Friday, February 1, 2008

Random blurbage on random films...

The Namesake

Mira Nair's film based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri is beautiful to look at, but I am afraid it is nothing more than that. I wasn't particularly moved by the film, although I was certain I was seeing something worth investing my emotions in. However, a lot of it just seemed very formulaic and sitcomy. I liked the performances and I liked the early relationship of Gogol (Kal Penn) and his father, and the story about how is parents came from Calcutta to New York City. To me that was the most interesting part of the story, the first hour or so really works, but it falls apart in the third act when Gogol (going by Nick, since he doesn't want to be called by , what he thinks, is a weird first name anymore) seperates from his likeable and understanding girlfriend, and marries an Indian woman in order to make his mother happy. This dynamic is interesting at first as we get some profound commentary on the roles of women in Indian culture, and how Gogol just thinks that his mother would want him to marry "one of their own" as his aunt puts it.

I wish they would have abandoned the relationships problems between Gogol and his new Indian wife and would have explored the deeper emotions and problems that Gogol's mother has with him so easily falling into tradition, when he was so hell-bent on breaking free from it (something she wishes she could have done). To me, the mother is the most interesting character in the film, she is marginalized by her husband (who is compassionate, but upon leaving India for New York City, repeats the mantra to friends and family that "she'll get used to the city") and expected to be nothing more than an Indian woman. Sadly, the story marginalizes her by the end of the film, and where there really could have been an epiphany between mother and son; they opt to have that moment for the not so shocking scene in the car between Gogol and his father, which reveals the origins of Gogol's name.

It's too hit and miss in the third act, and a lot of the emotional oomph is predictable. However, it is still worth seeing for that first hour and the cinematography is beautiful as the great Frederick Elms (he shot one of my favorite films of the 90's The Ice Storm) shoots the film in a washed out almost black and white look and distracts you long enough in the third act to where you are too busy noticing the beautiful filmmaking, to realize you are watching an ending (to an otherwise good movie) with about as much emotional power as a Lifetime movie.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Well, this is my least favorite of the three. It has its moments (like the extended car chase where not a word of dialogue is spoken, that was awesome) and some good performances (once again Matt Damon does a lot with so little and adding David Strathairn to the mix only helped) but overall I was glad the series was coming to a close. I got my fill of Jason Bourne at about the half way mark of the second film, also directed by Paul Greengrass (and scripted by Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy), which frustrated me beyond belief because not only could I not keep up with the action, I couldn't understand why they were fighting. The camera work in this film is much like the second, so shaky and so feverish that I just wanted to slow it down and watch a frame at a time. Fight scenes in movies that pose as intelligent spy thrillers are only relevant if the audience understands why the protagonist needs to fight. It's hardest to get a grasp on that knowledge (apart from the very basic "they are after me" storyline of the Bourne films) in the third entry.

It's been a good run and I like that the trilogy offered something a little fresher and cleverer than what the genre usually churns out. But I was glad when this film was over that it was the last time I would have to sit through the shaky cam action stylings of Jason Bourne.


Billy Ray's film is a clinic in how to make a smart political thriller. Much like Michael Clayton (my pick for the fourth best film this year, had I seen this at the time I made my list, I would have made them both #4, as they share so many elements), Breach is in the tradition of such great thrillers as The Falcon and the Snowman and 3 Days of the Condor. It excels in the basic understanding that the audience is smart enough to enjoy a thriller that is thrilling based on character development, crisis of conscience, deception, and guilt that just build and builds until a conclusion that is not only a satisfying payoff, but also ambiguous and frustrating in the same way that the tete-a-tete at the end of Zodiac is.

The film is about the accounts of Eric O'Neil, an ambitious FBIer looking to make agent. He is assigned the seemingly boring duty of being watch dog over a perverted, religious, soon-to-be retired Agent, Robert Philip Hanssen. O'Neil (played by the surprisingly good Ryan Phillippe) thinks it's a junk job, a waste of his talents. Watching for perverted mannerisms is not his cup of tea. Hanssen (the criminally underappreciated Chris Cooper) is pushed into a small office while the FBI higher-ups investigate him (O'Neil thinks they are just investigating Hanssen for his unpopular personal online hobby), but in fact he is being marginalized so that he may not have access to the files he once did, you know, seeing how he was selling them to the Soviets and all.

The film tells us that this was the greatest breach in the history of American security. There is a moment when they strip down Hanssen's car and the things they find are pretty incredible. But the film succeeds because they don't look to villainize Hanssen (he did a good job of that himself) rather, Ray and Cooper make a smart decision to portray the troubled traitor as a complex character; deeply religious and devout not to just his God, but his family as well. He is like a grand inquisitor, always sizing people up and never quite sure of a situation, but he isn't paranoid. He looks normal, like any other suit in the organization, a drone if you will, driving his Ford Taurus, he is hardly recognizable. It is in this portrayal of Hanssen, that the film is most intriguing.

As O'Neil slowly begins to realize the "why" he must learn how to concentrate on the "who", as in who is Hanssen? Earlier in the film there is a crisis of conscience as O'Neil feels like the FBI is ragging on this guy for his immoral vices.

What I liked about the film was that Ray decides not to try and explain Hanssen, rather he paints a portrait of a man that felt disrespected and did something to show his superiors just how good of a spy he was.

Religion also plays a large role in the film. It is used not to cleanse, but rather to deceive, and one has to wonder if the last line of the film isn't a joke. Is there any sincerity in the prayers of Hanssen and O'Neil? It seems to me that they use the device as a means for deception, rather than any form of spiritual revelation.

This blurb has already gone on way too long, but there is so much to explicate with the religious themes in the film. Billy Ray is a talented director, his previous film, Shattered Glass, shares many similarities with this one. That film was also about deception (and it also got a surprisingly good performance from a bad actor, Hayden Christiansen), but it had a much more pathetic, yet likeable liar. It was at least understandable why Stephen Glass fabricated his stories. With Hanssen, there is no starting point in trying to understand why he did what he did. Much like the frustration felt in Zodiac, Breach also builds upon the audiences frustration that Hanssen keeps things so close to his chest, he never blows up and reveals his intentions, he never lets on why he gave so much information to what calls "that godless country."

However, the miracle of it all is that Cooper's brilliant performance and Ray's understanding of the material, having treaded similar ground already, is that (much like Stephen Glass) they turn Hanssen into a likeable enough person. By the end of the film, when he utters that last line to O'Neil, you can't help but be moved by this request from a man we have no business feeling sympathy for. It's one of the best films of 2007.


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