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Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a consummate gumshoe. He has the ability to spot a liar from a mile away, and he knows he’s found one when Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) saunters through his door. He pegs her as trouble on a pair of stunning gams, but he cares more about her $200 than her honesty. In truth, her lies are what hold his interest. When she confesses her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and claims she’s done things “worse than you could know,” he doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” Good thing he doesn’t charge extra for the witty rejoinders.

Sam’s unflappability and lack of warmth make him something of an anomaly as a “good guy” in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Bogart churns out quips like an assembly line, and while they’re canny or downright comical they serve a greater purpose: to create distance between Sam and everyone else. He wants things on an even keel, and emotions have a way of mucking up the peace. So he’s an off-putting choice for a traditional hero. Then again, there’s not much about “The Maltese Falcon” that plays by any cinematic rulebook. If anything, Huston’s taken the book, ripped it to shreds and then written a new one. Huston’s noir film, based on Dashiell Hammett’s thorny detective novel, was a game-changer. Whether “The Maltese Falcon” is the first noir film is up for debate, but there’s no denying the movie’s impact on Hollywood. Few noir films since have boasted ensemble casts or cinematography this good, femme fatales as slinky and devastating as Astor or leading men as exquisitely droll as Bogart. This was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of directing, writing, filming and acting.

“The Maltese Falcon” would lose immeasurable impact if Bogart were even one inch off in his timing and delivery. He isn’t. From the minute Sam Spade appears onscreen, Bogart makes it plain he’s a hard nut to crack. He barely has to say anything; just the sight of him behind that desk, cigarette smoke swirling, is enough. Along comes Brigid and the drama begins. She wants Sam and his partner Miles (Jerome Cowan) to find the dangerous man who has kidnapped her sister and taken her to San Francisco. Miles tails the would-be kidnapper and ends up with a bullet in him. When his widow (Gladys George) shows up, Sam wastes no time putting the moves on her … something he started doing long before Miles died. But despite his lack of compassion, Sam has principles, and they dictate that he find the man who killed his partner. The investigation will prove rocky because of Brigid’s sheer inability to tell the truth. She has many faces that she counts on to fool everyone, since most fall for her knockout looks. Sam’s immunity to her charms is the one thing she didn’t count on.

And so “The Maltese Falcon” starts unspooling. Every lie is followed by another, and more unsavory characters appear: “dandy” Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the ominous Frank “Fat Man” Gutman (a pitch-perfect Sydney Greenstreet); and Wilmer “Little Boy” Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), Frank’s flunky. The only commonality is their desire to find the Maltese Falcon, a mysterious and priceless artifact. Convoluted as it is, the plot, ultimately, isn’t the point, just like the falcon statuette isn’t the point. These are merely devices to lead all these characters to the same place: the unavoidable showdown. It’s coming and we know it, but those final 20 minutes are thrilling to behold, a showcase of fine acting. Greenstreet, in his first film, exudes a quiet menace that catches us by surprise (particularly in the scene, so subtly filmed and acted, where he drugs Sam; in the end, he still seems kinder than Sam. Lorre kicks in the comic relief, and Astor is a tempest of an actress (a precursor for Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois), whirling from sobs to doe-eyed swoons with alarming speed.

Still, all roads lead back to Bogart. He’s tough, diamond-hard at the edges, yet lets us see that somewhere deep in there, there’s a reason for all of it. That he won’t reveal the “why” makes his performance all the more powerful. It’s the stuff Oscars are made of.

Grade: A

Cusack’s a downer in likable “Hot Tub Time Machine”

Look, John -- even ROB CORDDRY can't believe you're in this movie!

The funniest thing about “Hot Tub Time Machine” is John Cusack — not because he says or does anything all that funny, but because he wears a look of fish-out-of-water bewilderment that’s uncomfortably hysterical. It is the astonished, slightly ashamed look of a man who went against everything his gut, his head, even that sardonic little shoulder angel (you know John Cusack’s shoulder angel is pithy) told him and took a part in this preposterous, occasionally hilarious movie anyway. As shocked as you are to watch this movie and see him in it, he’s all the more shocked to be in it.

