The East

We are born with a chance

Ellen Page/Brit MarlingThis is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.”  The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”

The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago.  Actually, it did.  The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.

The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI.  Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways.  But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as.  Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend.  Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society.  The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.

There’s a formula for films like this.  That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down.  You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films.  Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.).  Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable.  Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied.  Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do.  However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.

Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover.  Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability.  She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest.  But no, not this hero.  She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role.  Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave.  The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work?  The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea?  Yeah.

One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised.  During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better.  For example, “Can I shake your hand?”  The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?”  The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen.  Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed).  Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things.  In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy.  But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real.  She’s been there.  We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.

The East is a movie about saying “Enough.”  It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy.  It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess.  It’s about omnisexuality and openness.  It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on).  It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do.  This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.

Go in cold.

The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.

Stoker

Shoemaggeddon

India StokerDoes Stoker mark the return of symbolism in film?  Regardless of how you read the interwoven narrative imagery, the post-Hitchcock camera acrobatics, and the sheer haunting uniqueness of it all, Stoker does things with cinematography unlike anything any of us are likely to see duplicated in the foreseeable future.

I may have used the term “image pattern” when looking at films before, but it’s a literary term, and this is the first film I’ve seen that uses image patterning in a literary way.  Consider the opening, in which a spider crawls up the stockinged leg of the lead character, India Stoker (the incomparable Mia Wasikowska) while she’s playing the piano.  An inexplicable sense of suspense follows the spider, despite the fact that we have no clue what kind of spider it is, whether it intends to harm her, or what it means if she smashes it.  But this scene is not resolved yet, despite the seemingly miniscule stakes relying upon its resolution.  Instead, since it revolves entirely around the image of the spider, it joins a string of short scenes, collected as the film’s story moves forward, that also revolve around nebulously-related imagery, including India lying in tall grass with a hunting rifle and awaiting her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) okay to take a critical shot at a fluttering bird; the image of the bird itself; people making snow-angels on surfaces other than snow; and others.  These scenes, which I might call micro-narratives, weave into the forward action in such a way that wondering where that spider ends up (and why) weighs as heavily on the audience as do thoughts about who’s going to live through the film’s central ordeal.  The starkest and most overt piece of imagery, though, focuses on India’s shoes and feet – we first see her popping a blister after running through the woods, realizing that she has outgrown her favorite shoes (unique blue-and-white low-tops which, were the world still small, would be selling out of department stores right about now).  But on her 18th birthday, as on every other birthday, she receives another pair of the same shoes.  I use the word “symbolism” because there are very clear “Who is what?” and “What means what?” questions silently posed to the audience through color and repetition.

The story that collects these images involves the young India, whose father, Richard, has recently died in a rather mysterious car accident.  India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), is known to be very dependent, and the wealthy Stoker family’s servants assume that India will be the one taking care of things from now on, not her mother.  Out of nowhere appears India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims that since his brother is dead, he will temporarily stay with the family and help take care of their massive property during their time of grief.  The catch?  Neither Evelyn nor India ever knew that Richard had any siblings.  Evelyn, ever reliant on others, is intrigued by Charlie and welcomes all of his methods of comfort.  India, introverted and sheltered, doesn’t know what to make of her uncle.  Does he want to replace her father?  It doesn’t help that her relationship with her mother is strained and loveless, and that she will let no one touch her.  When Charlie claims that he just wants to be friends, India responds that “We don’t have to be friends.  We’re family.”

The beautiful and haunted piano/string score by Clint Mansell demands that this film take a turn for the macabre, and the red lights surround Uncle Charlie as soon as he appears.  What, we must wonder, does he want from the family?  Thankfully, India asks this the first time she’s alone with him, and we’re not left with a list of obvious questions that inept characters in horror movies never ask.  But the film’s sense of unsettling perplexity, not to mention what amounts to gorgeously-presented visual and aural poetry, allows us the knowledge that Charlie is the villain early on without ruining any of the intrigue.  During dinner with India’s visiting great-aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), Evelyn mentions Charlie’s world travels, and a horrified look washes over Gin’s face before she tells Evelyn they need to talk about Charlie.  Before this can happen, Charlie murders her and a housekeeper who also seemed to know something about him.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seems like Charlie wants India to know about his penchant for killing and burying people (regardless, she finds out when she attempts to phone Auntie Gin at her hotel, and hears the latter’s ringtone coming from beneath the soil in the backyard).

