Playing Catch-Up: Autumn in New York, Griffin & Phoenix, Harry & Son, The Life of David Gale


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Autumn in New York
  • Released: 2000
  • Directed by Joan Chen
  • Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessy, J.K. Simmons, Sam Trammell, Mary Beth Hurt

Richard Gere is Will, a fabulously wealthy New Yorker, who has had many girlfriends but who has never been able to find the one.  He owns a restaurant and appears on the cover of New York Magazine.  He loves food because, according to him, “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.”

Winona Ryder is Charlotte, a hat designer who is always happy and cheerful and full of life.  She’s the type who dresses up like Emily Dickinson for Christmas and recites poetry to children, though you get the feeling that, if they ever somehow met in real life, Emily would probably get annoyed with Charlotte fairly quickly.  Actually, Charlotte might soon get to meet  Emily because she has one of those rare diseases that kills you in a year while still allowing you to look healthy and beautiful.

One night, Will and Charlotte meet and, together, they solve crimes!

No, actually, they fall in love.  This is one of those films where a young woman teaches an old man how to live again but then promptly dies so it’s not like he actually has to make a huge commitment or anything.  The film does, at least, acknowledge that Will is a lot older than Charlotte but it still doesn’t make it any less weird that Charlotte would want to spend her last year on Earth dealing with a self-centered, emotionally remote man who is old enough to be her father.  (To be honest, when it was revealed that Charlotte was the daughter of a woman who Will had previously dated, I was briefly worried that Autumn in New York was going to take an even stranger turn….)

On the positive side, the films features some pretty shots of New York and there is actually a pretty nice subplot, in which Will tries to connect with the daughter (Vera Farmiga) that he never knew he had.  Maybe if Farmiga and Ryder had switched roles, Autumn in New York would have worked out better.

  • Griffin & Phoenix
  • Released: 2006
  • Directed by Ed Stone
  • Starring Dermot Mulroney, Amanda Peet, Blair Brown, and Sarah Paulson

His name is Henry Griffin (Dermot Mulroney).

Her name is Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet).

Because they both have highly symbolic last names, we know that they’re meant to be together.

They both have cancer.  They’ve both been given a year to live.  Of course, they don’t realize that when they first meet and fall in love.  In fact, when Phoenix comes across several books that Griffin has purchased about dealing with being terminally ill, she assumes that Griffin bought them to try to fool her into falling in love with him.  Once they realize that they only have a year to be together, Griffin and Phoenix set out to make every moment count…

It’s a sweet-natured and unabashedly sentimental movie but, unfortunately, Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet have little romantic chemistry and the film is never quite as successful at inspiring tears as it should be.  When Mulroney finally allows himself to get mad and deals with his anger by vandalizing a bunch of cars, it’s not a cathartic moment.  Instead, you just find yourself wondering how Mulroney could so easily get away with destroying a stranger’s windshield in broad daylight.

  • Harry & Son
  • Released: 1986
  • Directed by Paul Newman
  • Starring Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Judith Ivey, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Borowitz, Maury Chaykin, Joanne Woodward

Morgan Freeman makes an early film appearance in Harry & Son, though his role is a tiny one.  He plays a factory foreman named Siemanowski who, in quick order, gets angry with and then fires a new employee named Howard Keach (Robby Benson).  Howard is the son in Harry & Son and he’s such an annoying character that you’re happy when Freeman shows up and starts yelling at the little twit.  As I said, Freeman’s role is a small one.  Freeman’s only on screen for a few minutes.  But, in that time, he calls Howard an idiot and it’s hard not to feel that he has a point.

Of course, the problem is that we’re not supposed to view Howard as being an idiot.  Instead, we’re supposed to be on Howard’s side.  Howard has ambitions to be the next Ernest Hemingway.  However, his blue-collar father, Harry (Paul Newman, who also directed), demands that Howard get a job.  Maybe, like us, he realizes how silly Howard looks whenever he gets hunched over his typewriter.  (Robby Benson tries to pull off these “deep thought” facial expressions that simply have to be seen to be believed.)  There’s actually two problems with Howard.  First off, we never believe that he could possibly come up with anything worth reading.  Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Paul Newman could ever be the father of such an annoying little creep.

Harry, of course, has problems of his own.  He’s just lost his construction job.  He’s having to deal with the fact that he’s getting older.  Fortunately, his son introduces him to a nymphomaniac (Judith Ivey).  Eventually, it all ends with moments of triumph and tragedy, as these things often do.

