Monday, March 31, 2008

Jules Dassin, rest in peace

Passing today was Jules Dassin, age 96, American expatriate director. It's hard to say what he is most famous for. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He moved to Europe and made two of the great noirs of the era, Night and the City (with the recently passed Richard Widmark) and, most especially, the towering French-language Rififi, a mainstay of greatest films surveys. His name is something of a peculiarity to hardcore cineastes, but he should be known to a wider audience as one of the great American directors.

Be a dentist

Before taking a look at this "Top 5 dental movies" article, I'm going to guess .... Little Shop of Horrors, The Marathon Man, The Secret Lives of Dentists, and .... something other than that Dane Cook fiasco last year.

Yep those are there. And Dane Cook thankfully isn't. Is it safe? Yes.

Rockwell on Jesse James

I post this for two reasons, because it's nice to see a beautiful quote from Sam Rockwell about his pride and confidence in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and because I didn't realize the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips had a blog.

Rockwell's quote:

"That film, he says, 'is going to age well. I guess the studio people know what they’re doing, because they didn’t have a lot of faith in it. So financially they might’ve been right. But artistically they’re wrong, in my opinion. And I don’t really give a [rip] about the financial end. I mean, I do, of course; I want the movies to be seen. But I don’t like it when people validate films by their financial success.' "

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Another critic leaves

I haven't talked a lot about the departure of film critics from their jobs at major print publications, but it has reached epidemic proportion. The news that David Ansen is leaving Newsweek makes your head spin.

I must say that I don't always understand why the film reviewer is seen as an obvious target for these things. I suspect that editors, coming from the news side, have a bias to making sure that every beat is covered and see the role of film reviewer as a luxury compared to things like covering a planning and zoning meeting. At the same time, I'm not sure that they realize that people actually like reading the reviews. It's an appointment reason for picking up a newspaper.

I knew a couple of critics who wrote for a small local newspaper chain. They told me that at one time their outlet cut them off. After doing a reader's survey, they invited them back. It turned out that reviews were one of the better-read items in the paper.

I don't know if that justifies a full staff position. Heck, I don't even know how applicable it is to the experience of other publications. And maybe it's different and there are other variables at play for larger papers and magazines. But I wonder how many outlets consider this when making buyout decisions.

Rating system

Rating the films this weekend reminded me ... I need to think of a new system of rating. The problem with the letter grades is that it connotates something worse than a film might be. I don't want to add plusses and minuses, because sooner or later you're working with a fifteen point system. What's the difference between a B-minus and a C-plus? That's a pretty fine line. In addition, It's hard for me to reconcile giving a film like No Country for Old Men, which on original viewing I found a little less than outstanding-enough for an A, the same B as 21, which I found better than the expected C. I'm not sure that works.

If anyone has ideas, please let me know.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A win-loss situation (Stop-Loss)

Stop-Loss [R]
Grade: C

Every general knows the danger of fighting the last war.

High-school history brings you the Maginot Line – the underground French trench system, presumably stocked with the best wine and cheese, that would go unused in a war of tanks and planes. It probably was the nicest hole in the ground never to see use.

For filmmakers, that lesson can get lost in the fog of war. John Wayne’s The Green Berets, for instance, looked back to World War II propaganda movies that kept up home front morale. It was a perspective difficult to reconcile with the nature of the new conflict. Likewise, I think it’s fair to say the present Iraq War films suffer from Vietnam hangover, seen mainly through the lessons of that unfortunate war.

Kimberly Peirce’s uneven Stop-Loss may be the best Vietnam movie ever made about the Iraq War. Its understanding of war, right or wrong, comes from the prism of that conflict. A “backdoor” draft. Traumatic flashbacks. Soldiers killing women and children. Is there really an underground railroad shipping today’s AWOL soldiers to Canada? And is that representative of the soldier’s experience in this war? Peirce has presumably done research, but I'm not entirely convinced.

Take for example one of the film’s best scenes – Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), AWOL from his unit, visits an Army medical center to see a badly wounded friend. The scene is as genuinely touching as it should be, and eloquently speaks against the brutality of war. And yet some of this war’s most interesting stories are those of bionic advances in military medicine. With the disappearance of peg legs, interviewed soldiers seem eager to show off My New Shin by DuPont. Then some of those head back to Iraq because of their investment in their friends and their cause. This experience opens the field to artistic ironies specific to this war. Yet they remain untouched by the conventional take.

There’s something in the soldier mentality that evades many artists, who fancy themselves wide-eyed opponents of violence. Oliver Stone, an ex-Marine, captured that spirit in World Trade Center, with the story of another ex-Marine who dropped everything and headed to the rubble on that tragic day. Paul Haggis missed it completely with the final shot of In the Valley of Elah. It's something Haggis might do, but never his character. At times Peirce shows real understanding of that mentality. Yet the story relies on a route a decorated soldier would be unlikely to take.

