Sunday, May 03, 2009

Recent Screenings

Transsiberian (2008) - Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are Americans who've gone to China with Roy's church to work with underprivileged children. A train buff, Roy books them passage on the Transsiberian Express from Beijing to Moscow, before flying back to the States. On the journey, they meet Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a sexy, well-travelled Spaniard who seems to knows a lot about Customs, and Abby (Kate Mara), a young woman who has run away from Seattle.

Meanwhile, Grinko, a Russian narcotics detective (Ben Kinglsey) is tracking down whoever killed a drug dealer in Vladivostok and vanished with both the drugs and the money.

Jessie, who had a fairly wild past before marrying Roy and trying to settle down, feels sympathetic towards the seemingly lost Abby. And she feels something more unsettling for Carlos, who gives off an aura of raw sexuality and physical danger. When the train stops at a snowy village somewhere in Siberia, Roy goes looking at old coal locomotives with Carlos. When the train starts up again, Roy is no longer aboard.

Hoping that Roy has simply missed the train, Jessie gets off at the next village to make inquiries. Carlos and Abby decide they will stay with her until she finds her husband. They're concerned about her safety. In this isolated, wintry and foreign environment, the sexual tension between Carlos and Jessie begins to heat up, culminating in an abandoned Orthodox church off in the woods near the village.

The pacing of Transsiberian reflects that of the train itself. It starts off slowly -- introducing these people, telling their back stories and actually developing characters and relationships -- and then picks up more and more speed as the film chugs along. The subtle tension in one scene links to another, which links to another, until the total becomes almost unbearable. It's Hitchcock, not Quantum Solace or other contemporary "thrillers" that substitute action and quick edits for genuine suspense.

Director and co-writer Brad Anderson (The Machinist) offers some good twists and turns on the trip, which keeps the film moving along in surprising ways. The story of Jessie and Carlos doesn't end in the Orthodox church in Siberia, it only marks the beginning of a new stage in the journey.

Despite excellent acting all around, the film really belongs to Emily Mortimer. Transsiberian is Jessie's story in the end, and Mortimer does a great job of portraying the internal struggle between her restless nature, with its wild past, and her desire to live a positive life and love Roy, who saved her both physically and emotionally after she slammed head-on into his car while she was drunk. Jessie makes some really poor decisions on this journey. But Mortimer gives her the dignity of a human being really wrestling with good and bad aspects of herself, and the fact that they may be more intertwined than we normally care to admit. As she says to her husband at one point, quoting Tennessee Williams, "Kill off all my demons, Roy, and my angels might die, too."(So that's where Tom Waits got the line.)

But this isn't just a metaphorical journey. It is a physical one as well, through contemporary Russia, and Anderson does a great job capturing the ambience of traveling through a strange land, both in the small details and in the starkly beautiful shots of the train passing through the Siberian wilderness. While the landscape and people can seem exotic to the Americans, there's also a sense of the chaos, hardship and danger in the post-Soviet Union era. This becomes more evident as the film progresses. As one character says, "In Russia, we have expression. 'With lies, you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back.' Do you understand this, Jessie?"

Where is that line? At what point can you no longer turn back? Brad Anderson has fashioned a fine suspense film that touches on these darker questions as it speeds on its way to a dramatic climax, with action sequences that seem to organically rise out of the need of the moment rather than being a constructed set-piece to show off CGI. The writing and directing are excellent. The acting is consistently great, with special kudos to Woody Harrelson, who has the thankless task of playing a fairly simple guy who's positive by nature, but who imbues Roy with real humanity. The cinematography by Xavi Giménez is top notch. There's a lot going on in this film. It lingers well and leaves you slightly unsettled. And it's easily the best movie that takes place on a train in a long, long time.

STRONGLY RECOMMENDED, unless you must have hyper-kinetic action with lots of explosions.

Duplicity (2009) - Clive Owen and Julia Roberts in a corporate espionage screwball comedy. Tony Gilroy, who did such a great job with Michael Clayton, offers up a much lighter take on capitalist morality this time. Owen is ex-MI6, Roberts ex-CIA, and now they both work in corporate espionage, for competing cosmetic companies. They love each other and are scheming together to make their big pay day and get away from it all.

Or are they? She may be playing him. He may be trying to get revenge for the first time they met, when she seduced him, knocked him out and stole Egyptian military secrets from him. That never set well. They're at competing companies, but she's a mole for the company he works for, and now he's her handler. Or is she a mole for the other company, using him to get information?

Gilroy piles on the layers of doubt, especially in the relationship between Owen and Roberts, which is both passionate and wary. They know they're both liars and schemers. Will they stay together, because they understand each other so well? Or will they be unable to resist the temptation of getting the best of the other? It's classic screwball comedy material taken to another level. Despite a deep vein of cynicism, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert in the same roles.

The best part: The film feels like it was written for adults. There may not be a lot here, but at least it's smart and savvy and knowing. If you like Clive and Julia, they have some good chemistry and the film is a lot of fun. And we finally know now: Clive Owen can do comedy. He actually has the funniest scenes in the film, getting excited over developments in the secret battles between two frozen pizza giants. This from a man who once stole Egyptian military secrets. (And that is the sly, darker underside to the film. Gilroy, who explored corporate espionage in Michael Clayton, doesn't go in depth much on the subject, but you realize afterwards how weird this whole new era is in some ways.)

The best sequence in the movie, however, may the opening credits, as Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson - heads of the competing cosmetic corporations who hate each other - get into a delicious slow-motion fistfight on the tarmac between their two executive jets.

RECOMMENDED, especially if you're in the mood for some smart fluff. Not recommended for Julia-haters.

