It’s Kind of a Funny Story

By , December 30, 2010 1:13 pm

It’s Kind of a Funny Story:  What the Critics Got Wrong

The Critical Line:  “A funny and warm film that addresses its serious issues with sensitivity but refuses to become bogged down in somberness.” (Eric Snider, film.com).

Movie Day at the Court’s Take:  Most reviews addressed the surprising dramatic range of Zach Galifianakis.  Agreed.  But the film’s stance on mental illness is unclear.  In the end, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote and co-directed the wonderful “Half Nelson,” also about a gifted lost soul from upper middle class New York City) suggest that the cure for depression is just to appreciate life.  Craig, a middle-to-bottom student at the most exclusive public school in the city, suffers from his father’s expectations and getting caught up with some brutally social climbing friends.  He checks himself into the cuckoo’s nest, where he mixes with some other asocial and disturbed types.  As Bobby (Galifianakis) tells Craig (Keir Gilchrist), Bobby, “You’re cool, you’re smart, you’re talented, you have a family that loves you.”  Jeez, kid—just stop and smell the roses. 

Whether this is simply pat cliché hinges on whether you believe depression of the privileged is “real” depression.  Having taught gifted and talented students in a highly competitive environment for several years, and suffering three years of law school, I’d say this:  Pressure is relative.  Unmet or unrealistic expectations can lead to real stress that leads to real depression.  It doesn’t matter how high the bar is; it matters whether you think you can get over the bar and whether you’ll let people down if you don’t.  The film doesn’t address this issue closely enough in its conclusion. 

The Pitch:

1 1/2 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next

1 1/2 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Half Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 1/2 It's Kind of a Funny Story

2 1/2 It's Kind of a Funny Story

2 1/2 It's Kind of a Funny Story

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps:  What the Critics Got Wrong

The Critical Line:  Very slick piece of Hollywood entertainment, but is bogged down by an overlong and implausible relationship drama.

Movie Day at the Court’s Take:  Mostly, the critical consensus was right.  The Tomatometer puts it at 65%, perhaps a little high.  Most critics complimented Michael Douglas’ reprisal of Gordon Gekko, or at least didn’t blame him for the film’s flatness.  Some thought Stone was preachy, or that Gekko remained too much at the margins of the story.  I think this is partially right—Stone has a brilliant idea for Gekko reemergence onto the financial scene, but doesn’t follow through.  Basically, Gekko gets out of prison just in time for the financial collapse of 2008 to write the Is Greed Good?, where he outlines exactly how the investment banks are creating fake profits from thin air.

This is where Stone blows it:  He could have made Gordon Gekko into Wall Street’s Jose Canseco, with Is Greed Good? his Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.  Both were the most egregious offenders in their industry’s bubble era, told the truth because they got blackballed (not the other way around), and went on media tours where people still didn’t want to believe the truth.  Strip away the artificially inflated family drama and make Shia LeBeouf’s character into a young Gekko disciple—that could be interesting.  Instead, Stone blows it by making the financial collapse into a simple symbol of hubris.  That’s the easy way out.   

The Pitch:

1 1/2 Bear Stearns

1 1/2 Bear Stearns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Jose Canseco's "Juiced"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 1/2 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

2 1/2 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

2 1/2 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Waiting for “Superman”

By , December 29, 2010 8:55 am

By Stephen Himes

Waiting for “Superman”:  What the Critics Got Wrong

The Critical Line:  “Gripping, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is an impassioned indictment of the American school system from “An Inconvenient Truth” director Davis Guggenheim.”

Representative Quotation:  “This is a time when urgent issues are often explored in polemic documentaries, as well as a fateful moment when the future of public education is being debated with unprecedented intensity. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” makes an invaluable addition to the debate.”  Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

The Movie Day at the Court Take:  Davis Guggenheim directly argues for an autocratic approach to education reform, which, as shown by the defeat of one of the “supermen” he profiles, threatens to submarine the entire education reform movement.

Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, opens this documentary about public schools with an inconvenient truth of his own:  He drives past three public schools everyday to take his kids to private school.  You know the drill: Around 20%-30% of American students are proficient in math and science, reading scores are awful, more minority boys go to prison than college.  Guggenheim intertwines his wonky stats with the personal stories of five children from some of the worst-performing schools in the nation.  The personal stories are gripping, of course:  A little girl wants to be a vet, another wants to be a “recorder, like you.” There’s no escaping the truth facing the children behind the statistics, but there’s nothing here that wasn’t done by Jonathan Kozol twenty years ago. 

