Redacted(11/21/2007)

 

            Brian De Palma is one of the most wildly inconsistent film directors still working today.  It’s amazing how someone who’s made such classics as Scarface, Carrie, and The Untouchables has also made such large scale disasters as Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, and Snake Eyes.  The director’s inconsistence insures that one never knows what to expect from a De Palma film.  De Palma’s last effort, 2006’s The Black Dahlia most definitely fell in the latter category.  After this critical and financial bomb, very few eyes were on De Palma’s next project until Bill O’Reilly found out about its subject matter, at which point it became the most controversial film since The Passion of the Christ.  

            Redacted is a loosely fictionalized re-telling of a real incident that occurred in during the current Iraq war.  The film follows a platoon stationed in Baghdad, particularly one soldier named Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) who is trying to make a video diary of his experiences in order to help him get into film school.  Two members of the platoon, B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), are loose cannons who have recently been involved in a controversial shooting at a checkpoint.  These two soldiers frequently use racial epithets to refer to Iraqi citizens and generally seem to have a sadistic streak.  A popular officer, Master Sergeant Sweet (Ty Jones), is killed by a hidden bomb.  After this incident Rush and Flake are filled with rage and devise a plan to rape and kill a fifteen year old Iraqi girl and kill her family.

            It is not hard to see why this concept has caused a lot of controversy, almost entirely from people who haven’t actually seen the film.  Bill O’Reilly in particular has come out against the film and called on his viewers to protest the movie with “support our troops” signs.  Had he actually seen the film, or given a damn about its real content in the first place, he would have found the movie is hardly the anti-troop polemic he describes.  Flake and Rush, are defiantly not the heroes O’Reilly would like to pretend each and every American soldier is, but they are also not figments of De Palma’s imaginations.  The film is based on the Al-Mahmudiyah killings that occurred in March of 2006.  The guilt of the American soldiers in this real life killing is not a matter of contention, all three have been found guilty and been sentenced to prison for over 90 years each.  If this film is a lie, then why have the real killers, Spc. James Barker, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, and Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, all been court marshaled?  The answer is that the story of Redacted is an inconvenient truth if ever there was one; that perhaps not every soldier in Iraq isn’t an angel after all.

            This is not to say that the film believes every soldier in Iraq is a rapist or killer, far from it in fact.  Of the five members of the platoon in the film, only two are involved in the killing, two other members are vehemently opposed to their plan, while the other merely tags along out of morbid curiosity.  The characters of Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) and Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill) in fact mostly live up to the image of the heroic soldier in Iraq for the right reasons.  But the film is not simplistic enough to make this a story of a few bad apples that need to be sorted out.  Rather, it seems to argue that this incident is the inevitable result of the war’s conditions.  The soldiers in the movie are not from perfect back grounds, Rush and Flake seem to have been raised in unstable homes, with violent pasts.  These unstable individuals, who went to Iraq more out of necessity than out of altruism, are placed in an incredibly tense and stressful situation and like soldiers in every war make the mistake of demonizing their enemies. 

These kinds of incidents have happened in every war before and every war to come, in fact this story very closely mirrors the plot of Brian De Palma’s 1989 Vietnam film Casualties of War.  However the similarities between the two films end at the overall story, in fact the entire film is a complete stylistic departure from every other film Brian De Palma has ever made.  The typical De Palma film is visually extremely stylish.  He often uses very slick widescreen cinematography with lots of color.  This was even true in films like Casualties of War, a film in which such treatment generally seemed inappropriate.  Instead what we get is a borderline documentary that appears to be culled from various sources like security camera’s, news reports, clips posted on the internet, and especially Angel’s video diaries.  These different sources look fairly authentic, though they were in fact all created by De Palma.  The video diaries for example have deliberately been made to look amateurish and shaky, and edited using cheesy Final Cut transitions.  The security footage is probably the most questionable source, as very few security cameras I know of record sound, but it looks appropriate as they consist of static black and white shots.  Also present is footage supposedly from a French documentary crew, which is probably the most professional looking footage in the film.  De Palma’s decision to make the documentary crew French helps to underscore the linguistic confusion in the situation being “documented.” 

