Tuesday, September 30, 2008


When exchanging ideas with his subjects in his often brilliant, religion-bashing documentary “Religulous,” Bill Maher may be one-sided and close-minded, but he’s hardly unfair. I’ve always looked at Maher as one of the few figures publicly expressing viewpoints about religion akin to my own, but found there to often be a vaguely off-putting sense of mockery and disdain that imbues his opinions, so while I agree with what he’s saying, I don’t always love the delivery system. Religion is essentially destructive and inherently ridiculous, but painting everyone in the religious spectrum with one broad stroke doesn’t do either side any good. However, here, while unwavering in his depiction of religion as batshit insane and problematic, he approaches his subjects on their home turf (be it a truck stop church, the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, or in front of the Vatican), engages them in conversation, and lets them answer his questions and explain their opinions. Sure, often he just gets bullshit responses like “'What if you die and find out you're wrong?,” and his subjects frequently can’t or won’t answer a simple question, but it’s hard to quibble with the methods, and one can’t say he has them at an unfair advantage.

Maher and director Larry Charles use the editing process to get the last laugh (breaking up the interviews with goofy stock footage, Bible cartoons and pop songs), which perhaps was unnecessary – the footage speaks for itself – but in its defense, they tend to just underline the filmmakers’ viewpoints, not diminish or alter their subjects’ responses. The underlying question the film seems to be asking is “Why is believing things without evidence good?” (i.e.: why is ‘faith’ a virtue?) and goes on to conclude, over and over again, that it isn’t. Thankfully, due to Maher and Charles’ bountiful wit, this isn’t a stark polemic, but a supremely entertaining doc that could just as easily function as a very funny comedy, regardless of your religious viewpoint (or lack thereof). What’s most interesting here is that, while it’s obvious Maher is sincere and passionate about this subject, he chiefly goes after the core tenets of the belief systems, not really the evil/violent/destructive things that come out of them (Islam bears the brunt of this criticism). As the title indicates, the film focuses more on the ridiculousness of the beliefs; for instance, child abuse by priests scarcely earns a mention. Where things do get serious, however, is in the final moments of the film where Maher lays the thesis statement behind the film bare, and delves into where society is likely headed if the religion “problem” isn’t corrected. It’s a ballsy, disturbing and debate-inspiring way to close out the proceedings, and I, for one, look forward to the conversations in theater lobbies.

Monday, September 29, 2008


When reading Chuck Pahlaniuk’s funny, insightful and eager-to-shock novel “Choke,” with its nonchalant grotesquerie and sexually explicit psychology, I never imagined the film adapation of it could be described as “warm,” “touching” and “accessible” without totally betraying the spirit and instincts of the book. But here we are, and somewhat inexplicably, writer/director Clark Gregg has stayed remarkably true to the book (only switching around some scenes, and removing minor details, such as one character’s supposed time travel), while delivering it all with a carefully light touch that makes the end product almost approach the realm of “mainstream. “ Where Pahlaniuk’s “Fight Club” may have been overloaded with plot, “Choke” is basically a character study and a stream-of-consciousness recounting of a period in said characters’s life; the character is Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a Colonial “historical interpreter” struggling with – or rather, embracing – sex addiction, while regularly pretending to choke in restaurants to earn sympathy and money to fund his dementia-riddled mother’s (Anjelica Houston) hospital bills. A Fincher-esque visual style may have made things a bit more interesting (Gregg employs but a single visual trick: projecting the images Victor pictures to keep from “triggering” on a girl’s back mid-fuck), but like Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow, Gregg’s deft handling of material and impressive sense of comedic pacing/timing almost entirely makes up for it (you’ll find no awkward jokes falling flat or silent sitcom “laugh” beats here). Like the book, the film takes an amusingly skewed view at sex, love, and oedipal pop-psychology, and refreshingly avoids the convention that a mother-son reconcialiation or heart-to-heart is the proper resolution for the characters. But while such complexities work, “Choke” is above all worth watching because it’s just a very entertaining flick that also functions as a much-deserved showcase for Rockwell.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Miracle at St. Anna"

