Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Talk about hype! The trailer for this Italian film is filled with raving quotes such as: "Stunning...A reinvention of the mafioso movie" and "the greatest mafia movie ever made...strips every last pretense of romanticism from 'The Godfather' saga." Quite daunting statements especially when considering THE GODFATHER itself was credited for stripping away previous romantic pretensions from the old Hollywood James Cagney-era gangster films. But that's just the thing, THE GODFATHER as such created a new romanticism involving family and tradition that has thrived through later day mob classics including Scorsese's * GOODFELLAS and had a healthy run on HBO'S The Sopranos. That the ambitious GOMORRAH is being sold as a shattering of these modern mob movie myths isn't exactly false advertising but it's certainly an injustice to this fine yet somewhat inaccessible film.
In a strained structure that makes the complex workings of SYRIANA look like a walk in the park, there are several knotted threads to follow involving a group of characters in Naples connected to the Camorra - the real life criminal organization older than any other in Italy. In one major thread, Gianfelice Imparato plays Don Ciro, a mid-level money carrier who defects from his clan amid a hairy dispute. Another thread involves Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) as street toughs who steal guns from Camorra members and amuse themselves by firing off rounds at the riverbank in only their underwear making for a striking image that has been rightly exploited in the film's ads. Other threads involve the 13 year old Totò (Nicolo Manta), who falls in with gang members, and Carmine Paternoser rebelling against his boss illegally dumping toxic waste.
How all these tangents come together I'm still trying to work out but perhaps absolute clarity is not director Garrone's objective. Based on the bestselling book by Robert Saviano, GOMORRAH is the result of the work of no less than 6 screenwriters so it's no wonder that it can be a cinematic ball of confusion. Despite this, there is much to recommend here - the washed out docu-drama feel, the killings (or hits) are as piercing as movie simulations can be, and there is realistic grit replacing the glamour of former gangster epics even if the film doesn't surpass their grandeur like the over hyperbolic critics quoted in the trailer claim. However the lack of strong characters coupled with an annoying soundtrack which sounds like cellphone ring-tone flourishes accompanied by a techno beat keep this from a true breakthrough of mafia movie re-imagining. These are my first impressions though for I feel it deserves a deeper look. As it stands now I don't think it would make my mafia movie top ten (were I to make such a list) but depending to how it ages and holds up to repeated viewings, it might just make it in one day.
* Martin Scorsese is credited as the Presenter: USA release of GOMORRAH - something the trailer is actually wise to hype up.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
It would be easy, if too simplistic, to label CHE: PART ONE as "The Rise" and CHE: PART TWO as "The Fall" of the infamous Cuban Guerilla leader. The arc established between these two halves is, of course, much more layered and densely imposed to support such Ziggy Stardust-style titling. PART ONE concerned itself with Che - the man, in its Oliver Stone-ish news footage framing of his successful revolution in Havana. Not to say that it was merely set-up; it told a sound story satisfyingly ending on a resounding note of triumph. PART TWO (subtitled "The Guerrilla") sets a decidedly different spookier tone from beginning with a SCARFACE-ean scroll telling us that Che (Benicio del Toro) has gone into hiding.
It is 1966 and Che is first shown in a remarkably unrecognizable get-up as a Uruguayan businessman with thick glasses, a shaved head, and a stiff suit - an image nobody would ever put on a T-shirt. This disguise gets him through customs into Boliva and he sets about meeting his men - fellow Guerillas in the mountains. Unfortunately there is trouble in Guerilla city (sorry) and the ragged fighters find they may be no match for the Bolivian Army. As Che assimilates into the groups of scrappy soliders, Soderbergh shoots del Toro mainly from behind reminding me of Aronofsky's presentation of Rourke in THE WRESTLER but focusing more on Che being engulfed by his surroundings rather than that of a personal POV.
