Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Two steps forward, one step back. That seems to be the best way to describe the movie career of George Clooney. Last year he delivered what I thought was thus far his only significant contribution to cinema with his Oscar nominated role in Michael Clayton, a film that just gets better in my mind the more I think about it. If Daniel Day-Lewis weren’t in the race he would’ve won and even said so himself. He was right though.

When his latest directorial effort, the screwball comedy, Leatherheads, focusing on the infancy of pro football in the 1920’s, bowed to the sound of one hand clapping this past spring, the mainstream media predictably reacted to its failure as if it were the arrival of the apocalypse. They all but took it personally. But the fact is Clooney has always been, to put it nicely, overvalued as an actor. The man anointed not too long ago by Time Magazine as “The Last Movie Star” has had more misses than hits and has struggled in his film choices to live up to the reputation his name carries. Even his first two outings behind the camera, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck were solid, if unremarkable endeavors and I pretty much went in to Leatherheads expecting to hate it.

Much to my surprise, the film is a really admirable attempt to resurrect a long dormant genre and while the results it yields are mixed, they’re mostly positive. More surprisingly, Clooney’s direction is excellent and his performance even better. Given the film’s paper-thin premise, he takes this further than it can reasonably go, despite working with a rather formulaic script. This is one of those movies that breezes along reasonably for close to 2 hours and holds your interest but won’t to do a whole lot more than that. But it’s a good effort and Clooney should be commended for using his stroke to get something made that’s completely different from what’s usually out there. Hollywood throwback films may be becoming his specialty but it’s a good fit for him. It isn’t hard to see how something this retro flopped, but it’s also easy to understand how some may enjoy it as a fresh alternative.
Clooney is aging professional football player Dodge Connelly, captain of the struggling Duluth Bulldogs in the 1920’s. In a last ditch effort to save the team and the unsuccessful football league in general, Dodge entices sports promoter C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) with the idea of recruiting college football star and decorated war hero Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski). It turns out to be a wise move as Carter’s All-American good looks, stories of war heroism and unparallel speed on the field make him a fan favorite who brings respect and prestige to the Bulldogs. Pro football, previously a sport frowned upon and laughed at is now filling bleachers and making front-page headlines thanks to Carter. Along for the ride is Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), a journalist who’s been hired to uncover the real truth behind his supposed World War II exploits and soon finds herself torn between her feelings for him and Dodge as both battle to win her affections.

The best thing this film has going for it is the presence of Clooney, both as director and lead. He gives a charming, self-deprecating performance and he and Zellweger engage in some real first class Tracy/Hepburn style verbal jousting. This kind of quick-witted dialogue is very difficult to pull off effectively and while I wasn’t rolling on the floor laughing, I did have a smile on my face most of the way and giggled at most of the punch lines, more than a few hammered home with a priceless Clooney facial expression. His timing was excellent, making me wonder why he doesn’t do more comedies, although he'd find few roles that are as up his alley as this. More jokes work than don’t, which is no small feat given the kind of screwball comic arena they’re working in.

This is also the first time I can remember where I was actually laughing with Clooney rather than at him and he seemed in on the joke. Of course, he’s too old for the role but that’s the whole point of the story and to his credit Clooney makes many jokes poking fun at not only his age, but also his reputation as a womanizer. If anything, he almost goes too far as I began to lose count of how many times his character was referred to as an “old man.” On paper this project would look to be yet another self-indulgent vanity project for the star (not unlike Ocean’s 13) but he instead proves he wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself, and the film is all the better for it.

I’ve all but given up trying to figure out what’s happened to Renee Zellweger’s career (not to mention her physical appearance) a while ago. Its so perplexing books could probably be written on the topic but she really ends up delivering here. It's possible another actress could have been a better fit for Lexie Littleton and maybe even given a better performance, but there’s no way they would have shared the same spunky chemistry with Clooney that she does. She’s still got it and if she ever decided to get her act together it’s possible for her to be a force again as an actress, if she wants it. After a dreadful outing in last year’s License To Wed, John Krasinki is given a much more to work with and fans of his work on the small screen will be pleased to discover some of his likeability carries over this time. Clooney gets a lot out of him and the three actors work seamlessly together.

When the film reached it's end and I sat down to write the review I was ready to bash it. Only I realized there really isn’t anything to bash. You wouldn’t miss a thing if you skipped out but for what it’s trying to do it doesn’t make too many missteps. Moreover, this isn’t just a group of modern-day actors shamelessly attempting to recreate a bygone era. It’s clear right away from that old-fashioned Universal logo and credit sequence that Clooney came to play.

Besides being beautifully shot, the movie feels like it was made in the 1940’s and directed by someone with more on his mind than just lovingly paying homage. It’s the real deal and if we were giving points for authenticity this would score very high marks across the board. Sports Illustrated columnists Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly (with uncredited help from Clooney) wrote the script loosely based on the career of Johnny “Blood” McNally, an NFL hall of famer who helped save the league in the 1920’s and provided their inspiration for the Dodge character. It feels like a true story and I’m guessing Clooney’s writing contributions were large, given how much of a disaster this could have turned out to be.

It contains some interesting ideas like football’s evolution from sport into corporate-run business and the growing influence of the media in shaping our perception of heroes, but the film is too light and fluffy to dig deeply into those issues. This isn’t thought provoking stuff and it won’t give you a new appreciation for the time period, but that’s fine considering the light, fluffy tone. Clooney stages the actual football scenes well and it definitely has one of the muddiest finales you’ve seen in a film recently. There’s also a clever trick in the big game that I can pretty much guarantee can’t be pulled off in Madden NFL ’09.
Believe me I really tried to dislike the film but just couldn’t, despite the fact that there’s a reason these movies aren’t made anymore and a lot of the old-fashioned screwball humor will fly over people’s heads. I’m not a fan of that kind of comedy in general nor the films this is paying homage to, but can appreciate the work that was put into its authenticity. It does feel like he’s paying an affectionate tribute rather than shoving something we don’t want down our throats and his intentions seem pure, as much as it pains me to admit it. I’ll leave up to you to decide whether we need to be “educated” on these kinds of films (or what it says about us that we might) but the important thing was that I didn’t feel like I was getting a cinematic history lesson. It was fun. I definitely don’t long for the good ‘ol days when theses types of movies were playing on screens across country, but found it to be a fun diversion for a one-time experience. This isn’t for everyone and those involved in the making of it probably didn't care, which you have to respect.

Clooney has been endlessly (and somewhat nauseatingly) compared to screen icons like Carey Grant and Clark Gable but with this and Michael Clayton he’s finally started to show some signs that there may actually be a little something to that. For the first time in a while I’m actually not groaning and rolling my eyes back into my head at just the announcement of his latest project. This was the perfect part for him and a promising sign he’s starting to make more interesting choices as an actor and filmmaker, choices that actually play on his strengths. With his first three directorial efforts he’s shown promise as a filmmaker and avoided most of the self-indulgent pitfalls that have trapped other actors who direct. He’s growing on me…a little. While it would be easy to write off Leatherheads as just another middling Clooney effort, it contains too much ingenuity and heart to be considered anything less than a minor creative success.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

88 Minutes

Director: Jon Avnet
Starring: Al Pacino, Benjamin McKenzie, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Deborah Kara Unger, Amy Brenneman, Neal McDonough

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Agent: Al, I’ve got this part you’ve gotta to take.

