Friday, February 26, 2010
"It's a homage." So says goofy rubber faced plainclothes cop Tracy Morgan of his unorthodox interrogation methods to his partner of 9 years, a stonewalling yet smirking Bruce Willis. These methods are going to be familiar to anyone who's ever watched 30 Rock - Morgan does his patented crazy shtick.
As Willis watches through a one way mirror, Morgan freaks out their suspect by yielding a gun and yelling movie quotes like "they call me Mister Tibbs," and "these aren't the droids you're looking for" even going for "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!"
Willis, in his definitively detached manner, says: "I never saw that movie."
If that sounds funny to you, ignore the rest of this review and go see this movie - more such supposedly uproarious self-aware referencing awaits.
Cool, now that those people are gone I can tell the rest of you that this is one painfully unfunny film. Though it wasn't written by Kevin Smith (the screenplay is by Robb and Mark Cullen) it feels like it was in the worst way - at Smith's most hammiest and hackiest. It strains with every cut to elicit laughs, but cringes are what result from this tired and truly tiresome material.
What there is of a premise involves Mexican gangsters headed by Guillermo Diaz, Seann William Scott as an annoying thief, and a stolen baseball card worth 80 thousand dollars. The card belonged to Willis, who was hoping to use it to pay for his daughter's (Michelle Trachtenberg) dream wedding. Otherwise Smith regular Jason Lee as Willis' wife's smarmy new husband will pay for it and humiliate him. Ho hum.
Morgan meanwhile deals with his wife's (Rashida Jones) possible infidelity with a neighbor by placing a nanny cam in a teddy bear in their bedroom. So both cops drive around Brooklyn from one poorly constructed plot point to another bitching about these hardships while barely creating an audible chuckle from the audience.
One of the only inspired elements present is the soundtrack. It was a savvy move to employ famed electronic composer Harold Faltermeyer to do the score. His "Axel F"-ish waves of synthesizer and jaunty rhythms work better than anything else in the film to capture the genre aesthetic. A new Patti LaBelle song ("Soul Brothers") accompanying the end credits also hammers home the 80's mindset.
You're better off sticking with watching Morgan on 30 Rock from which he even does some of the same lines ("you're sweet like bear meat") and renting HOT FUZZ if you haven't seen it. Now there's a sharp satire of the buddy cop action movies.
COP OUT is a lot like Morgan's misunderstanding (and mis-pronouncing) the word "homage" - it's not a send up or anything close to a fresh take on the formula, it's just formula.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
We got a Roku - a digital streaming device that hooks up to our TV to broadcast Netflix Instant titles - for a wedding present last year and I've found that it's ideal for viewing full seasons of shows like Lost. Otherwise dealing with getting the many discs in the mail would be a hassle and I might've given up on the show during some of its lame story threads.
The exercise bike helped to get through the convolutions and highly implausible patches by my pedaling harder as if I could speed up the show when it got too stupid.
Seasons 3, 4, and 5 I quite enjoyed after the ups and downs of the first 2 seasons. A time loop episode involving the character Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) was a lot of fun and the Dharma Initiative in the 70's storyline had many merits as well.
I got through all 5 seasons a few episodes into the current season 6. I had the shows recorded on our DVR but somehow the premiere episode was recorded over. Luckily it's available on Hulu (doncha love how many resources we have these days?) so I was able to watch it on my computer in my office. I really missed being able to pedal through it though. I thankfully watched the remaining ones back on the bike.
Now that I'm caught up and can watch the final season in real time I can get back to seeing and writing about movies, but since this has been a down period for film (as it always is this time of year) I'm already looking for a new show to pedal through. Any suggestions?
Saturday, February 20, 2010
(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2010)
"You act like insanity is catching", federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) quips to the Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch) while being shown the grounds of Shutter Island, the contained electronically secure mental hospital for the criminally insane. It's a welcome one-liner as the introductory build-up to DiCaprio and his new partner Mark Ruffalo's entry is one of the most overwrought openers in Martin Scorsese's career. The score pounds in an over the top progression of fearful crescendos as the men enter the complex.
