Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Cleaning

The combination of the late winter/early spring awards movie glut and my newfound tendency to take more time to write a review has led to a backlog of movies I'd intended to write about but are surely nearing the point where I can hardly remember what I meant to say and you could hardly care. So, in honor of the annual editions of Video Movie Guide I relied on in the pre-internet days, here are some brief thoughts on the a handful of recent movies before I move on to longer responses to two I saw last week - one great, the other an out-of-left-field masterpiece - and my answers to the latest quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

The true test of a great actor is whether one can deliver a strong performance not just in a well-written tailor-made for him/her but in a weak movie that requires the actor to create something out of very little. In The Reader, Kate Winslet is the only compelling element of a movie that never knows what it is about. The frank eroticism of the first half clashes with the vaguely defined ethical quandaries of the second - the explicit sex scenes feel distateful in light of the Holocaust-related material, which end up feeling trivialized as they're framed within the story of one guy's traumatic, lifelong cock-block. If they weren't bound by the expectations of an Oscar-bait prestige picture, director Stephen Daltry and screenwriter David Hare would have been better off pushing the movie into The Night Porter territory, which at least would have been more interesting. That said, whenever Winslet is onscreen, The Reader briefly comes to life - she finds a complex inner life in Hanna Schmitz that the movie can't support. And yeah, as good as it was to see her finally win the Oscar, she should have won for Revolutionary Road.

Surprise of the year: I sort of liked Knowing. All signs pointed to Nicolas Cage's newest codebreaking thriller being a steaming turd, and I mostly went to figure out what Roger Ebert was thinking when he named it one of the best sci-fi movies he's ever seen. And while it's far from that, I was relieved to find out that the list of numbers predicting global disasters was merely a plot device and I wouldn't be in for two hours of Cage glumly working out code. The film actually shows an interest in the question of whether the universe is random or deterministic (in a popcorn-movie kind of way, but still), and Alex Proyas lends the film a haunting end-of-days atmosphere. It's goofy but likeable, with one of the best plane-crash sequences in memory, and I admired it for following its Biblical allusions through to their logical end (you may enjoy this more if, as a child, you were told that the literal apocalypse was not only real but just around the corner). More writing remains to be done about the ongoing performance art piece that is Nicolas Cage's filmography.

Let the Right One In definitely lives up to the hype and would have easily been on my Top 10 of 2009 list had I seen it in time. I didn't quite think it was a masterpiece, though I may like it a bit more when I see it with the corrected subtitles, which I'm told lend the movie the humor I felt it needed. Either way, it's head and shoulders above all the so-called "horror movies" that a horror fan has suffered through in recent years in search of the real thing. It's beautifully photographed, sincerely creepy (with a too-rare understanding of the importance of atmosphere) and ultimately moving for anyone who has felt like an outsider. I'll definitely revisit this one in greater depth, perhaps around Halloween.

Two Lovers reminds what a shame it is that Joaquin Phoenix was eaten by a pretentious, drug-addled Kodiak bear. His performance as Leonard, an emotionally fragile guy living at home with his parents and torn between two women, is remarkably complex and layered - I was particularly impressed with the way Leonard acts differently depending on who he's interacting with, the way everyone does in real life. I'm more mixed on the film itself - it's handsomely shot, and the performances are believable all-around, but the script ultimately felt a bit thin to me. Still, James Gray clearly knows how to tell a story with images, and I look forward to checking out his earlier films.

Something you probably already know: Sally Hawkins is terrific as Poppy, the incurable optimist whose life we observe for a little while in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. The spiritual opposite of David Thewlis in Leigh's Naked (another great performance), Poppy is filled with gratitude for her life and a desire to brighten the day of everyone she meets. The character could have easily been insipid and annoying, but in Hawkins' eyes we can see that Poppy is hardly naive; the movie is ultimately a winning argument for the virtues of relentless optimism. The scenes between Poppy and Scott (Eddie Marsan), her bitter, misanthropic driving instructor, are easily the highlight of the movie. En-ra-ha, Poppy, en-ra-ha...

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