Pacino: I’m listening.

Agent: It’s a real-time thriller called
88 Minutes. You play a forensic psychologist with only 88 minutes to live.

Pacino: So the film’s 88 minutes?

Agent: No, actually it’s 110.

Pacino: Who’s in it?

Agent: So far, just that kid from
The O.C.

Pacino: I loved that show!

Agent: They promised me your hair will look great. Plus, it’s full of hot, young women lusting after your character.

Pacino: HOO-HA! Who’s the director?

Agent: Jon Avnet.

Pacino: Doesn’t ring a bell.

Agent: You know, the guy who directed Up Close and Personal.

Pacino: I’m in.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, 6% of critics in the nation gave the thriller 88 Minutes a positive review. So I guess now is the time for me to extend my heartfelt condolences to the 94% who were unable to share in the joyous, gut-busting experience I had watching this film. But most of all I'm sad that they can't partake in my 88 Minutes drinking game in which I take a shot whenever Dr. Jack Gramm’s cell phone rings, each scene in which his hair doesn’t move, his students leer at him creepily, or when he dances to 50 Cent in clubs with women young enough to be his granddaughter. Everyone warned me in advance that I‘d hate this film but when I saw the director attached was Jon Avnet I just couldn’t resist. Even if it's bad at least I know he won't phone it in.

You see, unlike other Hollywood hacks like Gregory Hoblit who play it straight and torture the audience, Avnet possesses something rare among pedestrian filmmakers these days: a genuine sense of fun. Fully aware of the possibility the film could be awful I was hoping the man behind the funniest drama I’ve ever seen, Up Close and Personal, was capable of making a thriller so bad that it’s great. He did, but Avnet also goes a step further and reaches levels of unintentional hilarity I thought would be unattainable even for him. I could lie to you, go along with the consensus and bash the film, but in doing that I’d deny that I loved watching it and was on the edge of my seat. Its many problems actually work in its favor and the movie would be far worse off without them. They help create an endlessly entertaining and often times hilarious thrill ride that in the hands of another director would have been a bore.

I’d accept any argument against the film except one stating that those involved in the making of it in any way sleepwalked their way through, especially Pacino. If anything, almost TOO MUCH EFFORT was poured into this in an admirable attempt to make an over-the-top crowd pleaser. If only every thriller could have that problem. It takes talent to make a great bad movie and it’s a skill Avnet seems to have mastered. This could be considered the Up Close and Personal of mystery/suspense thrillers You can actually tell the same filmmaker made both, which is kind of frightening. But, hey, if critics can recommend something like last years silly legal thriller Fracture, then I can recommend this with a relatively clear conscience.

In 1997 the expert testimony of world-renowned F.B.I. forensic psychologist and college professor Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino) helped put away madman Jack Forster (Neil "Direct-To-DVD" McDonough) for the brutal, Hostel-style murder of a young woman. 8 years later, just as Forster’s scheduled execution by lethal injection is on the horizon, a string of copycat murders are starting up that call his conviction and Gramm’s controversial testimony into question. Is Forster actually innocent or just staging an elaborate plot from behind bars? After one of party animal Gramm’s one night stands turns up dead and evidence points to him as a suspect, he receives a phone call from an ominous voice informing him he has only 88 minutes to live. “TICK TOCK TICK TOCK.”
Gramm discovers this information while giving one of the most ineffective college lectures in university history in which he’s interrupted with about 75,000 cell phone calls within a two-minute period while sprinting up and down the stairs looking for suspects… in his own class! And there are plenty of them. Like his T.A. (which could stand for something other than “Teaching Assistant”) Kim (Alicia Witt) who not so secretly harbors a schoolgirl crush on him, his star student Lauren (welcome back Leelee Sobieski) and the annoying Mike (Benjamin McKenzie) who’s obsessed with the Forster case and spends most of his time making outlandish, groundless allegations. He also looks an awful lot like Ryan Atwood from The O.C. But the pool of suspects isn’t just limited to Gramm’s students. There’s also the mousy university Dean (Deborah Kara Unger, hilariously cast against type) who can’t stand him and his loyal assistant, Shelly (Amy Brenneman), the only woman in the film he can't sleep with because she’s a lesbian. She’s probably a little too old for his taste anyway.

It’s a cliché to say that in a thriller like this everyone is a suspect but here EVERYONE actually is a suspect (including completely random people) as Gramm struggles to uncover the culprit in mad race to beat the clock and uncover the truth. There are so many twists and turns I have to wonder how anyone could possibly say the script was lazy. Ridiculous yes, but definitely not lazy. Given the amount of intricate detail and exposition it must have taken screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson anywhere from 25-30 years to construct it. Actually, that this only has one credited screenwriter is a shock in itself.

Ads (and the film’s title) misrepresented this as a real-time thriller similar to the 1995 Johnny Depp vehicle Nick of Time but Avnet made a wise move not going that route because there’s just too much narrative to fit in 88 minutes. It made sense to put in a prologue because many of those early details play an important role later in the film, rewarding viewers who pay attention. If the film has one major flaw it’s that we’re so distracted by the bizarre goings on and Gramm’s creepy interactions with his students that it’s almost easy to forget that minutes are ticking away on his life.

While the “real time” aspect isn’t exactly exploited as well as it could be and some dramatic tension is lost, Avnet more than makes up for it with barrels of high-octane fun. And I have to be honest and say that for the first time in a while watching a thriller I had literally no idea who the killer would be right up until the climactic scene. And what a hilariously entertaining reveal it is. Avnet is smart enough to let this person really ham it up in the closing minutes. No one could watch the excitingly staged final scene and tell me Avnet and his actors didn’t go all out and give it everything they had. I was howling with laughter. It’s great to see people involved in making a movie actually know what kind of a movie they’re making for a change.

The entire supporting cast is fine, with a few even impressing. Alicia Witt proves she’s good enough to hang with Pacino delivering a lot of the script’s expository dialogue and tagging along with him for most of the film’s running length. She’s up for it, creating a sympathetic, but mysterious character. Another actress from the “Where Are They Now” file, Leelee Sobieski, delivers strong work as well in a smaller role. One of the funniest stories to come out of filming was Sobieski admitting to have developed such a huge crush on Pacino that she found it difficult to show up on set. It's important to keep this in mind in case you happen to flip on the news and see authorities dragging me from Sobieski’s property in a black wig and a glued on goatee.

Sorry, but I must have seen a different performance than everyone else because I thought Pacino was just terrific in this. While do I consider Pacino to be among our best actors I don’t have nearly the same reverence for him everyone else does and could easily name 10-20 actors whose work I enjoy more. Maybe that’s why I’m not so offended and can just laugh it off when he takes a part like this. I have a theory that the true test of how great an actor is comes when they’re handed material far below them. I can’t say Pacino elevates this silly material to high art but no one else could have played this role as well or made it as interesting as he does. And regardless of what anyone says, it looks like he’s having a blast doing it.

