Monday, September 29, 2008


Crazy-slammed at everything in life. This week's post will have to be POSTPONED or outright cancelled. But if you want some general movie-related thoughts:

It is hard to remember a worse casting decision than that which dropped Renee Zellweger into Leatherheads. She is so clearly out of her league playing in the Hepburn mold that she sunk the entire movie in 2 scenes (it was taking on water before this, but yeeeeeesh is she horrible here). There are few movies I have actively chosen to stop watching on the grounds that I no longer wished to spend time with them, and this is one of them. George Clooney clearly has some good chops as a director, but his body of work as a director reveals that he is in dire need of an editor who will shape his stabs at sophisticated style into a unified piece.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ghost Town

Forget that the story of Ghost Town is an overly-familiar Scrooge tale about a grumpy man who learns to love again with the help of a few ghosts or that the film itself often feels like a mawkish, mid-nineties romantic comedy following in the (then) successful wake of Nora Ephron films. Focus, instead, on what elevates the film from a standard but well-executed programmer to a howlingly funny film: Ricky Gervais. Viewers of the British version of The Office or Extras know that Gervais is a master at spinning comedic gold by playing sad little men, and his work in Ghost Town only further confirms this. He imbues the curmudegonly stuff with an unrelenting sweetness that belies the bruised, aching heart at the core of the character, but he also plays the lovey-dovey stuff with a cynical, aware edge. This, by itself is valuable, but doesn't even get into how delightfully, devillishly funny he is. His use of the phrase "fait accompli" when discussing the results of a laxative would, by itself, justify the cost of admission.

Gervais plays a dentist who abhors the company of others, preferring the tidiness and quiet of a secluded life. He goes in for a colonoscopy and dies for seven minutes during the procedure. After being brought back to life, he finds that he's able to see and hear the ghosts of others who have passed on, and these apparations begin to pester him to help take care of their unfinished business. He's disgusted, of course, that he has a new cadre of souls to be annoyed by, and finds that he can't isolate himself from these desperate, needy creatures as easily as he can with the living. The most persistent of these spirits is a smooth-talking, tuxedoed ghost played by Greg Kinnear. Kinnear's distrustful and jealous of his widow's new fiancee (the fiancee is a humorless bore, played admirably by Billy Campbell), and wants Gervais to break up the relationship before she is hurt again.

Things complicate when Gervais lays eyes on the woman, played by Tea Leoni. He's immediately smitten and decides the best way to break up her new relationship is to romance her himself. This would smack of convenient or even lazy plotting, but for the performances of Leoni and Gervais. Leoni, for instance, plays her character as a bit of a misfit, a morbid, goofy, and even nerdy woman. She's delivering a lecture on mummies, and the unbridled passion and obsession she evinces makes her seem like an immediate good match for the cloistered, fussy Gervais. This holds true throughout--the two have a remarkable amount of chemistry and this renders Gervais's awkward, uncomfortable attempts to woo her cute rather than spooky and her return on his affections relatable rather than perplexing.

The film was directed by David Koepp who's a Hollywood screenwriter of some note (he's credited on such little films as Spiderman, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and his past directorial efforts have been competent, if not exactly inspiring (Stir of Echoes and The Trigger Effect being the best of the lot). Here he's working in the same realm--a hundred little choices in this film add up to it feeling smart and sturdy for what it is, even if the film winds up feeling a little insignificant. The most inspired choice Koepp makes, though, is in giving Gervais plenty of space to do his schtick. Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis found great success by giving Bill Murray this kind of room to play in films like Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and even lesser vehicles like Meatballs or Stripes. Koepp's generosity with Gervais's performance is the correct approach--Gervias should be (and hopefully will be) as universally celebrated for his comedic gifts as Murray is.

While the film is too cutesy and too sentimental at times, I, and the audience I saw it with, were roaring with laughter for very long stretches. The woman next to me was doubled over and gasping for air and huge swaths of dialogue went unheard due to the revelry. This is not necessarily a film for the ages, but the comedy is sweet and inviting, hilarious and honest. Mainstream comedic films have become increasingly brash and pointed over the past few years, and even something as funny as Tropic Thunder can be quite an assault on the senses. It's a nice feeling to watch something like Ghost Town, which has something of the air of a classic comedy from the 30s. It's far from squeaky clean, but it's nevertheless decent at its core. By laughing you feel a little bit better about yourself and the world around you.

