Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hitmen on Holiday: In Bruges (2008)

Writer-Director Martin McDonagh’s pitch-perfect film debut opens with two hitmen arriving in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges. The two are fresh off a botched job back in the U.K., and have been sent by their boss to hide out in the medieval city of cathedrals and canals to await his instructions. Veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is immediately taken by the city, and jumps at the chance to play tourist, while hotheaded rookie Ray (Colin Farrell) declares Bruges a “shithole” on arrival and sees no point in doing anything other than drink in the pub. After all, he says, history is “all just a load of stuff that’s already happened.”

On its surface, In Bruges is a story we’ve seen many times before. Even the personal demons of the characters, like Ray’s grief over having accidentally killed a child on their last job or Ken’s calm detachment from his occupation are at this point old plot devices (the killer with emotional issues is one of the most ubiquitous tropes in recent cinema--see You Kill Me, The Matador, Analyze This, The Sopranos and the entire action movie catalog of Nicholas Cage). But McDonagh, best known as a playwright, is a gifted writer of dialogue, and manages to mine Ray and Ken’s mundane and often silly conversations for hidden and surprising depths. His devil-may-care attitude toward plotting is a bit less elegant-- to call the film overplotted is an understatement--but it’s also a big part of what ultimately makes In Bruges so funny and sets it apart from others like it. So after we’ve seen Ray punch a woman, snort coke with a dwarf and two Dutch hookers, and insult just about every social demographic to its face, we are able to let go of any preconceived notions and resign ourselves to going where McDonagh takes us.

Fortunately, the road he takes is more interesting than the genre usually allows, and In Bruges offers some really delightful surprises in its second half. Towering over all the rest is the introduction of Ralph Fiennes as Ken and Rays’s boss Harry, a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Brit that is the most simultaneously likable and loathsome screen villain that I’ve encountered in some time. Fiennes seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast here, with his steely-eyed glare and stiff posture (not to mention the string of curses he lets fly ever time he opens his mouth), but he makes the character his own. While Kingsley’s Don Logan was a single-minded, unstoppable force of nature, Fiennes brings some oddly human tics to his performance, playing Harry as the kind of old-school hood that acts on “a point of honor.” He's a proper British thug, and even when he’s shooting a man or overflowing with anger, he’s quick to insist it’s nothing personal.

While Fiennes manages to steal a few scenes near the end of the film, including a shootout with Farrell that’s one of the funniest action scenes in recent memory, the majority of drama in the film is placed firmly on the shoulders of Farrell and Gleeson, and thankfully so. They make a great odd couple, eventually falling into a father-son dynamic that makes for some great humor at the same time that it's oddly touching (see the way Gleeson looks at Farrell and gives him advice before the other leaves for a date). Gleeson’s an old pro, and you expect him to be great (and he is), so it's Farrell's performance that comes as the big surprise here. He seems born to play the role of Ray, and he delivers his most petulant and inappropriate lines (“Look! They’re filming midgets!”) with a childish glee that is infectious and completely believable. Still, where Farrell and Gleeson really prove themselves is not in the film’s lighter moments, but when the mood gets serious. When the two discuss their belief in God or Ray’s anguish at having killed a little boy, it’s genuinely touching. McDonagh’s not just giving the audience half-hearted emotional filler to kill time between the one-liners, but genuine human drama, and this credibility only makes the jokes all the more funny when they do come.

Despite the stellar performances, not enough praise can be showered on McDonagh's script, which is the most tightly constructed of the year. His writing and the film as a whole have already earned him comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, but this parallel couldn’t be further off the mark. When Tarantino’s hitmen in Pulp Fiction indulge in inane chatter about TV pilots or what they call a Quarter Pounder in Amsterdam, it really is inane. McDonagh, on the other hand, imbues every aspect of In Bruges with meaning. Every line, every character, every action ultimately plays a part in the overarching narrative to an almost absurd degree. McDonagh has written the hell out of this movie, so to speak, and the fact that the characters and the drama are still so believable in such an overloaded script is only all the more to his credit.