No, this isn’t Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon but it’s still an important entry on Pacino’s résumé because it proves that he can rise to occasion even when handed trash. If anything this actually increases my appreciation for him as an actor because I had no idea he was capable of slumming it like this. And let’s be honest, Pacino has earned the right to do this film. At this point in his career, he probably realizes the window of opportunity to take fun roles like this may be closing so he’s taking advantage of it. Good for him. Despite my jokes about his age I don’t think he seems too old for the part and it’s great to see an actor of his caliber having this much fun.

Avnet gets something out of Pacino in this that's similar to what he got out of Robert Redford in Up Close and Personal. Avnet is a filmmaker who specializes in making glossy, mainstream pictures meant to get movie star performances out of big movie stars. There’s no shame in that. Someone has to do it, and few accomplish it with as much panache as he does. It’s a gift. If Pacino wants another Oscar, he could always appear in a Scorsese film but to have a good time in an entertaining genre flick he picked the right guy.
The only way I know how to defend this picture is not on the basis of quality, but on the grounds that it’s an absolute hoot and I would recommend everyone see it, if only just to say they saw it. It’s completely cheeseball and kind of reminds me of those suspense thrillers from the mid-90’s like Copycat, except with the goofiness factor ratcheted up a few notches. It scares me to think what Avnet could do with BOTH Pacino and Robert DeNiro in the recently released A Righteous Kill, a movie I previously had zero interest in seeing. My stance on that has changed a little now. You can tell me all day how bad this movie is. “And your point is?” would be my response. I’m always in need of some laughs and with 88 Minutes Jon Avnet tops himself again, proving that it’s still possible to make a dumb but enjoyable thriller.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

From The Vault: All The Real Girls

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Shea Whigham, Patricia Clarkson, Danny McBride

Running Time: 108 min.

Rating: R
Release Date: 2003

***1/2 (out of ****)

I’ve come to the realization that the more movies I watch the tougher it becomes to stay objective. I think that’s because after a while you get so familiar with certain actors, actresses and directors that you can’t help but play favorites. You become such a fan that you look at them more as investments and when they make choices you don’t agree with there’s almost the tendency to almost take it personally.

Zooey Deschanel is an actress who’s always the best thing in whatever she’s in yet most of the material she’s been given throughout her career is below her and she’s forced to elevate it, rather than it elevating her. That one huge breakthrough role has eluded her. The one that would get everyone to look at her as a full-fledged lady rather than the quirky best friend. If you think about it it’s a crime most moviegoers don’t even know who she is, and those who do think of her only in that way.

Imagine my surprise then when I heard from more than a few people that her big role came and went and I, along with most of the country, missed it. It was a very low budget indie released in 2003 called All The Real Girls directed by this guy named David Gordon Green. I told myself I had to watch it, but years passed and now Green is only known to me as the director of this summer’s Apatow/Rogen stoner comedy Pineapple Express (which I’ve yet to see).

To educate myself on Green I had a few choices. I could have easily started with his debut film, the critically acclaimed George Washington or even 2004’s Undertow but hearing what I did about Deschanel’s performance I knew his sophomore effort was the logical first step. And now after FINALLY watching All The Real Girls it’s difficult for me to comprehend just based on the commercials and trailers for Pineapple Express how the same man could have possibly directed those two pictures.
For the most part I got what I expected out of this just not at all in the way I anticipated. Green was obviously less interested in making a film than reflecting a mood and this is a viewing experience that requires a lot of patience. If you have it, you’ll be rewarded by the end. In telling what should be a fairly conventional love story Green lays all his cards out on the table slowly. So slowly and methodically that it makes The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (which the co-stars of this coincidentally appeared in) play like a fast-paced Michael Bay film in comparison.

It’s one of the best examples of Roger Ebert’s famous theory that it's not important what a movie’s about, but HOW it’s about it. It takes a relatively simple scenario (guy wants best friend’s sister) and turns it into an almost cataclysmic event that carries life-altering implications for the parties involved. But what it’s really about is that guy justifiably questioning whether he really deserves her love, and in doing so proving that he does. Then real life intrudes. The film’s tagline, “Love is a puzzle. These are the pieces” couldn’t be more accurate.

The guy is Paul (Paul Schneider), a womanizer in his early twenties who lives in a small, rural North Carolina town and fixes cars for his uncle. His mother, Elvira (Patricia Clarkson) works as a clown at a local children’s hospital, an irony that isn’t lost amidst the bleak setting of the film. When his best friend Tip’s (Shea Whigham) younger teenage sister Noel (Deschanel) returns home from boarding school they secretly begin dating behind Tip’s back. There are certain unspoken rules among guy friends that you just don’t dare break. This one is so big just the possibility couldn’t even be brought up at risk of ruining the friendship.

I saw something similar to this happen in high school and I had no idea how the two guys could even co-exist in the same room together, much less remain friends (and this from someone without a sister). To their credit, they did. In Paul’s case, this leap he takes is a far cry from any relationship he’s been in before, if you want to call those relationships. While Noel has remained a virgin he’s bedded nearly every girl in town, and believes (maybe naively) that she can transform him into a better person. He proceeds with caution not wanting to mess up the only great thing that has ever entered his life.

We think the big payoff and fireworks will come when Tip finds out about what’s been going on, but that’s just the starting point. Something bigger happens that causes us to consider that maybe it’s actually Paul who needs to be protected. What happens should be uneventful and just a blip on the radar on our way to a happy ending, but that’s what separates Green from a lesser filmmaker. This is real life and his script refuses to compromise. Sometimes you just can’t get your act together and no matter how much you tell yourself love will save the day the ball is in your court. And you can drop it. A scene occurs late that should be the highlight of these characters lives. Instead, it’s been sabotaged by their fear and self-destructive behavior.

Green conceived the story for All The Real Girls in college with best friend Schneider, whom he always envisioned starring. Another friend and former classmate, Danny McBride has a small role in the film as the wisecracking Bust-Ass and has since gone on to mainstream success in Tropic Thunder and the aforementioned Pineapple Express. Supposedly, Green and Schneider’s goal was to make a love story that felt real and absent of any manipulation. Not only was that accomplished but it feels as close to a poem as a film can get in both its dialogue and visuals.

The characters have this stilted, unfinished way of speech that has led many to accuse Green of depicting them as mentally challenged. They’re not (although one is). They’re just simple people from a small rural town and we’re not used to seeing that population of America portrayed accurately on film, which makes it jarring. Its obvious much of the dialogue is improvised, which just enhances the realism. And you've got to respect any script that contains the line: "Last night I had a dream that you grew a garden on the trampoline and I was so happy that I invented peanut butter!"

