Sunday, February 27, 2011

Le Cercle Rouge

Le Cercle Rouge (1970), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a French film about a trio of criminals who come together by circumstance and fate to pull off an elaborate jewelry heist. That sounds like a setup for an action thriller, and while the film contains its fair share of thrilling moments - particularly the heist itself and its fallout - the narrative spends more time illustrating how these men are brought together, how their personalities and skilled compliment each other and what their final fates are. At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Le Cercle Rouge is deliberate and thoroughly involving.

Thief Corey (Alain Delon) is released from prison the same day murderer Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) escapes from his police escort, Mattei (Andre Bourvil), on a train. By chance, the two criminals end up traveling together, and Corey divulges a plan to rob a jewelry store. Needing a professional marksman, the two recruit Jansen (Yves Montand), a disillusioned former police officer. As the three make preparations for the heist, Mattei works to catch them.

Watching Melville's direction is watching an assured master do his work. No shot feels wasted or extraneous. Many sequences feel like they could have been lifted from the silent era because so few words, if any, are uttered. All the exposition is revealed gradually through action, not plot dump dialogue. There is not one scene I can think of where the three criminals outline the details of their plan and explain how they'll do it. We see them prepare, not sure why they're performing a particular task, but the preparations payoff when we see the plan executed. Afterward, you see how the pieces fit together. Strict attention must be afforded by the viewer.

The characters are also fascinating; the film probably could have worked without the heist plot. Corey is cool in an unstated manner. He's not flashy, and his face hardly betrays any emotion, but he's not a stoic robot. His personality is dry, and you get a sense he anticipates everything, and his brain is always working. Vogel is more volatile, just kind of going with the flow and kind of stumbling onto things, but he's smart enough to know he's an "amateur" and not a "professional" marksman. Jansen is a haunted alcoholic who, as the heist and its plotting progresses, gradually conquers his demons. Meanwhile, Mattei almost feels like he belongs in another type of movie but somehow fits here. He's not a hard-boiled, revenge-minded cop. He loves cats and is curiously laid back and patient.

I don't have much more to add. Watching the film is to experience greatness, and to see it is to understand that point. Just don't expect a lot of shootouts and chases.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Unbreakable

Director M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a joke in Hollywood for a string of a commercially and critically lambasted films over the last several years, but at the beginning of the new millennium, he was being pegged as the next Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock. Unbreakable (2000) came right in the middle of his hot streak, which had begun with The Sixth Sense (1999) and ended with Signs (2002), but now, some people are looking back on these three films and questioning whether they were any good to begin with. Although I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, Unbreakable holds up fairly well and offers a unique take on the comic book genre.

Security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) miraculously survives a train derailment in which all other passengers are killed. Even more amazing, he doesn't have a single scratch on him. This draws the attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book gallery owner suffering from a condition causing his bones to be very brittle. As a child, other kids called him "Mr. Glass." He leaves David a note asking when was the last time he was sick. Neither David nor his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), can answer that. Elijah has spent his whole life looking for someone on the other side of the health spectrum, and he believes David might be some kind of superhero.

Unbreakable is a very slow and moody piece. There are no big action scenes, no over-the-top characters, no wild and spectacular special, and no overly-muscled physiques in smashing tights. The movie ponders what it would actually mean to be impervious to injury. David gradually discovers the true nature of himself and his life and what the ramifications that would mean for his family. The best scene to illustrate this is when David's son grabs a gun to shoot him so he can prove his father is unkillable. It's a frightening case of hero worship.

My big complaint would the film moves too slow at times. I appreciate that Shyamalan uses long takes and doesn't give into rapid-fire editing of many of his contemporaries, but there are times he belabors a scene long after the point has been made. Other reviewers have pointed how all of his characters in his films speak exactly the same way: hushed, short simple sentences with restrained, calm emotion. For David, that makes sense because he's just been through trauma, but it feels monotonous when everyone talks that way. Jackson gives more life to his character with an underlying anger and resentment, but everyone talks as if every line of dialogue is profound understatement. It works here for the most part, but I can see why later in Shyamalan's filmography it's stilted and awkward.