This mockumentary collage approach works both for and against the film.  On one hand it is a unique and experimental style and it gives the film a gritty realism that is needed.  On the other hand the style isn’t all that aesthetically pleasing at all, this may be the point, but the fact is in no way a fun film to watch.  I’m not saying De Palma should have fallen back on his old style like he did for Casualties of War, but a nice compromise could have been reached, perhaps something along the line of Paul Greengrass’ style in films like United 93 and Bloody Sunday

De Palma seems to have cast mostly unknown actors in order to maintain the illusion of reality.  Unfortunately, this decision backfires occasionally, when you’re trying to maintain the illusion of reality you need really strong actors, and the cast here is passable at best.  Ty Jones comes across the best here, his small role as Master Sergeant Sweet is probably the best thing in the entire movie.  But other actors here are not as successful, especially the actors playing the two rapists who probably have the most challenging roles.  Flake and Rush generally come across like stereotypical rednecks when their roles generally require increased psychological complexity.

What Redacted does do particularly well is to simply paint a picture of what Iraq is like.  I generally found random slices of life in the movie more interesting than the overall rape storyline.  Ultimately I think De Palma’s message has less to do with the conduct of soldiers than it does with the way the war has been reported.  The mainstream media has been widely criticized for only showing sanitized images of the war, something this movie is in no way guilty of.  Mainstream is the last word anyone should use when describing Redacted.  While other movies like Gavin Hood’s Rendition explore current events while remaining within the context of mainstream cinema, Redacted is a very unconventional film that pulls no punches.  It’s an experimental film meant for a very narrow niche audience of open-minded people who want to see the horrors of war at their most extreme.  This is not perfect by any stretch and its certainly not for everyone, but it’s a ballsy piece of work that’s dramatically different from anything else in theaters now, and for that reason I have a lot of respect for it.

*** out of four

A Maturing Medium: A Call for More Animated Movies For Adults

            Animation is one of the most pure medium in filmmaking.  It allows filmmakers to create exactly what they want with no limits aside from their own creativity.  Unfortunately, this useful and important medium has been completely wasted on children for decades.  Many have praised Walt Disney for his technical innovations, but I hate the man for setting the animation medium in the family film fold seemingly forever.  I personally have no interest whatsoever in seeing movies designed for eight year olds, and as such I’ve passed on most of the recent CGI animation revival. 

            The sales pitch from studios like Pixar and Dreamworks has been that their movies are filled with in-jokes that adults will enjoy while escorting their children to the movie theater. Frankly, I just don’t buy this; a few in-jokes just aren’t enough to make me interested in a movie about talking cars.  A few years back I decided to open up my mind to one of these highly acclaimed children’s movies, Shrek, when it came on HBO.  Frankly, it was everything I was afraid it would be.  It was a stupid and juvenile film with a weak story and a bunch of lame in jokes about Disney movies.  Needless to say my mind closed pretty firmly after that experience.  If studios want to add joke into children’s movies to make them tolerable to parents that’s fine, but as a childless bachelor I have no intention of being part of the audience for these children’s films pretending to be adult fare.

            All this is not to say I’m not open to animation when studios muster up the courage to invest in animated films for adults, but examples of this are few and far between.  Straightforward adult animation, mainly only seems to have really caught on in Japan which the thriving “Anime” industry calls home.  The Anime industry has produced a lot of solid titles like Akira, Ninja Scroll, and Princess Mononoke.  Anime was all the rage in the early part of this century, it’s gotten a bit less hip lately, but it’s still something I’m thoroughly interested in.  There have also been occasional animated projects out for Europe like Resistance and The Triplets of Belleville that have worked as adult entertainment for the art-house crowd.

            In this country however, adult oriented animation has largely only been used for a select few projects.  Probably the most noteworthy of these have been Richard Linklater’s experimental roto-scope films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.  Both of these were done using a newly created economical technology that can turn live action scenes into vivid two dimensional animations.  Waking Life was a bit esoteric for my tastes, but A Scanner Darkly among my favorite films of 2006. 