Once the uber-melodramatic music eases off we are led inside to meet and greet Dr. Cawley (the always ominous Ben Kingsley) and the premise: a female patient has gone missing and the facility is on lock-down. Kingsley cryptically explains: "We don't know how she got out of her room. It's as if she evaporated, straight through the walls."
With a stern look that keeps his worry brow constantly a-worryin', DiCaprio, still using his Boston accent from THE DEPARTED, has another agenda. 2 years ago his wife (Michelle Williams) died in a house fire and he believes the pyro-culprit is a patient hidden somewhere at the hospital. A World War II vet (the year is 1954), DiCaprio is also full of conspiracy theories about secret experiments and mind torture going down at the hospital - the presence of a German doctor played by Max von Sydow particularly sets him off - as hallucinatory visions of his wife and the horrors he experienced at war haunt him around the clock.
Based on Dennis Lahane's bestselling 2003 novel, SHUTTER ISLAND has a supremely effective first half. The second half falters because I believe many folks will see the end coming from miles away - I actually had an inkling of the conclusion when seeing the trailer months ago. The reveal is wrapped in exposition and once DiCaprio and the audience figures it all out, the film lingers too long.
However this doesn't completely ruin the movie. The dream/flashback/whatever sequences are beautifully shot recalling David Lynch's surreal palette. DiCaprio's visions always have something falling and floating in the air around him. File papers, snow, and ashes fill the screen along with DiCaprio's angst.
It's not the best film that DiCaprio and Scorsese have made together in their decade long collaboration (that would be THE DEPARTED), but it has a lot of strong searing imagery going for it, even if the narrative isn't as layered as it would like to be.
Acting-wise, it's Leo's show. Despite the solid supporting cast (including Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Hayley, and Ted Levine), Dicaprio carries the movie spending considerable chunks of the film alone with his demons. By this point, his 4th film under Scorsese's direction, he's not just an actor going through the motions; he's an embedded yet impassioned piece of the scenery. By comparison Ruffalo comes off like he's playing a gumshoe in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
So it's half a great movie - half is an absorbingly creepy character study, half a formula thriller frightening close to well trodden M. Night Shyamalan territory. But half a great Scorsese movie is still a vital movie-going experience, you understand?
When speaking of Scorsese in an interview a few years ago, Quentin Tarantino said: "I'm in my church, praying to my god and he's in his church, praying to his. There was a time when we were in the same church - I miss that. I don't want to do that church." In one of SHUTTER ISLAND's most powerful shots, Scorsese mounts a DiCaprio Dachau death camp recollection that blows everything in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS away. Sorry Quentin, but Marty's is the church I want to attend.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
RED RIDING: 1974
(Dir. Juliam Jarrold, 2009)
This first "episode" starts off with an air of a British ZODIAC, but a darker prism of power is revealed beyond the smoky newsrooms and seedy cop dives as the film reaches its brutally unsettling conclusion. In "The Year Of Our Lord" 1974, wet-behind-the-ears yet arrogant Yorkshire journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) sums up the scene as he arrives at a press conference: "A little girl goes missing. The pack salivates. If it bleeds, it leads, right?" When the girl in question is found murdered Dunford makes the connection to similar crimes involving children committed in the same area in the years before.
Like a classic film noir caper, there are many competing plot-lines for our intrepid reporter. A fellow scribe (Anthony Flanagan) has files full of proof of police corruption, the land where the girls were found is owned by a menacing local mogul (Sean Bean) who has plans to build a major shopping complex there if he can get rid of squatting gypsies, and, the icing on the cake, Dunford has just begun an affair with the mother of the most recent missing girl (Rebecca Hall).
The grim wasteland of the English countryside in the mid 70's is the perfect backdrop for this study - not of serial killings, but of the twisted knots in the fabric of society that naive newbies like Garfield's Dunford get tangled in with little hope of struggling free. Despite getting roughed up by thug cops on the take, Dunford routinely mocks his elders, but the suave cunning Bean posits that he and the rookie reporter are a lot alike: "We like to fuck and make a buck and we're not choosy how."
