Saturday, April 19, 2008

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)

****
USA



The old joke that Ben Affleck won an Oscar for typing Matt Damon's screenplay ought to be laid to rest now that he has not only directed but coaxed terrific tension and moral quandary out of this story of an abducted toddler and the baby-faced ghetto private eye hired to help track her down. The latter is played by Affleck's little brother, similarly displaying unsuspected depth in his second-most startling lead performance of 2007. The sordid, coke-rimmed squalor he inhabits borders on the grotesque and the deeper we delve into it, the more gnawingly our notions of Right and Wrong (particularly if we happen to be raised on American TV) are questioned.

After a wrenching first two acts, the third takes a rushed and melodramatic detour and comes on as implausible. However, it brings forth the core dilemma of the piece, which is hefty and provocative, yet so tactfully presented and with such complexity that it sparks off an urgent meditation on prickly but vitally important issues without patronising you with any kind of bias.

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Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007)

***
USA



After Grindhouse bombed at the US box office, several international distributors sliced it in two, released Tarantino's half in theatres and sent Rodriguez's straight to DVD. Unlike Tarantino, Rodriguez recognises his limitations. While nothing here matches the charge and dexterity of Death Proof's climactic car chase, it's overall the happier experience.

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)

****
USA



The way that most shady movie foreigners decide to hijack planes and banks and such, marvelous enunciator Robert Shaw and his uneducated crew take control of a subway train and demand $1m of the NYC mayor in exactly one hour. Walter Matthau is stuck negotiating between them. The nerve-wracking tension is flavoured with satirical jabs that at times come off a tad glib given the circumstances. But the plot is addictive.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007)


USA



An offensively grandstanding, fatalistic mediocrity where two morbidly maladjusted brothers - who, between them, have acted on every self-destructive impulse known to Paul Haggis - decide to rob their Mom and Dad's jewellery store. The plot jumps back and forth in time, but don't panic, intertitles and a drum roll announce every flashback for your convenience. This snazzy stylistic tic - one of many embraced by the once-brilliant Sidney Lumet - fits beautifully within the film's overarching principle of exposition-hysteria-then-more-exposition.

Self-loathing-heroin-abusing-Father-hating-yuppie-embezzling older brother Philip Seymour Hoffman opines in one of several strained monologues: "I don't add up." So, do take note, when he says and does things without a coherent motive, it's not because he's six stereotypes crudely stitched together. It's because he's so mind-bendingly real, man,

Ethan Hawke spends the film jittering uncontrollably - lest you shift your attention to a cast mate - as the younger brother, who would make an infinitely more convincing junkie, though you never see him injecting anything conspicuous.

Albert Finney plays a father guilty of never expressing emotion, with the gusto of an Oscar-hungry father more likely to have traumatised his children into inertia through expressing his emotion too much. (In his defence, it's easy to see how his scenery-chewing genes could lead to a chronically jittery Ethan Hawke). Marisa Tomei spends half her screen-time topless, playing a plot device to ratchet up the melodrama. The supporting cast also includes ghetto stereotypes, the ever dependable Rosemary Harris (who gives the film's single grounded performance in its single grounded scene), a shrill ex-wife who repeats roughly three lines of dialogue incessantly and at the same pitch, as well as a little girl to remind Hawke and the audience by phone: "But Dad! You promised to pay for my excursion to see The Lion King!"

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Lars and the Real Girl (Craig GIllespie, 2007)

**½
USA



Small-town introvert Ryan Gosling falls in love with a sex doll, introduces her to the community as Bianca his partner and the community plays along to the point that Bianca gets her hair styled, is invited to do charity work and even has the ambulance at ready disposal. The premise isn't played for cutesy quirk so much as soppy romance. A bunch of talented actors scramble to pitch their performance at some level of honesty, but to little avail. The film's inner reality is so sketchy, it's unlikely that the writer or director ever had a handle on it either.

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Stavisky (Alain Resnais, 1974)

****
Italy/France



With elegance and icy precision, Alain Resnais mounts an ode to 1930s art deco with bits of political intrigue interspersed involving an exiled Trotsky and a Russian con man who half-inadvertently helped shape French history for the next decade.

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Sunshine State (John Sayles, 2002)

***½
USA



John Sayles' discourse on capitalism suffocating tradition in an increasingly kitschified South hits points of astounding sensitivity and resonance, but it's predictably cluttered by thin and thoroughly redundant subplots and character arcs. The strongest sections have Edie Falco playing a reluctant, conflicted heiress to an ailing small-town motel with a family legacy.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)

***½
France/Netherlands



Greenaway's most popular film, it's particularly intriguing for its political implications. Some ideas are needlessly repeated and cluttered, but there is a ferocity at the film's core that keeps things compelling.

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