As Oscar Frenzy emerges from its hibernation and prepares for the upcoming awards season, I wanted to touch on some of the more promising films that were released earlier in 2007. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the films I’ve seen during that time (if there is a hue and cry for my thoughts on “Disturbia” or “The Hitcher” remake, I will gladly oblige). Rather, I thought I would be remiss if I did not give these films of Spring and Summer their due.

Breach (* and a 1/2 out of ****)

“Breach” is the story of traitorous American spy Robert Hanssen (played by Chris Cooper), and the young FBI agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe) who goes undercover as his assistant, gains his trust and ultimately brings him down.

It is understandable why director Billy Ray, the man behind the engrossing biopic “Shattered Glass,” wanted to do a movie about Hanssen. He was a complex, contradictory figure. Hanssen spent years serving his country admirably, but ultimately betrayed it. He was a devout Christian and a loving husband and father, but he was also obsessed with pornography and reportedly posted sexually explicit photos of his own wife on the internet. These contradictions are the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy.

However, the script (by Ray, Adam Mazer and William Rotko) makes no effort to delve into the man and reconcile these contradictions. Did Hanssen betray his country because he himself felt betrayed? We don’t know. Was his devout practice of religion a method by which he felt he could absolve himself of his sins? Or was it part of a larger cover to place himself above suspicion? We don’t know. In the end, Hanssen never coheres into a fully realized character, but instead remains a grab bag of contradictory behavior. In the end, I felt I knew as little about the man at the end of the film as I did at the beginning.

Grindhouse (*** out of ****)

Grindhouse is a term for the sticky-floored, pre-VHS era theaters that specialized in shot-on-the-cheap B-movies that ranged in quality from tawdry schlock to anything goes brilliance. The film “Grindhouse” is meant to evoke nostalgia for these debauched cinematic temples, though I doubt any of today’s predominantly teen and twenty-something audiences remember them.

The film is actually a double feature composed of “Planet Terror” (written and directed by Robert Rodriguez) a zombies take over the world flick and “Death Proof,” (written and directed by Quentin Tarantino), a maniac stalking a group of hot chicks movie where the mad man’s weapons of choice are 1970’s-era muscle cars. Both films feature many of the tropes associated with grindhouse fare: scratched-up, stomped-on prints with missing reels and hilarious faux movie trailers featuring Nazi werewolves and Thanksgiving dinners gone horribly, murderously awry.

Most grindhouse filmmakers can be placed in one of two camps: (1) those trying to make weirdly wonderful trash with no money and (2) those trying to make shoddy knock-offs of already popular films. Of the two, “Planet Terror” fits within the latter category, or, more accurately, serves as a parody of it. Horrible synth music, predictable scripts, voluptuous actresses cast solely for their ability to sprint without wearing a bra… close your eyes and you’ll swear it’s 1989, and you’re watching some god-awful “Night of the Living Dead” knockoff on Skinemax. Rodriguez makes gleeful fun of this schlock, but the film itself feels indistinct, like a copy of a copy, which I suppose it is. While there are a few grins to be had, I wonder what would have happened had Rodriguez set out to make an actual grindhouse pic, instead of a parody. Perhaps the answer to that question can be found by renting “From Dusk ‘til Dawn.”

Tarantino, on the other hand, embraces the freedoms of this sordid subgenre. He knows its history. That emerging filmmakers could play with story structure, explore sexual mores, and engage in truly visceral violence. Blaxploitation filmmakers could make their protagonist a pimp who viciously exploits all the women in his life. Likewise, a bunch of Texas film students could make a starkly brutal masterpiece about a bunch of idiotic teenagers who run afoul of a chainsaw-weilding cannibal (and his whole family).

Tarantino uses these freedoms to defy genre and audiences expectations. While “Death Proof” is ostensibly about a murderer terrorizing a group of young women, the “maniac” is a grizzled charmer named Stuntman Mike, (Kurt Russell) who buys the beers and tells stories about working as a stand-in for Robert Urich on a late 1970’s TV show. The women are smart, funny, and profane, and, as a result, you root for their survival all the more. And, about halfway through, just when I was sure that I knew what would happen next, just when I started plugging in all the expectations I learned from watching way too many “paint by the numbers” studio vehicles, Tarantino flips everything on its ear in a bloody, ballsy whiplash that left me simultaneously horrified and delighted.

Which is exactly why you go to see a grindhouse film.

Knocked Up (*** and ½ out of ****)

Lovable and unemployable schlub Ben (Seth Rogen) has a drunken one-night stand with the extraordinarily beautiful Allison(Katherine Heigl), a TV reporter with a bright future ahead of her. Afterward, they go their separate ways… until she discovers she’s pregnant. They decide to get to know each other for the sake of the child and eventually fall in love. That’s it. There’s no high concept. She doesn’t get amnesia. He isn’t really an international spy.