How Tim Orr’s cinematography failed to get an Oscar nomination will have to remain a mystery as I’d have trouble naming ten films I’ve seen over the past few years that use light and color as well as this one. He’s shot every one of Green’s films but just based on his work here I’d peg him as the heir apparent to Roger Deakins. The film dwells in the simple beauty of the everyday.

This has been widely regarded as Zooey Descanel’s best performance and it isn’t hard to see why. The quirkiness we love is still there, but it seems channeled in a different, darker, way this time and the part allows her to dig places she hasn’t before. It’s the most exposed she’s been emotionally. Is it her best work? So far, probably, but I still have this sneaking suspicion at such a young age she has something even better in her and will give many more performances that surpass it. Paul Schneider often gets the short end of the stick when the movie’s discussed because Zooey’s so strong but he has no problems keeping up and at times is as good as she is. He isn’t completely believable as a serial womanizer but it fits since his character doesn’t want to believe he is one either.

It’s amazing with the amount of movies I watch that the ones that always seem to hit me hardest explore real people struggling with real problems. The well will never run dry as far as the different types of stories that can be told and Green is yet another fresh voice in that genre. This is independent cinema in its truest, most basic form and lacking any pretensions.
It seems strange that a movie featuring what’s arguably Zooey Deschanel’s best performance to date would somehow fall short of a 4 star rating. As much as I respect this film it’s a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around and fully embrace precisely because it’s so painfully real. Its reality lends itself to inaccessibility for those who go to movies to escape the real world rather than wallow in how unfair it may be. Much like its characters, the film narrowly escapes perfection.

It’s interesting that when David Gordon Green flirted with the mainstream with a stoner comedy you didn’t hear the usual cries of “SELL-OUT.” I think that says a lot. It could mean audiences didn’t feel Green would make a step like that unless he really wanted to and his intentions were genuine. After All The Real Girls there’s no doubt this is a writer/director who bleeds sincerity. And in doing that he’s already earned something from audiences that most filmmakers have to work their entire career for: Trust.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Speed Racer

Directors: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox

Running Time: 135 min.

Rating: PG

** (out of ****)

Speed Racer proves that there is such a thing as being too faithful to the source material you’re adapting. When it ended I asked myself, “Who is this for?” Adults who were fans of the 1960’s animated series will be turned off by the fact that the film is aimed squarely at kids and kids will be turned off by the fact that it feels longer than Lawrence of Arabia. So much is packed into the film visually that it’s mind numbing, which is why it’s so surprising that despite all those special effects the film also manages to be mind numbingly boring.

In exhibiting an almost slavish devotion to the cartoon the Wachowski brothers (in their first directorial outing since the last Matrix film) may have realized their adolescent dreams on screen, but somewhere along the way forgot to make a coherent film. Instead, it’s an unpleasant, at times nauseating experience that bites off way more than it can chew.

The younger viewers who don’t fall asleep from boredom are only going to be confused by the complicated plot or frightened by many of the film’s darker elements. It’s rated PG, but there’s a lot of stuff in here that just doesn’t fit the tone, such as mobsters so scary they’d seem excessive in a Scorcese picture. I’ve only seen the old cartoon a few times, but still wondered how these guys would be able to make an entertaining movie out of such a thin premise. I got my answer: They can’t. Instead, the basic story is presented and the remainder of the running time is padded with nonsense. The good news is the talented actors involved, for all the embarrassment they endure, will be able to brush themselves off and work another day. I’m not so sure the same can be said for the Wachowski brothers.
His whole life Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has dreamed of becoming a racecar driver and following in the footsteps of his world famous, record-setting brother Rex Racer (Friday Night Lights’ Scott Porter). In a long series of confusing flashback sequences we find out Rex was killed in the vicious Casa Cristo rally and disgraced publicly as a cheater. I think. I’m just glad there wasn’t a quiz following the film because it cuts back and forth between flashbacks and present day so often it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.

Speed’s parents, Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon) run an independent racecar building business and have not only mourned the death of their eldest son but also the sport succumbing to big money corporate conglomerates like Royalton Industries, run by the greedy Mr. Royalton (a scene-munching Roger Allum). Royalton makes Speed an offer he decides he can refuse and in doing so he puts his own career and life in jeopardy. He must team up with longtime girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci) and one-time rival Racer X (Matthew Fox) to compete in the Casa Cristo race and in the process expose and destroy Royalton’s corrupt empire. Racer X may or may not have a secret that the studio hasn't exactly been judicious in concealing. Anyone familiar with the cartoon probably knows what it is.

On the surface this looks like a children’s movie, but the script attempts (rather laughably) to tackle some serious social issues like consumerism and sports corruption, except its presented in the form of a bizarre cotton candy colored convection of emptiness that plays like a Disney remake of Rollerball. The special effects skirt the line between comic and real, baring a not so subtle similarity to an actual Disney film, 1982’s Tron. But whereas that film had a simplistic, innocent approach to its visuals that brilliantly reflected the technology of the time, this is just sensory overkill.

Sure, the movie looks impressive but so what? You can't tell what's happening at all. There’s a fight sequence late in the film that’s so visually ill-conceived I found myself laughing hysterically. It looked like a drug trip. A really bad one. There isn’t a lot of ACTUAL violence in the picture but there’s so much implied violence and menace you’d have to wonder not only why the Wachowskis would present it in a circus-like atmosphere, but also what age group the film is supposed to be targeting.

All of this could be forgivable if the script wasn’t so unfocused. It starts with an intriguing premise but seems to lose its way and get sidetracked in the film's second unbearably jumbled hour. There comes a point where you can rely so heavily on visual effects and so much is going on that everything almost becomes meaningless. At about the 100-minute mark I had forgotten when I even started the film. It seemed like decades ago because the second hour is filled with such useless padding. I actually found myself starting to doze off and by the time the final race came I had officially had it. I didn’t care how it ended.

This isn’t the kind of material that will bring out the best in even the most accomplished actors since they have to perform against a green screen for much of the film. Emile Hirsch barely registers at all as the title character and it’s difficult to believe this is the same actor who gave one of the best un-nominated performances of the decade in Into The Wild. The nicest that can be said for Christina Ricci is that she looks great. She’s given absolutely nothing to do. Racer’s relationship with Trixie isn’t fleshed out well at all and she comes off as more of a distracting appendage than an important force in his life. It’s a shame too because you can see Ricci trying to bring the character to life but the script was just working against her. She does fit the role perfectly and bares a striking resemblance to her cartoon counterpart, as do most of the other actors here. As misguided as this film is at least it’s cast exceptionally well.

John Goodman is basically asked to mug for the camera for over 2 hours (which he does) while we’re also treated to a really grating child performance from Paulie Litt as Speed’s littler brother, Spritle Racer. He has a pet chimpanzee and every scene in which they both appear approaches torture, and unfortunately, there are many of them. And don’t forget to stay through the closing credits for some more monkey business (literally) and the butchering of the famous Speed Racer theme.

