Film legends Michael Caine and Michael Douglas return with two diversely different films. Both men, each two-time Academy Award winners, no longer have anything to prove and could easily rest on their laurels and fade from view, or churn out the same supporting roles time and again. However, both Caine and Douglas show a need to be challenged, a need to keep their muses alive, as the lead roles offered to them become fewer and fewer, particularly in a youth obsessed movie culture that cares more about effects and numbers of screens rather than story and content.
Michael Caine stars in Harry Brown, a tense English thriller written by Gary Young and directed by Daniel Barber released earlier this year (and reviewed by our esteemed Mr. Cashill). Caine is the titular character, a quiet man suffering from emphysema, living in a run down apartment complex in South London. From his window he watches youths terrorize the neighborhood, yet he does nothing. He appears resigned to live out his days without getting involved. Each day, Brown walks to a hospital to visit his ailing wife. He must take the long way to see her for the underpass shortcut he could take is inhabited by the young punks, animals, who have seized control of the neighborhood. The most tragic moment in the film occurs when Brown receives a call about his wife in the middle of night. In the pouring rain he trudges off to see her as she lay dying. Even when faced with the possibility not getting the opportunity to say goodbye, Brown is too impotent to risk the tunnel. Sadly he arrives at the hospital and her body has already been delivered to the coroner.
Brown’s only solace is his friend, Leonard (David Bradley), a mate he can share a few pints with and play a game of chess. But Leonard’s life is a living hell. The punks on the street vandalize his house and threaten his life. Deciding to take them on, Leonard winds up dead in the tunnel and Brown is devastated. He hopes for justice in the form of the timid Detective Frampton (Emily Mortimer). Unfortunately circumstances lead to the investigation being dropped and Brown decides that he’s had enough. Drawing upon his violent military background, Brown turns into a bad ass son of a bitch and goes on the hunt for the bastards that killed his friend.
Harry Brown is billed as a thriller. However, there are moments in the film so terrifying that it would be too far off to bill it as a horror film, with society as the monster we should all fear. Midway through the film, Brown enters the lair of Stretch, a Gollum-like drug dealer played by Sean Harris. Brown is there to purchase guns. With his scab ridden, ghostly body, Stretch leads Brown through a lush, forest of pot plants and into a back room where a television plays a despicable porn video and a near comatose girl is spread out on a couch with a needle in her arm. The scene recalls the insanity of the drug deal scene in Boogie Nights, coupled with the dread of Requiem of a Dream. Harris fills the scene so much tension that Stretch will haunt you for days after you see the film.
Caine’s performance is an eye opening reminder that he used to play these type are hard men earlier in his career. His character slowly transforms from a grandfatherly type into a pissed off vigilante is a plausible manner, even if the script does succumb to some third act clichés. Watching how he can go from an assuring, calm demeanor and turn on a dime to become a guilt-free killer is remarkable. As is often the case, his talent rises above the material he’s been given (I mean, come on, he almost made Jaws: The Revenge seem classy), and makes Harry Brown a chilling work of pulp fiction.
On the other end of the SOB spectrum, Michael Douglas stars in the indie dramedy, Solitary Man. Douglas is a different kind of son of a bitch: He’s selfish, narcissistic and can’t be reasoned with. So why bother even looking into this excellent little film? Because Douglas, in possibly his best role since Wonder Boys, is so charming and interesting to watch that he makes his character, Ben Kalmen, into one of those lovable scoundrels you have a hard time staying mad at.
Written by Brian Koppelman and directed by Koppelman and David Levien, Solitary Man opens with Kalman at the height of his life. He has a thriving car dealership business and a wonderful family. In the opening frames, he receives some discouraging medical news that sends him careening off his present course and headed in an entirely different direction. Jump ahead six and a half years and Kalman is divorced, has lost his businesses in a public scandal, and is out to bed as many younger women who find him attractive. The sixty-something man has a way of influencing ladies into his bed, even though he has a steady girlfriend. Kalman’s life quickly unravels through a series a bone headed decisions that involve his dick and his girlfriend’s daughter.
Kalman is asked to accompany Allyson (a sparkling Imogen Poots) to visit a college campus where he knows the dean. Allyson’s mother, Jordan (Mary Louise Parker), can’t accompany her daughter because she is ill. While Kalman and Allyson are together, they bond in more ways than one. Kalman’s hubris comes back to kick him in the nuts. A major business deal collapses, his loving daughter (a wonderful Jenna Fischer) all but disowns him and he finds himself homeless and seeking help from his old college buddy, Jimmy (Danny Devito). Susan Sarandon (who can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned) and Jesse Eisenberg, star of the upcoming The Social Network, round out the cast.
Wait, did I say that this was a “little film?” Actually, yes. Who knows what the budget was, but I’m sure it was a fraction of any movie opening in the Cineplex this weekend. Koppelman wrote the screenplay with one man in mind, and his dream came true when that man, Douglas agreed to play the part. With the Wall Street actor on board, the rest of the cast began filing in, making this one of the most interesting casts of the year.
Funny, uncomfortable at times, and poignant throughout, Solitary Man is one of those small surprises that came and went in theaters and deserves a second chance on DVD. Although the bonus features are minimal, the film and Douglas exemplary performance are more than enough to keep you entertained.