The film opens chasing a unit of soldiers into a narrow Tikrit alley filled with gunmen. It’s a scintillatingly shot sequence, perfectly blending wide shots and close-ups to provide both perspective and intimacy. Several of King's men are killed or injured in the ambush, and these things will come to haunt him.

Soon, the men return home for leave. They scatter for several days among friends and family. Several of the soldiers’ service is up, including King. He’s ready for discharge. Then he learns his departure from the Army has been refused under the government's Stop-Loss policy, which prevents some soldiers' releases during time of war. By law, King must return to Iraq.

You suspect this sort of thing happens regularly and probably gets smoothed over without escalating into a cross-country manhunt. Organizations with personnel issues learn to be flexible. Yet manhunt, it is. Escaping from captivity, Moss hits the road with a childhood friend (Abbie Cornish). Along the trail of seedy hotel rooms, they meet others who share their situation, while he deals with leftover grief, guilt, and violence. In the end, he must choose between leaving his family and homeland and the possibility of the brig or death.

Sometimes Stop-Loss is the Varsity Blues of Iraq war movies, its soldiers dumber than the Texas dirt, kickin’ back Shiners and shooting pop cans as the toothless locals pull up lawn chairs to watch. At other times, it’s a very affecting little melodrama, with a social conscious resembling The Best Years of Our Lives. The greatest value of the film may not be in opposing the war, but in effectively spotlighting soldier’s social issues.

That’s good news for the film, because I was left with this question – does the film really oppose the war? Or does it merely oppose dragging men into action? If so, was it wrong to yank young men from their homes to fight the Nazis? I suspect we know Peirce’s answers, yet this seems a wonkish way to oppose a moral tragedy. I think it would work better by approaching head on, spending less time beating around the Bush, so to speak.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

High Card (21)

21 [PG-13]
Grade: B

Hollywood likes nothing more than cashing in on a trend, but America’s recent card playing fixation hasn’t made for the easiest milking.

In many ways, Casino Royale ran the table, but the fireworks often were away from it. Lucky You, a film I often find myself apologizing for liking, taps into the addictive ups and downs of a gambler’s life. Yet the studied card games, suffused with family melodrama, never thrill.

There’s an obvious reason for this. Have you ever watched other people play cards? Typically, you do so at a holiday gathering, splitting your attention between the hand at play and hustling the leftovers to the fridge. It’s not exactly a spectator sport.

So 21 works out a way to double down. Ignore the game. Play to the high of the hunt and the after-hours lifestyle. Against the odds, this is a winning hand. At its best, 21 is a spirited exercise in style and motion, the type of film that dazzles away its weaknesses.

In order to pay for Harvard med school, an MIT super-brain (Jim Sturgess) joins a secret society of fellow students. Unlike most school clubs, these guys and gals don’t do panty raids or extra French. They treat Vegas like an ATM machine using a system of “counting cards.” Think of it as a Skull and Bones Society for math dorks.

Except these aren’t dorks. This fantasy MIT has few people in need of covering their faces with paper sacks. But unlike the pretty faces of Cloverfield, at least these kids can think their way out of one. One of the endearing (and rare) side effects of 21 is that it makes high intelligence look like a hip aspiration.

This crew stands or folds by the orders of an arrogant professor (Kevin Spacey) who enjoys card playing, math theory, and making vague threats about the perfect murder. His exploits in Vegas have earned him the wrath of a security officer (Laurence Fishburne) whose gumshoe methods are being replaced by technology, along with his business.

What works for 21 is how in on it you become. True, the card counting is never completely explained. If it were, I wouldn’t be here right now, and I wouldn’t be telling you. You enjoy that clandestine thrill of being in on a secret, a glamorous secret at that.

Like any gambler, its luck starts to run out. The ending staggers like a drunk salesman at the MGM Grand at 2:43 a.m. Its characters, never richly flowered, start to fold. The finale has twists, but the bluffs are easy to see.

The film is likely to get browbeaten for taking a real story and sexing it up, chucking mathematical formulas for “MTV editing” and glitz. Some critics will leave it standing bare-assed at the mercy of the False Ruler of Realism. But you’re not reading the words of a critic inherently horrified by Hollywood fantasy. Would you rather watch the “real story,” all plainly shot and earnestly acted, with a pocket protector posse breaking the bank in between Lord of the Rings bull sessions? Besides, I liked MTV back when it still played videos.

Sturgess, who appeared in last year’s Beatles tribute Across the Universe, resembles a young Tom Cruise. His character actually remarks upon it. And the film borrows pieces of Cruise movies – a little Rain Man, a little Risky Business, a little of the talented youngster training under the father figure and winning the girl (Kate Bosworth). Like Cruise in Risky Business, Sturgess gets both the na├»ve kid and later the seasoned operator. Some might call that an inconsistent character. I call it a kid with a future.

