January 28, 2012

Weekend at Bernie's

Sitcoms work because the contrived circumstances in which the shallow characters find themselves take only 25 minutes to be worked out. Most sitcoms are garbage, and don't resonate with the audience or linger in their consciousness (I'll single out a few exceptions: Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and 30 Rock, all come to mind as great sitcoms that developed characters you actually cared about or at least loved to hate/laugh at.) The problem with so many movies in the last thirty or so years is that they're just elongated sitcoms (the not good kind of sitcoms): the characters never move beyond the surface level, their motivations are unbelievable or uninteresting; the humor is predictable, and really isn't even funny.

As an audience, we feel nothing for these kinds of movies. They may satisfy some urge for banal entertainment that's been conditioned inside us by studios that want to make as much money as possible on as little quality entertainment as can be managed without alerting the public. There's no investment for the audience. That's the problem of a movie like Weekend at Bernie's (1989), the plot of which is like watching a balloon deflate for 90 minutes instead of 12 seconds. It's about two yuppies working at an insurance firm who are trying to ingratiate themselves with their sleazy boss, Bernie. They discover that someone is trying to defraud the company, but when they share this information with their boss, he decides to have them killed (he was the one perpetrating the fraud, it turns out). Bernie's plan backfires, because he winds up dead at the hands of the mob thugs he's in cahoots with, and the two yuppies are set up as the fall guys. A recipe for madcap hilarity, indeed.

Except, this movie has no charm, there's no moonlight in the soul of this movie. It lacks the opulent glittery magic of a sudsy 1950s comedy, or the fast wit of a 1930s screwball comedy, or the chaotic brilliance of some of the more recent comedies of note, like Bridesmaids. The leads are played by Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman. McCarthy has the ability to be likable, but in this movie he's the opportunistic ladder-climbing type: overly obsessed with materialism and getting laid (an ideal yuppie). Silverman is more endearing: his pouty face works for him, and he seems exasperated by yuppie culture but unable to make a move away from it. There's something interesting in that. But then he ruins it by trying to impress a girl (the lovely Catherine Mary Stewart) by misrepresenting himself. That makes this some kind of 1980s film version of Two and a Half Men.

I think the real problem with Weekend at Bernie's is that yuppies aren't all that funny. They're actually kind of pathetic. They'd be tragic if they were more likable. Incidentally, there's a funny episode of Seinfeld where Elaine watches with great agony Weekend at Bernie's II, which apparently makes the first film look like a cinematic gem. With Terry Kiser and Don Calfa. Directed by Ted Kotcheff.

January 22, 2012


Pre-Gone With the Wind Antebellum South drama, set in New Orleans in 1852-3, in which Bette Davis plays Julie Marsden, a passionate, unconventional, complicated Southern belle who tries to win back her ex-fiance (Henry Fonda) after he's remarried and moved to Boston. Because its story is set before the Civil War, Jezebel (1938) provides some interesting insight into the pre-war clash between Southern and Northern culture. Granted, it's a Hollywoodized insight, but it doesn't seem as rosily nostalgic for the glory days of the Old South the way Gone With the Wind is.

Instead of war, the big scare--the thing that tries to lend this movie some big, epic-style, overarching dramatic weight--is the impending yellow fever that paralyzes New Orleans. But this movie doesn't feel like a lumbering epic, because it's just over 100 minutes, and the director, William Wyler, manages to keep the picture from being self-important. He doesn't go for the overdramatic close-ups too often, and keeps the swelling music in check, and keeps his camera moving to give us multiple points of view, rather than turn this into a stuffy stage play that fixates too long from one angle. (It was based on a play by Owen Davis).

Wyler is much more interested in character than plot. Julie is selfish, but it's her independence of mind for which she's punished by losing the man she loves. When she refuses to wear a white dress to the big ball--donning a red one instead--all of New Orleans society is scandalized by her bucking of the custom. (Those dresses are like little cages draped in decadent muslin. There's a funny scene where Wyler shows us the ugly steel hoops that serve as the structure of the dresses, and you feel really sorry for the ladies who had to war them all the time.) This breaks up her engagement, and eventually he finds another lady to marry.

