10 February 2009

Rewinding 2008: Part VII

Reviews of Che, Frozen River, In Bruges, and Rachel Getting Married.

As I work on whittling my best-of list for 2008 (set to be published in the near future), I'm pausing to consider releases from the year, both the good and the bad, that I haven't reviewed on Screen Savour.
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Steven Soderbergh is a curious director and a furious experimentalist. His work this decade has been far-reaching and wide-ranging, from the gritty social drama Traffic, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Director, to the utterly sublime pop heist flick Ocean's Eleven, along the way making stops in as many genres as possible (Erin Brockovich, Solaris, K Street, Bubble, etc.) He wears many hats for Che – his epic about the revolutionist Ernesto Guevara – including director and cinematographer, but the most important is stylist. The very elements that could have made the film unbearable are handled with serious aplomb: it is four-hours long when considered together, or two two-hour installments; it is in Spanish with subtitles; it is detached and often dispassionate, and reveals Guevara to us through the 1959 Cuban revolution, a visit to the United Nations in 1964, and a failed attempt to bring the revolt to Bolivia and South America as a whole. Soderbergh gets whopping mileage out of these events in the space of four hours, and fashions each section in its own film style (my favorite being the black-and-white of 1964), except Che never goes where you would expect a conventional biopic to go – namely, the mundane moments that wouldn't merit more than two sentences in a written biography are given ample air-time in Soderbergh's rendering. These moments, like shaking hands and greeting soldiers, say the same thing about Guevara that could have been said differently, but you come away thinking Soderbergh made all the right choices. The best choice of the whole film, stylism aside, is the magnificent Benecio del Toro, whose performance as the man is earthy and nuanced, and walks the thin line between hope and shattered ideals. This is a Big-with-a-capital-B movie, yet often it feels like you're often alone with Del Toro and Soderbergh, moving through the quiet (and occasionally explosive) moments in the life of a man whose very name has become synonymous with uprising.

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Frozen River is a perfectly titled movie: at once it is a mystery, an image, a threat, and a metaphor. In this stupendously mature directorial debut of Courtney Hunt, a lower-income woman named Ray (Melissa Leo, in an Oscar-deserving performance) struggles to make ends meet for her two sons in upstate New York, and, in a moment of sheer desperation, reluctantly teams with an aggressive Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) to drive illegal immigrants across a frozen river from Canada into the United States. It is a tricky situation, and if you know anything about desperate people making desperate decisions, you are haunted by the inescapable sense that nothing about this can end well. And still: you hope. You hope because Leo's performance is so convincing, so emotive, and so injured that it is impossible not to want her to come out ahead, to have the money necessary to keep the family from losing its home and to keep her eldest son in school so he won't have to dropout just to support her and his brother, even if she is breaking the law to get there. Hunt wrote the original screenplay as well as directing the film, and it tenderly weaves the themes of survival and motherhood, all while the desolation pulses in the frosty air and the icy earth. Frozen River is one of many films from 2008 that seemed to reinvigorate the cinematic genre of American realism (see also: Chop Shop, Wendy and Lucy, etc.). As such, it does not venture often into happy territory, but Hunt is wise to keep the sense of hope alive in her film. She is in tune with her characters and their struggles, and masterfully crafts a film that can shift from sympathy to suspense in a moment.
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My hat comes off to playwright Martin McDonagh. His debut feature film, In Bruges – about two Irish hitmen on mandatory hiatus in Belgium after the death of an innocent – is darkly funny, patently twisted, and curiously sympathetic. If you've heard absolutely nothing about it, it is also beautifully unpredictable, which is the right way to see it. I'll be easy on the plot details; I won't even disclose who turns up halfway through, cast brilliantly against type in one of the strangest supporting roles of 2008. Suffice it to say there's a lot going on in this complex script, and McDonagh, working as both director and writer, ties it off nicely. The two hitmen are played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Ferrell, two actors who seem appropriately suited for spectrum their roles demand. Ferrell is Ray, the one who accidentally killed someone and finds a fortnight in Belgium as a torturous exercise; Gleeson is his partner Ken, older and somewhat wiser, and more willing to accept the time abroad and enjoy the old and dreamy city. This is a comedy, yes, although its humor never struck me as laugh-out-loud; when it tries too hard to be funny, it often falls flat as vulgarity and crudeness passing as comedy, as it does when McDonagh uses a coke-fiend dwarf as a repeated and unfunny punchline. Instead, it is more subtle, and its comedy slowly creeps up on you, morphing itself into irony and absurdity. What I didn't expect was a crass and offbeat comedy to reveal so much about humanity to me. You might expect people who knock off others for a living to come equipped with tight-lips and passive eyes, a la James Bond, but that is neither the case for Ray nor Ken. The more I've thought about the film, the more I've come to appreciate what it did to me in the moment, and I was grateful there was at least this one film that I knew nothing about going in.

