Archive for October, 2007

DAN IN REAL LIFE– SEEN AT THE BIJOU

Posted: October 31, 2007 in Movies

  Dan in Real Life (2007)

 

The Review:

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my family to death. It is always the highlight of my year when we come together in Hulls Cove, an extension of the Mount Dessert Island town of  Bar Harbor, Maine for the annual family reunion (this year it was a Caribbean cruise) at my dad’s big sunlit modern house with its fireplace that almost reaches heaven and the fabulous view it has of Frenchman Bay, its nature trails artfully cleared that lead to an almost natural looking pond, its gatehouse filled with the tumble of grandkids and antic moms and dads, and its cottage with a Japanese rock garden and trellises full of locally grown flora that find their way into pots and vases in all the houses.   The cottage was reclaimed from the ruins of what use to be an old stable and/or servants quarters.  Before it was built, it use to be an old “haunted house” that the grownup kids use to shine flashlights in at night to scare the be Jesus out of the little ones watching from the safe distance of the gate house porch as the ghosts of Tranquility (the name of the main house) moaned and reflected their ectoplasmic existence.  But I’m a big city person, and after about four days of Tranquility and family togetherness I would be looking for a little insanity by escaping to a movie, Bangor or across the Bay of Fundy to Yarmouth Nova Scotia via the high speed Cat which runs twice a day in season.  After the seventh day I was ready to go home.  

Dan in Real Life is a romance buried in a family reunion picture.  Meaning there is a lot of Dan but very little of what I know as real life. 

The original draft written by Pierce Gardner was inspired by all the summer vacations he spent with his wife’s extended family in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  I suspect it was intended to be a funny little independent film filled with the explosions and reconciliations of sibling rivalry, dirt dishing, wayward relatives sneaking some rule breaking with the children of their sibs, all punctuated with family outings that leveled everyone to a sobbing, blubbering pile of conscience stricken guilt seeking a group hug.  At least, that is what my family reunions were all about.  

When the screenplay warranted a bigger studio treatment Peter Hedges (screenwriter for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy, and the underrated Pieces of April– which he also directed) was asked to do the rewrite and perform the directing chores.    Hedges strips the burrs of family contention to plane the romance. 

Dan Burns is played by Steve Carell with two degrees less of the usual Carell antics.  Think of his depressed Proust scholar from Little Miss Sunshine properly medicated and level.

Burns a widower of four years is a writer who drafts the title column in the fifteen minutes of quiet time not devoted to taking care of his three daughters, which he does with zealous protectiveness.  Jane (the aptly named Alison Pill) bugs dad about learning how to drive.   Cara (Brittany Robertson) annoys dad with her constant jonesing to be with her first boyfriend.  To her, Dan is just “a murderer of love.”   Lily, the baby (Marlene Lawston) is just lucky if she gets Dan attention. Since Dan fears for their mortality, their budding sexuality and his own sanity he keeps his daughters in a constant state of grounding and prohibition.    He is a “good father, but sometimes a bad dad”, one of his kids exclaims.

Hedges is content to leave the daughters as tics, having them fidgeting to life whenever the plot requires complication— the boyfriend that shows up 100 miles north, in the physical film space of here is here, when he should be 100 miles south in the world of over there; the daughter who just happens to have her learner’s permit and the keys when Daddy isn’t allowed to drive.  

In the alternative Hedges screenplay, the ones he use to write when the winds were brusque and the sailing not always smooth, Jane would be tooling down the dirt road in the old Town and Country– sitting on her wayward Uncle’s lap with him at the foot controls and she in control of the steering wheel (a true incident), and Cara would find sisterly solace in a back porch confidential that might involve a little weed (not so true incident). 

Dan in Real Life could be Philadelphia for all the brotherly love it displays.  Dan has three brothers, all of which he adores, but one of which he seems to have any extended conversations with— his brother Mitch (a less annoying Dane Cook). The other two exist to take up the other bedrooms in their parents rambling paneled to the gills Rhode Island beach house, remaindering Dan to the “special room” occupied with a cot and an old clanking washing machine. 

The Burns are into doing speed crossword challenges segregated by sex, group aerobics, and pretty awful talent shows, in which Dan is excused from participating.  “Get lost— it is not a request”, his mom (Dianne Wiest) smilingly demands of Dan, putting his lameness in quotes.

In the solitude of the local book and tackle shop, Dan meets Marie who is looking for a book on dealing with awkward situations.  Since she is played by Juliette Binoche, Marie is wistfully intelligent, winsomely sexy, and soothingly beautiful.

“I am looking for something not necessarily hahaha laugh out loud funny, something human funny” she purrs.

