An excellent week at the movies. Here's the usual quick look...
The genius of Sydney Lumet's bleak, mesmerizing, almost perfect Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
, of course, is how two-bit the whole thing is: the payoff from the crime at the film's center—the action that puts the final nail in the coffin of these already destroyed lives—would have "solved" the problems of the two pathetic, desperate brothers for maybe three or four months. After seeing the film I read several reviews, and was surprised at how much they gave away, so I'm just going to say that I loved Lumet's jumpy structure; and, unshockingly, the acting is superb, all of it (favorite scene: Philip Seymour Hoffman's quiet tantrum), though I was definitely disappointed that Marisa Tomei wasn't given more to do than look good with her shirt off.
Maybe it was partly the relief it provided from the intense nature of everything else I saw this week, but I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Wristcutters: A Love Story
. In the wrong hands, the premise here could have led to indie-film disaster: everyone who kills themselves winds up in a sort of purgatory that, in the words of our hero Patrick Fugit (who slits his wrists in the film's opening scene), looks and feels like the regular life, except that everything's "a little bit worse." But instead of a forced exercise in quirkiness, Croatian writer/director Goran Dukic delivers a movie that's funny, sweet, clever, imaginative, and so lovingly, exceptionally well art-directed that, even on what must have been a tiny budget, the suicide's world completely comes to life. The sleeper of the season.
OK, back to bleak... and more excellent art direction. Based on Dennis Lehane's novel (I forgot how much I loved his Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro books, which I devoured at one point in my life), Gone Baby Gone
is a gripping thriller about a little girl kidnapped from her grim South Boston neighborhood, and the far-reaching, sometimes surprising aftershocks of the crime: moral, emotional, and physical. Though ultimately too far-fetched to retain its credibility, there are many memorable moments here, the pacing is brisk, the action smart, and it's filled with terrific performances (loved seeing The Wire's "Omar" show up!), in particular by Casey Affleck as Kenzie and Amy Ryan as the missing girl's near-junkie mom who wears her victimhood a lot more easily than she ever did in her motherhood.
A not-great film with several nearly-great scenes, Reservation Road
is an emotional wringer of a movie-going experience that, I thought, honestly earned my tears (and there were plenty) through strong performances, confident pacing, and, of course, the story's central, wrenching event: in a small, too-pretty Connecticut town, an SUV slams into and kills a ten-year-old boy releasing fireflies by the side of the road; scared, distracted (his own son is slightly injured in the accident), and uncertain as to what just happened, the driver (an always welcome Mark Ruffalo) keeps going... and then spends the rest of the movie wrestling with his actions. The mother (an excellent Jennifer Connelly) and father (an OK Jaoquin Phoenix) of the dead boy obviously have plenty of wrestling to do of their own.
A Western in setting only, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
is really more of talky, male ensemble drama—heck, it's really more art film than genre piece—exploring themes of power, fear, betrayal and what happens when one's idols turn out to be assholes. The cast is outstanding: Casey Affleck (again), Brad Pitt (not usually a huge fan, but he's great here), Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider (also so good in Lars and the Real Girl), Garret Dilahunt (whom you'll recognize from Deadwood)... you can't take your eyes off of any these guys when they're on the screen. Be warned: this is a long (2 hours, 40 minutes), slowly paced film with virtually no music, but it definitely does reward the alert, patient viewer. My strategy: I had a venti Caramel Frappuccino on my way to the theater, and I suggest you do the same.