The only two actors who not only escape free of embarrassment, but actually deliver good performances with limited screen time are Scott Porter and Matthew Fox. Porter gives us a reason to care early about the relationship between Rex and Speed even while the Wachowskis are occupied with swirling pretty colors. But Fox puts forth far and away the best effort and it helps a lot that he’s handed the film’s only meaningful story arc. It hints at what this could have been. As the mysterious, masked Racer X he seems to be acting in another movie…a far better one. And it occurred to me watching that if for some reason Christian Bale can’t return for the next Batman sequel I’m convinced Fox could take over and own it like it’s nobody’s business. He’s essentially playing a variation of that role here.

Speaking of The Dark Knight, I don’t think it helped that I saw that film before this one. While wildly different in tone and approach, both are based on comic characters and a comparison makes this movie look especially ridiculous, almost as if it’s from a bygone era: pre-July '08. The rules have changed. It proves that the genre was in need of a major shift that thankfully came but the unintended consequence is that it dates this, at least for now. Sometimes when a film is widely panned by critics and audiences a possible explanation is that the filmmakers are thinking at such a brilliant, visionary level that the mainstream can’t keep up. This isn’t one of those cases. The public was right to reject this.
I can see how fans of the old cartoon would enjoy the film because it’s rigidly faithful to that and it wouldn’t shock me to see this pick up a cult following in coming years. It’s so off the wall and bizarre only talented filmmakers could have made it. But that doesn’t make it good. The Matrix films were dog and pony special effects shows masquerading as something philosophically important. This isn’t as insulting because it doesn’t pretend to have any substance, but it’s more of a chore to sit through. Maybe Larry and Andy Wachowski can go skipping into the sunset pleased that they were faithful to their favorite character, but for everyone else Speed Racer is an unintelligible mess.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Thoughts On The New "At The Movies" Show

Gene Siskel must be rolling over in his grave right about now. For those who believe intelligent film criticism in this country is on the verge of extinction, you’re case just got a whole lot stronger. I finally got the opportunity and displeasure to watch the brand new, re-launched At The Movies, the long-running syndicated movie review show originated by Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1986.

When Gene tragically passed away in 1999, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper was selected as his replacement (as if anyone could actually “replace” him). Roeper wasn’t well received at all by film buffs, but I think that resentment stemmed more from frustration that Gene was gone than there being anything wrong with the selection. While it was a far cry from the dynamic duo of Siskel & Ebert, it worked just fine and as time went on they they developed good chemistry together.

Ebert’s health struggles over the past few years led to the announcement that he would be retiring from the show to concentrate on his writing, which led to a revolving door of co-hosts like The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, and The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips (both of whom were excellent). Phillips was named the permanent replacement, at least until Disney announced they couldn’t come to terms with Roeper on a new contract and would be axing Phillips as well because they were completely overhauling the show. It’s never really been the same since Siskel’s death (and REALLY wasn’t the same after Ebert left) but I still recorded it each week and respected Roeper and Phillips’ intelligent observations and analysis on recent films, even if I didn’t always agree. Replacing them seemed pointless and then when I heard the new direction the show was heading I really started to worry.

It was announced that starting on September 6 Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz would be taking over as co-hosts. Lyons I was familiar with through his work as an entertainment reporter on E! but Mankiewicz, a Sirius Satellite radio and Turner Classic Movies host, I knew virtually nothing about. What these guys have in common is that they’re both more known for their bloodlines than any meaningful contributions to film criticism. Lyons, is the son of longtime New York WNBC TV quote whore, I mean film critic, Jeffrey Lyons, whose glowing blurbs you’ve probably seen splashed across print ads for middling movies over the years. The apple apparently doesn’t fall far from the tree as last year the younger Lyons declared Will Smith’s I Am Legend “THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE.”
If Mankiewicz’s name rings a bell that’s because he’s the grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote a little movie called Citizen Kane with Orson Welles. While I felt obligated to mention it, if their connections helped them get this job I have absolutely no problem with that. Stuff like that happens all the time in and I commend them for taking advantage of the opportunity presented to them. Anyone would. Or they could have gotten this based on their own merits and nothing more. I have no idea. It’s irrelevant. They both seem like good guys who I’m sure are doing the best they can under thankless conditions and I would never personally attack them. This isn't their fault. That said, this show is a complete disaster and the two hosts were made to look like fools. I can only hope the Disney executives are wrong about the kind of review show the casual moviegoer in this country wants to see. If they’re not, I’m officially scared.

Cosmetically, the show looks horrible, as they did away with the very practical and inviting movie theater atmosphere the set had from the beginning and replaced it with bright colors and a design that recalls a 1970’s college public access television studio. If Lyons and Mankiewicz have anything insightful to say about the films they’re reviewing we’d never know it because both are obviously either reading from a TelePrompter or cue cards. Their eyes barely connect with the camera as they rush through bullet points briefly re-capping each film and telling us whether we should see it. That’s great, except I always watched this show not to find out what movie to see but to get a lively, intelligent debate about film and I bet more viewers than Disney thinks watched for the same reason.
Even on its worst days one of the best qualities of At The Movies was that it always felt like we were eavesdropping on a discussion about film between two friends (or sometimes enemies) talking about what they felt worked or didn’t. This new format just arrogantly assumes no one has the attention span for that anymore, wanting useless information and sound bites spat out at them as quickly as possible. On last week’s show they reviewed Surfer, Dude starring Matthew McConaughey and I’d say both hated the film, but using the word “hate” would falsely imply there was any kind of emotion behind their comments. Sure, neither liked it, but I have no idea why. Not surprisingly, the movie does look awful so you’d figure anyone would have a laundry list of reasons why it doesn’t work, but we weren’t given much outside of “bad” and “not funny.”Say what you want about Roeper but he always backed up his opinions with solid reasoning and he never lacked passion. Just ask Eli Roth.

I was alarmed when I first heard Lyons was selected as a co-host but the one thing he had going for him (at least from what I saw in his appearances on E!) was that he seemed like a reasonably cool, laid back guy you could sit around and shoot the breeze with about movies. So what do the producers do? They dress him like a schoolboy and have him stiffly recites sound bites. The humorless Mankiewicz fares slightly better, but not much, and I couldn’t help laughing when they returned from the break and he was standing behind what looked like a kitchen counter. I was waiting for him to prepare Lyons a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s the producers’ obligation to make these guys look credible. They might (or might not) have a wealth of film knowledge to share, but we’ll never know if they continue along this route.

The centerpiece of the half hour is a train wreck of a segment known as “The Critics’ Round Up,” where three critics are featured on the program via satellite to review one film. It’s obvious they’re going for that same annoying “expert panel” approach you’ve seen used to death on Fox News and CNN. Pointless, especially when you consider the film in question was The Women. The two Bens probably could have handled it. Even worse, they factor in all 5 “opinions” in the needlessly complicated rating system. I understand the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down was abandoned out of respect to Ebert but they desperately need to find something better than See It/Skip It/Rent It. If you think I'm exaggerating how bad this is check out the show's official site where you can see clips.