Even the most passionate defenders of Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" would have to admit that, for good or for ill, the movie's a bit of a mess. Your reaction will likely depend not on if you find it to be flawed or not, but on whether the flaws are enough to sink the movie for you. Lee's tale of the 92nd infantry division (the "buffalo soldiers" unit) in World War II wants to do so much, and be so many things, it'll likely cause a fair share of audience members to throw their hands in the air and give up on it midway through -- even I was ready to do so early on due to one main character's incessant mugging. More than just having multiple story strands woven together, it seems there's at least four different movies here struggling to occupy the same space; we get a 1983-set mystery framework (where, incidentally, everyone talks like they're a 1940s gumshoe), a bonding between an adorable Italian tyke and his black soldier protector, a bit of inter-culture romance, a battle-ridden straightforward war film, and a bit of magical realism thrown in. It entirely makes sense to me why many critics are so down on the film, as it not only doesn't adhere to genre conventions, it often seems to be fighting itself for what it should be, and numerous moments either don't work, leave you scratching your head or rolling your eyes.

But while it may be a mess, it's the sort of bold, really interesting mess you have to admire on some level. In shooting for the moon, Lee has made miscalculations, yes, but oddly, the disparate parts don't result in incoherence, but in a strange, all-over-the-place end result that mostly worked for me. The film is too long (sans credits, it runs exactly 2 hours and 30 minutes), but despite numerous extraneous, talky sequences, I never found myself getting antsy, and while the sentiments may be overblown here or there (the closing moments, in particular, are a bridge too far), I was, by and large, affected by it, and always interested in whatever turn the story/tone/characters took. To quote Michael Sragow's Baltimore Sun review, "[Lee] may be addicted to broad flourishes, but he has the big emotions to back them up." A more disciplined filmmaker would've made this a more cogent, and probably outright better, film, but it wouldn't be nearly as filled with passion or as overflowing with ideas. Whatever your thoughts on Lee's self-promoting attacks on Clint Eastwood, he's made a movie that's more compelling than either of Eastwood's WWII films.

"Nights in Rodanthe"

Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I'm a cynic at heart, and not particularly susceptible to shameless "chick flicks" or unabashed tear-jerkers. I don't know if I would like Nicholas Sparks' novels, but I'd imagine not. I thought the film version of "The Notebook" was elevated by a top-tier cast and weepiness that worked, but I've not seen "Message in a Bottle" or "A Walk to Remember," nor do I long to. And on paper, I know "Nights in Rodanthe" is treacly, manipulative crap. My understanding of all four films makes it seem Sparks has a reliable, manipulative framework and just punches in different characters' names for the same effect. The reliably formula screenplay for the "Nights in Rodanthe," on its own, would be unremarkable and borderline-annoying. But thanks to the performances of Diane Lane, Richard Gere, the chemistry between the two, and perhaps most of all, the understated direction of theatre vet George C. Wolf, we buy it. No matter how irritated you may be with that trailer and that increasingly annoying song in it, for what it is, the movie works. Wolfe, Lane and Gere take inherently maudlin and pandering material, and ground it, largely avoiding garish sentimentality and somehow making it feel true.

Believe me, this isn't a movie I'm proud to admit I'm liking. About halfway through, I heard a voice in my head saying "No, no, you can't like this. no one will ever trust your opinion again. First, 'Lakeview Terrace,' then 'Igor,' then 'The Duchess,' now this?" Hate to admit it, but yeah. It's a tasteful, classy, weepy girls-night-out movie that your mother will love, and if you approach on its own terms, will exceed your meager expectations. There's a certain kind of audience member that can't, and won't, fall for this stuff no matter how well (or poorly) executed it is, and I can respect that. These kind of movies aren't for everyone. But watching "Nights in Rodanthe," I could recognize that in pantheon of lady-baiting romance novel tearjerkers, this is one of the good ones.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Eagle Eye"

