Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: Breach

Chris Cooper will probably never find another role as note-perfect as Sheriff Sam Deeds, nor a film as perfect as Lone Star. Fortunately, though, he hasn't given up trying, and he managed to come close to both of those high-water marks playing real-life FBI leak Robert Hanssen in last year's under-appreciated gem, Breach.

As we watched Breach tonight, I was reminded of Kevin Costner in No Way Out, but not in a way flattering to Mr Costner (or anyone else involved with that 1987 thriller). Both films involve a trusted agent betraying critical secrets to the Russians from within the midst of the U.S. government itself, but where No Way Out opts for thrills and chills by lining up coincidence after coincidence to keep you from thinking too much about the improbability of it all, Breach rewards its audience's intelligence by delivering deep and complex characters. It probably also helps that one was a work of fiction whereas the other was based on a high-profile case in the real world.

The story in Breach builds slowly, as we're first told one thing - along with Ryan Phillippe's character, Eric O'Neill - only to discover that there's more going on than we've been lead to believe. We expect to cheer against traitor Robert Hanssen, especially after meeting him and his surly attitude, but then we can't help but start to like him, at least a little.

All of the actors in Breach do a terrific job, but special mention has to go to Cooper and Laura Linney, who plays FBI chief Kate Burroughs. The two of them don't actually share any scenes together, which is kind of a shame considering the sparks that might've flown between their characters. Linney's Burroughs is appropriately tough as nails, but also shows just a hint of vulnerability when discussing her unsatisfying personal life and how much it would mean to her professionally to put Hanssen away. As for Cooper, his great scenes are numerous and showcase his amazing range as an actor, but none can top his "meltdown" moment when he implores his subordinate to respect him when he intones, "I... matter... plenty!"

As with other great movies like The Contender and even Lone Star itself, I suspect that some people won't find the material in Breach fast-paced enough to hold their attention-deficit-depleted interest. If that's true, then it's sadly their loss.

Rating: ****

Monday, June 23, 2008

EW Lists

I like lists... a lot. So the latest issue of EW focused on "New Classics" and other amusing lists (which is transcribed without comments here, and with comments for the Movies set displayed in four sets here) I might actually have to purchase or something.

I think the TV list is highly questionable, but the Movies list is pretty decent.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: Juno

Juno is a fun little film that, like its title character, gives as good as it gets.

Most of the people that populate the movie start off seeming more than a little caricaturized, from the smart alecky Juno (Ellen Page), through the too-tightly-wound Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and too-cool-by-half Mark (Jason Bateman), the childless couple who react to teen-and-pregnant Juno's "generous offer" in ways that telegraph the eventual outcome. Having said that, though, the appeal of Juno (the film and the character) lies not in the plot basics but rather in the fun that's had along the way.

In a manner reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine, the characters of Juno come together to create a world in which you end up more interested in the people themselves than in what's happening around them. That's not to say that I didn't care at all about the precarious marriage of Vanessa and Mark - it was just too obvious from the start that it was headed for disaster - or that I would have been just as satisfied if Juno hadn't found true love in the end. Not at all; but I was definitely more entertained by the dialogue and interactions. I loved watching Juno's step-mother (Allison Janney, from West Wing), who clearly cared more about her husband's child than most Hollywood evil-step-parents are ever allowed to, as she ripped into the ultrasound technician who dared to look down her nose at the pregnant teen. Similarly, Olivia Thirlby, as Juno's unflappable best friend Leah, shone in every scene she appeared in, including the one where the parents get "the news" while Leah looks on, chews bubble gum, and helps not one bit!

I was initially less convinced of the appeal that Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) supposedly held for Juno, seeing as he's pretty much a nebbish for most of the film. But by the end of the story, I got it: love's supposed to be blind! We don't have to see what Juno sees in him; we just have to accept that she does. His love of Orange Tic Tacs (which I happen to share), his timid nature, and the fact that he probably doesn't have a pretentious bone in his body... those are all significant contributing factors to why he's the perfect match for Juno - who never met a person she couldn't cut to ribbons with a well-placed zinger or two. Because we've watched Juno dissect and eventually discard nearly everyone she's come in contact with, it's all the more telling when she finally says, "Frig it!" and admits to herself that she might actually be in love... I mean, how corny can she get!?!

If you're looking for some laughs and a great mix of slightly off-center characters, you could do a whole lot worse than rent Juno. I'm happy to say that I went all the way with Juno... umm, I mean: I bought the Special Edition DVD, including the original script!

Rating: *** 1/2

Wanna Know More About Upcoming TV Show, Fringe?

Going here might be a good place to start.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Review: Away From Her

There's a recurring line early in this film, in which Julie Christie's Fiona asks her husband Grant, played by Gordon Pinsent, how long ago a certain event occurred, expecting the answer to be a year or two. When Grant patiently reminds her that it actually happened over twenty years earlier, she gives him a look that's equal measures of disappointment and resignation, and says, "That is shocking." Equally shocking, to me, is the fact that twenty-something Sarah Polley, who we watched grow up in Atom Egoyan gems like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, is able to both write and direct a story so intensely real about love and separation between two characters in their twilight years.

