July 24, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

I'll be up-front, dear readers, and let you know that this review is riddled with spoilers. So if you have not yet seen The Kids Are All Right (2010) and are planning to, you may want to read cautiously.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a couple who each had a kid via artificial insemination (from the same donor). The movie picks up where the elder sibling (Mia Wasikowska) has just graduated from high school. Just eighteen and trying to embrace her newly acquired "adulthood," she decides to contact her biological father (played by Mark Ruffalo), at the urging of her younger brother (Josh Hutcherson). The donor-dad wins the kids over, and even one of the moms (Moore) (and by winning over I mean sleeping with her). Suddenly, Bening feels threatened by what she sees as an intrusive re-emergence of this man's involvement in their family.

This is a comedy-drama that accepts the idea of a non-traditional family unit without trying to preach about it to us. I suspect viewers will take this either as a sign of cultural evolution or devolution, depending on their beliefs. I could evaluate the movie's morality, but then I'd have to go back and evaluate the morality of all the other movies I've watched, and the books I've read, and the music I've listened to, and frankly, I'm not willing to admit to that much hypocrisy. (Besides, we may not want to admit it, but one of the reasons we like movies is because they force us to deal with difficult subjects.)

If The Kids Are All Right pushes unwanted and disagreeable values on its audience, then there's nothing new in that. We aren't meant to agree with everything that's put before us, and I think the responsibility is ours to figure out our own beliefs. When movies confront complex, controversial social issues like gay marriage, perhaps we can be happy on the occasion that they do so with minimal preachiness.

The little fling between Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo actually backs the whole social message into a corner regarding the nature of sexuality, and whether or not it's a fixed construct or in flux. The movie sloughs that off out of spinelessness, and Ruffalo's character is promptly cut off from the kids.

Despite the considerable plot flub of basically writing Ruffalo's character out of the story at the end, I enjoyed the movie. It has some hysterically funny moments, and the actors succeed well. They rise above both the movie's inclination toward sentiment and its need to be hip by pretending it's not attracted to the sentimental. Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses working today, and she gives a wonderful performance in this that was overlooked in favor of Annette Bening, who turns bitchiness into an art form the way Mary Tyler Moore turned bitter, passive agressive detachment into an art form in Ordinary People. (Bening's character isn't just bitchy though. She's understandably threatened, and you do feel for her, particularly during the dinner scene where she finds out about the infidelity, after she's finally warmed up to liking Ruffalo's character).

Likewise, Mark Ruffalo is one of the best actors we've got. In this he's less pathetic than usual. He's not aimless or compulsively abusing drugs and breaking the law like in You Can Count On Me or What Doesn't Kill You. And the "kids" turn in fine performances, even though their characters' involvement in the story gets a bit out of focus as the plot unfolds). Actually, I think the title is the most overtly preachy thing about the movie. It's an assurance that no one in the real world can hold onto, and one that the characters in this movie aren't dumb enough to hold up as some kind of idealistic mantra. However, The fact that Ruffalo's character is so mistreated is the real thorn in this movie's side. All the story threads are plausible and absorbing and often very amusing, and then at the end you feel you've been cheated out of a vital resolution between father and children (even if he's had no involvement in their lives up to this point, it seems the wheels have been incontrovertibly set in motion). Cutting him off is a slight that reeks of evasiveness. But then, they're trying to preserve something that he threatens to dismantle. (Didn't he?)

The Kids Are All Right traipses through a minefield of political correctness only to chicken out in the end. It garnered a lot of positive reviews because people interpreted its non-preachiness as an act of daring bravado from Hollywood. In fact, the real bravery is in the way the movie makes hash out of everyone's idea of stability: both the gays and the straights are so screwed up in this movie that you think, maybe everyone can get along in the end. But Ruffalo's character turns into a sort of punching bag against traditionalism, even though he's not traditional in any way. And the others are held up as martyrs for the cause of progress. Well, okay. But, I really felt bad for Mark Ruffalo's character. I think you got that though.

The movie is superficially hip because of its gay context. Without it, this would be another bland family drama. What's good about The Kids Are All Right are the characters (and the actors), and the way the movie complicates their relationships. Those complications are like a fun detour, derailing the movie's march toward sentiment. They're a welcome shock to the heart of stability. But at its heart, The Kids Are All Right is a gooey family sitcom about mothers not wanting their children to grow up. Nothing too earth-shattering in that. 

