Sunday, February 24, 2008

In Bruges

Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are two hit men who, having just completed a not-so-flawless assignment, are ordered by their boss, Harry (Ralph Feinnes), to the amazingly maintained medieval town of Bruges to relax and await further instructions, which could come in two days, or two weeks. The pair begin by doing the best they can to fit in but, unfortunately, the only real way to fit in is by becoming tourists and that prospect holds little, if any, appeal for the younger and less experienced Ray. The older, wiser and more seasoned Ken is at ease with the notion of a low profile and settles into his role as a tourist while trying to be a mentor, a friend and, in a way, a father figure to the rather uptight Ray. While the days awaiting contact pass, Ray, who seemingly has a knack for the unusual, finds himself attracted to a local female, Chloë (Clémence Poésy), which leads to some darkly humorous situations involving drugs, a dwarf American actor (Jordan Prentice), the locals and even some tourists. Contrary to Ray's experiences, Ken begins to appreciate his surroundings and finds himself being mentally and spiritually uplifted by the simple and quaint qualities of the historically preserved city. As Ken is enjoying his peace and tranquility and Ray is dealing with his current exploits, while internally struggling with the prior hit, Harry's call finally comes though, turning everything upside-down and leading to some of the best (and darkest) humor as well as some of the most unforeseen emotion.

I first saw the preview for this movie, several weeks ago, when I saw The Orphanage, and I knew then, simply from the trailer, that I was going to like it. I've liked Brendan Gleeson since Braveheart, and his perfectly delivered sarcastic turn in Lake Placid solidified my substantial respect and admiration for him, only to be compounded by his recent embodiment of the Auror, Alastor Moody. This film finally offers Gleeson a much deserved abundance of screen time and his performance is characteristically solid and surprisingly poignant. And speaking of HP,
Clémence Poésy, of Fleur Delacour fame, demonstrates an impressive command of frankness, drive and vulnerability as Chloë. In keeping with the wizard world refugees, Ralph Feinnes, as mob boss Harry, provokes fear steeped in unpredictability by bringing just the right amount of menace mixed with adamant lunacy to the character. However, for me, the standout performance was easily that of Colin Farrell as Ray. It's no great stretch to imagine Farrell as the guy not wanting to fit in or be a sheep-like tourist gaping at medieval architecture, but the surprise is how funny he can be while doing it. The other interesting aspect of Farrell's performance is the subtle way he plays up to the true issues haunting his character, revealing the unexpected emotional tough guy, which, again for me, is what made his performance such a standout.

And speaking of unexpected, the biggest surprise of the movie, by far, had to be the depth of the story coupled with it's touching human resonance. This was a perfect example of a trailer failing to do the film justice. I went into the theater expecting a rather light comedy with a few dark moments (after all they are hitmen) and sparsely populated with a few 'moral lessons' ending with the good bad-guys out maneuvering the bad bad-guys, much to the humor of the additional characters as well as the audience. Wow, was I ever wrong. My first thought when I realized my error in judgment was, "A lot of people are going to miss a really good movie, all because of a crappy trailer." Still, not to sell the comedy aspect short, there are hysterical moments and plenty of genuinely funny scenes and dialog, but it's their truthful representation that make them meaningful while being simultaneously humorous. The varying bright shades of humor are interwoven at angles among the larger somber qualities of the character's lives (death, guilt, loneliness, futility...) forming a kind of celluloid Tartan. Needless to say, I was extremely pleased that this film ended up being a far richer experience than what I was anticipating and I'm sure subsequent viewings will shed more light on the exceptionally nuanced performances.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's loose adaptation of the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair. The film chronicles the life and times of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who transforms himself from a down-and-out silver miner raising a son on his own into a self-made oil tycoon. Plainview accomplishes this feat by going directly to the people who live above the oil and, using simple, 'shoot from the hip' language and masterful manipulation, convinces them that he and his crew are the best people to provide for them, in a timely fashion, the things they desire . With his young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), at his side, and used as part of the manipulations, Plainview builds a massive empire and, over time, his obsession with success and power is only eclipsed by his growing paranoia and misanthropic nature. As Plainview centers on what could easily be the greatest success of his career in the small California town of Little Boston, he is confronted by an unlikely nemesis in the form of a teenage preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). It is because of Eli's brother, Paul (also portrayed by Paul Dano), that the oil man knew of the deposits in the first place, having sold Plainview the information for his own personal gain and to allow him to be free of his brother's shadow. Unfortunately for Plainview, to succeed fully and without question, he must succumb to the local church and the will of Eli, who just might be an even greater showman than Plainview. As the battle of wills intensifies and their determination to succeed increases, so too does the cost of such lifelong endeavors.

If you're a fan of intense character studies within an epic storyline taking place during historic civilization altering events, then it doesn't get any better than this. I thoroughly enjoy this type of film, when all the stops are pulled and every possible detailed is conceived and made manifest, and with this production, I'm very glad to say, I was not in any way disappointed. I think what impressed me most was how well the grand scope of the transformation that was occurring in the United States was conveyed by a relatively small number of major players. The visuals are open and grand with a feeling of deep breath expansion juxtaposed by the less evolutionary adept human element becoming more pressured, or 'squeezed', to adapt and survive while the more robust elements spread tentative wings and begin to glide. The story seems rather simple, to begin with, but as the elements unfold, it becomes obvious that similar stories have played out time and time again, and in making that statement I'm referring to technological advances that have had huge sociological and ecological impact - impact which, as a civilization, we have yet to see the true extent. However, none of the films resonance would be possible without the powerful performances of the cast in telling the story of a very driven man whose primary desire is to succeed as he nurtures his contempt for all things human, himself included.

Speaking of performances, I must note that Paul Dano is excellent as the preacher/prophet, Eli Stone. Dano is subtle in displaying his character's balance of naiveness and aspirations and I'm sure he would have received more accolades had his performance (along with everyone else's) not been overshadowed by that of Daniel Day-Lewis'. Even though the only other best actor Oscar nominee I've seen is Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, I can honestly say I'd be extremely surprised if anyone, even those who deserved a nomination but didn't receive one, put forth a performance that remotely comes close to what Day-Lewis achieves. Mortensen was exceptional (as I noted when I wrote about the film) and I'm not trying to take anything away from what he put into his character, however, there is an "effortless perfection" in the character of Daniel Plainview and Day-Lewis is so believable, so abhorrent and yet, so captivating that his performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. I've seen a lot of good performances over the past year, and I've written about all of them (I think), but Day-Lewis' performance easily stands above them all, but it's impossible for me to adequately convey how impressive and hypnotic his performance really is. In other words, I'm fairly confident in regards to who'll be going home with another little 'golden guy' on February 24th.