Saturday, April 3, 2010
Just a short for you this week, but it's one of my favorites. One A.M. was made by Charlie Chaplin during his fruitful period at Mutual, and seriously, every one of those shorts is a classic; it caught him right as he was perfecting the form of the two-reel comedy, before he moved on to longer works. This is my favorite of that bunch--a pantomime of uproarious drunkenness, done almost entirely solo. Enjoy.
Charlie Chaplin Collection 4-One AM
Uploaded by silentclassics. - Check out other Film & TV videos.
The screenplay (by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg) works in much the same way that William Goldberg's script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did: by importing a quippy buddy comedy dynamic into a seemingly incongruent time and place, and taking it for a spin. Purists may howl in protest, but it's a bold, frankly refreshing take on a character that could have been lazily imbued with easy iconography (there's not a deerstalker cap or calabash pipe in sight, and the words "Elementary, my dear Watson" do not pass his lips). Instead, this Holmes is as skilled with his hands as he is with his brains--and uses them together, as illustrated in the masterful opening sequence, which finds Holmes easily dispatching a husky guard with well-planned fisticuffs.
The dastardly, black arts-dabbling villain caught in that opening sequence is Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong), who is quickly sent to the gallows. But the case is a bittersweet one from Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his faithful assistant, Dr. Watson (Jude Law)--it will apparently be their last one together, as Watson is departing their lodgings on Baker Street and is planning to marry. But something goes awry with that last case. Blackwell calls Holmes to his cell and warns him that "three more will die"; a short time after his hanging, he up and vanishes from his grave. Since Watson was the attending physician at said hanging, and confirmed the lack of pulse, his reputation is on the line. And then there's Holmes' lost love, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who approaches Holmes with an offer that seems to dovetail strangely with the Blackwell investigation.
The plot is mighty convoluted, but it's thrown together with high energy and good cheer by director Ritchie, making his first decent picture in nearly a decade. He's clearly having a great time making a big studio period piece, filling it with bold, well-composed frames, spry camera work, and clever editorial trickery, playing up his action set pieces (like the crackerjack fighter scene in the lab of "the ginger midget," which spills out into the London streets and out to the docks) but also vibing off the rat-tat-tat comic repartee of his stars. The script cleverly constructs their friendship as equal parts camaraderie and co-dependence; Watson, a former military man, gets a jolt off the adventures they share, while Holmes digs the notion of trading barbs and deductive notions with an equally matched companion. None of this is terribly original in general, but it does add a spark to our traditional notions of the Holmes and Watson relationship.
They've also got the right cast for this particular interpretation. There may be no star working today who is as much fun to simply watch act as Robert Downey Jr.; his personal misadventures have made him a more pleasurable screen presence than ever. You can see a twinkle in his eye, a spring in his voice as the words bound out of his mouth--he's having a great time up there. He's not winking at the audience or half-assing the performance (the way that, say, Burt Reynolds did for all those years); he's simply conveying the sheer joy of performance. He's also not afraid to make his Holmes a little bit crazy, as in the great solo scene where he tries to puzzle out the case, staring straight forward as he plinks his violin, writing on the wall behind him, voices in his head, his thought patterns all over his face and tied right in to the camera's smooth dolley out and back in. Jude Law, who can be a dreary drag when cast in the wrong role, is exactly the right choice for this one; looking over his filmography confirms that, good looks be damned, he's at his best not as a leading man, but as a supporting player allowed to let his freak flag fly (see Road to Perdition, A.I., I Heart Huckabees, etc.). He's evenly matched with Downey's loopy Holmes, workmanlike and occasionally put-upon (finding his friend all out of sorts, his picks up a bottle nearby and snorts, "You do know that what you're drinking is meant for eye surgery?"). Mark Strong is an awfully good villain, cold and calculating, while Eddie Marsan (from Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky) proves a terrific foil. Rachel McAdams, though, can't do much with her thin role (her character is a third wheel, and is played like one), but she does what is required--i.e., looks fetching and smiles slyly--about as well as you could hope for.
