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The Movie Report
Archive
May 2010

#608 - 609
May 7, 2010 - May 21, 2010


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

S U B S C R I B E

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#609 May 21, 2010

M O V I E S

Legacy poster Legacy *** 1/2 extra
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Legacy is at once easy yet impossible to describe. The tag line--"One man. One room. One mission."--on initial appearance reads like the simplest, lowest-common-denominator promotional copy, but it's about as dead-on a summary of writer/director/editor Thomas Ikimi's basic premise as one can devise. But for all the concrete accuracy of those six, simple words, they don't quite begin to do full justice to the uniquely harrowing experience of the film as it plays out--nor the craft and precision Ikimi exhibits in bringing his uncompromising vision to the screen.

It is to the film's benefit that it defies detailed description, for the sense of ominous uncertainty and gradually unfolding discovery more closely places the viewer in the position of that "one man" in that "one room," Malcolm Gray (Idris Elba). A soldier in a Black Ops squad, he holes up in a run-down Brooklyn hotel room to try to make sense of a recent, disastrous operation that has left him battered and scarred--in ways far beyond the literal, and, as becomes apparent, for long before that fateful mission. The film opens with a taste of those events that day in Eastern Europe, and this pre-title sequence sets the stage for what follows in the next 90 minutes--not just in terms of plot and general tone but also the storytelling. As a tense stand-off erupts into violence, Ikimi gets right what so many filmmakers do not in their depictions of visceral chaos: while there are the appropriately disorienting quick edits and such, the stylish technique does not come at the expense of general coherence.

That carries over to the entirety of Legacy, as Ikimi efficiently balances and intertwines style and content to the degree that they are one and the same, hence making an inherently and willfully enigmatic scenario accessible and engrossing. The striking main titles cleverly integrate the standard credits into newspaper headlines and articles that quickly, clearly give the back story on the political rise of Malcolm's brother, Senator Darnell Gray (Eamonn Walker), not to mention cannily introduce the newspaper clippings that become omnipresent in the rest of the film. Once the action becomes almost completely confined to that hotel room and the character of Malcolm, necessary exposition and key information are dispensed in similarly layered fashion: flashbacks, hazy visions, video diaries, television interviews, glimpses of images, and dialogue both spoken and overlaid weave together to form Malcolm's psychological puzzlebox of a present. As Malcolm's mental state ironically becomes more confused in his ongoing quest for clarity, also ironic is how Ikimi's virtuoso command over his material grows clearer and all the more impressive. For what is largely a single set/location piece, he keeps consistently keeps things visually interesting from an aesthetic standpoint with his lighting, color, and shot choices, but beyond merely looking good they serve to build the claustrophobic tension and gradually tighten the screws as Malcolm descends deeper into darkness and delusion.

Even with Ikimi's cinematic skill, though, such careful construction would be a cerebral but cold exercise were it not for the presence of Elba. Though the role of Malcolm was not expressly written for him, it's unthinkable to have any one else in the part, for it is so perfectly suited to his strengths and considerable range. His intimidating physicality not only ideally fits the soldier profile but always makes the threat of violence, either to others or himself, loom large. But belying his imposing presence is the very raw, very real vulnerability Elba is so vividly able to convey with just his eyes and face. If his charisma is what initially grips, it is the naked emotional fearlessness of Elba's performance that keeps one riveted, making a very internal struggle externally intimate for the audience as one can not only see but feel the pain, grief, and fear behind Malcolm's outward rage and enveloping madness. Any portrayal of mental collapse precariously tempts alienating the audience, but Elba is able to maintain a relatable point of connection beneath the uncertainty of the surface.

That sense of connection is invaluable, for one underwritten aspect of the script is that there's not a huge sense of the person Malcolm was before that last mission or even before he first joined the Black Ops squad. There is some suggestion, in quieter moments with his squad and particularly in scenes with lost love Valentina (Monique Gabriela Curnen), but not a whole lot to go on. However, such vagueness ultimately helps the film and supports the central, title theme of legacies: the exalted one that Darnell is trying to secure with his political maneuvers; the external "legacies" left by actions of the past; "legacies" in the mind as in memories of said actions, relationships, feelings. Malcolm, much like the audience, is continually unsure of who or what he truly is; is he the person that existed before he became the ruthless "righteous" killer as required by his orders, or was the murderous monster in fact a manifestation his true self? In sorting through and trying to make "sense" the "legacies" of those events, relationships, and feelings, the true mission proves not to be uncovering the reasons behind and those responsible for bringing him to his current place, but for Malcolm to let go and finally take a stand and shape for himself what will be his ultimate legacy.

Similarly, it's up to the viewer to decide the legacy that one takes from viewing the film. Unlike in too many films that blur the lines of reality, Ikimi plays fair, inviting (or, perhaps more accurately, challenging) the audience to be an active participant rather than a passive observer by clearly laying out a number of clues and answers for one to figure out if not the whole mystery, then to at least assemble some of the pieces. But for all of Ikimi's unconventional, boundary-breaking ideas and audacity in presentation, Legacy ultimately works in fairly simple and most traditional terms: it's a complex character study brought to absorbing, haunting life through the fierce commitment of its acting and filmmaking.


