Saturday, December 19, 2009

On DVD: "Streamers"

He may be acknowledged and respected as one of the all-time great directors, but they haven’t made it easy to fill out the Robert Altman filmography on DVD. There’s plenty from last two decades of his life, after the renaissance of The Player, and the 1970s—the period in which, most agree, he did his best work—are pretty much covered, though we didn’t see several of his secondary titles until the 2006 Robert Altman Collection, and the acclaimed Thieves Like Us didn’t pop up until 2007. But his MASH follow-up, the wonderfully twisted Brewster McCloud, is still MIA in region 1, while his pre-MASH films are quite difficult to come by.

And then there is his somewhat lost period of the 1980s, a peculiar stretch in which the filmmaker, sucker-punched by the relative failure of his big-budget screen adaptation of Popeye (and Fox’s burying of his other 1980 release, HealtH), basically went off the grid commercially. He became fascinated by the stage, and spent much of the decade directing plays and several film adaptations of plays for both television and theatrical presentation, including Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, The Laundromat, and Basements. These experiments in merging stage and screen are tough to locate these days (though Criterion released an excellent DVD of Secret Honor a few years back), but Shout’s new release of the 1983 effort Streamers gives us a rare opportunity to look at this experimental phase of the great director’s career.

Based on the play by David Rabe (directed on stage by Mike Nichols), Streamers takes place in an army barracks early in the Vietnam War. Its focus is on three soldiers about to deploy to Southeast Asia: all-American Billy (Matthew Modine), his likable black friend Roger (David Alan Grier, in his film debut), and Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein), widely rumored to be a “swish.” The trio’s relationships are comfortable but tentative—they interact, but much is left unsaid. Into that subtly bubbling atmosphere charges Carlyle (Michael Wright, familiar from his later appearances in The Five Heartbeats and Sugar Hill), a blunt, forceful, bitter black soldier with an axe to grind against, seemingly, everyone. His untethered rage and disregard for the niceties of polite conversation threaten to explode the soldiers, already precarious as they face their fates.

The picture is a tensely talkative deconstruction of the men’s racial and sexual dynamics and hang-ups, equal parts inspiration and boilerplate, power and predictability. It is, without question, a stage-bound film, but (as with many of the adaptations of this period) Altman seems uninterested in shying away from the material’s theatrical roots. There are no pained attempts to “open up” the material by arbitrarily moving scenes to the mess hall or the grounds; he embraces the claustrophobia of the single setting, and tightens it. But the barracks always feels like a set, as though Altman brought his cameras up onstage, and that superficiality heightens the artifice of some of Rabe’s writing. He’s a skilled structurist and a fine composer of dialogue (as anyone who’s seen or read Hurlyburly or The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel can tell you), but some of the writing—particularly the lengthy, confessional monologues, and the strained run-ups to them—feels awfully pat. There is some compelling material in those monologues, understand, but you can hear the gears turning in them.

We here find Altman’s directorial style somewhat in flux. In its opening scenes, it conveys Altman’s particular gift for capturing moments seemingly unstaged, with recurrent use of his signature devices (zooms and pans, loose framings, intercut scenes, overlapping dialogue). But the film settles down and tightens as it goes on, with Altman leaving most (if not all) of Rabe’s text intact. He sticks closer to the script than was his wont, though whether that benefits or hinders the film is up for negotiation. There are some lovely visual moments though, particularly a heartbreaking pan to a pool of blood and the way Pierre Mignot’s camera captures Ritchie absent-mindedly playing with a lamp cord while Billy babbles.

Altman was renowned as an actor’s director, though his somewhat hands-off approach offers uneven results here. Modine, never an actor who makes much of an impression, is all aw-shucks naiveté; he barely manages to summon the required darkness at the story’s end. Wright is a bit of an over-actor—one wishes Altman would have tamped him down a bit, since he’s quite effective in his quiet moments. Lichtenstein comes off a little broad at first, but his is ultimately a successful and heartfelt performance, while Grier is remarkable; he comes on like a spark plug, and deftly conveys the shifting personalities of a young black man trying to be all things to everybody. As drunken superior Rooney, Guy Boyd has a grizzled authenticity, while his drinking buddy Cokes is played with real force by George Dzunda.

Ultimately, Altman can’t quite carry the viewer’s interest; the story is compelling but contrived, and while there is an inevitability to the closing confrontations, they seem more organic to the needs of the drama than to the situation at hand. Streamers is a long, talky film with some quotable dialogue and flashes of real power, but it is fundamentally a lesser Altman. A lesser Altman, though, is still worth seeing.

