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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Matthew McConaughey plays a smarmy, slick, charming southern lawyer . . . in every single movie he makes.  He does it again here, inexplicably drawling his way through a role as a hotshot Los Angeles criminal attorney retained to defend Ryan Phillipe, a rich boy accused of a brutal rape.

The entire film rests on selling you the real possibility that Phillipe is innocent.  And there is not one moment when you believe that Phillipe is innocent.

Look at him.  Guilty, guilty, guilty.

Now that the story is hosed, we’re left with McConaughey’s schtick, a motley crew of character actors without character (dewy-eyed Marisa Tomei, as McConaughey’s ex-wife prosecutor; tough old cop Bryan Cranston; hippie P.I. William H. Macy; and the peripatetic bondsman John Leguizamo) and “twists” so implausible that Director Brad Furman must have assumed the audience had checked out by the time of the reveals.

Prior to seeing Dogma, my dislike for Kevin Smith was pronounced.  His “breakout” self-financed picture Clerks was wildly overpraised and when he got a big budget behind him, he produced varying degrees of crap.  Mallrats showed that outside the confines of a convenience store, where camera movement is unnecessary, Smith was lost.  Chasing Amy proved Smith a lame, unfunny writer, incapable of directing actors, preferring to let them exfoliate, flatulate and otherwise bleed all over his print.

Dogma sucks as well, but there are some pleasures in the sucking, because Smith has written a hit-and-miss lampoon on the perversities of Catholicism.  Where he hits, he knocks it out of the park, as he plays fast and loose with the Bible in an effort to tell his modern fable (fallen angels trying to get back into Heaven; other angels, muses, apostles and assorted characters tryng to stop them).  Smith also takes a few decent shots at the Pope, and offers a heartfelt tribute to true faith, all in the zany format of The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming . . .

Smith still does not direct actors, so the players in Dogma look like they are in home movies (Linda Fiorentino manages an entire film with a smirk and rolled eyes). But his laissez-faire approach is made less ruinous by crafty renderings of four angels (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Alan Rickman) and the best performance to-date by Smith regular, stoner Jason Mewes.  The movie is silly, but it is by far Smith’s best work.  What followed was more crap (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jersey Girl, Zack & Miri Make a Porno, Cop Out), and Smith’s sensibility that his crap was actually awesome and the studios don’t “get” it and that’s what makes him awesome and everyone else not awesome.

Which leads to a biography of a director highlighting the following: criticism of Paul Thomas Anderson, as if Anderson were a peer; becoming so overweight he is kicked off of a flight for not having bought two seats; attacking Bruce Willis (“I had no f***ing help from this dude whatsoever”) because Willis did not work hard enough to promote the execrable Cop Out); an attempt to market his last cruddy picture “outside the system”; and retiring, at the ripe old age of 41.

Baseball season is upon us, so a review of a Sam Raimi baseball movie (?) is apropos.  Raimi, whose credits include three Evil Dead movies, three Spiderman movies, and Drag Me to Hell, proves a strange choice to helm a love story-via-flashback, as an aging starter (Kevin Costner) thinks on his love life while trying to pitch a no-hitter.

I am no Costner-hater.  He is limited but does what he does well – affable, with a flash of anger and occasional stoicism.  Get him outside his comfort zone (Robin Hood, JFK, 13 Days) and you got problems.  But he was a fine, goofy golfer in Tin Cup and as the sweet but violent and repressed killer in Open Range.  Here, he’s Tin Cup but replaces goofy with taciturn. 

Costner is not the problem.  In fact, his time on the mound is compelling.  But when he gets to thinking about that woman of his – Kelly Preston (wife of John Travolta, poor thing) – things go to pot.  Preston is thin, harpy and jittery, and her pitch is, “you need to settle down with serious people like me instead of living the life of a little boy.”  Her case is not strong.  Even though she has a nice daughter (Jenna Malone), it does not seem conceivable that a good-time, easygoing jock like Costner would be enticed by her invitation.  And thus, the movie is undone (and at 2 hours and 17 minutes, very trying).      

