Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Theaters: "Star Trek"

I’ll admit it: I had resisted the new “reboot” of Star Trek. First and foremost, I’ve sort of had it with this idea that a studio can run a franchise into the ground with a series of increasingly poor sequels (or, in the cast of Hulk/The Incredible Hulk, a studio can stumble a potential franchise with a tentpole movie that doesn’t land as well as they’d like it to) and then just say, “Hey, never mind all those shitty movies that we made, we’d now like to take your money again by starting all over.” Don’t get me wrong, the process has produced some good pictures, but “reboot” has become the new mass media catch-all phrase that somehow allows major studios total forgiveness for sins past, which is irritating. And I wasn’t crazy about the initial trailers, either; the idea of reimagining Jim Kirk as a dreamy, motorcycle-riding, tough guy rebel without a clue seemed a poor notion at best, an ill-advised mating of Star Trek and a WB teen drama.

So it gives me great pleasure to report that the reviews and the breathless word-of-mouth are correct, and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is a fast-paced, slickly enjoyable summer entertainment. It basic concept of creating an “origin story” for these by-now-iconic characters is a good one; it also allows Abrams (and his writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, whose work here is almost good enough to forgive them for penning the Transformers movies) to flesh out the supporting characters beyond the on-deck United Nations construct that they seldom transcended in the original series and films. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is intoxicatingly bright and fiercely sexy, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov has gee-whiz enthusiasm that’s infectious, and John Cho’s Sulu turns out to have some fight in him; the screenplay is clever enough to give him a line that plays like a punchline (“fencing”) and then spin it to his advantage.

That’s part of why the movie plays—God bless it, it’s got a sense of humor (certainly more than the series did, or any of the films since The Voyage Home). A midway sequence, in which Kirk tries to save the ship while suffering an increasing series of allergic reactions, is notable for its crackerjack comic playing, and his jokey byplay with Bones (played by the capable Karl Urban) is charming. The filmmakers manage to negotiate the fine line between humor and send-up, however, keeping the proceedings from getting too ridiculous and only occasionally succumbing to the temptations of nerd-pandering, sniggery in-jokes (which is not to say that I expected, or even wanted, for the film to ignore its roots; in fact, the specific manner in which Leonard Nimoy is used is pure genius).

The stunt casting also works surprisingly well; Simon Pegg’s mere appearance pulls a laugh, and he gets off some good lines, while it’s something of a pleasant surprise to see Tyler Perry (briefly) in a movie that doesn’t blow (he’s not half-bad either, presumably since he’s saying dialogue written by someone other than himself). And the leading performances, by Chris Pine (as Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (as Spock), are just spot-on. In the primary villain role, Eric Bana doesn’t fare so well—his character (and his motivations) aren’t terribly compelling. Some sequences don’t work (the scene where Kirk is chased by a series of snow monsters is just kind of silly) and there are occasional glitches in the filmmaking—Pike’s last line to Kirk is vital, but delivered off-screen, which means the scene was either poorly covered or it was dubbed in during post (either way, it robs poor Bruce Greenwood of a good moment).

Those complaints aside, Abrams’ direction is slick, sturdy, and playful—he’s having a good time with his jaunty angles and zippy camerawork (even if his predilection for lens flares gets a little tiresome by the film’s end). He also has a real eye for conventional frame composition, and a rare gift (among directors today, anyway) for arranging large groups in an exciting way, as in the late scene (pictured above) where the reassembled crew has to brainstorm a solution on the fly. The movie’s got a terrific energy to it; Abrams spits out one good action sequence after another, and in fact his smartest breakthrough may have been the decision to treat the whole thing as an action movie first and a sci-fi movie second (which isn’t to say that there’s a shortage of science fiction in it—indeed, the twisty plot is one of its many pleasures). He knows how to go to work on an audience; he juggles the impressive effects without letting them overwhelm the narrative, and the various threads of the big, multi-pronged climax are masterfully crosscut.