Although it doesn't quite earn its TAXI DRIVER-ish climax, RED RIDING: 1974 is a compelling piece of cinema with a minimum of artsy touches and depth to its grit. Despite director Jarrold employing few gratuitous period flourishes it could be mistaken for an actual 70's era thriller - one that's as concerned with the darkness itself as much as what lurks in it.
RED RIDING: 1980
(Dir. James Marsh, 2009)
Documentary film maker Marsh (MAN ON WIRE) helms this second installment which centers on Paddy Considine as Investigator Peter Hunter being brought in on the case of the Yorkshire Ripper in, again, as the title ominously tells us "The Year of Our Lord" 1980. Hunter believes that one of the murders, the girl from the first film, wasn't committed by the Ripper. It muddies the waters that one of his team (Maxine Peak) is a former colleague with whom he once had an affair. It also impedes the investigation that seemingly every policeman on the force opposes Hunter for reasons that become shockingly clear in the second half.
RED RIDING 1980 takes its time getting going but when it does it becomes a Hell of a potboiler and, perhaps, the strongest of the trilogy. Considine anchors the film admirably, convincingly descending from confident determination to a mode of desperate obsession. The film itself is sturdier than its predecessor especially as its pace tightens with Marsh displaying a palpable mastery of tension.
RED RIDING: 1983
(Dir. Anand Tucker, 2009)
"This is the North - where we do what we want!" This phrase is repeated throughout these films as both a declaration and a warning to outsiders, but its full impact is not really felt until this concluding chapter - or maybe that's just the power of repetition. While the first one was seen through the eyes of a journalist and the second the eyes of a police detective, the third has 2 protagonists - a public solicitor named John Piggott (Mark Addy) and returning character Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey). Each is on the opposite end of the case making their way into the murky middle.
The loose ends of the first 2 films are tied up competently here but there's unnecessary usage of stylistic abstraction present. The sex scenes in the series before had a perfunctory feel to them but here they're completely stitched in with no passion present. Only the spare moments of violence have visceral energy and those don't come off as effectively as in the previous chapters. Though Morrissey effectively personifies repressed stodginess, the 2 leads aren't strong enough to guide us through the subdued action which drags down the pace. It's certainly possible that these 3 films could've been much better if tightened into a single epic movie, but maybe we'll see how that well that works out if Ridley Scott takes on an Americanized remake (yes, I know he's British).
All 3 RED RIDING films are worthwhile but the first 2 are the essential ones - the third provides resolution. Oddly, only the first one has English subtitles. Since this helps a lot with the heavy accents, it's a pity that the others don't follow suit. Yet even with the matter of some impenetrable dialogue and though the films' total running time of over 5 hours makes taking in the whole trilogy into a bit of a slog - it's a mostly satisfying slog.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)
Considering his fine lengthy career, it's amazing that the distinguished actor Christopher Plummer has never before been nominated for an Oscar. Well, here as Leo Tolstoy in this mostly strong historical drama about the famed Russian author's final days, Plummer simply could not be ignored by the Academy.
He and his much celebrated co-star, Helen Mirren as Tolstoy's acidic wife Sofya, both scored nominations which I believe many audiences will find are well deserved. The imprint made by their volatile chemistry will last long after Awards season hype was died down.
Opening titles tell us that Tolstoy is the most acclaimed writer in history and other things we could easily Google, and the ending features ancient footage of the real man - an inescapable cliché of seemingly every biopic - but in between is an emotionally complex examination of a stubborn man's ideals.
These are no ordinary ideals you understand - this is a man who is thought by multitudes to be a genius or even a holy figure. “You think he’s Christ!” Mirren exclaims in exasperation at one of many points. “I don’t think he’s Christ,’’ responds Tolstoy’s doctor (John Sessions). “Christ is Christ. I do believe he’s a prophet, though.’’
Mirren believes that a society of sycophants is forming around her dying husband with the moustache twirling
McAvoy relishes his position enough to let his celibacy slide when another Tolstoy disciple (Kerry Condon) slips into his chambers, but the real titillation comes from Plummer and Mirren playful bedroom banter.
