The Films of James Foley
At Close Range (February 5/15)
Inspired by true events, At Close Range follows Sean Penn's Brad Whitewood Jr. as he's drawn into his estranged father's (Christopher Walken's Brad Whitewood Sr.) criminal lifestyle - with problems ensuing as Brad Jr. becomes more and more aware of his old man's sinister nature. It's immediately clear that At Close Range's most potent weapon is its various performers, as filmmaker James Foley has elicited superb work from a uniformly strong cast that includes, among others, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chris Penn, and David Strathairn - although there's little doubt that the film belongs to Penn and Walken from start to finish (ie both actors are, for the most part, absolutely electrifying throughout). The movie's all-too-deliberate pace holds the viewer at arms length for much of its overlong running time, however, as Foley's rough-cut sensibilities result in a surfeit of palpably padded-out and entirely needless sequences - with the ensuing lack of momentum ensuring that certain moments aren't able to pack the visceral punch that Foley has intended. The ongoing inclusion of admittedly striking moments - eg a moonlit watery execution - goes a long way towards holding the viewer's interest, and it's clear that At Close Range improves substantially in the buildup to its unexpectedly engrossing climax (ie the film's finish is far more grim and bleak than one could possibly have anticipated). The end result is a moody, somber little thriller that could (and should) have been much, much better, and yet it's hard to deny the impact of several key interludes and its stirring performances (with, in terms of the latter, Penn and Walken absolutely dominating the proceedings every time their characters are together).
Who's That Girl
After Dark, My Sweet
Glengarry Glen Ross (May 16/09)
Based on David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross follows the duplicitous comings and goings of an office full of shifty real-estate hustlers (including Al Pacino's Ricky Roma, Ed Harris' Dave Moss, and Jack Lemmon's Shelley Levene) over the course of a hectic 24-hour period - with the admittedly thin storyline set into motion by a slick upper-management type's proclamation that the men will lose their jobs if their work doesn't improve. There's little doubt that Alec Baldwin's utterly electrifying turn as the aforementioned upper-management type proves instrumental in Glengarry Glen Ross' efforts at initially capturing the viewer's attention, yet it's just as clear that the immensely engrossing nature of the actor's all-too-short appearance temporarily infuses the proceedings with an anti-climactic vibe that persists for a good half hour or so. It's worth noting, however, that the movie remains surprisingly engaging even through its less-than-enthralling stretches, with Mamet's typically hypnotic dialogue and the uniformly Oscar-worthy performances (as well as James Foley's sporadically fluid directorial choices) effectively staving off the filmed-play atmosphere one might've anticipated. The office robbery that comes about halfway through marks an obvious turning point within Glengarry Glen Ross, as the various characters subsequently grow increasingly caustic to one another and the film adopts a tone of urgency that becomes impossible to resist. And while the movie's obvious highlight comes with Roma's brutal dressing-down of Kevin Spacey's officious manager, Mamet's screenplay affords virtually all of the actors their moment in the sun - with Lemmon's sad-sack of a character ultimately standing as the film's emotional center (ie despite his exceedingly slimy actions, Levene becomes a figure worthy of the viewer's sympathy). The end result is a compelling, thoroughly quotable piece of work that generally lives up to its reputation as a modern classic, and it's certainly not a stretch to label it the most effective big-screen translation of a Mamet stage play.