The rare summer blockbuster that entertains without insulting the intelligence of its audience is always worth singling out and praising. At its best, Abrams’ new, faster, sleeker Star Trek approaches bubblegum Pop Art. And even at its worst, it’s still a first-class popcorn entertainment.

"Star Trek" is currently playing in theaters, as if you didn't know.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Today’s New in Theaters- 5/22/09

Terminator: Salvation: So this is the big blow-shit-up movie of the week, and as I’ve said before, they should have let this series die with grace after T2. Terminator 3 was a dull, unnecessary slog, the TV show is already gone, and now we have a PG-13 sequel, this time from the director of Charlie’s Angels. Reviews have been pretty miserable so far.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian: I guess the big question of the weekend is, which sequel that nobody asked for will make a more nausea-inducing amount of money? (Well-written pan at AV Club.)

Dance Flick: As we’ve discussed—oh, no way I’m seeing that.

Easy Virtue: Colin Firth, Kristen Scott Thomas, first half-hour= good. Jessica Biehl, last half-hour= bad.

The Girlfriend Experience: The week’s must-see movie. It’ll make about four dollars.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ebert Gets "The Girlfriend Experience"

I was so over the moon about Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience that I've been puzzled by the generally unenthusiastic reviews it's been getting; is it just me? Is it just an automatic response to anything turned out by one of my favorite filmmakers? (No, it couldn't be that, or I would have liked Che more.)

At any rate, I finally feel a little justified at long last-- Roger Ebert's four-star review went up today. Ebert "gets" the movie (as he did Bubble, which was also wildly underrated). So, yeah, hurray for good taste.

I put my review up a couple of weeks ago because the movie was available for pre-release streaming on Amazon; it officially goes to theaters (in NY and LA, anyway) tomorrow. Here's a bump.

On DVD: "True Blood (The Complete First Season)"

HBO’s True Blood is like Twilight for grown-ups, and it is such deliciously dirty, ballsy, operatic fun that it would be easily confused with great television. It isn’t, and I don’t think it wants to be. Unlike most great HBO shows (The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under) it doesn’t transcend its roots; it’s having too much fun rolling around in them. It’s occasionally soapy and often borderline ridiculous, but hey, that comes with the territory.

The show was created by Six Feet mastermind Alan Ball (he also penned American Beauty and wrote and directed the unfortunate Towelhead), from the “Sookie Stackhouse novels” by Charlaine Harris. The setting is the town of Bon Temps, a Louisiana backwater; the time is an alternate present, in which vampires have “come out of the coffin” and live among us, supposedly able to satiate their lust for blood with a synthetic blood drink called Tru Blood.

Bon Temps is one of those little towns where everybody knows everybody (and everybody’s business), so when brooding vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) wanders into Merlotte’s Bar and Grill, waitress Sookie (Anna Pacquin) takes notice. Much of the first season is the run-up to and culmination of their intense attraction, and Moyer and Pacquin have very good chemistry. The show needs it pretty badly; on reflection, the scripts don’t really spend enough time exploring and explaining their initial attraction. They’re hot for each other, sure, but the mingling of vampires and humans (clearly meant to mirror interracial dating) is a complicated thing, and we never really get why they’re so immediately willing to buck a taboo—unless it’s just to buck a taboo, an interesting notion that isn’t explored much either.

The pure skill of Paquin’s performance keeps us from asking a lot of those questions. Her accent is a little dodgy, but other than that, she’s phenomenal; she reportedly campaigned hard for the role (to the surprise of Ball, who figured her a movie star who wouldn’t want to stoop to the small screen), and it’s easy to see why—it’s a helluva role. Sookie is a wide-eyed virginal square (she doesn’t even curse), excited by her draw to this forbidden stranger, and Paquin is doing something very tricky here—she’s playing the innocent who is, at long last, bursting with her own sexuality (and enjoying it). The character’s arc gives her plenty of compelling notes to play; she’s frightened, at first, by Bill’s power and taste for blood (as in a very good scene where he completely intimidates a Highway Patrolman who has pulled them over), then turned on by it. She plays the turn to sexual satisfaction beautifully; her costumes get smaller and her smiles get wider.