The Disney executives seem to think by bringing in younger hosts and turning this into an entertainment program like The Insider or Access Hollywood they’ll reach a more desirable demographic. What a joke. This is a syndicated program and enough people have problems just trying to figure out when it’s on because of all the time shifts and preemptions due to baseball games and other events. The only audience there is for a show like this, and who would have gone out of their way to find it, are hardcore film buffs (who they’ve just managed to completely alienate). As for the rumors that Ebert approved this new direction, I’ll choose to ignore them if you don’t mind.

Siskel & Ebert had a rough start in ’86 so I’ll give this time, but that’s more out of necessity since there are no outlets to get film reviews anymore outside of the internet. Speaking of which, I could name many of those online critics I’d rather see hosting this show (a few of which are probably reading this right now).

I think what’s happened here represents a larger shift in our culture over the past few years. Serious film criticism is dying as the need for television executives to appeal to the instant gratification demands of the MTV/Facebook generation increases. That’s not meant to be an insult and the last thing we need is old, out of touch film snobs giving us an oral dissertation for 30 minutes either. Change is good, but it can’t be without purpose. There’s no denying the show was stagnant and needed some kind of an overhaul but this wasn’t the way to go. The new At The Movies should at least be able to find a fair balance between art and entertainment. If it does that Disney will get the ratings it wants and those who love film will be winners because of it. Unfortunately, until it’s able to do that there’s little reason to watch.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Life Before Her Eyes

Director: Vadim Perelman
Starring: Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Eva Amurri, Brett Cullen, Gabrielle Brennan

Running Time: 90 minutes

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Is it possible for a single performance to save a film? After witnessing Evan Rachel Wood’s transcendent work in director Vadim Perelman’s sophomore effort, The Life Before Her Eyes I’ve come to the conclusion that it can. While I always considered her a fine actress, now I’m starting to wonder whether she’s even better than that and could, in a few years time, emerge as one of the greats if she makes the right choices. All three of those stars you see above are for Wood and as tempting as it is to use this entire space to talk about her performance, I’m also obligated to talk about the film it's in, which is a far cry from it in quality. But that hardly makes a difference. She provides all the depth and complexity necessary and because of her a controversial ending that could come off as manipulative instead becomes strangely moving.

I could see many complaining the final minutes (which I won’t give away) are a cheat but I’d argue it’s not on the basis that the film is plainly obvious with its intentions and doesn’t hide anything. The worst way you could approach this is as a mystery thriller, going around telling everyone you “guessed the ending” It's not about the ending, or at least it shouldn't be. That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear Perelman refer to his film in interviews as a “psychological thriller,” although if he he really believes that it could offer up a possible explanation for its flaws. As a mystery it fails, but as a coming-of-age drama and a meditation on how traumatic experiences shape our lives, it works well. In 2003 Perelman directed House of Sand and Fog, a somber effort that made me think and feel. This one made me feel much more than it made me think, but in doing so effectively paints a portrait of how one tragic incident can have a ripple effect that lasts lifetimes.

Everyone has certain things that make them uncomfortable if depicted on screen. For me just about the only thing I have difficulty watching is school shootings and I almost avoided the film altogether because of it. I can sit through pretty much any “torture porn” horror movie without flinching but barely made it through Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Something about them disturbs me on the deepest level. I’m not sure whether it’s the cruel randomness, the unpredictability or realism. It’s probably a combination of all three with some other factors thrown in, but luckily we don’t see many, which is a relief considering the amount we get in real life.  Unfortunately, I picked a bad one to watch because as far as fictional school shootings go, they don't get much more horrifying than what we see in the opening and closing minutes of this film.

The movie begins in a high school bathroom, where it also ends. Wild, free-spirited Diana (Wood) and her best friend the conservative Christian Maureen (Eva Amurri) are involved in a Columbine-like school shooting. The girls coil in terror as the shots ringing out in the hallway grow closer and the gunman enters the bathroom announcing he will only kill one of them. They have a split-second decision to make, an intriguing moral dilemma we won't discover the full result of until the final scenes.Flash-forward 15 years and the adult Diana’s (Uma Thurman) seemingly perfect life is unraveling as she wrestles with survivor guilt on the anniversary of the shooting. She’s married to philosophy professor, Paul (Brett Cullen) with whom she shares a rambunctious daughter Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) but can’t appreciate anything because she’s never shaken the tragic events of that day. And that’s really all that can be said about that timeline without giving too much away.

This is a tale of two films. One is a moving, coming-of-age drama in the vain of The Virgin Suicides while the other comes off as a lackluster TV movie of the week. It isn’t exactly clear whether the flashback or the flash forward represents the present day until late in the film, but what’s abundantly clear right away is that one of these stories is so far superior to the other that’s it feels like a completely different motion picture experience. The script jumps back and forth constantly between them but luckily the flashback story gets more face time, or maybe it doesn’t, but just feels like it because it’s so strong.

Forget about just being believable as best friends, Wood and Amurri share such great chemistry their characters come across as genuine soulmates bonded for life. They’re interesting, exciting people with goals and have real problems teenagers would actually face. I was hanging on every word they said and as much of a let-down as the other half of the picture was I can’t say this portion was shortchanged at all. It does explore the details leading up to the shooting and invests the supporting players with considerable depth, like the school shooter himself (an effectively creepy John Magaro) and a kind-hearted, true intentioned science teacher who time has passed by. In just a glance or single line of dialogue Wood conveys everything: Diana’s disappointments, her anger and the woman she hopes to eventually become. She expertly crafts Diana’s hard outer shell but subtly hints at someone else inside secretly wanting to burst through, capable of great things if she could just make it through this rough period in her teenage life.

First-timer Emil Stern’s script does the miscast Uma Thurman no favors by making Diana’s adult life a complete drag. There’s a good reason for it and given the ending I understand and even advocate the necessity of this plotline but that doesn’t make it go down any easier. Her husband’s a bore, her daughter’s a brat and when the film takes a trip into supernatural territory it’s somewhat of an unwelcome diversion. Thurman’s material is just so much weaker than Wood’s that despite a good effort she's fighting an uphill battle. Besides baring no physical resemblance at all to her younger counterpart they don’t even seem to share any of the same mannerisms and in a movie focusing on the same character in two different timelines, that’s a pretty big deal.

Perelman’s insistence on pushing this as a supernatural thriller in the third act instead of the character study it truly is hurts the film, but fortunately it punishes the far weaker adult Diana storyline. The younger plotline is so well scripted and acted its basically impervious to any of Perelman’s questionable decisions. And I hope you like flowers and water because there’s non-stop imagery of it throughout the picture, but it does perfectly compliment the tone. It’s also hard to complain when everything is so lushly shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman and well scored by an unusually restrained James Horner. This is a slow-moving, meditative picture that requires some effort from the viewer, yet at times you just have to let go, allowing everything to wash over you to get the full feeling of the experience.

