Dilemma, The

By , January 25, 2011 1:33 pm

"Winona, I am not kidding this time. We're going to see that movie you're in where Natalie Portman makes out with Mila Kunis. We're going to do what I want for once!"

Reviewed by James Owen

Cheating ain’t funny.

Seriously, of all the insufferable and sufferable romantic comedies you have endured, has any ever treated infidelity with anything but leaden seriousness? At least the American ones. The Europeans dress up infidelity in WACKY wife-swapping and multiple-relationships high jinks. In the world according to romantic comedies, to the American mind, cheaters cannot be trusted, thus, are not emotionally available to the audience.  To the European mind, it’s just a speed bump on the long highway of marriage.

Standard rom-com procedure is the perception of cheating leads to the the False Dawn, where the filmmakers suggest, theoretically, that the couple’s fate is in doubt, setting up the big emotional finish.  Only quiet parlor dramas tackle infidelity head-on—think about the difference between serious and funny Woody Allen movies. If you want to make cheating “entertaining,” have the vindictively unhinged paramour boil the pet bunny on the stove.  It’s not an inherently funny subject.

Ron Howard’s “The Dilemma” tries but fails to solve this rom-com dilemma.  It tackles the issue earnestly but awkwardly, looking like a comedy but feeling like a drama. Ronny and Nick, two business partners (Vince Vaughn and Kevin James) have been best friends since college. They run a company, but Nick is the only one who does any work; Ronny is there to add Vince Vaughn-style blabbermouth banter. At home, we wonder what Nick adds to his relationship with wife Geneva (Winona Ryder): he’s demanding and obsessive and jealous and talks endlessly about his ulcer. Also, he looks like Kevin James.

Of course, this gives her no excuse to break the bond of matrimony, which Ronny learns about only in the most improbable way possible. Still, the mechanics of the contrivance are not important if the contrivance leads you somewhere interesting.  To this end, the set-up has promise.  Ronny fights this war on multiple fronts: First, he confronts Geneva, who threatens to reveal secrets hidden from Nick. The wicked, inverse chemistry between Vaughn and Ryder—who I cannot get enough of—is the most delicious parts of the film.  His second tact is to confront his friend, but with a deadline to meet, this isn’t really an option.   So Ronny’s obsession with Geneva’s motives becomes a lifestyle of sorts, leading his girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly) to question his motives.

There are certainly interesting questions poised by “The Dilemma.  But it does not lead to any satisfying answers because “The Dilemma” struggles with an identity crisis. It wants to be a comedy about a heavy subject. After a decade of Oscar-bait dramas and the “DaVinci Code” adaptations, Howard consciously took on the challenge of turning a serious topic into one of his traditional (and seemingly long-forgotten) comedies. Why not?  After all, Howard made a film about a brothel ran out of a morgue.

The problem is that the film has too many rough edges.  The comedy is too forced (seeing the unnecessarily amorous Queen Latifah should cue your bathroom break. Ohhhh, girl!) and quickly abandoned, like notes from a screenwriting session rather than something in a shooting script. The drama, by far the bulk of “The Dilemma,” feels sheepish and lacks poise. Vaughn and James can’t pull off earnest moments of emotional awkwardness unlike, say, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels deciding to go to Aspen.   The material is interesting, but if the yucksters don’t have range, you spend two hours watching them flop sweat under the spotlight.    

As if Howard sensed this, “The Dilemma” concocts a climax in which the main characters are stuck in an emotional Mexican standoff. Here, we see Kevin James flash the intense sadness of John Candy in his better moments. But it’s not enough—there is no False Dawn that plays toward the Real Dawn.  This is pretty much it.  A more serious film would have positioned this scene at the beginning of the third act and let the situation play out.  But again, Howard—the consummate directorial people-pleaser—seems to sense that the wreck he’s created for these characters needs a quick resolve before anybody thinks about what’s actually happened.  Thus, “The Dilemma” becomes a noble failure: an interesting concept that settles for generic entertainment but can’t pull off either.

Post-script: In “The Dilemma,” Vaughn goes out of his way to show off his conservative bona fides by wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” shirt and making a health care joke. He has to explain a scrape on his face, so he makes up a story about helping a set of fat kids retrieve their ball from behind a fence. Why did he help them?

Well, I figured we were all going to be on the same insurance from now on.

Which simply repeats a Fox News talking point, the great lie that the health care reform bill is a government take-over.  No, Vince, you won’t be on the same health care plan as these poor little fat kids.  In fact, you are lucky enough to be covered by one of those “Cadillac” insurance plans provided by the Screen Actors Guild.  Look, the SAG even wrote a letter about it.  You pay a little bit more, but you’re getting the same benefits you always have.     

Since you’re way more than good for it (hence, the excise tax), where does that extra money go?  Well, if the poor little fat kids have—I don’t know, since they’re fat, and it’s your joke, let’s think of something funny like diabetes—then these kids’ insulin will be covered, even if their mom and dad lost their jobs during the recession.  Being a Chicago guy and this being a Chicago movie, Vince, you’re probably familiar with All Kids, Illinois’ comprehensive health care plan that provides insurance, paid for by Medicaid and parents’ premiums, to every child in the state.  Now, if they were your kids, the Screen Actors Guild’s insurance provider would cover them, as required by the Affordable Care Act, and they wouldn’t need socialized medicine.    

See, you don’t actually have the same health care.  So your joke isn’t funny because it’s based on a lie.  Now, if your joke were grounded in some sort of fact, then, yeah, funny.  Perhaps you should know a little about politics before you start lampooning it. Also, Vince, you really haven’t looked good since “The Break Up”…kind of pasty, sunken, and overweight.  I mean, Kevin James is the healthy-looking lead here.  I would go ahead and spend the $250 co-pay for a check up.

The Pitch:

1 1/2 Trapped in a Closet

1 1/2 Trapped in a Closet

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Paul Blart

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 1/2 The Dilemma

2 1/2 The Dilemma

2 1/2 The Dilemma

127 Hours

By , January 24, 2011 7:32 pm

Franco gets two ladies at the Columbia University MFA Writing Program Mystery Date

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

James Franco—the heir to Steve Martin’s “Renaissance Man” throne—faced a more difficult task than Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”  Both actors held the screen, by themselves, for almost the entire course of the film.  Neither used much dialogue; the camera trains minute details so we experience not only the physical difficulties of being stranded, but the psychological ones as well.   While I think “Cast Away” is underrated (the third act, admittedly, feels too movie-ish), Hanks had an entire island to move on and a clever “supporting actor” in Wilson the Volleyball.

Franco spends most of “127 Hours” with his arm trapped, as Aron Ralston’s autobiography tells us, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.  Overact, and the result feels like a self-conscious stunt—think every movie that’s tried to copy Heather Donohue’s flashlight confession in “The Blair Witch Project.”  It’s not a coincidence that actors like Hanks and Ryan Reynolds (in the stuck-in-a-coffin movie “Buried”) are also rom-com guys—to singlehandedly carry a movie, the actor must be likeable. 

