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My thought on today

No. 44: “Mystic River” (2003)

“We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean.”
~~Jimmy Markum 

As an author, Dennis Lehane is a man of few words, but he makes every one count twice. That’s Clint Eastwood the actor up one side and down the other (even in “Space Cowboys” he didn’t say much). But as a director? That characterization rings just as true, because Eastwood prefers a hands-off, less-direction-is-more approach. He trusts in his actors’ talent and their instincts; he lets them navigate their characters as they choose. Eastwood intuits that, more often than not, the things left unsaid carry more weight than heated confrontations. 

So much goes unsaid in “Mystic River,” Eastwood’s bleak and darkly beautiful adaptation of Lehane’s novel, that the film simmers with tension. There’s an atmosphere of unease about “Mystic River” that never dissipates; by the film’s conclusion, in fact, the unease has grown exponentially. All of the tension has to do with a murder in the past that could have ties to a murder in the present. At the center of “Mystic River” are three old friends: Jimmy (Sean Penn), a father and ex-con now running a corner store; Sean (Kevin Bacon), a detective with the Massachusetts State Police; and Dave (Tim Robbins at his most Oscar-worthy), who ekes out a living with blue-collar work. The three have grown apart because they cannot speak of the tragedy in their childhood, of the day when a man, posing as a cop, abducted Dave and locked him a basement for four days, where he was molested repeatedly. Dave survived and he did not survive. Part of him died in that basement. Jimmy and Sean, even as kids, sense this; they know that Dave has been hurt in ways that won’t heal. He is a person who has experienced things they cannot comprehend. He is a stranger.

Twenty-five years later, Jimmy, Sean and Dave know of, but don’t really know, each other anymore. Then a present-day crime forces them together again: Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered. On the night of her murder, Dave came home to his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) covered in blood with a badly injured hand. He feeds her a story about fighting off a mugger that she doesn’t quiet her suspicions. Because whether she admits it to herself or not, she’s always been a little wary of Dave, who withdraws a little more from his family every day. Sean’s partner, Sgt. Powers (Laurence Fishburne), pegs Dave as a suspect in Katie’s death, and it’s not long before Sean wonders if he’s right. The real trouble starts when Jimmy, unhinged by his grief, hears Dave was the last person to see Katie alive. That’s all Jimmy needs to spur him to action, and his choices lead up to an agonizing conclusion that packs a Stephen King-styled final blow.

“Mystic River” the novel stands apart from usual true-crime fare in its examination of the events that shaped Jimmy, Sean and Dave psychologically. Rarely in these kinds of novels do the authors provide such a complex exploration of how the past informs the present. It’s something of a miracle, then, that Eastwood, working from a script adapted by Brian Helgeland, manages to retain all this psychological depth. More than that, he creates Boston the way Lehane presents the city: inscrutable and forbidding, yet deeply committed to the importance of family, justice — however it is meted — and loyalty. Eastwood crafts his shots to speak as much to the characters’ turmoil as they do to Boston’s beauty, such as a sinister confrontation on a riverbank, or the image of Dave’s face in a dark room, illuminated only by the glow of the television. The acting amplifies the mood, with Penn delivering a towering performance as an ex-con who feels and reacts before thinking. (In one terrific scene, Linney plays purring devil’s advocate to his tortured Macbeth.) Harden is equally powerful as the wife of a man she loves but barely knows. Bacon and Robbins have parts that require a lower key, with Robbins turning in a quietly devastating performance as Dave, a ghost in his own life. He doesn’t say much, but the horror in his eyes is unforgettable.

My thought on today

Many remember her as a serial bride, creator of the Diamonds fragrance, star of “Cleopatra” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” To me, though, she’ll always be Martha, the meaner, boozier half of the spitefully witty, warring duo that cement “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” into place as one of my all-time favorite films. Rest in peace, Elizabeth. 

All the single men in the afterlife better lock their doors.

Desert Island CDs Blogathon

There's this desert island, see? And I'm stuck on it.

Great ideas come in pairs. So as a companion piece to Andy the Fandango Groover’s hugely popular Desert Island DVDs blogathon in April 2010, here is the Desert Island CDs blog event. The predicament is only slightly different this time: If you were stuck on a desert island and could listen to only 12 songs — all from movie soundtracks — which 12 tracks would you pick?

