Monday, November 29, 2010

What I watched this week: Nov 22-28

As we bring November to a close, I have two more viewings before we move into the last month of 2010. Well, technically one, since the first was seen in theaters and is from the current year. I just didn't feel like having a post titled "what I watched this week" with only one entry, hence my cheating.

Love and Other Drugs (2010) dir. Ed Zwick:
The name Ed Zwick usually calls to mind accessible action flicks with at least one key, often nominated, supporting actor. Notable examples include Glory (Oscar for Denzel Washington), The Last Samurai (nomination for Ken Watanabe), and Blood Diamond (nomination for Djimon Honsou). Which is what makes Zwick's latest effort such a strange departure: an R-rated romantic comedy. Based on Jamie Reidy's novel "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman," Drugs tells the story of up-and-coming pharmaceutical salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal). While trying to push one brand of anti-depressant to a doctor (Hank Azaria), Jamie meets patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), who has Parkinson's. After a first meeting that ends with Maggie attacking Jamie with her purse, the two begin having a relationship-free relationship, centered only on guilt-free, no-strings-attached sex.

As the film progresses of course, a real relationship begins to take place, and (a few) complications ensue. Yet for much of the film, the story remains as breezy as Jamie and Maggie's early relationship. Despite running roughly 1 hr 50 min, Love and Other Drugs flies by, and the large amount of skin-baring scenes manage to not be repetitive. The sex scenes actually manage to push the relationship, and even the plot forward (if at times just barely), and keeps the film from feeling indulgent or tacky. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway fulfill the promise showed in the much more somber Brokeback Mountain, and radiate chemistry with this significantly lighter fare. Hathaway in particular makes the most out of her character, though this is in part due to it being much meatier. Gyllenhaal is charming, though the scenes that could have yielded stronger, richer work are often simplified, watered down even. And along with the supporting cast, namely Josh Gad as Jamie's brother, the pair get a good number of well-earned laughs.

The story, despite its ending, also manages to avoid a great deal of the tedious mush that so many romantic comedies fall into. Yes, there's the inevitable brief parting-of-ways, but here it isn't contrived. It's a bit too brief and comes too late, but it's not annoying just because it delays the inevitable. Where the film runs into problems, though, is that in its quest to satisfy the obvious need to see Jake and Anne naked, the greater issues are pushed to the side. One of the film's most interesting conflicts, Maggie suffers from a disease that requires her to take a number of medications while Jamie's job is to further turn medicine into a money machine, is barely touched upon, though it is hinted at on the surface. Meanwhile, Oliver Platt is stuck in a wholly thankless role as Jamie's roadside partner; by the film's end, Platt is rendered little more than a plot device. His final scene, in which he makes a revelation to Jamie in a bar, feels weightless as a result, despite the script's attempt to make it indicative of the character's conflict about his job and his family life. Hank Azaria, who has much more screen time, fares worse. The character never changes, and is so static and blank, and this is made worse by the film's attempt to use his role to show the dark side of certain kinds of doctors.

By the time Love breezes through to its conclusion, it feels as though the film's last act should have given the material some more weight. It's satisfying, but just barely so. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal make for an extremely appealing and watchable coupling, but even their considerable charms (and bone structure) can't completely mask the weaknesses in the screenplay.

Grade: B-

Apocalypse Now (1979) dir. Francis Ford Coppola:
When you take a step back, there have actually been quite a few good or great war movies. And yet in reviews, writers always talk about these films as though they're first of their kind. This is one of those genres of storytelling where the devil really is in the details. Plenty of war films are appropriately gritty. Plenty of them pull no punches when showing us the horror and madness of war, free of action movie tropes. And plenty of them feature strong performances. Where they really make a mark for themselves has to be somewhere else, and for Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," that comes in the final 30 minutes.

At a sprawling length of 2 hours and 40 minutes (the Redux clocks in at 3 hours), the original cut is a very strong war movie, filled with great production values, strong acting, and brutally honest depictions of violence. But, coming from the perspective of one who only saw the film for the first time a few days ago, these traits feel routine. They feel expected. And that's what makes the last half hour so dizzyingly brilliant. I had no problems with following Capt. Ben Willard (Martin Sheen) and his team as they navigated up a river to find the renegade Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). I was never bored, and the pacing (from a team of four editors) always kept my interest. Coppola's execution of the majority of the film is also great, especially the helicopter attack set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," made all the more chilling by the fact that the music is being played by on-screen characters. It's brutal but not exploitative, and it captures so much about the shades of grey that war brings out in us. The sight of a surfboard strapped to the side of a helicopter next to missiles and machine guns is hard to shake, even when its shot so matter-of-fact.

But when Willard and his team finally reach Kurtz, and the native village he has essentially become god of, the film reaches new heights. This is where Apocalypse Now puts its own stamp on the war story. Not that the outsider-becomes-worshipped-by-natives angle hasn't been used before, but here it comes loaded with so much complexity. Issues of what it means to be barbaric, in terms of different cultures and even time periods, along with man's transformation in war, all come to the surface without clashing or boiling over. And when Capt. Willard emerges from the water and mud and opens his eyes, his face covered in mud and paint, and marches toward Col. Kurtz, the film reaches mythic heights of cinematic expression. It's a towering work of construction and execution, and one that manages to distinguish itself without betraying its subject matter, which is no easy task, and just one more reason why Apocalypse Now still deserves to be regarded as a masterpiece.

Grade: A

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