Moore sucks

I try to avoid entertainment gossip, but this cannot avoid being commented upon.

“I’ve always been somebody looking for the cutting edge of things that are for optimizing your health and healing, so just a week ago I was in Austria doing a cleanse and part of the treatment was leech therapy,” she told Letterman.
“These aren’t just swamp leeches, these are highly trained medical leeches,” she said. “These are not just some low-level scavengers; we’re talking high-level blood-suckers.”

Demi, how exactly do you train a leech? And will yoiu soon be using that cutting-edge medical technique of voodoo?

That lovin' feelin'

I really get a kick out of going into a 60-40 movie, one of those you figure will be either slightly better or slightly worse than mediocre, and coming away with an unexpectedly positive experience. I had that happen with 21 tonight. I see that the early reviews are mixed, but I think those reviews fail to see the hip, escapist edge of the movie. It's a fantasy, and critics are using the false ruler of realism to browbeat it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Richard Widmark, rest in peace

As a blogger, there's no worse feeling than leaving the hacienda for a few hours and then hearing on the radio as you drive away that there was a major movie death. Today, that was tough customer Richard Widmark. My favorite Widmark performance is in Sam Fuller's Pick Up on South Street, where he plays a local criminal mixed up in international espionage. He was a favorite of the true film connoisseur.

A wild week

After several weeks of relative frolic, I finally have a heavy film schedule this week. I saw Smart People and Stop-Loss yesterday. I see Snow Angels and 21 today. I see My Blueberry Nights tomorrow. Then the AFI-Dallas fest starts tomorrow as well. I have no idea what kind of coverage I haven't even thought about it. But I'll see what I can do.

Smart call

A trend I've noticed lately is that of the young eighties star giving into age and delivering a terrific middle-aged performance. Matt Dillon has given a number of terrific performances in his lifetime, but the one I have in mind is Factotum. John Cusack has been a generational star, but he brought out a quiet, interiorized desperation in Grace Is Gone. The latest is Dennis Quaid, who gives a wonderfully weary performance in Smart People, which opens in a few weeks. I re-watched The Right Stuff a week or two ago, and it's amazing to think that the baby-faced hot dog astronaut and this wrinkly, self-focused English professor were portrayed by the same person. Every year there's a performance delivered by a veteran early in the year that Oscar forgets. Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger. Richard Gere in The Hoax, etc. I would love to see this one stick around.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Harry Potter and the Neverending Story

The Deathly Hallows, the next Harry Potter production set for filming, is apparently going to be split into two films. That raises some questions. Do we really want to watch Harry dither around for a few extra hours of near-sighted inactivity? And will Hermione bail him out in both installments, or will she wait until the end of the second film and do it in one big swoop?

Green Day

An interview from The Oregonian film critic Shawn Levy with David Gordon Green. I see Snow Angels this week. Hopefully. Assuming I manage to wake up. Not always a sure thing nowadays.

Post-movie-star era? Yeah, right

Oh sure, Richard Corliss. The reason that Lions for Lambs bombed had nothing to do with the fact that it was one of those Iraq films that everyone is turning away from in droves. It's not that people sniffed out a 90-minute civics lecture disguised as filmmaking. It's that we're living in a post-movie-star-era. Someone ought to mention that to Will Smith.

Easter movies?

Are there any great Easter movies? I mean, aside from Easter Parade. And not counting the stories of Jesus' life. That's not exactly what I'm getting at. OK, How about great rabbit movies?Harvey. Eggs? Cool Hand Luke. Baskets? .....

Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Fair Lady

I watched My Fair Lady (1964) last night, which I believe was a first viewing. I'm not sure whether to be intrigued by its subversive Hitchcock-ian idea of a man trying to create his perfect woman or repulsed by its oddly inert visual and emotional sense. While I'm trying to figure that out, I'll mention that it has one certifiably great set piece - the Ascot races - in which its frozen demeanor plays to the moment. Plus it's delightful to watch Audrey Hepburn in perfect English diction describe her suspicions of the murder of her relative to a bunch of frigid aristocrats.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Clooney: Love and basketball

An amusing interview with George Clooney on Dan Patrick's national radio show. The Last Movie Star and the former SportsCenter host have something in common. As children, they attended the same church in the Cincinnati area. Patrick's first question is whether Clooney had a crush on his sister, a longtime Patrick family rumor.

The two go on to have a jaunty conversation about sports, movies, sports movies, Clooney's basketball exploits, and of course Leatherheads, Clooney's upcoming labor of love set in the world of 1920s professional football. Who's the best basketball player in Hollywood? Clooney says Woody Harrelson has game, but the best he knows is Jim Caviezel, who played basketball in college. Does Caviezel mutter "Jesus Christ" every time he clanks a free throw? Only Clooney knows.