Meanwhile, the greatest conflict is a case of Character vs. Self: India is eighteen and ready to wake up, ready to be “free,” as she puts it in a too-telling-but-not-telling-enough voiceover.  But she’s been cooped in her parents’ home her entire life and her only solace is in music.  She’s an accomplished pianist.  She is ostracized at school for being “weird” and seemingly asexual.  When she witnesses her mother and Charlie growing intimate, she imitates them and seeks the affections of Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich), a classmate she trusts.  But she only wants to kiss him.  He has other plans, and attacks her.  Charlie, who shamelessly stalks India, materializes out of the shadows, and the body count rises.  She helps him bury the body, and we begin to worry for her.  Later, in the shower, she masturbates while thinking about the murder.  India, whose coming-of-age has seemingly been delayed, is awakening, but the admixture of Uncle Charlie and the violent nature of her own life prevent this awakening from being her own.

Through one thing and another, with the assorted micro-narratives vying for top-shelf plot importance, the truth comes out: Charlie, while on his apparent world travels, wrote dozens of letters to India as she grew, hoping to one day meet her.  The letters were intercepted by Richard, who locked them in his study for reasons unknown to India until she looks at the back of the envelopes and realizes that Charlie never traveled the world; he was shut away in a mental institution for most of his life.  India also discovers that her father and Charlie had another brother, Jonathan, whom Charlie killed as a child out of jealously for his relationship with Richard.  On India’s eighteenth birthday, Charlie was released from the institution, but then murdered Richard after the latter refused to let him meet India (and for good reason).  But India’s inner conflict is still approaching a boil, and she does not act out as we expect the protagonist of a thriller to do.  Charlie’s beautiful prose still dazzles her, and after another fight with her mother, she tells Charlie she will travel with him to New York.  He presents her with another box of shoes, but this time, they are not the identical blue-and-whites she has worn her entire life; these are high heels, the societal symbol of female adulthood (and, I might add, a patriarchal device for physically constraining women, and there’s something to be said for that here).  India steps into them and walks with ease.

Evelyn, realizing what is happening and reaching the point of ultimate fury at being unable to bond with her daughter, asks, “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?”  When Charlie’s last plan before leaving the Stoker home is to seduce and kill Evelyn, expecting India to help him, the results are quite different, and as India brings out her old hunting rifle, the mosaic of micro-narrative images comes to a crescendo (as does Mansell’s score).  This scene – and this bears repeating – is so disparate from anything in recent film narrative, that it’s a miracle we are able to cling to the characters through the fantastically musical realization of virtually everything we have encountered in the film so far – including the spider.  It begins on the floor, makes its way up India’s leg, crawls up her thigh and past the hem of her skirt, and is last seen slipping across Charlie’s doornail-dead face.  No, India seems to say, I will not be controlled this way; this gift you gave me, I will give back.

The final scene, whether needed or not, poses some questions and answers other ones.  What kind of woman has India become?  Whether or not she’s leaving the Stoker home for good, and regardless of her methods, one thing is clear: she’s going to protect her family’s name, and to a separate-but-equal extent, her mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who gleamed as Jane Eyre in 2011, finally gets another starring role in which to showcase her various gifts.  Look at the difference in these performances.  More importantly, India is a strong character.  She’s layered and exists beyond her quirks, beyond what the plot calls for.  An introvert, a musician, a painter, a hunter. Reflexes like you’ve never seen.  A sheltered girl considering what it means to come of age before she goes ahead and does it.  Is the film commenting on womanhood?  I imagine that different viewers will have different readings of it, but all of the clues (think micro-narrative) must lead somewhere.  I am still flabbergasted that this film was scripted by Wentworth Miller (and kind of impressed that he submitted it using a pen name so that the film could be published upon its own merits and not his fame), an actor I would not have thought to possess such feminine sensibilities (violence notwithstanding).  The joke is on me.

This is an important film.

P.S. Thematic voiceover is still sloppy and flaccid.

Stoker_teaser_posterStoker (2013); written by Wentworth Miller; directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman. 