The production and costume designs are first rate, and Hans Zimmer's janglingly enjoyable score keeps things zipping right along. It is, as you've probably heard, entirely too long, but it's not poorly paced (as countless shorter films are). The multiple climaxes are over the top, sure, but they're engaging; besides, Ritchie manages to trot out a whirring-saw sequence, a device with a ticking clock, and a swordfight at ridiculous heights. These are throwback devices (the kind of Saturday serial scenes Spielberg was giving shout-outs to in Raiders), lovingly indulged. Ritchie's clearly having a ball making his movie, and it's infectious.
Sherlock Holmes may not be a terribly disciplined picture, but that's part of its charm--it tosses in equal dashes of mystery, suspense, romance, bromance, and stuff blowing up. It also gives us a once-promising filmmaker rediscovering his instrument, and a gifted actor knocking us out with a good old-fashioned movie star turn. As popcorn entertainments go, you could do a hell of a lot worse.
"Sherlock Holmes" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.
Friday, April 2, 2010
The Last Song: Wait, it's Miley Cyrus and Nicolas Sparks? It's the collaboration I've been dreaming of! Ebert's review is surprisingly positive (two and a half stars), but it's got one might good zinger: "Sparks recently went on record as saying he is a greater novelist than Cormac McCarthy. This is true in the same sense that I am a better novelist than William Shakespeare."
Why Did I Get Married, Too?: Here's a fun game you can play twice a year: whenever a new Tyler Perry movie comes out, go find a poster and count how many times his name is on it. You might have to take off your shoes and socks and use your toes! None of this would matter if he wasn't a terrible piece of shit filmmaker, but he is; Orndorf braved the picture and reports that it is "Perry's most obscenely obnoxious, morally bankrupt, and professionally ramshackle film to date." And that's saying something.
Leaves of Grass: Tim Blake Nelson's down-home philosphy-and-weed comedy is all over the place, tonally speaking, but it's a true original-- broadly funny, darkly disturbing, warm and sweet in equal measures-- and full-up with terrific performances.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass is an honest-to-God American original; I’ve never seen a film quite like it, with the possible exception of some of the Coen Brothers’ more far-out pictures. This is not to say that everything in it works—some of the story threads are half-baked, and the tone is all over the place. But have to admire its gumption; they’re going for something off-the-wall and unexpected here, and the resulting product more than fills the bill.Edward Norton pulls double duty, playing twin brothers from Oklahoma whose lives have taken vastly different turns. Bill, long estranged from his family, is a professor in classical language at Brown and up for a lucrative position at Harvard. Back home, his brother Brady is just about the smartest pot grower around, but in debt up to his neck to the powerful Jewish kingpin Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). When Bill gets word that Brady’s been killed in a drug deal gone bad, he hurries back home, only to find that… well, it’s a little more complicated than all that.
Nelson, best known for his character turns in front of the camera in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Syriana, is a filmmaker of considerable skill (his quiet, powerful Eye of God is one of the best movies you’ve never seen). Leaves of Grass, with its hints of pot comedy and goofy characterizations—particularly the down-home half of Norton’s double act, complete with scruffy facial hair and a prize mullet—is more broadly comic than we might expect from his previous filmography (which also includes such dour titles as O and The Grey Zone). It has a completely different tone and mood than the fragile Eye of God, but it shares that picture’s thick sense of atmosphere; it’s a rare film that genuinely inhabits its locations. (I’m from Kansas and spent considerable time in Oklahoma in my youth; I know that of which I speak.)
He also lucks out by scoring a first-rate cast, from top to bottom. Norton is just plain wonderful; both of his performances are thought-out and worked-through, but what’s more than that, he looks to be having a great time acting (for the first time in a while). Nelson appears as Brady’s best buddy Bolger, adding comic relief and unexpected pathos. Melanie Lynskey (on a hot streak following top-notch turns in The Informant! and Away We Go) is flat-out terrific; seriously, is there nothing this actor can’t do? Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon impress in small but key roles, while Keri Russell does earthy spunk well (though her romance with Bill comes off as a bit of an afterthought). Even the minor roles are filled by notable character actors like Pruitt Taylor Vince and Steve Earle.
