Doodad Kind of Town

Labor Day Weekend Movie Diary, Part 1
September 5, 2010, 4:16 pm
Filed under: George Clooney, Kenneth Branagh

Friday, September 3:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

 Kenneth’s Branagh’s gloriously nutty take on the classic horror film proves to be a ravishing, if overdressed, period piece with feverish performances by (elsewhere) very fine actors who leave no piece of the gorgeous scenery unchewed.   Each and every scene is risibly overwrought, and Branagh fully indulges his penchant for grandiose, distracting camerawork.  (Fast-moving, 360-degree shots are used so many times that their dramatic impact is lost entirely, and you wind up feeling as though you are intermittently watching the film from a Tilt-a-Whirl car.) In one scene, the camera swoops in – apparently from the upper reaches of the stratosphere – to close in on a lone figure trekking across a vast expanse of Alpine snow, and it plays like a wintertime version of  The Sound of Music‘s prologue.  I half expected the character (Robert DeNiro as the monster, hamming it up behind stunningly grotesque make-up) to start twirling as the shot closed in on him and singing that “the hills are alive!!!!” The shot is breathtaking – and breathtakingly silly – all at once.  As is the rest of the film.

The Last Station 

Michael Hoffman’s comedy/drama on Tolstoy’s last days – and the fight between his wife and the members of the “Tolstoyan” movement over his will – is a vastly entertaining trifle thanks to the masterly performances by all involved.  Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy wears both his exhausted sadness and fleeting moments of joy with impressive lightness, while Helen Mirren finds layers of tenderness and grief within in a role that could all too easily have been played for shrill, comic desperation alone. 

But greatness from Mirren and Plummer is certainly no surprise, and between them, they’ve garnered enough award nominations for these roles to underscore that point.  Instead, I found myself admiring  another, unheralded performance in The Last Station. 

James McAvoy is a reliable and somewhat underrated actor whose gift for playing the thankless ‘witness to history’ role was well-demonstrated opposite Forrest Whitaker’s terrifying Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  Here McAvoy plays a young emissary from the Tolstoyan movement, sent to accompany Tolstoy is his final days to ensure that the rights to the eminent author’s works are passed to the Russian people rather than kept by his conniving wife.  Instead his character becomes a trusted and sympathetic confidant to both Tolstoys, and it’s McAvoy’s nuanced and generous performance that helps the audience to sympathize with and love both those characters, even at their most monstrous and irrational moments.  I’ve written before about “stealth performers,” the kind of actors whose quiet brilliance sneaks up on you in the midst of the more histrionic performances that surround them.  McAvoy is definitely one of those performers.

Saturday, September 4

The American

Surprise, surprise, surprise!!

George Clooney’s latest star vehicle turns out to not be a multiplex-friendly action/suspense yarn in the mode of the “Bourne” franchise, but rather a moody, contemplative European art film.  Much to the consternation of the audience with which I saw The American, I might add.  You could actually hear the murmurs of “What the hell?” as the audience shuffled out during the closing credits.  The dingbat couple next to me, who kept giggling through the sex scenes, actually got up and left at the 2/3 mark.  And they weren’t the only ones.

That being said, let us remember that European art films aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be, and though I admired the spare and calculatedly weary tone of The American, I found it a bit difficult to get through.  The film takes its sweet time establishing the day-to-day details of Clooney’s existence in a tucked-away Italian village.  His performance as a burned-out hit man working in secret is contained and controlled to the point of near-tedium.  The film put me in mind of nothing so much as mid-tier, late-period Antonioni.  Which is admirable, but still, you know, mid-tier as opposed to top-tier (i.e. The Passenger as opposed to Blow Up.)

One interesting feature: there is absolutely no musical score until near the very end, when it suddenly cranks up a run-of-the-mill, suspense-building musical underscoring.  This baffled me.  I asked my boyfriend afterwards, “Why do think they suddenly inserted music at the end of the movie?”  His reply? “To keep Americans awake and in their seats.”  He’s a smart cookie, that man.

Catching Up: "Burn After Reading" and "The Women"
September 28, 2008, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Coen Brothers, George Clooney

The last couple of weeks have been crazy-busy around here; only this week was I able to make it to a theatre and start catching up on recent releases. Miraculously, I managed to read not one single review of the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” before seeing it yesterday. (In fact, I haven’t read one yet.)

