March 31, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

Matthew McConaughey as Michael Connelly's slick, conniving lawyer, Mickey Haller, who begins to experience a moral dilemma when he suspects his latest client is guilty. It's the closest thing I've seen lately that reminded me of a 1940s detective thriller like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. All the little threads tied together in the vein of those wonderfully dark and glossy noirs, but The Lincoln Lawyer doesn't attempt to imitate the style of film noir. Perhaps it's in tune with the crime series on television (that I rarely watch). However, it doesn't forget the qualities that make a movie a movie and not an episode from CSI.

McConaughey is always on. He does the sleazy lawyer thing well, and he gets to play a drunk and a hero and a villain, and a loving father who still socializes and sleeps with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei), also an attorney. She's "trying to keep dirtbags off the street while he tries to set them free." We're led to believe that Mickey's ambiguous morals contributed to the divorce, but not enough to keep her from getting hot for him after she's slammed down a few beers.

Ryan Phillippe pulls off the spoiled rich boy performance that his career has led him into. I was pondering Phillippe's career and how he's doing supporting parts. I think he's good at them and, while he's too good-looking to be a character actor, he could make a pretty good living off the type of character he plays in The Lincoln Lawyer. William H. Macy also stars, as Mickey's investigator, an example of an ugly character actor who gets all kinds of wonderful and sordid movie roles.

McConaughey is a perplexing looking and acting individual. He pulls off the nuances necessary for his character: likable unlikableness. He has something a bit off-kilter in his eyes--just like Woody Harrelson--and reminds me that he started his career playing a psycho in one of the Texas Chainsaw movies. He's managed to develop that psychotic quality in his later--better--movie roles, and it works for him here. Phillippe couldn't have been as convincing in this role. We can believe he's a spoiled jerk, even a cold-blooded killer, but he doesn't have the likability, that natural mix of charm and insanity that makes McConaughey's performance really kick.

The movie delivers the plot twists, but maybe you'll figure them out before they unfold. I thought it was an enjoyably pulpy good time, with a strong supporting cast (besides the ones already mentioned, who all did good work), that also includes Josh Lucas as the prosecuting attorney who butts heads with McConaughey, Frances Fisher (as Phillippe's rich-bitch mother), John Leguizamo as a sketchy bail bondsman, Michael Pena as a former client, Bryan Cranston (he was the dentist in Seinfeld), and Laurence Mason as McConaughey's driver, probably the most stereotypical and contrived character in the movie. He's such a likable character that you wish he had more screen time.

March 27, 2011


Little Green Men: What a delight to start the 2011 movie year off with Paul. I'd been avoiding the movies all year, partly because I saw so many in December and needed a break, but more because, frankly, the selection thus far completely sucked. Seriously bad. It's important that the first movie you see of the year be one for which you have high hopes. While I had no clue what Paul was about (such a rarity these days to go into a movie almost completely fresh, but worth it!), I knew I liked the work of its stars, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They're the guys from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and in Paul they lovingly spoof the science fiction genre the way they bastardized the zombie and buddy cop genres. I wasn't disappointed. This is a movie that has no fear of showing its audience a good time. The humor is both right in front of your face and unexpected, and that is perhaps the ultimate pleasure: the laughs aren't all cheap but they aren't all from out of left field either. And the movie references don't bog the film down from having its own wildly entertaining storyline, which isn't original, but doesn't need to be. The characters and their interaction are what's original (and funny as hell).

Pegg and Frost play two British sci-fi nerds who actually meet an alien while touring the famous alleged alien sighting locales of the Western U.S. It's the kind of pastiche you're used to from these fellows: irreverently irreverent, dead-on funny. Despite the fact that they play different characters in each movie, it seems as though their relationship at its core is the same and is developed with each successive story. There's a sense in which the audience is the same, loyal audience, and they've earned the right to speak directly to them with their performances.

Every time you think the movie might be trying to go sentimental, they pull the rug out from under you and you laugh with glee that there's always a wink behind the dramatics. It's a wonderfully enjoyable movie for buffs or non-buffs, because the cast is so game and the writing so funny. 

This time a wonderful cast of Americans joins them: Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio as alien-hunting government agents who are out to exploit Paul (voice of Seth Rogen), the likeable, wise-ass little green man trying to make it back home. Kristen Wiig co-stars as a fundamentalist whose experience meeting the alien rattles her faith and sets her free from the shackles of religion. Also starring John Carroll Lynch as her Bible-thumping father. Cameos by Jane Lynch and Jeffrey Tambor (and a small role by Blythe Danner at the end) round out the cast. Directed by Greg Mottola. Written by Pegg and Frost.

March 19, 2011


All in Good Fun: If Re-Animator (1985) isn't the goriest movie ever made, it's gotta be at least in the top ten. You've heard the story before in Frankenstein and you've seen it parodied before in Young Frankenstein, but never to this degree of unbridled insanity. It's about a pompous, eccentric med student named Herbert West (played by Jeffrey Combs), who discovers a serum that can bring the dead back to life. Trouble is, they're not really controllable, they seem to acquire inordinate amounts of strength during the reanimation process, and they're really rather cranky (and a tad ungrateful, given that they were brought back to life).

Re-Animator is director Stuart Gordon's first feature, based on the short story, Herbert West-Reanimator (1922) by horror icon H.P. Lovecraft. It makes calamity out of and jeers lovingly at the interplay between stability and instability of the human body. When West severs the head of a prominent surgeon (played by David Gale, who bears an uncanny resemblance to John Kerry) and then reanimates him, it's as though the divided body has become two selves instead of one, and so the movie makes you think, are we separate from our bodies or not? Are we our bodies or simply our brains?

