REVIEW: Blood Ties

22 06 2014

Blood TiesCannes Film Festival – Out of Competition, 2013

It’s clear from the beginning of “Blood Ties” that Guillaume Canet’s English-language feature debut is a Scorsese-lite New York ensemble drama.  Still, to so successfully channel a modern master right out of the gate is pretty impressive.  While Canet’s direction is hardly novel, he always keeps the film fun and compelling.

His ’70s saga follows the exploits of the two Pierzynski brothers squaring off on opposite sides of the law, Chris (Clive Owen) the criminal and Frank (Billy Crudup) the cop.  If the premise sounds familiar, well, it is.  In fact, the film is co-written by Canet with the help of James Gray, who himself wrote/directed a very similar tale of fraternal opposition called “We Own the Night” back in 2007.

Yet even though it felt like I knew these characters from other movies, they still thrilled me.  Gray, a consummate crafter of familial tension, completely nails the tricky dynamics between Chris and Frank.  They have always been pitted against each other, so a natural rivalry has been fostered between them.  Yet underneath it all, there’s the undeniable pull of – wait for it – blood ties that every so often overpowers all else.

Clive Owen is once again dastardly convincing in a brutish role, recalling his gripping performance in “Inside Man.”  However, it’s Billy Crudup who really carries the movie with a quiet strength.  He never really got a role to showcase all the talent he showed in “Almost Famous,” and now, 14 years later, Crudup arrives again with a bang. Read the rest of this entry »

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 18, 2013)

18 01 2013

When you think of the films of Spike Lee, I can imagine some of the things that come to mind are didactic, pugnacious, and aggressive political commentary.  In other words, you would think of a movie that looks nothing like “Inside Man,” a tight thriller about the perfect bank robbery.  But precisely because it resists the trappings of a typical Spike Lee movie, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (And also because it’s an AWESOME movie!)

You’ve seen plenty of movies about bank robbers, but none quite like Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell.  He’s got a master plan to pull off the perfect heist, one that slowly and cryptically unveils itself in Spike Lee’s film.  Russell is interested in more than just getting quickly in and out with the money; he’s willing to play the long game with the police and the hostages in unconventional ways.  The tension is high as you wait to see when, if ever, his master plan will unravel.

Remarkably, it manages to hold up as some curious players with some very powerful ulterior motives enter the fray.  Namely, there’s the wild-card of Jodie Foster’s power broker tampering with everything she can to keep some secrets hidden inside the bank.  With so many people operating in the shadows and shades of grey, it makes the the quest of the righteous Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) all the more urgent and compelling.

There’s rarely a dull moment in “Inside Man,” and Lee manages to pull it off without ever needing to pull out a boombox and blare “Fight the Power.”  There’s a little bit of commentary on multiculturalism in New York, but it’s hands-off and not particularly distracting from the point of the film.  Which is, of course, to entertain for two hours and then yank the rug out from underneath the audience.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 1, 2011)

1 07 2011

Back at the end of 2009, my first year of blogging, I caught some heat for including Tony Gilroy’s sophomore directorial venture, “Duplicity,” among my top 10.  To quote directly, “Duplicity? Really?”  There was also a slightly more detailed explanation of someone’s distaste for the movie, with that blogger describing the film as “dull.”

So now, with Julia Roberts headlining “Larry Crowne,” I have the perfect opportunity to defend the movie that charted as the 7th best movie of 2009 for me as the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  For my money, “Duplicity” was a fun, sleek, and stylish spy thriller that kept you on your toes every step of the way.  Coming after the flop that was “Quantum of Solace,” espionage was desperately in need of a facelift.  And at the beginning of 2009, originality wasn’t exactly plentiful at the theaters.

And in addition to being insanely well-written as an espionage movie, it also doubles as a romantic comedy with a dynamite couple in Julia Roberts and Clive Owen (who shared the screen as lovers in Mike Nichols’ “Closer,” a past F.I.L.M.).  The two play all sorts of games with each other, but since they are both corporate spies, all the lying, cheating, and stealing is for their job.  As the movie cuts back and forth between their history as lovers and their current scheming, it keeps us wondering where the line between work and play is drawn by these two spies.  Do they draw it at the same place?  What happens when this line is crossed?  By mixing the two genres, Gilroy gets us more engaged than ever in the business of these spies.  (Not to mention he cuts out all the contrived mumbo-jumbo we’ve been told to tolerate time and time again by Hollywood.)

Owen’s Ray Kovacks and Roberts’ Claire Stenwich are fascinating to watch unfurl courtesy of their nuanced portrayals.  First spies for competing governments, then from competing corporations, their alliances are never completely evident nor are their motives fully crystalline.  But as their quest to be the smartest guys in the room takes them on a crazy path that only a brilliant screenwriter like Tony Gilroy could imagine, their worlds and minds begin to unravel, ultimately laying them bare.  Some might call the movie’s never-ending plot twists excessive and ultimately self-destructive, but in the current Hollywood climate, “Duplicity” doesn’t have enough to compensate for the lack of complexity in a calendar year.  The twists can be electrifying if you choose to let them shock you, and the movie’s ride can be tremendously rewarding for those with the commitment to follow it.

REVIEW: The Boys Are Back

25 07 2010

I saw “The Boys Are Back” a few months ago, and I remember as much about it now as I did the day after I saw it.  If that doesn’t speak volumes about this ultimately forgettable movie, I don’t know what does.

