EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—This should bring me up to date as to films I've seen in theaters in recent weeks.
A Room and a Half (2009; Dir.: Andrey Khrzhanovsky)
[POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT]
This ceaselessly imaginative and casually profound fictionalized biopic of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky doesn't entirely escape the trappings of standard-issue biopics: now and then, the film exudes a kind of de rigueur feel of a script merely ticking off events in his life. But the film, as a whole, strays so far outside of the realm of standard biopics in trying to capture the poetic essence of its subject that even its relatively duller stretches can easily be forgiven, because the level of invention is generally so high. Through its uninhibited mixture of historical recreations, archival newsreel footage, live-action dream and handcrafted animation sequences, A Room and a Half presents an artist looking back at the full range of his life, and attempts to draw connections between his life, his worldview and his art. Brodsky's, it seems, is a mostly apolitical sensibility that focuses more on the joys in life than on its horrors, of which he witnessed and experienced his fair share. Sorrow is never too far behind, however, especially in his later years, after his expulsion from the USSR in 1972. In the film's last 20 minutes, Khrzhanovsky invents a literal passage in which Brodsky—who may or may not be a ghost at this point—returns to his homeland, revisits his childhood home and interacts with the ghosts of his by-then deceased parents. The feeling of pained nostalgia this final movement evokes is deeply moving, accompanied as it is by a recitation of one of his poems. If nothing else, A Room and a Half makes me want to seek out Brodsky's words: an artist as universal, as forward-looking, as wise, and as self-aware as he is almost always worth cherishing.
Edge of Darkness (2010; Dir.: Martin Campbell)
Edge of Darkness, a feature-length American version of a 1985 BBC miniseries also directed by Martin Campbell, is yet another one of these revenge dramas which tries to have its blood-soaked cake and eat it too: aiming to satisfy our thirst for revenge while taking pains to try to complicate our reactions to said thirst. The film never really cuts very deep in that regard, mostly because the characters—particularly the so-called villains (headed by ultra-slimy Danny Huston)—are ultimately too thin to inspire truly complex reactions to their fates. Nevertheless, its ambitions deserve more respect than it seems to have received from many critics. Campbell's previous feature, the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, was as compelling a character drama as it was a fantastic action spectacle, and those same admirable traits surface here, with even more of an emphasis on character drama.
Mel Gibson—back on the screen after an eight-year absence, but garnering plenty of publicity, positive and negative, in the meantime—brings his usual credible slow-burning grief and rage to his role as Thoms Craven, a Boston cop whose daughter is brutally gunned down right in front of his eyes, and who works himself into a frenzy—one that gradually comes to seem useless and hopeless in the face of the forces he is up against—in trying to discover the corporate conspiracy behind her murder. But while Craven's tortuous quest dominates the proceedings, Craven himself is hardly the film's most intriguing character. That honor belongs to Jedburgh, a mysterious clean-up man played by Ray Winstone as a weary, resigned man who has long come to terms with the kind of dirty business he has consistently been tasked to do. Every gesture of Winstone's suggests a lifetime compromise and a desire to break out of the inhuman business he's in. If Craven runs the risk of losing his humanity in the process of finding his daughter's killers, Jedburgh recognizes that he's lost his humanity and is trying, in his own quiet way, to locate it again, however fleetingly. (And in the kind of cynical twist that wouldn't be too out-of-place in, say, The Departed—which Edge of Darkness co-screenwriter William Monahan penned—his one gesture of empathetic humanity gets him killed.) Winstone's performance doesn't so much steal the show as it does suffuse the whole film with a moral depth that the film perhaps doesn't fully earn; by the end of Edge of Darkness, one might even regret that the film hadn't focused on Jedburgh instead.
The Last Station (2009; Dir.: Michael Hoffman)
Michael Hoffman's film, a multistranded costume drama set in the last days of Leo Tolstoy's (Christopher Plummer) life, isn't much as cinema—it's pretty-looking in that impersonal Merchant/Ivory way that signals "GOOD TASTE" in block quotes—but it still offers some theatrical sparkle, most of it from Plummer and Helen Mirren, playing Tolstoy's long-suffering but devoted wife. There are lots of potentially interesting plot threads here, most notably Hoffman's attempt to explore the vast divide between the public's perception of Tolstoy as a spiritual figure—especially among a group of devoted followers who call themselves "Tolstoyans"—and the real Tolstoy himself, played by Plummer as a man who is aware of how he can't possibly measure up to the public's near-deification of him. But cluttered execution drowns out even the more promising themes, and the characters are never fully dimensional enough to engage our sympathies. Paul Giamatti's scheming Tolstoyan Vladimir Chertkov, for instance, seems to have been written straight-away as a snarling villain, and unfortunately that's how Giamatti plays him. In short: no nuance, no mystery, no cinema...but there are a lot of pretty pictures to look at, and its wide-ranging cast brings occasional flickers of life to the enterprise.