Whenever a screenwriter expresses his writing credo you know that love can’t be far behind.  Dan knowing a good line when he hears it–  is instantly smitten to pour out his soul, his life, his very heart to her over coffee and the most malformed muffin ever to grace the screen.   And she is charmed enough to give him her number despite the warning she is involved.  

Unfortunately it turns out to be Mitch. 

Dan being a nice guy first follows denial, then out and out contempt, before all the accidental face to faces on the football field, in the shower, in the special room and the kitchen (where he is condemned to eat burnt pancakes in front of the withering glare of Marie) crumble his brotherly-family resolve— and force him to go for the gusto of life staring him in the face. 

Mitch as a consolation ends up with “pig-faced” Irene (Emily Blunt) the ugly duckling turned swan and successful plastic surgeon with a racy red convertible.    

Binoche who won an Oscar for the English Patient and is use to appearing in the unbearable lightness of being of French and old continental drama glories in her chance to play something lightweight—something that allows her to display her deft touch and timing, her guileless charm to full effect.  She is just the anchor that Dan needs. Her bumbling, closeted humanity waiting to be outed makes Dan in real life a joy.     

Carell is becoming a capable romantic lead.  The tics that use to make one producer exclaim that Carell has the looks of a serial killer are almost gone.   He is getting less precious with every movie.  Dan Burns is probably Carell’s most balanced and believable performance.  

Real Life is Peter Hedges-lite.  The film lacks the antic joyfulness and disruption, the earnest biting humanity that made Pieces of April a heartfelt charmer.  But then life and death and the whole family mess isn’t involved either.  It is content to be soothingly pleasant.   It stands out in this summer of foul-mouthed comedies with heart like Knocked Up and Superbad.  With just a little more complexity and attention to the family side Dan in Real Life could have been a little more real and livelier.

For what it is and what it could have been Dan in Real Life gets a B.   

The Credits: 

Directed by Peter Hedges; written by Pierce Gardner and Mr. Hedges; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Sarah Flack; music by Sondre Lerche; production designer, Sarah Knowles; produced by Jon Shestack and Brad Epstein; released by Touchstone Pictures. Running time: 95 minutes.

WITH: Steve Carell (Dan), Juliette Binoche (Marie), Dane Cook (Mitch), Alison Pill (Jane), Brittany Robertson (Cara), Marlene Lawston (Lilly), Emily Blunt (Ruthie), Amy Ryan (Eileen), Norbert Leo Butz (Clay), Dianne Wiest (Nana) and John Mahoney (Poppy).

“Dan in Real Life” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some sexually suggestive situations.

 Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya

 

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Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)

 

The Review:

With over one-half million people being evacuated from the wildfires blazing across Southern California this week, Things We Lost in the Fire has the year’s most unfortunate film title.  Susanne Bier’s previous film was the academy award nominated best foreign language film from last year, After the Wedding—which like Fire dealt with themes of reconciliation and grief.  Fire could easily be “After the Funeral”, since it involves the early death of a beloved character.

Brian Burke a Seattle real estate developer, a father of two, and life long best friend with a lawyer turned junkie is shot and killed breaking up a domestic argument in the parking lot of the neighborhood store. 

Brian is played by David Duchovny in his most ingratiating everyman mode.  He is Hank Moody- the divorced novelist with writer’s block that Duchovny plays in Showtime’s Californication- stripped of the hedonism, the drugs, the sex, and the acerbic intelligence.    Brian is a saint with a smile and a little charm.   In the less than twenty minutes of  film time Duchovny shares with his screen wife Audrey and best friend Jerry, played by Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, he manages to generate  almost no chemistry.   His role could easily have been limited to photos on the wall and thirty sentences of mourning exposition.

Halle Berry is left to bear the representation of Brian’s conscious- and it is not an easy fit.   Audrey is an introvert with a jealous, artistic, perfectionist’s streak and an undying devotion to her two children, Harper and Dory (Alexis Lewellyn and Micah Berry— no relation).  She worries when Brian goes to see Jerry at whatever dive hotel he inhabits that week.  She hates the time the relationship takes away from her and the family. At the last minute she sends someone to invite and take Jerry to the funeral because it is what Brian would have wanted.

Berry’s performance is full of the stops, starts and revisions of a woman trying on a new skin, of trying to accept the good the dead have left behind.    The slough of anger, jealousy and rage is yielding the fight to the patient benevolence and gentle understanding that were the hallmarks of Brian’s life.   Berry’s struggle is an echo of the battle of every woman who has ever mourned and moved on.      

Jerry is a heroin junkie whose only reason to quit is Brian’s faith in him. 

“I hated you for so many years and now it seems so silly, Audrey tells him at the wake reception, secretly resenting the irony that Brian was the first to pass on.  “Why wasn’t it you, Jerry?” she cries softly to him later.  