I’d be remiss here not to mention the fourth key character in the story-- the city of Bruges itself. Love it or hate, this film will still succeed in making you want to go visit this truly remarkable city, which prior to seeing the film I had only heard of in passing. McDonagh makes a joke out of Harry repeatedly referring to it as “a fairy tale place,” but it’s an apt description of the city’s cobblestone streets and canals, which have led to its being dubbed “the Venice of the North”. The fact that McDonagh decided to stage such a subversive, joyously offensive film in this city that seems so staid and proper is just yet another of the many strokes of brilliance on display here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"And There Was a Great Earthquake..."

One of my favorite long takes from Stalker (1979). Sort of makes up for the other three hours where he barely moves the camera.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Recently Seen...

There Will Be Blood (2007) D: Paul Thomas Anderson

After a year of hype, I finally got around to seeing this one. I’ve never been a big P.T. Anderson fan, but this movie did prove to me that he is a hell of a technical filmmaker. Nearly every shot is perfectly composed, and the score, by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, manages to hit just the right note of absurd menace. The only problem, then, is Anderson’s script. Just like every film he’s made so far, it starts out strong before taking a nosedive and becoming outright plodding in its second half. I can still remember seeing Boogie Nights and wondering what the hell had happened to Anderson’s story when it reached the scene at the drug dealer’s house more than two hours in. The same thing happens in There Will Be Blood when Kevin J. O’Connor shows up claiming to be Daniel Plainview’s brother. It immediately seems out of place, and after a truly useless thirty minutes it becomes clear that his character has only been inserted into the story to serve as an audience for Plainview’s “I hate most people” monologue. That’s just lazy writing, especially in a two-and-a-half hour long movie.

I will jump on the bandwagon and say that Daniel Day Lewis is superb here. I completely bought his character in every way, and he certainly deserved the Academy Award he got, if only because he manages to inject meaning and ironies into his performance that are completely absent in the writing. He certainly blows Paul Dano’s sniveling faith healer out of the water every time the two have a scene together, and for better or worse, he does feel like a great American character. But he’s always bumping up against the shortcomings of the story. Anderson seems to be trying to make a big statement here, but I don’t know what it is, and I’m not sure he does, either. We get an ambitious, greedy oil man, and a smarmy false prophet, but I don't see what one has to do with the other. The film's tagline is "When Ambition Meets Faith." But isn't the character of Eli Sunday just as ambitious as Daniel Plainview? And Plainview, in his capitalist sort of way, certainly has faith in himself and his ability to succeed. So what, then? Is this film a statement on the shortcomings of capitalism and religion? On the hollowness of worldly pleasures? Is it a parable about the sacrifices made in the name of progress? Or how a man can be consumed by his own ambition? Anderson shows us parts of all these themes in varying degrees. The problem is that There Will Be Blood doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about any of them.

If... (1968) D: Lindsay Anderson

60s-era English school kids rebelling against the establishment can become an odd metaphor the violence of the present. That’s the way most Americans, with thoughts of school shootings all too fresh in their minds, are bound to read Lindsay Anderson’s classic Angry Young Man film. In reality, If... isn’t actually that fixated on violent young people (I’m not too sure the shootout that closes the story even really happens-- it might be yet another one of the fantasy sequences that populates the whole of the film.) It’s more about class structure, insurrection, and the way values are so often sacrificed in the act of revolution (to change society one has to be willing to employ its methods-- which here means violence). It’s impossible not to read the film in the context of the May ’68 student uprisings in Paris, but I think Anderson was concerned with a lot more here than being topical, and the film's target is nothing less than the whole of the English social structure.