Not all of the supporting characters fare quite as well. As Sam, Sookie’s boss, Sam Trammell spends most of the season without much to play beyond his infatuation with Sookie and jealousy of Bill. The reveal, around episode 10, of his peculiar secret is unsuccessful; it’s one of the show’s few detours into outright silliness. And poor Rutina Wesley, as Sookie’s BFF Tara, can’t catch a compelling plotline. She gets an unfortunate introductory scene that’s too, too on the nose and proceeds as less a character and more a collection of clichés (her mom’s an alcoholic, she has an unrequited crush on Sookie’s brother, she has rage issues, she becomes an alcoholic herself). The same could probably be said of her cousin Lafayette, a swaggering gay drug dealer and hustler, but he’s played with such gusto by Nelsan Ellis that you hardly mind.

As Sookie’s brother Jason, Ryan Kwatan is likable, sexy, and dumb as a box of hammers. His primary plotline is his addiction to “v”, the vampire blood that gives mortals a fast and effective hit of life force; the show ingeniously plays with the notion that “v” is an addictive Ecstasy/Viagra/acid hybrid, bought and sold and sometimes taken by force from weaker vamps. They get some dramatic and comic mileage out of this idea, though Jason’s thirst for the stuff is sometimes written as hackneyed as if it were a conventional addiction subplot (Tara actually yells at him, “Look at you! I don’t even recognize you anymore!,” but it’s not played for laughs). Most importantly, his little problem introduces him to Amy, played by Lizzy Caplan in the show’s most compelling supporting performance. Amy seems, at first, to be an insufferably pretentious pseudo-intellectual, and she is, but Caplan (and the writers) give her more dimension than that—she is also enchanted by Jason’s gaucheness, and reveals herself to have a genuine heart, albeit one that is easily forgotten if there’s more “v” to be had. Caplan, a frequently underrated actress (she was in Mean Girls and Cloverfield), is terrific in the role; she’s smart and charming and occasionally ruthless (and frequently nude).

The writing gets a little soapy in places, though the acting and direction frequently elevate it above that base level. The show also cleverly utilizes a season-long mystery arc to offset the multiple romantic entanglements, and of course, there are copious amounts of blood and gore to provide the occasional jolt—along with the show’s beloved shock endings, which give us a quick turn or unexpected shot, followed by a fast cut to black and music in big over the end credits. Its moments of levity and humor are sparse but well-placed (I liked the fat tourists buying T-shirts at the vampire bar), and the series makes fine use of vampirism as a broadly-painted metaphor for gay rights—the objections of religious fundamentalists, the phrases “out of the coffin” and the Phelps-esque “God Hates Fangs,” the hypocrisy of an anti-vampire rights politician with a taste for “v”, even the vampires’ occasional use of the slang name “breather” (read: breeder) for the living.

Some of the dialogue (especially the early, expositional stuff) is a little clunky, and the show lags a bit around episodes five and six, as they’re delaying the inevitable consummation of Bill and Sookie’s attraction. But Ball, his writers, and several skilled directors—including Michael Lehman (Heathers), Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity), and the great John Dahl (The Last Seduction)—are clearly having a great time, splashing around buckets of blood and soaking in the sweaty, swampy atmosphere. True Blood is nasty fun, and that’s probably good enough.

For all of the skill of its energetic performances and its high style, True Blood is not one of the great HBO shows; the writing and plotting are too trashy and, occasionally, too obvious to reach those heights. But there are plenty of moment-to-moment pleasures to be found in it, and a lot of fun to be had in the twelve hours of its first season. It may not be good for you, but it is awfully enjoyable junk food.

Season one of "True Blood" is currently available on DVD. Season two premieres June 14.

In Theaters: "Easy Virtue"

I can’t imagine seeing three more comforting words at the top of a British comedy than “Ealing Studios Presents.” It conjures up images of Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob and countless others—although, come to think of it, maybe those aren’t the best films to put in your viewers’ minds, because you then have quite a bit to live up to. Easy Virtue doesn’t quite pull it off.