I suppose I should mention there is a twist. I think it's pretty neat, although it does feel tacked on. It isn't as mind-blowing as The Sixth Sense, but it's serviceable and not as asinine as other twists I've seen.

Unbreakable is an effective low-key thriller that plays with superhero conventions. The most disappointing thing about it is it shows how much talent Shyamalan shows here and why it's a shame he's been slumming. Here's hoping he gets back to this level.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Me & Orson Welles

Orson Welles is perhaps the single greatest "What if?" director in the history of Hollywood. After Citizen Kane, he found so much difficulty raising finances and even making movies the way he wanted to, it's torturous for any film lover to ponder what he could have done if he possessed all the resources and support he needed. Somehow the man who made what many critics and scholars consider the greatest film ever became known as unreliable and unbankable. Me and Orson Welles (2008) depicts Welles prior to his filmmaking career, but even then, his demands and perfectionism rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and alienated potential backers.

I must admit up front; I bring a lot of baggage to watching Me and Orson Welles because Welles is one of my favorite directors, and he had such a larger-than-life persona that even today I find dynamic. A movie that portrays him in a less-than-flattering light will have to work hard to earn my praise. The film also has another pre-existing handicap in my eyes: Zac Efron. I have nothing personal against Efron, but I've never found him distinguishable from any other teeny-bopper Disney star. I shouldn't be too hard on him because after all, Kurt Russell began his career as a Disney kid and went on to play Snake Pliskin. I should credit him for being in a movie like this.

The plot: in 1937, New York high-school student and aspiring actor Richard Samuels (Efron) somehow cons and impresses Orson Welles (Christian McKay) enough to cast him in the Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Richard finds Welles a demanding, temperamental, self-centered egomaniac but one with a brilliance and drive to him. The play opens in less than a week, and the future of the theater depends on its success. Trouble arises when Richard falls for Sonja Jones (Claire Daines) and doesn't grasp the politics of theater or that everyone must give into every demand of the director, whether on stage or in the bedroom.

Me and Orson Welles operates on two tracks: Richard's coming-of-age and growing romance with Sonja and the theater's efforts to put the play together. Watching the troupe work through challenges, both external (faulty equipment, time constraints) and internal (waiting for Welles to show up), is pretty neat, and it's cool seeing several other figures from Welles' life, such as Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). You really get involved with the camaraderie of the group and hoping to see them pull it off. The movie really takes off when we see re-enactments of the live performance. I wish there was more of this material.

Unfortunately, most of the film focuses on the other track. It's fairly low key and works in its own right, but I wanted more of the other stuff. Efron is okay; I wasn't distracted by his Disney past, but I thought he worked best as a guide into the troupe, discovering how it worked, but Richard is not an inherently interesting character, except for when he talks himself into getting a part in the play. The romance, while not terrible, is pretty bland. I liked Richard better when he was interacting with all the others, like Joseph Cotton, and learning more about them. Most of the movie's focus felt formulaic and obvious.

The film does have one great element: Christian McKay. He captures everything right from the voice, the mannerisms, the look, the energy, the egotism, the self-serving nature, and the vision. McKay embodies the role perfectly, and no one else is noticeable when he's on screen. It's a shame he didn't receive an Oscar nomination.

I can't deny I enjoyed the movie, particularly McKay's performance, but I don't feel it was all it could have been. The historical recreation is fine, but I would have liked more of it and more focus on the other characters. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the film, but I can say it was entertaining.

Friday, February 18, 2011

American Plastic

I'll declare up front: I don't want live in a world where every woman looks like Barbie and every man looks like Ken, and honestly, I've always thought of plastic surgery as icky. On to the analysis.

In her 2010 book American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards and Our Quest for Perfection, Laurie Essig, an assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College, describes how two of the most important aspects of life in the United States have become plastic: our money and our bodies. Capable of being molded into anything we desire, we have come to view plastic as the solution to all our problems whether it be financing with easy credit to support our lifestyles or perfecting our "imperfect" appearances.