To get at the crux of Guggenheim’s argument, look to the scene with “Education Reformer” Bill Strickland at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Facility.  Strickland describes how the schools funnel kids to the prison, and once there, they will likely return after they get out.  Guggenheim then gives us a cartoon graphic with some easy, oh-my-gosh-anybody-can-understand-this math.  At $33,000 for year, a four-year prison term costs the state $132,000.  But K-12 at a private school at $8,300 per year is $107,900–$24,100 less than prison!

If the point is that education is a much better social investment than prison, then sure.  But Guggenheim specifically uses private school tuition to make his point—implying that they must be the answer.  Though Guggenheim never argues for vouchers, he and every single pro-vouchers advocate must understand this:  Sure, vouchers will work for individual students who have the ability and desire to learn in a competitive private school environment, but as a vehicle for wholesale, fundamental change, you can’t simply move public school kids to private school because this negates the advantages of a private school.  I teach at one:  First, we don’t have the facilities to take on hundreds of new students, nor the room to expand to meet a dramatic increase in enrollment, and we sure as heck don’t have the money for capital investment, even with publically-funded tuition vouchers.  Second, we select our own students based on stringent academic criteria, their parents are fully invested in their education, and because of this, we’re able to create a culture of learning.  Importing hundreds of kids into that culture won’t change the kids—it will change the culture at schools that aren’t equipped to handle that much change.  This is why the vouchers argument is simply a diversion and that real change must happen in public schools and start-up charters. 

Despite Guggenheim’s red herring, I think he and I are in agreement on this point.  But the question is how do you fundamentally change public schools?  This sets up Guggenheim’s thesis:  The problem with public schools are the teachers unions that funnel money to politicians to perpetuate a system that protects bad teachers. 

Guggenheim’s solution is charter schools.  Guggenheim traces the efforts of Geoffrey Canada, the force behind the Harlem Children’s Zone; Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, Teach for America alumni who created the KIPP schools; and Michelle Rhee, the now-former chancellor of the Washington D.C.  Public Schools. 

What do these three reformers have in common?  They have attempted to change the culture of urban schools, though all in very different ways.  Specifically, Guggenheim focuses on the fact that these reformers operate—or, in the case of Rhee—would like to—without unionized teachers.  Much of “Superman” demonizes the NEA and AFT, using snappy graphics to describe how unions insist on evaluation systems that make teachers seem interchangeable.  Again, this is nothing new—The New Teacher Project’s “The Widget Effect” tells you how this works.  

On this point, Guggenheim and I agree.  But this is where we part ways.  Guggenheim’s odd title (and its confusing quotation marks around “Superman”) tells us exactly what his vision of public school reform is, and it’s ugly.  Guggenheim opens the film with Geoffrey Canada talking about how in the fourth grade, his mother told him Superman wasn’t real. “I was crying,” he says, “because there wasn’t somebody with enough power coming to save us.”  Cut to George Reeves as Superman punching out bad guy.  Then smash cut to rusty urban school bus. 

Guggenheim couldn’t be more clear:  The teachers unions are the bad guys who just need their lights punched out by a superstrong leader with the ”power” to reform schools.  In fact, Guggenheim advocates something close to a dictatorial rule over our public schools, as conveyed by his breathless coverage of Michelle Rhee’s dramatic changes in D.C.:  closing over twenty schools, firing teachers and principals, and attempting to implement a merit pay system for teachers. 

Let’s be clear:  Rhee made the tough, necessary choices to close schools and turning over staff.  These were good things.  The problem with Rhee is not the what, but the how.  He suggests that Rhee’s negotiations with the union were some brave, unprecedented reform efforts.  This simply isn’t true:  Denver Public Schools (where Senator Michael Bennet, the vulnerable Democrat who survived the 2010 Republican wave, and current Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came from) teamed with its teachers union to develop a performance pay system six years ago. In contrast, Rhee nuked the school district, told everybody they were doing a “crappy” job, then said she wasn’t going to listen to people—and somehow didn’t understand when her workforce and constituency became alienated.  Guggenheim misinterprets Rhee’s intensity about the children’s “crappy education” (her words)  as a noble fierce urgency to reform, but it’s more of a deep flaw in her management style that directly lead to the defeat of her benefactor, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and her subsequent firing. 

In fact, Guggenheim doesn’t just have sympathy for Rhee-like autocrats—he worships them.  In this, Guggenheim completely misunderstands education reform.  The voters of Washington D.C. didn’t reject education reform; the rejected Michelle Rhee.  Or, in the words of Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, Rhee ”did education reform to black people, not with them.”  Rhee wouldn’t disagree; as Rhee herself told an Aspen Institute audience, “cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated.” 

Even though Rhee had the nerve to call her departure “devastating” for the children of D.C., Mayor Fenty’s defeat really demonstrates the failure of Rhee-ism—and the disgusting nature of Guggenheim’s hero-worship.  This isn’t just a difference of opinion over policy implementation; Guggenheim and Rhee act like they don’t trust democracy.

