The Debt

Transylvanians Vs. Nazis

Let’s be clear about one thing: Jessica Chastain carries this film.  I realize giving Helen Mirren top billing is a better marketing strategy, but y’know, credit where it’s due, and all that.

The Debt, as told by Matthew Vaughn and John Madden (director of a great adaptation of Proof, not the blowhard football commentator), is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film by Assaf Bernstein.  The story follows Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain in the sixties, Helen Mirren in the present day) as she recalls her days as a Mossad agent.  In the sixties, She and her partners, Stefan (Martin Csokas, Tom Wilkinson) and David (Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds) are dispatched to Berlin on a secret mission to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).  The film opens in the present, after Rachel’s daughter (Romi Aboulafia) has published a celebrated book on her mother’s life, most notably Rachel’s capture and killing of Vogel.  After watching the actual events of the sixties timeline, however, we learn that Vogel escaped Mossad custody, and the trio of agents decided to tell a lie in order to get out of Berlin.

The film’s performances are passionate and impressive, despite some of the flaws in the writing of the characters themselves.  Rachel, as played by both Chastain and Mirren, is complicated, emotional, dedicated, and ever zealous.  Stefan and David take the Good Agent/Bad Agent roles, which comes off as easy characterization but also gives Sam Worthington an actual role to play, as opposed to just shooting at animated people and rattling off tired one-liners.  The gifted Christensen plays Vogel as your garden variety mustache-twirling villain, completely unashamed of performing horrific experiments on Jews during the war, and perfectly able to turn the trio of protagonists against one another while captured (which brings back unfortunate memories of the mediocre Suicide Kings).  It’s amazing to see how Nazis, as portrayed in film, have become almost caricatures of evil – psychological masterminds who physically embody the concept of manipulation.  If there is a group of people from history that should be demonized, it’s surely the Nazis, but this exact characterization is becoming routine in films.  When was the last time you saw a Nazi character who wasn’t a master manipulator and/or genius?  I wonder what effect this will have on folks studying history a hundred years from now.  In addition, the absence of Jewish actors in a film about Jewish characters is a bit disconcerting, as are the exaggerated accents, which made me wonder at times whether the characters weren’t from Transylvania.

Despite these issues, as well as the morally challenging and outright confusing ending, the film remains solid and engaging throughout.  Jessica Chastain goes above and beyond her previous roles, and her scenes in a doctor’s office (posing as a patient at Vogel’s OBGYN during the plot to capture him) render Rachel as vulnerable, both physically and otherwise, as any character you’ve seen in any one predicament.

It would be nice to see this film’s actors get some recognition for this project.  At least give Jessica Chastain’s legs an award for Best Fight Scene.

The Debt (2011); written by Matthew Vaughn; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jesper Christensen. 

Drive

How about this?

Drive is the grindhouse film of this generation  (I haven’t yet boiled it down to exact mathematics, but it seems film generations are akin to turtle years).  It’s a Man With No Name story directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, and it’s something of a surprise.

Unless you’ve been under the celluloid rock, you’re no doubt aware of the up-and-coming Ryan Gosling, who has starred in multiple films this year and will star in the sure-to-receive-several-Oscar-nominations The Ides of March, alongside George Clooney, which opens next month.  Gosling plays the protagonist of Drive, a literal Man With No Name credited only as “The Driver,” and Refn goes to painstaking lengths to avoid having other characters speak his name.  In proper MWNN fashion, the Driver apparently appeared out of nowhere one day, asking for a job at a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled mechanic with a bad leg.  Seeing the Driver’s talents, Shannon gave him a job on the spot.  The film’s narrative begins while the Driver is wearing three separate hats in his life: he does stunt driving for movies, works at the garage, and moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals.  He barely speaks and has no visible ties to anyone, except maybe Shannon, who treats him as a sort of adopted son.

