Thursday, May 28, 2009


Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, Andre Braugher, Clea DuVall, David Morse, Dianne Wiest, William B. Davis
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG-13

(out of )

is a deeply misunderstood movie. Misunderstood by nearly all critics and audiences who saw it. Yep, all five of them. Dumped into theaters for about a week before hitting DVD it's the latest victim of mismarketing and false expectations. It isn't a cheesy "B" horror movie or a "suspense thriller" as the posters, taglines and cover art imply. And that's why it's successful. It's a compelling if only slightly uneven human drama that doesn't belong in the bargain bin like you've heard. More surprisingly, it's made too well to even be considered a guilty pleasure.

Yes, there's a big twist ending but everyone was too busy pointing their fingers at what other movies it may have "ripped off" that they forgot to actually look at the context it was presented in or notice that it worked very well. I didn't think a film focusing on the mysterious circumstances involving a plane crash and featuring such diverse talents as Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson and David Morse could possibly be awful. I was right. They have nothing to be ashamed of for appearing in this, especially Hathaway who gives a performance that not only rises above the material, but elevates it. Those hoping to see her slumming it for a quick payday will be sorely disappointed. I guess you'll just have to rent Bride Wars instead.

The film appears to make its first mistake within the opening minutes by not showing us the horrific plane crash that jump starts the narrative or letting us get to know the passengers on any personal level. But there are reasons. They're not entirely surprising, but are much more rewarding than I expected. It opens, Lost-style, with the few surviving passengers wandering aimlessly as the plane engulfs in flames. A frazzled, inexperienced psychotherapist Claire Summers (Hathaway) is assigned by her superior (Andre Braugher) to counsel the survivors and deal with their post-traumatic stress. In her late twenties, she's spent more time collecting diplomas and masters degrees than living life, which proves to be a major hurdle in helping these people. As far as grief counselors go, she isn't a very effective one. And knows it.

Each of the passengers handle their ordeal in different ways, but one of the survivors, Eric (Wilson), appears to be on a euphoric high after the crash, relishing every moment and making major life changes. In other words, he's in complete denial and could explode at any moment. A major part of his new self-improvement program is trying to get the repressed Claire to loosen up enough to sleep with him. Claire is concerned when Eric starts showing signs of "E.S.P.", knowing things about Claire only those closest to her (and probably just about everyone else on the planet) would, like that she takes milk and sugar in her coffee and has a sister.

The more the mysterious details of the plane crash present themselves the more interested she becomes in piecing them together to give her patients closure. This raises the ire of an airline beaurocrat (David Morse) who's trying to cover up the company's possible negligence in the crash. Since he's played by Morse you probably could have guessed that he's really creepy and talks in an evil whisper. Tensions escalate when the surviving passengers start to go missing and Claire's relationship with Eric crosses that "ethical line." Worse yet, her kooky neighbor (Dianne Wiest) won't leave her alone and yes even the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) from The X-Files shows up to join in the action.

I was worried this movie would go the way of the dreadful Julianne Moore supernatural thriller The Forgotten from a few years ago. Strong premise, pathetic follow through. Instead what shows up onscreen more closely resembles Peter Weir's Fearless, the definitive entry on the psychological scars of a plane crash and a character driven drama interested in examining how we choose to live our lives. The central mystery involving the crash isn't that interesting (at least until the final minutes) but it's to director Rodrigo Garcia's credit that he knows this and focuses instead on the relationship between Claire and Eric.

Despite his considerable talent, I fully expected Wilson to be roped into doing a poor man's Jack Shepherd from Lost, minus the beard and prescription drugs. But what he does with the character is kind of bizarrely brilliant and a good way. He's definitely not your typical traumatized survivor and a lot of things that came out of his mouth were really funny. In fcat his delivery was so funny and his chemistry with Hathaway so breezy you get the impression that if he signed up for a romantic comedy opposite her it would be excellent. We saw glimpses of his deadpan humor in Little Children but this was a completely different kind of part for him. He's not just playing a variation on the "everyman" here or "Mr. Nice Guy."

