Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tragic News

This morning the Jesuit student body received news that Sam Wasson passed away due to injuries sustained in a car crash. Jeff and Elaine pulled students out of class that were closest to Sam and told them the news privately shortly before the school made a public announcement. At this time I know very few details other then he was driving from Wisconsin to work on something related to the Larmie Project when his vehicle was involved in an accident, He and another were airlifted to a hospital, but his injuries were too severe and he was not expected to live, he died presumably a few hours later. Jesuit will be holding a service for him tonight (October 23rd 2007) at 9:00 pm.


Sunday, October 21, 2007


I love the hell out of crime films, but I’ll readily admit it’s one of the more tired genres in cinema. Everyone (male directors especially) thinks they can do a good one, but for the most part they just want to make a film about guys talking some trash and shooting people. At their best, though, crime stories have the potential to be great American morality plays, which put a man up against the worst of humanity and watches him wrestle with it.

At its best, Gone Baby Gone does just that. There are some great moral quandaries put to our hero, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), and he reacts in new and interesting ways to them (well, new and interesting for modern, mainstream cinema anyway…man, I really am turning into a snob). But there are major structural problems with this film, from a cliché-to-cliché first act to a convoluted third.

Most of the press surrounding this film comes from it being Ben Affleck’s directorial debut (I’ve been following this film closely, but even I was still a little surprised to really see the words “Directed By Ben Affleck” up on the screen). Now…I’m a huge Ben Affleck fan, so the fact that he would turn out an impressive, humble debut comes as little surprise to me. It almost seems inevitable. Also, I remember him talking about the process of writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon, and saying they both realized early on that while they had a knack for character, they couldn’t plot their way out of a cardboard box. That’s the same problem he has here. Even adapting from a novel, Affleck’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with newcomer Aaron Stockard) has trouble getting from point to point, but there’s never a dull moment because he’s crafted exceptional characters, even if the police force was pulled from The Screenwriter’s Playbook (I watched Network the night prior, and all I could think of when Morgan Freeman came onscreen in this film was the assistant reading pitches to Faye Dunaway, all of which involved a “crusty-but-benign” authority figure).

I said about all the praise I could of Casey Affleck in my Assassination of Jesse James review, and while he isn’t better here (like I said, it’d be amazing if he ever tops that), he does show a lot of new shades, and it’s pretty great to see him talk trash and pistol-whip punks. The word that kept coming to mind while watching him was “visceral.” You don’t get that a lot in leads in crime films (“stoic” is a word that often comes to mind), and Casey puts up maybe the best reaction to a gun in his face since Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight (yeah, more snobbery, referencing a film hardly anyone’s heard of, but screw you, it’s a great movie).

Michelle Monaghan should be in every movie. I almost went to see The Heartbreak Kid purely for her. Unfortunately, she’s shoved to the sidelines in this film, but even from there she’s charming as hell.

Ben’s strength as a character screenwriter continues as an actor’s director. Getting great, fresh performances out of his brother and Michelle Monaghan is one thing – they’re young and have a lot yet to prove. But finding new ways to make Ed Harris interesting? The guy’s about as good as they come, and while Remy Bressant isn’t a whole new cloth for him, there’s an edge I haven’t seen from Harris in some time. And that’s without even mentioning the great work Ben gets from Amy Ryan, who you know from…nowhere, but hopefully it won’t take long before she’s everywhere.

But there are problems. The first forty-five minutes or so are purely by-the-numbers detective/cop movie. There’s almost nothing new here besides that great Boston accent. Everything from the quarry until…I’d say about the last ten, fifteen minutes…fantastic. The story’s greatest strength is how it started one place, and when you assumed it was as wrapped-up as can be, it stayed right with the characters. It would’ve been easy for Ben to par down the novel’s story into a simpler kidnapping story, but he doesn’t. It was the right move, because everything involving the film’s main plot is where the screenplay falls flat; it’s the in-between, before-and-after moments we spend with the characters that are the most rewarding, and where those questions of morality get raised again and again and the world really does seem like a dark and hopeless place. But as the film reaches its conclusion, plot twist upon plot twist start to pile up, and it becomes too much. One too many stops on the way to the station. I have little doubt that these events were given time to breathe in the novel, but onscreen they’re rushed, and Ben and Stockard would’ve been better off reworking the way the mystery gets solved.

But on the whole, it’s a very solid genre film. Not a lot of new stuff, besides the continued revelation to the world of Casey Affleck’s genius, a firecracker of a performance from Amy Ryan, and Ben Affleck’s new career (I know people said the same of his incredible performance in Hollywoodland and that went nowhere, but I feel pretty confident this time). But there are great characters in the film that’ll get you through the first and third acts, and a second act you can’t help but be pulled in by.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Michael fuckin’ Clayton.

