Review: “10 Items or Less” (2006)

Grocery store checkout lanes are unusual places because people show everything about who they are and think they show nothing. It’s all right there on that rolling food-and-goods catwalk, all our personal preferences summed up in a shopping cart of air fresheners (Hawaiian breeze or fresh linen?) and bread and bananas and toilet tissue (Charmin or Quilted Northern?). Cashiers probably see more of human nature in a day than psychologists see in a lifetime, and still it feels anonymous.

Brad Silberling’s simplistic “10 Items or Less” isn’t about the anonymity, though; like “Snow Cake,” another indie 2006 release, it’s about the everyday opportunities for connection that people miss. On any other day, the protagonist, an actor known just as “Him” (Morgan Freeman), would belong in this category. But in the opening of “10 Items or Less,” Him is in a vulnerable spot. After commercial success in a few films with Ashley Judd (a nice dose of meta-humor), Him’s fame torch is flickering out. The big-money offers from big-name directors have dried up, so he’s considering taking a part in an indie film. Freeman, in his typical uncannily intuitive, droll and non-pretentious Morgan Freeman way, reasons this is a no-risk move. He even dubs it “the cinematic equivalent of a blow job” because if the movie’s a Sundance hit, it will boost his indie cred; if it’s a flop, hey, no harm done. Silberling may be pretty new to this scriptwriting gig, but observations like that sure don’t make him sound green.

At the Ranch Market in sun-bleached, bland Carson, Calif., Him locates his subject of study: Scarlet (Paz Vega), a bored and cranky cashier who’s an expert at sizing up her customers the minute they walk in the stoor. (Her P.A. system upbraiding of a repeat melon squeezer shows Vega has a comic timing purely her own.) She’s only 25, but already she hates her job, hates her ex (Bobby Cannavale) and the lazy coworker who’s sleeping with him (Anne Dudek), hates her life. In Vega there’s a stubborness that makes it easy to believe someone so young could be so hard. The actress, with that resoluteness and timing, is more than a Penelope Cruz copycapt. Him decides — if for no reason other than he’s stranded at the market because his ride (Jonah Hill) is M.I.A. — to help her lighten up. Somewhere between the 10 items or less lane, Target (Him is so awed by the low prices he demands “do people know about this place?”) and the job interview Scarlet’s dreading the two strike up a temporary, momentous friendship.

Owing to this lack of excitement (excluding the part where Scarlet rams her ex’s car), “10 Items or Less” is like any other independent film only moreso, Rick Blaine would say. Shot-wise, nothing stands out as aesthetically inventive, but that’s well and good — cameras in a minimalist character drama are meant to stay in the background. So is the plot, which is a string of barely interconnected scenes that require a lot of driving, some violence (see above) and humor, but not the yuk-it-up kind. This film’s whole reason for being is Scarlet and Him and the relationship they create out of practically nothing. Silberling sets about building their friendship very casually, starting with Him’s marvelling at the way Scarlet’s lightning-fast reflexes and Scarlet’s wariness of his boundless enthusiasm for the job she despises. Freeman is a snug fit for the role of Him, a part he’s playing in “10 Items or Less” and probably has played before in his many years as an actor. He’s the right kind of wise and the right kind of encouraging to push Scarlet’s Vega outside her small, unhappy life. Vega, so arresting in “Spanglish,” has enough anger-fueled gumption to match this star scene for scene. She’s got the leading-lady face; the talent is character actress-ready.

This is what I love about “10 Items or Less” in particular: Actors aside, there’s little to distinguish Him and Scarlet from the million other humans on Earth. They aren’t special at all, which is the very reason their story is poignant. They could be anybody, they are anybody, and together they are two anybodies better for having met each other.

Grade: A-

Review: “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)

Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) finds people “who started in the cracks and fell through.” That’s not difficult to do because he identifies with such people; in fact, he might have been one of them, since he grew up in Dorchester, the same tough Boston neighborhood his clients come from. Chance, maybe a few bad mistakes — that’s all that separates Patrick from the people he gets paid to find. He’s no better or worse than them, and while he uses his position to make him a better detective he doesn’t fancy himself a savior for Boston’s downtrodden. Patrick has one interest: doing right by his clients. But the more he sees, the less able he is to feel out the boundaries of “right” and “wrong.”