In Streamers, Robert Altman tries to create something devastating and powerful, and doesn’t make it happen; the picture feels too self-consciously arty and contrived to be genuinely successful. But it is an interesting snapshot of Altman as an artist at a crossroads, more disciplined and subservient to the material than expected, and most anything he does is worth at least a look.

"Streamers" makes its DVD debut on Tuesday, January 19th. For full A/V and bonus feature information, read this review at DVD Talk.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 12/18/09

Avatar: No matter how many four-star reviews I read (Ebert's is downright rhapsodic), I just can't get worked up about Cameron's 163-minute blue-people epic; fine, fine, it's supposed ot change how we see movies, etc., but goddamn if it doesn't look goofy. I'll see it, yes, fine, I understand. But it feels like an obligation I have to fulfill. (For what it's worth, Orndorf's lukewarm notice pretty much sums up everything I fear it will be.)

Nine: It's a pretty movie, no doubt, and tremendous resources have been expended to give it the right look and feel. But it never congeals; it's a movie of moments, many of them marvelous, many of them absolutely forgettable.

Did You Hear About the Morgans?: I kept meaning to post this trailer as part of my too-irregular "Oh, No Way I'm Seeing That" feature, to ask a simple question. No, not "why are they remaking For Richer or Poorer", not "when is Hugh Grant going to make a watchable movie again," but... and how do I put this delicately... what did Sarah Jessica Parker do to piss off this movie's cinematographer? Clearly whatever back-breaking combinations of filters and soft lighting and vaseline-on-the-lens that has been used in previous films to make her look like a real human being was shorn, and the results are horrifying; in the trailers for this movie, she looks like a Saw villain. Movie probably blows too. (AV Club confirms.)

The Young Victoria: I'm no fan of the historical costume drama, but this tale of the early years of Queen Victoria's reign is surprisingly robust and entertaining, and Emily Blunt is just wonderful in it.

Crazy Heart: The Oscar talk for star Jeff Bridges is no hype; I haven't seen a better male performance this year. The movie is no slouch either, though it has a closing scene that I would edit out myself if I could. (opened Wednesday)

A Town Called Panic: It's fun to watch, for a while. But this Belgian stop-motion tale, though ingenious, is ultimately monotonous and tiring. You gotta change up the tempo every once in a while, as anyone who's sat through a Michael Bay film will tell you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

In Theaters: "Nine"

Rob Marshall’s Nine is a movie that knows exactly how it wants to look, and no clue how it wants to make us feel. It’s designed within an inch of its life—the cinematography is gorgeous, the costumes are impeccable, the choreography energetic—and there are fine performances and entertaining numbers abound. But it doesn’t add up to much of anything; it’s a film of moments rather than a unified whole. That said, there are some great moments in it.

The film is based on the Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit, Mario Fratti, and Maury Yeston, itself based upon Fellini’s classic 8 1/2 (which means, if you take the middle man out of it, Nine is basically a remake of 8 1/2, but with songs). Daniel Day-Lewis steps into Marcello Mastroianni’s shoes as Guido, the famous Italian filmmaker who is watching helplessly as his next picture swings into production, in spite of the fact that he has produced no script (and has no ideas for one). As he tries to work his way out of his “director’s block,” he also must deal with his faltering marriage (due to his many indiscretions) and his memories of the women in his life.

Nine’s primary problem is one of tone. The famous story goes that when Fellini began production on 8 1/2, he put a handwritten note on the camera for his actors to see; it read, “Remember, it’s a comedy.” If one thing is clear in Nine, it’s that director Rob Marshall had no such note on his camera; the whole thing is taken oh-so-seriously, and it’s a problem that begins with his key casting choice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Day-Lewis is woefully miscast as Guido. It’s painful to say, because you’ll find no greater admirer of Day-Lewis’ work; his performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood are among the finest of the decade. But therein lies the problem—is there anything in either of those turns that inspires the thought, “Hey, they should get that guy to front a musical”? He is, perhaps, too good an actor for the role—he’s so studied and focused that he lacks the light touch that the picture so badly needs. While it isn’t written anywhere that the leading man of a musical must be a smiling dandy in the Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire mold (though it sure as hell doesn’t hurt), his is a far more downbeat and navel-gazing interpretation than the material requires. Day-Lewis appears to have bypassed the robust inspiration of Mastroianni’s Guido, and chooses to play him like Hamlet or something.

