In the interest of throwing something up on the blog, here's some brief thoughts on what I've been seeing lately. More to come.
American Gangster (Ridley Scott) Doomed from its inception although no one else seems to agree. Grazer/Scott/Zallian are a perfect storm of miscast creative minds, producing a film every bit as down the middle and generic as the film’s title would indicate. Film timidly incorporates a wan procedural element (and middle-America friendly, white protagonist) to parallel the assent and fall of a black icon making the film every bit as daring as an Ed Zwick film (film might as well be called Dances with Heroin). Scott clearly has no point of entry on the material, so he compensates in the only way he knows how: firing up a smoke machine and trying to re-invision Harlem in the early 70’s as another one of his hyper-stylized sandboxes. Spike Lee would have made the Lucas character mythic, Michael Mann would have fetishized both the minutia and urban rot of the era, both would have been preferable to this assembly line product that’s as devoid of a pulse as it is a point of view. C+
Control (Anton Corbijn) Avoided writing about this one for the longest time as I can see through its flaws but finding it impossible to articulate how or why. Certainly the best of the recent rash of dead rockstar biopics of the past few years but I can’t help but wonder how much of that’s due to the relative lack of notoriety in its subject and leading man. Is star Sam Reilly really that much more convincing as Ian Curtis than, say, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash or is he merely working from a clean slate that’s not tainted by personal fandom? The film plays less as a greatest hits CD than it does a series of fleeting snap shots in the life of a young man doomed by his own demons, placing emphasis on tone as opposed to incident. Less structurally sound than ideal (the film drags in anticipation of Curtis’ death, turning the film into an impatient slog towards the inevitable) but Corbijn’s direction is stirring, lensing in gorgeous black and white scope, injecting the potential rote performance pieces with an exposed nerve level of energy. Plus, at the risk of blasphemy, the cast’s re-recordings of Joy Division’s material arguably sounds better than they ever did on the band’s albums. B+
Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck) I can’t be the only one sick of Boston at this point, right? The Hub has not only monopolized national sports over the past few years but seems to keep drawing the country’s best filmmakers to the working class hovels and corner bars of Southie. Now if only they weren’t continuously drawn to material beneath them. Like Mystic River (also based on a Lehane novel) this one becomes rather daft as it goes along, rolling along plot points straight out of an episode of “Law & Order” in exploring an undercurrent of corruption and urban decay, although I at least give Affleck credit for keeping his performances from flying off the rails in a torrent of Oscar bating histrionics. Shouldn’t be surprised that the guy who co-wrote Good Will Hunting has a gift for breezy, free-wheeling neighborhood speak, but it’s the first-timer director’s work with actors ranging from little brother Casey to veterans Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris to character actors from HBO Amy Ryan and Titus Welliver that give hint to the promising career this former acting punchline may end up having behind the camera. B
The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona) Mucho derivativo. Another old-fashioned Spanish-language ghost story from Guillermo del Toro (playing the part of a Mexican Tarantino in “presenting” the film) although this one plays a lot closer to his lesser viewed The Devil’s Backbone than Pan’s Labyrinth. Lots of story for story’s sake, not much of it goes anywhere beyond creating a general sense of unease and approximately 2.5 legitimately scary scenes (mostly of the “boo!” variety). Captivating for stretches but once the dread dissipates you’re left with a vacuum that the film attempt to fill with mawkish sentiment it hasn’t begun to earn. B-