Confidence (November 15/16)
A lazy, paint-by-numbers thriller, Confidence follows professional grifter Jake Vig (Edward Burns) as he and his team prepare to fleece a mob-backed banker (Robert Forster's Morgan Price) of $5 million - with complications and double-crosses naturally ensuing as the frenetic narrative unfolds. It is, quite frankly, rather astonishing just how uninvolving and underwhelming Confidence reveals itself to be, with the movie, right from its opening frames, assuming a palpably generic feel that's reflected in its eye-rollingly mannered dialogue and plethora of telegraphed plot twists (ie Doug Jung's lazy screenplay seems to have emerged directly from a template for movies of this ilk). The less-than-captivating environment is compounded by Burns' aggressively smug turn as the slick protagonist, while the movie's supporting performers, which includes Andy Garcia, Rachel Weisz, and Paul Giamatti, remain hopelessly unable to escape the confines of their uniformly one-dimensional characters. (It's worth noting that even Dustin Hoffman, cast as a slimy crime boss, isn't able to make much of a positive impact in his limited screen time.) There's ultimately just never a point at which director James Foley is able to capture the viewer's interest or attention, and it goes without saying, of course, that the various revelations contained within the movie's final stretch are hardly as surprising or captivating as intended - with the end result an almost shockingly tedious endeavor that evaporates from one's thoughts seconds after it's concluded.
There's little doubt that Perfect Stranger, for the most part, resembles one of those made-for-Lifetime thrillers that seem to crop up on a weekly basis, as the movie has been infused with an atmosphere of almost stunning artificiality that's exacerbated by director James Foley's disappointingly tame sensibilities (ie the lack of sex and violence perpetuates the film's TV-ready feel). The thin storyline follows ace reporter Rowena Price (Halle Berry) as she goes undercover to prove that her childhood friend was murdered by Bruce Willis' Harrison Hill, with complications ensuing as Rowena finds herself surrounded by suspects and shady figures - including her off-kilter assistant at the paper (Giovanni Ribisi's Miles Haley) and her on-again-off-again boyfriend (Gary Dourdan's Cameron). It's clear immediately that Foley has his work cut out for him in terms of capturing the viewer's interest, as Perfect Stranger suffers from a disastrously unconvincing opening half hour that's reflected in everything from the forced-sounding dialogue to the over-the-top performances to the laughable portrayal of Rowena's online chat sessions. And while Willis' arrival at around the 30 minute mark temporarily injects the proceedings with some life, Perfect Stranger has been saddled with a hopelessly sluggish and curiously uneventful midsection that predominantly feels as though it's spinning its wheels - with the inclusion of one or two genuinely engrossing sequences (eg Rowena attempts to shut off her computer before Harrison sees what she's been up to) unable to compensate for the pervasively stale vibe. The movie admittedly does conclude on an unexpectedly positive note - ie the climactic twist is quite impressive in its audacity - yet it's ultimately impossible to label Perfect Stranger as anything more than a forgettable misfire.
Fifty Shades Darker (February 7/17)
The Fifty Shades of Grey saga continues with an installment that ultimately falls right in line with its predecessor, as Fifty Shades Darker's perfectly watchable atmosphere is tempered by the leads' palpable lack of chemistry and an often egregiously lackadaisical execution. The narrative follows Dakota Johnson's Anastasia Steele as she and Jamie Dornan's Christian Grey attempt to start over after their breakup, with the pair's happiness together ultimately threatened by a variety of outside forces (including a mysterious figure from Christian's past). There's not a whole lot happening within Fifty Shades Darker from a story perspective, and it's clear that the movie's absence of forward momentum ensures that the whole thing plays without any demonstrable highs or lows (ie it's all just so flat, essentially). It's a vibe that's perpetuated by Niall Leonard somewhat repetitious screenplay, as much of Fifty Shades Darker's overlong running time (115 minutes!) is devoted to artfully-shot yet far-from-titillating sex scenes - with Johnson and Dornan's aforementioned chemistry shortage certainly compounding this less-than-sexy feel. Despite such qualms, however, Fifty Shades Darker admittedly does manage to hold the viewer's interest throughout due to its solid visuals and strong performances - with, in terms of the latter, Johnson and Dornan delivering able work that's matched by periphery players like Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, and Eric Johnson. The almost incongruously eventful final stretch ensures that Fifty Shades Darker ends on a positive note, to be sure, which does confirm the film's place as a decent adaptation that should leave fans of the series satisfied. (It's ultimately clear, however, that both Fifty Shades of Grey and this followup could've been compressed into a single, far more effective movie.)