The style of the film is a bit perplexing (I spent the better half of it trying to decipher the relevance of the seemingly random shifts from black and white to color, only to read afterward that Anderson had experienced trouble trying to light certain locations and had used the black and white merely out of utility), but Malcolm McDowell seems born to play the role of Mick Travis, and you can see here the blueprint that has been followed by a number of British actors over the years. I’ve little doubt that this is the film that convinced Stanley Kubrick that McDowell could play Alex in A Clockwork Orange. As for Anderson, he started out making documentaries, and you can see that style at work in the film’s first hour, which documents the dreary life of the school as though it had been filmed by Grierson or the Maysles Brothers. The film then takes a shift toward the surreal in its second half, and ends up feeling oddly like a Bunuel movie. This dissonance manages to be one of the its strong suits, and helps to set the scene for the truly bizarre final half hour that has to be seen to be believed. If... is certainly one of the stranger films I’ve seen in a long time. I felt oddly removed from it while watching it, even alienated, but afterward I had the distinct impression that I’d seen something great.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) D: Walter Salles

There’s not all that much plot in The Motorcycle Diaries. Two friends meet, take a motorcycle trip through South America, and then part ways. It would be unspectacular, if one of the two didn’t turn out to be Che Guevera, the famed revolutionary (and t-shirt image). The odd thing is that Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera play out the story as though they have no knowledge of the history surrounding the main character. Indeed, nothing in Ernesto Guevera, played with astounding sympathy by Gael Garcia Bernal, suggests that this retiring, asthmatic young man would one day be the spokesman for an entire revolution, serving as the voice of a philosophy and leading armies of guerillas through the jungles of Bolivia. Outside of a few throwaway lines, the only uncommon aspect of his character is his extreme honesty-- a trait that the script annoyingly allows to be pointed out by nearly every character he encounters. But even this is excusable, because The Motorcycle Diaries works around the friendship of the two main characters and the amazing scenery they encounter as they ride (and often fall off of) a beat up motorcycle across the continent (this film has been described by others as one giant travel ad for South America-- and they’ve definitely got a point). I can confidently say that this is one of the most manipulative movies I’ve seen. The film haphazardly shoves images of downtrodden communists, oppressed Indians, and postcard-like shots of Macchu Picchu and the Argentine countryside down the viewers’ throats, just hoping to get an emotional reaction. The surprising thing, then, is that it so often succeeds. As a love letter to youthful exuberance, adventure, and friendship, The Motorcycle Diaries manages to be emotionally affecting at the same time that it’s intellectually and politically implausible. And sometimes, that’s perfectly alright. There’s not really any “there” there, but thanks to Salles’ languid pacing, a sweetly melodic soundtrack, and truly moving performances from Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna as his best friend Alberto, The Motorcycle Diaries manages to achieve an almost perfect kind of sophism.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Missing the Mark: The Grand (2007)

Zak Penn’s sophomore effort The Grand has just about everything going for it. For one, it’s stuffed to the hilt with funny people: Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Dennis Farina, Chris Parnell, Gabe Kaplan, Ray Romano, and Michael McKean are all a part of the cast. Even Werner Herzog makes a cameo. It’s also got the kind of promising plot (a group of eccentrics competing in a high-stakes Vegas poker tournament) that seems catered to the self-reflexive, Christopher Guest-style improvisational comedy that worked so well in Penn’s directorial debut, Incident at Loch Ness. With all this in mind, it only seems all the more disappointing that The Grand is devastatingly mediocre. It’s by no means a total misfire, but for every joke or scene that’s worthy of a laugh, there are two or three that fall flat. In the end, it never manages to be more than just offhandedly amusing.

What’s so odd about The Grand is that the parts of it that are actually funny are what end up being its undoing. Penn and Matt Bierman, who wrote the 29-page script that the improv scenes work around, built up a massive backstory around each of the main characters, and these parts of the film prove to be its funniest moments. We learn about Harrelson’s character “One Eyed” Jack Faro, a lifelong substance abuser(“If you can drink it, snort it , shoot it or smoke it, then I’ve done it”), who’s been married more than fifty times and is trying to win the titular poker tournament to save his family’s casino. There is also Chris Parnell as a socially awkward poker genius who quotes lines from Dune at the table, and Hines and Cross as Lainey and Larry Schwartzman, twin siblings that have been forced into competition since birth by their overbearing father (Gabe Kaplan). All of these backstories, including Farina’s as an old-school Sinatra type and Richard Kind as a dimwitted amateur, are quite admirably constructed, and make for some of the movie’s most laugh-out-loud moments. Penn uses graphics and cut scenes to slip in some sly humor, and one bit where Herzog’s character (a leather-clad sociopath known only as “The German”) is photoshopped into old photos is too ridiculous not to be hilarious.