Hathaway is given a surprisingly complex, multifaceted character to play for this type of film, completely believable as a counselor without the confidence in herself to do the job, or do anything. Toward the final act you realize her role was even better developed than you thought and a good effort was put forth into fleshing her out, both by the writer and the actress. I've been very slow to come around on on Hathway but in the past year with Get Smart, Rachel Getting Married and now this she's proven she's got the goods to stick around a long time. Consider me a fan. A true test for any actor is always whether they can not only survive starring in a movie like this but actually make it entertaining. She's been criticized left and right for the choice but if anyone looked closer they'd see she wasn't just playing a pawn in a cheap thriller. Her character drives the plot and I can see why the role looked inviting beyond the paycheck.

I won't claim the twist ending is some big shocker and I'd be surprised if no one guesses it (minus a few details) by at least the halfway point, but I can argue that's it's handled with restraint and resonates emotionally. It's not treated as some big "GOTCHA!" moment. Instead, Garcia uses the final moments to explore the characters and it goes a long way to help explain some of the more problematic and confusing sections of the film away. The best example is the payoff involving Morse's character. It's unexpected, but sure makes a lot of sense when you think back on the picture.

The real twist here isn't the actual twist, but that you thought you were watching one kind of film and Garcia gave you another. Compare this to Flight Plan or Red Eye, where we're promised something huge and then cheated in the final act when it devolves into a routine thriller. This goes in the exact opposite direction. We think we're getting a routine thriller but its conclusion proves otherwise. The plane crash, when we do see it, is gripping and good technical decisions are made throughout, such as a subtle, unobtrusive score and rich, textured lighting from cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo. The PG-13 also rating feels appropriate, not a cop-out where you can tell certain sections were watered down in post-production to appease the masses. Garcia isn't a mainstream director, specializing in intimate character driven pieces, and the film is all the better for it. It's more of a pensive and reflective experience than a thrilling one, but explaining exactly how would require more information than should be revealed.

It's a pity when a film is mismarketed. THIS IS NOT A THRILLER OR A HORROR MOVIE. Had that important distinction been made in the advertising Passengers could have cleaned up a little at the box office or at least broken even given its premise and star power. A movie shouldn't be punished for what it isn't, but judged on its own terms. And blame most definitely shouldn't be placed on Hathway and Wilson who go way above and beyond the call of duty with their performances. They made me care about both these people and the story. I knew they were good, but this is further proof of just how good. Watch Passengers because of them, but also watch it because it's actually far smarter and much better than you'd expect.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Director: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Liane Balaban, Eileen Atkins, Richard Schiff,
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As an adult drama,
Last Chance Harvey explores a familiar idea and goes where a lot of films have gone before. Some have done it better, but many more have done it worse. It's restrained and subdued, taking its sweet time to get where it needs to go, but doing so in an agreeable, intelligent fashion. One half of the film works better than the other but at least the focus is on real people we care about rather than stock movie characters pigeon-holed into a romantic plot. But the most newsworthy development here is that it features Dustin Hoffman's best performance in ages, reminding us just how much we've missed him as a lead performer.

The temptation will be to just label this as "BEFORE SUNRISE WITH OLD PEOPLE" but to be fair it is a story that transcends age. It's always scary when you're watching a movie and the main character reminds you of yourself. Even scarier is when you realize this character is depicted as a down on his luck loser. So no, this isn't just a movie for the older set but for anyone of any age who has ever experienced failure and disappointment in their lives and hoped someone's out there who knows exactly how they feel. This film tells what happens when they show up.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a commercial jingle composer at the end of his rope. He once had dreams of becoming a Jazz pianist but now he's one strike away from losing his job as he heads to London for his estranged daughter Susan's (Liane Balaban) wedding. When he arrives things only get worse. Hauled up alone in a hotel his daughter and ex-wife (Kathy Baker) barely acknowledge his existence and all his attempts to bring levity to the situation fall flat. The ultimate slap in the face comes when his own daughter tells him that she wants her step-father Brian (James Brolin) to give her away instead of him. Dejected beyond belief, he prepares to head back to New York.

