Denzel Washington's ANTWONE FISHER is a project that more traditionally fits an actor's first turn behind the camera: it's an intimate, performance-centered piece. And is there ever a performance at the center of this fact-based story: that of newcomer Derek Luke. As the title character, a young sailor with a hair-trigger temper and a lifetime of hurt behind it, Luke doesn't downplay the harsher side that fuels the drama, but his charisma and innate likability leaves one interested and invested in Antwone's fate as he sorts out his damaged past with Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington).
The film marks the first screen credit for the real-life Fisher, who wrote the script from his own experiences, and there is some neophyte awkwardness; some forced empowerment dialogue comes to mind, as does an underdeveloped domestic subplot with Davenport and his neglected wife (Salli Richardson) that leads to a forced and rather saccharine closing scene. But that last scene is the only instance where the unabashed sentimentality becomes overly maudin, and that's largely due to the authentic conviction of the performers, and Washington has the wisdom to step back and trust them; look no further than Viola Davis's nearly wordless single scene with Luke, which packs a stunning wallop without any heavy-handed directorial nudges. The film has been blasted as being sappily self-serving, but in my mind unfairly so; Washington and particularly Fisher deserve credit for their emotional honesty, and their and the cast's talent earns every tear that is shed by the audience.
city of God
GOD of Gangsters
It's January, but quite stunningly there is a release that is a virtual lock to be on a number of best lists at year's end: CITY OF GOD (Cidade de Deus). Ironically, the eponymous Brazilian slum central to Fernando Meirelles's decades-spanning epic is a place where one would be hard-pressed to find any sort of higher power. It's a lawless land of rampant crime and even more inescapable violence, all of which is witnessed from the perspective of aspiring photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has somehow managed to stay mostly on the sidelines as various friends and family become consumed, as adults and children, by the vicious nature of the City of God--all of which is perfectly embodied by the ruthless L'il Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), the reigning gang leader/drug kingpin.
Granted, such a story is hardly new for the screen, but Meirelles, co-director Katia Lund and scripter Braulio Mantovani (working from the fact-based novel by Paulo Lins) make the pulpy material fresh and exciting through their distinctive storytelling. Much has been made of Meirelles's flamboyant visual style, which is heavy on cuts and effects one would more associate with THE MATRIX than a down-and-dirty ghetto yarn, and the film is indeed a dazzling sight to behold from minute to minute. But the flashiness serves Mantovani's screenplay perfectly, reflecting the perpetually adrenalized, free-for-all atmosphere of the setting; the narrator's casual voice and the freewheeling, anecdotal nature of the story--which, as the film progresses, reveals itself to be rather deceptive, as the script is quite carefully, ingeniously structured, making smart use of recurring details. Also not lost amid the flash is, most notably, the harsh reality of this place and the people within it. While CITY OF GOD is an exhilarating entertainment, the startling, disturbing images and the difficult issues they depict pack a memorable wallop.
hypnotized and hysterical
While 25TH HOUR finds Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a typical role in his typical capacity as supporting player, he's the sole name above the title in Todd Louiso's LOVE LIZA, written by none other than Hoffman's brother Gordy. Whether or not nepotism was at work is anyone's guess, but it's difficult to imagine anyone inhabiting the sad/funny/absurd role of recently widowed Wilson Joel quite so well. Wilson is certainly a pathetic sort, becoming addicted to smelling gasoline fumes (in an apparent effort to match his late wife's method of suicide) and joining the radio-controlled vehicle enthusiast subculture to cover up his habit, but in Hoffman's hands he does command a certainly degree of sympathy--an accomplishment all the more noteworthy considering how little he speaks. Little also happens in this very downbeat film--in fact, the engine behind the film's slow-going 90 minutes is Wilson's steadfast refusal to open, much less read, his wife's suicide note--but Hoffman, nicely supported by small, solid turns by Kathy Bates (as Wilson's mother-in-law) and Jack Kehler (as a true RC afficionado), makes Wilson's overwhelming grief palpable.