Some of the musical numbers are enjoyable. Marshall directs with a snazzy zeal for the mood and atmosphere, and the opening overture has a wonderfully operatic feel. Penelope Cruz manages to make an entrance that even tops that of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, performing the slinky “A Call from the Vatican” and stopping the show—she’s never been more sensuous in a film. A flashback scene with Fergie as an earthy prostitute is inventively shot, with tight close-ups and roughly erotic choreography. Judi Dench’s song makes wonderful use of the film’s occasional rich, chewy black-and-white photography. Kate Hudson’s number “Cinema Italiano”, new for the film, is sexy enough, but good lord are the lyrics insipid; it sounds like a second-rate rip-off of Madonna’s “Vogue,” and if hearing it once is bad, hearing it again during the opening credits is unbearable (it’s nominated for a Golden Globe, of course). Indeed, few of the songs are terribly memorable—most, particularly those late in the film, are dull and stagnant (with Marion Cotillard’s divine “Take It Off” a notable exception).

Even the good songs mostly overstay their welcome, and the blackout-revue pacing makes several of them feel arbitrary, as though they’re not taking the movie anywhere in particular. As with Marshall’s previous picture of note, Chicago, the stylistic decision to make the musical numbers fantasies, daydreams, and flights of fancy is intellectually gratifying (busting into song and dance mid-scene simply won’t do in today’s movies), but, as in that film, in some strange way it feels as though he’s apologizing for the musical interludes. The device makes logical sense, but then again, there’s little logical about a great musical—it either plays or it doesn’t, and Marshall keeps hedging his bets.

Still, much of it is worth praising. The screenplay adaptation, by skilled screenwriters Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, has some good lines, and the opening scene (an interview with Guido about how making a film is the process of killing a dream) gets at something real and truthful about the art of moviemaking—though it doesn’t hint at that particular magic again until the pitch-perfect closing scene. Dench gives the picture’s best performance as Guido’s costume designer, and seemingly the only person who will level with him (“You’re such a dope, aren’t you?”); their relationship is endlessly entertaining. Cotillard is wonderful as his wounded, bitter wife, while Cruz gives her bruised mistress dimensions only hinted at in the text. Kidman’s turn is snazzy and good-humored, while the mere appearance of Sophia Loren will make even the most jaded cinephile smile.

Nine is worth seeing—a big, well-crafted musical is still enough of a novelty to warrant at least a cursory glance, and Marshall’s intentions are good, even when he can’t quite execute them. It is a fundamentally flawed picture, but it doesn’t know it, and does some interesting things along the way.

"Nine" opens Friday, December 18 in limited release. It goes wide on Christmas Day.

In Theaters: "The Young Victoria"

Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria is that it didn’t put me to sleep, and that is no small achievement. This kind of regal costume drama is usually anathema to me; I recognize that they’re usually well-made and exquisitely crafted, filled with intricately-designed costumes and exquisite props and so forth, but more often than not, they just put me to sleep.

That is not the case here; director Vallée seems aware of the dreary pitfalls of the historical drama and, for the most part, manages to avoid them. It does have some slow, dozy moments, but Vallée keeps things moving at a brisk pace—his visuals are well-composed, and his cuts have a nice snap to them. And, of course, the design elements are impeccable; a lavish royal dinner is particularly notable for its fetishistic attention to detail, reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (not coincidentally, Scorsese is credited as a producer on the picture).

Emily Blunt ably plays the title character, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, during the first years of her reign. The opening sequence handles a healthy slab of background exposition (always necessary to get our political and geographical bearings) with a fair amount of panache, though there a couple of clumsy time jumps that we probably could have done without. From there we see how the young heiress presumptive was isolated and pampered (throughout her youth, she could not descend stairs unless she was holding someone’s hand), and how she was pressured by her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her mother’s lover, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), to sign on to a regency. Once she turned 18 and King William (Jim Broadbent, in a delightfully batty performance) died, she took the throne; the political wrangling of her early monarchy are detailed, as is her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).

The scenes of political maneuvering are well-paced, if marginally confusing. Of greater interest is the picture’s mining of the complex mother-daughter relationship between Victoria and the Duchess of Kent, and the evolution of her relationship with Albert, which begins as a more political one than it becomes. The screenplay by Julian Fellowes (who penned the equally energetic Gosford Park) shifts gears between its story threads well.