From the title, one might expect a Farrelly Brothers style gross-out comedy, but Apatow’s low-key observational humor is more reminiscent of Cameron Crowe in his “Say Anything”/“Singles” prime. While studios create ever more outlandish premises to attract an audience (See “Good Luck, Chuck.” Or don’t actually), Apatow’s comedies are actually set in the real world. Characters confront the realities of aging, monogamy and parenthood.

Heigl is wonderful, displaying a comic timing and confidence that will surprise those used to the more brittle characters that she usually plays. Rogen is also pitch-perfect. He brings an understated reality to what could have been just another Adam Sandler Man-Child.

And the supporting cast teems with a veritable stable of talented young actors from Apatow’s fantastic television shows, “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” Here they are all doing wonderful work as Ben’s stoner roommates. There are literally a half a dozen of these characters any one of whom I would love to see get their own movie.

Especially appealing are Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd who play Ben’s sister and brother-in-law respectively. They are the “old” married couple whose union seems held together with pinched smiles and passive-aggressive remarks.

Every performance is strong, every laugh is earned, every moment rings true. My favorite film of the year so far.

The Lookout (*** out of ****)

Unlike nearly every other bank heist film to come down the pike of late, I am happy to report that writer-director Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” is not just another excuse to watch a contrived, overly complex robbery scheme (a la “The Heist,” “The Score,” and Oceans 11, 12 and 13) play itself out on screen.

The film’s main character Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) isn’t all that interested in money. He longs only “to be who I was,” an especially sad wish given that he is only 21.
Chris was a popular, high school hockey star until he became brain damaged in a car accident. His condition has left him prone to memory lapses and inappropriate outbursts, a lonely, increasingly bitter shell with few prospects. Rather than offering financial help, his wealthy parents offer only condescending pats on the head and invitations “to move back into your old room whenever you want.” His only friend (played by Jeff Daniels, the most underrated actor in Hollywood) is his blind roommate, Lewis, who encourages Chris to accept who he is, rather than always looking back at who he was. While the advice may be sage, it is also impossible for any 21-year-old man to follow.

So when a band of criminals led by Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) ask Chris to assist them in robbing the bank where he works as a night janitor, Chris agrees. Not for the money, but for the chance to once again feel vital and in control. In short, to be who he once was.

The film is structured in such a way that we know right from the start that Gary is only pretending to be Chris’ friend in order to convince him to take part in the heist. We also know that Isla Fisher, who plays Luvlee Lemons, the femme fatale who conveniently falls in love with Chris, is in league with Gary. But our being “ahead” of the main character does not lessen the story’s tension; indeed, it heightens it. It is as though Chris is standing on the train tracks, and we are the only ones who can hear the approaching locomotive.

And I found my desperately not wanting Chris to come to harm. Gordon-Levitt gives a profoundly complex performance I which we simultaneously see both the despairing man that Chris has become and the charmingly, cocksure kid that he once was. And the contrast is heart-breaking.

The film does fall off a bit at the end. Chris has a change of heart that strains credibility, and his way of extricating himself from the heist seems unrealistic given his limitations. However, on the whole, “The Lookout” is an immensely rewarding film, the kind of assured, thoughtful character piece that Hollywood doesn’t make enough of.

Zodiac (*** out of ****)

In “Zodiac,” directed with confident restraint by David Fincher, Jake Gyllenhall plays Robert Graysmith, a real life newspaper cartoonist and word puzzle enthusiast who becomes preoccupied and eventually obsessed with identifying the 1970’s-era serial killer, Zodiac, known for sending coded messages for publication in newspapers. Graysmith’s obsession continued even after the coded messages stopped appearing. Even after the killer stopped killing. Even after the police stopped looking.

If you’re looking for another “obsessed cop get his man” movies, look elsewhere. There is no catharsis here, though Fincher puts forth a very persuasive theory for who he believes the killer actually was. There is no arrest. No prosecution. The hero does not deliver a wry one-liner before shooting the Zodiac in the head or kicking him in the groin (though I am sure there were studio notes to that effect).

While every serial killer movie has an obsessed protagonist “who will stop at nothing to see justice done,” “Zodiac” dares to examine the corrosive effect that such an obsession has on those who must shoulder it for months, years, decades. Gyllenhall gives Graysmith a haunted sincerity that is equal parts addiction, fascination and despair.

The supporting performances are excellent. Robert Downey, Jr., terrific as always, plays Paul Avery an overly confident newsreporter with a perpetual smirk who joins in the search. Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo play the two homicide detective charged with finding the killer. All eventually surrender to the persistent pull of the mystery’s inescapable gravity. And all pay a price. Marriages end. Careers crash. Reputations are destroyed.

As the leads dry up and the clues becomes dead ends, the film evolves from a riveting police procedural to a dark psychological thriller where Gyllenhall’s Graysmith is left to complete the Sysiphean journey on his own, even as he begins to doubt his own sanity.

This was an overlooked gem that deserved a wider audience.