GONE BABY GONE
The days of laughing at Ben Affleck appear to be over. To be honest, the chiseled leading man never really deserved the derision tossed his way as an actor, since the fault rested less in his thespian abilities and more in his frequent choice of rancid material (Gigli, Pearl Harbor, Saving Christmas) as well as in the disastrous p.r. surrounding his not-so-private life with media hog Jennifer Lopez.
As anyone who’s seen his accomplished work in Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting and Hollywoodland can attest, the man has talent, even if it’s of a limited nature. That talent apparently exists on the other side of the camera as well.
With his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, he ably demonstrates that by playing it close to the vest, he can turn out a compelling drama that’s deeply absorbing and constantly surprising. The mystery unfolds in a working-class Boston neighborhood in which a child proves to be the victim of tragic circumstances.
In this new film, a little girl is snatched from her home, and the family, not content with the investigation being conducted by the police, hires private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) to track down the missing moppet. Working in uneasy unison with detectives Broussard (Ed Harris) and Poole (John Ashton), sometimes without the knowledge of the cops’ superior officer (Morgan Freeman), Patrick and Angie follow the trail of clues wherever it leads, which is usually straight into an underworld populated by thuggish crime lords and coke-addled pedophiles.
Aided by a stellar cast that showcases superlative turns by Ben’s brother Casey, Harris and Amy Ryan as the child’s trashy mom, Affleck has crafted a forceful crime flick that’s made even more irresistible by way of moral dilemmas that are rarely contemplated in modern dramas.
INTO THE WILD
Despite (or, in some cases, because of) his meticulous Method madness, Sean Penn’s performances -- even the fine ones -- can best be described as overwrought. But place the actor behind the camera, and the opposite holds true: As a director, his preference has been for subtlety rather than showboating. And with each passing film (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge), it’s clear that his confidence and comfort level have both grown at a startling rate.
Adapting Jon Krakauer’s based-on-fact novel, he has fashioned a somber, reflective film about a young man whose actions are so open to interpretation that where some will see an idealistic dreamer, others will see an obnoxious brat; where some will see a martyr, others will see a moron. In a role that might have gone to Leonardo DiCaprio were he not so busy bonding with Martin Scorsese, Emile Hirsch delivers a strong performance as Chris McCandless, a well-to-do college graduate who, instead of following the distinguished career path laid out for him by his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), elects to donate all his savings to charity and head for the wilderness. Determined to leave society and all its hypocrisies behind, he treks all over North America’s untamed terrain, finding himself as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alaska.
But while Chris (who has since renamed himself Alexander Supertramp) may think he has little use for humankind in general, he finds he still can benefit from the kindness and occasional company of particular people. He meets a wide range of interesting individuals during his travels, among them an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) who engages in philosophical debates with the lad, a Midwestern farmer (Vince Vaughn) who offers him practical advice, and a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, a real-life river guide making the year’s best acting debut) who view him as a surrogate son.
Into the Wild is especially memorable in the manner in which it offers no absolutes. Functioning as a bookend piece to Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary Grizzly Man, it demonstrates that nature is as beastly as it is beautiful, and even noble aspirations run the risk of getting trampled under its imposing weight.
WE OWN THE NIGHT
At least writer-director James Gray sports a surname that helpfully describes his motion pictures. It’s isn’t that Gray’s a poor filmmaker, but his previous two efforts -- the competent but colorless crime dramas Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000) -- were so ordinary that, years down the road, I honestly can’t remember a single scene from either one.
If nothing else, We Own the Night marks a step in the right direction in that it boasts of one terrific sequence worth recalling: a car-chase-cum-gun-battle unfolding in a rainstorm so blinding and fierce that even the raindrops sound like bullets hitting their designated targets. Beyond this mesmerizing sequence, We Own the Night, set in 1988 New York City, is another example of (crime) business as usual. Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is a nightclub manager at odds with his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and his father Burt (Robert Duvall), both respected police officers. Circumstances force Bobby to become even more estranged from his family, but that all changes when a powerful drug dealer (Alex Veadov) orders a hit on Joseph.
The young cop barely survives, but this spurs Bobby to choose sides in the fight between law and disorder. He falls squarely on the side of right, risking his own life for the sake of his family. Phoenix and Wahlberg (who previously co-starred in Gray’s The Yards and serve as producers here) are solid but unremarkable, and even a great actor like Duvall can’t do much with his threadbare role.
What’s the point in tackling a real-life hot-button issue if everything about it is presented in an only-in-Hollywood style of fantasy filmmaking? Rendition, a perceived Oscar contender that instead should prove to be an Oscar also-ran, follows United 93, In the Valley of Elah and several other post-9/11 titles that tackle the immediacy and anguish of the troubled world in which we live; here, the topic on hand is “extraordinary rendition,” which allows the U.S. government to send suspected terrorists to other countries in order to be “interrogated.”
Since the Bush Administration has no qualms about torturing any foreigner (guilty or innocent) whose skin is darker than, say, Nicole Kidman’s, it’s a viable and volatile subject for a movie to tackle, but Rendition does so in the most simplistic manner possible.
Reese Witherspoon plays Isabella, a pregnant suburban mom whose Egyptian-born, U.S.-raised husband (Omar Metwally) has disappeared without a trace, snatched at the Washington, D.C. airport for his suspected part in a bombing that killed a CIA operative. The U.S. government’s evidence is feeble -- a cell phone number linking the man to the terrorist outfit -- but foaming-at-the-mouth Senator Whitman (Meryl Streep, not particularly effective) decides that’s all the proof she needs to ship him off to be subjected to all manner of pain.
The American analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) assigned to preside over the torture finds the treatment shocking, especially since it’s clear that the man’s innocent; meanwhile, Isabella seeks help from a former college fling (Peter Sarsgaard), who just happens to be (imagine an audible groan here) the assistant to a senator (Alan Arkin) who works closely with Whitman.
As if all this wasn’t convenient enough for the sake of tidy storytelling and tentative armchair liberalism, there’s also a plot thread involving a taboo love affair between a young terrorist and the daughter of the head of the torture unit.
ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE
Sequels to multiplex fodder like Saw and Daddy Day Care are givens, but a follow-up to an art-house endeavor set in a century far, far away? Indeed, that’s the case with Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a sequel to the 1998 historical drama that proved to be a surprise box office performer and recipient of seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture).
But like most sequels, Elizabeth 2 proves to be markedly inferior to its predecessor, which was a more original piece in that it examined the life of the Queen of England (played by Cate Blanchett) as she came into her own as both a woman and a ruler. With interesting characters flitting about in the shadows (most notably Geoffrey Rush’s loyal but lethal advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham) and an unsettling sense of menace lurking around every corner (after all, it was hard being Protestant in a Catholic world order), the first film deserved much of the lavish praise heaped upon it.
By comparison, Elizabeth’s second coming feels less like a royal offering than a common period biopic which mistakes stuffiness for stateliness. Here, Elizabeth must cope with an assassination plot approved by the jailed Mary Stuart (an effective Samantha Morton) and the King of Spain (Jordi Molla, whose sneering turn would be more at home in a Monty Python spoof).
At the same time, she grows fond of the rakish explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (a coasting Clive Owen), leading to a romantic subplot nearly identical to the one already presented more zestfully by Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Rush returns as Walsingham, but his role has been neutered and therefore his services are largely wasted.
And while Blanchett delivers another first-rate performance as The Virgin Queen, she’s ultimately defeated by a languorous script that makes court intrigue about as exciting as jury duty.
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