Victoria is a headstrong, fierce character, played to the hilt by the gifted Blunt. It’s a spirited piece of work, notable less for the line readings (though they’re all skillful) than for the way Blunt finds and plays the little, personal moments between the lines; Victoria (in this interpretation, anyway) wasn’t a dull, dour monarch, but a bright and vivacious young woman. It’s a sharp piece of work with real spark. Richardson’s stifling (and then stifled) mother is nicely matched, and Paul Bettany smartly underplays Lord Melbourne, who has Victoria’s ear to a degree that could be to her detriment. Strong is admirably slimy as Sir Conroy, though there’s an unfortunate lack of subtlety to his villainy (come on, they have him kick the dog? Really?).

The climax comes in the form of a striking (and, come to find out, historically inaccurate) moment of violence that is completely unexpected and entirely effective. Unfortunately, the ending that follows is equally unexpected—the picture draws to a close abruptly, suddenly, and a bit strangely, feeling a bit like a rush job (or like Fellowes couldn’t find the right off-ramp from the story). The Young Victoria ends with a dash rather than a period, which is an unfortunate final note for this otherwise sturdy character study.

"The Young Victoria" opens Friday, December 18 in limited release.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On DVD: "Inglourious Basterds"

One of the problems with being a genius, and being recognized and branded as such, is that there isn't anyone around to question your judgment any more. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a giddily enjoyable, thrillingly excessive pop confection with a genuine kick and undeniable snap. But somewhere along the line, a producer or studio head or someone in power needed to sit Tarantino down and explain, very gently, that his movie is a good twenty minutes too long, and the excesses present within that twenty minutes are what prevents his new film from achieving the dizzying heights of his previous ones.

As with Kill Bill, Tarantino uses a chapter format to structure his multi-faceted tale, which takes place "once upon a time... in Nazi-occupied France." We're first introduced to Col. Hans Landa (Chrisoph Waltz, terrific), an SS officer who has been nicknamed "The Jew Hunter" (everyone in this movie has a nickname). The lengthy, occasionally stilted opening sequence finds Landa slowly but surely coaxing a confession out of a French farmer (Denis Menochet) who is hiding a Jewish family. I see what Tarantino is going for in this scene; he's doing a slow wind-up for a brutal first pitch. But the effect is overdone--the sequence drags, on and on, and when the payoff comes, it's not worth the wait. What's more, we're not exactly sure why one member of that family, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), is allowed to escape, except that she's needed in the rest of the film.

However, as quickly as we're tested, Tarantino plunges us into Chapter Two, which introduces us to the title "basterds"--a crew of tough Jewish foot soldiers on the hunt for Nazi scalps, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a tough-talking hillbilly badass with an undeniable skill at turning a colorful phrase. Thanks partially to the writing and partially to Pitt's bound-to-be iconic performance, the movie bounces back from its languid open and comes out swinging; the dialogue is terrific, the shooting and cutting is first-rate, and the entire enterprise is deliciously, deliriously over the top. Within that chapter, and the best scenes of the film, Tarantino is doing what he does best--pulling from the full spectrum of his influences (from Leone westerns to 60s American action cinema to--unexpectedly--blaxpoitation to the Italian exploitation movie that lent this one its name) and pulling them together into a sticky clay that he reshapes for his own purposes with his unique, particular voice.

There's also a lovely touch of French New Wave to Chapter Three, in which Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a German soldier turned movie star tries to court Shosanna, who is masquerading as a French woman and running a cinema. In an ultimately ill-advised attempt to get into her good graces, Zoller convinces Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to hold the gala premiere at her theater--with much of the high-ranking Nazi brass in attendance. The remainder of the film concerns the simultaneous preparations of Shosanna's simple plan for revenge, and the more elaborate "Operation: Kino," a collaboration between British intelligence and the Basterds to take out the theater and all the Nazis in it.

That pairing leads to the film's least successful sequence, a momentum-killing meeting between a British agent, two of Ray's men, and double agent Bridget von Hammsersmark (Diane Kruger) in a French tavern, in which the Brit is in danger of being made by Nazi soldiers having some schnapps. Again, you can see what he's trying to do here--a long, slow buildup to a big confrontation, with tension and dread bubbling underneath. But he drags it out for so long that the sequence goes slack; the scene is endless (it runs at least twenty minutes and feels twice as long), spent away from any of our primary characters of interest, and in retrospect, it doesn't really forward the narrative all that much.