Essig explores how plastic money and plastic surgery have become intertwined over the last 30 years; not only are people spending themselves into debt to achieve cosmetic perfection, both concepts are superficial solutions in place of drastic structural changes. Why demand change to gender, income, racial, and social inequalities when you can shop with borrowed money and get a makeover?

Essig discusses a number of reasons Americans (and other nationalities) elect to undergo plastic surgery, but all those explanations boil down to inadequacy. People feel inadequate about their looks, they fear the more attractive and youthful workers get the best jobs, they believe looking younger will instill more confidence, and/or hope they to attract or keep a romantic partner or spouse. The media, with its photo-shopped and airbrushed models and actresses in magazines and film, project an impossible-to-obtain standard people strive for and feel miserable about if they can't.

Those are reasons we've all heard from other books and documentaries critical of America's obsession with celebrity and glamor, but I've always thought most people consider that obsession a guilty pleasure; we should know better, but we still do it anyway. Essig reveals how normalized and acceptable plastic surgery has become to attain this standard. Many people she interviews -plastic surgeons and patients- believe not only is cosmetic surgery more acceptable, it's inevitable. Magazines reveal how many stars go under the knife, and television shows such Dr. 90210 and Nip/Tuck (whose creator is critical of plastic surgery) present all these cosmetic procedures as increasingly normal. Everyone is doing it, so it's best to go with the movement rather than get left behind.

The numbers support the normalcy argument. In 2000, 5.7 million cosmetic procedures were conducted in the United States, an increase of 173 percent in three years. By 2004, that number exceeded twelve million. Even in the recent economic turmoil, Essig admits she wrongly believed plastic surgery would decline, but the number stayed constant and continued to grow. Cosmetic surgery is no longer a luxury for the wealthy. Many middle and lower class people see it as an "investment in themselves," and many surgeons and doctors are more than happy to offer different financing methods to enable their patients to go into thousands of dollars worth of debt to "feel better about themselves." Sort of like how banks and subprime mortgages enabled people to buy homes they couldn't afford.

Plastic surgery has become another avenue of economic consumption enabled by loose lending standards of financial institutions. Never mind the barrage of advertising for cosmetic procedures constantly tells people they're old, ugly, and inadequate and only by getting Botox injections, breast implants, or face lifts will they "beautiful" and "happy." Essig traces back to Ronald Reagan and the rise of neoliberalism and its market-driven economic approach: deregulation of the financial world, allowing doctors to advertise (it had previously been banned because many doctors didn't want to appear to be snake-oil salesmen), trickle-down economics, and the emphasis on individual choice and freedom. No one is forcing people to go into debt by having procedures to look younger and more beautiful, and never mind undergoing those procedures won't necessary ensure they'll feel better, get a promotion, or a spouse; it's their choice.

This economic tie-in gives American Plastic a unique spin on a topic already heavily covered and dissected. I definitely would have liked more examination of it; Essig spends a lot more time than necessary going after the superficiality of American culture, and I was more interested when she examined the history of plastic surgery and how it connected to economic deregulation than when she went at length about why it's popular. It's interesting, and there were some arguments -such as the increasing normalcy of it-I hadn't hear before, but with the book being under 200 pages, I thought it was a little too much.

Overall, I really liked the book, and it presented a lot of thought-provoking ideas. It examines the forces that gave rise to plastic surgery and those sustaining it while simultaneously paralleling the excesses and pitfalls of the a completely unregulated free market. Definitely worth reading.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sid and Nancy

Most movies about a doomed romance go through great lengths for the audience to sympathize with their tragic lovers, often presenting them as likable if fatally flawed people who mean well but are brought down by outside circumstances and fate (think Romeo and Juliet, lovers who could be together if their families weren't feuding). Sid and Nancy (1986) goes in the opposite direction by placing wholly repulsive and morally repugnant characters at the center and showing how their relationship destroyed them both. It's not tragedy so much as documentation.