The Bank Job - Holding up well

The Bank Job, which sits atop the inaugural Anti-D Hot Picks, is down about 11.5 percent this weekend. That's next to nothing. It indicates brilliant word of mouth (and perhaps expansion - I haven't checked). So go see it. And tell your friends about it.

Voila!

Anti-D Hot Picks now appear at the top of the right side. Pretty self-explanatory. Three films out that you should make every effort to see. I was a little worried, though, that there were not three at the moment. Thank goodness for In Bruges.

Queenan: worst films ever

With The Hottie and the Nottie as inspiration, Joe Queenan reviews some of the worst films ever made. Is Heaven's Gate really as bad as its reputation? I've never thought so. Then again, it's been a long time since I've seen it. The worst film that I have sat through in the past few years was probably The Pink Panther re-make with Steve Martin. That one is shudder-inducing. Stealth was awfully bad, also, but at least my memory of it is laughing my ass off at its stupidity.

Bear With Me.....

As you might notice, I'm changing the look of the blog a little bit. Not greatly. But I wanted a new photo for the header, and then you need a new color for the header text, then you have to make this or that text match that color .... I'm still considering the color scheme. I love the way the color of the text looks on the photo, but I'm less certain of it in other places. I might also add a new box. The photo is, if you don't know, from the "News on the March" section of Citizen Kane.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Biting down on the Drillbit

Drillbit Taylor [PG-13]
Grade: D

Film critics should approach a comedy as Charlie Brown approaches a football, always wary of spinning into the air.

When it comes to matters of the laugh, it can be difficult to forecast what will last and what will quickly burn to the ground. After all, comedies run on one of two things – wit or idiocy. When it’s the latter, as it far more often is, you are forced to separate the profound and lasting idiocy from the banal and the momentary. Needless to say, you err toward the latter. But then look at the original reviews of, say, Raising Arizona, and see how few critics foresaw the Coens as future Best Directors.

That said, I feel confident in saying Drillbit Taylor is no Raising Arizona. Despite an occasional handful of teen-romp hysteria, the film is an unusually pure dose of idiocy. With this Drillbit, it’s only the audience that gets screwed.

Drillbit never advances beyond its flat nerd-revenge premise, an eighties nostalgia effort with less appeal than a resurgent Soviet Union. Wade and Ryan (Nate Hartley and Troy Gentile, respectively) have a problem as they head to high school. Wade looks like an overgrown Harry Potter. Ryan looks like he’s taken the Jonah Hill donut-training kit to heart, and mouth. Naturally, their Omega-male physiques get sniffed out by the school’s psycho bully (Alex Frost).

After being on the face-down end of increasingly creative pummelings, the punching bags decide to pool money and hire a bodyguard. So bedecked in aviator shades and Panama hat walks Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a panhandling Army deserter living (and showering) on the beach. His goal is to be mildly incompetent enough to collect a paycheck and head for Canada.

If you were actually drilling into Drillbit Taylor, it would take about a tenth of a second to reach the other side. The characters are flat, as is much of the comedy coming from the mind of writer Seth Rogen, working under the banner of producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up). The biggest shame is the waste of Leslie Mann, one of the best comic actresses around, playing an English teacher and romantic interest. In fact, like almost all Apatow-brand movies, it has no care or insight for its women. They exist as pretty zeros, mainly there to ratify the nerd fantasy.

When comparing Apatow-brand movies to Wes Anderson-Owen Wilson collaborations like Bottle Rocket (and who doesn’t do that daily) I’m fond of presenting this dichotomy. Anderson films make me wonder what French films inspired them. Apatow movies make me wonder what sitcoms inspired them. Drillbit Taylor makes the point nicely. Here, we have Wilson in a defrosted-Dignan role (he even dresses like him at one point), but without Bottle Rocket’s cultivated deadpan wit or New Wave outlaw bonhomie. This is a paycheck job of the most demoralizing kind, the type that devalues the performer’s best work.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, rest in peace

Arthur C. Clarke has died at age 90. Whether he was reborn as the Star Child, his spokesman probably cannot say.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Knocked Up curiosity

After seeing Drillbit Taylor tonight, I repeat one of my favorite questions about Knocked Up ..... where exactly is this exclusive club that's letting Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill in but keeping Leslie Mann out?

Don't quit your day job

The Guardian puts together the 10 film roles that rock stars should not have played.