That’s what I was thinking walking out of this movie. Michael fuckin’ Clayton.

There are a few reasons I go to see a movie. Most of the time, it’s because the ads looked good and I like most of the people involved. Some of the time, it’s purely because I’ve heard good buzz (which is why I can highly recommend King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, but it’s gone from everywhere now). Some of the time, it’s because it’ll be up for a lot of awards and I like to have an opinion on such matters. And sometimes…not often, but sometimes…I’ll go purely on the quality of the cast. Often, such things matter, but sometimes, some very few, very rewarding times, that’s all I’ll have. I won’t know a damn thing about the plot, I may not have even seen the trailer.

Such is the case with Michael Clayton. I saw the trailer months ago, never saw it again and can’t tell you a thing about it. I saw some TV ads that conveyed nothing beyond “EXPLOSIVE acting.” And someone mentioned Tom Wilkinson is ridiculously great. But I went because it stars George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack, and is the directing debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who wrote the fantastic Bourne series of films. And besides that, I knew NOTHING.

And God damn is it great. It’s an incredibly entertaining, adult-oriented, fast-paced film made up entirely of conversations (okay, there’s one explosion, but it’s not as out-of-place in a legal thriller as one would expect…also, I’ve been describing way too many films as “made up entirely of conversations” way too often these days), all surrounding a lawsuit against a company called U/North, which had a bit of problem with its product causing disease. But it’s a thriller, so there’s murder and payoffs and espionage and Tom Wilkinson (one of the best actors, hands down) as a half-crazy-but-maybe-he’s-onto-something senior partner in the firm that employs one Michael Clayton (George Clooney) as their fixer.

I can’t say enough good things about George Clooney, I really am incapable. Right now, he's one of the few people you can genuinely qualify as a movie star - can do anything he God damn pleases, and he's great he everything he does. In the middle of slowly becoming a damn great director in his own right and being one of the finest comedic actors of our time and the coolest guy on the planet in the Ocean films, he stars in a legal thriller by a first-time director and delivers a really great performance.

But he ain’t got nothing on Wilkinson. The film opens with Wilkinson’s narration and you just know, man, you KNOW you’re in for a powerhouse of a performance. And even though this film is absolutely electrified with great performances (half the joy of this movie comes from watching these fantastic actors go head to head scene after scene), the voltage just gets cranked every time Wilkinson is onscreen.

All of this is helped, of course, by Tony Gilroy’s fantastic script. Armageddon aside (for which he was one of like twelve credited screenwriters), I’ve only seen his work on the Bourne films, but really, what more do you want? The guy’s a fantastic screenwriter, and really elevates films that you go into expecting “just entertainment.” Not only does he have a fantastic main plot to play with, but he gives Michael a great subplot that has nothing at all to do with the main plot. With a character as rich as Michael, he’s bound to have more than just this big lawsuit going on. And he does. He has a LOT of other commitments that don’t force themselves in to make that point, but they’re all just there as part of his life. And as a result, you get an even richer character. Budding screenwriters (hell, even seasoned screenwriters) can learn a lot from this script.

So really, if you’re not drawn in by committed, electrifying performances (overused term, I know, but the synonyms for it are “thrilling, exhilarating, stirring, stimulating, and moving,” and they’re all just as bad or just plain wrong) in a solidly-constructed script with great dialogue, I dunno what to do for you.

Still, go support The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford first because it’s getting dumped (there’s no ad support for that thing, so check local listings frequently) and it’s a really cinematic, big-screen movie and Michael Clayton would be just as solid on the small screen, but do not forget about this movie. ‘Cause it kicks ass.


“At this moment, I didn't feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you're sitting there and all the water's run out of the bathtub.”
-Holly Sargis, Badlands (1973)

And that’s kind of how I feel about this movie. I saw it nearly a week ago, and for the life of me I can’t find one interesting thing to say about it, any feelings towards it to convey. It moved me, but only in brief, fleeting moments that were crushed by bad symbolism at the end of the picture. But it wasn’t really a bad movie, per se. There was nothing in it overly obnoxious, the characters were pretty solidly-built, and it’s decently entertaining, but this really is territory Wes Anderson’s been over before in far more compelling ways, and so it’s just…it’s tedious. It’s an hour-and-a-half long movie, and it feels tedious. You wait for something new or unexpected to happen or be said, but it doesn’t, but what does happen and what is said is still pretty good. But not great. Or new. Just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.

And honest to God, that's all I've got.

