Friday, December 28, 2007

Reilly Rocks But The Movie Does Not Quite Roll

It’s hard not to like regular Joe John C. Reilly, whose goofball charm and aw-shucks persona have also been a welcome addition to any movie, whether it be a mainstream comedy, a hard-as-nails indie, or a Hollywood popcorn special. Reilly takes center stage in Walk Hard:The Dewey Cox Story, a full-scale parody of the pop star biopic, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spoof that plays it a bit straighter then expected, and even veers towards the surreal, although it never quite gets there. Reilly is a hoot, the pastiche of genre music numbers is spot on, and the movie boasts at least one outright hilarious sequence skewering the Beatles. Co-writer and comedy kingpin Judd (Knocked Up, Superbad) Apatow and director Jake (son of Lawrence) Kasdan accomplish what they set out to do, and that’s funny enough, which is a good thang, but the satirical situations and one-line cap-offs never truly zing or soar.

Monday, December 24, 2007

It's (Stephen) King Time

Well, filmmakers like Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier had Shakespeare while Frank Darabont has got Stephen King, reteaming once again for The Mist. After finding success with the The Shawshank Redemption (’94) and The Green Mile (’99) (and bombing out with 2001’s non-King The Majestic) the director has gone back to his muse and filmed a 1980 King short story set in Maine (of course), with a wild-eyed mob of regular Joes and Janes (among them, Thomas Jane, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, Frances Sternhagen, and Marcia Gay Harden) trapped in a supermarket as a mist (with, yup, supernatural forces) closes in. Darabont drops the big budget smoothness of his earlier adaptations in order to approximate a more in-yer-face guerilla style , but the move scores more as psychological thriller than a technical scare fest. It’s an unabashed B-movie, with an ending as cynical as all get out, a movie well worth staying with when it ends up on a cable on some late wintry evening.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cheadle Keeps it Real (Again)

In Talk to Me (Universal, $29.95,118 minutes) Don Cheadle brings his usual hustle and bounce to the small scale and real life tale of Washington, DC r&b DJ and activist Petey Greene. It’s an episodic film that doesn’t strain for higher meanings, easily mixing humor and poignancy into an engaging character study of a man so bad (in the sixties sense) he was good, an intriguing tale of yet another black entertainer trapped between keeping it real or pushing it into the (white) stratosphere. It’s an infectious little film, well-cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mike Epps, Martin Sheen, Taraji P. Henson) and well delivered, thoughtful and entertaining. Cheadle is one of those guys who doesn’t seem to make a bad choice when it comes to movie roles (we forgive him the big bucks payoffs for the Ocean’s 11 series), and director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) lets him have an obvious good time socking it to the Sixties here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Muscle Bound Effects

Anyone who’s admired Brit actor Ray Winstone’s authentically feral and quietly mesmerizing turns in movies like Nil By Mouth, Sexy Beast, The Proposition, or even The Departed, prepare yourself for his starring role in the- Robert Zemickis-goes-medieval Beowulf, a film that utilizes the directors same totally off putting technique of merging animation to actors facial movements as his The Polar Express. It’s the Land of the Dead Eye, with the actors resembling zombies after a method acting course, scary looking to some, stupid looking to most. I simply couldn’t get past the sight of the lumpen Winstone’s head magically welded onto a gleaming and shimmering he-man’s bod to even see if noted writers Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman had brought anything to the party. Yup, I committed the ultimate nitcrit sin--I walked.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

That's Right-Teen Neo-Noir

Attention all you molls and mugs, it's yer last chance to go to the noir side with me at Local 121 for the Wednesday Night Film Noir series, tomorrow (12/12)at 7:00 PM. Attendance has been spotty, but decent enough to make another go at it on the flip side of the holiday season, probably for a brief series called Paranoia in Film or The Films of Paranoia , or something much more pretentious and seri-ass sounding. (Suggestions?)Anyway, please, baby, please, c'mon down for the final film of the first series, have a drink or two, listen to my insightful spiel, and watch an intriguing movie:

Brick (2005) An outside choice to spice up this brief noir series, ostensibly a modern neo-noir, clearly a homage and genre reconsideration by smart guy and first time writer/director Rian Johnson. Image a Chandler/Hammett styled investigative jigsaw puzzle set in high school, with the hardboiled protagonist a teen (well played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) determined to unearth the truth despite the consequences. Neither a spoof, a textbook redo, or an exercise in irony, but a bold and cool mixture of style and setting, with the neat and effective affection of having the high school cats and kittens speaking in a gangster patois from decades earlier. Moody, intelligent, and unnerving enough to be included in the sublime cannon of film noir.