In the company of others, Mirren is an angry defensive verbally abusive animal; alone with her venerated husband she is infested with an infectious silliness. She is truly a woman in love – in all its irrational selfish glory.
This all makes the last third of the film all the more painful. Plummer and his loving entourage travel by train across country ostensibly so the great man can get some final peace away from his wife. His final destination - that of the title – is soon surrounded by concerned citizens and guarded by his followers. Mirren tries in vain to get through them but as the saying goes, that train has long left the station.
Like last year’s brilliant BRIGHT STAR, which dealt with a dying John Keats, THE LAST STATION is concerned with the limits of love and literature. It has a sort of reserved passion boiling under its Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory-ish surface that sizzles when Plummer and Mirren share the screen. The movie suffers sorely when they are absent as Giamatti has a one note villain role and McAvoy’s romantic subplot is tiresomely typical.
That those and other shortcomings can be overlooked is testament to the purity of Mirren and Plummer’s performances. In Plummer’s case it’s nice that the Academy finally took notice.
Monday, February 8, 2010
"I thought this was going to be a bit of a lighter interview. You know, something more... mainstream for 6 year olds?" - Nick Nolte at the beginning of this film.
The "bio doc" genre has been overflowing lately. It seems like every other celebrity in existence is the subject of a standard career summation complete with footage and anecdotal evidence. But when putting the gruff cantankerous actor Nick Nolte in the spotlight, director Tom Thurman decided to try something new with the format.
He set up a casually dressed Nolte at a desk in a studio with a television monitor aimed at him. On that monitor is previously recorded video of a dapper Nolte (in a nice matching hat and dress jacket) asking questions. That's right - Nolte interviews himself.
It's an odd but intriguing idea which seems to pay off at first. Nolte gets defensive at times in his replies yet says startlingly insightful stuff like: "My ego is a very limited petty individual. Rather jealous - an asshole basically." He sums the whole situation up at another priceless point when he states: "Every interview is a lie."
Thankfully it's not just Nolte on Nolte - a roster of his friends and fellow co-workers appear to sing his praises including Ben Stiller, Alan Rudolph, Jacqueline Bisset, F.X. Feeney, Mike Medavoy, Barbara Hershey, and Paul Masursky.
Bisset, Nolte's co-star from his first major film THE DEEP, humorously offers: "I think DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS he must have enjoyed enormously. Nick likes to get dirty."
Speaking of getting dirty there's Nolte's infamous celebrity mug shot which comes up more than once. It's one of the film's only legitimate surprises when Nolte reveals: "That is not a mug shot. You see any numbers? You see that wall? It's a hospital wall." He goes on to explain that the arresting officer, who was a fan, asked if he could get a Poloraid. Nolte said "I'll do the shot if you share the money with the rest of the guys." As for his disheveled appearance: "That's the way I looked in THE HULK."
Unfortunately despite these insights, this is a rambling often sloppy portrait with no clips from any of the films discussed and no chronological structure. We have to do with movie stills with no dates given and this loss of context denies the documentary a satisfying arc.
Skipping back and forth through Nolte's filmography with many notable movies not being mentioned at all means that somebody only familiar with the man from TROPIC THUNDER or Comedy Central reruns of 48 HOURS would have little inkling of the full spectrum of his work.
The film also suffers from feeling overlong even at a paltry 74 minute running time. Reflections on acting methods are tossed aside for close to incoherent spiritual philosophy which can't help but appear drunken.
Nolte is a fascinating rugged thespian whose model looks long ago morphed into the leathery weathered visage that later period films like AFFLICTION and THE GOOD THIEF have made good use of, but this wacky interview gimmick doesn't do his legacy any favors.
A throw-away curio that only hardcore Nolte fans will get something out of, NO EXIT could be dismissed as a "nice try" if only Thurman and his subject had tried harder.