Most of the Coen’s finest past films take place in a world of conventional moral order, where there are both consequences for bad behavior and hope for redemption. Recall the final dream sequence in “Raising Arizona” where H. I. McDonough envisions a future in which “Ed and I, we can be good, too.” Or the comeuppance of the racist politician who literally gets run out of town on a rail in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Or Marge Gunderson’s rueful coda to the bloody venality of “Fargo”: “And for what? A little bit of money. Don’t you know there’s more to life than a little bit of money?”

All through “No Country for Old Men,” I kept wishing for a Marge Gunderson character to show up and bring the voice of moral clarity into the ever more senseless and violent actions of the main characters. But no such voice of reason was heard. “No Country” was firmly set in a post-modern, nihilistic world where evil and self-interest were the only driving factors. “Burn After Reading,” the Coen’s absurdist, comic follow-up to “No Country” is of the same mind as its predecessor, even if its rhythms and tone are brisker and (at first glance, anyway) sunnier. It’s instructive that, in the film’s final moments, a character asks “What have we learned from all this?” and can’t think of a single thing. There isn’t really a point to “Burn After Reading” – it’s hilarious, violent, silly and shocking by turns, and very well-acted by a talented cast – but in the end, it doesn’t amount to a lot.

Watching “No Country,” I was stunned and incredulous when Josh Brolin helped himself to satchel full of money from a dead man’s hands at what was obviously the site of a drug deal gone wrong. (“How could he be that stupid? He has to know someone is going to come looking for that! He’ll never be able to stop looking over his shoulder!” Such is the thought process of someone like myself who could never take that money without thinking through the moral and practical ramifications.) In “Burn After Reading,” I frankly had the same reaction when two health club employees find a disc containing classified intelligence information. They don’t give so much as a moment’s consideration to doing the right thing (returning to the disc to its owner) without calculating how to make money off the transaction, whether in the form of a reward or a ransom. Why do they do it? Lonely, fortyish Linda Litske (Frances McDormand) needs money for a series of elective plastic surgeries she hopes will make her more attractive, while the cheerfully, air-headed Chad (Brad Pitt) just seems to think it’s cool to play spy games.

The disc belongs to one Osborne Clark (John Malkovich), a recently fired CIA operative with a drinking problem and an icy spouse (Tilda Swinton) who’s cheating on him with an ex-hit man (George Clooney). Clooney’s married to a children’s book author (Elizabeth Marvel), but finds time not only for Swinton, but to meet women through an Internet dating site as well; it’s here he hooks up with McDormand’s Linda. Linda isn’t looking for love so much as good time, to the dismay of her health club’s manager (Richard Jenkins) who awkwardly tries to profess his feelings for her.

Most of these characters are unlikable on paper, and while I can’t say I was exactly rooting for any of them, neither was I ever disgusted by any of them either – even as their actions got stranger and less defensible as the film went on. McDormand and Pitt, in particular, emerge as oddly sympathetic, if foolish. And the Coens do a neat job of keeping many intersecting story lines straight and moving briskly. Their usual tendency towards gross caricature is notably toned down here as well, striking their trademark absurdist tone without ever becoming cartoony.

It’s hard for me to reveal, however, just how pointless the whole thing becomes without resorting to major spoilers. Let’s just say there are some shocking plot twists and events you won’t see coming; they land like a punch to the gut, but they aren’t lingered over. And things don’t end well for many of those characters, although at least one gets off scot-free and in considerably better financial shape than when the story began. Like the two CIA officers in the final scene, I was left unable to make sense of what I had seen, but somehow feeling it was it all worth my time. “Burn After Reading” isn’t my favorite Coen Brothers film by a long shot, but I’ll give them some kind of credit – they created a twisted, amoral kind of a world in which I would never want to live, and yet kept me properly entertained for the entire 97 minutes I spent there. But I don’t think I’d ever want to revisit it.

As for “The Women,” perhaps the less said, the better. I didn’t come in with high hopes – as far back as January, I was already proclaiming my outrage that this film was even being made. After seeing it, I’m still feeling outraged, and I expect that Clare Boothe Luce, author of the original play, has been spinning in her grave ever since this was released.

