Archive for October, 2010

Lives intersect in Eastwood’s ‘Hereafter’

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010
Matt Damon and Cecile de France in "Hereafter" George (Matt Damon) meets a French TV journalist (Cecile de France) during a book tour in Clint Eastwood’s supernatural drama “Hereafter.”

This movie may be as close to “Sleepless in Seattle” as Clint Eastwood ever gets.

His spiritual drama “Hereafter” begins with a harrowing act of God a tsunami wipes out an entire island village and closes with a subtle, gentle touch of hands, just the opposite of what we’d expect in a regular Hollywood film.

Leave it to Eastwood to direct a movie about the hereafter that’s mostly about the therebefore.

“Hereafter” seesaws between moments of moist tenderness and utter heartbreak, occasionally sandwiched between languorous scenes stretched to test the most durable of derrieres.

Eastwood, now 80, combines old-school storytelling with Peter Morgan’s New Agey script, and it reads just a little like M. Night Shyamalan on Prozac.

A beautiful French TV journalist named Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) becomes swept up in the tsunami in one of the scariest, best-rendered natural disaster sequences ever put on film.

Violently struck by debris, she drowns and becomes transported to a mystical place of bright lights and shadowy human figures.

But two Good Samaritans revive her. She continues to live her life, but nothing like she did before.

In London, inseparable twin brothers Marcus and Jason (George McLaren and Frankie McLaren) have been covering for their alcoholic mum so Child Services doesn’t take them away from her.

A terrible accident occurs, and young Marcus is ill-prepared to face a world tortuously alone and frightened.

George (Matt Damon) lives in San Francisco. He possesses a gift for communicating with departed loved ones, and no longer can bear the psychological burden of making money with his talent. (Read more…)

‘Stone’ a hard drama to embrace

Friday, October 15th, 2010
Robert De Niro and Edward Norton in "Stone" Parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) has a frank chat with prisoner Stone (Edward Norton) in the drama “Stone.”

To watch Robert De Niro and Edward Norton arguably two of the best film actors of their respective generations play characters verbally wrestling each other for control of a simple conversation becomes one of the few fascinations in “Stone.”

Norton plays Gerald Creeson, a tattooed, cornrowed convict up for possible parole from his sentence for helping kill his grandparents and torch their house to cover up the crime.

He goes by the name Stone.

De Niro plays Jack Mabry, a paunchy, middle-aged probation officer who postpones his impending retirement to hear one last request for clemency, from Creeson.

The two men sit across from each other and talk.

One’s a very tired bureaucrat stuck in a lifeless marriage to a wife named Madylyn (Frances Conroy).

The other is a manipulative survivor who doesn’t think twice about getting his hot girlfriend Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to use her feminine wiles to convince Mabry to recommend Creeson for parole.

“Stone”, directed by John “The Painted Veil” Curran, has the makings for a hot-and-bothered skin flick playing on a late-night cable channel.

But “Stone” closer simulates an intimate character-driven stage play captured on film.

The domestic drama, the opening night offering last week at the Chicago International Film Festival, is all about how the undermining power of denial can ruin healthy lives.

It has ruined four in this movie alone.

“Stone” opens with a shocking moment from Mabry’s past. Young, new mother Madylyn (now played by Pepper Binkley) tries to escape her suffocating life with her uncommunicative husband, and prepares to leave him.

Mabry (now played by Enver Gjokaj) holds their baby out a second-story window. His terms are brutal and succinct: Leave him and he’ll drop the baby.

And he means it. (Read more…)

Arresting performances give ‘Conviction’ its power

Friday, October 15th, 2010
Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in "Conviction" Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) talks to her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) before he goes to jail in the fact-based drama “Conviction.”

The performances are better than the material in Tony Goldwyn’s fact-based drama “Conviction”, and the material was pretty good to begin with.

“Conviction” (a great title for its obvious double meanings) traces the odyssey of Betty Anne Waters, a single mother and high school dropout who figured the only way her brother would ever get out of jail for a murder he didn’t commit would be if she went to law school, became an attorney, and got him out.

You could say she’s just a bit driven.

The single-mindedness of Betty Anne’s actions, the raw faith in her brother, and the willingness to sacrifice two decades of her life, all combine to create an irresistible story for a motion picture.

