Going to movies released in the first few weeks after the winter holidays is pretty much like shopping for sweaters or electronics during the same time period — the merchandise has been picked over, but if you're smart you can discover one or two bargains that everyone else has overlooked (if only theaters would slash their prices, as well).
Take Red Hill, for instance. Patrick Hughes' Australian neo-Western has the look and feel of a sturdy, no-nonsense, no-movie-stars actioner — but it's better than it appears at first glance. Hughes' screenplay, set in the picturesque rolling hills of Victoria state, lets us ride along on the frantic, eventful first day at work of the title small town's new police officer, Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten). In common with most reassigned cops in movies, Shane has things in his past he'd rather forget, but with a pregnant wife (Claire van der Bloom from The Square) to worry about, he's trying to walk the line. That's hard to do when the town's dictatorial police chief, Old Bill (Steve Bisley), and his jerkwater deputies are so intent on picking on Shane, assigning him the most humiliating and dangerous tasks just to watch him cringe.
Shane's hazing period wouldn't matter much if it weren't for the fact that one of Red Hill's most notorious residents, an Aboriginal bloke named Jimmy Conway (played by Tommy Lewis, star of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), has just crashed out of prison and is reportedly heading home to settle scores with the townsfolk. Jimmy has a hideous face, half burn-scar tissue — the result of a bad night a few years ago that Jimmy now wishes to discuss with Old Bill. Jimmy also has a reputation as "the best brumby tracker in the territory," meaning he'll find you no matter where you try to hide. He's the Aboriginal Danny Trejo. Old Bill and the deputies stock up on guns and ammo, and send poor Shane out to patrol a lonely mountain roadblock alone. As it happens, a fierce rainstorm is about to hit at the same time as Jimmy Conway. Prepare for a maelstrom of bullets.
After the ominous buildup, writer-director Hughes plays the resulting battle fairly straight. Jimmy starts out as an Anton Chigurh-style unstoppable bogeyman, but that melts away as we learn what he's all about. Old Bill, of course, is the true monster, the ruler of the town and chief lawbreaker, and Mad Max veteran Bisley makes us loathe him the moment we meet him. Yes, this is the land of Mad Max, so the stunts and explosions are of the highest order. So is Tim Hudson's scenic cinematography. The bit about the killer leopard that's been tearing apart livestock, though, should have been left out. It doesn't help that the cat is obviously CGI.
Sofia Coppola's character study, Somewhere, the portrait of a diffident, bored Hollywood movie star named Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff), is stripped-down and terse, reeking of contempt. The question is: Contempt for whom? We fear the contempt may be for its audience. Johnny resides at H'wood's ill-fated Chateau Marmont, where his favorite occupations seem to be staring past various objects, including a pair of twin blond pole dancers who perform in his room, and scornfully driving his Ferrari nowhere in particular. He has the same faraway facial expression as the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation, as if being rich and famous and having casual sex with practically any woman his eye falls upon bring him no joy whatsoever.
Johnny's routine is broken up by the appearance of his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who comes to stay with him at the hotel and accompanies him on a business trip to Italy, to promote his new film. If we were waiting for Cleo to open up a new room in the dusty, empty mansion that is Johnny's consciousness, we wait in vain. They have a slight bit of father-daughter fun, then she leaves. And then he leaves.
Writer-director Coppola's strategy is evidently to convey Johnny's loneliness in as few brush strokes as possible and to let formalism take the place of emotion. Long, repetitive sequences, very little dialog, but also a trace of humor: the anonymous cell phone insults running gag, the homosexual panic with the masseur, and the revelation that Johnny stands on an out-of-shot platform in photo shoots, to give him some height. While Coppola laughs up her sleeve, we grow just as bored as Johnny. Time for her to get out of her comfort zone, maybe adapt a novel. Anywhere else would be better than Somewhere.
The Company Men may well be the last of Hollywood's Recession Specials, but let's not get our hopes up unreasonably. This economic downturn might have legs, and as long as it lasts, producers will keep coming up with dramas like this.
Writer-director John Wells, the TV franchise-fabricator responsible for Shameless, Southland, ER, and West Wing, has something urgent to tell us about the sudden rise in unemployment in America's management class — particularly as it applies to Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, and Craig T. Nelson, a quartet of guys in Dockers wrestling with decreased demand in the heavy industrials. Top-exec jitters alternate with moral qualms and newfound humbleness.
Three of the four get laid off and learn valuable life lessons (or post-life, as it were) about what really matters behind the suburban McMansions and golf club perquisites. The notion of doing something with your hands, actually building something instead of pushing paper and closing business deals, is given serious, Kevin-Costner-ish consideration. Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), wife of overextended junior exec Bobby (Affleck), is seen to exert a calming influence, as in a James L. Brooks scenario of old. If we were to tell you that these Viagra-prone, middle-age-crazy dudes were cruising for a happy ending, you'd laugh. So we won't tell you that. Keep a close eye on your boss and approach this movie with caution.