Bette Davis is of course a legend, but she was also known for her histrionics. In Jezebel, however, Davis exercises masterful control of herself, and her performance is stronger as a result. She lets us see her character flaws in subtle facial expressions rather than big dramatic gestures and screaming voice. Her voice hasn't yet attained that deep, sharp, bellowing quality that would so marvelously serve her Margo Channing in All About Eve. Here, Bette's voice is soft, and she's at her most beautiful. She looks soft and vulnerable, but she's a fighter. Moreover, she's more complicated than you might expect. It's hard to pin her down as a vixen or a heroine--she falls somewhere in the middle, but then her morality spills over into each side at varying times in the movie. She doesn't explain her motivations away, and she doesn't rely on sympathy to get what she wants. In the end, Julie is punished for being too independent, but Davis makes it believable. Julie takes everything that comes at her with a certain degree of calm, as if she knew about it all along. 

Jezebel holds up well. Wyler doesn't marinate his drama in excess--too much. The gaudy Southerners aren't reduced to caricatures; they aren't proffered up cavalierly as cartoons. There's a certain humanity in just about everyone, and yet the movie doesn't sly away form showing how silly some of their customs were. With George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, John Litel, Donald Crisp, Spring Byington, Eddie Anderson, Henry O'Neill, and Irving Pichell. Music by Max Steiner.

January 16, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The anti-Bond spy movie, from the book by John Le Carre. Gary Oldman plays Smiley, an ex British intelligence agent who's called back on the job when his former boss (John Hurt) suspects the presence of a mole in his department. You have to go into this expecting a deliberately paced movie that doesn't spoon-feed you the whole plot. It's not action-packed. It's not about the sexy gadgets and unbelievable action sequences, but the withered perseverance of an aging spy who may not be sexy or hyper-masculine, but makes up for that in sheer intelligence and mental fortitude. It would have been nice, I suppose, if this movie had been a little faster paced at times, and there's a certain Britishness to it that reeks of stuffy good manners, and yet the movie is totally absorbing, even when it's difficult to follow. It has an actual mystery to it, which is something you generally don't get from a Bond picture. And Gary Oldman is a convincing lead, a bit embalmed perhaps, but he gets his character's human side across nonetheless.

Benedict Cumberbatch makes a strong impression as Oldman's right-hand-man, the scrappy assistant who knows how to get information without getting caught. Tom Hardy is also an interesting character, a spy who allegedly defects and becomes a target of British intelligence as a result. Colin Firth is one of the higher-up members of the British intelligence agency. He's good, but maybe it's only because we've come to expect good performances out of him that we don't demand proof of his acting talent. He's our new Laurence Olivier.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy lacks that little spark that might have elevated it to a great piece of entertainment (like David Fincher's Zodiac or Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential), but it's still a convincing movie, if too carefully constructed for its own good. Visually, it's a remarkable movie, capturing the gloom of England and Cold War Europe. It's one of the few movies in recent memory that looks believably set in an earlier time period than the present. The Cold War paranoia is alive and well in this movie, and perhaps it's the fact that the Cold War is now more than 20 years ended that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is worthwhile because of its seeming irrelevance. It goes down easier than something about more recent (or current) global conflicts, because we feel like it's behind us. But the shadowy phantoms of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy have a way of lingering in your mind after the movie's ended, and even if you feel a bit dazed from the overlength, you appreciate that this movie doesn't insult your intelligence or pander to your emotions in some infantile fashion--the way we're used to being treated at the movies.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson. With Mark Strong, Ciarin Hinds, David Dencik, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, Christian McKay, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Konstantin Khabensky. 2011.

