Friday, April 16, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 4/16/10

Kick-Ass: The most controversial film review of the week has been Roger Ebert's one-star pan of Matthew Vaughn's comic book satire, taking particular issue with the violence doled out and inflicted upon 11-year-old "Hit Girl." The angry fan boy responses, accusing him of being "out of touch" and not "getting it," themselves don't "get it"--there are no absolutes in film criticism, kids. That element of the story hit a nerve with Rog, and he couldn't see past it; it happens. I don't forsee that road-block (it's all pretend, ya know), and Rich's recommendation carries some weight, so I'll check it out eventually.

Death at a Funeral: I will tell you this much: I'm still not convinced that a three-year-old British comedy was due for a Stateside remake just yet, particularly one that got the widespread attention and distribution as Frank Oz's picture did. But Neil LaBute is an interesting choice to direct (you might think he's a straight-up dramatist, but he knows his farce) and it's got a good cast. Ebert's rave might be in the minority, but this one at least appears to be worth a look.

The Joneses: There's a lot to like in this sharp satire of conspicuous consumption, though not the slapped-on happy ending, and not the trailers that give away the well-revealed premise.

The City of Your Final Destination: Merchant-Ivory movies are frequently boring. Yeah, I said it.

Handsome Harry: Bette Gordon's character drama has its issues (slightly monotonous construction, some uneven performances), but it's a heartfelt, evocative picture, and star Jamey Sheridan is just aces.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Theaters: "The Joneses"

“We’re gonna do some damage in this town,” smirks Steve Jones (David Duchovny), as his picture-perfect nuclear family arrives at their new home, an opulent estate in a gated community. They’re all smiles and style: knockout mom Kate (Demi Moore), cool son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), pretty daughter Jenn (Amber Heard). With their perfect looks and impeccable taste, they seem a model family. But the more time we spend with them, the more they seem to be just glossy surfaces—there’s something off about them. Behind closed doors, they’re all business. But what business are they in?

Here’s where discussing The Joneses gets tricky, because this critic knew absolutely zilcho, zero, nada about the picture going in. Therefore, I was fully involved and absolutely unprepared for where the story was going to take me. But the film’s trailers are right up front about what, exactly, the Joneses are up to, and that’s a mistake; I’m sure the selling the movie without selling the high concept might have been tougher, but hey, try harder. At any rate, I’ll do my best to keep from spilling the beans here, and if you can dodge the trailer, do.

What I can tell you is that The Joneses is a smart, knowing satire of conspicuous consumption and consumerist culture, and a glib indictment of it. The film is elegantly made by gifted first-time writer/director Derrick Borte, who doesn’t just observe this shiny, expensive world; he lives in it, and lets the sheen of it all rub off on the picture, which is smooth as silk. He doesn’t just work in broad strokes and easy targets—even the throwaway moments (like the scores of pillows Steve removes from a bed) are keenly observed. He gets the look of the thing just right, yes, but also the feel, the seductiveness, of wealth—in the beauty-shot cinematography and the clever montage that reveals the film’s central premise.

As the patriarch, Duchovny does his most interesting film work to date; the comic beats are a no-brainer (his dry wit has never been better used—he can get a laugh out of a perfectly-timed “Noooooo”), but he also digs into this guy’s soul and compellingly lays out the emptiness inside. Demi Moore, who hasn’t been genuinely good in a movie since, oh, 1991 (I’m thinking Mortal Thoughts), is surprisingly, astonishingly assured and capable in this one; this tough-as-nails taskmaster mom role is an easy fit for her whiskey-soaked voice and well-preserved good looks. What’s more, the duo brings interesting things out of each other. They have the right kind of slightly off-kilter chemistry, and the intelligent crafting of their tentative relationship is one of the script’s best qualities.

The kids, on the other hand, don’t get all that much to do (their singularly-defined characters aren’t given much to play beyond the basics), and it feels like a bit of a loss to cast gifted comic actors like Gary Cole and Glenne Headly as the neighbors and have them play it straight. Some of the gags are a touch juvenile (like the hard cut after Moore’s “I think she’s finally getting it”), and a few of the third act story turns are awfully predictable. Borte also uses an obvious music cue to tip his hand too early in the scene dealing with an unexpected death.

