Saturday, February 27, 2010

In Theaters: "Cop Out"

I was talking with a friend about Kevin Smith’s Cop Out, a buddy-cop action-comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, and we seemed to agree that while I wanted it to be an enjoyable goof from one of our favorite comic filmmakers, it sure did look like the kind of terrible formulaic movie that we’d see a poster for on the wall of Morgan’s character’s dressing room on 30 Rock. “It’ll be one or the other,” I told him. Joke was on me. It’s both.

The tried-and-true conventions of the genre—the racially mismatched partners, one of them a motor-mouthed loose cannon; the stripping of the guns and badges; the rivalry with other detectives; the stumbling into a big case with their breaking-all-the-rules shenanigans; etc.—have been wheezy for well over a decade now, and the screenplay by Robb and Mark Cullen isn’t some sort of post-modern riff or parody. Director Smith instead plays it as an affectionate homage to the 80s action comedies he grew up on—it’s the kind of movie that could easily play on a double-bill with Fletch (dig that closing music), Beverly Hills Cop, or Running Scared, right down to the synthy Harold Faltermeyer score.

Those films, even the best of them, were disposable entertainments—sheer popcorn. By attempting to replicate them, Smith is, it could be argued, wasting his considerable talent on a glossy copy of throwaway pictures. It’s a credible argument, hampered only by the fact that, in spite of its derivative nature and frequently weak writing, Cop Out is a good-natured and genuinely likable movie. Some of the humor is strained, and the picture has trouble firing up its own engines in the opening scenes, but there are laughs to be had here—some of them from Morgan’s over-the-top persona, some from Willis’ unflappable (and finely-tuned) persona, some from Smith’s infectious sense of a good time being had.

Cop Out
marks Smith’s first time directing a film he didn’t write, and some will find that perplexing—he was always a writer first, and the first to cut down his skill at staging scenes and moving the camera. But it’s a well-made, good-looking picture, and his shoot-outs and chase scenes are smoothly, professionally handled. I had objections to Cop Out, but they’re all intellectual ones; from the standpoint of goofy fun (which is all they’re going for anyway), Smith and crew bring it off.

"Cop Out" is now playing in wide release. For more on Smith's career to date, see my DVD Talk review of his Blu-ray box set.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

In Theaters: "A Prophet"

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (Un Prophète) is filmmaking at point-blank range, a stark, fierce criminal portrait of tremendous power. There’s a reckless immediacy to it—it draws us in immediately, no backstory, no bullshit. We meet Malik El Djebana, he’s nineteen years old, he’s going into prison for six years, boom. Go.

In prison, Malik (Tahar Rahim) is lost, confused, and perceived (correctly) as weak. He is also a man caught between worlds—he is part Arab and part Corsican, and in this prison, you are one or the other. He finds himself in the sights of a group of Corsicans, led by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who offer him protection in exchange for work performed. His first job is the cold-blooded murder of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab, about to testify against the Corsican mafia; Reyeb has a sexual interest in Malik, who is instructed to use this “in” to slit his throat.

The violence, when it comes, in shocking in its graphic brutality. But it also draws us in deeper, as the violence in great crime cinema does. Malik is a bit of a blank slate (he is illiterate and withdrawn), but he takes to the work that César gives him, and grows proud of the trust the powerful man has placed in him; meanwhile, Malik takes prison courses, learning to read and write, and befriends Ryad (Adel Bencherif), an Arab prisoner whose intelligence and resourcefulness inspires him.

As Malik becomes a more proficient lawbreaker, working the system from both inside and outside the prison walls, A Prophet becomes something of a crime procedural, an examination of precisely how these things are done—and it feels like a film that knows what it’s talking about, from the inside out. Over the film’s expansive 149-minute running time, Malik morphs from loner to kingpin, from clueless to ruthless. Rahim’s is a deceptively opaque performance; you don’t see him doing a lot of “acting,” but as the story progresses and the character gets smarter, you do see him thinking. This culminates in a phenomenal moment where you literally see his face go white, and in that moment, I realized that his work here is borne of the same cloth as Casey Affleck’s stunningly subtle turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s got that same fragility, and the same reserve of forcefulness. Arestrup’s work as César is something of a counterweight—he’s a frightening figure who turns on a dime, but Arestrup gives us flashes of the complexity underneath his brittle shell.