Monday, December 10, 2007

TV EYE: Through the Past, Darkly

Do I get drummed outta the TV Taste Club if I admit to actually liking a show produced by Uber producer Jerry Bruckheimer? Since it’s inception in 2003, the low key procedural Cold Case (NBC, Sunday, 10:00 PM) has cast a certain spell on me, and I find it’s formula, it’s doom and gloom atmospherics, and it’s wistful gazing-into-the-past structure, all rather addictive. The show centers around a group of Philadelphia coppers ( John Finn, Jeremy Ratchford, Thom Barry, Danny Pino, Tracie Thomas, underplayers all) forced to dig deep into the dusty files that contain, cold, or unsolved cases. Kathryn Morris plays Detective Lily Rush, the team’s centerpiece, a waif-like combo of moral conscientiousness, dissipated guilt, and avenging angel. The show swings back and forth from then to now, utilizing period songs and period film stock, while the actors either doing the age-make-up thang or simply going with two sets of young and old, with each episode occurring within an extremely specific milieu—typically quantified by class, ethnicity, or social issue-of-the-period. Cold Case also well utilizes a solid feel for Philadelphia, it's setting (despite the fact that they probably only go in one or twice a year to shoot exteriors), and the Philly depicted is a steel gray, downcast, chilly urban center, brimming over with dreamers, losers, and (most of all) those that are just going through the motions. The crime always gets solved, yet the general feel of the show is far from smug endings and satisfying turns of justice---the show gives off a weary vibe of lives lost and misspent, of paths not taken, of shared guilt (each and all get lined up as suspects), and it’s final slo-mo, cue-the-music series of shots often make me weirdly sad or downright depressed, while continually exerting a strange pull that brings me back for the next episode of time-bending crime-solving.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

What's So Funny About a Hockey Puck?

I guess I’m in the same club as Chris Rock, Marty Scorsese, Penn Jillette, Sarah Silverman, and even Harry (hipper-than-thou) Dean Stanton in looking at old school comedian Don Rickles as part guilty pleasure, part hilarious bastard. Those are some of the talking heads assembled in John Landis’ brand new HBO portrait, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. Problem is a good subject does not necessarily make a good documentary. Landis film is part typical clip history, part oral history, a touch of the subject’s own reminiscences, with a large portion devoted to excerpts from a recent Vegas performance, something that really should have just been released separately. The talking heads provide very little insight; some even opting for shtick over substance, and Landis over relies on Tonight Show footage and neglects to show a bit more of the Rickles acting career, which he forged in TV( the doc quickly spins past a series of b&w publicity stills showing Rickles all over the sitcoms of the 60's-from The Munsters to Andy Griffith) and B films, until he hit it big as a stand-up under the protective glow of Frank Sinatra. Check this out (not in the doc) for truly gonzo television.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

No Smooth Edges

The following column is reprinted from the December issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

It’s the time of the movie year that brings forth a whole batch of Oscar contenders, seri-ass movies that hinge upon lofty concepts, high level drama, showcase acting, and as many high-minded literary adaptations as possible. It’s also the time of the year that a lot of the grittier, hard-to-classify fare is released, much of it without any Oscar pretensions or a surefire marketplace direction. That’s means good, intriguing, well intentioned stuff, maybe not quite the stuff that dreams are made of, but much of it made smartly and without the smooth edges required by rigors of overt commercialism.

We Own the Night
Writer-director James Gray remains a filmmaker on the verge of greatness. His three films, Little Odessa, The Yards, and his latest, We Own the Night, are all uniquely somber, highly atmospheric, self-enclosed blue-gray fables, all outings that resist the typical budding director’s urge to pour on the style and ratchet up the melodrama. Also, each of Gray’ three efforts has been marked by strong casting and sturdy patches of acting, with the new one, a cop/family drama, featuring the faces and talents of Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as Cain and Abel brothers, Robert Duvall as their police chief dad and Eva Mendes as one smoking girlfriend, all registering succinctly on the down low. (Although boy wonders Phoeniz and Wahlberg both deliver low key performances, it has to be noted they up the ante on the mumble fish scale, joining the ranks of some of the great practitioners like Mickey Rourke, Matt Dillon, and Bencio Del Toro.)
The movie breaks no new ground, and it’s cops-and-robbers premise and internal familial struggles seem designed just to contain a series of furious and spunky set pieces, many of them vividly enacted, particularly a wham-bam car chase that absolutely has to be among the most captivating movie scenes this year.
Gray seems to be drawing from the same ground level urban playground as venerated New York director Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince of the City) where character is king and setting is character, but he doesn’t quite have Lumet’s ability to innervate the gritty proceedings. Instead Gray spends a lot of time fading away from the action, employing long shots to emphasize the players’ isolation, and more time bumping along a pensive and ominous slow boil, withholding all big (and little) pay-offs. Gray may still be finding himself, and he’s doing so with an admirable deftness, and in the long run We Own the Night is occasionally alluring and consistently watchable, which will have to do for now.