And for all of the sly dialogue and crafty storytelling, the closing scene comes a little too easy—it feels like an arbitrary cop-out, an attempt to shove a square peg of happy ending into a round hole of a movie. The Joneses is (thankfully) a pricklier movie than that. Borte’s script isn’t a political tract or message movie, but it is timely and nicely reflective of a culture where household debt hovers near 100% of GDP. How much of that debt is due to the accumulation of meaningless stuff? How much of that stuff do we really need? And how do we become so absolutely certain that we need it?

"The Joneses" opens Friday, April 16th in limited release.

In Theaters: "The City of Your Final Destination"

There was a time when Merchant-Ivory productions pretty much personified the notion of the art film. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, their elegant, intellectual dramas served as an alternative to the noise of the multiplex; their films were independently financed (though often picked up for distribution by major players), and their biggest successes—pictures like Howards End and The Remains of the Day--met with rapturous reviews, respectable box office, and Oscar glory. In many ways, they were the chairmen of the board of alternative cinema. And then Pulp Fiction happened. Suddenly, independent film got a shot of adrenaline (literally, in one of its many iconic sequences); audiences and distributors realized that arthouse cinema didn’t have to be dry and stoic, and seemingly overnight, Merchant-Ivory were relics of a bygone era. Their subsequent output has been, to say the least, unevenly received, in critical or financial terms.

Producer Ismail Merchant died in 2005, but the production company still bears his name; director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhaba (who penned many of their best-known pictures) collaborate for the first time since his passing with The City of Your Final Destination, based on Peter Cameron’s 2002 novel. It also marks the return of their frequent 1990s leading man Anthony Hopkins, but alas, they can’t make lightning strike again. It’s a well-made film, but not a terribly engaging one.

The troubles start with the less-than-compelling story. Omar (Omar Metwally) is a young academic who hopes to write a biography of a celebrated but reclusive writer, Jules Gund. Since the writer’s suicide, his estate in Uruguay has continued to be inhabited by his brother (Hopkins), his wife (Laura Linney), and his mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg). As the film begins, they refuse to authorize the biography, but at the urging of his girlfriend (Alexandra Maria Lara), he travels to Uganda, hoping to pursuade them in person to sign off on the book.

That, I’m afraid, is the entire story—a guy trying to get a family to authorize a biography. Doesn’t exactly sing, does it? What’s worse, Ivory’s pacing is impossible; the thin story is stretched out to an overlong 118 minutes, and has become quite the slog by the end of them. It’s elegant and handsomely composed, yes, and it’s a lovely film to look at (the location work is beautiful). But the dialogue is stilted and, try as they might, the filmmakers can’t make the central situation interesting.

Hopkins helps. He turns in a high-spirited, good-natured performance as the one member of the mourning trio who thinks the book is a good idea; informed that it’s two to one against him, he cheerily replies, “Well, I refuse to be guided by anything as stupid as democracy.” He owns the picture—it comes to life whenever he’s on screen. Linney’s also doing some good work as the jilted but stubborn wife, a once-gifted painter who now sequesters herself and turns out counterfeits of other artists’ work. There’s a nice snap to her performance, and a touch of sadness too (particularly when she admits, of her late husband, “I wasn’t good enough to paint him”).

Gainsbourg, on the other hand, can’t do much with her thinly drain waif, and Metwally is an even bigger problem. He’s a dud, a blank slate, a pretty face without much happening behind it. Of his book, he insists to Linney that “everything depends on it,” but it’s not convincing—there’s nothing in that reading, or any of his others, to suggest much of anything depends on anything. There’s no urgency or fire about him, and it makes the film even more inert. His brief, underdeveloped romance with Gainsbourg couldn’t be less interesting (Ivory’s just marking time here), and when he lands on the hospital, the girlfriend hustles into town and takes over as protagonist. But she’s dull as well (her line readings are particularly wooden), and we end up checking our watches through much of the third act—particularly the overwrought, melodramatic climax.

It’s hard to get too worked up over The City of Your Final Destination; it’s not a bad film in any obvious, aesthetic sense. Ivory has been doing this too long to make an incompetent film. But an incompetent film might have more to draw us in—many a passionate filmmaker has made a clumsy, clunky picture that still engages the viewer and sticks in the memory. Ivory’s films are slick and smooth, but that also means there are no edges to them. There’s not much in the way of blood running through this one, as immaculately prepared and handsomely mounted as it is—it’s all very pretty, and pretty boring.

"The City of Your Final Destination" opens Friday, April 16th in limited release.