Audiard, a director previously unknown to me (I didn’t catch his previous import, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), shows tremendous skill and control; the picture has a grimy, off-the-cuff feel, and with its visceral action, well-chosen music, and inventive use of on-screen text, the film forms into a hybrid of the fierce energy of City of God and the unblinking pragmatism of Gomorrah. Audiard favors a low-down, pulpy aesthetic, but he has moments of gritty lyricism, like Malik’s silent regard of the beach in a moment of potential crisis.

By the time A Prophet (Un Prophète) reaches its stunningly executed climax, there is little doubt that Audiard is a filmmaker of force and skill. This is a brooding, assured picture, and if the labyrinthine plotline detracts (it can occasionally get bogged down in a flurry of names and relationships), the execution never wavers. It’s an outstanding film.

"A Prophet (Un Prophète)" opens Friday, February 26th in limited release.

In Theaters: "The Yellow Handkerchief"

We don’t ask for much out of a film like The Yellow Handkerchief—a few tears and a few smiles, that’s about all—but it can’t even deliver on those modest goals. Picturesquely directed by Udayan Prasad, it fancies itself a moving road drama with a little something to tell us about life and love and so on, but it never gets out of the gate; from the very beginning, it feels like such an obvious construct that we don’t buy a word of it, and nothing that follows is particularly convincing either. It doesn’t feel like anything remotely connected with reality; it’s the stuff of sudsy TV movies and bad books.

William Hurt, sporting an outstanding convict mustache, plays Brett, who is being released from prison after a six-year bit as the picture begins. He wanders into a nearby café/store for a beer and to figure out a way down to New Orleans, and observes Gordy (Eddie Redmayne) trying to pick up Martine (Kristen Stewart), who takes him up on his offer for a ride in an attempt to make a boy who spurned her jealous. They cruise down to the river, where Brett is waiting for the ferry; Martine, improbably enough, asks Brett to join them, so she’s not alone with Gordy.

I should mention that Martine is 15 years old, and Gordy is only a few years older, so of course they’d invite an old dude with a convict mustache into their car, right? Well, they would in the movie universe, where three disparate characters must be assembled for the road trip where lessons are learned and truths are revealed and so on. If that’s not enough of a cliché for you, we’ve also got the device of the Gradually Revealed Flashback (or the GRF, as it’s called in the parlance); Brett’s crime is shown first in flashing images and out-of-context moments, which are slowly revealed and connected the further into the story we get. A hack screenwriter will tell you it’s an inventive and evocative way to get into a character’s head, but it’s really just a way to use a tired device for cheap suspense.

Between his flashbacks, we follow the old timer, the troubled young girl, and the oddball young guy on their little journey, ticking off the car troubles (they drive an old convertible, of course) and run-ins with locals from the moment they appear over the horizon. We keep waiting for Erin Dignam’s trite script to give the characters some dimension, but we wait in vain; they stick to their stock types. Redmayne fares the worst—Gordy is a loathsome, obnoxious creation, the kind of character capable of a line like “You’re so pretty when you do certain stuff… kind of makes me horny.” What a charmer! We don’t buy the late developments between Gordy and Martine, because he doesn’t appear to have any additional layers for her to discover and like—it’s a relationship of narrative convenience, perfectly in line with the loudly grinding gears of the closing sequences.

Is there anything to recommend here? Well, the photography is lovely (the pic is lensed by Chris Menges, whose credits include Dirty Pretty Things, The Good Thief, and The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada). And some of the performances are worth seeing. Maria Bello does the best she can, though she’s mostly acting in fragments, some of them befuddling; I’m still not sure what the hell we’re supposed to think she’s thinking in the scene after Brett says he wants to marry her. Kristen Stewart is engaging enough (her success in the Twilight films is presumably why we’re seeing the film at all; it played Sundance clear back in January of 2008), but she keeps reaching into the same bag of tricks—the way she flips her hair, chews her lip, etc.