Yes, the teachers unions need serious reform, the public school bureaucracy needs dismantled, and urban school boards across the nation are dysfunctional.  But the school reform movement needs people with the patience and people skills to work with stakeholders to rebuild the public schools.  Guggenheim correctly argues that, primarily, this means attracting and keeping great teachers.  But school reform built by “supermen” and “superwomen” will only last as long as those leaders, and will lead to the same dependent dysfunction that marks schools now. 

Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building is why the NEA has all-but endorsed President Obama’s “Race to the Top” performance pay initiatives (they insist that performance pay cannot be determined solely by test scores and have declined to interfere in local unions negotiations with school districts over performance pay programs).  In other words, the Obama Administration is working to partner with, not “defeat” the unions—the organizations that have the power to further professionalize the teaching workforce.  This is the key to reform—not some childish wish for paternalistic tough guys to punch out the very people you need on the bus with you.   Understanding Guggenheim’s weird quotation marks is the key to understanding the fatal flaw in his argument.  English teachers should love that.

The Pitch:

1 The First Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Jonathan Kozol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

 

2 Waiting for "Superman"

2 Waiting for "Superman"

Town, The

By Stephen Himes

The Town:  What the Critics Got Wrong

The Critical Line:  Ben Affleck can not only film tense personal scenes, as he did in “Gone Baby Gone,” but with “The Town” he shows that he can film exciting action sequences as in Michael Mann’s “Heat.”

Representative Quotation:  “It’s the best heist picture since “Heat,” and it confirms that Affleck, who co-wrote the adaptation of a Chuck Hogan novel, is no “Gone Baby Gone” fluke.”  Roger Moore, the Orlando Sentinel 

The Movie Day at the Court Take:  The “Heat” parts almost ruin the movie.

“The Town” is a very good film, but the outlandish shootout in the narrow streets of North Boston and the elaborately staged heist at Fenway Park seem to be imported from another movie altogether.  The scenes between Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, and the rest of the cast feel like a hard-edged indie film, inspired by the great Scorcese films of the 70’s and 80’s; the heist scenes are straight out of Hollywood.  The result is a film of two confusing tones.  Basically, this is the same argument Roger Ebert made, that “the characters have stopped making the decisions, and the stunts and effects artists have taken over.”  Affleck himself admitted as much in Entertainment Weekly before the film’s release: 

  • Affleck also understood what the studio wanted: an action movie with plenty of gunplay. ”If I could deliver those sequences,” he says, ”I was free to make a drama with themes I was interested in, like class in America and how children pay for the sins of their parents.” 

Hopefully, next time “the studio” will just let Affleck make his movie.

The Pitch:

2 The Departed

2 The Departed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino

2 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 The Town

4 The Town

4 The Town

4 The Town

Despicable Me

Despicable Me: What the Critics Got Wrong 

 
The Critical Line:  Borrowing heavily (and intelligently) from Pixar and Looney Tunes, “Despicable Me” is a surprisingly thoughtful, family-friendly treat with a few surprises of its own. (Rotten Tomatoes).

Representative Quotation:  “Since villains so often steal the show in animation, ‘Despicable Me’ smartly turns the whole operation over to megalomaniacal rogue Gru.” (Peter DeBruge, Variety).

Movie Day at the Court’s Take:  Mostly, critics found Gru (Steve Carrell) an lovable evildoer, but I think this presents a paradox that Pixar wouldn’t have glossed over so easily.  Gru, a vaguely European supervillain whose black turtleneck, scarf, and Dr. Evil scalp might be a portrait of Steve Jobs if he ran NBC, has a giant black mansion in the suburbs (where’s the HOA at?).  Gru is in crisis, struggling to stay relevant in a world of young start-ups evildoers.  One of his evil plots involves adopting three adorable teenage girls from a Dickensian orphanage.  The girls need a dad, Gru needs an emotional life, you see where this is going.  Gru becomes a comic portrait of the reluctant workaholic dad.

The problem is that during Gru’s transformation from bad guy to good, he’s still up to his old evil plots.  He’s stolen a shrink-ray to steal the moon, and at no point does he say, wait a minute, this is bad.  In fact, the audience is asked to cheer for Gru as he out-evils the snotty little rich evil kid.  In the end, nothing too awful occurs, but the audience is put in an awkward position:  Why are we cheering for evil? Gru just wants his place back at the top of the evil food chain.  Good dad or not, this needs to worked out in the plot, not just glossed over before the final set piece and “Aaaah!” scene at the end.       