Right off the bat, we know we’re in disaster territory when Annette Bening says of another woman, “There’s a name for women like her, but it’s rarely used outside of a kennel.” That line comes straight from the original 1939 film – and it was both witty and true 70 years ago- but such prim coyness doesn’t make a lick of a sense in a time where you can see women wearing T-shirts with “BITCH” spelled out in glittery capital letters. Or, for that matter, in a film where the lead character boasts to her housekeeper of her sexual prowess: “I can suck the nails out of a board, and that’s the truth!”)

That misbegotten”bitch” line is only the tip of a mighty big iceberg. Writer/director Diane English (who created TV’s marvelous “Murphy Brown” – and from whom I frankly expected better) has turned Luce’s sharply witty bitchfest into a big, soggy dramedy of sisterhood, female empowerment, “being there for each other,” and other Oprah-esque trappings that would have made Luce and her flock of acid-tongued heroines gag. Sadly, everything I predicted in my original post turned out to be true (including an obvious product placement for Dove’s anti-aging skincare line!) At one point in the proceedings, Meg Ryan blurts out “What is this? A 1930s movie?” Oh, if only it were.

Light at the End of the Tunnel ! Things I’m Looking Forward To
March 26, 2008, 12:33 am
Filed under: George Clooney, Mathieu Amalric, Musicals, Sex and the City, Tina Fey

As I’ve mentioned several times recently, my job and the rest of my life have been kind of kicking my butt lately. I haven’t had much time to see movies or much to blog about.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. With Lent and Easter now over, my church choir commitments have lessened, and the work project I’ve been killing myself over is winding down.

At last, I can get back to the movies!!! And here are some of the things I’m looking forward to:

1. “Invitation to the Dance” Movie Blogathon

Marilyn over at Ferdy on Films is hosting a Dance Movie Blogathon from May 4 to May 10. Look forward to many fine and entertaining posts from fellow movie bloggers. I’ll be contributing a piece myself.

I want to be a dancer in my next life – ’cause in my current life, dance skills are among the talents I definitively do not possess. (During my years of community theatre performing, I heard one thing consistently from choreographers: “Honey, we’re going to put you in the back row.” I used to tell people I was the poster child for the American Society of the Dance Impaired.) Not surprisingly, I have great admiration for those who can do magnificently what I cannot. So I’m looking forward to everyone’s remembrances of great moments in the movies’ dance history.

2. “Leatherheads”

It’s a George Clooney movie. What other reason does a girl need? Opens April 4.

3. “Baby Mama”

If there was a Funniest Woman on the Planet award, Tina Fey would win hands down – and Amy Poehler would be one of the closest runners-up. Unfortunately, Fey didn’t write this one, but that won’t stop me from being there on opening weekend. (April 24)

4. “Heartbeat Detector”

A dark, corporate thriller that Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir calls ” ‘Michael Clayton’ on Nazi-grade Acid.” It stars Mathieu Amalric (of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and it sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, it may be a long wait; the soonest I could find a screeing of “Heartbeat Detector” is at the Chicago International Film Festival – in October.

(BTW – If you aren’t reading O’Hehir’s “Beyond the Multiplex” blog, you should start now.)

5. “Sex and the City: The Movie”

I have a confession to make: I LOVED “Sex and the City.” I even still watch the crappy, hacked-to-pieces reruns on TBS. I’ll concede that some of the criticisms of “SATC” are justified. Over its five-year run, it did devolve from sharp-edged, envelope-pushing social satire into a glossy compendium of Madison Avenue product placements. (I don’t think the name ‘Manolo Blahnik’ was dropped once in the show’s first season.) And Sarah Jessica Parker’s portrayal of Carrie Bradshaw ran off the rails towards the end, with her early edginess giving way to a dumbed-down shtick of incessant squeals, giggles, and bad puns.

But despite the characters’ too-frequent trips to Barney’s and Carrie’s overused “today, I had a thought…” voiceovers, there was some damn fine writing and acting in that series, and the four leads created full-bodied and indelible characters that I’m looking forward to spending time with again. “Sex and the City” made me laugh and cry – and, yes, also influenced my shoe-buying habits. And I’ll be in the audience on the movie’s opening weekend.