Nelson’s screenplay is densely plotted but nimble; it lays out with the clean efficiency of an Elmore Leonard novel, and zips right by in a flash. The tone shifts are whip-fast, from low comedy to hard brutality to hearty drama, but it never feels forced or uneven; Nelson’s sure directorial hand and crisp pace never waver, clear through to its peculiar but perfect ending.
There’s a likeable strangeness to Leaves of Grass, and it is without question entertaining. But it is, indeed, a tough film to whole-heartedly recommend; it’s so off the wall and so oddly constructed, I can imagine large swaths of audiences won’t engage with it at all. But some moviegoers like their pictures to swing a little more wildly, and don’t mind if not every gamble pays off. If you’re one of those moviegoers, it’s worth seeking out.
So here’s an oddity. Don McKay is a peculiar hybrid of thriller, black comedy, small-town drama, and who knows what else, pitched at an odd angle that resembles no reality I recognized, either in life or in other movies. It’s so strange, in fact, that I half-wonder if writer/director Jake Goldberger was trying to remove himself from the conventions of storytelling entirely, and stake out a claim in the surreal. I’ve never seen a film quite like it, though I can’t tell you if that’s a good or bad thing.Thomas Haden Church (who executive produced) stars as the title character, an introverted janitor who is summoned back to his hometown by his high-school sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue), who is dying of some mysterious “sickness.” She says that she has only a short time to live, but she’s like to spend the rest of that time with him. He seems agreeable enough to that idea (and to just about everything else—seldom has there been a more inert leading character than this one), though he is eyed suspiciously by her caretaker (Melissa Leo) and her doctor (James Rebhorn).
These opening passages are curious; we admire Goldberger for assembling such a stellar cast of terrific character actors (Keith David, M. Emmet Walsh, and Pruitt Taylor Vince also show up), and can’t help but marvel at how good he is at building tension into the mundanities of small-town life. But something isn’t quite right—the dialogue is too deliberately stylized, and the timing is just a little off, a little sprung.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the picture takes a grisly turn (which I won’t reveal here). Immediately thereafter, we’re plunged into a sequence of maddening suspense, one of those potboiler specials where a horrible discovery hinges on the split-second timing of cleanup and clothing and keys turning in locks. I first admired Goldberger for this neo-Hitchcockian scene (and figured he was going for a Hitch vibe, what with the Shadow of a Doubt-style set-up and Leo’s shades-of-Rebecca performance), but then I started to grimace; the music was too bombastic, and he was overdoing it, as if it wasn’t supposed to be that scene, but a parody of a scene like that. What’s he up to?
For the bulk of the second act, Goldberger basically tries to see how long the movie can subsist purely on dread, atmosphere, and strangeness. We keep asking questions that the movie doesn’t answer, even when Don himself asks them. Things get particularly daft between Church—who is doing this flat, empty thing with his line readings, which is surely a choice (he can be a nicely expressive actor), though maybe not a successful one, at least in the moment-to-moment of the film—and Shue, whose performance becomes more and more like a soap opera regular the deeper we get into the picture. At any rate, they’re saying all of these odd things to each other (some of the dialogue scenes are little more than exchanges of non-sequitors), and sometimes they say them seriously, and sometimes not, and are they buying into this? Are we supposed to? Just what the hell is going on in this movie?
But then Goldberger goes and blows it it with another turn that’s pure nonsense, the kind of head-scratching hokum that may not be a cheat, technically, but sure feels like one. So what are we left with? I’m honestly not sure. I can’t fully endorse or recommend Don McKay—it’s too messy and all-over-the-place for that—but it certainly isn’t boring. I’ll give it that much.