Enter Kate (Emma Thompson) a single London woman dealing with some issues of her own, such as being set up on disastrous blind dates and caring after her widowed and somewhat delusional mother (Eileen Atkins). The movie cuts back and forth between Harvey and Kate's frustrating day before it intertwines at the airport, with their intitial encounter starting off on the wrong foot. Once the ice is broken the two strangers realize they not only have everything in common, but a real emotional connnection. So much so that even the depressed, cynical Harvey has trouble bringing himself to leave London in part because he feels guilty about skipping his daughter's reception, but mostly because of Kate. He just needs a little push and she's there to give it to him.

It's fun to watch the movie as kind of like a quasi-sequel to The Graduate. What would have happened to Benjamin if things didn't work out with Elaine? If all his plans and hopes fell through? He'd probably end up something like Harvey and Hoffman plays him as only Hoffman can. Harvey stutters, stammers, trips, tells bad jokes and says all the wrong things at the wrong times. He's us.

Some actors are hired for their looks or "movie star charisma" but Hoffman has always been an entirely different kind of actor, specializing in characters who reflect how we see ourselves when we're at our worst. Defeated. Nervous. Lacking confidence. And he always digs deep to find honor and dignity buried in that somewhere. While it may seem pathetic to say that of all the screen characaters of 2008 I most relate to a divorced, unemployed sixty-something jingle composer whose life is a wreck, it isn't when Hoffman's playing him. It's been years since he had a role like this well developed and if it were a less crowded year for Best Actor he would have had a legitimate shot at a nomination.

The film and Hoffman make us question whether it was indeed Harvey's family who ostracized him or Harvey who ostracized himself from them with his defeatist attitude. His ex-wife and daughter aren't bad people and even his "replacement," Brian isn't such a bad guy. They're not trying to exclude him, but Harvey's attitude just makes it too easy. He's closed himself off in every way. Almost inevitably, Kate's circumstances aren't nearly as interesting, but at least they're REAL and the actors share a chemistry where you feel the scripts were thrown out and you're just watching Dustin and Emma. Thompson's big scenes come later on, where we have to reevaluate just who this relationship might be scarier for. The film touches on the important point that when you're so comfortable with disappointment and failure the first reaction to someone trying to take that away will be anger.

Anyone searching for dramatic excitement should go elsewhere but if you want an intellectually stimulating film about real people that will have to thinking about life after the credits role, you've come to the right place. If anything, the film could have been longer because despite the slow moving narrative and laid-back approach, the courtship between the characters feels somewhat rushed. I wanted to spend more time with them. I have no problem believing two people could fall in love that quickly, but you really have to make sure the limited time really counts in a huge way or don't make it as limited. It's no Before Sunrise (or even Before Sunset) but despite being safe and formulaic the two strong lead performances cover up the shortcomings in writer/director Joel Hopkins' script.

I had the choice between watching this, Tom Cruise as a one-eyed Nazi or an overweight mall cop on a Segway. The choice was easy. I'm sure I'll watch the other two soon and they'll be barrels of fun but sometimes you're just not in the mood for anything loud or obnoxious, just a modest film about good people who make mistakes and learn from them. It's a rare relief when an adult romance avoids stupid cliches and just trusts the actors to tell the story. Last Chance Harvey doesn't try too hard, which is its most endearing quality.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Gran Torino

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Haley, Brian Howe
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

If Walt Kowalski, the cranky bigot Clint Eastwood portrays in Gran Torino ever wrote a book I'd imagine the table of contents would look something like this:

I. Kids today don't know a f***g thing
II. Why Obama shouldn't be President
III. Buy American or I'll kick your ass
IV. In praise of Charlton Heston
V. I'll show you how to solve the immigration problem