Written by the director, Lisa Cholodenko, and Stuart Blumberg. Also starring YaYa DeCosta, Kunal Sharma, Eddie Hassell, and Zosia Mamet.

July 22, 2011


Richard Ayoade's Submarine (2011) is a coming-of-age story about Oliver Tate, a 15-ish year old boy growing up in Wales. Oliver fancies himself the hero in the story of his life. He narrates the movie, which is divided, with tongue in cheek, into sections. Oliver's grand view of his own middle-class adolescent life is made a spectacle on the screen, but not for schadenfreude. We laugh with him rather than at him, because we identify with him and his idiosyncrasies. We're also keenly aware that he is like us. He's our underdog imported from the UK. He gets beat up at school, when he refuses to publicly proclaim the bully's ex-girlfriend a slut, and his valiant act of chivalry wins him over to us. So his grand, inflated perception of his life is charmingly quixotic. And yet he's not out of his head. He seems aware of reality, perhaps more conditioned and adjusted to it than most. He also tries to fix things. He isn't given over to cynicism, just perceptiveness.

The movie's visual playfulness (lots of cutting back and forth and cinematographic tricks that are deliberately maneuvered to get our attention) is in fact a part of its deadpan humoristic style. It has the look of those so-called important foreign films that fiddle with the camera and the editing more than mainstream American movies do. It doesn't look experimental, but it's offbeat enough to be noticeable--and even refreshing. It reminded me ever so slightly of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, except Submarine has infinitely more narrative drive. It's also a lot funnier. Without a sense of humor this movie would have been dreadfully heavy-handed.

Oliver's coming-of-age results from two important events: The girl for whom he incurred a punch in the nose becomes his girlfriend, his mom starts flirting with the wacky mystic living next door. (We find out later that he was her first love, so Mom is experiencing a nostalgic kick, exacerbated by the now sterile relationship with her practically comatose husband, who's a marine biology nut). Oliver's girlfriend introduces a lot of new adult feelings, from lust to grief (her mother has cancer). He's tormented also by the threat of his own parents splitting up. And the sort of off-kilter, mildly annoyed relationship he has with them turns out to be more important to him than he realized before. Ultimately, Submarine's villain isn't the bully or the cheating mother, but Blandness. Oliver sees nothing around him but banality. That's the reason his mother starts flirting with the kooky Ninja next door (who gives seminars on translucency or transcendence or some other such nonsense).

The actor who plays Oliver, Craig Roberts, approaches the part with a deadpan facial expression that belies a certain passion for living, one that is awakened by the events that unfold throughout the movie. He seems to walk through his life--and this movie--in a dreamlike state, but he's attuned to the dream and its visceral impact on his senses. And he's such a deeply layered character that you know there are whole other stories to be told about him and through his eyes. And he's wonderfully funny, too.

The movie has that sense of triviality that so many of the independent films seem to relish. They're not the grand Tennessee Williams-style dramas that Hollywood used to roll out every year, in CinemaScope. Those factory-made family sideshows are entertaining in their glossy campiness. And we may think that we have grown past them in our movie tastes, but that kind of high camp drama lives on today in just about every dramatic television show on the air. Movies like Submarine seem almost slight in their movement away from the grandiose. It's a lovely little film, though.

Submarine opened tonight at 5 Points Theatre. It will be playing through July 28. Also starring Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, and Darren Evans.

July 17, 2011

Bossa Nova

Amy Irving has an elegant discreetness about her that comes with classical theatrical training. Irving grew up surrounded by the theater: her father, Jules Irving, was artistic director at the Lincoln Center for many years; her mother (Priscilla Pointer) is an actress of the stage and screen. Irving attended the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and then the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She's beautiful and charming, but she's often miscast, or directors don't elicit from her the performance she's capable of. She's one of only a handful of actors to be nominated for an Oscar and  a Razzie (awards for the worst in movies) for the same performance (1983's Yentl), and she's also an incredibly talented singer, lending her vocals for Jessica Rabbit's risque musical number in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which was produced by Irving's first husband, Steven Spielberg.