Yet, Jerry has an easy rapport with Harper and Micah.   And he is seriously trying to overcome his habit cold turkey and with the help of a Narcotic Anonymous group.   He isn’t an evil person, just lost. He doesn’t steal to get drugs.

Audrey tired of the loneliness and emptiness allows him to stay in the garage in exchange for his finishing its conversion into an extra bedroom.  

Their relationship, with the exception of one awkward emotional moment, is chaste and platonic.   Jerry just has a little of Brian’s soul. 

Audrey’s jealousy erupts when Jerry inadvertently usurps Audrey’s role with the kids.   When Dory is reported missing from school one day, Jerry knows that she could be found at the local revival theater watching an old black and white classic.  It was a father-daughter activity that Brian devoted a little hooky time to.   When Jerry gets Harper to swim underwater, a goal that both Brian and Audrey have failed at, Audrey strikes out with a vindictive “those should have been my moments, not yours.”

Benicio Del Toro plays Jerry’s drug addled stupors as if he were Ferdinand the Bull happily smelling flowers under a cork tree.   But that is his only whiff of over indulgence.   The rest is a commanding portrayal of a man facing fears, self contempt and the ache of the soul to tentatively, and hopefully, totally reconnect with the community of the world.

Susanne Bier in her first American feature retains the elements of her dogme style (the handheld shots, reliance on natural light, the stripped down music score provided by her imported colleague Johan Soderqvist) that union Hollywood can comfortably accept.   Except for a little too much attention to eyes in close-up, her style is generally affecting.  It averts typical romantic expectation and strives to find the quiet emotional reality of everything.  She manages to keep the mawkish and overarch moments few and far between.    

Her damage souls know where they walk in the world– and though grateful to each other for the start– they know they can get to the end alone.  

Even though the fire is just a metaphor, Things We Lost in the Fire gets a very real B. 

The Credits: 

Directed by Susanne Bier; written by Allan Loeb; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Pernille Bech Christensen and Bruce Cannon; music themes by Gustavo Santaolalla, score by Johan Soderqvist; production designer, Richard Sherman; produced by Sam Mendes and Sam Mercer; released by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures. Running time: 112 minutes.

WITH: Halle Berry (Audrey Burke), Benicio Del Toro (Jerry Sunborne), David Duchovny (Brian Burke), Alison Lohman (Kelly), Omar Benson Miller (Neal), John Carroll Lynch (Howard Glassman), Alexis Llewellyn (Harper) and Micah Berry (Dory).

“Things We Lost in the Fire” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sexual situations, drug taking and strong language.

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya.

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MY BEST FRIEND– ON THE NETFLIX CUE

Posted: October 26, 2007 in Movies

 

My Best Friend (Mon Meilleur Ami) (2006)

 

The Review:

When Disneyland Paris first opened its gates the press reports were alit with stories about how the 12,000 cast members, most of them recruited from the surrounding areas near Marnee-la-Valee and Paris, had to be taught to smile the American/Disney way.  Apparently, the French weren’t use to smiling all the time.  Guest coming to the park for those first few months were unnerved by an unceasing wave of neatly dressed cast folks with zombielike grins.  

In My Best Friend, the new comedy by Patrice Leconte, the dour friendless antique dealer Francois (Daniel Auteuil) is coached on the three S’s of buddy making- be sincere, be sociable and smile- by the gregarious cabbie Bruno (Danny Boon)with an encyclopedic knowledge of useless facts.  On his first trial runs, Francois goes up to an artist painting in the park, parents with a pram and some men lawn bowling only to be splattered annoyingly with paint, shunned, and shushed away.  

On a whim Francois has spent 200,000 Euros on an elaborately decorated Greek vase that celebrates the to-the-death friendship of Achilles and Patroclus.  At a dinner with business acquaintances he is stunned to find out that not one of them considers him a friend- even his long time business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet), who he just learned is a lesbian.  Desperate to prove them wrong he makes a bet with Catherine- produce a true best friend in ten days or he must forfeit the vase.

When the one friend from sixth grade confesses he actually hated him, Francois reads a self-help book, questions others on how they became friends, even calls up Dial-A-Friend, all to no avail.   Only Bruno offers him any guidance. 

Bruno is so amiable he could be the ultimate Disney theme parks cast member.    I kept on expecting him to get a dust pan and start sweeping up cigarette butts and candy wrappers, so stuck is he on chanting the mantra that is the Aum of all Disney customer service.

The reactions of the disbelieving Parisian hordes are priceless when Francois walks the street with that first goofy smile on his face. 