Below are the 12 soundtrack tunes I’d gladly listen to until I rallied the tiger blood within and swam after a passing boat, or angry seagulls pooped on my head until I went stark raving mad … for the definitive list of soundtrack selections, click the graphic above.

1. “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack) — Rahman’s “Jai Ho” may be the most infectious and joyous original composition ever to grace a film soundtrack. A little improvised Bollywood dancing — or an exuberantly bad impression — would be an excellent cure for the desert island blues.

2. “Dracula’s Lament” by Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” soundtrack) — Puppet Dracula knows loneliness. He is an island. I’m stuck on a desert island. You do the math.

3. “Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers (“Pulp Fiction” soundtrack) — Nothing invites dwelling on past heartbreak like solitude, and The Statler Brothers gave the world perhaps the smartest, funniest song about coping with the minutiae of daily life after a breakup.

4. “Lift Me Up” by Bruce Springsteen (“Limbo” soundtrack) — Go through Bruce Springsteen’s entire catalogue — go on, I’ll wait; I have nothing to do but soak up UV rays in this hellhole — and you won’t find a more heart-wrenching, life-affirming and haunting love song than “Lift Me Up.”

5. “The What” by The Notorious B.I.G. feat. Method Man (“The Wackness” soundtrack) — Life dealing crack in the alleys of Bed-Stuy is hard. So is a life sentence of sand in places that don’t need exfoliating and daily sunburn. That kind of hard, mean reality demands a daily dose of F.T.W. attitude.

6. “I’ll Fly Away” by Gillian Welch (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack) — Remember how Emily Dickinson said hope is the thing with feathers? Sometimes a desert island dweller doesn’t need attitude but hope. Nobody doles out gospel-tinged, Old-Time-Religion hope like Gillian Welch.

7. “Lover” by Devendra Banhart (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” soundtrack) — Sometimes a sweeping love song won’t get the job done. That’s when a little playfulness (and a lot of sexual innuendo) come in mighty handy, and Barnhart’s “Lover” has both in spades.

8. “Wise Up” by Aimee Man (“Magnolia” soundtrack) — Chances are, if you’re stuck on a desert island, it’s because you made one fool choice or another. Aimee Mann’s nasal warbling and her poignant lyrics from “Magnolia” will remind you not to make the same mistake twice.

9. “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd (“The Departed” soundtrack) — Comfortable numbness, as a state of being and as a way of handling (or avoiding) the world, is highly underrated. Roger Waters and David Gilmour get that, and they communicate it beautifully here.

10. “The Book I Write” by Spoon (“Stranger Than Fiction” soundtrack) — Fatalism is the enemy of survival in a desert island stranding situation. “The Book I Write” should provide just enough make-your-own-luck energy to see me through the darkest moments.

11. “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)” by The Hollies (“Remember the Titans” soundtrack) — Although I wasn’t alive in 1972, The Hollie’s criminally cool “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” makes me feel like I was. It’s as if these guys condensed the ’70s into 3 minutes and 2 seconds of awesomeness.

12. “Here I Come” by The Roots feat. Malik B. and Dice Raw (“Superbad” soundtrack) — I’m convinced that if I listen to this song long and hard enough, I’ll sprout a superhero cape, spontaneously develop the ability to fly and catapult myself off this damn island without getting one hair out of place.

Groovers and Mobsters Present: Detective Noir

(Groovers and Mobsters Present, a column tackling the best each genre has to offer, is back! This time a number of bloggers — including this one — have made our picks for the best of detective noir. To read the entire list, visit this post on the Movie Mobsters’ website, or click the graphic above.)

“Out of the Past” (1947)

“Build my gallows high, baby.”
~~Jeff Bailey

Wherever there lurks a femme fatale with a hidden agenda and a dynamite pair of getaway sticks, a cynical gumshoe is never far behind. Think of it as The Law of Detective Noir; one cannot exist without the other. They feed each other – the femme fatale delights in escaping, and the detective cannot resist the chase. Somewhere in the chase, genuine emotions get involved. And emotions, in detective noir, are the great undoing. They have a way of making sure the past doesn’t stay where it should.