Irving gave a fine performance in the yuppie romantic comedy Crossing Delancey (1988), which had roots on the stage and, given its New York setting, was perfect material for her. In Bossa Nova (2000), which was helmed by Brazilian director (and Irving's then-husband) Bruno Barreto, she has to push through that ice queen elegance to fit the whimsical mood of this breezy rom-com, in which she plays Mary Ann Simpson, a widowed teacher of English who lives in Rio de Janeiro. (I wondered if the writers could have come up with a blander American nomenclature than "Mary Ann Simpson"?)

Bossa Nova moves along at no particular pace, but it has a rhythm you become accustomed to, and an assortment of amusing characters populates its world. The touristy setting of Rio de Janeiro is portrayed in an altogether different light: we see the people who actually live there, and we also get inklings of their perceptions of America and Americans. (There's a throwaway line about how much Americans respect art and how artists are all well-paid in America).

Irving's friend Nadine (Drica Moraes) likes to visit online chat rooms, where she has developed a cyber romance with an "artist" in "Sojo." (Incidentally, it was amusing to see how technology--particularly computers and cell phones--has changed in just a decade). Meanwhile, Mary Ann is pursued by a horny professional soccer player named Acacio (Alexandre Borges) as well as a soon-to-be-divorced lawyer named Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes), who's still in love with his wife (Debora Bloch) even though she's living with somebody else. He starts going to the night class Mary Ann teaches. He's also trying to save his father's tailor shop from being lost in a divorce settlement. His brother becomes infatuated with Pedro's pixie of an intern (Giovanna Antonelli), but she's too young and restless to settle for a sensitive tailor who has a good ten years on her. She winds up with the soccer player, and there's a funny scene--reminiscent of screwball comedies--where they consummate their infatuation in Pedro's office. 

Bruno Barreto's direction is a bit imprecise, but at least it's not heavy-handed. Sometimes it feels as though the movie might never end, but it's perfect summer fare. It has something of a Woody Allen vibe to it, without Allen's sharp wit. This is a much subtler and unfocused but energetic and readily appreciated wit. Bossa Nova is a romantic comedy that doesn't make you hate yourself when it's over, and that's something. It doesn't gloss over the imperfections of relationships, but rather pokes good-natured fun at them. There are some delightfully scandalous daydream sequences that bring out Irving's carefully enshrined sexuality. She shows us she can be playful and have a good time. And there's a hysterically funny exchange between Mary Ann and Acacio where she's teaching him the various contexts for English curse words. It may slip out of your head as soon as it's over, but while it's on, you'll find yourself happily lost in its Midsummer Night's Dream-esque game of missed opportunities and offbeat attractions.

The Black Dahlia

The murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in January of 1947 still fascinates people today, including James Ellroy, whose novel this was based on. However, this 2006 crime-thriller, which promises to be akin to the knockout noir L.A. Confidential (1997), is a freaking mess. Brian De Palma directed, without the kinky excitement he brought to his early thrillers (Dressed to Kill and Carrie come to mind). The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is first-rate. He captures beautifully the fact that there's nothing going on in this movie that you should care about. As luridly tingling as the Black Dahlia case is, this movie should have been an easy success. Instead, The Black Dahlia looks the other way, on purpose, as a matter of "style." Rather than focusing on the Elizabeth Short murder, it veers into other, fabricated directions.

Why, I'll never know.

Everything is contrived. If you come to this movie expecting an absorbing retelling of a scintillating true crime tale (even with the knowledge that Hollywood typically tinkers with historical fact), you've come to the wrong movie. If you've come looking for even a whisper of narrative logic, you'll also be left wanting. It's nonsensical. Big dramatic scenes are inflated and unexpected even. When they unfold, we laugh because they're so poorly conceived. (In one scene, Josh Hartnett, as one of the detectives investigating the Dahlia murders, pulls a table cloth off a table in a fit of passion with Scarlet Johansson. It seems a pity to make such a mess with a movie that's so carefully dull.)