The climax which has Bruno nervously appearing on the French version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (a Disney produced game show) shows how closely My Best Friend adheres to the Disney style of family comedy.   Substitute Vin Diesel or The Rock for Francois and some kids for Bruno and this could easily be another The Pacifier or The Game Plan.  

Even with a liberal sprinkling of pixie dust My Best Friend still only gets a B-.   

The Credits: 

Directed by Patrice Leconte; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Jérôme Tonnerre and Mr. Leconte, based on a story by Olivier Dazat; director of photography, Jean-Marie Dreujou; edited by Joëlle Hache; music by Xavier Demerliac; production designer, Ivan Maussion; produced by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier; released by IFC Films. Running time: 95 minutes.

WITH: Daniel Auteuil (François), Dany Boon (Bruno), Julie Gayet (Catherine), Julie Durand (Louise), Jacques Mathou (Bruno’s Father), Marie Pillet (Bruno’s Mother), Elizabeth Bourgine (Julia), Henri Garçin (Delamotte) and Jacques Spiesser (Letellier).

My Best Friend” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for strong language and mild sexual situations.

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya

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GONE BABY GONE– SEEN AT THE BIJOU

Posted: October 23, 2007 in Movies

GONE BABY GONE (2007)

The Review:

Ben Affleck always had a good knowledge of the mechanics of screenwriting and moviemaking. He and his good buddy Matt Damon did win a shared Oscar for best screenplay in 1998 for Good Will Hunting. Their Project Greenlight series, which aired for two seasons on HBO and one on Bravo, specialized in finding talented writers and directors who deserved a shot.

It was just the acting stuff that tripped Affleck up. Dazed and Confused (1993), his big break film, also unfortunately became the mantra for his on screen career. The curriculum vitae for Ben includes six Razzie nominations with one win (for Daredevil) – and another four shared nominations for worst screen couple, two of them while he was still bunking and sharing screen space with J-Lo.

By the time the good notices, golden globe nod and Oscar talk had come in for his portrayal of George Reeves in the who killed TV’s Superman mystery Hollywoodland from last year, Affleck had called it quits, had shacked up and committed to the pregnant Jennifer Garner and was in to deep preproduction for his first behind the scenes cinematic child.

And I would like to announce that both the father and child are ok and doing fine, even though the rest of the neighborhood is DOA. Gone Baby Gone is a mystery which queasily shows that it takes a whole piss poor community to abduct a child. The “it takes a village to raise a child” nonsense only applies to the richer burbs.

Any film about corruption should practice what its story preaches and display a little nepotism. So Ben Affleck wisely casts his younger brother Casey in the lead part of Patrick Kenzie.

Kenzie along with his long time professional and carnal partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are a private eye team who specialize in missing person’s cases that just need some internet time to solve. Patrick is a Dorchester boy who never left the mainly white South Boston slum when he had the chance. He knows the flow and hustle of every pimp, pusher, pedophile and low life crack head and thief in the yard.

When Amanda McCready, a four year old girl goes missing for three days becoming the latest Amber alert to grab media headlines, the girl’s grandmother Bea (Amy Madigan) decides to hire the two to aid the police in the stalled investigation. She desperately hopes that Patrick’s connections in the area could pooch up a lead. Reluctantly they take the case when Bea’s anguish hits their soft spot.

Amanda’s mom Helen (Amy Ryan) is a high volume near alcoholic and almost coke addict who still lives at home and has an almost nonchalant disregard for her missing daughter. She’s a straight shooter with a foul mouth and a cynical mind that knows the ways of the world. In this milieu of shadowy motives, that almost counts as a clue.

Amanda and her boyfriend have stumbled upon a satchel containing 130 thousand dollars belonging to the local Haitian drug dealer, Cheese (Boston rapper Ed Gathegi). Helen thinks that Cheese might know who has Amanda. What she doesn’t know is that there is a power struggle for the money being waged between the police leading up the investigation (Ed Harris, John Ashton and Morgan Freeman), some on-the-take family members and Cheese—with Amanda as the bargaining chip.

A murky night shootout between them ends with Amanda as the only apparent victim. When a couple of weeks later one of Kenzie’s friends hears a hint that Amanda might not be dead, Kenzie follows the trail and learns that it is true. The ending questions whether doing the right thing is really the right thing for Amanda or the accommodation a moral soul must make in order to coexist in an unjust world.

Ben Affleck wisely keeps Gone Baby Gone close to the two things he knows best—Beantown and his brother, Casey.

All the minor roles not subject to union control are filled with regular Dorchies and other natives of South Boston. It doesn’t look like there is a single standing set. The authenticity allows Affleck to hone the nuts of the drama.