Before it gets irredeemably stupid in its final 15 minutes, starts abandoning logic and instead focuses on blowing shit up real good, "Eagle Eye" is a truly fun, far-fetched, slick bit of popcorn paranoia entertainment. I don't want to say much about the plot, since I don't want to spoil things, but it all centers around Jerry Shaw (a scruffy-for-the-better Shia LaBeouf) and Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), two strangers brought together by a phone call. Jerry's just buried his twin brother that morning, when he receives a call from a monotonously-voiced woman telling him to leave his apartment immediately, and that the F.B.I. will be there in 30 seconds. Rachel has just put her wee son on a train to Washington D.C., when the same woman gives her a call telling her unless she follows orders, her son will be killed. The two are eventually brought together, and sent on a wild (and quite loud) goose chase, following instructions at all costs, all while they're chased by two counter-terrorism agents (Billy Bob Thornton in "Armageddon" mode, and a useless Rosario Dawson), who can't figure out why Jerry and Rachel are doing what they're doing. The credits don't reveal who plays the voice on the other end of Shia and Michelle's phones, but it sounded a hell of a lot like Julianne Moore to me. I'm sure we'll find out in the days ahead, but my money's on Moore.

I was entertained all the way through "Eagle Eye," but the less mysterious/ambiguous the shenanigans' orchestrator(s) became, the more I began to slump in my seat and my eyes began to roll. It's not a sudden shift though; When the film's twist is revealed a bit more than halfway through, it all starts to feel a bit ludicrous and silly, but the movie maintains its credibility by the skin of its teeth. However, the final reel is almost a complete wash, as the movie finally embraces its' dumbest, least interesting impulses, mostly abandoning its prescient, relevant themes in favor of full-on Michael Bay territory. I entered the theater with minimal knowledge about the plot -- I only knew what the trailer told me -- and I think that's for the better. Much of the film's fun and suspense is predicated on unanswered questions and who/what is causing all this. And don't get me wrong, when "Eagle Eye's" cooking, it is a lot of fun. Though one early car smash-up action scene is virtually incoherent, for the most part, dumbed-down "Transformers"-esque antics are avoided, and the heavy-verging-on-convoluted plot mechanics are what keep us involved. Thankfully, the movie moves along at such a breakneck pace, that it's only on the ride home that you realize there's about a dozen things that happened that didn't make a lick of sense.

"The Duchess"

It seems I've always had an aversion to historical dramas filled with frilly dresses and powdered wigs. That distaste, paired with the fact that Keira Knightley has the tendency to bore me to tears, I was not especially looking forward to "The Duchess," a historical drama featuring Keira Knightley in lots of frilly dresses and powdered wigs. In fact, back in December or so, you may recall me declaring it my least anticipated movie of 2008. Well, holy shit, I liked it. I won't speak of the production values -- cinematography, costumes, score, etc -- because they're great, but so what? They're always great in every one of these sort of movies, and it's never enough to engage me. What's worth mentioning about "The Duchess" is that it's actually entertaining. While maybe some won't love the consistent semi-soap opera chain of dramatic events that propel the film, but hey, I'm not above admitting that a constant stream of *gasp* things actually happening is what it takes to get me invested in a movie like this. Knightley, as Georgina Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, is about as stiff as usual, but with this material and time period, it actually seems appropriate, so it didn't bother me much. British-hunk-of-the-month Dominic Cooper smolders and raises his voice a lot as Georgina's lover, the 1700s' answer to Barack Obama ("Change is upon us!"), while Ralph Fiennes, as her cold, philandering husband, the Duke, comes off the best out of anyone, managing to make the familiar character archetype the most engaging figure in the film. I can't guarantee that anyone who hates big-dresses-and-wig movies will dig the proceedings here, but you don't get much more loathe to this genre than I, and I sat alert, entertained and involved for 105 minutes.