Franco’s victory is that he’s both likeable and a compelling weirdo.  We’ve seen this unhinged flake character in supporting roles like Seth Rogen’s drug dealer in “Pineapple Express,” Daniel on Freaks and Geeks, and several Funny or Die skits.  He almost makes that dirt stache look unironic—that’s the key to the performance.  We have to believe that Franco’s character isn’t acting weird—he is weird.  The fact that Franco himself is a bona fide weirdo—or his Swiss Army career as full time doctoral student at two prestigious universities, soap actor, conceptual artist, short story author, blockbuster idol, and awards-caliber actor is in itself some kind of elaborate performance art—helps make the case. 

If we didn’t buy into Franco/Ralston’s weirdness, then his hallucinations of Scooby Doo (twice!) would come off like “Black Swan”-style overwrought psycho drama.  I tend to prefer movies that ground themselves in real world details rather than the imagined delusions of deranged minds.  For example, because Natalie Portman’s “Black Swan” character took herself so seriously (as did the director), her imagined webbed feet comes off like overwrought excess—unintentional comedy.  Here, Ralston’s Scooby Doo delusions seem like the natural extension of his quirky character—this guy probably does imagine cartoon characters while starving to death. 

Along this line, Danny Boyle’s direction of Ralston’s hallucination that he’s on a talk show demonstrates a restraint that Aronofsky lacks.  When Ralston realizes he’s dying, he imagines himself on a morning talk show, confessing to cheery hosts that he should have appreciated his parents more.  Not only does this fit Ralston’s ironic personality, it’s also a sly bit of satire—it’s the kind of thing that would definitely happen after his story would go viral.  Mostly, Boyle films Franco stuck in the crevasse, not in some imagined studio, with sound effects in his head.  We see Ralston’s emotional distance break down as he—the real him—talks into his video camera. 

The effect is far more emotionally involving than Portman’s dreamed wings.  Boyle’s scene reminds me of Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” where diet pill addict Ellen Burstyn imagines herself on an infomercial fitting into a red dress.  I like that film a lot, and Aronofsky’s quick-editing approximates the rush of addiction, but in retrospect Aronofsky’s refrigerator attack foreshadows the director’s lack of control.

Boyle’s film not only surpasses fellow Oscar contender “Black Swan,” it has an intellectual character “The Social Network” lacks.   Any “stranded” movie has to be about appreciating the life you have, filtered through the character’s individual perspective.  “Cast Away” is about American workaholism:  Hanks teaches the Russians (!) about machine-like efficiency, and he slow dances with his fiancé to the rhythm of a copy machine.  “127 Hours” is about the Facebook generation’s self-involvement—not selfishness, exactly, but the tendency to live in a bubble of your own invention.  In fact, “127 Hours” offers more insight into how technology has changed how we live than “The Social Network,” which was, in the end, about a guy getting dumped and taking it out on his friends.  For all the talk of Mark Zuckerberg’s revolutionary idea, the film itself is more about lawsuits about Facebook rather than how Facebook changed people’s lives. 

Think of it this way:  In “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks approximated human relationships by creating a person from a volleyball—this need to communicate is why the moment Wilson floats away is so devastating.  “127 Hours” replaces Wilson with a video camera—and had Ralston gotten stuck last November, he could have used the GPS mode on his EVO to update his Facebook Places status to “Stuck in a Giant Crevasse.”  The point is the same:  Having more ways to communicate doesn’t improve the quality of our communication.  In the technology age, our inconnectedness can be suffocating until we learn how to prune away the excess.  But what’s really suffocating is alienating the ones you love until you’re all alone.  “127 Hours” makes this point without reducing filming yourself and social media to the desire to get laid.  And this is why, if anything, “127 Hours” better defines the Facebook Generation than The Facebook Movie.

The Pitch:

2 Touching the Void

2 Touching the Void

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Five Hour Energy

2 Five Hour Energy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Equals

4 127 Hours

4 127 Hours

4 127 Hours

4 127 Hours

Royal Pains

By , January 20, 2011 3:33 pm

"And because the individual mandate penalty is completely insubstantial compared to the Cadillac plan tax, after 2014 all these rich people will be investing in concierge physicians. That's so turning me on right now!"

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Royal Pains is not a reality show about Jose Guillen, but a perfectly entertaining dramedy on the network where Characters Welcome.  Hank, a superstar ER specialist in Manhattan, chooses to serve a regular patient rather than give unnecessary attention to a hospital board member.  The board member dies, Hank gets fired and sued for malpractice, then descends into a self-pitying funk that includes lots of soap operas and mid-afternoon boozeathons on the couch.  His gorgeous fiancé leaves him, so Hank’s party-boy accountant brother Evan forces Hank to sneak into some parties in The Hamptons.  A woman has a seizure, Hank steps in for the house doctor who misdiagnoses an overdose, and Hanks saves the day.  Long story short, Hank and his brother are invited to live in the guest house of mysterious Russian gazillionaire Boris (Campbell Scott) as his concierge doctor, and Evan uses his accounting skills to open HankMed.  And somehow this hot property becomes his ridiculously capable physician’s assistant.

It’s a genius set-up for episodic television.  Each week, some rich people in The Hamptons have strokes or heart attacks or something, then Hank shows up and saves the day at some beautiful house next to a beautiful beach inhabited by beautiful people.  By far the best part of the show, Hank has one MacGyver scene ever week where he saves lives with dental floss, some double A batters, and chicken wire.  Or, as in Episode 4, where Hank saves a Chef by using aluminum foil and table cloths to raise her body temperature on a prep table. 

What’s interesting is that Hank’s patients aren’t all rich a-holes who live too recklessly or don’t appreciate their limits.  Sure, there are some of those, but each episode presents an individual portrait of a Hamptons resident.  Granted, this isn’t Gatsby in West Egg, but we see a children’s illustrator working himself almost literally to death to meet a deadline, a restaurateur working herself to exhaustion because she can’t delegate, and an old man who caretakes a family’s private island.  Hey, some rich people work really hard to be rich rather than simply inflating stock prices and then cashing in their options before the market collapses.  Royal Pains offers a nuanced portrait of The Hamptons ecosystem beyond the mansions; it finds the people who get by servicing the wealthy.

The problem is that the show seems to want to say something important about health care in America, but would rather stick to the formula and show lots of copter shots of beaches and poolside patios.  Hank dates Jill, an administrator in the local hospital that the wealthy don’t go to because it’s perceived as a “meat market.”  We see a marked contrast between the health care available to the working class and those who can afford HankMed (the hospital doctors are too overworked to offer the quality of care Hank provides).  We see how the bureaucracy pummels Jill with meetings and paperwork, whereas Hank just practices medicine.  We see that when the wealthy “Cadillac Plan” insurees operate outside the system, it drives down the quality of care for everyone else.  Then again, these rich people are working themselves into heart attacks—why shouldn’t they get the kind of health care they can afford?  Hank’s worth it.  As the president told us, health care is complicated.