Another film that came to mind was Woody Allen's BANANAS during the many jungle warfare scenes. In that 1971 classic comedy, New York loser schlub Allen becomes a revolutionary when on vacation in the fictional Central American country of San Marcos to impress his activist girlfriend (Louise Lasser). Since it was closer to the actual time period it had the grainy home movie look that Soderbergh was going for so maybe that's not such a silly satirical reference point. Maybe it is though - I've been on a diet of Woody Allen movies since before I could walk so of course my mind would go there. This is not exactly to say, of course, that CHE: PART TWO is BANANAS without the laughs but I couldn't resist the comparison.
That comical footnote aside, CHE: PART TWO is strongly involving and possibly superior to its other half. The deaths are more piercing and the pace is like a rapid heartbeat leading to one of Che's asthma attacks. Even when shown sparringly, del Toro owns the screen again making my head shake at the failure of award recognition. A solid troop of actors fights fiercely alongside del Toro including Damián Bechir (again dead on as Castro), Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Joaquim De Almeida. For some unknown reason the theater I work at part time is showing CHE: PART TWO nightly at 7:00 with CHE: PART ONE following at 9:30. While that may not be the ideal order to see them, it won't hurt because they have distinctly separate feels despite being one long movie split in two. Whatever the order I implore folks to see them both; they are major movies that deserve a much bigger audience - especially on the big screen.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Joaquin Phonenix's Leonard Kraditor is the latest in a long line of New York lovelorn schlubs that includes Ernest Borgnine's comical Marty Piletti and to a darker extreme - Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle. Phoenix brings a disturbed pathos to the character that, as reports indicate, may extend into Phoenix's real life. We are introduced to the troubled character in an opening scene suicide attempt off a bridge in Brooklyn (not the Brooklyn Bridge, mind you). He doesn't go through with it; he surfaces and is helped out of the water by passing pedestrians.
Soaking wet, Phoenix returns home to the disapproving looks of his parents (Moni Moshonov and Issabella Rossellini) and a small cluttered bedroom. That night his parents are having a dinner party and intend to set up their son with the daughter of Moshonov's business partner played by Vanessa Shaw. They hit it off but Phoenix's eyes wander to neighbor Gynneth Paltrow, an outgoing free-spirited beauty that he is instantly attracted to. Unfortunately she is involved with a married man (an asshole lawyer portrayed perfectly by Elias Koteas) so their budding relationship is unlikely to bloom.
Phoenix has palpable, if at times awkward, chemistry with both Shaw and Paltrow. An audience will surely pull for him to wind up with Shaw (who's just as attractive) over Paltrow for more than just "good brunette" over "bad blonde" reasons, but the emotional discord within that Phoenix displays can't be easily dismissed. We still feel for the guy even when he is being deceptive and come to care deeply whether or not he makes the right choice. Possible Spoiler!: In the end it's not his choice to make and there is an edge to his actions that come more from fear than true love. As my girlfriend said as we were leaving the theater: "How romantic it is to be someone's choice over death or being alone." Good point for sure, but this little spare drama should be commended for its non-contrived storyline and unpretentious tone regardless of its uneasy aftertaste. Resembling a Woody Allen relationship movie without the one-liners, TWO LOVERS is an engaging experience that is sure to be remembered long after tales of Phoenix's odd off-screen behavior have faded away.
And now, a few new release DVD reviews:
I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Dir. Phillippe Claudel, 2008)
Kristen Scott Thomas as a woman recently released from 15 years in prison affects a somber trance as she suffers societal scorn in this drawn out drama. That makes it sound as though this movie is a trial to endure which is not the case. It's a carefully paced character study with very subtle appeal that lingers for days after viewing. Thomas, going through the motions of reassembling, comes off like an ashamed ghost in the presence of her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) who offers her a place to stay while she gets back on her feet. Zylberstein's husband (Serge Hazanavicius) is sceptical of having Thomas around the children because, after all, she went to jail for the murder of her own 6 year old son.