In Theaters: "Handsome Harry"

Harry hasn’t heard from Kelley in something like thirty years, and when he does, the guy’s literally calling from his deathbed. “Do you remember the night we almost killed Kagan?” he asks. Harry does. “I’m going to hell for it,” Kelly tells him. Harry’s pretty sure he is too. But Kelley’s guilt and fear gets Harry thinking, and he decides maybe it’s time to deal with what happened that night, all those many years ago.

It’s an intriguing set-up—the return of sins from the past is a venerable construct. Bette Gordon’s Handsome Harry takes that notion into some fairly familiar areas, but does so in a skillful manner. The script is problematic, to be sure, but the sturdy performers (Gordon has assembled some of the best character actors in the business) and the sure-handed direction manage to ride those bumps out with grace.

Harry (Jamey Sheridan) is divorcee, living in upstate New York and running his own electrical business. He’s celebrating his birthday with his son when the call comes from Kelley (Steve Buscemi), his old Navy buddy; he heads to Philadelphia to try and comfort his friend from long ago. Kelley is haunted by the brutal beating that the group of friends gave to Kagan, one of their own, and hopes to get forgiveness before he’s dies, but it’s too late. Harry still harbors questions and guilt about that night, so he hits the road, seeking out the other men who were there to try to understand what happened, and why.

In its opening scenes, Handsome Harry stakes out such a specific sense of time and place, it’s a little disappointing to see it fall into the easy formula of the road movie/voyage to self-discovery/etc. Within that formula, it relies too much on a repeated dramatic pattern; Harry meets up with each old chum, they exchange pleasantries, and then the screenplay gins up a conflict between them, presumably to make everything more serious and dramatic.

The picture also employs the increasingly tiresome device of the gradually-expanding flashback—we get glimpses, and then a little more as the film progresses, until the end, when (a-ha) it all makes sense. It’s an overused trope, particularly when the a-ha moment is as easily predictable as this one. And several scenes don’t play at all—the scene in the classroom with Porter (Aidan Quinn) isn’t the least bit credible, and the dinner table explosion by Rheems (John Savage) doesn’t build in a logical way (it’s too much, too soon).

But if the broad strokes are often too bold, the small details, and the moment-to-moment life on screen, lives and breathes in a way that keeps us keyed in. Sheridan’s quiet, nuanced performance is a major motor; he glides through the bulk of the film, taking it all in without revealing much, then letting us in beautifully in the last twenty or so minutes. He has a wonderful, understated scene on a dance floor, in which he gets lost in his on world, in the density of his memories, which all seem held tightly in his face and body. Later, he has a moment of bruised, regretful reaction that pulls the entire narrative taught (he’s doing some heavy lifting there, without breaking a sweat). It’s a powerful piece of acting.

His supporting actors mostly hold their own. Quinn fares perhaps the best—his subtle portrayal of the academic intellectual is fully realized in just one short scene, and just watch the specific way he says goodbye to Harry (it’s a great moment of real film acting). Buscemi’s appearance is also brief, but he’s effectively used—he’s not our healthiest-looking actor to begin with, so he’s particularly convincing as an unhappy man knocking on death’s door. Campbell Scott, likewise, turns in a memorably haunted performance. Karen Young and Bill Sage, as the people who come closest to knowing Harry in his hometown, have an lovely authenticity, and convey their relationships mostly in action and reaction. About the only actor who comes off poorly is John Savage; it’s great to see him in a decent film, but he’s overworking it, too caricatured with his tough-guy accent.

Bette Gordon is an interesting filmmaker—her 1983 film Variety (screened, with this one, at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival) was one of the seminal films of the American independent film movement, and that film, like this one, had some odd detours and inexplicable meanderings. But she is a skillful director—the photography is moody and warmly desaturated, and the pieces fit together evenly, even when they shouldn’t. Some of it is contrived, and some of it is predictable, but Handsome Harry is a compelling, well-made picture nonetheless.

"Handsome Harry" opens Friday, April 16th in limited release.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Kael of the Week: On Jack Nicholson

I again promise to start making more of an effort to actually do this feature every week.

“The actor who has put our new, ambivalent feelings about the warrior male to account is Jack Nicholson. Despite his excessive dynamism (and maybe partly because of it), this satirical actor has probably gone further into the tragicomedy of hardhat macho than any other actor. He exposes cracks in barroom-character armor and makes those cracks funny, in a low-down, grungy way. With his horny leers and his little-boy cockiness and one-upmanship, he illuminates the sources of male bravado. His whole acting style is based on the little guy coming on strong, because being a tough guy is the only ideal he’s ever aspired to. This little guy doesn’t make it, of course; Nicholson is the macho loser-hero. (In an earlier era, Nicholson would probably have played big guys.