De Palma has always been a manipulative little cheat of a director, playing with the audience in obvious ways, but in The Black Dahlia he doesn't even do that. We're supposed to sit back in awe of the "master" at work, but he isn't working, and neither is the movie. The blame should probably go also to the screenwriter, Scott Friedman, as well as James Ellroy (assuming his book is akin to Friedman's adaptation).

The main characters, two LAPD detectives (Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) are involved in a love triangle with the boring, flirtatious Scarlet Johansson. Johansson was best in Woody Allen's Scoop. He brought out the passion in her, and the curious little pixie that she can turn into, the one who wooed Hugh Jackman, the handsome killer. But she tends to be uninteresting without a good director, and in The Black Dahlia, De Palma doesn't know what to do with her. Perhaps to him, her beauty is enough to maintain the audience's interest in her acting. But for anyone looking beyond the surface, there's little satisfaction.

De Palma is at a loss with the other actors, too. Eckhart's character becomes obsessed with the Dahlia case (he's the only aspect of this movie that stays focused on the Elizabeth Short murder, when the entire film should be reveling in Black Dahlia mania). And so quickly does he go bananas that we as an audience don't feel invested in his transformation. We can only jeer and laugh at a performance that falls flat and looks out of place. He's in the wrong movie. He's in the movie about the Black Dahlia murder, not the movie that pretends to be about the Black Dahlia murder.

As for Hartnett, he's never been that compelling of an actor, and using him in the lead is a miscalculation. He narrates clumsily the clumsy narration (not to mention the clumsy dialogue), and he's so scrawny and young that you don't really buy him as a detective--or as a contender in a boxing match that occurs early in the film (and feels just as out of place as everything else in this misfired movie).

There are some scenes where the police view screen tests of Elizabeth Short. They're meant to humanize the disfigured corpse left in grisly exhibition in an overgrown lot, but instead they just turn her into a bimbo who told fairy tells to get what she wanted. And maybe that's true of the real Elizabeth Short, but for a movie that gives little attention to the subject of its title, this adds yet another nail in the coffin. And Hilary Swank, who's desperately in need of a meal, shows up as another bimbo, someone for Josh Hartnett's character to sleep with in lieu of Johnasson, from whom he feels an obligation to abstain (since she's living with his partner).

Fiona Shaw gives the most overwrought performance as Swank's hopped up mother, a society woman who knows more than a bit about the Short murder. In fact, her performance is so hysterically bad, that I recommend watching this movie now. It was earth-shattering. The always exciting Rose McGowan has a cameo as one of Elizabeth Short's roommates. It's a pity that she had such a small part. She's far more interesting an actress than either Scarlet or Swank.

If only The Black Dahlia were as exciting as L.A. Confidential, or any of the old 1940's film noirs that it was modeled after. Instead, we're left with a labyrinthine mess of a movie that's shooting blanks after promising a bang.

July 14, 2011

Phase 7

Phase 7 (2011) is an Argentinian import that bears the mark of American exports. It's a science-fiction thriller that will remind you of George Romero's The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1979) and John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and probably a lot of other apocalyptic thrillers you've seen. (Precinct 13  may not have been exactly apocalyptic, but it depicted the breakdown of the police at the hands of a relentless gang, and that's a distressing enough signal to the viewer to feel like a local apocalypse). This is the apocalypse, on a budget.

In the wake of a worldwide epidemic, a young man and his pregnant wife find themselves quarantined inside their Buenos Aires high-rise. The plague is never named or explained, and they're told by health officials to simply stay put and make as little contact with others as possible. Inside the largely untenanted apartment, some of the residents go a little stir crazy (or perhaps it's the onset of the disease, which is so undefined it can become anything the viewer wants to read into it). Soon one of them becomes paranoid and violent, and the other neighbors are forced to defend themselves against his shotgun.

It's a funny, fast little romp--violent, paranoid, gleefully derivative, and cuckoo enough to keep you wondering what the director, Nicolas Goldbart, is capable of. He also wrote the screenplay, and his movie resembles that early scene in Dawn of the Dead when the soldiers raid the run-down apartment complex looking for walking corpses. The gas masks and the sanitized-looking uniforms, designed to ward off infection, also evoke memories of Romero's cheap, earlier Crazies, which was remade last year. In The Crazies, Romero basically recreated the situation of Night of the Living Dead, but made it seem slightly more credible. Phase 7 has clearly been indoctrinated into those kinds of movies. It somehow finds its own unique, scaled-down story within that framework, and those who are inclined will find deem it satisfying entertainment.