In Brief

Just Wright poster Letters to Juliet poster Just Wright (PG) ***
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Letters to Juliet (PG) **
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Originality is not something anyone generally expects in a Hollywood studio romantic comedy, so it's a bit pointless to knock a film like Just Wright on those grounds--especially when it goes through those expected paces with such incredible charm. Sanaa Hamri's film is remarkably blessed with that in her two leads, Queen Latifah and Common. She plays a physical therapist and he a pro hoops superstar, which tells you just about everything--beginning, middle, and end--about the story progression; that the obligatory best friend character (Paula Patton) has golddigging designs on bagging a baller husband fills in many of the remaining details. But each easily-foreseen step is made involving by Latifah and Common's remarkably unforced rapport, which, in one of the film's actual surprises, is rather patiently allowed to believably develop, and with a relative minimum of plot contrivance; there's none of the standard "bicker their way to love" bullshit in Michael Elliot's script, just two people who get to know each other and whose relationship strengthens and deepens. Latifah has always been a reliable utility supporting player in film over the years, but on these all too rare occasions where she gets the central spotlight, her effortless leading lady class, charisma, and appeal makes one mad that such opportunities come so sporadically for her. The rather unlikely casting of Common, typically cast nothing more than as an intense presence (see most recently: Date Night), works to the film's advantage; the audience, much like Latifah, is surprised and utterly won over by the disarming, nice guy affability beneath the intimidating aura. Patton's role may ultimately amount to being the thankless third wheel, but she shows off a comic flair never before tapped (someone give her a Sandra Bullock-esque everygirl rom-com lead, stat) and makes the part far more likable (and, hence, believable) than it could've been.

Just how well Just Wright works formula tropes is highlighted by the other chick flick of the week (and, seriously, Fox Searchlight--way to preordain the underachievement a so-deemed "urban" romance with genuine, potential cross-demo appeal by scheduling against a film that on the surface looks more broadly mainstream), Letters to Juliet. Buried in Gary Winick's glossy, photogenic travelogue is a wonderful story about an older woman (Vanessa Redgrave, absolutely enchanting without even trying) traversing the Italian countryside to rediscover the one-that-could've-been from her teenage years. Alas, that's the B-plot here, with the forefront taken by a vacationing would-be writer (Amanda Seyfried) along for the ride with Redgrave and her uptight asshole of a grandson (Christopher Egan, like a Brit-accented Ryan Phillippe, but even blander--yes, it's possible). It's dislike and bicker at first sight for Egan and Seyfried, but could he possibly be the one for her, never mind she's already engaged to a chef (Gael Garcia Bernal, looking oddly like Balki-era Bronson Pinchot, was obviously strapped for cash to take this terrible role) seemingly more interested in a wine auction than spending time with her? Not even the ever-likable Seyfried at full-blast sun-kissed luminescence can win the battle against such trite, tired material nor make a viable leading man out of her pretty boy zero of a co-star. The soulful screen sparks between Redgrave and her love interest, real-life hubby Franco Nero, just make one all too painfully aware of what goes so very wrong elsewhere in the film.


Robin Hood poster Robin Hood (PG-13) ***
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If historically humorless star Russell Crowe and historically humorless director Ridley Scott would strike one as odd matches to tackle an iconic adventure character historically synonymous with a lighter touch, one would not be mistaken--and so this Robin Hood is far from the "fun" romp one would usually expect but something far more attuned to the pair's (in their fifth collaboration) sensibilities: a straight-faced medieval historical epic that happens to use the familar characters of legend. But Scott, Crowe, and writer Brian Helgeland make such a dubious-sounding proposition work, and perhaps the biggest key to this is their fashioning the film as a prequel/origin story--and, hence, not being beholden to either images of Errol Flynn in tights nor the sounds of Bryan Adams on the soundtrack. As such, Crowe's usual intensity comes in handy as a rough, rugged Robin who gets caught up in assorted palace political intrigue after returning home from serving in the Crusades with King Richard; Cate Blanchett does not play "Maid Marian" but "Lady Marion," but maybe a more appropriate name would be "Queen Elizabeth," as she has more in common with Blanchett's twice-nominated badass take on the British monarch than anything else. While there are some rather large scale battle sequences, this is not summer popcorn action fodder, as there are long, talky sections, but the political maneuvering and relationship drama is all fairly engrossing thanks to the solid cast, which also includes Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Eileen Atkins, Danny Huston, and Max von Sydow. I cannot help but think that the film is being released in the wrong period, as this is the type of "non-Oscar-baiting adult dramatic fare with commercial elements" film that is more suited to an October slot than the thick of blockbuster season, but this is a solid change of pace for those seeking something a bit more substantial amid the sound-and-fury norm of this cinema season.