It’s based on the play by Noël Coward, previously filmed as a silent comedy by Alfred Hitchcock, who hadn’t quite found his signature style yet. The director this time around is Stephan Elliot, who did The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and little of consequence since. His adaptation gets off to a very promising start; after a brief and bewitching silent-movie style opening, we’re introduced to the Whittaker family. They’re dysfunctional in a very particular (and very funny) upper-crust British kind of way, keeping up appearances while snipping at each other at any and all opportunities.

Mr. Whittaker is something of a wreck; he’s played by Colin Firth in a performance that’s just plain fun to watch, wandering around the house with a two-day beard and tossing out good lines like well-aimed tennis balls. Most of the time, his target is Mrs. Whittaker, his smug and nastily bitter wife, played by Kristen Scott Thomas in a smug and nastily bitter mood. Their daughters are basically entitled little brats. Then their son John (Ben Barnes) returns home with his new wife Larita (Jessica Biel), who they’ve already dubbed “the floozy.”

These opening scenes are beautifully done; Coward’s text and Elliot’s adaptation (with Sheridan Jobbins) are snappy and fast, full of good jokes and nice details, even if the direction and cutting isn’t always as nimble as the script (in scenes with an abundance of people, Elliot doesn’t seem quite seem sure what to do with his camera). Everything’s moving so quickly, and Firth and Thomas are so damned good, that it takes us a while to notice that Biel has been completely miscast.

You can see why Elliot cast her; she certainly looks the part (i.e., able to turn every head in the room), and there’s nothing a director likes more than to take the pretty ingénue who no one takes seriously and extract some kind of a brilliant performance out her. Likeable and attractive as she is, Biel just doesn’t have “it,” or at least doesn’t have the particular “it” required for this role. She certainly can’t hold her own against a cast this formidable (she comes closest in the nasty little sequence where her and Thomas finally go to war); many of her line readings fall flat, and for the most part, she’s just kind of present and that’s all.

And that’s why she’s so wrong for this film. There’s a scene near the end of the picture when she makes a big appearance at a snooty party where everyone has been whispering about her, but she’s not enough of a force of nature to stop the room they way she’s supposed to, and to do what she does after that moment. This role requires an actress who projects moxie and toughness, who is ultimately fierce and headstrong and doesn’t give a damn, and the problem with Jessica Biel is that she’s still at that stage in her career where she wants the audience to like and accept her. She doesn’t seem capable of taking over that room; she looks like she’s afraid she’s being rude.

The other real problem is, I’m sorry, with the source material. I know it’s some kind of blasphemy to critique an untouchable like Noël Coward, but the third act gets bogged down in a creaky, contrived crisis, which causes all kinds of tired melodrama (and scenes rife with the possibility of unfortunate playing). Plus, the jokes dry up (again, forgive me if I’ve got this wrong, and Elliot merely took a the jokes out), and the story (or at least, this particular staging of it) doesn’t have strong enough legs to support its turn to the serious.

The music is also a problem; many of the music cues are inexplicable jazz-baby re-workings of 1970s and 1980s funk and pop songs, like “Car Wash” and “Sex Bomb” and, worst of all, the Billy Ocean groaner “When The Going Get Tough, The Tough Get Going,” which plays over the end credits, presumably to ensure the audience exit quickly for the next screening. It’s clearly somebody’s idea of a cute, clever musical gimmick, but it’s a mere annoyance.

If it offered nothing else, Easy Virtue would warrant a glance for Thomas’ intelligent work and Firth’s performance of elegant, bruised grace. And it’s pretty and the costumes look great and all of that. It’s just disappointing that it takes so many wrong turns, because it starts out with such wonderful pizzaz.

"Easy Virtue" opens in limited release on Friday, May 22nd.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Doing a marathon...