Dorchester native Dennis Lehane’s novels make for an easy celluloid transition. Mystic River made it to the screen with barely a retouch or edit. Gone Baby Gone is Lehane’s fourth Patrick and Gennie mystery– and except for some excised back story and the usual amalgamation of other characters, Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard’s screenplay is also pretty much the book.

Mystic River was very much a night film. Clint Eastwood kept it in the shadows, allowing the night to speak for the dark side of its characters. Gone Baby Gone takes place in broad daylight. It is all about not believing and understanding what is happening in front of your eyes. All the clues are plainly there. They are just not recognized until it is almost too late.

Casey Affleck doesn’t disappear into his roles. He just does them, without any show. He exudes boyishness, innocence and decency- making him a good choice for Kenzie, whose street toughs are in his head.

Now, if Casey can get control of that oddly soft voice that tails into a slur, he actually might make a decent lead.

The rest of Gone Baby Gone is cast with capable backup players. Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver all provide convincing support- and the right amount of misdirection needed.

Amy Ryan as Helene is the standout. Without her brazen welfare mother sincerity, and the proper amount of repulsion-attraction, the morally ambiguous ending of Gone Baby Gone would not have worked.

Ben Affleck has obviously done his homework. In true slacker style he lets the city, the characters, the actors and the Dennis Lehane source all do the heavy lifting. But can he play it again outside of Boston? Affleck has the rest of his life to try to find out.

Gone Baby Gone gets a B+.

The Credits:

With: Casey Affleck (Patrick Kenzie); Michelle Monaghan (Angie Gennaro); Morgan Freeman (Jack Doyle); Ed Harris (Remy Bressant); John Ashton (Nick Poole); Amy Ryan (Helen McCready); Amy Madigan (Bea McCready); Titus Welliver (Lionel McCready); Michael Kenneth Williams (Devin); Edi Gathegi (Cheese)

Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Produced by Sean Bailey, Dan Rissner and Alan Ladd Jr. Cinematography by John Toll. Sound by Alan Rankin and Jeff Largent. Edited by William C. Goldenberg. Music composed by Harry Gregson Williams. Set designed by George R. Lee. Art direction by Chris Cornwell. Costumes by Alix Friedberg. Produced by Live Planet, Miramax Films, and The Ladd Company. Released by Miramax.

“Gone Baby Gone” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). There are several scenes of intense and bloody violence, and a horrifying subplot involving a pedophile.

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya

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WE OWN THE NIGHT– SEEN AT THE BIJOU

Posted: October 18, 2007 in Movies

WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007)

The Review:

I always though it was my fate to be a Hollywood screenwriter– to write pap, snort coke with rolled hundred dollar bills, drink myself into oblivion and write that classic novel that never sees the light of the days because it is locked away in a desk draw.   That is until I learned that I can’t stand the taste of alcohol, wouldn’t know where to find some coke if my life depended on it, and that the closest I will ever get to Hollywood would be a movie theater.  (The novel is still locked away in the closet of my head, waiting for the right words to come out.) So, I do what I am suppose to do– write about Hollywood from a distance.  

That other fate I leave to Joaquin Phoenix in We Own the Night. And for most of the movie he gives it a good try.  

Bobby Green (really Grusinsky)  lives the life that most of Hollywood dreams about.   He manages the Le Caribe, a Brighton Beach nightspot the size of two football fields– and curiously only one bar.  He snorts as much complimentary nose candy up his bazoo as he wants.  And just to show he is alright,  he has only one old lady he can bonk any time he pleases.  And when that old lady is Eva Mendes seductively fondling her coochie on a gold lame covered couch, you know he is one happy humper. 

So, when the local Russian dope czar Vadim Mezshinski (Alex Veadov) plops his long brown pony-tailed ass at the VIP table each night and starts passing out numbers, Bobby pays it no mind.

But this is a melodrama of classical proportions– meaning that FATE in capital letters and of the needle-in-the-eyes Greek kind is going to come knocking on his door pronto.  Mezshinski/Grusinsky notice the fateful rhyming.

Bobby’s big secret is that he is an honest guy from a long line of upright guys in blue.   His brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) just made Lieutenant and daddy Bert is the Chief of Police (Robert Duvall). 

At a party honoring Joseph’s promotion, the opening salvo between father and son is, "I hear your using your mother’s name."  That’s cop speak for: "You turned out to be such a pussy, son."   

They wont forgive him for not being a cop.

It is a point that brother Joe defiantly wags in Bobby’s face after a raid of the nightclub that makes a lot of noise but garners little real smack.  In true brotherly fashion they hug each other with a few vicious jabs to the chin.

Dad separates the two and gives Bobby the straight dope.   "It’s a war out there.  You’re going to either be with us or the drug dealers."