Before I really got into music in college, I had a passing knowledge of the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious. I knew he had been a violent, angry young man but had always thought he was one of those tragic musicians whose career and life were cut short by the excesses of rock. When I discovered he couldn't actually play bass and had only been hired for his notoriety on the punk scene, the news stunned me. What was his actual legacy?

I enjoy the music of the Sex Pistols and respect their role in punk rock, but I believe they might have lasted longer had Glen Matlock remained with the band or if they actually replaced him with a competent musician. As the film depicts it, Vicious caused the Sex Pistols to implode because of his love for drugs and Nancy Spungen.

Shortly after joining notorious punk group, Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) meets Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), an American junkie living in England. The two soon begin a relationship based off their addictions to each other and heroin, drawing the ire everyone from singer Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) and the rest of the band to Nancy's family. After a tour in the U.S. destroys the band, Sid tries to launch a solo career, but he and Nancy sink further into their own destructive, little world.

The lovers-against-the-world trope has been done a million times before, but Sid and Nancy is one of the few movies to depict the romantic relationship as destructive and poisonous unto itself. We're not rooting for them to get together; we want them to split up before someone gets killed (which if you're familiar with the band or Vicious, you know how true that turns out).

Sid and Nancy are characters impossible to root for. Sid stands on the brink of a rock stardom future, but he's self-destructive, beats up people (including Nancy) and ruins every chance he gets. Nancy is a groupie who clings to any star and gets Sid hooked on heroin. I was reminded of the killers from In Cold Blood; alone, they're bad enough, but together they form the perfect destructive personality. Director Alex Cox frames together often, the rest of the scene around them a blur. When they're together, nothing else matters.

Cox begins filming the movie almost like a documentary. The early concert footage feels like actual recordings from the day, the pubs and clubs authentically grimy and gritty. Later, as Sid and Nancy slide further into dependency and addiction, Cox introduces weird hallucinations and images. What began as a docudrama transforms into a nightmare.

The performances certainly are daring and uncompromising. Both Oldman and Webb are unafraid to look rotten, scummy, and unglamorous. This really was a star-making role for Oldman; he's unrecognizable. It's so weird to look back and realize he would later go on to play Commissioner Gordon in the most recent Batman movies. He's so wild and unrestrained here.

Sid and Nancy is not fun. It's an unblinking look at two destructive people who were both the perfect and the worst match for each other. They may be lovers, but it's not love they share.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Ballads of Guns N' Roses

After the smashing success of their 1987 debut album Appetite for Destruction, Guns N' Roses followed with the 1991 release of Use Your Illusion, a double album. I've always had mixed feelings about this album, which some have called GNR's White Album. While there are plenty of hard-driving, frenetic rockers that satiated my desire to duplicate the style of Appetite, I thought it would have been better to take the best of both parts and combine them into one because I found too much self-indulgent filler, soft piano bits, radio-friendly sound, and too many ballads. Guns N' Roses' early material strikes me as raw, authentic, tough, and honest, and while parts of it are undeniably brilliant, too much of Use Your Illusion comes off as a pretentious attempt to do "serious" music.

Recently, I have begun re-examining my initial perception of Use Your Illusion. Perhaps because I, like a lot of fans, view this album as the beginning of the end for GNR - the start of a downward spiral that would lead to a long hiatus only ending when Axl Rose reformed the band with a new lineup - that I unfairly took my disappointment out on this album. Maybe instead of wishing the classic line-up had continued on with the longevity of the Rolling Stones, I should have appreciated this effort. I still prefer Appetite, and while parts of Use Your Illusion are pretentious and self-indulgent, it's actually a pretty stellar release.

In that state of mind and being that it's Valentine's Day, I decided to examine three songs off the album that comprise an unofficial trilogy: "Don't Cry," "November Rain," and "Estranged." All three are ballads, were turned into hugely expensive music videos, feature some of Slash's best guitar solos, and were inspired by a story by Del James called "Without You." More importantly (at least for the purposes of this blog entry), they're about lost love, loneliness, and sorrow. Most surprisingly is how beautiful I find them.