Why Cusack chose this part should be a mystery to his fans (note: I’ve been one back since the “Tapeheads” and cameo in “Bob Roberts” days). Maybe, doubling back to his “Con Air” era, he wanted to make a “smart business decision” (i.e., cash). It’s also not unheard of that he’d want to stretch his wings, like he did with “Grace Is Gone,” only this time try his hand at a randy, grown-up dudecom. Whatever the reasoning, the choice was a bad one because Cusack can’t unwind and enjoy himself. He’s basically a rampaging buzzkill — not a straight man, but a buzzkill. Everyone else in “Hot Tub Time Machine” seems to know the score, know this is loopy fun and not much else. Cusack doesn’t. And it’s not a good sign when Crispin “Creepy Thin Man” Glover is having more fun than anyone.  

Cusack’s apparent discomfort, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate that “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a downer or a waste of time — far from it. Steve Pink’s light-hearted screwball buddy comedy delivers most of the laughs it promises thanks to Rob Corddry, who can’t be accused of not diving into every part with equine energy, and Clark Duke, enough a student of the Michael Cera School of Comedy to temper Corddry’s manic turns. Duke, Corddry, Craig Robinson and Cusack, an odd quartet any day of the week, find themselves in the very situation the movie’s title lays out. Adam (Cusack) and Nick (Robinson) have crumbling romantic lives. Jacob (Duke), Adam’s nephew, spends all his time playing “Second Life” in his uncle’s basement. They are paragons of stability next to Lou (Rob “I’m growin’ out my bangs” Corddry), an alcoholic whose latest stunt may have been a suicide attempt. No one’s quite sure how to handle the situation, so the gang heads back to the ski lodge where they spent their teen years … only to find the place deserted, as pitiful as they think their lives have become.

Enter the hot tub of the title, which turns out to be a time travel device. At first, the guys are in denial, though they can’t ignore guys “rockin’ cassette tape players” and Jeri-curl ‘dos. Michael Jackson being black should have been the tipoff, but Jacob is the voice of reason: “Do I really gotta be the asshole who says we got in this thing and went back in time?” Lines like these provide “Hot Tub Time Machine” with some zing, with Corddry stealing the best of them. (His idea to change the past to “prevent Miley Cyrus” belongs in the comedy time capsule.) The ’80s throwbacks (MTV! 10-pound cell phones! people snorting coke openly!) are a fun blast from the past, as are all laugh-at-not-with the decade jokes. Poor 1980s — you endorse a few bad ideas, like banana clips, jam shorts and leg warmers and people never let you forget it.

Ultimately, that’s what “Hot Tub Time Machine” amounts to: some laughs generated by ’80s jokes and the antics of Duke, Robinson and Corddry. There’s also a running gag about when the one-armed bellhop (Glover) of the future will lose his arm that doesn’t lose its appeal. It’s not as smart or raucous as the “The Hangover,” but it doesn’t try to be. In fact, the actors don’t try to do much of anything except run with the material. Though I do hope at least one of them took Cusack aside in-between takes to say: “Do I really gotta be the asshole who tells you this just isn’t your thing?”

Grade: B-

Review: “Trucker” (2009)

With her rough edges, foul mouth and short temper, trucker Diane (Michaelle Monaghan) isn’t much for motherhood. That’s not so strange to her 11-year-old son Peter (Jimmy Bennet), since he’d have no idea what to do with a mother even if he got stuck with one. In James Mottern’s spare, unidealistic “Trucker,” that’s just where Peter and Diane find themselves: stuck together like a mad-as-hell cop and a bitter, put-upon prisoner, forced to live out the mother/son relationship they never had.

If you think this translates to a happily-ever-after film about a mother and son reunited at long last, a pairing that will result in cutesy shared moments, think again. Up until the closing scenes, “Trucker” contains no drops of sweetness. Diane calls Peter a “goddamn little shit” or “dude”; to the young boy, Diane is simply “bitch” or “you.” This reunion is anything but happy because both mother and son have grown accustomed to living life on their own terms: Diane as a long-haul trucker who values and forcefully protects her independence and Peter as the loner only child of Len (Benjamin Bratt), his doting father. That stubbornness and aversion to change turns out to be the only thing they have in common, though neither mother nor son cares to dig that deep. While Mottern pushes the characters toward an inevitable reconciliation-of-sorts, it’s refreshing to see Monaghan and Bennett fight like wildcats the whole way, resisting every opportunity to bond.