What seems to be happening here, as in a couple of the weaker scenes in Death Proof, Tarantino's half of Grindhouse, is that he's become self-indulgent with his dialogue--he's in love with the sound of his own words (even more so, his own words translated into foreign tongues). There is no question that he established himself, and quickly, as the preeminent dialogue writer of his generation. But the genius of the conversations in Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown was not mere loquacity. It was in his keen ability to drive characterization with dialogue, to tell us about who people were predominately through the subtext of the things they said. In his more recent work, people are just talking to hear themselves talk--or, more accurately, talking for their creator to hear them talk.

If this assessment seems harsh, it should be noted that even the film's transgressions don't sink it--it's too big and bold and intoxicated with itself for that. Performances are sharp from top to bottom (Laurent is a real find, and her moment of release after a terrifyingly dangerous conversation is a wonderful little touch), Tarantino's macabre sense of humor shines through beautifully, and the final forty minutes or so--the big premiere, with all of its subplots and subterfuge--is flat-out virtuoso filmmaking. What it does, it does so well (and with such a snazzy bang) that one is tempted to overlook its flaws. But they are there, and at a couple of points, they stop the movie cold.

It appears that the only thing preventing Inglourious Basterds from the greatness it is so clearly striving for (and that we go into it rooting for) is its own deficit of restraint. In its best set pieces, the picture is tight, lean, mean, and cool as a cucumber. But Tarantino didn't have the discipline to dig the best stuff out. As a director, the first thing you do in post-production is assemble everything you shot into your first cut. Then, the old saw goes, you have to go in and cut out all the little things you're in love with, because they're slowing down the movie. Tarantino seems to have released his first cut.

"Inglourious Basterds" hits DVD and Blu-ray today.

Today's New DVDs- 12/15/09

Inglourious Basterds: It's thrilling, it's smart, it's wickedly funny. It's also overlong and self-indulgent. Quentin Tarantino's latest is a glorious orgy of film fanaticisim, and there are individual moments and entire scenes that are breathtaking. But he's also a filmmaker out of control, and while it certainly doesn't wreck the picture, I'm starting to wonder what happened to the lean, no-nonsense storyteller of Reservoir Dogs.

The Hangover: There's a very simple reason that The Hangover is one of the year's highest-grossing pictures: it makes a promise, and it delivers on it. Big laughs from end to end, and having taken another look this afternoon, I can also assure you that it holds up to repeat viewings.

Taking Woodstock: Less a failure than a disappointment; Ang Lee and his frequent collaborator James Schamus probably don't have a bad film in them, but they're certainly off their game with this period comedy/drama.

In Theaters: "Crazy Heart"

In 1983, Robert Duvall starred in Tender Mercies as an alcoholic country singer whose tentative romance with a good woman and her young son turns his life around. Now, in 2009, Duvall co-produces and co-stars in Crazy Heart, the story of an alcoholic country singer whose tentative romance with a good woman and her young son turns his life around. Never mind the replication of the broad strokes; this story’s been told before, and it will probably be told again, and here it is told very, very well. What is worth noting is that Tender Mercies won Duvall his first (and, inexplicably, only) Oscar, and many are predicting the same reward to Crazy Heart’s star, the brilliant Jeff Bridges.

And seriously, is there a more consistently undervalued actor than Bridges? He’s created countless iconic characters (The Dude, Starman, Duane in The Last Picture Show, Jack Baker in The Fabulous Baker Boys) and always delivers, his body of work impressively eclectic and customarily high quality. Pauline Kael wrote of him, way back in 1971, “Jeff Bridges just moves into a role and lives in it--so deep in it that the little things seem to come straight from the character's soul.” If that was true then (which it certainly was), it has only become more accurate through the passing decades; as washed-up country singer “Bad” Blake, Bridges has never been better or more believable. He becomes this guy, gets down to his whiskey-soaked essence without ever playing an easy note or pandering for unearned sympathy. It’s a marvel of a performance, and the movie damn near matches it.

Writer/director Scott Cooper (adapting Thomas Cobb’s novel) sets the scene beautifully, with an extended sequence tracking with Blake through the day of a typical (and humiliating) gig, playing for a small but devoted crowd on the bandstand at a bowling alley. The next night, as a favor to his piano player, he grants an interview to the musician’s niece, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a local newspaper writer; their late night interview, in which he turns on his “famous charm,” is delicate, tender, and wonderfully played (“Where’d all those songs come from?” she asks, and he replies, “Life, unfortunately”). They develop a kind of an understanding—they like each other, and perhaps they can lean on each other a little, as long as she doesn’t push too hard and he doesn’t drink in front of her young son (the wonderfully unaffected Jack Nation).