Add double-Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the role of Betty Anne and “Conviction” takes on its own quality of gotta-see.

Adopting a subtle New England accent, Swank presents Betty Anne as multilayers of warmth and humanity wrapped around a steel core.

She and her brother Kenny have been watching each other’s backs for all their struggling lives, as we witness in numerous flashbacks that reveal two children who have nothing in their world but a supportive sibling.

The adult Kenny is played by Sam Rockwell, who supplies a cocky, blue-collar swagger and over-the-top personality, laced with an unmistakable trace of latent meanness.

Kenny eventually is arrested and convicted of the 1980 fatal stabbing of a woman in Ayer, Mass., a case investigated by cop Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) who obtains incriminating evidence from two of Kenny’s former lovers.

Betty Anne remains convinced of Kenny’s innocence. (Read more…)

Action comedy ‘RED’ blasts aging stereotypes

Thursday, October 14th, 2010
Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren in "RED" Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), left, fights off assassins with Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren) in the action film “RED.”

I walked into Robert Schwentke’s “RED” thinking I would see a silly, geriatric revisiting of “The A-Team” or “Mission: Impossible.”

I got a crazy, off-the-charts, action comedy lamenting how society shoves aside senior citizens and fails to capitalize on all the years of experience, skill and talent they still have to offer.

“RED” couldn’t be any more pro-retiree than if it had been bankrolled by the AARP.

John Malkovich succinctly sums up the general attitude of “RED” with four simple words, uttered right after somebody calls him “old man and his well-placed bullet stops a grenade launcher projectile from reaching its target.

“Old man, my (bleep)!” he says.

Most of the main characters in“RED” — based on Cully Hamner and Warren Ellis’ graphic novel — are retired killers for the CIA. (Hence the title, an acronym for Retired: Extremely Dangerous.)

We learn this soon after we meet lonely bachelor Frank Moses (“Die Hard superstar Bruce Willis), who spends his time on the phone chatting up Sarah Ross (Mary-Louis Parker, stuck with the film’s weakest character), an administrator for government pensions.

One night a squad of well-equipped assassins comes for Moses, who anticipates their every move and quickly dispatches them faster than John McClane ever could.

In short order, Moses finds Sarah — whom he has never physically met — and kidnaps her, knowing that whoever put the contract out on him knows about their phone relationship, and that she has now become a target as well.

Two questions prompt Moses to return to active duty: Who wants him dead and why? (Read more…)

‘Grave’ unleashes rabid revenge fantasy

Sunday, October 10th, 2010
Sarah Butler in "I Spit on Your Grave" Jennifer (Sarah Butler) becomes victimized by a violent gang in Steven Monroe’s remake of 1978’s “I Spit on Your Grave.”

I cannot defend Steven Monroe’s remake of the 1978 exploitation horror benchmark “I Spit on Your Grave as a great work of art, or barely a work of art at all. But at least his version of the nasty rape-and-revenge opus is better crafted than its crass and artlessly rendered original.

The simple plot involves a young novelist named Jennifer (a very brave Sarah Butler) who heads off to an isolated cabin to write. Local yokels spy on her, break into the cabin, then take turns raping her.

They intend to kill her, too. But she hobbles, naked and writhing in pain, on to a bridge, and falls into the water below. Her body is never discovered.

Later, Jennifer returns as an avenging warrior, no longer the innocent writer, but a malevolent spirit bent upon a rampage of raw revenge.

This woman doesn’t turn the other cheek, she burns it with lye.

Meir Zarchi’s original film with terrible sound quality and dullingly long, stationary camera shots lingered on the violent, sexual abuse of Jennifer, then whisked us through her retribution, the most graphic being her emasculation of an attacker with a kitchen knife while enjoying a bubble bath.

The remake reverses this by condensing the sexual attacks into a tighter, more powerful sequence while going the full monty on Jennifer’s surprisingly fantastic, diabolically contrived acts of fiendish revenge that owe a great debt to Jigsaw from the popular “Saw” horror films.

Significantly, Monroe creates more sympathy for Jennifer by having his lens take her point of view during the rapes, a rejection of the 1980s horror film formula that forced viewers to identify with assailants by viewing experiences through attackers’ eyes.