As always, Newman is believable as a blue-collar guy who believes in hard work and cold beer.  The film actually gets off to a good start, with Newman using a wrecking ball to take down an old building.  But then Robby Benson shows up, hunched over that typewriter, and the film just becomes unbearable.  At least Morgan Freeman’s around to yell at the annoying little jerk.

  • The Life of David Gale
  • Released: 2003
  • Directed by Alan Parker
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Matt Craven, Jim Beaver, Melissa McCarthy

For the record, while I won’t shed any tears whenever Dzhokahr Tsarnaev is finally executed, I’m against the death penalty.  I think that once we accept the idea that the state has the right to execute people, it becomes a lot easier to accept the idea that the state has the right to do a lot of other things.  Plus, there’s always the danger of innocent people being sent to die.  The Life of David Gale also claims to be against the death penalty but it’s so obnoxious and self-righteous that I doubt it changed anyone’s mind.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.  He used to be a nationally renowned activist against the death penalty.  But then he was arrested for and convicted of the murder of another activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) and now David Gale is sitting on death row himself.  With his execution approaching, journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is convinced that Gale was framed and she finds herself racing against time to prevent Texas from executing an innocent man…

There’s a lot of things wrong with The Life of David Gale.  First off, it was made during the Bush administration, so the whole film is basically just a hate letter to the state of Texas.  Never have I heard so many inauthentic accents in one film.  Secondly, only in a truly bad movie, can someone have a name like Bitsey Bloom.  Third, the whole film ends with this big twist that makes absolutely no sense and which nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at the TV.

Of course, the main problem with the film is that we’re asked to sympathize with a character played by Kevin Spacey.  Even before Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sleazy perv, he was never a particularly sympathetic or really even that versatile of an actor.  (Both American Beauty and House of Cards tried to disguise this fact by surrounding him with cartoonish caricatures.)  Spacey’s so snarky and condescending as Gale that, even if he is innocent of murder, it’s hard not to feel that maybe David Gale should be executed for crimes against likability.

Film Review: Sully (dir by Clint Eastwood)


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The new film Sully is about several different things.

Most obviously, it’s about what has come to be known as the Miracle on the Hudson.  On January 15th, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 had just departed from New York’s LaGuardia Airport when it was struck by a flock of geese.  (They say that it was specifically hit by Canadian Geese but I refuse to believe that Canada had anything to do with it.)  With both of the engines taken out and believing that he wouldn’t be able to get the plane back to either LaGuardia or an airport in New Jersey, the flight’s plot, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his plane on the Hudson River.  Not only did Sullenberger manage to execute a perfect water landing but he also did so without losing a single passenger.

I’m sure that we can all remember that image of that plane sitting on the river with passengers lined up on the wings.  We can also remember what a celebrity Sully became in the days following the landing.  At a time of national insecurity and cynicism, Sully reminded us that people are still capable of doing great things.  It also helped that Sully turned out to be a rather humble and self-effacing man.  He didn’t use his new-found fame to host a reality TV show or run for Congress, as many suggested he should.  Instead, he wrote a book, raised money for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and appeared in two commercials for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Wisely, Sully opens after the Miracle on the Hudson, with Sully still struggling to come to terms with suddenly being a celebrity.  (That said, we do get to see the landing in flashbacks.  In fact, we get to see it twice and it’s harrowing.  The “Brace! Brace!” chant is pure nightmare fuel.)  Tom Hanks plays up Sully’s modesty and his discomfort with suddenly being a hero.  Even while the rest of the world celebrates his accomplishment, Sully struggles with self-doubt.  Did he make the right decision landing the plane on the Hudson or did he mistakenly endanger the lives of all the passengers and crew members?

A lot of people would probably say, “What does it matter?  As long as he succeeded, who cares if he actually had to do it?”  Well, it matters to Sully.  Some of it is a matter of professional pride.  And a lot of it is because the soulless bureaucrats at the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating Sully’s landing.  If it’s determined that he could have made it back to airport and that he unnecessarily endangered the lives of everyone on the plane, he could lose his job and his pension.  As we see in a few scenes with Sully’s wife (Laura Linney, who is somewhat underused), the Sullenbergers really need that pension.