If the characters were more aware of these issues, perhaps Royal Pains could become some sort of Altman-esque upstairs/downstairs investigation of class issues.  But Royal Pains isn’t quite ambitious enough to weave these discussions into its fabric of champagne wishes and caviar dreams.  But thus far, it’s as substantial and enjoyable as an afternoon bellini by the pool at one of these houses.    

The Pitch:

2 MacGyver

2 MacGyver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 ObamaCare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Royal Pains

3 Royal Pains

3 Royal Pains

Fighter, The and the Roots of “Massploitation”

By , January 14, 2011 12:33 pm

Dude, just because I put on and take off eighty pounds for every movie doesn't mean I have an eating disorder!

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Why isn’t “Massploitation” a thing yet?  It seems obvious, right?  A google search takes us to the great SportsBlog Nation and SB Boston’s Alan Siegel, who declares “The Town” to “occasionally fe[el] like a Massploitation flick.”  Even before this year’s Massploitation double feature of “The Town” and “The Fighter,” Slate’s Jessica Grose proposed the Jersey Shore follow-up Massholes, which was promptly followed by a “30 Rock” episode in Boston featuring Julianne Moore as Jack Donaghy’s former college chowdah girlfriend.  Boston is edging out Philadelphia in the “Symbol of White Middle Class Decline in Tough Urban Neighborhoods” sweepstakes, but the larger point is that in the last decade, the vast majority of major Hollywood films dealing seriously with urban poverty are about white people.

A Sample of Northeastern Poverty Porn

Massploitation Flicks

Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, The Town, The Fighter, Good Will Hunting(?)

Phillysploitation Flicks

Rocky Balboa, Invincible, 10th and Wolf

New Yorksploitation

We Own the Night, The Yards

Last year, “Precious:  Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” was declared “Poverty Porn” by many critics, most notably Armond White at New York Press.  White j’accuses the “unholy triumvirate” of “Precious” director Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry, and Oprah for “turn[ing] a racist trick” and promoting this movie “to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation.”  Like Denzel Washington’s “Antwone Fisher,” “[‘Precious’’s] cheap ploy of tortured daydreaming uses black American deprivation for sentimentality.  It sells materialist fantasy as a universal motivation.”

White’s article is worth a full read, and it’s made me a lot more conscious of slathering praise on a film that makes me feel bad for poor people.  Not because there’s no value in that—empathy, not sympathy, is one of the foundations of Western thought.  But as a work of art, the portraits have to be nuanced and individualistic rather than simply drawn stereotypes.  The filmmakers can’t judge the characters, nor can they try to fully place blame for why things are the way they are.  Some wear white hats, some black, most gray—but as long as the characters act with some sort of emotional logic, rather than according to an ideological worldview, there’s no exploitation, even if the story is “depressing.”

The best example this year is “Winter’s Bone,” set and filmed just a few miles from where I taught kids Ree Dolly’s age for six years.  The hillbilly meth cartel does some awful things to Ree, but nothing in that film felt like it wasn’t firmly grounded in the realities of backwoods poverty.  The characters were complex; we understand that the matriarch of the meth cartel really doesn’t want to get violent with a teenage girl, but will do whatever it takes to protect her precarious position in the meth trade.  The details were not only right, but director Debra Granik uses the sparseness of the Ozarks’ winter as a poignant symbol of a dying way of life.  Awful?  Yes.  Hard to watch?  Just wait until the last ten minutes.  Exploitative?  Probably not.

So what do we make of the charge that “Precious” exploits black poverty and “Slumdog Millionaire” offered up Indian poverty for privileged Westerners’ enjoyment?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  I think there’s a lot of value in art that highlights the plights of the urban poor—we wouldn’t take Charles Dickens out of the canon, and we can probably all agree that “Do the Right Thing” is a pretty damn good movie.  Here’s what I know:  If the characters and situations feel right, then I’m going to be moved by a film, even if I feel bad when I walk out of theater.  Again, there’s value in that on a human level, and if you don’t buy that, in the least empathy sharpens your thinking.

On a practical level, then, why are there so few recent gritty urban dramas centered on the black experience?  The answer is a combination of things, of course, but here’s a theory I’d propose:  Prestige movies are aimed at the “upper mainstream audience.”  The UMA is mostly white, educated, middle to upper class people who love movies but aren’t necessarily cinephiles.  The best movie they see all year isn’t some avant garde nonsense like “Trash Humpers” or a great but little seen Wong Kar-wai movie. Likely, it’s one of the movies nominated for an Oscar. 

No matter which side of the blue/red divide that audience member sits on, race is such an explosive topic that you just don’t want to hear about it, especially when you just want to go downtown, have a nice dinner, see a movie, then head to the wine bar (talk about your stereotyping, right?). 

There’s great art being made about the urban black experience—it’s just not in the movies.  Spike Lee’s best movie in the last ten years starred Ed Norton.  Those artists have gravitated to HBO and hip-hop.  “The Wire” may be the best television show ever, but it had a niche audience and was rarely nominated for major awards.  The representative example might be Jay-Z’s album inspired by Denzel Washington’s “American Gangster.”  I thought “Gangster” was misunderstood; nonetheless, it was supposed to be a contender, but didn’t get Denzel, Denzel!, nominated for Best Actor.   Jay-Z’s album, on the other hand, created a concept album (the “indie film version” of “American Gangster”) based on his memories of the Marcy Projects that debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200.  If anything, Jay-Z’s album is better than the movie.

So how do you make a gritty urban crime drama—the kind where you can shoot a bunch of people up, be socially conscious about poverty, and give your actors broad actor-ly roles with accents while making a “serious” movie—without the baggage of race?  The workaround is to create gritty urban crime dramas about poor white people:  Massploitation. 

This brings us to “The Fighter.”  With “The Town” and “The Fighter” as the twin pieces of dynamite that exploded the backlash against Massploitation movies this year, how do we fairly evaluate “The Fighter”?  There’s a lot to like about this movie, especially Christian Bale’s performance as crack addict Dicky Ecklund, perhaps the real fighter of the title.  Dicky is featured in the 1993 HBO documentary “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell,” (seriously, watch it right here), the filming of which is integral to the plot of “The Fighter.”  If anything, the documentary makes you respect David O. Russell’s set designer and art director, and really, Ecklund isn’t the most compelling figure in the story (the drama of Brenda and Boo-Boo and their baby—filming that would be some Poverty Porn).  Still, you see how well Bale conveys the charisma and physicality of Dicky Ecklund, and how his delusions of past greatness stand in for the history of his town—he is “The Pride of Lowell,” after all.  Aren’t convinced Bale nails the role?  Go to Dicky Ecklund’s personal training website and see Bale’s testimonial.  