Bless first-time director Ben Affleck for steering Patrick Kenzie into this world of moral grayness and not one of polarizing moral absolutes. The last thing a sharp, haunting film like “Gone Baby Gone” — based on Dennis Lehane’s fourth book in the Kenzie-Gennaro series — needs is a self-righteous hero with a gun in one hand and a soap box in the other. In the underbelly of Boston, where people know more than they want about each other and won’t tell any of it to the cops, only a quick thinker like Patrick will work. Casey Affleck plays him as low-key, occasionally glib, but he’s not heartless, just a man with a moral code that’s not fully formed yet. That code gets tested by the case he and his parter Angie (Michelle Monaghan) take on involving four-year-old Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), who has vanished from her mother Helene’s (Amy Ryan, stellar beyond words) apartment. All signs point to a kidnapping, since Helene’s a drug mule for local kingpin Cheese (Edi Gathegi) with a lot of enemies. Amanda’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver) believe Patrick can augment the police investigation because he knows Boston’s bottom rungs. Their relationship with Helene, who does things like take her daughter along on drug runs, is rocky.

The case takes Patrick and Angie further into the city’s underbelly than they expected. As their search deepens and they become emotionally involved, Ben Affleck keeps the action tight, the twists rapid and the characters intricate. His shots, too, of Dorchester’s seedy bars, empty warehouses and addicts provide a fitting backdrop and a sense of grime and forboding that’s hard to shake. The investigators butt heads with Boston PD Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman, unassuming and devastating as always) and detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) and get mixed up with the local criminal element, including Helene. Everyone, really, has ulterior motives — some honorable, some selfish — that cloud the water. What’s compelling about “Gone Baby Gone” is the way the film gets at these motives very carefully. Even though in movies like this one, with its neo-noir leanings, we’ve come expect the unexpected, the surprises are still genuine, the consequences unforseen. Most unwilling to accept the not knowing is Patrick, whom Casey Affleck plays with an understated but fiery determination.

Probing the “actions have unpredictable consequences” angle is one thing Ben Affleck does well in his first feature film. “Gone Baby Gone” is a remarkably assured, even-handed look at both sides of some heavy issues with no sides or stances are taken. Amanda, if found, surely seems like she’d thrive with her aunt and uncle as her guardians. But Helene is her biological mother, and though she’s an addict there’s always the possibility she could clean up, become a better mother. Although Angie and Bea (Madigan) and Remy see nothing in Helene but wasted oxygen, Patrick can’t deny that the woman, underneath all the beer and drugs and foul language, honestly cares about her child, knows she made some colossal mistakes and wants another chance. Ryan, so deserving of her Oscar nomination, gives so much to Helene, finds damage and bitterness and also vulnerability, contrition. What Patrick sees in her prompts him to venture down Frost’s “road less traveled by.” His choice makes all the difference, and “Gone Baby Gone” lets us see how sometimes the aftermath of a perceived right choice can be very, very damning.

Grade: A

No. 24: “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” ~~Red

Friends and acquaintances periodically ask how I can spend so many waking hours staring at movies on screens large and small. They want to know why I love films so much. When I have trouble forming an answer in words, I direct them to “The Shawshank Redemption.” Frank Darabont’s film says more — and speaks more poignantly — than I ever could on the subject. Put simply, “The Shawshank Redemption” is a motion picture that shows the unique ability of the cinema to transport us into worlds a far cry from our own and show us how we all feel the same pain, fear, determination, rage, hope. “The Shawshank Redemption” speaks to the fragility and the resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity to stockpile hope. This is why people see movies.

So much of the film’s power lies in the screenplay, deftly adapted by Darabont from Stephen King’s moving novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” and Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which evokes a very real and chilling desperation that seems to seep into our bones. Darabont takes great pains to preserve the unsentimental but hopeful spirit of King’s story, set in Shawshank Prison in Maine, but he takes some liberties with the plainspoken narrator, Otis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). King originally wrote Red as a 50-ish Irishman, but here Darabont relies on Freeman. Nothing is lost and so much is gained in this translation, for Freeman is an actor who radiates quiet dignity. His Red, “the guy who gets things,” is a cautious observer of prison life more than a participant, and after 30 years he’s done anticipating his release. “One day, when I have a long gray beard and two or three marbles rollin’ around upstairs, they’ll let me out,” he reasons. Red also doesn’t think much of newcomer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and her lover; in fact, he refers to Andy as “that tall drink of water with the silver spoon up his ass.” Only Freeman could take that line and make it as astute as it is funny.

Red, as it turns out, and his cronies — Heywood (William Sadler), Floyd (Brian Libby) and Brooks (James Whitmore), a near-lifer dreading his approaching parole date — figured Andy all wrong. He’s tougher than he looks and he pulls some legendary stunts, like convincing Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), a cruel Bible thumper, to let him drastically expand the prison library, then locking himself in the warden’s office and blasting “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison speakers. Andy also forges a tentative friendship with Red, and their bond changes the shape of their lives: Red can’t pretend he’s still content marking time, and Andy can’t keep choking back the rage the rage his wrongful conviction and the warden’s shady dealings have left him with.