That brings us to another thing that Sully is about.  It’s a celebration of not only individual heroism but individuality itself.  The NTSB claims that they have computer-generated recreations that prove Sully had enough time and fuel to return to an airport but, as Sully himself points out, the NTSB has ignored the human element in their recreations.  As a result of their obsession with regulation and procedure, the bureaucrats have forgotten that planes are not flown by computers but individuals who have to make split-second decisions.

That’s one of the things that I loved about Sully.  In this time when we’re constantly being told that our very future is dependent upon always trusting the bureaucrats and following their rules and regulations, Sully reminds us that the government is only as good as the people who work for it.  And, far too often, the people are smug and complacent morons.

(For the record, Sullenberger has said that the real-life hearings were not as confrontational as the ones depicted in the film.  However, even taking into account the dramatic license, the overall message still rings true.)

And finally, Sully is a film about what America has become in the wake of 9-11.  Just as in real-life, the film’s Sully suffers from PTSD in the days immediately following the Miracle on the Hudson.  Even while the rest of the world celebrates him, Sully has nightmares about what could have happened if he hadn’t made the landing.  When we watch as Sully’s plane collides with a New York skyscraper, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the horrible images of September 11th.  Not only does it drive home what was at stake when Sully made that landing but it also reminds us that, regardless of what some would want us to beg, there are still heroes in the world.  Not every story has to end in tragedy.  People are still capable of doing great things.  Heroism is not dead.  With tomorrow being the 15-year anniversary of the day when 3,000 people were murdered in New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C., it’s important to be reminded of that.

Sully is a powerful and crowd-pleasing film.  (The normally cynical audience at the Alamo Drafthouse broke into applause at the end of the movie.)  Director Clint Eastwood tells this story in a quick, no-nonsense style.  During this time of bloated running times, Sully clocks in at 97 minutes and it’s still a million times better than that 150-minute blockbuster you wasted your money on last week.  Toss in Tom Hanks at his best and you’ve got one of the best films of the year so far.

Shattered Politics #89: Hyde Park on Hudson (dir by Roger Michell)


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Is there anything more frustrating than a film that should have been good but yet somehow turned out to be … well, to be rather awful?

Case in point: 2012’s Hyde Park On Hudson.  In this slow-moving and almost painfully old-fashioned film, Bill Murray plays President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  When the film opens in 1939, Roosevelt is being visited by his sixth cousin, Margaret (Laura Linney).  It’s been several years since Roosevelt and Margaret last saw each other.  Franklin’s mother (Elizabeth Wilson) thinks that Margaret’s company could cheer up her melancholy son.  So, FDR and Margaret go out for a drive and, sitting atop a nice green hill, Margaret gives him a hand job.

And it is the most stately and respectable hand job to ever be quaintly portrayed in an American film.

Anyway, the rest of the film deals with FDR’s affair with Margaret.  Eventually, Margaret discovers that FDR has many mistresses but, before she does that, she helps FDR to charm England’s King George VI (Samuel West).  In the days leading up to World War II, George and his wife (Olivia Colman) visit Roosevelt out at his Hyde Park estate.  As we all know from watching The King’s Speech, George is insecure about his stutter.  But, fortunately, FDR points out that, despite the fact that he’s in a wheelchair, people still view him as being a strong leader and therefore, people will view George in the same way, regardless of his stutter.

And, speaking as a former stutterer, I have to say that it’s amazing to witness how poorly Hyde Park On Hudson deals with subject matter that was so brilliantly handled in The King’s Speech.

When I first heard about Hyde Park On Hudson, I had high hopes for it.  After all, I love history.  I love royalty.  I love gossip and I love scandal.  And, really. FDR was one of our more gossip-worthy Presidents, a spoiled rich kid who could not reach his full potential until after he was struck down by polio and who regularly cheated on his wife while battling both the Great Depression and the Nazis.  FDR was a dynamic and controversial figure and none of that comes through in Hyde Park on Hudson.

(Seriously, Bill Murray is totally wasted in this film.  If you’re going to cast an iconic actor in an iconic role, at least give him some good dialogue.)

In the end, Hyde Park on Hudson fails because it’s just too respectful.  It’s a slow, visually unimaginative film that manages to make an exciting time feel dull.  FDR deserves better and so does Bill Murray.

Shattered Politics #79: Man of the Year (dir by Barry Levinson)


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The 2006 comedy Man of the Year is a difficult film to review.  Some of that is because it’s not that interesting of a film.  It’s simplistic and predictable.  In fact, the only reason that I’m reviewing this film for Shattered Politics is because I needed an example of a bad, mainstream political film.