After a wonderful, non-animated car chase that has been compared to the likes of Bullitt (a prerequisite to watching this film), we find the Driver bumping into his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan).  She looks after her young son while her husband is away at prison, and for an undisclosed reason, the Driver decides to help her out.  During these scenes, we bear witness to beautiful pieces of cinematography.  Several scenes are acted out in one flowing shot.  Others make brilliant use of mirrors, such that the facial expressions of three characters, all facing different directions, are visible at one time.  The Driver and Irene become familiar with one another, but they don’t sleep together; she clearly loves her family and just needs a friend.

Eventually, her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes home, and we immediately see why he landed in prison.  He’s genuinely devoted to his family, but try as he might, he keeps getting involved with the wrong kinds of people, and already finds himself owing protection money to a few bad folks.  Instead of telling the Driver, who has taken a clear interest in his wife, to leave the family alone, Standard sees him as an opportunity to settle his debt.  In a gorgeous scene featuring the best use of an “Exit” sign I’ve ever seen in a film, Standard hires the Driver to help him with a simple heist.  The Driver agrees, only because the completion of the heist will get the bad people away from Irene and her son for good.

The heist ends up being the biggest disaster since the heist from Reservoir Dogs, and the film jumps from PG-13 to R in one second flat when a character’s head is blasted with a shotgun in slow motion.  We are introduced to the other major players, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a movie producer who wants to hire the Driver; and Nino (Ron Perlman), a Jewish gangster who owns a pizzeria and who is also responsible for Shannon’s bad leg.  In the action that follows, the Driver hunts down the offenders one by one in order to secure Irene’s safety.

Drive is a film most easily swallowed if taken at face value.  The problem with a MWNN story is that if you’re too good of a screenwriter, you run the risk of making the character too interesting.  If a character is interesting, the audience wants to know more about him, and the MWNN mustn’t reveal anything about himself.  Why is the Driver so silent and distant, yet immediately obsessed with the safety of Irene and her son?  How is he so adept at taking down trained mobsters, and why is he so stoic about cold-blooded murder?  Some of his behavior may hint at Asperger’s Syndrome, but none of this is ever explored, and we’re politely asked to ignore it once the violent parts begin.

Still, the film remains more about characters than anything else.  Carey Mulligan, always a magician on the screen, is given very little to do other than sit around and mope, but she owns the scenes in which she appears.  Oscar Isaac, whose character comes and goes within fifteen minutes, gives the most sympathetic performance, where the character could easily have been the cliche’d Bad Dad who doesn’t care about his family.  Standard, however, truly wants what’s best for Irene and the kid.  Bryan Cranston is a good fit for the classic ill-fated mentor, and the casting of Brooks as a villain is inspired, if odd to see (imagine Jeff Bridges stabbing crippled people in the throat, and you’ll have a good idea of what this looks like).  Ron Perlman gives a full-caliber performance as the sparsely-seen Nino, and is quoted as saying (when asked by Refn why he would want to play this character after appearing in so many great films), “I always wanted to play a Jewish man who wants to be an Italian gangster…because that’s what I am…”  Drive also features a brief appearance by the multi-talented Christina Hendricks, who plays the underused (and perhaps unnecessary) character of Blanche.

The film’s weaknesses include the abrupt jump to gory violence, which dilutes the film’s great mood.  In addition, the music is a bit invasive.  The lyrics tend to narrate how we’re supposed to read the film’s events, almost like a first-person narrator shelling out all-too-revealing thematic passages (though the use of the song “A Real Hero” imbues the film with a fairtytale-like quality).  Despite these issues, Drive deserves attention.  The performances are solid and impassioned across the board, and the film achieves a level of true grindhouse cinema, mainly because it’s not self-conscious and has a small budget.

This is a piece of art that demands polarized opinions.  I think more art should be that way.  Do you even remember the last thing you felt “neutral” about?  I certainly don’t.

Drive (2011); written by Hosseini Amini (based on a book by James Sallis); directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston.

Another Earth

Forgive

Sometimes you have to wait to read a book or see a movie, because you need to be in a “certain place” first.  I’m still not sure what place I had to be in to go see Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, but having been interested in this fascinating piece of art since its announcement, I waited a good amount of time to get there.  So long, in fact, that I caught the final showing in the entire district, at Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatre, about five minutes from where I was born.