Keep in mind, song meanings are open to interpretation. I wish I could say how the songs are built with technique and style, but I'm not as musically knowledgeable as I'd like to be. These are just how the songs make me feel.

"Don't Cry" is the fourth track off Use Your Illusion I, and it's about a break up. The man can see the woman wants to say something and understands how he feels, so he tells her not to cry; she'll feel better tomorrow, but she should remember how he felt. Don't cry because "there's a heaven above you;" things will work out in the end. "Don't Cry" is the most traditional hard rock ballad of these three. It doesn't feature any outside instruments, retains a consistent structure throughout, and is the shortest. It's a really good song to listen to when you're feeling down. No matter how bad things may get, someone's looking out for you, and life will get better.

"November Rain" is the tenth track off Use Your Illusion I. Of these three, it definitely gets the most radio airplay (although nowhere near as much as "Sweet Child 'O Mine"). It begins softly with a piano and builds with symphony instrumentation and synthesizers until finally we get the first solo by Slash. In fact, the rock instruments - guitars, bass, and drums - augment the strings, piano, and vocals, existing more as background. Only Slash's solos are as prominent, and they're epic. Looking back, I was always stunned this was from the same group that did "Welcome to the Jungle." "November Rain" is about the fleetingness of love. Love and happiness is like a warm candle in the cold November rain; it won't last forever, but you should cherish it while you can.

"Estranged" is the eleventh track off Use Your Illusion II. Nearly nine-and-a-half minutes long, its almost a hybrid of the hard rock roots of "Don't Cry" and the symphony of "November Rain." It changes rhythms and focus and is hard to pin down. Once you think it's sticking with one style, it shifts into another. Axl opens the song almost whispering, creating this mental image of a man huddled alone in the dark after losing everything. But like "November Rain," it builds up and becomes more powerful, assertive, and almost defiant. Then it slows down for another piano interlude, as if stopping to think about what's been lost. By song's end, the love is gone, but it's accepted. Now the whispering man can move on as he remembers that holding on to the lost love was dragging him down.

Pretentious? Sure. Ambitious? Absolutely. Filled with brilliant music? Yes. These three ballads certainly are different from the angry, rowdy street boys of Appetite for Destruction. I can't say I prefer Use Your Illusion to GNR's debut album, but at least I can say I'm not dismissing it anymore. Great music is great music, and as weird as it is for me to say this, these three songs from a hard rock band are beautiful.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Last Chance Harvey

Siskel and Ebert often discussed this cinematic litmus test: would the movie you're watching be more interesting than watching a documentary about the same actors having lunch together? Last Chance Harvey, although not a documentary, almost seems tailored to that question. In fact, the characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson strike up a conversation in an airport pub, and he buys her a meal. The movie doesn't seem concerned with a plot; it's built more on just watching the interaction between these two actors.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman), a failed Jazz pianist who writes commercial jingles, arrives in London for his daughter's wedding and over the course of 24 hours, misses his flight back to New York, gets fired, and worst of all, finds out his daughter wants her stepfather to give her a way. Kate Walker (Thompson), also single, works at the airport, is set up on blind dates that go nowhere, and is annoyed by her bored mother's frequent phone calls. Harvey and Kate meet at the airport, and eventually Harvey becomes determined to see her more.

The best way to describe the romance to low-key. It takes around 30 minutes for Harvey and Kate to properly meet, and from there, their relationship develops gradually as Harvey at first is to desperate to talk to someone who's not going shut him out while Kate gradually warms up to his charms. I must say, it's nice to watch a movie where two people talk about more than just plot exposition. Hoffman and Thompson are definitely good enough actors to make their characters interesting based on that, and the movie is at its best when they're engaging each other.

As a result of this structure, the movie is not entirely formulaic. Sure, we want them to get together by the end, but their interaction progresses and changes. It's not a checklist of cliches: meet, happy montage, conflict, misunderstanding, reconciliation, end. The romance feels more natural and less conformed to the genre expectations. There is one misunderstanding late in the film, but it's not irritating or obvious as other examples. There is real pathos in watching Harvey and Kate connect. They're lonely people, emotionally distant from their families, and they bond.