We follow Thomas through these day to day unpleasantries, feeling for her even when we are unsure where our sympathies should really lie. She befriends a few empathetic souls - her probation officer played with aplomb by Frédéric Pierrot and Laurent Grévill as a kindly colleague of her sister's. I'll definitely say no further because the film's biggest asset is in the unwrapping of its intriquing layers. Thomas deserved greater recognition in the now concluded award season for this performance; her work is immaculately measured and nobly nuanced. The film surrounding her is much the same except for some embellished misteps like the inappropriate acoustic guitar flourishes and some abrupt editing. These are minor beefs though, for I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG is one of 2008's finest films that just barely missed making my top ten.
ELEGY (Dir. Isabel Coixet, 2008) The track record for movie adaptations of the works of noted novelist Philip Roth is pretty poor. His 1969 bestseller PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT was made into a critically derided forgotten film in 1972 (Ebert labeled it "a true fiasco") so it wasn't until 30 years later that Hollywood tried again. The result: THE HUMAN STAIN (Dir. Robert Benton, 2003) which was one of the worst films of the last decade if not ever. Not to be discouraged, 5 years later, Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, yo!), dive head first into Roth's "The Dying Animal" - the third book in his fictional professor David Kapesh series (if you can call it that).
In this ambitious adaptation, renamed ELEGY (meaning "a mournful poem") presumably because the original title wasn't very accessble (sic), Ben Kingsley plays Kapesh as a eloquent man of the arts. We are told how much a celebrated cultural warrior he is from the first shot of him pontificating on the The Charlie Rose Show. His voice-over narration, or commentary, sets up his falling for one of his students with such pithy asides such as: "How is it possible for me to be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy?" The student in question, a shy for once Penelope Cruz, 30 years younger than Kingsley is seemingly just as smitten. Kingsley confides in best friend Dennis Hopper as a Pulilzer Prize winning poet who offers: "Stop worrying about growing old, start worrying about growing up."
Devised as half a mediation on growing old, half erotic obsession study, ELEGY delights in flowery exposition and artfully shadowed sex scenes. Kingley lies to his long time lover Patricia Clarkson about his affair but like everything else it hardly registers. "When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life" Kingsley detachedly remarks at one point and I was like, uh, I never thought of it like that before and you know what? I never will again. Beneath all his sophistication and culture lies a pretty despicable dude that I could never care about, I just cringed at his every labored turn.
Hopper finds a little poetry in his part particularly in a spiel about how women are invisible because men are blinded by their beauty and their soul can't be truly seen, which is as pretentious as it sounds, especially with the ever present piano tinkling and lush presentation, but still more affecting than the bulk of material here. So disinterested was I that at one point I found myself thinking nothing more than how Kingsley and Cruz have such curiously shaped noses. As "a work of art that reminds you of who you are now" (professor Kapesh's words) ELEGY just reminded me that I'd rather be washing the dishes.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
REPO MAN (Dir. Alex Cox, 1984) It doesn’t get any cult classic-ier than Alan Cox’s 1984 ode to the sleazy underbelly of Los Angeles. As such, I wasn’t alone to be thrilled to see it on the schedule for Cool Classics @ The Colony as the almost packed house proved last night. Denver Hill, manager of the North Raleigh theater, introduced the film and asked how many had seen it before. A huge percentage of the audience including me raised their hands. He then asked how many had seen it at the theater and a very few people raised their hands. I was too young to see it on the big screen in its original release because of its R rating but I saw the movie many times when it hit cable in the mid 80’s. I believe I had it on a VHS tape recorded in the fast speed so it could be crammed with a couple other movies. That tape is long gone but the movie remained in my memory as one of the funniest weird movies I had ever seen.
I was anxious to revisit REPO MAN and see if it still holds up. I downloaded the soundtrack and its beautiful but scary blend of punk - Iggy Pop who provided the title theme with tracks by the Circle Jerks, the Plugz, Fear, and Black Flag was deliriously dated but still held up. The movie is unsurprisingly the same way - Cox’s surreal story of crusty jaded repossession agents, punk rock thieves, and a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu that may contain aliens in its trunk has lost none of its crazy charm. The audience laughed heartily at the first close-up of a young Emilio Estevez as the movies protagonist Otto with his buzz cut and a crucifix earring but then they laughed at just about every other shot too. Especially shots of a grocery store full of generically packaged products such as white plain beer cans with only the word “beer” on the label. Estevez slugs a coworker (Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss) and quits his stock clerk job at said store, but his bad attitude collides head on with bad luck as he finds his girlfriend (Jennifer Balgobin) cheating on him and that his hippie parents have donated his college fund to a television evangelist.
