Thursday, September 10, 2009

The American dream: Elusive, then hard to maintain

As the US seems more divided than ever lately, I recently saw three new DVDs that deal with our freedoms in their own personal way.

In “Sugar” (2008), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to their very good “Half Nelson” (2006), we are introduced to a Dominican baseball player whose whole town depends on him making the minor leagues in the US and then possibly the majors. The pressure to succeed and the fish-out-of-water culture clashes of his life are examined in a very low-key, naturalistic style: Far too low-key for my tastes. Whereas in “Half Nelson” we had the Oscar nominated performance of lead actor Ryan Gosling taking us into the shadowy world of teachers who abuse drugs, here we have a non-actor, Algenis Perez Soto playing the lead. The fact that he isn’t an actor does increase the realism but since in 90% of this film the camera is pointed at him, the story would have benefitted if we could have had more insight into his mind. He just seems to stare vacantly most of the time as things occur almost randomly around him. This trend of almost hyper-realism, where we find ourselves stuck into one unstructured scene after another seems a bit lazy and pretentious to me. In one long shot we see ‘Sugar’ walking through a blurry entertainment arcade finally arriving at the edge of a bowling alley where his American counterpart is enjoying a game surrounded by friends. I know I was supposed to sympathize with his isolation here but I was too bored by the length of the take of his walk. That’s just me- ADD boy! His character then makes a questionable decision halfway through the film that seems unlikely given all we’ve been shown. So although this film came with high praise and had some nice plays, it just failed to score with me.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Sin Nombre” (2008), which although shot with equal realism gives us memorable imagery, strong dramatic performances and a tight story. Filmmaker Cary Fukunaga wrote and directed this tale of a group of Central American immigrants making their way to the American border. Casper (Edgar Flores) is a Mexican gang member of the scarily tattooed ‘Mara Salvatrucha’, who needs to prove his worth. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a young Honduran girl just trying to follow her family to a better life. Both end up hitching on top of a rural train that snakes its’ way north. Somehow these images capture the beauty and sacrifice of these people. One touching scene has the train passing under a large statue of Mother Mary as many pray for her blessing. As the gang pursues Casper, he tries to thwart the advances of Sayra to no avail. Like good and evil itself these two seem trapped with each other. I found this film similar in my mind to “The Warriors” another surreal adventure of a road trip to redemption.

State of Play” (2009) is based on a popular BBC mini-series and I’m sure if I had seen this I would have hated this film. In fact, I expected not to like it since it seemed super-hokey, which it is to some degree. However, although not the best political thriller ever it does make its’ points, have strong performances and is nicely shot. Russell Crowe plays Cal McCaffrey a veteran reporter for the fictional Washington Globe (a stand in for the Post); Della (Rachel McAdams) is a newbie blogger for the paper which has just been acquired though a merger by a global corporate media group. Helen Mirren is the editor who must weigh the pressure to sell papers with the infotainment demands of a 24-hour news cycle rather than taking the time to get the story told correctly. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal’s old college roommate, is a congressman from Pennsylvania who oversees a committee investigating a defense contract corporation which eerily looks like Blackwater. The film opens with a series of killings that somehow link up to the death of a female Collins’ staffer who also was having an affair with him. Collin’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) still pines for Cal in a ‘Casablanca’-like triangle that I found to be great old-timey Hollywood fun. The old-school vet reporter and newbie blogger team up to clear Collins’ name and get to the bottom of the killings in an attempt to bring the evil defense contractor out into the light while saving the paper from the pressures of its’ new owners.
There sure is a lot going on in this flick (since it is distilled from a mini-series) but it sucked me in and I enjoyed it! Director Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void”, “The Last King of Scotland”) really captures the surroundings from the messy newsroom, to the streets and eateries of DC, to the clean yet ominous halls of our government. He also gives some visual nods to “All the Presidents’ Men” with scenes at a creepy garage, the Watergate hotel, as well as extreme close-ups of copy being written, this time with a blinking cursor rather than the rifle-like cracks of typewriter strikes. Although it is flawed and a little too tidy in resolution, this film demonstrates how diligence is always needed to maintain our country’s morality in the face of a very complex, corrupt world. Sadly, this film also seemed like an epitaph for printed newspapers in a world overcome by the internet and bloggers (like me?).