The Pitch:

1 1/2 Whatever "Shrek" Movie We're On

1 1/2 Whatever "Shrek" Movie We're On

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Dr. Evil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 1/2 Despicable Me

2 1/2 Despicable Me

2 1/2 Despicable Me

True Grit

By , December 25, 2010 10:16 am

Gearing up for the New "Winter's Bone" Attraction at Silver Dollar City

Reviewed by James Owen

Only Joel and Ethan Coen could make a movie about a young girl seeking to avenge her father’s murder into a funny coming-of-age story appropriate for Christmas. In adapting Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” you might expect the brothers of critical adoration to enter the realm of the traditional Western with something more brooding and violent. They are, after all, the force behind the neo-Westerns “No Country for Old Men” and “Blood Simple.”  In fact, they talked about doing a dark and dirty Spaghetti western all the way back in 2007, where Joel included this particular tease: “Indians torturing people with ants, cutting their eyelids off.” Goodness, that sounds fun! 

Instead, they spin this PG-13 cautionary tale of retribution in which the lawful path is fraught with peril. Young Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas to identify her father’s body, gunned down by his hired hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Chaney has taken off to hide in Indian territory (in other words, Oklahoma), where local law enforcement is not so keen on patrolling. Undeterred, Mattie seeks someone who will track down Chaney and bring him back for the hanging he deserves—someone with “true grit.” She finds Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) testifying in a murder trial.

His too-clever testimony shows us the worldview of this one-eyed, rough-and-tumble lawman: He justifies killing as part of his job.  As for the rule of law, he may be uncouth, but he respects his position as Marshall.  After he leaves the stand, she rolls him a cigarette and makes her plea for help. Intrigued but skeptical by our plucky heroin, Rooster quickly dismisses her.

Turns out, she’s not the only one looking for Chaney: She meets Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon, a stunning upgrade from Glen Campbell), who seeks Chaney for shooting a State Senator. Thanks to her well-versed persuasion (Mattie is one of the Coens’ Enlightened Hicks whose drawl and upbringing betray an impressive way with words), she inadvertently gets La Boeuf and Cogburn to team up. She wants to go along to make sure her hired gun doesn’t slouch off in a drunken stupor. Of course, Cogburn doesn’t want to “babysit” some teenager while seeking out a fugitive in such hostile country. She makes it, thanks to her own “grit,” and off the three make their way for the marked man. 

This version of “True Grit” takes a literate step away from the modern Western. Neo-Westerns are dark and coarse—“Deadwood”’s Shakespearean use of the f-word with plenty of scatological references. Philosophically, though, the traditional Western is idealistic, where the wicked falls while the justified rides off into the sunset. This was the way to progress: Westerns almost always featured a shot of some building being erected whose skeleton was outlined by the dimming light. The best Westerns were spiritual—the morally compromised hero was still redeemed in the end.  Even “The Wild Bunch” got their last stand, and a sinner like William Muny got Little Bill at the end of “Unforgiven”.

Most think of the original “True Grit” as a “John Wayne Movie,” though the story is actually told from Mattie’s point of view in flashback. The structure betrays the themes of a usual Western—a simpler, black-and-white symbol of American hopefulness before the “progress” of industrialization.  The original John Wayne film, which came out in the same year as “Midnight Cowboy,” is probably the last of the traditional Westerns.  Post-Wayne Westerns, films like “Little Big Man,” are more complex tours of post-Civil War America.  Darker yet are the post-Peckinpah Westerns, which see frontier America as a haunting, pessimistic, antiquated era before madness of modernizing America. 

This “True Grit” is filmed in an affectionate glow (the panoramic beauty of Coen’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins demands a big-screen viewing) with sentimental marks, including a good horse and verbose descriptions of big ideals. Most interesting, the Coens filter an advanced sense of negotiation and justice through a fourteen-year-old girl, their first young protagonist and their most innocent since Marge Gunderson in 1996’s “Fargo.”  These protagonists share a trusting and intuition of law and order, where good overcomes evil through logic and procedure. Perhaps that is why “True Grit” comes off as less cynical and, for that reason, more of a classic return to the genre.

No matter the foreboding advertising and themes of murder, mayhem, and retribution, the Coens’ “True Grit” is a funny film, playful with the notion of justice while employing a fun sense of wordplay. It is also, surprisingly, easy on the stomach. There is nary a cuss word and only a few bursts of violence, sudden and quick in the Coens’ style. Don’t confuse this review for Movie Mom or some other Christian film critic, but the light tone makes this film stick out. Someday, I am sure my cinematic demigods will revisit their nasty side in the Western genre. For now, I will happily load up the minivan and get Grandma past “Little Fockers” and into “True Grit.”

