Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Man Named "Bad": CRAZY HEART

Crazy Heart is a stunningly self-assured debut feature written and directed by Scott Cooper. It’s confident, steady work that wisely foregrounds its lead performance, which also happens to be its best asset. If at worst the film seems to be cliché, it serves to remind us that some peoples’ lives sound like a cliché. There’s a specificity to the film that keeps it honest, especially in the deeply felt and tenderly wrought performance from Jeff Bridges as “Bad” Blake, an alcoholic country singer whose glory days are a couple of decades behind him. Here is a character that feels real despite being a familiar type. As the film ends, with two characters literally walking into the sunset, there’s a feeling that the film may be ending, but the characters will continue to exist, pulling their weary selves through one more day, one more week, and one more song.

At its most interesting the film is a portrait of the modern country music scene with a striking dichotomy between the raw, intimate singer-songwriter style and the super-slick productions that border on pop. In the film, Blake’s protégé (Colin Farrell) illuminates this difference. He has surpassed his mentor in popularity and success, selling out huge arenas while Blake fills dive bars and bowling alleys. The difference is one of glittery buses on one side and beat-up pickups on the other. And yet, there is no demonization of this difference. Its matter of fact interesting and it leads up to a brilliant set of scenes in the center of the film that play out with beautiful ease. Bridges and Farrell flesh in back-story in a natural, unforced way, not through exposition, necessarily, but through acting and tone. We get a sense of their history and their friendship without any kind of forced conflict or tension, and especially without pages of on-the-nose dialogue. Neither man is a villain. Neither man is a hero. They simply are.

This respect extends to the other relationship that is central to the film. The radiant Maggie Gyllenhaal is a small-town reporter who falls for “Bad” Blake. She sees through the grizzled exterior and spies the soul of a true artist. He begins to work on a new song that might provide a needed boost to his income. We hear snippets of lyrics and melody for at least half of the film. Only at the very end do we hear a character slowly strumming a guitar, rasping out the words until the sound and scene segues into a full-blown country-radio version played by another character which carries us into the end credits with the feeling of artistic accomplishment. We have seen a great new song develop before our very eyes and ears.

If the relationship between Bridges and Gyllenhaal feels a little forced, and it does, it’s never the fault of the actors, who bring to their roles a bone-deep sense of characterization. Bridges, especially, brings a sense of seriousness and depth to characterization with a performance that’s worn comfortably. The late addition of a character played by the unmatchable Robert Duvall only adds to this feeling of expertly performed roles. The plot may grind them down in sometimes tired ways, but they never let it feel false. This is a film that is respectful and intelligent with well-earned sentiment. It left me with a deeply felt sense of satisfaction that settled comfortably upon me as the credits began to roll.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Quick Look: The Young Victoria (2009)

Jean-Marc Vallée's The Young Victoria is the kind of period-piece costume drama that is stuffed and mounted, often beautiful to regard but emotionally immobile. It’s not exactly airless, but it’s definitely stuffy. This is a facile telling of the early months of Queen Victoria’s reign, with scenes of splendor continually clipped, denying full enjoyment of the film’s best assets. The coronation scene is especially awkward in the way it is chopped off right when it’s getting good. The film is a great excuse to gather great actors with British accents (Jim Broadbent, Mark Strong, Paul Bettany, and Emily Blunt, who has the title role) and let them play dress up in Victorian clothes and romp about chewing the ornate scenery wherever and whenever the script allows. The film strands its cast leaving only a sad little whiff of underexploited potential. This is a dry and flavorless film. Worse than bad, it simply leaves no impact.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Swedish Schlock: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

What an odd weekend at the movies. First, I wasn’t outraged by Kick-Ass and now I’m confronted with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which there is not one, not two, but three completely unnecessary scenes of sexual assault and rape that are dropped in to the first half of what is just a standard serial-killer mystery. It’s almost as if some higher power needed to make sure my sense of moral indignation still worked. There is no reason for these rape scenes other than that they can be found in the bestselling book by the same name from the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson. In print, though they are just as unnecessary, they can be skipped or skimmed. Although I still found them off-putting in my reading experience, I still managed to finish the book. (I feel like an outlier when I say I found the novel to be just “okay” overall). Literalized and dramatized on the screen, they are uncomfortable and ultimately unbearable. I loathed them with an intense fury.

