We’ve seen some good ones recently, and as usual I’ve fallen behind in my capsule reviews.
Adaptation. For the first three-quarters of the movie, I’d say this was my favorite Charlie Kaufman film. The last quarter, which goes from the unusual to the truly surreal, brought it down just a notch. But that first three-quarters? Absolutely amazing stuff. What an inventive mind Kaufman has – this certainly has to be the most unusual adaptation of a book that I’ve ever seen. I suppose Kaufman’s tactic of turning the movie into an account of his struggles in adapting the book (“The Orchid Thief,” by Susan Orlean) could be viewed as self-reverential, but given how awkward and uncomfortable he paints himself (as played by Nicolas Cage, he’s almost as nervous and twitchy as William H. Macy in “Fargo”), that argument is easily deflected. Cage is great as the Kaufmans, Meryl Streep is as good as ever as Orlean, but for me the real star of the show was Chris Cooper as the odd but endearing John Laroche. Cooper’s Oscar was well-deserved; he immerses himself in the role so deeply that after a while, you forget that you’re even watching Chris Cooper.
Good Night, and Good Luck. Needless to say, there was a lot of substance behind the style, but the movie was as much a stylistic triumph as it was one of substance. George Clooney appears to have learned a lot during his collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, and throughout the movie he makes great use of the black-and-white cinematography, particularly when showing the smoke rising from the omnipresent cigarettes.
Clooney is to be congratulated for tackling the subject matter, which should be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the politics of the 1950s. The movie depicts a time when network television news really mattered, and the newsmen (and yes, at that time and for long afterward, they were all men) viewed their role as being an integral part of a healthy, functioning republic. And what is truly scary is that when watching the stock footage of Joseph McCarthy, one is left thinking that in comparison to the blowhards in office today, he was actually pretty subtle in the way he went about his dirty business.
The movie is also a triumph of ensemble acting – David Strathairn, who is only good in everything that he’s in, is the obvious lead; but strong performances are also turned in by actors who are accustomed to playing leads, including George Clooney and Robert Downey, Jr. Of the large supporting cast, of note is Frank Langella, an absolute pillar of authority as CBS boss Joseph Paley.
Children of Men. Clive Owen is one of those actors who just seems to crackle with intensity in every role that he plays. I still remember the online BMW short films he starred in during the mid-1990s, in a role as a driver for hire who would take on just about anything. He didn’t have a lot of dialogue in those films; after all, the star of them was the car – but you could tell he had a presence. As his career progressed, even in small roles – for instance, as a tortured assassin in the first “Bourne” movie – he was great. His big breakthrough was in “Closer,” where he just obliterated Jude Law; made it seem that Law was barely in the movie.
In “Children of Men,” Owen is again great but doesn’t overshadow the plot, which depicts a harrowing story about a time in the not-so-distant future when human beings have lost the ability to procreate. Needless to say,this has caused what one might refer to as a rip in the social fabric. Owen’s character, a cynical, burned out man, is called upon to be a reluctant “hero” when a pregnant woman is revealed. Again, needless to say, everyone wants her, and not particularly for noble reasons. Even the ostensible “good guys,” a group of rebels led by Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who also seems to be good in just about everything he is in), aren’t very good.
There are a lot of parallels between the world that director Alfonso Cuaron creates in “Children of Men” (And holy cow! Hard to believe he directed a Harry Potter movie!) with the world that Ridley Scott created in “Blade Runner,” and like the earlier film, Cuaron’s ends on an ambiguously optimistic note. You think things might get better, but you’re just not sure.
Atonement. Joe Wright is fast on his way to becoming the modern equivalent of Merchant/Ivory, and I mean that as a compliment. His “Pride and Prejudice” was wonderful, as good a 2-hour movie that could be made from the book, and even his least successful film, “The Soloist,” was elegant and affecting. “Atonement” is also a success – though I haven’t read the book, I was familiar enough with the story and the plot devices to appreciate the way that Wright brought things to life. The critical scenes where the fate of the major characters are decided are crackling with tension, even though at the time they are happening there is no particular thing happening that would cause one to be tense. But you just know, as the younger sister is seeing things from a different point of view, that her view is going to change lives, and result in tragedy.
Keira Knightley is very good, but the real relevation here is James McEvoy. Nothing of him that I saw in “Wanted” prepared me for what he had to offer here.