In “Out of the Past,” private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) sees this coming. “How big a chump can you get to be?” he muses, finding himself besotted with Kathie (Jane Greer), the woman he was hired to find. “I was finding out.” Jeff purposely botched the job, hoodwinked his client Whit (Kirk Douglas), Kathie’s spurned ex-lover, and fell hard for the doe-eyed dame. But that’s not where Jacques Tourneur’s film begins. Actually, it’s the dirty past that blindsides Jeff, now the unassuming owner of a small Bridgeport gas station who’s engaged to a pretty local girl (Virginia Huston) completely unaware of his history. This intermingling, and then brutal collision, of past and present – told in flashbacks narrated laconically by Mitchum – marks “Out of the Past” as one of the standouts of detective noir.

There is more to “Out of the Past” than flashbacks and wisecracks, though. Noir doesn’t come more classic than Tourneur’s iconic film, which boasts shadowy cinematography that’s by turns romantic and sinister, revealing and furtive. There’s a protagonist who is not at all what he seems, who is deeply conflicted and frozen, who can’t go back but can’t quite move forward, either. There’s a woman of many faces, all of them bewitching. Most important, there’s a pervading sense of resignation, the ultimate acceptance of fate’s cruel inevitability. Jeff, in the end, accepts that his past has decided his future. But his decision to go down doing what’s right is something of an inspiration. For that’s what the best detective noir does: shows us that even if our fate is sealed, that does not mean we cannot rage against it.

My thought on today

“Red Riding Hood” is moony PG-13 porn for teens

Seyfried and Fernandez prepare to go "Twilight" on each other in "Red Riding Hood."

Oh, to be a teen-age girl in a Catherine Hardwicke film these days. What a pip it must be to be lovely, hormonal and saucer-eyed and feverishly desired by not one but two handsome lads! And at the mere tilt of your pretty head they’ll squabble over you like starving hyenas over a rotting zebra carcass! One guy to dash in and defend your honor, and one to bat his bedroom eyes, unbutton your blouse and round second base … this must be the stuff dreams are made of.

Actually, “Red Riding Hood” is more like the stuff the “Twilight” films are made of — and considering Hardwicke directed the first of that franchise, anyone who’s surprised by these similarities likely has spent the past five years living under a rock. “Red Riding Hood,” sadly, is exactly the kind of film Edward/Bella fans wanted Hardwicke to produce: sexually charged but tame enough to garner a PG-13 rating; overflowing with Longing Glances of Forbidden Feelings all set to an unapologetically pheremonal score; rife with strained performances (mostly by the men, who aim for “sexy” but actually hit “constipated”); and a truly, unforgivably horrendous CGI werewolf.  Fans of Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown” hoping for a return to that form are in for a letdown. Whatever promise there seemed to be in the concept of updating/reimagining a well-known fairy tale has left the building. “Red Riding Hood” is just more porn for the tween-something serial texting and forever-14-at-heart sets.

The major problem with Hardwicke’s update has little to do with the plot and everything to do with the execution. Gone is the naïve red hood-wearing child of bedtime story fame. She has been replaced by Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), an alluring young woman besotted with poor/oh-so-dreamy woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, who affects a bewildering wannabe Elvis lip snarl). Her parents — Suzette (the forever-rigid Virginia Madsen) and Cesaire (Billy Burke) — have different plans. They have arranged for Valerie to marry Henry (Max Irons, who should wear a sign that reads “Nice Guy Without a Prayer”), the son of the village’s wealthiest blacksmith. This burgeoning love triangle is interrupted by tragedy — the dreaded werewolf that plagues Daggerhorn kills Valerie’s sister and stalks the townspeople. Attempts to capture the beast end badly, so Father Auguste (a twitchy Lukas Haas) calls in famed witch hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who brings his own torture chamber. He intends to catch the werewolf, alright, but only if he can persecute a few witches in the process. Father Auguste, as Oldman plays him, is a megalomaniac who delights in shoving his mythology down people’s throats.

