Sunday, June 26, 2011

Netflix Catchup

I do believe that this will bring me up-to-date.

I think I may enjoy the audacity of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films more than I enjoy the films themselves (with the exception of “Boogie Nights”). “Magnolia” never fails to be interesting or provocative, but I think it would be hard for any movie to sustain greatness over the period of three hours, when so many characters and plotlines are involved. Tom Cruise won deserved kudos for his way over-the-top portrayal of a misogynistic men’s self-help guru, but the always reliable John C. Reilly is just as impressive in a role (as a barely competent but completely decent police officer) that is as understated as Cruise’s is overstated. As a dying icon, Jason Robards’ performance is almost heartbreaking, because you know that he was near the end of his own life. William H. Macy, as a child genius now grown up and all f*cked up, turns in the type of performance that no one does better – a twitchy, nervous, wholly inadequate slice of manhood. All of the stories eventually intersect, and of course there is the famous ending act that features frogs falling from the sky in a torrential downpour. All in all, I’m not sure that “Magnolia” is quite the masterpiece that its supporters declare it to be. But you have to give Anderson enormous credit for attempting a film of this scope and complexity.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” is a film of similar scope and complexity to “Magnolia.” Imagine Disney’s “It’s a Small World” in hell (of course, there are many who consider Disney’s “It’s a Small World” to be hell), and you kind of get the idea. Inarritu, like Anderson, weaves together disparate stories, this time on the other side of the world from each other, making the point that all actions have consequences – sometimes for people you’ve never met, and sometimes for people that you interact with on a daily basis. Over the course of the film, we find out what links a couple traveling in Morocco, a housekeeper and two small children in San Diego (and later, in Mexico), and a somewhat messed-up teenage girl who lives with her father in Tokyo. Nothing much good happens in any of the stories – this can be a very difficult movie to watch – and as events unfold, you sometimes find yourself gripped with an enormous sadness. In several instances, Inarritu allows the viewer to figure out the destiny of the characters, before the characters figure that out themselves. It is a compelling, although harrowing journey.

I enjoyed Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” a lot more than I expected to. I wasn’t really expecting anything more than a bunch of fights inside of the Colosseum. But “Gladiator” is a lot more than that – it’s an epic, the kind that Hollywood used to produce on a regular basis but you just don’t see much anymore. It’s reminiscent of “Ben Hur” (at least it was to me) in the structure of its story, where our hero (Maximus, portrayed expertly by Russell Crowe) is exiled unfairly by a leader who does not deserve to lead (Joaquin Phoenix, as a dissolute and downright creepy emperor), and must fight his way back against all odds to face his oppressor in an epic battle. It’s an entertaining and fun ride, featuring excellent performances from Crowe and Phoenix, as well as old English hands Richard Harris, Oliver Reed (looking spectacularly dissolute, as one might expect from a man who lived and drank a hard life) and Derek Jacobi. There’s drama, there’s political intrigue, there’s tragedy, and there’s exciting action. An excellent brew.

“Stylish” is the best word to describe Sam Mendes’ excellent “Road to Perdition.” Adapted from a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins, the movie tells the story of Michael Sullivan (an understated Tom Hanks), a principled and low-key hit man employed by the patriarch of an Irish crime family (played with passion and intensity by the legendary Paul Newman). Sullivan lives with his wife and two young sons in a lovely home, and what appears to be an idyllic existence. But as Michael Corleone learned over the course of three “Godfather” films, when you live a life of crime, sometimes the life controls you, and it becomes impossible to escape your destiny. So one night, Sullivan’s older son hides in the car when Sullivan heads to a job that goes awry (thanks to Rooney’s son, who unbeknownst to father is secretly stealing from the family’s coffers), witnesses what happens, and before you know it, Sullivan’s wife and younger son are killed, and the two remaining Sullivans are on the run. In the time they are together, they forge a bond that would not likely have been possible absent the tragedy, and the elder Sullivan does everything he can to protect his son and ensure that “the life” won’t consume him. The cast is uniformly excellent – Hanks, Newman, Daniel Craig as the crazy son, and Jude Law as a crazy assassin hired to find and kill the Sullivans – are all first rate, as are a host of supporting characters (including the always excellent Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, the infamous Chicago boss under Capone). And the movie is beautiful to look at – no matter what you think about the films of Sam Mendes in general, he knows how to put a pretty picture up on the screen.

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