You get the picture. But forget everything you've seen or read about Gran Torino, the legendary Eastwood's latest as a director and what he's claiming is his swan song as an actor. This isn't what you think it is and it turns out Dirty Harry has a surprising knack for comedy. The movie is as hilarious as it is emotionally gut-wrenching, not going where I expected nor using the means I thought it would to get there. That the film is as funny as it is will probably cause discomfort and disgust for more discriminating audiences and if you're lucky it may even cause you to ask yourself why you're laughing. That's a good thing. You should ask yourself because it's a valid question. There's nothing funny about hurling racist, xenophobic slurs....right? Yet Eastwood manages to get away with it all. More so, you'll probably end up liking and respecting him even more as an actor/director when all is said and done. If it is a career closer then it's a fitting one, not to mention his most bizarre role. And what a relief that the film doesn't over-sentimentalize anything and turns out to be as just as stubborn and uncompromising as its polarizing protagonist.

Retired auto worker Walt is still haunted by his days in the Korean War where he earned a silver star serving our country. The film opens with his wife's funeral, an emotional blow that makes him even more bitter and cantankerous than usual. The last white man in a Detroit suburb overrun by crime, time has passed him by as he sits on the front porch with his dog, a shotgun and a cooler of beer. Walt hates everyone but most of his disdain is directed at the Hmong who have just moved in next door, who he refers to about every 5 minutes as "gooks" and "zipperheads." Said epithets are usually accompanied with a growl, sneer and grimace. The remainder of his hatred is directed at his selfish and ungrateful sons (played by Brian Haley and Brian Howe) who want to push their old man into a "retirement community" while his own grand daughter can't wait for him to kick the bucket so she can decorate her dorm room with his furniture.

When the shy, impressionable Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to break in and steal his '72 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation rite, Walt doesn't call the police. He's too used to serving out justice on his own. The Hmong family, indebted to Walt for accidentally protecting them from those local gangbangers, offer up Thao (or "Toad" as Walt calls him) as an indentured servant. Male bonding and a softening of Walt's character is expected. That happens...but not exactly how you'd think. If it did, the film would have descended into cheap sentimentality, but instead Walt's growing bond with Tao and his family does nothing to temper his penchant for hurling ethnic slurs. In fact, it does so little to temper it that he even invites Tao to join in when, in the film's most hilarious scene, Walt trades vulgar insults with his barber (John Carrol Lynch). Of course, the idea being that he wants to show Tao how to act like a man.

A lot of viewers had major problems with this development, believing Eastwood is treating racism and xenophobia as punch lines, which is completely missing the point. There are old, bitter bigots like Walt who toss around ethnic jabs for fun every day. And they think they're a riot. What Eastwood taps into with his performance (which if you look closer is a whole lot more than just growls and sneers) is that people like this are funny, just not in the way they believe themselves to be. Speaking only for myself, I was frequently laughing at Walt's pathetic cluelessness. How stupid he sounded rattling all those slurs off every five seconds. That's exactly what Eastwood was going for and he nailed it. If anyone actually wants to believe he's endorsing bigotry or we should all embrace ethnic name-calling as sport, that's not his problem.

Even more frustrating for some will be that a lot of the points Walt brings up during the film are right. In another comical scene when he advices Tao how to pick up women the situation is made funnier when we realize that his tips could work. Similarly, when he takes Tao to meet a prospective employer, telling him how he should act and talk he's right on the money for that given situation. It can be uncomfortable watching a character so full of hate be right about so many things, have so much to offer, yet go about it in such an abrasive way. As it can be watching material this dramatically heavy mixed with moments of comedy. But none of it ever feels tasteless or unnecessary.

Those around him don't so much excuse Walt's bigotry as just begrudgingly accept it as part of who he is. He isn't changing. And if you don't like it, fine. Only two characters in the film seem to see through it. One is a young priest named Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who promised Walt's late wife he'd get him to confession, which proves much more difficult than anticipated. He underestimates Walt, but Walt REALLY underestimates him. They're more alike than he's willing to admit. The other is Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) who doesn't buy Walt's "bad guy" act for a second and will use her spunk and sarcasm to break through it. Their performances are as impressive as Eastwood's, who never betrays the audience's trust in his character by wussing out.