            Outside of pet projects like that, television has proven to be a much more hospitable environment for adult oriented animated projects, largely because of the success of Matt Groening’s seminal program “The Simpsons.”  Since the success of that program there have been countless adult oriented animated sitcoms like “Futurama,” “King of the Hill,” “Family Guy,” “South Park,” and even “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”  Film versions of some of these programs have been among the few adult oriented animated films to gain financing in recent years.            When it comes to CGI animated films which cost a lot more to produce, however, projects have been a lot more rare.  The last film to try to do such a thing was the largely forgotten 2001 film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which not coincidentally was the last CGI animated film I went to see in the theater.  The fate of that film was largely emblematic of why studios have refused to give funding to adult oriented animated films.  Put simply, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within lost more money than Gigli, Ishtar, and Waterworld.  The film was so unpopular no one even bothered to make fun of it.              Did Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within deserve its fate?  No, not really.  The film was a visual wonder, years ahead of its time.  Unfortunately, the story left much to be desired.  The plot wasn’t as bad as many would have you think, it’s not even bad really, it’s about on par with the average Anime really.  Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within just wasn’t the right film to launch a new style with.  Eventually I think the film will take its place among the legions of not-so-great films that introduced revolutionary new technical innovations like The Jazz Singer, The Black Pirate, La Cucaracha, and Young Sherlock Holmes.               There is certainly hope on the horizon for cinema goers like myself who demand more mature work from Hollywood animators.  Despite my personal disinterest in the Pixar brand, it does seem to have helped older audiences accept it as a viable medium for storytelling.  This year there are three adult oriented animated films that have a good shot at nominations in the relatively new Oscar category of Best Animated Feature.  The first of these is The Simpsons Movie, an adaptation of the famous television series that opened doors for a wide range of animated television programs for adults.  The second is the French and Iranian coproduction Persepolis, which is catering to the niche that made The Triplets of Bellville and Waking Life into art-house successes.              The third adult animated film with the potential of getting a nomination in the new category is, of course, Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf. Beowulf may potentially be the closest we have come yet to a financially successful animated film for adults that wasn’t based on a television show.  Though the reviews have been mixed, the film was a box-office success that gives new hope to people like myself that want more animated films make for adults. 

Beowulf(11/16/2007)

  

            Robert Zemeckis has become a wildcard in the Cinema world.  When Zemeckis rose to fame in the mid 80s with films like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit he seemed a little bit like a Steven Spielberg imitator, albeit a very successful one.  During the 90s he began to feel like an Oscar chaser with films like Forrest Gump and Cast Away.  Then, in a completely unexpected twist, he began to make motion-capture based computer animation films.  His films The Polar Express and Monster House were both met with mixed reviews by critics unsure how to react to this medium which some felt took a walk though the uncanny valley.  While The Polar Express was aimed at a very young audience and Monster House was aimed at slightly older children, Zemeckis’ new animated film, Beowulf  is aimed at a teenage through adult audience, an almost unheard of demographic for a mainstream animated film.

            Based on the 8th century epic poem of the same name, the film revolves around the title character, Beowulf (voiced by Ray Winstone).  Beowulf has ventured to a mead hall called Heorot, which has recently been attacked by a large humanoid monster called Grendel (Crispin Glover).  King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) has ordered an end to all “merry-making” in Heorot because it incurs the wrath of this monster because of his sensitive hearing.  Beowulf, his right hand man Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), and his small squad of warriors face Grendel, but must ultimately face is mother (Angelina Jolie), a seductress water demon.

            Beowulf is an epic poem I never had the “privilege” of reading.  Throughout my education I took Woody Allen’s advice not to “take any course where they make you read Beowulf.”  The main reason I’ve avoided reading the book is simply that I’ve had bad experiences trying to read archaic epic poetry; it’s a style of writing that I find to simply be annoying to read.  Despite this reluctance to read the text, I’ve always been curious about the story of the poem.  Every description I’ve heard basically makes it sound like a series of fights against three different monsters. This is not the kind of story that fits the usual mould of Hollywood films, thus a creative adaptation was essential to the success or failure of the film.