“But wait,” you’ll say. “I don’t want to see another low-budget romantic comedy/drama.” And brother (or sister), I am with you. If there’s one thing we don’t need more of… well, it’s Happy Madison productions. But after that, the one thing we don’t need more of is twee tales of charmingly neurotic twentysomethings who meet cute and bond over their shared love of indie rock and reality TV, and somehow find a way to fall in love. At a glance, Breaking Upwards looks like another one of those movies. It is not one of those movies.First and foremost, it is not a boy-meets-girl story. Its pre-title sequence (which is, in its own quiet way, a real grabber) is a montage of quick, isolated moments from a relationship in progress—four years in progress, in fact. Indeed, after this long, Zoe (Zoe Lister Jones) and Daryl (Daryl Wein) are watching their romance wilt, as we can see from their bland sex, their dull routine, their wordless breakfasts reading emails on their cell phones. They realize that the bloom is off the rose, but they’re not ready to let go, either, and thus begins a long, slow, tough break-up.
It happens in stages. First they’re just “taking days off” (her mom: “Okay, I don’t know what that means”). Then they start to suspect each other of attractions to other people (of one, a tall, skinny actress, Zoe snaps, “Hey, go buy her a sandwich, I’m sure she’s starving!”). Then they decide to see other people, but first they “do a practice” conversation, to decide how much they can stand to hear. And before they realize it consciously, they’ve drifted apart.
Most romantic comedies are solely concerned with getting the couple in question together, with only superficial roadblocks and mindless miscommunications keeping them from true happiness. But what happens after “happily ever after”? It’s a question that movies seldom stop to ponder, and when we do see a break-up in film, it’s always sudden and immediate, and followed by the most shallow, uninteresting, cliché-ridden cinematic language (the ice cream binge, the wine-soaked night out, etc.). But in reality, couples break up all the time (as Dan Savage says, “Every relationship you are in will fail… until one doesn’t”), and more often than not, it happens like this—in several difficult, prickly stages.
The film is written by its stars (with Peter Duchan), who reportedly based it on their own relationship; Wein directed and edited, Lister Jones co-produced. They’re really funny together, and have a good, relaxed chemistry; their comfort as a couple is palpable on screen. Their script is bursting with memorable dialogue and funny (but real) situations; the first time they have sex after coming up with the “taking days off” arrangement, she interjects (as they’re going at each other) to ask what her Facebook should say. “Wait, when did you get on Facebook?” he asks, between frantic kisses. “MySpace is kind of dead!” she gasps back. Later, when she stands him up on one of their “on” nights, he informs her, “I’m a little irate.” Her: “Can you be a little irate?”
Alex Bergman’s cinematography is stylish, but in an approachable, low-fi way, and the picture inhabits its West Village locations with the ease of documentary. There are some problems, to be sure—charm machine Olivia Thirlby is badly underused, and when the big blow-out finally comes, it feels forced and stagy in a way that the rest of the picture doesn’t. Seeing’s how it is an autobiographical tale of two twentysomething New Yorkers, it sounds like hipster navel-gazing, and indeed, there’s a lot about it that could make it intolerable—there’s no shortage of boho intellectualism, ironic tees, and yoga classes. But it’s done with wit and verve, and a nice ear for dialogue.
Most importantly, Breaking Upwards is appealing and sympathetic. You like these people. You want them to be happy. You want them to succeed. But somehow, trickily (and without any easy villains or obvious infractions), you want them to succeed apart. To pull that off, and to do it with this much warmth and humor, is a real accomplishment.
"Breaking Upwards" opens Friday, April 2nd in limited release.
Back in 2003, not enough people saw a wonderful, heartfelt drama called Moonlight Mile, in which Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon played grieving parents who develop a relationship with the lover (Jake Gyllenhaal) of their deceased child. It didn’t make much money, but a few critics liked it, and apparently Sarandon did too, because now she’s gone and done a gender-swap remake. Shana Feste’s The Greatest doesn’t match the quiet elegance or emotional impact of the earlier picture, but it has its moments—mainly thanks to the fine performances at its core.It starts with a wallop, giving us a shock open in which Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) and his girlfriend Rose (Carey Mulligan)’s lovey-dovey dialogue is interrupted by a freak car accident that kills Bennett. His family—father Allen (Pierce Brosnan), mother Grace (Susan Sarandon), and brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons)—is shattered. Each of them deal with the loss in their own ineffective way; Allen tries to ignore the pain, Grace wallows in inconsequential details, and Ryan self-medicates. Then Rose shows up on their doorstep, and announces that she’s pregnant with Bennett’s baby and has nowhere to go.