The film around Hoffman and Thompson isn't as interesting. The other characters aren't really fleshed out; they're just kind of there to serve a purpose. They're more there to be the background of the protagonists rather than factor into the plot, and some of it goes on too long.

Last Chance Harvey works on the strengths of its leads. It's rare to see a movie compelling enough just to hear its actors talk.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Princess Bride

How do I keep myself from merely reciting my favorite lines and revealing my favorite scenes? The Princess Bride (1987) is one of my favorite movies and certainly has something for everyone: romance, adventure, comedy, action, and satire. Just as important, it works on every level for every age group in the audience. Everyone I know has either seen it and loved it or hasn't experienced it.

As told by a grandfather (Peter Falk) to his grandson (Fred Savage) as a bedtime story, The Princess Bride concerns itself with the fairy-tale romance Westley (Carey Elwes), a poor farm boy, and Buttercup (Robin Wright), a demanding but beautiful country girl. Five years after Wesley is believed to have been killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup is betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) but soon kidnapped by a trio of criminals (Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant). Their leader means to kill her to ignite a war, but a mysterious man in black follows the group.

The Princess Bride works on three levels. At its heart is the love story between Westley and Buttercup. This is not merely two attractive people who meet cute and get together. This is true love. No matter how many obstacles get thrown their way, these lovers will end up together because it is their destiny. It works well enough that if you can accept the fantasy, you can be swept away (or whatever cliche fits).

Of course, the movie has a sense of humor and knows that concept is a little corny and outdated. That's why Peter Falk is there to skip over the boring "kissing" stuff as the grandson calls it. Then, there are all the strange and hilarious supporting characters who frequently steal the show: Vizzini the diminutive plotter who's not as smart as he thinks, the gentle giant Fezzik, the oddball couple of Miracle Max and his wife Valerie (Billy Chrystal and Carol Kane, both unrecognizable under old-age make up), the revenge-minded Indigo Montoya, the snaky Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), and the cowardly Humperdinck. All these characters give a modern, ironic touch to the proceedings, enabling the film to comment on the very romantic-fantasy conventions it's exploiting.

Then there's the action-adventure. Sure, the movie's light and good-natured, but we get a stunning sword fight, a fist fight with a giant, a battle of wits, torture, revenge, plotting and strategizing. Not only is this material actually pretty thrilling, but they also have their own little spins, so they're also funny. Indigo and the man in black banter about sword techniques while they duel, Fezzik thinks the method he's told to kill someone is "unsportsmanlike," and the battle of wits involves Vizzini creating the most convoluted, ridiculous logic ever.

Most movies with so many different elements end up having them cancel each other out, but somehow, director Rob Reiner and writer William Goldman strike the perfect balance. It's a movie that really does have something for everyone.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Punch-Drunk Love

For the record, this was labeled a romantic comedy by Netflix, so that's the criteria I'm using.

When talking about Adam Sandler movies, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is labeled by just about everyone I know as the one Sandler movie they don't like. I was never able to comment because I had never seen it. My reference came from Roger Ebert's review, in which he gave high praise and was ecstatic to give Sandler thumbs up for the first time. Everyone agreed it was a change of a pace for an actor who had up until that time made a career playing the angry man-child. I became further intrigued after seeing director Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and finding it brilliant.

I wish I could say I found something most people missed, I wish I could say the movie was mesmerizing, and I wish I could say there was greatness in it. Unfortunately, Punch-Drunk Love felt unpleasant, nasty, and noisy. It was not a positive viewing experience.

Barry Egan (Sandler) is a small business owner. He has seven sisters who hound with constant verbal abuse, and he's turned into an anti-social loner prone to violent outbursts and crying. After calling a sex line, he's extorted and threatened by the company, which now has all his personal information. Then, he's introduced to Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a co-worker of one of his sisters who's kind mysterious but nice. Meanwhile, Barry is taking advantage of a promotional loophole by buying pudding to save up frequent flier miles; the only problem is he's never been on an airplane.

