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Monthly Archives: July 2012

David Mamet-speak is one thing.  There is nothing quite like the staccato of the pitiable salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross, and Alec Baldwin’s thunderous sermon to those below him has become so ubiquitous that a generation of frat boys can now recite it – or parts (“coffee is for closers!”) – verbatim.

But Mamet-speak has it limits and when coupled with Mamet’s macho honor philosophy, the results can be toxic.  And thus, we have Redbelt, a bizarre modern moral tale about a martial arts enthusiast (Chiwetal Ejiofor) who spouts a lot of Kung Fu b.s. while negotiating through a plot so byzantine and ridiculous that were I to attempt to encapsulate it, I’d have a stroke.

So, I’ll let Wikipedia do it for me:

While closing his Jiu-jitsu studio one evening, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is approached by attorney Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), who is seeking the owner of the vehicle she accidentally sideswiped. Off-duty police officer Joe Collins (Max Martini), who was receiving a private lesson from Mike, sees that Laura is distressed and tries to take her coat. Startled, Laura grabs Joe’s gun and fires it; shattering the studio’s front window. To avoid having Laura charged with attempted murder, Mike and Joe agree to conceal the event.

Mike’s insurance, however, will not cover his act of God claim that the window was broken by a strong wind. Mike’s wife Sondra (Alice Braga), whose fashion business profits are the only thing keeping the struggling studio afloat, requests that Mike ask for a loan from her brother Ricardo (John Machado), a mixed martial arts champion. At Ricardo’s nightclub, Mike meets with Sondra’s other brother, Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro), and learns that Joe quit as the club’s bouncer because Bruno never paid him. Mike confronts Bruno about the situation but is rebuffed. Mike then declines Bruno’s offer to fight on the undercard of an upcoming match between Ricardo and Japanese legend, Morisaki (Enson Inoue), which could potentially pay out $50,000. Mike believes competitions with money as the incentive are not honorable and weaken the fighter.

Meanwhile, aging Hollywood action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) enters the nightclub without security and is accosted by a man with a broken bottle. Mike intervenes and subdues three men in the process. The following day, Mike receives an expensive watch and an invitation to dinner from Chet. Mike gives the watch to Joe to pawn in lieu of his unpaid salary at the nightclub. At the dinner party, Chet’s wife Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon) arranges an informal business deal to buy a large amount of dresses from Sondra’s company. Chet, impressed by Mike, invites him to the set of his current film. As Mike and Sondra leave the dinner, Mike explains his unique training method to Chet’s business associate Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna). Before a sparring match, each fighter must draw one of three marbles, two white and one black; whoever draws a black marble has to fight with a handicap.

Mike uses his military experience to answer a few technical questions for Chet on the film set and is offered the role of co-producer. That evening, Mike faxes the details of his training methods to Jerry so they can be used in the film. Joe arrives at the studio and informs Mike that he was suspended from duty for pawning the watch, which turned out to be stolen. During their dinner that evening, Mike relays the information to Jerry who excuses himself to handle the matter, but never returns. At home, Mike learns that the phone numbers that Zena gave Sondra have been disconnected. Sondra is panicky, having borrowed $30,000 from a loan shark to order the fabric for the dresses. As he meets with the loan shark to discuss an extension, Mike notices Bruno and Marty Brown (Ricky Jay) on television using Mike’s marble-drawing method as a promotional gimmick for the undercard fights of Ricardo’s match.

Mike hires Laura to sue, but Marty’s lawyer threatens that if they do not drop the lawsuit, he will give the police an empty shell casing with Laura’s fingerprints, as proof that she attempted to kill an off-duty cop. He also threatens Mike as a witness who covered up the crime by bribing the cop with a stolen watch. When told of the situation, Joe feels responsible and kills himself. Mike feels obligated to help Joe’s financially struggling wife and, in desperate need of money himself, decides to compete as an undercard fighter in the upcoming competition.

At the arena, Mike discovers the fights are being fixed via a magician (Cyril Takayama) using sleight of hand to surreptitiously switch the white and black marbles. Disgusted by this revelation, Mike confronts the conspirators: Marty, Jerry and Bruno who confirm that unknown to the competitors, the fights are handicapped by the fight promoters so as to ensure winning bets. They also reveal that Ricardo is intentionally losing the fight to Morisaki so they can make money on the rematch. Jerry tells Mike that Sondra is the one who told them about Laura shooting the window and Bruno justifies her betrayal by explaining that his sister is too smart to stay with someone who cannot provide for her.

As Mike is exiting the arena, he meets Laura. Their conversation is not audible, but it ends with Laura slapping Mike. Mike then re-enters the arena. He incapacitates several security guards trying to stop him and is ultimately engaged by Ricardo. The audience and camera crews take notice as Mike and Ricardo face off in the arena’s corridors. Inspired by the Professor, an elderly martial arts master attending the match, Mike manages to slip a difficult choke hold and defeats Ricardo. He is approached by Morisaki, who awards Mike with his ivory-studded belt, previously referred to as a Japanese national treasure. Mike is then approached by the Professor himself, who awards Mike the coveted Redbelt.