It will be playing this Friday at AMC Orange Park (midnight, so technically Saturday). It stars Daniel Hendler, Jazmin Stuart, Yayo Guridi, and Federico Luppi.

July 11, 2011

The Prestige

100th Review
The Prestige (2006) is about two magicians in London at the end of the 19th century, both vying for the public's attention and acclaim. It's an interesting idea that was bungled, possibly before Christopher Nolan, the director and co-writer (along with his brother, Jonathan), ever began working on it. As a director, Nolan tends to inflate his movies. He enjoys hatching labyrinthine plots, and tinkering with time and manipulating the viewer's emotions. That's all fine and dandy, but the problem with most of his work has been a certain hollowness that may naturally proliferate as a result of his best intentions to be clever and grandly mysterious.

This is a movie about magic that's absolutely lacking in any sense of wonder or excitement. I didn't care about any of the characters, despite the interesting cast that was assembled (including Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Scarlet Johansson, David Bowie, and Andy Serkis). It was all lifeless, uninvolving. Christian Bale does his usual thing as one of the magicians, the darker, more obsessive one. Bale acts with his facial expressions, or should I say, expression. He rarely shows more than the one. He frequently plays dark, deeply disturbed characters, to the point that everything he does blends into something indistinguishable. There's not much difference between this and Batman Begins or even American Psycho, except that he laughed more in American Psycho. He was a certifiable sociopath there. Here he's just a mad genius.

Hugh Jackman plays his American rival and nemesis, and he's the more commercial of the two. Jackman has an engaging quality about him, but he's played as the heavy. He's in it for the money, and even admits, readily, that Bale is the better magician. Their careers and their lives mirror those of certain Hollywood directors: say, Orson Welles in the place of Bale's character, and Steven Spielberg in the place of Jackman's. One a masterfully intuitive filmmaker and the other a master, epic-scale showman. Welles's entire career was troubled because of studio tampering, financial turmoil, and inner-conflict. Spielberg has always been the darling of the studios because he's always been able to make a lot of money with his films, some of which are genuinely marvelous, and some of which are shamefully commercial and uninteresting.

The two magicians develop a deep and mutual rivalry, and the movie is full of the tricks they play on each other. The idea of The Prestige reminded me of Sleuth (1972), which was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starred an aging Laurence Olivier and a youngish Michael Caine. Olivier played a respected English mystery writer living in a beautiful, ornate mansion in the English countryside, and Caine was the young Italian immigrant (there's a great line where Olivier assures Caine's character that he could never become English) sleeping with Olivier's wife. The movie was mainly a series of elaborate tricks designed to titillate and terrorize the audience, and it worked. Sleuth was a fascinating entertainment. It wasn't inflated into some large scale dramatic epic, complete with courtroom scenes and a wife hanging herself in the attic. The Prestige wants to be all things to all people, and I suspect this is Christopher Nolan's temperament as a director seeping into the movie. He's certainly got it all, except for the kind of kinetic excitement this move requires. This is a soap opera between two magicians, and it's too stilted to generate any real movie magic.

Nolan continues to get hung up on big ideas to satisfy his baser cinematic instincts and passions. He clearly likes pulp, but doesn't approach it in the right way. He dresses it up with superficial sophistication. The thing that people enjoy about a Quentin Tarantino movie is its unashamed dedication to that low pulp entertainment. When I watch Nolan's movies, I sense the desire to deliver that kind of true enjoyment, but it's tainted by a need to be the smartest director in Hollywood, the one who "really makes you think," as more than one person has said to me about him.

Horrible Bosses

What's most fun about this movie is seeing Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell playing audaciously horrible human beings who drive their subordinates (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis, respectively) to want to murder them. Aniston hasn't been this much fun in years, and you probably already knew Spacey was made for this kind of live-wire psychotic CEO part. Farrell is the least recognizable (physically), and yet you get the feeling he's had some experience playing the "tool" before.