However, that’s not the only reason why it’s difficult to write about Man of the Year.  The bigger reason is that Man Of The Year stars Robin Williams and, in many ways, it’s typical of one of his later lesser films.  After his tragic death, it’s even harder to watch Robin Williams waste his talents in a bad film.

And, make no mistake about it, Man of the Year is a bad film.

Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs.  Dobbs, we are told, is the most famous political commentator in America.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Dobbs is meant to be the film’s equivalent of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  However, the difference is that Stewart and Colbert are both obviously liberal whereas, from what little we see of Tom Dobbs show, Dobbs doesn’t appear to have any positions beyond the few vague platitudes that pass for political thinking in most mainstream films.  Dobbs is against special interests.  He’s against career politicians.  He’s against … well, he’s against everything that most people are against and for everything that most people are for.  About the closest that Tom Dobbs come to being edgy is when he makes a stupid joke about Pope Benedict being German.

Anyway, Dobbs is recruited to run for President and he manages to get on the ballot in 13 states!  And he’s even doing well because, apparently in this film’s version of reality, Catholic voters have no problem supporting someone who makes fun of Pope Benedict for being German.  And he’s even invited to take part in a presidential debate.  When asked his first question in the debate, Dobbs starts talking and, because he’s being played by Robin Williams, he doesn’t stop.  The debate spirals out-of-control.  Dobbs goes on and on about the state of America, all the while assuming weird accents and slipping in and out of different personalities.

“Oh my God,” I thought, “he’s had a nervous breakdown.”

Except, of course, he hasn’t.  And, since this is a movie, everyone in America loves his performance.  On election night, Tom Dobbs apparently wins all 13 of his states and he’s elected President!

Except, of course, he hasn’t been.  It turns out there was an error with the voting machines.  Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), who works at the company that built the machines, figures out what happened.  In order to keep her from revealing the truth, the company drugs her and attempts to destroy her credibility and…

Wait, this is a Robin Williams comedy, isn’t it?  Well, it is and it isn’t.  Half of the film is devoted to Tom Dobbs saying things that are supposed to be funny but the other half deals with Eleanor trying to expose a giant cover-up without getting killed.  Director Barry Levinson can’t seem to figure out whether his film is supposed to be an unfunny comedy or a boring drama.  So, he tries to do both and … well, taken by that criteria, the film actually works.  If Levinson set out to be unfunny and boring, he succeeded.

One of the biggest dangers of making a film about a comedian is that, for the film to work, you have to believe that people would actually find the comedian to be funny.  When the jokes aren’t funny, it doesn’t matter how many reaction shots of people laughing that you stuff into the film.  Man of the Year is full of reaction shots.  During the debate, we continually see Eleanor’s teenage son laughing.  (How many teenagers, other than the weird ones and the ones assigned to do so for homework, actually watch a presidential debate?)  During one particularly painful moment, Tom starts rambling while traveling on the campaign bus and we are subjected to countless reaction shots of Christopher Walken and Lewis Black laughing so hard that they look like they might faint from exhaustion.

The problem is that it’s rare that a few hundred people will all start laughing and stop laughing at the exact same time.  Whenever you listen to a truly good comedian, you always hear a few giggles that indicate that at least a few audience members are still thinking about the last joke or else that they’re anticipating the next joke.  Often times, when a comedian says something especially funny or unexpected, you don’t even hear laughter.  You might hear a gasp of shock.  You might hear tittering.  You might hear applause.  You might hear someone shouting like they’re at a sporting event.

What I’m saying is that everyone reacts to humor in their own individual way.  Everyone has a laugh of their very own.  Uniform laughter, like the laughter in Man of the Year, sounds fake because it is fake.

Add to that, nothing that Tom Dobbs says is particularly funny.

So, no — don’t watch Man of the Year.  Watch Dead Poets Society.  Watch Good Will Hunting or Awakenings.  You could even watch Cadillac Man!  But don’t watch Man of the Year.

Shattered Politics #60: Absolute Power (dir by Clint Eastwood)


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The main reason that I enjoyed the 1997 Clint Eastwood film Absolute Power was because it features a murderer who also happens to be the President.  As someone who dislike the idea of any one person having absolute power, I always get annoyed by the attitude that authority is something that has to be automatically respected.  Instead, I’ve always felt that all authority should be distrusted and continually questioned.