Bobby sees the point and decides to wear a wire and eventually become a cop only after Mezshinski unsuccessfully tries to have Joseph whacked–  and Bert becomes a picture in the hall of legends when he dies for the cause in a spectacular rain-soaked chase under the El.  

The director James Gray, Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix previously teamed up on The Yards (2000), a morally ambiguous feature about crime and corruption amongst the contractors responsible for maintaining, repairing and refurbishing New York city transit trains.  It was a moody, semi-autobiographical statement piece about honest people trying to find a middle ground in a corrupt system.  

We Own the Night by comparison is a throw back so full of highly structured plotting and black and white thinking that some gray critics will easily dismiss it as manipulative hokum.  Manipulative yes, hokum no. 

Gray stages a great car chase filled with digitally created torrents of splattering rain, jack-knifing trailers, careening, tumbling and flipping cars all unavoidably flying at a  powerless Bobby with a first person fury.  

The final shootout  is staged in a grove of dry reeds put to a torch.  The smoke, the instinctual lunging to running shadows and blind firing makes the case for fate as grand arbiter and slayer in a dandily ingenious way. 

While fate may make for great action pieces, it unfortunately only provides for unoriginal characters.   Once the nasty pest of freewill is swatted down, imagination follows. And fate just coldly marches to its bloody conclusion.

The resignation in Joaquin Phoenix’s face matches the cold calm of Mark Wahlberg and the stoic force of Robert Duvall.  The Grusinsky’s are fates grim poster family.  

Fate is not fun.  It makes critics mad, and audiences bored.  

We Own the Night from the very start was doomed to a B+. 

The Credits: 

With: Joaquin Phoenix  (Bobby Green); Mark Wahlberg  (Lt. Joseph Grusinsky); Eva Mendes  (Amanda Juarez); Robert Duvall  (Bert Grusinsky); Antoni Corone  (Michael Solo);  Moni Moshonov  (Marat Bujayev); Alex Veadov  (Vadim Mezshinski); Tony Musante  (Jack Shapiro)

Directed by James Gray;  Produced – Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg;
Composed (Music Score) by
Wojciech Kilar;  Set Decoratored by Catherine Davis; Edied by John Axelrad; Sound/Sound Design by Thomas G. Varga

“We Own the Night” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sex, drug use and abundant profanity.

MICHAEL CLAYTON– SEEN AT THE BIJOU

Posted: October 16, 2007 in Movies

MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)

The Review:

In Michael Clayton George Clooney looks like a man whose pig just died.   Clooney’s beloved pet pot-bellied porker Max passed away in December 2006 after a long and happy life of 18 years– right at the beginning of production shooting for the film.  For Clooney, it was the most sustained relationship of his adult life.   And the grief he feels for his darling little piggy just sizzles like a crispy piece of bacon throughout his portrayal of the title character. 

Clooney lets his jowls go slack.  His eyes root.  His nose is turned down and his nostrils slightly flare at the long time swill his employer dish his way.  

Michael Clayton is clearly a man who has had enough of the slop and is looking for a way out.  For seventeen years, he has been a fixer for the law firm of  Kenner, Bach and Leeden.  He fixes that hit and run accident when it was one of the firm’s lawyers that does the running.  When their desperate housewives shoplift he keeps it out of the police blotter and off the front page. 

"I’m not a miracle worker", he notes. "I’m a janitor.  "The smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean up." 

The carrot of partnership long since snatched away, he is mired in the sty of the firm’s mud, rooting for his conscience.

Even his life is a sty.  He is divorced, struggling to be a good father to his four-year-old son (Austin Williams);  a good son to his ill father, a former pig in blue;  struggling to be less boarish towards his pig-headed police lieutenant  sibling (Sean Cullen) and his pigged out cokehead other brother who waddles in irresponsibility– and leaves Clayton with a pig in a poke and an eighty thousand dollar debt, when their jointly owned restaurant deal goes to the slaughter of the auction block.         

Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson in an Oscar caliber performance), Clayton’s best friend and the firm’s other top fixer has gone spectacularly ding-dong– stripping during an important deposition and running through a snow filled parking lot gleefully displaying his ding-a-ling to all.  

For six years Edens has been doing cleanup on a multi-billion dollar weed killer law suit for the agrichemical manufacturer U/North, the firm’s biggest client.   And in all those billable hours Edens has found a conscience and a cause.   Edens has uprooted a memo that proves that U/North is guilty on all counts and beyond all reasonable doubt.   The swine’s knew from the get go that their weed killer was toxic to both weeds and men.  Silently, Edens has been sabotaging the defense and building a counter suit.  

