At the center of the late award season drama CRAZY HEART are two captivating performances that are brazenly abnormal (in Hollywood terms) in their depiction of honest normalcy.  Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a road-weary working musician a la Townes Van Zandt and Merle Haggard - a hard-drinking, chain-smoking tortured soul of a songwriter.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jean Craddock, a single mother who is also a writer for the local newspaper in Santa Fe, who befriends and falls in love with Bad.  This isn't a typical romance or "biopic" trajectory, though, with Bad's story beginning as he's already plumbing the depths, and lacking the ending that makes his journey more satisfying.  The two lovers do not end up together happily ever after.

The defining dynamic of their relationship is Bad's alcholism, which Jean isn't outrightly judgmental of, but is apprehensive of nonetheless because of her young child, Buddy.  In what is the film's most contrived sequence, Buddy is lost in a mall by Bad after he stops in a tavern for a drink, which (along with losing Jean's trust and her leaving him) leads to his inevitable drive to get sober.  Not that the sequence doesn't work, just that for a movie so honest about its characters and their lives, it's something that not only isn't original, but which has been telegraphed over and over again in scenes where Jean asks Bad not to drink around her son.  What intrigues me about the film as a redemption story, however, even given this bit of a misstep, is that the alcholism is never center stage, and Jean never pressures Bad to give it up totally.  Instead, through a series of events, not just involving Buddy, but also his declining health and income among other things, he begins to realize exactly how expansive the destruction of his behavior and lifestyle is on his everyone and everything around him, which is what ultimately leads him to make the choice to get sober, despite earlier protestations by his manager, a doctor, and even his friends.  It seems startlingly realistic to suggest that alone with themselves is the only way for an addict to really change their behavior (with support, but not provocation or guilting) in a genre often rife with preachy and even dogmatic scenes of familial interventions that lead the protagonist to enter a program and get straight.  Reality rarely happens that way.

Also strikingly, Bridges and Gyllenhaal look like real people, and not stylized reality or idealized, "Hollywood" real.  This shouldn't be that much of a surprise, given that both actors are apparently as down-to-earth as could be for stars of their magnitude.  Bridges has famously never shied away from his regular guy image, even utilizing parts of his own bland and boring personal wardrobe for his roles in THE FISHER KING and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Gyllenhaal frequently spends her spare time hanging out with her husband Peter Saarsgard and their child instead of making headlines.  In fact, her only major tabloid moment came from her feeding her child in public, which is of course not only natural and healthy, but so...so...normal.  As such, they are, as performers, as unafraid to be themselves on screen as they are in their day to day lives.  That is of great benefit to the film.

The acting and deviations from character cliches aside, the trajectory of the film's story overall remains somewhat predictable, and despite the ending's bittersweet and truthful poignancy, it feels a little like the screenplay is just going through the motions, ticking off marks as it chugs along.  And, despite the title song, which actually is quite a good song, a lot of the music is merely okay, more apt to get stuck in your head as a melodic memory than actually retaining the form and substance of a great Country-Western song.  For a character as forgotten yet legendary a songwriter as Bad Blake, I kind of wish they had just used a bunch of really great, well-known standards.  In a fictionalized context, no one but hardcore fans would even pay any attention to them, or likely know who the original songwriter was anyway (sadly).  For proof, just ask anyone you know who says they listen to country music who wrote "Poncho and Lefty" and see the blank stares as they both don't know the song or, if they do, that it wasn't written by Willie Nelson.  And that's a prominent standard.  Anyway, these are minor quibbles, as both are more than servicable to the film as it exists.

The film ultimately remains, first and foremost, a showcase for its two very capable leads, and as an actor's picture, it's pretty great.  Bridges recently won an Oscar for his performance, and some have commented that he didn't deserve it because the role of Bad Blake felt tailor-made for him.  To that I ask, isn't that the first clue of true greatness?  Who else could play bad?  Who would (or could) replace Marlon Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT, or James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, or Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, or Michael Douglas and Charlize Theron in WALL STREET and MONSTER, respectively?  The reason a performance remains memorable and spectacular is because the performer becomes inseparale from their role.  They are the character.  Bridges and Gyllenhaal turn in two such performances here.