Updates might be a little lean over the next 24 to 48... I was assigned the complete first season of True Blood for DVD Talk, and since Wednesday and Thursday is my "weekend" from my day job, I'm gonna watch it from top to bottom over these two days. Keep an eye on the Twitter, tho.


Kael of the Week: Scripts and Directors

A word of explanation: I’m re-reading Pauline Kael’s “For Keeps,” as anyone serious about film should every once in a while. The great thing about her stuff is how much of it is still completely relevant, so once a week, I’ll post a quote that caught my eye.

“Anyone who goes to big American movies like Grand Prix or The Sand Pebbles recognizes that movies with scripts like those don’t have a chance to be anything more than exercises in technology, and that this is what is meant by the decadence of American movies. In the past, directors used to say they were no better than their material. (Sometimes they said it when they weren’t even up to their material.) A good director can attempt to camouflage poor writing with craftsmanship and style, but ultimately no amount of director’s skill can conceal a writer’s failure; a poor script, even well directed, results in a stupid movie—as, unfortunately, does a good script poorly directed.”

-Review of Bonnie and Clyde, The New Yorker, 10/21/67

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Trailer: "Sherlock Holmes"

Don't get me wrong... it could be a gigantic clusterfuck. They're clearly going for a less reverential tone, shaking up our notion of the stoic, purely intellectual sleuth with humor and sex and shit blowing up. That's a huge risk to take with a beloved character. But Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. could very well pull it off... and either way, it certainly won't be boring.

Cassavetes: "Minnie and Moskowitz"

After mediations on race relations (Shadows) and suburban ennui (Faces) and the nature of machismo (Husbands), we get a different kind of Cassavetes for his 1972 “romantic comedy” Minnie and Moskowitz; while the quotation marks around the genre may be necessary (this is certainly not Nora Ephron, or even Woody Allen), he is clearly enjoying the freedom to be loose and funky with an odd story in a minor key.

Gena Rowlands (Mrs. Cassavetes) and Seymour Cassel are Minnie and Moskowitz, a museum curator and a parking-lot attendant who meet and fall into a strange, hyper-emotional, often confrontational love over the course of four long days and nights. They don’t even meet until around the 50-minute mark; the opening section could be trimmer, though the opening scenes, with Moskowitz in his native New York (most of the film takes place after he moves to L.A.) have a wonderful sense of time and place (his encounter with a strange, lonely man in a Times Square coffee shop is peculiar but effective).

Rowlands’ performance is the best one in the film. She’s flat-out terrific (this was her first real showcase role in one of her husband’s films, and he would seldom make another one in which she was not front and center), skillfully navigating her character’s impossible complexities, even seeming, in places, to change her physical appearance before our very eyes—he tells her she’s beautiful, and she certainly is, and then a moment or two later when she says she’s too old for him, she suddenly looks old. “Everything used to make me smile,” she says sadly, in a key (and wonderful) scene, “I’ve noticed I don’t smile as much as I used to.” A lot of the movie is held in that scene; the two of them don’t make any sense together, not a lick, but he makes her smile and laugh and feel alive, and some people reach a point in their lives where that’s good enough. What Rowlands does, fearlessly, is show us a woman who has just reached that point.

The trouble with Minnie and Moskowitz is that, outside of her work, there’s precious little modulation in it. Cassel, an actor I’ve often admired, is certainly likable and interesting at first, with his walrus mustache and long hair and heart on his sleeve, but by the two-thirds mark, you realize that his performance is all him pounding the same shrill note, over and over, at the same volume. Many of the supporting characters have the same problem; they’re too damned broad, particularly Val Avery’s screeching Zelmo and Katherine Cassavetes (yes, his mom) as a painfully stereotypical Jewish mother. There are things to like in Minnie and Moskowitz—Rowlands’ work, the steady pacing, the slightly sprung editing that ends some scenes in midsentence or even mid-word—but it’s so pushy and loud that we get precious few of the moments of quiet revelation that made less accessible pictures like Faces and Husbands worth the effort.