Sandler doesn't rely on his usual schtick. He's essentially playing a variation of his usual character, but he's doing it in a more serious setting. I actually Barry saw as an individual with a personality rather than the usual Sandler-type. It took me a while to get used to him, but Sandler gives a pretty compelling and more dramatic performance than we expect from him.

The problem is the movie around him. The sisters were irritating and cruel, the phone sex material felt unnecessarily mean-spirited, and the negativity overwhelmed everything. Multiple people are often simultaneously talking about different topics, and it became disorienting. I felt relieved whenever Barry lashed out, even though I probably should have been troubled. For the first hour (of a 90-minute movie), there's almost no let-up.

When the movie concentrates on the growing romance between Barry and Lena, it felt like a whole different movie, one I wanted to see more of. It wasn't unrelenting bleak but sweet and pleasant. Lena's interest in Barry pulls him out the funk he's in and gives him courage to go out into the world, and I really liked their relationship. Lena (and maybe an employee of Barry played by Luis Guzman) is the only person in Barry's life that isn't a self-centered, conniving jerk.

I admire the craft and originality of Punch-Drunk Love but can't say I'm anxious to see it again. It was unpleasant and depressing. Strange how I preferred to see the romance rather than the darker material in an Adam Sandler movie .

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Roxanne

I figured I'd start of my series of romantic movies with something I'd have a strong chance at liking. Steve Martin has not excited with many of his roles over the last 15 years or so, but Roxanne (1987) is considered one of his better movies, so I was confident I'd enjoy it. When Martin's on, he's on, and here, he's on.

With a script based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac, Martin plays C.D. Bales, a small-town fire chief with an improbably long nose. However, his charm, wit, and willingness to help everyone make him a rather popular, but he's insecure about the nose. When astronomer Roxanne arrives (Daryl Hannah), he falls almost instantly in love, but she sets her eye on hunky but dumb Chris (Rick Rossovich), a new fire expert helping C.D. whip his inept crew into shape. Chris, a nervous wreck around women, enlists C.D. to help him woo Roxanne, having him write letters and be his voice at the proper moment.

Surprisingly, Martin does not play C.D. as a wild-and-crazy guy. He's more laid back and less outrageous than he usually is. What I appreciated is how C.D. is not turned into a lovable goof. Instead, he's sharp, quick-witted. I could have spent the whole movie just listening to him talk. We're not meant to pity him because his nose has turned into an outcast; he's the life of the party.

But there is depth to the role. He acts out and draws attention with his personality to distract people for his elongated facial feature. C.D.'s personality is what Roxanne falls in love with. She's moved by the words she reads and hears but doesn't realize who they're really coming from. She's attracted to Chris' looks and overlooks C.D. because of his nose. The nature of the relationship, with C.D. expressing his true feelings on behalf of Chris, is both funny because of the lengths they go to maintain the deception and poignant because you can tell it's eating C.D. up to win the girl for someone else.

The plot moves along in a fairly predictable manner, but the movie makes the most of its hook. One of the funniest scenes occurs when Chris shows up at Roxanne's house wearing a hat wired to a microphone so C.D. can feed him lines. Martin steals the scene listening in while sitting in the back of a van. Later, in a scene I'm certain occurs in Cyrano, C.D. professes his love to Roxanne below her balcony while remaining in the shadows so she thinks it's Chris. Many laughs are mined by contrasting C.D. romantic and poetic nature with Chris' moronic interjections.

The romance is fairly sweet. It's not overly sappy, but I will admit Roxanne takes so long to figure out the truth I kept thinking she's not as smart as we're led to believe. The slapstick involving the training of the firemen is pretty funny and doesn't feel distracting. Overall, Roxanne is definitely worth watching if you're a fan of Steve Martin or romantic comedies.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Valentine's Kick Off

It's February, which means my least favorite holiday is coming up: President's Day. I kid, it's Valentine's Day, but not for the reasons you might be thinking. It's actually my brother-in-law's birthday on Feb. 14, and he gets on my nerves when I talk to him, and this one of the few days of the year I'm actually obligated by family law to speak with him.