            As I’ve never read the original text, I can’t testify as to its accuracy, I can say that I suspect the movie has been heavily modified.  The nature of this modification by screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, however seems very clever.  Instead of a straight up adaptation of the events of the poem, the film appears to claim to be the “true story” behind the poem.  The writing of “the song of Beowulf” is referenced in the film, but the events in the song are based on the hero’s propaganda rather than the true story of his deeds.  In fact the Beowulf in the film is very different from the one-dimensional hero from the poem.  This Beowulf is a brash and arrogant fighter who becomes haunted in his old age by a selfish lie he told in his youth.  “The song of Beowulf is in fact the result of the young Beowulf’s bragging as opposed to an “accurate” portrayal.  This dichotomy of heroic truth as told through propaganda is not unlike a similar technique used in the film 300 earlier this year.

            Though the tricks used to adapt the film are interesting, this is not a script without its share of problems.  The film wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to this propaganda angle.  The film wants to make Beowulf into a bragging jerk, yet he is an extremely adept warrior in the film despite his exaggerations.  The film never firmly decides whether or not Beowulf lives up to his hype or not, and this undermines the film’s theme. 

            Most of the characters except for Beowulf himself and the Grendel family are two dimensional figures, especially the female characters.  Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn) and Beowulf’s mistress Ursula (Alison Lohman) are both superficial figures that serve almost no purpose other than to act as damsels in distress during the film’s finale. 
            The film’s dialogue is enjoyable, but not overly noteworthy.  Those hoping for the poetic text of the original poem will be disappointed, although they will find it more interesting than what can be heard from the mouths of average Hollywood characters. As far as faux-Shakespearian dialogue goes, I’d say this ranks somewhere between Braveheart (bad) and Gladiator (good).  This is of course set in Viking-era Scandinavia, and as such the dialogue appropriately comes from a more blue-collar place than something set in upper class Elizabethan England.  Especially enjoyable are the bawdy mead-hall drinking songs sung by the drunken soldiers. 

            The enjoyable elements from Beowulf ultimately come from its execution rather than its story.  The entire film consists of computer generated images based on motion capture from real people.  3D prints of the film are being distributed into 638 conventional theaters and 104 IMAX screens.  I however, caught the film on a conventional 2D movie screen.  I would have liked to see the film in its intended 3D, but every theater showing it like this were in distant suburbs of my city, and thus were inconvenient to get to.  Add to this increased admission price of an IMAX screening and it was clear that a 2D screening would be far more convenient for me.  Additionally, I believe watching the film this way allowed me to more clearly focus on the film’s story than the spectacle.   During an early scene a horseman runs up to the camera with a spear pointing directly forward.  This appeared to be a blatant visual intended to be impressive in 3D.  Fortunately the rest of the film seemed to avoid these sorts of three dimensional stunts.  Throughout the film tends to use conventional “camera angle” and editing in its animation.

            Of greater interest than the film’s special distribution are the film’s motion capture graphics.  Going into the film I had hoped I would be the first film to really feel photo-realistic.  Unfortunately the animation technology has not quite reached that level, but it is getting more and more impressive.  The animations progress however is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. 

            Many people have claimed that motion capture animation of this sort has fallen into what’s called the “uncanny valley.”  That when animation tries to replicate humans with this level of realism, people will invariably start to focus on what looks unreal about the characters rather than what does look real.  As such, the characters in Zemeckis’ last two motion capture films were heavily criticized for having lifeless eyes and less than perfect facial motions.  I however do not buy into the theory of the “uncanny valley.”  If one goes into the film demanding photorealism, they will be disappointed.  I however was willing to accept the animation for what it was rather than what it wasn’t.  After I got used to the film’s animation I was able to get past its shortcomings I was able to go with the film’s style.

            The film is, if nothing else, a very good action movie.  The film features four major action scenes.  The best of these is probably a dazzling one on one aerial fight between Beowulf and a humongous winged dragon.  Also solid are the two absolutely brutal mead-hall fights against Grendel.  Grendel, a frightening hulk of a monster, fights with his bare hands and absolutely annihilates all the people that stand in his way. Also worth noting is an over the top flashback to a fight between Beowulf and three large sea serpents which ends with Beowulf getting some action from a topless mermaid.