The problem, then, is that once Penn has exhausted the fun of introducing this motley crew of characters, we wish we could watch them do something more interesting than play cards. If the lack of movies centered around poker (especially when it’s so wildly popular) tells you anything, it’s that it’s not the most compelling thing in the world to watch, and The Grand is about as much proof of that as you need. After introducing everyone and giving them the opportunity to execute some more high concept jokes, what we’re left with is essentially the movie version of that Celebrity Poker Showdown TV show (which, oddly enough, no less than three of these actors have appeared on).

The structural problems introduced by the lengthy backstories take their toll on the actors, as well. Given such fully formed characters early on, most of the stars involved have nowhere to go, and the majority of them fall into the trap of latching on to one or two quirks of their character and trying to milk them for all they’re worth. Cheryl Hines, usually great on HBO’s improvised series Curb Your Enthusiasm, plays the lone female ringer, a mother of four with an oddball husband (Ray Romano, surprisingly funny) that was once struck by lightning. Although she’s onscreen perhaps more than anybody else, she’s given the least to do, and eventually resorts to just saying “fuck” every other word in attempt to get cheap laughs. But while Hines still in no way discredits herself, some of the other actors do, most notably improv vet Michael McKean as Steve Lavisch, a seemingly retarded real estate tycoon that’s gunning for Harrelson’s casino. Penn must’ve figured that he could let a guy who’d appeared in This Is Spinal Tap run wild with little direction, but the result is one of the most dreadfully unfunny performances in the film. Similarly, Gabe Kaplan seems to singlehandedly drag the life out of most of the scenes he’s in, and David Cross is also uncharacteristically weak, though he too seems to have little to work with.

Not surprisingly, the best performances in The Grand come from the characters that were given the best backstories, where the one-note joke of their character doesn’t get old too fast. Harrelson is probably the best as the whacked-out born loser Jack Faro, who wears hippie beads and Willie Nelson t-shirts at the poker table and designs novelty casinos like “The Chicago Fire,” where part of the building was always in flames (“it burned down”). Meanwhile, Chris Parnell also works as Harold Melvin, the math genius that lives with his mom and slurps vitamin shakes all day to keep himself mentally sharp. Usually when an SNL-alum is thrown into a comedy film they prove to be one of the weak links, but Parnell is consistently funny here, repeatedly getting laughs out of speaking in a low, nerdy monotone. Michael Karnow, formerly a voice actor for a number of Nickelodeon shows, also steals a lot of laughs as Mike Wierbe, a TV announcer that never misses a chance to plug his book and DVDs for “The Wierbe Method” of poker. Karnow seems to get the zany mood this film requires just right, and his interaction with his straight man co-host Phil Gordon (an actual poker pro) makes for some nice moments.

Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness was for me a minor stroke of genius, playing on the dual legends of the Loch Ness monster and Werner Herzog in a way that was intelligent, fresh and often outright hilarious. The Grand is working on a much smaller conceit, but it still manages to miss the mark because of its overall lack of structure. I’ve yet to mention that in addition to the ad-libbed dialogue, the actors in the film actually played the final table of the poker tournament and let the story be decided by who won. It’s seems like a cool idea, and even I was taken by it at first, but in hindsight it’s a big part of why the movie fails to live up to its potential. Sure, it’s faithful to the improvisational technique the filmmakers are working with, but it also runs counter to setting up a truly well-structured, funny story. When improv is done right, you can get classics like Spinal Tap and the best of Christopher Guest, but when it’s bad, it can be really painful to watch, territory that The Grand flirts with just a little too often.