We have zero background information on any of the characters. We never come to know them or particularly care about them, not even Jennifer. She exists only to be victimized. The attackers exist only to be victimized back. (Read more…)

‘Kind of a Funny Story’ a low-key comedy

Sunday, October 10th, 2010
Keir Gilchrist and Zach Galifianakis in "It’s Kind of a Funny Story" Craig (Keir Gilchrist), left, befriends a patient (Zach Galifianakis) in a hospital ward in the comic drama “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.”

It’s kind of funny, yes.

Kind of serious, too.

Kind of sad as well.

Mostly, it’s kind of restrained and keeps its characters at an elbow’s length, just enough for us not to get inside them, know them or truly come to care about them, even as we find them likable.

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” comes from critically celebrated directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Bolen, who gave us the moving high school drama “Half Nelson” and a little gem of a baseball feature, “Sugar.”

They have created their new movie based on Ned Vizzini’s autobiographical novel as a comic adolescent revamping of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by taking a gentle view of a hospital’s mental ward through the eyes of a suicidal teenage boy.

Craig (Keir Gilchrist) doesn’t seem to have a real reason to feel depressed and suicidal.

True, his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) don’t get him. Dad does say thoughtless things that undermine Craig’s self worth. And Craig’s little sister is no walk in the park of self-esteem, either.

He silently covets his best friend’s hot girlfriend Nia (Zoe Kravitz), and that, plus pressure at school, doesn’t help his frame of mind.

It doesn’t matter that we don’t see why Craig would feel depressed enough to contemplate suicide.

He just does. (Read more…)

Lame ‘Secretariat’ deserves to be shot

Sunday, October 10th, 2010
Diane Lane and John Malkovich in "Secretariat" Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) cheer for their favorite racer in the under-horse sports drama “Secretariat”.

If this movie were a horse, it would be shot.

You know, for being lame.

Randall Wallace’s hokey, worshipful horse operetta “Secretariat” comes to the big screen practically devoid of dramatic conflict, an essential ingredient for any successful story.

Wallace’s movie follows the famous horse that won the 1973 Triple Crown, finishing its last race with such blinding speed that officials had to calculate it in Warp Speed. (Secretariat also appeared at the Arlington Race Track soon after the Crown.)

The horse’s owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane, in an uncharacteristically affected, painfully strained performance), is a housewife married to a dull attorney (Dylan Walsh). They have four kids.

When Penny’s mom passes away and her aging dad can no longer handle his Virginia horse farm, Penny takes over with help from Dad’s reliable assistant, Ms. Hamm (consummate character actor Margo Martindale).

A coin toss decides which of two as-yet-unborn racing foals will go to Penny, and to zillionaire racing king Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell). She gets the foal she thinks will be a champion, the one she calls Big Red, and later, Secretariat.

Penny’s Harvard economics professor brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) panics because the farm needs $6 million to pay debts, and he demands she sell the promising horse.

No way.

Penny’s an independent American woman, given to uttering lines like “I will not live the rest of my life in regret!” (Read more…)

Face value: Witty ‘Social Network’ a telling portrait of our times

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010
Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network" Best pals Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), left, and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) engage in legal disputes over the creation of Facebook in David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”

David Fincher’s superbly wrought “The Social Network” robustly chronicles the messy birth of that cultural, economic, political and sexual game-changer called Facebook, and does it with style, wit and invention.

The humor snaps.

The dialogue crackles.

The characters pop.

From the opening scene a simple exchange between two Harvard University students we can tell we’re in the hands of a master storyteller.

We instantly see that hotshot computer intellect Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) thinks fast, but talks even faster, and that he possesses zero skills when it comes to women, specifically his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara).

From this smart and energized introduction, “The Social Network” speed-skates along on Aaron Sorkin’s combustible script, fueled by clever wordplay, rapier insults and lightning-quick retorts that don’t exist in the non-movie universe.

Yet, Fincher keeps his characters firmly grounded in his surprisingly restrained motion picture that bears little of the flamboyant visual gimmicks of his “Fight Club,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Panic Room.”

“The Social Network” defies convention by splitting the role of protagonist between Zuckerberg and his fellow Harvardite Eduardo Saverin (future “Spider-Man” Andrew Garfield), his financially well-endowed friend who agrees to help Zuckerberg launch a site called “The Facebook.” (Read more…)