On DVD: "U2: A Rock Crusade"

U2: A Rock Crusade is one of the better “unauthorized” music biography DVDs I’ve seen, though that’s not a terribly tough beauty pageant to win. It bests its competition primarily thanks to the copious amounts of archival footage available; unlike other unauthorized music discs that rely heavily on warmed-over recollections of hangers-on and “personal journeys” by singers in sound-alike bands, A Rock Crusade seems to have come from the auspices of a television news organization (perhaps the BBC, based on the narrator’s accent) and is able to populate its running time (an admittedly slim 47 minutes) entirely with footage and interviews of the subjects at hand.

The other frequent issue with these low-budget discs is that they can’t afford to license any of the music, relying on imitators and cover bands; it’s an issue that this doc cleverly dodges by stating, right at the beginning, that it’s not about the music anyway. It proclaims itself “the story of the other side of the band,” profiling the group’s (and particularly frontman Bono’s) work for numerous charity organizations and as ambassadors of peace and political causes. “It’s ridiculous to have this thing called celebrity,” Bono notes early in the film, “but it is currency, and I want to spend mine wisely.”

Much of this material is interesting, particularly to fans (which I count myself among). But there are big problems with this doc. First and foremost, it’s misnamed; the accurate title would be Bono: A Rock Crusade. The band is mentioned, of course, and seen a few times, but the film is all about Bono; The Edge has one quick sound bite (preceded by a somewhat condescending piece of narration congratulating him for proving that Bono isn’t the only member of the band in touch with issues, or some such nonsense), while Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. are never heard from. For most of its running time, we’re following Bono around the world and tracking his progress as an activist.

Organization is also an issue; there’s no real structure or chronology here, with random shifts in topic and frequent odd, random anecdotes. It skips around with little rhyme or reason; we get a brief overview of the band’s humanitarian efforts, then video of fans and celebs lining up for U2 concerts, then Bono visiting some dignitaries, and then the band at Sundance discussing their 3-D concert film. Some of the more abrupt transitions were presumably interrupted by commercials during a television airing (since they left in the bumper graphics and music), but it simply doesn’t have much of a flow.

The overwritten narration doesn’t help much either; it’s near-nonstop, filled with incessant chatter and frequent repetition of the same facts (and the necessity of finding video to cover all that talk causes the film’s editors to reuse the same archival footage, sometimes more than once). The voice-over is frequently hyperbolic as well; I’m as big a Bono fan as the next guy, but it’s a little much to call him one of the “great political orators” and compare him to MLK and JFK.

On the plus side, there is a wealth of interesting footage, and the sound bites are well-chosen and enlightening. Bono’s passion for these causes is clearly genuine, and his practical arguments are compelling and frequently persuasive. But as the film wears on, it piles on so much detail of his various meetings and awards that it becomes less a documentary and more of a travelogue. But what is not offered up is more than a dollop of information about how he (and the band) became so politically active. That’s what’s really missing here, and that’s what’s really needed.

As a U2 fan, I did take some pleasure in U2: A Rock Crusade; there was some information that was new to me, and it is enjoyable to see the leader a favorite group gallivanting with world leaders and pontificating on his pet projects. These unauthorized biography discs are often a chore to even sit through—this one more than sustains interest. However, there’s certainly nothing to hook non-fans; they’ll want to give this disc a pass.

"U2: A Rock Crusade" is currently available on DVD.

Today's New DVDs- 5/19/09

Here's some of the notable titles hitting DVD and Blu today:

3 Days of the Condor (Blu-ray): Mid-period Pollack at his best; a terrific 70s paranoia potboiler with terrific performances by Redford and Dunaway (Bonus: it got a shout-out in Out of Sight).

A Bug's Life (Blu-ray): One of my favorite Pixar efforts, and while I've mostly avoided re-buying movies on Blu that I already have on standard def, Pixar's Blu-rays always look phenomenal (and according to our friend John at DVD Talk, this one is no exception).

El Dorado: A rip-roarin' good time of a Western from the great Howard Hawks, and starring the Duke and Bob Mitchum. I just saw this one for the first time a couple of months back, and while it's no Rio Bravo, well, few things in this life are.