I suppose the movie rebounds from such miserable lows about as well as any movie could. It helps when the basic story is fairly solid. In this Swedish thriller there’s a disgraced journalist (Michael Nyqvist), who’s hired by an elderly tycoon (Sven-Bertil Taube) to research the 40-year-old unsolved disappearance of his niece, and there’s a slim, tattooed and pierced hacker (Noomi Rapace) who crosses his path and may or may not help them solve the case. It’s thrilling at times, even exciting at least once, but mostly it’s a jumble of names, documents and photographs that we’re told point towards a mystery’s solution. This all works on the page where there is room to develop such a mystery and let us simmer in the details, but director Niels Arden Oplev leaves nothing untold that could, and usually will, be shown. It’s a depressingly literal-minded adaptation from screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg that isn’t helped by such square direction.

If there’s any material that could soar with all kinds of impressive filmmaking, it’s mysteries involving missing persons and scary murders. Look at Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs for two fairly recent (to the extent the 90’s are still recent) examples. They share only a similar desire to scare and shock while delighting audiences with a slowly unraveling mystery. Here, the movie is content to plod and drag along for well over two hours, constantly allowing characters to endlessly speechify, reminisce, and explicate. It moves at such a relentlessly grinding pace that I felt worn down by the dullness of it all. At least when I was being repulsed by the film I was feeling something. It’s a film to endure more than it is a film to see.

Here’s hoping that the forthcoming American remake does something more exciting with this material. Maybe less devotion to the source material is called for. But is it too much to ask that the studio tries to get Noomi Rapace for the same role? Here she plays an interesting character interestingly, and yet is constantly undermined by a film that doesn’t realize how awesome a character she could be. But that’s the film’s nature: to constantly make ordinary what could be extra. Unless, of course, that extra involves rape.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

It's an Early Summer Kick-Off: KICK-ASS

There’s a commercial for the new R-rated adaptation of Mark Millar’s superhero comic Kick-Ass that contains, among several sound-bites from “real” audience members exiting test screenings, a frothing fan who exclaims that she “never had so much fun watching the bad guys get slaughtered.” I cringe at that, not just because it shrieks of an unfortunate mindset, but because that’s precisely the kind of predicted attitude that causes the kind of moral outrage and hand-wringing that this film has prompted from a handful of critics and op-ed pieces, but to my eyes the film is no more violent and no more callous than countless other worse shoot-‘em-ups. Even among its R-rated comic book kin, Kick-Ass has violence a notch or two milder than Wanted (another Millar adaptation), or Sin City, or 300, or Watchmen. And it is certainly much less implicating in its violence than a first-person-shooter video game. Here, it’s presented with a somewhat more cartoony touch, though it’s still definitely R-rated. Besides, haven’t the kinds of people so willing to engage with their basest of instincts while watching a film always existed? And why should we condemn a film simply because of what some of its more reprehensible viewers might think?

A great deal of this outrage rests on the character Hit Girl, an 11-year-old girl who slices and dices her way through several bloody action set-pieces, which play like Kill Bill with a kid in the lead, and spouts off shocking profanity (the kind that isn’t even commonly shortened in polite society with dashes or a “-word” suffix) in exactly four lines. (Those lines are mostly just shock for shock’s sake). The sight of a grown man fighting a small girl is troubling and a little nerve-wracking, but the action sequences (especially the big climactic confrontation) are meant to be troubling and suspenseful, aren’t they? It’s strong and intense content, to be sure, and there’s some small dissonance in having such material layered underneath an occasionally snarky tone. There is a lot in the film that is played for laughs, even, yes, some of the violence, but I hardly think that the filmmakers intended for us to laugh at a bloodied child. If an audience laughs, which mine did not, there’s something wrong with them. In the final action scene, I was troubled and nervous because I cared about the character and her situation.

It’s hard to type out a defense of the film because I can understand the viewpoint of the outraged. I can understand, and even sympathize, with those who are troubled by the violence and the vulgarity and the age of this supporting character. But still, despite such justifiable qualms, I found myself enjoying the movie. As unsettling as it can be, I found myself the most uneasy about its themes and content only after the fact while trying to work out how I can bring together two opposing impulses: that I found the movie to be hugely entertaining and that I can see how the movie can be troubling. Ultimately, I think the movie is as slick and enjoyable as studio fare and yet it also plays with exuberance in the key of exploitation, by which I mean it’s a successful entertainment that’s also a bit of a live-wire.

