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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Ten Word or Less Review: Great sad bastard cinema.  That’s a good thing.
Blue Valentine gives the audience the independent movie romance experience.  Which is to say Blue Valentine is a picture of love, warts and all, juxtaposing an unorthodox romance from its touching beginnings to its heartbreaking dissolution.  Those looking for happy endings and cheap laughs will be out of luck here.  All there is to see is the sad story of two well-intentioned souls and their sad decline towards emotional anguish.
Indie movie magnet Ryan Gosling (Half-Nelson) is Dean, a young guy with a good heart, strong work ethic but little tradional education.  He’s new to the New York area and picks up a job as a furniture mover.  He does something on the job so touching for a client it’ll break you up inside.  Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) is Cindy, a smart college student with a desire to be a doctor and a homelife she wants to escape from.  We follow Cindy and Dean back and forth from the beginings of their relationship to the last days of their troubled marriage.  Valentine portrays two people with the best of hearts for one another, who begin a life under unusal circumstances, but then gives us a vision of how good intentions fade and the truth of what people are left with when they grow beyond the situation which brings them together.
Valentine is that rare kind of romance that tries to paint its characters in a realistic light.  When we meet Cindy and Dean they are both world weary in their own way, but both are still blessed with some sense of betterment and optimism for themselves, despite their hardships and emotional pains.  We learn about the two of them very gradually and each small revelation says a lot about their actions in both stories.  Their later life incarnations are as two people who have been worn down, she by him and he by life, that urge to make each other happy now gone.  No one is to blame and there is no one thing to hold out as being the cause of their failed marriage, the only thing that’s happened is life, or maybe a lack there of.
Gosling and Williams are beautiful performers here.  Both are touching and they establish a rapport in their scenes of youthful romance which makes their falling apart so much more heartbreaking to view later on.  Just a few years ago Sam Mendes attempted a similiar story with Revolutionary Road but failed to tell us why these people fell in love in the first place.  He left us nothing but an insuffrable movie about two selfish jerks constantly fighting.  Blue Valentine paints a more complete and resonant portrait of a couple on the outs.  Dean and Cindy’s failings escelate from simmering resentment into a full blown meltdown slowly, avoiding the trap of making the two of them unsympathetic and tiresome.
First time feature director Derek Cianfrance provides the kind of deft hand which gives Valentine much of its emotion and depth.  He shows great skill with quiet and unassuming drama that builds into hard emotional tension.  He clearly has a limited budget to work with, Dean and Cindy go to a hotel which seems about the size of a hall closet, but uses location shooting to his advantage.  This is a New York film but not one obsessed with creating faux sensations of hustle bustle.  Cianfrance also ran aground of the MPAA because of his insistence on realistic sexual encounters.  Originally slapped with the dreaded NC-17, the MPAA should feel no small amount of shame for their gross sense of negligence and warped priorities.  Once again you can kill and mame relentlessly, but show two people being naughty and there’s big stink to make.  The sex in the film serves a dramatic point and while frank in its depiction, it isn’t off putting or pointless.
Appreciators of movies aiming for convincing emotional stories will grab onto Blue Valentine.  It’s free of the crass bullshit that Hollywood typically schleps around under the guise of love story.  If I were love I’d fire Hollywood and get a new agent to represent me.  It’s a memorable film experience that leaves a lasting and well deserved impression.

Ten Word or Less Review: Pretty good stupid movie.

The continued presence of Angelina Jolie as an action heroine has never been encouraged your truly.  The Tomb Raider movies were a bad joke, Mr & Mrs Smith looked ridiculous, Wanted was the single dumbest movie of the last decade.  In fact I think much of her filmography outright sucks.  Nothing can stop this superliped, adoption machine from leaping away from fireballs and retarded screenplays.  This rocky past with action flicks, and movies in general, made the prospect of watching Salt a chancy one at best.  But this was directed by two time Jack Ryan helmer Philip Noyce, an Australian mate who has a track record for stalwart action flicks (Clear and Present Danger), creepy thrillers (Dead Calm) and quality drama (Rabbit-Proof Fence).  So what’s the result?  Exactly what you’d hope to get when you take a filmmaker with solid chops and pair him with a star who makes dumb movies, a quality dumb movie.

Salt goes through great lengths to complicate its relatively down the middle espionage plot.  A Russian agent walks into the CIA and tells Jolie’s character, Salt, and her suspicion inclined associates that she’s a Russian sleeper agent, and that she’s going to kill the Russian president tomorrow.  They believe him, begin chase. Salt starts to test the bounds and abilites of logic fairly quickly but they don’t exactly break as much as bend in logicless ways action viewers are used to.  If anyone acted rationally in movies like this they would be over before they started and everyone would go home happy or dead.  Salt commences to jump through hoops in attempts to throw the audience off its trail but even viewers granting the film only half attention should be a step ahead of where it’s going.  It grows progressively more convoluted as it goes but it’s to be expected.  It is certainly too derivitave of the Bourne films in many regards but it’s action is a shade more cartoonish and less hardhitting.  While things don’t ring with an air of uniqueness Salt does watch easy enough and it’s put togther with the hand of an old pro thanks to Noyce.