I could keep going.  David O. Russell is one of my favorite filmmakers, even if he does abuse his actors and might be legitimately insane.  The “Lowell” doc gives evidence that Melissa Leo’s performance as the mom isn’t quite so outlandish as Stephanie Zacharek’s “Gimme an Oscah, ya fuckin’ retahd!” criticism.  Amy Adams’ calibrates her tough-girl act so that when Wahlberg delivers the key speech of the movie (“You’re not fighting, I am!”) and tells her that she’s “become one of them,” we know he’s right.  Perhaps the end of the movie feels tacked on—like the gritty urban drama portion of the show ended, now here comes the sports scenes.  But Russell does a masterful job weaving the strands of story together to create a full portrait of the decline of America’s first planned industrial town.

But I still can’t shake the idea that Hollywood has created a cottage industry out of exploiting poor white Northeasterners, and “The Fighter” is part of the problem.  Again, listen to those accents.  Look at that squalor.  Gawk at those wrecked lives.  Yes, “Irish” Mickey Ward is a symbol of the lost glory of first and second generation European immigrants who built the great cities of America.  Yes, drugs, gangs, and urban poverty know no color.  It’s important.  But we get it, already.  I’m not against good movies about Northeastern white poverty; I think I’m just ready for something different. 

So what’s the way forward? 

In the Massploitation genre, there’s a curious lack of New York films of late. My friend Jay Herman, native New Yorker and current Lawrence, Kansas beekeeper, has a theory:

New York has always been a Hollywood daring, for being diverse enough to host any type of genre.  Lately, though, the niche of blue collar/life on the streets/crime drama locations have strayed from NYC to other eastern cities like Boston, Philly, even Baltimore and D.C.  I believe the reason for this is largely because of Giuliani’s and Bloomberg’s efforts to “clean up” New York, which has wussified and Disneyfied the city to the point where it’s no longer considered as “gritty” as it once was.  New Yorkers know this, and so does Hollywoodland.  The only things that happen in New York these days are romantic comedies.  It’s a shame, really, that the burning cars and stabby winos of the New York of my youth have been replaced by Verizon stores and hipsters.  You can’t even get shot in the Alphabet City any more!  Believe me, I’ve tried.

Jay explains the spate of films (“Son of Sam,” “The Bronx is Burning”) looking back, almost fondly, at the Rome is Burning madness of New York in the 70’s, which also gave us the glory days of Martin Scorcese and Brian DePalma.  This is why the story in “The Town” is more interesting to me than “The Fighter,” even if the latter is a better-executed film.  In “The Town,” Ben Affleck’s character, a hardened Charlestown townie, falls for a “toonie,” a yuppie who moves to Charlestown and falls in love with its historical quaintness.  As white young professionals flee the suburbs to repopulate the cities looking for unstripmalled “authenticity,” these liberals are forced to confront the poverty and social problems they’d been concerned with from a safe distance (Guilty as charged—I live in the Waldo area of Kansas City in a cute neighborhood three miles from “The Murder Factory”). 

The intersection of gentrification and poverty is ripe for discussions of politics, race, the true character of urban renewal, and the decline of America.  Really, we’ve already seen this movie:  It was called The Sopranos, which at its heart was about the gentrification of the mob and the domestication of a man’s man way of life.  Because The Sopranos is eighty-six hours long, David Chase and company have the space to create the expansive narrative arcs and cast of characters of a great epic. 

So what to make of the last decade of Massploitation?  It’s a collection of short stories documenting the moment before the old middle class urban neighborhoods finally collapse and empty out and the yuppies and developers and “urban preservationists” move in.  Will this help make America cities hubs of intellectual energy?  Will it further euthanize our culture into one big strip mall hell?  What’s going to happen to race relations when cities re-segregate?  All these questions and more are ready for great directors like David O. Russell.  But for now, can we agree to close the book on Massploitation?  Surely Mark Wahlberg will still be able to find work.

The Pitch:

2 The Champ

2 The Champ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Ben Affleck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 The Fighter

3 The Fighter

3 The Fighter

Somewhere

By , January 13, 2011 11:39 am

"So...Our Viewers Are Just Dying to Know if the Deuces Are Indeed Still Wild!"

Reviewed by James Owen

Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” opens with a fancy sports car driving round and round, on-camera and off. We do not see the driver nor understand what’s going on. The location is desolate and the sound, other than the humming engine, is muted. This goes on for several minutes, signaling that this is a METAPHOR: This film is about a character whose life rotates in an endless rhythm.  In fact, this film is about a vapid, unaware movie star (played by the vapid and unaware Stephen Dorff) who ambles through life quite like that sports car. By filming such a sparse soul, Coppola no doubt wishes to comment on the secluded Hollywood lifestyle. But in doing so, she immediately creates an emotional distance she never bridges to the audience.

To say not much happens in “Somewhere” is an understatement. Movie star Johnny Marco (Dorff) stumbles around parties in his own room at the lovingly-filmed Chateau Marmont. We watch him get bored with the strippers he pays extravagantly to pole dance. We watch him smoke and drink. We watch the women in his life call him awful things. Yes, we even watch him drive that car. We even watch molding dry around his head at a make-up studio. You won’t see this on “Entourage,” mainly because that show is busy entertaining us.

What we never see is him developing emotionally or learning from his mistakes.  Basically, it’s like watching Dorff play a less-charismatic version of Charlie Sheen. Most frustrating is we never understand what got this guy to this point. Coppola shows us nothing, especially in her minimal dialogue, that makes this guy appealing, let alone a superstar. And no, Coppola isn’t just showing the “real” side of this guy; we also see him at press junkets and award shows. What difference does it make if Marco is “lost” or “isolated” or whatever if we have no frame of reference?   She tries to suggest some context by focusing on the cast on Marco’s arm. We are told it is from a stunt, so we are supposed to get that he’s “wounded” and “frail.” Ok, but at least with Bob Harris, Bill Murray’s aging movie star from “Lost in Translation,” we learned a few things about him through phone calls with his wife and stories around a bar. No such luxury is afforded here.

Mostly, what we learn here is that Marco is a father, whose daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is unceremoniously dumped on him by her mother (Lala Sloatman). While we observe the father-daughter relationship, we don’t get a real sense of it. The two actors have a nice, familial chemistry, but the relationship is virtually frictionless.  Does having his 11-year-old daughter in tow slow him down?  Coppola answers, quickly and awkwardly, no.

This, I fear, is the point Coppola is getting at. The film’s personal tone makes it impossible to escape the conclusion that “Somewhere” is Sophia Coppola telling Papa Francis how bad her childhood really was. Seriously, there’s a discussion of making films where the perceived impact on Italian-Americans are questioned, the extended trip to Rome. If this isn’t intended to be semi-autobiographical, she could be a little more coy.

Because here films are so deeply personal, Coppola makes herself controversial. She needs to understand that the farther she gets away from herself, the better her movies are.   “The Virgin Suicides” still remains a highlight of last decade; a rich look at the lost innocence of girls in a sheltered world. “Lost in Translation” was a powerful study of survivors of tattered relationships coming together. Those scripts had revealing, not just sparse, dialogue and sharp visuals that felt like works of art rather exhibitionist therapy. That movie was “Marie Antoinette,” which felt like we were watching young Sofia tromping around the Zoetrope empire in Converse sneakers to overly-ironic 80’s pop songs.

