HS reviews four new indie films, plus one mainstream flick. <VERY MINOR SPOILERS PERHAPS>
It's Oscar season, and HS has been busy catching up on the award nominees. I just saw...
Blue Valentine: Michelle Williams received a deserved Oscar nomination and Ryan Gosling was snubbed from a nod. They play a husband and wife whose marriage has reached the end of its rope, with hubby unemployed and drinking too much and with wifey working too hard and maybe - just maybe - still a little hot for her ex-boyfriend, whom she had a chance run-in with. The present-day stuff is all bleak and hopeless while (mostly) light-hearted flashbacks flush out how and why these two - clearly so wrong for each other - ever got together in the first place. It's a good film - with a great soundtrack - but fuck me, it sure is depressing. B.
Rabbit Hole: Another downer. Why do I do this to myself? Nicole Kidman (another Best Actress nominee) and Aaron Eckhart (another snub from the potential Best Actor list) play a married couple still grieving - in very different ways - several months after the death of their young son, hit by a car while chasing the family dog across the street. On the periphery are other characters drifting in and out of their lives: Nic's mom and sister, delicately balancing their own happiness over daughter #2's pregancy while trying not to gloat too much, the sensitive, regretful teenager who drove the car that (you know), and a long-suffering woman (Sandra Oh, not as sexy as I remember her to be) from Nic and Aaron's group therapy class to whom Aaron feels a kinship in mourning. FWIW, this one's maybe 20% more optimistic than Blue Valentine, but still pretty heavy stuff.... B+.
Another Year: Virtuoso writer-director Mike Leigh doesn't have many devotees here on Crankyland, but he's consistently turned out good work for years. He's known for talky Bri'ish family dramas in which nothing much "happens," nothing blows up (Coaster beware), no one takes their clothes off, and a small but chatty group of characters stew over some kind of moral or personal drama while the actors playing them (Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton - Professor Slughorn and Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter films - are two of Leigh's regulars) improvise a good portion of their dialogue. Sounds boring, right? IMHO, you couldn't be more wrong. This film four seasons with the very happy marriage between elder Brits Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, a stark contrast to the serious depression of their friends and relatives. I was floored by the performance of Leslie Manville, who plays Sheen's lonelyhearts colleague with just the right mix of comedy and pathos. The film's closing shot is a revelation. A.
The Illusionist: Not the Paul Giamatti period mystery but a new French animated film from the creators of The Triplets of Belleville. The film - which is essentially silent, with no dialogue except for a few murmurs of gibberish - follows an aging French magician as he journeys to the Bri'ish Isles in search of work, always accompanied by his fickle white rabbit. He's followed one day by a teenage ruffian (in the end credits, we learn her name is Alice) who is smitten with his work, and the two take refuge in an Edinburgh hotel for "last acts" such as himself (we also meet a broke ventriloquist and a suicidal clown, among others). As the girl blossoms into a young beauty, the magician finds more and more unique - but ultimately demoralizing - ways of making money. The Illusionist is simultaneously funny and heartfelt, wonderful and sad. If you liked The Triplets of Belleville, you'll like this one. A-.
Salt: Okay, so this one's not going to win any awards unless they're of the MTV variety, but sometimes even the snottiest movie geek (such as myself) has to go slumming. I'm just kidding - Salt's not a bad movie, actually. I've always believed Angelina Jolie to be a bit overrated - she's adequate in dramatic films like Changeling and fun in trashy action films like Wanted, but by no means the hottest woman alive nor Hollywood's most talented actress. That said, she's never looked - or acted - better than she does here, playing CIA agent Evelyn Salt who - according to her agency superiors but vowing anything to the contrary - has gone rogue. The film smartly keeps the audience as unsure of Salt's guilt or innocence as her handlers are, but there's one extended bit roughly halfway through where we as an audience almost lose our ability to sympathize with her, and that would be the movie's fatal flaw if it weren't for director Philip Noyce's skill behind the camera. He gets the credit more than she does. I wonder if they'll make a sequel? B-.