Saturday, February 4, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Babel"

From 2006: Let’s make this plain right from the top: You should absolutely see Babel, the new film from writer Gullermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu. It is a thoughtful, challenging drama, bursting with terrific performances. It’s a fine, fine film—but it is a disappointment. It is the third collaboration by these two ridiculously talented men from south of the border (following the brilliant Amores Perros and the unforgettable 21 Grams), and it is the first one that they don’t quite bring off. There are flashes of brilliance here, and moments of real power. But it never quite connects emotionally—either within its interlocking stories, or with its audience.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

In Theaters: "Perfect Sense"

David McKenzie’s Perfect Sense tells a cold, frightening story with a sense of logic that is utterly arresting, and a refusal to soft-pedal its trajectory. It is not—contrary to the romantic-embrace print ad campaign, emphasizing sexy stars Ewan McGregor and Eva Green—an upbeat picture. “Without love there is nothing” reads the tagline, and whether or not that’s true, the film itself presents a pretty persuasive dramatization of the inverse: a world where there’s not much left but love, and who knows how much that’s worth.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Theaters: "The Innkeepers"

In an early scene of Ti West’s The Innkeepers, Luke (Pat Healy) shows his co-worker Claire (Sara Paxton), an honest-to-goodness, real video clip of a ghost. He loads up the Quicktime movie on his laptop—a grainy, night-vision shot of a rocking chair in what looks like an attic. “Watch close,” he tells her. “I missed it the first time.” West’s camera goes in for a close-up on the screen, which holds still, and still, and still. Nothing happens. Our eyes dart around the screen; the bracing anticipation at the beginning of the clip has unraveled. And then a giant, terrifying face fills the screen, accompanied by a pounding music hit. We jump, and then we laugh. It’s fun to be scared.

That little moment is an encapsulation of West’s modus operandi—less the scare, even, which is a satisfying one, but the waiting. In this film and his previous one, the magnificent ‘80s-babysitter-movie homage The House of the Devil, West has proven himself the master of the cinematic slow boil. He is patently disinterested in delivering a kill or “gag” every seven minutes, like a Friday the 13th or Saw movie. Like Rosemary’s Baby or the original Halloween or The Shining—which The Innkeepers bears a more-than-passing resemblance to—he values the tense build (with an occasional jolt), culminating in a climax of unbearable terror. Whether it is a sustainable style or a Shyamalan-like gimmick remains to be seen. But as tricks go, it’s a good one.

On DVD: "Janie Jones"

Well, Abigail Breslin has arrived. She’s worked steadily since her breakthrough five years ago, in the title role of Little Miss Sunshine, and has done plenty of good work in that time, but Janie Jones feels like it was custom-made as a vehicle for what she can do. She sings (well), she cries (convincingly), she acts (naturally). This is not a cute-kid role, as many of her previous ones were; Janie Jones is only 13 years old, but she’s dealing with some heavy shit. Breslin has moments in this film that she plays with more depth and sensitivity than actors twice her age; dig the nuance she gives the line “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” like someone who is trying so badly to keep the hurt from showing, and almost—almost—pulling it off. There’s not a hint of contrivance to her performance, and that goes a long way towards making this very conventional story into something fresh and engaging.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On DVD: "Texas Killing Fields"

Texas Killing Fields is the feature directorial debut of Ami Canaan Mann, who is the daughter of Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral). Normally, one might bury that lede, lest the charges of nepotism overshadow the result of her efforts, but the promotional materials all but made that the banner headline, so what the hell. In all fairness, her old man’s influence isn’t hard to spot; the picture’s got wall-to-wall music, up-close digital photography, and a stripped-down, no-nonsense storytelling style. What she doesn’t yet have is the ability to shape those elements into a tight, coherent package. That’ll come, I suppose.

Monday, January 30, 2012

On DVD: "Drive"

Watching Ryan Gosling has become one of the more compelling activities for discerning moviegoers over the last few years—not in “keep an eye on this guy, he’s doing interesting things” kind of way, but in the literal act of watching him, and specifically him, in the films that he does. You can’t take your eyes off of him. It’s easy to click off the roll call of intense and iconic actors who he recalls (Brando, Pacino, Penn, Depp) without examining why he brings them to mind: because he possess that intangible, elusive quality—call it magnetism, charisma, heat, whatever—that draws us in.

Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of the Gosling starrer Drive, is well aware of that quality, and uses it—plays up to it, even. His character is, in the early scenes, purposefully opaque; Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini (adapting James Sallis’s book) construct those opening passages in a way that painstakingly minimizes the amount of dialogue he speaks, sometimes reducing scenes down to mere in and out points, skipping the chitter-chatter in between. (It also makes his quiet work here an even more jarring contrast to his chatty ladies’ man in last summer’s Crazy, Stupid, Love.) The pacing is deliberate, lackadaisical even. Long takes hold on Gosling’s face as he takes in his surroundings, contemplates a situation, and reacts. Or doesn’t, whichever.