In my last semester at school, I was lucky enough to take a course on Western films, and the experience, if anything gave me a real idea of what those films entailed, rather than just the scattershot elements people of a younger generation associate with them (shootouts, horses, reluctant hero, bad men). So while it may not be fast-paced enough for those trained on films of today, Ed Harris's "Appaloosa" is a solid modern western that truly earns the "old-fashioned" designation likely to be mentioned in every reaction to it. Things are kept simple and laid-back, with Harris and Viggo Mortensen playing two gunmen with a penchant for protecting towns in need of help, Jeremy Irons as the villain doing the hasslin', and the execrable Miss Zellweger as the lady caught in the middle of it all. Harris and Irons are just fine, but Mortensen -- as usual -- outshines everyone even with minimal dialogue, and even Zellweger avoids crippling the movie whenever she's on screen, so I guess that's something. Strong, straightforward recent westerns "Open Range" and the "3:10 to Yuma" remake had old-fashioned elements to them, but "Yuma" especially was paced like an action film that just happened to be set in the old West. Here, Harris acknowledges the pacing and parameters of the old-time westerns, giving just as much screentime to the Zellweger shenanigans and focusing more on the relationship between Mortensen and Harris than the very (effectively) brief shootouts. The lack of complexity or perpetual thrills probably won't earn "Appaloosa" any diehard fans -- it's the type of film that earns more nods of approval than impassioned cheers -- but it's a simple, satisfying yarn with characters I wouldn't mind revisiting in another film.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Lakeview Terrace"

Well, slap me sideways, I had no expectation for this movie to be good. The trailer made it look laughably stupid, simplistic and familiar, and most critics out there seemed to think that was an accurate representation of the film. But whaddya know, I full-on liked this movie. Interracial married couple Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are in the midst of moving into their dream home in the epitome of upper-middle class suburbia when we begin, but it doesn't take long for problems to materialize in the form of Abel (Samuel L. Jackson). Abel, like many, doesn't consider himself a racist, but something about the couple next door just rubs him the wrong way. When the couple doesn't adhere to his stringent ideas of how they should behaving and complying with his requests, things begin to escalate, and no one ends up particularly happy.

For director Neil Labute, this is seemingly a job for hire, even by his own admission, but I was taken aback by how much in line it feels with his other works -- there are deeply unsettling themes about race here, and while Abel may evolve to be the "villian" of the piece, Jackson never allows him to be demonized. Many reviews have talked about the third act, saying that it shifts a tense drama into brainless thriller territory, but I disagree with the brainless part. I think the proceedings naturally evolve to that place, and trailer be damned, there are no spots where I thought the movie descended into 'ridiculous' territory. This is by no means a great movie, it's merely a good one, but I'd argue there are much more substantive and subtle things said about race and racism in this than in all of "Crash." Where that film's central theme was "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," things are a bit more complex here; "Lakeview' delves into the factors that may plant those seeds, rational or not, and how seemingly positive statements or actions can be inverse results of reactionary racism, and does it all without delivering a "message" or speechifying.

"My Best Friend's Girl"

Dane Cook is a douchebag. I'm convinced. I've never found his stand-up funny, but clearly millions do, so my lack of amusement doesn't really amount to much in the long and short of things. But throughout his stand-up, he radiates arrogance, and proud display of his douchebaggery, all snide looks and fratboy superiority. In movie after movie (save "Mr. Brooks"), he's consistently played this exact same "proud asshole" persona , and done it with disturbingly convincing bravado. However, by no means let me allow you to think that it's simply Cook's loathsome presence that brings down an otherwise decent flick. No, sir, this is a bad, bad movie, and almost entirely devoid of laughs. There are about three chuckle-worthy moments, credited to Alec Baldwin (as Cook's fuck-hound father) and one wedding-set moment near the end. The rest is filled with tired sexual gags and sitcom jokes with the words 'fuck,' 'cunt' and 'cock' inserted willy-nilly; there are boatloads of gay jokes took, but I'll let it slide since this is only the third most homophobic comedy I happened to screen this past week, so it pales in comparison. Cook has made worse movies than this before -- "Good Luck Chuck" is hard to top -- and the movie's just crappy, not unwatchable, but it's tough to figure out who thought a romantic comedy populated by people you want to stab (Cook's co-stars Kate Hudson and Jason Biggs have never been more off-putting) would be appealing to watch.


