Saturday, October 27, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Gone are the days of Casey Affleck's celebrity ambiguity

The first question people will ask when they look at the director credits of this movie is whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that it's written and helmed by Ben Affleck, he of Gigli and other countless commercial and critical failures over the last decade or so. The next question people will ask is whether Affleck did the right thing by putting his lesser-known kid brother in the lead role.

I am going to answer those questions first.

1. Yes, it is a very good thing that Ben Affleck chose to direct this film. If anyone (other than maybe Marty Scorsese) knows or writes Boston better than he can, I'd like to see him. I know it sounds like an eon ago, but try to remember Good Will Hunting and also remember that he and Matt Damon wrote the script and won (very well-deserved) Oscars for doing so.

2. With both this film and The Assassination of Jesse James under his belt, kid brother Casey Affleck is probably going to be holding a gold statuette of his own at some point.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (who was also the author of the novel behind Clint Eastwood's Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is the fourth installment of a series of books devoted to the private investigator duo of lovers Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Genarro (Michelle Monoghan). Kenzie has a way of tracking down thugs and other lowlifes due to his ability to insert himself into the ugly underbelly of Boston. He wears the accent well, knows the street lingo, and has a way of moving that suggests to us that he's never been far from his hometown and will likely be there to stay. Angie is not quite bred from the same stock as her boyfriend, but they compliment each other well, at least in the beginning.

When a 4-year-old girl, Amanda McReady, goes missing in the neighborhood, Kenzie and Angie are hired by the child's aunt (Amy Madigan) to assist the police in their investigation. The reason the aunt is asking for help is because the little girl's mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is so steeped in alcohol and cocaine, that she's more of a liability than an asset to the search. When they express some reservations about taking on the assignment, the beleaguered relative pleads, "But, you can't do any harm!" And with that in mind, they begin their work in seedy bars and homes unearthing clues. The officers running the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris in an Oscar-worthy performance), Nick Poole (John Ashton), and Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) are at first reluctant to let these two into their investigation, but realize that Kenzie's street-savvy has a certain value. Before we know it, Kenzie is neck deep in a ransom exchange involving some stolen drug money, a Haitian coke dealer, and a whole slew of surprises and twists that I will not reveal here.

The common police procedural has a way of keeping the viewer guessing, but rarely surprises people. Anyone who has seen a single episode of C.S.I. knows the rule that the first person who looks guilty usually isn't, and the person who looks the least likely to have pulled the trigger is usually the one who has traces of gunshot residue on their hands, and a hidden motive to go along with it. What I admired the most about Gone Baby Gone was the skilled construction of a plot that made seemingly insignificant elements in the beginning important keys to understanding later in the film. Some might complain that the film's pace takes a little bit of a dip between the second and third acts, I would argue that the events that take place there are crucial to the development of Kenzie's character, and are also engrossing and brilliantly executed.

Of all of America's major cities, the one I'd least like to be lost in is Boston. It has a long and tattered history, at least by American standards, and with that age comes a legacy of dirt and moral ambiguity that one would be unlikely to find in a place like Desmoines, Iowa. In Gone Baby Gone, this sort of grittiness is captured with such deft skill that if I hadn't known ahead of time that this was someone's directorial debut, I would have pegged it the work of a seasoned auteur. The craft of the script from plot structure and dialog, to the cinematography, the acting, and the very authentic mise en scene all accomplished the goal that any great movie should: to remove me from my seat in the theater and transport me through the screen and into that world. I walked the streets of Boston with Patrick Kenzie. I could smell the soured beer that was likely on the floor of the Murphy's Law tavern. I felt the heart-wrenching sadness and sense of loss of the missing little girl's family (what few of them that were worth a damn) and the constant struggle to find a moral balance that Kenzie experienced in the face of some incredibly difficult choices. I'm still feeling that, actually.

After it's all said and done, Gone Baby Gone presents us with a set of moral and philosophical questions that asks us decide not between right and wrong, but right and right. This sets the stage for debates that have likely raged in many a car on the way home from the cinemaplex after seeing this movie. I was having that own debate with myself. This film is intelligent enough to let us decide for ourselves, but the feelings that are generated by exploring such questions linger long after the closing credits roll.

This is one of the best movies of the year.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Sunday, October 21, 2007

30 Days of Night

Yes, Mr. Vampire, it is a bloody mess...

Attempting to review the turgid pill of a vampire movie 30 Days of Night is something of a chore. There are a few things working against me at the moment, not the least of which is a severe headache that started creeping into the right side of my brain about 80 minutes into the viewing. Upon reflection and several Excedrin, I have achieved just enough clarity to become convinced that the headache was not a coincidence. Because of this, I'm going to make it easy on myself and share with you the notes I took during the course of the film, and this should explain volumes:

dialog about as interesting and lively as an insurance seminar
plodding pace in first act
decent art direction
Josh Hartnett miscast
who wrote this screenplay?!
vamps not frightening
frenetic, ineffective editing
interesting overhead perspective shot
long lulls in action--needs some trimming
idiot plot device galore
no real sense of passage of 30 actual days
find something derogatory to say about the lead vamp
what a joyless, bloated, boring piece of crap!

I think that should pretty much sum it up; although I do want to clarify the ire I had with this film. It wasn't the plot. In fact, I think such an idea as a remote town in Alaska that becomes overrun by vampires during it's annual 30-day stint without sunlight is rife with the potential for a romping good time. I do not claim to have read the source material, which is a graphic novel, but as a film, 30 Days of Night contains all of the life and exuberance of a paperweight.