Would be a good double feature with: Groundhog Day

Monday, September 15, 2008

Burn After Reading

From time to time, I like to consult long-time colleague and mentor Ace McGee for his insights on a film. His storied career began in 1969 when, at the age of 8, he entered the world of critical letters with his razor-sharp excoriation of the dumbed-down fumblings of his elementary school's Thanksgiving Day Play. The piece, Turkey Time Is the Real Turkey, is a must-read for any fan of the Elementary School Theater, and his ribald, profane take-down of the play is even more astonishing when you learn that McGee had a small role in the production. The same year, he wrote his classic book, Moonshot, Woodstock, and Nixon: An Eight Year Old's Letters from Vietnam, still considered to be the seminal work on the experience of the juveniles who were drafted into the service during that turbulent era in American History. After seeing Burn After Reading, the latest Coen Brothers film, I sent him a text that read "wot did u thnk?" and only three minutes later, he texted back with the following response, reprinted here as he sums it up better than I ever could.

"Where do these guys get off? Do they think we're stupid or something? They keep saying the same things over and over again, with absolutely nothing new to their nonsense. It's like they think we forget every time the new Coen Brothers movie comes out that we've heard it all before, but they just go right back to the well and give us the same-old, same-old stuff. These imbecilic critics see the movie and then they start tossing out the word 'misanthropic' like it's supposed to be a bad thing, or like it means anything. 'Oh,' they cry out, just about to faint like a Southern Belle, 'these guys don't have any sympathy for the stupid characters that populate their narratives! They look down upon these simps and judge them harshly! Oh no!' Forget that it's not true, and that, while the Coens often bring an ironic, detached perspective to their narratives, they're still able to present clear, relatable characters that are nonetheless absurd cartoons of humanity. Forget that. What these people, these critics are talking about is themselves. They are the ones who can't face the dumb, obsessed idiocy of themselves, and so, while they identify with the stupidity, they are also repelled by it. They mistake the consequences of the characters' actions for judgement by the filmmakers. And then they feel judged since they've empathized with the dum-dums in the movie, and they boo-hoo-hoo all the way through their published columns about the poor saps that these mean old directors went and gave a spankin' to, and their hearts grow three sizes because they fought for the little guy characters of a movie, and meanwhile I'm crackin' it up because I know I'm stupid and that life's not fair and that's what makes life funny sometimes.

"So forget them. This is a hilarious trifle of a Coen Bros film, and it's only a trifle because it's missing that visual splendor. Remember in even their first movie, Blood Simple how they made little ol' Texas look just as alien as the Sea of Tranquility (where the astronauts landed)? Not a lot of that here. There are one or two moments where they find that groove of epic Otherness that they bring to all of their movies (even The Ladykillers--a movie that suffered from too much sympathy for their characters), but it's not nearly as visually rich in design. I almost didn't care, though, because they replaced that rich mise-en-scene with something different and wonderful: great faces. You almost want this to be like The Passion of Joan of Arc where the entire movie's done with closeups. Everyone's face is hilarious, especially Brad Pitt's. The dude's great at vacuity, no doubt about it, but he's not just stupid, he's got a childlike earnestness that is quite endearing. It's a spiritual cousin to his movie-stealing stoner part in True Romance. But then, the whole cast is great, and their looks of perplexity, or confusion are priceless... if you just watch the movie for the faces you'll probably enjoy this movie 50% more than if you're watching it for, like, the plot (which is a fun parody of espionage thriller conventions). Yeah, they all overdo the dumbness just a tad at times, but they're all playing at the same levels of cartoony, and no one's 'playing' dumb. Even Clooney who, after two movies playing dumb with the Coens, has finally gotten it right. Everyone's eyes are stupid, I guess, is what I mean. You look in their eyes and just see stupid, not an actor who knows better winking at you and saying, 'Shucks, aren't I a dweeblehead!'