As my Mom might say, “Jeez-o-flip!”

I am not a Mamet hater.  Oleanna, Glengarry, Homicide, State and Main, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, these are all very good films, and Mamet displays an authentic American voice in their telling.  His work on films he did not direct, or which did not come from one of his stage plays, such as The Verdict, The Untouchables, The Edge, Hoffa and Ronin, is vivid and accomplished.

Redbelt, however, came out in 2008, about the time someone needed to tell Mamet that his mystical machismo and rat-a-tat dialogue had not only reached their expiration date, but had become as embarrassing as a driver’s hat and leather gloves on a newly divorced man.

Since Redbelt’s release, and critical failure, Mamet has written a few shorts, and episodes for his TV show “The Unit.”  He also wrote a very interesting book explaining his “conversion” from Hollywood liberal to a member of the right, “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture,” as fine a read as you’ll get if you want to understand the nuts-and-bolts philosophy and precepts of a modern conservative (beyond the human sacrifices of panhandlers and the ritual rape of the land).  Perhaps he’s done with film writing, but if so, Redbelt is both Mamet’s pathetic coda and a testament to his loss of the gift.

It was kismet that just after watching 1982’s 48 Hours, I’d stumble onto a modern Irish buddy cop picture.  Brendan Gleeson (Boyle) is an Irish policeman in Connemara, content to do his duty while occasionally lifting recreational drugs off of car accident victims or engaging call girls dressed as policewomen for their pleasures.  The FBI, in the form of Don Cheadle (Everett) arrives and they require Gleeson’s assistance in stopping a drug shipment and the brutal gang (led by Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham) facilitating it.

Much more comedic and wry than 48 Hours, The Guard does set up Gleeson as the racist.  When briefed by Cheadle and shown pictures of the white gang, Gleeson goes wide-eyed and says, “I thought only black lads were drug dealers?”  When Cheadle upbraids him for being a bigot, Gleeson responds, “I’m Irish, sure. Racism’s part of my culture.”  But the stronger dynamics are the Cheadle as fish-out-of-water line and a little of Gleeson’s Oscar to Cheadle’s by-the-book Felix.  Gleeson has no real enmity behind his racism and uses it merely to probe Cheadle.  Their interplay gets funnier as they get to know each other.

Best is the depiction of Ireland, which is not so much whimsical as hilariously casual. Gleeson finds some guns meant for the IRA and when delivering them to their contact (the idea of confiscation is never considered), seems bemused that the organization still exists.  The presumption is that almost all the police are on the take, and Gleeson’s explanation as to why he cannot assist Cheadle in the canvassing of potential witnesses to a murder is pitch perfect:

BOYLE:  So what d’ya have planned for the day?

EVERETT:  Well obviously we don’t know who killed McCormick or why. There was no useful forensic evidence found at the crime scene, so I thought we might start by canvassing the area around where the body was discovered. See if anybody heard anything, something they might have thought was relatively insignificant, but which in light of the murder may have a far greater importance. I mean, when I caught that sonofabitch Tyrell Lee Dobbs it was a result of something as seemingly inconsequential as a laundry mark, if you can believe that. The guy had a personal hygiene issue that was almost pathological. The other thing to consider is that McCormick was probably in the process of reconnoitering drop-off points all along the coast. Our friends Sheehy, Cornell and O’Leary are no doubt in other parts of the country doing exactly the same thing. So I’ll liaise with Inspector Stanton and Detective Moody, have them and their men start a coordinated push in all the relevant locations…

He trails off, realizing that BOYLE is concentrating on his food and is not listening to him.

EVERETT:  Sergeant?

BOYLE: I’m sorry, you lost me at “we”.

EVERETT:  We. You and I.

BOYLE:  It’s my day off. Did I not say?

EVERETT:  It’s your day off.

BOYLE:  I’ve had it booked a good while. Ask Stanton.

EVERETT:  We’re investigating a murder and the trafficking of half a million dollars in cocaine–

BOYLE:  Half a billion dollars.

EVERETT: –half a billion dollars in cocaine, and you’re telling me it’s your day off?

BOYLE:  Twenty-four hours won’t make any difference.

EVERETT: Twenty-four hours won’t make any difference

BOYLE:  They’re always saying it does, on those cop shows on the telly, but it doesn’t. Not in my experience, anyways. And why are you always repeating everything I say?

There is also a side story showing Gleeson taking care of his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) in the latter stages of her cancer that is sweet but not distracting.

