Anton Corbijn’s absorbing new thriller The American is based on a novel entitled A Very Private Gentleman which quite aptly sums up its main character Jack (George Clooney). A veteran assassin-for-hire Jack’s life bears none of the trappings that we’ve come to associate with men who kill people for a living. There are no exotic cars or high-tech gadgets no boisterous comrades-in-arms not even a precocious 12-year-old to help pass the time. Exiled to a small town in Italy while he waits for the heat to subside after a job in Sweden gone awry he spends the bulk of his time alone confined to his plain apartment pausing between sets of pushups to peer anxiously out his window where scores of invisible enemies no doubt lurk waiting to strike.
When he does venture out it’s either to pay a visit to Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) a friendly and inquisitive local priest or to enlist the services of Clara (Violante Placido) an enchanting young prostitute. Jack makes for a reluctant social companion talking little and smiling even less and yet his two acquaintances seem inexorably drawn to him. Jack tries to keep them at a distance — he’s learned from experience that relationships can be hazardous to men in his line of work — but after years of allowing professional considerations to trump emotional ones his resistance is no longer as stout as it once was. Having gotten a taste of love he decides he rather likes it — so much in fact that he tells his boss (Johan Leysen) that he wants out of the death-delivery business for good as soon as he completes his latest assignment: the construction of a highly specialized firearm for a beautiful and mysterious would-be assassin (Thekla Reuten). But exiting such a profession is never a straightforward task especially when there are angry Swedes vying for one’s scalp.
Director Corbijn shuns much of the conventions of modern thrillers in The American employing a style as spartan as his protagonist’s. Though the film contains several references — both overt and implied — to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone it might be said to have more in common with 1992's Unforgiven Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed deconstruction of the well-worn genre. Corbijn prefers long static shots to the quick-cut shaky-cam chaos of the Bourne films and their analogues and his muted aesthetic makes even Italy’s scenic countryside seem a bit drab. There are no high-energy pop songs to be found on the soundtrack only Herbert Gronemeyer’s haunting piano-heavy score which Corbijn employs sparingly. Instead pervasive in The American is a kind of unnerving quiet that effectively underscores the film’s most potent scenes. How frightful a single gunshot can be when bracketed by near-complete silence.
Clooney is characteristically superb as the paranoid tormented Jack a role that calls for a tremendous degree of subtlety if not range. Corbijn tasks him along with co-stars Bonacelli and Placido to carry a determinedly minimalist film that boasts no fancy tricks up its sleeve and they deliver admirably. Audiences who go to see The American expecting a conventional Hollywood spy thriller will no doubt be disappointed to find out they’ve stumbled into an art-house film — and an unrelentingly grim one at that — but those seeking relief from the inanity and bombast of the summer movie season will be pleasantly surprised.
The irresistibly named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a wide-eyed--accentuate the positive--cheerleader of a school teacher with an attitude that says “I want to be your friend.” She is endlessly Happy Go Lucky and even several encounters with those who don’t share her optimistic outlook can’t seem to knock her down. The film doesn’t have a traditional plotline but rather is a series of recurring scenes from her life. After her bike is stolen she decides to take driving lessons from an increasingly frustrated instructor (Eddie Marsan). Their frequent episodes grow more intense each time as the lessons tend to bring out the pent-up anger of the man trying to teach Poppy how to make a left turn. She also takes Flamenco lessons from a loopy Spanish dance instructor (Karina Fernandez) gets romantically involved in an intense relationship with a social worker (Samuel Roukin) spends time with her best pal and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) who provides a soothing counterpoint to Poppy’s non-stop cheerfulness and tries to deal with problems involving her sisters (Kate O'Flynn and Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law (Oliver Maltman).
Leigh is known for an improvisational style of filmmaking spending months working everything out with his actors in rehearsal and then letting them do the scenes with only an outline of what it will be. In this environment actors have to be top notch and indeed Leigh has elicited a few Oscar-nominated performances in the past including Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies and Imelda Staunton in his last film Vera Drake. Add Sally Hawkins to the top tier of actors in Leigh films. She is in nearly every scene and the film lives or dies on her inherent appeal. We are with this irrepressible life force from the very first moment she hits the screen with her rather garish but colorful outfits and unflappable demeanor. Hawkins is a breath of fresh air a real discovery. Also getting lots of screen time is Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor who goes ballistic. His slow simmering rage is fascinating to watch as the dynamic of the student/teacher relationship goes into unexpected--and uncomfortable--territory. Fernanez provides most of the film’s comic relief as the demanding flamenco instructor and her scenes with Hawkins are the film’s highlight. Leigh is a director known for exploring the lives of British working class. His unique films focus generally on those poor blokes and birds just trying to get by and live a life of dignity despite England’s class system. As one of his film titles suggests Mike Leigh characters have High Hopes. But Happy Go Lucky is perhaps his lightest and certainly most optimistic film yet. By focusing an entire feature on a central character who exudes happiness and goodwill toward her fellow man he turns a light also on the problems and hang-ups of people who bounce their woes off her in this oddly segmented film. Leigh’s improv filmmaking techniques work well here but seem less structured and disciplined than usual. The film is too long for its own good and many scenes wear out their welcome halfway in. Still it’s good to have a craftsman with the kind of singular voice Leigh has still able to make movies his way because in this instance at least that has produced the gift of Sally Hawkins.