The story begins with Rhoda Williams (writer and actress Brit Marling), an MIT-bound high school graduate.  At a party, she has too many drinks, and drives home to the sounds of a local hip-hop radio station.  The DJ mentions in passing that a new planet has been discovered, and according to scientists, it’s capable of supporting life.  Tonight, it will appear as a blue spot somewhere close to the moon.  Peering out her window and spotting the blue spot in the sky, Rhoda speeds through an intersection and smashes into an SUV, killing the wife and young child of John Burroughs (William Mapother), whom we later learn is a respected composer and college professor.  He is rendered comatose in the accident.

Four years later, John comes out of his coma and Rhoda is released from prison.  Her family (parents and obnoxious younger brother) pick her up as casually as if they were picking her up from school.  We are spared any of Rhoda’s prison experiences, and no specifics are hinted at, but it’s clear that her drunken accident and jail time have thoroughly recolored her personality.  Once an ambitious, talkative, social young woman, Rhoda now sleeps in the attic, owns nothing, hardly bathes, and doesn’t talk.  The very act of existing seems an unfair burden.  Interactions with her family are awkward.  She sees a job counselor, and after the latter comments on her impressive intellectual aptitude, refuses to do a job that requires thinking or talking to people.  She settles for a maintenance job at a local high school, where she works alongside elderly janitor Purdeep (Kumar Pallana) and barely looks a year older than the students who graffiti the bathrooms.

Content to scrub her days away (a well-achieved analogy for a deeper figurative “cleaning”), Rhoda decides to apologize to John for her mistake.  Discovering him in a house not unlike a pig’s wallow, she loses her nerve and claims she is from a cleaning service.  He “hires” her to fix up his disaster of a home, and through one thing and another, they become friends, with Rhoda never revealing who she is.  According to the rules of narrative (especially in film), she must reveal it eventually, and the scenes leading up to this conversation are unbearably tense.

The new about Earth 2 is always progressing, but wisely kept in the background until it becomes relevant to a choice Rhoda must make.  Astronomers and physicists are brought in to attempt first contact when the planet moves visibly closer to Earth.  After various tries, contact is finally achieved, only to reveal that this planet is an exact mirror of Earth, with all of the same people, who have followed the exact same life paths up to this point.

Here is a film that could have broken the rules of narrative we all accept and expect.  Rhoda’s depressions are spot-on accurate and heartbreaking.  She drags herself through work, punishing herself with a job she’s not suited for.  One night, she wanders out into a field, strips completely naked, and lies down in the snow until she passes out.  She awakens in the hospital with her family, who appear as though they almost prefer she’d died.  The only thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is her predilection for outer space.  She pays close attention to the news stories (the only reason we get to see/hear them), and when a billionaire entrepreneur holds an essay contest (500 words or less) with a grand prize of traveling to Earth 2, Rhoda enters.  Eventually, a theory comes out stating Earth and Earth 2 were identical in every way until the very moment we made contact.  After that exact moment, lives changed, different decisions could have been made, and all bets are off.  What if the version of Rhoda on Earth 2 didn’t kill John’s family?  What if they’re still alive and she’s an MIT student?

Cahill’s cutting, his use of the handheld camera, and his joint decisions with Marling (co-writer of the script) about what is said and what is shown, are astounding for a film of this age.  We understand the connection between Rhoda and Purdeep even when nothing is said.  They’re both lost souls, punishing themselves for past sins.  They understand each other and speak their own language, and we understand it without having it fed to us.  Their final scene together (after Purdeep has blinded and deafened himself because he can no longer “stand to see himself everywhere”) displays a mastery of visual storytelling thus far unmatched this year.  There are also tiny details which could have been ruined with fat blocks of dialogue – on a few occasions, John offers alcoholic drinks to Rhoda.  She apprehensively lets the liquid touch her lips, but never really drinks it.  She never says to John (and by extension, the audience), “I don’t drink because [insert lie for strained tension].”  We know why.  The tension is increased tenfold because she does this without John even noticing.  Despite the temptation to expand the background sci-fi into a full-blown mythology, the film wisely keeps us with the characters, namely Rhoda, and we’re barely allowed to care about anything she doesn’t care about.