Post note: This film hasn't been released on DVD yet but is available via Sundance Selects On Demand.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Early this week Jeff Bridges scored his fifth Oscar nomination for his role as Bad Blake, a crusty Kris Kristopherson-ish country music artist on the comeback circuit. Surprisingly, at least to me, not one of those nominations was for “The Dude” – the iconic Coen Brothers character in THE BIG LEBOWSKI that completely reshaped Bridges’ career despite the fact that he had done much major work in the 30 years before that.
When Bad Blake shows up to perform at a dive bowling alley early in CRAZY HEART, one can’t help but sense the shadow of “The Dude”. It’s felt again when Blake fishes his sunglasses out of a trash can he just puked in, and then there’s the way he passes out when he’s inebriated – yep, there’s a man for his time and place.
But make no mistake - Bad Blake is not “The Dude”. He’s played by the same scruffy aging actor, sure, but Blake is not a comical creation. He’s a hybrid of country music clichés that somehow become a living breathing believable entity – a singer songwriter trapped in one of his own hurting heart songs. He lives gig to gig, bottle to bottle, groupie to groupie, etc.
Maggie Gyllenhall also picked up an Academy Award nomination with her fine though transparent part as a journalist doing a story on Blake. She has a kid (Jack Nation) which the grizzled journeyman bonds with on a morning after the mismatched pair sleep together. Gyllenhall knows Blake is bad for her, but she’s touched by his affection and the idea that he writes songs in her presence.
If you want to go the Western route in this synopsis you could say that as an old guitar slinger Blake has to contend with a young hot kid on the scene; a Keith Urban-esque former protégé played by Colin Farrell. Farrell’s handles his role with aplomb (he provides his own vocals like Bridges) and it’s nice that he doesn’t turn out to be a cutthroat adversary – that would’ve been way too predictable. Sadly, way too predictable describes the rest of the narrative arc.
Nothing happens in CRAZY HEART that you wouldn’t expect with this material. Every element is measured out in a sensible quantity and every set piece falls into its predetermined place, yet the film has a raw appeal. That credit goes completely to Bridges.
Whether character actor or unlikely leading man, Bridges has a charisma that goes deeper than just “The Dude” abiding. His smiling eyes light up his face even when his mouth is agape in a hopeless expression of not quite processing what’s just happened in front of him. When Gyllenhall comes to her senses about having Bad Blake in her life and tells him not to come around anymore, the look on his face alone should win him the Oscar.
Robert Duvall shows up seemingly to remind us of the similar character he played in TENDER MERCIES. Duvall, who seems to be living cameo to cameo these days (see THE ROAD), is a father figure to Blake and has one of the film’s best moments singing a sweet acapella version of Billy Ray Shaver’s “Live Forever” in a tranquil fishing scene.
That’s where the movie really soars - music-wise. T. Bone Burnett, along with Ryan Bingham and Stephen Bruton (a former Kristopherson band mate who died last year) crafted an authentic batch of songs that often made me forget the film’s story shortcomings. There's also well chosen songs like Waylon Jennings' obvious but apt "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" and Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed Someone" to round out the mix. Maybe it’s a great soundtrack in search of a great film which doesn’t quite materialize, but it’s a sturdy set however you cut it.
So, CRAZY HEART or, as I call it, "The Ballad Of Bad Blake", contains an Oscar worthy performance, good songs, and an incredibly predictable yet still endearing premise. I can abide with that.
Monday, February 1, 2010
1. A SERIOUS MAN (Dirs. Joen & Ethan Coen)
"The greatest films are the ones that leave you not able to explain, but you know that you have experienced something special. I've always had this feeling that the perfect response to a film or a piece of work of mine would be if someone got up and said, 'I don't know what it is, but it's right.' That's the feeling you want - 'That's right' - and it comes from four or five layers down, it comes from the inside rather than from the outside."
- Robert Altman
I've been plowing through the new book: "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography" since I got it for Christmas and I was struck by the quote above. It made me think of A SERIOUS MAN, though the latest Coen Brothers cinematic conundrum is anything but Altman-esque. With Michael Stuhlburg leading an equally unknown cast into the academic abyss of late 60's suburban Minneapolis, it's the Brothers' most personal work to date. Whether it's a post modern riff on the story of Job or a series of nonsensical jabs at everybody's existential expense, it's a perplexingly pleasing parable. Read my original review here.
