Monday, February 18, 2008

New Release Drama DVD Round-Up

When it comes to Netflix I'm what is considered "a heavy user". I view many DVDs and often send them back the same day I get them writing about them as I go. Since I realized that most of what I've seen lately have been dramas I decided to round 'em up for this post. I also noticed that all of these movies have funerals in them but that would make for a pretty depressing blog post title so I'm going with the drama angle. Okay! Let's get to 'em:

GONE BABY GONE (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2007)

Ben Affleck's directorial debut is everything his run aspiring to A-list leading man status (in such blockbuster wannabes as PEARL HARBOR, PAYCHECK, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS and DAREDEVIL) wasn't - it's assured, multi-layered and extremely entertaining. 

Affleck doesn't appear on camera here *, which is surprising considering his many bit cameos throughout the years, and yes it would be easy to take a pot shot by commending him for that alone but the weight and power of his Boston based crime drama cancels that immediately out. 

Brother Casey Affleck does the protagonist duty as a small scale private detective who works with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) out of a tiny Boston apartment. When the young daughter of some neighborhood low-lifes goes missing and a media circus ensues, they are hired by the girl's Aunt (Amy Madigan) to help find her. 

The police (particularly Ed Harris as a police detective) are skeptical of the inexperienced but intrepid couple and the dangerous battered barfolk they encounter when they go snooping are little help as well but C. 

Affleck and Monaghan plug away. Morgan Freeman as a police Captain lends his reliable folksy demeanor (glad he's not narrating for once) also talks down to our heroes - indeed it is often pointed out how young and green Casey Affleck appears: "he just looks young" Monaghan remarks to Freeman's scolding. 

As you should know by now I'll give no further spoilers but I bet you can see how the couple gets in other their head in a world where nobody can be trusted - Man, that ought to be the tagline!                                    

Hate to call them twists because they are displayed with more class than in many standard thrillers but the turns of the second act are surprisingly successful because of the refreshing lack of gloss or flash. A tad high in melodrama maybe but GONE BABY GONE doesn't overreach. 

The supporting cast all bring it - Harris and Madigan (who are husband and wife in real life) both have some standout scenes and John Ashton (who many will remember as a cop in the BEVERLY HILLS COP series) gets in some good gruff gestures. Amy Ryan as the lost girl's mother plays a messed up "skeezer", as one drug dealer character calls her, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and she's pretty dead on but some of her line readings seem a bit forced so I'll be pretty shocked if she wins it. 

Casey Affleck really should have been nominated for this performance over his part in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES..., as much as I liked him in that flick, because he really gets it right in his manner and tone here. On the cinematic chopping block MYSTIC RIVER comparisons are inevitable but Ben Affleck's moving film makes a case that Clint Eastwood doesn't own the terrain - I believe a new up and coming director dog has just marked his territory. * Actually Affleck can be seen moving through a shot in a dark bar but you could blink and miss him. On the DVD commentary co-writer Aaron Stockard calls it his "Hitchcock moment." 

WE OWN THE NIGHT (Dir. James Gray, 2007)

The opening with black and white archive photos (by still photographer Leonard Fried) of '80s era New York cops brings to mind the grainy real-life riot footage that opened THE DEPARTED.

Scorsese's Best Picture winning crime classic again rears its head as once again we have a premise resembling a good cop/bad cop scenario and Mark Wahlberg as the blunt good cop doesn’t call foul on such accusations. But let's get past that and see what we've really got here in James Gray's period-piece police Vs. Russian mobsters flick that slipped through the cracks in its release last Fall. 

With Wahlberg we've got Joaquin Phoenix as his druggie nightclub managing brother and Robert Duvall as their grizzled police chief father trying to recruit Phoenix to be a mole. Duvall is one of the few actors that can convincingly pull off such a cliched line as "Sooner or later, either you're gonna be with us or you're gonna be with the drug dealers."

Phoenix is indifferent to his Pop’s war on drugs plight as he posits himself as a future “king of New York”. His club El Caribe is obviously modeled on Studio 54 with its clientele selected by bouncers, scantily clad dancing girls on the bar, and non-stop Blondie blaring on the sound system. When Wahlberg gets shot and Duvall's life is threatened by the drug running gangsters, Phoenix changes his tune and starts singing like a canary. He even agrees to be wired in order to lead the cops to the bad guy's lair. 

Phoenix's girlfriend (Eva Mendes - looking like a supermodel in a magazine photo spread) is a possible target too but she is disapproving of Phoenix's new law enforcement involvement. The dialogue is repetitive and too often spells out every action. The story is full of predictable rote elements and the villains appear to be sent by central casting. 

It is set in the '80s not for any interesting premise reasons like the opening implies but possibly because the filmmakers knew they were unable to write any cool modern cellphone trickery plotpoints. Which once again brings up the inferiority of this to Marty's previously mentioned movie. So yeah, when it comes right down to it - skip this slickly produced pap and watch THE DEPARTED again.

(Dir. John Turturro, 2005)

This is a very odd movie.