As a musician, Blake is mainly famous as a peripheral character; one of his old band members, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), has become a country music superstar, and he resents the younger man’s success, all the while angling to get him into the studio for a duet. Tommy can’t do that, but he throws Blake a one-off opening slot, and promises his old mentor a handsome payday for writing him some new songs.

Early reviews have compared Crazy Heart to The Wrestler, and it shares not only that film’s low-key approach and awards-friendly leading role, but a sure sense of its milieu; it feels authentic, whether dwelling in the world of back-roads honky-tonks and run-down motels or zipping around backstage at a big stadium show (the brief scene in which Blake bickers good-naturedly with the board op during his sound check is one I witnessed countless times while working at a performing arts center). The music, supervised by T-Bone Burnett (including input from Stephen Bruton, Gary Nicholson, and Ryan Bingham), is exactly as good as it should be—you can hear, within the songs, that Blake is genuinely talented (Bridges’ singing and guitar playing are quite convincing) and could have been famous, but they’re not so good that his fall from the spotlight isn’t credible. Tommy Sweet’s songs have a glossier, poppier sheen; Burnett and crew get that distinction right as well.

As Sweet, Farrell is relaxed, natural, and just plain good, better than he’s been in years. Gyllenhaal role is a bit thankless (she has to cry a lot), but she gives it some real life and energy, and her chemistry with Bridges is better than it probably should be, considering the massive age gap. And then there’s Robert Duvall, who pops up after you’ve forgotten he’s even in the movie; the quiet scene that finds him and Bridges out on a leisurely fishing trip is like a laid-back master class in acting.

Bridges has several moments like that. There are two key scenes (a telephone chat with his estranged son, and a desperate talk late in the film with Gyllenhaal) in which he slowly realizes that the conversation isn’t going to go the way he imagined, and the way that understanding flickers and passes across his face is the kind of great acting you just can’t teach.

There’s only one major flaw, though it’s a doozy. Cooper, with grace and quiet elegance, brings the film to an absolutely perfect ending, and cuts to black; I took in a sharp breath, unable to believe that it had closed on such a sublime note. And then they fumble it, with one more scene, one scene too much, a tacked-on epilogue of unnecessary information and afterthoughts. It’s a huge mistake, though certainly not enough to negate what comes before it; for the rest of its running time, Crazy Heart is a picture that doesn’t take a false step.

"Crazy Heart" opens in limited release on Wednesday, December 16th.

In Theaters: "A Single Man"

Prior to A Single Man, Tom Ford had exactly one screen credit to his name, as tailor for the last James Bond picture, Quantum of Solace. In light of that, it’s downright stunning that his debut effort as director, co-writer, and co-producer is so smashingly assured; it’s one of the most confident film debuts I’ve ever seen. Ford’s background, and fame, in the world of fashion—so, unsurprisingly, the film looks great (more on that presently). But it’s not just an empty magazine lay-out; there’s real, palpable emotion to it, and that is Ford’s greatest success.

It is the story of a day in the life of George (Colin Firth), a well-liked English professor. It is November, 1962. George is gay, and Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 16 years, was recently killed in a tragic car accident. George hasn’t coped well; “for the last eight months, waking up has actually hurt,” he tells us, in voice-over narration. George is tired of hurting. At the beginning of the day, he produced a handgun from his desk. He has decided that today is the day that he will end his life.

George doesn’t over-analyze his decision for us, and neither does the film; indeed, the narration is used briefly at the beginning and end of the story, but his plan and his pain are mostly assembled by the viewer. Jim is glimpsed in flashback scenes and dreams, a symbol of an idyllic existence that George feels he will never experience again. He is given some comfort by Charley (Julianne Moore), an old friend; she was once his lover, before he could admit who he was, and he now finds himself drawn back toward her, if only for the familiarity and ease of her company. Other glimmers of life come into George’s orbit, like a handsome young student (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up from About a Boy) who seems to read between the lines of George’s classroom diatribe about “invisible minorities.” But he cannot see past his own misery and loss.

In the scenes with Hoult, and in George’s encounter with a handsome Spaniard (Jon Kortajarena), there is a visceral, sensuous quality to Ford’s direction; he makes deliberate use of color and contrast, placing his protagonist in a stark, washed-out world into which step flashes of warmth and color (warmth which, at one key moment, overcomes his pallor). The design of the picture is immaculate—it’s one of the best looking movies in recent memory—full of elegant tableaux and haunting images (I can’t shake the overhead shot of George’s desk, meticulously prepared with all the keys and documents that will be needed after his body is discovered). But it’s not all cold and staged; there’s a warmth to the film (particularly in the flashbacks), and honest pain. And Ford knows when to let the elegance go, as in a wonderfully off-the-cuff scene where old friends George and Charley dance to Booker T. & the M.G.’s (it’s got the jangly feel of early Godard).