The Pitch:

2 No Country for Old Men

2 No Country for Old Men

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Paper Moon

2 Paper Moon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 True Grit

4 True Grit

4 True Grit

4 True Grit

Fighter, The

By , December 24, 2010 6:02 pm

Wahlberg Trying to Find Turtle and Drama a New Place to Live

Reviewed by James Owen

I keep wanting to call David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” by the name of another movie, Jim Sheridan’s 1997 “The Boxer.”  The distinction matters.  “The Boxer” was about an ex-IRA volunteer (Daniel Day-Lewis) who gets out of prison and tries to go straight by running a boxing club. His sinister past haunts him, so he tries to avoid the unruly fights in the streets by embracing the discipline and rules of the ring.  Here, real-life welterweight champion Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), is a “fighter”:  His bouts are not limited to the ring, constantly fighting doubts about his skills and fighting the people who want to use him.

We meet Ward in 1993 as he trains for a televised bout. Mickey ain’t no pup and his clock is ticking. His opponents are leaner and younger, and their families likely are not as clingy, even if most boxing families are a depressingly dysfunctional bunch. His brother Dickie (Christian Bale) is a former boxer himself, having defeated Sugar Ray Robinson back in 1979. Never able to top this, he is reduced to a crack-smoking local legend working as his brother’s trainer. Dickie desperately wants to help his brother (even if he just wants to regainhis former glory), but there’s something about smoking crack that takes one’s attention.

Mickey’s manager is his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who has big dreams for her son but has no clue how to reach them. He also has a gaggle of sisters who are of little support, unless being trashy and talking smack is motivating. Needless to say, the family is a lot nicer than, say, the LaMotta’s. But they’re more hindrance than help. Just as problematic, Mickey lives in Lowell, Massachusetts—down the road from “The Town” both physically and emotionally.  It’s is a place where bruised male egos try to overcome the odds with bluster and bravado. Like Ben Affleck’s Charlestonians, Mickey’s insecurity is framed by images of faded dreams—abandoned factories, run-down buildings and the like. These tough, proud working-class guys are reduced to a pile of indignity and failure, shown on worn faces and withering bones.

Dickie looks the worst of them, with his drug-addled body unable to control his manic facial expressions and wicked-sharp tongue. He hauntingly follows his brother around like The Ghost of Christmas Future: Even hitting the top of the boxing world does not guarantee that you won’t end up back in Lowell as a shadow of your former self.  But, this being the movies, none of these problems are above the love of a good woman. Mickey’s comes in the form of Charlene (Amy Adams), the local barkeep. Unlike a lot of boxing movies, Charlene causes fewer problems than she creates. She gives Mickey the backbone he needs to stand up to his mother and the aforementioned trashy sisters. Mickey meets Charlene, and despite all the odds, he moves up the welterweight ranks until he gets to the championship bout. All you need is love, I guess. 

There’s nothing unpredictable about the structure or climax of “The Fighter.”  Then again, this is a true story, so some of the clichés happened to be true. Or perhaps filmmakers fit these real-life tales into conventions. But David O. Russell is not that kind of filmmaker; in fact, he fights the inclination to fall into the traps of underdog movies by developing Dickie as a counterpoint to Mickey. Mickey is more driven by the fear of failure rather than the need to succeed; his relationship with Dickie reveals the tragic pathos of athletics. Dickie is not some lug who needs a little love or redemption; he is a talented fighter who cannot overcome a terrible weakness. Bale does not play him as pathetic, but as a man legitimately struggling to make something of the shell of his legacy. Footage of the real Dickie Ward shows that Bale, who seems to be using his acting career to mask an eating disorder, embodies the frailty of a man chasing a rush that will never be as good as the first, It’s amazing Bale is the only major actor in this film never nominated for an Oscar. This is not to diminish Wahlberg, Adams, or Leo, all who give great performances. But Bale is something to behold.

I’ve also caught myself almost calling it “The Wrestler.”  Darren Aronofsky directed that film and was supposed to direct this film, but moved on to “Black Swan” (though he maintains an executive producer credit here).  Like that film, “The Fighter” proves that a different style and the right performers can make something old new again. This is a film, despite some of the routine moments, that shows the travails that face us at all moments of our lives. Whatever you accidentally call it, the film works.  

The Pitch:

2 Gentleman Jim

2 Gentleman Jim

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Flirting With Disaster

1 1/2 Flirting With Disaster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 The Fighter

3 1/2 The Fighter

3 1/2 The Fighter

3 1/2 The Fighter

I Love You, Phillip Morris

By , December 13, 2010 3:12 pm

Partying with Randy Quaid Does NOT Pay Off

Reviewed by James Owen

Shock comedy must, by definition, surprise the audience. For viewers, the more funny, “shocking” things you see, the harder it becomes to be surprised. Perhaps we will come to the point that there’s nothing left to shock us, or we have to really delve into only dark, forbidden topics for material. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “I Love You, Phillip Morris” may represent that point.