Anthony Minghella, rest in peace

In one of those events that make you realize that life is way too short and potentially sends you immediately to the gym, the director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley - Anthony Minghella - has passed, at age 54. I've always felt more satisfied with The English Patient than other film snobs, even with that wacky attempted murder by crashing airplane.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hear, Hear

The much-lauded composer Hans Zimmer (The Thin Red Line) basically rips a hole into the side of modern day movie scores. He says too many scores are like cows grazing and do not sound like the composer put too much thought into it. To this I say, hear, hear. When I started wading into the Oscar selections for this category in the past few months, it occurred to me that I barely noticed most of them. The ones that I remembered were not all that memorable, either. People rave about Dario Marianelli's score to Atonement, but honestly I hardly remember a note of it. Aside from the part where it assassinates the ending. (I know. Sore subject.) The one that I most remember from last year, and that best worked with the film, was Warren Ellis and Nick Cave's work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I also thought Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood were good work. Beyond that, I'm not sure I could tell the scores apart. Most are annoyingly conventional.

'Isolated tornadoes'

So I'm driving around today in Dallas, and it's middle of March weather. Blustery, warm, windy, and bordering on hazardous. So we're supposed to get some massive amount of rain in the next couple of days. And the radio announcer says there will be some "and a couple of isolated tornados." What is an isolated tornado? Aren't all tornados isolated? And is this supposed to make me feel more comfortable? I'm sure that it doesn't make it easier on the person whose barn gets knocked over.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Immigrant songs

A.O. Scott waxes thoughtfully on the immigrant movie, an often neglected genre. Just look at Mira Nair's terrific The Namesake last year.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Bank Job holds

Good to see The Bank Job with a strong hold, around a 20 percent dropoff from its first week.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Movie marriages

So why is it difficult to make movies about happy marriages? Because if you’ve got one, you don’t need to pay to see one. If you don’t, you really don’t want to watch it. So here are five of the best of those uncommon movie relationships.

1) Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man series) – Obviously. Was there ever a married couple that made it look easier? William Douglas and Myrna Loy seem like the cool, wisecracking couple that everyone hangs around at the party. And they solve crimes, too. Have another drink, Nora.

2) Chuck and Glennis Yeager (The Right Stuff) – Riding horses. Chasing each other through the high desert. Throwing the ball around with the kids in the yard. Getting toasted at Pancho’s after the kids are put to bed. Agonizing through death-defying flights. They ain’t got much, but they got each other, Flyboy.

3) Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr (Gun Crazy) – Sure, they’re sociopathic gun nuts on the run from Johnny Law. But who says nutjobs can’t have love, too? I mean, besides psychiatrists. These two fit each other like hand in glove, or, as Bart notes, “gun and ammunition.” The moment when they try to split in separate cars but cannot is one of the most romantic moments I’ve seen on film.

4) George and Mary Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life) – Well, come on.

5) The Constant Gardener (Justin and Tessa Quayle) – Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz are not in an untroubled marriage, but a loving and passionate one. And few films capture the currencies of marriage for the shy partner as well as Fernando Mireilles’ African political potboiler.

Sex and the City: Shoot me now

I watched ten minutes of one episode of Sex and the City at one time. And I never wanted to go back. Therefore, I have zippo desire to see the big screen version, and I hope it reveals the show for what it is - a middling cult hit for the type of women who write for the lifestyle section at major newspapers. I expect that screening to be Bataan for me. And what's with the "Get Carried Away" tagline? I guess I shouldn't expect any more creativity than that.

No-review Friday

No review today. Maybe tomorrow. If I get up and see Paranoid Park or something.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mamet and Spitzer

About David Mamet's much-discussed essay on his acceptance of his right-wing thinking found in today's Village Voice, I thought I would isolate one thing and talk a bit about it. He quotes a line from Mark Twain saying that if you want to know about human nature, you should run a country paper. Having worked at small newspapers, I can say that I know what he is talking about, and I know that he is basically correct.

Take this week's hot political topic - the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal and his wife Silda Wall's reaction to it. So many people chimed in to express their sympathy for his wife. In such situations, I hold off that sympathetic impulse, until it is proven justified. Why? If you have ground-level experience with the power-hungry or the skulduggerous (or in other cases, the evil) you know that their mates are rarely complete angels in their own right. Generally, saints don't marry the lowliest sinners. Even if Mrs. Spitzer is a wonderful mom who's the first person you call to trade car-pooling days, it wouldn't surprise me if, as reported, she was the only advisor telling him to not to resign. People seem shocked by this report, but it didn't surprise me at all. People tend to assume and accept the victimized wife scenario in these stories, but I always assume that the wife is not that different from the husband, and at a minimum, the wife knows that the husband is capable of something like this.

On another board ....

On a message board that I hang out on, we're doing a movie scene draft. So far, in the first two rounds, I've chosen the race across the bridge in Jules and Jim and the "clop, clop" montage starting in LAX in Point Blank. I'll keep you updated.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Nothing funny

With reviews of Michael Haneke's remake of Funny Games flying left and right, I think I should take a minute to explain why I do not wish to see it. Actually, I don't think it will take a half-minute. I simply don't want to sit around for two hours watching Naomi Watts slowly and cruelly tortured to death. If that makes me a filmgoing wuss, so be it.