Not surprisingly, the reason for Diane and Peter’s reunion has nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with circumstance. Hospitalized with colon cancer, Len isn’t very long for this world, and his fiancee Jenny (Joey Lauren Adams, exquisitely low-key) can’t juggle caring for Len and Peter and dealing with her own mother’s recent death. So Peter gets dumped on Diane, who doesn’t accept the situation gracefully. She’s accustomed to her routine of making hauls, having hotel quickies and coming home to her best friend Runner (Nathan Fillion), who loves her but won’t leave his wife. Although it’s not a terribly enriching existence, it’s what Diane knows and she understands that a kid will change everything. That’s why she ditched Len and Peter 11 years ago. She sees herself as an on-the-move person, but it’s more like she’s always on the run. For all her bravado, Diane is, as Peter angrily points out, a very scared person. Like most only children (this reviewer included), Peter’s gotten very good at reading between the lines of adult behavior. He’s a sidelines-sitter, an observer, a sharp judge of character. Unlike most child actors, Bennett has no trouble finding the woundedness and the smarts in this character.

With its ending and reliance on a script that feels like a not-so-careful rewrite (albeit an observant, more emotionally rich rewrite) of Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 movie “Over the Top,” Mottern’s film does lose some valuable points for predictability. In all fairness, unless Peter ran away or Diane ditched him or they both attempted to murder each other, “Trucker” is a movie that has to end a certain way. Sure, Mottern takes a familiar road; where he surprises us is the way he gets to his destination. He could have made “Trucker” into an orgy of familial reconnection, could have treated us to insufferable montages of bonding. Mottern presents his viewers with emotionally honest portrait of two people struggling to adapt to an unwanted new life. “Trucker” is all the better for it.

Casting elevates “Trucker” to an even higher level. Jimmy Bennett has a knack for playing it straight, bypassing histrionics for simplicity. That’s a choice not many actors his age — he’s barely a teen-ager — would think to make, and it shows he’s got instincts that might take him far. Monaghan provides us with another surprise. Normally stuck into parts that require a pretty face/body, in “Trucker” she has room to let her natural talents emerge. Diane is a difficult woman, yet Monaghan doesn’t back away from her hardness; she embraces it, gives it nuance. This may be the birth of Monaghan the real actress … and if this is her warming up, I for one can’t wait to see what she can do.

Grade: B+

My thought on today

Review: “An Education” (2009)

The pure miracle of “An Education,” adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir by author Nick Hornby, who doesn’t deal in schmaltz, is that there are many missteps the film could make and does not. Thirtysomething David (Peter Sarsgaard),  wooing a teen-age girl, could come off like a leering pedophile, but he doesn’t. Jenny (Carey Mulligan, bursting with promise), the schoolgirl besotted with him, could be oversexed jailbait or a helpless victim, but she isn’t. Their tentative romance could seem indecent, even tawdry, but it doesn’t. Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” is more delicate, more understanding of the intricacies of human wants, than that.

Reflect, for a moment, on one of the film’s earliest scenes, where Jenny and David meet for the first time. An afternoon London shower has soaked her and her cello, and in swoops David, part snake in the grass and part concerned music lover. He’s worried, he quips, about her instrument, even offering to give the cello a ride. Watch her expression in these moments; Mulligan affects a curious smile, a playful but knowing one implying she not only knows David’s game but gets a little thrill from playing along. She knows she won’t be the same girl after meeting this man that she was before. There’s a spark in Mulligan’s eyes, too, that tells us “An Education” won’t be a weepy melodrama about an adult using a child but a story of two people who see in each other opportunities to get what they believe they need, or perhaps merely want.

After that first meeting, David sets about getting what he wants: Jenny. He’s good enough at courtship that there’s a slightly disquieting feeling he’s done this before, perhaps many times. (It can’t be stressed enough how perfect Sarsgaard is for this part; he exudes charm but also finds neediness in David that isn’t off-putting.) First come flowers on the doorstep that anger Jenny’s father Jack (Alfred Molina, perenially enjoyable); the ever-winsome David’s just getting warmed up. Then he shows up in their home, the picture of smoothness, able to quiet their worries about him taking Jenny to a classical concert with disarming politeness and promises his aunt will be there. It’s almost comical that Jack and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) seem less prepared for David’s charm than Jenny is, and it isn’t long before they’re approving school-night dinners in fancy restaurants and weekend jaunts with his glamorous friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike, who deserved a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Academy). They welcome Jenny so readily it almost seems they’re re-enacting a routine. Pike in particular leaves a delicate but lasting impression. For all her furs, French perfumes and twinkling jewels, there’s a wariness in her face every time she looks at Jenny, as though Helen could speak from experience but chokes back her words. Helen might know that Jenny could be her in 15 years, and Jenny’s teacher (Olivia Williams) seems to know the dangers inherent in David’s pursuit.