Postcript:  this is supposed to be a baseball movie, and while I understand that athletes get injured in the off-season performing everyday tasks, Raimi has Costner slicing his hand on a router.  A pitcher making $15 million a year is not working in the shed with his Black and Decker (hell, he is likely contractually prohibited from self-gratification).

The film also has the manager putting guys up in the bullpen while Costner, who is at the end of his career, IS PITCHING A PERFECT GAME for a team no longer in the pennant race!

Absurd.

With Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as it Gets on his resume’, James L. Brooks commands the respect of viewing one of his movies, even if it was not well-reviewed.  So, I watched How Do You Know, the story of a 31 year old Olympic softballer (Reese Witherspoon) who is cut from the team and thereafter, alternates between two romantic futures – a freewheeling, rich, fun and unserious Major League baseball pitcher (Owen Wilson) and a nervous, polite, endearing corporate-type under federal investigation (Paul Rudd).  Rudd’s predicament stems from the wrongdoing of his father (Jack Nicholson) and ultimately, he must choose jail for himself or Dad.

The film is fine in parts, and it has its funny moments, almost all of which come from Wilson and Nicholson, but it doesn’t catch hold or intrigue.

The chemistry between Wilson and Witherspoon and more acutely, Witherspoon and Rudd, is just not there.  Wilson is his daffy, charming self (though as much a baseball pitcher as I am an astronaut), so he’s trying, but Witherspoon is horribly miscast as a jock who doesn’t buy into a future of love.  She is not at all jock material, and she seems to know it.  Her response is confusion.  This is a younger Sandra Bullock role.   And Rudd so overplays his mooning infatuation that you soon hope he does not get the girl and, in fact, is jailed.  Most times, Rudd’s sweet mug works, but too often in this movie, you just want to smack him in the mouth.

There’s also too many cutesy scenes and quirky characters, where everybody has the witty line.  The scene in a delivery room (Rudd’s secretary has a baby and gets a marriage proposal from a cookie cutter galoot) is so precious you may retch.  Even the relationship between Nicholson and Rudd, which has some pretty good laughs, is too broad and thus unconvincing.

There are, however, funny moments and some very good lines even beyond the ones in the trailer. And I’ve certainly seen worse romantic comedies.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s opus chronicles the American porn industry in the late 70s through the vehicle of a family of the weak, caught up in the speed, confusion and excitement of sex, drugs and fleeting fame in the bleaching sun of Los Angeles (Anderson took some license here, as the porn industry started in San Francisco and NYC, but his film requires that feel of promise and wasteland that is LA).  The “father” is porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), and the story revolves around his LA retreat, a gaudy ranch-styled haven for his coterie of misfits.  There are the young rejects: porn star and mother Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), her younger charge Rollergirl (Heather Graham), studs Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly) and Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) and lesser stars Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters) and Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker); the film crew (William H. Macy, Ricky Jay and Phillip Seymour Hoffman); the money men, The Colonel (Robert Ridgely) and Floyd  Gondolli (Phillip Baker Hall); and a host of hanger-ons (club owner Luis Guzman and troublemaker Thomas Jane).

Into this world comes Mark Wahlberg, a young kid who works at Guzman’s nightclub and comes to the attention of porn director Horner after Rollergirl has an encounter with him and reports back his massive endowment.  Horner offers the boy a place in the family.  Wahlberg becomes Dirk Diggler, porn superstar, escaping from a toxic home.  In the world of porn, he finds acceptance, friendship and a certain form of American stardom.

Diggler is based on famed porn star John Holmes, and while Anderson doesn’t take Dirk Diggler down Holmes’s exact path of The Wonderland Murders and AIDS, the trip tracks close enough.  Hubris and drugs take Diggler from the safety of Horner and family to the street, where he ends up turning tricks, beaten by punks, desperate to score drugs and nearly murdered by a psychotic drug dealer (Alfred Molina).

To a person, these people are none-too-bright, but they cleave together in a life that mirrors celebrity, though it is on the cheap.  They briefly flourish in a fantasy world within a fantasy world, where their work is art, and their talent is real.  Yet, despite the self-delusion, Anderson shows how the family actually provides support these outcasts never found elsewhere.

