Friday, December 31, 2010

Mini Reviews: Dead Man Walking, True Grit, Age of Consent

Today, because I feel like writing movie reviews but I don't feel particularly like writing 800+ words about any of them, I'm going to do three mini-reviews. These will be maybe three or four paragraphs each, on the three movies I've seen since getting to Florida. In order of when I saw them, and coincidentally in descending order of quality:

Dead Man Walking

Today, Dead Man Walking (which came out in 1995 and shall henceforth be referred to as DMW, mostly because I’m lazy) is remembered mostly as the true coming out party for Sean Penn. Penn, then known mostly for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, scored his first of five academy award nominations for his role as Matthew Poncelet, a man on death row for a brutal rape and double homicide that he may or may not have committed. And Penn, who has become one of the best actors in the world over the past fifteen years, is just as good as advertised.

The movie is not particularly concerned with story, but instead with Poncelet and his relationships, both with his family (including a very young Jack Black in a small role that seems bizarre watching now) and especially with Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a nun who counsels him as his execution draws near. Because of that, knowing the outcome(s) of DMW isn’t as big of a deal as with many films, but I still feel I should mention that some spoilers may follow, for those who read between the lines a bit.

Sarandon actually has more screen time than Penn does, but a viewer would be forgiven for not remembering that. Good as she is, Penn still thoroughly steals every scene he’s in. Poncelet is not an easy role; the man is, even if he was falsely convicted for actual rape and murder, an accomplice in the horrible crime, and an unapologetic racist and right-wing extremist to boot. But Penn plays him in a way that highlights his humanity. He can be kind in some situations, especially with his family, and becomes increasingly frightened and introspective as his seemingly inevitable execution looms closer.

Beyond Penn’s bravura performance, the other memorable part of the movie is its fairly sophisticated take on the death penalty. The movie came out two years after Kirk Bloodworth became the first man in the US exonerated from death row because of DNA evidence. While the movie takes place somewhat earlier (perhaps the late 80s, though it’s a bit unclear) so DNA isn’t really an issue, it does color the film to a 2010 viewer. While I’d say in the aggregate the movie is probably anti-death penalty (the fact that Tim Robbins directs informs that opinion), DMW takes care not to be preachy and to show, at the very least, why so many people favor capital punishment.

As much as the movie has any real flaw, it is the flashback to the actual crime at the end of the film (although we see snippets of it earlier). It’s as if Robbins was afraid that perhaps his film came down a bit too far against capital punishment, so he shows the crime in all its brutality. It comes off as both unnecessarily manipulative, as well as unnecessary to the story. After all, Poncelot has just confessed his whole role in such a way that we have little reason to doubt, even before it’s confirmed via flashback. Besides, some ambiguity isn’t bad, right?

Verdict (heh, see what I did there?): 8/10 Very Good. Yes I know this is a half-point higher than I gave it in my tweet-review, but I reserve the right to change within a half-point of my initial grade.

True Grit

I make no secret of my love for the Coens. True Grit is the ninth movie of theirs that I’ve seen, and even my least favorite (Intolerable Cruelty) I still enjoyed. Naturally, I was pretty excited to see their take on a Western. So how was it?

Well…my first impression was quite positive. The story (originally a 1968 novel, and then a famous 1969 film starring John Wayne) is undeniably entertaining. It centers on a young girl (Mattie Ross, played with aplomb by Hailee Steinfeld) who hires a washed up U.S. Marshall (Jeff Bridges, in the Wayne roll) to capture an outlaw who murdered her father. The cinematography of late 19th century Arkansas is gorgeous, the few action scenes kinetic and exciting, and the acting uniformly excellent. And, as with many of the Coen features, the film is very funny. The humor is not quite as pitch black as some of their movies (A Serious Man anyone?), but it’s still a pretty dark shade. Jeff Bridges gets most of the best lines, and he delivers them with relish. That’s a lot going for Grit, with no real glaring weaknesses. So why was I dissatisfied?

I think the answer has something to do my expectations. I usually do a pretty good job of not judging things based on expectations; the fact that I went into Inception expecting it to be excellent did not take anything away from my enjoyment of it. But although Grit had some very Coen-y humor, the rest of the movie was essentially a straightforward Western, albeit a well-made and enjoyable one. From the masters of cinematic genre bending, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed by that.

True Grit is what it is. And that is the problem with it. What the Coens do is make movies that aren’t what they are.

7.5/10 Good/Very Good

Age of Consent

Perhaps the title should have warned me away. I put Age in my Netflix instant queue based solely on the fact that Helen Mirren was in it (my requirements are not demanding, clearly). When I wanted to watch a movie, I did what I sometimes do when I can’t settle on a particular choice: Netflix roulette. I use a random number generator and watch the number (in the queue) of the result. This time, it failed me.

Now I feel I should disclose, in the interest of journalistic integrity, that Age of Consent is not a total waste of time for a certain segment of the population, if only because it features several spectacular scenes of a naked 23-year old Helen Mirren, who was jaw-droppingly gorgeous back then (and, in a different way, is still), so much that she's causing me to write a run-on sentence. But as memorable as she is, the movie around her doesn’t even come close to justifying the time investment.

Age of Consent’s barren plot involves a successful but burned out painter who goes into seclusion of a sparsely populated island near Australia. There, he meets Cora Ryan (Mirren), a spirited and unsophisticated young girl who becomes his muse and inspires him to reinvigorate his artwork. I’ll admit that this has potential, but a slew of irritating sideplots and even more annoying characters leaves little room for the movie to focus on anything worthwhile. Probably worst is Cora’s incredibly clich├ęd alcoholic and abusive grandmother, who seems like a Terry Jones character from Monty Python.

The suggestive title refers to the fact that Cora is ostensibly underage, although probably not by much, and the painter is in his early fifties. Of course, the film’s sexuality is mostly subtextual, and their relationship remains quite platonic (she models nude for him, but he seems interested in her only as a subject, at least for a while. What exactly it is she wants is a little less clear) until the end, and even then it’s fairly ambiguous.

Hell, Age of Consent probably would have been a better movie (or at least a more funner one) if it just committed to being the exploitation flick that it so wants to be. Instead, it keeps its pretensions and, like Cora herself, stays coy.

But on the other hand, Dat Ass.

5/10 Bad

Hmm...I didn't do a great job keeping these reviews "mini". Oh well.

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