The conclusion sends your heart into your throat, not because of its supposed “shock” twist ending, but because Wood and the almost equally impressive Amurri made me care what would happen to these girls. That’s why its so frustrating that Perelman tries to present the film as something other than what it is. The twist itself isn’t important, so much as what it MEANS. Wood makes us feel that and in doing so finds an emotional truth the director and screenwriter couldn’t fully provide. All the movie had to do was lay all its cards on the table initially rather than succumb to unnecessary M. Night Shyamalan syndrome and Wood would have taken care of the rest. It's actually almost advantageous to know the twist going otherwise it ends up being all you focus on.

It’s rare you see such a massive disconnect between a performance and the film featuring it. Wood's work here is the kind you see in a Best Picture nominee not one plagued with the creative issues this has. It won’t get the credit it deserves not only because of the film’s tepid reception but also because we’re starting to take her talent for granted. She’s cornered the market on the high school wild child role so well that we sometimes forget how brilliant she is at it. But she brought a different kind of maturity this time that we haven’t seen from her in movies like Dow In The Valley and Across The Universe. And in doing that, the film, despite its problems, the film really explore the ACTUAL CONSEQUENCES of a school shooting. Or I should say she explores it in spite of the obstacles the filmmakers put in front of her.

It would have been nice if the picture were as strong as Wood's work but given the choice between getting this performance or the film reaching its full potential, I’ll take her performance. Days later I couldn’t shake certain scenes, all of which were hers. That the movie still couldn’t get where it needed to because gimmicky screenwriting wouldn’t let it, shows how difficult it is to execute this genre well. I’d be interested to read Laura Kasischke's novel from which this is based to find out just how much Wood brought to the screen that wasn’t present on the page. I’m guessing a whole lot. The Life Before Her Eyes demonstrates that even when certain films don’t work like they should, they can still be endlessly fascinating. More importantly for Wood, maybe now I can finally move past that whole Marilyn Manson thing.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Son of Rambow

Director: Garth Jennings
Starring: Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jules Sitruk, Jessica Stevenson, Neil Dudgeon, Jules Sitruk, Anna Wing
, Ed Westwick
Running Time: 96 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

There’s this trend that’s been going on for a while now, but lately it seems to be happening a lot more. A little independent movie debuts on the festival circuit, earns rave reviews then after it gets a wide release audiences can’t figure out what all that massive hype was about. Remember 1996’s The Spitfire Grill? Neither do I. We just saw it happen recently with the release of Hamlet 2, a movie many have complained wasn’t nearly as good as they were led to believe.

Do Canadians and The French have worse taste than us? Are we just dumb? Is Robert Redford serving Kool-Aid in Park City? These questions may remain unanswered but as I watched Garth Jennings’ retro coming-of-age comedy, Son of Rambow I found myself mentally name-checking all the films it contained traces of, all of which are vastly superior; The Breakfast Club, Chariots of Fire, Donnie Darko, Bridge to Terabithia, Be Kind, Rewind. Well, okay, maybe that last one isn’t vastly superior.

On the surface it seems strange that such a small, personal work comes from the director of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (a film I’m in the minority for loving), but upon closer examination it makes perfect sense. This doesn’t have the creative punch of that misunderstood movie but it has the same quirky, off beat sense of humor, a kind of humor I’m starting to think fewer and fewer audiences appreciate. The drawback of seeing too many movies is that it can make you cynical and more resistant to letting a film take you the places it wants to. Son of Rambow is somewhat of a mess and not nearly as good as I was expecting, but it’s one made with a lot of heart and it hits the important notes well enough that I have to at least give it a recommendation. The filmmakers’ love not only for movies, but also growing up, shine through in just about every nostalgic frame of this admittedly uneven picture.
In 1980’s Britain, quiet, reserved youngster Will (Bill Milner) is forbidden to watch films or television as a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious sect. Since the death of his father, His mother (Jessica Stevenson) has a new man in her life (Neil Digeon), a pompous, judgmental do-gooder for whom he has no respect. At school Will has a chance encounter with Lee (Will Poulter), a school bully who worships his older brother Lawrence (Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick), waiting on him hand and foot despite the fact he’s treated like garbage for his efforts. A reluctant friendship begins between the two boys when Lee introduces Will to his first feature film, a pirated VHS copy of First Blood. Soon they’re making their own home video, “Son of Rambow” in hopes of entering it into a young filmmaker competition. Their attempts to keep this a secret from Will’s strict family as well as prevent other outside forces from hampering their creativity lead to a special friendship that is tested in occasionally surprising ways.

Besides just being set in the 1980’s, Son of Rambow is a film that looks and feels like it was actually MADE in the 1980’s, recalling the innocence and intelligence of some of those classic John Hughes comedies. Whether you find an approach like that subversively funny or pretentious will likely dictate your feelings on the movie. For the first 15 minutes I didn’t know what Jennings had on his mind (if anything) and was sure I’d hate it. But almost halfway through it won me over. Despite starting sluggishly and being tough to warm up to, the film eventually finds its voice and introduce some intelligent ideas, specifically concerning the boys’ relationships with their families. Nearly all of its success can be attributed to the performances given by the two young actors who have never even acted in a major motion picture before. Milner and especially Poulter make their transformations throughout the course of their home video adventure believable and I ended up really caring what happened to both of them.

This is primarily Will’s story, as he must come to terms with his strict religious upbringing and I liked how his mother and her boyfriend weren’t portrayed as disconnected lunatics but as people who truly believe they’re doing the right thing. It seems Jennings actually took their stance into account rather than just portraying them as cartoonish oafs out to punish the kid, or even worse, as deranged cult members. Lee’s story is handled equally well and his emotionally distant and at times psychologically abusive brother turns from being an afterthought to a key player by the end of the film. And it’s a good thing Westwick can stare coldly with the best of them because that’s his primary job here.

The film also benefits from a hilarious sub-plot involving French foreign exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk) who captivates his classmates and tries to wrestle control of the boys’ production. Jennings uses the character a chance to throw in some classic music and fashions of the times and generally poke fun at the ‘80’s in a loving way. There was also an interesting payoff to it, proving that coolness really is in the eye of the beholder. You’re either on board with something like this or you’re not, which is pretty much the story with the entire picture. It doesn't reinvent the wheel but it does what it needs to in a workmanlike manner despite dragging at points and featuring very few surprises. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t quite deserve the label of “independent gem” but is far from a waste of time.

Jennings, in addition to directing, wrote the script based partially on his own experiences as a youth and co-produced it with Nick Goldsmith (a team known collectively under the moniker of “Hammer and Tongs”). It’s worth noting that while the film falls way short of the hype surrounding it and doesn’t contain anywhere close to the imaginative vision of Hitchhikers (nor does it need to), this is only Jennings second feature. He’s already proven he’s a great storyteller and has a unique sense of humor even when dealing with run-of-the-mill material. In that sense, his films are kind of reminiscent of other quirky former music video directors like Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze and it wouldn’t surprise me if he has a really great film in him somewhere. His first two weren’t it, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. Son of Rambow may only just be a sweet, predictable coming of age tale, but that ends up being enough.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Director: David Mamet
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, Ricky Jay, Max Martini,
Running Time: 99 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

One of the most promising projects on tap for this year was the intriguing matchup of acclaimed writer/director David Mamet and the world of mixed martial arts fighting. Mamet is a filmmaker who has long frustrated me. I really can’t name a single film he’s made that I didn’t like but he always seems to come out and hit a double or a triple. I keep waiting for that homer. That he still couldn’t do it even with material this strong tells me that maybe he never will.