The director, David Slade, seems to have had a difficult time finding an adequate pace for this film. Having helmed the shocking yet good Hard Candy, he seemed in that film to demonstrate a talent for tortuously drawing out time. But in 30 Days of Night, the torture stopped being interesting almost from the beginning. This is due mostly in part to the fact that the performances are two-dimensional and leaden. Josh Hartnett plays Eben, the sheriff of the sleepy Barrow, Alaska, a town that looks almost as if it were comprised of a group of ice shanties and is filled with hardy residents who seem awfully resilient to frostbite as they trudge through white-outs in blizzards. He is involved in a legal separation from his wife, Stella (Melissa George) (and oh how I begged for Eben to scream that name to the top of his lungs during the course of the film) in what can only be described as a desperately needed plot device. We are not told why they are separated, but it's not necessary. I'm giving away nothing by telling you that they will eventually reconcile their differences and fall in love again through the harrowing obstacle of fighting a marauding mass of bloodthirsty undead folk. Hartnett has shown a wealth of acting talent in his previous projects, but with his still slightly boyish features is unconvincing here as the heroic sheriff of this frigid burg.

And speaking of undead folk, I'd like to bring up what is perhaps the biggest problem with 30 Days of Night: the vampires. Folklore generally paints these immortal creatures of the night as charismatic in some sense. Their centuries of life have developed in them a sense of cunning and style that makes their legend somewhat compelling. There are countless variations on the theme, of course. You have your Bella Lugosi version, your tortured, homoerotic Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt/Anne Rice variety, and there is the classic Bram Stoker interpretation. I've never been much of a fan of the brainless, over-zealous, demonic vampire. For one thing, they are just not interesting. If I want an evil eating machine, I'll watch a George Romero film. For another, their actions become incredibly repetitive. After 113 minutes of hearing roars, hisses, and shrieks and being witness to people being repeatedly pulled under their houses or dragged from their cars and having their jugulars ripped open and being "gang-slurped" by a team of humanoid leech/zombie hybrids, I was quite simply bored.

Although it is easy enough to praise the film's visual achievements, namely in lighting, special effects, and art direction, 30 Days of Night contained no surprises and few innovations, with characters that act more like caricatures, and dialog that never managed to make my brainwaves spike above the level of a post-operative bypass patient on a heavy morphine regimen. It's a one-trick pony, and the trick becomes tedious mere yards after crossing the starting line. This film would have fared much better in the hands of a director like Robert Rodriguez whose prowess with both visuals , energy, and dialog has already been proven in this genre with movies like From Dusk Til Dawn and Planet Terror. After sitting through two hours of this chore of a film, I'm more inclined to rename it 2 Hours of Blight.

Gouda's Final Grade: D

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Eastern Promises

Veni, Vidi, Viggo.. or at least the Russian equivalent...

David Cronenberg, director of Eastern Promises, has come a very long way in his career. From a start in low-budget horror films in the 70s, he has bloomed into one of the best dramatic directors in work today. He reminded people of this two years ago with the surprisingly good, Oscar-nominated A History of Violence, and he re-teams with the star of that film, Viggo Mortensen, in a dark, tense Russian crime drama.

In classic Cronenberg form, the movie's first scene is memorably graphic. Perhaps not Scanners "exploding head" graphic, but it's cringe-inducing enough to set the tone for this bloody exploration of a Russian crime family who have transplanted themselves to London. This is not a by-the-numbers mafia story, however. It is told through the words and experiences of vastly different people: Mortensen, the driver and bodyguard for the Vory V Zakone family, a midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), and a 14-year old pregnant Russian girl who died during the birth of her baby (at which Anna was in attendance). The girl left behind a tattered diary detailing the final months of her tragic life. Anna takes it and has it translated by her Russian uncle. The contents of the diary eventually lead her to the restaurant/business front of the Vorys, where the deceptively dangerous patriarch, Seymon, (Armin Mueller-Stahl) becomes aware of the dead girl's words, which are, to say the least, incriminating. The lives of Anna, her family, and the newborn baby are eventually put in grave danger.

That is about all of the plot I'm willing to reveal here. Suffice to say that it shifts gears several times throughout the film's 100 minutes, and the surprises are best served fresh. What I would rather do is extol the many virtues of Eastern Promises, starting with the screenplay. It is exceeding well-written by Steven Knight, whose other credits include the very good Dirty Pretty Things and inexplicably, episodes of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Here the dialog is engaging, appropriate, subtly witty, and not too aware of itself. The pacing and construction of the plot is also pitch-perfect. The film is exactly as long as it needs to be, and tells only the parts of the story that need to be told without making the viewer feel like something is missing. Often films of this genre act like an Encyclopedia Brittanica of mafia life, leaving the audience feeling exhausted by the time the closing credits start rolling. While you might not want to eat immediately after seeing Eastern Promises, you might feel up to running the rest of your day's errands.

The performances here are also not to be ignored. Naomi Watts continues to be one of the better actresses working today, and her role here as the unwitting target of a very dangerous group of people is strong, but with just enough vulnerability to give an otherwise cool movie a little bit of warmth. And then there is Viggo Mortensen, the film's violent and mysterious centerpiece. Clearly a method actor, Mortensen delves into his roles and appears to be consumed by them. He not only played Nikolai. He was him, and watching him fight completely naked in perhaps the most violent and authentically-staged fight scene (I'm sure you've heard, since that's what everyone is talking about) filmed in recent years only increased his worth as an actor in my eyes.

I would like to say that this is one of the best mafia movies I've seen in years, but Cronenberg did not really make a mafia movie. His films tend to transcend genre and instead become fascinating examinations of human nature. He is also a director who continues to surpass himself, and with Eastern Promises he has set his own bar for future efforts higher than ever. I for one can't wait to see what he does.

Final Grade: A