Been a while since I posted any movie thoughts here, so here's a couple of highly recommended movies I've seen recently:
Breach -- This is the fictionalized account of the Robert Hanssen case. Hansen was an FBI counterintelligence expert who spent almost 20 years spying on the US for the Russians. Breach covers only the very end of that period, focusing on the events leading up to Hanssen's capture, particularly the role played by Eric O'Neill, an FBI trainee who went undercover as Hansen's assistant.
Like Training Day or The Last King of Scotland, this movie features a younger actor protagonist (Ryan Phillippe as O'Neill) who gets the most screen time, but the focus is really on the veteran actor/antagonist (Chris Cooper, in the role of Hanssen) with whom the younger character finds himself partnered. Cooper, biting deep into the meaty role of the ultra-patriotic, extremely religious, traitor, gives a performance that's as Oscar-worthy as Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker's performances in those other films. What's special about Cooper's performance here is the unrelenting intensity he brings to each scene. His Hanssen is a man who never lets down his guard, and never stops thinking. He doesn't look at things and people, he scrutinizes them. To Cooper's (and writer/director Billy Ray's) credit, no effort is made to explain Hanssen's behavior or put him in a sympathetic light. Cooper just lays the man, with all his contradictions and oddities, out on the screen.
Based on the trailer, it was expected that Phillippe (best known, until recently, as Mr. Reese Witherspoon) would get blown off the screen by Cooper's performance. Amazingly, Phillippe does a better job of hanging in there than his counterparts did in Training Day or Last King of Scotland (and that's no insult to James McAvoy and Ethan Hawke, both of whom are actors I really like). As O'Neill, Phillippe uses his pretty boy looks and lightweight demeanor to inhabit a role that requires everyone, including Hanssen, to underestimate him. Phillippe's line readings, which have always sounded slightly artificial in his other roles, are effective in the role of a relatively ordinary man called on to pull off a huge deception. Overall, the confrontations between Cooper and Phillippe make for a very satisfying movie.
The Host -- Probably the best horror movie I've seen since 28 Days Later, the Host is a Korean import which draws some of its inspiration from a real-life incident in which a U.S. army coroner ordered several gallons of toxic formaldehyde to be disposed of using a normal sink in the U.S. military base near Seoul. In director Joon-ho Bong's imagination (he co-wrote the script, also), this leads directly to a huge mutant creature, looking like a cross between Geiko gecko and the giant worms from Tremors, coming out of the waters of the Han River with a surly attitude and a taste for human flesh.
The action centers on the dysfunctional Park family, who own a riverside food stand. Hyun-Seo, a 12 year old schoolgirl, is the only member of the family who really seems to have her act together. Her father, Gang-du, is a dyed-blond layabout whose main gift seems to be an ability to fall asleep at will. Her uncle, the first college graduate in the family, is unemployed and has an alcohol problem. Her aunt, a competitive archer, seems like an achiever, but her perfectionism keeps her from being a success. The patriarch of the clan raised Gang-du and his siblings, so he's immediately suspect.
When the monster from the river drags Hyun Seo back to its lair, the Park clan doesn't quite pile into a yellow VW bus, but they do embark on a rescue mission while dodging cops, shady health officials who want to keep them in quarantine, and, of course, their surly feelings toward each other. Horror/Comedy is a hard genre to pull off, because most films that try for it wind up simply as limp comedies, which don't function as horror films at all. The Host keeps up the suspense while mining some unexpected situations (such as a scene at wall of remembrance for the victims of the monster's attack) for laughs. The secret ingredient here is a lack of sentimentality reminiscent of the best of Peanuts. No matter how bad the Park family's situation is, or how badly its members screw up, we're never invited to pity them. Not even when they're being chased by a giant amphibian lizard.