Some of the early expositional dialogue is pretty stiff, but once the story gets going, it sails along pretty smoothly—perhaps a little too smoothly. It mostly unfolds as you’d expect; there’s resistance and communication issues at first, but slowly each of the family members breaks through to Rose, and to each other, etc. For much of the running time, however, the details and small touches carry the show: the subtle, mature way that they handle Allen’s “friendship” with a school colleague, the sly passive-aggressiveness of Grace’s hospital visits, or the small, lovely scene where Rose makes her strange bedroom her own.
Mostly, though, it’s a showcase for the actors. Sarandon isn’t doing much here she hasn’t done before, but I’ll tell ya what, when you want this kind of thing done, she’s the one to do it; her late scene with the invaluable Michael Shannon is tough, powerful stuff. Mulligan doesn’t have the kind of show-off role that she had in An Education, but her tremendous charisma and warmth are a huge asset for the picture, and her American accent is mostly credible (though it slips occasionally—how did she say “bananas” again?). And she has one great scene, in which she dodges Allen’s obstruction by telling him “a story about a boy.” But the most interesting performance in the film is Brosnan’s, and that’s no surprise—it’s kind of wonderful how he’s slowly segued out of his Bond persona to become something of an indie godfather, surprising and engaging us with his complex characterizations in films like The Matador and The Ghost Writer. He grabs us from his first scene here—a long, unbroken take of father, mother, and son sitting in the back of the funeral procession limo—and his eventual breakdown (the money shot for this kind of character) is a killer. Simmons handles his subplots well, and adds a welcome, wry sense of humor to the proceedings.
Now, there’s plenty that doesn’t work. The scene where Rose takes Allen to a wild party makes a play for easy laughs that smells like desperation, and I’m not quite sure if those flashbacks work. Feste also never quite figure out how to mine the relationship between Rose and Ryan for much of anything. The third act conflicts and confrontations feel a little pat; the story starts out with some refreshing openness and frankness, but slowly falls into some fairly predictable story patterns. And yes, I know that ending this story with anything other than a childbirth scene is like bringing a gun onstage and never firing it, but good lord am I tired of childbirth scenes.
But even at its most trite and predictable, it does work. It gets an emotional response from us, even though it gets it in a somewhat mechanized, obvious way. Some viewers resist being manipulated like that; for others, well, that’s exactly the kind of thing they go to the movies for. I’m somewhere in the middle—I don’t mind being maneuvered emotionally, as long as it’s done with some intelligence and finesse. The Greatest does that, and with some fine performances to boot.
"The Greatest" opens Friday, April 2nd in limited release.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
An Education: Lone Scherfig's warm, thoughtful period piece (from a perceptive, intelligent screenplay by Nick Hornby) was one of last year's best; any of you Blind Side fans (and I know you're out there), watch this unforgettable Carey Mulligan performance and dare tell me that Sandy deserved that Oscar.
Alvin and the Chipmunks- The Squeakquel: Suprisingly smart and funny! Just kidding, I'm never fucking seeing this.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
What it is not is a sequel, remake, "reboot," or "re-imagining" of Abel Ferrara's 1992 film Bad Lieutenant. It is a different story, about a different guy, in a different place, and told in a completely different style (Ferrera's film is a stark, gritty, grim character study, and Herzog's picture, while frequently disturbing, plays as a pitch-black comedy). All it has in common with its namesake is that it is about a thieving, whoring, druggie cop; the carryover of the title (reportedly at the insistence of the two films' shared producer Edward R. Pressman, who wanted a straight remake and should have known better if he was hiring Herzog) will probably confuse more than it will assist.