The movie doesn't take the cheap way out as it builds to a big showdown that wouldn't seem out of place in a Dirty Harry picture or one of Eastwood's classic westerns. Except this time the the setting and the stakes are far different...maybe higher. I liked how Walt handled the situation on his terms, yet still stayed stubbornly true to his character. Comparisons can be made between Walt and another movie anti-hero from this past year, Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson from The Wrestler. Both men have been bull-headed in their proud devotion to something they love and now that it's gone, so are they. Walt may take a little longer to warm up to, but the respect Eastwood earns for him is no less.

After watching Gran Torino, something stays with you in a way that isn't so easily replicated by a lot of films released in 2008. It actually feels very relevant to the time we live in now and the problems we're facing. The so-called experts claim that in these dark days we want to go to the movies for an escape, rather then be bombarded with social issues in our backyards. That's true to an extent, but what's truer is that audiences want to see smart, entertaining films made well, regardless of whether they leave the theater skipping with delight. In Walt Kowalkski, Eastwood has created another iconic film character and this will likely be the role he'll be best remembered for. More importantly, he actually looked like he had a great time playing it. Eastwood the comedian? Who would have thought? At age 78 he's still finding ways to surprise us.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Unraveling The Lost Season 5 Finale ("The Incident")

You wanted answers and now you have them. We knew the Season 3 finale, "Through The Looking Glass" would be a turning point for the show but at the time completely unsure how. In the final shocking minutes of that episode when it was revealed that the flashback centering on Jack was actually a flashforward and what came to be known as the "Oceanic Six" had gotten off the island, Lost became a completely different show. A far better one. It's been deeper and more complex, going places we never thought it would with characters and situations we could have never expected. And it probably lost some viewers in that transformation. Forget about missing an episode. You can't miss 30 seconds. It requires a lot of commitment and if you're not a hardcore sci-fi fan the series' descent down the worm hole likely caused nothing but frustration. But if you're like me and are, what occurred this season was pure magic.

As confusing and complicated as it's all been there's also been a nagging feeling that we've been building toward this all along and that if you went back and watched from the pilot episode the pieces would fit together. Not all of them perfectly, but enough of them to think that writers/producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse did have a master plan all along. And this plan, while it may have gotten derailed at times (notably in season 3) is only now starting to come into full view. We can now say we've been given more answers than questions, not that there aren't still a whole lot of questions. STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FINALE YET.

The big picture was far bigger than we had originally thought, which is really saying something considering all the crazy theories that were floating around. As we suspected it was bigger than the crash of Oceanic 815. But it's also bigger than the Dharma Initiative, The Others, the ageless Richard Alpert, and the ongoing power struggle between Benjamin Linus and Charles Widmore. All of these elements were, in the most literal sense, pawns in a giant game between Good and Evil or God and Satan, or something. That became clear in the opening minutes Wednesday's Season 5 finale "The Incident," and then became even more clear by the end.

We were treated to the long awaited debut of Jacob (Mark Pelligrino) and introduced to his arch-nemesis (Titus Welliver) who seems to have shape shifting abilities of some sort. Through flashbacks we saw Jacob was present in pivotal moments in the characters' lives, such as when Locke's evil kidney-stealing father through him out of a window. And now Ben (manipulated by a man we now know ISN'T John Locke but Jacob's nemesis) has killed him. Or has he?

One of the more interesting developments to come out of the latter episodes of this season was the complete psychological castration of Ben. The master manipulator is now a shell of his former self and it's really been something else seeing Michael Emerson completely shift gears to play a character who's weak and helpless He's now as much a victim as those he's victimized for the past three seasons. Turns out he was never REALLY in charge. He just thought he was.