Co-produced by the Coen brothers, and made 3 years ago, but only now making it to DVD, (perhaps because the studio didn't know how to handle it), Turturro’s “down and dirty musical comedy,” (as he calls it) is certainly ballsy, but it’s more often baffling.

James Gandolfini is an adulterous NYC construction worker whose wife (Susan Sarandon) knows about his mistress (Kate Winslet). They have three daughters (who all look too old to be believable as Gandolfini and Sarandon's offspring) - Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, and Aida Turturro who have a riot grrl punk band and are constantly banging away for their piece of the soundtrack. 

Then throw in Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, and a strangely subdued Eddie Izzard and you've got a faultless cast but a weird musical mix. 

I did mention it was a musical, right? That's what makes it so odd - the cast members sometimes lip synche to classic songs and sometimes sing on top of them; rarely does the song feature the actor's voice alone. When it does have Gandolfini or Sarandon or Winslet sing by themselves it seems to be to make a particular point. I just couldn't figure out what that point was. 

I really couldn't for the life of me really get into this movie but I did appreciate quite a few moments. Gandolfini and Sarandon have a great scene, done in one take, sitting at their dinner table where he admits to her for some reason that he never liked Ethel Merman with her "foghorn of a voice."

Gandolfini excuses Ernest Borgnine's abuse of Merman in their marriage that only lasted one week back in the day by concluding "'You Can't Get A Man With A Gun' would drive any man crazy." Somehow this amounts to one of the only warm exchanges between the couple. Winslet really goes at her role with gusto especially in her introductory dancing scene wearing a scorching red dress in the window of a burning building. She and Sarandon have a ferocious cat-fight while Walken sings along in the background to Bruce Springsteen's "Red Headed Woman". See what I mean? Weird. Turturro's directional sense does comes through - a shot of cigarette butts littered all over a patch of snow is exceptional and it is obvious he has a good collaborating relationship with everybody in this movie; it may have been a mistake to cast his sister Aida though - she just ends up recalling her Sopranos character Janice. Mary Louise-Parker appears again in a movie she is barely used in - this is a shame as anybody who has seen Weeds knows, she can do better. 

At one point Gandolfini says when trying to reconcile with his wife: "Maybe I don't know how to show it like they do in the movies or in books but I love. I have love to give." Maybe Turturro doesn't know how to show it either but this film if nothing else is definitely a work of love. Just why did it have to be love of the weird variety?

SHOOT THE MOON (Dir. Alan Parker, 1981)

It’s easy to forget that in the late '70s and early '80s there was a genre that held its own against the science-fiction blockbusters that dominated that era – the divorce drama. KRAMER VS. KRAMER, of course, was the leader of the pack but close behind were such families getting torn apart tangents like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, TWICE IN A LIFETIME, and ORDINARY PEOPLE. Long out of circulation but now newly re-issued on DVD is a pivotal player from those ranks - SHOOT THE MOON which features Albert Finney leaving wife Diane Keaton for a younger woman (Karen Allen).

As the film opens we are introduced to the couple with their four daughters (Dana Hill, Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold, and Tina Yothers) and their creaky old house on the outskirts of Marin County in California (many misty shots of the house and valley are throughout the film).

We see as acclaimed novelist Finney and his former student now wife Keaton prepare for an evening at an awards ceremony that their marriage is on the outs. Finney calls his lover and the oldest daughter (Hill) picks up the phone to eavesdrop.

On their ride there and back to the televised event their car is full of tension as we realize the gravity of what's not being said and strongly feel the giant gap between the tortured pair.

The next morning Keaton confronts Finney, while doing dishes mind you, and he responds not by owning up to his affair but by leaving with a bag that she had already packed in anticipation. The couple attempts to sort out the rubble and move on with their lives but they keep on hitting emotional roadblocks.

Finney moves in with Allen, who except for one signature scene basically has little to do but stand around looking pretty, while Keaton takes up with a contractor played with just the right tone by Peter Weller (ROBOCOP!) that she hired to put in a tennis court on her (actually legally still her and her separated husband's) property.

The film seethes with energy that explodes from underneath in a few surprisingly violent scenes. Finney is compelling as always as he stalks the screen in a manner exposing his stage roots and Keaton displays that the keen quality she can bring to dramatic roles is equal to the comedic skills she is better known for.

Dana Hill (who died in 1996 from complications due to diabetes) has perfect poise as the oldest wisest daughter who knows her parents' faults as well as their habits - she knows her mother smokes pot for example - and she has a great scene in the third act that among other things explains the movies title.

It's interesting to see Tina Yothers and Tracey Gould as sisters for as students of pop culture know they went on to be daughters in competing '80s TV sitcom families - Yothers in Family Ties and Gould in Growing Pains respectively.

A flawed but stirring drama with an absolutely shocking ending, Alan Parker's SHOOT THE MOON is an oft overlooked film that deserves a place in your Netflix queue. 

More later...


JohnstonCoArts said...

Where would we be without Netflix? What did I do before? Thanks for giving me a few new titles to add to my queue!

combatDVD said...

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