When you see the celebration of adolescent male fantasies in the film The Yakuza, directed by Sydney Pollack, or in a John Milius picture—Dillinger or The Wind and the Lion—you may wonder of the filmmakers, ‘Are those boys being naughty just because they’re old enough to be scolded by their mothers?’ That’s the kind of naughtiness Jack Nicholson keeps us aware of; he includes it in his performances. He’s the kind of actor who gives you a character and then lets you follow him around the corner and watch as he reacts to what he just pulled off back there.”

-From “Notes on Evolving Heroes, Morals, Audiences”
The New Yorker, November 8, 1976

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Today's New DVDs (or not)- 4/13/10

Okay, look kids, I tried. I've been doing the "Today's New DVDs" thing every Tuesday for something like forever now, and for the first time, I've got nothin'. There is, really, seriously, noting of note out today. Couple of catalog titles on Blu-ray, and an underpromoted re-release of The Great Mouse Detective (presumably to dovetail off Sherlock Holmes), and that is it. Seriously. Don't believe me? Look here. And here.

So instead of pretending like it's an interesting week for new releases on shiny discs, let's just watch the trailer for Dinner for Schmucks:

Monday, April 12, 2010

On DVD: "The Bill Cosby Show- Season 2"

The first time I saw Bill Cosby perform live, after a life of fandom, was in 2004. He was 67 years old at the time, but showed no signs of slowing down--indeed, he did not one but two two-hour shows in the same night, and as manager of the venue, I got to see both of them. I've heard everything the man's ever recorded, so I was surprised to find that a) he only did one bit I'd ever heard before (he closed with the "Dentist" routine from Bill Cosby: Himself), and b) that one bit was the only material that was heard in both shows. As Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock marveled in Comedian, while they're out they're killing themselves to put a solid hour-long act together, and Cos floats out onstage every night and does four hours total of, in Rock's words, "killer shit."

But then again, he's been doing it so long, he doesn't have to work out tightly-constructed bits and rat-tat-tat punchlines. He just tells stories, and he's so naturally funny and so entirely in command of his instrument that he gets bigger laughs talking about his day than most comics do from running down their most intricately-constructed piece. When he started out as a comic, he worked in tight, punchy sketches (the kind of bits heard on early records like Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow, Right! and I Started Out as a Child), but around the mid-60s, he relaxed himself onstage, and was free on an album like Wonderfulness to do 12-plus minute routines like "Chicken Heart" and "Tonsils." He became even more free-wheeling in the 70s, as he worked more in Vegas; his last two albums (1986's Those of You, With or Without Children, You'll Understand and 1991's Oh Baby) have side-long routines, showcasing the kind of naturalistic storytelling and humor-of-recognition that became his stock in trade.

So it's no surprise that his 1969-1971 television sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, traffics in the same kind of low-key, slice-of-life humor, rather than wacky situations and broad characterizations. He came to the series with considerable clout--he had won three Best Actor Emmys for his work on the hit spy show (and racial groundbreaker) I Spy, and co-created the series with Michael Zagor and his future collaborator on The Cosby Show, Ed. Weinberger. NBC execs wanted Cosby to play a comical detective, but he was dead set on playing a high school teacher; it wasn't much of a stretch, as he continued to pursue his education while his career was in full swing in the subsequent years, even briefly contemplating a show-biz retirement to become an educator in the mid-1970s. Instead, he found ways to be an entertainer-educator--by appearing on The Electric Company, by creating and fronting Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and by playing Holmes High School gym teacher and coach Chet Kinkaid on The Bill Cosby Show.

The title is quite accurate--this truly is Cosby's show, as there are no either regular cast members and precious few semi-regulars (likable pixie Joyce Bulifant returns periodically as guidance counselor Mrs. Peterson, and Lee Weaver appears, though not nearly often enough, as Chet's wry brother Brian). In fact, he's the only star in the opening credits, which are scored for the second season with a slightly jazzier new mix of Quincy Jones and Cosby's theme (for my money, the third-best TV theme song of all time, behind only Sanford and Son and The Rockford Files).