The movie takes what is at this point a fairly routine superhero format and tweaks it into something approaching freshness. It features a bland geeky teen played by Aaron Johnson, who looks more or less like a cool kid, but is actually fully ignored by the majority of his schoolmates. It requires the same level of disbelief that we use when we agree to pretend that a rom-com’s gorgeous lead can’t get a date. Anyway, he decides to become a superhero, donning a scuba suit and a mask and calling himself Kick-Ass. Despite his quick fame, thanks to a viral video, he finds himself to be fairly inadequate, especially as he gets drawn into a plot involving a drug kingpin (Mark Strong) and his son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and father-daughter vigilantes who go by the names Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). The plot is complicated, but never dull. There’s energetic frankness (there’s plenty of jokes and conversations that wouldn’t be out of place in an Apatow film) and stylishness to the proceedings as director Matthew Vaughn (of Layer Cake and Stardust) keeps things whipped up into a hip frenzy. It’s his best work yet. Though the film’s often calculating, knowing exactly what blockbuster buttons to push, it’s never untrue to itself, even if it means getting in its own way.

The film seems to be a critique of fanboy culture, especially in the way these “superheroes” are quickly idolized and the way thousands will mindlessly devour real-life violence as their own entertainment. And yet, the film plays too well to fanboy culture to really be engaging in such a critique. While it’s nice that the action scenes are, for once, not totally chopped up into nearly unintelligible bits of motion, it’s too easy to see the moments where the audience is expected to see a flash of stylized gore as a cue to cackle. Still, the action is swift, exciting, and plenty fun, even as it borders on unsettling at times. (I think seeing it with a more bloodthirsty crowd would raise my uncomfortableness). Style and theme are at odds in ways that are difficult to disentangle. The film seems to point towards showing real consequences of comic-book violence, but then locates this theme in a stylized world.

In some ways, I resent the fact that the film has to be so controversial and thought-provoking, mostly through its lazily underdeveloped and conflicting themes, because my experience of actually watching the film was much more uncomplicated. For all of my post-screening intellectual consternation and racing, conflicting thoughts, as the film was unspooling I was having a blast. Vaughn doesn’t lean too heavily on any of the deeper meanings that are half-formed in the execution. The film settles for shrugging off any responsibility to be any kind of meditation on deeper themes and just shooting forward as a high-quality action film. This isn’t the kind of film that is filled up with indistinguishable action. The action sequences are well spaced. They have shape and stakes; each one is distinct and clearly defined. As the movie moves forward, the action beats build in impact on the plot and in the risk to the characters. By the time we reach the climax, the action has reached a roaring crescendo.

In addition to the speed and style and great action of the film, what carried me through, and kept the outlandish violence from overwhelming the fairly light tone, was the cast. The actors are able and ready to balance the tones of the film and it’s because of them that I actually cared about the characters. The adults put in good work. Mark Strong plays his gangster with the right amounts of threatening machismo and self-conscious caricature. Nicolas Cage is strange and scary, sweet and suspect, funny and indelible, the qualities he can always bring to a role when allowed. Yet the film is carried by its younger stars. Aaron Johnson gives the kind of performance that feels naturally stylized. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is fast becoming one of our greatest character actors. And young Chloe Grace Moretz handles her rough role with a certain grace and cheerfulness that almost – almost – counterbalances her role’s edginess without trampling either the sweet little girl or the inherent tragedy of being essentially brainwashed into becoming a tool of revenge. I found myself genuinely caring about these characters, especially Cage and Moretz who have a moment of emotion late in the film that felt genuinely touching.

Once I realized the movie wasn’t going to provoke my sense of moral indignation, I enjoyed it as an accomplished and solid trashy blockbuster. It’s smoothly raucous and randy, and even has a few genuine surprises in its plotting. It’s not too all tastes, and though I understand the objections some have to the content, and really, the movie leaves itself open to such objections by having confused themes, I can’t deny the entertaining rush of energy the film supplied. I found the film exciting and enjoyable. I have to admit that the finale even left me charged up for a sequel. It’s energetic and explosive and, to quote the immortal Henry Higgins, it’s “so deliciously low.”

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Swimming Through a Teenage Wasteland: FISH TANK

Writer-director Andrea Arnold’s second film, Fish Tank, is focused on 15-year-old Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis, arguing with her boyfriend at a train station when discovered by the director) who lives in a run-down apartment with her lower-class family: her young, boozy and verbally abusive mother (Kierston Wareing), and her precociously profane sister (Rebecca Griffiths). Mia behaves badly, but she’s not a bad kid, or at least we don’t think so right away. Her only small escape is her love of dance. Oh, now I know what you’re thinking, and no, this is not the talent-trumps-circumstances story that it may sound like. This is a grim setting presented in unembellished style with a hand-held camera and casual framing. It’s raw. There are scenes that are hard to watch, that set my emotions churning. The film may horse around with some easy symbolism, and it’s unfortunate that, in its last act, the film has to settle back into a handful of familiar scenes with conflicts that have played out in many other films, but the angst-filled center of this particular film more than keeps the film on the rails.