Finally, the trio of bad guys have a running discussion of philosophy and culture that is Joycean yet Tarantinoesque. It’s rare you’re introduced to crooks in the midst of the following discusssion:

SHEEHY: –Schopenhauer.

O’LEARY:  I’d say Nietzsche.

SHEEHY:  Nietzsche. You haven’t even fucking read any Nietzsche.

O’LEARY:  I have, too. Ah…The Antichrist.

SHEEHY:  Quote me something, then.

O’LEARY:  “What does not kill me–”

SHEEHY:  Ah, for fuck’s sake. Every child knows that one.

CORNELL: Bertrand Russell.

SHEEHY: Bertrand Russell. Will you listen to him. The fucking English. Everything has to be fucking English. Name your favourite philosopher, and lo and behold, he’s fucking English.

CORNELL: He’s Welsh.

SHEEHY: Hah?

CORNELL: Bertrand Russell was Welsh.

SHEEHY: Bertrand Russell was Welsh?

He considers whether or not to take issue with CORNELL’s statement, but then accepts it might be true.

SHEEHY:  You know I never knew that. I didn’t think anybody interesting was Welsh.

CORNELL: Dylan Thomas?

SHEEHY: Like I said, I didn’t think anybody interesting was Welsh.

O’LEARY: “You will not get the crowd to cry Hosanna until you ride into town on an ass.” Nietzsche.

SHEEHY and CORNELL look blankly at O’LEARY. Then —

SHEEHY: Yeah that’s a good one.

CORNELL: Good quote, yeah, nice one.

You might think it showy and contrived, but it’s not. 

 

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is the best film of the year and the best of Anderson’s career.  Anderson writes and directs fables, where child-like adults attempt to grapple with the expectations of a grown-up world.  In Bottle Rocket, Owen Wilson’s Dignan wants to be a mythical man of the big heist, not a Texas service worker.  In Rushmore, Bill Murray wants to be young again, to erase his choices and capture a tenth of the wonder and promise of Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer.  Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum won’t grow up but demands the fealty of a family he has abandoned and when it is not forthcoming, he fakes a fatal illness to win them back.  In all of Anderson’s films, the protagonists are stubbornly fleeing from responsibility while demanding the respect accorded responsible people, creating funny and bittersweet scenarios.

Anderson also creates beautiful love stories between those who cannot be together.  Luke Wilson falls immediately in love with the motel worker in Bottle Rocket, yet she cannot speak English. In Rushmore, neither Murray or Schwartzman can have the love of their life, as Murray is too old and Scwartzman too young, and in The Royal Tenenbaums, Gwyneth Paltrow is loved by childhood friend Owen Wilson, who aspires only to be a Tenenbaum; stepbrother Luke Wilson, who exiles himself to lessen the pain; and her husband, Murray, who can only analyze her.  In The Life Aquatic, Murray cannot be with Cate Blanchett, as she sees his b.s. and realizes he can never shed it.  In all his films, Anderson shows us the absurdity of love but he never mocks it or gives in to cynicism.

At root, all Anderson’s films are children’s films for adults, up to and including The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Moonrise Kingdom is similar but has as its leads two children who meet in the summer of 1964, fall in love and defiantly plan an escape from the confines of their New England island in the summer of 1965.  The girl (Kara Hayward) is the troubled daughter of emotionally estranged lawyers Frances McDormand and Murray.  The boy (Jared Gilman) is an unpopular orphan attending scout camp under the supervision of Edward Norton.  In pursuit are McDormand, Norton and Murray as well as the entire scout troop (a moveable, hilarious “Lord of the Flies” troupe), island police chief Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton (who has come to retrieve the boy so he can be sent to reform school) and Schwartzman, who is helping the young lovers on the lam (he’s the King Rat of the scout camp).  The film is charming, comic, and often beautiful.  It brings back the childhood moments of a first kiss, escape and adventure.  The scenes between Hayward and Gilman are poignantly funny and then almost heartbreaking, but Anderson also gives us tender scenes between Murray and McDormand as they confront their distance; Willis and the boy as the former explains his loneliness; and Norton and his tape recorder, as he confesses his inadequacies in scoutmaster logs.

The picture features many of Anderson’s touches, including an inspired soundtrack (courtesy of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh), a set that presents as a stage play (as in Rushmore, the movie contains an actual stage play), and a narrator (Bob Balaban), though unlike Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums, Balaban is on-screen delivering a funny turn as a documentarian.

What transpires is an exciting children’s adventure that will have the same effect on you the adventure book you read under covers with the aid of a flashlight and may transport you to some magical moment in your childhood.  It speaks to those who had a backwoods fort, summer camp spook stories, a secret love to whom you sent letters without a single “LOL” or “OMG”, hidden treasure or, if you were lucky, all of the above.