Delicate, again, is the appropriate word to describe how “An Education” goes about developing Jenny and David’s relationship. Hornby’s screenplay keeps the drama to a minimum until it becomes necessary to the storyline, and even then complications — which might be explosive and messy in lesser films — are handled with care. Behind the camera, Scherfig favors close-up shots of the more serene moments, the little interactions, touches and glances that provide all the meaning we need. The director trains his camera on the actors and more specifically on Mulligan’s face and hands, finding the awkward, swan-like grace in the way she exits a car, steals a sideways glance at David or taps the ashes from her French cigarette. The camera, it’s obvious, has fallen hard for this young woman.

Only the steely-hearted could resist Mulligan’s charms, for their is much to love. Chatter about her Audrey Hepburn-ness abounds, and yet this 24-year-old emerges, at the end of “An Education,” as a true original, someone in full command of her considerable acting gifts. She keeps much to herself, but you won’t soon forget that face and those weary eyes. They’ll keep you wondering and worrying about the real damage done.

Grade: A

TTC: “Deep Blue Sea” (1999)

“I hate to interrupt this moment of burgeoning intimacy, but can we get the fuck out of here?” ~~Preacher

It’s fair to assume that, at any given moment in life, when someone utters the words “as a side effect, the sharks got smarter,” many cans of whoop-ass are about to be opened … and it won’t be the bipeds with the opposable thumbs who are popping the tabs. No, they’ll be the ones screeching like banshees, churning water with all the fluidity, grace and power of drunken cows. Or they’ll be chum.

As “Deep Blue Sea” progresses, the Foolish Scientists/Corporate Bigwigs/Token Brothers aboard the isolated ship Aquatica, a floating facility that uses Mako sharks’ brains for Alzheimer’s research, find themselves in both situations, sometimes simultaneously. Boy oh boy what cheerfully cheesy fun it is to watch. Hardly “Jaws,” or even “Jaws XI: I Know Who You Ate 25 Years Ago,” Renny Harlin’s CGI-enhanced battle royale between sharks and humans is terrifically terrible fun of the highest order — heavy on effects and state-the-obvious dialogue and happily light on subtlety. In point of fact, “hammy” might be the watchword, since subtle movies don’t ordinarily have people (LL Cool J, renaissance man extraordinaire) go around saying things like “Ooh, I’m done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this! Not ever!” Hating a movie this comically aware of its own gouda-ness is a capital crime.

And bless my dairy-gulping heart there’s plenty more where that came from in “Deep Blue Sea.” The plot promises as much and delivers: Aquatica floats way, way out in the ocean, so far that it might be appropriate to apply the “Alien” tagline to the ocean (i.e., scream if you want, but it’ll just tell the sharks where you are). Dr. Sarah McAllister (Saffron Burrows in a breath-taking don’t-quit-your-day-job role) is a researcher hoping to woo wealthy businessman Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) to invest in her highly controversial research: She’s injecting shark’s brains with a protein complex to determine if she can reanimate brain cells lost to Alzheimer’s. Her crack team — all brightly capable of whipping out gems like “Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters” — includes Carter (Thomas Jane), a surly shark wrangler; project leader Jim “I’m So Smart I Piss into the Wind” Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård); Jim’s main squeeze Janice (Jacqueline McKenzie); an engineer, Tom (Michael Rapaport); and the scripture-quoting chef “Preacher” (LL Cool J), whom we intuitively understand to be 1,921 times smarter than the researchers fannying about with genetically manipulating shark brains.

As detailed earlier, naturally everything goes whop-jollyed* 15-20 minutes into “Deep Blue Sea” (proof of the age-old adage: “Make sharks smarter and they’ll, like, eat you and stuff”). The makos, not surprisingly, don’t relish getting brain injections and being cooped up in pens, so they use those big new brains to outsmart the humans, eat a few of them — wouldn’t get emotionally attached to too many characters if I were you — and just toy around with the rest. This leads to quite a few heated arguments (most aimed at Dr. McAllister, because didn’t that “stupid bitch” know genetic testing is dangerous?), (sadly) no Biblical couplings, a smidge of PG-themed nudity and many thrilling chase scenes that mostly the sharks win, though sometimes they run the risk of getting blown into Mako McNuggets. The sharks, thanks to CGI, don’t look even the weensiest bit real; in a movie like this, however, that works in the director’s favor. Besides, does reality honestly belong in a movie where someone gets trapped inside an oven and the shark’s nose sets the dial to “broil”?