January 15, 2012

Ghost Dog

Forest Whitaker plays a hitman who's known affectionately and yet with a certain amount of trepidation as Ghost Dog. He has a "gift" for effecting successful and stealth contract killings. However, when his latest job doesn't turn out exactly the way his clients wanted, Ghost Dog becomes a target of a bunch of aging mafiosos. They're relics of the golden age of mobster movies, men who were probably pretty tough in 1972, but who are now slow and fat and wrinkled and have raspy voices and dulled reflexes. Ghost Dog lithely eludes their labored attempts to confront and kill him.

Whitaker turns his character into some kind of a deadly teddy bear. He's into samarai literature and philosophy, and reading in general, and his best friend (played by Isaach de Bankole) is a Haitian immigrant who only speaks French and drives an ice cream truck. When Ghost Dog--whose real name is withheld from us--meets a bright young girl named Pearline in the park, the two strike up an unlikely friendship that, while brief, proves to illuminate a great deal to us about Ghost Dog's character. He and she seem to exist in completely other worlds from their Jersey City surroundings.

Ghost Dog is devoted to the code of the Samarai, and everyone around him is oblivious to the idea of living by any code whatsoever, except for the mafiosos, who are on borrowed time in their chosen profession. You start to laugh at the ridiculousness of overaged men still trying to be badasses. It's meant to be comical, and when the light bulb suddenly clicks (there are no younger dudes with guns in this group--it's the world's first geriatric mafia), you realize that this movie is going to be fun. It's deliberately slow-paced, but the camera work by Robby Muller is arresting: the atmosphere of Ghost Dog leaves one feeling on edge, but there's a fluid lull to the imagery that keeps you glued to the screen. There's something almost unspeakable about the feel of this movie. It's akin to the film's wryly funny and yet touchingly reverent view of its main character, who's some kind of criminal religious figure with almost mystical sensibilities.

The action is exciting, in part because the director, Jim Jarmusch, doesn't overload the movie with shootouts. And he's very subtle about them. Those scenes creep up on you when you don't expect them, and while there are touches of brutality, nothing is handled humorlessly: you're always conscious of the fact that this movie doesn't take itself too seriously. It's a mystical, breezy crime thriller: something of an anomaly, perhaps, but quite a good piece of entertainment, sustained by Whitaker's fine performance.

With John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Victor Argo, Vinny Vella, Joseph Rigano, and Camille Winbush. Music by RZA. 1999.

January 09, 2012

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

An elegiac Western, brooding with grim death, about the life and death of Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt. Director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Richard Deakins capture the vastness of the Midwestern terrain which serves as the stage for the countless train robberies and stand-offs and meandering conversations in breezy meadows. It's vacuous like a Terrence Malick film, and while its subject has a certain dramatic pull, watching it lumber along for nearly three hours reminded me why Westerns are so utterly unappealing, with a few exceptions. They're either gratuitously unrealistic to the point of being macho right-wing fantasies or they're so grimly realistic that you can't get an inkling of enjoyment out of them (much like Meek's Cutoff). It's quiet and ponderous like There Will Be Blood, which is a better movie. It had a poetic energy to it while Jesse James feels torpid and unimaginative.

Brad Pitt tries to layer a philosophical undercurrent into his performance as Jesse James, and Casey Affleck, as the calculating Robert Ford in the title, turns squeaky-voiced weaselly-ness into an art form--an undignified, desperately unappealing one. Pitt registers. He's an actor who hasn't really gotten his due. But the movie is unsustained--parts are better than the whole--and so his performance and his staying power are rendered somewhat less effective. The supporting cast is populated with good actors who are bogged down by a boring script and the shackles of self-important filmmaking: Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, and Zooey Deschanel.

January 08, 2012

I Heart Huckabees

A pair of existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) attempt to help a neurotic (Jason Schwartzman) find the meaning of life. He's trying to stop a big retail expansion that would destroy some marshland, and locks horns with a sleazy suit (Jude Law) who's working the system for his own benefit under the guise of caring for the environment. An attractive cast is hurdled precipitously into this disjointed philosophical comedy of chaos directed by David O. Russell. Nothing seems to fit, and the film is repetitive and, worse, uninteresting. There are some good performances. Hoffman and Tomlin are perfectly at ease and well cast. Law knows how to play the wickedly handsome corporate type. Schwartzman, on the other hand, grates on the nerves.