In this world, Mia runs in circles. There is emphasis on the circularity and insularity of her world. Her daily route takes her on the same round trip. She moves away from the apartment and the life it represents only to inevitably get pulled back towards it, finding conflict and despair on her way. Even the squared 1.33:1 aspect ratio conspires to keep her locked in her hope-deprived cycle. As played by Katie Jarvis, in a powerful performance that deserves mentioning alongside other great young performers with recent troubled-teen roles like Gabourey Sidibe and Carey Mulligan, Mia is a volatile mix of impulses. She’s shockingly, frighteningly, violent and spontaneous in her emotions. Though some of her behavior and feelings can be excused away by her age, her temperament and dangerous actions are more directly attributable to her environment.

Early in the film, Mia’s mother throws a rowdy party, shutting her daughters away in their rooms. Mia sneaks down and steals an unattended bottle of vodka, chugging it down in solitude while the sounds of the party thump through the thin walls. She and her sister smoke and swear with ease, move provocatively and speak insolently. They’re racing too quickly into the world of adults without even understanding how much danger they are opening up for themselves. Mia, especially, is filled with churning, foreign, and fleeting desires that are matched by a paradoxically stubborn malleability. Into this volatile environment comes a stranger, a new variable. It’s mom’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). He’s handsome and seems level-headed. He’s kind to the daughters, but there’s a squirmy sexual tension between Mia and him. It’s uncomfortable and clearly headed to a place that will not prove beneficial for anyone involved, especially since Mia and her mother stare at him with similar gazes and he returns them with similar smolders.

And yet, this is no mere wallow in the uncomfortable. There’s a zest and life to Arnold’s harsh mise-en-scene that traps the characters within small spaces and behind cramped fences. Even open fields, with brown grass and gray sky stretching to the horizon, seem to close in on them. There’s a sense of real lives being lived, not quietly in desperation, but rather in hollow shouts that land on deaf ears. It’s not a feel-good film, but it’s a good film, one that nobly has no answers, one that can be hard to watch but always remains tightly, respectfully focused. It’s a modest character study with great performances and plenty character to study.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

DATE NIGHT: It's a Date!

Date Night is what we tell ourselves Hollywood used to create more consistently. It’s a high concept blockbuster with big stars and a big budget. It’s an action-comedy that’s genuinely exciting and more than a little funny. It moves at a fast pace with a light touch. It’s a perfectly enjoyable night at the movies, even though, as it was winding down, I found myself mildly disappointed that it wasn’t just a little bit better.

After all, the movie stars two of the funniest people working today. Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a married couple whose weekly date night takes a screwball turn when a case of mistaken identity turns their night into a wacky and dangerous race through New York City in order to stay alive and clear up the misunderstandings. Their madcap adventure contains plenty of capably staged action and plenty of laughs. They come into contact with a host of funny characters who are played by a host of funny, talented performers. There’s a hunky security expert (Mark Wahlberg), a mob boss (Ray Liotta), a policewoman (Taraji P. Henson), two shady tough-guys (Common and Jimmi Simpson), and a couple of goofy lowlifes (James Franco and Mila Kunis) who are the real couple that should be at the center of the mess. Needless to say, Carell and Fey are far removed from their suburban-family existence and their circle of friends (which include the always welcome Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo).

Carell and Fey have enjoyable presences on funny sitcoms (The Office and 30 Rock, respectively) and here create an easy rapport. They seem like a real married couple. They have complications and frustrations, sure, but they seem to truly love each other. And when the action movie kicks in, they don’t discover hidden depths in each other, or suddenly become butt-kicking action superstars. Their relationship is a little touching and sweet as their characters remain consistent throughout: likable and relatable. With lesser leads, the movie would be nowhere near as good, even with the excellent supporting cast that has been assembled.

Certainly, the story would not be as memorable if it weren’t for the people acting it out. The plot keeps a lot of thriller and screwball elements in the air, and there’s a feeling that it doesn’t ever develop the ideas more than the plot requires. But what a plot! I’m sure there are plot holes. It’s not complicated, or even particularly distinguished, but it’s certainly enjoyable and involving as it sends the characters racing through ridiculous scenarios and it managed to keep me smiling and chuckling for almost the entire run time. Sure, it retroactively bothers me that the underlying theme about marriage is never fully explored and that the great supporting cast is seriously underused. But the movie was fun enough at the time.