Clayton is called in to clean up the mess that not only threatens to stink up the firm’s merger with a London group, but also threatens to knock  Kenner, Bach and Leeden dead on its haunches.   Edens a manic depressive has gone off his meds– or so it seems.

Also called in is U/North’s lead counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton in perfect harridan mode), a jittery bundle of nerves who fretfully rehearses and rewrites her every public word in front of her bathroom mirror.    She has Edens tailed, bugged and eventually snuffed– it being the most cost effective choice.

Clayton infected with the swine flu of Edens conscience acquires his cause– the only cure being to clean out the sty and destroy the carriers. 

As much as Michael Clayton  likes to wallow in the swinishness of corporate and legal America, it equally revels in making a paddy’s pig out of the moral conscience of business and legal ethics.  It is a small film with a little ego– so self-contained it seems afraid to let it secrets out.    Michael Clayton never achieves greatness because it is too concerned with being nice.  

Tony Gilroy who successfully adapted the Bourne experience out of the slush of the Robert Ludlum novels, and here making his directorial debut, has made a miniature drama in the Sydney Lumet style. Michael Clayton is intelligent without being overly complex–  hushed almost to the point of withdrawal.   It is content to throw it punches and walk way.   The whole dirty structure still stands, the only difference being that one man stands proud– his conscience clean.

In Serpico and The Prince of the City, the Lumet cop dramas that revolve around a crisis of conscience, ego turns to superego– the burst blowing the corruption away.   They are urban creation stories that proclaim how these good things came into being.   Free of politics they swagger in myth.   And in Serpico, Al Pacino was mythic enough to make it great.   If Prince in the City fell short it was because Treat Williams didn’t generate enough of the Pacino aura.  

George Clooney has the good looks and some acting chops- but in a duel with Pacino, Clooney would get knocked under the table.   He is a nice boy without the ego that can dare make him great.   He doesn’t have the edge that Pacino can display in his sleep. 

Thus Clooney is perfect for the ordinary lawyer who never gets to try a case– and the one big case he wins is settled out of court.   Michael Clayton only aspires to do the right thing, not the great one. George Clooney needs to crash a few more motorcycles.  He needs to become a rebel with a cause and a little more fury.  He needs to stop being so nice. 

Until that happens, Michael Clayton gets a could of been better grade of B+.  

         

The Credits:

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by John Gilroy; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Kevin Thompson; produced by Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox, Steven Samuels and Kerry Orent; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 119 minutes.

WITH: George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Tom Wilkinson (Arthur Edens), Tilda Swinton (Karen Crowder), Sydney Pollack (Marty Bach) and Austin Williams (Henry Clayton).

Michael Clayton” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Adult language, some violence.


THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB (2007)

 

The Review:

Even though I’ve read three Jane Austen novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey), I am not much of a Janeite.  I prefer my literature greasy, rough, loose, mythic, and rupturing with language.  I am a 20th Century guy. Give me a choice between reading a Thomas Pynchon or Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and a Jane Austen or Henry James opus brimming with precision and gentility  and I will go with the mods.  

But when I reread Austen I notice how cheeky, and down right subversive she really is– and suddenly realize that without dear lady Jane there would be no The Lady Eve– or any romantic comedies.    The woman is a Goddess, and every day in the dark places where people meet, dozens of iterations of Austenian love light the world. 

The Jane Austen Book Club is happy to share the illumination of Jane’s grace.  The five women and one man delight in the therapy of insight a good Austen novel provides. The filler, transitional scenes are stuffed with showing the six in the enlightening blanket comfort of a good read.

Six gospels are what the divine Jane left the world.  So lo and behold  in addition to the six characters, The Jane Austen Book Club is broken into six chapters named for each of her novels, has six subplots,  and lasts exactly six months.  And like in Austen there is a lot of wishing for, but no actual sex.  (Now, I know why I never finished rereading those novels.)

Modern day Sacramento, a city at the edge of nature, is a good substitute for Austen’s Regency England. 

The elder statesman of The Jane Austen Book Club is the fiftyish,  six times married Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a free spirit who has read enough Austen to make her the emotional magnet the other four good girls who read Jane are pulled to when love and men turn polar opposites.  Bernadette knows that love is a boomerang– it leaves and always comes back.  She knows, it is best to sensibly catch love with both hands, rather than let it insensibly hit you on the back of the head in rebound. 

Bernadette starts the book club as a distraction for Jocelyn (Maria Bello playing the Emma character), a proud, forty-something, spinsterish  beauty, who recently lost the great love of her life– Pridey, her prize winning Rhodesian Ridgeback.  Jocelyn finds dogs easier to handle and easier to love than men, so she raises them professionally.   With her Pridey gone, Bernadette senses that Jocelyn might be reading for some human affection. 

