Joe's Movie Reviews

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman

There have been a significant number of actors who have died since I first began this blog in December of 2004, and I have rarely used this space for official R.I.P.s., even when they have been performers I have greatly admired. But after hearing of the death of Paul Newman (age 83), I felt almost obligated to say a brief something.

First, merely as an actor, Newman was head and shoulders over most. Giving flat-out brilliant performances for some fifty or so years in films like "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof", "Hud", "The Hustler", "Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid", "The Sting", "Cool Hand Luke"... right on up to more recent roles like "Road To Perdition", "Empire Falls", the wonderful but woefully neglected "Nobody's Fool" and his vocal contribution to Pixar's "Cars", the man had a career longer and more impressive than almost anyone else you could name, and was amazingly consistent in his performances. Newman was definitely not one of those actors who seem to lose their touch as they get older. No matter what kind of character he was portraying, you always bought it.
And right on into his eighties, his characters always had an intensity and power about them that never faded... you don't even want to THINK about crossing his mob boss character in "Road To Perdition".

But in spite of his Hollywood veteran status, and the seriousness with which he obviously took his craft, the man never took himself or Hollywood too seriously. I was surprised once to learn that he owned a yacht... it didn't seem like him... but then I learned that it was named "El Caca De Toro", and all was forgiven. I also have fond memories of the two times I vacationed in Hollywood and saw Newman & Joanne Woodward's hand and foot prints in the courtyard of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Newman's footprints were the only ones in the entire courtyard in BARE feet, and Woodward's were in high heels, with each of them labeled "his" and "hers" just in case you thought Woodward's feet were that big, or that Newman wore high heels. And certainly anyone who ever saw him on a talk show (especially with his neighbor David Letterman) knows what a hysterical sense of humor the man had, most of the time directed at himself and his profession.

And of course there is the Newman's Own Foundation and line of products. Through his work with his charities, Newman has genuinely helped to make the world a better place than it had been before he came along, something all of us ought to be thinking of but all too rarely do... ESPECIALLY wealthy showbiz types. He wasn't so concerned about his own status that he had no time to devote to improving the lives of those less fortunate than him.

And even someone such as myself, now less than 3 months short of 56 and never married (and pretty safe to say never will be) has to admire his roughly five decade long marriage to Joanne Woodward. That's definitely something you don't see anymore in contemporary Hollywood.

How many movie stars these days are as genuinely accomplished as Newman purely as actors? AND can continue those accomplishments over a fifty-plus year careet? AND manage to have both a strong sense of self-esteem AND a lack of self-involved egotism? Who are dedicated to their craft but never take their profession too seriously? Who in spite of their success are still involved in helping others to such an extent? And who don't keep turning up in the tabloids every couple of weeks with a new "relationship", and every year or two with a new marriage? Paul Newman was a real giant in each of the areas in which he made a big impact. And as far as I'm concerned, if there was ever one single individual in show business who was the absolute embodyment of pure cool, it was him. Each time a veteran celebrity dies, you'll hear someone saying that we won't see their like again. With Paul Newman, that statement has never been more true. He will genuinely be missed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Burn After Reading

So, we have here a story about a disillusioned CIA operative who's quit the agency and is writing a tell-all memoir intended to embarass his former colleagues. But when the computer disk containing his writing falls into the hands of a couple of dim work-out gym employees who decide to blackmail him for the return of his disk, things escalate to the point of violence, bloodshed and gunplay. Of course, it's a comedy. What else could it be? Well, maybe once you realize that it's a COEN BROTHERS comedy all of that will begin to make sense.

The Coen Brothers have never been "mass appeal" film makers who turn out the colossal blockbusters... even their biggest hits like "Fargo" and "No Country For Old Men" are small potatoes compared to "Iron Man" or "The Dark Knight". But for fans of the strange, quirky and decidedly non-formulaic... and who are able to accept the notion that a very dark film can still be funny... they've always had a considerable appeal, and "Burn After Reading" continues that tradition. It's not by any means the best film they've ever made, but long-time fans can at least be thankful that it's not exactly a repeat of the disaster that was "Intolerable Cruelty" either. As we've come to expect in a genuine Coen film, it looks directly and unflinchingly into the darker corners of the human spirit, and finds a lot to laugh at there.

The Coens seem to be among the relatively few directors who are capable of taking an all-star celebrity cast and getting fine, even inspired, performances out of all of them. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as the blackmailers are among the most entertaining and likable idiots to grace the screen in a long time, and Richard ("The Visitor") Jenkins as their boss gives the film a touch of real humanity and a rare bit of actual intelligence. John Malkovich as the ex-CIA agent is hysterical, constantly on the verge of blowing his top (some of the movie's most shocking moments occur when he actually does). George Clooney's character is a grand illustration of just how funny total paranoia can be, and even though their characters are limited to only a few scenes and never interact with any of the others, David Rasch as J.K. Simmons as CIA higher-ups are not only funny but manage to tie together a good deal of the film's confusion. And in typical Coen fashion, no character is too small or insignificant for the brothers to give them some snappy dialogue and memorable moments.

Even some long time Coen fans have been slightly surprised that "what it all means" amounts to so little in the end, and many have bemoaned a lack of sympathetic characters they can identify with. I'm not exactly sure I understand those complaints: Coen films have often been about life-or-death situations that ultimately don't add up to much in the grand scheme of things, and McDormand, Pitt and Jenkins all impress me as sympathetic characters, even though McDormand and Pitt together have roughly the intelligence of a muffin.