Just take President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) for example.  At the start of Absolute Power, he’s a popular President.  He’s quick with a smile.  He’s quick with a memorable line.  I imagine that excerpts from his State of the Union speech would probably be very popular on YouTube.  However, at the start of the film, elderly burglar Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood) witnesses President Richmond getting violent with Jan Levinson-Gould.  When Jan resists him, two Secret Service agents (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) run into the room and shoot her.

Okay, technically, the victim was not really The Office‘s Jan Levinson-Gould.  (They both just happen to be played by Melora Hardin.)  Instead, her name was Christy Sullivan and she was also the wife of one of Richmond’s top financial supporters, Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall).  After the murder, President Richmond and his chief-of-staff, Gloria Russell (Judy Davis), attempt to frame Luther for the crime.

Absolute Power is pretty much your typical Clint Eastwood action picture.  In the role of Luther, Eastwood snarls his way through the film and never dispatches a bad guy without providing a ruthless quip.  (When one bad guy begs for mercy, Luther replies that he’s “fresh out.”)  Luther has an estranged daughter, a lawyer named Kate (Laura Linney) and, despite the fact that she’s helping the homicide detective (Ed Harris) who is trying to capture him, Luther still pops up to look out for her.  In the end, Luther’s not only try to prove that the President is a murderer but he’s trying to be a better father as well!  Awwwwwww!

Again, it’s all pretty predictable but the film is worth seeing just for the chance to witness Gene Hackman play one of the most evil Presidents ever.  As far as soulless chief executives are concerned, Alan Richmond makes Woodrow Wilson look like a humanitarian!  And Hackman does a good job embodying the affable type of evil that could conceivably translate into an electoral landslide.

Absolute Power may not be a great film but it’s a good one to watch whenever you need an excuse to be cynical about the absolute power of the government.

Shattered Politics #54: Dave (dir by Ivan Reitman)


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Way back in 1919, the terrible U.S. President and tyrannical dictator Woodrow Wilson* suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed and unable to perform his duties.  By all standards, Wilson should have been removed from office, if just temporarily.  However, in those pre-Internet days, it was a lot easier to hide the truth about Wilson’s physical and mental condition.  While Wilson spent his days locked away in his bedroom, his wife Edith would forge his signature on bills.  Whenever anyone asked for the President’s opinion, Edith would give her opinion and then assure everyone that it was actually the President’s.

(And really, as long as you were promoting eugenics and white supremacy, it probably was not difficult to imitate Wilson’s opinions.)

Of course, back then, people were used to the idea of never seeing their President in public.  Hence, it was very easy for Wilson to remain sequestered in the White House.  If a similar situation happened today, it’s doubtful that anyone could successfully keep the public from finding out.  When we don’t see the President every day, we wonder why.  How, in this day and age, could a Presidential incapacitation be covered up?

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

Dave is the story of two men who happen to look exactly like Kevin Kline.  One of them is named Bill Mitchell and he’s the arrogant and corrupt President of the United States.  The other is named Dave Kovic.  He’s a nice guy who runs a temp agency and who has a nice side job going as a professional Bill Mitchell imitator.

So, when Bill has a stroke while having sex with a white house staffer (Laura Linney), it only makes sense to recruit Dave Kovic to pretend to the President.  White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella, so you know he’s evil) tells Dave that Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) is insane and corrupt.  Dave agrees to imitate the President.  Of course, Alexander’s main plan is to convince Nance to resign and then get Dave to appoint him as Vice President.  Once Alexander is Vice President, it will be announced that Mitchell has had another stroke and then Alexander will move into the Oval Office.

However, what Alexander did not take into account was just how much Dave would enjoy being President.  From the moment that he joyfully shouts, “God Bless, America!,” Dave’s enthusiasm starts to win the public over.  Suddenly, people are realizing that President Mitchell isn’t such a bad President after all.  Even more importantly, Dave wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver) who, previously, had little use for her philandering husband.  When Alexander claims that there’s no money in the budget to continue funding a program for the homeless, Dave calls in his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), and has him rewrite the budget…

And you know what?