I understand that people believe that Haneke's violent film has artistic merit. Yet I suspect that it must be fairly blunt. I prefer my indict-the-audience-for-basking-in-violence film to be more subtle. I think Tony Scott's Man on Fire is a brilliant film that does the same drill with layering and a great deal of subtlety.

So that's my explanation in a nutshell. I never said it would be brilliant. Or long.

Monday, March 10, 2008

No dry run (The Bank Job)

The Bank Job [R]
Grade: B

From one look at the title, The Bank Job doesn’t promise much of a novel experience.

After all, “bank job” is one of the essential services performed by Englishmen in the movie world. Right next to “dry humour, “sophisticated villain,” “plastered ruffian, “ and “sexless aristocrat.” And we can’t forget Rowan Atkinson or Benny Hill.

So yes, The Bank Job rolls off the line with standard features. Movie tough guy Jason Statham pisses a vinegar path through a city of smut kings, bent cops, crooked gents, dizzy dames, and various and sundry slimy buggers. One hint of an indecipherable accent and you’re sure that someone in the cast must be named Alistair. Yet with smarts, tension, and director Roger Donaldson’s gunfire-quick delivery, The Bank Job shapes its theivery into an engrossing piece of sexy entertainment.

The kick of The Bank Job is its unusual story, one that may be based on unrevealed details of the actual 1971 Baker Street bank robbery in London. Whether you believe what you see depends on your trust in the screenwriters, who say they unearthed new details of the unsolved crime from heretofore unknown participants.

They advance a juicy theory about the robbery – allegedly British intelligence commissioned the heist in order to snag compromising sexual photos of a royal. Allegedly, the photos were being held in the safe deposit box of a London drug dealer who has appointed himself a civil rights leader (played by Jeffrey Wright). They don't make for much family reunion fun, but they do work as blackmail insurance to keep him out of the slammer. To snatch them, Scotland Yard leverages a drug-trafficking suspect named Martine Love (Saffrom Burrows) to find criminals who won't be linked to the agency. She persuades ex-flame Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a pug-faced petty criminal tempted to step into the big league for one big haul.

The British gangster film has made its own British invasion. England is shoveling them into the United States like synth-pop in eighties or Beatles clones in the sixties. Its stars (Clive Owen, Daniel Craig, Colin Farrelll) have become our stars. You feel like there’s a stone ceiling over which they are unlikely to rise in quality, a limit to what they can achieve. Yet if every piece of entertainment were such brisk and sexy craft, we, as film critics, could all drop our pens.

Tudoring the public

Good piece in The Observer about reducing the Tudor reign down to a "shagfest."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Obama is ....

Over on Hollywood-Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wells has taken to using comparisons to classic film characters to describe the travails of his beloved Barack Obama. I think we need a pool. Choose the next character that he will compare Obama to, or Hilary Clinton to. I've got Harry Lime of The Third Man. Let me know who you have.

SxSW info

The Screening Room, the Dallas Morning News movie blog, is doing a thorough job covering films showing at Austin's South by Southwest festival. It's moving so quickly over there that you half-expect the blog to go "Tilt."

Oink.

Susan King of the Los Angeles Times does a nice job running down Hollywood's greatest pigs. But her lede fails to recognize an important truth. Only a single "oink" achieves irony. Two makes you seem like a PTA mother who wears Christmas tree sweaters in December.

David Gordon Green

A fast and loose interview with David Gordon Green, one of the best young directors in America, and a graduate of Richardson High School, I believe, for the Dallas folks. People who have seen George Washington or All the Real Girls know what I'm talking about. He has a big year coming up, first with the in-limited-release Snow Angels, followed by a Judd Apatow collaboration, The Pineapple Express. I'm sure he's hoping that that is his ticket into movies that actually have budgets.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The British Beauty Paradox

If Englishwomen have a longstanding reputation for relative homeliness, then why is it that the rough list of the world's most beautiful women always contains several of them? To wit as of this moment - Kate Beckinsale, Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Saffron Burrows, Emily Blunt, Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz, presumably still Liz Hurley. I mean, if it were Australia, we'd expect it. But it's England. How does that work?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Pre-historic tastes (10,000 B.C.)

10,000 B.C. [PG-13]
Grade: D

10,000 B. C. confirms something I’ve always suspected – ludicrous Hollywood plots in fact pre-date civilization.

There’s little question left after watching two hours of this pre-historic action-adventure, as its pelt-clad heroes wile their way through jungles of sabre-tooth tigers and musty plot development. As long as the story sticks to the rescue-the-girl basics, it can at least deliver passable CGI action sequences. But the film’s dialogue taught me something new and valuable about pre-historic life. I didn’t know cheese had been invented.