As Coen films go, this is definitely not the first one the uninitiated should see. But it's still a fun and amusing (if lesser) addition to their filmography. "Burn After Reading" has set an all-time opening weekend record for a Coen Brothers movie, probably as a result of heightened expectations after "No Country For Old Men". Anyone anticipating a repeat of that Oscar-winner will likely be disappointed. But lower your expectations just a bit, don't expect any more than an amusing (and dark) time with a very entertaining bunch of dim bulbs, and you should have a fine time. Not every film has to redefine what movies can be.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Two For The Price Of One

I saw both of these pictures "back to back" yesterday at theatres only a block apart (the Landmark Uptown and the Landmark Lagoon in Minneapolis), and it would be hard to think of two movies that were more thoroughly different... that is, aside from both of them being top quality. If they both sound like winners to you, you have very wide-ranging tastes.

1. "Transsiberian". Ever had a nightmare vacation where it seems like everything is going wrong? I can pretty much guarantee that however bad it was, it was paradise compared to the one endured by Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer in "Transsiberian."

Harrelson and Mortimer play a couple going through a rough patch in their marriage, who have just finished a trip to China on behalf of a church organization that helps children in need. They COULD have returned home by plane, BUT NO... train fanatic Harrelson decides that a nearly week-long train trip through Russia to Moscow would be just the thing first. Let's just say he lives to regret it. Particularly as a result of several characters they encounter on the train, primarily another young couple (one Spanish, one American) who seem nice and friendly on the surface, but might just possibly be involved in a recent murder and theft of money and drugs... and then there's Ben Kingsley as a Russian police officer searching for the missing money & drugs and those responsible, and who begins to suspect Harrelson & Mortimer.

This is one of those movies where virtually nobody is what they seem. The thing is, though, I've seen more than my share of those, and once I become aware that the movie I'm watching is one of those, I can generally figure out what the twists and turns are going to be. Not this time. After a first half that sets up the story and characters, and is filled with a gradually increasing atmosphere of dread, the second half of this film clamps down on you and doesn't let go, constantly twisting and turning and revealing surprising new developments that I literally never saw coming. Not even once. That might just mean that this picture will never reach a wide audience, since the American moviegoing public doesn't seem to LIKE to be surprised, and even in suspense thrillers wants to know exactly what's going to happen in the rest of the movie within the first five to ten minutes. But if there are still viewers out there who can actually appreciate a movie that you can never be entirely sure about unti literally the very last scene, you owe it to yourself to catch this one.

There's also much to admire for fans of excellent acting... both the "name" stars (especially an ominously sinister Kingsley) and the lesser known supporting players do expert jobs. The musical score adds much to the tense atmosphere without ever going overboard, and the use of tacky American pop songs on the train's Musak system actually manages to do the same... as well as providing some very welcome comic relief. And co-writer/director Brad Anderson, whom I had previously been familiar with only from romantic comedies like "Happy Accidents" and "Next Stop Wonderland" (although I know he's had some experience in horror as well) proves to be a more than capable Hitchcock surrogate, and it would certainly not be bad news at all if he decided to work in this genre again.

Technically, this isn't really an "art" type movie in spite of its playing in a Landmark theatre, but why quibble when the film in question is one of the best suspense pictures of the past few years? If you're at all like me and are frustrated at how long it's been since your last vacation (in my case, just over 4 1/2 years), "Transsiberian" may just change your mind as well as provide you with a pleasurable couple of hours in the theatre. There are, after all, worse things than boredom.

2. "Frozen River". It seems like there's never more than a few weeks that go by without reading a review of some new movie stating that the star gives a performance that's guaranteed to be recognized at Oscar time. I usually take those things with a large grain of salt, even when they appear as consistently as they do in the reviews I've seen or "Frozen River". But now, having seen the film myself, allow me to join the chorus. If Melissa Leo does not at the very least receive a NOMINATION for her leading role in this picture, the Oscars will truly reveal themselves to be the joke that they are often said to be.

Leo plays a single mother (as the result of her husband's recently deserting the family) of two sons, struggling to barely scrape by on her salary as a clerk at a local dollar store in her small town in northern New York state, near the border with Canada... and dreaming of purchasing a DOUBLE-wide mobile home to replace her current single-wide residence. This isn't easy when she is barely able to keep most of the family's posessions from being reposessed, and can't look towards a promotion or raise at her job to help out. Then, through an unusual set of circumstances, she falls in with a Mohawk Indian woman who has been smuggling illegal immigrants across the border from Canada, and joins her in her work, in order to get the money she needs to live her dreams. If you expect things to go smoothly, you don't really understand what kind of a movie this is.

Roughly 98 or 99 times out of a hundred, when a big Hollywood studio does a story about low-income people struggling to just barely keep their hold on the BOTTOM rung of society's ladder, the result comes off as smug and patronizing. And although indie films have a better average in this regard, they don't always avoid those pitfalls, either. "Frozen River", on the other hand, is almost frighteningly authentic. Much of that is because of a sharply observant script and direction, but I don't think it should be underestimated how much of it is due to the stunning performance of Melissa Leo in the lead. A character who doesn't always appear on the surface to be easy to like, Leo nonetheless impresses with her creation of a devoted mother who will stop at nothing to give her family the life she thinks they deserve. She even eventually reveals amazing depths of caring and selflessness bordering on heroism, even towards people outside of her family whom she wouldn't seem to have any obligations towards. This is a character you will not soon forget.

"Frozen River" is certainly not an easy movie to watch, and it might not be quite exactly the correct way to put it to say that you will "enjoy" it. But there are many things that movies can do and many ways they can move you, and to demand that every film has to be 100 percent "feel good" ALL the time will rob you of some of the most impressive film making achievements by some of the most daring, and expert, film makers. If you're willing to go a little outside of what might be your usual comfort zone and experience a movie that will bring you about as close to life on society's fringes as a film can take you, you will be richly rewarded by seeing "Frozen River". Adventurous moviegoers will definitely not regret it.