Looper

Counting the paradoxes may cause a paradox

As Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash once said (albeit while playing the role of Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community), “Time travel is really hard to write about.”  The fatal flaw in time travel films is often in the explanation of the time travel science itself – a problem wisely sidestepped in the recent Safety Not Guaranteed, which relied on character depth and development to forward the action.  The science problem tends to drag down films that are desperate to appear brainy – Primer and Donnie Darko come to mind.  In Looper, the third film by Rian Johnson (director of the subversive Hammett-esque high-school crime drama Brick), the exact science is sidestepped in a rather ingenious way: it hasn’t been invented until thirty years after the main story takes place, and even in that time, it’s so illegal that barely anyone knows it’s being used.  The main characters have no idea how it works; it just happens to provide them with an income.

The story centers around Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his 4th or 5th leading role this year, and it won’t be his last), an assassin known as a Looper.  His job does not involve stealth or theatrics, however: he simply receives a time and location, arrives there, and waits for a hooded prisoner to materialize out of thin air.  When that happens, he immediately pulls the trigger of his “blunderbuss” (a futuristic shotgun) and collects his payment (bars of silver).  The prisoners, whose faces are always shrouded, are targets of a crime syndicate thirty years in the future, who send their marks back in time to be disposed of without a trace.  Not a bad profession if you can stomach it; the pay is fantastic.  There’s one catch, however: when your contract runs out, the syndicate sends the future version of yourself back in time, and you execute yourself.  This is known as “closing the loop.”  Forget how many paradoxes this would cause in accordance with popular time travel theory (in movies, leastways); it’s an effective device.  In addition to Loopers, there are people called TKs – folks who can use telekinetic powers, but most of them can do nothing but float coins around in silly attempts to impress women, so they’re not taken seriously.

The trouble begins when Joe notices how many of his coworkers are suddenly closing their own loops.  Someone in the future is seemingly shutting down the Looper program. The reactions of the other Loopers is perhaps what’s so shocking about this: they’re all happy.  They receive a glorious payload (bars of gold this time) and drink up their paychecks with buddies before retiring and living lavishly for the next thirty years (at which point, we can safely assume, they are seized and sent back in time to have a hole blown in them).  This seems to be a commentary on the culture of immediacy we currently live in.  Is no one thinking about the future?  Are we only concerned with what we want right this second?  It’s an effective allegory for our times, and doesn’t try to borrow from George Orwell, like so many of these stories are tempted to.

One Looper, however, recognizes the voice of his future self and cannot pull the trigger.  This is Seth (Paul Dano), a good friend of Joe.  Having failed to complete his contract and close his own loop, Seth knows he will be hunted down by the incredibly efficient enforcers of the Looper program.  How do they operate so well?  Because they’re headed by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to manage the Loopers and make sure everything resembles clockwork for the next thirty years.  Abe, despite Daniels’ vintage fuzziness, can be intimidating at times, and he convinces Joe to sell out Seth, which is immediately followed (as we know it must be) by Joe’s own loop being closed.  However, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, and Young Joe has no chance to react before the former knocks him cold with a Magic Movie Punch and vanishes.

And so a double man-hunt begins: Young Joe is searching for Old Joe, because if he doesn’t kill him, his fate will be the same as Seth’s.  Abe’s right-hand man, Kid Blue (Noah Segan) would love nothing more than to see Joe dead as payback for an earlier insult, so tension is high.  Old Joe, on the other hand, is searching for someone else: in a diner conversation with his younger counterpart, he reveals a piece of information mentioned by Seth’s older self earlier – that in the future, a man called the Rainmaker has taken control of everything in a Fidel Castro-style takeover (apparently after seeing his own mother die), and is closing all of the loops for unknown reasons.  Old Joe has returned to the past in order to kill the Rainmaker before he can put his future plan into effect, thus ending this cycle and bringing his wife (Qing Xu) back to life.  Young Joe doesn’t care.  He wants to live his own life now.

On the run from Abe’s thugs, Young Joe happens upon a farm owned by Sara (the wonderful Emily Blunt).  In spite of her trepidations, she takes him in, helps him through drug withdrawal, and agrees to let him stay for a few days under the condition that he stay away from her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  We soon learn, however, that Cid, a powerful TK, may be the future Rainmaker, which means that not only is Sara in danger, but both Old Joe and Kid Blue’s posse will soon descend upon the farm.  The film makes use of effective and clear flashforwards in order to illustrate what might happen if certain conditions are (or aren’t) met, including which decisions on Young Joe’s part will either cause or prevent the rise of the Rainmaker, and the action ends with a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly triangle-style shootout.  The action, though, doesn’t cap the film – we’re always encouraged to care about the characters before the sci-fi backdrop, which is an incredibly fresh change from inspired-but-flawed sci-fi installments such as the recent Total Recall remake.