2. UP (Dir. Pete Docter)
Last year the same #2 position on this list was held by a Pixar film (WALL-E) so I was tempted to go in another direction here. But, that would've been wrong because UP honestly deserves this space. The first 10 minutes alone deserve this space. This wonderful tale of Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) - a crotchety old widower who attaches thousands of balloons to his house in order to fly it to Paradise Falls in South Africa is a rambunctiously inventive and funny flight. And if you don't cry at that sweeping opening montage, either you have a heart of stone or you're Armond White. Read my original review here.
3. THE HURT LOCKER (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Every explosion has an emotional impact in this gripping war drama featuring Jeremy Renner as a bomb defusing expert who'd rather risk his life in Iraq than be home with his wife. Read my original review here.
4. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
This indulgent alternate history World War II film is possibly over-stuffed with story strands but as I said in my original review: "the pulse and tone of Tarantino's best work is intact." Read the rest of that review here.
5. BLACK DYNAMITE (Dir. Scott Sanders)
Though it was little seen, this is hands down the funniest film of 2009. Forget THE HANGOVER, this blaxploitation homage/satire/greatest hits has more laughs per minute and is sure to be one Helluva a future cult classic. Read more here.
6. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Dir. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson's stylistic whimsy works wonders in this friendly, fuzzy, and ferociously witty film adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book. So does George Clooney's charm which I enjoyed more here than in a certain air-born live action film that is sure to get more acclaim awards wise. Read my original review of THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX.
7. BRIGHT STAR (Dir. Jane Campion) An unfortunately overlooked period piece centering on poet John Keats' (Ben Whishaw) doomed courtship of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). A beautifully moving work with first rate performances including a scene stealing Paul Schneider as Keats' writing partner Charles Armitage Brown. With hope the Academy will take notice. Read my original review here.
8. DISTRICT 9 (Dir. Neill Blomkamp) Without a doubt the most frighteningly original (and strikingly satirical) work of science fiction of the year. A misadventure in alien apartheid leaves a wet behind the ears field operative (Sharlto Copley) with his arm mutated to that of a "prawn" and he...oh, just go watch it. Read my original ravings here.
9. ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL! (Dir. Sacha Gervasi)
This documentary about a Spinal Tap-ish band of aging Canadian heavy metal rockers may have you snickering at first but before you know it they win your heart over with their "never say die" determination. As I said in my original review: "Metal heads and casual movie-goers alike (which means just about everybody) ought to dig it."
10. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS (Dir. Werner Herzog) Speaking of "never say die", Nicholas Cage re-ignites the crazy edge of his persona in this twisted and surrealistic corrupt cop crime caper while he re-ignites his "lucky crack pipe" yelling "I'll kill all of you...to the break of dawn! To the break of dawn baby!" Read about more craziness and how this does and doesn't relate to Abel Ferrara's 1992 BAD LIEUTENANT here.
The ones that didn't quite make the Top Ten grade but were still good, sometimes great flicks - click on the title for my original review.
STAR TREK (Dir. J.J. Abrams)
THE INFORMANT! (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)
ZOMBIELAND (Dir. Ruben Fleisher)
THE ROAD (Dir. John Hillcoat)
IN THE LOOP (Dir. Armando Iannucci)
A SINGLE MAN (Dir. Tom Ford)
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (Dir. Spike Jonze)
AN EDUCATION (Dir. Lone Scherfig)
AWAY WE GO (Dir. Sam Mendes)
OBSERVE AND REPORT (Dir. Jody Hill)
BIG FAN (Dir. Robert Siegel)
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Dir. Marc Webb)
MOON (Dir. Duncan Jones)
ABEL RAISES CAIN (Dirs. Jenny Abel & Jeff Hocket)
TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray)
I didn't write reviews of these but they are also strongly recommended:
SUMMER HOURS (Dir. Olivier Assayas)
GOODBYE SOLO (Dir. Ramin Bahrani)
WORLD'S GREATEST DAD (Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait) Yep, that's right.