Friday, October 05, 2007


I’ve been trying like hell to write about this movie without making it seem boring (wanted so badly to have this up last night, but I came down with a cold). But so many of the words I like to hear about certain films – slow-paced, two and a half hours long, made up mostly of conversations, taking its time to let scenes breathe and the characters exist more in a more open-ended plot and environment – just make the movie sound like a bore. Make no mistake, this is an exceptional film. It’s incredibly thrilling to watch because its cast is so strong and its shots so beautiful. But it’s easy to fall into a habit of apologizing and setting up expectations, rather than to just talking about how riveting an experience this is, a hard thing to convey with a film like this.

Let’s start with Andrew Dominik – a second-time director (who also adapted the book into a screenplay) who shows more capability and vision two films in than many directors do in five, if ever at all. He helped himself along by assembling an awesome team, starting with Roger Deakins, maybe the best American cinematographer today. There’s no question the film is gorgeous, and even if (big if) the plot starts to lose you, you can’t help but be taken in by its beauty.

Then there’s the cast, one of the more cohesive casts I’ve seen in some time. There’s a scene in the first act of the film (if indeed this film even has such a structure) with Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil trying to charm a woman (Kailin See, who’s more captivating in her tiny role than most actresses are for entire films) he’s been warned not to. This innocent back-and-forth has more to do with the events to come than we know (there isn’t a wasted frame in the film’s 160-minute running time), so all you can do is hope the actors are good enough to carry it. And, to their credit, the scene ends up loaded with sensuality without even getting to “the good stuff.”

Sam Rockwell plays Charley Ford, Robert Ford’s older brother. If anyone who’s seen Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (and you should) is still surprised by what this guy’s capable of, I can only ask “why?”

What did surprise me is Brad Pitt. Intellectually, I remember with great fondness his work in Se7en, Twelve Monkeys, Snatch, and especially Fight Club, but it’s been a long time since Brad Pitt’s been this good, and it’s refreshing to know he still can be. It doesn’t hurt that he was practically born to play this role. Jesse James comes with all the baggage of what we as an audience know about him (as does Pitt for that matter), but it’s the scenes of intense to crazed paranoia that makes Pitt’s performance stand out. It’s Pitt that puts these scenes right on the edge, where you really, truly believe anything can happen (and, if you see the film, you’ll know exactly the scene I’m thinking of – anyone who’s seen Fight Club knows no one laughs like Pitt, who with a mere chuckle can put the entire scene right on the edge).

But this is Casey Affleck’s film, and it’s about damn time. I’ve been rooting for this guy since I saw Gerry four years ago, and only now is he getting his due. I’d heard how good he was as the Coward Robert Ford, but man…still he surprised me. This is such a subtle performance, I just know the skill involved will go unnoticed by many, but it’s the kind actors admire, and the kind that’ll land him better and better roles (though this is one of those performances you watch and you’ll swear he’ll never be better, and maybe he won’t). His character is happening right underneath the surface, and Affleck brings it out with subtle, subtle gestures, inflections, smiles, and facial expressions. Beyond just the basics, this is an actor who has total command over every millimeter of his face. There are looks and smiles and discomforts he creates that maybe one percent of all actors can do. It’s amazing it took this long for Hollywood to really find out what this guy, who’s been in their films for ten years now, is made of.

This isn’t quite a perfect film, though for most of it I could’ve sworn it is. Everything after the assassination is quite lovely, but it’s evident that the studio decided no one would care much what happened after the titular event (we know there were heavy edits on this film, which was due to be released a year ago, and there have been reports of cuts running over 3 hours being screened), and it ends up playing like an extended, slightly uneven, epilogue. The problem, though, is that the studio’s half-right. I saw this film with a free-screening crowd, who’ll do whatever they damn well please with a film’s running time (thus far, unlike Portland, Boston’s free-screening crowds have the decency to stay quiet during the film). So in addition to the dozen or so people who had left by the halfway mark (this ain’t your typical Western, folks), I’d say at least another dozen left after Bob shot Jesse.

Also, the film doesn’t quite earn its voice-over narration (which I suspect played a much smaller role in Dominik’s original cut). I’m pretty harsh on narration in films because it’s a very, very easy way to communicate facts and feelings to audiences, but I’ve seen enough films that use it to great effect (Barry Lyndon and everything by Terrence Malick are my go-to films when defending narration) to not write it off completely. They do have a fantastic voice in Hugh Ross, but it feels like many of the narrated sections would’ve better been served simply being shown to us (again, I ache to see Dominik’s cut).

But these end up as minor quibbles. There’s no question this is a masterful work by an ambitious director with a fully-rounded cast. And, for my money, it’s the best film so far of 2007.

The film is continuing to play only in select cities, but I believe it goes wide next Friday. Go see it won't you please?