Emily Blunt puts her heart into every role, and Sara is no exception.  I’m still on the fence about her character, however – per usual, there’s only one principle female character (the only other woman with lines is a prostitute played by Piper Perabo), and despite being tough as nails, Sara’s entire existence revolves around motherhood.  If nothing else, she overcomes the sci-fi trope of the women being either nonexistent or uber-dependent damsels who can find their way around a bedroom but not a gun, and it’s clear that Sara is an independent woman who holds all sorts of cards over Joe.  Bruce Willis essentially plays his Die Hard counterpart here, delivering tough-guy dialogue and mowing down legions of enemies while shouting “motherfuckers!”  Paul Dano is underused as Seth – did Johnson forget that Dano appeared in all sorts of Best and Almost Best pictures?  Jeff Daniels is great as Abe, which seems almost like a comeback role for him, and he successfully plays against type here.  Abe is also funny – when Joe talks about possibly moving to France, Abe says, very deadpan, “I’m from the future.  Go to China.” Unfortunately, his comeuppance is depicted off-screen, which is not only a wasted opportunity (Daniels vs. Willis!), but a lack of payoff from a film that promises an action finale (and as you know, I’m not one to pander for action).  Finally, Gordon-Levitt is made up to look like Bruce Willis, which I worried may be distracting and hokey (see DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar), but it’s seamlessly done.  His character, a sci-fi leading man, is predictably one-note, but with more compassion than you might expect, and the performance is strong.

Looper is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come out in a long time.  It handles its characters well, and never quite allows its material to get away from it or become too complex.  The most complex thing involved may be Bruce Willis’s feelings about playing a character called Old Joe.

Looper (2012); written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels. 

Take Shelter

There’s a storm comin’

2011_take_shelter_003Take care when choosing what company to bring along for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, the writer/director’s first film since 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which also featured Michael Shannon.  This is not to say the film should be avoided by anyone – after all, it’s nonviolent, passionately delivered, expertly directed, and has respect for its characters – but folks who scare easily may be burying their faces when the lightning strikes.

I don’t think I took a single breath during this film.  Billed as a “thriller,” Take Shelter casually swats any attempts at genre pigeonholing.  The story centers around Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a couple living on the outskirts of a small Ohio town.  They are the parents of a hearing-impaired child, Hannah (Tova Stewart), planning a cochlear implant operation, which will require the aid of Curtis’ health insurance policy.  Curtis has a good job in construction, where he not only enjoys excellent benefits, but works with his best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham).  As the film begins, Curtis begins having terrible dreams.  The dreams begin with a storm, and then chaos ensues.  Rain becomes motor oil.  Tornadoes rip his house from its foundation.  Black birds swarm overhead.  Hannah is taken from him.  His dog attacks him, and the pain lingers throughout the day.  Curtis fears that these may not be just dreams (he describes them as “feelings”), and begins to prepare for the worst.

The tension in the film lies in the fact that Curtis does not give Samantha the chance to understand what he’s feeling: he hides it from her, even when he takes out a risky bank loan to pay for an addition to his storm shelter.  Still, he isn’t arrogant or self-important enough (as male movie protagonists often are) to consider himself a prophet: he knows his family has a history of mental illness, so he visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis’s age.  Curtis takes books on the subject from the library, sees a counselor at a free clinic, tries a prescription medication for sleep, and (illegally) borrows equipment from work to dig his shelter.  Dewart, concerned but a friend first, helps however he can.  Eventually, Curtis must reveal what he’s seen to Samantha, and the real tests of faith begin.

Michael Shannon gives one of the strongest performances of the year.  What a step away from his other current role (that of Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire).  His voice sparks with power, and even in his possible madness, he deserves the highest degree of sympathy.  Jessica Chastain, an actress I cannot say enough about, shines in her seventh major role this year.  The story of Take Shelter is just as much about Samantha dealing with Curtis’s problems as it is about Curtis dealing with it himself, and Jessica stifles absolutely no emotion.  She, more than anyone, makes the viewer want everything to work out in the end.  What an amazing collection of characters she is assembling.