Valkyrie: For all the shuffling around the release schedule and talk of disaster, Bryan Singer's Tom-Cruise-takes-on-the-Nazis thriller is a surprisingly sharp, enjoyably suspenseful B-movie.

Yonkers Joe: One half a great, Mametesque lowlife procedural, one half a bullshit made-for-TV family drama.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop: Yes, now you can enjoy the fatty-fall-down-go-boom jokes of Kevin James' inexplicable hit over and over again in the comfort of your own home. Probably while eating a KFC Famous Bowl.

Deflating The Elephant: The Framed Messages Behind Conservative Dialogue: I'm a hardcore, never-say-die progressive, and even I was bored to tears by this pedantic, dull diatribe.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle: New this week from the Criterion Collection is a later Mitchum picture from director Peter Yates; I haven't seen it, but DVD Talk's reliable Paul Mavis says it's not to be missed.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On DVD: "Yonkers Joe"

Robert Celestino’s Yonkers Joe has enough material for two movies, and that’s the problem: one of them is fascinating and one of them isn’t, and the bad one keeps muscling the good one out of screen time. The good movie is about Chazz Palminteri’s titular character, a card and dice “mechanic” (a slick operator who uses quick moves and magician-style sleight of hand) working backroom games with a crew of fellow cardsharps, dreaming of taking the house in Vegas or Atlantic City. The bad movie is about his tentative relationship with his son, who has Down Syndrome and, approaching 21, is about to be released from his care facility.

The story of Joe and his crew (which also includes Linus Roache, the always-valuable Michael Lerner, and a terrific Christine Lahti) has the same kind of gritty, compelling verve as some of David Mamet’s pictures (particularly House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner). Celestino has a nice ear for dialogue—the characters speak in a jargon-heavy shorthand and are artful and inventive in their profanity. There’s a real thrill in the sequences where we watch them work a room or devise a cheat; it functions on the enjoyable, “here’s how this is done” level of a good heist film. An early scene in which Joe uses a card-cutting trick to take a hot-headed mark (played by Michael Rispoli, a familiar face from the great poker movie Rounders) at a poker game is beautifully executed; when that same mark turns up at a dice game they’re trying to work, Celestino’s writing and cutting generate real suspense.

But the business with his son, Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry) simply doesn’t play, and there’s no getting around it. Everything else in the movie feels written from the inside-out; in the special features, Celestino explains how he became attracted to this scene, how he’s watched these guys work and hung out with them, and it is clearly a life that he understands and can write about honestly. The stuff with the kid has none of that honesty; it feels like a warmed-up leftover from countless other movies, and if you think it’d be too obviously derivative of Rain Man to have the kid end up helping his dad at the tables, you’d be wrong (we even get a shot of him coming down the casino escalators in his favorite suit).

Palminteri does the best he can in these scenes. He’s getting older, his face growing wearier and more drawn, and he uses it well in this role, conveying his emotions with a look or a exasperated reaction more successfully than in the sometimes hackneyed dialogue. He’s always done the sensitive brute well, from his breakthrough role in A Bronx Tale forward; it’s a shame that so much of his recent work has been one-dimensional tough guys. A scene late in the film, in which he tells Lahti how he honestly feels about the kid (“He’s my punishment”) is awfully over-written, but there’s some fine acting happening there—from both of them. She’s an actress we’ve come to take for granted over the last few years (most of her recent work has been on TV) and that’s a shame; here, she skillfully inhabits the role of a woman who has grown tired of chasing the big score.

In spite of the aforementioned predictable artifice, the climax, at a Vegas craps table, is tense and well-crafted. But the big resolution that follows is something of a disaster; the ongoing drama over Joe Jr.’s living situation is handled conveniently off-screen, and the final conversation between the father and son plays some pretty easy notes without much subtlety. It’s affecting, sure, but it’s manipulative as hell, and we can still be superficially moved while getting worked over by a shallow, obvious scene.