No, no, a million times no. Reality would be the ruination of “Deep Blue Sea.” Director Renny Harlin (he’s partial to nonsensical thrillers) knows this; thus, he helpfully has his actors explain all the plot points early, as if to get them out of the way so we can enjoy the shark-on-human action fest we’ve signed on for. The actors — particularly LL Cool J, likable in any part but especially funny as Preacher, and Jane, who looks alternately either very turned on or very constipated — only add to the salty fun. Bring on the sequel, says I.

*Or “wrong” to you non-Southerners.

Review: “Broken Arrow” (1996)

“I said goddamn what a rush!”
~~Vic “Deak” Deakins

See that quote up there? That’s a taste of what you’re getting in “Broken Arrow,” an absurd and absurdly fun blow-’em-up that owes much to John Travolta’s gleeful turn as a villain. He’s deliciously devious as a villain, probably because his villains bear no resemblance to real bad guys: they are in possession of every card; dead calm under pressure; quick with glib remarks. Travolta’s Maj. Vic Deakins is that criminal who, in the midst of a shootout, takes the time to ask, clenched teeth barely containing the sarcasm, if his henchmen kindly would mind not shooting at the nukes. Can you resist a villain like this? I can’t.

It’s likely anyone watching “Broken Arrow” can’t either, since Travolta is the big draw of John Woo’s absurdly farfetched but absurdly fun blow-’em-up about two military men (Travolta, Christian Slater) locked in a metaphorical peeing contest. Travolta sinks his teeth into some juicy lines and has such a ball doing it that his enjoyment is infectious. The men in question are Deakins, who tries to convince his comrade, Capt. Riley Hale (Slater), that his guts have propelled him higher up the Air Force success ladder than Hale. Despite his relative inexperience, Hale knows B.S. when he hears it: “You love having the power of God at your fingertips. You get off on it.” Bingo. Hale has Deakins pegged as a power junkie with a messiah complex, alright, but he underestimates just how far an addict will go for afix.

As it happens, Deakins is willing to go very, very far, far enough to commandeer a plane carrying two live nuclear warheads and use them to ransom the government for a cool $250 million. If the government’s feeling stingy, Deakins and his pals, including Emmitt (Howie Long, also a hoot), vow to detonate the weapons over Salt Lake City. The demands set into action the loud, blazing game of cat and mouse that is “Broken Arrow,” with Hale and Terry (Samantha Mathis, the plucky sole source of estrogen in all this dudeness), a park ranger caught up in the chase, on Deakins’ trail and determined to disarm the weapons. Action — in the form of numerous explosions, lots and lots of running (sometimes running and shooting happen simultaneously), a gun fight in a mine shaft, helicopter crashes and a train showdown that’s buckets of fun to watch — ensues.

Certainly this sounds a lot like the plot of, well, Generic Nuclear Weapon Action Movie, but what makes “Broken Arrow” a little different (and enjoyably so) is the mix of nonstop action with Graham Yost’s jaunty, sometimes even clever script. Some of the special effects aren’t particularly stunning, some stunts not even remotely believable, but “Broken Arrow” seems to have a sense of humor about that, and the actors even appear to be in on the joke. Nobody, not Hale and Terry, the self-styled “heroes,” takes anything too seriously; certainly, you won’t find any fake-noble claims of “we must save humanity from nuclear destruction” here. What you get instead is Hale killing a bad guy by shooting from between Terry’s legs and commenting, “That was a first for me, too.” Or how’s about a side order of Deakins politely asking “Mr. Pritchett, would you mind stepping outside?” before shoving his corpse out the door of a moving Humvee? These scenes have a kind of self-effacing humor that so many testosterone-soaked action flicks do not.