No doubt conceived as an unauthorized brainchild of "Shrek" and the works of Tim Burton, the good-natured if dark-spirited "Igor" occasionally comes off as a bit too A.D.D. for it's own good, but on top of having so many more creative ideas than most of what passes for kiddie animation flick s these days, there are so many funny bits and one-liners that it frequently verges on hilarious. Taking place in the eternally-rainy city of Malaria (a la Halloweentown), where every mad scientist has their own hunchbacked, slurring assistant -- or "Igor" -- we focus on one particular Igor, voiced by John Cusack, who gets to live out his own mad scientist fantasies after his master (John Cleese) gets accidentally decimated. The stellar voice cast is actually, for a change, put to good use. Eddie Izzard has his moments as the evil Dr. Schadenfreude, and Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious, re-creating her jarring deaf-esque "Mighty Wind" voice as a shape-shifting villainess, but the film is handily stolen by Steve Buscemi as a suicidal bunny rabbit cursed with eternal life. Some may complain about the "ugliness" of the animation, but I liked its sharp-edged, rough look, making every character look like some sort of misfit, as if by design. It's tough to know what the intended young-kid demo will make of all this, beyond being entertained by the loud sounds and color scheme, but parents dragged along should find themselves more entertained than expected. Some leaden jokes fall flat, but the film has such a demented sense of humor (a quick bit about blind orphans had me in stiches) and the jokes keep flying fast enough that I was smiling most of the way.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Ghost Town"

For a film that's incredibly by-the-numbers on the page, "Ghost Town" is a surprisingly endearing comedy from writer-director David Koepp (who cut his teeth playing this material straight in stuff like "Stir of Echoes"). It's most notable for being the first film featuring "The Office"/"Extras" creator/star Ricky Gervais in a leading role, and while it offers a somewhat neutered version of the brilliant comic, he's by no means been scrubbed into a polished, likeable romantic lead. He has just as much of a self-involved edge and biting wit as we're used to, just shoehorned into a high-concept fantasy / romantic comedy framework. And against all odds, it works. Gervais is actually quite good as misanthropic dentist Bertram Pincus, who begins seeing ghosts after dying for a few minutes while receiving a colonoscopy. He already hates being forced to interact with the living, so being encountered by the dead is doubly irritating. When faced with the ghost of Frank (Greg Kinnear), who wants him to stop his ex's (Tea Leoni) forthcoming marriage, Bertram reluctantly obliges, but finds himself falling for her and slowly becoming mildly less unpleasant. Die-hard Gervais fans like myself will have to wait for "The Other Side of the Truth" for full-on Ricky, but there's still a lot to laugh at here, and it's a delightful way to introduce him to those who've no idea who he is (i.e. most of America). There's a ton of witty one-liners here -- most courtesy of Gervais and Kristen Wiig -- and even when things get conventional, there's an underlying sweetness to the whole thing, and I think it's the sort of movie people (if they go see it) will be charmed by. Also, Leoni completely eradicates any bad memories of her "Spanglish" shrew with an incredibly likeable, radiant performance here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys"

Dare I say Tyler Perry has made his first full-on "good" movie? I've seen every one of Perry's efforts, and while they range from execrable ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman") to enjoyable-if-amateurish bits of audience-participation fare ("Why Did I Get Married"), the experience with a crowd is usually fun. With this latest effort, he employs the same crowd-pleasing, rabble-rousing, melodramatic dialogue (if cutting back on it), but does so in service of a generally more dramatic story than he's grown accustomed to. As a result, we get emotional moments that vaguely resemble pathos -- not just shoehorned-in crying beats -- and a genuinely engaging intertwining story of two families (one black, one white) featuring members both despotic and sympathetic. Now, this could largely be due to the fact that he's cast really fine actors delivering honest, affecting performances; Alfre Woodard, Robin Givens, and most of all, a stir-fried Kathy Bates deliver very strong work here, perhaps investing us a mite more than we might be otherwise. Though it's troubling that Perry still can't resist feeding the audience one trademark moment of embracing-your-worst-impulses (a man beating his cheating wife is played as an applause moment), it's almost balanced out by the fact that he avoids depicting a single white character as inherently evil or racist, a problem that's plagued him before. While his Madea movies may be the ones his crowds go the most hog-wild for, "The Family That Preys" offers further proof that when Perry abandons his live-action cartoon characters, he's actually capable of delivering entertaining, well-done melodrama.