On the verge of a romantic relationship with John (likely twice her age), Rhoda wins the essay contest and decides to go to Earth 2.  Yes, she reveals her true identity to John and yes, unfortunately, he reacts how you’d expect him to.  Thankfully, this revelation doesn’t solve anything; quite the contrary.  The conflict we had at the beginning of the story now resurfaces and needs to be resolved, and a certain character’s actions provide a solution so pure, so wholeheartedly selfless, that we’re simultaneously satisfied and pining for a different way.  This action doesn’t go unrewarded, however.  The final scene of the film is something I cannot spoil.  I’m willing to wait until you see the film to talk about it.  Suffice it to say it’s a stinger and a surprise without being a twist or a sequel hook, it’s a massive payoff without being contrived, and it fits the movie’s fictional science without providing a be-all-end-all solution to the complex issues of an entire planet (much less two).  I suspect lesser filmmakers would have gone for something much, much different.

The background story of Another Earth is more the stuff of science than the stuff of fiction.  At least, it’s based on a long-standing (but generally debunked) theory that a mirror Earth exists directly opposite us in orbit, and because it’s an exact mirror, the sun is always blocking us from seeing the other planet.  The way this information is conveyed in the narrative (non-glamorized news and narration by real-life scientist Richard Berendzen) is much stronger than the overwritten mumble-science of a film like Primer.

One of this story’s frequently asked questions is, “What would you say if you could meet yourself?”  John’s answer (“Hey, you up for a video game?”) and Rhoda’s answer (“Better luck next time.”) are so rigidly different and the performances of Marling and Mapother are so honest that after this film, even with such a seemingly preposterous background, I had to think about my answer.  Whatever that “place” was, I was there.  It was a long ride home.

Another Earth (2011); written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling; directed by Mike Cahill; starring Brit Marling and William Mapother.

Our Idiot Brother

Comedy in B Major

In Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother, we get a triptych of beautiful women whose personal lives seem to gravitate around one guy: their brother.  This might be a good film with which to try the old gender unfairness challenge – see if you can find a scene in this movie where two or more women (with names) talk to each other about something other than a man (in this case the brother in the title) and/or something influenced by him.  Even in a film with a principally female cast, such as this one, it’s a tall order.

Our Idiot Brother is a good-hearted comedy (albeit with enough F-bombs to destroy a small country) about a sweet guy.  In Ned (Paul Rudd, looking like one of the Avett Brothers), we get perhaps the most simultaneously lovable and misunderstood character since Del Griffith.  His sisters, Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), and Liz (Emily Mortimer) have dysfunctional relationships with each other, Ned, and their mother (Shirley Knight), who drinks her pain away and seems to be the only one who cares about Ned.

At the outset of the story, Ned is entrapped by one of the evillest police officers in film history, and put in prison after inadvertently selling the officer marijuana.  When he returns home, his girlfriend, Janet (Kathryne Hahn), a hypocritical hippie (hippie-crit?), has dumped him for another guy (T.J. Miller) without telling him.  Ned is now homeless.  The story threads progress, tie together and come loose as Ned moves in with one sister after the other, attempting to help them with their problems but always messing something up due to his unbridled sensitivity.  Promiscuous Natalie’s relationship with her loving partner, Cindy (Rashida Jones) hits the rocks when the former becomes pregnant after a one-night stand; Ned must be the bearer of bad news.  Liz and her controlling husband (Steve Coogan) shield their young son from everything he loves; Ned is the only one who understands, and interferes (with the best intentions, of course).  Miranda and her nerdy roommate (Adam Scott) get along fine until Miranda scores an interview with a famous dignitary, who would much rather talk to Ned.

The film plays out in an evenly-paced, well-timed comic narrative centered around a character with a great heart, a good man who knows only how to be good.  He’s forgiving, understanding, and gives even the worst of people the benefit of the doubt (including Liz’s cheating husband).  He even feels terrible for declining a threesome when he realizes another man is involved.  Some scenes will have you cracking up, and some will give your heart a tug when you’re least expecting it (particularly a scene featuring a game of charades with Ned’s entire family).