The adventure sets off as horse-mounted warriors raid a glacier-age village, leading off its people for slave labor far away. An escaped Mammoth hunter named D’Leh (Steven Strait) pursues, out to free the love of his life (Camilla Belle). He makes common cause with a group of foreign tribesmen, who believe he is the fulfillment of their prophecy. They tell him of a giant city beyond the dunes. There he leads an army of men hoping to free their people from slavery.

For being pre-historic, the tribe has admirably mastered the English language, although they can’t quite further indulge the audience by shaking off their Barbarian accents. As they don’t know how to write, they have not yet performed the courtesy of mapping their whereabouts. We do know it’s in lands where you can move quickly from icy gorges to thick jungle to rocky desert to sand dunes. Snow-capped mountains turn into predator-infested jungles in the space of about a football field. Apparently the sun behaved differently in those days, too.

Their odorous appearance and exaggerated customs asks an important question – can you offend an ethnicity that never actually existed? I can’t tell you what the answer is. Even if this pre-historic action-adventure holds an answer, then it deserves to be buried in the sands of time.

Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich might be decreasing his scale. After destroying most of the world in Independence Day and most of the world in The Day After Tomorrow, here he resigns himself to wiping out only a single ancient civilization. Perhaps this is his idea of making a more intimate picture. The early action sequences, such as a mastodon hunt and a rumble through the jungle with giant nipping and gnawing buzzards, are fairly exciting. But the final battle, on what appears to be an ancient Egyptian pyramid construction site, is a mess of masses running mindlessly. Not very enthralling, unless you’re into watching marathons.

The film lifts the plot from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. But while Gibson’s film is a strange mixture of B-movie and actual interest in Mayan culture, 10,000 B.C. is a low-end cousin aimed squarely for the brutal sensibilities of those modern Barbarians, the mall-grazing teen-agers. But even they will likely come away from this hunt disappointed.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

It's 3 a.m. and I'm a wimp

I finally gave in and checked out Hilary Clinton's "It's 3 a.m." ad on YouTube. I have to say, I'm completely disappointed. I was thinking horror film. Instead, it's all warm and fuzzy pictures of children rolling around in their beds with their little teddy bears. Never mind that it's too talky. Leave it to the Democrats to make things saccharine and sappy. The ad almost seems polite. It's like, let's scare the people, but let's be very reassuring while we do it.

I miss the Cold War, when campaigns could scare the heck out of the American public with television commercials. Lyndon Johnson's Daisy commercial, the one that starts with the girl picking flowers and ends in a nuclear explosion, that's a classic campaign commercial. You think that didn't get voters to the polls? Or Ronald Reagan's The Bear ad, which was a bit spooky and mysterious.

The 3 a.m. commercial I want? Less family film and more The Shining. You start in a drably-colored austere looking room or hallway. In the distance sits a table with a red phone on top. The phone starts to ring. And not that wimpy little modern pulse tone. I want it to be an old-fashioned phone. Heck, I want it to be an ancient rotary dial number, like some artifact from the fifties or sixties. And when that thing gives that old-school earth-rattling jolt, I want it to seem like the room is moving. The voice intones "It's 3 a.m. at the White House ... " and the script continues, slowly, ominously, as the camera moves slowly down the hallway or across the room and closes in on the phone. At the end, it stops in freeze-frame and mid-ring. "Who do you want to pick up the line?" Fade to black.
Now that's a commercial.

The Corner on The Invasion

You'll need to move fast, but there's an interesting discussion going on in The Corner blog at National Review Online about The Invasion. Jonah Goldberg initiated it, and I think his understanding of the film is pretty accurate, if a bit imperfect. Goldberg seems like a bit of a film nut; he once wrote a cover story on the metaphysical genius of Groundhog Day. Mark Steyn is in on the discussion, so something amusing is bound to be said.

As you might know, The Invasion was close to my top 10 list for last year, probably somewhere in the 11-12 range alongside Into the Wild and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Barbarian English

Why do movie Barbarians who speak English do so with accents? I mean, I understand why they would have accents if they were speaking their own Barbarian language. But why would they indulge the audience by speaking its language, yet enunciate in their own gruff manner?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Read-through urinals

I was in a mall today and needed to visit the restroom. I went in, and, as I looked down into the urinal, I noticed they had implemented some new device in the urinal. It says something like "Eco-friendly" with some other phrases. Now I'm happy that American technology is developing ways to make our toilet-flushing friendly for the trees and the forest animals. Yay, American ingenuity! But I don't want to be standing there trying to read something at the bottom of my urinal as I'm trying to pee.

Please refrain from further writing. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Once

The Oscar ceremony is over, now a week clear. For serial filmgoers like yours truly, it’s a sorrowful moment, the final vapors of a filmgoing year. Once the curtain goes down on Jon Stewart, it’s time to let go of those films that for 14 months you have lived, loved, rallied to, and cherished. It’s as though February begins with a Groundhog Day and ends with another, one with the groundhog always seeing his shadow, allowing the season to pass gracefully.