            It is worth noting that the film has been significantly edited in order to receive a PG-13 rating.  The film does not live up to the gory promise of its red-band trailer.  The bloody slaughter of the Grendel fights have been darkened significantly, the blood is a shade of black rather than bright red.  Also edited has been a significant amount of nudity.  Angelina Jolie, who appears nude, has been covered by Goldfinger style paint and the aforementioned topless mermaid is inexplicably has no nipples.  Also a casualty of censorship is a bizarre scene where Beowulf fights Grendel… naked.  Throughout the scene Beowulf’s naughty parts are covered by various conveniently placed objects Austin Powers style.  Beowulf’s reasons for going into this fight nude were important, it showed his youthful recklessness, but this censorship turns this into a bad physical comedy scene.  I’m not saying I have any particular desire to see Beowulf’s penis, but if they were going to have a scene like this they should have either gone all out or just given Beowulf some pants.

            Also interesting is the acting in the movie, especially that of Ray Winstone.  I’d be lying if I said that I fully understood how much of the characters physical movement could be attributed to the actors behind the graphics, but I do know that the voice acting here is first rate.  Ray Winstone’s voice is a perfect choice for the role of Beowulf, his voice has the perfect mix of strength and masculinity.  Anthony Hopkins is a great addition to the film, and John Malkovich also has a nice hammy role.  Angelina Jolie is also a great choice, her voice is perfect for seduction.  The less famous cast members are also top of the line voice talents.  The voice of Crispin Glover however, is somewhat wasted on a raging monster.  Grendel only speaks occasionally and when he does it sounds more like garbled gibberish than talented acting, this is of course the way the character perhaps should be portrayed, but if you’re looking for a recognizable Glover you may be disappointed.

            In the end, Beowulf is a very cool movie.  “Cool” is probably the word I’m most comfortable using to describe the film.  It’s not excellent, or even great.  If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the poem, or for photorealistic animation, you’ll probably be disappointed.  However, if what you’re looking for is a badass action adventure you’ll definitely be satisfied.

***1/2 out of four

 

DVD Catch Up: Away From Her(11/14/2007)

            Among the saddest fates one can receive is a slow death by sickness.  In such cases people end up going out with a whimper rather than a bang; it is undignified and sad.  Death however is not always the biggest toll on families struck by these afflictions.  Family members are also affected by the ailments of their loved ones.  Away From Her is the story of one of these family members who must watch his wife deteriorate in front of his eyes.

            The film focuses on Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) a middle-aged man who’s wife Fiona (Julie Christie) has been struck with Alzheimer’s disease.  Grant makes the tough decision to put his wife in an assisted living home, something he is extremely reluctant to do as he would not be able to visit her during her first month at the institution.  Despite his hesitations, Fiona wants to remain at the institution where she believes she needs to be.  When he returns the next month he finds his wife no longer remembers him and has formed a relationship with another man who is a patient at the home. 

            Away From Her was directed by Sarah Polley, an actress who had a memorable role in Atom Egoyan’s great 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter at the age of eighteen.  Now ten years later she is making her directing debut with Egoyan acting as the producer.  The film is based on a short story by Alice Munro. 

            As a story, Away From Her isn’t overly compelling.  It shows an interesting situation and works fairly well as a character study.  What it lacks is a compelling conflict to carry it through.  It is interesting for a while but begins to drag about half way through and doesn’t really go anywhere.  It feels like Polley took this short story and tried too hard to expand it.  It unfortunately gets a little boring after a while.

            What redeems the film is a pair of excellent performances by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.  Christie’s performance is especially strong, playing a mentally disturbed person has long been a good way to earn respect as an actor and this is no exception.  Pinsent has a less showy role, but it’s also a more important role, and he pulls it off real well.

            Still, at the end of the day this story just didn’t really grab me and the film simply loses steam after about the half-way point.  It’s a noble effort with some great acting, but ultimately it didn’t really work for me.

