Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Wahlberg and Phoenix PWN The Night

We've been mean to Mark Wahlberg this year. His memorable performance in The Happening has inspired us to make mock of his doofy reactions to imminent lethal plant-flatus. Also, in a previous post, Canyon's dissection of James Mangold's passable Walk The Line has been seen by some as a full-on assault on both Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, which is certainly not the case. In order to make up for the criticism (either actual or perceived), may I say that Wahlberg and Phoenix were both magnificent in James Gray's endearingly old-fashioned We Own The Night. (N.B. Canyon has asked me to stress her objection to the use of the phrase PWN in the title. Apologies to anyone offended by its presence.)

It's not a perfect film, with many plot elements feeling second-hand, and certain third act developments feeling rather contrived, but Gray has nevertheless created a Lumetian family/crime drama about loyalty and sacrifice with a careful pace, lovely compositions, subtle period elements (it's set in the late 80s but doesn't bombard the viewers with tacky references a la The Wedding Singer), and uniformly impressive performances. It might not be Prince of the City or Q&A, but it held my interest throughout.

While Wahlberg's performance was good enough to make me forgive him for his peculiar choices in The Happening*, and Eva Mendes makes great work of a meatier girlfriend role than is usual in these movies, Phoenix gives possibly a career best performance as the black sheep of a cop family headed by a stern Robert Duvall (excellent as ever). For the first half of the movie his bluster and rejection of his law-enforcing family seem like a poorly constructed shell in order to impress the Russian immigrants he does business with, a necessary mask enabling him to maintain control over his nightclub operation. That confidence, and his plan to expand his business across New York, is shattered by a war that breaks out between the cops and a ruthless drug dealer who has ties to his nightclub that he had been oblivious to. As his family is torn apart by the hostilities, his arrogance disappears, leaving behind someone as lost and pathetic as a teenager in over his head, who then has to figure out what is really important to him and find a way to fight for it. His journey from cocky kid to panicky avenger was beautifully portrayed.

That's not why I'm going on about the movie, though. I liked it a lot even while recognising its flaws (it does follow a well-worn cop movie track, with only the surprising final line differentiating it from a lot of other similar movies), but I loved that James Gray added two excellent set-pieces, both of which felt like they had been created by 70s-era Friedkin or DePalma. The first, a drug bust with Phoenix wearing a wire and heading into a seedy coke lab, is great and tense, though it does feature some cliched developments ("Why are you sweating so much?" "Safe word! Safe word!"). It works because Phoenix sells it, and Gray wisely films it almost exclusively from his point of view, with an achingly slow pace to drag out the tension. It ends with one of the most painful looking stunts I've ever seen.

The second setpiece, with Phoenix trying to gain control of a car during a rain-soaked ambush, is even better. Echoing Friedkin's French Connection chase, the camera rarely leaves Phoenix's car as the convoy of police-cars is knocked off the road by a murkily filmed assailant. The agonising close-ups of him as he realises the horror of what is about to happen are what sell the scene, instead of purotechnics and stunts. While we're watching action, it's grounded in emotion throughout. If you want to see the chase on its own, this kind chap has YouTubed it, but I recommend you take the plunge and watch the whole movie. Out of context, it's not as effective. (I might win an award for stating the obvious with this post.)

Storyboarding obviously still goes on today, with pre-vis allowing filmmakers to plot out scenes in full prior to shooting, but action sequences are often so chaotically edited and re-edited in the months (or weeks) prior to relase that they never quite feel like they have a beginning, middle and end. Though I loved the insane carnage at the end of Transformers, that was despite its unformed, unclear nature, not because of it. I don't have a bug up my ass about the "ADD" editing of many modern action scenes; often they are so well shot or staged that I can still enjoy them and am willing to fill in blanks in the action narrative that should have been included but haven't because the editors are overworked and don't have the time or footage to get things under control.

However, I still love a well-crafted setpiece, and the car chase (if you can even call it that) in We Own The Night is one of the best I've seen in years, and all the better for being short and sweet. You can tell Gray sat down with his fellow filmmakers and worked out every shot in advance, knowing that each one had to appear for the scene to work, that cutting any shot short would ruin the rhythm and dampen the impact of the sequence, and then making sure that it all went off without complication or substitution. It sounds like I'm just praising Gray for doing something really basic, when in fact I'm glad he constructed what amounts to a homage to old-school filmmaking. Once upon a time this was how you thrilled an audience; pure cinema, as Hitchcock might have thought it, a suspense scene built on the manipulation of the audience's hopes and fears through image and sound but not dialogue (Phoenix's cries of terror are there to crank up the tension, not impart information, other than, "This shit is fucked up").

That said, I'm still looking forward to the next CGI-gasm from Michael Bay. What?!?! I can enjoy both kinds of films. Don't box me in, daddio.

* Speaking of forgiveness for The Happening, Zooey Deschanel is also off the hook for her poorly judged performance now that she has teamed up with M. Ward for the She and Him project. I'm not a fan of 60s Mary-Wilson-esque girl singers, but that style, when fused with alt.country, and Deschanel's charming vocals, works pretty well. I think the album is a teeny bit weak, but it's stuck in my head pretty well, and keeps getting played by me when tired and unable to resist, so it's got to be doing something right. Here's the video for their first single, Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

Holy shit! Zooey smiles and looks engaged! Miracles can happen.

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