Few things are more disheartening to a critic than watching a talented young filmmaker trying and failing to paint on a more epic canvass.  She scales “Somewhere” back to the 8×10 level, but the film is just as clumsy. While the film appears to be about Marco, the only real insight is from Cleo (Fanning), who concludes that her parents are too aloof and that she will be all alone, despite their affluence and fame. Perhaps “Somewhere” should have focused on the girl, but Coppola was quite deliberate focusing on Marco’s failings. How can’t this be Sophia’s Portrait of the Father-Artist as a Middle Aged Man, especially when the little girl is so rational and “objective” in her observations of his character.  Once you figure this out, “Somewhere” feels petty and unaccomplished.  I mean, come on, Sophia: The guy is getting you money to make these movies. He even put you in “The Godfather III”!

In the end, Coppola tries to make “Somewhere” a very deep film about a very shallow person. The problem is that the characters are so static that it’s more of a visual piece than a character study. Perhaps an actor better than Dorf could have mined the screenplay better, or the film could have been more about the girl.   As it stands, “Somewhere” leaves space between itself and its audience.  Perhaps that’s what Sophia Coppola intended, but if you want to impact your audience, that’s somewhere you don’t want your movie to be. 

The Pitch:

1 Lost in Translation

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Vinnie Chase

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Somewhere

2 Somewhere

Company Men, The

By , January 11, 2011 8:56 pm

"Seriously, Affleck, you think my Boston accent sounds like Mayor Quimby?"

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

“The Company Men,” the first feature film from ER executive producer John Wells, is about hierarchy.  We see four men from four different layers of the bureaucracy of a Boston mega-shipping company:  CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), right-hand man and division director Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), middle manager Phil (Chris Cooper), and hot-shot director of sales Bobby (Ben Affleck).  Wells carefully differentiates the men by the details of their wealth:  James’ glass house and Asian rugs, Gene’s huge kitchen with granite countertops, Phil’s old colonial furnishings, Bobby’s oversized suburban house with garage full of kids toys and old bachelor-era sporting goods.

Why are we supposed to care about these privileged white guys?  Where most movies about the rich and upper middle class show us how they play, “The Company Men” shows us their work.  Not in Titans of Industry dramatics, like, say, in an Oliver Stone movie.  Men (the company is run by men, except for the HR lead, played by Maria Bello, who’s sleeping with an executive), park their cars, haul all their stuff up the elevator, grab coffee, check their email, then grab folders before shuffling off to the conference room.  They ask the secretary what the hell’s going on because they’re the only ones who know what the hell’s going on.   Voices aren’t raised, fists aren’t pounded—the film shows being at work like it’s like being at work.

 “The Company Men” shows us executives not as leaders, but playing the role of leaders.  James and Gene started and built the company themselves—that’s why they’re sitting at the big round table now.  Phil was a loyal lieutenant who helped build the company’s wealth.  They didn’t go to CEO school; there’s nothing in their training or experience that’s helped them prepare for boardroom decisions.  They’re shipbuilders who made good by knowing their craft, taking bold risks, hiring good people, making savvy decisions, getting lucky, and working their butts off.  That’s how you become a first-generation rich guy. The youngest lead is Ben Affleck’s Bobby, the head of sales whose self-confidence has driven him to overleveraging his family’s lifestyle.  Not that he’s been obviously reckless—while both he and his wife are employed, they could have put more away but have no problem making the mortgage, sports car payment, and club dues. 

The recession hits, and Wells shows us the chain reaction from the top down.  Cuts are made, the tension mounts, and everybody wants to offer sympathy to the departed by really wants to know whether he’s next.  To Salinger’s credit, he doesn’t hire George Clooney from “Up in the Air” to off his employees, but has Sally (Bello) do it in house.  James sees the bottom-line necessity; Gene cares about the “people who built something here.”  The fissure between the two begins.  Gene tells Phil he’s safe.  Phil gets paranoid—they just let Bobby go, and he’s their best salesman.

The heart of the film is watching Affleck break down as his world falls apart.  Whether or not you feel “bad” for Bobby is beside the point.  His collapse is a case study in the argument Reihan Salam puts forth in “The Death of Macho,” which argues that the Great Recession begins a “monumental shift of power from men to women.”  Bobby insists his wife not go back to work, but she has no choice but to become the breadwinner.  He won’t let her tell anybody he’s been laid off.  He’s angry, but insists everything will be fine.  He tries to justify his delusions by saying he needs to “look successful.” Affleck conveys Bobby’s transformation from helplessness to total emasculation slowly and quietly, befitting a cool corporate player rather than, say, a bank robber from down the road in Charlestown.  Eventually, he humbles himself to not-college-educated brother in law Jack (Kevin Costner), who rehabs houses while working on his chowdah accent from “Thirteen Days.”    

From here, the film gives a detailed account of the lay-off fall-out, which I won’t spoil here.  The most interesting thing “The Company Men” does is offer a counterpoint (intentionally so?) to “Up in the Air.”  Remember the folder George Clooney gives the fire-ees about job counseling services?  “The Company Men” spends a lot of time chronically what was actually in that folder, which is a ticket to a depressing cubicle hell, even parsing out the hierarchy of the jobless trapped making cold calls in some suburban tower. Where “Up in the Air” concerned itself with a symbol of the recession, “The Company Men” cares about the mechanics of it.  The most non-sensical criticism of “Up in the Air” was that Clooney’s character was soulless and cruel.  But he didn’t actually fire anybody—he’s Charon, ferrying the souls of the newly dead across the River Styx. 

“The Company Men,” however, frames the drama of lay-offs question in moral terms:  What responsibility does a company have to employ a worker who, if let go, would not affect the profitability of the company?  There are legitimate human resources reasons for paying good employees during hard times:  It costs too much to retrain new employees when business picks and you need to rehire, for example.  But aside from human resource strategies, if the company can do without you, are there any circumstances which require it to keep you?  Does the fact that the CEO makes $20 million a year change that?

“The Company Men” offers an answer, of course, but not without exploring both sides of the question.  Sure, our populist rage at CEOs is stoked when Salinger tours Gene through a new downtown office at the same time he’s axing people, but even he frames the acquisition in investment terms—the property will turn a profit when the economy recovers.  Gene wants everybody rehired, but his sympathy begins to feel like weakness because clearly there’s not enough business to go around.  The conclusion may be a bit hokey, but it suggests a kind of reverse Manifest Destiny:  The moment you start building the country, it begins to decay.  Eventually, you’ve got to do it all over again.  If Reihan Salam predicts the death of macho, “The Company Men” predicts its rebirth.  Investing in Kevin Costner’s innovation strategies certainly isn’t the dumbest idea America’s had in the last few years.