**1/2 out of four

Gone Baby Gone(11/9/2007)

 

            I sat down to see Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone in the smallest auditorium in the theater it was playing at.  It was one of those lame two aisle, non-stadium, auditoriums I usually try to avoid by going to see things on opening day.  As I watched the still advertising and trivia slideshow in front of me I noticed an unusual red letter “X” in the corner of the screen.  There were only two other people in the auditorium when the lights went down and the trailers began, and the film was started ten minutes late.  Then as the trailers ended and the Miramax log went up the screen suddenly went black.  When the picture returned there was no sound to speak of.  I wasn’t sure whether this was a deliberate part of the film or not, once people began talking it became clear that the projectionist was in error.  I stepped out of the auditorium and told an usher about the problem.  By the time this was fixed ten minutes had passed without sound; as such I missed a lot of important exposition and desperately needed to catch up.  This was not helped when I was distracted by the Toshiba screensaver that went over the screen for a few minutes, or the line that went up and down the screen for at least two reels.  I was also distracted by planning out how I was going to confront the theater manager when the movie was over. 

            I did end up getting a free movie ticket out of it, but my experience watching Gone Baby Gone was certainly compromised.  I tell you all this in the interest of full discloser.  I obviously didn’t see it under optimal conditions and this may also compromise my review.  Still, I will try to describe my impressions of the film, which is flawed, but not without its merits.

            The film is about Patrick Kenzie, (Casey Affleck), who works as a private investigator in a blue color Boston neighborhood with his Girlfriend Angie (Michelle Monaghan).  He and Angie are hired by Lionel McCready (Titus Welliver) and Beatrice McCready (Amy Madigan) to help find their missing niece, Amanda (Madeline O’Brien) who was abducted from her white trash (for lack of a better term) mother Helene McCready (Amy Ryan).  Police chief Chief Doyle (Morgan Freeman), is skeptical about the odds of this investigation ending well and the lead detectives Nick (John Ashton) Remy (Ed Harris).  This investigation leads the private investigators into a seedy underworld, it is clear that this was no average kidnapping.

            Gone Baby Gone is based on a novel by Denis Lehane, who also wrote the book that was adapted into Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Mystic River, one of my favorite films of this decade.  This is quite apparent; the two movies have a number of things in common.  Both are set in blue collar areas of Boston, both involve a parent mourning over a child who is the victim of crime, and both are trying to work as both a mystery and a tragedy.  This comparison does not help Gone Baby Gone, Clint Eastwood’s film is quite impossible to live up too.  Watching the two movies is like a study in how different a similar story can be when made by a great filmmaker and a novice.

            That’s not to say that Affleck is a poor director, because he isn’t.  In fact he does particularly well considering he’s been the butt of so many jokes recently.  He just isn’t up to the level of Clint Eastwood, and as such Gone Baby Gone is no Mystic River.  There is a lot here to suggest Affleck has a promising future.  The dialogue, which Affleck co-wrote, is very good. Affleck clearly has an ear for the speech patterns of Boston, and he directs the dialogue scenes very well.  Affleck also shows a flair for directing violence, and this film has quite a bit of it.  Affleck also succeeds at filming the setting very well, the Boston underbelly feels very real here and Affleck deserves credit for it.   

            The acting in the film is hit or miss.  Casey Affleck has the most to prove here, he needs to overcome the sinking suspicion that his casting was the result of blatant nepotism.  In the end he succeeds, but only to a moderate degree.  He looks too young for the role and generally just doesn’t seem like the kind of tough guy the role really needed.  There is the occasional line suggesting that the characters around him think this way as well, but this doesn’t really sway my opinion, these line feel like they were thrown in only to make the casting work when they should have just cast someone who fit the character.  Still, Casey does show a certain level of skill and generally works well in dialogue scenes, he just looks awkward as hell whenever he’s holding a gun.

            More awkward however is Michelle Monaghan and his girlfriend and fellow private investigator.  This is not entirely Monaghan’s fault, as this is a terrible and thankless role, but she doesn’t really help at all.  This character seems to have no reason to exist other than to act as the voice of Patrick Kenzie’s conscience in a few scenes.  She adds nothing to Kenzie’s investigation, and their relationship is rarely examined at all.  All she does is occasionally tag along with Kenzie and maybe say one or two lines to give herself a reason to be there. 

            On the brighter side, there are a number of good performances by the supporting cast.   Morgan freeman is up to his usual high standards in his role, and brings a lot to an important speech late in the film.  Helene McCready has been getting wide praise as the grieving mother of the kidnapped girl, she doesn’t really get enough screen time, but she is quite good in the role.  But the real standout here is Ed Harris, who disappears into his role as Detective Remy Bressant.  I didn’t even recognize Harris until two thirds of the way into the film when I began to wonder who was giving this great performance.