Estevez stumbles into the repo business by way of the crotchety but always lovable Harry Dean Stanton who is a veteran agent for the humorously named Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation. At first our hero is reluctant to take the job, protesting by pouring one of those generic beers on their office floor but the lure of loot finds him getting chased and shot at in the process of repossessing cars from delinquent owners. Meanwhile the before mentioned Malibu driven by a mad government scientist (Fox Harris) is being sought after all over town by an FBI agent (Susan Barnes) and competing repo men for its Top Secret cargo. A lethal glow emits when somebody opens the trunk to investigate it - a device which was undoubtedly an inspiration on Quentin Tarentino’s glowing briefcase in PULP FICTION.
This is all punctuated with the punchy punk soundtrack that never lets up and contains a roster of quotable lines including:
“John Wayne was a fag.” - Miller (Tracey Walter)
“So what? So never say fuck you to me! Because you haven’t earned the right yet!” - Plettschner (Richard Foronjy)
“Only an asshole gets killed for a car.” - Bud (Harry Dean Stanton)
“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” - Otto (Emilio Estevez)
“Look at ‘em, ordinary fucking people, I hate ‘em.” - Bud
“I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.” - Dick (Dick Rude)
The screening at the Colony last night confirmed that REPO MAN still wears the 80’s cult classic crown. Sure, it may creak a little at times but it's impossible to imagine the independent film landscape of the 90’s and beyond without it. There is talk of Cox making a sequel called REPO CHICK and why not? I doubt anything he would do would dim the glow of this awesome oddity. If anything it will point more folks to the original but if the enthusiastic audience last evening are any indication the film has legs long enough to last on its own.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The prospect of an over 4 hour historical epic spread over 2 separate contained movies will no doubt be daunting to most moviegoers, but the first half of CHE is incredibly involving despite its murkiness and powerful despite its sometimes plodding pace. Originally released last December for it to be eligible for the years Oscars (it didn’t get nominated for anything) in a limited release as one combined film, it now hits the rest of the country in a “special roadshow edition” with PART TWO following close behind PART ONE's release.
PART ONE mostly takes place in the late 50’s with an asthmatic Ernesto “Che” Guevara, portrayed with fierce grace by Benicio del Toro (also one of the film's producers), joining Fidel Castro’s (a dead on Demian Bichir) movement in Havana, Cuba. It has a flashback framework serving as semi narration from a 60’s interview with TV journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond), later cutting between Guevara’s United Nations address and intense street warfare. These non-Cuban set-pieces are presented in grainy black and white, while the gritty yet vivid color of the exteriors enforces the implication that all that isn’t in the heart of the jungle for Che is simply artifice and not real life.
With the subtitle “THE ARGENTINE” (and Spanish subtitles to boot), this film works well on its own yet still leaves one wanting for a follow-up. Soderbergh successfully structures a docu drama feel in which real footage and photographs blend beautifully with the immacualte recreations. It is indeed a shame that the Academy snubbed this film, particularly del Toro whose precise performance is definitely in the league of Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk potrayal that took home the award. Penn himself was shocked and pondered over the lack of award nods for CHE suggesting that: “Maybe because it’s in Spanish, maybe the length, maybe the politics.” None of those factors should deter folks from taking the plunge into CHE: PART ONE; it may be tough going at times but it’s impossible to ignore its soaring sense of purpose. Several satisfying though viciously violent sequences save the film from inaccessibility and in moments like when del Toro answers interviewer Ormond’s question about what is the most important quality for a revolutionary to possess by saying “love” he is utterly convincing. Here’s hoping PART TWO: GUERILLA lives up to PART ONE’s mighty promise.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
* Now I don't have to mention any of his off screen shenanigins in my actual review.