"The Women"

Diane English's 2008 "The Women" is supposedly a remake of George Cukor's 1939 "The Women," but aside from the same basic plot framework, the two barely share any similar characteristics. While the original film was a fairly vicious indictment of the most merciless of the fairer sex, filled with razor sharp dialogue and wicked performances to be relished, the remake has been made in an age when women can only be center stage when they're being "celebrated" so needless to say, it plays like a kinda dull variation on *shocker* "Sex and the City." The movie's by no means awful, like the reviews have indicated (One of the worst movies you've ever seen, Richard Schickel? Come on, take your anti-hyperbole pills), but it's hard to ignore that it's just not very interesting to watch, and offers nothing resembling satiric edge or bite. Of our five titular women (including antagonist Eva Mendes), Annette Bening's the one who delivers the best performance, and Jada Pinkett Smith's the one we wish we had more of (I can count the number of scenes she appears in on one hand). Debra Messing is basically playing Kristen Davis's shrill and perky Charlotte archetype, and as such, I wanted to punch her. While I comment the filmmakers for sticking to their "no men, not even in the background" gimmick, it all registers as an uncomfortable mix of mopey and girl-powery, hardly what made the original film legendary.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Righteous Kill"

Jon Avnet's follow-up to the abysmal "88 Minutes," the DeNiro/Pacino pairing "Righteous Kill," is a perfectly serviceable midrange thriller. The problem is, even though individually the two actors have been shit for about a decade (if not longer), when the two icons get together, it creates an inexplicable-yet-undeniable level of expectation, and "serviceable" isn't nearly enough to satisfy those who might be attracted to the theater; they want "good." Performance-wise, the two actors don't appear as sleepwalk-y as they have been, but they're not exactly stellar either. But despite their rare semi-alert performances, and no matter how it does at the box office, the film itself won't be doing either actor's reputation any favors. What it shows, ultimately, is their lack of integrity. Both DeNiro and Pacino have said they were waiting for the right project to reunite, but there's no way they thought this thing was anything special; it's clearly just another paycheck for them.

Avnet's hackneyed direction certainly doesn't help, but the screenplay's no great shakes. The dialogue throughout is noticeable clunky (each Pacino-spewed pun is more cringe-worthy than the last), and the plot twists are so predictable that you're sure there will be more coming, but alas... not so much. Still, the movie is nowhere near an arduous sit. In fact, if it was something you stumbled upon at 3 a.m. on TNT, it might register as a somewhat pleasant surprise. Individually, both lead actors have made scores of thrillers worse than this ("15 Minutes," "The Fan," "88 Minutes," "The Recruit," just to name a few), so I don't think the movie quite deserves the across-the-board pans it's been getting. But, at the end of the day, the lone scene the two acting legends share in "Heat" is infinitely more compelling than the whole of "Righteous Kill," which registers as little more than a guilty pleasure.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Burn After Reading"

It's not that I'm a Coen Brothers apologist. I don't grade their stuff on a curve, or try to put a positive spin on aspects of their films I may perceive as flaws, I just genuinely can't help digging everything they do. It''s not due to blind idolatry -- I'll be willing to admit they've made a sub-par movie when it happens -- but to sincere reveling in the bones they throw our way every year or two. Even the biggest fans of the Coens seem to think they made a misstep or two, either with "The Ladykillers," "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Man Who Wasn't There" or "The Hudsucker Proxy." Not me. I think even their worst movie (unquestionably, "The Ladykillers") is great, with only two or three minor qualms from me. I give this extended buildup just to make clear that, when it comes to "Burn After Reading," the odds were stacked going in, and I might not be your man to give an adequately critical, even-keel assessment.

That said, I fucking loved every minute of it. The chief criticism of "Burn After Reading" -- and it will be criticized, every Coen comedy seems to divide critics -- will be that it's "insubstantial," but that's largely the point. The big joke of the film is that no one quite knows what's going on, and nothing amounts to anything; hell, the title itself is an acknowledgement that this is all a disposable romp to forget as soon as you've seen it -- except it isn't. For all its silly coincidences, bouts of confusion, and a twisting set of narratives that seems to knowingly implode, there's something about the film that sticks to your ribs. We're not meant to take any of it seriously, and it's one of the Coens' more blatant examples of laughing at the characters as opposed to with them, but it's all so funny, ridiculous, impeccably crafted and based in real, relevant themes, you can't help getting caught up in it all. It can (and probably should) all be read as a parable of the incompetency of our times, and the increasingly clueless-yet-massively-destructive nature of our goverment, but it could just as easily be enjoyed as a vicious, enjoyable lark.