            The film is also marred by a large number of false endings each featuring a twist of a twist of a twist.  In fact the whole second hour feels like a series of false endings.  One of these twists, in retrospect, seemed like a complete tangent.  The final twist never really held water for me, it basically involved people going to extreme lengths for what ultimately didn’t seem like a worthy motive. 

            Gone Baby Gone is no Mystic River, but it is a fairly enjoyable film.  I was never bored watching it and there are a number of very good scenes.  This is not the great film some people are saying it is but it definitely has its moments.  It is worth seeing, but may be worth waiting until its available on DVD. 

*** out of Four

DVD Catch Up: A Mighty Heart (11/6/2007)

            Michael Winterbottom has become of this century’s most respected filmmakers in a short period of time.  Winterbottom has worked out of England, producing films like 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story which are well known in film circles but haven’t really crossed over to the mainstream.  Winterbottom also has a political side to his work with films like The Road to Guantanamo and In This World.  His newest film A Mighty Heart certainly deals with current events, but it is not a political film, in the sense that it does not push a political agenda.  Instead it functions as a character study and ultimately as a tragedy.

            The film tells the true story of Mariane (Angelina Jolie) and Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), a husband and wife team of “Wall Street Journal” reporters doing a story in Karachi, Pakistan.  Mariane is six months pregnant and both are planning to leave Pakistan as soon as Daniel makes one last interview.  Unfortunately, Daniel Pearl does not return from this final interview, and it soon becomes clear that he has been kidnapped.  The film then becomes a procedural about those trying to find Pearl. 

            Michael Winterbottom is part of a recent informal movement away from Hollywood style expressionism and toward a stark realistic vision.  Other filmmakers making these kind of contemporary actualities are Paul Greengrass, and to a certain extent Michael Haneke.  These filmmakers, often inspired by Werner Herzog, seem interested in using a documentary style to make narrative cinema.  They shoot handheld, frequently using digital photography.  A Mighty Heart is typical of this style, and bears a number of its strengths and weaknesses. 

            The film is an attempt to accurately document the events of the real world situation to a “T”.  The film is almost a re-enactment of the investigation.  I personally am not overly familiar with the details of what really happened, and though I can’t authoritatively say this film is accurate, I can say that it certainly feels accurate.  The dialogue is down to earth and realistic, as are the sets and cinematography.  The film is shot digitally and makes no attempts to hide this.  Digital photography has replaced grainy 16mm film-stock as the format of choice when trying to evoke documentary style camera work.  I have always had mixed feelings about digital photography, on one hand it simply doesn’t look as good as 35mm photography, and yet there is a certain allure to it.  Digital photography seems to capture images much the same way the human eye does, it’s a very down to earth format, and it fits the kind of realism movies like this use. 

             The problem however, is that the details of the investigation that this film chronicles are not particularly interesting.  The attempt to find Daniel Pearl is complicated, and a little bit convoluted.  When the film is in procedural mode, it is hard to follow, confusing, and a little bit boring.  I began to loose interest fairly quick, especially since we already know the outcome of this event.  There are certainly events that have been compelling enough to make for engaging film subjects without being put through a Hollywood filter; this just wasn’t one of them. 

            What saves the movie is Angelina Jolie.  Jolie gives a great, nuanced performance worthy of the praise it’s received.  Jolie works hear wit a consistant and believable accent and has altered her look to fit the role.  Jolie has a number of heart wrenching emotional scenes she must pull off without going over the top.  It would be easy to over-act with this role, but Jolie avoids this temptation beautifully.  The Mariane Pearl story works far better than the police procedural storyline; it’s what makes the film work.  

            What Michael Winterbottom has made is a film that’s hard to love, but impossible not to respect.  There’s little here to really fault, Jolie’s performance is great and the rest of the cast is good too.  The script is detailed and subtle, the editing is great, and the directing is great.  Unfortunately, all this talent is being put toward a story that just didn’t interest me very much. 

*** out of Four