For normal people, Valentine's Day is a day to share with that special someone, pledge their deepest love and all that other good and mushy stuff. Me, I've never been a romantic type. If I have to choose between Stephen King and a Harlequin Romance, I'm going with King.

But that doesn't mean I don't know a thing or two about what not to do. Yesterday, my brother and my mother went to see Black Swan. Now, I haven't seen it; I've heard it's either brilliant or dreck. My mother, only knowing beforehand it was an Academy-Award nominated film about ballet, called it awful and revolting. I don't know what my brother thought. Either way, it doesn't strike me as a date movie, much less one to take your mother to, what with the blood, violent imagery, insanity of the protagonist, drug use, lesbianism, strong sexual content, hallucinations, disorienting camera work, and the nasty underside of a highly regard artistic venue (ballet).

It got me thinking: what are the worst movies to watch on date night? Granted, there are probably thousands of titles disqualified for a number of reasons. Not every movie is made to appeal to both sexes, but to clarify, this list consists of movies you might think would.

1) The works of Ingmar Bergman

When thinking of film as art, Ingmar Bergman leaps to mind. His films raise deep philosophical questions and are exceptionally crafted and acted. Saying you watch and study Bergman is a good way to sound intelligent, but it's not exactly romantic to non-film buffs. No one wants to be pounded with questions about life and death, whether God exists, buried family secrets, merging personalities, and insanity on a date. You mention to people of my generation there's a movie where a knight from the Crusades plays chess against Death for his soul, they'll say, "Oh, like in Bill and Ted." Doesn't that sound impressive?

2) Hannibal (2001)

The Silence of the Lambs
struck a chord with female audiences. At the center of a story about cannibals and serial killers you have Clarice Starling who not only saves the day but also overcomes the male bureaucracy that doesn't think she's up to it. A great story on two fronts. One would be tempted to think Hannibal offered something similar, and that'd be wrong. Silence has its share of gross out, but Hannibal makes that its sole calling card. Instead of a complex, intelligent detective, Starling is reduced to a plot device to be solely manipulated by the other characters. And Julianne Moore just doesn't do the role as well as Jodie Foster.

3) Nothing but Trouble (1991)

A comedy starring Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Demi Moore sounds pleasant, especially at a time when all four were riding high career wise. But let's get to the plot. Aykroyd plays a crazed, decrepit judge who along with his deformed family enacts dark justice on traffic violators Chase and Moore. It's like a Hollywood spoof of Texas Chainsaw Masscre. Whether it's throwing people through Mr. Bonestripper (a machine that lives up to its namesake), Aykroyd peeling his own nose off, the disgusting giant babies who live in the junkyard, and Candy in drag trying to marry Chase, Nothing but Trouble was darker than people expected. It's also regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, which began the career downfalls of Aykroyd and Chase. I have no shame in admitting I love it, but the odds of finding someone else who does is admittedly rather slim.

4) Any zombie movie outside of Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead or 28 Days Later

Those three titles represent the pinnacle of mainstream zombie cinema. The first two are funny, and the 28 Days Later falls under Danny Boyle's filmography (director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours). What will your date think when Captain Rhodes has his legs ripped off in Day of the Dead and tells the zombies to "choke on 'em?" Or when when the infamous head scene occurs in Re-Animator ? Or the final 20 minutes of Dead Alive?

5) Pearl Harbor (2001)

While the actual attack scenes are staged with technical skill, the movie around them is insipid, insulting, pandering, cliche-ridden, and riddled with one of the worst love triangles I've ever seen on film. It's obvious Pearl Harbor was made because someone thought (and was right) it'd be profitable to combine Titanic and Saving Private Ryan. Instead of a historical drama about how America came together in a time of crisis, we get to see how the Japanese attack on the naval base was a big inconvenience for a soap opera affair. Avoid watching anyway.