The Pitch:

2 The Best Years of Our Lives

2 The Best Years of Our Lives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Up in the Air

1 1/2 Up in the Air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 The Company Men

3 1/2 The Company Men

3 1/2 The Company Men

3 1/2 The Company Men

Going the Distance

"This would be a lot funnier if she were making out John Hodgman."

What the Critics Got Wrong:  Going the Distance

In his review of “Knocked Up,” The New Yorker critic David Denby wrote about the new era of romantic comedies, where interchangeable female straight arrows “offer(s) their bodies as a way of dragging the clods out of their adolescent stupor.” This is a new and strange development in history of the “chick flick.” Just ten to fifteen years ago, female megastars like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan could guarantee huge opening weekends, even if those films weren’t great (think “You’ve Got Mail” and “Notting Hill”).

According to Denby, the glory days of romantic comedy were Hollywood’s Golden Age, when filmmakers “knew that the story would be not only funnier but much more romantic if the fight was waged between equals.” Directors of the 1930s and 40s were trained in the Shakespearian theater, and understood that Benedict needs a woman as barbed as Beatrice, that Petruchio needs Kate precisely because she lashes out at weak-minded fools, that Rosalind makes a man out of Orlando.

This is why Spencer Tracy was hired to “cut (Katherine Hepburn) down to size” in their Golden Age films. Hollywood’s Golden Age comedies often featured girlish women growing up; the fun is watching demure females develop the courage to deploy their wit against arrogant men.  Claudette Colbert’s little rich girl in It Happened One Night makes Clark Gable earn her love when trying to settle his gambling debts.  In Bringing Up Baby, Katherine Hepburn meets Cary Grant on that most masculine of turf:  the golf course.  A strong woman requires a strong man, else society judges her, well, a shrew. More importantly, if her suitors aren’t worthy, why should she care?

The modern Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” et al) romantic comedy is male-centric—in Denby’s words, if Romeo and Mercutio left the Capulet party to practice their swordplay. These movies are about the “dissolution of the male pack,” where humorless career women drag unworthy beta males away from the X-box into adulthood. In these fairy tales, women are pretty but wicked step-mothers striking midnight on male adolescence. In other words, why won’t Paul Rudd’s wife in “Knocked Up” just let him draft his fantasy baseball team in peace?

To be fair to rom-com stalwarts like Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, and Jennifer Aniston, the blame mostly falls on the Hollywood script factory. As Hollywood has narrowed its focus to the adolescent male audience, even its romantic comedies have become like awkward teenage boys: They have no idea what to do with strong, witty, real women.

So what do we make of Drew Barrymore, the granddaughter of John Barrymore, considered by some the greatest stage actor of his generation for his portrayals of Hamlet and Richard III?  Often forgotten about John Barrymore is that he sparred with many of Hollywood’s great leading ladies:  Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford (“Grand Hotel”), Katherine Hepburn (“A Bill of Divorcement”), Jean Harlow (“Dinner at Eight”), and Carole Lombard (“Twentieth Century”).  Has his granddaughter become the pre-eminent romantic comedy actress of her era?

This is a depressing statement for movie lovers—with no offense meant to Miss Barrymore.  Since her much-noted troubled adolescence, Barrymore has become Hollywood’s thankless rom-com workhorse.  Got some passable script with a bankable male lead?  Call Drew, if you’ve got Hugh Grant, Jimmy Fallon, or Adam Sandler (twice) onboard.  Or, in her younger days, if you needed somebody likably cute (“Never Been Kissed,” “Ever After”), Drew was your gal. 

Still, can you think of one memorable line that’s come out of Drew Barrymore’s mouth in a romantic comedy?  Me neither.  Barrymore has misfired in a few “serious” films, but I’ve always sensed that there’s much more to Drew Barrymore than her Hollywood scripts have led us to believe.  After all, she did host Saturday Night Live when she was seven and was a teenage alcoholic, yet came out the other side as America’s—well, probably not America’s sweetheart, but something like that.  The problem is the quality of female roles her grandfather acted against simply don’t exist today.

Enter “Going the Distance.” I will not argue that “Going the Distance” is “The Philadelphia Story.” But critics (Rotten Tomatometer Rating = 51%) completely missed out on the best romantic comedy of the post-Julia Roberts era—a film that merges the witty R-rated dialogue of the Kevin Smith/Judd Apatow era with the emotional rawness and honesty of early Woody Allen. Denby declared “Knocked Up” this generation’s “The Graduate” back in 2007, but “Going the Distance” better captures the feel of Generation X’s transition from cynical twenty-somethings (think “Reality Bites”) to thirty-something adults in the real world. In short, “Going the Distance” is the rom-com of the Great Recession.

“Going the Distance” follows Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long), two Gen Xers trying to make it in Manhattan. Garrett is a record company talent scout, trying earnestly to discover the next Radiohead when his boss asks him to suck up to “our Jonas Brothers.” Cluelessly, he orders take-out for his girlfriend’s birthday and doesn’t understand that “don’t buy me a present” means “buy me something good, buddy.” She walks out; he walks down to the bar with the boys. A cutie is tearing up the Centipede machine, so Garrett makes a play for the rebound hook-up. Pretty soon, Erin is smearing wing sauce on her face and Garrett is telling stories about childhood tortellini meals.  She’s the kind of gal who doesn’t mind if his roommate “DJs the hookup” by throwing on “Take My Breath Away” in the other room.  She’s drinking beer, not some stupid wine cooler.  Those are for girls.

Denby wrote that Woody Allen turned Manhattan autumns into a romantic dreamscape, like the magical forest “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an imaginary place for romantic fantasies. “Going the Distance” does much the same, but rather than orange leaves fluttering onto cobblestone streets outside row houses, Erin and Garrett hit Coney Island and Central Park, but mostly just hang out at bars and go to theaters.  In other words, what Gen Xers saw cool New Yorkers do on tv growing up. When you’re from Someplace, Ohio like Garrett, that’s the dream—especially when you’re spending it with a “cool chick” like Erin. Children of the 80s bond easily because we have a common language (arcade games, “Top Gun,” “SNL” skits), so Erin and Garrett quickly become more like old friends. In a strange land, it’s comforting to know that somebody appreciates your Morgan Freeman impression from “The Shawshank Redemption.”

Turns out Erin is only in New York for the summer, interning for a newspaper and desperately trying to get a job. She’s not in New York to get an Mr.S. degree; she’s repulsed by the idea of marrying a perfect man with a perfect house in the suburbs. Unlike the Baby Boomers, she has no illusions about her life and isn’t interested in keeping up appearances: “I’m 31. I’m an intern! I’m getting wasted.”

To develop the chemistry between Garrett and Erin, first-time screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe and first-time fiction director Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “American Teen”) create the quintessential Gen X relationship: Erin and Garrett look at their own lives as if they’re watching them on tv. TV, of course, is where Gen Xers learned how to act. Look at LaTulippe’s take on the standard rom-com dash-into-the-airport scene. Dread hangs inside Garrett’s car when he takes Erin to the airport; they say nothing except for some small talk about the weather. She gets out, they kinda hug-and-kiss, Garrett goes back to the car. You know the “no parking zone mad sprint to the baggage check” is coming, and there he goes. “I don’t know how this is going to work, you’re going to be there and I’m going to be here, but I’m crazy about you,” he says.