The film is visually audacious and features several flowing scenes without a cut for long stretches, including a 3 minute opening scene which introduces most of the characters.  Anderson’s filming of two separate parties at the Horner house is boundless and reminiscent of Altman’s opening scene in The Player as well as Scorcese’s casino scenes in Casino.  The effect meshes with Wahlberg’s entrance on the scene, as he steps into a world where he is the golden child and soon becomes intoxicated.

The screenplay, by Anderson, is also authentic and resonant, often times evoking David Mamet, but without the showiness.  A prime example is the discussion between Horner and Floyd Gondolli on the changing business of porn:

The music by Michael Penn is evocative of the time as well, and the cuts chosen for each scene are spot on, from Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” (revealing Amber Waves as a mother) to the Beach Boys “God Only Knows” providing the coda for the characters, to “Sister Christian”, which now serves as a sinister song, as used in the film’s most harrowing scene, much like “Stuck in the Middle with You” after Reservoir Dogs.     

Finally, the performances are uniformly great.  Julianne Moore was nominated for best supporting actress (she was beat out by Kim Basinger in LA Confidential, a great film and a fine performance, but still, Moore was robbed).  Burt Reynolds was also nominated and rightly so.  Interestingly, after seeing a rough cut of the movie, Reynolds fired his agent for casting him in Boogie Nights, but Burt’s artistic choices have never been stellar.  Wahlberg stands out, exuding the perfect blend of charm, wonder, cluelessness and want.  Anderson is lucky Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role to work on a little picture called Titanic.  DiCaprio’s a fine actor, but he’s a little too savvy and wary.  Wahlberg was perfectly open, trusting and innocent.  The scene where his mother berates him as worthless and stupid, forcing him out of the house, is heart-wrenching.    

This is a great film of America sprawl, ascent, decay, and fall.  One of my favorites.

An engaging and surprisingly even picture about a simplistic, homophobic ex-NY cop (Robert De Niro) living in the same apartment building as a drag queen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  De Niro has a stroke and needs the drag queen’s assistance as a voice coach (she teaches singing) so he can learn to talk again.  This is two fish, different waters.  You’ve seen it.  But through the skills of Hoffman and De Niro, it works really well, and review of the picture allows a meditation on Hoffman.  I remember him as the spoiled rich fink in Scent of a Woman, the unfortunate thief in the remake of The Getaway and the dunce with a badge in Nobody’s Fool.  Even in such small roles, he resonated.  Soon came absolutely indelible and brilliant supporting turns, as the closeted and adoring fan of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights and rich visiting playboy Freddie Miles who smells a rat in The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Leads came next, including a best actor Oscar for Capote, but Hoffman is in the club with Duvall and Hackman – he can play the lead, but he’s more often better in support or ensemble, be it the outrageous Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, the chilling priest in Doubt, or the stubborn manager Art Howe in Moneyball.  He’s pitch-perfect and makes everyone around him better.

His role in Flawless is actually a very different character for Hoffman.  Here, he’s flamboyant, wildly emotional and central.  These are easy roles to botch, but Hoffman communicates both the external vamp and internal insecure deftly (his hysteria as his boyfriend abuses him is particularly touching).  He’s very moving, and De Niro (who is also good as the disabled grump) does not get in his way.

Clint Eastwood plays a divorced father of two and homicide detective in New Orleans who has a penchant for prostitutes. The prostitutes are murdered, each one shortly after being visited by Eastwood.  Eastwood doesn’t exactly have range, but he is not Dirty Harry in this one (The New York Times dubbed him Kinky Harry).  Rather, he’s a bit of a scared rat, as he realizes that his secret (some form of S&M/bondage; Clint was ahead of his time in these the days of “Fifty Shades of Gray”)  is revealed and worse, he has been unintentionally marking these girls for murder.

Genevieve Bujold is the rape crisis counselor who tries to assist Eastwood professionally in the hunting down of the killer, and emotionally, by turning him from his sexual demons.

It’s a mixed bag.  Eastwood is clearly stretching, which is to be commended, but he never fully commits.  Al Pacino had the same problem in the controversial Cruising, where he was tracking down a killer of gays in the S&M subculture of New York.  Unable to fully get in the skin of their characters, Pacino and Eastwood play it zoned out, which distances the audience.