Cassavetes, Gilroy, Jarrold, Martin, Park

Duplicity (Tony Gilroy, 2009). Gilroy’s follow-up to Michael Clayton is a smart, witty film that uses corporate espionage as a backdrop for a creative romantic comedy. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play a pair of former spies who use their background to gain entry to the incredibly sophisticated security divisions of dueling pharmaceutical companies, weaving an elaborate moneymaking scam they plan to implement from within. Gilroy’s script is dense and complicated, but always clear, and provides the two leads with ample opportunity to show how movie star charisma can be mixed with shrewdly insightful acting to build great performances. Roberts is especially good, dashing off her lines with spirited ease and happy authority, nicely tapping into her character’s surplus guile.

Cadillac Records (Darnell Martin, 2008). There’s a great movie about Muddy Waters here. Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by a dull, muddled, overfull movie about Chess Records and the label’s small battalion of seminal recording artists. At times it seems that Martin trying to assemble a definitively diverse box set about the label rather than a compelling narrative. Mos Def plays Chuck Berry (with verve, if not depth), Beyonce Knowles plays Etta James (with enraged sass, if not depth), Cedric the Entertainer plays Willie Dixon (with flat disinterest), and it all feels more like a goof than anything that has weight or durability. The consistently great Jeffrey Wright gets more out of Muddy Waters–in part, to be fair, because he just has more screen time–by starting with the legendary musician’s uncertainty and moving outwards. When the movie moves away from him, which it does often, his absence is felt like missing notes in a familiar song.

Brideshead Revisited (Julian Jarrold, 2008). How strange that this is the first feature film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, a tome firmly entrenched in the canon of great literature. Surely some erudite (and Oscar hungry) producer would have taken a crack at it by now. This version starts strong, cleanly setting up its conflicts centered around romantic longing and fiercely driven attempts at upward mobility. It’s surely bolstered by nice performances from Emma Thompson and Ben Whishaw. Eventually, problems arise, largely because the lead character, as played by Matthew Goode, is too much a cipher to carry the weight of the story’s payoffs. Goode is painfully flat, apparently incapable of providing his character with the sort of undercurrents necessary to add resonance to the question of whether he loves a woman for herself or her status.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976). An earthy, punchy effort from Cassavetes that follows a strip club owner as his gambling debt leads to a Phyrrhic pact with the mobsters he owes. There are two different cuts of this film in general release. The version I saw was the original that came out to mass indifference and was reportedly dubbed overlong by no less than lead actor Ben Gazzara. He was right. Whatever urgency Cassavetes gets out of his direct, gritty style, he bobbles away with a gruelingly languid pace that makes the whole thing into a slog. Gazzara is strong in his role, but has little to play against and is stuck in scenes that extend well past the point that they’ve petered out. Adding to the problems are several nude scenes that could be used to illustrate the term “gratuitous.” And that’s despite the strip club setting.

Thirst (Chan-wook Park, 2009). Chan-wook Park, director of the acclaimed Oldboy, takes his crack at a revisionist vampire film, with a story of a young priest who is afflicted with a infection that causes a thirst for blood and a few additional strengths and powers that come in handy as his problems escalate. Park introduces several interesting themes, including a tie to religion as the priest picks up a few disciples who find his second-life inspiring in a somewhat familiar way, but quickly discards them in favor of a succession of awkwardly kinetic set pieces and pushy violence. It’s all intended to by edgy, but winds up dull.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)