Horrible Bosses may not score any points for originality (it acknowledges its plot similarities to Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and ignores its similarities to the Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin-Dolly Parton workplace comedy Nine to Five), but at least it treats us to some moderately dark humor delivered with nothing but fervent zeal from its cast. Most of them seem delighted to be playing such over-the-top characters for once. Bateman and Sudeikis pretty much do their usual schtick. Charlie Day scores highly as an easily agitated dental assistant whose boss (Aniston) has been sexually harassing him with impunity.

Midway through, the movie takes an unexpected turn that changes it from a darker version of Office Space to a darker version of the afore-mentioned Nine to Five, which was about three women kidnapping their sexist boss so that they could make some worker-friendly changes in the office. It's the kind of wish fulfillment fantasy employees will cheer for, and yet there's always a bitter feeling in the back of your mind that you're rooting for three would-be killers.

Horrible Bosses ties things up too conveniently at the end, but it's a diverting enough hour and a half. Directed by Seth Gordon. With Jamie Foxx and, in a bit performance, Donald Sutherland.

July 10, 2011

Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro as a cabbie who's so disgusted with New York City he develops an inflated sense of his own moral superiority to the grimy, sleazy underbelly of the Big Apple. Taxi Driver (1976) is director Martin Scorcese's paean to violence, or something like that. If you trace the radical change in movies that began around the time of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), you can pretty much tell that Taxi Driver is the ne plus ultra of that evolution, sort of a domestic Apocalypse Now (1979), but less inflated.

However, Taxi Driver never tries to be anything it isn't. It's about a man with a deluded one-track mind. He wants to find his niche in the world, but can't. He's got a charming arrogance that only temporarily hides his social ineptitude. When he introduces himself to a political campaign organizer (Cybill Shepard), he's remarkably sure of himself. But then he blows it by taking her to a porno movie, and acts completely shocked, dumbfounded even, when she's appalled and wants to break the date. And you believe that he generally didn't think it through that a dirty movie isn't her idea of a good time. Somehow De Niro makes you believe that.

As garishly unappealing as Taxi Driver can be, it also has a luridly intoxicating flow to it. You feel as if you're floating through the movie right alongside De Niro. His cab is a "vehicle" by which we experience his disgust with a capital D. He can't seem to get his life in order, and the sleaze he sees, which he deliberately ensconces himself in, helps him distance himself from his own problems. Like most serial killers, he would rather blame the world for his shit than get his shit together.

The 1970s ushered in a lot of violent movies, and thus a lot of talk from filmmakers, studio executives, critics, the media, and audience members, about the impact of violence on viewers. The violent scenes in Taxi Driver, as unpleasant as they are, transform the main character into a local hero who rescues the kid prostitute from her swarthy pimp. Is heroic violence that glorifies violence still bad? Is violence bad? It's certainly a reality in the world in which we live.

The script is by Paul Schrader, who showed an even deeper proclivity for sleaze in the George C. Scott drama Hardcore (1979). Jodie Foster co-stars as a very young hooker. Harvey Kietel plays her vile pimp, who shows a true virtuosity at being a complete sleazebag. Albert Brooks plays the nerdy political aide who's hot for Cybill Shepard but unwilling to break the professional veil of xerox machines and political rallies and business meetings.

The Walker

The Walker (2007) stars Woody Harrelson as Carter Page III, a male escort living in D.C. who becomes mixed up in a murder investigation. The corpse--who was a lobbyist--was having an affair with Harrelson's married friend (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose husband is a politician. The movie opens with Carter playing Canasta with Thomas and two other friends, played by Lily Tomlin and Lauren Bacall (more on them later). The weekly card game is merely an excuse for the four of them to gossip about all the latest D.C. social scandals, since all of them are connected to government one way or another. Tomlin's character is married to another political player (Ned Beatty).

Carter's father was a career politician, and he's been living under the man's shadow all his life. The son is gay, hardly a badge of honor in the South, particularly for the son of a Southern politician. He's spent his whole life speaking in superficialities and living his life on the surface of things. He seems to read people's aspersions on him even before they do, and as such he's become extremely guarded. He uses his quick wit as self-defense.