When Yonkers Joe works, it works so well that you want to forgive its flaws. But the secondary storyline is so tone-deaf and warmed-over that it tries the viewer’s patience; it goes so far off-track in those scenes that it takes considerable time to pull us back in to its more engrossing narrative. There are enough good scenes and interesting performances to warrant a rental, but little more.

"Yonkers Joe" hits DVD Tuesday, May 19.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On DVD: "Deflating the Elephant: Framed Messages Behind Conservative Dialogue"

Honestly reviewing political films can be a tricky business, because it can be difficult to separate one’s ideology from what is on the screen; often, we respond to the message and not the messenger. So let me get this out of the way before plunging into Deflating the Elephant: Framed Messages Behind Conservative Dialogue, because if I don’t, it will be the elephant in the room (har har): I’m a proud progressive who would be hard-pressed to find one word in Deflating the Elephant that I disagree with. And by the fifteen-minute mark, even I was ready to switch it off.

The central conceit—that over the last thirty-some years, conservatives have managed to reframe the issues, change meanings, and push ideas and agendas primarily through their use of language—is an intriguing one, and many of the topics covered (economic trends, foreign policy, values voting, the comingling of the conservative movement and strict Christianity) are worth examination. The trouble is, “director” Aldo Vidali hasn’t bothered to find a way to discuss them in a documentary or filmed essay form. His film is, and I’m not exaggerating, two hours and four minutes of people (mostly one person) talking directly into the camera. No cutaways, no clips, no examples, no nothing. Point and shoot. You might think that nothing would be duller than a static camera shooting one man talking for twenty or so minutes at a stretch, and you know what? You would be right.

We begin with on-screen text laying out the thesis of the film, followed by a brief introduction by Sean Penn, followed by a brief outdoor section, in which Vidali interviews George Lakoff, an author and professor of cognitive linguistics at UC-Berkely (hold on, Sean Penn and a Berkely professor? Bill O’Reilly would have a hemorrhage watching this thing). The interview is scored with odd music and interrupted by amateurishly choppy scrolling graphics (they look like Final Cut templates that were never properly rendered). Once they get that “flashy” opening out of the way, it’s on to the film, which is structured thusly: Penn rages about Bush for a couple of minutes, and then Lakoff (seated at a desk in front of a map) talks and reads for ten or twenty minutes. Then back to Penn, then back to Lakoff, over and over, and then it’s done (following an end credit sequence that is simply a list of names, with no explanations of who did what).

There’s no flow or continuity between the sections, which often end with an abrupt fade-out; Penn’s rants are frequently unrelated to what Lakoff says before or after him. They’re also less than timely; he was clearly shot while Bush was still in office, and his calls for a change in government and a revolution are a few months late and haven’t aged well (I’m a fan of his acting and agree with much of his politics, but he frankly sounds a little unhinged here).

But what’s more distressing is the utter lack of visual stimuli. If all you want is information, read a book—Lakoff has written a couple, in fact, which Deflating the Elephant would serve as an infomercial for, except informercials give you something to look at. But this is not a book, it’s (purportedly) a documentary film. However, 124 minutes of people talking at you does not a documentary make. A doc might include multiple interviews (maybe even from people on the other side), or (for illustrative purposes) clips and examples of the infractions mentioned (as in Robert Greenwald’s films). And at the very least, it would shoot its interviews with more than one camera, so we can cut away to something else every few minutes or so. So it’s not a documentary; it’s a videobook, a filmed lecture, like one of those telecourses you take in college for an easy grade. But whatever it is, it’s not compelling, it’s not stimulating, and it’s not cinema.

Deflating the Elephant: Framed Messages Behind Conservative Dialogue is a disc without much of a discernible audience; the conservatives it targets will certainly stay away in droves, while liberals like myself, while intrigued by the message, will likely be bored to tears. Perhaps it will be helpful to those who would like to audit Lakoff’s courses or have been assigned to read his books, but you must admit, that’s an awfully narrow demographic.