I almost feel guilty giving Redbelt three stars because there are such flashes of brilliance in it and it’s so loaded with ideas that it feels like it's better. But it's not. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Mamet, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts and I have little doubt another filmmaker could have made a masterpiece out of this premise.

With all the ingredients he had to work with here, I’m kind of disappointed that Mamet reverted back to his same old routine. Even more frustrating is that this is the closest he’s come to breaking it and it’s one of his most interesting and ambitious endeavors in a while. It contains within it a tremendous lead performance and a shocking dramatic departure for an actor who shows us something we never knew he had in him. The last half-hour of the film is off the hook electrifying and reminds us that ending a movie properly has become a lost art that very few filmmakers have mastered. If the rest of this movie were as magnificent as the final twenty minutes this would be Mamet’s finest work.

That this very much feels like a Mamet film is both its greatest strength and biggest weakness. His trademarks are all over this: Sluggish pacing, talky dialogue, casting his favorite actors, a confusing con job. The difference this time is the underlying themes resonate so deeply that I almost felt at war with myself watching the picture. I admired bits and pieces greatly, but saw the potential for so much more. I don’t think it’s wrong to hold a filmmaker like Mamet to a higher standard and ask him to step out of his comfort zone a little more. If he did, the sky would have been the limit for Redbelt.
“There’s always an escape,” jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells his pupils at his self-defense school. Its advice he would be wise to take himself when a series of events unfold that not only change his life but challenge his entire worldview. He’s a good, honorable man who prides himself on doing the right thing and ironically it’s that very quality that threatens to lead to his own undoing. He believes competition is the enemy and a weakening force in the warrior’s way of life, which is an obvious tip-off that before the film is over Mike will somehow be put into some situation where he’s forced to compete. His school is struggling to make rent and he must borrow from his wife Sondra (Alice Braga), who unlike her husband is managing a successful business. Mike’s primary concern is his star pupil, Joe (Max Martini), a police officer whom he’s determined to elevate to black belt level and impart his belief system on.

The convoluted plot is set into motion when on a rainy night a nervous, distraught woman named Laura (Emily Mortimer) enters the studio and in a panic accidentally fires Joe’s gun breaking the front window. It can be replaced but the financial damage is done and it’s too much of a burden for Mike to bare. Luckily, he finds his way out after a chance encounter with Hollywood action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) who he rescues from a volatile bar fight. Chet wants to re-pay him but immediately we suspect his motives may be questionable and, as typical in a Mamet film, so may be the motives of just about anybody else when money is on the line.

Why is Chet being so nice to him? Why was the suspicious and unstable Laura even at his studio that night? What are officer Joe’s motives? I’d love to be able to tell you the answers to these questions are even more intriguing than you could imagine, but remember, this is a Mamet film. The answers are fairly clunky and obvious and it takes a lot of talking in circles to get there. No one could convince me the plot of this movie is any different than House of Games or The Spanish Prisoner and that’s the biggest disappointment. All the Mamet regulars are back including Joe Mantegna as a sleazy film producer, Ricky Jay as a greedy fight promoter, David Paymer as a loan shark and of course Mamet’s own wife Rebecca Pidgeon has a small role as Chet Frank’s spouse. They’re all fine, even if they’re essentially just going through the motions of all their previous roles in his films.

The real draw is the underlying issues Mamet addresses with his con job this time. He risks going a little deeper thematically in this effort, questioning just how much a man’s honor and dignity can distance him from a society that’s just getting greedier. In this election year it’s a timely topic, and one he’s smart to link to corruption in sports and the battle between art and commerce in Hollywood, a battle art is losing. It’s never treated heavy-handedly and ingrains itself into the fabric of the story, but I just wish the story were better.

I wanted things to escalate and become more important, or at live up to the themes introduced. Some would call this plot complicated or far-fetched. It’s complicated but I wish it were more far-fetched. That’s the problem with every one of Mamet’s pictures. They’re almost too realistically grounded and he thinks he can make them mean more through clever dialogue and sly performances. Then he ends up looking like a fool when the big reveal comes and it isn’t all that big.

All of his films lack forward movement and energy and he tries to make up with it by being a wordsmith. Just once, I’d like to see him completely let go of his usual formula and fly off the rails just to see what would happen. In the last half hour he flirts with it and the results are amazing. If the events that led up the film’s fascinating philosophical approach and moving finale meant more this could have been a masterpiece. You could argue it SHOULD have been. But instead Mamet settles, like he always does. His films are preoccupied with looking smart rather than dazzling us.

What holds this whole enterprise together though is the powerful performance of Ejiofor, a respected supporting player in films like Children of Men, here is asked for the first time to carry the entire load, and does he ever, with laser-like intensity. He’s so believable as a martial arts instructor, yet even more credible as a man whose honor is being tested at every turn. This film would not have succeeded if an actor this subtle hadn’t been cast as the lead. But the biggest acting surprise for me was the impressive dramatic work of Tim Allen. Yes, THAT Tim Allen. I know, I can't believe it either.

As an arrogant, hard drinking, womanizing action star Allen does the finest work of his career and it made me wonder whether his lightweight reputation as a performer has more to do with the projects he’s picking rather than any lack of talent. He should be commended for stretching like this and not only having the confidence to take the risk, but for pulling it off so well. In just a few scenes he implies a history for this over-the-hill action star that’s leagues more interesting than the con job Mamet crafts.

Hopefully this got the attention of casting directors as to what Allen can do and it will lead to better roles for him. If the kid from 3rd Rock From The Sun can emerge as one of our best actors then I see no reason why the guy from Home Improvement can’t try his hand at dramatic roles. In fact, one of the film’s biggest problems is that Allen isn’t in it enough. I wanted him to break out and play an even larger role in the story, but since this is a Mamet film, he must play the underwritten part as is and isn’t given any more to do. Mamet’s scripts are like finely tuned machines and they leave no room for flexibility. As a result, every one of his pictures not only feels the same, but like low rent versions of David Fincher’s The Game without the excitement or clever plot twists.

That’s why the closing 30 minutes feel so fresh, as it pays off the intriguing visual on the film’s poster showing us how this guy found himself in the middle of an MMA fight in street clothes. And the last scene is perfection. The only other movie I can think of this year that’s closing minutes were as strong was In Bruges. That’s good company to be in. Since the ending will always be the last thing people remember it’s important to make it count. At least Mamet understands that. So, is it fair of me to judge the movie that could have been rather than the one that is? Maybe, but as usual, greatness was within Mamet’s grasp and he let it slip away. But at least this time he bothered to give me interesting issues to think about when the movie was over. Redbelt doesn’t fulfill its promise, but it’s a fascinating watch nonetheless.