“Phillip Morris” doesn’t shock because it’s a frank, graphic depiction of two gay men falling in love, but because it lacks any mores sex in general.  The film lacks social decorum—don’t get me wrong, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Just don’t be TOO surprised.

Ficarra and  Requa know a little bit about horrifying an audience: They penned 2003’s “Bad Santa”, a truly morally and aesthetically despicable film. That film was not despicable because of its nasty humor; it was despicable because there was not an interesting character or plausible relationship in the entire film. There was no anchor for the humor, no humanity to snap us back into reality from the bowels of the film’s shock humor.  All that remained, at its core, was just a guy who swore at children, drank too much, peed himself, and sexually degraded women. In a Santa outfit. And made a bunch of midget jokes. That’s your “cult classic”?

“I Love You, Phillip Morris,” the pair’s directorial debut, marks a natural evolution from this “work.”  It’s based on a true tale and, the more you know about what really happened, the more amazing the film. Steven Russell (Jim Carrey, still proving wrong critics who can’t get past his “Ace Ventura” roots) is a small town Texas cop. He’s married to Debbie (Leslie Mann) with a seemingly happy, if bland, life. But he has a secret. He’s….adopted. Because of this, self-doubt has plagued him since childhood. When his reunion with mom goes badly, life gets a massive re-evaluation. Steven is also gay, which he doesn’t closet as much as conceal—anyway, it doesn’t fit the Texas everyman’s life. Smartly, the filmmakers smartly Steven’s alienation issues from his homosexuality, disassociating one with the other.

After nearly dying in a car accident, he drops his cover, leaves Debbie, and moves to Florida. Steven, as the Unreliable Narrator, informs us bluntly, “Being gay is expensive.” He uses his skills of deception, developed from a life of hiding his true identity, to engage in various acts of fraud. Eventually, he is sent to prison, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Their meeting is “I Love You, Phillip Morris”’s pivotal point: Starting a gay relationship in prison is ripe for easy, gross, cynical jokes. There are a lot of easy, gross, cynical jokes for sure—but more important is this relationship has to sell. Otherwise, the two actors are really just hangers for a series of crass, homophobic guffaws.

But Carrey and McGregor have an impressive chemistry. Their relationship, no matter how strange it starts or outrageous it evolves, never seems forced or strained. When Russell gets released, he goes to extraordinary lengths for reunification. Some of these are surprising, and thus not worth ruining the surprise. What is clear is that Russell is really good at what he does—or really lucky—and beyond rehabilitation. Also clear is the film’s point: the sentiment expressed in the title is the only true thing Russell ever utters.

Thanks to the odd, central relationship, “I Love You, Phillip Morris” works at a dramatic level. The story is worth documenting as a marvel of how much Russell was actually able to get away with. But what’s most notable is the style and tone of the humor. While not losing focus on the story or its characters, the film’s frankness jabs at the funny bone. The filmmakers have a European sensibility to intimacy:  Nothing is too sacred or too private not to be exploited for laughs. Certainly there have been many sex comedies over the years, but not very many reveling in the details as much as this film does.

Ficarra and Riqua also show a certain craftsmanship:  They handle their jokes with an impressive understanding of timing and structure. Their jokes, save for one involving an eyebrow-rising substance, are classically built with long set-ups and obvious, yet satisfying punchlines. One scene worth illustrating shows Russell telling a corny joke to a pool of secretaries at his job. Over a series of scenes, he overhears the same joke garbled by others. But, as the joke goes up the corporate ladder, it becomes mean-spirited and hateful. Watching this unravel is not only funny, but it tells the audience more about the characters and character of the company than pages of dramatic exposition.

“I Love You, Phillip Morris” is an endless source of surprise—not shock. From the story to the humor, the audience is kept on their toes. If the film has any failing at all, conflicts are platforms for jokes rather than plot development, and too often dispatched as such. Forgive the expression, but more of the film could have been played straight. Still, this is a comedy, and a funny flick. Don’t feel bad if you feel dirty afterwards. It’s what the filmmakers’ want.

The Pitch:

2 Dog Day Afternoon

2 Dog Day Afternoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

1 1/2 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 I Love You, Phillip Morris

3 1/2 I Love You, Phillip Morris

3 1/2 I Love You, Phillip Morris

3 1/2 I Love You, Phillip Morris

Hereafter

By , December 10, 2010 12:13 pm

Clint Adding "General Contractor" to his Actor/Director/Producer/Composer Title

Reviewed by James Owen

Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” spans three different narratives on two continents in the hope that this epic canvass will give its take on mortality and eternal life more weight. While it’s possible that none of these stories would hold up on its own, the characters seem worthy of their own individual pieces. Frankly, I don’t know why Eastwood or screenwriter Peter Morgan (who wrote the superb “The Queen” and “The Damned United”) didn’t tighten their focus because the whole thing simply fails to coalesce around a coherent point. Characters don’t have the space to develop, and worse still, “Hereafter”’s take on such heavy topics, especially coming from its iconic 81-year-old filmmaker, seems awfully…simple.