"And maybe it's just a trifle of a Shaggy Dog story, or something, man, but I don't know because I keep thinking about it. I couldn't help but think about Modern American Problems while watching it. Gimme a few days and I'll whip up the right words for it, but you know, we just saw the movie, and I'm waiting for you to get out of the bathroom so I can get a ride home from you. Not enough time! But there's something there, particularly in the way Frances McDormand wants to get plastic surgery to "remake" herself, so that she'll be more attractive to men. It's like, we all think we can just buy love that way. You know what I mean? And we're all pretty stupid and uninformed about geopolitical matters, so maybe we'd take a classified document to the Russians, even though they're not so much our enemies anymore. And the CIA is a 3rd person omniscient force in the world over who can and will control our lives if they need to. I thought the story was somewhat meaningful, anyway, in a subtle way, not a way that screams out "I AM ABOUT MODERN AMERICAN PROBLEMS."--Some guy just stepped on my foot. What's taking you so long?

"I loved it, I gotta say. I loved every microsecond of it. Remember when Lebowski came out and you and I loved it, but everyone was kind-of rolling their eyes and saying, 'They did that after Fargo?' but now it's lauded as this classic and people love it? And we got into that fight because those two critics from the Post and the Times were mocking us as pot-heads for liking it? And I had to go to the hospital because I'm a hemophiliac and that dude from the Post cut me? And now they've eaten their words? I don't know if this is going to age as well as Lebowski, but I think people are going to look back on this one more fondly than they're treating it now. It's a bleak movie, sure, but it's very, very funny and I'm still crackin' it up about that ending. It might be seen as a jab at the audience by the dweebleheadeds, but I think it's a grand joke the Coens are making on themselves for spinning such an elaborate yarn about nothing. And anyway J.K. Simmons and David Rasche are so funny, they'd make it a worthwhile movie even if you hated everything else in the picture. You know, the most important thing about the movie, though, is

"I just broke off my thumbnail on my phone. You gotta get out here and get me to the hospital, man, I'm gonna bleed to death."

Ace McGee is currently in stable condition at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Review on Monday

Coming soon! Monday even! Great!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tell No One (Ne le Dis à Personne)

The crisis of an innocent man wanted for crimes he did not commit is closely identified with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and for a brief time, Tell No One looks like it's going to be a solid French entry into the "Hitchcockian" genre. The film reaches its zenith when its hero, a pediatrician framed for murder, leads the police on a footchase through urban streets and across a busy highway. Using speeding traffic to foil cops is amusing to both the audience and the hero, and seeing this standard hallmark of a major metropolitan area treated like a wild, deep river is a nice trick (Though the hero's proud smirk at the multi-car pileup he's caused is a little worrying. Isn't this guy supposed to be a doctor?). But, while there are other good moments in the film and Tell No One is a nice, diverting mystery, it never really finds a comfortable stride. The plot is too loose and freewheeling; I spent most of the time keeping track of all the characters that populate the film and trying to pin down exactly what they were after. Worse, the film isn't front-loaded enough. Too many times, the film drops a clue that makes no sense to the audience and lets a character explain why it's meaningful. It's not nearly as much fun to be told that (hypothetically) Person X could never have fired the gun because he broke his finger the night before than it is to figure that out for ourselves. This is a film that works on a scene-by-scene basis, but, taken as a whole, it doesn't cohere.

The premise is simple, intriguing. The doctor's wife was murdered eight years in the past, but then he starts getting emails that seem to be from her. This inspires him to dig into the events of the night of her murder, and he soon finds that her death might not have been the open and shut case it once appeared to be. Soon, he's in over his head, embroiled in an elaborate conspiracy of crooked cops, seedy hoods, and equestrians that all want to take him out of the picture. As it progresses, it gets to be too much. Tell No One is far more convuluted than its structure can support. The film starts with one too many significant characters, and, like a season of Lost, makes the fatal mistake of adding on even more instead of exploring the people it started with. It all builds to an exhausting, interminable scene where somone in the know tells the hero everything that happened, but it's not satisfying. For one, the scene goes on forever and all forward momentum stops cold; the protaganist just sits there listening to the description of events. Further, the events that transpired unbeknownst to our clueless hero are so far-fetched and ridiculous, that I started getting inappropriate giggles during the explanation. Summation scenes like this are a staple in mystery stores, and (with few exceptions) I can't abide these moments. I loved a similar scene in Redbelt because the explanation did not end the movie, it only deepened my understanding of the character's problems. Plus it was over quickly.