As for the show itself, it has aged remarkably well. Its gentle humor and situation-based comedy was perhaps a bit ahead of its time--as was Cosby's insistence on eschewing the nearly-mandatory laugh track (a move which did him no favors among NBC executives, and which he claims cost him marketing attention that led to the show's cancellation after two seasons). In fact, with its easygoing humor, naturalistic vibe, and lack of canned laughter, The Bill Cosby Show would make a smooth fit into the network's Thursday night comedy line-up of 2010 (the episode profiling Cliff's battles with the health insurance industry seems particularly prescient).

Claims of network indifference notwithstanding, the show's first season ranked 11th in the ratings, so Cosby and his crew didn't go fixing things that weren't broke for season two. It sticks to roughly the same formula, usually with Chet getting himself into a fix or unfortunate social situation either at our outside of school (the episodes are balanced about 50/50), or helping a new friend out of a spot of trouble. Lessons are often learned, but not in a preachy way--and most intriguingly (and in marked contrast to the mostly "father knows best" story arcs of his The Cosby Show a decade and a half later), more often than not Cosby makes himself the object of ridicule who must right the error of his ways. In various season two episodes, Chet is guilty of hubris (thinking he can sell a house for a realtor friend), impatience (with an elderly neighbor), ego (expecting a surprise party for his birthday), and jealousy (of a potential girlfriend's other suitor). It says much about Cosby's personal charm and charisma that Chet remains so likable; with his screws turned a couple more times, he could very well be Larry David.

Much of the fun of The Bill Cosby Show is seeing Cosby working out formative ideas and comedy concepts that would appear later in his career. The "March of the Antelopes" episode--in which a group of inner-city kids attempt a camping trip--bears a passing resemblance to the "My Boy Scout Troupe" cut on his 1971 When I was A Kid album, while the "Deluge" episode (with his frequent film co-star Gloria Foster) finds Chet helping a neighbor woman deliver a baby (shades of Cliff Huxtable). And his funny dancing on the episode "The Generation Gap" will strike a chord with all of us who loved those Cosby Show dance-heavy opening sequences.

Cosby gets plenty of opportunities to make us laugh; the show makes Chet the kind of likable goofball who can take the stories in unexpected directions. In the season's first episode, "Anytime You're Ready, C.K.", he uses the acquisition of an 8mm camera for football game films as an excuse to make goofy home movies (we even get to see Cos do some old-school silent comedy, and credibly). In the students-on-strike episode "To Each According to His Appetite," he explains his experience with "revolutionaries" as "when I was in the Navy, putting down mutinies and things of that nature." He also gets considerable comic mileage out of Chet's swinging-bachelor status; we always tend to think of Cos as the family man, but it's fun to watch him as a silk-voiced smoothie whose flirtations occasionally get him in over his head.

Season one was notable for its guest stars, particularly a wonderfully-crafted episode with Henry Fonda. This season's biggest star is Dick Van Dyke, whose turn as drunken magician "Miraculous Martin" is a throwback to the kind of slapstick pantomimes that he did on so many old variety shows. He and Cosby make a pretty good comedy team (particularly during the business with the handcuffs in the last few scenes). Don Knotts doesn't fare quite as well--he's overdoing it (even for Don Knotts) and his broad overplaying doesn't jibe with the show's low-pitched vibe. Other guest stars, including Elsa Lanchester, a pre-Starsky & Hutch Antonio Fargas, and Wheezy Jefferson herself, Isabel Sanford, provide able support.

There are some stumbles in the second season. The two-part "Deluge" episode stretches a slender idea until it just about breaks, and the Cosby-directed "Sesame Street Rumble" is too broadly staged, taking dips into cartoonish absurdity that the show is usually careful to avoid. And as in year one, some of the supporting players--particularly the students--are pretty wooden. But those aren't game changers; the awkward familiarity of "The Generation Gap" (in which Chet spends a few days alone with his dad and runs out of things to do or say) or the clever construction of "A Dirty Business" (in which Chet attempts to recruit a student who fancies himself a spy) confirm that the charming, loose Bill Cosby Show is a winner that ended too soon.

It may prompt more smiles and chuckles than big, hearty laughs, but The Bill Cosby Show remains an underrated treasure. Its stories are simple and the execution is graceful, and Cosby is as eminently watchable as ever. Shambling, laid-back, and sweet, The Bill Cosby Show is as warm and comfortable as an old blanket.

"The Bill Cosby Show- Season 2" hits DVD on Tuesday, April 20. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.