This isn’t a totally inaccurate description of “Red Riding Hood” as a whole. Because there’s little nuance to be unearthed anywhere in David Johnson’s script, in Hardwicke’s direction or in the actors’ performances. Visually “Red Riding Hood” is attractive, even magical, with its wood cabins made shadowy and sensual by roaring fires and swirling snowflakes. The mystique begins and ends here, though (excluding the reveal of the werewolf’s identity, which is genuinely surprising). The acting sinks the whole production. Fernandez, saddled with the sexy bad boy role, snarls and squints his way through the film while exhibiting almost no personality. He never feels like the right choice. What’s worse, neither does Irons, who thinks looking surprised is the antidote to Fernandez’s slitty glances. Henry’s just as wooden and uninteresting as Peter, and neither seems worthy of empathy. Burke and Oldman, who gets perhaps the juiciest parts, does too little and too much with the characters, respectively. Oldman treats “Red Riding Hood” like an all-you-can-eat buffet, devouring whatever scenery appears in his way. Only Julie Christie, as Valerie’s mysterious grandmother, and Seyfried make much of an impression. Seyfried, at least, offers some ingenuity and simmering sexual energy. As far as damsels go, Valerie is a far cry from the foolish, simpering Bella Swan, yet the story forces Valerie to make senseless choices.

Yes, this is the mortal sin of “Red Riding Hood”: It takes a cunning heroine and turns her into a lovelorn fool. For shame.    

Grade: D

My thought on today

Chemistry, romance propel sometimes-spotty “The Adjustment Bureau”

Damon and Blunt try to outfox the world's snazziest event planners in "The Adjustment Bureau."

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” ~~Toni Morrison, “Beloved”

Brooklyn-born Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), with his Budweiser-fed frat boy looks, may or may not have read much Toni Morrison. At some point in his life, though, he undoubtedly latched on to the idea that true love, whenever and wherever it appears, is worth fighting like hell to keep. Because for all its ramblings on fate and destiny and free will, “The Adjustment Bureau” is at its center a poignant, exhilarating love story — poignant because it is deeply human, and exhilarating because it suggests that love, when it’s real, can be a gamechanger.

The fight to hold on to love, combined with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s fantastic chemistry, would be enough to make “The Adjustment Bureau” a worthwhile romantic dramedy. But since the film is inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “Adjustment Team,” director George Nolfi adds in touches of sci-fi and fast-and-loose theology, with nods to “The Matrix” sprinkled in for good measure. That’s one way to make this romance stand apart from the crowd. Whether or not the sci-fi and theology and romance mesh depends on how willing viewers are to squelch their their questions because — consider this a fair warning — once the Adjustment Team appears, there’s no end to the questions. 

(For starters: Who are these men really? What does their boss, “The Chairman,” have against hiring women? If the Bureau can meddle in human lives/anticipate human choices, why is chance still a factor? Can chance circumvent The Chairman’s plans? And did the Adjustment Team members adopt their style after one too many viewings of “The Maltese Falcon”?)

“The Adjustment Bureau,” by the end, has the rare problem of seeming too short to reach its lofty ambitions. It also demands acceptance of a storyline contains a fair amount of what aren’t exactly plot holes (more like weighty concepts abandoned?), but something like them. Despite these flaws, Nolfi’s directorial debut succeeds as a romance and a thriller because it never gets too bogged down in rambling explanations. Nolfi lays out the story matter-of-factly: David, an up-and-comer full of youthful idealism, looks a sure bet to become an N.Y. senator. But when the papers make his past — including a college mooning incident — public, he loses his lead. Practicing his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, he meets Elise (Blunt, radiant as ever), a ballerina who’s just crashed a wedding and is hiding from security. Their instant connection and brief kiss inspire Norris to scrap his P.C. speech and give an uncommonly earnest talk that wins him more fans. He reconnects with Elise on the bus and gets her number, but the Adjustment Bureau — led by Richardson (John Slattery) — steps in. There’s a plan for David’s life, and Elise isn’t part of it, Richardson explains. He destroys Elise’s number and threatens to have David “reset” (his memory erased) if he reveals anything about the Bureau. Richardson, however, underestimated coworker Harry (Anthony Mackie, as good here as he was in “Half Nelson”), a particularly compassionate “adjustor” who feels responsible for David and Elise’s second meeting and tells David more. The Bureau adjustors knows everyone’s plan; it’s their business to protect the plan. They use many methods: spilled coffees, missed taxis, dead cellphone batteries, even “reprogramming” people to make different choices. Most people accept their plans without question. But David, Harry discovers, is not a cooperative sheep.