The plot revolves around a widower played by Clive Owen who takes on an interesting parenting philosophy: no rules.  As a sports journalist, he traveled quite a bit and never really had much practical parenting experience.  So his strategy gets a serious test, particularly when he invites his son from a prior marriage to come live with him in Australia.  This proves to be just enough to keep us from counting down the minutes until the movie is over but not enough to fully engage.

Really, the movie’s only talking point is Clive Owen.  He’s a fantastic actor who has given some riveting performances, particularly in “Children of Men” and “Closer.”  Owen won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination for the latter, and I think it’s just a matter of time before he nets the industry’s most coveted prize.  He gives a respectable performance here, showing a tender side he usually hides.  The previously mentioned roles were both hardened, gruff characters that Owen nailed with a stone-faced tenacity.

He’s not bad at the lighter fluff, but he needs to get back to his comfort zone to further elevate his status.  It’s pretty obvious that “The Boys Are Back” is a half-hearted attempt at awards bait.   You would think it’s the kind of role that might garner some serious attention and then laurels.  But the movie isn’t flashy in the slightest, and Owen has practically no opportunities to show what a talented actor he is.  So for now, we can dream about the day that Owen sinks his teeth into the career-defining role.  Until then, we’re stuck with this.  B- /

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 23, 2010)

23 07 2010

You need to see “Children of Men” if you haven’t already.  You owe it to yourself.

I rewatched it a few days ago and fell in love with it all over again.  I chose it as this week’s “F.I.L.M.” because I found it as beautifully new as if I had just seen it – and also because it stars Julianne Moore, the subject of the LAMB’s Acting School.

We’ve seen the apocalyptic situations a million times, be it by zombies or bad weather.  But in Alfonso Cuaron’s world, based on the novel by author P.D. James, the end is near because of the sudden infertility of women.  The only surviving government is Britain, which has become a hotbed for illegal immigration.  So even there, society is collapsing.

The extraordinary chain of events in “Children of Men” are set in motion by the death of the world’s youngest person, Baby Diego.  Theo, played by the powerful Clive Owen, is a little more affected than he expected and winds up barely missing being killed by a bombing set up by the Fishes, a group of political activists led by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore).  They kidnap him and recruit his services to take a refugee to the Human Project, a group committed to curing human’s infertility.  This refugee is carrying the key to survival – the first child in 18 years.

It’s a really cool movie to watch thanks to the visionary Cuaron and all the life he breathes into it.   He co-wrote the screenplay, and it’s incredibly rich, both in terms of plot and dialogue.  The acting is all flawless, from Julianne Moore’s moving bit part to Michael Caine’s lovable aging stoner to Owen’s riveting leading performance.  The cinematography is astounding, and it easy to notice how innovative it is.  Thanks to utilizing some long shots (as opposed to Hollywood’s incessant changing shots), Emmanuel Lubezki’s eye for the story really stands out.

But what I found so astonishing on second viewing was the thematic depth the movie had.  Be sure to watch for the religious overtones – they really can floor you.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 18, 2010)

18 06 2010

Love.  Sex.  Desire.  Lust.  Need.

These are words we all associate together, right?  Usually one affects the other or one leads to the other.  But if you are willing to challenge your views on the connectivity of these emotions, then you will love my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Mike Nichols’ “Closer.”  If the director alone isn’t enough to make you see this movie, just look at the poster and see all the stars.  Each and every one of them gives a fantastic performance, but one in particular really deserved an Academy Award.

The movie follows four people in London over the course of several years, particularly noting their struggles and their romances.  Alice (Natalie Portman) is an American trying to get away from stripping for a living who falls for Dan (Jude Law) after he helps her recover from getting hit by a taxi.  But Dan also has feelings for Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer taking his picture for the book he has written many years after meeting Alice.  When she kindly refuses to be with him, Dan plays a mean-spirited practical joke on her and brings Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist, into the mix.  As the story unfolds, the four mix and clash in unexpected ways, all seeking some sort of truth through love.

Part of what makes “Closer” so fascinating is the plot and the dialogue.  Patrick Marber adapts his own Tony Award-nominated play for the movie, and he stays relatively close to the spirit of the stage.  The movie has a very stripped-down, bare essentials minimalism that makes us feel like we are watching actual lives unfold.  Marber has thematic depth in his screenplay and probes issues that usually only playwrights dare to do.  His dialogue is raw and unsparing, a perfect complement to the story.

However, what really makes “Closer” such an intensely satisfying watch are the actors.  Julia Roberts is scary good at being quiet and unassuming, but when that layer fades away, she is just plain scary.  Jude Law probably has the most screen time, and he makes the most of it with his compelling work.  Clive Owen is the most brutal of the bunch, rough and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants.  Owen plays the role with such a ferocious intensity that we never doubt his character for a second.

But the best performance of all is delivered by Natalie Portman.  It’s so much more mature than her 23 years (at the time of the release).  Alice is completely realized thanks to Portman, who really gets inside her enigmatic character to shocking success.  Whether it is anguished, upset, wanting, or hurting, Portman nails the emotion.  The role is a dramatic change of pace from her usual “good girl,” and it certainly is strange as she becomes completely absorbed in being mysterious and seductive.  She never lets us doubt it, though, as she keeps us astonished and spellbound by Alice and her quest for love.