The year is 2057 and Al Gore be damned global cooling is threatening mankind: The sun is on the verge of death which would equal the death of the planet. Seven years earlier a space mission Icarus I was shot up to deliver a payload that would reignite the sun; nobody has since heard from those aboard all of whom are assumed dead. Now it’s up to Icarus II comprised of an eight-passenger crew of physicists and astronauts led by Capt. Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) and including pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne) biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) and archrivals Capa (Cillian Murphy) and Mace (Chris Evans). As the ship is floating along a blip shows up on the audible radar ostensibly coming from Icarus I. The crew is faced with a difficult crucial decision only to be compounded when a miscalculation by the navigator (Benedict Wong) takes them slightly off course. If they pursue the signal from Icarus I it could unlock key secrets as to what went wrong the first time and provide an extra payload—or it could be a fatal mistake. Either way it’s nowhere near the toughest decision they’ll be forced to make. As a heartthrob who can act Cillian Murphy is precisely the double threat Chris Evans aspires to be someday soon. Maybe that’ll happen on his next movie The Nanny Diaries because Sunshine finds him miscast—and testosterone-y when he’s supposed to be testy. Evans fresh off the more suitable Fantastic Four sequel isn’t quite cut out for the heady stuff in which he must internalize his inner action star. Murphy to be fair is no great shakes either. Clearly he’s now a Danny Boyle favorite but in their last collaboration 2002’s 28 Days Later the doomsday scenario was different and Murphy’s character would’ve been toast if he were half as sedate as his character Capa is in Sunshine. He comes alive towards the end but that’s when the movie comes undone. A possible future Boyle favorite talented Aussie actress Byrne who starred in this year’s Boyle-produced 28 Weeks Later could’ve benefited from more face time—as could have the film. In other words there’s no true female voice. Talented supporters like Yeoh (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Troy Garity (Barbershop) who stars as the second-in-command are grossly underused but Sunshine does need all the Chris Evans it can muster lest bad box office attacks. Just as his actors in Sunshine are our last great hope to save the dying sun director Danny Boyle may be our last great hope to save the sci-fi genre. Accordingly sci-fi fans will definitely love where Boyle’s head is at but the rest of us will think he’s just got a bad case of ADD. Boyle director of beloved movies Trainspotting and 28 Days Later as well as largely reviled The Beach spends most of the movie with proper pacing messages and themes—only to erase it all from our memories with a spastic final act. He takes the ending in all manner of directions and genres after sucking us in with serious quasi-topical commentary on life in general and life aboard a spaceship. It’s too bad. Ditto writer/frequent collaborator Alex Garland (The Beach 28 Days Later) who touches on some fascinating far regions of sci-fi-dom but winds up leaving them in space dust to co-indulge on the ending. The superb cinematography is on par with that of Boyle’s past work but the simpler shots are more entrancing than the complex ones: When the characters sit on an observation deck to reflect on a close-up of the burning sun it’s more profound and impressive than the frenetic special-effects-heavy camerawork at the end. Which is perhaps the best way to sum up the slow-fast dynamic of the film.
In the sci-fi thriller 28 Days Later a psychological rage-inducing virus is unleashed the type of vile horror-movie germ that infects its victims within 20 seconds and causes them to violently spew out contagious pathogens. The bug is set free when a group of animal activists free some infected chimps from a primate research facility in London. Twenty-eight days later Jim (Cillian Murphy) a bike courier wakes up from a coma and finds himself in the deserted intensive care unit of a hospital. He eventually stumbles on to the street and from old newspaper clippings littering the streets of London realizes the foggy metropolis has been evacuated. Jim eventually hooks up with another "survivor " Selina (Naomi Harris) who brings him up to speed on what has happened: All of Britain has been contaminated and they have no way of knowing if the disease has spread worldwide. Their only salvation comes in the form of a taped broadcast message by a group of Manchester soldiers saying they have the answer to infection and invite any survivors to join them at their blockade. After a harrowing hike to the barricade and dodging attacks form rage-infected lunatics the duo thinks they have found salvation. But this armed force is not there to offer deliverance--they are a militia of out-of-control megalomaniacs ready to jump-start human civilization.
Murphy and Harris the two lead actors in the film are relatively unknown yet are capable of carrying the pic and both give strong performances that complement each other. Murphy's character Jim for example first awakens in the hospital lost and confused--but by the end of the film he emerges as a leader a champion. This change however isn't triggered by any one incident and we never feel blindsided by his heroic transformation. Harris's character Selina on the other hand starts off hardened and pessimistic but gradually lets her guard down. Alone her only goal was survival. But when she hooks up with Jim her aspirations change not only because of the friendship they develop but because he is able to make her see that surviving simply isn't enough that as humans beings they also need freedom and happiness. And although Selina develops a somewhat softer side in the film she is never a helpless victim waiting to be rescued by the film's male protagonist. Another important character in the film is Hannah played by Megan Burns. Hannah is a young girl that Jim and Selina scoop up in their northbound trek to the military blockade. Burns who made her feature debut in the 2001 period drama Liam is an excellent addition to the cast and her character adds a touching and personal element to the gruesome storyline.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) delivers a post-apocalyptic horror film an homage of sorts to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in which an army of dead bodies comes to life and terrorizes a group of friends trapped inside a farmhouse. Although 28 Days Later--from The Beach author Alex Garland's debut screenplay--tells a different tale the grainy shaky camera work is very derivative of the 1968 cult pic. Shot entirely on digital video the film has a gritty appearance that makes it look and feel like a shocking documentary rather than a sci-fi feature. Boyle also uses low light levels and strobe effects to conceal the movie's cheesy low-tech special effects--specifically the flock of red contact lens wearing zombies. But despite its cost-cutting optical effects this contemporary horror has the power to shock and frighten because the protagonist's most dangerous adversaries not only come in the form of frightening flesh-eaters but militiamen in fatigues. 28 Days Later's most striking sequences however are the warily calm opening scenes in which Jim wanders through the streets of London--crossing Westminster Bridge and reading the bulletin board at Piccadilly Circus--without a body in sight. Blocking off the busy streets of such a compact bustling city had to be Boyle's most ambitious undertaking in the film's production.