And on the horizon:
WENDY AND LUCY (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)
GOMORRA (Dir. Matteo Garrone) The trailer for this is fantastic! I hear the movie is too.
ADVENTURELAND (Dir. Greg Mottola)
And also coming soon:
Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of REPO MAN
(Dir. Alex Cox, 1984) An undeniable 80’s cult classic and a favorite from my youth. Thanks to Cool Classics @ The Colony I'll be able to see if it still holds up. If you're in the Triangle area you really ought to consider coming out for the Wednesday (the 18th) showing at 8:00 PM in North Raleigh. A 35 MM print of this dusted off punk flick with vintage trailers for $5.00 is impossible for me to pass up.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
WHAT JUST HAPPENED
(Dir. Barry Levinson, 2008)
“Hunter S. Thompson once said to me ‘Bruce, my boy, the movie business is a cruel and shallow money trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.’ Then he added, ‘there’s also a negative side.’” - Bruce Willis written by Art Linson in this damn movie.
The above quote is rejiggered from a line attributed to Thompson which has been often alternately applied to the TV, radio, music business and the corporate communications world. That this misguided movie would have Willis (playing himself) claim it was spoken directly to him is one of the many things wrong with this rightly ignored project. The title is apt for such a film with a stellar cast that appeared and disappeared in an instant last fall. For most film folks this would be a dream A-list line-up - Robert De Niro as the lead with John Turturo, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci and Robin Penn Wright then throw in Bruce Willis and Sean Penn playing themselves and you’ve struck gold, right? Not with such dreary uninvolving material mostly concerning cutting a dog getting shot in the head out of a prestige picture and 40 minutes fighting over whether Bruce Willis will shave his bushy beard before a new production.
No doubt similar dire situations in Hollywoodland happened and still happen all the time but it hardly makes for compelling cinema. A little of a gruff De Niro as a once powerful producer plagued with these problems going back and forth from one uneasy conflict to another goes a long way. The intertwined subplot about his ex-wife (Penn Wright) sleeping with Tucci tries as it might but comes nowhere near making an emotional dent. Better is Michael Wincott as the strung out British director of the Sean Penn project who gripes about his artistic integrity being compromised when the cold calculating Keener threatens to take his movie and cut it herself. Willis profanely blares about artistic integrity too, but in a more destructive manner by throwing things and berating people on the set. ‘Oh, those inflated egos’ we’re supposed to think but instead I found myself looking at my watch.
Based on Art Linson’s book of the same name (with the sub-title “Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line”) and marking a return to a smaller independent style production for Barry Levinson, WHAT JUST HAPPENED is nowhere near the great insider movies of years past (see below) unless anybody considers AN ALLAN SMITHEE FILM: BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN a classic and nobody does. It’s a shame to see De Niro and fellow ace actors tread water in a sea of industry indifference. Just like its IMDb entry, there are no memorable quotes or new lessons learned, just a lot of unpleasant exchanges between unlikable people making for a film with a charcoal soul. What just happened? Nothing worthwhile that I can think of.
As for better films about the same subject, that is movies about making movies, here are:
1. SUNSET BOULEVARD (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1950) Classics 101. Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is truly one of the greatest screen characters of all time but with over a half a century of accolades and greatest films ever lists you don’t need me to tell you that. A film that set the precedent for dropping real names and featuring film folks play themselves (Cecil B. Demille, Buster Keaton, H.L. Warner, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper among them). The movie plays on TCM regularly so if you haven’t seen Swanson declare “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” you’re sure to get your chance soon.
2. THE PLAYER (Dir. Robert Altman, 1991) No less than 60
3. A STAR IS BORN (Dir. George Cukor, 1954) Actually the second remake of a 1937 film (skip the third one with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), this is the ultimate ‘you meet the same people on the way up as on the way down’ morality play. Judy Garland’s career is taking off as husband James Mason finds himself on the outs turning to alcoholism and then to suicide (if that’s a Spoiler! you really ought to tend to your Netflix queue or consult the TCM schedule). A still blinding spotlight on the fickleness of fame.