William Hurt is the best thing in the picture, relaxed, believable, just plain good. He has a close-up near the end of the film in which so much is happening on his face, you want to stop the movie and make sure you have a chance to take it all in—the shifts and thoughts flicker across his face subtly but perceptively, a sort of thirty-second lesson in great film acting. It’s such a good moment, you wish it were part of a film that deserved it.

"The Yellow Handkerchief" opens Friday, February 26 in limited release.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Today's New DVDs- 2/23/10

The Informant!: It's not a conventional comedy, by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, Soderbergh's latest isn't verbal comedy or character comedy, but tone comedy. Most of the laughs lie not in what happens, but in the slightly cock-eyed way the events unfold for the viewer. It's a risky movie, and certainly easy to dislike, but I found it oddly rewarding and awfully funny.

An Englishman in New York: It's a lightweight, inconsequential fluff of a movie, but man oh man is John Hurt insanely good in it.

Everybody's Fine: It's derivative, yes (DeNiro is clearly trying to remake About Schmidt), and occasionally obvious. But the acting is stellar and the filmmaking is solid and workmanlike, and it gets into some surprising emotional complexities for a PG-13 Christmastime release.

Cinematic Titanic- The Alien Factor: Cinematic Titanic, the second spin-off group from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (this one is heavier on the original folks, while Rifftrax favors the later cast), is consistantly funny, if not quite as prolific as their Rifftrax bretheren, but they've stumbled on to a new angle with their latest releases: recording them at their live shows, instead of the MST-style silhouette studio shoots of their first few discs. It worked beautifully on their last release, East Meets Watts; Brian Orndorf gives this one a rave.

On DVD: "Everybody's Fine"

Robert DeNiro hasn't exactly made it easy to be a Robert DeNiro fan over the last decade or so. Sure, he makes a good film every now and again (The Good Shepard is solid, and The Score is trashily enjoyable), but for every one of those, there's three disappointments like Meet the Fockers or What Just Happened, and a couple of embarrassments like Showtime or (God help us all) Righteous Kill. DeNiro himself is seldom out-and-out bad (okay, he's pretty terrible in Stardust), but there's something missing in his work of late--you don't see the fire in his eyes, the passion of the playing. He's phoning it in at best, sleepwalking for paychecks at worst.

His new picture, Everybody's Fine, has some problems, but let this be said: It's the best work he's done in years. His portrait of late-life loneliness is poignant yet understated, touching but restrained. What's more, he's surrounded by a cast of talented young actors, each of whom appears to be valuing the opportunity to work with a living legend; they bring their A-game, and consequently, you see their skill energizing him.

DeNiro plays Frank, a widower who is not close to his now-grown children; in a heartbreaking opening sequence, he is seen making elaborate preparations for a weekend visit by all four of the kids, who then cancel out, last minute, one by one. Though his doctor won't let him travel due to recent health woes, Frank decides to hit the road, paying a surprise visit to each of his offspring. He comes to discover that he's been getting edited, rose-colored versions of their lives, and that perhaps he may not have been the ideal father that he fancied himself to be.

If it sounds familiar, that's because it is; there's a feeling, as the narrative kicks into gear, that DeNiro badly wishes he'd been cast in About Schmidt. It is, in fact, a remake, though not of that film (the source material is Giuseppe Tornatore's Stanno Tutti Bene), but it has a vibe of its own. Directed with smooth professionalism by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), who also adapted the screenplay, Everybody's Fine often has the warmth and glow of a comfort food movie.

But it's more complicated than that--it's not afraid of the dysfunctional family dynamic it is exploring. Early in the film, Frank visits his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), and sits down for a dinner with her, her husband, and her son. Relations are clearly strained, for reasons we've just begun to guess at, and the discomfort of all parties involved are palpable--and relatable to just about anyone watching. His visit to son Robert (Sam Rockwell) is nearly as awkward; Robert's been slightly exaggerating his station in life to dear old dad, and the truth clearly disappoints Frank, who hides it badly. Rockwell and DeNiro play off each other beautifully here, even if some of the dialogue is a bit too on the nose (there's perhaps too much surface and not quite enough subtext for their scenes to play one hundred percent truthfully).