Nichols exercises a subtle, yet absolute, mastery over his domain.  As I mentioned earlier, he has an undying respect for his characters, and this comes through in every scene (e.g. no one is killed by zombies or turned into a child-napping maniac, regardless of what Curtis’s dreams may suggest).  There are no abrupt genre exercises or contrived “twists.”  The family feels like a family.  There are long, hovering shots that seem to challenge the viewer to find something wrong, something off, something that should not be there (as Curtis is).  A scene in which Curtis loses all sense of reticence at a community benefit and throws a histrionic fit feels obligatory, but his pontificating is so genuine, so desperate, that it’s not only acceptable, but necessary.  The lens stays expertly focused on Curtis while we wait to see the most important shot: Samantha’s face.  Can she continue to deal with this?

It should also be noted that Samantha, not Curtis, is given the responsibility of making economic decisions for the family after Curtis’s situation jeopardizes his job.  “I’ve made a decision,” she says.  Eventually, a real storm starts.  Without spoiling anything, what follows is a scene scorched with drama, the most genuine display of trust between film characters I’ve seen all year (and after Another Earth, that’s saying something).

Take Shelter (2011); written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

The American

Range?

americanAnton Corbijn’s The American is packed with achievements other filmmakers in this genre attempt but fail: a truly gripping story, genuine sympathy for the Boring Hero, and a disguise so convincing that a fairly run-of-the mill thriller (based on a run-of-the-mill novel) becomes a thoughtful drama.  I once thought I was coming close to the latter with a screenplay I was working on, but alas, my hard drive crashed, and the only person with a copy still refuses to hand it over for reasons I will never know.  Anyway, in addition to what other filmmakers try, this film also achieves a few things other makers of thrillers forget about entirely – generally accurate portrayals of firearms (not just what they look like, but how precise a shooter can be at what range with what gun, what a silenced gun actually sounds like, etc.), an extra mite of thought into characterization, and artful direction.

The story centers around “Mr. Butterfly” (also known as Jack and Edward), played by the aging George Clooney.  Jack is an assassin and a maker of firearms, which he can apparently finagle from the simplest of items when he needs to.  In his age, though, he has become paranoid and bored.  His personality has become stony and impenetrable, a technique that often results in an uninteresting and underdeveloped character in a film like this (see Jason Statham in every American film he’s in), but here, the Boring Hero is redeemed.  He doesn’t act this way for the sake of the audience; he’s actually afraid.  Rival assassins are after him, and for good reason.  Love and all other forms of attachment evade him, and after being forced to execute a loved one to protect his identity, he’s resorted to seeing a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido) with whom he can fake fidelity.  Jack works for a sun-dried criminal who calls himself Pavel (the great Belgian actor Johan Leysen).  Pavel fills in another routine thriller role, the Shadow Premiere.  We never really find out who he is or what his reasons might be; we just know Jack has to do what he says.

For being based on a novel that tends to be shootout-y, the film focuses on Jack’s paranoia and attempts at living a life in Italy while he goes through the motions of his job.  A classic femme fatale called Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) is his newest client, asking for a blah-blah-blah gun with blah-blah-blah specifications for a blah-blah-blah murder.  She pops up three separate times in the film, each time with completely different hair.  Refreshingly, we don’t get the sense that this is intended to “symbolize” anything; it’s just an indication of the kind of shady and dangerous life she lives.  Clooney and Reuten, who played the sweetheart innkeeper in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, share a wonderful scene at a picnic area, during which the dialogue is so well delivered that the inclusion of bullets and butterflies in the same conversation doesn’t seem odd in the least.  The cast also includes Paolo Bonacetti as Father Benedetto, a kind old priest who befriends Jack, but his involvement in the story yields no real results in the end.

The final eighth of the film falls into thriller formula – running from bad guys, finding out who characters are “really” working for, twists that surprise Jack but not the audience, camera shots from within a sniper’s scope, and head-shots aplenty.  What saves the day is that Corbijn doesn’t change the tone – everything is still understated.  Death is never glorified nor accompanied by a crescendo.  The artfully-done love scenes with Clara become longer each time they happen, while the gun-construction and workout scenes become shorter, perhaps suggesting that Jack is more focused on love again, though he still doesn’t know whether he can really trust Clara (or, for that matter, anyone else in the film) until the final five minutes.  We share his paranoia because Corbijn wisely never leaves Jack’s perspective (until that final eighth I mentioned, and even then, only long enough to state two lines of dialogue that make us fear for Jack more than ever).