Noyce knows how to let action play without slipping into bombast or tangles of action confussion.  Compared to recent action titles sitting on the shelf along with Salt, crap like Red and A-Team come to mind, it’s refreshing to watch something that doesn’t choke the audience with explosion indulgence or gutless storytelling.  Noyce gets a good enough performance out of Jolie as well in a part which isn’t robust with witty dialogue.  Her part could have slipped into action movie stodginess in the hands of a less demanding director but he rings just enough depth and thought out of Jolie to avoid that look of privileged boredom which often sits upon her emotion avoiding, statuesque brow.

Those watching Salt at home will be tasked to watch three different versions of the movie, all of which vary to significant degrees.  I watched the director’s cut and after comparing a few notes and scenes about the other versions I think this is the best bet of the trio.  The differences between the theatrical and directors versions are more traditional in nature, the directors cut being a little bit edgier and with a slightly more sinister ending.  The extended cut presents a very different spin on the movie, removing a pivitol sequence from the middle of the film and introducing an entirely different ending.  The extended edition presents Salt as a stand alone film with nowhere to go when the credits role, while both the Theatrical and Director’s cuts imply a sequel we’ll likely never see.  Salt was a minor success at best.

Good date night cinema is hard to find these days but Salt fits the bill pretty well.  It’s energetic without being frenzied and entertaining without being insulting.  Well, maybe a little insulting but you can’t have everything.  Either way it’s loads better than I expected and when it pops up on TNT 18 months from now while I’m at the gym I’ll watch it again without fuss while I exercise and enjoy it.

Ten Word or Less Review: Ambitious, but sluggish.

When master filmmakers crawl out of the woodwork you have to pay attention, no matter how dismissive others may be.  Peter Weir is a slow and methodical worker, averaging about 2 or 3 movies a decade.  His last two efforts, The Truman Show and Master & Commander, are as fine as cinema can get.  Both are contemporary classics I fully expect to stand the test of time.  So it’s a damn shame that his latest effort, The Way Back, is such a monumental effort with very little payoff.

Set during World War II, The Way Back is the supposed true story of a handful of prisoners who escape from a Siberian prison.  Such a feat is achievement enough but then the prisoners commenced to walk 4000 miles, across Russia, Mongolia and the Himalayas, to get to Tibet in an attempt to escape the ever expanding grasp of communism.  That’s where the supposedly comes in.  Many have argued about the legitimacy of the story, but legitimacy be damned, it sounds great on paper.  But thrust to celluloid it’s just a lot of guys walking around for 130 minutes.

The cast is headed by Jim Sturgess, a young actor who has starred in a couple of films I’ve never been interested in seeing and after The Way Back I see no reason to seek them out.  Sturgess lacks much presence or charisma.  He’s a bland lead but the fault may not be entirely his.  While Colin Farrell and Ed Harris shine through their grime and deliver supporting parts that keep the film afloat, the rest is crippled by a screenplay that believes the events transpiring are enough to hold our attention.  Close but not quite.  The effort being put forth into this story is surely Herculean but there’s just no dramatic crutch or story tension to any of it.  Aside from Farrell and Harris the characters are never interesting and there’s very little interaction between these men as they march their miles.  At one point they meet a young girl who accompanies them on their journey and she notices that the men don’t talk to each other.  All I could do was nod in agreement.

This being a Peter Weir film one can’t dismiss the experience completely.  His dedication to meticulous detail and gorgeous photography are intact and he occasionally manages to ring an emotion or two out of the material.  He also successfully relays the since of frigidness and desperation the characters experience so well that I would recommend watching it with a coat on and a cup of coffee.  But beyond this too much of the story just doggedly plugs along like the walkers of the story.  It’s easy to see what drew Weir to the material; he’s often tackled subjects who find themselves on the edges of society.  But this time he couldn’t find a compelling reason to take us along with these guys on their journey.

I’ve made The Way Back out to be a rough experience but it’s not, it’s simply a marginal one.  If survival tales are your thing, or your a Weir fan, then Way Back could be a real treat.  There are elements to appreciate about it and it seems like a film that could eventually shine in a longer state.  Maybe Weir cut things to close to the bone?  I can’t say.  All I can say is that a master level movie maker put forth great ambition and came up short.  I’d rather see a guy try and fail than not try at all.