Erin diffuses the moment by breaking down what just happened as if they were sitting on the couch watching “Gossip Girl”: “That was so awful! The kiss thing? With that half-hug—what was that?” This is how Gen Xers talk to each other—meta-conversations in which we break things down as they’re happening. Gen X conversation is a form of proto-tweeting where we put it all out there with an ironic distance. Few characters in recent Hollywood movies have captured this dynamic better than Garrett and Erin.  The obligatory long-distance phone sex scene works not just because it’s awkward, but because it emerges from the characters:  They can’t give themselves over to the fantasy because they’re too busy breaking it down as they go (“Wait, what were you wearing again?  I thought we were in the living room.”)  They’d have a more erotic time doing a close read of the “Top Gun” volleyball scene. 

In fact, LaTulippe does to the romantic comedy what Gen Xers have had to do to get jobs: Get creative with old formulas. .  His heroine, Erin, is a foul-mouthed sparkplug who, not to put too fine a point on it, wants her man to “quit asking and just keep licking.”  She drops a megaton of f-bombs.  She is unphased by “dry humping.”  In short, she sounds like the one chick in your circle of friends who would rather party a little now and worry about getting up for work tomorrow.  Her male equivalent Garrett has a deep reserve of cultural trivia from which to draw insults:  “Who’s that mustache for?  The 1983 Yankees bullpen?”

If you wonder why bar trivia is insanely popular with Gen X urbanites, this is why, and you’re very likely to see women like Erin there. America, this your new sweetheart. It was a nice run, Jennifer Aniston, but you’re too pretty, too professional, too perfect, and now a little too old. Erin shouts trivia answers to the waitress with wing sauce smeared on her face. Unpretentious is in.

Still, “Going the Distance” isn’t just a Apatow-style raunchfest. What elevates this film above every Apatow comedy (including “Knocked Up”) is that, at its core, “Going the Distance” is a drama about the collateral damage wrought by the Great Recession. This is the “honesty” other critics have spoken of, but haven’t given enough credit for. The film’s third act is, true to its Gen X roots, decidedly unromantic—not cynical, in the 90s Ethan Hawke vein, but clear-eyed about the way the world actually works. Where “Friends” never asks how Rachel and Ross can afford that apartment, “Going the Distance” is very upfront about expensive flights and the necessity of free Skype. If the traditional romantic comedy exists in a fantasy world of romantic love, “Going the Distance” is set in a kind of purgatory inside the fantasy worlds of San Francisco and New York. Erin and Garrett simply wait in vain for jobs to appear that will solve their problems.

Thus, what makes the movie “adult” is not its coarse language and situations, but its grappling with tough choices. “Going the Distance,” more than any other romantic comedy of its time, understands the Gen X reality of flexibility and adaptability necessary to survive. Much more than the Baby Boomers, Garrett and Erin understand that “having it all” is the dark side of the American Dream. This isn’t cynical, and perhaps it’s not material for a romantic comedy. But if romantic comedies are, at their heart, about relationships, then “Going the Distance” challenges our notion of what a romantic comedy should be.

This may be why the romantic comedy has virtually died over the past decade: People on dates (twenty and thirty something Gen Xers) simply aren’t buying them. Like Garrett’s job at the record company, the star-driven romantic comedy has been made obsolete by smaller indie labels producing better, more “authentic” works of art (think about how much more entrenched in the Gen X consciousness smaller films like “Lost in Translation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Swingers,” “Garden State,” and “Juno” are, as opposed to any Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon movie). And like Erin’s job search in journalism, the old models don’t apply anymore, and you’ve got to adapt to survive—you’ve got to get creative (As Erin’s boss at the newspaper tells her, “Have you tried blogging?”).

If we accept this premise, “Going the Distance” isn’t just about the dying industries leaving Gen X creative types behind; it’s about another dying industry: the romantic comedy. David Denby might be right about “Knocked Up” as a seminal moment in cinema, but for the wrong reason: It found the outer boundary of possibility for Apatow’s male-pack humor. Until he finds a female character who’s not an emasculating shrew or a benign princess, his movies are going to be about boys breaking up with boys. As fun as they may be together, Rudd and Rogen are no Burton and Taylor.

“Going the Distance” shows us the way forward, if you can see through the smoke emerging from Erin’s bong. It’s not “The Graduate,” but there is a bit of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus, riding away from what’s expected of them. I’ve been trying to make sense of the lukewarm critical reception, from “it tries too hard for Kevin Smith dialogue” to the completely lazy and subjective “the leads have no chemistry” to the simple and prudish “it’s potty-mouthed.” The representative review is probably Andrew O’Hehir’s from Salon: “It’s the only romantic comedy to emerge from Hollywood this year that doesn’t feel completely defensive and cynical,” yet:

I strongly suspect the skeptics are right. Of course romantic comedy could come back, and it undoubtedly will. But at the moment it’s a moribund genre, with little appeal to the “Twilight” generation of girls and young women. All a pleasant, offbeat movie like “Going the Distance” can hope to do is swim halfheartedly against the ebbing tide.

So, the problem with “Going the Distance” is that all the other movies of its kind aren’t very good? That’s not a valid criticism. I strongly suspect that many critics can’t bring themselves to praise a romantic comedy in which the lead isn’t a prim and proper vision of loveliness who lifts a lifeless man out of his stupor. We’re no longer conditioned to see romantic comedy females in equal dimension to her male counterpart, or for our chick flicks to try to deal with real problems in a real way. Or for the female leads to get caught in compromising situations on her sister’s dining room table. But, as Gen Xers take Hollywood over from their Boomer forefathers, the romantic comedy heroine will become less polished, less pretentious, less “perfect.” She’ll be just as fun and sassy as her rom-com godmothers (Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, et al), but less refined. In other words, less of a fantasy and more of a woman.

Critics haven’t seemed to figure that out. O’Hehir is right: “Going the Distance” isn’t defensive and cynical, but most of the reviews certainly are. To wit,

Now, am I claiming that “Going the Distance” is a Zeitgeist-capturing yarn of love in our hookup culture, one that may capture the mood of an entire generation? I am not. It has a little of that ambition, which is admirable and all.

Or “Going the Distance” is exactly that, plus the most underrated movie of the year—and critics just missed it. That is admirable and all.

 The Pitch:

2 Fever Pitch

2 Fever Pitch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Lehman Brothers

2 Lehman Brothers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Going the Distance

4 Going the Distance

4 Going the Distance

4 Going the Distance

True Grit

By , January 10, 2011 10:07 pm

True Grit:  What the Advertising Got Wrong

The Commericials:  Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin engage in a bunch of violent Western shoot-outs.  Prepare for some satisfyingly bloody vigilante justice.  Oh yeah, there’s some fourteen year old girl who looks like she needs saving.

