It's Halloween, and I'm Not Dead...
More to come chez Nathaniel, and here at home, too. I can vouchsafe for now that late October has been something of a zombie brigade: movies that are mostly dead but not entirely so. Dan in Real Life hangs itself on an infantile story arc that somehow manages to feel abrupt even though there's nothing else going on for most of the other 98 minutes. At least the movie emanates a rare and engaging vibe of family bustle that nicely pulls against and whistles around the false beats of the story. Reservation Road kills off a child in its first ten minutes but has no better idea of how to recuperate from this crisis than do the parents of the kid in the story. A lot of middle-class agony and New England art direction ensue, and the ending is jaw-droppingly truncated, but that knotted-stomach feeling of committing a titanic error and knowing you won't (and shouldn't) get away with it is convincingly evokedoften enough to count for something, even if the movie's still not very good. Rendition can't decide who or what to be about, finally, and the large cast cycles listlessly in and out of a script that would feel dry and programmatic if it weren't so bizarrely oblique. The movie is not without interest, primarily due to its subject matter, but for some reason, director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) has cast most of his actors and even some of his crew to play directly against their biggest strengths. This leaves Jake Gyllenhaal cramped and inexpressive, Meryl Streep embarrassingly vague and gormless, and redoubtable cinematographer Dion Beebe (Collateral, In the Cut) culpable for one of the year's most badly underlit movies. Sleuth is as bad as its box-office numbers, which are very, very bad. Director Kenneth Branagh treats the tacit banalities of Anthony Shaffer's play and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sawdust-and-tinsel original film as though they were sleek subtexts just waiting to be jackhammered home. And I choose my metaphors deliberately. Determinedly diagonal in look without ever once achieving an "edge," the film marks the very definition of "pointless," except insofar as it confirms the overratedness of the play itself.
By far the nicest things I have to say are about Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire, a sprawling but evocative documentary about abortion in the United States that eschews deep historical contexts but still approaches the issue from a gratifying diversity of angles and positions; its strongest sequences, including the macabre aftermath of a second-trimester abortion and on-camera interviews with the future assassin of a doctor who performed abortions, rank among the year's most indelible moments. Speaking of indelible, Susanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire may not qualify on the whole, and if she doesn't stop shooting eyelashes and cheekbones in extreme close-up as arbitrary inserts, I'm going to perform a citizen's arrest. However, for all its basically conservative impulses, the movie bravely occupies some mysterious and illuminating emotional terrains of passive aggression, well-intended exploitation, and the appropriation of nearly defenseless people as prosthetic substitutes for dead lovers and friends. Holding this tricky emotional ecosystem together is Benicio Del Toro, in what looked to me like one of the year's very best performances. I've read that some critics think he's showboaty and unpersuasive, but I loved watching him hover away from rage, away from despair, away from sexual ardor, and away from loutishnessall of which the character as written seems to court. The actor locates himself instead within quieter, gentler, more paralyzed, and dare I say more subtle states of being. He's funny, tetchy, warm, uneasy, charismatic, non-judgmental, and nonetheless unreliable in some way that feels impolite to acknowledge. Male leads in "women's pictures" are a sadly neglected bunch, but Del Toro will make my year-end shortlist without breaking a sweat.
(Photos © 2006 StudioCanal/Asymmetrical Productions; © 2007 New Line Cinema/Anonymous Content; and © 2006 Anonymous Content/2007 ThinkFilm)