Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Three from the weekend: "Win Win," "Source Code," and "Of Gods and Men"

Win Win - dir. Thomas McCarthy: Writer/director Thomas McCarthy, in only three films, clearly has one thing on his mind: strangers being brought together by chance. His first two features, the excellent The Station Agent (2003) and the so-so The Visitor (2008), have explored this through less conventional setups. With his third film, however, McCarthy inches towards more mainstream territory, without ever falling prey to conventions. Win Win may be advertised as some indie love child of Juno and The Blind Side, but sports (here, wrestling) aren't really what the film is about.

As McCarthy and his cast (led by Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Alex Shaffer) explore the impact that a troubled teen (Shaffer) has on a family who takes him in, character remains front and center. Yes, there are wrestling matches, but the film never defaults to the typical arc of following the protagonists as they head towards some sort of championship. The sport is used to help us understand the characters as they express themselves through it, whether they be athletes, coaches, or spectators. For Mike (Giamatti), it's about finally having something in his life go right, and for Kyle, it's about finding a moment in his hectic life where he can be in control.

The results, for the most part, are quietly impressive. The entire cast is in top form, especially Giamatti, who plays off of Shaffer with a chemistry that anchors the film beautifully. Special mention should also go to Amy Ryan as Mike's tough but supportive wife, and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle's troubled mother. And despite taking a while to get to the central plot, McCarthy allows events to unfold naturally, always holding your attention without rushing things for the sake of getting to big moments. The film may have a slightly more conventional feel to it, yet it never feels predictable while watching it, because McCarthy so effectively draws you into his story with nice characterization, and occasional moments of humor.

Yet for all of the successes of Win Win, there are a few minor losses. Bobby Cannavale's loud-mouthed best friend, though played well by the actor, feels a bit forced for the sake of a constant source of comic relief. And despite his skill as a director and writer, McCarthy does occasionally have awkward shifts from quieter dialogue to surprisingly intense line readings. And while never particularly advertised as a comedy, some attempts at humor don't quite stick. But overall, these are relatively minor complaints next to the film's strengths, of which there are many. McCarthy has crafted a strong follow-up to his previous features, and while it's not a masterpiece, one can't help but feel that it won't be long before the director finally creates one.

Grade: B

Source Code - dir. Duncan Jones:
When Duncan Jones' debut feature, Moon (2009), hit indie theaters, it was clear that a new talent was emerging. With his second feature, Jones certainly takes a more mainstream approach, yet thankfully manages to avoid the much-dreaded sophomore slump.

After an arresting opening set to vaguely Hitchcockian music (courtesy of Chris Bacon) that ends with a train exploding outside of Chicago, we (along with protagonist Jake Gyllenhaal) are thrown into a dingy room filled with monitors. Gyllenhaal's Colter Stevens has been recruited (using that word loosely here) into a special program than enables counter-terrorism forces to relive 8 minutes in time to gather evidence (without altering the past, only aiding the present).

In a strange way, everything that's right and wrong with Source Code becomes apparent fairly quickly. It's nicely shot (so much blue, much blue), and is engaging despite its inherently repetitive structure. Yet as the film goes on, one can't help but feel that Ben Ripley's script is the odd fusion of two very different drafts, one more centered on thrills, and the other more on character study via sci-fi surroundings. This is appropriate, of course, considering the nature of Jones' Moon, a film that used a sci-fi setting for backdrop instead of dazzling visuals and explosions. But with that film, Jones' (and the film's) goal was clear.

With Source Code, the awkward mix leaves the thrills feeling rather lightweight and inconsequential, while the human side of the story, ripe with potential, doesn't feel as though its been done true justice. Ripley clearly means for there to be a connection between Colter and now-dead passenger Christina (Michelle Monaghan), but since their time(s) spent together are so limited, and the larger real-time flow of events feels so small, it's difficult to buy that Colter would really feel a desire to try and save her. He certainly has other, stronger motivations to do so, but the overall effect doesn't feel fully formed.

On the other side of things, the film remains watchable and enjoyable thanks to nice work from its thoroughly engaging cast. Gyllenhaal makes a compelling leading man, and his chemistry with Monaghan and Vera Farmiga's government agent work, even when their dialogue can verge on tedious (wouldn't it actually save time to fully explain the situation so that Colter would stop demanding answers?).

But overall, it's hard not to view Source Code without feeling mildly disappointed. The script seems fully prepared to explore avenues in Colter's character that would have made for a great performance piece. However, by slanting the script slightly in favor of its more mainstream elements, the film feels diluted, and becomes more of a minor pleasure, than a significant follow up from a promisingly talented director.

Grade: B-

Of Gods and Men - dir. Xavier Beauvois:
The saying that a movie "isn't for everyone" has always struck me as silly. Regardless of whatever unanimous praise (from critics, audiences, or both) a film receives, there's really no such thing as a film without detractors. What the phrase should be saved for is films like Of Gods and Men, which will most certainly divide audiences. Some will find it beautiful, others completely boring, and some, like me, will land somewhere in the middle of it all.

Based on a true incident, Beauvois' film, which took the Grand Prize (2nd place) at Cannes in 2010, centers on a group of Trappist monks stationed with an impoverished village in Algeria. When Muslim extremists begin to take over the town and threaten outsiders, the monks must decide whether to flee to safety in their native France, or remain with their community.

Faith is always a tricky matter on screen, and if there's one thing Beauvois and his co-writers deserve credit for, it's the maturity and grace with which they tell the story. Granted, the monks are generally presented as good, and the extremists as bad, but neither side ever becomes one-note or cartoon-ish. Aiding the film along the way are a handful of fine performances led by Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale as two of the monastery's leadership figures.

Where things get tricky, however, are in Beauvois' pacing and approach. The film is, thankfully, free of manipulative moments, and most of its scenes have a quiet (vvvvvvery quiet), every-day-life quality to their content. We see the monks go about their own rituals, interact with the townspeople, and give medicine to the sick. But this is what takes up most of the film, save for a few moments of jarring aggression and violence on the part of the extremists. And considering the film runs 2 hours, one can't help but feel that Beauvois could have kept his pacing intact, yet simply made the whole thing shorter. It certainly doesn't need its run time to make impact. When Beauvois and co. want to hit you, they do, namely a scene involving "Swan Lake" that easily packs the biggest emotional punch of the year so far. So at the end of the day, Beauvois' film, despite its shortcomings and dry stretches, is ultimately an effective and powerful film about faith and heroism, that's simply in need of a little trimming.

Grade: B

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