Movie Day at the Court’s Take:  The ads look like the Coens stuck Bad Blake in “No Country For Old Men.”  It’s actually a rather funny film—not a comedy, but contains a few scenes of classic Coens banter where people inflate their standing with high-falootin’ wordsmithing (think “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”).  As my colleague James Owen pointed out, the Coens have talked about doing a violent Western for years, but changed course here.  I think they sensed that the ultra-violent, foul-mouthed, “realistic” Western about the anarchy of frontier America was already covered by Deadwood.  The response?  A relatively old-fashioned Western with a little girl who outwits a hardened business, has some jokes about the Rules of Evidence, and features Matt Damon in a semi-comic supporting role that Brad Pitt would be proud of. 

And, more importantly, a rebuke to the language of Deadwood.  The language of the characters in the novel True Grit is likely much more authentic because it’s not just high-falootin’ (“I’m already vexed by the modern world”), but spoken by people who learned to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.   The language mirrors the film’s themes:  Rather than seeing retribution and vigilante justice as man’s natural state, the film’s theme is that people actually seek law and order, even when they don’t have to.  Why else so much talk about lawfully breaking contracts out in the middle of lawless Choctaw territory?

The Pitch:

2 Fargo

2 Fargo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 John Wayne's "Pity Oscar"

2 John Wayne's "Pity Oscar"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 True Grit

4 True Grit

4 True Grit

4 True Grit

I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris:  What the Critics Got Wrong

The Critical Line:  This fact-based romantic comedy has its flaws, but they’re mostly overcome by its consistently sweet, funny tone and one of the best performances of Jim Carrey’s career. (Rotten Tomatoes).

Representative Quotation:  “Laugh-out-loud hilarious one moment and darkly tragic the next, I Love You Phillip Morris’ tone is wildly uneven, never quite sure of what sort of movie it wants to be-and I loved it for it.” (Brandon Fibbs, Brandon Fibbs.com)

Movie Day at the Court’s Take:  Almost every critic commented on the odd tone of the film—it’s either disjointed, or farcical, or just plain weird.  All true.  Writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are more famous for “Bad Santa,” which some call a classic but, for my taste, is a cynical, witless empty shock comedy.  They do much better here, creating a touching romantic comedy sparked by gay prison sex. 

The comparable isn’t “Bad Santa” as much as Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!,” which also tried to create a weirdly comic tone from a dark true story.  The difference is that Soderbergh insisted on some stupid sixties tv sound effects and an anachronistic Marvin Hamlisch score, as well as a nonsensical exclamation point in the title.  Soderbergh telegraphs the big twist without any discernible reason for his own weird artistic choices.  Here, Ficarra and Requa’s tone is the extension of the main character, the weirdness of the movie takes us inside the weirdness of Steven Russell’s mind.  One film, I think, is much better than the other, but the Tomatometer ratings are roughly the same.

The Pitch:

2 The Informant!

2 The Informant!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Catch Me If You Can

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 I Love You Phillip Morris

3 I Love You Phillip Morris

3 I Love You Phillip Morris

Fair Game

By , January 7, 2011 10:41 pm

"Tell Me That this Turtleneck ROCKS Your World"

Reviewed by James Owen

Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” does a perfectly adequate job recounting the Valerie Plame scandal, a relic from the early part of what I like to call “the zeros decade.” Enough time has passed to make a George W. Bush montage scored to Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy” induce nostalgia—a drenched panic from when a majority of Americans thought strapping a tow-chain to a statue of Saddam Hussein would start a domino effect of Middle Eastern democracy. Honestly, I feel like this was on some other planet. But this was the reality, and in the middle of it was a woman who made her living in counter-proliferation—a woman whose career was ruined because of politics.  I could run up a word count recounting everything that happened to this outed covert CIA agent, but why do that when the wretched Daily Kos has done this timeline?  

But acting as a historical record is not why “Fair Game” is so extraordinary. It is, perhaps, the first time an audience has ever seen the role of a “spy” as a job—a job juggled with the pressures of marriage and parenthood. The film presents Plame (the fantastic Naomi Watts) as someone simply going to work, clocking out, and heading back to deal with the home fires. Considering what she actually did for a living, “Fair Game” feels like last year’s “The Hurt Locker”:  Making an absurdly edgy profession as mundane as possible. If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like to see James Bond balance his checkbook, as Liman did on Morning Joe, then “Fair Game” is the movie for you.

Liman could have slapped an apron on a globe-trotting agent squeezing PTA meetings in between drop points and interrogations. But Liman compresses the atmosphere so the audience feels how complex Plame’s dual life is.  He nimbly documents her work in the Middle East and at Langley, but also spends as much time focused on the tension at home with her husband Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), who’s trying to get his consulting business off the ground after being politically washed ashore. Details complete the picture, like the dinner parties where everyone expounds on current events while the couple can only bite their lips at the useless dinner fodder at insufferable liberal get-togethers.  Liman doesn’t make these moments into grand theater with distracting camera tricks and over-editing, gives these great actors space to work.

In fact, Liman lets his actors paint a subtle picture of a marriage in crisis.  When Wilson gets the assignment to investigate whether Iraq purchased enriched uranium from Niger, there is an insinuation this is Plame’s way of building up her trodden-down husband’s self-esteem.  When Wilson’s negative report is ignored by a gung-ho Administration, he runs an editorial in The New York Times without concern for the impact on his wife’s career—it comes off almost as an act of spousal jealously. His wife’s gesture transforms from cocksure ambassador to bomb-throwing media starlet. 

While “Fair Game” interestingly paints Wilson in shades of gray I found surprising, there is no doubt who the bad guys are, and they are called out by name: Cheney, Rove, Libby, and Novak (Interestingly and perhaps fatal to the film’s credibility, the actual leaker, Richard Armitage, is mentioned only in the pre-credit roll). Neo-con apologists can happily pick at the narrative license and the film’s underlying assumptions, but Liman’s has a point of view is backed up by objective reporting. If someone wants to present a contrary version, then I would suggest seeing if David Zucker is available.

Politics aside, this is a film about how high-profile people deal with public matters in private. The third-act tension of “Fair Game” is not how the resolution of the scandal, which we already know. Rather, the details of the fall-out on the Plame/Wilson is foreign to us as, and Liman turns this into compelling drama in the resolution.   

Liman clearly has an interest in the lives of the secretive and secluded: “Fair Game” plays like serious version of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” or “The Bourne Identity” recast as a political thriller. “Fair Game” is not overly concerned with history, but with emotion. This is something the media and Internet coverage cannot give you: a fuller, more interesting look at a person in the middle of recent history. This is why popular filmmakers like Liman should make movies, and this is why we go to watch them.

The Pitch:

2 Mr. and Mrs. Smith

2 Mr. and Mrs. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Rod Lurie

2 Rod Lurie

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Fair Game

4 Fair Game

4 Fair Game

4 Fair Game

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