The story begins in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, as New Orleans cops Terence McDonagh (Cage) and Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer--nice to see him in a theatrical release again) survey their deserted station house and discover a leftover prisoner who is about to drown in the rising flood waters of his cell. They contemplate betting on how long it'll take the water to kill the poor sap, but McDonagh ends up diving in to save him, hurting his back in the process. "I'm gonna write you a prescription for Vicadin," his doctor tells him, and our junkie cop is off and running.
Six months later, McDonagh is in the throes of a full-on drug addiction, tooting up in his car on the way into a crime scene. The scene is the gruesome, execution-style slaying of a family of five; the patriarch was apparently a low-level drug dealer. Solving the crime becomes, in his words, his "primary purpose"--well, that and getting drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.
Broadly speaking, we find Herzog working within the framework of a glossy, well-produced, star-driven thriller; however, Nicolas Cage is no typical star, and this is no standard procedural. The actor has spent too much of the last decade slumming and sleepwalking through mindless paycheck pictures like Knowing, Ghost Rider, Bangkok Dangerous, and the soul-crushing National Treasure series, but every once in a while (I'm gonna say the last time was Lord of War) he gets his hand on a role with some power to it, and turns up the juice. This is the best work he's done in years, a deliriously unhinged performance that you can't take your eyes off of. He plays this guy from the outside in--the sheer physicality of the performance is impressive, not only in the expected addict's tics but in his peculiar walk (he uses an odd sideways lope, as if the gun in his belt is throwing him off balance) and strange speech patterns (as he becomes more addicted, he uses a chewed-up, stylized speaking voice that sounds like a contrivance but totally works within the context of the characterization). He indulges himself a bit, sure; he resorts to mugging in some of his close-ups, and the sheer theatricality of the performance may turn some viewers off. But it's a risky, impressive piece of work.
William M. Finkelstein's screenplay has some good scenes (including at least one that reminds of, and rivals, the shock value of that horrifying traffic stop in the original Bad Lieutenant) and a sound structure that allows for the indulgences of its director and star; it somehow seems perfectly logical that, midway through, McDonagh ends up heading to Biloxi with a fifteen-year-old witness and his dad's dog so that he can pick up his hooker girlfriend. The character is written with complexity beyond his vices; it is unfortunate but true that McDonagh is good at being a cop (even if he's not a "good cop"). He's got steady instincts, and he's strong in the interrogation room. If only he weren't having all those pesky hallucinations.
On the downside, Finkelstein's script occasionally dips into cliché dialogue and situations (we get stock scenes with Internal Affairs, and even that old standby scene where he's stripped of his gun) that the energy of Cage's performance and Herzog's direction can't quite transcend. The picture is also a tad overlong, and not all of Herzog's experiments work (I'm not sure what he's doing with the reptile-cam, but it doesn't play). But the screenplay provides a darkly comic motor to the picture, and much of it is played at that pitch, with great success--Cage's jittery explosion at a pharmacy clerk and his gun-waving interrogation of two elderly women build to juicy and explosively funny comic payoffs. It's got such a wicked and knowing sense of humor, in fact, that the mere phrase "property room" becomes a punchline by the picture's end. It is, my no means, a "funny" movie in any kind of traditional sense, but it uses dark humor as a weapon to keep its viewers on their toes, adding to the unpredictability and oddball, insane style of the piece.
While there are moments when Herzog revels in the swampy atmosphere, shooting with the anthropological instincts that he brings to his documentary work, he's mostly working on a broadly theatrical, almost operatic canvas, which is about the only way make a film that credibly contains Cage's gonzo performance. Frankly, a devlish sense of humor is about the only way to explain the deus ex machina-style closing scenes (with supporting characters making farce-timed entrances and exits to bring bits of news to our hero). It closes with what would seem the absolute antithesis of the downbeat yet inevitable ending of the original Bad Lieutenant, but its final scene finds a peculiar and perfect note, and holds it for as long as it can.
"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, April 6th.