This means the seasoned filmgoer finally realizes what movie he most hates to see drift into the past. For me this year, that film might be the Irish musical and cinematic brief encounter Once. The Assassination of Jesse James might be the most brilliant. No Country for Old Men might be the most respected. Zodiac, the most meticulously crafted, There Will Be Blood, the most ambitious, Michael Clayton the most solid. But Once is the most loved.

That became clear with the wave of good feeling launched by its win in the category of Best Original Song, for the heavenly “Falling Slowly.” The victory set off a wave of celebration in film lovers unequaled by any other choice. Its low-budget, no-star origins – it was made using a pair of musician non-actors for $150,000 in 17 days – played into deep truths that every film lover wishes to believe – that imagination and humanity are the First Things of Music and Filmmaking. In a deeply cynical, dangerous age, here is a film that rewards believing.

The genius of director John Carney’s guerilla creation is that it saves the musical from its burden of gluttony. The production values and razzmatazz disappear in favor of the elegant simplicity of the music. Once doesn’t even bother with the adornment of names. Guy strums a guitar on a Dublin street corner. Girl hears him play and falls in love with his music. Girl plays music, as well. Guy is lovesick. Girl is lonely in a new land. Guy and Girl make music to temper and transcend their sorrows. Girl gives Guy the encouragement to fulfill his musical dreams. Guy and Girl sing. And sing. And sing beautifully.

The level of biographical verisimilitude between the film’s busker and star Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Irish band The Frames, is palpable. In some ways, it’s a condensed biography. Like his character, Hansard really did, at a time, play music on the streets of Dublin. He did assemble his band from a group of street performers. Most importantly, he really does make music with a precocious Czech female musician, played here and in real life by the teen-ager Marketa Irglova. And while Hansard and Irglova apparently were not a couple until after the shoot, one senses that was a temporary inconvenience of age. We suspect that much like their characters, they simply had not acted yet on their rising affections. And because of that reserve in both movie and life, those affections find their only expressible form in the music that they, and their characters, create.

None of this would matter if the songs weren’t extraordinary. But low-budget films run on blessings. “Falling Slowly” is an anthem of lost love seeking to relocate its bearings. “If You Want Me” (aka The Bunny Slipper Song) finds transcendent joys from a tough situation. The soundtrack album reveals that the best of the lot may be “The Hill,” an emotionally haunting story from Irglova.

Yet for all the appreciation wrung from the music, it’s still a film, and an excellent vessel. Like a great punk tune, Carney has freed the modern musical from its Broadway theatricality and staid professionalism and restored it to its roots of spontaneity and emotion. It was Carney’s dogged determinism that shuffled the project through to the end. That sense of purpose pervades the film, and makes it one built to last, well past the Oscars, and well past this age.

AFI Dallas

With virtually nothing going on movie-wise at the moment (really, I'm scraping for articles, as it appears to be for many sites), I thought I would take a minute and write a bit about the AFI Dallas film festival, which is approaching. It will be held March 27 thorugh April 6. THis is its second year. Perusing the list of films, there's a couple that spark my interest. In particular is Mongol, the story of the young struggles of Genghis Khan. It was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture. The directorial debut of Helen Hunt is also on the list. Last year, AFI Dallas featured the debut of actress Sarah Polley, Away from Her, so a pattern is forming.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Will Ferrell overexposed

So, Semi-Pro only earns about $15 million, and everyone is wondering if the bloom is off the Will Ferrell rose. My guess is seeing the Jackie Moon character every time you turn on the television ended up in a backlash. Add that to the fact that Ferrell makes the same movie every time, and that probably accounts for the disinterest. Which is a shame, because it's probably his most consistently funny film, with a few precious gems.

Wales and movies

The top 8 Welsh actors and actresses could include:

Christian Bale
Timothy Dalton
Ray Milland
Richard Burton
Julie Christie
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Peggy Cummins
Roger Livesay

Happy Saint David's Day!

March 1, St. David's Day, or St. Dafyd's Day (or some spelling like that) is the national holiday of Wales, the Bowen family ancestral homeland. I'm assuming all Anti-D readers dressed in corduroy, ate leek soup, tended sheep, and worked in a coal mine. Surprisingly, that regimen hasn't caught on in America as well as St. Patrick's Day, which features the delicacy of green beer. Remember, always remember the little things!

A good night's viewing

I watched Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop. I think there might have been a tracking shot in there somewhere, but I'm not betting on it. Great, great film. Almost unique. I also watched Gun Crazy. I'm always struck when watching late 1940s noir how far ahead of their time the films were. Gun Crazy has a lot of the benefits of being made in the studio system, but with the free-spiritedness needed for a small budget. You see why it was a favorite of New Wave types.