Jason Isaacs and Matt Damon in Paul Greengrass's GREEN ZONE

Paul Greengrass's culmination of his docu-drama and action-thriller work, GREEN ZONE achieves a synthesis of style and adrenaline fueled action that is truly breathtaking.  Working again with star Matt Damon, he tells the story of Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a soldier looking for WMD in the "Mission Accomplished" days of the Iraq war.  The film operates on the same parameters as one of Greengrass's BOURNE films, but set in reality, with one man being played on both sides while trying to uncover the truth.  Unlike either of those films, however, Miller is not a one man badass, frequently relying on his unit to help him meet his objectives and track down the source of faulty intelligence that keeps leading his own men to sites that contain no signs of ever having housed WMD.

Miller discusses his obsession with discovering the truth with one of his unit.

The film is loosely based on the book IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY - really an inspiration for the setting of the story more than anything - which may be both its strength and its weakness.  By focusing on a fictionalized single-perspective scenario, the audience is thoroughly engaged with the film through their cypher, and is genuinely interested in seeing him succeed - which, in this case, woudl involve uncovering irrefutable evidence that the Bush administration lied to everyone to go to war with Iraq, fabricating intelligence as they saw fit.  However, this small portrait of the quagmire created by the war is problematic because the scope of the issue is much broader and offensive than indicated in the film, which might work beautifully as an action film, but ultimately fails as a document of the lies and fabrications by the U.S. government on the American people to this very day.  I do realize, however, that this was not the intent of the filmmakers, and it is only my opinion, and that film I saw was urgent, factually grounded and absolutely stunning in its intelligent construction of action, particularly in a style of camerawork and editing often criticized for its incomprehensibility.

Even in low light situations, the action in GREEN ZONE remains logical from shot to shot.

What makes GREEN ZONE work stylistically, unlike some of the sequences in the BOURNE movies, is the progressive action, which flows logically from shot to shot and never loses the viewer, despite the kinetic fights and shootouts.  The use of the "shaky cam" and fast cuts actually serves to ramp up the adrenaline aesthetically, and is used in fair moderation compared to the constant barrage of movement in the BOURNE franchise, which are basically chase sequences extended through the entire run-time of the film.  The only other filmmaker who has utilized this snatch-and-grab style so well is Kathryn Bigelow with recent award season darling THE HURT LOCKER, though to evoke a different adrenaline response in the audience.

The final twenty minutes of GREEN ZONE contain one of the most intricately shot and edited multi-tier chases I've ever seen, following three sets of characters on foot and in the sky through the destroyed rubble of downtown Baghdad.  Despite the complexities of establishing location in such an extended sequence, and despite the ultra-dark nighttime cinematography, there is never a sense of displacement or a loss of geography.  It's a remarkable feat of action filmmaking, and deserves a place alongside anything currently in any list of memorable chases.

Brendan Gleeson plays a CIA agent who is trying to stabilize the country and correct the administration's mistakes.

Acting-wise, the supporting cast delivers a lot of top-notch work, including one hell of a performance from Greg Kinnear as Poundstone, the administration's crooked intel man in Iraq, both intimidating and terrified of exposure at the same time.  Also of note are Brendan Gleeson and Amy Ryan (and the woefully overlooked Jason Isaacs), who continue their string of reliably dynamic side roles.  Ryan in particular does a lot with the character of Lawrie Dayne, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who has been duped by the administration.  Also, I found it fascinating how many Arab voices and faces are in the film.  In a pivotal role as Freddy, an informer concerned for his country's future who accompanies Miller on his mission as translator, Khalid Abdalla gives an emotionally charged and riveting performance, providing a much needed Arab perspective to the growing cinematic discourse on the Iraq war.

GREEN ZONE is the crowning achievement of Greengrass's directorial interests thus far, and is his most emotionally and intellectually satisfying film to date.  I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes from here.  He has expressed disinterest in revisiting the Jason Bourne character, and recently discussed in Film Comment how the ideas behind both of his entries in that series, as well as for UNITED 93 and GREEN ZONE were all hatched around the same time.  As he continues onward, I'm sure I'll be pleased to see him branch out into new story terrain, while continuing to refine his aesthetic choices.