4. BARTON FINK (Dir. Joel Coen, 1991) A tour de force for John Turturo as a
5. ADAPTATION (Dir. Spike Jonez, 2002)
“To begin... To begin... How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.” A peek into the writing process of Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) who has to adapt the book “The Orchid Thief” and ends up writing himself into his screenplay. Catherine Keener, John Cusack, and John Malkovich play themselves (from the set of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) while we get an abstract window into the world of a sought after screenwriter looking for more than just love from the business.
6. TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2008) Over the top and in your face with a fast pace and a loving embrace of literally explosive satire, Stiller put himself back on top of the comedy heap here. With one of the best ensemble casts a comedy has ever had including Jack Black, the Oscar nominated Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey and (say what?) Tom Cruise as a crude bald pudgy hip hop dancing movie executive, we’ve got a crew well versed in tweaking the business that broke them. There are hundreds of zingers in this mad making of a film within a film but maybe Danny McBride as an explosive engineer spouting off as he rigs a bridge in the jungle is one of the best: “That’s it! I’m going into catering after this!”
7. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1990) Another tale of a career in movies that has hit the skids, but given a hip post modern cynical spin by Carrie Fisher who adapted her semi-autobiographical book. Not soon after leaving rehab Meryl Streep as actress Suzanne Vale exclaims “Thanks GOD I got sober now so I can be hyper-conscious for this series of humiliations!” This is after finding out a new beau (Dennis Quaid) is cheating on her, which is on top of over hearing people on the set talking about how much weight she’s gained. These worries pale compared to having to live with mother Shirley MacLaine (also a former actress based on Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds). MacLaine asks her daughter: “I was such an awful mother... what if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner?” Streep deadpans: “These are the options? You, Joan or Lana?” The funny side to growing up famous with a song sung by Streep to boot (“I'm Checkin’ Out” by Shel Silverstein).
8. THE BIG PICTURE (Dir. Christopher Guest, 1989) The forgotten Christopher Guest film. Pity too, because there’s a lot of wit to spare in this send up featuring Kevin Bacon as a fresh out of film school director whose first film gets compromised at every turn. A crack cast surrounds Bacon including frequent Guest collaborator Michael McKean (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Terri Hatcher, and the late great J.T. Walsh as stoic but still sleazy studio head Alan Habel. Best though is Martin Short as Bacon’s slimy permed agent Neil Sussman: “I don’t know you. I don’t know your work. But I think you are a genius. And I am never wrong about that.” Look for cameos by Elliot Gould, John Cleese, and Eddie Albert as well as a Spinal Tap-ish song by a band named Pez People (“The Whites of Their Eyes” written and performed by Guest/McKean).
9. S.O.B. (Dir. Blake Edwards, 1981)
Despite trying to peddle ersatz post Sellers expiration date Pink Panther movies at the time, Edwards showed he still had some bite left in a few juicy farces – 10, VICTOR VICTORIA and this vulgar but saucy satire. The later concerns a film within the film that flops so film maker Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) decides to re-shoot the family film as a R-rated romp with wife Julie Andrews (Edwards’ real life wife) going topless. A lot of this comical exposé of desperate sordid behavior in the movie business went over my head when I saw it as a kid but a recent viewing got me up to speed. Another fine ensemble cast alongside Mulligan and Andrews – Robert Vaughn, Larry Hagman, Robert Loggia, Robert Webber, Robert Preston (lots of Roberts!), and it was William Holden’s last film (shout out to #1 on this list).