Breaking the three stories separately will help explain why each should work individually but work so badly together. We’ll start where Eastwood starts: At a tropical location off the Indian Ocean, where godless French reporter (Morgan’s judgment, not mine) Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) is caught in the onslaught of a tsunami. The disaster is caught in harrowing details, perhaps as technically impressive as anything Eastwood has ever filmed: the water picks up vehicles with ease, you can see the buildings’ material crumble in the current, and the victims’ faces reel in terror. Marie survives, but in the storm’s aftermath  she re-evaluates her life. Yes, she concludes that her material-driven existence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Other than a brief and vague visit to a native colony to examine the scientific merit of the human soul, Marie’s spiritual “transformation” is not much different than the usual tale of a yuppie being transformed by something horrible into someone who can “smell the roses.”

More sad, and perhaps pitiful, is the tale of two cute brothers brothers Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), two rather precocious youngsters.  How they turned out so well under the eye of their neglectful, drug-addicted, alcoholic mother (Lyndsey Marshal) is never totally explained. Moreover, the fact they take so much effort to hide from their assigned social workers is a bit of a puzzle.  If their situation could not get any worse, little Jason gets hit by a truck when running away from some bad guys. This requires Marcus to spend the rest of his scenes glumly missing his terrible mother and wondering if Jason is still watching over him. He goes to psychics to no avail. If this doesn’t sound new, it’s probably because this tired trope was most recently employed by the apple-of-Steve Himes’-eye Zac Efron in  the immortal “Charlie St. Cloud.”

On the other side of the pond, George Lonnegan (Matt Damon) is a former professional psychic with a legitimate ability to develop insight about a person’s deceased loved one. After proclaiming “there’s no business dealing with the dead,” he schleps to a routine factory job to find normalcy in his life. Watching him try to develop a relationship with Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), it is clear to see how problematic such a gift can be. George considers getting back into the game, prompted by the promise of booming business and lucrative offers from his brother (Jay Mohr), but ends up seeking solace by heading the Europe (You can see where this is going). While certainly more fleshed out than the other stories, Eastwood seems to do little to raise this particular identity crisis above boilerplate.  Amazing, since this is the identity crisis of a freaking psychic!

Why should these three stories be placed together? Who knows? There’s nothing particularly insightful about any of these stories, and there’s certainly no clear thread through them.  Sure, “Hereafter”’s stories look at life through the prism of death, as if the concept of the hereafter is not for the dead but for the living. This isn’t exactly a novel concept, nor do these particular stories connect with the audience. We recognize some of the tragedies (the tsunami and a London subway bombing suggests late ‘04 to early ‘05), but what’s the impact on the characters, other than some superficial soul-searching? 

Like most mainstream films, “Hereafter” does next to nothing with the role of religion in our soul-searching.  In truth, the movies act as though all our feelings on mortality come directly from, well, from other movies about mortality.  Artistically, it’s as deep as a 70’s album rock cover. Where’s the Clint Eastwood who turned “Gran Torino” into a requiem about the death of American exceptionalism?  Perhaps an unfair comparison (Eastwood retired from acting with that film), but I’m merely trying to figure out what the hell happened here.

Eastwood relies a lot on Morgan’s screenplay, which should be a smart move. But I’m not sure what Morgan is going for, except for some sort of sprawling epic on quasi-spirituality—“Death, Actually,” perhaps? A representative example is Psychic George’s interest in Charles Dickens that comes up throughout the film. What does Dickens have to do with anything? It doesn’t seem to be the best of times, nor the absolute worst of times, and I’ll bet Morgan doesn’t really know either. The whole movie so lacks direction that I could almost imagine Morgan saying the same thing about every aspect of “Hereafter.” 

Maybe the only thing “Hereafter” tells us is that Clint Eastwood the Director cannot rise above the material as Clint Eastwood the Actor could. Or perhaps I am an audience member needing some spiritual guidance. Or perhaps I need to go to church, instead of hoping to get it from half-baked melodramas like “Hereafter.”