Despite its chaotic plot and overpopulation, the filmmaking from director Guillaume Canet often has a powerful kick to it. I really enjoyed the way the movie played with time; the flashbacks here feel more like the free-associative memories of its main character than the plot points that they are. And the noisy score by "M" is a delight, reminiscent of some of the crazier choices made by Morricone or Badalamenti. At one point, the woman sitting next to me whispered to her friend, "Good soundtrack!" and she's right. Of course, she said this during a moment when U2's With or Without You was playing, a moment when the doctor makes his first positive step toward figuring out what exactly is going on around him. I pretty much don't like U2, but I still loved its use in this scene. The camera slowly creeps onto François Cluzet's face, and he cracks a very meaningful smile as the music builds and builds. It's forever changed my perception of this song, but the triumph ends too soon. The music fades out just as it's reaching a crescendo, and the movie cuts to some mundane shot of the doctor unlocking his front door. It's not just here--the movie is full of this sort of cinematticus interruptus, cutting to something else just as things start to really heat up. Whatever powerful moments exist, they're often undercut by the film's clunkiness.

Tell No One is based on a novel by Harlan Coben (a writer I have absolutely no familiarity with, and, based on the film's merits, one I won't be paying attention to anytime soon), and it bears the hallmark of an adaptation that hews too closely to its source. The surfeit of characters and plotting would feel much more at home in the expanse of a novel than the tight confines of a feature film. For all the confident charge in the filmmaking, it's just too much weight, and the story begins to stall just a few scenes after its great chase. Hitchcock once made the claim that bad books made good movies, but I think, even then, they need to be mercilessly pulped of their novelistic excesses the way plays sometimes need to be taken out of the drawing room and onto location.

Would be a good double feature with: Frantic

Saturday, September 06, 2008


Sitting in an audience of older folks (most of them no doubt bought senior tickets) and middle-aged couples or 2 middle-aged women while watching a French film makes me feel like I've just given money to NPR. Can anyone confirm if I'm getting a tote bag?

I've come to dread this particular demographic in a theater more than a gaggle of rambunctious text-messaging teens. Teens are necessarily self-centered and have to posture at all times or they will suffer the consequences of exile. I can't excuse their behavior, but I understand it. However, the people in this NPR sort of crowd have the bleary-eyed look of breeders with assortments of 2.5 kids and have no doubt had to teach their children movie manners at some point or other. And, yet, they sit there, whispering to one another as loudly as they can, trying to be heard over the horrifying din of something other than themselves. Their comments echo about the theater, but because they've made an attempt to whisper, they believe they are invisible to all. Do they forget? Are they bad parents?

The most common thing heard in this crowd is "what's going on?" or "is that the same guy from before who bought the car..." Such things fill me with an inappropriate rage, as it is the very same impulse to instantly quash all mystery that favors the cheap and easy to digest over a challenging experience. Worse than the confused, though, is the barely-together middle-aged couple who have lost all interest in one another and are at the movies to have some semblance of a shared experience. As they joke about the movies and how these things remind them of their kids, trying to ask them to be quiet is seen as an affront to their marriage. They will circle the wagons against such an onslaught and wonder how you could possibly be so bothered.