The very idea of a character like Carter Page is like really bad, ultra-cornball Tennessee Williams. Harrelson hails from Texas, and the accent we're used to hearing from him is, I think, natural enough for this movie's purposes. But the twangy Mississippi drawl he adorns in The Walker is too much. It's an irritant, and it gets in the way of his performance. The director, Paul Schrader, may have been wanting it to serve Carter's character and be a reminder to us that he's from the Deep South. Going back to the Tennessee Williams connection, perhaps it makes the drama more dramatic in the director's mind. What's always interesting about Tennessee Williams, though, is the monumental state of denial in which his characters steep themselves. In The Walker, it's not so much denial but acceptance. Carter is a realist, and he's doing what's necessary to survive in the current social and political climate.

What's most striking about this movie is probably the presence of Lauren Bacall. She was always a pistol, and at nearly 83 (in 2007), she's still got it. She has such a knowing ease in front of the camera that you just sit back and enjoy her. She plays the part with relish, and you always feel as though there's much beneath the surface that's not being said. Yet it translates tacitly because she's such a good actress. Lily Tomlin is also good, but then again she's a pro too, just not quite as long in the tooth as Bacall. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the undersexed politician's wife with poise and dignity, but perhaps not enough curiosity or warmth to make her character very sympathetic. She's the one Carter is trying to protect, and she's not much of a friend.

Woody Harrelson is a good actor, but I just can't get behind that accent. It's not a bad accent per se, but it's so thick that it just spills over the top like foam, rushing over and eventually engulfing the character, and if this were Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that would be suitable (though hysterically funny). But then it's not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Other characters in the movie have these pet Deep South accents, too. Granted, there are plenty of Southerners in D.C., but the movie not only borrows the accents of the Deep South but the ultra-ring-wing political demeanor too, and uses this to make Carter's homosexuality an issue. It's as if the director, Schrader, wants this to be the gay version of In the Heat of the Night, but he's not willing to go far enough for that. And in the process of trying to be subtle in what the film says, it says very little, except something we've already heard before: Carter can't measure up to his father, and he's been trying to impress him even though his dad's been dead for ten years. Well, okay. What now?

The Walker has moments of tingling excitement, like when Carter's boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu) is accosted by a goon at a bar and beaten up pretty roughly. That scene comes almost out of nowhere, because the film is going at a pretty slow pace. Schrader must have decided it was time to wake up the audience at that point in the movie. There's also an obligatory sense of dread you get from watching this kind of movie. It reminded me of The Ghost Writer (2010) in some ways. Both movies have a certain chilling banality to them. And The Walker isn't entirely unsuccessful, but it feels slight, and it also strikes me as a disappointment that Harrelson denies the best aspects of his persona and his acting talent in order to pursue a more "serious" role. He has a natural streak of comedic insanity that he suppresses here. In The Walker, he's like a macho Truman Capote. He's trying to outwit you with his charming good looks and his sly too-clever cleverness. Still, it could have been worse.

July 09, 2011

What Doesn't Kill You

A movie that overcomes its murky Boston-in-winter setting, carried by Mark Ruffalo's performance as a career criminal who's trying to justify his profession to his wife (Amanda Peet) and two young sons. It's similar to 2010's The Town, except it's a richer character study, and it doesn't sensationalize the violence the way The Town did. Ruffalo is an exceedingly good actor, but he has this calm, monotone voice that I think hides his abilities at first. What he's doing is never immediately apparent. He brings certain flair to his characters but there's a sense in which none of the people he plays are that far removed from each other.

In What Doesn't Kill You (2008), he's Brian Kelly, a guy who's been stealing money all his life (along with partner-in-crime Ethan Hawke). In 2000's You Can Count On Me, he was Laura Linney's ne'er-do-well brother, likewise a character made up of compulsions. Both Brian and Terry feel unable to change the course of their lives. However, there's a greater sense of determination in Brian. He has more at stake than Terry.

What Doesn't Kill You avoids some of the crime genre cliches, partly by some clever editing. Robert Hoffman is credited as the film editor, and he and director Brian Goodman do something quite interesting with this movie's transitions. You will go from one scene to the next without a clear explanation of why you're there, and Goodman leaves it up to the actors to clue us in on what has happened since the last scene. There are often not just spacial movements from scene to scene, but very liminal movements in time.