Jocelyn’s best friend is Sylvia (Amy Brenneman).  In high school Jocelyn and Sylvia loved, and at one time dated the same boy, Daniel (Jimmy Smits emitting smarminess even when it seems he is acting utterly sincere).  Sylvia ended up marrying him. Happily married for twenty years, Sylvia is soon to be an unhappy divorcee.  It seems that Daniel has been writing his own story with another woman in his law office. 

Sylvia’s daughter is Allegra, an out of the closet lesbian who has the skeleton in the closet love of extreme sports like skydiving and rock climbing as the one thing this mother-daughter never share.  Allegra is an easy going girl on the outside, but moody and insecure to nail down as the wind inside.   When a relationship blows hot she stays.  When it blows cold she goes.   Right now she’s a goner, and living with her mom, ostensibly to cheer up Sylvia, but deep inside Allegra can’t stand the loneliness.   

Grigg (Hugh Dancy), is an eligible and well-off techie (cue a big Austen theme) and Sci-Fi geek  who lives in a big tract house filled with props from Star Wars, Star Trek and 50’s outer space movies.   He is cute as a button and ready for love for that woman who can look past the endearing ways he can awkwardly shoot himself in the foot. 

Jocelyn and Grigg meet cute while she is attending a breeding convention and he is  tending to matters other worldly with his fellow S/F geek’s.   She thinks he is an adorable little puppy who would make a good comforting lap dog for the depressed Sylvia.  Grigg, a non-Janeite  would rather make Jocelyn his bitch.  I smell more Jane in the air.  

The last member of the book club is the aptly named Prudie (Emily Blunt), who is in love with a husband  too busy at work to give her the time of day. Dean (Marc Blucas) thinks Austen is the capitol of Texas.  

Prudie is a high school French teacher who has never been to France.  Their long overdue French idyll is constantly pushed back. This time Dean’s  boss has asked him to take an important client to a Lakers games.  Prudie defeated, discouraged, and ready to look for love in all the wrong places is tempted to have an affair with  one of her students.  

Unlike the charmless Becoming Jane, The Jane Austen Book Club is actually a good read.  It is tightly scripted, but loosely acted by the five female and one male leads.  It has an uncorseted feeling.   Maria Bello, Emily Blunt and Hugh Dancy are particularly good.  They all give their characters an ironic intelligence.  They would be at home in any Austen novel. 

Even though the Austen critiques never rise above mildly insightful, they do give the uninitiated a good road map in which to start to explore the novels.

For the Janeites this film is a delight.  It verifies their beliefs that Austen is life itself, a good hot toddy to take when romance gets rough.  

Looking for Janeisms and Austen parallels is actually fun here.    Just remember, "Jane Austen is a freakin mine field", as Jocelyn says.       

Robin Swicord a screenwriter (Memoirs of a Geisha, Matilda, Practical Magic) and novice director knows that the greatness of Austen comes from the sum total of all of her parts.  To look too much for the prideful character is to miss the prejudice one.  Searching for sense will only leave sensibility bereft.  

Austen and Swicord know that the marriage of the big picture is what counts.  So the characters neatly counterbalance each other– and the subplots have their counterplots.  If anything The Jane Austen Book Club runs too precisely– almost like an atomic clock. 

The film is joyous, but not as ironically joyous as Austen can be.  There is only one truly shining Austen moment. 

Grigg comes to his first book club meeting with a green leather bound copy of her collected works.  The other five have their own well-thumbed through personal editions.   They all laugh when Grigg  holds up his tome and points to the titles etched in gold on the binder.  "Is this the order that we read them in," he says.   "They are not sequels," Jocelyn replies bemused.   His first meeting and he already knows more than them.  

A lot more moments like that and The Jane Austen Book Club could easily be Jane’s seventh novel.  

For now, it is a well-read and delightful B+.  

  

The Credits: 

 Written and directed by Robin Swicord; based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler; director of photography, John Toon; edited by Maryann Brandon; music by Aaron Zigman; production designer, Rusty Smith; produced by John Calley, Julie Lynn and Diana Napper; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 105 minutes.

WITH: Kathy Baker (Bernadette), Maria Bello (Jocelyn), Emily Blunt (Prudie), Amy Brenneman (Sylvia), Hugh Dancy (Grigg), Maggie Grace (Allegra), Lynn Redgrave (Mama Sky), Jimmy Smits (Daniel), Marc Blucas (Dean), Kevin Zegers (Trey), Parisa Fitz-Henley (Corinne), Gwendolyn Yeo (Dr. Samantha Yep) and Nancy Travis (Cat).

“The Jane Austen Book Club” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It contains some strong language and sexual situations.