4 Performances: Radha Mitchell

I'm working on a review / essay of THE CRAZIES which will hopefully be up some time in the next few days.  In reflecting on the film, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Radha Mitchell, and how fantastic she is in nearly everything she does.  She's seen some mainstream action here and there, prominently featured in Woody Allen's underrated MELINDA AND MELINDA, the passable sci-fi actioner SURROGATES, and various smaller roles as love interests here and there, but her real bread and butter seems to be in genre work, particularly in horror related roles.  She strives here, and I adore her in these roles, and despite appearances, she's very versatile in her performance styles.

Playing pilot Carolyn Fry in David Twohy's PITCH BLACK, Mitchell holds her own with then rising star Vin Diesel, who actually turned out to be a decent actor himself before apparently deciding to stick to the big dumb action vehicle.  In an unassuming yet heroic role, she's really the film's main character, though overshadowed by the presence of fan-favorite Riddick.  Still, there would be no film without her, and Mitchell imbues the role with sympathy and humanity, and acts as the audience's cypher, never sure of the escaped convict who is helping her survive, and the voice of reason at the climax, when he threatens to leave the other stranded crew behind.

Though most horror films share an interest in female relationships, both real and theoretical, SILENT HILL may be one of the rare few that is implicitly interested in concepts of motherhood and the protective nature of that relationship.  As Rose da Silva, Mitchell searches for her missing daughter Sharon in the town of Silent Hill, a rotting facade that holds a dark secret.  The film is dark, menacing and covered in the swirl of ash that is omnipresent in the town, and Mitchell is at the center of it, carrying the film almost on her own shoulders (though ably assisted by Deborah Kara Unger and Laurie Holden).  In fact, there is only one male character of any importance in the whole film: Sean Bean as Sharon's father.  Even he is relegated to supporting status, and never has much interaction with the female cast. 

ROGUE (2007)
If there were a film done major injustice by its being released direct-to-DVD in the U.S., it would definitely be ROGUE, Australian director Greg Mclean's amazing killer croc feature.  The film follows the patrons of a tour boat in the Australian outback which comes under attack from a crocodile after running aground and must fight for their survival.  Radha Mitchell shines under Mclean's tight scripting and direction as boat guide Kate Ryan, who along with an American journalist, must overcome the creature's attacks.  It's fun to watch her in this role because she seems to be having so much fun with it, exhibiting athleticism, comic timing and getting to work in her native accent.  I've done a quick blurb about this film before, but if you didn't check it out then, see it now.  She's great.

Here we go: Radha Mitchell gets major screen time, paired with Timothy Olyphant (who is also terrific here, by the way), and plays yet another seemingly stereotypical female in a horror film.  As Judy Dutton, she displays great acting chops as both a victim and one of the main protagonists trying to escape their quarantined town and evade the military.  What makes this character work for me is Mitchell's ability to run the gamut emotionally, and to really take on a role that could be approached as simply going through the motions: get caught, scream and cry, get saved.  But Judy isn't like that, and Mitchell never plays her that way.  Even when the situation seems to play out in typical fashion, there's a sense of reality in her eyes that makes you really feel for the character.  That's rare in any genre fare, and Radha Mitchell gives it her all over and over again.



In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. Ladies and gentlement, once again, I give you an installment of "Blurbs":

High Cinema this is not, but there's something endearing about Lexi Alexander's little vigilante action flick that really hearkens back to why The Punisher is such a kickass comic book character.  He's a one-man killing machine, with little moral baggage, and who operates on one instinct: kill the bad guys.  This may be the closest realization to the comic books that Frank Castle has and will ever be on screen, snatching a fair amount of inspiration from the amazing Garth Ennis run with the character that went on for around nine years.  Ray Stevenson is an amazing Castle, and even though he's basically just doing Al Pacino in DICK TRACY, Dominic West has a lot of fun as signature Punisher villain Jigsaw in a performance that I thought was awful at first, but which has really grown on me.

This was one of the funniest movies I saw last year.  A spot-on parody/love letter to Blaxploitation cinema, Michael Jai White played the best amalgamation of classic characters I could imagine, and delivered a thoroughly hilarious and enjoyable show for fans of the 70s 'street' films like SHAFT, COFFY, and SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASS SONG.  Apart from being hilarious, the film is also a perfect imitation of the Blaxploitation style, down to its camera work and up through its outlandish character portrayals.  It's over-the-top goodness that I can't wait to watch again.