The only thing I was completely certain of before the episode started was that Juliet would die. She just seemed to be a character who was MARKED FOR DEATH and that Jacob was excluded from her flashback scene at the beginning of this episode just further spoke to that. But I was hoping I'd be wrong about her demise because right behind Ben she'd rank as my favorite character and is was screaming "NO!" at my TV when she fell down the shaft. And it's still unclear what her fate is. She's been the most under-appreciated, underrated contributor for the past three seasons, hitting her peak in this one. It's fitting that she was at the center of what was arguably the series' most pivotal moment thus far, when bruised, beaten and with every last ounce of strength she tried to detonate the bomb with a rock. Then...FADE TO WHITE. See you in 2010.
If Juliet is gone the show's lost their best actress in Elizabeth Mitchell, but I have a feeling no matter happened or didn't in the finale's closing seconds she'll be around in some form or another (however limited) in the final season. I always far preferred her to the whiny, complaining Kate. And if one absolutely had to go I would have picked Kate, whose snooze-inducing flashbacks have always stunk up the show. At least Jack's whining and whimpering is entertaining, especially when he's bearded, on too many prescription drugs or being given a "timeout" by his daddy during major surgery.

The one, major glaring flaw in the finale was a dreaded re-focus on the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle at the most inopportune time possible, just as Jack was going to detonate the hydrogen bomb, presumably preventing the crash of Oceanic 815 and wiping away everything they've gone through in the past 5 years. His explanation? He wants a second chance with Kate. I really hope he was kidding, considering if he was successful the two would have never met and had no shared experiences together. That doesn't exactly improve his "chances" with her. I also didn't buy that Juliet suddenly changed her mind so quickly about Jack setting off "Jughead" solely on the basis that she thought Sawyer still had feelings for Kate. Either way, despite a kick ass Jack/Sawyer fight, that wasn't the best moment for couples counseling.

This season marked the first I actually gave a damn about Sawyer (a.k.a. LeFleur) and I'm convinced it's because of his relationship with Juliet, which was the best developed and most surprising storyline of the year, breathing new life into a previously predictable character. What a shift to actually see him happy and in control for a change, as opposed to the brooding rebel we've seen over and over again throughout the show's run. Actually, nearly everything that took place in the 1977 timeline was pretty flawless.

Who would have ever thought we'd get the curtain pulled back on Dharma operating in its prime (with the Oceanic Six as undercover members to boot), the mysterious Dr. Chang from the videos in action and young Ben shot by Sayid. Every supporting character served a purpose and ones we thought may not have been as important, like Miles and Faraday, were given rich backstories via flashbacks. Even Sun and Jin were tolerable for once. This combined with the time travel aspect would rank this as probably my favorite season.

Other Burning Questions and Observations:

-Rose and Bernard? I was wondering what happened to them. Was anyone else thinking they could have been the two skeletons Jack discovered in the first season?

-Looking back doesn't it seem like Locke was acting way too confident and self-assured to actually be the REAL John Locke?

-Didn't he make a convincing case for why Ben should want to kill Jacob?

-Did anyone else think back to Locke and Walt and the black and white stones from the pilot episode during all of this?

-So what do they do with Locke's body NOW?

-Am I the only one NOT looking forward to Claire returning next season?

-So I guess this means Hurley never gets around to finishing his script for The Empire Strikes Back?

-"I'm a Pisces." Yet another classic Ben quote. Emerson is the man.

-Didn't you just know Miles would rush to his dad's rescue?

-Did you miss a certain character in this episode, "brotha?"

When the show does finally return from its lengthy hiatus in 2010 with its sixth and final season the big question will be whether it opens in LAX. I'm guessing not. Too simple. And if we've learned anything this season (or any other one) it's that Lost is never simple. But I do think most of the action will start to take place in 2007, bringing everyone together and returning the show to its first season roots before closing things out.

I never thought the show to be this strong this late. Choosing an end date has really helped the series re-gain its focus in a huge way. Now the pressure's really on to close to this out right. Its legacy hinges on it. Shows surrounded by giant mysteries often come loaded with expectations that can't be met. Lost has been one of the few to survive that challenge and I'm more curious than ever to go back and watch the previous seasons to see how it all fits together since those episodes would now make more sense. There's something to be said for planning. I never thought Lost would hold together well enough to be ranked among TV's greatest serialized dramas but now I'm starting to wonder.