I realize that I'm fighting a losing battle here, and yet I must do what I can to beat back the tide. I blame stadium seating most of all; people lose the notion that they are not one, but pieces of a unified whole. However, it is not just this technological innovation to blame. I saw Juno in an old-school theater and suffered through a non-ceasing babble from a horrid, horrid woman. I believe she feared that she would die if she didn't stop talking, and so treated my left ear to a recitation of J.K. Simmons' filmography and her judgement of the wisdom and likability of the characters onscreen. I leaned back and pleaded to her in a whispery voice, "Please stop talking," but she persisted. As a pacifist, I don't know what to do when people, asked nicely, refuse to consider the needs of others. Luckily, I'm also a trained passive aggressor, and I simply started repeating things she said loudly. At one point, she asked her seat mate, "Did that guy just say what I said?"

This may have been the only moment of introspection in her life. But she soon went back to babbling, and I got a nasty look from the woman sitting in front of me. As I tried to whisper my plan to her, she simply looked embarrassed for me and punched me in the face. As a result, I thought Juno was overrated.

NOTE: There is a big difference between having discussions with your seat mate and laughing at funny things or expressing surprise at a plot twist or cheering an action scene. Don't try to nail me on that technicality.

Monday, September 01, 2008


After watching David Mamet's Redbelt (recently out on DVD), I asked myself, "Why isn't everything at least this good?" Redbelt is a small, twisty movie about a seasoned, dogmatic Jiu-Jitsu instructor who exhibits a purity of spirit and grounded optimism (some may say naiveté) in the face of an intricate and often ludicrous plot sprung on him by opportunistic lowlifes. Like the small intestines, the film bends in on itself and turns so many corners, that it's able to compact a surprising amount into its limited space (in this case, 110 minutes). Better still is the fact that, up until the final moments, the film moves through this structure like a shark; every moment moves the plot or the characters forward. Its momentum is such that any nagging questions about the plausibility of the narrative or the fact that people are engaging in some pretty complicated deceptions to accomplish things that would probably be easier handled with a good old-fashioned exchange of large amounts of currency are left behind.

What happens in Red Belt is tidily explained by Ricky Jay near the end of the film, a summation of all the trickery and deceit employed to the disadvantage of the noble Jiu-Jitsu instructor. It's a relief to the instructor when he does, but also to the viewer. Mamet's script is marvelous in the way it rations out the pieces to the film's central puzzle to the audience and the protagonist at once. Having a character whisk away the subterfuge to reveal the machinations of the plot can feel arbitrary or lazy, but here it's simply a confirmation of everything you (and the instructor) have suspected all along. The pieces are in hand, you've got them fitting together just fine, and all this revelation does is confirm the picture on the box. It doesn't hurt that it's swiftly done.

The film is anchored on Chewitel Ejiofor's performance, and he serves with great distinction. The noble and pure artisan is a cliche of the highest order, particularly when dealing with martial arts fellows. Ejiofor avoids the traps of making his character either self-righteous or a martyr. When he can't scrape up the money to pay for his studio's broken window, he exhibits both regret that his ideals will not allow him to earn a quick buck by fighting professionally and the enticement that such an easy path holds for him. Like Mamet's script, the performance is a carefully controlled drip. When he shouts at someone at the film's climax, it's both a surprise and a delight to see this otherwise gentle, selfless man explode into such a commanding fury.

In negotiating the con-artist plot Redbelt stacks up one small success after another, but it bungles the finale. The movie's smart enough to know that the real fight does not happen in the ring, and I was delighted that the final fight was motivated by ideals and philosophy, not brute aggression or something as trite as revenge. The writing is just as sharp here as any other moment in the film, but the filmmaking turns a shade too mawkish. When the sentiment starts roaring in, it's a bit too much and too soon.

It's a disappointment to see the movie falter so, as it's otherwise a solid little movie. The whole endeavor has the vibe of a great B-movie from the past. One of the things that makes these films valuable, even now, is an efficiency in their storytelling--absent time and money, they couldn't afford to focus on anything but their subject matter. Redbelt is similar. It provides an honest look at a small corner of the world and tests its main character's ideology in a taut, efficient framework. It's no surprise given Mamet's pedigree that it's the writing that distinguishes this movie from similar, but less successful fare, and it is also writing, I believe, that is the answer to the question I posed at the film's conclusion.

Would be a good double feature with: The Set-Up link:

Labor Day Weekend

Post coming later today/tomorrow.