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#608 May 7, 2010

M O V I E S
In Brief

Babies poster Babies (PG) **
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The tagline "Everybody loves babies" may indeed be true, but if not falling head over heels for a film that is literally just 80 minutes of cute babies makes me a grump, so be it. But that's both the major appeal and major drawback here--Thomas Balmes's film quite literally is 80 minutes of unnarrated footage following the first year in the lives of four babies in four different parts of the world: Opuwo, Namibia; Bayanchandmani, Mongolia, Tokyo, Japan; and San Francisco. Balmes's ostensible point is that despite the cultural, geographical, and familial differences, there are universal parallels between babies' development, and indeed that idea comes across. Most of the time, however, this is just a patched-together series of moments designed to elicit steady cries of "aww, how cute" or any other equivalent statement. Yes, the babies are cute, but that's something that's already clear within the opening minute featuring two Namibian babies (which was used as the buzz-building opening for the film's trailer), and cuteness alone is not enough to sustain interest for 79 more.


Furry Vengeance poster Furry Vengeance (PG) no stars
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Brendan Fraser is the man in charge of a massive development project that will level a huge swath of forest; all of the animals, led by an especially crafty raccoon, unite to drive the humans away. And so ensues a seemingly endless series of Home Alone-esque gags of Fraser either being caught in ridiculously elaborate traps set up by the animals or being directly attacked by them. To say this quickly grows tiresome is an understatement, and so one ends up paying attention to other things while the silliness goes on and on (and on): how Fraser looks even more disconcertingly bloated than he did in Extraordinary Measures; how unflatteringly Brooke Shields, in the thankless role of Fraser's wife, is shot; how godawful the CG animal effects are; how brazenly the film demonizes Asians (Ken Jeong plays Fraser's money-grubbing, environmentally-unfriendly boss, finalizing a financing deal with--yes--equally heartless Indian businessmen); how director Roger Kumble's debut way back in 1999, the deliciously sleazy Cruel Intentions, looks more and more like a fluke with every disastrous film he has perpetrated since. That even the kids in the audience didn't really laugh at all the hyperactive mugging and slapsticky animal nonsense pretty much tells you what an excruciating 91-minute endurance test this is.


Mother and Child poster Mother and Child (R) **
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As the title suggests, motherhood is the focal issue of latest female-centric drama from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, specifically via the issue of adoption, which touches the lives of the central trio of characters: a physical therapist (Annette Bening) haunted by the child she gave up years ago as a teen; said child, now all grown-up as a chilly, take-no-prisoners lawyer (Naomi Watts); and a young wife (Kerry Washington) unable to bear children and eager to adopt. The acting heavyweights in the cast do not disappoint, for the performances are superb across the board, with even the most veteran of stars being revelatory. As Watts's boss, Samuel L. Jackson is disarmingly warm and subdued, never once raising his voice (!); and for the first time in a very long while, Bening disappears into a character and turns in a performance that isn't about her shamelessly playing to the rafters to grab after Oscar--ironically enough delivering some truly awards-consideration-worthy work, at turns wickedly funny and emotionally shattering. Watts, as usual, takes a role that runs the emotional gamut and is simply spectacular, peeling the layers away from a cold manipulator to reveal something raw and real. Washington doesn't have quite as meaty a part as the other two leads, but she more than rises to the occasion when her more demanding moments come. Undoubtedly some will write off this film as being sappy and manipulative--and, being one of those "disparate threads that converge" ensemble films, it admittedly is--but the tears it wrings are well earned by those raw, honest, terrific performances.


A Nightmare on Elm Street poster A Nightmare on Elm Street (R) ***
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Like most viewers, I do not see any compelling artistic reason to remake A Nightmare on Elm Street. Despite it being 26 years since he first slashed his way onto screens and into dreams, not only has the character of the hat-and-sweater-wearing, claw-wielding killer known as Freddy Krueger has remained very much in the forefront of the pop culture consciousness, but Wes Craven's 1984 original film still gets wide play today, especially by each new teen generation who discovers the whole series and the indelible work by Robert Englund. While it in no way supplants the first, classic film, Samuel Bayer's remake/reboot about as reasonably effective a redo as can be made, and the key is the respect Bayer and writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer pay to Craven's original 1984 vision. Years of sequels featuring the wisecracking nightmare slasher "Freddy" Krueger make it easy to forget that the 1984 film was more of a slower-burn, straight-faced mystery/thriller centered around the creepy and menacing dream invader "Fred" Krueger--and those expecting that more widely recalled, lighter persona may be in for a shock to how this is a throwback to the darker, more serious vision. Also helping Bayer's cause is the smart casting: Jackie Earle Haley is more than capable of filling Englund's sweater, hat, and glove, making for a Freddy that hasn't been this sinister since Craven last touched him (in his undervalued 1994 meta-deconstruction/genre commentary, Wes Craven's New Nightmare); and as the teens whose dreams he terrorizes, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Thomas Dekker, and Katie Cassidy (even if she is way too old looking to play a high schooler) are all much more skilled than most young actors in horror films. If Bayer ultimately falls into some distinctly modern genre traps in the end--a more literally "explosive" climax; a bigger "gotcha" close--at least most of the way he's made an homage to Craven's intended vision that is believably earnest in execution and completely faithful in spirit, with some fun callback touches (e.g., the indelible bathtub image) along the way.


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