Travolta can’t help but play along with the whimsy of Yost’s writing, turning Deak into a swell criminal who keeps us guessing as to what he’ll say next since he does, Hale argues, have “a head full of bad wiring.” Hooray for that — the bad guys who act like they have a few marbles rolling around are such wet blankets. Although Slater’s the straight man to Travolta’s loose cannon, he’s not boring; if anything, Slater has a nice slyness and legitimate comic timing and generates a nice amount of sexual tension with Mathis that never spills over into an obligatory sex scene. But Slater, really, plays second fiddle to Travolta, who all but takes a piece out of us.

Grade: B

Beachin’

M. Carter at the Movies is taking an oh-so-brief, coupla-days hiatus to celebrate one of most illustrious perks of working for a university … SPRING BREAK, baby!

And don’t feel left out just ’cause you don’t get a Spring Break. Declare Friday Non-Denominational Spring Holiday and join me in Holden Beach. I’ll bring the chips if you bring the beer.

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

Review: “Twentynine Palms” (2004)

In recent years, cinema has moved further and further away from the realm of art and into mindless, thoughtless entertainment. That’s what French filmmaker Bruno Dumont believes, and he’s ready for a revolution. The desolate, frequently tedious “Twentynine Palms” is his battle cry (albeit a muted one). Dumont’s third film is experimental in every possible sense — he flauts tradition by requiring his actors to use minimal dialogue; he mixes frank sex scenes with panoramic views of the California desert; he plays up mankind’s more primal drives with an ending that’s thoroughly senseless and deeply upsetting.

Whether or not the experiment pays off depends upon individual viewers (particularly American ones) and their ability to accept that entertainment and art can exist separately. Those with little patience for the tedium of everyday life funneled into film form need not apply, either. In “Twentynine Palms,” Dumont’s flirtation with American horror films, there is little to enjoy and much to endure for the sake of artistry. The film opens unremarkably in the midst of a road trip to Twentynine Palms, a desert California town that immediately sets the mood thermostat to “little do they expect.” (Cheerful movies almost never happen in a desert.) David (David Wissak) is scouting locations for a magazine shoot; his French girlfriend, Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva), appears to be along for the ride. Healthy as their collective sex drive is, it’s obvious something’s not right with these lovers. His French is as minimal as her English, so their conversations are simple at best, dumb at worst. Katia has strange emotional outbursts that come on like tornadoes, decimate everything and then evaporate. We gather that these two have had trouble, bad trouble, at some point, but our instincts are all we have to go on. There’s no history, no back story, barely a smidgen of emotional connection or tenderness. David or Katia are strangers to us; Dumont, it’s clear, wouldn’t have it any other way.

With so little context, then, the characters do not supply adequate motivation for us to ride out the banality in “Twentynine Palms.” Why keep going? Again, this depends on each viewer’s level of patience and willingness to trust in Dumont’s vision (though he’d likely balk at that term). Almost nothing happens in the film for a solid 90 minutes but arguments followed by sex followed by eating followed by driving … this cycle continues as if on some interminable loop. Underneath these commonplace events, there’s a pervasive sense that Katia and David’s relationship is slowly unspooling. The cinematography, all the slow, roving shots of the California desert, lend “Twentynine Palms” a nearly perceptible air of doom. Dumont’s camera lingers almost lovingly on the Joshua trees, the rocky paths and dusty air, so much so that the arid desert becomes a character far more expressive than David or Katia, who come off as dull, anonymous. This air of doom, however, is but a faint whiff of things to come; it does nothing to prepare us for the unrelenting, almost cartoonish final minutes, so distressing that, 24 hours after seeing this finale, I simply cannot discuss it … except to say that it rendered this reviewer a quivering bundle of frayed nerves and confusion. Somehow endings like this, that blindside us almost casually, are most often the ones that rock us to the core.

And it’s the ending, unhinging as it is, that raises some questions about “Twentynine Palms” that Dumont is loathe to answer. We want to shout: “Why did this happen? Why end the movie this way? Why this couple? What does all this MEAN?” Much as the Coen brothers did in the recent “A Serious Man,” Dumont causes us to confront our perceptions about how we believe films should operate and our own sense of entitlement as viewers. So many films play out like large-scale games of hide-and-seek, with the answers hiding and us finding them, or (more often than not) the director finding them for us and presenting them like little gifts. “Twentynine Palms” is not like that. Bruno Dumont is not like that. He’s unconcerned with what we want or expect. This director is out to make art, not entertainment, and he has done exactly that.

Grade: B