This movie takes place over 20 years, and yet manages to tell a long story in 100 minutes. You can't be anything less than grateful when the filmmakers are capable enough to get their story out compactly. This story is too grim and murky to be drawn out into an epic form, and Brian Goodman is keenly aware of that in his direction. More than focusing the film at an epic scale, he zooms in on Ruffalo's character, because this is ultimately not a movie about armed car robberies or mindless shootouts, but about the compulsion within a man to keep doing the same dumb things out of pure habit. The movie keeps us cynically convinced that Brian isn't going to be able to resist the pull of the crime world (not to mention the booze and the cocaine that have enslaved him for so long).

Amanda Peet is a terrific actress. She hasn't really gotten her due, but I think she's done good work in everything I've seen her in. She played Rebecca Hall's self-centered sister in Please Give, and she does a good job in a thankless role as Brian's devoted wife, Stacy, in What Doesn't Kill You. Ethan Hawke is also good. He's so sleazy, like a pale, skinny, slightly taller Joe Pesci. The more he ages the more you feel he was made for these kinds of roles. He's come far from the fresh-faced teen in Mystery Date and Reality Bites. With Will Lyman, the director, Brian Goodman, Angela Featherstone, Edward Lynch. Donnie Wahlberg also shows up as a cop.

The Big Lebowski

How does a movie acquire a cult following? The people at the not-quite-midnight screening of The Big Lebowski (1998) seemed to frolic with this movie. They were laughing like it was the first time they'd seen it, yet I imagine they'd all seen it multiple times. (Many were quoting the dialogue with the movie or even talking over it because they knew exactly what was happening onscreen). This was my first time seeing The Big Lebowski. It's one of those movies you're scolded for not seeing. People love their Coen Brothers movies with a palpable ferocity. It's bizarre until you can find yourself within that kind of ferocious love of a movie.

I'm not partial to the Coen Brothers. No Country For Old Men may be their best work, but it's also pretty hollow inside. One of the most prominent storytelling flaws in their work is the stupidity of their characters' actions. But, in the world of the Coen Brothers this is a device or a bit of storytelling genius rather than a flaw. They try to paint the characters as more real because they do stupid things. It works out being a bit infuriating--and alternately comical, depending on the moment.

As much as this movie is about anything, it's a hodgepodge of old noir movies set in L.A. The Coens appropriate elements of Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, and Jack Smight's Harper. But you soon realize that the plot, about a guy (Jeff Bridges, playing the ultimate chronic loser with a flair for bowling and a penchant for White Russians) who's hired to save a crippled millionaire's kidnapped wife, is subordinate to the movie's stoner inhibitions. Bridges' character calls himself the Dude, and it's a pretentious attempt to adorn this movie with qualities that will make it what it's become, an oddball midnight movie. This theater is never packed, and it was packed.

Julianne Moore shows up as the eccentric daughter of the invalid millionaire (see The Big Sleep and Harper). She resents the hell out of her sex-kitten of a step-mother (see Harper). There's also some strand of yarn about a weird-ass cult (see Harper again). And the movie has that affectless feel that Altman most certainly wove into The Long Goodbye. No one really cares about anything. Except bowling. John Goodman gives a volcanic, uproariously funny performance as Bridges' nutso bowling partner, a Vietnam vet who's obsessed with the past and completely in love with his war vet status. Steve Buscemi plays their sidekick, the brunt of their jokes and hostility and fellow bowling buddy.

I find myself riddled with mixed emotions about this movie. I laughed a lot at the craziness onscreen. It's got moments of pure madness, and the movie's nightmarish cast and nightmarishly lackadaisical story are something to be seen, but it also bugged the hell out of me. It's visually stylish and stylized (replete with trippy drug-induced dream sequences that might have come from the mind of David Lynch), but uneven. There may be reasons to care about the characters, but only if you're willing to like their idiosyncrasies. And it's dreadfully repetitive, particularly the dialogue, which is like bad Tarantino. Goodman's character was exasperating, and you wanted him to get abused more than he did (although he also delivered some truly good moments of comedy). Bridges' character constantly bungles things in a way that grows quickly tiresome. Bridges is a solid actor, though, and he carries a movie that's practically been amputated at the gut.