The Pitch:

1 Blood Work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Oda Mae Brown

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Hereafter

2 Hereafter

Black Swan

By , December 6, 2010 4:12 pm

The Dark Side of Meg Griffin

Reviewed by James Owen

Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” really wants you to know how painful ballet can be:  the cracked bones, popping joints, bloody toe nails, skin in between the toes scabbing together. Rather than focus on the grace and beauty, Aronofsky seems to relish using these brutal details to illustrate the cutthroat nature of professional dance. His precision punctuates the film’s theme (and the theme of his career), that obsession breeds fatal addictions.  With “Black Swan,” Aronofsky contextualizes the horror of obsession within Tchaikovsky’s ballet, with Vincent Cassell in the Von Rothbart role and Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as his swans trapped on the lake of his high-stakes production.

Towards the beginning of the film, Cassell (the impresario Thomas Leroy) not-so-subtly summarizes the story of “Swan Lake.”  In his world, the “white swan” is Nina (Portman, a certain Best Actress nominee), a great technical dancer often criticized for her stiffness and “lack of pleasure.”  By which, Cassell obviously means Nina’s sexually frigidity, stemming from a combination of inexperience and emotional detachment.  She still lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a bitter former dancer stuck in a suffocating relationship.  This drives Nina’s ambition; she strives for more stage time, but is spurned by Thomas’ harsh tone and his boorish advances. He notices her impressive obsession, “but to what purpose” he wonders—certain of the answer. Furthering her obsession is the nagging presence of new dancer Lily (Kunis), who exudes more “black swan” in a single pirouette than the sum of Nina’s career.

Despite these forces, or because of them, Nina receives the lead in the company’s production of “Swan Lake,” which makes our cygnet’s insecurity and paranoia worse. Her casting comes at the expense of the company’s diva, Beth (Winona Ryder, deserving more screen time), who does not take the news well.  Her co-dependent relationship with Mom becomes more competitive and strangely regressive. Then there’s Lily looming in the background, seeking friendship or perhaps…mutually-assured destruction?

The story can only work if Lily’s black swan is a credible sinister and seductive threat to the white swan’s quest for love.  This is where Kunis has her Heath Ledger revelation: she shows a frightening and alluring intensity you don’t expect from a sit-com actress.  Her performance should evoke comparisons to Angelina Jolie in 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted” not only in structure, but sheer force.  And it makes the film a legitimate Best Picture contender: Had Kunis been less impressive, Aronofsky’s bloody details would seem overwrought and Nina’s story overly dramatic.

Over the course of the film, it becomes hard to tell whom is obsessed with whom.  Then Aronofsky performs a tired stunt by making their dangerous relationship sexual. Yes, the talk of the town will be a particularly intimate moment between the two. But, really, is this any more “compelling” than overnight Cinemax?  Certainly Aronofsky wants to dramatize Nina’s dysfunctional intimacy issues, but is this necessary or even realistic?

Thankfully, the filmmaker doesn’t linger here to long, and as the story moves towards the production, Nina moves closer to the brink. The tension is whether Nina will descend into madness or ascend into inspiration, but because we already know the ending to “Swan Lake”, well…at least the music is pretty.

Thomas promises a production “stripped down to its essence,” though I’m not sure this is an announcement as much as a warning. Aronofsky mostly tells the same story he always does, but “Black Swan”’s achievement is how the film combines its subject and substance. To a normal person, it would seem odd and cold to center a Polanski-style psycho-thriller on a classic ballet. But Aronofsky’s technique makes it work.  The editing and the camerawork are quick and purposeful, feeling like how Tchaikovsky sounds. As in a well-staged ballet, we feel the white swan’s transformation and struggle through Aronofsky’s attention precise sound effects and ominous spotlights.  His dancers wake from physical pain in the middle of the night as if from a nightmare. New York City is seen through shadows and ominous reflections looking back at our characters from the subway windows, whizzing by the city. The unforgiving split mirrors of the ballet studio disorient the viewer, as does the throbbing soundtrack that pounds with the overwhelming drive of perfection. The film opens with a dream sequence but you might be hard-pressed to know whether it ever left.

Obsession is Aronofsky’s stock-in-trade, and he does it with such technical flair that it is hard not to be impressed if you are even disgusted. If this is a glimpse into the mind of a man who spent six trying to make a film about three parallel stories about the meaning of life, separated by the thousand years between Mayan civilization and some unknown future where the tree of life is dying aboard a bubble-shaped spaceship—well, that’s pretty fascinating.  Better, in his last two films, Aronofsky has transformed his obsession with obsession into focused character studies, rather than wandering off into pretentiousness.  He’s intent on showing us how performers suffer, both on and off the stage.  Ballet is Hell and don’t ever forget it.

The Pitch:

2 Tchaikovsky

2 Tchaikovsky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Repulsion

2 Repulsion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Black Swan

4 Black Swan

4 Black Swan

4 Black Swan

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