Bringing life to written words (specifically those written by Stephen King) necessitates a strong team of actors, and “The Shawshank Redemption” is not light on talent. Gunton hints at the insecurity behind Warden Norton’s tyrannical behavior, and Clancy Brown is fearsome as Captain Hadley, who delights in brutality and abuse. Darabont hand-picked Freeman for Red, claiming he was the best choice, and he’s right. Red requires a specific elegance, a mix of sardonic wisdom and world-weary humor that Freeman projects without effort. Though Robbins wasn’t the original pick for Andy, it’s impossible to imagine a better one. His role, too, is a delicate balance of simmering emotion, calm and cunning. Freeman deservedly received an Oscar nomination, but Robbins’ performance is the one that sneaks up on us, reminding us that dreams exist even when they’re forced into tiny, cold, walled-up cells.

There’s a moment, in fact, where we can see all this plain on Andy’s face. When he emerges from the hole, he tells Red of his dreams, of living in Mexico where the Pacific has no memory. As he talks, we see he’s not dejected but hopeful. More than that, he’s alive. Inside him is a resolve that the warden and Captain Hadley just can’t break, and there’s something beautiful and immensely uplifting about that.

No. 17: “Unforgiven” (1992)

“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” ~~Bill Munny

Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) likes to think he’s a man whose occupations chose him and not the other way around. Marriage, followed by widowerhood, led him to a hard life as a father and hog farmer in Kansas. Whiskey, devilment and killing occupied his younger days, though not because of any real talent. “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks,” he remarks to a fellow gunman, and he means it. For better or worse, chance, he believes, has dictated the course of his life.

The way Eastwood plays him, Munny’s delusional and right. Splendidly lensed and acted, Eastwood’s expansive “Unforgiven” is a thorough study of fate versus human nature. Herein lies the dark magic of Eastwood’s Western: The actor/director takes typical Western themes — lawlessness and justice, wild men “tamed” by good women — and upends them. Greed and lust push lawmen to abuse power, while killers operate according to their own moral codes. He asks: Does chance make men what they are? Or does chance play understudy to human nature, be it twisted and cruel or merciful?

Don’t wait on easy answers; Eastwood isn’t about to provide them. “Unforgiven” is a hard film, and in it Eastwood travels into the furthest corners of man’s psyche. He does so by merging two stories: that of Munny and Little Bill Daggett, the violent sheriff of small-town Big Whiskey, Wyo. Munny believes marriage and sobriety cured him of wickedness, but temptation tests him: The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a boastful gunman, wants Munny to partner with him on a bounty hunting mission. They could collect $1,000 for killing two men involved in carving up a prostitute (Anna Levine) in Big Whiskey. Munny resists — “I ain’t like that anymore” — but soon realizes he needs the money. Farming he can’t master, but killing? That he knows deep down and in ways he doesn’t like to talk about.

Ned (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s old partner in crime, knows killing too, and he signs on for a piece of the reward. “I guess they got it comin’,” Ned figures, but in tracking the offenders he discovers he cannot pull the trigger. This offers a counterpoint for Munny’s transformation, who reclaims his will to kill at the same moment Ned loses his. This proves useful because Daggett, remarkably sadistic for such a principled lawman, does not welcome gunslingers. Nor does he suffer braggarts, and that includes English Bob (Richard Harris), who rides into town with his biographer (Saul Rubinek) and intends to collect that reward. Daggett has other ideas, especially since it’s the injured prostitute’s friends who’ve offered the prize. Those who undermine the sheriff’s authority, Bob learns, pay a brutally steep price. Hackman’s ability to move from quiet condescension to volcanic rage in these moments is disturbing.

One of the most impressive aspects of “Unforgiven” is the amazing depth David Webb Peoples’ script gives its characters. The line between “heroes” and “criminals” is blurred by the ways the act of killing affects the killers. Daggett holds a position of honor, but he is so ruthlessly self-serving that he’s hardly a beacon of morality. (Hackman, in fact, makes him a despicable villain for the ages.) Munny claims to have reformed but reverts to his old ways easily — only, he says, to avenge a friend’s death. Yet in his steely expressions and tone of voice, Eastwood suggests this change could be more permanent, that Munny might have opened a door he cannot shut. And somewhere in the middle are Ned (Freeman smartly plays him as relieved and disgusted with his inability to pull the trigger) and The Kid, who realizes too late that the fantasy of murder and its reality are vastly different.

