Tuesday, December 4, 2007

No Smooth Edges

The following column is reprinted from the December issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

It’s the time of the movie year that brings forth a whole batch of Oscar contenders, seri-ass movies that hinge upon lofty concepts, high level drama, showcase acting, and as many high-minded literary adaptations as possible. It’s also the time of the year that a lot of the grittier, hard-to-classify fare is released, much of it without any Oscar pretensions or a surefire marketplace direction. That’s means good, intriguing, well intentioned stuff, maybe not quite the stuff that dreams are made of, but much of it made smartly and without the smooth edges required by rigors of overt commercialism.

We Own the Night
Writer-director James Gray remains a filmmaker on the verge of greatness. His three films, Little Odessa, The Yards, and his latest, We Own the Night, are all uniquely somber, highly atmospheric, self-enclosed blue-gray fables, all outings that resist the typical budding director’s urge to pour on the style and ratchet up the melodrama. Also, each of Gray’ three efforts has been marked by strong casting and sturdy patches of acting, with the new one, a cop/family drama, featuring the faces and talents of Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as Cain and Abel brothers, Robert Duvall as their police chief dad and Eva Mendes as one smoking girlfriend, all registering succinctly on the down low. (Although boy wonders Phoeniz and Wahlberg both deliver low key performances, it has to be noted they up the ante on the mumble fish scale, joining the ranks of some of the great practitioners like Mickey Rourke, Matt Dillon, and Bencio Del Toro.)
The movie breaks no new ground, and it’s cops-and-robbers premise and internal familial struggles seem designed just to contain a series of furious and spunky set pieces, many of them vividly enacted, particularly a wham-bam car chase that absolutely has to be among the most captivating movie scenes this year.
Gray seems to be drawing from the same ground level urban playground as venerated New York director Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince of the City) where character is king and setting is character, but he doesn’t quite have Lumet’s ability to innervate the gritty proceedings. Instead Gray spends a lot of time fading away from the action, employing long shots to emphasize the players’ isolation, and more time bumping along a pensive and ominous slow boil, withholding all big (and little) pay-offs. Gray may still be finding himself, and he’s doing so with an admirable deftness, and in the long run We Own the Night is occasionally alluring and consistently watchable, which will have to do for now.

Gone Baby Gone
Somewhere, just outside the big budgeted Hollywoodized frameworks of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed lies Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. Like those aforementioned films, Affleck’s directorial debut is built around a core that makes its distinctive setting-Boston- a certifiable plot device and an essential secondary character. Gone Baby Gone, like Eastwood’s movie, is adapted from a book by Dennis Lehane, the acknowledged successor to the great George V. Higgins, the late fiction writer laureate of Massachusetts. Affleck is neither an artist nor cinematic master like Eastwood or Scorsese, but he does know Boston and, in the movie’s actual case, Dorchester, a working class locale gone to seed. Affleck’s Massachusetts’s acumen probably outweighs his directorial prowess, but he totally succeeds in utilizing his knowledge of the place, the people, and the language, to form a seedy and compact thriller that possesses both savvy and smarts.
The basic story mixes together two local private eyes (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan), two police detectives (Ed Harris, John Ashton), a police suit (Morgan Freeman), and a blue collar family (Titus Welliver, Amy Madigan, Amy Ryan) in the search for a missing child. Young Affleck is a surprisingly creditable lead, lean and youthful but with some real bite to his bark, while Ed Harris once again does a whole lot with very little, yet it is relative unknown Amy Ryan, as a flawed but unblenching Dorchester proletariat mom who runs away with film and also demonstrates Affleck’s obvious affinity with actors. The movie is rife with riffs of dialogue and unabashed speechifying, most of it popping and sizzling quite acutely, and the movie’s use of settings and locale is equally assured, as is the director’s trenchant use of locals cast as locals. The actions sequences are wanting, they feel a bit ponderous and forced, and a few sequences remain irritatingly unclear.
In the long run the detective tale and the movies overall moral inquiry dwell in the improbable and the slightly unconvincing, but Affleck has managed to realize a well-honed vision with his keen eye set on a movie Boston (from Quincy to Chelsea), spilling over with class, racial, and ethnic divisions but somehow still strung together with invisible and unspoken connective tissues. Both Eastwood and Scorsese crafted two fully realized films that appropriated a genuine feel for the city but headline maker-movie-star-turned-filmmaker Affleck has fashioned the truest “Boston” movie yet.

Into the Wild

I may be one of the only film nitcrits out there that truly found Sean Penn’s last shot at directing, 2001’s The Pledge,as richly textured and highly evocative (and as lovingly well made, with a full combo of balls, brains, and personal vision) as some of the more hallowed American films of the treasured 1970’s. The movie literally blew me away, stuck to my gut, it’s very images and tone staying with me for weeks after I viewed it. Needless to say, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Penn’s next time around in the director’s chair, which has finally arrived, albeit in a not-very-wide release.
Penn’s choice, Into the Wild, for which he serves as both writer (adapting from Jon Krakauer’s best seller) and director, seems highly appropriate for the notoriously free spirited actor/activist—a true life adventure downer wrapped around the antics of Christopher McCandless (remarkably played Emile Hirsch), who, during the early ‘90s, just out of college, chucked it all for a personal quest for something, anything outside of traditional society. McCandless left field odyssey final found him deep in the mountains of Alaska, eventually dying of starvation, a hero/fool to many, an unbinding idiot to native Alaskans.
What Penn winds up making is essentially a twisty road movie, one without the expected burst of wild exhilaration or heady meaningfulness that typically characterize the genre. The landscape, captured exquisitely by cinematographer Eric Gautier, provides the film with an occasional burst of raffishness, but Penn the filmmaker sticks tight to the young man’s genuinely heartfelt buy generally unfocused and ultimately absurd quest. The movie is part distress tale, part pilgrimage, part eulogy. It’s a profoundly sensual, physical film, unafraid of silence, and peopled with on-the-road eccentrics, sages, and losers (among them Vince Vaughn, Catherine Kenner, Kristin Stewart, Brian Dierker and Hal Holbrook), as Penn’s acute eye captures the conflicting vibe of magnificent risk, naïve indulgence, and inevitable doom and gloom. His take on the wanderer’s parents/adversaries (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden) is sadly by rote, truly character-by-cliché, and this does knock the film down a notch or two.
All in all, unequivocally, Penn possesses an innate cinematic marrow (he’s got the goods, period) and Into the Wild easily confirms it. It remains to be seen if he is able (or even desires to) to smooth down a few of his filmmaking edges and make a film that may attract a more mainstream audience. For those of us out on the edge with him, Into the Wild is indeed the right stuff.

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