He also gets a career-best performance out of Firth, a gifted actor who has made something of a career of playing uptight, repressed, and apologetic. It’s not a 180 degree turn from that persona—George is all of those things, but he’s more, much more, and the screenplay (by Ford and David Scearce) provides the character with significant shadings and dimensions. The flashback to the phone call from Jim’s cousin, bearing bad news, is a stunning piece of acting by Firth (and a restrained act of filmmaking by Ford).

A Single Man is somewhat slight; it’s a small, delicate movie, but that’s exactly as it should be. The slice-of-life approach gives it a lightness, a delicacy; you don’t feel the plot gears grinding, and in spite of the meandering nature of the storytelling, it feels shorter than its 100 minutes. But it is a real achievement, and announces its neophyte director as a filmmaker of tremendous skill and control.

"A Single Man" is currently playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "A Town Called Panic"

The stop-motion animated cast of the new Belgian feature A Town Called Panic first appeared in a series of five-minute short films (lumped together into fifteen and thirty minute blocks), and I’m not surprised by their popularity; the film is fast-paced, funny, and inventively made. It would also seem to go down much smoother in smaller doses. Panic is short for a feature film but feels much longer, primarily because there is no change in its tempo. What works for five minutes doesn’t always play when dragged out to 75, at least not when pitched at the same level.

The film’s universe is populated by a cast of plastic toy figurines. Three of them share a house: Cowboy (voiced by co-director Stéphane Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison), and Horse (co-director Vincent Patar). Cowboy and Indian accidently forget Horse’s birthday, and in their panic to order bricks to build him a barbecue, they inadvertently over-order by several million. Hijinks ensue.

A Town Called Panic utilizes and odd but enjoyable style—of animation, and of storytelling. The picture has a charmingly homemade feel, with the stop-motion figurines hopping about on their flat stands, replicating the tone of an imaginative kid playing with his mismatched toys. It’s got a peculiar, off-balanced sense of humor, and the scenes are busy and frequently funny (particularly Horse’s birthday party, which goes wonderfully out of control).

The trouble is the relentless, unvarying pitch and volume begins to get wearying. Much of the dialogue is delivered in what amounts to a scream (the title is a fairly accurate description of most of the characters’ state of mind), and the speed and tenor of the material is built to match. The picture loses steam in its second act, in spite of an increase in the pace and the slapstick; it burns off much of its running time basically running in circles.

I can’t undersell the energy and inventiveness of the stop-motion animation; the movie is a wonder to behold, to watch wind up and spin around. Unfortunately, it enters the marketplace on the heels of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-motion animation tale with a narrative to match the gee-whiz power of its visuals. There’s much to like in A Town Called Panic, but it doesn’t go much of anywhere once it has laid out its style and premise; it is an ingenious but monotonous piece of work.

"A Town Called Panic" opens in New York City on Wednesday, December 16th.

Monday, December 14, 2009

On DVD: "Extract"

Mike Judge is rather a peculiar comic filmmaker; he comes from a background of animation (he created Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill) but his live-action films are notable not only for their flat, drab visuals, but for their less than animated style. He is fascinated by the banal lives of dull people, by the daily grind of clockwatchers and dregs and the stupid people who make them seem comparatively exciting. The Judge universe is filled with flavorless chain restaurants and depressing hotel sports bars and beige cubicles and gray assembly lines; even his sci-fi comedy, Idiocracy, imagined a future comprised almost entirely of fast food restaurants and city-sized discount stores.

His new film, Extract, has been marketed as something of a follow-up to his 1998 cult hit Office Space, with one crucial difference: that film was about the drones battling management, while this new picture has, as its protagonist, the boss. Jason Bateman plays Joel Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Extract, a fairly successful small manufacturing company (their product, flavored extract, feels like a joke that never quite pays off). The business is on the verge of a profitable buyout from General Mills when an unfortunate workplace accident leaves would-be floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), well, somewhat less of a man. Step’s indecision about whether to pursue a buyout-killing lawsuit seems to occur right around the same time that the lovely Cindy (Mila Kunis) arrives as a new temp worker… which may not be a coincidence.