After a too-brief appearance by Melissa Leo as a friendly truck driver, Frank arrives in Las Vegas, where he's met by his other daughter Rosie, played by Drew Barrymore. She's just perfect, and her effortlessness with DeNiro and the ease of their body language belies a special closeness; we don't have to be told that she's daddy's little girl, which makes the breadth of her secrets all the more surprising. All of these hints and clues of their private revelations lead to a very tricky climactic scene late in the film, a sort of fantasy/fever dream/nightmare sequence that could have gone wrong in about a million ways, and manages to sidestep all of them. It takes daring to take a whack at a scene like that and risk looking silly; it turns out to be an inspired and powerful storytelling device.

The picture treads into some serious emotional waters at that point, and most of it plays well--you only wish Dario Marianelli's browbeating score wasn't laying it on so thick (the acting and the text are strong enough). The closing passages may be unabashedly sentimental, but they're not manipulative, as so many lesser family crisis dramas can be. Those scenes play--by that point, the film's genuine emotions are honest and earned. Everybody's Fine isn't quite a great movie, but it is a very, very good one, intelligently made and sensitively played, a lovely film in a very minor key.

"Everybody's Fine" hits DVD today.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Backfilling: "For All Mankind"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

"We choose to go to the moon,” President Kennedy said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Al Reinert’s documentary of the Apollo missions, For All Mankind, begins with those words, and would seem, from that moment, to be exactly what we expect—a stoic, informative, straight-forward account of how we went to the moon. God knows we’ve certainly seen a fair number of documentaries on the subject—DVD commemorations, theatrical releases, countless TV shows, to say nothing of docudrama accounts like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.

But Reinert’s technique is refreshing; his film flies in the face of the countless space docs by adopting a fascinating, experimental approach. Instead of giving us the predictable, ponderous narration (“The tragedy of Apollo 1 behind them…”), Reinert abandons not only narration, but chronology. Instead of marching listlessly from one mission to the next, he creates a tone poem of a trip to the moon, intermingling all of the missions into an overall picture of a breathtaking journey, narrated by the men who took it. And their reflections are unusual as well—we never see them (there are no “talking head” interview shots), and their comments tend to deal more with abstractions than facts and dates.

And the images are remarkable (even more so on Criterion’s carefully remastered Blu-ray release), drawing us in to the void of outer space and the unexplored terrain of the moon itself. For All Mankind has the makings of a dull History Channel special, and instead, it bends its footage and narrative to remind us of an extraordinary moment in human achievement.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Backfilling: "The Wages of Fear"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

There’s no shame for a young cinephile quite like that of viewing a picture that is widely regarded as a classic, and being underwhelmed by it. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is ranked in the imdb Top 250, distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by the esteemed Criterion Collection, and gets four stars from Roger Ebert, who calls it a “great French thriller.” I saw it for the first time this week, and while there’s no denying its power and influence, I can’t say it was the kind of essential film I’d been led to believe it to be.

Its main problem is that it takes too damned long to get going—the first hour is plenty atmospheric, but good God do you want to light a fire under it. The story, as anyone who’s even heard of it knows, is of four desperate main driving two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin across dangerous Latin American terrain. That’s what we’re there for, and we spend the entire first act waiting for Clouzot to get on with it already. It’s not that there’s nothing of value there, but they could accomplish in 20 minutes what it does in 40 (and reportedly did, in its original, shortened American cut).

Once they get on the road, we perk up, but the first leg of the journey is burdened by less-than-convincing rear projection work. We make allowances for the effects of the time, yes, but the problem is that those early scenes function side-by-side with the story’s later, and far more compelling, practical stunts. Those are the scenes the film is known for—the two sequences over the rickety platform, the destruction of the boulder, the drive through the oil—and they are, no doubt, magnificent. But that’s an hour of the movie.

What’s my problem? Am I some kind of impatient, anti-intellectual heathen? I hope not. Even Ebert admits that the opening scenes “have a tendency to drag,” and that they traffic mostly in “aimless ennui.” Amen to that, brother Roger. Clouzot was clearly a masterful technical filmmaker, and his suspense sequences are marvelously crafted. But The Wages of Fear is the kind of film where you’re fine sticking with the later, better pictures that it influenced.