughout the film.

With this film the Coens return to the type of humor from films like Raising Arizona (of which I am not a fan), but it lacks the zany energy of The Big Lebowski. Is it worth seeing? If you are a huge fan of the Coen’s work or if you’ve got time and money to kill, maybe. It’s a flawed work which relies on mostly cheap laughs that at times will make you smile, but aside from those great scenes with J.J. Jameson and Sledge Hammer there’s not too much you’d miss if you gave this one a pass.

The Women

“The spritzer girl?!”

The movie centers around do-it-all gal Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) who has time to work for numerous charities, raise her daughter (India Ennenga), and hang out with her best friends (Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith), but is the last to discover that her husband is having an affair with a “spritzer girl” (Eva Mendes).

From here the film follows the drama of Mary’s struggle to come to terms with the situation mixed in with “humorous” moments. Sadly however, aside from a short initial appearance by Candice Bergan as Mary’s mother, the film shows almost no signs of life whatsoever.

Writer/director Diane English struggles with the material and is unable to make us care about any of the main characters. The film is populated with cameos from many actresses; some like Bergan’s work, others like that of Bette Midler (in one of the worst performances of the year) do not.

And I have to feel sorry for Mendes, who even in a chick flick is stuck in the bland pretty mean girl role. The film shamelessly manages to put her in lingerie and in a bubble bath hoping to lure a few guys into seeing this fiasco. Don’t bother.

The film is your predictable yarn. There’s Mary’s mope-fest, the pregnant friend (Messing) who will inevitably go into labor, fights and make-ups, Mary’s reinvention of herself (spoiler - she straightens her hair!) and new found confidence with life, and a rushed happy ending that would make even Snow White need a shot of insulin. These elements could make for a good film; here they are simply recycled as everyone involved seems to be going through the motions.

I’m certainly not the target audience for this film, but I will say the women who also attended the screening were not largely impressed with the movie either. If the story interests you I’d recommend you save a bit of cash and rent the 1939 original starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, and Paulette Goddard (or check it out on Turner Classic Movies Monday, September 15th).