Quantum of Solace (2008) - Casino Royale was such a pleasant surprise in the Bond franchise: Action, class and a dash of tough humanity, thanks to Daniel Craig, the best 007 since Sean Connery. Unfortunately, Q of S exchanges any of the human touches in Casino Royale for even bigger and sillier action sequences. The plot of the film is so unimportant that you don't even know what's going on at times. It's like watching a scene unfold as you pass by in a fast-moving car: "What was that? Who was that?"

On the positive side, we get more Judi Dench. M stands for Mother now, with 007 as her favorite son who gets into trouble all the time. (He's gonna break her heart.) How she keeps winding up in obscure international settings so quickly was weird though.

Strangely, I've never seen a Bond film so intricately tied to the previous one. Someone should've warned me that I had to re-watch Casino Royale immediately before starting this one. I'm supposed to remember all of these people and story lines from the last movie? The director and screenwriters obviously don't care about their characters or plot, though, so why should I?

Too bad. There are some interesting elements at play here, but everything get lost in the blur.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - I should write extensively about this one, because it's truly a classic, and a landmark in trial films. If it seems unusually dark and cynical for late 1950s Hollywood, that's because it's directed by Otto Preminger. Jimmy Stewart is great, and well chosen for the role of a small-town lawyer who gets involved in a rape and murder case. Lee Remick was way sexy in 1959 - and later, too. The score is famous in and of itself, coming from Duke Ellington, who has a small role in the film. Highly recommended.

Burn After Reading
(2008) - No, it's not up to the level of No Country for Old Men, but it's much better than some reviewers said when it first came out. Funny, dark, weird. It's classic Coen Brothers. Brad Pitt excels. And the scenes between two confused CIA superiors are worth everything. "Report back to me . . uh . . . when it makes sense."

2 Days in Paris (2007) - Julie Delphy wrote, directed, starred in, and even did the music for this film about a New York couple - Jack and Marion - who stop at Marion's parents' house in Paris for two days before returning to the States after a long trip. Things haven't gone well between the couple, with tensions brewing, restlessness showing its head, and possible incompatibility issues. While showing indebtedness to both Annie Hall and Richard Linklater's pair of Sunrise/Sunset films that starred Delphy, 2 Days in Paris creates its own personal identity, thanks mostly to Delphy's intelligent script. Some very funny scenes, a lot of excellent dialog, and delightful performances by the director's real-life parents. Delphy, who recently completed a film-making degree at NYU, has made an impressive directorial debut.


Liam said...

I'm glad to see there are some good things out there, now that I'm actually going have some time to watch them. I'm particularly intrigued about Transsiberean.

But hey,everything's better with hyper-kinetic action with lots of explosives. Think of what that would add to something like, say, Checkov's Uncle Vania? Awesome!

I'm glad you liked Burn After Reading. We enjoyed it as well. Great ensemble acting -- Malkovitch was fantastic. JK Simmons as the CIA guy, perfect.

Apparently Julie Delphy's next movie is about Elizabeth Bathory. If you ever wanted to see Julie bathe in blood, now's your chance.

cowboyangel said...

I think you would like Transsiberian. It's interesting that the director, Anderson, who's from Connecticut, has financed this film and The Machinist with Spanish producers and used a number of Spanish crew members and actors, including Noriega in this one and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón in The Machnist. I'm wondering if he's based in Spain.

Yeah, I could;ve written more about Burn - I really enjoyed it, and there was much that could be said about it. I particularly liked the Coen's toying with the spy genre, with their camera angles, music, timing, etc.

J.K. Simmons is great in everything. Have you ever watched OZ? It looks like he had a big role in that, from what I can tell on IMDB. I may look for DVDs.

cowboyangel said...

I don't really mind hyper-kinetic action, and Uncle Vania would be great with some explosions and car chases. But I do get tired of films that rely on it so much to create the appearance of something happening in the story. And I don't think those who needs lots of action will like Transsiberian, because it moves at a slower pace for a while. It actually, you know dwells on a scene.

Liam said...

I watched some of OZ, which was very good. I think I watched that before I knew who he was -- I don't remember who he was. There were a lot of characters.

I also want to get caught up on the last few Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch movies.

Garpu said...

I"m totally down with Uncle Vanya with explosions.

cowboyangel said...

And a car chase. Vanya and Elena driving fast through the rain.

crystal said...

Yay - movie reviews :)

Great commentary on Transsiberian - it definitely sounds worth seeing. Haven't seen many movies with Woody H.

My sister saw Duplicity and liked it pretty much. I don't really like Julia or Clive that much so I'll skip it. He must be very popular though - the past post of mine that gets the most hits is a review of a movie he was in.

I still haven't seen Quantum of Solace. Is Daniel Craig that good? Have you seen him in that recent film about the Jews in Poland - Defiance?

cowboyangel said...


I like Daniel Craig as Bond, and he's the best part of Q of S. I was probably more harsh-sounding than I intended. It's not bad, just not as good as Casino Royale, and it does have some annoying traits. The story about water shortages and Latin America is not uninteresting, just not developed as well as it could've been.

Woody H can be a pretty good actor. I liked him in No country for Old Men, for instance.

Garpu said...

"No Country for Old Men" I liked. Then again I haven't seen a Cohen Brothers film I haven't liked. (THat caveat, I haven't seen "Ladykillers," because I'm not a fan of Tom Hanks.)

Jeff said...

Thanks for the reviews. I haven't seen any of those yet.

Saw three pretty good movies on my flights. Letters From Iwo Jima (actually, that was just OK), Gran Torino, and Mystic River. Have you seen those by any chance?