I Heart Huckabees is too content to be quirky and eccentric and never finds time to be sustainably funny. Really dreadful at times.

With Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Isabelle Huppert, Tippi Hedren, Talia Shire, and Jean Smart. 2004.

January 07, 2012

Drop Dead Gorgeous

A small-town beauty pageant in Minnesota is the focus of this dark comedy, filmed in a mockumentary style that's only halfway committed to being a mockumentary. Its characters are the stuff of small-town stereotypes: gun-shooting beauty queens with raging tempers and bloated egos. Kirstie Alley plays the pageant's spokeswoman. She's a former queen herself, and she's vying for the success of her daughter (the always wickedly beautiful Denise Richards) in the upcoming show. But a nice girl (Kirsten Dunst) is in the way because she possesses some actual talent.

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) gives you an admittedly fun cajoling of beauty pageants and the obsessive people who participate in them, as contestants, judges, commentators, or spectators. But the story itself isn't sustained the way Best in Show (2000), which may be the best mockumentary ever made, is. Instead, the makers of Drop Dead Gorgeous seem lazily content to rely on their self-perceived cleverness for noticing the outlandish stupidity of their all too easy target.

It's the actors who save this movie from fumbling too badly. Particularly Allison Janney, who plays the best friend of Dunsts's mom (Ellen Barkin). Janney's character is a deliciously uncouth small-town trailer park goddess, and Janney, who is a beautiful, tall, talented comedienne, seems to be having more fun than just about anyone else. Kirstie Alley is good, but somehow frightfully believable. Some of the dark humor is disturbingly dark, and yet, this is what gives the movie its edge. Contestants keep meeting with macabre deaths, and other "accidents" indicate that someone's trying to fix the voting process. But without the black comedy, I don't think this movie would have had any teeth.

Amy Adams shows up in a funny but insubstantial role as a floozy with her eyes on the prize. Also starring Mindy Sterling (another remarkably talented comic actress who doesn't get enough time on the screen in this movie), Sam McMurray, Brittany Murphy (emanating a bubbly, electric, comic energy), Nora Dunn, Mo Gaffney, and Mary Gillis. Directed by Michael Patrick Jann.

January 01, 2012

Sixteen Candles

For my first review of 2012, I wanted to revisit one of my favorite 80s movies, Sixteen Candles (1984). It's basically Cinderella turned into an 80s high school melodrama. The movie is utterly unreal, and that's where its charm lies. Molly Ringwald plays Samantha, a girl who exists in the middle--she's not popular, but she's also not unpopular. The movie takes place over a 24-hour period, wherein Samantha's entire family forgets her sweet 16, and she falls for the high school prom king, Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), who's already dating the "perfect" girl (Haviland Morris).

In addition to her own personal problems, Samantha must deal with the advances of a determined geek named Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), who hides his insecurities behind a facade of mock-macho-self-aggrandizement. Hall's performance is terrific, and so is Ringwald's. Writer-director John Hughes had an incredible talent for casting young actors and eliciting believable performances from them that deepened the characters and made them endearing to the audience. So, while Sixteen Candles is a completely unreal fairy tale of a movie, its characters feel nuanced. They're fleshed out beyond their stereotypes, and become people you care about.

The humor is at times unsustained, but overall Sixteen Candles feels like a wonderfully fun late night: it breezes along without taking itself too seriously (like Hughes's follow-up, The Breakfast Club, did). Movies that take place in virtually 24 hours must have a vitality to them in order to be convincing. Sixteen Candles works, despite its shortcomings. 

Paul Dooley co-stars as Samantha's dad. He's probably my favorite onscreen dad because of his performances in this movie and in Breaking Away. With Gedde Watanabe, Carlin Glynn, John Cusack, Justin Henry, Edward Andrews, Billie Bird, Max Showalter, Carole Cook, Liane Curtis, Blanche Baker, Joan Cusack, Jami Gertz.