Paul Rudd’s performance is the stuff of mystery.  Who knew he had this kind of role in him?  We know he can be a protagonist and a straight man to Steve Carell’s funny guy, but his performance in Our Idiot Brother blends these archetypes into something unique and welcome.  It’s a genuinely sweet story in a sea of gross-out comedies.  A relationship between two women is portrayed as serious, committed (mostly) and never as the butt of a joke.  There’s even a dog with an interesting name – watching a bearded Paul Rudd running through the streets of New York shouting “Willie Nelson!” as bystanders look on in befuddlement is the perfect exclamation point.

Rudd’s next role, aside from garden variety comedies, is in an adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I don’t know if I’d call it an opportunity to show us he’s prolific, but if he wanted to shake his typecasting, especially after a performance like this, I’ve no doubt he could.  I, for one, will root for him.

Our Idiot Brother (2011); written by Evgenia Peretz; directed by Jesse Peretz; starring Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, and Emily Mortimer.

The Guard

Well, that’s pretty f*ckin’ rude.

guardThe Guard is the newest film by Irish director John Michael McDonagh, brother of Malcolm McDonagh (director of In Bruges).  It’s a crime comedy in the vein of “Like Guy Ritchie, but…”, though the “but” is in this case indicative of the fact that it isn’t much like a Guy Ritchie film at all.  It has Mark Strong, as did Ritchie’s RocknRolla, but aside from that, the well-timed black humor, and the fact that there are nearly zero prominent female characters, it’s McDonagh’s creature through and through.

The film is carried by the lovable Brendan Gleeson (who may be on his way to becoming the Irish John Candy).  Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, an unorthodox member of the “garda” (Irish cops in Gaelic-speaking Galway).  He’s not a bad person, he just doesn’t take his job seriously.  When he’s not taking hits of acid from drug-dealers’ corpses and keeping them for himself, Boyle spends time with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) at a retirement home.  In these scenes, which are equal parts madcap and surprisingly tender, we see where Boyle gets some of his traits (his language, for one).  When Boyle’s new partner (in whom he has no interest) is whacked for almost no reason by a trio of infamous drug-runners (Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot), Boyle’s unit is visited by FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, the one Yank in the film).  Through one thing and another, Boyle and Everett are partnered up in order to solve a series of crimes involving these villains.  The scenes between Gleeson and Cheadle feature the classic Odd Couple character development, but McDonagh allows the characters to retain multiple lines of tension with one another and also to spend time by themselves.  From their second scene onward, we can tell they sort of like each other, but have fundamental issues with the other – Everett’s issues with Boyle’s erratic on-the-job behavior and his sheer laziness, and Boyle’s seemingly innocent ignorance about black people, the FBI, and pretty much anything but Galway.  The latter leads to some wonderful scenes between the two, during which we hope with all our hearts that Boyle won’t say something that completely ruins the already strained friendship.  (“I thought black people couldn’t ski.  Or is that swimming?”)  Cheadle’s reactions to Boyle’s comments are priceless, both in facial expression and dialogue.

Cunningham, Strong and Wilmot play the villains as people who know they’re the bad guys in a movie.  They stand perfectly still in immaculately-framed shots of beautiful scenery and talk about being bad.  Strong, also a fish out of water character, plays the film’s sole Englishman, and behaves so harshly that his partners must warn other characters, “Eh, he’s English.”  Cunningham plays the de facto boss of the three, and comes close to the fourth wall a few times.  Wilmot gets a great one-on-one scene with Gleeson, during which McDonagh employs the Fallacy of the Talking Killer (the old movie ploy in which the bad guy, about to kill the hero and need only pull the trigger, foolishly explains all of his plans, giving the hero time to plan and execute an escape).

EDIT (2014): I wasn’t happy with the rest of what I typed here, so I deleted it.  Just watch the film.

The Guard (2011); written and directed by John Michael McDonagh; starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Fionnula Flanagan and Mark Strong.