Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Conspirator, Water for Elephants, and The Way Back (2010)

After a silly, unconvincing scene in which wounded Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) distracts his painfully wounded comrade (Justin Long) by cracking jokes, and an ineffective depiction of the assassination of Lincoln that feels like it’s merely going through the motions to get the movie started, a dullness that is rescued by a dramatic rendition of the panic on Tenth Street as the wounded Lincoln is carried across to the Petersen House, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator settles into a mostly interesting, often touching story as James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the underdog lawyer crusading for justice as he defends conspirator Mary Surratt.

Robin Wright skillfully portrays Mary Surratt as a thin, gray-faced woman tormented by hopelessness. Along with Wright, Even Rachel Wood as Mary’s daughter, Anna, offers the best, most invested acting. Meanwhile, Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is suitably grim and merciless, reminding us that the Dick Cheneys of the world are not restricted to our time period.

Despite its made-for-television formula and its Civil War era stiffness, the movie grows more engrossing as Aiken pumps up his ardent campaign to defy the court’s determination to hang four conspirators as swiftly as possible by proving that John Surratt, Mary’s son, not Mary, knew about the treasonous chatter going on in the boardinghouse. After running into numerous legal dead ends, Aiken's efforts culminate with a nicely done moment in which Aiken argues constitutionality with Lincoln’s friend, a Supreme Court Justice (John Cullum), for a writ of habeas corpus.

With the bad guys played by the grim-faced Yankees who want vengeful closure for the tragic cap on four years of bitter tragedy at the hands of the hated Southerners, there is much old-fashioned courtroom drama to be had. But it’s hard to be transported into this event in history when the writing bombards you with phrases regarding the present state of fear, the need for vengeance, mistreatment of prisoners, prejudice against a hated enemy that has caused a national disaster, and legal gray areas that clearly seem to have a political agenda rooted in the present.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soul Surfer - Jane at the Movies, Part 2

As my avid movie-going daughter, Jane, approaches her 24th birthday, I wonder whether her cinematic tastes have changed and how her discrimination has developed over the years.

The other day we saw Soul Surfer together. This was Jane’s second viewing. She loves AnnaSophia Robb (The Bridge to Terebithia) and movies involving teenage girls, and she’s crazy about movies in which a sports team or an individual athlete overcomes a setback to win the big one. For competitive surfer Bethany Hamilton (Robb), that setback is a considerable one: her left arm is bitten off by a shark. (Jane knew just when to cover her eyes.) But Bethany Hamilton has incredible determination, extremely supportive parents (played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt), equally supportive siblings and friends, a lot of ability, and faith in God. Yes, sir, now I understood the title. I never thought that “soul” was meant in religious terms, and I had kept referring to it as Cool Surfer. How lapsed-Catholic of me!

I had had no clue that this movie is one of a growing number of movies in a Christian cinema genre for which I have seen previews now and then. In Soul Surfer the importance of God and faith are blatantly depicted with scenes including saying grace at meals; a church ceremony; religious songs; a Christian youth group that goes to Thailand to participate in tsunami; the youth group leader, played by Carrie Underwood, who encourages Bethany to have faith that good will come of her tragedy; and lots of praying during and after the shark attack.

But Jane only chuckled when I leaned over and whispered, “This is a religious movie.” Most likely, her young heart and innocence, in which her Down syndrome play a part, glossed over the propaganda while she focused on what she loves: bright, smiling teen friendships and uplifting athletic competition.

And, too, some of the bad acting did nothing to diminish her enjoyment. She loves Dennis Quaid, ubiquitous actor in both Disney family films (The Parent Trap) as well as sports movies (The Rookie). In fact, Quaid always does a likable, serviceable job. Despite overacting here, he establishes a believable presence as the sun-bronzed, muscular surfer dad, and he overacts a range of emotions. Hunt, on the other hand, spends the whole film with her long, bony face drawn in toneless worry, eyes blank, forehead knitted as though suffering from an eternal headache.

Even on my own I would have enjoyed this touching movie. The Hawaiian location shots are majestic, the surfing footage is awesome, and the shark attack/ rescue sequence is grippingly depicted. But with Jane I could participate fully in the emotional crescendo to which this movie builds. That’s what made Jane want to see the movie a second time: the glorious triumph of a teenage girl who overcomes a disability and comes from behind to achieve something great.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tiptoe through The Further with Insidious (I)

I guess there was always something kind of scary about Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe through the Tulips” – though it was scary in a funny way. In the genuinely frightening film Insidious, however, director James Saw Wan turns this silly song into a chilling, literally hair-raising cue for two very frightening moments in a film that’s full of them.

With its lurid main title frame and its non-reliance on an overwrought musical score to signal a demon jumping out of a closet, Insidious allows those restless wraiths and demons to show their horrible faces when you least expect them. In addition, Wan starts out slowly. He opens brilliantly with black and white shots of rooms in an old house strewn with packing boxes. A family has just moved in.

Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) unpack and settle in while belongings go missing and things go thump in the night and their two boys have trouble sleeping. Ah, the house is haunted! Not so! After the first subtle creaks and shadowy figures, the family moves away – a neat joke on all the horror movies in which the family grapples with demons but stays in the frickin’ house against all logic – and it’s clear that the haunting has followed them.

When Josh’s creepy mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), calls in the paranormal experts, the film turns for the first time to a couple of laughs. We get a weird parody of Ghostbusters in the form of two nerdy specialists (writer Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson) equipped with inexplicable gizmos. But once the elderly-lady psychic (Lin Shaye) starts communicating with Josh and Renai’s haunted, comatose son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), the comic relief is over. Seriously scary stuff happens as Josh embarks on a journey into The Further, a dark region populated by ghosts and demons lining up to take over his son’s empty “vessel.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wild Child - Hanna

Pallid and lanky, elongated by puberty, Saorise Ronan is perfect as Hanna, a genetically enhanced killing machine – universal soldier, junior model. Last of an outlawed experiment, Hanna is slated for elimination by cold-blooded CIA operative Marissa (Cate Blanchett). With an obsessive-compulsive thing about her teeth that drives her to scrape until her gums bleed, and a shoe fetish to boot, Marissa was responsible for the death of Hanna’s mother, Johanna, and now she is driven to clean things up completely by doing away with the daughter. Meanwhile, Erik (Eric Bana), Johanna’s lover, has released Hanna as a weapon of vengeance.

A mixture of brooding Cold War sordidness and standard kick-boxing combat against impossible odds, Joe Wright’s Hanna contains a mixture of elements that keep the storyline of flight and pursuit of a genetically enhanced agent in need of extermination interesting: a cold, concrete secret desert installation that turns out, strikingly, to be in the middle of an exotic country; an eccentric hippie-Brit family (Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams as the parents) on a caravan trek; an atmospheric sequence in a Moroccan resort where Hanna gets freaked out by all the electrical devices; Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a sleazy German strip-joint owner who leads his hulky boyfriends in pursuit; a frighteningly tacky fairytale theme park gone to ruin that includes a gingerbread house full of dangling plastic mushrooms; and vivid locations depicting the scuzzy side of Berlin that include a junk-strewn playground where Erik dukes it out with Isaacs and his boys.

Part Frankenstein’s monster grappling with identity, part Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage learning to exist in the civilized world, yet another part Mindy Kick-Ass Macready, a little girl learning to kick butt, Hanna, as played by Saoirse, is a fascinating fairytale outcast trying to find her place in a very alien world. In the wilderness of Finland where she is brought up as a resourceful killer, Hanna is a fair-haired nymph of the snowy forest. But in her first acts of murder, a shocking moment intensified by Agent Marissa’s aghast reaction, she is a blood-splattered assassin. During her peregrinations in the outside world, she wonders about her place in it all: her parentage; the importance of family; how love works; and how the way she has been created may alienate her from normalcy forever.

The film doesn’t supply much of a resolution, and sometimes the flight/pursuit/vengeance storyline is unsatisfyingly standard, but its unique and often bizarre details, its memorably textured settings, and Saoirse’s compelling performance, make it a film worth seeing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Source Code

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is trapped. He is trapped on a Chicago-bound commuter train in an eight-minute loop, the last minutes before a mad bomber blows up the train, an interval called a source code that exists in another dimension. This is part of a military project employing quantum physics hocus pocus to identify the mad bomber in order to prevent a plan to explode a dirty bomb in the center of the city (though why he needs to blow up a train when he’s going to destroy the whole city anyway is as hard to understand as quantum physics).

Colter is also trapped in a steel pod that at first resembles the interior of the kind of helicopter he has been flying over Afghanistan. Here he learns that he is being used as a cross-dimensional agent in an experiment designed to stop terrorism at the expense of enslaving Colter’s consciousness. This treatment of Colter, thrown back into those eight minutes like a poor student forced to do the same math problem over and over again, involves the best moments in Duncan Jones’s Source Code, a film that borrows from The Thirteenth Floor, Avatar, and Inception, and Gyllenhaal does an excellent job of making those moments dramatic, evoking Colter’s turmoil as he questions his existence, or non-existence, as he grapples with his assignment, and as he determines that he has more control over his existence and his duties than he has been told.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Beautiful Jane Eyre (2011)

Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is a beautiful film. Fukunaga’s camera frames expansive shots of the somber moor in contrast with the bright blossoms of Rochester’s gardens. Interior shots of windows and curtains full of light are memorable as well. The film’s colors seem to shift with its mood: from the grays and muted colors of the austere moorland and the foggy woods to the bright greens of Thornfield’s grounds to a brown filter over shots of Jane awakening to her love for Rochester.

Along with the film’s pretty look we get an excellent cast. Michael Fassbender plays a moody, manly, passionate Edward Rochester. Jamie Bell is nicely cast as the fervent missionary, St. John Rivers, and Judi Dench reins in her tendency to overact as she invests Mrs. Fairfax with warmth and humor. But the driving force of Jane Eyre is the remarkable portrayal of Jane by Mia Wasikowska, whose absorbing performance and beautiful presence magnify the film’s visual beauty.