The director is Shawn Levy who ruinously remade The Pink Panther and wasted a perfectly good premise in not one but two Night at the Museum movies. Here, he finally makes a movie that works all the way through. It’s a film that’s energetic without seeming manic while funny without seeming to stretch for laughs. The timing is excellent, the leads are well-deployed, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. In fact, it all seems to resolve too easily and quickly. If anything, I wanted the movie to go on a little longer. There needs to be just one more turn of the screw, one more unexpected complication. The plot resolves a bit too quickly and easily. Then again, I should be careful what I wish for. This is just an easy, uncomplicated, and enjoyable experience. It's a fun, slick entertainment that’s, at the risk of sounding too willing to be quoted, just right for date night.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Un-Caged: BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS

The last several years have proven that there is a large market for bad Nicolas Cage thrillers. Remember National Treasure? Ghost Rider? Bangkok Dangerous? National Treasure: Book of Secrets? They all opened at the top of the box office charts on their opening weekend despite being largely terrible. For some reason, the general public will only see Cage if he has odd intensity and likably exaggerated mannerisms tied to a thin character wading through schlock. He’s a great actor though, so it’s a shame that his best projects have a tendency to slip through the cracks. In theory, that shouldn’t have happened to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is at once a very good sleazy thriller and a perfectly marketable film. Why, then, has the film seen only a small limited release and is now being limped out on DVD and Blu-ray? Maybe it’s because it happens to be so cheerfully wicked in its insanity.

Helmed by the great German auteur, and suspected crazy person, Werner Herzog, the movie features Cage as a New Orleans cop who injures his back saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina. This cop gets addicted to his painkillers and then starts to self-medicate in addition to his prescriptions by lifting some confiscated cocaine from the evidence room. Soon, he’s wandering the ravaged streets of New Orleans, lifting drugs off of unsuspecting addicts and snorting it right in front of them. He tortures and badgers witnesses and suspects, barks out orders, makes backroom deals and bargains, and generally looks at the world through a stare of vague, bug-eyed intensity.  Also, he’s investigating the brutal killings of an entire immigrant family.

Herzog and Cage don’t care much about making this man likable, or even relatable, but they aren’t following him down increasingly depraved paths like Abel Ferrara did with Harvey Keitel in their Bad Lieutenant (1992), a film that’s related to this one in name only. (The Bad Lieutenant part of the title was forced on the picture by a producer with the subtitle Herzog’s idea). Instead, Cage simply presents a man ravaged by circumstance and temperament, mirroring the locale. Herzog’s camera follows his central character through a crumbled and waterlogged city filled with slimy characters and creatures (including hallucinated iguanas and a twitching crocodile corpse), that match the decaying mental state of this bad lieutenant. New Orleans is a place of harsh beauty for Herzog as he uses his usual “voodoo of location” to great effect, not to mention skilful use of his beloved man-versus-wild imagery, not just in the iguanas and crocodiles, but also from the slimy snake the slips through dirty water in the opening scene and the film’s final shot with two men dwarfed by a sinisterly tranquil aquarium.

Often, a Herzog film will become more interesting the more it drifts away from the ostensible point of the scene.  Take, for example, his wonderful Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World in which he places his narration over an interview to explain how lengthy and rambling the interview became. While Port of Call New Orleans remains a luxurious wallow in low genre pleasures and a seriously cracked procedural, there are plenty of excellent moments where the camera drifts away and maybe the plot will follow it. There are plenty of welcome detours, like the aforementioned iguanas that only Cage can see, and there are lots of rich parts for character actors. Jennifer Coolidge unexpectedly turns up playing Cage’s stepmom, but there are plenty of other strange and fascinating moments with a cast of characters that includes a drug dealer (Xzibit), Cage’s coworkers (which include Val Kilmer and Michael Shannon), and a prostitute (Eva Mendes).

This is a film of debauched anecdotes and bizarre incidents, of terrible criminals and sometimes worse officials. It plays like a conventional cop film that happens to be on about as many drugs as are in its main character. Herzog charges the film with his usual intensity of specificity and Cage brings a great performance of the kind that he is capable of delivering, but many recent roles have either misused or reined in. When you have two entertainers as eccentric, engaging and unpredictable as Cage and Herzog, it’s startling, maybe even a little disappointing, to see that, though they create a strange and captivating thriller, it seems to still pull up short. These are two men who could push each other so far over the top that the film would be in free fall. They only get us to the precipice, but what a lovely, beautifully schlocky view.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten (+1) Films of 2009


Inglourious Basterds
 A Serious Man
Where the Wild Things Are
Up
The Hurt Locker
The White Ribbon
Up in the Air
Summer Hours
 Drag Me to Hell
 Duplicity
Adventureland

Honorable mentions: A Christmas Carol, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 
(500) Days of Summer, Funny People, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, In the Loop, Ponyo, Star Trek, Sugar, This is It, Whip It
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