Gone Baby Gone
Somewhere, just outside the big budgeted Hollywoodized frameworks of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed lies Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. Like those aforementioned films, Affleck’s directorial debut is built around a core that makes its distinctive setting-Boston- a certifiable plot device and an essential secondary character. Gone Baby Gone, like Eastwood’s movie, is adapted from a book by Dennis Lehane, the acknowledged successor to the great George V. Higgins, the late fiction writer laureate of Massachusetts. Affleck is neither an artist nor cinematic master like Eastwood or Scorsese, but he does know Boston and, in the movie’s actual case, Dorchester, a working class locale gone to seed. Affleck’s Massachusetts’s acumen probably outweighs his directorial prowess, but he totally succeeds in utilizing his knowledge of the place, the people, and the language, to form a seedy and compact thriller that possesses both savvy and smarts.
The basic story mixes together two local private eyes (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan), two police detectives (Ed Harris, John Ashton), a police suit (Morgan Freeman), and a blue collar family (Titus Welliver, Amy Madigan, Amy Ryan) in the search for a missing child. Young Affleck is a surprisingly creditable lead, lean and youthful but with some real bite to his bark, while Ed Harris once again does a whole lot with very little, yet it is relative unknown Amy Ryan, as a flawed but unblenching Dorchester proletariat mom who runs away with film and also demonstrates Affleck’s obvious affinity with actors. The movie is rife with riffs of dialogue and unabashed speechifying, most of it popping and sizzling quite acutely, and the movie’s use of settings and locale is equally assured, as is the director’s trenchant use of locals cast as locals. The actions sequences are wanting, they feel a bit ponderous and forced, and a few sequences remain irritatingly unclear.
In the long run the detective tale and the movies overall moral inquiry dwell in the improbable and the slightly unconvincing, but Affleck has managed to realize a well-honed vision with his keen eye set on a movie Boston (from Quincy to Chelsea), spilling over with class, racial, and ethnic divisions but somehow still strung together with invisible and unspoken connective tissues. Both Eastwood and Scorsese crafted two fully realized films that appropriated a genuine feel for the city but headline maker-movie-star-turned-filmmaker Affleck has fashioned the truest “Boston” movie yet.

Into the Wild

I may be one of the only film nitcrits out there that truly found Sean Penn’s last shot at directing, 2001’s The Pledge,as richly textured and highly evocative (and as lovingly well made, with a full combo of balls, brains, and personal vision) as some of the more hallowed American films of the treasured 1970’s. The movie literally blew me away, stuck to my gut, it’s very images and tone staying with me for weeks after I viewed it. Needless to say, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Penn’s next time around in the director’s chair, which has finally arrived, albeit in a not-very-wide release.
Penn’s choice, Into the Wild, for which he serves as both writer (adapting from Jon Krakauer’s best seller) and director, seems highly appropriate for the notoriously free spirited actor/activist—a true life adventure downer wrapped around the antics of Christopher McCandless (remarkably played Emile Hirsch), who, during the early ‘90s, just out of college, chucked it all for a personal quest for something, anything outside of traditional society. McCandless left field odyssey final found him deep in the mountains of Alaska, eventually dying of starvation, a hero/fool to many, an unbinding idiot to native Alaskans.
What Penn winds up making is essentially a twisty road movie, one without the expected burst of wild exhilaration or heady meaningfulness that typically characterize the genre. The landscape, captured exquisitely by cinematographer Eric Gautier, provides the film with an occasional burst of raffishness, but Penn the filmmaker sticks tight to the young man’s genuinely heartfelt buy generally unfocused and ultimately absurd quest. The movie is part distress tale, part pilgrimage, part eulogy. It’s a profoundly sensual, physical film, unafraid of silence, and peopled with on-the-road eccentrics, sages, and losers (among them Vince Vaughn, Catherine Kenner, Kristin Stewart, Brian Dierker and Hal Holbrook), as Penn’s acute eye captures the conflicting vibe of magnificent risk, naïve indulgence, and inevitable doom and gloom. His take on the wanderer’s parents/adversaries (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden) is sadly by rote, truly character-by-cliché, and this does knock the film down a notch or two.
All in all, unequivocally, Penn possesses an innate cinematic marrow (he’s got the goods, period) and Into the Wild easily confirms it. It remains to be seen if he is able (or even desires to) to smooth down a few of his filmmaking edges and make a film that may attract a more mainstream audience. For those of us out on the edge with him, Into the Wild is indeed the right stuff.