Alex Proyas' film isn't as terrible as one would have you believe if you paid any attention at all to the reviews it got upon release.  In fact, if there's a weakness, it's the totally unsatisfying ending, and not Nicolas Cage's acting or the distinct visual similarities to DARK CITY (creepy men in long coats, anybody?)  It's debatable how much of this movie could have been saved if the last ten minutes were ultimately much different, and there's really no way of knowing (no pun intended), but I suspect that there was probably some energy expended elsewhere that could have benefited the climax - at least the film feels like that.  The cinematography is great as well, and was shot on the RED camera, which looks amazing.  There are a couple of sequences that will have you on the edge of your seat, but there are also some more cerebral moments that will keep you guessing a little bit.  I didn't buy all of it, but I found it fascinating nonetheless.

This isn't the best rock doc I've ever seen, but it's interesting because of its subject matter - murdered vocalist Mia Zapata - and what may have been had she lived and the band continued thriving in the early-90s Seattle scene.  What I liked most about this was that here was a band torn apart not by drugs or in-fighting, but by real human tragedy, which they could never recover from and a decade later are still hurt by.  The surviving members of The Gits miss their friend, and really don't seem to care about the fame they missed out on.  Also of note are the snippets of their performances, as raw and energetic as could be asked for, and a real breath of fresh air (especially given the prominent music that exploded from Seattle at around the same time) to anyone who is unfamiliar with the band and its music.

A fun, relatively gory zombie romp that doesn't quite hold up to the classic first film.  I get off on this sort of thing, so I liked it quite a bit.  It's silly and sometimes inspired, and it's never as bad as the next two films in the series are, but I can't really recommend it to non-fans except for one reason: early cinematography by Robert Elswit (SYRIANA, BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS).  It looks fantastic for a genre flick, with some of the best open sky panoramas I've ever seen in a zombie apocalypse movie.


SHUTTER ISLAND's Bizarre Sense of Unease and the Critical Reaction


The critical discourse on Martin Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND has been fairly silent, with a lot of time spent arguing on whether or not the positive attention lavished upon it would be if it weren't a Scorsese picture.  Or, better yet, if the "twist" ending makes the film good or bad.  What a ridiculous way to discuss a film that has such an intimate knowledge of cinema history and classical technique.  And that isn't a "twist" guys, it's a logical outgrowth of the film you just watched, and you should really stop trying to out-guess the movie and think you're smarter than it.  It's not a competition, it's a movie - a brilliant one.

The film is a masterpiece of mood, perception and intensity, with one image leading into the next, and setting up all the information one would need to make connections, but with a very subtle slight of hand.  From the very first shots of the film, with the rear-projection stylization setting up the artifice of the situation, to Mark Ruffalo's fumbling with getting the gun holster off his belt - because he never used one before, get it? - and on through the very obvious set-ups with side characters and their encounters with Teddy, the audience is being hinted at and shown that the only possible outcome is the one that happens.

This first dream hints at virtually everything to come, from the blood to the water, to the ashes falling around them - it's all in Teddy's head.

I am utterly convinced at this point that there are shots in this film that serve to shake the audience, to make them experience an uneasiness, adding to the film's almost unbearable suspense in places.  While some of these could be dismissed as continuity errors, it happens so often and in such strange ways that it just seems implausible there would be so many of them.  Maybe it's just easier for an audience to dismiss something as a mistake rather than something purposefully manipulating them much like the Surrealist and Expressionist movements did.  Maybe Scorsese is asking too much of his audience to know something about these films.  For my money, there's a whole lot of Carl Theodor Dreyer's VAMPYR in SHUTTER ISLAND.

The main problem seems to be that people feel like the movie owes them something, when really its payoff is perfectly adequate and even appropriate.  The film isn't building up to some great revelation or cathartic release, but toward Teddy's understanding of the situation he has found himself in.  And it's all supported very early on in the film, and consistently evoked throughout by images that confound, contradict and disprove everything we think we might know.  For anyone who hasn't seen SHUTTER ISLAND yet, this is the point you may want to stop reading, because I'm going to get really in-depth about the whole ordeal.

Teddy Daniels is Andrew Laeddis.  That's the big twist.  I don't know why people are pissed about this, since it's pretty obvious the whole entire time he's on the island that everything's a big giant lie meant to send him over the edge into a realization about something that happened to him in his past and where he is at this point - a common theme found in all of Scorsese's films.  Ostensibly, Teddy is on the island to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients, accompanied by a new partner, Chuck.  Soon, things begin to unravel a bit, and doubts are cast on everyone on the island, even his partner.