MAX has been the subject of controversy due to its insistence that Adolf Hitler was--gasp--a human being. It's more interesting as an idea than an actual film--or, at least, this particular film. Writer-director Menno Mejyes' vision of young Hitler (Noah Taylor) is as an aspiring artist who bonds with a one-armed Jewish art dealer named Max Rothman (John Cusack), who encourages him to pursue his work; however, there are other forces churning, particularly the winds of war and the young German army officer's burgeoning reputation as a political speaker. Aside from the novelty of seeing Hitler is presented in an unconventional context, there really isn't much of interest going on here. Imagine the Taylor character to be someone else, and there's no hook; not even the Max character is all that interesting, thanks to Cusack playing him with all of his usual, ultracontemporary--and, hence, distracting--mannerisms and vocal inflections. As a speculative piece, the film also fails, for Mejyes offers no real insight into nor brings up any interesting questions about what can turn a man--an artist, no less--into such a monster; what little reasoning that is offered in the film's finale is remarkably trite. Much like how the controversy surrounding the film has everything to do with the simple idea of it than anything in the film itself, MAX is likely to be superficially remembered as a little curio, "That Hitler Artist Movie."
CALLAR the Wild
To borrow a frequently used statement, MORVERN CALLAR is a film more easily admired than loved. Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Alan Warner's novel has precious little in the way of plot and even less in the dialogue department, with the former making the film an undeniably difficult sit. That said, this odd look at the titular young Scottish woman and her strangely liberated behavior after she discovers her boyfriend has committed suicide holds an eerie, hypnotic fascination, and that is owed mostly to the mesmerizing presence of Samantha Morton in the title role. The carefree, often selfish Morvern is certainly not the most sympathetic or accessible of characters, but Morton's expressive face provides a more than inviting anchor in the languid, unconventionally beautiful journey.
safety of objects
If there's one thing that can be said without any doubt regarding SPIDER, it's that it most certainly is not formulaic. Beyond that, David Cronenberg's psychodrama is simply confounding, which is both a good and a bad thing. As the title character, a mentally-ill man newly arrived at a halfway house, Ralph Fiennes delivers a performance so bizarre it's difficult to determine if he's absolutely brilliant or absolutely terrible; he never speaks a coherent word of English in the entire running time, instead muttering gibberish virtually nonstop. The story, as it is, is more or less a long string of flashbacks to Dennis "Spider" Cleg's troubled childhood, documenting how his seemingly happy home life with his father (Gabriel Byrne) and mother (Miranda Richardson) gradually, mysteriously unraveled. All of this unfolds at a sub-snail's pace that will test the patience of even the most openminded of moviegoers--especially considering that the film's final twist becomes clear long before it arrives. However, despite all of the frustrations that come with the journey, SPIDER's unsettling spell lingers after its conclusion, a tribute to Cronenberg's exceptional command of atmospherics, from the dank production design to the indelible performances of Fiennes (whatever it is he's doing, it's impossible to forget) and Richardson, who delivers a truly virtuoso turn.
SONNY Doesn't Shine
As is usually the case with directorial efforts by actors, the strongest aspect of SONNY, the behind-the-camera debut of Nicolas Cage, is the performances, particularly that of James Franco as the title character. Unfortunately, there isn't much to John Carlen's simplistic script; simply put, Sonny is an ex-military man in early '80s New Orleans who finds his opportunities limited by the stigma attached to his pre-Army occupation of... gigolo extraordinaire. Cage, who also has a cartoony cameo (made all the more distracting by its late appearance), does succeed in creating an appropriately dank atmosphere of scuzzy squalor and in eliciting effective turns from the likes of Mena Suvari (as the love interest/partner-in-whoring), Brenda Blethyn (in relentless LITTLE VOICE mode as Sonny's mother and madam) and Harry Dean Stanton (as Blethyn's companion). Standing above everything and everyone else is Franco, and virtually any audience investment in the film is owed to his charismatic, sympathetic yet edgy presence; if only Cage were able to bring the rest of the film to his star's level of complexity.
talk to her
the way home
Of all the regrettable bits of advertising copy I've seen this year, none is more stupid than that which appears at the top of the newspaper ad for the Korean family drama THE WAY HOME: "Seoul to Soul." I can only hope such an offensively corny tagline won't deter people from seeing this beautiful, understated story of a six-year-old city boy (Seung-Ho Yoo) who is forced to stay with his mute grandmother (first-time actress Eul-Boon Kim) at her countryside shack as his mother tends to some personal business. If this were an American film, the result would've been insufferably sappy, with the inevitable bond between the woman and the child developing in melodramatic fashion, not to mention their equally inevitable goodbye being even more overwrought. Credit goes to writer-director Lee Jeong-Hyang, who trusts the inherent emotional pull of her simple story and the talent of her remarkably natural stars enough to step back and let them speak--subtly and powerfully--for themselves.