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Anne Hathaway delivers the sort of performance in Rachel Getting Married that makes you wonder how many great actors are at work in Hollywood and simply haven't found the right movie yet. It is one of the best performances of the year, by an actor of either gender. Her character is Kym, a recovering addict who leaves rehab for her sister Rachel's wedding. A junkie at a wedding might strike you as traditional awards-season bait, but Hathaway is given something much bigger from screenwriter Jenny Lumet and director Jonathan Demme, and, exceeding my expectations, scores an emotional coup. This is a loose and lively film, with hand-held cinematography and layers and layers of sound (the late Robert Altman is thanked in the credits) that ensconces the audience into the drama. This is a surprisingly effective device on Demme's part: after pushing back against the film and trying to wiggle your way into its environment, you are taken on the full trajectory of the characters. When the they are joyous, so are you, and when they begin to fight and dissect each other with daggers or make fools of themselves, you want nothing more than to get up and leave the room. Hathaway's Kym is both guilt-ridden and egocentric, which is an equation that is much more complicated than it seems; she wants penance for her (quite serious) past mistakes and wants her family to move forward and forgive her, yet cannot bring herself to apologize and seems to relish the attention, no matter how much she dismisses it as over-productiveness or untrustworthiness. Her performance probably wouldn't be possible without the supporting cast, including Rosemarie DeWitt as the exasperated and fed-up Rachel; Bill Irwin as the father trying to be too accommodating to both women; and Debra Winger, who materializes in the film like a wicked storm and unleashes pent-up aggression like a thundercloud. Screenwriter Lumet (daughter of the great Sidney Lumet) never lets Kym off the hook, and neither does Hathaway, which is why the role works so well. The scenes in the film that entrench themselves in the family's dysfunction are remarkable in their frankness, and even if the overall result feels erroneously tilted away from those carefully crafted self-examinations, Rachel Getting Married is nonetheless one of the year's true surprises.

2 comments:

Sam Juliano,  10 February, 2009  

Once again T.S., I am myself pretty much in line with your insights and summary judgements of these four films. I don't like FROZEN RIVER as much as you do as I found some cliches/stereotypes in abundance, but I do believe my views are in the minority. I did think Leo gave a very strong performance, and I applaud you for preferring her for the Oscar.
CHE could have been a masterwork, but as you well note it's redundancies (and more than its share of tedium for me) led it astray. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED nearly made my own Ten-best list, and I wouldn't blame you if you included it on your own. You astutely point to it's attributes, not the least of which is Ms. hathaway's performance, which is clearly one of the year's most distinguished. It's a tough and bleak film, but it is masterful. I had a lot of fun with IN BRUGES, like you did, and I also (like you) didn't expect a lesson in humanity within it's humerous context.

Exceptional round-up.

Can't wait to see your final list!

Daniel Getahun 25 February, 2009  

I do agree that Che will be looked back on as a major achievement for both Del Toro (maybe the best unseen performance of the year) and Soderbergh. Usually I flinch at Soderbergh's style, but this hands-off approach really worked.

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