Teddy and Chuck "arrive" at Shutter Island.  Note the very obvious screen-projection, hearkening back to classical Hollywood, but also hinting at the artificiality of Teddy's situation.

 Apart from all of the hints in his perceived reality, there's the dream sequences, which beckon us to think about the images we are seeing, and which very often contradict everything we've been told about his history, as well as the very thing we've just seen happen, and which also set up the bizarre things that begin to happen when Teddy is fully awake.

Take the interrogation scene in the cafeteria, which is not a dream, where a female patient scribbles the words "RUN" on his notepad.  The patient asks if she could have a glass of water and is given one.  Immediately thereafter, she drinks the water, but the first shot of it is odd, showing her pantomime drinking the water, and then the next showing her picking the glass up and drinking the water.  The pantomimed shot is barely noticeable, except that you do notice it after it's happened, and you're not quite sure you've just seen it.  That's the connection I made with VAMPYR, and it happens very often in SHUTTER ISLAND: a simple sequence or even a single shot that doesn't quite make logical sense, used to evoke dread and uneasiness.

In VAMPYR (1932), the protagonist drifts in and out of dreams, his nightmares reflecting reality and serving to cause dread in the audience.

 The shot I found most fascinating in this regard, and also the most telling given the circumstances of Teddy's identity and the actual chain of events that led him to be a patient on the island, and likewise for going crazy and creating a delusion to protect himself from the horrible reality of what happened, happens during one of his dreams.  In his final delusion, before we get the whole memory in its actual form, Teddy imagines the escaped woman he's been searching for covered in blood, with her children at her feet.  She asks him to help her take them to the lake to go swimming, which he does.  The shot of him carrying the children to the lake is almost innocuous, seemingly inconsequential stuff, until you realize it's in reverse.  Teddy is walking backward from the lake, in effect removing them from the water instead of setting them in it, which is the next shot - with him in the water with the children.  The shot is effective two-fold, and this is really where I started to think about VAMPYR.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 film is a movie that explicitly blurs the lines between dreams and reality, and which continually uses non-continuity shots to evoke a sense of fear and uneasiness.  During one of the many dreams in the film, there is a shot of a shadow pitching hay, and though shown a few times, it's not entirely clear what's going on.  For one, the shot looks odd, and it isn't until repeats of the shot that it's noticeably backward, with the hay coming from off-screen, landing on the pitchfork, and then being placed on the ground.  It is, in effect, the same idea behind the shot of Teddy Daniels in SHUTTER ISLAND moving backward away from the lake with the children.  You don't know what's odd about it, but it's there, and you know it wasn't quite right.  There are many more parallels one could make between the two films, but for the sake of this article, we'll stick right here.

A fever dream becomes more and more intangible and surreal as the sequence grows and leads to Teddy taking the kids out for a swim.

Aside from that surrealist usage of these "phantom" shots that seemingly are there just to provoke, this shot also mirrors the reality of the situation Teddy is dreaming about, when he in fact removes his three children from the lake after their mother has drowned them.  His memory and dream of this event must show the action like that because it's how it actually played out, which also explains the other "inaccuracies" in his dreams versus what he says happened to his wife - her bleeding from the stomach, being soaking wet, etc.  The films shows us all of this before its revealed, and then it all makes perfect sense.  Without a skillful hand guiding the way - and I feel like this is editor Thelma Schoonmaker's show as much as Scorsese's - this could have been a very plodding, generically designed movie that didn't embrace the bizarre qualities of earlier Hollywood drama and International cinema.

So, given its logical setup and delivery, why then the outcry by the audience against SHUTTER ISLAND?  And where are the critics to defend it when people had similar problems with structure and subversion of expectations in Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS?  Right now, hey're too obsessed with whether or not the artifice is justified, or whether or not Scorsese can be forgiven for the "twist", instead of discussing how the film arrives at its conclusion or the many ways in which it really evokes a classical Hollywood that many people completely overlook in today's criticism.  In the depths of my bones, I know Scorsese has created a late-period masterpiece that will become better appreciated over time, and once everyone gets over its stupid marketing as a twist movie and how shocked they should or shouldn't be, I hope the discourse becomes much greater over this movie.  I'll be contributing again soon.