It's quite a philosophical question for a movie so saturated in blood and matter, and yet this is the work of the horror genre, if the horror movie in question is worth its salt: it not only touches a nerve of whatever is freaking out the culture at that precise moment, but it pokes around at our subliminal fears and addresses them in ways we could never imagine. Somehow, there's relief to be had in this process. We've vicariously lived and died through this experience, and we come out alive knowing it was only a movie.  

Re-Animator won't be the selection of the squeamish movie-goer, but it delivers a deliciously funny good time to those who can stomach its icky moments. Those gory outbursts are so over-the-top that it's hard to really be affected by them (up to a point). It's as if the viscera becomes completely artificial (the 80s make-up and special effects hold up pretty well, although there are moments when they don't quite work--CGI has similar problems too, though).

There are interesting little moments in the camera work that register well. A shot of the leading lady (Barbara Crampton) walking from the elevator to the morgue is handled with an eerie superfluousness. The camera glides backward while she walks forward but very slowly. It's a cool effect. Later, the doctor summons forth his zombie minions in the morgue, and the effect of their springing forth simultaneously from their body bags gives that moment a wonderful zing. The whole movie is fluid and alive. It's so fresh and unpretentious. Perhaps because Gordon doesn't hold back on the gore, he doesn't feel the need to withhold or delay plot information either (which we are smart enough to figure out anyway). He's an honest and an efficient director, and he plays up the campy aspects of the material nicely, too.

With Bruce Abbott as a fellow med student who becomes caught up in West's bizarre experiments, and Robert Sampson as the dean of his med school (who becomes one of Gale's shambling zombie goons).

Followed by Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator. 86 minutes.

March 15, 2011

Place and Proportion

Isn't it funny that movies, sometimes more than anything, seem to 'place' us? We can feel very disconnected from so much of life--ironically so in a world that has become increasingly obsessed with superficial modes of connectivity. Yet movies have the power to transport us back to a time where we--naively--saw the world as idealistic and safe. People are always waxing on about the "good old days" when crimes never happened, unaware that the 24-hour news cycle has perpetuated the idea that crime and calamity are worse than ever.

Watching movies I love (or tolerate...or despise) with students is always interesting. Sometimes I'm surprised how much they respond to a movie. They loved Hitchcock's Rebecca, for instance. Despite all its "Gothic corn" (to quote Pauline Kael), that movie is so well-done, so darkly funny, that you can't help but like it, even respect its histrionics, maybe because Hitchcock was doing everything with a wink.

Alternately, my students were skeptical of My Fair Lady, and rightly so, because it's almost unwatchable. We had finished reading Pygmalion, and while I didn't exactly relish the idea of showing them My Fair Lady, it seemed like a worthwhile endeavor for the sake of comparison. It reminded me how disenchanted I've become with most Audrey Hepburn movies. I tried to re-watch Breakfast at Tiffany's and couldn't get through it. Sabrina seems boring now too. Only Charade has endured, because Charade doesn't try to elevate itself beyond its romantic thriller status. It just lets us sit back and enjoy its exuberant genre interplay. The students found it very entertaining, and Charade's sense of humor--so lacking in those others--energizes the movie and the audience. It has a much longer lifespan.

Right now we're watching All About Eve. I don't teach a film class, but I think movies are just as important as novels. After all, kids deliberately go to the movies. We might as well show them some of the "classics" for comparison. My supreme hope is that they will leave my classroom knowing that Twilight  and Inception and The Green Hornet are NOT all there is. But back to All About Eve, the dialogue in that movie is simply hysterical. As far as I'm concerned, Joseph L. Mankiewicz could win an Oscar every year for his screenplay, but I read once that the words wouldn't be as good, as funny, or as memorable, if they'd been said by anyone other than Bette Davis, George Sanders, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe, et al.

The 7th graders have been watching Singin' in the Rain. I love laughing with them at the humor in that movie. It's amazing to see a bunch of (mostly male) pre-teens cracking up to a 1950's musical. They are seeing something they would never choose to watch, and probably many of them didn't know it existed. But sometimes choice isn't as lofty or sanctified as we make it out to be. It's so creative and so full of energy, and not because of flashy editing but great acting/sing/dancing and the general hamming it up of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and Jean Hagen.

But there are disturbing moments when I re-watch a movie I haven't seen in years and have a totally different reaction to it. Like Breakfast at Tiffany's, which I loved when I watched it some ten years ago. There are many others that have elicited almost totally opposite reactions. I hated The Graduate when I first saw it, then loved it a few years later when I watched it in college. I hated The Exorcist, now I find it fascinating--probably because of all the spiritual threads running through it. (The priest is struggling with doubt, and I can relate more than I could some years ago). So, sometimes, movies displace us, when we watch them with the assumption that we'll get the same experience as before, as though experience were a commodity (which, in Western culture, it kinda is, or so we believe). Instead, however, this unpredictable thing happens where we react differently. And we wonder which reaction is trustworthy or real. We worry when our sacred cows (the movies we will defend to the death) do not entertain us as much or we suddenly see through their holes more clearly and feel compelled to defend them even more vociferously for fear that they will be pulled out from under us. And the things that made us laugh, cry and shrink in horror are apparently fluid. It's like watching Saved by the Bell as an adult and realizing how inane the humor is.