10. BOWFINGER (Dir. Frank Oz, 1999) Many folks despise this campy comic caper of a film maker and his crew making a film (another film within a film plot) with an action star who doesn’t know he’s in the movie but I think it’s Steve Martin’s last great movie. Eddie Murphy’s too if you don’t count his extended glorified cameo in DREAMGIRLS. As Robert K. Bowfinger, Martin channels his old wild and crazy guy persona into a snake oil salesman of a wannabe movie mogul. Heather Graham (playing an aspiring sleeping her way to the top starlet that many thought was based on one time Martin flame Anne Heche), Robert Downey Jr., Christine Baranski, and Terrance Stamp are all along for the ride.
Okay! I was purposely skipping biopics or other movies that are based on true stories so don’t be complaining about ED WOOD or CHAPLIN not making the cut. There were a few close calls - LIVING IN OBLIVION and MOVERS & SHAKERS among them. Are there any other
Friday, March 6, 2009
Darker than THE DARK KNIGHT and raunchier than any other Superhero movie ever, WATCHMEN busts out of development Hell into theaters today and it’s sure to be #1 this weekend. Knowing nothing of the source material, I sat transfixed and alternately baffled at what I saw at a late screening last night. Set in an alternate America in 1985 in which Nixon (played with a cartoon-ish prosthetic nose by Robert Wisden) is still president, a group of Superheroes has been disgraced and placed under governmental control. When The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a power player with a crusty charisma is murdered, Superhero turned vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) focuses on tracking down the killers. Among the not-ready-for-the-Justice-League heroes are Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and Billy Crudup as the completely CGI crafted Doctor Manhattan.
Much of this film feels like a Frankenstein monster of a movie with pieces from pop culture classics stitched together – the rain drenched neon-lit dystopian cityscapes from BLADE RUNNER and the War Room set reproduced exactly from DR. STRANGELOVE for instance. For an over the top action movie it’s really exposition heavy at times which works better than expected especially the soft spoken Crudup, who somehow makes a giant naked blue man animation into a study in eloquence. As for the action, the fight scenes lack edge and urgency, but the overall thrust is engaging if not transcendent. As Rorschach, complete with a cool morphing ink blot mask, Haley is the stirring standout showing how far he’s come from pitching for the BAD NEWS BEARS. A sequence involving Rorschach in stir is absolutely gripping with Haley stealing the movie away from his co-stars and the scores of expensive bombast.
As I mentioned above I have not read the original beloved graphic novel on which this is based so I can’t judge how faithful it is, but it certainly felt like a true comic book movie. It was almost as if bold panel edges and invisible establishing text were present while Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan looked like he had literally walked off the printed page. The soundtrack is quite unorthodox for a Superhero epic – an opening montage set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” sets the tone with odd choices like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds Of Silence”, and Nena’s “99 Luftballons” following suit. Unfortunately, despite all these eccentricities and that it's leaps and bounds better than Snyder’s 300, the film is way too long with a number of plodding parts that don’t gel. As a better than average popcorn flick it’s sure to have many fans, but it had ambitions way above that. Despite that WATCHMEN doesn’t soar to the heights it aims for, its intense intent and wicked sense of self is nearly intoxicating enough.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Ah, the art of the snark. In his blog not long ago, Roger Ebert wrote a brilliant breakdown of the current over-proliferation of snarking in the press (“Hunt not the Snark but the Snarker” - February 25th, 2009). After calling it “cultural vandalism” he chided writers such as
After upsetting a posh party with a pig he claims is Babe from BABE 2, Pegg is hired by the editor of Sharp’s magazine (Jeff Bridges again in very un-Dude territory). Pegg and the magazine, based on Vanity Fair, are an uneasy fit as he insults everybody in sight especially an extremely miscast Kirsten Dunst who bases her entire performance on constant eye-rolls (oh, was that too snarky?). Pegg has 2 goals – to get ahead at the magazine no matter what it takes and to bed a model/starlet played by Megan Fox. He has to contend with Fox’s powerful publicist (Gillian Anderson) and an asshole boss (Danny Houston) as we have to contend with his unlikable unctuousness while the predictable plot goes through the motions.
