Saturday, October 27, 2007

London Film Festival: Rescue Dawn and Grace is Gone

I thought that today would probably be the day where I was least impressed with the two films I saw. I was pretty incorrect. I saw a brilliant Vietnam (but without the fighting) POW drama, Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn", and John Cusack's best performance to date in the extremely moving "Grace is Gone". I've been extremely fortunate that every new film I've seen this month has pleased me (and even more fortunate that the majority of these good movies are at LFF...I'm paying up to 11 pounds for these tickets!).

Rescue Dawn: In Review

My immediate thoughts when coming out of Werner Herzog's latest film, "Rescue Dawn", were about how unbelievably stupid the distributors of this film were when it was released in the United States. This is a quality film and it was completely forgotten about when it was released back in July. I was angry at how such a profound film with two fantastic performances by Christian Bale, turning in great work (as usual), as Lieutenant Dieter Dengler, a German born fighter pilot who crashlands in Laos on his first mission, and a career best performance by Steve Zahn ("That Thing You Do!", "Daddy Day Care", "Sahara", "Saving Silverman"...I'm quite familiar with his work from my preteen years) as Dieter's fellow POW Duane and "one true friend" in Asia, will be completely forgotten by Oscar time. Hopefully this film will get some sort of jumpstart back into the Oscar arena when it is released in the UK (November 23rd) but it isn't likely. Which, once again, is a damn shame.

Although the editing, cinematography, and direction were all exceptional, the acting and writing are really the film's two main highlights. Christian Bale's performance is very good. While Dieter is on the borderline of annoying in the first six or seven minutes, he is a character we learn to like and respect as we are shown his determination to get out of the camp. Bale does this extremely well. Steve Zahn deserves an Oscar nomination but, as I said earlier, he doesn't stand a chance because of the film's distribution. Zahn's Duane is a disturbed and war weary character that we sympathize with but also understand his fear at the same time. Jeremy Davies is also quite good as the paranoid prisoner Gene (short for Eugene, he's from Eugene, Oregon. I thought that was a nice touch). Gene's character is very confident in his belief that the military will rescue him and that also works well as he serves as the foil to Dieter. As for the writing, the screenplay is quite good and it does a very nice job of the conversations between the prisoners. There isn't an abundant amount of dialogue in the film but the dialogue that is used it great.

While it will ultimately be forgotten come Oscar time due to the horrible distribution, "Rescue Dawn" is very worth seeing and it is one of the best films of the year. A-

Grace is Gone: In Review

In the first five minutes of "Grace is Gone" we meet Stan Phillips. He works at a supply store as, although it is never actually stated right out, some sort of a leader to the employees. He leads them in a chant that they do before each work day. This cheer is hilarious. It is at that moment that you realize that not only will this be a great drama but also full of great comedic bits.

In the aforementioned five minutes, we know what is going to happen. It's inevitable. It's in the trailer, it's on the IMDB page, we read about it at Sundance, it's the film's BASIC synopsis...Stanley's wife will die in Iraq. When Stan is informed, at least for me, it does not hit home all the way. What the film does is make that fact hit home as the film progresses. Stan doesn't tell his daughters. Instead he takes them to Dave & Busters and then eventually takes them on a road trip to "Enchanted Gardens" in Florida. While he grieves his wife to himself, he doesn't let anyone else around him know that his is troubled by it and, more importantly, doesn't tell anyone. People know although Stan hasn't told them. The girls' school knows, his friends know...but his daughters do not. That is the central conflict in the story. As time goes on, it becomes harder and harder for Stanley to tell them and it gets worse and worse that he has not. Watching the girls' happiness on the road while knowing they are naive to what is going on is truly heartbreaking. I bawled during this movie and if you didn't at least get a lump in your throat then I honestly think that you should check your pulse. This is a fantastic film.

Obviously, the force to be reckoned with in this film is John Cusack. Cusack's Stan is a conservative, ex-soldier, and an average father who maybe expects a little too much of his daughters. It is a hard character to like in the beginning of the film until we see the other sides to him. The death of his wife affects him in a profound way. He becomes warmer but that is ultimately masking his sorrow. Cusack plays all the layers of Stan to absolute perfection. I'll say it on record: If John Cusack is denied an Academy Award nomination for this work then I will have lost some respect for the AMPAS.

The screenplay is also magnificent. It deals with the mentioned subject of Stan's daughters not knowing and Cusack's internal struggles which include losing his wife and also losing faith in the country that he loves because of the death. It also deals with growing up and childhood. One particular image, that had to have been written in the screenplay, that I particularly liked was in a department store scene. The image is of three children's items. The first if a playset. The penultimate is two toy cars. The third is a toy house. It's an illustration of growing up. There are many different types of characters in the screenplay (ranging from military wives who are fawning over one of the wife's phone sex experience with her husband in Iraq, a truly funny moment, to a failed brother of Stan's) and they are all written extremely well. The mix of comedy and drama in this film is also a strong area. However, the most impressive is that it does a remarkable job of making an anti-war statement by showing an account of the effects of the death of a loved one in Iraq. If every story for everyone who has lost a loved one in a war is like this then that is enough to make someone against any war, no matter what the cause. For all of those reasons, "Grace is Gone"'s screenplay is an absolute triumph.

Led by a triumphant screenplay and a fantastic career-best performance by John Cusack, "Grace is Gone" is surely one of the best films of the year. While some may dislike it for it's subject material (I know one Oscar prediction website that will most likely loath it to the very core because of it's anti-war statement) and extremely sad storyline (I cried my eyes out for the last twenty minutes), I found those to be the film's strengths. It is certainly one of my favorite films of the year. John Cusack is unbelievable. His talent makes you green with envy. A

Tomorrow I will see Jerry Seinfeld's animated "Bee Movie" as well as the ever popular and mysterious "Surprise Film". Past "Surprise Film"s have been "The Prestige", "Sideways", "Mrs. Henderson Presents", and "School of Rock". This leads me to my question to all of you out there...

What do you all think the "Surprise Film" will end up being tomorrow? Comment and we'll see who was right and who was wrong when I post these reviews on Monday. I've got my money on either "No Country for Old Men", "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street", or "There Will Be Blood".

1 comment:

Alison Flynn said...

I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed this film so much. I had really high hopes for it. The movie doesn't open in the U.S. until the first week in Dec., and that's limited.

I hope John Cusack will finally get some recognition from AMPAS too.