Dave is one of those films that tempts me to be all cynical and snarky but, ultimately, the film itself is so likable and earnest that I can even accept the idea that one accountant could balance the budget through common sense alone.  I’ll even accept the idea that Dave could come up with a program that would guarantee everyone employment without, at the same time, bankrupting the country.  Kevin Kline is so enthusiastic in the lead role and the film itself is so good-natured that it almost feels wrong to criticize it for being totally implausible.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a film for being likable.

Dave—–

* For those of you keeping count, that’s the third time in two weeks that I’ve referred to Woodrow Wilson as being  a dictator.  Before anyone points out that some historians rank Wilson as being in the top ten of President, allow me to say that I don’t care.  I DO WHAT I WANT!

Embracing the Melodrama #51: Mystic River (dir by Clint Eastwood)


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Much like In The Bedroom, 2003’s Mystic River is a film that deals with guilt, murder, and vengeance in New England.  Whereas In The Bedroom deals with the guilt of just four people, Mystic River deals with the guilt of an entire neighborhood.

Mystic River opens in Boston in 1975.  Three young boys are writing their names in wet cement when a car pulls up beside them.  An angry-looking man (played by the always intimidating John Doman) gets out of the car and announces that he’s a police officer and that the three boys are under arrest.  He orders them to get in the car.  Of the three boys, Jimmy and Sean refuse but meek Dave gets into the car, where he’s greeted by a leering old man.  Jimmy and Sean watch as the car drives away with their friend trapped in the back seat.  Dave is held prisoner and abused by the two men for four days until he finally manages to escape.

Twenty-five years later, the three boys have grown up but are still haunted by what happened.  Sean is now a detective with the Massachusetts State Police.  Jimmy is an ex-con who now owns a local store and who, despite being married to Annabeth (Laura Linney), the daughter of a local gangster, is trying to lead a law-abiding life.  As for Dave (Tim Robbins),  he is married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and manages to hold down a job but he’s also the neighborhood pariah.

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When Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is brutally murdered, Sean and his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned to the case.  The distraught Jimmy, however, starts to investigate the murder himself and, after talking to Celeste, he discovers that, on the night Katie died, Dave came home with blood on his clothes and claiming that he had a fight with a mugger.  That’s all the evidence that Jimmy and his friends need to believe that Dave is the murderer…

I have a lot of friends who will probably never forgive Clint Eastwood for not only endorsing Mitt Romney in 2012 but for also giving the “empty chair” speech at the Republican Convention.  From the way that a lot of them reacted, you would think that Eastwood had filmed himself drowning puppies as opposed to simply expressing his own cantankerous opinions about current events.  (Honestly, do you know any 82 year-olds who weren’t disgruntled in 2012?)  Myself, I thought the empty chair speech was an act of brilliant performance art, one that not only highlighted the fact that most politicians really are just empty chairs but also exposed just how humorless most political activists truly are.  (Admit it — if John Fugelsang had done that same routine at the 2004 Democratic convention and referred to the empty chair as being President Bush, most of the people who went on and on about how terrible it was that Eastwood was being disrespectful to the President would still be using it to create Facebook memes.)

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Unfortunately, I sometimes find myself wondering why Clint Eastwood the director sometimes seem to struggle to be as interesting, innovative, and thought-provoking as the empty chair speech.  It sometimes seems that for every Eastwood film that works, there’s a handful films like Hereafter, Changeling, and Jersey Boys.  These aren’t bad films as much as they’re just uninspired films.  (Well, Hereafter is pretty bad…)  Ultimately, Eastwood is more of a storyteller than a Martin Scorsese-style innovator.  If Eastwood has a good story to tell, the film will work.  If he has a weak story — well, then the film will be weak.

Fortunately, with Mystic River, Eastwood has a good story and the end result is one of the best films of his uneven directorial career.  Eastwood uses a fairly standard murder mystery to explore themes of guilt, redemption, and paranoia.  Jimmy may be looking for revenge and Sean may be doing his job but ultimately, both of them are trying to absolve themselves from the consequences of their childhood decisions.  If Dave is guilty, then Jimmy will justified in having let him get in that car.  If Dave is innocent, Sean can finally step up and save him.

And complicating all of this is the Neighborhood, which is as much a character in this film as Jimmy, Dave, and Sean.  The Neighborhood will never allow anyone to forget or live down the past.  When, towards the end of the film, Jimmy is declared to be the “king of the neighborhood” by Annabeth, there’s little doubt that she’s right.  The question is whether Jimmy’s kingdom is one worth ruling.

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