In all the ways that you'd expect, Away From Her is sometimes a hard story to watch. It's achingly sad at times, but the subject matter requires it: there's no fun way to watch someone lose their memory and fall further and further away from the people they loved... and who still love them. Pinsent and Christie are both up to the task, as they deliver some great laughs while still retaining every ounce of grace that you'd expect from actors of their calibre. Both are blessed with the sorts of faces that you could lose yourself in, and that's an important asset to a film with as many long, quiet shots as this one has under Polley's exquisite hand. The action that heartbroken Grant takes in the final act of Away From Her would seem completely improbable and "written"... unless you'd just watched all of the events that lead up to it, in which case any other outcome would be inconceivable.

There are lots of unexpected surprises to be found, like the institutionalized Winnipeg Jets play-by-play man, who can't help but provide commentary to everything going on around him. When Grant turns down the television's volume during a Leafs game at the home, such that everyone can more clearly hear their companion's monologue rather than what the CBC had to offer, you can't help but cheer along with the rest of them. And anyone who's ever had someone they loved go into a hospital for an extended stay can relate to the character of Nurse Kristy, who forms a bond with Grant that's above and beyond the call of duty, and yet oh-so-typical of what you can find among Canada's nursing profession.

The other aspect of this story that I really loved was just how complicated it made everyone in it seem. We tend to think, especially when considering "old people," that everyone else has lived these storybook lives where everything went according to script and now that they're old they're simply ready to die. Here you see many of the imperfections of their earlier deeds, just as grown up children often do with their own parents, aunts and uncles. Affairs happened, and were forgiven... or simply moved beyond. We're reminded that everyone old was once young, and acted every bit the same way young people have always behaved.

I think you should watch Away From Her, whatever age you might be today. As one of the characters says in the film, you may think that you know where your life is going to end up, but you never really do. And remembering that, while you're still young enough to get some value out of that bit of wisdom, could make all the difference.

Rating: ****

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Incredible Hulk Movie? It May Actually Be Good!

I've now read two reviews of the new Hulk movie that's going to debut next weekend, both written by "genre" critics (in other words, people who know something about comics, as well as movies) and both were very, very positive. One claimed that this one's as good as Iron Man - high praise, indeed! - and the other said it was in the same class as that recent gem. With all of the news about supposed clashes between Ed Norton and the studio (no, not The Studio!), perhaps some of us have drawn unwarranted conclusions about the quality of the work itself.

All of a sudden I'm a lot more interested in going to the theatre to see The Incredible Hulk than I used to be. Maybe we'll finally get something to wash away the bad taste left by Ang Lee's crapsterpiece...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Let the Lucas/Spielberg-bashing begin! Oh wait, it already has... never mind!

Here's the thing: I like each of the first 3 Indiana Jones movies to varying degrees, but even the least of them (Temple of Doom) is entertaining enough to make me want to watch it every few years or so. And the best of them (Raiders of the Lost Ark)? Also entertaining enough to make me want to watch it every few years or so. I don't think a single one of them is a great movie, any more than I think any of the six Star Wars films are all that great... they're all just great fun, and that's all I expect from them!

And so it is with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It's got some nice parts, including nods to the earlier films in the series and some intentionally-laugh-out-loud bits of dialogue; and it's got its fair share of scenes that don't work at all if you think about them for more than half a second. But you're not supposed to give them that much thought: this is popcorn movie-watching at its purest. Could Indy really survive a 1950s nuclear test within a lead-lined refrigerator that was shot up into the air and bounced across the ground at tremendous speed? Probably not, but in this comic book-ish sort of a movie: of course he can! And he doesn't even suffer any broken bones or contract terminal cancer in the process!

As a young adult, when I saw Return of the Jedi for the first time (that's the one with the Ewoks in it, right?), I had to finally give in and just turn my brain off during the scene where various characters zip through the forests on air-bikes at impossible speeds without hitting anything (except where the plot called for the bad guys to be taken out in that way). Those sorts of things make no sense at all, if you actually believe that they're happening, but of course they aren't (and you know it). And the same thing applies here, in the not-one, not-two, then-I-stopped-counting chase scenes that move the story along - or not! - in Indiana Jones blah blah blah Crystal Skull. It's high octane fun, and you either love it while your brain is off making up tomorrow's work schedule or you get up and leave the theatre.

Did it bother me that aliens (or trans-dimensional beings) were brought into Indy's world? Well, anyone who balks at that turn-of-events probably has a much stronger belief than I do in the mumbo jumbo that filled the first three films. For me, it's all magic and hokum, with aliens actually managing to seem slightly more likely than holy grails, mystical tablets of deadly energy and hearts that can continue to beat after being plucked from your chest. They're all right up there with guys from Krypton and thunder gods!

As for the actors, how can you not love Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones (no matter how old he is now)? He was in fine form, Karen Allen had lost some of her spunk but still seemed OK, and I was shocked to find out that I didn't hate Shia LaBeouf like I'd expected to. It's almost impossible for me to say anything bad about Cate Blanchett anytime I see her, and this was no exception. She brought a lot of malicious energy to her Comrade Bad-girl role, and I loved it!

Bottom line for me with this movie was that it probably belongs in the lower ranks of the (still-growing) Indiana Jones oeuvre, along with Temple of Doom. But really, the difference between the top and the bottom, in this case, is probably not much wider than the brim on Indy's trademark hat. And that's just fine by me. But your mileage may vary...

Rating: ***