Even though they're just pawns in the Coens' dark, nasty chess game, the all-star cast here makes you believe in their respective characters as real, three-dimensional people, even though no attempt is given to make them three-dimensional. It's an ensemble through and through, with no real lead. Tilda Swinton -- basically reprising her role from "The Chronicles of Narnia" -- doesn't have quite as much to do as everyone else, but she lends her character a perfect iciness that pays off in one of the funniest jokes of the movie (which, like much of the payoffs, is carefully built up and alluded to very slyly throughout). Frances McDormand's plastic-surgery-obsessed Linda Litzke is somehow somewhat sympathetic, even though she's also arguably the most destructive presence in the film; she's the antithesis of Marge Gunderson, and a rare broad comedic turn for McDormand. John Malkovich's wildly unpleasant Osborne Cox is a joy to watch as he grows irrationally irate in half a second, though he has plenty of reasons to. The Clooney is remarkably funny as sex-addicted, ball-of-nerves Harry whose obsession with post-sex jogging and the kind of floors people have is equivalent to Miles Massey's teeth vanity in "Intolerable." Lastly, Brad Pitt's bubble-headed Chad Feldheimer is an idiot, sure, but he's also an enormously likable, recognizable idiot, and possibly the most fun we've ever seen Pitt have in a role.

Some have accused the Coens of repeating themselves before, but this doesn't really feel like anything they've done before -- if pressed, I'd say there are elements of "The Ladykillers," "The Big Lebowski" and "Blood Simple" merged together, but no one whole comes to mind. Part of the genius of the film is that the events are so ridiculous and funny, yet the Coens choose to frame it all as deadly serious thriller (highlighted by Carter Burwell's hilariously tongue-in-cheek score), to help underline the absurdity even further. In a few brilliant scenes, J.K. Simmons -- best known as Juno's dad -- and David Rasche play all-seeing C.I.A. agents who occasionally check in on our characters' actions. They're the only people in the film that ever have the full story, and like us, they can't quite comprehend the increasingly moronic, seemingly nonsensical actions of all involved. They wrap up the story for us (we don't end up actually seeing how everything concludes -- oh, those Coens!), strategically "satisfying" yet somehow not, but it's a truly perfect ending, one that had me still chuckling on my way out of the theater. For those wondering if this was going to be another "Lebowski" or another "Ladykillers" -- well, I love them both -- but I have a feeling "Burn" will be entering the pantheon of Coen movies that a few years from now, everyone agrees how much they love.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

"Bangkok Dangerous"

The trailers (and the film that it's a remake of) led me to believe that "Bangkok Dangerous" might not be high art, but held potential for a silly, fun action movie. Then, I read early reviews (inexplicably, considering the film wasn't screened) and warnings from two friends who'd seen it, with the unanimous opinion that it was a dull, lifeless bore that moves at a glacial pace and features Nic Cage appearing uninterested in the proceedings he's starring in. So, which is it, is the assassin-in-Bangkok movie great fun or a great bore? Oddly, neither. Given the shitty advance word, I was surprised that I was relatively involved with what was going on here, and though nothing terribly original jumped out at me, there's a more engaging story than I was expecting, and a boldly ugly/murky sense of style going on. While some might be bored by the bouncing between action sequences, Cage's mentoring of a young man named Kong, and his romance with a deaf girl (an on-screen manifestation of his real-life penchant for Asian girls less than half his age), for me, they lent the movie something vaguely resembling genuine substance. I wasn't anything close to gripped, but I never got antsy, bored or irritated. That said, it's perplexing that a movie with Cage sporting a hairdo this ridiculous, and boasting the silliest title of 2008, takes itself as seriously as "Bangkok Dangerous" does. There are some action scenes I enjoyed, but even those are played rather staidly, and there's a startling absence of humor or moments that could be classified as tongue-in-cheek or over-the-top. By the time we reach the unintentionally goofball ending, the film's self-seriousness has reached an almost astounding level, and one wishes the decision had been made to play some of this for fun, laughs or cheap thrills.