On par with the acting is the film’s cinematography and set design, both nothing short of awe-inspiring. Big Whiskey seems every inch a quaint, congenial Western town, but it’s almost too quaint; there’s an undercurrent of unease. Meanwhile, panoramic shots of the dusty plains surrounding Munny’s farm, nearly empty for miles and framed by sunset, highlight his isolation. “We’ve all got it coming,” he tells The Kid, and he’d rather be alone with his demons when it comes for him.

Review: “The Maiden Heist” (2009)

Three Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee walk onto a set to make a funny movie — wait, stop snickering. This isn’t a joke. Though if it were, the punchline would go something like “and it wasn’t funny.” Ba-dum-bum. Be here all week. Kindly tip the waitress, and don’t even think of pulling a drink-and-dash. 

Really, there’s no kinder way to say it: The only thing remarkable about “The Maiden Heist” is how unremarkable the film is. (Although the fact Peter Hewitt’s mild-mannered caper comedy got released at all should is astonishing, since distributor Yari Film Group filed for bankruptcy last December.) With this kind of mind-blowing star power — Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, William H. Macy and Marcia Gay Harden? In the same movie? — the potential seems limitless. It isn’t. These four try hard to rise above the limitations of the unthrilling plot and the lackluster script, yet they succeed only sporadically. How can this be? I suppose even Nelson Mandela needs a breather now and again.

But back to that “unthrilling plot.” It revolves around a surprisingly humdrum art heist scheme cooked up by two Boston museum security guards, Roger (Walken) and Charles (Freeman), after they hear their two favorite paintings will be transferred to a collection in Denmark. For men who’ve spent 30 years memorizing every brush stroke, absorbing every nuance in these works, this is unimaginable. Roger’s efforts to convince his wife Rose (Harden) to move to Denmark — he’s certain the weather is delightful “for a few weeks every year” — are fruitless. So he and Charles enlist the help of another guard George (Macy), whose deep love for a certain bronze sculpture inspires him nightly to get naked and pose beside it (“I don’t know what you think you saw, but I’m a happily married man!” he insists). Security tapes don’t lie, and while the jig is up, his pants are down.

Heist plans are mapped out, and hijinks ensue. (Bungled capers seem to follow Macy like lost puppies, no?) What began as a sneak-and-steal manuever turns into a beast of a plan that involves commissioning forgeries and switching them with the originals during the collection move. Enter a complication involving Rose, who won’t quit nagging about that trip to Florida Roger promised her. A naked man ends up in a crate that ends up in the back of the wrong van. But we should expect as much. The film’s tagline warns us these three are “bad thieves.”

Still, this is a comedy, though, so at least the fumbles are comical, right? Sometimes, at least when Macy is the one doing the fumbling in “The Maiden Heist.” He specializes in playing men with Napoleon-sized egos and Foghorn Leghorn-sized brains. Even makes these dolts seem likable, which George is. His belief that old-timers like Walken and Freeman can rappel down a brick wall is good for a chuckle; watching him do it is priceless. Macy even hams it up (well, as much as he can “ham up” anything) in the Big Switch scene, providing the bulk of the film’s precious few sidesplitting moments.

Walken and Freeman, on the other hand, make with the quiet humor. Well, they try, and sometimes they have their moments. Walken manages to give a smidge of depth to Roger, showing us a man who’s channeled his whole life into a painting to escape his own reality. He identifies with the subject of his cherised painting “The Maiden Heist” because she, like him, is filled with “desperate longing and overwhelming passion.” They are kindred spirits. Charlie and George are more of a mystery, with scriptwriter Michael LeSeiur devoting less time to their stories. Yet Freeman and Macy make these characterse mildly interesting in different ways: Charlie for the timidity inhibiting his artistic talent, and Macy for the blustering that masks his timidity. Harden’s a different story; she has no business in a role this flat. Even an actress with her gifts can’t turn Rose from a shrew into anything better. In a  nutshell, that’s the problem with “The Maiden Heist”: All these talents make the movie halfway enjoyable, but they can’t make it as good as it should be.

Grade: C+

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Unforgiven” (1992); dir. by Clint Eastwood; starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Frances Fisher.

The moment: Early morning (3:13 a.m.), my bathroom floor. A showdown between M. Carter @ the Movies and a spider with eyes big enough to reflect the flashlight beam.

The correlation: Evil Glinty-Eyed spider: “I don’t deserve to die like this. I was huntin’ bugs.” Me: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Squish.

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