Steve McQueen’s Shame offers the story of Michael Fassbender, a New York City something or other, who is a sex addict.  We learn this because he flirts with women on the subway, engages prostitutes, and masturbates/watches porn morning, noon and night.  When his unbalanced sister, Carey Mulligan, comes to visit, his equilibrium is shattered, either because she is nude in his apartment, she sleeps with his boss, or she references their childhood.  No matter.  This is the kind of film that is destined to have as a penultimate scene Fassbender on his knees, in the rain, with a “will he or won’t he crawl back into sex addiction?” finale.

Why is Fassbender this way? As Mulligan says, “we’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” However, that place is actually identified in the script as either Ireland or New Jersey.  And that is the sum and substance of motivation, backstory or reason.

In place of exposition, McQueen provides pointless, overly showy scenes, including a long, several block Fassbender jog through the streets of NYC; a preposterous nightclub song by Mulligan (she sings “New York, New York” and sports a Marilynesque “Happy birthday, Mr. President” skintight dress); and, a ridiculous threesome with Fassbender and two women that is half Obsession by Calvin Klein, half Showtime soft core.


“I know how you feel, pal.”

My wife summed it up beautifully: “I don’t even think he was a sex addict.” Her comment is akin to watching Raging Bull and declaring, “I don’t even think he was a boxer.”

Also, Hans Zimmer should sue the composer, Harry Escott, who ripped his work off on The Thin Red Line damn near note for note.

The 1.5 stars are awarded because our good friend’s sister is in the picture and the movie looks great.

The best of the buddy-cop genre, I got a chance to watch this 1982 release last night with my boy. This was Eddie Murphy’s kinetic debut as hustler Reggie Hammond, released from prison for 48 hours under the brutal watch of Detective Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) to hunt for Hammond’s ex-partners, who have gone on a cop-killing spree in San Francisco. The film catapulted Murphy to stardom. It was also the first picture to feature a Saturday Night Live comedian in a raw, crime story.

The film holds up well. Murphy is very funny but he does not treat every scene as an opportunity to do a bit or schtick.  Rather, he picks and chooses his moments, trusting in the story directed and mostly written by Walter Hill. He has one virtuoso scene, when he poses as a cop to roust a redneck bar, but even there, where he puts a knife to a man’s face and tells him, “I’m your worst fu***** nightmare, I’m a ni**** with a badge”, he is in keeping with the picture’s tough tenor. And Nolte’s Cates is brutal, unpleasant and an unrelenting racist, almost shockingly so, given our current advanced ethos. Given that we’re dealing with tough cops and criminals, the racial dynamic is not off-putting.  It just adds to the tension.

I was also surprised by the gritty brutality of the movie. The body count is high, but rather than explosions and elegant slo-motion, Hill takes more of a Sam Peckinpah approach. The shootings are bloody and awkward, not stylized. And the bad guys – Albert Ganz (James Remar) and Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) – are scary bad.

James Horner’s original music (he’s been nominated 5 times and won for his scoring of Titanic) is apt, a moody mix of jazz and Asian chimes.  Hill also uses San Francisco to his full advantage, mixing the grimy feel of Bullitt and Dirty Harry with a little early 80s glitz.

It has a few weaknesses. Annette O’Toole, for whom I have had my own weakness since Robby Benson’s One on One

is wasted as Cates’s suffering girlfriend. And the finale, where Cates and Hammond just “play a hunch.” is a bit lazy. Still, this is a solid crime picture.

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A successful parody of both high school teen flicks and buddy-cop movies (ala’ Hot Fuzz).  A blast of a picture, made better by strong chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.  Hill was the high school geek, Tatum on the top of the social totem pole, but after graduation, they both ended up on the police force, with dreams of car chases, shoot-outs and slo-mo explosions.  Instead, they are assigned as bike patrolmen, and after they screw that up, they are shipped off to the Jump Street division, where their youthful faces land them back in high school, undercover, to break up a drug ring.

So far so good, though not much beyond the formula.  But the material is elevated during their second stint in high school, where Tatum finds himself the geek.  Aggressive jocks, immediate put-downs and a hierarchy are out; tolerance and peace are in; and the main drug dealer (played by James Franco’s brother, Dave, in a very funny, emo/enviro turn) cleaves to the cooler Hill, leaving Tatum as the odd man out.  Hill basks in a high school popularity he always craved, leading to a great exchange where Tatum screams at Hill, “You’re in too deep” after he finds that Hill is filling out college applications in the hopes of matriculating at Berkeley with Franco.

Which brings me to Tatum, who I had unfairly classified as a graduate of the Josh Hartnett school of lobotomized acting.  Indeed, to watch Tatum play Roman period, as he attempted in The Eagle, was cringe-inducing.  But as Clint says, “A man has got to know his limitations.”  Tatum redeems himself and steals this picture with great timing and unexpected sensitivity.  He is also getting very good reviews for Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.