Joel’s life at home is about as messy as it is at work; he laments the dearth of sex with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig), and Cindy’s flirtations get him thinking affair, though he can’t pull the trigger out of guilt. His bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) comes up with a solution: hire a gigolo to seduce the wife, and then he can have guilt-free extracurricular intercourse. Joel ends up going along with it, mainly because of the horse tranquilizer.

You get the idea. For a movie light on plot, there’s an awful lot going on in Extract, which propels itself from scene to scene more out of good-natured curiosity than genuine comic momentum. It doesn’t have the kind of motor that a great comedy requires, but it’s got enough funny bits and inspired (if occasionally underdeveloped) concepts to more than sustain viewer interest. If it clatters around and feels a bit rudderless, it’s hard to get too picky about movie with this many engaging performances and clever observational humor.

Bateman, of the still-lamented Arrested Development, continues to reign supreme as one of the best re-actors in the business; he’s got plenty of funny lines (“Are we still looking into replacing her with a robot?”), but his biggest laughs are prompted by a furrowed brow or a simple “Yep.” Affleck is funny as hell (he’s never quite gotten his due as a genuinely gifted comic actor), avoiding most of the clichés of the stoner buddy and still ably delivering the following defense of pot: “It’s not a drug, it’s a flower!”

Kunis, who showed heretofore unknown depths and charm in last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is mostly wasted in a role that doesn’t require much more than to look ridiculously hot (which, don’t get me wrong, she’s more than qualified for). But Wiig gets a couple of chances to shine, J.K. Simmons reaffirms his status as one of our most valuable utility players, and David Koechner’s dreary, monotonous neighbor is a running gag with a wonderfully unexpected punchline.

Extract arrives during a particularly solid year for mainstream studio comedy (in the wake of I Love You, Man, Adventureland, Observe and Report, Funny People, Bruno, and The Hangover, among others), and it places towards the back of that pack. But it’s still a good time, and offers some terrific moments, even if they don’t quite congeal into a unified piece of work.

"Extract" arrives in DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, December 22nd.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On DVD: "Jim Jeffries: I Swear To God"

In spite of the fact that I consider myself a bit of a comedy nerd, Australian stand-up Jim Jeffries hadn’t popped up on my radar until I checked out the new DVD of his spring HBO special, Jim Jeffries: I Swear to God. He’s foul-mouthed and ill-tempered, even by pay cable standards; the disc comes with an “mature content” warning sticker, and boy do they mean it. His dark act veers further into nihilism than you might be used to seeing on an HBO special (“I never enjoyed a moment of my life,” he mentions at one point, almost as an afterthought). He’s a prickly sonofabitch, sure—but he’s also awfully funny.

Over the course of the show’s 57 minutes, Jeffries takes on Christianity (with a blisteringly funny bit on the afterlife), the Noah story (“He lived to be 950 years old, but they never mention that in sermons—because we might think it’s bullshit!”), other religions, the poor breeding habits of pandas (“Do you think pandas know they’re Chinese, and they’re taking the ‘one child’ policy too serious?”), smoking, and dwarves. He tackles racism (“I’m not racist, I’m a bigot—it’s completely different”) , travelling the world, profanity, orgasms, and nightclubs (“If you’re over 25 and you still go to nightclubs, you’re a dick”).

Some of his best material concerns his love for alcohol; to those who don’t drink because they “don’t like the taste of it,” he bellows, “NOBODY DOES!” His family stories are also laugh-out-loud funny, particularly the tale of how he and his brother made an unfortunate discovery in the garage.

The material (for the most part) is solid, but his ace timing and delivery help seal the deal; for some reason, I’m always drawn to profanity-spewing comics with thick accents, and in many ways, Jeffries’ heavy brogue and love of blue language is reminiscent of a young Billy Connolly. His act is dirty, yes, but seldom uncomfortably so; his bit about the social and interpersonal dynamics of promiscuous females is raw, but it’s candid and burns with some honesty and truth, in the same way that Richard Pryor’s best material often did.

His last story, a stomach-churning tale of sex toys, masturbation, and scatological misfortune, may go a bit too far, even for me, even for this show. It closes an otherwise stellar performance on a rather weak note, and that’s a shame. For most of its running time, this is an uproariously funny turn by an exciting new talent.

Jim Jeffries: I Swear to God is, without question, an adults-only show; the language and subject matter are rough-edged, even for HBO. But if you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s worth a look; Jeffries is a genuinely funny guy, and an interesting new stand-up worth keeping an eye on.

"Jim Jeffires: I Swear to God" is currently available on DVD.