Friday, March 30, 2007

Camera Obscura - 'Lookout'; Neo-Noir; and 'X-Files 2'

I've got a stack of good movies to recommend this week - since last week was all whiney-ranting on a movie I hated. It's far more fun to share the good stuff with you, and there's some to pick from in the theatres and on DVD, much of it based on top-notch writing.

Opening today is the directorial debut of Scott Frank, "The Lookout". Some big-name directors were up for this project, like David Fincher, Michael Mann and Sam Mendes, but writer Frank got to take the reins himself and that was a smart move. This crime-thriller is centered on a young man whose mind has been almost washed away following an accidental brain injury. By the time you follow the damaged and lost Chris Pratt (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to a bank robbery, you're already deeply interested in these characters. Frank is an expert at making fascinating characters and at making solid thrillers.

His past work is part of the best in Neo-Noir thrillers - crime stories grounded in strong characters - such as "Get Shorty", the short-lived TV series "Karen Sisco", and "Out of Sight," all movies based on the writings of one of the best crime writers in America, Elmore Leonard.

Critics agree that in addition to the script and deft direction, the lead as played by Gordon-Levitt is worth the price of admission. He's been turning in gutsy performances in movies like "Brick" and "Mysterious Skin".

The character of US Marshal Karen Sisco created by Leonard and featured in the TV series (played by Carla Gugino) and the movie "Out of Sight" (played by Jennifer Lopez) surely gave Frank good ideas in building and developing stories. "Out of Sight" is a minor-classic -- often funny, filled with realistic and oddball criminals, danger lurking close by which is just as real.

If you haven't seen it - do so. In addition to Lopez, the movie stars George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn and others who all create vivid characters.

Another book turned into a movie worth repeated viewings is "Children of Men", now available on DVD. Based rather loosely on P.D. James book, the movie is set in London in the year 2027, in a world which has fallen apart, ravaged by terrorism, disease and corruption and where no human child has been born in nearly 20 years. The reason why - or the lack of a reason - shapes the lives of everyone.

Director and screenwriter Alfonso Cuaron fills every frame with society worn down and wasting away, from hatred, from fear, from religious strife, and everyone seems to move in dull inertia. Without children, the world is without hope. The movie has echoes of earlier apocalyptic cinema, like "Soylent Green", but Cuaron and the cast (Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore) have made something very new and very topical.

There's a scene early in the film between the estranged couple of Owen and Moore, just after Owen's character has barely escaped a deadly suicide bomb attack. He complains of a constant ringing in his ears, and she tells him that sound is the sound of cells dying, a frequency he will never hear again. A bit later in the movie, an explosion brings about yet another ringing in Owen's ears, and he and the audience understand he has lost something even more valuable than part of his hearing range. It's a sharp script and another excellent movie from Cuaron.

By sheer accident this week I watched a film I had seen on video shelves for some time, never giving it a chance. Big mistake. So I'm also urging you to seek it out as well. The movie is based on the novel "Doctor Sleep", by Tennessee native Madison Smartt Bell, and retitled "Close Your Eyes."

Bell's story slyly and expertly draws you into a crime scene via the life of Michael Strother, played by Goran Visnjic, working in London as a hypnotist who helps people quit smoking. But his skill includes a more occult ability to see what others see in their own mind. When he counsels a woman who has an image of a drowning child in her mind, he learns she is a policewoman working a case involving children who are kidnapped and murdered in a ritualistic nightmare. Reluctantly, he agrees to help her work the case.

There are many layers of story here, blending crime drama with eldritch religious groups. Bell, in an interview, remarked that "Doctor Sleep" was a culmination of work for him. Much of his previous work used the noirish world of crime and led the reader somewhere else:

To my mind, Dr. Sleep was the end of a whole trend in my work. The book is basically structured as a prayer, and Stother's internal monologue drives the story. After I had finished it, I realized in a way I hadn't before that all the novels I had written up to that time were spiritual pilgrimages of one kind or another. Though they are by and large couched in the form of thrillers, they're essentially experiments in religion. My model for that is Dostoyevsky, who was basically a thriller writer with a lot of religious obsessions that he was trying to work out. I wasn't completely aware of this strain in my own work until I'd finished Dr. Sleep, or was well on the way to finishing it."

The movie has real scares and chills, created by your own connections to the characters and the maze of storytelling which easily twists you around. A very surprising find -- too bad the project was shelved for some years, barely marketed and dumped without notice onto DVD.

Finally, I have this bit of news for fans of "The X-Files" show and movie. Star David Duchovny says the project for a sequel is almost set and filming will begin soon .... he hopes,


  1. Just saw "Children of Men" last night. Amazing. The camera work had me catatonic. Lots of great movies lately. Are we entering a new golden age, do you think?

  2. ya know, Wednesday, i do think there is a better crop of filmmakers active today than during most of the 90s and 80s.
    Cuaron is impressive, and so is Alejandro Inarritu, who did "Babel" and "Amores Perros".
    Plus the whole Asian horror/thriller/action deal has had a good influence on American movies, and then there's people like Tarantino, Fincher, del Toro, David Russell, Richard Linklater, Sam Mendes, Peter Jackson and lots more to name who are doing some really interesting work and innovative work too. But sometimes it's their use of simple techniques and new technology combined that just blow you away.
    I was fascinated watching the behind the scenes stuff in "The Prestige" where Nolan shot everything hand-held - made for less time to set up lighting, more natural lighting, etc, but with the way he edited, it all looks very standard and not hand-held at all.

    So yeah, overall, I think we're getting better stuff than we had after the 70s ended. And some of newest stuff from Eastwood and Scorsese ranks as the some of the best i've seen, but then almost all of their work has been remarkable.

    Dang, I can talk about movies all day and never get tired of it!!

  3. I'm trying really hard to figure out whether or not I care about the possibility of an X-Files sequel.

    That was a heady love affair that ended so badly. I'm just not sure I have a reunion in me, you know?

  4. All I hafta say is...
    I heart Don Cheadle

  5. Out of Sight = GREAT movie. This is my favorite adaptation of the great Elmore Leonard. You mentioned the great cast...the chemistry between Lopez and Clooney just smoulders.

    this is one of the great overlooked movies of the last ten yrs, imo.

    thanks for the reminder.

  6. I will probably watch your reccomendations sometime in the future but not now.We lost one of our cat critics Monday.His namw was meowzer and one of the best cats around.He was my special cat.His brother Rowzer(24lbs.) is still here and Boogie the new cat,are fine.Meowzer had some of the symptoms they ascribed to the tainted food,but a trip to the emergency clinic found nothing.He was keeled over dead Monday morning.We miss him terribly.Watch your pets people.