The latter half of “The Adjustment Bureau” is where the action kicks in, including a chase, helmed by agent Thompson (the perenially menacing Terence Stamp) through New York’s maze of underground tunnels and doors that open to places that explode logic. The effects are blessedly minimal compared to, say, “The Matrix” because they are not central to the story. They only serve to outline the film’s most endearing purpose: David and Elise’s love story. Damon and Blunt are perfectly matched, with Blunt ensuring Elise is funny and vital and Damon giving a lot of emotion and energy to his part. For all the lofty philosophical mutterings and theological concepts, it is these two actors who keep the film grounded.

Grade: B-

Review: “The Vicious Kind” (2009)

“All women are whores.” Caleb (Adam Scott) is not a man to avoid making gross generalizations about women — even after his younger brother, Peter (Alex Frost), tells him he’s met his first love. Especially not then. Sleep deprivation has made Caleb unpredictable, but it’s his recent heartbreak that’s made him such a bitter, vicious opponent of love, or anything that looks like it. He tells his hooker she probably was molested as a child. He is hatred personified.

This bottomless pit of rage and bile, of course, makes Caleb a fascinating person to watch. He’s not at all likable, at least not at first, but because he is so damaged and volatile it’s impossible to predict his next move. He must seem an even bigger boon to an actor like Scott, who has paid his dues playing various thankless parts (the jerk older brother in “Step Brothers,” a sleazy teacher in an episode of “Veronica Mars,” a male nurse in “Knocked Up”). Even though “The Vicious Kind” is an independent film, this is a plum role, one that requires an enormous amount of versatility because Caleb has to be both hateful and congenial, both mean and well-intentioned. Scott, through sheer force of mostly untapped talent, deftly juggles all these aspects of Caleb’s personality. He spews convincing diatribes about the opposite sex while seeming as though, on some level, he doesn’t really believe every word he says.

Hard cases like Caleb usually come from families repressing a mess of secrets. As expected, “The Vicious Kind” operates on a familiar but effective formula: Take a family unit mired in secrets and petty grievances, introduce a newcomer who knows nothing about this messy history and let the squirming begin. This approach has worked in similar indie family dramas, including “Junebug” and the lesser-known “Dreamland,” and it works here too because of the strong cast of performers. (The film, however, does veer perilously close to weepy melodrama at points.) The interloper in the case of “The Vicious Kind” is Emma (Brittany Snow), the slightly mysterious girl Peter brings home for Thanksgiving. Caleb, who gives the couple a ride home, is flustered by Emma, who resembles his ex-girlfriend. He does not expect to see her again because he won’t be at Thanksgiving; he hasn’t spoken to his father, Donald (J.K. Simmons), in years. Then Caleb starts popping up unexpectedly wherever Emma is, his behavior ranging from scary (he verbally assaults her at the grocery store) to bizarre (he lunges across the diner table to kiss her while Peter’s in the bathroom). She agrees to hide this from Peter, but it might not be out of love; it could have something to do with her growing attraction to Caleb … which Donald silently notices. Simmons is aces at silently noticing things.

Krieger’s script never makes it clear if Caleb and Emma’s attraction is genuine or based on a shared love of chaos and making things harder than they have to be. Both characters are suppressing walk-in closets full of demons; the tricky part is that Emma only hints at hers. Snow doesn’t have the luxury of shouting matches or raving tangents. She must communicate her feelings — sadness, anxiety, lust, fear — in very small ways. The character is somewhat underwritten, but she’s certainly not unnecessary. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: without Emma, Caleb would not face up to the truth about his father’s break-up with his mother; Donald would not muster the gumption to make amends with his estranged son; Peter would not know the exuberance and exquisite pain of first love. There would be no story without Emma, so Snow, however unassuming, is vital. So is Frost, whose Peter is the figurative innocent Donald and Caleb go to great lengths to protect — from pain, sadness, life. His naiveté is a nice contrast to Simmons’ silent wisdom and Scotts’ volcanic tantrums. Peter is the one who leaves home at the movie’s conclusion completely misguided about what has taken place. He’s not unlike Ben Braddock in his misunderstanding of his girlfriend’s reaction during the final moments of the film. His innocence is both the ultimate triumph and tragedy of “The Vicious Kind.”

Grade: B+