This is the kind of film that doles out such beaten to death comic clichés as a transsexual that fools the leading man and a small dog getting crushed (see A FISH CALLED WANDA for how to deal with this better). Pegg, who can lift even a lightweight rom com like RUN FATBOY RUN above total mediocrity, here is helpless to save this material. Bridges sums up Pegg’s character’s sense of humor in their first interview scene as: “snarky, bitter, and witless.” That sums up the movie as well; it mistakes snarky for funny over and over again. But if the joke that Pegg wore a bright red t-shirt that said “young, dumb and full of come” to the interview makes you laugh then this might be the movie for you. As for me, this film lost and alienated me, but I know I’m probably the millionth snarky movie
blogger to say that.
FLASH OF GENIUS (Dir. Mark Abraham, 2008)
“You’ll never look at a windshield wiper the same way again” could be the tagline for this biopic of frustrated inventor Robert Kearns.
There’s a big heart here but the obsessed man alienates the world around him to plead his life’s case formula is adhered to way too strictly. I knew nothing of the real life story here but because I’ve been schooled in the scenario, from Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON to Richard Dreyfuss in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, I knew exactly what to expect in terms of the plot-point highs and lows. But I bet most people would watch this and just know it's going to end in a climatic court scene, you know? Still, it is an interesting story told well with solid performances by Kinnear, Graham, Dermot Mulroney as a subtle backstabbing colleague, and most notably Alan Alda as a crusty but suave lawyer who advices our hero to settle. FLASH OF GENIUS is an earnest and straight forward effort that will surely fall in line with other inventor-done-wrong-by-the-system biopic ilk (TUCKER, anybody?) some night in the future on The History Channel. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but it’s the best I can do for this fair film.
BOTTLE SHOCK (Dir. Randall Miller, 2008)
As another period piece true story that I was unaware of, (hey, that’s why they makes these movies!), this film delivers a case study of how
The best thing about this film is its cinematography. The film makers were obviously in love with the
MY NAME IS BRUCE (Dir. Bruce Campbell, 2007)
“Getting you laid is hard enough without having to explain the whole Bruce Campbell factor” says one scruffy teenager (Logan Martin) to another (Taylor Sharpe) at the beginning of this low budget “comedy horror” (as Campbell himself calls it) film. This sarcastic kid taunts his friend by going through a stack of DVDs (for some reason he has in his car) reeling off their titles – “Death Of The Dead”, “Maniac Cop”, “Moonwarp”, “Man With The Screaming Brain”, “Alien Apolcalypse”, and so on - I seriously don’t know which of these is real or fake but I’ll get around to IMDbing it. Not being able to take his buddy’s abuse anymore, Sharpe hits the brakes screeching his vehicle to a halt and exclaims “Bruce Campbell is the greatest actor of his generation!” Martin replies: “Dude, forget thumbs, Ebert wouldn’t wipe his crack with this trash!” He does however concede “I kinda liked BUBBA HO TEP.” Sharpe: “*Everyone* liked BUBBA HO-TEP!” This is a nice self mocking intro to an entire movie of self mockery but if you haven’t seen EVIL DEAD (or any of its sequels) and had no idea who that odd square jawed guy was in small but vital parts of all 3 SPIDERMAN movies, then this movie wasn’t made for you.
It’s a movie for Bruce Campbell fans exclusively, made by a Bruce Campbell fan – namely Bruce Campbell. Like the in-joke precedent set by Ricky Gervais’ Extras, Campbell plays an exaggerated version of himself. He’s a heavy drinker that bitches at gofers on the set of a sci-fi cheapie named “Cavealiens” when his lemon water isn’t cold enough (actually its one literally pissed off gofer’s urine) and, of course, he has an ex-wife who he calls at 3:00AM from the floor of his back woods trailer. Yes, these are all obvious joke clichés about a “big ass, self obsessed movie star” (as wooden love interest Grace Thorsen says) but that’s the point you see. The premise is that a small town named Gold Lick (that’s right) is tormented by a Chinese war diety called Guan Di and they call upon
* With apologies to the Onion A.V. Club.