The American is a film that will put a smile on the face of those who (incorrectly) believe that “every story has already been told” and that “you can only tell old stories in new ways, not new stories.”  The film follows a specific formula comprised of stock characters, but it’s one of those gems in which the casting is picture-perfect, the care put into the storytelling is brilliantly evident, and our sympathies allow themselves to lie with a killer, because for an hour and forty-five minutes, he becomes a real person.  From the staggering opening scene to the sobering and inevitable conclusion, the audience walks a dark corridor with Jack, observing his decisions but never quite judging them, because as Al Green once said,  “Love’ll make you do right, love’ll make you do wrong.”

The American (2010); written by Rowan Joffé (based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth); directed by Anton Corbijn; starring George Clooney, Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten.

Unstoppable

Thank goodness the word itself is never spoken in the film

My father worked on the railroad during most of his early years of employment.  He was out on the tracks repairing switches, one of the more dangerous jobs in the field.  He’s told me countless tales of his railroading adventures.  As a sort of homage to the old days, he keeps an ever-expanding model train set (Lionel O-Gauge) in the basement of his house.  Back to that in a moment.

My love for the films of Tony Scott is no big secret.  True Romance is one of my favorite films (see my discussion of that film), and if you haven’t seen Spy Game or Domino, I’d urge you to do so.  Do I even need to mention Top Gun?  This year’s lick from the younger Scott brother is Unstoppable, a fairly straightforward thriller concerning a runaway train.  The cast includes Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer who recently received his 90-day notice; Chris Pine in his second-ever leading role as Will Colson, a young conductor paying his dues; Lew Temple in an excellent supporting role as Ned Oldham, lead railroad welder and “country boy;” and Rosario Dawson in a mature turn as Connie Hooper, a train dispatcher.  Ethan Suplee, Jessy Schram and T.J. Miller also appear, as does Kevin Dunn as the greedy railroad boss more concerned with property than personnel, though whenever I see him I can’t help thinking of his role as the annoying Joel Hornick in the early seasons of Seinfeld.

What keeps Unstoppable from becoming popcorn pre-holiday movie fare is the heart behind it and the attention to realistic detail when it comes to the railroading profession.  Train 777 runs away fairly early in the film, and from there on it could have been nonstop shirtless Chris Pine action, but the film actually goes against the grain.  Colson isn’t an action hero: he has issues at home that eat away at him throughout the workday, and he genuinely tries to learn from Barnes.  Barnes has his own sob stories, including a dead wife and apathetic daughters (who work at Hooters).  These back-stories serve as little more than ways of setting up reasons for Barnes and Colson to survive the ordeal, but the characters introduced are interesting, almost becoming the audience ourselves as we watch the crisis unfold on the faux news reports (though the fact that a single news chopper is following the 70+ miles-per-hour train the entire time becomes a bit silly).  The opening of the film does not concede to the trappings of the action genre, as we slowly pan over the yard, watch the trains rotate on their platforms, and witness the mundane grit and grime of the workday.

Scott’s unique visual style really shines here, with arguments between characters escalating into choppy, curse-laden montages, and shots of train 777 barreling along the Pennsylvania tracks take the form of morphing, multiple-shot images from the underside of the moving behemoth.  Leave it to Tony Scott to say to a camera crew, “I’d like a shot from under the train, while it’s moving.  Thanks.”  Where this could have been a standard autumn thriller to hold us over for True Grit and the obligatory holiday blockbusters, each little facet of Unstoppable goes above and beyond.  You may even get a laugh or two before you leave the theatre.

A film like this reminds me of my dad’s train set.  It’s full of visual candy and rapid movement, but it draws a deeper interest in how the railroad works.  Of course, it is not the railroad itself, in fact little more than a complex diorama, but it’s an entry in a proverbial museum, facilitating the process of chronicling the history of a vital and beloved profession.

Unstoppable (2010); written by Mark Bomback; directed by Tony Scott; starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson and Lew Temple.

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